Newcastle United v. Arsenal on Wednesday night lived up well to the hype preceding it. The league leaders and their fluent one-touch passing were heading up north to meet a struggling Magpie team.
Lean, svelte and mobile, Arsene Wenger's decimated squad (no Fabregas, Hleb or Flamini) seemed to represent everything foreign about the game, with the beanpole Wenger and the braided Bacary Sagna. And Sam Allardyce was about as English as one can get, with his long-winded, cliche-filled interview hopefully pleasing the 52,000 strong at St. James' Park, chief among them, the Geordie owner himself.
Arsenal opened the score sheet early, with a nice cross from the right from Eboue to hit Adebayor in front of the box, where he stopped the ball with his chest and volleyed home. A nice one-two combo from the Manus, but poor marking on the Magpies' part could easily be pointed to as well. From then on, the bar codes disrupted the Gunners' rhythm, and it was a public display of what all Gooners knew deep down ever since the season began. Without the vision and creativity of Cesc Fabregas, the threat of Alex Hleb and the grit of Mathieu Flamini, Arsenal are a completely different team.
To Newcastle's credit, Steven Taylor's equalizer was much deserved at the hour mark, and a wonderful team effort. James Milner's cross was flicked on by Alan Smith, dummied by Obafemi Martins and put away by the center back, who had remained upfield after a free kick.
Arsenal may be the team to beat this season; but if not for some dropped points early in the campaign, Manchester United have seem more dominant, although their record may not indicate so. There is a confidence, borne by experience and certainly by Sir Alex Ferguson, that accompanies much of what the Red Devils do. While the confidence and "belief" that Wenger loves to talk about is there, the absence of the aforementioned three would have been the difference between a gritty draw up north and an away victory.
While it does take some time to adjust to England's top league, Eduardo has yet to set the pulse racing, and was largely ineffective for most of the time he was on the pitch. How long until he gets dubbed the Andriy Shevchenko of North London, bagging goals for Croatia but none for his club side? Adebayor's first touch still continues to let him down, and Gilberto at times last night justified his place on the bench. Gael Clichy did not seem his usual imposing self either.
I used to think everything hinged on Cesc Fabregas. Now I'm not so sure. I'd say the majority of Arsenal's success is directly attributable to the young Spaniard, but it's the combination of him with Hleb and Flamini that really matter, which brings us back to the old adage about controlling the midfield means you control the game. From an optimist Gooner point of view, it's a point and an opportunity for more youngsters to get more playing time against a decent side in gritty hell (what else would you call St. James' Park for if you're not wearing black and white?).
The return of Robin van Persie and the excellent Lassana Diarra getting more time on the ball are definitely bonuses that will have an impact the rest of this campaign, but until Arsenal can learn to rise above the niggling negativity of the majority of the teams they play, silver may remain elusive.