Monday, 18 May 2015

It's Happened Again....

Hi folks,

Forgive me for not having posted a diary missive for some weeks but with successive Monday night matches, I've not had a column to write for the Examiner since the bore draw against Chelsea and before that, I've been lazily posting links on Twitter and Facebook direct to my published piece in the paper.

In fact Sunday deadlines for the Irish Examiner have meant that late KOs, especially away from home on a Sunday have become the bane of my life, as I find I can't really enjoy the game because I'm stressing about filing my column. Consequently, I take some of the credit for the Gunners improved second half performance at Old Trafford. I decided to do the journalistic thing of trying to relieve some of the pressure, by bashing out some copy at the break.

Needless to say, I ended up having to start again from scratch come the final whistle, but I like to think that the fact that I had prematurely decreed "our disappointing capitulation at Old Trafford" was largely responsible for what followed in the second half.

As ever, the limitations of my eight hundred words below preclude me from being able to expound on some of the points that struck me during the first hour of this encounter, as I prepared to lay into the Gunners for a second successive sorry display. In truth, I have absolutely no insight into actual events, but I get the distinct impression that AW and LVG are world's apart in their management styles. 

Doubtless Arsène's approach isn't anything like as random in practice, but one gets the impression that there's little attention to the sort of tactical tweaks to counter the opposition's strengths, eg. making provisions for Fellaini and the likelihood of him pulling onto the back stick to maximise his height advantage over Bellerin and Monreal. One could be forgiven for thinking that Arsène's unassailable belief in our boys ability means that for every single game, le Gaffer just sends them out there to get on with it.

By contrast, I get the impression that LVG is something of a stickler for his attention to detail, aware of Man Utd's limitations at present and doing all in his power to counter any perceived failings in his side. For example, I couldn't help but notice the disciplined way in which the likes of Young and Valencia hugged the touchline every time Utd went forward, in an effort to stretch our defence, in the hope that Falcao and co. might find the resulting holes.

We also witnessed one inventive set-piece, straight off the Carrington training ground and considering the endless amount of hours the Gunners spend at London Colney, I find it somewhat flabbergasting and wonder exactly what it says about our team and Arsène's training methods that we seem to lack the ingenuity to ever come up with a variation upon a set-piece that doesn't involve Cazorla, Ozil etc. hoofing the ball into the box?

Finally, although it doesn't look set to last (if the latest claims in Marca are to be believed?), if there's one most obvious contrast between these two teams, it's between the sticks, where it is De Gea's decisiveness and his speed of thought, compared to the hesitant prevarications of Ospina that is the difference between a definitive world class goalie and the Gunners infernal string of keepers, who unfortunately have all amounted to little more than half-decent shot-stoppers.

The way in which De Gea decisively snuffs out threats on his goal, while remaining on his feet and at his most imposing, forcing opponents to fret about having to do something special to beat him and his speed of thought in his distribution, so often playing a crucial role in Utd's ability to turn defence into attack, by rapidly springing the counter-attack and taking advantage of opponents who are forced to chase a game, these are some of the attributes that spread an aura of calm and composure throughout the rest of the team, as the presence exuded by a world class keeper liberates everyone playing in front of them, knowing that even if they cock things up, their keeper is likely to rescue them from any lasting embarrassment.

The contrast between De Gea and Ospina only served to highlight the sadly, enduring disadvantage of AW's failure to bite the bullet and give up on his seemingly infinitesimal efforts to install someone between the sticks on the cheap and instead go out and do (or more's the point PAY!) whatever it takes to obtain the very best "world class" goalkeeper.

As for the Gunners, our painful lack of width at Old Trafford was nothing new. It's an inevitable consequence of the fact that we have such a large clutch of midfield players, who all deserve inclusion in the team and who all ideally want to inhabit the middle of the park. As I've said below, the transformation when Walcott came on and Aaron Ramsey occupied his preferred position at the heart of our midfield was remarkable. 

Ramsey will never be a touchline hugging winger and I presume that even if he's willing to do a job for the team out on our right flank, rather than be left on the bench, he's always likely to be less effective as a square peg, in a round hole, even if the dip in his performance is occurring at a subconscious level. To be honest, I'm fed up of the way in which we always seem to be trying to shoehorn all our talent into the team, instead of buying players to fill the specific gaps in our squad.

Don't get me started on Carl Jenkinson. Apparently the form of the Corporal and that of Creswell, the Hammers other full-back has been the only bright spark at the Boleyn. But on what basis can Arsène try and convince Carl to follow his dream of a successful career in London N5, only to return and find himself behind Bellerin, Debuchy and even Chambers, in the right-back pecking order?

But then I really shouldn't be whinging. The fact of the matter is that we Gooners are so spoiled that we don't know we're born, when we contrast the level of entertainment and the achievements that we enjoy with the endless misery of the vast majority of other clubs.

Keep it under you hat, but an offer of a spare ticket resulted in me venturing down the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road on Saturday, to see how the other half live. Despite beating a team of Spurs rejects 2-0, the highpoint at White Hart Lane was Brad Friedel's on pitch retirement announcement at half-time!

Perhaps I should keep schtum, for fear that the Arsenal might put up our prices, but my Spurs pal revealed that he was forced to stump up an extortionate £1950 on Friday, to renew his West Upper season ticket. I imagine their season tickets only include a mere couple of cup ties, compared to our seven, on account of the fact that they're not expected to be involved in any more! But it was worth going to White Hart Lane, if only to remind myself quite what good value my lower tier seat at the Arsenal is at "only" £1095.

I keep reminding my mate quite how much I miss THOF and that it is nevertheless worth renewing his seat, as if they ever get around to building their new stadium, he will miss White Hart Lane when it's gone. But never mind Spurs eternal failings on the football pitch, truth be told, having grown accustomed to the comparatively luxurious surroundings at our new stadium, my bony old bum couldn't possibly endure the cramped and uncomfortable conditions at Spurs all season long.

Compared to the intimidating and ugly atmosphere of our annual derby encounter, it's not nearly so horrible going to Spurs as a comparative neutral and I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that it's somewhat nostalgic, as my old man often took me on alternate weeks to Highbury and Spurs as a kid. But as if to confirm quite how outdated White Hart Lane is, I discovered that there is no disabled access to the West Upper. I didn't realise that I couldn't get up there via the lift at the disabled entrance that I've used to access the away seats in the corner of the South Stand for our derby matches. I eventually found that I needed to go through the directors entrance to get to the only other available lift.

Even then, this only took me up to the high-rollers restaurant at the level of their directors box and I still had to negotiate a flight of stairs and through a door at the rear of the club shop on the concourse to get to my seat. If it wasn't for a kindly lady in the lift, I would've never found this circuitous route. Recognising a familiar face coming down the stairs towards us, after he'd passed I enquired of this lady "what's the name of that comedian?"

No she didn't say Soldado, as it was none other than Michael Mckintyre. I was tempted to grab him and request the obligatory "selfie", if it wasn't for the fact that I was so pooped by this stage that he'd have been forced to linger for at least five minutes, for me to be able to catch my breathe and get the words out.

Enuf enemy waffle

It's Happened Again....

Theatre of Dreams indeed....even Theo scored

Pooping Man Utd’s last home game of the season party was always likely to prove a stiff test, especially after ramping up the pressure upon ourselves, following Swansea’s infuriating “smash and grab” last Monday night.  Having struggled to string a pass together in the opening forty-five at Old Trafford, mercifully the Gunners gave a much improved account of ourselves after the break, with a display that appeared to be deserving of at least a positively crucial point.

As we’ve learned to our great cost in recent seasons, you can't over-estimate the importance of a top three finish, thereby avoiding putting a spanner in the works of pre-season preparations, by having to be involved in a Champions League qualifier. These qualification matches are SO insanely significant, with the financial and all the other implications of defeat so overblown that there are inevitable consequences upon a Premiership campaign from the entire club having to psyche itself up so early on.

Consequently, after our last gasp capitulation to the Swans, I was left thinking that “it serves them bloody well right” if such a lacklustre performance was to end up being the cause of the premature curtailment of our players’ summer pleasures, getting them out of their flip-flops and back into their football boots far sooner than should’ve been the case.

My suspicion was that our game in hand played a considerable part in the lamentably indolent and unexpected conclusion to our winning streak because we started last Monday night’s game with the sort of lack of intensity that suggested we had all the time in the world to secure the points necessary to avoid a fourth place finish.

Mind you, on a more positive note, this defeat did at least force us to refocus on the task at hand for the trip to Manchester. It might’ve looked like the Gunners were merely going through the motions, with a first half performance without a single shot on goal for the first time in ten years, but we eventually managed to raise our game, to the point where we didn’t just look like winning the “race you back to London”.

Never mind the three points on offer against Sunderland in midweek, it would’ve been disastrous if both Manchester sides had won the day and we’d ended languishing in fourth. With Santi having a bad afternoon at the office, constantly conceding possession in the middle of the park and with Aaron Ramsey annoyingly anonymous in his starting position out wide on the flank, thankfully for once le Gaffer didn’t leave it too late to answer Gooners half-time haranguing for the introduction of Wilshere and Walcott.

The results of Arsène ringing the changes couldn’t have been more instant as Aaron was suddenly pulling all the strings, incisively spraying the ball around like Stevie G in his pomp. I suppose I couldn’t let this missive pass without some sort of nod to his retirement. My facility for recall might be well on the wane, but even if I’ve long since forgotten Gerrard’s ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck, the Scouse talisman deserves huge respect as one of the last of a dying breed of “one club men".

By contrast, Walcott’s impact might have been equally unimpressive as his other rare cameo outings this season, but even if his equalising goal was thoroughly unintentional, it made for a pleasant change for Theo to be cast as the hero for once, rather than the villain of the piece. Who knows, with his opportunity to stake a claim for inclusion in the Wembley drama to come, perhaps this will prove to be just the sort of slice of luck that will boost Walcott’s battered confidence and see him finish this campaign with a bang, rather than a whimper (frankly Theo needs it, if he’s to have any leverage in his contract negotiations!).

It was huge fun interrupting LVG’s on-pitch tribute, with a hearty chorus of “Que Sera” but with a patently mediocre Man Utd there for the taking while they remain a team in transition, it would’ve been marvellous to hand out a tonking and lay down a psychological marker for next season. Yet under the circumstances, we were most relieved to be returning to the capital with the point in our back pocket that will enable Wenger to rotate the squad, safe in the knowledge that we only need one more from the two matches to come this week, to avoid spoiling our holidays.

It certainly didn’t appear as if Villa’s players were playing for their Cup Final places, with their six-goal slaughter at St. Mary’s. But with such healthy competition on the Gunners’ bench, I bloomin' well hope we can maintain the positive mood in advance of the big finale, by giving both the Black Cats and the Baggies good cause to be very afraid.

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Monday, 20 April 2015

'Oop For The Cup

It seemed as if there were some noticeable similarities as I watched the Scousers suffer the ignominy of their semi-final cup exit on Sunday. Strangely, much like the Gunners, it felt as if Liverpool were playing with "the handbrake on" and having taken the lead, it seemed as if they also suffered from the fact that they started the second half on the back foot and then struggled to pick up any real momentum, after Villa managed to turn the game on its head.

I sat here with my head on a swivel, trying to keep abreast of events at Wembley, St James Park and a thrilling Ferrari/Mercedes dice-up in the Grand Prix, but I was soon gripped by the coverage of the second semi-final, when suddenly it looked as if there was a genuine possibility of an unexpected result and the pleasant surprise of us playing Villa in the final in May.

All due credit to Tim Sherwood, for whatever it is that the 'gileted one' has done to drag the likes of Benteke up out of the mire of the striker's recent malaise, to return to his former goal-scoring form. But truth be told, as much as I savoured Villa's victory and the fact that we no longer need fear the spectre of Stevie Gerrard enjoying a worthy, silverware-laden swansong at Wembley next month, based on the form of the two teams in Sunday's display, it might actually be argued that Aston Villa will prove more awkward opposition than Liverpool! Especially when one considers that aside from losing their injured centre-half, this was a Villa side deprived of regular first choice players such as Agbonlahor and Sanchez.

Nevertheless, one would assume that even with their best XI, they should be no match for the Gunners, so long as we turn up in a more energised manner on the day than our somewhat lethargic incarnation on Saturday.

Meanwhile, with the climax to the football season drawing ever closer, I find myself casting ever more frequent glances at the Championship table, musing over the potential awaydays we might be enjoying in the future. From a strictly geographical point of view, my personal preference for a dream ticket of promoted teams would be Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich (or their East Anglian "mates" Ipswich).

After a midweek outing to Brighton, I must admit that a seaside awayday to the South Coast next season sounds most appealing, especially when contrasted with an arduous schlep to the North East. If the likes of Middlesborough are destined to interject upon this trio of minimal awayday miles, then I suppose this wouldn't be so bad, if they end up replacing Sunderland. Doubtless the Wearsiders might have something to say about this and it will also be disappointing if QPR get relegated because aside from Loftus Road feeling almost like a home game, it's one of the few remaining venues with a proper, old-fashioned atmosphere. However recent events have only added to the sense that the patently hearty team-spirit at Leicester and Burnley makes both teams, in my humble opinion, the most deserving candidates for Premiership survival.

Nuff waffle! Can't wait for Chelsea next weekend. Bring it on!


'Oop For The Cup

            I'm relieved we weren't playing Villa on Saturday and when Aaron Ramsey hit the post in the dying throes against Reading, I’m sure I wasn’t the only Gooner wondering if it might be destined not to be our day. With my terrace tranny tuned into Chelsea beating Man Utd at the Bridge, I had a nightmare vision of our assault on the FA Cup petering out in extra-time and our season suddenly being brought to an impromptu conclusion, with my hands covering my eyes, watching through the cracks in my fingers as Reading progressed to the final in an agonizing penalty shoot-out.

            With their side’s campaign rapidly fading towards its customary insignificance, I pictured my Spurs mates gleefully wringing every last drop of pleasure, from the unexpected solace of the Schadenfreude of our shock semi-final demise. But then I’d been fretting all week about the way in which everyone was talking as if our return for the final in May was already a foregone conclusion. Especially after the foreboding omen of Martin Keown’s kid scoring the winning goal, as Reading’s unknown U21 side beat a Gunners’ team including the illustrious likes of Wilshere, Diaby and Gnabry last Monday night. 

            All such fears seemed well founded, as we endured a nervy ninety minutes, waiting for our far superior quality to tell against the comparatively toothless Royals. But with us having recently looked as if the penny has finally dropped and that “Project Wenger (Mark 8!)” has eventually managed to mature into a multi-faceted, more efficient outfit, sadly on Saturday, Alexis Sanchez aside, it was back to our most dementing ways of old, as we ponderously waited for the relentless waves of bodies Reading got behind the ball, to be mesmerized by our sideways passing, into parting like the waters of the Red Sea.

            Although I must admit that I was no less guilty of my mind not being fully focused on the job at hand. Unlike Reading on their big day out, our club may have been sufficiently blasé about the 10th FA Cup semi-final of Arsène’s tenure that they didn’t bother organising for 30,000 t-shirts to be laid out on the seats at our end of the stadium. Additionally, while I appreciate that it’s an economic necessity for the national stadium to pay its way, I’m amongst those traditionalists who feel that Wembley should be solely reserved for the final. Nevertheless, this doesn’t detract from the fact that marching up Wembley Way with the Red Army, in glorious Spring sunshine will always be a memorable highlight of any season.

            As a result, I was so caught up capturing the obligatory Wembley “selfies” as I soaked up the atmosphere around the stadium that I only just made it to my seat as the combatants took to the stage, without having given a thought to Wenger’s team selection. I was shocked to discover our best goal scorer had been left on the bench and it wasn’t until some minutes into the match that it dawned on me that Debuchy was out there, playing in his first competitive match in three months. 

            Although it was Kieran Gibbs on the opposite flank who perhaps proved to be our weakest link but neither full-back provided the necessary width, or the energy to stretch the opposition. With Reading spending the majority of the match camped in their own half, Steve Clarke’s surprising 4-4-2 wasn’t anywhere near as ambitious as it sounded. Considering they were arriving at Wembley not exactly bristling with confidence, I expected to see Reading overrun in the middle of the park. Alexis apart, we were devoid of the verve required to expose inevitable chinks in the Royals’ doughty armour.

            Watching a recording of the game on the box later that night, I was flabbergasted to hear Danny Mills comment that Cazorla was perhaps our best player on the day, as I felt that Santi had taken such a backseat that I forgot he was out there for most of the match! It wasn't until Giroud made his far more muscular entrance late on, that we really began to expose the limitations of our lower league opponents. Even then, there was a palpable sense of relief seeing Reading's strikers “bottle it” when 'two on one' right at the death.

            On another afternoon, our habitual failure to go for the jugular after taking the lead could’ve proved fatal. We were so lethargic at the start of the second half that I worried we might not be able to grind up through the gears, after Reading breathed the life back into this contest with their equalizer. At least this meant that the Royals' fans got their money’s worth and with Alexis eventually ensuring that I was able to rejoice to my Spurs mates that the result was “never in doubt”, mercifully I could afford such magnanimity.

            At least Chelsea’s win has taken the wind out of Van Gaal’s sails and will finally extinguish the media’s efforts to ramp up foolish title tease delusions any further. Hopefully this will leave us solely focused on the primary objective of overcoming our psychological inferiority next Sunday, with the sort of convincing victory that will serve the Gobby One with notice of the long overdue restoration of the “only one team in London” balance of power. What's more I fancy that with Stevie Gerrard denied a Wembley swansong, we've a far better chance of retaining the FA Cup.
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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.
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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!
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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


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.
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