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Thursday 8 December 2005

More A 'No Contest' Than A Championship Bout

It was ironic that they wheeled out Danny Williams at half-time at THOF tonight, as I wouldn't be at all surprised if Saturday's "big fight" with Audley Harrison proves a similarly tedious, uneventful anti-climax, with each of the contestants shadow boxing their way through the evening waiting for t'other to make a fight of it!

I guess we shouldn't be too surprised, with both teams having nothing to play for. However I was very disappointed afterwards to discover that if Thierry's penalty had gone a few inches to the left, we would have joined only four other teams to ever achieve maximum points in the Champions League group stage. What's more Titi would have been one game away from setting a 22 match record for goals in successive European games (which is the sort of record you can't imagine him coming anywhere near so close to again in a hurry!)

To be honest I was so unenthralled by events out on the park, that I spent much of the match distracted by the commentary in the earpiece of my terrace tranny from the Stadium of Light. I am sure most Gooners are in unanimous agreement that this was indeed the best result of the night. Although I purposely prevented myself from getting too animated about it, as I was almost certain Utd were going to sneak a pretty typical last leap from this particular frying pan. Fergie must have had the stopwatch out standing on the touchline, as believe it or not, they were still playing six minutes of extra time in Lisbon as we left THOF.

The whistle finally blew at the Stadium of Light as we exited the Clock End concourse and I couldn't help announcing to all and sundry that the old enemy would not only be "watching Eastenders" but the entire weeks worth of soaps for the remainder of this season, as they were bounced out of Europe all together, bottom of their group. The exultant guffaws of Shadenfreude echoed along the corridor as the gleeful news spread like the loudest Chinese whisper you ever heard.

It was the sort of news you just couldn't hear enough of and absolutely every Gooner was left making their way home with huge grins across the width of their gobs! We were due to meet up for some pasta at the local Italian but I was half tempted to take a rain check, just so I could get home in time savour the Mancunian misery on the box. Actually I'd been fretting for much of the evening about forgetting my plastic, with which I was going to pay for our grub. But as it turned out, even with it pissing down, I was only too happy to have an excuse to dash back home to grab the credit card, as I was just in time to catch ol' Red Nose's melancholy requiem for the Champions League, along with the convoluted last rites for their involvement in any European competition, read by their plug ugly new skipper.

Wallowing in the Moaners misfortune reminds me of one of my dear departed old man's favourite "meises" (stories - for the uninitiated into the less globalised yiddish vocabulary) and since today would've been his birthday, you'll have to forgive me my sentimental celebration in repeating it here. Mr Cohen walks into his local bank and ask the counter staff if he can speak to Mr Hawkins the manager. "I am terribly sorry" says the teller "unfortunately Mr Hawkins passed away last week". With this news the old boy duly buggers off. But then he's in and out of his branch umpteen times the same day, on each occasion he poses the same question and it's explained to him that the manager has shuffled off this mortal coil. Eventually the counter staff loses patience "Mr Cohen, we've told you fifteen times today that sadly Mr Hawkins is dead". Upon which he chirps up "I know, but I just love to hear it!"

Now if only it was this weekend that we were travelling North with a train crammed full of Cockney Reds, instead of last week's awayday to the Reebok. What fun we'd have over the course of three hours, constantly piping up "Who'd you fancy playing come the draw Friday week for the knockout stages? Or did I ask you already!" :-)

I guess the Moaners will be joining Spurs supporters and fans of all the other clubs who've no Continental competition, in focusing on this Friday's draw for some far off footie fest in Germany this summer. I wonder how many Gooners will give a monkeys about such an irrelevant event, when we've far more important matters to focus on. Unfortunately (as far as I'm concerned), I'm led to believe that a return to Bratwurstland is probably our best bet. I know Werder Bremen banged five past Panathinaikos, but Bayern have become a bit of a bogey team. Of the six team we could draw (PSV, Real Madrid, Rangers, Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen, Benfica) there a 33 per cent chance of a German side and apparently when you look at who our prospective opponents cannot play, these odds become even greater (although I have to rely on those whose head doesn't explode when they try to contemplate the various possible permutations in the whole complicated schemozzle!)

However if I had a choice it would either be Real Madrid or Benfica. Aside from the fact that these two are I believe the most southernly possibilities and therefore perhaps offering the prospect of a jolly to slightly warmer climes, personally I've been dying to see the Arsenal play in the Bernabeu, for what feels like donkeys years, as it must be one of the few major footballing temples across the Continent that I've yet to worship the Arsenal at. And each season I've been more certain than the last that this will be my opportunity. With managerless Real Madrid hitting such a rocky patch right now, not to mention the fact that at long last, for once Lady Luck seems to be gracing us with some good favours in the Champions League, there might never be a better time for a beano in the Bernabeu.

As for Benfica, with the Stadium of Light being built by the same architects, it would be brilliant to get some idea what going to a game at our new gaff is going to be like. Better still would be an opportunity to show Utd how to do it, by blowing away their bête noire.

The consensus of opinion from the few I've broached on the subject suggests many Gooners would fancy us pulling Rangers out of the hat. I'm wondering whether this is because they're thinking it would be easy for them (or cheap?) to get to, but I would guess it might be more expensive to fly (and certainly by train!) to Glasgow, than a budget flight abroad. Moreover, although Rangers might appear a plum draw on paper, with their woeful record in Europe and their recent lamentable league form, personally I'd favour a far more glamorous opponent. I believe Rangers would be a no win situation, because we'd be expected to brush them aside and so if we manage to do so, we will hardly enhance our reputation. I also imagine we'd be likely to play down to their level, as they attempt to muscle us out of the match and clatter us out of the Champs League.

The thing is that if we are going to get anywhere in this competition, we are going to have to find the confidence to cope with proper competition and in my opinion, since we are already perceived to have progressed from the easiest group, the sooner we establish a reputation and begin scaring future opponents by blasting past some of the big guns, the better.

Meanwhile, watching from behind the goal in the Clock End, I might be slowly achieving my objective of working my way around the ground and getting a last chance to watch the Arsenal from every possible perspective at THOF.Although I was a little disappointed that my brief Clock End sojourn wasn't a little more atmospheric. Some of the Ajax coaches were arriving and parking up along Drayton Park when I passed by on my way to work this morning and so I was expecting them to sound hale and hearty, having doubtless spent the entire day oiling their vocal chords. However I was hoping the response from the home crowd would've been a little more raucous. Yet I enjoyed my participation in the Clock End choir, it certainly made a change from my West Upper solo performances.

Yet it proved a reminder why I prefer the posher seats along the side of the pitch because when it came to some post-match analysis with a few pals, I suddenly realised I didn't really have a clue that we were playing an extremely rare alternate formation. Apparently Arsène for once forsook his favoured 4-4-2, but I am not sure this was intended to be for 4-5-1. The sight of Le Prof popping out of the dug out, to repeatedly stand on the side of the pitch screaming at his charges and frantically gesturing some of them forward, this would suggest that the intention was for them to play more 4-3-3 . Although I have some sympathy for the kids at the club who've spent their entire careers at Highbury religiously schooled in the one regular Arsenal formation, only to be asked to do something completely different for their Champions League debuts!

From where we sat, all I can tell you is that in my humble opinion, apart from one suicidal pass towards the end, Phillipe Senderos looked extremely sharp. Admittedly Phillipe was clattered just prior, but whether the Swiss lad learnt his trade in French, German or Swahili, surely he would've been indoctrinated with the schoolboy commandment (I know I was) that makes passing across the face of one's own goal absolutely sacrosanct? However I'm happy Arsène has finally given Phillipe a run out. With Kolo off to the African Nations (perhaps for the entire duration of January considering the fortuitous prospects of the Les Elephantes), I've been fretting about Wenger leaving Senderos out until he's forced to bring him back, cold, without much confidence after such a long lay-off. To my mind the fact that he looks sharp as a bell, is only further argument for playing him as Campbell's partner and making use of Kolo's versatility at left-back

Sadly I didn't get to see Kerrea Gilbert's apparently impressive performance against Reading in this position (as I believe he's a RB by trade) but he also looked pretty bright tonight and unlike poor Pascal, at least Gilbert has plenty of pace to burn. Personally I'd be much happier seeing him or any sprightly youngster instead of Cygan, because at least if a kid's going to make mistakes, there's some consolation in knowing that they're hopefully going to learn from their errors. Whereas if Wenger insists on stubbornly sticking with the hapless Cygan, he's soon going to end up such a hate figure, that his career will be consigned to the same Arsenal history as Stepanovs (whatever happened to Igor?)

Arsène's other completely unfathomable preference recently has been the lack of game time given to Robin Van Persie. To my mind Robin appears to be in such an incredibly hot streak of form right now, that every ball runs his way. Whereas for example you can almost guarantee that if Dennis try's a ting against a couple of defenders, he's going to be undone by a dodgy bounce of the ball off one of the defenders shins. Whereas by contrast Van Persie appears unable to do any wrong. From what I've gleaned of such hot streaks of form, they don't last ad infinitum. If they did you can be sure the gamblers of the world would've long since broken the bank of Monte Carlo. So for gawd's sake gaffer, just play him, play him, play him! Otherwise you could end up denying him game time, just long enough for his form to take that almost inevitable dive into the doldrums. I can only imagine that Wenger's adopted this strategy of limiting Robin's pitch time, for fear of giving him his head, in case he loses it? Or at least that's my suspicion from report's of Robin's wayward nature. Hopefully Jose's injury misery will prove Van Persie's good fortune for the immediate future.

I only hope I am at St James Park to find out in person. Yet another awkward kick-off time, at the other end of the country this weekend, ensures that we Gooners can't get home the same night by public transport. I'd actually probably quite enjoy a Saturday night out in Toon Town, seeking out the company of some friendly Geordie fillies in their white stilettos and fishnet stockings (doubtless on a freezing cold night when I will be snugly ensconced in my thermals). Apparently it's just a matter of finding the handbags on the floor, to discover this hardy Toon tribe dancing around them. However I am not sure my missus would approve of this sort of nocturnal bird watching of the non-feathered variety, especially approaching Xmas, with so many likely to be lagging drunk, staggering around looking for the nearest nest. More's the point I can't afford wasting (any more of!!!) Barclaycard's bread, if they are going to cough up for our flights in February to the Continent

It's been many years since I last took a Travel Club coach and I am not sure I could bear an eleven hour round trip (all being well!) cramped up on one of these. Normally I wouldn't think twice about pootling up their in our little Fiesta, but it's beginning to show its age and not only did I hear a nasty clunk from the axle area, which would have me paranoid about schlepping to Tyneside in it, it really needs a couple of new tyres before I'd contemplate a 550 mile drive on icy winter roads.

So if there are any Gooners who should happen to read this and are contemplating travelling to Toon town Saturday, be sure to get back to me if there's any prospect of accompanying you

Peace & Love


Anonymous said...

Hi Bern, I was wondering when you'd get the blog bug! Nice one. And an amazing 11,574 hits as I type this. Wonder why there are no comments yet..or did I miss a few maybe. Take care, Cliona