22 April 2022

Yeah, so what if Saka connived his way to that pen?

In the waning moments of a treacherous trip to Stamford Bridge to face the Champions League cup-holders, a trip fraught with difficulty, despair, and dejection for a youthful side shorn of some of its most-important players, for a side that had flost its last three matches, something funny happened. No, I'm not referring to the fact that Arsenal won. On any other day, that would be the headline. It's not often that Arsenal go to Chelsea and win (I'm being told that this is the second consecutive instance of Arsenal doing just that). No, the funny thing is that a Premier League ref—no less than Jon Moss—saw fit to award Arsenal a penalty. 

Even funnier—and I hope you're sitting down for this—VAR upheld the decision. There are unconfirmed rumors that C. Montgomery Burns will be donating a million dollars to the local orphanage.

Wait. He'd still prefer not. Let's get to the point. With Arsenal clinging doggedly if not quite convincingly to a slender 2-3 lead in stoppage time, it appeared that C├ęsar Azpilicueta, the 32 year old frequent captain of Chelsea with 38 caps to his name, was seen wrestling Bukayo Saka, the still wet-behind-the-ears 20 year old, down to the ground. Jon Moss, in his infinite wisdom and insightfulness, was, well, Jonny-on-the-spot and wasted no time pointing to the, um spot. Azpilicueta remonstrated that he was held. VAR, in its infinite wisdom and insightfulness, demurred. You read that entire sequence right. Jon Moss awarded a penalty to Arsenal, and VAR refused to overrule. In other, vaguely related news, Granit Xhaka managed to finish the match despite Jon Moss being involved. Will wonders ever cease.

Speaking of wonders ever ceasing, it may even appear that both Moss and VAR got it wrong. Sorry. I should have warned you to have a seat or at least have smelling salts at the ready. If you don't have them, grab one or both now, because it also appears that Moss and VAR got it wrong—wait for it—in favor of Arsenal. Upon closer inspection, what initially looked like Azpilicueta brutally man-handling our darling little chile might have in fact been that darling, unicorn-riding starlet cynically and strategically seizing an advantage. Scroll back up to the image at the start of this post. It sure looks as if Saka has pinned to his own torso Azpilicueta's arm. Now, far be it from me to suggest that anyone look for unsavory advantages. Along similar lines, I don't want to imply that past unsavory advantages deserve a taste of their own medicine. In the end, I'd love nothing more than a fair, objective, and consistent application of the rules.

Failing that, I don't mind in the last that the numerous dives that earned Chelsea pens against us, and the numerous unawarded pens that we should have earned against Chelsea over the years, might just get evened out ever so slightly by a dodgy penalty earned in stoppage time of a match we were all but set to win anyway. Any Chelsea fans out there who doubt me should take a number, get in line, and explain how it is that established, world-class if not classy players like Drogba, Robben, Costa, and Hazard can overcome all manner of contact until they get inside the 18 after which a loud exhalation is enough to cruelly scythe them down.

Saka, delightful as he has been, is not an established, world-class player. What's more, Arsenal have not been known to practice the dark arts all that much or all that well. I'm not saying we don't have divers. We've had a few. On balance, though, we're more Charlie Brown than we are Lucy, the duped more than the duper. Without stating unequivocally that all bets are off and anything goes, I am willing to say that I don't mind seeing Arsenal's players engaging in just a bit of chicanery. In this case, after all, it's not as if the result hung in the balance. More importantly, it's not as if Saka engaged in outlandish simulation. Azpilicueta was, um, massaging him from the moment the two of them entered the 18. All Saka did was take advantage. This was no Sterling-esque or Suarezian flop, borne of infinitesimal or even imaginary contact. After all, Saka can't pin Azpilicueta's arm if that arm isn't already wrapped around Saka.

The fact that the 20 year old Saka outsmarted the supposedly savvier Spaniard to score from the spot, exorcising his own demons from that miss in the Euro 2020 final against Italy, is just icing on the proverbial cake, if not vindication that the penalty itself was fully deserved.  

EDIT: Then again, it's Arsenal, and so the pen didn't really affect the outcome. Still, 4th is back on the menu after a spirited performance that defied all expectations. Play anything like that again, and Tottenham and Man U will be biting their nails to the quick.