Arsenal 2-3 West Bromwich Albion

Earlier this morning, Chelsea traveled to the City of Manchester Stadium to face a Man City team consisting mainly of Carlos Tevez, Joe Hart and the walking wounded. They summarily lost 1-0, leaving Arsenal a glorious opportunity to climb to within one point of them heading into next weekend's summit meeting at Stamford Bridge.

Opportunity wasted.

Already, this season is at a crossroads. Will it be (to quote Flogging Molly) another day older in these exiled years, as we flatter to deceive at the beginning of the season only to implode at the sharp end? Or, will the team kick on from this, batter the blood-money chavs at their shithole next week, and seriously fight for honors? I honestly don't know - we'll find out a lot about this version of the squad come next Sunday.

To give our unfancied opponents credit where it's due, they came to play and shaded the first half. Much like the Sunderland match, Arsenal were slow off the blocks, and the Baggies didn't waste time stamping some measure of authority on the game. Don't get me wrong - it wasn't one-way traffic by any means, but games like this are hard to swallow when we're so used to trampling over sides like this...especially at home. Manuel Almunia had already made one great save at his near post when a through-ball allowed the excellent Peter Odemwingie to go through on goal. Almunia dived at his feet and ordinarily would have cleared the danger, but the West Brom man was agile enough to go far enough around him to have his heels clipped by the keeper. It was a stonewall penalty, but Almunia did brilliantly well to save Chris Brunt's spot-kick.

That said, we sure did see the worst of Almunia to go along with his best, in yet another schizophrenic performance from the Spaniard. More on that in a bit.

After the interval, it was very much a case of "second verse, worse than the first." Again, Arsenal came out strangely listless, only this time the Baggies made us pay for it. Some truly shambolic defending from Bacary Sagna allowed Jerome Thomas to easily slalom around him. Almunia had to come out to cut the angle, allowing Thomas to simply roll it across the face of goal for the unmarked Odemwingie to get the goal that, if we're being honest, he deserved for his fine play on the afternoon. While it was a nice play from the Baggies striker, Laurent Koscielny was clearly at fault for the goal. Odemwingie was his man, and not only did the Frenchman lose his mark, he stood around and watched like a moron as the pass came in for the striker to tap into the corner. Koscielny, as good as he's been this season, had a mare on the day and will quickly want to forget this performance.

It would have been one thing if Arsenal had simply conceded the one and then, as is the custom, hauled themselves into the game from there. We all wonder why this team can't do it from the opening whistle. We all have seen this many times in the past...nothing to worry about, right?

Right, except Manuel Almunia decided to revert back to last season's form and concede two horror goals to gift the Baggies all three points. The worst of the lot came just two minutes after West Brom had opened the scoring. Gonzalo Jara's tame long-range effort was the sort of shot that any professional goalkeeper should keep out 9,999,999 times out of 10,000,000. Hell, even rec-league duffers like myself would keep it out 999 times out of 1,000. However, Almunia seemed to lose his focus, or he misjudged the angle or something - he dropped to one leg, but he wasn't central to the ball at all, it hit his leg and went into the near corner.

Fuck's fucking sake.

Look, keepers make mistakes. Weird things happen, shots swerve at the last second, they bounce off the turf strangely (to this day, I insist that Paul Robinson was not at fault for Croatia's goal against England), whatever. Even with this goal, if Jara had shot it through a forest of bodies blocking Almunia's vision, I could understand it. But, to see it all the way and let that goal in seconds after the visitors had taken a shock lead...that was a dagger to the heart and to my mind prevented us from getting a point out of this (or perhaps all three).

Still, there was the remote chance of a comeback had the Arsenal not conceded a comical third goal. Once again, our Spanish stopper (sort of) was at fault. Former Arsenal youngster Jerome Thomas played a nice ball into Brunt, but it was a little ahead of him and easily claimable by Almunia had he decisively come out for it from the off. Now, I don't know if the penalty from the first half was in his mind, or if his head was gone from having given up the second goal...either way, he hesitated for two or three full seconds, allowing Brunt to collect the ball. The defenders completely forgot about Thomas, and Brunt was able to roll it across to him for yet another undefended tap-in at the far post. Frankly, this was fucking schoolboy defending for the 42,789,489,237,489,237,492,373,947th time in the last 6 seasons, and I am getting motherfucking sick of it.

So, down to 3-0 with less than 20 minutes left against a determined side that was defending be honest, I thought at that point that if anyone was scoring again, it'd be the visitors. However, the fantastic Samir Nasri willed Arsenal back into the match with a spirited, determined last 20 minutes. I am not sure if the Baggies decided to sit on the lead, or if Arsenal were just suitably embarrassed enough to finally take charge of the match. Either way, West Brom barely touched the ball after going up by three. Two minutes afterwards, Nasri's cool finish after some nice interplay in the West Brom penalty area gave us some hope.

Once that one went in, I personally thought that 3-3 was within the realm of possibility. However, despite all of our pressure, many of our moves broke down due to questionable passing and decisions from Sagna and the last substitute, Carlos Vela. Vela in particular had a horrid match, and I for one wonder if he'll ever become the total package for Arsenal. His talent is evident, especially in his finishing ability. Every other part of his game - especially his passing and decision-making - needs serious work though.

So, with time ticking down, that man Nasri stepped up when it mattered once again. He has made the leap this season from a very nice player into a critical one, and he once again was composed in a packed penalty area to slot in the second. Despite 5 minutes of injury time, the Baggies were able to hold and largely restricted our chances from then on. Tomas Rosicky had one decent chance on a volley, but he skied it over the bar (HEY, I'M STUNNED), and that was that. It's a bit churlish to complain about this given Arsenal's largely shoddy performance, but Scott Carson took about 20-30 seconds to take the last goal kick (maybe even a little more), they faked a few injuries, and the referee blew up at 95:06 (or somewhere in the neighborhood) with Arsenal attacking through the midfield. I don't believe it changed the result by any means, but it's fucking annoying after the Sunderland match.

Over to you, Arsene. Next week is a massive, massive test of this team and its resolve. Will Almunia be able to mentally recover? Will the team be able to grind out a result in one of the hardest places to play in the Premier League? Will we be able to take advantage of their myriad injuries (not the least of which is Frank Lampard) and get at least a point out of it?

I worry about the answers to those questions.


Manuel Almunia - 4: Almost single-handedly cost his side a point on the day. Dreadfully at fault for the second and third, and conceded a penalty that admittedly he did well to save (which is the only reason it's not a 3 or a 2).

Gael Clichy - 7: One of his better matches in a while, he did well down the left flank and caused the Baggies a few problems. His crossing was good and he did well to hold up the ball and bring others into the play.

Laurent Koscielny - 5: He lost Odemwingie for the goal, as previously mentioned. Besides that, he never looked comfortable and could have no complaints about being hauled off in the 66th minute. Perhaps we expect too much from him after some decent performances early on, but mistakes are creeping into his game and Johan Djourou has to be an option should this continue.

Sebastian Squillaci - 6: There was nothing that he was specifically at fault for, but I also can't help feeling that he should have been there to cover for his partner on at least one of the two unguarded tap-in goals.

Bacary Sagna - 5: Terrible crosses, bad giveaways, skinned alive for the first goal...but other than that, he was great.

Andrey Arshavin - 6: Largely anonymous once again. He was a shade better than he has been lately, but that's not saying much.

Abou Diaby - 6: He played?

Alex Song - 7: This was a much better performance from the Sunderland match. He was less effective when pressed into CB duty once Koscielny was yanked, but before then he was his usual ball-winning presence in the center of the park.

Samir Nasri - 9: Two goals from the Frenchman - he did everything he could to single-handedly haul his team back into the game. His passing was fantastic and he even won the ball back from the visitors on a few occasions. We absolutely missed Fabregas, and can only wonder what could have been if Cesc and Nasri were able to work together on the day.

Emmanuel Eboue - 6: He wasn't involved that much, as many of the attacks were coming down the left side. He had some nice touches, but little in the way of end product.

Marouane Chamakh - 7: While he didn't score, his hold-up play was once again vital to the team's attacking moves. He caused some bother in the opposing penalty area as well, but I would have liked to have seen him win a few more attacking headers. Had one half-chance that I remember, but Carson easily saved his tame header.


Jack Wilshere (for Eboue, 56 min) - 6: Had to play an unfamiliar role out on the wing...he did OK, but didn't have much of an impact.

Tomas Rosicky (for Diaby, 56 min) - 6: Missed the volley in the 94th minute, although admittedly that was a difficult one to get on target. Made a nice pass or two, but also didn't make much of an impact.

Carlos Vela (for Koscielny, 66 min) - 5: As mentioned, he gave the ball away far too often (especially with so much of the play coming down the left). In a game where there wasn't going to be much room for him to run at a defense or get open space for a shot, his creativity was needed to keep possession and he didn't do it. For me, he's the wrong kind of player to put on when you're chasing a game, but there wasn't much in the way of options.