01 December 2013

Arsenal 3-0 Cardiff: Ramsey, Özil, Szczesny rule the roost

Five matches. Four wins. Eight goals scored, one conceded. That's quite a month, and we're still not up to full-speed. Key players injured, others working their way back to full fitness, and we're still running rough-shod over opponents. We've secured our hold on first place for until Saturday; our key opponents play today, and so we'll see what the gap looks like in a few hours. For now, we can sit back and enjoy watching others squabble over who gets to be in second place. Credit goes to Cardiff for a hard-fought match. I'm not wasting any breath on talk of "moral victories", either. The scoreline flatters us a bit, especially considering that we netted twice in the last five minutes and needed vital saves from Szczesny to keep that clean sheet. There were long stretches when Cardiff looked more organized and applied more pressure than we could muster against them. Even after Ramsey's sublime header put us ahead thirty minutes in, there were some nervous times when it looked like Cardiff could equalize. Frazier Campbell, in particular, was dangerous in the air all afternoon, putting his head to a number of crosses only to send them wide or see Szczesny make the save.

On the other hand, there were moments of near-brilliance that could have put the game away from the get-go, such as Wilshere's crunching shot that struck the woodwork barely a minute in. A little later, Giroud got behind the defense so perfectly that he stopped short, anticipating an offside whistle, allowing Caulker to block his shot.  By the time we got to that first goal, it did look like we would be running rampant. Özil whipped a near-perfect cross into the box, and Ramsey perhaps did him one better by heading from about 14 yards out, lofting the ball just out of Caulker's reach and under the cross-bar. Ramsey's reaction made a golfer's clap look exuberant. It must have been a tricky afternoon for both he and the Cardiff faithful, but he handled the pressure well. That was about it for the first half...

Much of the second half went to Cardiff as they pressed for an equalizer. I'd say we looked content to sit back to absorb pressure, but it's probably more-accurate to say that Cardiff's determination and energy tilted momentum in their favor. By the time Szczesny dove to save Campbell's header in the 52nd minute, it looked like anything could happen. It's a testament to our defensive fortitude that we held firm, with the back line claiming a perfect 35 of 35 successful clearances. They managed to snuff out almost everything that Cardiff could throw at them, and when they faltered, Szczesny was more than up to the task. Were it not for Ramsey's brace or Özil's assists, we might be talking of Szczesny as a man of the match, so vital were his saves. On a day when he knew he would see a lot of dangerous action in the box (Cardiff attempted 19 crosses), Szczesny was always there to catch or punch clear. He's becoming one of the most in-form keepers in the Prem, enough so that some are calling him the best in the Prem. Suffice it to say that he's looking like the kind of keeper we can depend on—and his new contract is well-earned.

Back to Özil and his assists. I actually found it necessary to defend him in this post earlier in the week. Although he looked exhausted by the time he was subbed off in the 89th minute, he more than lived up to his promise with two assists and four key passes. As splendid as his first assist was, his second was about as perfect as I've seen. In the 85th minute, atching Flamini slice into the area, I thought, "well, that's a nice run and all, and I hope it creates some space behind him to—" and in that same instant, Özil had slotted a pass perfectly, behind one defender and just inches past not one but two sliding defenders for Flamini to smash home. That puts him atop the Prem with six assists and should be more than enough to settle Özil's critics for a week or two, and it certainly settled some nerves, if not the match. By the time Walcott came on for him, Özil looked positively spent. Maybe conjuring such assists depletes his qi or something. At any rate, Walcott, perhaps channeling that same energy, found Ramsey for the third goal in stoppage-time, by which point the Cardiff fans seem to have accepted the outcome and decided to celebrate him. Ramsey, while walking back up the pitch, applauded the fans and even joined in the Cardiff-signature "Ayatollah" celebration. Form and class. He's the only non-forward in the top five for Prem goals (tied with Remy and Lukau with eight, two behind league-leader Aguero). One Aaron Ramsey, indeed.

We can look to a midweek visit from Hull, who host Liverpool later today. With three yellow-cards (Gibbs, Arteta, and Ramsey), not to mention some weary legs, it might be a good time for some rotation. We'll look at that match later on. For now, enjoy another fine win!