Classic Match: First Game In The Premiership
Feature by Richard Barker
Updated Saturday, 18th October 2008
Year 2002 and after a summer of much excitement Blues finally got their inaugral Premiership season under way at Highbury, home of the Champions, Arsenal.
Unfortunately, one thing that tends to go hand in hand with being Champions is being a pretty formidable outfit, and Arsenal certainly didn't disprove this theory, easing to a 2-0 victory over Steve Bruce's men. Goals from Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord settled the game, whilst the misery for Blues was compounded by Aliou Cisse's dismissal on his debut.
Bruce opted for the 3-5-2 formation that he had leant towards in the latter pre-season games, picking Nico Vaesen in goal; Olivier Tebily, Kenny Cunningham and Darren Purse as a back three; Jeff Kenna, Damien Johnson, Cisse, Bryan Hughes and Martin Grainger across the midfield with a strike force of Stern John and Geoff Horsfield. Despite five summer signings to freshen the squad up, Bruce was only able to call upon Cunningham and Cisse, due to Robbie Savage's suspension and the injuries sustained by Clinton Morrison and Jovan Kirovski. As a result, when you're only adding two new faces to a First Division side, you are more or less left with a First Division side...
Blues started cagily, whilst Arsenal soon found their feet. Only 9 minutes had elapsed when the Gunners won a free kick some 30 yards out. Henry's effort was no Beckhamesque screamer, but Vaesen still managed to concede, possibly misjudging the ball as it bounced in front of him, and Blues suddenly realised exactly what they were up against.
Henry nearly made it two just minutes later, but Vaesen redeemed himself, saving well with his feet. However, midway through the half, Arsenal did double their lead following a scintilating counter attack. Patrick Viera prevented Blues winning their first corner of the game, and through a series of first time passes, involving Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, Wiltord found himself able to run at a Blues defence that insisted on backing away from him until he unleashed a sublime curling effort that Vaesen had no chance with.
Ray Parlour went close again for the home side before the break, whilst Blues' best effort prior to the interval barely meritted being given such a name, as John sliced his shot high, wide and not so handsome. The second half continued in much the same manner, with Arsenal playing some magnificent football inspired by Viera and World Cup winner Gilberto Silva in the centre of midfield. (Gilberto had replaced the injured Bergkamp after half an hour.) Henry again went close, whilst 18 year old Darren Carter (on for Tebily) had Blues' best effort with a header just over David Seaman's crossbar. It was some game for Carter, who just 10 months ago had never even played a Reserve game for Blues, and today found himself up against two World Cup winning central midefielders.
To make matters worse for Blues, they were forced to play out the final quarter of an hour with just ten men following Cisse's red card for two bookable offences. The first was possibly justified, for a mistimed challenge on Henry, yet the second appeared to be Ashley Cole making the most of it, rather than any malice on Cisse's part. Alan Wiley, however, felt that it meritted a second yellow, whilst the travelling Blues fans felt Cole meritted a load of abuse for the remainder of the game. Indeed, if he did deliberately set out to get Cisse sent off, their abuse was justified.
In the end, it was a baptism of fire for Blues, but we all knew that it would be anyway. It is impossible to attempt to gauge how we will cope this season based on an away game at by far the best team in this country at the moment, and one of the top three or four sides in Europe. Cisse - prior to his early bath - and Tebily both looked as though they could handle the pressure, whilst others, notably Bryan Hughes, simply disappeared. Others - especially Horsfield and John - did as well as could be expected considering the inadeqacies of some of those around them.
A trip to Arsenal is difficult enough without letting free kicks pass through your fingertips and surrendering possession throughout, and Blues must learn from the mistakes they made in order to progress. There was the odd sign of encouragement, but on the whole, Bruce must simply be pleased to get the toughest game of the season out of the way on the first weekend and move onto games against Blackburn and Everton - teams we must expect to get some reward against.
Vaesen 6 - Horrendous error on free kick, but some good saves later
Tebily 7 - Steady defensively, and impressive moving forward
Cunningham 6 - Nothing spectacular, but few errors
Purse 6 - Appalling distribution, but some great goal line clearances later
Kenna 5 - Quiet
Grainger 5 - Unable to get forward and looked slightly suspect at the back
Johnson, D 6 - The odd neat touch, but overwhelmed in midfield
Cisse 7 - Looked capable of competing with the best prior to red card
Hughes 5 - Poor, like a little boy lost
Horsfield 6 - Worked hard and did well considering the service
John 6 - Some nice touches, though tired when left as a lone striker at the end.