Sunday, 12 April 2015

It's The Hope That Kills!


            In spite of infernal overnight motorway roadworks, I suspect our 180-mile trek home from Burnley on Saturday night must’ve felt a helluva lot less tiresome than it did for the smattering of Spurs fans who schlepped back from their half-hearted display at Turf Moor the previous weekend. By contrast, there was an impressive turn out of around 4,000 Gooners on Saturday, despite a customarily inconvenient kick-off time depriving us of any possibility of returning to the capital via public transport.

            Mind you, the myriad of Northern accents in the away end at such outings nowadays, serves as a reminder of the increasing universality of the Gunners appeal. Although it remains “de rigeur” for everyone to imitate the broadest possible Cockney tones, when bellowing out the traditional terrace ditties.

            On seeing all the staff serving at the bar on the concourse of the David Fishwicke Stand dressed in Arsenal t-shirts, I had to enquire if they donned different colours in honour of all the teams visiting Turf Moor. The barman admitted to me that he and his missus alongside him were both Gooners. But I suppose this was indicative of Burnley pulling all the stops out for, sadly, what might prove to be one of their last big Premiership occasions.

            The imposing chimneys of the numerous cotton-mills, dating from “the Weavers’ Triangle” of the Industrial Revolution, long since converted into superfluous business centers, attest to the faded glories of the now penurious former mill-town; where the frightening prevalence of UKIP election posters is symptomatic of the social deprivation thereabouts (and should be sufficient to scare even the most apathetic liberals to get up off their backsides come election day!).

            Yet the scarcity of suitable watering holes in the vicinity of Turf Moor resulted in all the Gooners gravitating towards the adjacent Burnley Cricket Club, with them packed ten-deep at clubhouse bar, battling for some pre-match lubrication. It was bizarre, as it felt as if North London has invaded Lancashire, with not the slightest evidence of claret and blue, aside from a couple of child tourists, sporting their irritatingly ubiquitous half and half scarves. I lingered long enough to listen to the coverage of the Grand National on my radio, believing for a while there that Gooner McCoy might just leave the nation’s bookies in mourning.

Arsène Wenger's Red and White Army
            Much like myself, I presume that such a healthy turnout for so tortuous an awayday was largely down to our desire to enjoy more of the sort of wonderful entertainment that we’d witnessed last time out. And the Gunners did indeed begin where we’d left off, against Liverpool, with a flurry of fabulous football, in an open, end to end contest, but which culminated with Aaron’s opening goal.

            Sadly we couldn’t maintain this vivacity and having taken an early lead, one sensed that the remainder of the contest was all about merely getting the job done, rather than putting on a show for the troops. In the past we’d have probably struggled to break down Sean Dyche’s tenacious, miserly side. But where previously we’d have tried to pick an overly intricate path through the heart of the massed ranks of Burnley’s two determined banks of four, in the Gunners recent, more mature incarnation, we’ve discovered the necessary width to stretch the opposition. Whereby if we should fail to “tikki-takka” our way through the midst of a stalwart defence, we’ve now learned to go around them.

            Doubtless re-invigorated by their manager, Burnley returned to the fray after the break with a renewed appetite.  It took a couple of timely, typically doughty interventions from Coquelin to steady an Arsenal ship that looked to be in serious danger of being scuttled. But ultimately, for all their earnest endeavours, Burnley lacked the necessary quality to punish our odd defensive aberration.

            Still, normally I’d have been bristling with anxiety, right up until the final whistle, convinced that the home side were certain to snatch a last gasp equalizer. Yet this encounter felt like something of a metaphor for gallant Burnley’s entire season, where they’ve been bravely battling against such stiff odds, for so long that their concerted efforts to make up for what they might lack in ability were bound to run out of steam eventually. Burnley seemed to hit this wall long before the final whistle on Saturday and for once it was a pleasant surprise to be able to run down the clock in relative comfort.
Ramsey To The Rescue

            However, don’t be fooled by Arsène’s supposed sang-froid, as he was as animated on the touchline during the second half as he’s been all season. He knows better than most that the last couple of miles of any marathon are the toughest to complete. If Chelsea are to continue to make a meal of reaching the finishing line, Arsène wants to ensure that Mourinho continues to feel the Arsenal’s breath on the back of his neck.

            The Blues consistent team selection was a significant factor in their runaway start to this campaign and has doubtless contributed to the fact that some of their star hares, such as Fabregas, are now looking a little jaded. Whereas injuries have perhaps forced le Prof to manage our tortoises' fatigue levels more vigilantly (who would’ve imagined the significant likes of John Terry would last the entire course!).


            Trust Cesc to pop up and ruin our weekend, with Chelsea’s single only shot on target at Loftus Road. But then, as they say, it’s the hope that kills and with the media doing their utmost to fuel Gooner delusions, there is some comfort in quelling the barmy title bandwagon, so that we might focus on the business at hand at Wembley next weekend. Especially with everyone talking as if the Arsenal and Liverpool need only turn up, in order to progress to the final. That way lies fate-tempting complacency and all the inspiration our opponents need.
--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Le Coq Sportif


            There’s always plenty of trepidation in the aftermath of an International break, wondering how many of our players might return from their globetrotting exploits crocked, either physically or psychologically. The Gunners were hardly in scintillating form in our victory up at St. James Park, immediately before the majority of our players disappeared off to meet up with their respective national squads.

            Moreover, with Raheem Sterling caught in the glare of the media spotlight, after the youngster’s somewhat naïve public comments and with so many memorable contests between Liverpool and the Arsenal littered with a history of sumptuous hat-tricks, I was understandably concerned that Saturday’s stage might’ve been set for Sterling to silence the cacophonous cannonade from his myopic critics.

            Especially with our lamentable track record in these lunchtime encounters, where we all too often fail to turn up until the second half and with the Gunners being in a somewhat more comfortable position than the Scousers, for whom defeat would sound the death-knell to their Champions League dreams for yet another season.

            However for once it was the Arsenal who flew out of the traps, like a team possessed, playing at such a fabulously free-flowing, high tempo right from the opening whistle that you could be forgiven for thinking that we were the team who simply couldn’t afford to lose this game.

 
What A Day For A Demo! My 40 Quid Certainly VFM!!
          Judging by the scant number of empty spaces on the terraces, I was far from alone in my unwillingness to want to deprive myself of the tremendous entertainment on offer in the opening period and I can’t imagine that there were too many fans who lingered outside the ground for the admirable, if somewhat ill-advised attempts at a united protest over extortionate ticket prices.

            Just making it in time for these early KOs is an arduous enough task for most supporters, let alone arriving early to support a pre-match demonstration and with us having been starved of Premiership footie for a fortnight, I’m not sure the organizers could’ve possibly picked a more inappropriate occasion to expect supporters to miss 10 minutes of this match, as we were all itching to get inside and “get it on”.

            With Mignolet thwarting most of our efforts to reap any material reward from the Gunners high-intensity, early assault on our guest’s goal, the Scousers eventually managed to draw breath and for a moment there, it looked as if our worst fears of succumbing to a solitary Liverpool counter were about to be realized, when Markovic broke free. Surely only a lack of confidence can explain the striker’s attempt to play in Sterling, instead of taking on Ospina himself?

            It’s hard to believe that back in September we were debating whether Balotelli might’ve been a better bet than Welbeck. As if to highlight this point, on reveling in the replay on Match of the Day on Saturday night, amongst the distracting facts flashing along the bottom of the screen was the revelation that with his two Premiership strikes, our young French full-back, Bellerin, has now scored more than Balotelli!

            With three spectacular goals, Bellerin, Ozil and Sanchez might’ve taken all the plaudits, in those eight magical minutes that secured our impressive triumph at the end of the first half, but for me, once again it was young Franny Coquelin who deserved most credit. Playing with a high back line and with both full-backs bombing forward, the Gunners appeared susceptible to pacy counter-attacks, if it wasn’t for the fact that time and again Coquelin snuffed out the threat at source, dominating the middle of the park.


          I’m sure the possibility of Chelsea being reliant on Remy’s goals for the remainder of the campaign must be disconcerting to Blues fans. But even in the unlikely event of us winning all of our remaining matches, no one can seriously believe we’ll witness the sort of complete implosion necessary at the Bridge to bring us into the title frame.


            Myself I will gladly settle for making Mourinho squirm, by maintaining the pressure with this sort of sparkling form. But for Coquelin to be securely anointed as our undisputed homegrown holding midfielder and perhaps save le Prof umpteen millions in the process, he needs to not merely match, but outshine the likes of Matic, as the architect of Arsène’s first ever victory over the Gobby one. The Gunners looked like the real deal on Saturday, but psychologically, not until we’ve put Mourinho’s side to the sword will I really begin to believe that we’ve truly arrived!

Oi Deschamps! Sakho Instead of Kos...You're Having A Larf!
--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Monte Carlo Or Bust

Hi folks,

Having written the following missive on Sunday morning, I didn't want to tempt fate, but with Spurs and Southampton having since joined Man Utd, in the teams challenging for Champions League qualification that have dropped points this weekend, it makes Saturday's victory against Palace appear all the more significant.

On the basis that I fancied Liverpool might begin to come on strong, once Daniel Sturridge returned and the fit again striker began to get some wind in his sails, obviously a draw at St. Marys probably would've suited us best. However, Coutinho's stunning strike aside, I was decidedly unimpressed with the Scousers' performance. By contrast, based on their very entertaining form in this encounter, the Saints currently look far more likely to present a threat of a top four finish than Liverpool.

But then Southampton didn't play on Thurs night and as has been the case to date, there is always a considerable risk of a detrimental impact upon their Premiership performances for all those teams involved in the Europa Cup. Why playing a Thurs/Sun schedule should prove any more taxing than a Weds/Sat schedule for Champions League participants remains a baffling mystery. But if we are favourite to finish in third place, with Man Utd and Southampton both able to put their feet up and watch, while other sides are playing European football in midweek, I fancy that one of these two will profit from the continued involvement of both Liverpool and Spurs in Europe's Mickey Mouse competition.

With Ward-Prowse the latest young talent to come off Southampton's extremely impressive production line, they are obviously doing something right down on the South Coast. But it's not just the Saints' youth development that is responsible for their recent elevated status. As so often seems to be the case when a foreign manager first arrives in this country, Southampton appear to be profiting from the "honeymoon period", where Keoman's insider knowledge of Dutch football (and working in Spain and Portugal before that) has enabled Southampton to pick up emerging talents at comparative bargain prices because they are able to buy players who've yet to appear on the radar of the global game.

Koeman will soon lose this advantage, but by then, his feats at Southampton might well result in him moving up the managerial ladder. But with Pochettino having tread this path before him (albeit, on the face of it his move from Southampton to Spurs is currently looking like a step down!!), perhaps this is the Saints model and they'll be looking to bring in another foreign manager who can maintain the club's ability to profit, both on the pitch and in financial terms, from the insider knowledge he brings with him from abroad.

Watching the Saints stylishly pass their way around the statuesque Scousers on Sunday, it struck me that it was only a couple of months ago that everyone (including me) was raving about a relatively unknown signing from FC Twente (despite 25 caps for Serbia), Tadic. I presume from the fact that he was only on the bench against Liverpool (along with Schneiderlin, the player many Gooners wanted AW to sign last summer), Tadic's form must've dipped, but playing in his stead they had another Serbian that I've never heard of before, a loanee from Benfica, Duricic.

Interestingly, much as was the case when we were still perceived as a selling club a few seasons back, players such as Lallana and Lambert haven't quite been able to replicate the form that earned them their move to Liverpool, suggesting that it was the team structure at Southampton that brought the best out of them.

If the Saints should go on to achieve the remarkable feat of qualifying for the Champions League, in spite of the "fire sale" of their best players last summer, the resulting increase in their revenue is only likely to increase their ability to maintain the existing model of what appears to be a superbly well managed club. When one considers the catalogue of calamities that have afflicted other sides such as Newcastle and Villa, with a catchment area of far more fans and who are perceived as much "bigger" clubs, Southampton seemed to have produced a modus operandi, which must be the envy of many.

With the talented-looking likes of Carles Gil added to a relatively strong spine comprising the likes of Guzan, Vlar, Delph and Benteke at Aston Villa, if the fiery Scot Lambert was unable to motivate this lot, I'm unsure Tim Sherwood will fare any better. This weekend's results only reinforced my feeling that the seemingly very healthy and resolute team spirit at Burnley and Leicester is in stark contrast to the uninspired apathy responsible for the poor form of Villa and QPR and with the attritional nature of the ensuing relegation battle, I won't be at all surprised if this ends up being the crucial factor.

Meanwhile, in light of recent events, it would be remiss of me not to comment on the rash of racist incidents that have received such widespread attention (despite knowing that my views are bound to provoke criticism from the PC brigade!). As despicable as they were, the incident with the Chelsea fans on the train in Paris and the West Ham fans on route to Spurs will have come as absolutely no surprise to any regular football goer.

You only have to scan the faces in the crowd at absolutely every match shown on Match Of The Day on a Saturday night for confirmation that in spite of the commendably multi-cultural nature of this country in modern times, the football terraces remain a (last?) bastion for the white British male. Sure there are far more women going to football regularly nowadays and mercifully, at least some Premiership clubs have attendances that are increasingly reflecting the diverse ethnic makeup of the population.

What's more, thankfully the fact that there are so many successful black players at most clubs and the fact that in these more politically correct times, overt expressions of racism are no longer perceived as acceptable in the public domain of a football stadium. Nevertheless, the terraces were always infamous back in the 70s, as fertile ground for dissemination of fanatical racism. The likes of the National Front and the BNP were founded by and largely made up of football hooligans.

Mercifully these Neanderthals may have been shamed into no longer throwing bananas and offensive racist chants have largely been silenced on a matchday. However the ignorant, uneducated xenophobes responsible for the disgusting behaviour of yesteryear haven't simply melted away. Sadly they are still there, in far greater numbers than many would care to admit but for the most part they've learned to curb their offensive behaviour, to the extent that the authorities and commendable organisations such as the Kick It Out campaign, can all pat themselves on the back, in the mistaken belief that everything in the football world is hunky-dory.

With the crowds on the football terraces representing a microcosm of (albeit mainly white) society, if there's racism prevalent in society, it will inevitably find expression amongst our football crowds. I've no idea about any actual statistics on the subject, but I would guess (and am grateful) that compared to many Premiership clubs, the crowds at our games are probably amongst those with the highest number of non-white fans.

However the numbers of black and asian fans attending matches continues to be far too small but this is hardly surprising. With football fans having deservedly earned their racist reputation back in the 70s, no matter how relevant this is today, if I was black or asian, I would be loathe to take my kids to a match, knowing there was a risk of their tender ears being subjected to offensive chants, especially when I'd feel obliged to set them an example, by standing up to such behaviour.

There's been many an occasion when I've following Arsenal abroad and I've felt seriously embarrassed to be considered as a member of the same tribe, when I've been in the presence of Gooners who's behaviour has been so appalling that I've been ashamed to even have my love of the Arsenal as the one thing I have in common with these creatures. In many instances, when I've been accompanied by my missus, she's made a point of informing everyone that she's Irish, not English, such has been her dread of being mistaken for one of these xenophobes.

Yet to my mind, the truth of the matter is that no matter how "right on" we claim to be and no matter how much we deny it, we are all prejudiced to a greater or lesser extent and as far as I'm concerned, anyone who refuses to admit this is either stupid, or a liar. The vast majority of right-minded people do their best to master their innate prejudices and to ignore pre-conceived bigotry and stereotypes to be an even-handed and tolerant human being, but to suggest these don't exist with cliched claims that "some of my best friends are black, gay, jewish etc. etc" is just pure foolishness.

Being jewish, there've been literally hundreds of instances supporting Arsenal on the terraces when I've bristled at various "Y*ddo" chants, but I've only ever really taken offence in instances, for example, when I've been in the Gunners Pub and pissed up Gooners have started singing "Gas 'em all". However my opinion on the subject is much the same as my feelings about fouls on the pitch and that is that it is "intent" which is of paramount importance. I know many people disagree, but I firmly believe that you disempower the racists by removing these words from their offensive armoury, by bringing such terms as "y*d" and "n*igger" into such common parlance, to the extent that they no longer have any racist connotations.

Besides which, I feel we are getting into very dangerous territory when we start introducing blanket bans, as exactly where do you draw the line between acceptable banter between fans and outright racism. Admittedly the sight of those fans pushing that poor black guy off the train in Paris was utterly disgusting, but then if there are racists amongst every clubs' fans, sadly Chelsea have always had more than their fair share of such ignorant morons. However the latest furore in the news about the West Ham fans singing anti-semitic songs on their way to White Hart Lane is more than a little OTT. Not to mention somewhat ironic, in view of the fact that it was probably on another carriage of the exact same tube train that some wag Irons fans were filming their own spoof video of how West Ham fans welcome a black man onto a train.

Unless I'm mistaken and for those who might be unaware, I believe the video catches the last line of a chant that goes (to the tune of "We'll Be Running Round The Mountain") "We'll be running round Tottenham with our willies hanging out, singing "I've got a foreskin, haven't you". Speaking as a jew, personally this tickles my puerile sense of humour and the only thing that offended me was the fact that they tagged "F*cking jew" on at the end. I've also laughed and taken absolutely no offence at the My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean chant, which goes something like "My one skin lies over my two skin, my two skin lies over my three, my three skin lies over my foreskin, oh bring back my foreskin to me".

Obviously such taunts are targeted at Spurs fans because they revel in their "Y*d Army" moniker and I'm convinced that there isn't the slightest anti-semitic intent in these terrace ditties, If you are going to ban these, does that mean we're going to get thrown out for singing "Where's your caravan?" at Irish players, or "Do you take it up the arse" at any player who's perceived as being a bit camp? Those folks throwing their toys out of the pram and climbing on their moral high horse in outrage over the re-surfacing of this issue (as it has and always will exist as an issue) need be careful to avoid a sense of humour bypass.

Nuff waffle
COYG
Bernard

______________________________________

Monte Carlo Or Bust

The Eagles fans' worthy, but me'thinks somewhat futile cause!
            It was interesting to hear Arsène Wenger describe Selhurst Park in his pre-match press conference as "an old-fashioned stadium with soul". I wonder if by implication le Gaffer concurs with all those who feel that the anodyne environs of our comparatively luxurious arena are sadly somewhat soulless?


            I never enjoy digging out my passport to cross the Thames into the darkest reaches of “Sarf London”. Traversing the capital is always a tiresome task, but the turmoil of the Crossrail development and the constant upheaval of the city’s road and rail network, only adds to my contention that it’s quicker and far less taxing to travel to Birmingham than to Palace.

            Nevertheless, as one of the few grounds to retain the intense atmosphere of old (but mercifully without the nasty undercurrent we experience at White Hart Lane), it’s an obligatory awayday outing. Albeit that Palace’s dilapidated facilities remains a bit of a dinosaur in this day and age and it’s a bit of a chutzpah charging forty quid for the letterbox perspective one endures in the Arthur Wait Stand, constantly dodging around the posts holding up the gantry and the roof, which obscure one’s view the moment the ball goes above head height.

            What’s more, with all the money washing around the Premiership nowadays, you would’ve thought Palace would be able to fund the cost of a decent playing surface. According to one of the locals, their pitch has only recently been relaid and I dread to imagine how bad it was beforehand! Perhaps it’s an intentional tactic to try and limit their technical disadvantage against sides such as ours, but it’s hard to understand why Palace's pitch is worse even than the likes of Hull, where they at least have the excuse of having the surface regularly churned up, as a result of their groundshare with a rugby club.

Olivier salutes the adoring faithful - if he
maintains his strike rate we'll love him
almost as much as he loves himself!
            Metaphorically speaking, Selhurst Park's dodgy pitch certainly made for a more level playing field on Saturday. As did the way in which Pardew’s side set about us, with an intensity and a physicality that was obviously intended to spoil any possibility of the Gunners being able to conjure up some decent entertainment.

            As a result, this encounter was a bit of an anti-climax, following on from the promise we’d witnessed in our performance against Boro. Admittedly, we did our best to shoot ourselves in the foot and we were all left with our heart’s positively in our mouths, as the Arsenal were only the width of the post away from blowing three crucial points, with virtually the last kick of the game.

            However, leaving aside the hectic last few minutes of Palace’s “Hail Mary” efforts at the death, the perfunctory way in which the Gunners went about taking the lead with a penalty in the opening minutes and then securing a second, with just about the only meaningful first half effort on goal, only moments before the break was quite encouraging. It felt more like watching an efficient Chelsea win, than a customary edge of the seat Arsenal triumph.

            This was despite the fact that I spent much of the match cursing the way in which the likes of Welbeck was muscled off the ball, when he should have sufficient strength to stand his ground, or bemoaning Mertesacker’s worryingly ponderous performance. Perhaps our World Cup winning centre-back and the rest of the team are growing a little too accustomed to taking advantage of Coquelin’s continued willingness to cover every blade of grass, as the French youngster singlehandedly fulfills the entire team’s quota of tackles.

Or "Let your boots do the talking". Seems one Gunner at least
was absorbing Sebastien Foucan's motivational bon-mots
            Per certainly didn’t appear to have profited from the bizarre pep talk by French freerunning guru, Sebastien Foucan at London Colney last week, with the sort of leaden-footed display of a player who’d had a Quaalude slipped into his pre-match Lucozade. The Gunners also displayed a shocking naivety in messing up our opportunity to keep a clean sheet. Instead of comfortably seeing out injury time by taking the ball to the corner flag, we were infuriatingly guilty of gifting Palace possession for their goal and again, when we came so close to being punished by a last gasp equalizer.

            Still I don’t think we’d have seen the Mezut Özil who arrived at the club, muscularly holding off an attacker to see the ball out for a goalkick and there were some positive signs in Saturday’s victory, of the efforts to replace the Gunners infamously soft underbelly with a more staunch six-pack.
More muscular perhaps, but Mezut
couldn't get off the pitch quick
enough when his number came up

            It could be argued that we have profited from Ramsey’s injury, with Cazorla’s relishing his increased responsibility at the base of our midfield diamond and Arsène is faced with the interesting conundrum of reintroducing Wilshere without marginalizing Santi. Yet with crucial games coming thick and fast, hopefully with the likes of Wilshere and Walcott eager to return to the fray, we’ll benefit from our wealth of options.


            It’s about time our pre-eminence on the pitch over Man Utd was represented in the table but as delighted as I am by our Premiership upward mobility, after Saturday’s frenetic hurly-burly, it will be good to get back to the more cultured climes of the Champions League, with the promise of a far more pleasing on the eye encounter with Monaco on Wednesday.
--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Monday, 16 February 2015

Too Soon To Dust Off The Yellow Ribbon?

G'day Gooners,

It would be most amusing to see Man Utd get their pants pulled down at Preston North End but whatever the result Monday night, really the Scousers are the only opposition I'm most anxious to avoid in the draw for the quarterfinals. 

Before Liverpool beat Bolton in the last round, I sensed that the closer they get to a Wembley appearance, the more their squad might be motivated by the opportunity to try and ensure that Stevie Gerrard's Liverpool career ends with a fitting swansong and the feeling that this might be fated was only reinforced when they avoided another potential banana skin at Selhurst Park on Saturday (although in pointing this out to fellow Irish Examiner contributor, Steve Kelly, my Scouse pal, he replied "so long as they don't play him"!).

If we are destined for a date with Liverpool, after meeting Hull in last season's final, it would make for a far more enthralling return to Wembley if we could avoid them until 30th May and if PNE fail to manage Man U's exit, hopefully by which time someone will have done us the favour of eliminating the bookies other favourites for us.

Obviously a home draw would be ideal because other than Reading, playing any of the other remaining teams away would mean an unwanted schlep up the motorway, with Villa and West Brom marginally preferable, geographically speaking, to an arduous outing to the North-West. 

After they disposed of Chelsea and having seen the state of the Valley Parade pitch (sandpit more like!), I doubt anyone will relish drawing Bradford. Although if this is what fate has in store for us, at least there will be plenty in our squad who will know exactly what to expect and having endured our penalty shoot-out humiliation in the Mickey Mouse Cup, up there a couple of years back, I must admit that no matter how cold, an opportunity to exact revenge would be a particularly sweet dish.

Yet to my mind, come the quarterfinals, the facts of the matter are that we are going to have to beat three of the seven remaining sides if we are to retain the FA Cup. If the Gunners are sufficiently motivated to do ourselves proper justice in all three matches, you can rest assured that the other seven clubs will all be far keener to avoid us than we should be concerned about them.

Meanwhile "Tottenham watching Songs of Praise"
COYG
Bernard
________________________________________

Too Soon To Dust Off The Yellow Ribbon?

"Zut Alors....Ray Parlour didn't include you in my hat-trick bet?"

            When you consider that for the vast majority of players catching a scent of an FA Cup Final appearance might well be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I was somewhat astounded watching the highlights of Saturday’s cup games on the box.

            Surely Mark Hughes must’ve been incensed upon seeing the TV pictures showing his Stoke players hardly breaking their necks to try and get back to prevent Blackburn scoring. Similarly, it must’ve been infuriating for all those Hammers fans who made the trek up to the Black Country to endure the ignominy of an Irons’ performance that was devoid of any steam, only to hear Allardyce offering feeble “three games in week” fatigue excuses for the way in which they rolled over against the Baggies. Then as the hors d’ouevres for Sunday’s main course, I found myself watching the live coverage of an unbelievably insipid Midlands derby at a half-empty Villa Park.

            All of which seemed to be in such stark contrast to black and white pictures of a “Cup Classics” series that just happened to be showing on Sunday morning when I turned the television on. It featured a positively electrifying 5th round giant-killing, where lowly 4th division Colchester somehow overcame the venerable “dirty Leeds” side in 1971 (and I suppose thereby ensuring that Don Revie’s infamous outfit didn’t stand in the way of the Gunners’ glorious double that season).

            For all their renown in the dark arts, I’d forgotten quite what a fabulous side Leeds had in those days, but it was the intensity and fervor of this contest that really struck me. It brooks absolutely no comparison with the over-hyped, comparatively pallid, modern-day equivalent. With Boro having not been beaten so far this year and after their admirable feats at the Etihad in the last round, I was expecting Aitor Karanka’s team to produce a relatively fierce assault on the quarterfinals

            Perhaps beating Man City was Boro’s cup final, or perhaps promotion to the Premiership has now become such an obscenely valuable prize that maintaining a valiant cup run would be mere fools gold, compared to the significance of their midweek Championship match. Whatever the cause, I’m sure that like most other Gooners, I couldn’t have possibly dreamed of a more comfortable progress into the hat for tomorrow night’s draw.

            Despite beating Leicester last Tuesday, this was hardly a convincing victory and our application and intensity was no more earnest than the thoroughly unacceptable attitude witnessed in our dismal derby defeat. Mercifully we’re now blessed with a squad of sufficient strength in depth that Arsène can ring the changes, without him being accused of disrespecting the FA Cup.
"Piece of cake this FA Cup malarkey"

            To the contrary, compared to the starting XI in our last two games, we appeared an all-together more formidable proposition from the moment Dean blew the whistle on Sunday afternoon. My fears about Gabriel being thrown in at the deep-end proved completely unfounded, as a Boro side who set their stall out to stifle us, soon seemed to be mesmerized into a stupor, by the speed and intricacy of Premiership football played at it’s most entertaining best. As our mazy patterns made mincemeat of the weight of Boro’s defensive numbers, at times our guests looked more inclined to want to join in the applause than to make a concerted effort to thwart us.

            In Mertesacker’s absence, Santi Cazorla seemed to relish his increased responsibility as captain. It helped to have Gibbs and Chambers as such willing outlets on the flanks, enabling Santi to display the full range of his play-spreading passing abilities, but the Spaniard appears to be growing into his deeper-midfield role as the fulcrum around whom everyone else operates, with the added bonus of a new-found willingness to bring some defensive nous to the party.

"WTF! Only one lousy shot to prove myself worthy
of displacing David Ospina at Selhurst Park!"
            It was most fitting to see all eleven players involved in the build up to our first goal and most satisfying to see Giroud volley home our second, with the accomplished touch of a genuine top drawer goal poacher (of the sort we might’ve previously said he wasn’t capable of). But Gooner Valhalla has been the prospect of the potentially peerless combustion possible when Alexis’ energy coalesces with the grace of Özil and the glimpses we witnessed on Sunday left everyone drooling at the thought of the damage this Arsenal side could do if we ever get all our ducks in a row.


            Doubtless I’ll be back in pessimistic mode after we take two-steps back again at Selhurst Park on Saturday. But if we can build on the performance against Boro to finally garner some consistent momentum, we might have good cause to salivate over a scintillating climax to  our season.

--
email to: londonN5@gmail.com

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Evil Triumphs When Good Men Do Nothing

Fonder Memories From The "Love In" At The Lane
                    Highbury is hardly leafy suburbia and perhaps there’s an inevitable bias with me being a Gooner. Yet although darkest Haringey is only a couple of miles down the Seven Sisters Road from the posh nosh esplanades of Islington’s pampered elite, with all the derelict wasteland that now exists around Spurs, in preparation for their new stadium project, one could be forgiven for mistaking the environs for war-torn Donetsk.

 
Google Is A Gooner
                  But don’t take my word for it, if you enquire of the location of “The Sh*t Hole” on Google Maps, it will direct you to White Hart Lane. Such scant conciliatory mischief is doubtless down to the same red & white techno wag responsible for ensuring that the “Spurs defence” is offered as the example, if you ask Google to “define lackadaisical”.

                    Invariably nowadays I travel to Tottenham in trepidation, with the same relish that I reserve for a trip to the dentist, hoping to come away with some of my few remaining teeth still intact. However with all the hype in advance of Saturday’s encounter and having previously experienced just a soupcon of consistency for the first time this season, I left home fuelled by more eager anticipation for a Derby dust-up at the Lane than I can recall in many a moon.

                    My optimism had been dampened somewhat by the doubts about Alexis’ fitness. Much like every other Gooner, I’d been harbouring feint hopes that his tight hamstring was a ruse to lull the Lilywhites into a state of false security. After endless teasing texts to all my Tottenham mates about the thrill of seeing Sanchez wreak havoc upon their misguided hopes and my instincts that we’d seriously miss the increased tempo and forward momentum offered by our Chilean’s unbridled energy, definitive confirmation of his absence came as a big disappointment.

                    Nevertheless, after our feckless form and Spurs’ good fortune has resulted in the league table leapfrog that we’ve endured to date, I’d been beguiled by our recent momentum, into believing that the comparative man for man abilities of the two teams on paper would surely be made manifest out on the pitch.

Should've Made Our Exit While The Going Was Good
                    As we all know, it’s the unpredictability that is the beautiful game’s most alluring asset and my foolhardy certainty lasted all of ten minutes. From the moment Mezut found the back of the net, the intensity that’s been integral to the Gunners recent swagger seemed to evaporate. In boxing it’s essential to dominate the middle of the ring and similarly it’s a truism in football that the masters of the midfield will usually hold sway.

                    Early KOs are an utterly uncivilized anathema. It’s sad to see fans rushing to down a few tins, struggling for sufficient vocal lubrication. Where bemused bodyclocks usually result in the Gunners not turning up until the second half, strangely we started Saturday’s game with the required verve. Sadly, taking such an early lead somehow resulted in us stagnating for the remainder, with the effectiveness of a Vulcan sleeper-hold.

                    We’re fast growing accustomed to our recent transformation into a counter-attacking side, where a more responsible, less liberated Gunners set out with a primary objective of not beating ourselves with a gung-ho willingness to entertain. But tactics count for little in the frenetic cauldron of a derby, when compared with intensity and attitude and with Spurs winning every second-ball, it seemed only a matter of time before we eventually succumbed to their relentless pressure.

                    When this eventually told with Kane’s equalizer, our esteemed leader, with his scientific bent, appeared to be the only spectator present who failed to sense that there was only going to be one winner, when a more intuitive manager might’ve rung the changes at the break. Only a Philistine could fail to appreciate Özil’s inherent artistry. Perhaps le Prof was banking on him being the one player with the ingenuity to break Spurs’ will and outflank the formidable Lloris. Yet Mezut’s never going to be the man for wrestling back control of such a furious battle.

                    Our subs might’ve been afforded more time to have an impact but it’s not exactly a revelation that we continue to lack the sort of player with the personality necessary to assist Coquelin’s admirable efforts to staunch Spurs flow and inspire those around them to produce the goods, or die trying!

Cherchez Le Gooner
                    I was no less apoplectic than anyone else around me when we gifted Bentaleb all the time and space he required to assist Kane in securing a crushing defeat, with only four minutes left on the clock. But every dog has its day and Saturday’s win was no less than Spurs deserved. With only six derby defeats in Arsène’s nineteen-year tenure, my Spurs mates have become so bitter about our enduring dominance that it’s far more disturbing for them to hear me magnanimously conceding all due credit to the victors. But I suspect I won’t be nearly so rational, unless normal service is resumed in the North London league following our respective results on Tuesday.

                    The only result of the day was sussing out a traffic-free new route and a parking pitch which meant that I was there and back in the same time that it takes to walk to our gaff, along with the most welcome bonus come the final whistle of availing myself of the disabled exit, thereby avoiding the ignominy of an intimidating barrage of abuse on the way out.

                    Taking stick from the opposition fans comes with the awayday territory but being maligned by one’s own tribe is far more testing. I usually sit with the same mates at away matches. Small comfort perhaps but I guess I should be counting my blessings that we somehow came to be separated on Saturday. As a result, unlike them, I didn’t end up spending much of the second half involved in a contretemps with the stewards and then sat at home later that same night, waiting for the rozzers to turn up and take a statement.

                    You can’t be a Jewish Arsenal fan and suffer the comparatively inoffensive anti-Spurs “Yiddo” chants at every match, without them being like water off a duck’s back. However all credit to my pal for taking a stand on Saturday, as I’m really not sure what I’d have done in his shoes, in response to a Gooner bellowing “Jewish…….” accompanied by an assortment of derogatory epithets. Would I have feigned disinterest and retained my blinkers to focus on the game, pretending it didn’t bother me, only to be left feeling shamed by Edmund Burke’s quote about evil being triumphant when good men do nothing. Or would I have also risked all the potential aggro involved in reporting such unacceptable behaviour.

                    With as many “four by twos” following Arsenal as Spurs, supposedly a few in the vicinity contacted the dedicated anti-racist hotline. But because this Neanderthal had come down to voice his anti-semitic tirade standing at the front of the aisle, he couldn’t be identified by his seat location.

                    With my mate growing increasingly distressed at the stewards’ apparent apathy, he felt his protests left him more in danger of being thrown out than the culprit. Mercifully in the end there was a 2-0 triumph for the Yids on the terraces on Saturday that everyone can enjoy, when this numbskull and his partner in crime were both eventually nicked and considering events on the pitch were only marginally less irritating, perhaps my pal should’ve been grateful for such a lengthy distraction?

                    Meanwhile, despite White Hart Lane being such an uncomfortable, dilapidated stadium, with planning permission for the Spuds new home potentially only a couple of weeks away, in spite of the result, I should be savouring my easy access to one of the few remaining atmospheric, old-fashioned grounds. Not only is It likely to prove a far greater hassle to get to, if Spurs should ever actually achieve sufficient funding to build their own sterile, modern arena, but according to the steward who accompanied me up in the lift and through the kitchens, to reach the away stand on the way in, apparently our neighbours will be needing somewhere to play their home games whilst the place in under construction.

                    Never fear, they won’t be wrecking our home in the interim and he suggested Wembley is favourite as their temporary destination. So I’m ignoring Saturday’s anomaly, in the certain knowledge that North London will be exclusively ours for still some time to come.

                    Although, after our manager’s 1000th match resulted in the humiliation at the Bridge and in view of all the mickey taking that’s bound to result from a (mercifully!) rare derby defeat in his 700th league encounter, would it not be advisable to take a rain-check from any of Arsène’s subsequent anniversary outings?

-- 
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com
Twitter: @thedogsbollock