When questioned about the possibility of managing Real Madrid, Arsene Wenger commented: “At the moment I focus on Hull City. Maybe less glamorous than Real Madrid but they are much more important in my life at the moment.”
Whilst Wenger’s choice of words was sought to quickly dismiss suggestions of a departure, they also conveyed a false sense of fondness for Saturdays opponents given the recent acrimony between the two clubs. With Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and William Gallas all absent through injury, Arsenal are a team missing their spine, but their dramatic last-gasp victory over Hull certainly displayed backbone. Overcoming Hull was a difficult test, and the latest chapter in a series of bad-blooded affairs between the two sides. The saga began in the 2008/09 season when Arsenal were left smarting from a 2-1 home defeat to the newly promoted side. Having taken the lead and subsequently capitulated, Arsenal struggled to overcome the shock defeat. Truthfully they never looked like mounting a serious challenge for the title from that moment on, having shown that teams pressing hard and applying industry and effort could beat them. The return league fixture passed by largely uneventfully, but it was the FA Cup quarter-final clash that really strained the relations between the sides. Phil Brown and Arsene Wenger are almost polar opposites of the footballing spectrum, and with one win apiece leading into that encounter, a certain amount of tension between them was inevitable.
Already seething after the Gunners had been awarded a dubious Gallas goal, Brown alleged that Fabregas had spat at Hull’s assistant manager Brian Horton. Fabregas, so often the creative spark for Arsenal’s attacking play, this time sparked off a feud between the clubs, elements of which were visible in Saturday evening’s encounter. Then, as now, the Spaniard did not feature against Hull due to injury, but this time refrained from joining his team mates on the Emirates pitch to celebrate the win. Ultimately, Brown’s allegations were never proven after both sides were called upon to provide evidence to the FA, but the anger vented by Brown to the media ensured that already tenuous relations became fully strained. Particularly, his comment: “For their club captain Cesc Fabregas to spit at my assistant at the end of the game shows you what this club is all about”
In wintry conditions prior to Christmas, Samir Nasri heated up proceedings with an apparent stamp on Hull’s Richard Garcia. Again, insufficient evidence was tendered to reprimand the player, but both sides were charged with failing to control their players in the mass brawl that ensued. Despite both managers realising their responsibilities and remaining largely silent in the build-up, the latest chapter failed to disappoint in terms of incident. Hull’s captain George Boateng was sent off after collecting a yellow card for poking Nicklas Bendtner in the eye, before a knee-high challenge on Bacary Sagna sealed his dismissal. Hull’s numerical disadvantage scarcely showed as they defended resolutely. The Londoners secured a late winner was testament to their persistence rather than any failing on the home side’s part.
Sol Campbell, ever the controversial figure, was at the forefront of the match’s incidents after Brown called for his dismissal for denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity, and was similarly aggrieved by Campbell’s strong challenge that resulted in Kamil Zayatte’s withdrawal through injury. Replays indicated that the ball was behind Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, making a yellow card for the foul the correct decision and Hull were lucky for the award of a penalty as the Dutchman had been offside in the build-up. Replays similarly vindicated Campbell in terms of the challenge on Zayatte, clearly showing that he had tackled fairly and played the ball. Hull’s furore surrounding the challenge demonstrates the sensitivity that currently resides in all players in the wake of Aaron Ramsey’s injury. Understandably Arsenal players sometimes overreact to strong challenges made on them – noticeably Theo Walcott against Burnley last week – but when they administer them they are branded hypocrites.
In terms of strong challenges it seems as though Arsenal are ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’ and Wenger must use all of his extensive managerial experience to ensure that Arsenal’s title challenge remains strong as another week has passed and Arsenal are still in the hunt.
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