01 January 2014

Arsenal 2-0 Cardiff: Bendtner bails us out

I admit it. I had thrown in the towel. For 87 minutes, we had dominated the possession (70%) but sprayed shots everywhere except on target. The few times that we did square up, there were too many Cardiff defenders, and shots were blocked. Twice inside of three minutes, Per had two exquisite headers fall just wide, the second glancing agonizingly off the post and out of bounds. It looked like it was going to be one of those matches, one in which we dominate and pass and pass and pass but fail to score. At one point, we had taken 22 shots without putting more than two on goal, and neither of these troubled the keeper very much. By the time we reached the 70th minute, it looked like Cardiff would be more than happy to nick a point; they seemed to entirely give up on attacking, defending with ten men and clearing balls just in case Campbell could get to them first, but even he didn't press all that hard.

Cardiff were not without their moments, though, and for a few moments there, it looked like they might even score. Twice, Arteta was dispossessed, the second time just outside our own box when he might have done better to clear the ball. Szczesny made a brilliant save to keep the sheet clean, but it was looking more like we were going to drop points, whether it would be two or all three. On a day when Man City had won at Swansea, Chelsea were winning at Southampton, and Liverpool were winning at home against Hull, it looked like we might drop to third place.

To be honest, I'm surprised at how toothless we were looking. For as organized and defensive as Cardiff were, it didn't look like we were aware or ready to catch them on the break. Each time they cleared, we set up a patient, deliberate build-up, passing around. Especially down the left-flank, I lost track of how many times Cazorla or Monreal or Wilshere would collect the ball and, instead of driving forward, would cut back on the dribble or pass back. As valuable as a change of direction can be, this frequently allowed Cardiff to get back in position. It's a bit revealing, then, that Bendtner's came on a sequence of quick passes and a cross that came into the box while Cardiff's players were trying to get back into position. Monreal's cross found Sagna knifing in between two defenders, and Walker made a reflex save. Bendtner was right there to send it home, and the goal, cruel as it was to Cardiff after defending so well, was enough to deliver some relief, it not ecstasy, to the Gooner faithful.

When six minutes of injury-time were added, though, I seized up. Would Cardiff find the kind of last-gasp equalizer that we've managed to avoid all season? Thankfully, though, Cardiff did press forward to find that equalizer, only to be caught out on a quick counter. Wilshere flicked into the box for Walcott, who outran two defenders to chip just over Walker's out-stretched fingers. It's telling that, in one of the few moments when Cardiff weren't allowed to defend with ten men, we struck with such ruthless efficiency, as opposed to preceding 87 minutes of frustrated shots through a thicket of defenders.

In the end, the scoreline might flatter us a bit as Cardiff did defend so well for such long stretches, and to concede two goals so close to the end of the match—for the second time in four days—must be heart-breaking for them. At our end, it was a vital three points, made much more difficult by Cardiff's determination and approach, but we found the win. Thanks be to Bendtner, who looked strong and aggressive from the moment he came on for Podolski. He seemed to turn his ankle on the goal as Walker dove and landed on it, so we'll have to see what that means going forward.

Speaking of which, Spurs have a tough match with resurgent Man U about to start as I write this, so we'll have to see what happens there as we prepare for Saturday's FA Cup/ North London derby.