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I hope Mark’s not-so-Noble ‘tackle’ doesn’t set a precedent

On Monday May 1, 2006, Arsenal beat Sunderland 3-0 at the Stadium of Light as they kept up the pressure on neighbours Tottenham for the fourth and final Champions League place.

Moments before the end of the game, a match which the Gunners had dominated from the off, barely broken sweat and highlighted the gulf in class between the top and bottom ends of the Premier League, the Black Cats’ Dan Smith inexplicably trod on Abou Diaby’s ankle, breaking it in two places and ruling the teenage Frenchman out of football for a prolonged period.

No matter what was said after the game by either manager, the press or the public, here was as ugly a side of our game as you could imagine. A player, Smith, frustrated by his – and his team’s lack of success on the day, committing nothing short of a criminal foul to cripple a player they could not subdue by fair means.

Suffice to say, justice eventually prevailed with Diaby recovering to full fitness and now flourishing as part of Arsene Wenger’s table-topping team. Where is Dan Smith now? I don’t know, can’t be bothered to look it up and don’t care in any case. He is unimportant to me as a footballer.

Which brings me to Saturday’s game at Upton Park and the ‘challenge’ which deprived the game as a spectacle, of the wizardry wing-play of our balletic Belarussian, Alexander Hleb.

Hleb has divided opinion - and rightly so - since arriving at the club. He hasn’t scored enough and squanders possession too often have been the main charges levelled at the former VfB Stuttgart star. Yet at his best, Hleb walks past players like they aren’t there. He can beat a man – or several – better than almost anyone you care to think of. And not by sheer pace or an imposing physical frame.

No, he beats opponents by sheer skill alone. Twists, turns, shimmees, drops of the shoulder, you name it, Hleb’s got it in his locker. Now though, he’s starting to find people with his passes with increasing regularity. Yet he’s always been capable of a pass. It was his quick-thinking during our win over Juventus at Highbury in 2006 that released Cesc Fabregas before he could square for Thierry Henry to score.

After the Gunners’ win on Saturday, West Ham manager Alan Curbishley said of Hleb:

“Hleb was fantastic and epitomises Arsenal: quick feet, quick brain, quick movement, simple things like throw-ins and quick free-kicks.”

Just after half-an-hour of the match, the Hammers’ Mark Noble launched himself into a knee-high tackle which almost broke Hleb’s leg in two. By this point, Hleb was enjoying a great game, was the most influential player on the pitch and West Ham simply could not get near him.

Until Noble did, that is. And he didn’t just get near him, he nearly broke the player in two. Before I go on, I will say how highly I rate Noble. He’s a good young midfielder who possesses as much passion as he does ability and that’s never a bad mix. He can be West Ham’s answer to Fabregas. The driving force from central midfield.

But that challenge, to me, seemed pre-meditated and as such, deserves widespread condemnation if not retrospective action from the authorities.

Aren’t you forgetting Flamini’s tackle on Scott Parker you might ask? No, it’s just they were two very different incidents. Flamini’s was late but genuine in it’s attempt to win the ball. Noble’s not so. Noble’s was cowardly and stunk of a grudging acceptance of being second-best. A case of ‘If you can’t beat them, cripple them.’ Like with Smith at Sunderland.

Thankfully, Hleb’s injury is said to be less serious than first feared but what does that mean? He’ll be out for six months rather than a year? Great.

Let me make one thing clear: despite media reports to the contrary, our alleged lack of robustness has not been our problem over the last couple of years. Injuries, a changing of the guard and poor finishing have. Kicking Arsenal, as Danny Mills and several others have learnt in the past, is not the way to stop the Gunners. It’s how to anger them and give them added incentive to play you off the park.

Therefore I hope other teams, for their own sake as much as that of our own players’safety, do not employ similarly self-defeating tactics.

To his credit however, Noble’s body language suggested he knew he’d done wrong as soon as he committed the foul. But that doesn’t disguise the point that he was so frustrated by Arsenal’s Hleb-inspired dominance that he decided to take his tormentor out of the game.

A matter of Noble not living up to his name.

Lets hope Hleb makes a speedy recovery and is fit - and in form - when the Hammers visit Emirates Stadium on New Year’s Day. Because the best revenge I can think of, would be for him to destroy West Ham with a flurry of fancy footwork, deft turns, eye-of-the-needle passes and the odd goal.

Because THAT, thanks to Noble, is what we’ll now be missing for a while.

Have YOUR say on Saturday's game and Hleb's injury via the comments section below...

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Posted by Mo Khan on October 1, 2007 12:43 PM in News
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