Almunia slip leaves Arsenal lagging

Cesc Fabregas

Dare we write them off again? At a sun-soaked St. Andrews, Arsenal’s title challenge took yet another blow on Saturday, yet mere fools would suggest this time they shall be rendered unconscious. 11 and 8 point leads have already been overcome on separate occasions this season, so for Arsene Wenger’s team a 3 point chasm separating them and Manchester United at the summit will be looked upon as a surmountable gap. An opportunity to reduce the deficit may even arise at the next available opportunity, with United and Chelsea’s epic battle proceeded by a trip to the Emirates for Wolves next weekend.

Although the pessimism will be maintained only momentarily, a second potentially critical slip up at Birmingham in three years will nevertheless pose Arsene Wenger more questions than he will welcome at this late stage in the season. His decisions not to purchase either a goalkeeper or replacement striker in January will undoubtedly haunt him, as Nicklas Bendtner’s ineffectiveness was an unwelcome prefix to Manuel Almunia’s costly error. As stoppage time slowly seeped through Alex McCleish’s fingers, tentative defending resulted in Bacary Sagna’s clearance cannoning of Kevin Phillips. Almunia’s reaction smacked of nervousness, yet more simply highlighted his elementary clumsiness, as he parried the ball into the sky only for it to loop over his head and bounce into the inside-netting of his right-hand post.

Arsene Wenger’s reaction exemplified his frustration, as he once again blamed extenuating circumstances for his team’s shortcomings; “The pitch was difficult to play on…Their goal was offside”. Although Chucho was undoubtedly interfering with play as he languished beyond Arsenal’s last defender, the North-Londoner’s only have themselves to blame for this disappointing set-back, something that will surely not escape Wenger. A first half consisting of few chances wasn’t helped by Cesc Fabregas’s knee complaint, an injury sustained in a tackle from Craig Gardener, of which Wenger was also critical; “It was a bad tackle, one more.” Glimpses of Arsenal’s ethereal passing were rare, and resultantly the first-half’s few openings were created by long balls or set-pieces, with the two English-men Walcott and Campbell, squandering presentable chances.

With perhaps an eye on Wednesday’s visit of the Spanish, European and World Champions, Wenger left Arsenal’s Iniesta and Messi on the bench, as Nasri and Arshavin were withheld until late on. Wenger will need these two players to be at their sublime best on Wednesday, and possibly saw this match as not only a chance to provide them with a valuable rest, but also to prove the strength of his squad by starting Walcott and Rosicky in the wide positions. This plan ultimately failed, with Nasri and Arshavin being summoned with 22 minutes to go, and with immediate effect. Arsenal seemed to suddenly have an extra gear, allowing a previously rigid stale-mate to become more open and with 81 minutes gone, Wenger bore the fruits of his substitution as Nasri finished off a bold run with a pinpoint strike that nestled into the bottom corner.

Had Arsenal been able to hold on, or even double their lead when Nasri chose to square the ball aimlessly when bearing down on Joe Hart, Arsenal’s first trophy in 5 years would still be very much on the horizon. However as it stands, the Gunner’s have once more been demoted to 3rd favourites in the title hunt, and now face an uphill climb to catch their rivals. Such an unpredictable season will no doubt continue to churn out surprising results, yet it is fundamental that Arsenal quickly reignite their flame, and how better to do just that than with a win over the World’s greatest? Player Ratings:

BIRMINGHAM: Joe Hart (7), Stephen Carr (6), Liam Ridgewell (7), Roger Johnson (7), Scott Dann (6), Craig Gardener (7), Lee Bowyer (7), Barry Ferguson (7), Keith Fahey (5), Cameron Jerome (6), James McFadden (5). SUBS: Kevin Phillips (8), Chucho (6)

ARSENAL: Manuel Almunia (5), Bacary Sagna (6), Sol Campbell (7), Alexandre Dimitri Song Billong (8), Gael Clichy (6), Denilson (7), Abou Diaby (7), Cesc Fabregas (6), Theo Walcott (5), Tomas Rosicky (6), Nicklas Bendtner (6). SUBS: Andrei Arshavin (7), Samir Nasri (8)

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