Monday, January 23, 2017

Eventful added time ends with three valuable points

Burnley came to the Emirates on Sunday with the worst away record in the league, consisting of just one point picked up on the road all season. Arsenal were back in form and had a centre-forward who had scored in his last five games. An easy home win was surely the only outcome.
But after Swansea shocked the league with a win away at Liverpool on Saturday, Arsenal should have been ready for the unexpected. Burnley, albeit a completely different proposition at Turf Moor, had pushed the Gunners all the way earlier in the season, with Laurent Koscielny bundling in the winner with the last touch of the game. But despite the major disparity between their results at home and away, Burnley have had a very good first season back in the Premier League, and had the potential to cause Arsenal problems.
For the most-part, Arsenal controlled the game, before they started making problems for themselves. The Gunners created a few chances in the first half and generally controlled the tempo and pace of the game, but as in the most games recently, there was a noticeable improvement in the second period. Knowing the results had gone for Arsenal on Saturday, the team really couldn’t afford to let an opportunity to move up to second pass them by.
Early in the second half, I was fearing another frustrating game and potentially needing another late winner (!), and those fears seemed to have been relieved when Shkodran Mustafi headed home his first goal for the club. At 1-0 and an hour gone in the game, it should have been relatively straightforward to see the game out. I suspected Arsenal might score a second goal with 10-15 minutes to go and we could all have a relatively stress-free afternoon.
Then the chilling combination of Jon Moss and Granit Xhaka changed the game. Jon Moss was the referee who ludicrously sent off the Swiss international against Swansea at the Emirates earlier in the season. For all of those who tried to justify the red card at the time, has anyone else been sent off for a similar offence this season? Of course not. Against Burnley, Xhaka made the mistake of lunging in unnecessarily on Steven Defour, giving the referee an option to send him off. After advice from the linesman, Jon Moss took that option. It was a harsh red card, especially considering some of the two-footed challenges that have gone unpunished in the Premier League, but I can understand why the officials thought it could have been worthy of a red as it was slightly reckless. The biggest frustration though is that for a combination of two fouls with Jon Moss as the referee, Xhaka will have been banned for seven games for offences that probably added up to two yellows.
Xhaka’s discipline has obviously been put under the microscope, but of the two reds and two penalties he’s conceded this season, two were bad decisions from the officials (Swansea red and Stoke penalty) and one was dubious (Burnley), leaving the penalty against Bournemouth as the only one he couldn’t argue with. He has been playing well recently, and was having a decent game until he was sent off on Sunday, so he’ll be a big miss in the coming games. Hopefully the period out of the team will give him the chance to reflect a bit on the cards he received, and while they have been harsh, he’ll know he needs to stop giving referees decisions to make by needlessly going to ground in certain situations.
Suddenly faced with seeing out the game with ten men for over 20 minutes, Arsenal were doing a decent job of it until stoppage time. The Gunners carried a threat on the break and had Mustafi and Koscielny snuffing out the danger when Burnley got in and around the penalty area. Then in the third minute of added time, Ashley Barnes bundled his way into the box, went over from Coquelin’s challenge and Jon Moss had no hesitation to give the spot kick. As much as there was plenty to complain about with the referee’s performance, it was a definite foul from Coquelin, and Andre Gray duly levelled the game up from spot.
As stoppage time continued, quite where seven minutes were found to add on is anyone’s guess, Arsene Wenger was agitated on the touch line and got sent to the stands by Jon Moss. He compounded things by trying to get fourth official Anthony Taylor to turn around and watch the game when standing in the tunnel, but eventually he did leave proceedings. Obviously it didn’t look good what Arsene did and he immediately apologised after the game, plus a touch-line ban is likely, but for all those fans who want a manager to show some passion, never question how much Wenger cares about the club and how every bad result hurts him.
Like most others in the stadium, Wenger was a man who was fuming that this seemed to be a peak-Arsenal choke, and the officials had played a part in it. Rivals drop points, 1-0 up and cruising, then finish with ten men and concede a penalty to draw. It had all the hallmarks of an Arsenal meltdown.
But while it would be nice for Arsenal to win matches comfortably and not be reliant on late goals, they have become pretty damn good at netting late on when they really need it. Winners don’t come much later than 90+8, but after Laurent Koscielny was kicked in the head by Ben Mee, Jon Moss gave a spot kick and ensured there wasn’t a riot among fans directed at him.
Alexis Sanchez stepped up having never scored a penalty for the Gunners, and that made me nervous. When Santi Cazorla was in a similar situation against Soutampton earlier in the season, I always felt he’d score. I didn’t have the same confidence in Alexis, but with his dogs on a banner in the stadium, he was the calmest man in North London to just panenka the ball down the middle and spark jubilant celebrations around the ground. While chipping the ball is always a good option as the goalkeeper is likely to dive, it still takes massive balls to do with the last kick of the game and the match on the line.
The biggest regret this season remains blowing the two leads in a week at Everton and Manchester City, as were it not for those two results, Arsenal could be right up there near Chelsea. But those two matches aside, the succession of late goals does imply that this team really does have more about it than recent incarnations. There is now a deep-rooted belief that they can battle back in tough situations and that they’ll find a goal late on if necessary. It’s not good for the health of supporters, but is good for winning points.
It may well be that the result isn’t a big turning point and Chelsea still cruise to the title, but Sunday was brilliant. It was stressful and exhausting, but brilliant. It should have been a routine win, but Arsenal, partly through their own making, had their backs to the wall and the title challenge was about to fade away, then a Chilean hero flanked by his dogs came to rescue. It was why we keep going to watch football, you just never know when a mundane game could produce a magical moment.