Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Different heroes complete a crucial Christmas

The run of festive football is always a test of a club’s squad as injuries build up and players get fatigued quickly playing every three days. In this difficult period, Arsenal have emerged with ten points from twelve and remain top of a close and tense title race. Had late goals not been scored against Cardiff City to secure a 2-0 win on Wednesday, Arsenal would have been third, however an unlikely hero saw them regain top spot.
Against West Ham, Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski came up with goals to turn the match around. Olivier Giroud netted against Newcastle to win the points. With the game looking set for a draw, the unlikely hero was Nicklas Bendtner before Theo Walcott added a second goal against Cardiff.
There has been an understandable concern about what Arsenal would do without Giroud, however whilst his link-up play was missed against Cardiff, the Gunners don’t have a reliance on him for goals. As the festive period has shown, there are plenty of players who can step up and score crucial goals. Behind the first XI, there are now players in the squad that are feeding off the confidence of the rest of the group and are able to make a difference when they are called upon.
In the case of Nicklas Bendtner, so often the pantomime villain in the Arsenal squad, his status as a hero against Cardiff was as unlikely as it was welcome considering how the game was going. We all know that it was far from ideal that Bendtner was left in the Arsenal squad at the start of the season, and for all the (often deserved) criticism he’s got for on-field and off-field actions, the Dane does deserve credit for how he helped changed the game on Wednesday.
Coming off the bench after Lukas Podolski had struggled to make an impact as the central striker, Bendtner gave Arsenal a focal point to use in their attacks and someone to aim for when putting crosses into the box. His all round game isn’t as good as Giroud, but even though it’d be beneficial for Arsenal to sign a striker this January, Bendtner has to be considered as a genuine option to replace him when needed. Against Cardiff, he looked energetic, keen to get on the ball and pounced in the box when David Marshall parried Bacary Sagna’s header to smash home the opening goal with a few minutes left.
The problem with Bendtner is that Marshall landed on the Dane’s ankle after the goal was scored. That goal will have done his confidence wonders and made him feel like an important part of the team, however the ankle injury could mean he’s sidelined for a few weeks. Normally, an injury to Nicklas Bendtner is nothing to worry about, but with Giroud still recovering from the knock picked up at Newcastle, Bendtner could have been useful as a like-for-like lead striker. Hopefully his and Giroud’s injuries aren’t seriousness enough to rule both out of Saturday’s North London derby.
With different players stepping up to be heroes in the last couple of weeks, the Arsenal squad has shown some strength in all areas of the pitch. Against Cardiff, Arsenal definitely missed Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil in midfield as the play wasn’t as fluid going forward, however Jack Wilshere gave one of his best performances for ages. Coming off the bench, Tomas Rosicky added an extra impetus to the team and looked to be more direct in finding Theo Walcott as an outlet on the right.
Walcott was one of the players to lead the charge as Arsenal increased the pressure on Cardiff in the second half. Even though there wasn’t much space in behind the opposition defence, Walcott ran directly at the full-back, put in some good crosses and his delivery from corners was improved and could have led to a goal for Per Mertesacker in the second half. His clinching goal near the end was deserved for the way he took responsibility to drive Arsenal forward. Since regaining his place in the starting line-up at Manchester City, Walcott has five goals in five games.
Even though it wasn’t a fluent performance, this game was another example of this Arsenal team being different to previous years. Missing the top scorer, record signing and lead striker, Arsenal still found a way to win the game. In horrendous weather conditions and against a team determined to impress their soon-to-be manager, this was a match that in previous years wouldn’t have brought three points. Manchester City andChelsea won’t go away in this title race, so every win takes on an extra significance. Over Christmas, both City and Chelsea have applied pressure and Arsenal have responded.
It will now be interesting to see how Arsene Wenger approaches the FA Cup game with Tottenham. I’d like to see a full strength team fielded, despite the busy schedule of games that Arsenal have had. There has been some rotation over the last couple of weeks, so there should be some fresh legs. It’s a match that’s made for the likes of Flamini and Rosicky, so the team selection should be a strong team that won’t slack and will be up for the derby. If Giroud misses out, hopefully Nicklas Bendtner will be fit. That’s not something I thought I’d say at the start of the season!