Arsenal succeeded where their rivals couldn’t by professionally disposing of a stubborn Cardiff side to take all three points.
This may have been one of our easier fixtures on paper, but only last week Man Utd were held to a draw in Cardiff and the Bluebirds famously beat Man City earlier in the campaign. So to emerge as 3-0 winners after another solid, mature performance deserves great credit.
It used to be the case that matches after a Champions League fixture were all that more dangerous, but we showed no signs of fatigue when Tuesday’s hero Jack Wilshere curled an early effort against the woodwork as we made a bright start.
Take a bow son, take a bow
Soon afterwards Giroud inexplicably stopped when clean through, expecting a linesman’s flag, and realised too late he was actually onside as Ozil hadn’t touched Ramsey’s long pass. By that time the defenders had recovered and his shot was blocked. A bizzare incident which thankfully didn’t prove costly in the end.
On 29 minutes Aaron Ramsey got the deserved opener when Giroud made an intelligent run down the channel, pulling a defender with him to create space for Ramsey to ghost into. Ozil saw it all unfold in front of him like the master playmaker he is and floated a perfect ball for Ramsey to nod over the helpless keeper.
The halftime whistle came with us well on top, and as play restarted we were not in the mood to ease off. Ramsey was looking lively once again as he made his way to the byline and pulled the ball back for Giroud to surely sidefoot home, but his effort was blocked on the line.
Then came the game defining moment. Cardiff mounted a rare attack and the ball looped up nicely for the onrushing Campbell to power a header towards the bottom corner from eight yards. Incredibly, Szczesny got down low to his right and deflected it away for what has to be his best save of the season (although the one in the second half on Tuesday night was bloody good too!)
That kept our lead intact, but gave Cardiff some renewed impetus and, roared on by the home crowd, they started to make a game of it. In previous seasons I’d have been worried, but this Arsenal side is made of sterner stuff and dealt well with the pressure. Cardiff had scored twice against Man Utd and three times against Man City, but couldn’t find a way through our defence today. Arteta did an excellent job shielding Koscielny and Mertesacker, who were both very good once again, and when Szczesny was called upon his handling was impeccable and confident.
As the clock wound down Ozil found sub Flamini on a counter attack and the Frenchman gleefully lashed home the killer goal. There was even time for Ramsey to grab another in the last minute after exchanging passes with Walcott to put some extra gloss on the scoreline and hopefully that bit more pressure on those chasing us who are playing tomorrow.
Aaron Ramsey will get the headlines as he scored twice on his homecoming, but for me the performance of Szczesny was equally, if not more, important. His save from Campbell was a match winning one but his general performance level has been very high for a couple of months now. The jittery keeper we saw last season is maturing fast and is also feeling the benefit of a tighter defence and a midfield which works harder to protect that defence. Last season it seemed as if the main aim was to play pretty football, not worry about defending too much and try to outscore the opposition, but now the balance is more sensible.
Indeed I have it on very good authority from a source close to Steve Bould that Wenger has allowed Bouldy much more time to work on the defensive side of the game with the players than he was last season. This, I think, is one of the main reasons we are closing out games like this and sitting pretty at the top of the table.
It’s a welcome re-think from Wenger, who seems to be reigning in his commendable but flawed ideals about how to play the beautiful game and looks to have struck upon an ideal compromise. We’re still playing some lovely stuff at times, but we no longer have that soft underbelly. Credit to him for addressing our weaknesses — I must admit I thought he was too stubborn for that and needed to go, but am glad to have been proved wrong.
So now we get to sit back and watch our rivals try to respond tomorrow (obviously I don’t include Spurs in that as they are in 9th place with -3 goal difference — oh, how I laughed last Sunday!) This time last year we were 12 points behind the leaders, now we are seven points clear. I’m keeping my feet on the ground for now though, but if we’re still top this time next month having played Man City, Chelsea and Everton I’ll be letting my guard down and starting to believe…
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