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Arsenal profit from spot of good fortune

Sunday, 9 December 2012 - 5:41pm IST | Place: London | Agency: The Sunday Telegraph
There was a good deal else to talk about — Arsenal moving into the top six, West Brom losing their third game in a row — but it makes sense to start with Cazorla's fleeting first-half career switch from playmaker to play-actor.

The first-half penalty won by Santi Cazorla and converted by Mikel Arteta was the most decisive and controversial incident of this game, ultimately deciding it in favour of the home side. Arsenal will call it canny salesmanship. West Brom will call it cheating.

There was a good deal else to talk about — Arsenal moving into the top six, West Brom losing their third game in a row — but it makes sense to start with Cazorla's fleeting first-half career switch from playmaker to play-actor. It came after 25 minutes, a period in which few clear chances had been created. West Brom had enjoyed the best of them, a wicked curling shot from Chris Brunt that missed the top corner by inches.

So, when Cazorla gathered the ball just inside the penalty area, to the left of goal, the match was still in the balance, a battle still waiting for the first shot to be fired. Defender Steven Reid approached Cazorla at pace, bringing his left foot back for the tackle. With his left instep, the diminutive Spaniard swiftly changed direction, bringing the ball and his own run back inside Reid's clumsy swipe.

Perhaps Cazorla had been anticipating contact and was unable to keep his balance. Perhaps he was simply being deceitful. Either way, his left foot remained rooted to the spot. His arms splayed; his body lingered for the briefest of moments on the verge of collapse. Finally, like a heroic fallen soldier, he tumbled to the turf. It was certainly a good enough performance for referee Mike Jones, who awarded the penalty. Arteta scored it, and thus was the tone of the match set.

"It could have been a nervous afternoon for Arsenal," West Brom manager Steve Clarke lamented. "They hadn't created too much. I was comfortable with how the team was defending and playing at that time. We hadn't done enough with the ball until then, but we knew the longer the game went, the more pressure would come on Arsenal, and we would have a chance to play. That decision changed it."

If Jones was entering prematurely into the Christmas spirit, Arsenal set upon attempting to embellish his season of goodwill with their own glad tidings. Jack Wilshere could have doubled the lead when he slid to meet Gervinho's cross. A taller player than Wilshere - which is to say, almost any other player - would surely have diverted the ball into the empty net.

West Brom could have had a penalty of their own. Per Mertesacker rose to meet a Brunt cross, but succeeded only in nudging the ball with his arm. Instead, Jones' whistle blew for a free-kick in the other direction.

"They gave it for a free-kick on somebody," Clarke said. "I've seen the replay, and for the life of me I can't see it." Half-time came and went. Evidently Jones had been made aware of his howler during the break, because the second half saw a series of petty decisions going West Brom's way. But when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain surged past Brunt and was brought down, there could be no equivocation. Penalty to Arsenal, again. Arteta, again. Game over.

Yet still Arsenal were unable to throw off the cloak of controversy. Seconds earlier, Oxlade-Chamberlain had squirmed clear of Goran Popov, a fifth-minute substitute for the injured Liam Ridgewell, and possibly fouled him in the process. "For some reason the referee who had given soft free-kicks all afternoon decided not to give that one," Clarke grumbled.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, still only 19, had a fine game. One of Arsenal's main problems over recent months is that they have lacked players of his audacity. This Arsenal side has forgotten the simple joys of playing. With his whirring legs and boundless enthusiasm, Oxlade-Chamberlain often injected a breathless urgency into moribund attacks.

"He is getting better, stronger, more mature, more determined," Arsene Wenger said. "There is much more 'man' in his game than there was before." Clarke brought on two forwards - Romelu Lukaku first, and then Markus Rosenberg - in an attempt to claw their way back. But even at their highest ebb, West Brom have never been very good at chasing a game. Gareth McAuley, Lukaku and Shane Long all headed wide. That was about as threatening as it got from them. The controversy over Arsenal's two penalties glosses over the fact that for the third game in a row, they were not very good.

As the match reached its close, they looked likelier to concede again than score. Arteta, chasing an unlikely hat-trick, flashed a free-kick wide. On the stroke of 90 minutes, substitute Lukas Podolski gathered Wilshere's cut-back eight yards out, with sufficient time to take not one, but two touches. Somehow he managed to stab the ball over.

For Wenger, it was a crucial release of pressure after their abject defeat to Swansea. "Our spirit has been questioned, we had a flat performance last week, and you can only come back and win," he said. Arsenal will hope that yesterday's stroke of good fortune can be the stimulus for a happier run of form; for as Cazorla showed, sometimes pride comes after a fall.

The Sunday Telegraph

081936 GMT Dec12


 


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