Cesc provides homage to Catalonia
Ian Holloway's Damascene conversion came in 2008, but he still speaks with the fervour of a zealot. The Blackpool manager's programme notes, like many a recent interview, were a paean to Barcelona, the ultimate proponents of the beautiful game.
A recent trip to Spain seems to have furnished him with a belief that even the average waiter is a budding Xavi or Andres Iniesta. On this occasion, however, there was a cruelty about his convictions. As Catalan class came to Blackpool, it was too much for Holloway's valiant but sliding side. Cesc Fabregas, mes que un futbolista, turned in the sort of performance that, in other circumstances, would have had Holloway swooning. For 45 minutes, Blackpool stood back and admired, which wasn't the wisest policy. Even when they tried to get close to the Spaniard, they didn't always succeed. But Gary Taylor-Fletcher, who has spent more time at Northwich Victoria than the Nou Camp, led a fightback before Robin van Persie sealed Arsenal's first win over top-flight opposition since February.
It amounted to a recuperative day out at the seaside for an ailing Arsenal side. Elegant, effortless assertions of superiority flowed in a first half of glorious supremacy, orchestrated by Fabregas. "This is Arsenal, I've revered these people for years," said Holloway. "We're not even David and Goliath. I feel like a gladiator who is going into an arena with a toothpick. If I can chop a tree down this week and put a point on it, we might have a lance."
Brute force has never been Arsenal's way, though. They have a refinement more associated with less combative sports. Several thousand miles from Augusta, a different type of master was in action. Fabregas' equivalent of a sand wedge over the Blackpool back four was a particular speciality, producing chance after chance. In comparison, Charlie Adam, Blackpool's playmaker, ended up looking like a rugby union fly-half as his left boot directed one pass harmlessly into touch.
Until they raised the tempo, Blackpool proved accommodating opponents for their fellow idealists. They have a defence that can be pierced or, as Fabregas discovered, lobbed by one pass. Twice he dinked the ball over them, Samir Nasri volleying against the post before Van Persie and Diaby attempted to walk the ball in. His afternoon included a goal-line clearance, to thwart DJ Campbell on the stroke of half-time, but was an exercise in running through the repertoire of his passes.
The wonderful, crossfield ball was unveiled with regularity. One brought reminders of Van Persie's greatest goal, a vicious volley that whistled the wrong side of the post, unlike his stellar strike against Charlton in 2006.
A similar pass preceded the opener. Captain and vice-captain combined with surgical precision, Cesc Fabregas locating Van Persie with one of those crossfield balls and the Dutchman picking out Abou Diaby with a low centre. The Frenchman finished with ease. Then Emmanuel Eboue fashioned a one-two with Jack Wilshere and walloped his shot beyond Richard Kingson with undisguised glee.
After scoring three goals in their previous five games, Arsenal managed two in the space of three minutes, courtesy of two of the more maligned members of Wenger's squad. Their third, which was required, came from a more regular contributor, Van Persie finishing from Theo Walcott's low centre. That, in turn, followed a delightful flick from Fabregas.
So the title race is still on. In theory, anyway, with the probability being that Blackburn's draw at the Emirates last week effectively ended Arsenal's interest. "Seven games is a long time," Wenger said. "We promised ourselves we would give everything."
Blackpool have a similar philosophy, but there is a sense they are suffering from decisions against elite opponents. At 2-1, Laurent Koscielny chopped Gary Taylor-Fletcher down. "How that isn't a penalty, I don't know," Holloway said. "Those things at this level make huge, huge differences." The culprit, he felt, was less Lee Mason than Sepp Blatter. "What annoys me even to this day is that it is so easy to get that totally and utterly right," he added. "The fourth official should be in a glass box [with a TV replay]. Mr Blatter, if you're listening, we can do it in this country."
Mason had a pivotal role in Blackpool's goal. Taylor-Fletcher's simple finish was the result of two advantages he played. The first was for a challenge that brought Wilshere a belated yellow card. The second, had Taylor-Fletcher not scored, might have led to red for Jens Lehmann, who fouled Campbell. "A big second of the game," admitted Wenger, who did not have a goalkeeper on the bench after his original choice, Manuel Almunia, was injured in the warm-up.
Instead the 41-year-old's return to the Arsenal goal for the first time since 2008 ended happily, one point-blank block from Campbell ensuring Blackpool could not stage a second comeback. "I don't care if that was my final game because I'm pleased we won," said a typically quixotic Lehmann.
"He did well," Wenger added. "His decision-making was spot on. He did not have a lot to do. He is commanding, he is organising, he has authority." An Invincible, albeit a creaking one, brought a sense of nostalgia. So, too, did the fixture itself, staged at Bloomfield Road for the first time since 1977. "We'll never play here again," chorused the Arsenal fans. Their schadenfreude was misplaced: having beaten Blackpool by an aggregate score of 9-1 this season, they might be advised to hope the Seasiders survive to indulge Fabregas again.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Cesc Fabregas – A superlative display from the Arsenal captain. It is strange to think that, technically, he ended without an assist from any of his perceptive passes.
BLACKPOOL VERDICT: This was their 11th defeat in 15 league games in 2011 but, with four more winnable home matches to come, their destiny remains very much in their own hands. Saturday's encounter with Wigan is assuming seismic proportions. The return of Campbell to the forward line provided some much-needed energy but the defending remains resolutely awful.
ARSENAL VERDICT: In one sense, they are a deluxe version of Blackpool: excellent attacking is undermined by questionable defending. Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci represent the soft underbelly of this team while Taylor-Fletcher caused Gael Clichy untold problems.