Arsenal 1-0 Queens Park Rangers: Opportunity Seized

This was, for me, a clash between what is and what might have been (but thankfully wasn't). When I first started following football back in the early 1990s, I watched the Premier League Review Show for several weeks before picking a team. Today's visitors were, in essence, the losing finalists in that competition. Thankfully, I picked the red pill instead of the blue. I mean, if I ended up having to support Joey Barton at any point in time, I might have given up on this sport entirely.

That said, the early news trickled in before kickoff that Manchester United had contrived, rather like us, to lose in hideous fashion to Blackburn Rovers. They are in a bit of an injury crisis of their own at present, but losing at home to that lot is mind-blowing. Still, three points for us today combined with favorable results elsewhere would see us in the top four to close out 2011. There are points this season where the bottom four looked more likely, so it's quite the remarkable accomplishment.

Many Gooners would likely have reckoned that there would be some rotation in the starting XI given the holiday fixture congestion, but the only surprise was Andrei Arshavin at left wing in place of Gervinho. QPR of course had our old friend Barton in midfield, to go along with Neil Warnock out on the touchline. We remember you from the Sheffield United FA Cup replay debacle, you fucker. If nothing else, I wanted us to sort out this lot today just to give him a nice little sad face for the holidays.

I missed the first 7 or 8 minutes, but once I got in, it looked like QPR had the better of the opening exchanges. Given the rash of upsets going on in the last few rounds of matches, they must have fancied their chances against an Arsenal side forced to cope with a makeshift backline.

Ten minutes into the match, they could have had a shock lead. Adel Taraabt was left with the run of the touchline, and his diagonal ball to Shaun Wright-Phillips was perfectly weighted. The winger was in alone, but Wojciech Szczesny was off his line in a flash to block at his feet. Poor old Per Mertesacker was absolutely torched by Wright-Phillips' pace on that play, and he'd have his troubles with Jay Bothroyd on the day as well. It wasn't the German's best effort, to be sure.

Arsenal weren't entirely on the back foot though, and there was an air of frantic desperation around the QPR defense every time Robin van Persie had the ball. There was one incident in the 16th minute where he must have beaten their left back two or three separate times in the penalty area before working enough space to get a half-cross/half-shot away. Radek Cerny was alert and got his body behind it, though.

Speaking of Cerny, one frustration I had on the day was that while Arsenal did shoot from distance on a few occasions, I don't feel they did enough to take advantage of the fact that the visitors were fielding a 37-year old career backup in goal. Later on in the second half, there was one long-range shot from the excellent Aaron Ramsey (who clearly benefited from his short rest) that Cerny could only awkwardly fist away. If a few more shots had found the frame of the net like that, he probably would have gifted us a second somewhere along the way.

That aside, referee Martin Atkinson must have looked at the recent horror shows by Phil Dowd, Stuart Atwell et al and responded with a hearty "Challenge Accepted!". His first mystifying decision of the day was to not even caution Taraabt (the overrated ponce that he is) when he elbowed Arshavin in the face. To be fair, I don't think it was malicious or that there was intent to injure, but it was reckless and the rules state that you have to be in control of your body. It was a definite yellow and a talking to for me, and Atkinson bottled it. Sadly, it would only get worse from there.

The men in red recovered from that shaky start though to dominate possession, and van Persie was slightly unlucky that his header off of a gorgeous long ball from Ramsey flashed wide of the post. He was on his back foot a bit, and the fact that it was even that close shows what kind of form he's in at present. A few minutes later he again had a chance off of a long ball (this time from Thomas Vermaelen), but he fired over the crossbar. Still, you felt like something was coming from the Dutch hitman, though.

Atkinson struck again before halftime, though I don't remember all of the particulars. Long story short, there was a nailed-on handball in the penalty area from one of the QPR defenders, which somehow was not called by the dolt in black. The standard of refereeing this season defies belief at times. He wasn't nearly done though - Act III was booking Vermaelen for a foul on Laurent Koscielny. I mean, I know they have a hard job and all, but is basic competence too much to ask?

QPR managed to hang on until the interval, but I honestly felt like a goal was inevitable. There was yet another misfortune for our defense early in the second half, however, as Vermaelen limped off to be replaced by Francis Coquelin. Thankfully, the young Frenchman had a good game in relief of the Belgian, but the last thing we needed was yet another injury to our already-decimated defense.

The Gunners responded well though, and by all rights should have opened the scoring in the 56th minute. Arsenal had success in the first half mixing in some long balls to the usual short-passing game, and on this occasion they caught the QPR line pinching up far too high. Theo Walcott had an up-and-down game - he miscontrolled some passes and had a few poor touches, but also worked his bollocks off and did well to force some corner kicks. Here though, he turned on the afterburners and left his marker 6 postal codes away. There was nothing between him and a goal other than the shaky Cerny, but nerves got the better of him and he shanked a weak shot far wide of the post.

Walcott has been far better this season than many of his detractors would have you believe, but he simply must do better in those situations.

Thankfully, a few short ticks of the clock later saw Arsenal get the lead they deserved.

Wright-Phillips was a threat going forward all day, but he started the play by gifting Arshavin with possession thanks to a brain-dead backpass. The little Russian had suffered through a dreadful first half, but was at least working harder than usual...and that effort led to a better performance in the second half. Here, he took the ball, ran at the QPR defense, and released RVP with an inch-perfect slide-rule pass. Left alone with Cerny, RVP showed young Theo how it's done by casually rolling the ball into the far corner. No muss, no fuss, one-nil to the Arsenal.

It honestly should have been two at some point in the second half, as ANOTHER obvious handball went unpunished by the esteemed Mr. Atkinson. The benefit of hindsight allows us to be thankful that all of this occurred in a match where three points were won - but if QPR had equalized at some point it would have been Atkinson that cost us the game.

They did indeed have a few half-chances, but Szczesny did extremely well to palm away a long-range drive from Taraabt. The young keeper also calmly dealt with several crosses and high balls into his area.

Normally the Boss doesn't make substitutions until late in the game - often too late for my liking. Today, however, the two tactical subs were made before the 75th minute had passed. Shortly after the goal, Tomas Rosicky came on for Arshavin to shore us up defensively. Gervinho then got a 15-minute run-out in place of Walcott, and he was another who looked like he had benefited from a rest. He was lively and caused several problems for the QPR backline, and in fact should have scored after great work down low from RVP.

For some reason, there were four minutes of injury time. But, Arsenal calmly saw it out and locked the game down like good teams do. Whatever criticisms I have had (and do have) with this team, they are at least winning these games that they wouldn't have won in seasons past, and they're doing it by not making the same mistakes that they would have made previously. Now, they will take it to the corner flag to kill some time. Szczesny will milk every second with the ball on the deck before picking it up, a veteran move from the 21-year old. It's heartening to see, whatever I may think of our transfer policy or the efforts of a few individual players.

Even better, the news trickled in that Chelsea had lost at home to Aston Villa, and our nearest and dearest conceded a late equalizer to Swansea City. That leaves us in 4th place, two points ahead of Chelsea, three points behind Tottenham (though they do have a game in hand at home to West Bromwich Albion).

Not a bad way to end the year, eh?

To all of you who do us the honor of reading this blog, I wish you and your loved ones a very Happy New Year - and here's to success for Arsenal in 2012!

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Vermaelen 7 (Coquelin 7), Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 6, Djourou 7, Arshavin 7 (Rosicky 7), Song 7, Arteta 7, Ramsey 8, Walcott 7 (Gervinho 7), van Persie 8

Man of the Match: Arteta had a pretty good game in the middle of the park, Koscielny was quietly excellent in the back and Robin of course got the goal. But, for me it's unquestionably Aaron Ramsey for his fantastic range of passing and movement. He was the engine that made us go today.