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Jan 13, 2007

Gilberto cloud has a Silva lining

Blackburn Rovers 0 - 2 Arsenal

'The Invisible Wall' is one of the great sporting monikers. Gilberto Silva's nickname reflects well on his native Brazil; if he had been English, he would have probably been called Silva-y, or something similarly unimaginative. For much of his first four years at Arsenal, it was true, but he has become far more conspicuous this season. He was, of course, particularly visible in scoring eight goals.

There was a reason why the sent-off Gilberto was not conspicuous for the last 77 minutes at Ewood Park. He goes by the name of Robbie Savage, and he has considerable previous. Indeed, the list of Savage's victims is longer than his flowing locks.

Now the cornerstone of the Arsenal midfield can be added to that list. As Savage harried Gilberto, the Arsenal vice-captain was fouled, eventually going to ground. As he went to rise, he received an apparent knee in the back from Savage, prompting him to swing a boot in the Welshman's direction.

Just as predictably as the rain in Blackburn, Savage went to ground, purporting himself to be hurt in a fit of histrionics.

For all Savage's posturing, it is hard to imagine a genuine hard man, a Roy Keane, a Graeme Souness or even a Mark Hughes, devoting such attention to getting others dismissed; all would have felt it demeaning to collapse so easily.

But when is violent conduct not violent? Contact appeared so inconsequential that it would challenge every dictionary definition of violent. Rob Styles, applying the letter of the law without an ounce of common sense, dismissed Gilberto.

'The referee applied the law to the letter,' said a resigned Arsene Wenger.

'He can defend his case. Gilberto said he over-reacted but I felt if he sent Gilberto off, he should have sent Savage off also. That's what I thought for a moment he would do.'

Hughes' view was: 'Initially I thought he'd lashed out with his arm. But he kicked Robbie and you can't do that. No, I didn't think he was provoked.'

Hughes has spent much of the season asserting that Blackburn have had a raw deal from referees. But he undermines his argument with statements such as that. He is, of course, far from alone in applying double standards.

Others who were equally guilty lurked in the stands. Those in the home support who sang 'same old Arsenal, always cheating' displayed a remarkable level of hypocrisy; where does affinity with your club descend into the realms of stupidity?

Justice of sorts was done by Arsenal's victory, but not for Gilberto. A three-match ban will rule him out of Manchester United's visit to the Emirates Stadium next Sunday. It would be pleasing, if unlikely, if that suspension was transferred to Savage. Instead Wenger, after the precedent set by the FA with Charlton's Osei Sankofa, is unlikely to appeal in case the Brazilian's enforced absence is extended.

His response to going down to 10 men was instructive. It was logical to assume that Mathieu Flamini would be introduced at the expense of a more attack-minded player. Instead Tomas Rosicky shifted into the centre of midfield and it was almost another hour before Flamini arrived.

In that time, against an industrious Blackburn quartet in midfield, three supposedly lightweight Arsenal imports prospered.

'When Gilberto was sent off, the three midfielders were tremendous,' Wenger explained. 'Rosicky was immense, [Alexander] Hleb and [Cesc] Fabregas as well.'

They took the lead in what, until recently, would have been uncharacteristic style. But set pieces have proved profitable this season. Normally it has been Gilberto on the end of them. This time it was Kolo Toure, meeting a Thierry Henry free kick with a fine header.

The referee applied the law to the letter.
Arsene Wenger
Then, when Blackburn threatened an equaliser, came a glorious second goal.

Henry exchanged passed with Fabregas - the latter playing the return ball with typical perceptiveness - and the Frenchman bent a wonderful shot past Brad Friedel.

'It was a sensational goal,' added Wenger. 'It's real class with the timing of the pass and the run. It definitely killed the game in the heads of the supporters of Blackburn.

In their search for greater incision, Rovers had brought on Tugay, whose initial station on the bench suggested a rather more attritional approach. He supplied their finest pass of the match but the Turk, a talented technician himself, planted his studs into Fabregas' foot. Wenger, proving his myopia is not limited to his own team's misdemeanours, did not see it, but there was a suggestion that Tugay would have been a more deserving recipient of the red card.

Instead, he got a yellow, and Blackburn have more than any other Premiership side. There is much to admire about Blackburn, not least a commitment to good football and the wonderful left foot of Morten Gamst Pedersen, but they find ways of obscuring the good. And for that, much of the blame lies at the feet of Robbie Savage.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Cesc Fabregas - The two goalscorers both have valid claims and the excellent Pedersen was Blackburn's best player, the young Spaniard's was a performance of great maturity, capped with a fine pass for Arsenal's second goal.

MOAN OF THE MATCH: See Savage, Robbie.

BLACKBURN VERDICT: After four consecutive victories, their winning run has been ended. Blackburn at least know that their relegation fears have been abated. For Hughes, the consolation is that they don't face Arsenal again this season.

ARSENAL VERDICT: 'We had a great combination between strength, commitment and real class,' said a delighted Wenger. It was interesting, too, to hear a revolutionary manager quote old-fashioned football logic as to the difference between his side this year and last, particularly away from home.

'We work hard together defensively from up front and everyone takes more responsibility,' he added.