By Richard Clarke at The Mestalla
Arsenal completed their pre-season campaign with a 2-0 defeat at Valencia on Saturday night.
Despite having beaten the fourth-place La Liga team, Atletico Madrid, last weekend, Arsène Wenger’s men were defeated by the side who finished sixth in Spain last term in a lively affair at The Mestalla.
Both sides had their chances in an even first half. But Valencia began to dominate after the visitors made changes at the break.
Lukasz Fabianski saved David Villa’s penalty midway through the half. But soon afterwards Michel fired home through a crowded area and, in the dying minutes, Villa squeezed in a shot from an acute angle.
It was the toughest examination of Arsenal’s pre-season fixture list and the first defeat. However the real tests start next weekend.
Before this game, Wenger had said his side at Valencia would be the strongest indication of the one that would kick-off the Premier League campaign at Everton next Saturday.
If that holds true then Arsenal will be playing with the increasingly familiar wide 4-3-3 (though you could argue it is last term’s 4-1-4-1). This version had Robin van Persie flanked, literally, by Nicklas Bendtner on the right and Andrey Arshavin on the left. Cesc Fabregas, Abou Diaby and Alex Song made up the midfield three with the Cameroonian screening the centre backs.
The defence was more-or-less expected. With Thomas Vermaelen still suffering from a hamstring problem, the only real decision for Wenger was to select Johan Djourou over Mikael Silvestre in middle.
Taking the taller man may have been influenced by Valencia’s inclusion of Nikola Zigic, a 6ft 8ins Serbian international, up front.
The home side had all their stars on show this evening. They were celebrating their 90th birthday and before kick-off the likes of Villa, Joaquin, Ruben Baraja, Vincente, David Silva and David Albelda all trotted up onto a stage in the middle of the pitch to create a stellar squad.
It was a huge photo opportunity and the Spanish media lapped it up. But had the event occurred 10 minutes later then, quite literally, it would have rained all over their parade.
A huge cloud burst just after kick-off which sent fans in uncovered areas scurrying to the back of the stands for refuge. The lashing rain also affected the game early on. The play only settled as the weather did likewise.
Still, there were some chances in the opening stages. In the second minute, Pablo Hernández flashed a shot just wide from the corner of the area. Van Persie responded in kind shortly afterwards but overall it was a quiet opening quarter with Valencia taking the edge.
Éver Banega and Silva both tried their luck from range however it took until the 20th minute for a clear effort on goal.
Juan Manuel Mata fed Silva from a short-corner and ran into the area to collect the return pass. The former was one-on-one with Almunia but the keeper blocked with his leg.
Again, Arsenal responded to a chance with one of their own. This time Diaby, the most forward of the central midfielders, raced clear. However the Frenchman never quite had control of the ball as he faced Miguel Àngel Moyà and the keeper managed to intercept.
Arsenal were starting to gel. Fabregas fired wide and, on the half-hour, Bendtner’s raking ball found Van Persie in the left-hand channel. The Dutchman took the effort early and, though the shot had power, Moya blocked with ease.
Silva sent a chipped effort just wide almost immediately and, in the closing stages of the half, Clichy tucked a pass through to Van Persie. Again the Dutchman struck his shot early and again Moya blocked.
Wenger made eight changes at the break. Only Djourou, Fabregas and Song stayed on. Theo Walcott and Fabianski came on for their first appearances of pre-season, though, incredibly, a few hours earlier the former had been called-up for England’s friendly against Holland on August 12.
Within five minutes of the restart, Arsenal should have scored twice. First, Eduardo pulled away from his marker to meet a Fabregas corner. Unfortunately his header was straight at Moya.
Then Fabregas put Walcott into space on the edge of the area but the 20-year-old dragged his shot wide.
This time it was Valencia who would reply. In quick succession, Banega smashed a shot just wide, Joaquin forced a fine save from Fabianski and Villa sidefooted over the bar.
The last of those players was starting to have a busy half. But although Villa continually got in great positions, he always spurned the opportunity when it eventually came. He sent a couple of efforts high over the bar when well-placed and, on another occasion, was dispossessed by a superb challenge from Djourou.
Traore flashed an effort across goal but, by now, Arsenal were on the back foot and they were in serious danger of going behind at the second half reached midway. Then came the penalty.
Villa clipped a ball into Michel, who was tackled by Silvestre. There was definitely a connection but perhaps not too the extent the tumble suggested. Villa’s spot-kick was whipped-in quickly but Fabianski saved superbly to his right. A great stop.
Arsenal nearly conceded from the resulting corner. Joaquin’s kick was headed towards goal at the far post and Fabregas hastily nodded the ball off the line.
However, in the 73rd minute there would be no reprieve. Joaquin fired in a low free-kick from the right and Villa’s effort rebounded to Michel, who fired home through a forest of legs.
It knocked the stuffing out of Arsenal and, in the closing minutes, Villa completed the scoring by squeezing his shot through Fabianski's legs from a tight angle.
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