By Richard Clarke
Arsenal began 2011 in the best possible style by winning 3-0 at Birmingham on New Year’s Day.
After letting two points slip at Wigan in midweek, Arsène Wenger’s side needed to respond in the Midlands. And the pressure was cranked up just before kick-off with the title-chasers all winning their fixtures.
However this evening, Arsenal were on top from the off. Robin van Persie’s deflected free-kick gave them the lead in the 13th minute. Both sides would have opportunities in the rest of the first half but, after the restart, it was all Arsenal.
Samir Nasri’s 13th goal of the season doubled their advantage and then Roger Johnson’s comical own goal – which had been preceded by a flowing Arsenal move – killed the game.
Fabregas, Nasri, Jack Wilshere and Andrey Arshavin all could have scored too as Birmingham’s resistance crumbled. But the clean sheet was just as important to the visitors.
The travelling support represented over 4,000 of the 24,000 present at this game – and they were in full voice throughout.
This evening their side were at their controlled best. If Arsenal can beat Manchester City on Wednesday then this will represent a pretty merry old festive period for Wenger’s men.
The manager had been criticised in some quarters for making eight changes at Wigan on Wednesday. This afternoon all those players came back in.
Once again, Lukasz Fabianski, Laurent Koscielny and Bacary Sagna retained their places. Fabregas, Johan Djourou, Nasri, Van Persie, Theo Walcott, Alex Song, Wilshere and Gael Clichy all returned.
This was the evening kick-off of the day. In the preceding hours, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham had all won.
It meant Arsenal needed a victory to keep pace at the top but Birmingham had lost only once on home territory this season and even held Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in midweek. Perhaps it was the toughness of this encounter that had precipitated all those changes at the DW Stadium.
Certainly the visitors started the game like they had something to prove. They grabbed an early goal and, despite concerted pressure from the home side, should have added to it before the break.
In the opening minutes Walcott breezed past Liam Ridgewell on the right and fired into the sidenetting and then Van Persie hit a free-kick into the wall and another into Ben Foster’s hands.
From a third, he would score.
In the 13th minute, Scott Dann dragged down the Dutchman and was lucky to escape a yellow card. Van Persie’s effort again went in to the wall but this time deflected past the wrong-footed Foster. It was the striker’s first Premier League goal of the campaign.
Free-kicks would be the best outlet for chances throughout the first half. In the 18th minute, Fabregas fouled Barry Ferguson and Seb Larsson’s effort was expertly palmed away by Fabianski. The ‘keeper then clutched a low cross from Stephen Carr with Cameron Jerome in close attendance.
Just past the half-hour, Arsenal were fortunate not to concede a penalty when Van Persie appeared to handle a cross from Larsson. But the Dutchman went up the other end and, after being set up by Nasri, shanked an effort straight at Foster from point-blank range. A huge miss.
Up to this point, Birmingham’s free-kicks were all being aimed at Johnson’s head. Seconds later, one of those dead-ball efforts was flicked on by Jerome and fell to the defender’s feet six yards out. Somehow he shoveled his effort over the bar.
Late in the half, Clichy beat Larsson on the left and crossed from the byline. Walcott’s weak volley bobbled into Foster’s arms when he might have done better.
Having dropped late points at Wigan, Arsenal started the second half like they wanted to win the game early.
In the 52nd minute, Walcott clipped a hanging cross to Nasri at the far post. The Frenchman cushioned a pass back for the unmarked Wilshere, who volleyed over from six yards out. A profligate miss.
A couple of minutes later Nasri burst clear and tried to lift his shot over Foster but the keeper batted the ball away with his left hand.
It was a great save but, in the 58th minute, the Frenchman would have his revenge. Fabregas set up Nasri who fired home right-footed from the edge of the area. It was his 13th strike of an increasingly impressive season.
The goal had been coming and sucked the life out of Birmingham.
In the 63rd minute, Arsenal fashioned a wonderful third. The way the ball went into the net was odd – hitting Dann and then Johnson before going in – but the build up had been exquisite. Intricate passing between Nasri and Fabregas tied the home defence in knots. The Spaniard’s drive cannoned off Foster before bouncing off the two defenders and trickling in.
Birmingham seemed a shadow of the side that had conceded just seven Premier League goals at St Andrew’s before today.
Van Persie set up Fabregas, who thumped his drive inches over the bar, then Walcott forced a low save from Foster.
Arshavin came off the bench and immediately stretched the Birmingham 'keeper at the near post.
In injury time, Clichy headed Ridgewell’s effort off the line. The goal would have blotted an otherwise perfect day for Arsenal.
This year could be a big year for Wenger’s men and this was the best possible start.
Referee: Peter Walton
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