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Coward tackles and own goals are Johnson's forte

It was here at St Andrews that our title challenge crumbled in the 07/08 season. This was the same setting in which the career of the prolific striker ended. Not forgetting this was also one of the toughest away games of the season as Birmingham have only lost once in well over a season and managed to peg Manchester United back in the recent midweek game. Yet, none of those matter as Arsenal started the new year with a bang.

With all the other title challengers (Chelsea apart) winning their respective early games, the gauntlet was thrown in Arsenal’s direction. That we had to win to keep up the assault on the title. The home side had been tasked to get in our faces and the opening exchanges showed what anticipates us in the match. The 8 changes to the side that faced Wigan meant above all else, that we are at least much fresher in personnel than Birmingham.

Roger Johnson, wearing the same No. 5 shirt that Martin Taylor made famous, tried to emulate what his predecessor did. Cesc Fabregas was at the end of that crunching tackle, getting the hit right on the ankle. That the referee only showed a yellow card for that dangerous tackling is close to being absurd. Thankfully Fabregas was unhurt and managed to continue with the match and his influence in the rest of the game was telling.

We’ve already earned a couple of freekicks just at the edge of Birmingham’s box and eventually made one count. If you don’t succeed once, try and try again. That was what Robin Van Persie did. On the third freekick, he purposely slammed it against Lee Bowyer’s arm to deflect into goal. It was a very soft foul against the scorer in the first place and had that happened to us, I would’ve felt aggrieved as well.

RvP then was involve in the another incident, this time in our own box. He handled the ball with his arm while trying to head away the ball. Whether he did that intentionally or whether he had his eyes closed, it was still a valid shout for a penalty. You have to say that we got away with that. The Dutchman had a plethora of chances to add to his tally for the evening but failed to find the back of the net. That will changes once the rustiness of his game wears off.

Even with a goal in the bag going into the second half, we knew it was not enough. To say the home side is rough would be a major understatement. Calves, thighs and body of Arsenal were all stamped by the home side. Cameron Jerome on Laurent Koscielny, Liam Ridgewell on Theo Walcott, Bowyer on Bacary Sagna and Bowyer on Wilshere. To our credit, we never let those discourage us.

The second and third goal did come before and after the hour mark. On both times, Fabregas and Samir Nasri combined to great effect. Interchanging decisive quick passes to prise open Birmingham’s defence, Nasri found space on the edge of the box and used the opposing defender as cover, he slammed the ball in Ben Forster’s near post with the keeper unsighted right from the start.

The third may have been an own goal by Johnson but the way that play was built up to the final shot was the stuff of dreams. Nasri and Fabregas were playing keep ball between themselves and made 5 passes to each other in the short space of 20 seconds. Then Nasri ghosted in the box before laying the ball to the captain who was running behind him, without even so much as turning his head behind. Fabregas’ strong shot hit the keeper and took a double deflection behind ending in the net.

What is more pleasing than the win, is the fact that we kept our first clean sheet in 6 games. It would be a big boost for the defence. Lukasz Fabianski made a great save from Sebastien Larsson’s freekick. Johan Djourou dealt well with the physical presence of first Jerome, then Nicola Zigic and was very unlucky to have earned a yellow card. Special mention has to go out to Bacary Sagna and Laurent Koscielny. Both were playing their 3rd consecutive 90 minutes in 7 minutes and both put in another fantastic shift.

This makes for a very good start to the year. Next up Manchester City. The games keep rolling in.

More tomorrow.