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Tuesday 6 December 2005

We All Agree....(well everyone accept Arsène!)

Standing opposite the Reebok Stadium late Saturday afternoon, in a lengthy queue at Horwich Parkway station, with it raining cats and dogs and with the Trotters' fans merrily taking the Mickey, I was relieved not to be one of the "cockney bastards" mentioned in their misogynistic ditty. Otherwise, after such a disheartening performance, I might indeed have been dashing home to "bash the missus"!

I thought I'd seen the last of the pestering text messages from one of my Tottenham pals, when we leapfrogged them in the league a couple of weeks back. I'd bid their challenge adieu with the response "See ya, wouldn't want to be ya!" But waiting in a queue which wasn't dissipating, with the freezing rain dripping down my neck, as I fretted about making it to Manchester in time to catch a connecting train that would get me back to London some 5 hours later, my mood wasn't improved when the bleep on the phone announced the arrival of his "Check the tables" text which confirmed my worst fears.

Mind you there's some silver lining to slipping back behind Spurs in the league, as this merely gives us another opportunity to gloat when we snuff out their renewed glimmer of hope. Although such thoughts were of little consolation on such a gloomy Lancashire evening. I've been following Arsenal long enough to suffer the slings and arrows of football's outrageous fortunes with good grace. Thus it wasn't so much the bad result against Bolton which bothered me so, but the marrowless manner of the defeat, as we buckled with a whimper instead of a cry.

"Be first" is customarily one of my initial cries of encouragement. Yet such good advice evidently fell on deaf ears on Saturday. We endured a first-half where we struggled to get past the halfway line, against a Bolton side that bettered us with their work-rate, hunger and commitment. In fact my best hope was that the Trotters might struggle to maintain this intensity for the entire 90. And this appeared to be the case as the Arsenal came back into the match after the break. But no sooner had we begun to impose our superior ball skills, than the head of steam we were building evaporated completely, with Arsène's absolutely baffling substitutions.

As far as I'm concerned Dennis Bergkamp will always be one of the greatest ever players to don the red & white. Nevertheless I couldn't possibly fathom Wenger's justification for removing Robin Van Persie, who, with 7 goals in 7 games, is in the best form of his brief career and replacing him with Bergkamp, who hasn't found the back of a Premiership net all season. What's more Lauren was probably the best of a bad bunch before the break. At right-back, Ralphie's probably the
only member of our back-line who's far enough away from the hapless Pascal Cygan that he hasn't been affected by the sort of collywobbles that are responsible for the calamitous defending on the other side of the park.

Perhaps Arsène was hoping that with the enthusiasm and fearlessness of youth, Manny Eboué might inject a little inspiration. Yet I wouldn't have thought there's an Arsenal fan on this planet who felt the answer to our problems was more attacking instincts on our RIGHT flank. You won't catch me chortling again in future when Le Prof claims not to have seen an incident on the pitch. The evidence of the past couple of weeks would suggest that Wenger's not merely visually challenged, but that he suffers from completely myopic blind spots as far as his bald countryman's incompetence as cover at left-back is concerned.

Time was when the disaster of going 2-0 down away from home would have most Gooners glued to their seats, in the hope of savouring the prospect of an enthralling fight-back. Whereas they were departing the Reebok in their droves, long before the final whistle. There's a surfeit of talent in this Arsenal side, capable of turning it on when the going is good. But for some time now we've been bemoaning the absence of that vital backbone of players (no matter what nationality!) capable of rolling their sleeves up and inspiring their colleagues to battle their way back into a game. Consequently, almost from the moment Arsène made his meshugana 70th minute substitutions on Saturday, instead of roaring them on to at least try and rescue some pride, sadly both the Arsenal's fans and players alike appeared to be enveloped by a miserable air of resignation.

With a copper hollering at us not to rush and high-spirited Wanderers' fans questioning his confident contention "You'll all get on", mercifully we were eventually getting excruciatingly intimate with some of the Trotters on a train to Manchester. The steamed up windows in a carriage full of damp and sodden passengers, ensured that we were pulling into the station before it dawned on us that this wasn't Piccadilly. Desperate to make it onto a train home before the match ended at Old Trafford, we dived into a taxi for a dash across town.

It was bad enough that the "dry" train to London prevented many from drowning their sorrows. But at least we avoided the prospect of angry Gooners venting their frustrations in an inevitable contretemps with the hordes of jubilant Cockney Reds who'd accompanied us on our outward journey.

I'd spent much of the previous week in bed, after being struck down by a particularly virulent bug. As a result I really should've remained at home in the warm. Taking three points from the Reebok would've been well worth a relapse. Yet I ended up feeling foolish after risking my health for that load of old tosh. Still I couldn't resist masochistically enduring the highlights replayed on a recording of MOTD. I sat there wondering if the likes of Gilberto was similarly unable to slip into the welcoming arms of Morpheus until he'd analysed his woeful performance. I somehow doubt it!

To be honest, until Hansen tore him to bits in his TV analysis, I didn't think Cygan had that bad a game. Like every other Gooner I sat there groaning, as the ball seemed to constantly gravitate towards him. Yet in truth this was probably due to the fact that the bald defender was at least doing his best, while some of his teammates were patently guilty of hiding. However, as sympathetic as I may be to the centre-back's "fish out of water" plight, by half-time I was considering passing the hat around to pay a Wanderers' player to put Pascal out of action for a few weeks, or at least until after Chelsea's visit.

Cygan's lack of pace and the fact that he has the turning circle of an oil tanker are only compounding our defensive problems. However with the same unshakeable conviction that's been the foundation stone for his success, Arsène appears to stubbornly refute the possibility that Pascal not only lacks the attributes necessary to play at left-back, but that his inclusion as cover in this position is destabilising the entire team. Personally I don't think he's doing his compatriot any favours. We've seen far worse centre-backs in the Arsenal squad over the years. But Cygan is fast becoming such a scapegoat for the fans and a subject for so much ridicule, that the poor feller will soon have no future at the club, because he'll be unplayable in any position.

Meanwhile I've been going greyer by the week watching our opponents target our obvious weakness on this flank. By the time Mourinho brings his Blues to Highbury with the prospect of Duff, Robben and Wright-Phillips tearing past the leaden-footed lummox, I will undoubtedly be as bald as the slaphead himself!


Hi Folks

Fulminating the entire length of a four hour train ride back from Bolton, I was fit to burst by the time I'd got home and endured a replay of the highlights on MOTD. However I was glad I resisted the temptation to grab my laptop and vent my fury there and then, or else this would've undoubtedly resulted in one interminable whinge.

Hopefully some 48 hours later I'm able to put Saturday's match into some perspective. There are some Gooners who will contend that the defeat against Bolton has put the kibbosh on any remaining pretensions of recapturing the Premiership title and who believe that Arsène is only really interested in the one silver pot which contines to elude him.

Ever since Dennis Bergkamp poked home a 90th minute get-out-of-jail card for the ten man Arsenal, against the Swiss minnows in our first European match, I've fancied that in a season when we are least favoured for success by the pundits, maybe, just maybe Lady Luck might favour us with the sort of good fortune which could surprise a few people. However considering how elusive success is in the Champions League, when all hopes in the knockout stages can disappear up in smoke with one dodgy performance, personally I feel it would be a bit foolish for us to forget the Premiership and dump all our hopes in the Champions League basket

Hopefully Saturday's match might prove the sort of timely kick up the backside we've required in seasons past, when it's taken just such a thoroughly comprehensive lesson for us to realise the hard way that you can never expect to earn the points in the Premiership simply for turning up!

It is true that Bolton deserve the plaudits for putting us under the cosh but I find it a bit of a wind up reading all the OTT reports on Sam Allardyce's side remarkable achievement. When in truth the team Wenger put out on Saturday were so devoid of the necessary desire that non-league Tamworth would've probably given us a pasting. In all the remarks I've read lauding Bolton's Vieira mark II, everyone seems to have neglected to mention that their man-mountain Abdoulaye Faye was competing against Cesc Fabregas, the smallest kid on the pitch, when he headed home their first goal!

It was the same against Boro and West Brom, when the media sung the home side's praises for putting one over on the Premiership aristocrats. Obviously I will take it all back if Chelsea go to the Reebok and are similarly undone, or if Bolton come anywhere close to beating the Blues. But I rather suspect the inadequacies of our performance will only be truly revealed when Mourinho's mob make a mockery of Sam Allardyce's simplistic tactics, by matching the home side for work rate and taking all three points without much problem.

Meanwhile it was actually a relief watching MOTD and I just pray Wenger will have heard the post-match comments of Hansen and Lawrensen. If he did, we can but hope that he realises when it comes to his belief that the bald-headed one can play at left-back, contrary to his contention, our Highbury king is indeed as nude as the day he was born. They pointed out the obvious alternative and almost every Gooner I speak to wonders why Wenger appears to be so reluctant to bring back Senderos alongside Campbell and move the versatile and pacy Kolo Touré to left-back

He gave Lauren a brief try in Switzerland the other week and although Ralphie appeared a little uncomfortable at this point in time I'd jump for joy if he played absolutely anyone in the left-back position, instead of having the whole team unnerved by Cygan's flapping "fish out of water" impersonation.

The saddest fact is that in truth poor Pascal doesn't deserve anything like the disapprobation he's bound to be receiving from some of THOF's more fickle fans. I only hope his English isn't up to understanding some of the stick he must be suffering, or that there's an extremely thick skin under that shiny pate. Playing out on the wing, I dread to think of the "f**k off and die" type delightful suggestions being screamed at him by some of THOF's more critical Neanderthals

These days it seems as if there's a "you pays your money, you says what you feel" type attitude amongst many punters on the terraces. Personally I'm a firm believer that it's a big mistake for loyal Gooners to lambast anyone wearing the red & white, as it's hardly likely to encourage them to try harder. But for heaven's sake it's decidedly unfair to dish it out to a player for his lack of g-d given ability, when he's grafting his socks off and obviously trying his best.

I'm not saying I wasn't secretly hoping Cygan would get sent off on Saturday, or that I wasn't cursing under my breath every time the bald headed berk went anywhere near the ball. But in such circumstances when his confidence is taking such a battering, while the poor geezer is wearing the shirt, he needs all the support he can get!

To my mind if I was going to have a go at anyone at the Reebok, it was Gilberto who was perhaps the most guilty candidate. Was that really a World Cup winner commiting the schoolboy error of giving the ball away over in the corner, when even I know he should've stuck it in row Z (although perhaps he wouldn't have felt the need to be there in the first place if he had more faith in the full-back?). However out loud, I would only ever encourage the most slovenly Arsenal player merely to pull their socks up.

I only hope we don't have to experience a repeat against Chelsea of the sort of 6-1 embarrasment we endured at Old Trafford before Arsène admits the error of his ways and Cygan's career ends up ditched in the same scapegoat dustbin where Wenger dumped Igor Stepanovs!

Meanwhile no matter how tirelessly Henry worked to try and rescue a result, there was no mistaking his head dropping at one stage. I happened to freeze frame the Sky Plus gadget on Thierry's face after Bolton's keeper fingertipped his fabulous shot on to the post and prevented Pires from tapping home the rebound. The exasperated expression on our captain's face spoke volumes! I'm sure Henry's not by nature the sort of arrogant player who would dream of dissing his team mates, but if I had to put his melancholy mush into words it might say "Am I really expected to remain at the Arsenal merely to waste my gifts with weekly recue missions to compensate for the regular cock-ups of some of my infinitely less talented team mates"!

Barcelona appear to be the team of the moment if you want to wallow in some of the world's best fantasy football. With all the rumours about Thierry's imminent departure from THOF in the summer, if I'm watching Barca's weekly appearances on Sky wondering what incredible feats Titi might accomplish if he was being fed by the likes of Messi, Deco and Ronaldihno, surely Thierry must be equally curious?

Whatever the case, no matter how tirelessly Titi continues to graft in the Arsenal's cause, it's enough that his broad shoulders have to carry the goal scoring weight of putting more in the opposition's net than we keep conceding each week. I swear I visibly saw these sag on Saturday, as Thierry trudged back up field after coming back to help out at yet another Bolton set-piece. It's too much to expect him as captain to carry the moral of the entire team as well. Once more we were crying out at the Reebok for the sort of leader who's capable of putting fire in the bellies of the Arsenal's troops from back to front, bellowing at the team mates before him, instead of captain who spends most of the 90 with his back to his colleagues, only capable of trying to inspire them to match his effort.

Still a decent result against the Dutch on Wednesday and doubtless it will all be sweetness and light again. Although with no trains back from Newcastle next Saturday night, it's going to take a much more committed performance to persuade me to drive all the way to Toon town and back

I say bring on the trip to Doncaster Rovers as I can't think of a more punishing reality check for some of our prima donnas

Peace & Love

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