It was a cold, wet, windy evening at the fag end of January, and unsurprisingly, in spite of the game not being live on TV, many ticket holders chose not to attend. Those that did would have spent long periods of the game pondering whether they might have been better curled up in their respective front rooms, as snow fell during the course of the 90 minutes, although mercifully did not settle.
They weren’t conditions conducive to quality football, and so it proved. At least, in the opening 45 minutes, Cardiff provided the drama, with some dangerous attacks. Their lack of ability in front of goal to punish their opponents provided a chilling reminder of the reasons they signed the tragically disappeared striker Emiliano Sala. This was Cardiff’s first game since that news, and a minute’s silence held before kick off quickly turned into respectful applause. Sala’s name was printed at the bottom of the Cardiff squad list on the back of the programme, with a daffodil image instead of a squad number. It was a nice touch.
Arsenal lined up with a back four of Lichtsteiner, Mustafi, Monreal and Kolasinac. Three central midfielders started – Elneny, Torreira and Guendouzi – Elneny presumably for his defensive contribution. Granit Xhaka was on the bench, presumably for reasons of rotation. Mesut Ozil enjoyed a rare start alongside Aubameyang and Lacazette. The home side were so disappointing in the first 45 minutes that they were booed off by the home crowd at the interval.
Alex Iwobi replaced Elneny at the start of the second half, and Arsenal at least suffered less danger from Cardiff as they were more aggressive going forward. The biggest cheer of the night, at least before the home side were awarded a penalty, greeted the entrance of Carl Jenkinson in place of Stephan Lichtsteiner. It was that kind of night. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was not on the bench, although one assumes for reasons of rotation rather than punishment for the first goal last Friday v Man Utd, when he played Sanchez onside.
Arsenal’s opening goal eventually came after Kolasinac was brought down in the area. To the relief of the crowd, Aubameyang converted the spot kick. Aaron Ramsey replaced captain for the night Mesut Ozil in the 76th minute. In fairness to the number 10, the manager would have been justified in taking any of his attacking players off, and I suspect match fitness was a factor in Ozil’s being hooked. No-one really shone. In mitigation, it was so wet that controlling the ball wasn't always easy. With the wind and the cold driving the light snow into the faces of the players, it was a pig of a night to be playing a football match.
A second goal arrived in the 83rd minute courtesy of Alex Lacazette, and the game seemed to peter out. There was a late scare when Cardiff pulled back a consolation goal deep into injury time, but were unable to force an equaliser in the time that remained.
Certainly, the conditions did not help, but in truth, even if Emery rested a few players or had others unavailable through injury, his team should not have made such hard work of relegation zone opposition. It doesn’t augur confidence. Manchester City construed to lose away to Newcastle, but it is difficult to see any combination of available Arsenal defenders preventing goals at the Etihad next Sunday. And I suspect most fans have already written that game off. Manchester United dropped two points at home last night, which at least allows Arsenal some leeway trying to hold them off as they attempt to get back into the top four. But the creative ability of the side to fashion chances does seem to be slowly drying up. They will need mainly wins in the 13 League matches that remain after next weekend. The performances they have been putting in of late, especially away from home, suggest it may be a big ask to make next season’s Champions League, with all the financial implications of that.
Whether or not Dennis Suarez is the answer, nobody knows. At least, assuming he comes, the club have done something, as opposed to nothing, in an attempt to improve the club’s chances for what remains of the season. A defender or two might have been handy, but let’s just be grateful that at least one new face is coming in. Cardiff will have to struggle on without their planned provider of goals, and will probably go down as a consequence.
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