Sunday, 28 March 2010

Did Manuel Almunia Just Lose the League for Arsenal?

Picture coutresy of Rob(TM)

Birmingham scored right at the death and it felt like there had been a death.

Way back at the beginning of February I asked if Manuel Almunia had just won the league for Arsenal with a world class save from Ryan Babel in the match against Liverpool. Now I'm wondering if he just cost us the league with his error against Birmingham.

Up until injury time the match seemed to be going so well, though it had been a struggle. The pitch was atrocious. The referee disallowed a perfectly legitimate goal by Abou Diaby and seemed to have left his yellow card at home allowing Birmingham players to constantly foul as per usual without fear of recrimination. And Arsenal, it has to be said, were playing pretty badly, not helped by another reckless lunge at Cesc Fabregas by a Brum player in the first half which had seen him pick up a knock, leaving him pretty ineffective for the rest of the match.

But that all changed after 68 minutes when Arsene Wenger brought on Samir Nasri and Andre Arshavin for the largely anonymous Theo Walcott and the hard working but largely ineffective Tomas Rosicky. Suddenly, Arsenal had a new spring in their step and on 81 minutes Nasri picked up the ball about 40 yards from goal, ran at the Birmingham defence and then unleashed a pile-driver into the far corner for a brilliant goal and one-nil to the Arsenal. I screamed out: 'yes' (a primeval sound that had as much to do with relief as it did joy), and I did a little dance even though I was watching the match on an internet stream and no-one was watching.

Then, in injury time, it all turned sour. Birmihgam keeper Joe Hart (who had played well all afternoon) hoofed a huge, hopeful, desperate last kick up the pitch towards Arsenal's penalty area. There was a bit of a scramble, and then the ball was in the back of Arsenal's net. That was all I could remember about the incident until in a seriously masochistic moment I watched the 'highlights' on Match of the Day later.

For a brief moment I waited, hoping for a whistle or a flag, but it none came and suddenly the feeling of deep dispair gripped me. It expect gripped us all. It was the last minute of injury time and there was no time for Arsenal to score a second. Just like two years previously, when the referee had awarded Birmingham a dodgy last minute penalty after a mistake by Clichy and a dive by a Brum player whose name I've forgotten, Arsenal's championship hopes were hanging by a thread.

I console myself that it's not quite over yet. It's going to be difficult, but if we win all of our last remaining league games (not impossible by any means), I believe we will still (in all likelihood) win the league.

And that's what I'm holding onto at the moment. Desperately.

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