independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Ramirez adds to Wenger woe

Southampton 1
Arsenal 1

Modern-day footballers tend to behave themselves on New Year's Eve so Arsenal did not even have the excuse of a hangover for a disjointed, insipid display at St Mary's which left them four points adrift of the Champions League places and raised further doubts about chances of winning a trophy any time soon.

The Gunners scored seven goals against Newcastle last Saturday but could manage only one shot on target here – and that not until the 78th minute. Fortunately for them, Guly Do Prado had already provided an own goal to cancel out Gaston Ramirez's 34th-minute opener and at least secure a draw.

The point Saints earned was enough to lift them out of the bottom three but those home supporters who roared with delight at the final whistle may reflect in time that this was two points dropped rather than one gained, so abysmal were Arsenal.

Since Southampton had played four matches over Christmas to Arsenal's three, fatigue could not be the reason. Perhaps it was complacency, given the 7-3 defeat of Newcastle and the fact that Arsenal thrashed the Saints 6-1 at the Emirates in September.

There were five survivors from the Southampton team that started that match with only one being a defender, Jose Fonte, though his partner at centre-half Maya Yoshida had made his English debut as a shell-shocked substitute in that match.

Southampton have learned a lot about life in the top flight since that day and with one exception looked far more assured. The odd man out was Artur Boruc, surprisingly recalled by Nigel Adkins for his first match since becoming embroiled in an altercation with Saints fans on his home debut in October. The goalkeeper had missed 11 matches in the interim and he looked extremely rusty, spilling the first two crosses Arsenal delivered. There were ironic cheers when the Pole caught the next one.

"Artur has been very impressive in training," said Adkins. "The thing you get with experienced goalkeepers is how they respond to mistakes and he didn't let that affect him."

With both sides standing off their opponents when out of possession, the first half-hour otherwise passed with little incident. But when Saints pressed Lukas Podolski and the German attempted a rash pass back towards Laurent Koscielny, Morgan Schneiderlin stole the ball and, though Bacary Sagna cut out his intended pass to Rickie Lambert, the defender could only clear as far as Jason Puncheon.

Unable to shoot himself, Puncheon cleverly laid the ball back to Ramirez. The Uruguayan, technically the equal of anyone on the pitch, calmly swept the ball through a crowd of players and past Wojciech Szczesny.

The lead lasted just seven minutes. Mikael Arteta lured Puncheon into conceding a free-kick. Theo Walcott whipped it in and Do Prado diverted the ball past Boruc as he attempted to clear. It was Southampton's third own goal for Arsenal this season, having scored two at the Emirates.

This was Walcott's first intervention of note. The match had been billed as the first return of him and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the club that nurtured them. When Gareth Bale, another former Saint, came back with Spurs in October he scored in their victory and Saints fans naturally feared a repeat.

But though there were signs of Walcott's recent tutelage by Thierry Henry in the way he lurked behind the Saints' back four, as Henry used to, he was given no opportunities either to run at or beyond the home defence.

Around the hour mark he was switched to the wing as Podolski was hauled off and Olivier Giroud introduced. By then the Saints had gone close to regaining the lead. After Do Prado had drawn an athletic save from Szczesny, the resultant corner rebounded goalwards off Sagna's knee only to be gathered, just, by Szczesny.

Though Walcott, receiving the ball somewhat fortuitously, tested Boruc's handling with a 20-yard shot midway through the half, Arsenal lacked threat. Their passing was sloppy and lacked zip.

While Adkins brought on Jay Rodriquez and James Ward-Prowse, Arsenen Wenger added Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey to the mix.

Gervinho scored twice against Southampton in the 6-1 rout but that was when his confidence was high and it looked as if he was finally blossoming.

He is a shadow of that player now and immediately provoked jeers as he lost possession on a counter-attack, then was left on his backside as he tried to recover it. (© Independent News Service)

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