|01 Jan||3:00 PM||P||Birmingham City (A)||3||0||Win|
Whoever said that Birmingham away was a toughie?
I say that with tongue firmly in cheek, of course, as another physical, battling encounter saw the boys pick themselves up each time, play their own game, and come out handsomely on top.
Make no mistake, that was a performance every bit as impressive as that of Chelsea last week. On the ball and off it, up front, at the back, through the middle and down the flanks, just everything we lacked at Wigan resurfaced to superb effect in the late kick-off at St. Andrews last night. So much so that one wonders whether Arsène Wenger has indeed reaped the rewards of making so many changes last time out, paving the way for last night's comprehensive 3-0 thrashing, the first time Birmingham had conceded more than two home goals in nearly three years, incidentally.
And the added bonus of a clean sheet too, our first in seven league games!
Despite coming across all rosy in yesterday's New Year article, I must admit to having my own doubts as to whether we could muster anything more than a point from this one. This was regardless of the team put out, and regardless of how well I was confident we would play and indeed create chance after chance. After chance. Which was very much the case throughout the first half following Robin van Persie's dodgily awarded, and executed free kick (Microsoft Word tells me that "dodgily" is not a word). Having got away without conceding a penalty, Robin then somehow contrived to miss not one, but two sitters when finding himself practically at an arm's length from Ben Foster in the Birmingham goal, having been put through by the brilliant Samir Nasri.
A routine save around the post by Fabianski from a Sebastian Larsson free kick soon after, and a sitter over by Roger Johnson from, surprise surprise, another deep set piece into our box, and you just felt that the second half would not be a straightforward affair (we had Johnson to thank for putting the game to bed later on, mind).
After all, here was a team in Birmingham, who had just delivered a late sucker-punch against United a few days earlier; much akin to our situation last season, a whole twenty-four hours earlier than our last time in action (albeit with a different side); who were another of those scrappers; and who had lost one of 24 home league games, having slain the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool during that time. All of which meant that we simply had to kill them off early as in the second period. And kill them off we did.
Not only was the intricate, pulverising carousel play involving all of 6-7 men at a time; orchestrated by Fàbregas and Nasri; first finished clinically by the Frenchman before the hour, and then through the aforementioned Johnson soon after, simply brilliant to purr over. To me, it was crucially a sign that all the negative backdrop of criticising the ample attempts to walk the ball into the net and what have you are a thing of the past. The team, on form, can stand their ground, play their own game, and to devastating effect, although we could, and probably should, have ended up with four or five, it has to be said. But can't be greedy, eh?
And if two corresponding fixtures can be juxtaposed, then this is the one. A massive change on last season up there, when we could not finish our chances, and were ultimately made to pay in injury-time.
Birmingham had no answer this time around, and were not afforded the chance to ask questions of their own. Thanks in large to the clinical finishing, of course, but also to that pressing we have harked on about time and again, and is starting to click beautifully. With each and every individual harrying his opposite number, it was a joy to watch several attacks snuffed out, being pushed right back and reduced to a long hoof forward to the fiendish Cameron Jerome, who I shall come onto shortly.
Meat and drink it was for the restored pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou. I have said it before, and will say it again: the former is a much better defender with Djourou alongside, end of. The two work in complete tandem with each other, with the Swiss international the dominant figure from an aerial perspective, elevating the Frenchman to a much more confident and assured individual as he quietly goes about his business. No coincidence that we do not tend to concede many with them two in the line-up, culminating in a clean sheet last night, at long last!
I say Birmingham had no answer. Well I was wrong. It's always been said that if you can't beat them, join them. Well this was certainly a case of if you can't join them, beat them, or beat them up I should say! Time and again, the home players saw no wrong in cynically clipping our players' heels and digging into their ankles once they soon realised that this was the only way to stop us from playing. I can name a handful of guilty players, and indeed a whole hatful of incidents, but the ones involving Jerome in particular, and how Lee Bowyer did not walk after two malicious attacks on a football-less Bacary Sagna, were particularly mind-boggling. And they claim it's not deliberate!
Thankfully, we survived without any major damage with three big points in the bag and an impressive display to boot, something that none of our rivals for the title have managed at St. Andrews this season.
And while it is important not to go too overboard with the win, it is equally important to highlight this as a potential turning point, just as that ground was for us and Eduardo in 2008, and with Kevin Phillips' equaliser at the death in 2010. This time though, a turning point for the good, one hopes.
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