By A Cultured Left Foot
The record books will hint at a close encounter of the Loftus Road kind. It wasn’t anything of the sort as Arsenal were well worth their three points. Charlie Austin’s late goal set the scene for what is becoming the usual late charge but Rangers barely caused a ripple in the visitors defence.
With the teams around them all winning, it’s a case of as-you-were. From this position, Arsenal can quite easily end up in the runners-up spot as in next season’s Europa League. Until Ashley Young’s late goal in Krul-est of fashions, the smallest of gaps threatened to appear between third and fourth but it wasn’t to be. As Arsène put it post-match, it’s getting hot up there.
Arsenal dominated proceedings, Rangers ran themselves into the ground defending their goal but were left grateful to Rob Green that the scoreline was not more emphatic. It’s almost obligatory that the referee didn’t give a penalty to one of the sides; Karl Henry’s attempt to swap shirts with Mesut Ozil went unpunished.
That’s the by-product of the media witch-hunt against poor officiating. Now referees are scared to make decisions for fear of getting it wrong. There is an inevitability about the introduction of video technology to ‘aid’ officials; the sooner it comes in and relieves that fear, the better. The media has yet to work out what it means for them but by removing a level of controversy, they will be reduced to reporting the news, not making it which is no bad thing.
That’s for another day. Arsenal remain third thanks to five ruthless and remorseless second half minutes. Olivier Giroud broke the deadlock with just over an hour played and sensing their opponents were floored, Alexis went for the jugular. Green twice denied him following Giroud’s goal but could not a third time as the Chilean twisted and turned his way into a shooting position, duly obliging with a finish inside the near post.
Prior to that Arsenal carved openings but they were far from their fluid best. A lot of that comes down to Rangers doggedness in carrying out their duties but also the defeat to Monaco still lingers in the backs of Arsenal minds. Wenger used to call it playing with handbrake on; now it’s sensible not to leave yourself exposed with wave after wave of buccaneering attacks.
Indeed, Rangers had the more presentable moments in the first half, a couple of pot-shots that David Ospina dealt with quite comfortably. It was a match that the Colombian would have enjoyed. Not a bystander by any means but nothing to particularly ruffle his feathers.
Gabriel’s memories are different. Settling into the starting line-up, his career has been interrupted by a hamstring twang which Arsène suggested will take three weeks to heal. It’s frustrating when these injuries – or this type of injury – happen; Arsenal appear to suffer them more than other clubs but that’s a perception and the reality might not be so clear cut.
Per Mertesacker’s demotion was short-lived but his return to the side didn’t invoke the spirit of the Keystone Cops; far from it, in fact. He and Koscielny picked up where they left off in terms of understanding and closed down the shop for pretty much the rest of the game until Austin’s late goal.
In no small part that was due to the hard work of the midfield, particularly Coquelin whose facial injury proved to be no impairment to his industry. He and Rosicky closed down Rangers diligently and protected the back four during the opening forty-five minutes.
Attacks were laboured in that spell but picked up in the latter stages of the half, particularly when Santi Cazorla acrobatically volleyed at goal late on. Green proved to be a stubborn barrier until his resistance was cracked by Giroud following Alexis’ and Gibbs combination on the left, the pair released by a swift counter-attack as QPR pushed forward.
Ozil almost added a third with Green blocking his shot, following an exquisite turn in the box. If it had been anyone else, the purring would still be heard this morning but it’s Ozil and indifference reigns in the media.
Giroud continues to seek some redemption for his poor performance against Monaco. I don’t know if he feels he has a point to prove but breaking the deadlock last night and against Everton were, you feel, important steps in maintaining his belief in himself. We have some big games coming up and a confident lead striker will be crucial. Who knows, might even make the difference.
It’s just one aspect which will please the manager. Whilst attention now turns to the FA Cup and the trip to Old Trafford, Arsenal are in better shape for that than they were a week ago. Whilst some of the swagger may be returning, there is still very much a sense that the fragility lurks beneath the surface. Protecting that will be the key to making progress.