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Arsenal 2 -1 Latics
Sunday 11th January 2007

It’s at this point that the rule of cliché dictates that you must be told that Latics have never beaten any of the ‘top four’ since gaining promotion to the Premier League.  Of course, like all good clichés that’s not actually true.  Not only did we knock Arsenal out of last season’s League Cup, we beat them 1-0 in the home leg.  Ok so we’ve still never taken points off any of them, but still…

In fact, we’ve done alright in each of the six games we’ve played against the gunners.  Last season, we really put the wind up them at the JJB, did enough to hammer them over two legs in the cup and had them sweating for a while in the last game at Highbury.   This season it took a long ball on their part and naivety on ours to see Latics off at the JJB.

Approaching the kick off for Sunday’s game we received a cruel reminder of the away leg of the cup tie, the scheduled referee, Dermot Gallagher had been ‘given the weekend off’ after his part in the QPR/China fracas during the week and his replacement was none other than Phil Dowd (Staffs).  For those who don’t know Dowd is the man who denied Latics three penalties at Highbury last season, allowing one at the other end that was softer than any of our three.  He then went on to allow a late Blackburn winner, at Ewood Park, despite one of their players cleaning our keeper like a bitter Nat Lofthouse.

Add to that the fact that Latics have lost umpteen games after going ahead and Arsenal won umpteen from losing positions (eat your heart out Motty) you just knew what was coming next.  From the kick off it was clear that Latics had no intention of letting their recent good form slip.  They got right into Arsenal’s faces and put plenty of effort into making their own chances.  That made for an open game with plenty of chances for either side. 

It would be churlish to suggest that Latics were the better side and deserved to win the game; they had a few chances and should have done better.  Landzaat’s goal was a screamer and well deserved, but Heskey’s two chances were good enough to put the game beyond doubt.  Arsenal had the ability to unlock our defence at will and only wasteful forward play stopped them hammering us.

On the balance of events things are a little different.  You can talk all you want about players ‘going down easy’ but what matters is whether they were fouled.  The last time I checked, pulling a player back when they’re beating you to the ball has pretty much always been against the rules.  When it happens in the box, the referee should be pointing to the spot.

Whether a red card should follow is matter for debate, but in the current climate it surely would have done.  Offside?  Well it doesn’t make things any better, but when you’re playing against a team that plays the way Arsenal does you’ll get some decisions going your way, some won’t.  The proof is in the ‘photo finish’ decision to disallow Adebayor’s goal minutes earlier. 

The real injustice was that the cross for the equalizer came from the same man who should have walked following the penalty claim.  That Skoko was deliberately kept off the pitch for the duration of the Arsenal move is another matter, and whatever the motives was inexcusable.

So did the penalty decision cost us the game?  Your heart will say yes, your brain may have other thoughts.  If Heskey, after seeing Lehman get a hand to his shot had waited to see what happened instead of running away to celebrate we could have gone into the break two goals up.  If, just after half time, he had thought instead of lashing the ball over the bar we could have been cruising. 

Whilst it would be wrong to look at the penalty as the only reason we lost this game the timing is crucial.  Arsenal were guaranteed to finish the stronger of the two sides.  Given the best part of 45 minutes you’d give them a fair chance of scoring three goals.  With twenty minutes to go and with ten men, then it becomes more difficult.  As far as this debate goes, the heart should win it.

Despite the frustration that losing in this way will inevitably cause, there are plenty of positives to take away from this game.  This is the third game on the trot that we’ve played well enough to win and any thoughts of poor form should now be banished.  This renewed spirit is holding off the doom-mongers and nay-sayers and the injustice has given everyone something to get behind and create the ‘us against the world’ spirit that has been missing up to this point.

On the pitch things are looking better.  With a real leader in the back four, the defence is looking steady, Landzaat is starting to look something like the player we expected and up front we’re finally able to field two strikers.  The team has started to play some football and although the hoof hasn’t been completely banished it is becoming an option rather than the norm.  Above all the players and staff look like they care again.

The trick is going to be carrying this form into something meaningful.  We’re now back in the world of Champions’ League and international breaks.  With the FA cup thrown in for good measure, the coming months have something of a stop-start feel to them.  It will be hard to build any momentum but the same applies to the teams around us.  At least our form looks to have changed before we hit that tricky period.

With 12 games left everything is still in our own hands and the task at hand is simple.  All we need to do is match the results of the three teams below us.  A win against Watford will give us an eight point cushion which makes things a lot simpler.  Can anyone see any of West Ham, Watford and Charlton winning three games more than us over the rest of the season?

It sort of makes all that panicking look a little bit silly now, doesn’t it?

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