Yesterday’s clash between Cardiff City and Arsenal at the imaginatively-named Cardiff City Stadium produced much that we might have expected – as well as quite a lot that we didn’t.
First things first, and a fantastic performance by the league leaders resulted in a win that looked, on the face of it, comfortable. Arsenal produced everything we all know they’re capable of: shimmering moves going forward with chance upon chance being created; bewildering interchanges of position which saw the most unlikely people cropping up at centre-forward – how do you mark your men against a team like Arsenal? It was a feast of flowing, creative football, beautiful to watch, virtually impossible to cope with and ultimately very, very effective.
And yet Cardiff, newcomers to the Premier League let’s not forget, more than played their part in a highly entertaining game which was always closer than the scoreline might suggest. Their promising forward Fraizer Campbell got himself on the end of a few quality deliveries, and on another day might easily have had one or two goals himself. But the goal-scoring honours on the day rested squarely with a former Cardiff player, Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal.
Ramsey’s was a performance to drool over, not just for his two expertly-taken goals, not even for the overall quality of his performance within a highly proficient overall Arsenal display. What really caught the eye was Ramsey’s poise, self control and a disarming humility in the way he reacted to his goals. Not a flicker of celebration, just quiet satisfaction and the full measure of respect to the club that gave him his start. You see this sometimes, it’s a bit of a phenomenon over the past few years, and while it’s not universally observed – van Persie’s tasteless degree of triumphalism against Arsenal themselves springs readily to mind – it always gilds the occasion with that extra patina of class; there’s just something fitting about it that reminds you what football should be all about.
Even in this, Cardiff City more than played their part. It’s a shattering, disappointing feeling to see your favourites concede a goal, at the best of times – to see a former favourite score not one, but two – that’s really unpalatable. And yet the Cardiff fans, all of them from what could be seen, responded magnificently to the prodigal Ramsey’s return and successes. When the former Bluebird scored his first goal – a header of stunning quality – his muted response brought the stadium to its feet as the home fans stood and applauded, clearly affected by the respect shown by their departed star. How often do you see that?
As a Leeds fan, I can only remember one comparable occasion at Elland Road, back in the early nineties when Roy Wegerle of QPR scored a wonder goal of such world-class quality that even the notoriously partisan Leeds fans gave it a unanimous ovation. To see the Cardiff fans applaud Ramsey – for his second goal as well, which put the seal on Arsenal’s win – made you feel good about the game again, as if the underlying decency of sporting competition will always, in the end, prevail over the less attractive features we’re sometimes exposed to.
In between Ramsey’s two strikes, we had the spectacle of Mathieu Flamini – brought off the bench nine minutes earlier as a holding midfielder – materialising at centre-forward to sweep the ball into Cardiff’s net from Mesut Ozil’s perceptive through pass. it was another outstanding example of the sheer brilliance Arsenal have in their locker this season. The third goal right at the death came when the outcome of the game was certain, but it was another quality finish, and another immaculate display of respect from the outstanding Aaron Ramsey. He took the applause from all sides of the ground, from his fans new and old, clearly touched by the emotion of the moment.
Arsenal’s prospects look genuinely good, there are really only a couple of question marks over their possibilities for the rest of this campaign. The first concerns how they will fare against the better teams in the Premier League – of these, they have only met a less-than-vintage Man U so far, who scraped a win that will have disappointed the Gunners – knowing themselves to be capable of much better.
The second possible issue is around the back-up they have available in the event of injury or suspension for striker Olivier Giroud. Reserve forward Nicklas Bendtner does not appear to have what it takes at this level, and Arsenal may need to look to the transfer market again when the window opens. Their stunning pre-season swoop for Ozil has cured any notions that the Gunners lack clout and ambition in their recruitment policy – they will probably need to reaffirm this new determination in the new year.
A highly enjoyable game for more than the usual reasons, and great credit to both clubs. On this display, you would have to back Cardiff to survive with something to spare – and as for Arsenal, they should have their sights set firmly on nothing less than the Premier League title itself. What better way to break that trophy drought, a millstone around Arsene Wenger’s neck for far too long now? And also, what better for the game in this country than Champions of the quality and class of Arsenal, still our foremost club despite populist claims for clubs lower down the food-chain. Arsenal for the Title – I’ll drink to that.