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Monday 25 December 2006

Born is the King of.....err...the new gaff?

I have to admit that Dodier Drigba has stepped up to the plate so far this season, with some seriously influential strikes for Chelsea and that at this precise point in time, there’s perhaps no more daunting a sight for a Premiership defender than that of Man Utd’s Ronaldo bearing down on your penalty box at full pelt. Nevertheless, despite Drogba manhandling his way onto our back pages, with the sort of muscular physical presence that makes him such a handful (just ask Phillipe Senderos!) and Ronaldo’s post World Cup redemption, by means of the admiration engendered by his bamboozling box of tricks, while these guys are getting all the glory, in my humble opinion, when viewed through my red & white tinted specs, it’s the astonishing vision and awareness of Cesc Fabregas that deserves the plaudits from the true connoisseurs of the beautiful game.

Almost ever since Chippy went chasing the Italian lira back in 1980, we’ve witnessed a succession of Arsenal youngsters who’ve all struggled under the weight of expectation of “the next Liam Brady” syndrome. Coincidentally, it was David Bentley who carried the hopes of many of us Gooners for some seasons, as we witnessed increasing evidence of Liam-esque type ability in Bentley’s cultured left foot. Sadly Bentley flunked the few opportunities he was given to grasp this sublime midfield mantle, seemingly swimming in the substantial boots he was expected to fill, on the rare occasion he was afforded a first team run out.

His talent was obvious to those of us who’d watched his progress as a teenager, but having struggled to impose himself on the adult game, it was a big disappointment to see any hope of this homegrown replacement for Dennis Bergkamp demolished, when Bentley’s loan move to Blackburn was eventually made permanent. Prior to this he helped Norwich to go down all guns blazing, with a 2-0 triumph over Man Utd and has since secured a permanent spot in Gooner hearts, by scoring the only Premiership hat-trick against the Red Devils, in their surprising 4-3 defeat at Ewood Park last season.

For a perspicacious geezer, Le Prof ain’t half prone to some patent gaffes. With his opportunity to prove that he should be gracing our glamorous new stadium as a Gunner, Bentley didn’t really require any more inspiration. But Wenger went and lit the blue touch paper, by suggesting in his programme notes that the Peterborough born youngster is a “big talent…when he’s switched on”. Having been gifted a premature Xmas pressie, doubtless Mark Hughes made the most of this motivational tool, since Bentley was certainly switched on enough to earn a penalty in the second minute! Luckily Jens Lehmann’s lights were also on (although it could be argued whether there’s anyone at home in our keeper’s haphazard head), to thwart a stunning Bentley strike, which would have otherwise given Rovers a 1-2 lead and might have put a completely different complexion on Saturday’s festive fare.

Meanwhile where Bentley made hard work of keeping his head above water, when he was thrown in at the deep end for the Arsenal, Fabregas floated straight to the surface and has virtually been walking on water ever since, as our very own Spanish saviour. I know it might be sacrilege to suggest such a notion on that side of the Irish channel, but it could be argued that Cesc actually has more in his locker than Chippy. Whereas one often finds oneself screaming at less perceptive players, for them to get their heads up, before they end up ignoring a better placed team mate, Fab has that amazing awareness of everything around him, without taking his eyes of the ball, thereby ensuring the disguise on his final pass rather than telegraphing it to the opposition. He also appears to possess that other Bergkamp like quality, where he’s able to picture the development of a passage of play, as if moving chess pieces about a board, always thinking a couple of moves ahead.

Basically at the tender age of only nineteen, Fab has the footballing brain of a grandmaster and it’s no wonder Wenger has tried to tie Cesc down with his eight year contract, as there’s no telling quite how brilliant Fab might become with a few more years experience under his belt.

There was a moment in the build up to our sixth goal on Saturday when Cesc took the ball towards the corner flag and I was convinced an exasperated Robbie Savage was about to clatter him from behind. I guess it was all the sweeter because it was Savage who was his stooge and I wouldn’t be surprised if the blonde braincell seeks some retribution at a later date, after he’s had to endure several repeats on Soccer AM’s showboat section. But even if it hadn’t culminated in Flamini scoring the sixth goal, Fab’s nutmeg was worth a standing ovation on its own.

It was a funny old game and a microcosm of the Gunners’ season so far in one 90 minute match. Apart from buying the penalty by hitting the deck after half an hour, under the “weight” of Neill’s shove in the back, Van Persie struggled to have an impact on the match and up until his goal five minutes before the final whistle, the Dutchman couldn’t to hit the proverbial barn door. After Adebayor calmly slotted home the spot kick to put us 3-1 up, we were in such control of the game that the “olés” were ringing out, as Rovers ran around chasing shadows. However after failing to capitalise on our dominance, we suffered the same defensive lapses in concentration that have cost us so dearly this season. It was only more inspired goalkeeping that prevented Blackburn from pegging us back to 3-3 and potentially dropping another couple of crucial home points.

However once the law of averages finally allowed Van Persie to find the target and with the flurry of three fabulous goals in the last five minutes, we exited the stadium thinking this Arsenal side were the best thing since sliced bread! My favourite was the fifth because it was such a team effort and it’s not been that often this season that we’ve enjoyed the Gunners breaking from box to box, with the sort of pace and incisive, precision passing that just makes for the most breathtaking football.

Meanwhile Arsenal season ticket holders received an early Xmas pressie in the form of our long overdue membership packs, where for my money the best bit was a Mastermind feature on the DVD. Now I’m always the first to bemoan the lack of a homegrown spine in this Arsenal side, longing for the sort of players who’d be certain to feel the weight of our illustrious history, every time they pull on the shirt. Yet watching this feature which includes Touré, Fabregas, Senderos and Lehmann taking their turn in the black leather chair, while our lunatic keeper might know sweet Fanny Adams (or Tony Adams), it’s incredibly reassuring to discover that the youngsters have been imbued with a sense of the Gunners’ past, with their knowledge of Herbert Chapman, Bertie Mee and the like. In an age where the media is full of tawdry tales of super rich, young British players who think the world revolves around them, I have great faith that the Arsenal’s future is safe in the hands (or at the feet) of a bunch of players who seem to have such great respect for all those who’ve gone before them.

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Monday 18 December 2006

Poor Old Santa - He Comes Once A Year And That's Down A Chimney!

Officially the Arsenal’s training ground is in Shenley, although as far as I’m concerned it’s located in London Colney, as Shenley has always been synonymous with the dark shadow of the psychiatric institute, which once dominated this Hertforshire suburb. Then again, I could be forgiven for thinking the men in white coats had come for Arsène Wenger on Saturday, when he announced a starting line-up against Pompey that included Aliadière as Van Persie’s strike partner.

I’m all for being patient when it comes to bringing on our young prodigies, but it’s hard to believe that this product of the Clairfontaine Academy has been at the club for seven years and has now become the second longest serving player in the current squad, (behind Freddie Ljungberg), without ever having established himself in the first XI. Admittedly Aliadière was quite impressive when he scored a brace against West Brom, a couple of months back in the Carling Cup. Yet he’s patently failed to make any sort of impact in any of his previous loan spells at Celtic, West Ham or Wolves. So I’ve absolutely no idea what possessed Wenger to think he’d produce the goods against Pompey’s muscular defence.

As far as I’m concerned it should be “Come in no. 30, your time is up” and Aliadière should be given the opportunity of regular first team football elsewhere. His career has become so becalmed at the Arsenal that a complete change of scene might be his only salvation, if Jeremie is ever to recover the required belief in his own ability.

In his programme notes on Saturday, Wenger stated that he has “absolutely no choice” but to rotate the squad. I pictured Arsène sitting at his desk, pouring over the players stats on Friday afternoon and as a result of some physical data, like the white cell count, or the oxygen conversion rate, he came to the conclusion that he needed to rest Adebayor. I agree that some of our players are showing signs of suffering from the relentless physical demands of the game in this country. However as was highlighted at the JJB last Wednesday, we just don’t have the depth of quality in our squad to allow Wenger the luxury of leaving out our most important players.

Cesc Fabregas is one such “untouchable” who’s responsible for conducting the most intricate bars of the Arsenal symphony. As was demonstrated by his timely introduction for the last ten minutes, when Fab picked the lock of the Wigan rearguard with almost his first touch, producing the defence splitting pass, which enabled us to snaffle all three points. Yet while the Spanish youngster has looked a little leg weary in recent games, in his absence we appear all too predictable, lacking that vital creative spark.

Watching Chelsea come from behind twice at Goodison, to eventually grab the winner, only served to remind me of the crucial difference between the two teams. With the likes of Lampard, Drigba, Ballack, Essien etc. unfortunately the Gobby One has at least half a dozen players at his disposal with the ability to pull something special out of the bag when required. Whereas in the absence of an out of form Henry, I’d struggle to name more than a couple of Arsenal players capable of conjuring up the sort of match winning, wonder strikes witnessed on Sunday.

My position on Arsène’s rotation policy is that it’s absolutely pointless attempting to rest Adebayor, if he’s going to be forced to bring him on in the second half, to chase a two goal deficit. Manny played like a man possessed when he did eventually appear, but in running his socks off in his admirable efforts to rescue a point, I’ve no doubt he ended up no less ‘cream crackered’ than those who’d played the entire ninety (if not more so!).

At a time when we’re desperate to try and establish some breathing space between us and the other half a dozen clubs with Champions League aspirations, it’s essential that we start with our best XI. Then if we’re capable of securing an advantage of more than a single goal, Arsène can substitute those players who’d benefit most from an early bath. Moreover the other squad members are most likely to do themselves justice, coming on in a game where everyone is beginning to strut their stuff.

I’m also convinced that we need to establish some consistency before Arsène can consider rotating players. Naturally, a winning team tends to feel a whole lot less fatigued because they don’t need to expend nearly so much energy, chasing down the opposition and winning back possession. What’s more, as we’ve seen in the past, when we’ve been able to establish that winning momentum, then confidence levels in the camp soar, to the point where Wenger has been able to seamlessly drop players into the team and where the only impact has been positive.

With his pragmatic approach, Arsène is probably fretting that if his young charges are suffering already, without the benefit of a breather now, how are they going to cope come the end of the season? However if we keep dropping points at our current inconsistent rate, it won’t matter if they are all on crutches come May, as our season will have long since gone kaput. Whereas I’m certain that all such concerns will evaporate, if only we can re-establish that winning habit.

I was fortunate to attend an open day training session at our new stadium on Monday, where it was good to see that Wenger will have a few more options available to him, with the return to fitness of the likes of Lauren and Rosicky. With the squad split into two groups, it was easy to suss out who’d be lining up against Liverpool. Obviously we need to be patient as far as Baptista is concerned, but I’m afraid it might just be Beast by name rather than nature, as he’s yet to convince me that he has the necessary appetite for the frenetic brand of football played in the Premiership.

Hopefully Julio will have proved me wrong on Tuesday night. Similarly I’m eagerly looking forward to discover whether the likes of Denilson, Randall and Traore are truly capable of challenging for a shirt, thereby bolstering our squad with the sort of quality which could ensure that we Gooners don’t end up baying for Arsène to join the queues of under pressure gaffers on New Years Day, with their deckchairs and flasks, readying themselves for the rush to battle for the best bargains in the January sales.

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Sunday 17 December 2006

Certainly not football as I've always known it

Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous. Methinks someone at the Arsenal has completely lost the plot

After the shenanigans prior to the Chelsea match, where there was absolutely no need for the Arsenal to get involved in what was basically a totally harnless bit of well deserved piss taking and where their needless statements only ended fuelling the whole affair by giving it more publicity, it now seems as if some nincompoop wants a complete ban on any national flags in our new stadium!

See: (copied below)

Now to be perfectly honest, I am no big fan of most forms of overt nationalism, as it's often only a hop and a skip away from racism of some sort, but when it comes to Gooners coming from abroad to watch the Arsenal and wanting to wave the flag of their country, so the folks back home might point them out on the box, please I beg you, just what kind of killjoy wants to stop this?

And pray tell me, can anyone out there confirm exactly why any Gooners should have been sufficiently upset to complain about someone's flag and instigate this absolutely barmy ban?

I enjoy picking out the Irish flags with my binoculars, to see which branches of the Green Gooners are "in the house" for various games and considering it's been so long since we had an Irish player in the Arsenal first team, when it wasn't so long ago that the club shop were selling Arsenal bobble hats which were red and white on one side and which had the Irish tricolour on the other, it seems a crying shame that our ever waning association with the Emerald Isle will no longer be visible on matchdays!!

One of my most favourite aspects of the beautiful game is the fact that the passions aroused by it are so incredibly intense, that it has the ceaseless potential to cut across the most gaping divides, whether they be political, racial, social etc. etc. and although it saddens me on the rare occasion racism continues to rear it's ugly head on the terraces from the gobby mouths of uneducated neanderthals, mercifully matters have improved (even if I have many issues with the PC Nazis!!) and I prefer to seek solace in footie's amazing ability to unite even the most disparate individuals

We travelled to Sunderland a few seasons back with my good mate Amr, an Egyptian Gooner who usually gets over to see the Gunners for the odd couple of games a season. Amr and I get on like a house on fire, which isn't so incredible, since we are both from semitic origins and as a result, we share many personality traits (which is one of the ultimate ironies of the Middle East conflict). However there's an unwritten understanding between us, which ensures international politics is strictly "off the menu" for any pre-match repartee, for while I like to think of myself as a liberal kind of geezer, who can empathise with all sides of the Middle East argument, whether we care to admit it, or not, we are all entrenched, to a greater or lesser extent, in the opinions we've been indoctrinated with, as a result of our individual upbringing. Besides, who wants to bother with boring political parley, when we can discuss the merits of the Arsenal midfield, instead of forming a plan for World Peace.

As ever, Amr brought his Egyptian flag to the Stadium of Light, in the hope that it might get caught on camera as he waved it around, thereby providing a kick for all his Gooner pals back home in Cairo. And after the game Amr was considering leaving his flag in my car, so that I might have it for him at the home game we were due to meet at in a few days time. In the end he decided against it, as this would've depended on me actually turning up for a match on time!! However I was truly tickled by the ironic thought that I came so close to driving around for the following week with an Egyptian flag on board my motor.

My old man actually fought the Egyptians in Israel / Palestine in 1947, whilst battling to ensure the survival of the newly formed state. Having been blown up by a land mine in his jeep and subsequently being totally paralysed down one side of his body for six months (as a result of a clot of blood on the brain, where it was considered potentially fatal to fly him back to England, until eventually they took the risk, after he'd spent the entire period lying on his back in a hospital bed and miraculously the altitude of the plane shifted the clot in a direction that, instead of being dangerous, actually resulted in him recovering the feeling in his arm and leg almost immediately), obviously my old man had more cause than most for his ingrained bigotry as far as the ancient enemy were concerned.

Consequently I couldn't help but laugh at the thought of him spinning in his grave, if his son had been driving around all week with an Egyptian flag on the back seat

However my red-herring of a story is by way of highlighting how sworn foes can forget their lifelong prejudices, in the face of their unswerving fealty for the Gunners. I hadn't met up with Amr for ages prior to our encounter in Turin last season and since he and an Italian college mate were being driven, from where they were studying in Switzerland, by a German pal in her BeeMer (sounds like the intro to a cliché of a joke...there was an Egyptian, an Eytie and a Kraut heading across the Alps in a BMW to meet up with this jew....:-), Amr was very keen to meet up before the game.

But it took them far longer to get to the centre of Turin than he'd imagined and after waiting for them for ages, I was just about to get on the bus to the stadium when they pulled into the train station. As he ran over to meet me, I was asking Amr whether he'd purchased his bus ticket, as I assumed we would be travelling to the match together. But they were starving hungry and were dashing off to grab some grub. So I was very touched when it eventually dawned on me that Amr was just running over to give me a pre-match good luck hug

Please can someone enlighten me, if I and most other right-minded Gooners I know take absolutely no offence at foreign Gooners waving whatever sodding flag they fancy, who exactly is it that finds this prospect sufficiently troubling, to merit having a moan??

Funnily enough (peculiar, not haa haa!), it was only the other day at Stamford Bridge, after all the wasted trees used to print leaflets warning us against homophobic and racist chanting, that I was minded to consider the cultural make-up of the couple of thousand Arsenal fans in the corner of the Shed. It occurred to me that despite the fact that we are blessed with one of the most multi-cultural crowds in the whole of the Premierhsip, sadly the number of non-white faces were still few and far between, in what unfortunately remains largely the exclusive domain of the white Anglo Saxon footie fan.

Of the limited amount retained in my less than capacious grey matter, what I do know is that the Gunners should be doing everything in their power to celebrate the fact that we welcome so many visitors from all four corners of the globe, to every game at our new stadium, rather than announcing bans which are sadly likely to make our gaff all the gloomier?

If like me you were listening to Five Live on Saturday afternoon, you would've thought that the Arsenal suits would have far more significant matters to worry about. Alan Green obviously got the worng end of the stick, as the moaning Five Live Minnie (Green seems to get ever more bitter with each passing season, as if he has an increasingly weighty chip on his shoulder that he's spent his entire career earning the equivalent of thrupence ha'penny, compared to the fleet of trucks required to carry the weekly wages paid to the game's modern day prima donnas) seemed to be under the impression that Club Level is occupied by the corporate punters. Naturally he couldn't help but comment how strange it seemed for the second half to be kicking off with the middle tier, the most conspicuous area of the stadium more than half empty. In fact on Saturday the two-thirds of Club Level that I can see from my lower tier vantage point were actually almost completely empty when the game restarted after the break.

I have to tell you, turning up late as I do for most matches, it's probably more than a little hypocritical coming from me, but I not only found it embarrassing to hear Green tell the listening world that the coprorate punters at our new stadium are more interested in their half-time hospitality, than the actual football match - when in fact we all know that these are supposed to be genuine Gooners (with apologies to my Club Level mates who have to endure these circumstances in person and who therefore find it even more infuriating than me) - but I am also 100 per cent convinced that it has to be more than a little demoralising for the lads, to be kicking off the second half, when they cannot help but notice how utterly empty such a prominent area of the stadium is!

I am unsure whether this is a new phenomenon and the club are actually making efforts to ensure Club Level Gooners are encouraged to return to their seat, or whether it has always been thus, but Green went on to detail how those who he thought were corporate punters were unable to watch the proceedings on the pitch, as the glass windows are covered. It's absolutely barmy when you think of it, as this means that a large proportion of our affluent punters are actually paying around £100 to £175 quid a game to watch a percentage of the match on the in-house TVs!!

It actually occurred to me to wonder whether the glass is in fact covered up as a ruse, designed merely to enable as much milking of Club Level cash as possible, as they can continue flogging the overpriced comestibles long after the break. Whereas with all those sprauncy glass chandeliers lighting up the opulent environs of the Club Level concourses (that make the rest of the stadium appear positively sparse by comparison), if the windows weren't covered they'd surely have to dim the lights once winter darkness falls and shut shop, in order that the bright lights don't act as a distraction to the Gooner gladiators?

Whatever the justification, it's plainly apparent from the continued farce of such an empty Club Level for so long after the match recommences, that the club needs to focus its attention on finding an effective way of encouraging a sufficient number of Club Level folk back to their seats, before our new gaff becomes a complete laughing stock. Otherwise, instead of the Highbury Library, our new home will end up being known as the Marie Celeste!

Oh but I forgot, they are all bound to be far too busy monitoring their new flag ban!!!!

If the good lord is indeed a Gooner then I sincerely hope heaven will save us from such utterly senseless poppycock?

Big Love

PS. I have Espanyol v Real Madrid on the box right now. I haven't exactly been concentrating on the game, so I stand to be corrected, but despite the fact that they are playing with ten men, Real have a player in their side who is the spitting image of Jose Reyes in appearance, but it can't possible be Jose, as this bloke's threatening Espanyol's goal every few minutes :-)


Some of our fans have been upset with the flying of certain flags denoting particular regions of the world

Arsenal as a club prides itself on being inclusive with respect to all nationalities, cultural and ethnic groups.

We have therefore decided that in order for all of our fans to enjoy their experience at Emirates Stadium, we are asking that only flags in support of Arsenal Football Club, without any national emblems, are
displayed within the stadium.

We will be implementing this policy with immediate effect. Thank you for your assistance in this matter.

Wednesday 13 December 2006

Who's The Onanist In The Black

Hi folks

You'll have to forgive me, but I've been busy working for the ballet the past couple of Mondays(who have their traditional Xmas season of the Nutcracker at the London Coliseum). As a result, since it's the Irish Examiner who contribute towards some of the cost of my footballing expenses, I have ended up sitting up writing most of Sunday night, in order to file my column before going to work on Monday. As a consequence, I've returned home so completely 'cream crackered' that I've not had the energy to open my computer.

I also blame the missus, as I made the big mistake of introducing Ró to the Second Life phenomenon a couple of months back and ever since then, because her laptop is a little older and somewhat slower than my own (in the techno lingo she's started to pick up, apparently the pictures don't "res" fast enough on her machine), she's almost permanently attached to my laptop. In fact she's become so addicted to her new online world, that I have to enter into negotiations to get my laptop back about an hour or so before whenever I want to use it!! I am beginning to regret ever telling her about Second Life and I guess I am going to have to sort her a new computer, either that or divorce will be on the cards with all the barneys :-)

Meanwhile in last Monday's column for the paper, I reused much of the stuff I'd written in the piece I'd mailed out during the weekend and so I didn't want to send it out to everyone without a warning that they might already have read much of it and perhaps a bit of a preamble to make it worthwhile sending. Unfortunately I never got around to doing this, but I am going to mail it out anyway, just in case it's of interest to any of you.

As for this week's piece, as you will see, I happened to go and see Spurs v Charlton on Saturday, as I had nothing better to do and I am always up for watching a game of football on a bright sunny afternoon. However considering we were involved in one of our biggest games of the season the following day, I was somewhat embarrassed that I'd written so much about my trip down the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road and I was concerned that there might be some Gooners out there who weren't the least bit interested in what I had to say about it.

I therefore planned on writing a preamble which would focus entirely on the events of Sunday to give it a bit more of a Gooner balance, but since I have yet to get around to doing this, I am going to post it out anyway and leave it to you to read, or ignore as you so choose, as otherwise it will be long past current by the time I get around to doing it

Big Love

           From where we were sitting in the corner of the Shed, directly in line with Essien and Lehmann's goal, I had that sinking feeling from the moment that Excocet missile of an equalizer left the Ghanaian's boot. It was the sort of wonder goal where, as a fan of the beautiful game, you just hold your hands up and say "fair doos". Still, considering the significant absence of the influential likes of Henry, Touré, Gallas and Rosicky and the amount of fun we'd had all afternoon, at Cashley Hole's expense, not to mention the woodwork working overtime in our favour during the last few frenetic minutes, as I braved the abysmal traffic to battle my way back from the Bridge, catching my breath after such a highly charged contest, I was certainly far more content with our afternoon's endeavours, than I'd been during the last tortuous traverse of the capital, from South West to North, a couple of weeks back, after our depressing defeat at Craven Cottage.

           I awoke the day before to discover the sort of crisp, bright, sunny weather that's designed for wrapping up and enjoying an afternoon away from the television. Sadly my own playing days are long past, but it occurred to me that I might 'enjoy' an hors d'oeuvres before Sunday's main course, down the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road, watching the somewhat less glamorous London derby between Spurs and Charlton. These days, daring to 'sleep with the enemy' is tantamount to Gooner high treason, but there was a time, back when football was still an affordable hobby, when it was a fairly commonplace. As a kid I was often fortunate to accompany my old man, to watch both the Arsenal and Spurs on alternate weekends.

           Aside from my Spurs mates' crackpot hopes of converting me, it seems that I'm a something of a lucky mascot for the Lilywhites (especially in light of Saturday's result – after which they're offering to club together to buy me a season ticket!). As a result, it wasn't long before I received a return phone call, to advise me that one of their season ticket's was going begging. In the absence of the ranks of riot coppers in full combat gear and the odd snarling canine, there was none of the intimidating atmosphere associated with our trips to White Hart Lane to watch the Arsenal.

           Obviously there's still a part of me that continues to mourn the loss of Highbury. Many fond memories of my dear departed dad have disappeared with the demolition of everything but the two (listed) stately Art Deco façades of our majestic old gaff. By contrast, many beloved ghosts of games past continue to linger at the Lane. It's truly embarrassing to have to admit it, but standing outside the entrance to a smoke free West Stand on Saturday, sucking the life out of a last cancer stick, contemplating Tottenham's traditional 'football as I've always known it' surroundings, I couldn't help but feel  somewhat nostalgic. Then again, my old man wouldn't have lasted a minute, let alone the entire 90, under the tyranny of the modern day anti-smoking Nazis.

           If I was an Addicks fan I'd be seriously worried. That's the second time I've seen Charlton play this season and of all the teams involved in the relegation dogfight, they currently appear devoid of the belief necessary to stave off the dreaded drop. Until he was subbed in the second half, chubby little Andy Reid appeared to be their only hope of some salvation. I don't understand the logic of promoting Les Reed, as if their first team coach was capable of improving the Addicks performances, then what exactly was he doing under Ian Dowie?

           Considering 2 of the 5 goals went through the legs of Charlton's hapless loan keeper, Carson, the inflated scoreline flattered Spurs. Defoe doesn't look nearly hungry enough, for a striker with an opportunity to earn a run in the team, as a result of Robbie Keane's knackered knee and I imagine Jol will continue juggling to find his most effective front pair, for some time to come. Also for the life of me, I can't figure out why the Spurs manager left Huddlestone on the bench for last week's Derby day battering.

           I recall the young midfielder making an impression when I first saw him play for England U21s, but it wasn't until watching him in person this weekend when I fully appreciated that in addition to his prodigious ball skills, Huddlestone is built like the proverbial brick outhouse. Now if only Wenger could piss Spurs fans off completely by pinching him. As a young British player with such physical presence to go with his ability, he'd be the perfect addition to our lightweight midfield.

           It was a rare treat to be able to enjoy a match as a neutral. Well nearly a neutral and in truth my interest in the outcome of this game and those involving the gaggle of also-rans around us, is evidence of quite how far we've fallen off the Premiership pace of late. In fact it came as quite a shock at 5.45 to discover we'd dropped down to 7th place, perched above Spurs only on goal difference! Needless to say the mood in the car on the way back was very buoyant. My Spurs pals (or at least we'd started the day thus!) were convinced it was blind optimism on my part, when I opined that I fancied it'd be honours even at the Bridge the following day. So when Flamini (of all players) stuck the ball away in the 78th minute, I had this satisfyingly smug image of the three of them falling off their respective sofas, as our unlikely hero put the kibosh on their "perfick" weekends.

           From the pandemonium in the Arsenal end, you'd have thought we'd just won the Premiership itself. Amidst the euphoria, my mate Nick planted a smacker on my cheek. Flamini is hardly his favourite player and all game long, he'd been muttering under his breath, giving the French midfielder a hard time. My explanation for his inclusion by Wenger was that whatever he lacks in natural ability, Arsène can rely on him to compensate with his work rate and commitment. I suggested to Nick that if he continued slaughtering Flamini, fate was odds on to intervene and I was tempted to proffer my backside for the kiss he'd promised me if his personal hate figure scored.

           Sadly our prospects of a 'smash and grab' 3 points only lasted six minutes. But from the moment we took the lead, it was obvious it was going to be a long, nail-biting ten minutes to the final whistle. Nevertheless, no matter that Man Utd would be the only beneficiaries, I would've bitten off the hand that offered me a draw before the game and considering our good fortune at the death, we could hardly gripe about our hard fought point.

           Personally I felt we were good value for the draw and although our young defence looked more vulnerable for most of the match, it wasn't until the injection of some real pace with the introduction of Robben and Wright-Phillips down the flanks that Chelsea truly began to threaten.

           When it came to it, all the pre-match hoo-haa seemed pretty pointless. Our own club had made itself a laughing stock, with e-mails warning us we'd be ejected if we committed the heinous crime of bringing inflatable mobile phones and fake wonga to a football match and the home team had wasted half a dozen trees on printed warnings about racial and homophobic abuse.

           We were always going to give Cashley Hole the stick his disloyalty deserved and we duly obliged in typically raucous fashion. I'm not sure Ms Tweedy actually did anything to deserve our attention, but with each ribald ditty of the sort "Titus Bramble shagged your missus" and "your sh*t and your wife's a slag", it was amusing to see the line of old bill and dunderhead security constantly looking at one another for confirmation whether each chant was sufficiently politically incorrect to deserve their attentions.

           Don't get me wrong, having had to endure such tasteless terrace tunes as "one man went to gas, went to gas a yiddo", I'm no fan of the bigoted guttersnipes who continue to infest every football terrace. Yet I'd prefer common sense to prevail when it comes to the 'everyone's fair game' attitude that's always existed at a football match. Once the PC police begin ejecting fans, for trying to put opponents off by alluding to their sexual proclivities, just where will they draw the line? Will we have to worry about offending the onanists amongst us, by suggesting "the referee's a w*nker"?

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Captain My Captain

As already mentioned, you might well have already read much of the following missive in the piece I posted last weekend. In the meantime, after I commented below about Gilberto not exactly having the sort of attributes I'd expect from a captain, it was interesting to note that in Sunday's game against Chelsea, it was the first time when GIlberto's been wearing the captain's armband that we really saw him assume the responsiblity.

Who knows whether something has been said, or whether up till now he's felt he has just been keeping the seat warm for Thierry and therefore hasn't really immersed himself in the role. However after I've given him some stick in my piece below, after having seen him standing there against Spurs, watching young Fabregas step in and put his arm around Manny Eboué's shoulder after a little spat with Robbie Keane, at Stamford Bridge on Sunday Gilberto was as demonstrative as I've ever seen him, jumping in immediately when the hot-headed youngster began to have a run-in with Doddier Drigba

It was quite amusing, as Manny came away from the confrontation holding his mouth, I wondered whether it was actually Gilberto who caught him on the chops as he dived in to manhandle Eboué away and prevent any escalation of the incident. Watching through my binoculars subsequently, it was plainly apparent that Gilberto was giving the youngster a right verbal roasting, I assume reminding him to concentrate on the job at hand, rather than getting involved in any petty spats

As someone else said to me about Gilberto's marvelous performance on Sunday, for just about the first time in an Arsenal shirt, you realised how this player had come to win the World Cup and I was well pleased to see him setting a captain's example both by covering every blade of grass and by encouraging his team mates. Mind you, so long as his castigation of Eboué doesn't discourage the youngster at all, as I would rather see our players losing their rag, demonstrating that the game means as much to them as it does to us (even if it does mean us incurring the odd yellow card), than to see no evidence at all of this sort of passion

But enough of my prattle for another week

It was like Groundhog Day at Craven Cottage last Wednesday, going behind after only 5 minutes, to another headed goal from a corner. McBride is good in the air and it was a great back header, looping up from the front of the six-yard box, over Lehmann. Perhaps the deflection from our keeper’s feint touch, prevented Flamini from doing his job on the far post and clearing the ball on the line? However what bothered me most was the fact that he got the jump on Touré and was able to rise almost unchallenged, without feeling the physical pressure that should’ve made his task that much harder.

I really struggle to comprehend how it is that one of the country’s (Europe’s?) top sides can possibly have a defence that hasn’t already spent years running through the sort of regimental drills, whereby it becomes second nature to remain touch tight to ones opponent. I’d a bruise on my arm for two days following Frank McKlintock’s demonstration of how they did it in his day. Frank was convinced Don Howe could drum such basic defensive principles into our defence, in a matter of a few training sessions. But sadly Howe’s sergeant major attitude must’ve proved too much “yang” to Wenger’s “yin” . I believe it’s some years now since the tranquillity of the Arsenal training ground was disturbed by the dulcet tones of Howe, who, with his red & white striped heart, has probably forgotten more than most coaches know about bringing on young players.

The “craic” at Craven Cottage has been brilliant in recent seasons. Up until last Wednesday, the adventurous approach of Chris Coleman’s side was a refreshing alternative to the dour defensive tactics of most other teams and always made for a highly entertaining game. What’s more, even the most fair-weather Gooners can get across London to Fulham, to fill the Putney Stand behind the goal, thereby guaranteeing a great atmosphere. In light of the somewhat antiseptic modernity of our new surroundings, there was an even more poignant feeling, approaching the positively ancient façade of Fulham’s main stand, for a midweek fixture under the phosphorescent glow of the floodlights.

However you could almost sense the air of all our enthusiasm escaping, as McBride prematurely popped the Gooner balloon. It wasn’t long before we recovered our voices and while on the pitch, Fulham looked like scoring almost every time they went forward, on the terraces it was definitely “1-0 to the Arsenal”. Alexandre Song struggled to keep his head above water the last time Wenger threw the Cameroonian kid in at the Premiership deep end and his continued need of water wings was evident to everyone, long before Boa Morte left Song thrashing in his wake, in the build up to the second goal.

The players tunnel at Craven Cottage is at the away end of the ground and as management and players trudged off at the break, we serenaded them with a hearty chorus of “We want Cesc Fabregas!” Wenger can be very stubborn when it comes to admitting the error of his ways (hence his persistence with Song) and I didn’t for one minute expect him to bow to fan pressure, until I was queuing for my half-time cuppa and I heard a cheer go up, which could have only indicated Cesc’s introduction for the second half.

It’s one thing to be bullied out of the game up at Bolton but the featherweight nature of this squad was evident in the way we were overrun by Fulham. Considering that we could’ve turned on the team after our third successive away defeat, there was some solace in the steadfast display of Gooner fealty at the final whistle, as the players exited stage right, with a loyal reprise of “We love you Arsenal” ringing in their ears.

Winding our way through the streets of the capital, back to the comfort of North London, discussion in the car centred on Wenger’s urgent need to draw a line under our inconsistent efforts to date. Otherwise we’d be in serious danger of our season being over, before Santa’s reindeer have had a run-out. With his first media free week in a decade, following his hoolie behaviour at West Ham, patently his first attempt to inspire a turning point had failed.

Gossip from the new gaff alleges that the Executive Box catering manager was given his cards during the Hamburg game, after being caught on a stairwell in a compromising imbroglio with one of his male colleagues and apparently a couple of East European Club Level bar staff were similarly dealt with, when they were discovered stuffing cash from the tills into plastic bags, before lobbing these through the metal grilles to mates waiting outside.

Yet as far as we’re concerned Wenger’s team selection on Wednesday was far more criminal than this Club Level larceny. Unaccustomed as Arsène is to accepting any blame (“I do not regret the team I named”), it would appear as if he’s taken the big risk of deflecting it all in the direction of the best player on the planet. Aside from being upset about being dropped for the first derby game at our new stadium, rumour has it that the real reason for Thierry’s distress was due to a request for him to hand over the captaincy to Gilberto “until the end of the season”.

Arsène seems to abide by the Continental practice of presenting the captaincy to the club’s most senior squad member, apart from when he’s committed the cardinal sin of using it as a carrot, to try and keep his star players from more avaricious temptations elsewhere. In my humble opinion neither Paddy nor Thierry are my idea of proper captain material and I’d be happy to see Henry relieved of the responsibility, so long as it results in the desired reaction, leaving him able to focus on his own game, without any distractions, rather than sending him off to Barcelona in a huff. However how on earth Wenger can believe Gilberto capable of a better job, is totally beyond me.

I remain an old-fashioned believer in having a centre-half as captain, who’s able to see which of his teammates needs a word of encouragement in their shell like and which of them requires a timely kick up the backside. A midfielder might be better than a striker who has his back to most of his colleagues for the majority of the match, but for heaven’s sake, the softly spoken Brazilian struggles to speak English. Consequently I’m convinced Wenger’s decision is based merely on seniority and it’s not the giving of the captaincy to Gilberto that’s intended to have a dramatic effect, but “resting” of our best player and his retirement as captain, which he’s hoping will prove to be the catalyst for the Arsenal’s “anno domini” after this season’s annus horribilis.

I don’t know who’s responsible for arranging 12.45 kick-offs, but come the revolution, they’ll be amongst the first to be lined up against the wall. It’s hard to say whether Wenger’s actions and the resulting hoo-ha in the tabloids will prove to be a new dawn, or whether our derby day delight is just the same sort of false dawn we experienced after the shenanigans at Upton Park, when we stuffed the Scousers 3-0 (I do know this unbelievable series of 1-1 and 3-0 results must be wreaking havoc with the bookies). We were definitely “up for it” on Saturday and in winning every 50/50 ball there was no doubt which of the two teams was hungrier. However I’m unsure whether it was our desire, or the surprising lack thereof in Spurs, that won the day.

Poll’s customary incompetence ensured a somewhat flattering scoreline. I found myself bawling out one of ours during the second half for falling over in the box. “Get up” I bellowed, “there’s no way Poll’s going to present us with another premature Xmas present”. Needless to say everyone around me who’d been in agreement at the time, about our prospects of being gifted two penalties in the one game, began taking the mick the moment Poll pointed to the spot. It was as if the tragicomedy from Tring had gone completely off his trolley and was trying right all the wrongs in one 90-minute match.

This Arsenal team has been crying out for some vocal leadership on the pitch since long before Paddy took his leave. If any proof was required of Gilberto’s unsuitability as captain, it came late in the second half when Eboué was involved in a confrontation with Keane. Gilberto remained a disdainful spectator, leaving Fabregas to play dad, putting his arm around his teammate and encouraging him to walk away. Cesc may develop into a leader once he’s sufficiently confident that he has the respect of his elders. However until such time it’s hard to imagine who in the Arsenal squad will have the “cahones” to bawl out a player of Thierry’s calibre, when he deserves a kick up the jacksey.

Although I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for some time. Perhaps le Prof has already done a discrete deal for a draw with Porto, since Arsène appears to be banking on qualifying for the last 16, with a fit and fully rested Henry. My reaction when I heard Thierry wouldn’t be playing against Spurs was that we’d managed without him at Old Trafford and in all honesty, I think we are better off without an Henry who’s body language in recent matches absolutely hollered out how unhappy he was. In his absence, not only are his teammates safe in the knowledge that they’re not going to get slaughtered by him for failing to pass him the ball, but they also have to take responsibility, knowing there’s no Thierry to effect a rescue.

Meanwhile according to the media, Henry can’t do right for doing wrong. He came out on TV Saturday morning, to counter the tabloid claptrap and to question their psychic ability to know what transpired and if you were to believe what’s been said since, you’d have cause to wonder how he manages to support the weight of such a big head. Whereas in truth he spent the 90 minutes of Saturday’s match unobtrusively sitting alongside Flamini and Senderos. In his funereal outfit, he was so inconspicuous that I needed my binoculars to find him.

Bearing in mind that this unbelievably majestic maestro has almost single-handedly kept the Arsenal ship afloat, with his 30 plus goal a season consistency, these past few years, I think we can cut him some slack for a couple of months. Henry’s no different to the rest of us, with his need to be loved. My biggest worry is that if Titi no longer feels the adoration of the Gooner faithful, he’ll be off to join his mate Sammy Eto’o at Barca, before you can say “big bucks”!

I’ve no worries about us doing ourselves justice at the Bridge on Sunday, but it’ll be our forthcoming trip to Wigan and the visits of Pompey and Blackburn which will really tell if Arsène has truly chanced upon the corner turning answer.

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Friday 1 December 2006

Turning point v Tottenham, or will Spurs earn the Islington Samaritans some overtime?

In such depressing times as these for us Gooners, it's great to receive some solace from the light-relief offered by many of the Talksport phone-in 'schmocks', who, unbelievably, are already calling for Le Prof's head on a plate. Do they seriously believe we could do better than le Boss? If it wasn't for the fact that I "support" the same team, I often think it would serve them bloody well right if Arsène decided he no longer needed the intense day to day pressure of trying to maintain a squad, season in, season out, that's capable of competing with the the limitless resources available to the blowhard at the Bridge, with both hands tied behind his back, as far as the Arsenal's finances are concerned.

And if (heaven forfend!) Wenger did decide to walk, if these fickle Arsenal fans are whinging about the club's most successful modern day manager, can you possibly imagine their apoplectic, phone calls if they were left complaining about our demise under Ian Dowie (although to be fair, whenever I've sat and listened to Dowie, his comments have usually given me the impression that he's a most capable manager). Don't make me laugh, these hoopleheads haven't got the sense to appreciate that there isn't a club (or a country) on the planet that wouldn't bite the hand off that offered them a contractual signature from le Boss.

With this in mind, it is perhaps a little churlish of me to second guess our gaffer, but it was obvious that almost every Gooner in the ground on Wednesday night was wondering what on earth possessed Wenger to throw Alexandre Song to the merciless lickspittles who make up our misguided boo-boy lions. As they say, it's all relative and admittely, relative to his remarkably inglorious efforts in a Gunners' shirt to date, Song shone at Goodison (need to put my teeth back in for such a tongue twister). But then EVEN I would've looked good in this game (never mind my two knackered knees!) as would anyone who played alongside our Carling Cup kiddies while they were positively oozing confidence that night.

Looking back, I recall doing a double take when an early shot on Everton's goal whistled over the bar, as my brain struggled to compute the fact that the ball had originated from Song's feet. Yet this certainly doesn't disguise poor Alexandre's patent failure to prove exactly what Wenger sees in him, since his arrival at the club. Personally speaking, Song has always struck me as such an incredibly nondescript player that I began to wonder whether Wenger managed to get himself caught in some sort of Cameroonian honeytrap at some stage in the past, in a compromising position with Song's aunty, leaving uncle Rigobert with the photos to prove it. If the ex-Liverpool player is using these as leverage to get the youngster included in the Arsenal squad, this would at least give le Gaffer a decent excuse!

True words and jests come to mind with my far-fetched conjecture, as allegedly the catering manager of the Executive boxes at the new gaff was instantly dismissed during the match last week, after having been caught in a compromising imbroglio on a stairwell with one of his male colleagues. So does this mean he'd previously been caught having his wicked way a couple of times to have earned two written warnings? And if such gossip wasn't good enough, it is also alleged that a couple of East European bar staff in Club Level were similarly sacked on the spot last week. But their crimes were less salacious and more fiscal, as apparently they were found stuffing cash from the tills into plastic bags and lobbing these through the metal grilles to their mates outside! But enuf of the fish-wife impersonation!

Perhaps if Paddy was still playing for us, Arsène might've got away with playing Song alongside him, or if he'd found the Cameroonian youngster a less significant role out on the sidelines (or preferably right off the park, carrying his colleagues cases!!). But to throw Song in at the deep end, at the very heart of our team, at such a delicate stage in the season, alongside the decidedly unimposing midfield presence of Flamini & Rosicky, to my mind this was far more criminal than the Club Level larceny

We'd already seen how out of his depth Song appeared at this level, when we watched him flounder at Fratton Park last season, in his only other Premiership start, alongside Diaby, where the two points we dropped left us counting on Tottenham's inconsistency for qualification for the Champions League. Why Wenger expected a different result on Wednesday is beyond me?

As the players and management trudged towards the tunnel at half-time, with the lay out of Craven Cottage taking them towards the couple of thousand of us Gooners gathered in the Putney Stand, I was hoping for his sake that Song didn't fully appreciate the implications of the singing, as we serenaded them all with a hearty chorus of "we want Cesc Fabregas". To be honest, Arsène is usually such a stubborn git (I guess Wenger's point blank refusal to accept the possibility that he's picked a wrong 'un is the reason Song wasn't shipped out ages back), that I really didn't expect him to bow to fan pressure by bringing Fab on at the break, certainly not with Wenger's penchant for leaving any changes until the last fifteen minutes.

But then I suppose Arsène wasn't really left with a choice, if this was indicative of the sort of stick Song could expect if he came back out and in truth, Wenger should've shown some real bottle, by admitting the error of his ways in restoring Cesc to the side within twenty minutes of the start, as it certainly didn't take any of us longer than this to realise quite what a ricket he'd made with the Cameroonian's inclusion.

It just about says everything about our most problematic defficiency that we are left counting on a teenage schnip of a Spaniard to lead this Arsenal side into battle and to be able to rouse his team mates from an indifferent performance, to roll their sleeves up and grind out a result. I am not discounting the possibility that Fabregas might eventually make a marvelous captain but I feel it is a bit much to expect the incredibly talented youngster both to orchestrate the Arsenal symphony from midfield, whilst simultaneously wielding the baton with the necessary force to encourage his colleagues to find the vital extra gear which has been patently absent from their performances of late.

At least Fabregas would have the advantage of not playing with his back to the entire team, like Henry. However I have always believed that a centre half has a far better chance of doing a decent captain's job. Although at this precise point in time, such technical practicalities are irrelevant, as it's the leadership spirit that we've grown increasingly desperate for. I've never agreed with Wenger's decision to offer the captaincy as a carrot to encourage players to keep the Arsenal faith. To my mind Paddy was no more captain material than Titi, but at least Vieira had the ability (albeit that he kept it well hidden towards the end of his career at Highbury) to inspire the troops with his physical commitment.

Yet even back then I was moaning for want of some vocal leadership from someone in the Arsenal squad, especially with Vieira's tendency to disappear inside his shell for much of the last couple of seasons, as has been the case with Thierry when he's been struggling to find his own form.

Rumours abound right now of an alleged barney between Wenger and Henry and some are even suggesting that after Titi walked out, he has as a result been dropped. I am sure I am way off the mark, but I have to admit to having some suspicions when Thierry developed a vague neck injury to prevent him travelling to Bolton. Thankfully we are not used to such shenanigans at the Arsenal, but at other clubs like WHU and Spurs, fans are quite accustomed to some of thier more glamorous imports developing just such niggles on an annoyingly regular basis but only before decidedly unattractive, long schleps up north, invariably returning from the treatment room just in time to be available for selection for the more fashionable fixtures.

I'd hate to think Titi was capable of any such shirking but whatever the case, never in the illustrious history of our club was there an Arsenal player more deserving of being cut some slack by us "supporters". On the basis of Titi's incredibly consistent goal scoring tally these past few seasons, where he's singlehandedly carried the club with his crucial contributions for so long, according to the inevitability of the law of averages, the best player on the planet is long overdue a slump.

Even when Henry was nicking the odd goal in earlier games, the maestro was still struggling for his customary magical touch and as our overall confidence has waned with our inconsistent results, Henry's lack of form has become all the more apparent. Up until now, the difference has been that Thierry could afford an off day because he had colleagues to take up the slack. However that was when we had a guaranteed 15 goal a season contribution from the likes of Pires and Freddie. Having let Pires go (perhaps in light of the other significant departures, a season or so prematurely) and with Freddie so obviously losing that crucial yard of pace that means we can no longer depend on the Fredster for those timely burst into the box, we've suddenly lost the ability to be able to rely on outscoring any opponent, with goals coming from every Gunner.

Those additional 30 goals a season we were usually guaranteed from our two gifted midfielders, meant that it didn't really matter if Titi or his strike partner were struggling to hit a barn door. Rosicky looks like he might be a likely candidate to become a regular contributor to the goal tally, especially with his 30-yard screamers, but sadly to date Alexander Hleb all too often gets through loads of skilful footie with absolutely no end product.

As we made our miserable way back from the Cottage last Wednesday, winding our way across the capital back to the comfort of North London, we were discussing ways in which the boss might fulfil his desperate need to draw a line under the relative disasters of our season so far, before its too late and we are left with all the other also rans, with nothing to play for but pride, even before Santa's reindeers have got a run out.

In seasons past, where we've sadly grown all tto accustomed to a dodgy spell, there's usually been some specific incident, a dressing room confrontation, or some similar catalyst that's accepted as the turning point, that season's anno domini, the day when our assault proper on the Premiership silverware began. I wondered whether this was what Wenger intended with his first media free week for a decade, subsequent to his hoolie behavious at West Ham. Although if this was indeed Arsène's intention, it definitely didn't have the desired effect.

I always hark back to the truism that states every five years you either have to change your manager, or your team. Lest we forget, it's only when you list last summer's departures, Cashley, Sol, Bergkamp, Pires and whatever you thought of him Reyes, that you truly appreciate that any team, even one with apparent limitless resources, let alone ours, with our fiscal bare ass hanging out the back of our threadbare pants, would suffer such a significant loss of nearly half a team of fully fledged world stars.

In isolation you could perhaps accept that Le Prof had a valid argument for letting each individual go (all but Le Bob in my humble opinion). We could definitely do with Cashley's experience in defence right now, but I'd have got shot of him solely because if his display of such outrageous disloyalty. What's more I really don't believe the Blues fans are going to see the (so called) best left back in the world every week, as he may well derive pleasure from demonstrating his worth in matches like last weekend's table topping clash of the titans, but I'm convinced Cole has little to prove against lesser lights like Boro and I don't believe he has sufficient hunger to consistently produce similarly impressive performances to the one seen last Sunday agains Man Utd. The consensus of opinion from the pundits. suggests that we're far better off with a Willie than a C*** and the arrival of the versatile Gallas has stood us in such good stead to date, that when Cashley stood patting the side of his shorts last Sunday, demonstrating to Utd fans responsible for giving him so much stick, which particular pocket he'd been keeping the Portuguese striker in, this was absolutely the first time that I felt some mixed feelings about seeing Cole play in a Blue shirt.

Sol Campbell seems to have benefitted from playing for Pompey, without suffering nearly so much from the weight of exspectation which fell on his broad shoulders when appearing in an Arsenal shirt. But if he'd stayed with us, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the stress and the cumulative effect of the physical strain on his huge physique would've been reflected in the sort of niggling injuries which would've left Sol on the sidelines for the majority of the season.

Obviously Dennis Bergkamp was a one off, but rather than watching him deteriorate, there had to come a time when Dennis left us with our wonderful memories and we learned to face a future without him. Whereas personally I would've been much happier if we'd managed to hang on to Pires, so that we could at leat make use of him coming on from the bench as an impact player who was capable of changing a game for us. Love or loathe Reyes, with his failure to qualify for MENSA membership, Jose efforts for Real Madrid have demonstrated that when making the most of his talents, he's more than capable of scoring influential goals.

So having lost half a team, perhaps Arsène might benefit from having a fresh face to assist with half his management responsibilities, so that instead of being surrounded by yes men like Pat Rice, there be another voice in the dressing room capable of expressing an alternative school of thought when necessary. If at the same time we were blessed by a Don Howe type character who was capable of sorting out our defensive lapses by implenting the sort of regimental set piece drills that need to be second nature, then all the better.

However it's hardly likely that le Prof would take on a partner to relieve him of some of his responsibilities and perhaps inspire the players with alternative motivational methods and a voice that some of the players haven't grown tired of listening to. In the absence of such a wholesale revolution, who knows, hopefully the minor alteration of leaving out our captain could have the desired effect. We managed without Thierry at Old Trafford and if we are lucky his absence might see some of our other players feeling like they have licence to take more responsibility without treading on Titi's toes. They might even be inclined to threaten the enemy's goal, knowing that there's no-one else who's going to conjure up the winner for them and that they won't end up being bawled out by their captain for failing to give him the ball

Meanwhile, based purely on the law of averages, Spurs must be due a win at our place, not having enjoyed one since '93. As a result I am fully expecting the worst case scenario, so at least the disappointment won't leave me with the Samaritans on speed dial!!! And if our encounter with Tottenham should prove the turning point we've all been waiting for, then my absolute lack of expectation will ensure that I enjoy it with even greater Gooner gusto than usual

Come on you Reds!

Monday 27 November 2006

The Beast? The Pussycat more like!

I forgot to add that with a nickname like "the Beast" and being built like the proverbial brick sh*thouse, I would've hoped that Julio Baptista might lend our squad the sort of imposing physical presence that we've been missing. When you think of the lightweight likes of Fabregas, Flamini, Freddie etc. lining up in the tunnel prior to the match at the Reebok, opposite such lumps as Nolan, Campo and Davies, is it really that surprising that psychologically we look and feel like a soft touch?

As far as I am concerned, the jury is definitely still out as far as Baptista is concerned. I certainly don't know and I am not convinced Wenger knows what Baptista's best position is and to date I have yet to see Julio make the most of his muscular attributes by imposing himself on a Premiership game. On paper one would've imagine Bolton would've been the ideal scenario for Julio to make a name for himself and I am sure I wasn't alone in being surprised to see a featherweight Theo get the nod instead.

However from where I stood, it seemed to me as if, far from adding to our momentum, by sending on some fresh legs, the substitutions of Hleb and Baptista appeared to have the opposite effect. With Hleb struggling to stay on his feet, seemingly slipping over all the time and Baptista remaining relatively anonymous, our dominance dissipated after these changes were made.

Moreover in reference to the point I made below about Arsène's pragmatism and his reliance on statistical data about his players and potential signings, Roná was reading the piece and came out with a particularly pertinent comment. Can you imagine a young Martin Keown, or Ray Parlour making the grade at Arsenal nowadays??!!

Big Love

Bullying. See It. Get Help. Sort It!

Personally I don’t agree with all the pundits, as I’m sure there are plenty of twists and turns to come in this season’s Premiership title race and currently both Man Utd and Chelsea still look capable of dropping points. However sadly it’s pretty much irrelevant to us, as at this precise point in time we look a long way short of having what it takes to string together the sort of consistent run necessary to put ourselves in the title frame.

Having scraped into the Champions League last season, by the skin of our teeth, based on our inconsistent form to date, once again it pains me to say we look far more likely to be dragged into the dogfight with the likes of Liverpool, Spurs and any of the other also-rans that aspire to chase the priceless Holy Grail of Champions League football.

A team should be a collection of players whose attributes compliment one another and if you look back at all our trophy winning squads, in each of them, there’s always been a good blend between the flair players capable of picking the lock of the best defences and the hearts of oak characters with the resilience to roll up their sleeves and grind out a win when required.

Considering our “boring, boring” traditions, I would never have believed it, if you’d told me back in the dour days of George Graham that there would come a time when we’d have too much ability in the Arsenal squad. But when we are left counting on a teenage featherweight like Fabregas, with a size disadvantage that sees him bouncing off many of the bigger Bolton players, to come out for the second half at the Reebok and set an example to his team mates, by putting himself about and demonstrating his boundless desire, then surely the deficiencies in this Arsenal squad are obvious for all to see.

Is it possible that our problems are inherent in Le Prof’s pragmatic reliance on the statistical data that proves his players are all super skilled athletes. As far as I’m aware there’s no method of measuring the size of a player’s heart and the level of his commitment to the cause. As a result it is perhaps inevitable that the less dainty lummoxes who are capable of making up for their lack of natural ability, with their limitless passion and desire, are always going to be weeded out from our academy, long before being given an opportunity to prove their worth?

I’m beginning to feel like a broken record, but looking through the collection of talent in our current squad, I find it hard to envisage any of them having the physical presence necessary to provide the required “they shall not pass” focal point, around which the rest of the team can rally, for the sort of robust encounter we’ve come to expect at the Reebok. Perhaps the added stature of the likes of Gallas and Diaby might’ve made all the difference, but the significance of injuries to two members of our squad only highlights the imbalance.

Our annual outings to the Reebok are fast becoming an exercise in masochism and feeling utterly “cream crackered” after an exhausting week, I was sorely tempted to pull a “sickie” on Saturday. However not only would I have somehow felt personally culpable for the defeat if I wasn’t present, but after all our recent miserable results against Bolton, based on the law of averages, I couldn’t bear the possibility of missing out on a memorable victory over our bogey team.

In spite of our lack of strike power, in the absence of Henry and Van Persie, I was actually feeling strangely optimistic, hoping we’d be travelling North buoyed by the euphoria of the last ten minutes of Tuesday night’s triumph against Hamburg. Whilst debating Wenger’s selection dilemmas during the long drive, we all assumed he wouldn’t fancy such a physical encounter as being ideal for Theo Walcott’s away league debut. However I’m glad Le Prof plumped for our teenage starlet, as 90 minutes against Fat Sam’s side’s niggling, intimidating tactics should prove a vital part of Theo’s education.

Meanwhile without a league goal to his name since Anelka’s arrival in Lancashire, my mate Brian was convinced “le Grande Sulk” was likely to prove our nemesis. Sadly he was spot on with his prediction, as Sod’s Law guaranteed the former Gunner had been saving it all up, to remind us of the sort of prodigies we witnessed in his contribution to our last Double.

In truth the writing was on the wall from the opening moments, when Adebayor tamely tapped a prize opportunity into the welcoming arms of Jaaskelainen and any remaining optimism soon evaporated, with the déjà vu of our dodgy defending at set pieces.

Naturally we were all up in arms when Dean booked Davies. I didn’t know they’ve introduced an anatomical calibration, as whether it’s a shove in the chest or the head, I was under the misapprehension that if one raises one’s hands against an opponent on a football pitch, it’s an automatic red card. Also some felt it was Fortune by name and nature, believing the Bolton defender should’ve been more severely punished, when he totally wiped out Walcott, barrelling into the youngster off the pitch, as Theo bent down to fetch the ball.

With the home side having taken the lead, I don’t think it would’ve done us any favours if Dean had reduced them to ten, as it would’ve made for an even more frustrating encounter, with Bolton getting everyone behind the ball, while we tried to tip-toe our way through.

This heavy-handed (footed) treatment of Walcott was indicative of the sort of tactics that have succeeded in unsettling Wenger’s teams in the past and I only hope we aren’t set for a rash of aggressive encounters, against teams who attempt to repeat this formula.

Perhaps previous defeats have occurred at a more significant point in the season, or perhaps we are simply becoming far too used to Bolton rubbing sand in our faces, but we weren’t nearly so depressed on the long schlep back to London, as we have been in the past. Hopefully we’re unlikely to witness a repeat of Kolo Touré’s torrid performance, where three lapses in concentration proved so costly. He was at fault for failing to track Faye for the first. Admittedly Anelka’s strike was unstoppable, but Kolo should’ve at least attempted to close him down to try and prevent the second and the Ivorian was guilty of letting Anelka get goal side of him for the third.

Nevertheless considering the emasculated way in which we let Bolton get the better of us in the first-half, following on from Gilberto’s goal before the break, they reappeared with plenty of fire in their bellies and we took some comfort from a dominant second half performance that was only found wanting for some end product.

Arriving home after midnight and unable to endure more masochism, courtesy of the test match coverage from down under, I was tickled by the light-relief of an ironic piece in the matchday programme, entitled “Wanderers to Beat the Bullies”. It seems the club are involved in an effort to eradicate bullying and I found myself wondering if our players might’ve seen the posters for this campaign in the bowels of the Reebok, as they headed for the dressing room at the break. If so, they certainly took the “Bullying. See It. Get Help. Sort It” message to heart!

At the end of the day, a mere few millimetres proved to be the decisive factor in this highly charged contest, between the Arsenal’s three efforts which found the wrong side of the woodwork and the Bolton ones which bounced off it into the back of the net.

Finally, as an antidote to some of the gloom, it would appear that the Arsenal’s problems are not confined to on the pitch, as allegedly last Tuesday the male Exec box catering boss was dismissed on the spot, after being caught in a compromising position on a stairwell, with one of his male colleagues! And if the takings at our new stadium aren’t as much as expected, it’s likely that a couple of East European bar staff are somewhat to blame, as apparently they were also sacked during the match, when they were nabbed stuffing cash from the till into small plastic bags and throwing them through the metal grilles to some mates outside. It’s a funny old game!

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Monday 20 November 2006

Just When We Need Him Most, Sadly Willie Goes Wonka!

- apparently in almost the last kick of today's training session :-(

I’m led to believe Wenger turned the air blue in the bowels of the Stade de France last Wednesday, during a post-match barney with French coach Domenech that made le Prof and Pardew seem like bosom buddies. I can fully appreciate Arsène’s sense of righteous indignation. Domenech’s decision to give Makalele, Saha and Evra a 45 minute run-out in a somewhat meaningless friendly against Greece, while Henry and Gallas were deemed necessary for the entire 90, was hardly designed to promote an “entente cordial” with his compatriot! Hence Arsène’s ever so slightly sarcastic expression of gratitude to the French national team, in his post-match comments on Saturday.

However the lack of freshness of these two crucial French cogs was hardly the principle contributing factor, in our increasingly frustrating failure to pick up all three points on offer in this relative home banker. Prior to kick-off I was gabbing with a wide-eyed young Gooner, who was soaking up the new stadium experience for the first time, having travelled all the way down from Cardiff. Doubtless I made the mistake of tempting fate, when I jokingly suggested that I hoped he’d picked a 3-0, rather than a 1-1.

When Kieran Dyer scored with just about the Geordies only shot on goal, I turned to commiserate with my new Welsh mate, as it looked very likely that we were once again going to have to endure the latter. With these being the only two Premiership results we’ve experienced at our new home so far, there was a certain air of resignation, once Newcastle took the lead, as though a draw was the most we could hope for.

I suppose I could have a pop at Manny Eboué for backing off, when he might’ve pounced to prevent the Toon’s sucker punch. Or perhaps I might bemoan Julio Baptista’s inconspicuous efforts, in his return to fitness after a month long layoff. For a brick sh*thouse of a player with such a menacing nickname as ‘the Beast”, we’ve yet to see Baptista impose himself on a game in an Arsenal shirt - in fact I get the distinct feeling that it’s not just us fans who are unsure exactly what it is that this Brazilian does best!

However, despite the fact that our title pretensions are rapidly disappearing, along with the eight points we’ve dropped at home to date, I’m not inclined to pick at the scabs of our score-draw depression, whilst we continue to produce football of the sort of sublime calibre, that fans of most other clubs could only dream of.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been watching the game long enough to know that, ultimately the only thing that truly matters is the ability to put more balls in the back of the net than the opposition. Yet in the two Sunday games, I saw Spurs labouring like a Lada for a point at Ewood Park and Villa struggling in vain to leapfrog us into third, with a vapid Vauxhall Astra like display at the JJB. In contrast to such instantly forgettable football, this Arsenal side is performing like an F1 Ferrari. As a result I have to believe that such quality entertainment will eventually bear fruit. After all, we’re not going to encounter an inspired Shay Given every week.

Many pundits are suggesting that we’ve already blown it on the home front. But while I’ve not suddenly turned into an eternal optimist, I tend to believe (hope) that there’s still plenty of unexpected twists to come in this term’s title race, so long as no one team begins to run away with it.

Based on our miserable recent record at the Reebok, most Arsenal fans would’ve settled for four points from our encounters with Newcastle and Bolton. As ever, we’re merely left having to do it the hard way. If we can beat Bolton and if Man Utd and Chelsea were to draw, we’d only have to win our game in hand to put ourselves right back in the title picture.

Before all such “ifs and buts” there’s the not so small matter of Tuesday’s absolutely vital European encounter. After four straight defeats, I don’t expect Hamburg to show any more ambition than any of our domestic visitors. However in light of our Premiership inconsistency, our Champions League campaign has become all the more significant. Consequently, I sincerely hope we won’t be guilty of the sort of casual defending that might gift the Germans that all-important first goal.

We’ll certainly need to be more clinical when creating our own goal-scoring opportunities on Tuesday. Yet if there’s one specific area where the Arsenal definitely needs to raise its game, it’s the 12th man performance from the terraces. Even at the old Library on the quietest of afternoons, in matches where we were as dominant as Saturday’s encounter, where we laid siege to the opposition’s goal for the last 15 minutes, you could expect even the most passive fans to loosen their vocal chords and muster a roar of encouragement, if only as they began to lose patience and pleaded for some satisfaction.

I’m unsure whether it’s the movement in the crowd, as so many make a premature exit, or the fact that large sections of the stadium are already half-empty, but instead of the deafening noise needed to inspire the Gunners to eke out every last ounce of energy from their weary legs, we now get a wall of embarrassing silence, which carries an air of resignation out on to the pitch. Thereby ensuring that any of our last gasp assaults on goal seem to lack the necessary conviction.

Instead of the ‘never say die’ commitment, of the sort that won the game for West Ham the other week, I get this sense from both sides that if the fans have settled for the scoreline as is, then why should we kill ourselves trying to alter it. It’s a sad state of affairs for a team that's savoured so many momentous last minute triumphs. Whatever excuse some might have for leaving early, this abject lack of support in the dying throes of such crucial encounters, where the result rests on a knife edge, the only conclusion I can draw is that while the outcome might still be more important than life and death itself for some of us, for the majority of our less ardent new “audience” the Arsenal just doesn’t matter enough!

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Monday 13 November 2006

One Swallow Doth Not A Summer Make (But It'll Sure Do For Starters!)

It was great for us Gooners to return to some more traditional footballing fare Sunday lunchtime. This started with a tasty morsel from the Madjeski, where the Tottenham team that we all know and despise, in a disgusting brown kit (which should at least serve them well for any subsequent bouts of food poisoning) raised their supporters hopes by taking a 1-0 lead, before surrendering to Reading, in a manner which is likely to leave their bemused manager even more follicly challenged.

This was promptly followed by a main course with all the trimmings, where the Arsenal finally ditched the new stadium monkey from around our necks. It started life as a mere bothersome Emirates marmoset, but it wouldn’t have been long before Gooner backs were beginning to buckle under the weight of a problematic primate that was rapidly growing into a gorilla.

We might not feel anywhere near the same level of enmity for Liverpool, compared to the rancour that is reserved for the likes of Spurs, Chelsea and Man Utd. However, even though their woeful away form has already seen them ruled out as worthy title challengers, our encounter with the Scousers remains a relatively ‘big’ game compared with the less illustrious Premiership opponents who’ve visited our new home to date.

There’ve been various rumours doing the rounds concerning the absence of the Sky cameras for a Premiership match and it does seem strange that it’s taken over a quarter of the season for them to get around to live coverage of a game at our glamorous new arena. But living around the corner, it was great to be able to enjoy all the build-up on the box, for the first time this season. We also discovered why we’d been disturbed from our Sunday slumbers by the sound of a hovering helicopter, as we were treated to views of the area from Sky’s eye-in-the-sky.

It has been somewhat depressing watching the day-to-day demolition of our old home, as first the Clock End and now the North Bank is being torn down. However the overall view from above, showing the muddy building site that now exists instead of our old snooker baize like playing surface, surrounded by the dismantled shells of the art deco East and West stands, along with what remains of the North stand, seemed to reinforce the finality of the end of a glorious era and almost brought a tear to my eye.

Nevertheless the TV pictures of the new place were pretty impressive and they were perhaps most appropriate on a day which might go down in the calendar as the dawning of the Gunners’ fabulous new future. While we’ve been whinging about the lack of Arsenal-ification inside the stadium, Sunday’s broadcast showed that it’s only in the “cheap” seats where the club have scrimped, as there appears to be no shortage of reminders of all the Arsenal’s former glories, with all the decorations and memorabilia that adorn the Diamond Club, for the benefit of the seriously rich Gooner high-rollers who can afford an obscene £25 grand a season.

However to give the club their due, they’ve taken note of our grievances and having achieved the admirable feat of getting the stadium built on time and in budget (unlike the wanton mismanagement of the Wembley fiasco), other additional measures are now being taken to try and create a more homely environment.

One particular upper tier wag won’t need to hang his banner with a painted clockface for much longer, as apparently planning permission has been granted to put the old clock up outside the stadium. Meanwhile, as promised, inside the ground they’ve begun to cover some of the unsightly grey concrete, starting with red Arsenal fascias on the upper tier. However far more important than such decorative details was the discovery of a decent atmosphere at Sunday’s game and doubtless this was the principle reason that it will be remembered as the first occasion many of us Gooners truly began to feel at home.

To date we’ve had three 1-1 draws and three 3-0 triumphs at the new place and perhaps the later was always more likely against a Liverpool side with the worst away record in the league. Nevertheless Benitez wasn’t about to admit to his team’s inferiority, with the sort of negative, eleven men behind the ball tactics that we’ve endured from other recent visitors. As a result, once we got the first goal, the end result was almost inevitable.

Wenger’s vow of silence since his touchline tantrum at Upton Park has left us all scratching our heads. In contrast to the shameless attention seeking of his counterpart at Stamford Bridge, ever since he’s been at the Arsenal, le Gaffer has always gone out of his way to ensure that the media’s obsession with such managerial trivialities didn’t detract from the wonderful football his players are capable of producing on the pitch.
If Arsène had come out immediately and offered an apology, or at least some explanation, with the tabloids peddlers of tittle-tattle having the attention span of an hyperactive flea, they would’ve long since found some other scurrilous story to focus on. Therefore I can’t help but wonder if Wenger’s media free week was contrived in an attempt to foster the sort of “them and us” siege mentality, which has served us and other clubs so well in the past.

If it was indeed a tactical ploy to try and create some sort of watershed, between the inconsistent Arsenal that lost at Upton Park and a team which is capable of producing the sort of consistent run which might see us mounting a credible title challenge, then Sunday’s result and more importantly the signs of reinvigoration amongst some of our more important players, might suggest this was something of a masterstroke.

However the truth of the matter is that in recent times this Arsenal team has always produced its best against those opponents whose ambitions weren’t limited to “parking the bus in front of their goal”. The real test of whether Wenger has inspired the sort of wolvish mentality which will enable us to not merely spend 90 minutes hammering at the door, but to be able to blow the entire house down, will be revealed in the next couple of games against Newcastle and Bolton, where neither opponent is going to be so considerate as to play to our strengths like the Scousers.

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Monday 6 November 2006

I'd Rather Have a Willie Than a C*nt

Janey Mac….talk about tempting fate. Only last week I wrote about le Gaffer’s gracious personality and it’s proved to be an invitation for Arsène to go and lose the plot! The touchline argy-bargy with Pardew doesn’t bother me. Our usually phlegmatic Professeur showed signs that even he suffers from the strain of the relentless struggle, to try and maintain the Arsenal’s title challenge. Personally I think it’s great when managers reveal their humanity and how much this “game” really matters. Nevertheless there’s no excuse for Arsène’s unsporting refusal to accept the obligatory handshake and doubtless his post-match disappearing act was a reflection of his immediate embarrassment.

If the Arsenal were going to gift anyone 3 points, I guess I should be glad it was the Hammers. At least it should mean that I’ll be getting plenty of work this week from my own, West Ham supporting, gaffer, who’ll be taking every possible opportunity to glory in Sunday’s post-mortem. Good luck to him, as it’s not like the Hammers have had had much to gloat about these past few months. They were good value for their victory, more than making up for any perceived ability deficit, as the Iron’s produced a display brimful of industry and desire.

Whereas if we’d beaten the Hammers, I certainly wouldn’t want to be holding my breath, waiting for a phone call from my boss. Mind you, this financial carrot is little compensation, for what was probably our most disappointing performance to date. We might have struggled to score in other outings, but at least we witnessed some wonderful football, where we were only found wanting for some end product to show for a plethora of goal scoring opportunities.

By contrast you know you are in big trouble, when the sum total of Sunday’s efforts left us relying on the award of a penalty by pompous ref Rob Stiles. It would’ve been providential at our end of the pitch, but in front of the baying Hammers’ hordes in the Booby Moore stand, as the saying goes, we had two hopes and these were no and Bob!

As a result, while I’m not grateful for a gruelling 8 hour round trip to Goodison in midweek, I am looking forward to what should prove to be a fiery Carling Cup performance from our second string, full of the sort of vitality that was sorely lacking on Sunday. After all, it’s only what you’d expect from the rare release of our youthful hounds. While at Upton Park there was evidence that the unremitting race after the Premiership rabbit is perhaps taking its toll on some of the more influential members of the Arsenal’s pack.

All credit to the Hammers for maintaining the work rate which enabled them to deny us space to do any real damage for the duration. Yet where Fabregas has found room all season long, from which to conduct the Arsenal’s symphony, the youngster’s suffered an obvious dip in form these last couple of games, that’s left me wondering if Cesc might benefit from a breather. Although much like Henry, Fab has become such a crucial component at the heart of the Arsenal engine, that it must be nigh on impossible for Arsène to leave him out.

Having struggled for his customary sublime touch all season, I keep expecting Henry to come good. With each passing game, I grow increasingly incredulous at his consistent failure. You’d think that by now, a player of his calibre would’ve played his way into some form, but his waning confidence leaves him that much keener to lay the ball off, passing on the responsibility to one of his team mates.

I was also studying Henry closely on Sunday, to see if there was any sign of him sulking, after the slap in the face he received last week. Against CSKA Moscow, it was most annoying to see thousands heading for the exits, long before the final whistle. When we should’ve been baying for a crucial last gasp goal, these early leavers sucked what was left of the atmosphere out of the game.

It seems that the Champions League “audience” at our new stadium is comprised of far too many of the corporate hospitality hordes, whose investment in the Arsenal appears to be more financial than emotional and who are apparently more interested in their complimentary half-time bevvies and beating the crowds home. Whereas on Sunday we witnessed the potential impact of a far more passionate crowd.

The Hammers might’ve been happy with a point when they started out, but when Sherringham and Harewood appeared for the last 15 mins, despite our vocal enquiries “Teddy where’s your Zimmer frame”, it was as if the home fans sensed there was more to be had from this match. They roared their team on and inspired the sort of hunger that had largely evaporated from the Gunners game, led by the example of our grumpy captain

If I sound a little envious, it is because I can’t help wondering, if the situations were reversed, whether we’d be capable of the sort of display of solidarity witnessed prior to West Ham’s encounter with Blackburn. Without a win since August and after a chastening cup exit to Chesterfield, I can’t imagine us still singing our support for our manager.

During the unseemly fracas on the touchline at the final whistle, my attention was drawn to the sight of a forlorn looking William Gallas, standing alone in the centre-circle, apparently struggling to comprehend how we’d conspired to give up the points, after he’d grafted his socks off. His frustration was explained by my mate who suggested Willie was used to playing for a team capable of maintaining their intensity levels to the very last minute.

As I hurried home to watch the other London derby, I wondered if Spurs might do us a favour. However at the end of the day I had mixed feelings about their first success against Chelsea, since Aaron Lennon was in nappies. I was gutted that we’d blown such a rare opportunity to gain back some ground on the Blues and the sight of the jubilant Spurs fans was equally hard to swallow. Especially after also seeing the Spurs side motivated by the sort of atmosphere that we’ve yet to generate at our glamorous new ground.

After having my knees crushed by the confines of the seats at Upton Park, I might be grateful for the amount of legroom at our new gaff. But I would gladly give up any such luxuries, if, instead of an impassive audience, our home crowd remembered they had a role to play in raising the Gunners game.

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Wednesday 1 November 2006

The Definition of a Mensch? Well It Sure Ain’t Mourinho!

Hi folks

I was actually thinking I might not bother posting this week’s piece for the Irish Examiner, as I ended up repeating much of what I’d already posted on Sunday and if I’d waited another 24 hours it would’ve basically been past it’s sell by date.

But then those buggers in Blue went and equalised in the 92nd minute (and not to mention our reserves taking a 6-0 mauling at the Madjeski) and since I felt the need to vent somewhere, I thought I might as well tag my weekly missive on at the end for you to read, or ignore, as you so choose.

I tell you something, from what I can glean, Frank Rijkaard was the epitome of self-restraint prior to the match, in the face of such extreme provocation from Mourinho. As an armchair psychologist, the way the Arrogant One always seems to feel the need to find some way to stoke the fire, before these almost annual encounters between Barcelona and Chelsea, I would’ve said that the Chelsea manager seems to be suffering from some sort of inferiority complex, which perhaps stems from some sort of desperate need to justify his footballing credentials whenever he returns to the Catalan capital, due to the fact that his career started from such humble beginnings, as Bobby Robson’s translator!

Now if only the Gobby One had come away from his experience under Sir Boobie, having picked up some of the old boy’s more amusingly senile habits and would occasionally refer to his Ivorian striker as Doddier Drigba, instead of coming across as someone who’s had a sense of humour transplant, he’d be a whole lot less offensive.

Can you imagine us coming up against Inter Milan this season (which isn’t out of the question) and Arsène slagging off Patrick Vieira in the same way Mourinho lambasted Eidur Gudjonssen for the theatrical habits his former striker has learned apparently only since leaving Chelsea! To be honest I can’t recall Gudjonssen being any more prone to diving than anyone else, or perhaps more accurately, any more likely to remain on his feet than any of those fellow Chelsea team mates who’d hit the deck from contact with a feather.

Then again, I can only too well recall my own anger at the sight of Le Bob taking a dive (obviously unless he achieved the rare feat of earning a penalty in the process), invariably wanting to scream at him to stay on his feet, wondering whether the ball might have finished up in the back of the net, if only the move had continued. But you’d no more hear Wenger warning the ref about Pires’ penchant for the horizontal hoop-la if we were to meet Villa Real, than he’d be likely to single out any other opposition players for the officials special attention.

Sure all the best managers of the big clubs are not averse to a little gamesmanship, when it comes to the pre-match press conferences, trying to gain any advantage going. Yet Mourinho’s capacity for such incredibly tactless comments, to the extent of inciting the sort of shenanigans we witnessed in the Nou Camp last night from both sets of players, never fails to astound me.

You would’ve thought by now that the Chelsea press office would’ve found a convenient method of gagging the Gobby One. But then again in recent history, the totally classless South London outfit has been guilty of stuffing their oversized feet in their Blackwall tunnel sized cakeholes, at every given opportunity.

Talking of ex-Arsenal players, who amongst us didn’t let out a little whoop of joy when it looked like Cashley Hole was taking an early bath last night? Up until now, the Gallas effect on the Gunners, compared with the relative anonymity of Cashley in Chelsea’s outings, has meant that I’ve not only not missed our old left-back for a second, but have actually been extremely grateful that his exit gifted us with Willie Gallas.

However I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that for the first time last night I found it quite galling after the Barca v Chelsea game, to hear the studio pundits singing the praises of Lampard’s link up with Cole on the left flank. Then again, I guess this wouldn’t have felt nearly quite so bad, if I hadn’t been so gutted about the jammy gits 92nd minute goal ruining an otherwise enjoyable encounter. I absolutely adore watching Barca these days, or more accurately, I adore watching the incredibly gifted Lionel Messi.

To be totally honest it was probably the correct result, as with Ronaldihno currently a fully paid up member of the same “off colour” club as our own Thierry Henry and without the prodigious skills of Samuel Eto’o, Barca look a bit toothless up front (but then I can’t talk, at least not without my dentures J . It’s most unlikely but if the Catalan club end up going out of the competition then Chelsea will have done everyone a service. More probable is the possibility of them qualifying in second spot, which might make them potential competition in the knockout stages, if we can turnaround last week’s result and maintain our top dog status in our group. Not having a calendar to hand, I am not certain of the dates, but if we are to have a return match with Barca this season, I’d much sooner meet them earlier in the tournament than later, hopefully before Eto’o returns and they hit a purple patch.

First things first! We’ve the small matter of putting the Muscovites in their place tonight. Prior to the game at the Nou Camp, I caught the second half of an extremely entertaining encounter between Spartak Moscow and Inter Milan. With Inter going a goal up in the first minute and with their Champions League involvement all but over, having garnered only a single point, Spartak really went out all guns blazing in the second half.

Spartak have a talented midfielder, Shishkin, who hit a stunning shot at one point from about 40 yards out. As it crashed off the crossbar, you saw a hail of ice falling into the goalmouth which served as a reminder quite how uncomfortable the conditions must have been for our warm-blooded lot a couple of weeks back. Apparently they were playing on the only entirely artificial surface in the Champions League (as, if I am not mistaken, there are some other playing surfaces where the real grass is held together by an artificial element) and I am sure this was a lot more conducive to an accurate passing game than the cow field we played on in Moscow.

I was quite impressed with the quality of Spartak’s football and since, I believe, they’ve been well behind CSKA in recent seasons, it says a lot for the ability of our opponents. However Spartak were roared on by an extremely vociferous crowd and since traditionally the Russians are dreadful travellers, I will be dreadfully disappointed if we aren’t able to turn them over tonight.

I am pretty sure I had a hundred other comments to make, but if I don’t get some kip I doubt I’ll be able to stay awake later this evening to know what transpires. Which will be pretty bad form considering we have two of Róna’s sisters coming with us to the game. Aisling and Cliona are over from Ireland and will be the first of our Gooner contingent from Dublin to take in a game at the new gaff. Big shout to Brian and John, as if it wasn’t for gratefully garnering a couple of their spare tickets, I’d have probably ended up just taking Cliona on Rona’s ticket and it will be great to go, as the French say, “en famille”. I have a feeling Cliona has never seen the Arsenal lose, which must be a good omen (then again, I guess the longer he record lasts, according to the law of averages, the more chance there is of her charm being broken!) and it will be good to get their view of our new home.

Oh yes, before I let you go, the one other thing that comes to mind is that it would be devastating if we were to lose tonight, especially in view of the enemy’s fluke victory. However whatever the outcome of our encounter, the one advantage of having Spurs playing in the UEFA cup on Thursdays is that no matter how we perform in the Champions League, we will either have our joy enhanced, or the conciliatory tonic of being able to “laugh at Tottenham”

Peace & Love

The Definition of a Mensch? Well It Sure Ain’t Mourinho!

Hard as I’ve tried, I’ve never been able to rationalize the allure of baseball. No doubt this is related to the same cultural chasm which prevents the majority of Yanks from being able to comprehend the attraction of ‘the beautiful game’. I can appreciate the pitchers’ talents and the half dozen variations on the theme of throwing a baseball, but how hard can it be to catch the bloomin’ thing with those bloody great gloves. And compared to the technique involved in cricket, the batters efforts to smack the cover off the ball hardly seems sophisticated

So it was by mere chance that I happened upon the utter misnomer that is the World Series, in the wee hours a few mornings back, whilst channel hopping in my semi-comatose state in front of the box. I watched the last innings as the St. Louis Cardinals brought home the baseball bacon for the first time in 26 years. But my ears pricked up on hearing that this success had been achieved only 7 months after moving into the New Busch Stadium (designed by HOK, who were also responsible for our new gaff).

However if this is to prove any kind of omen as to the outcome of the Premiership, then the Arsenal are going to have to discover some means of ensuring that we don’t get into the habit of dropping any more points at our new home, than the 6 we’ve already blown against Everton, Boro and Villa.

Saturday’s draw was even more frustrating than the other two and it’s no surprise that Wenger was left bemoaning the Toffees’ negative tactics in the immediate aftermath. Apparently we had an astonishing 91% possession in the second half. So say the ball was in play for 30 of the 45 mins, then on average each of the Everton players would’ve had the ball at their feet for less than 15 seconds! Moreover Moyes side managed 2 shots on goal, to our 29! Wenger certainly went for it, as we had four strikers on the pitch come the final whistle and with both our immediate competitors relentlessly picking up points, Arsène was bound to be irate that despite all our huff and puff, we’d failed to blow the Blues’ house down.

You couldn’t wish for a more gracious geezer than le Gaffer, who gave all due credit to the fact that Everton “defended well, intelligently, and with great spirit”. But due to the weight given to Wenger’s whinging about the Toffees’ timewasting tactics in the majority of the media, I get really wound up by the fact that le Prof is once again unfairly perceived by Joe Public as this moaning Minnie, who naively expects the opposition to play to our strengths. No doubt Chelsea fans are similarly incensed by the way the Arrogant One is portrayed in the press. Although obviously in his case it’s all true!

What annoys me most is that no matter how dominant we are and no matter how entertaining the poetry in motion of our passing game, until such time as we learn to vary our point of attack, sadly we remain all too predictable and will continue to be thwarted by the graft of those teams capable of getting everyone behind the ball and ensuring the centre of the park is too congested for us to make progress. Exactly how long is it going to be before we begin to appreciate the maxim that if you can’t go through, then why not try going around the opposition.

We’re badly missing Manny Eboué as he’s about the only player who offers us natural width. With his frightening pace, I was hoping Walcott might make a difference as he joined the fray for the last 20. I suppose Theo’s striking instincts are to blame, but like every other bugger in red & white, Walcott seems programmed to advance so far into the enemy territory, before turning and making a diagonal run towards the most populated area on the park.

Yobo and Stubbs both appeared untroubled, as every ball into the box was fired in from midway in their half. I can’t recall a single cross from the byeline that might’ve forced them to make an uncomfortable interception whilst facing their own goal. Although some would suggest there’s little point in us whipping in crosses from the byeline, or anywhere else for that matter, as despite some recent success, we’re hardly renowned for our heading ability. However with such large expanses of grass on our new playing surface, we absolutely must learn to make the most of that much more width, even if only to stretch the opposition defence, thereby leaving space in the penalty area that can be exploited with our intricate passing.

Notwithstanding our apparent predictability in attack, we’ve little real cause for complaint, while the likes of Fabregas, Hleb and Rosicky continue to orchestrate such a symphony of scintillating footie. Sure some of us are beginning to mutter under their breath about our captain’s lethargic body language. But Thierry can be a long way from his best and still be miles better than most, as he’s only ever a moment of inspiration away from stealing the entire show.

I certainly didn’t hear Henry receiving catcalls on Saturday, as was reported by some in the press and I honestly can’t imagine anyone being so bloody stupid as to boo the best player in the world. Henry might well be suffering some sort of hangover from last season’s contractual soap opera. However having signed on for a couple more years and with his incredibly consistent, 30 goal strike rate in recent seasons, our club captain has banked sufficient Gooner goodwill, that he could slip off on a winter cruise in search of some renewed motivation and he’d still be welcomed back with open arms.

Meanwhile banging at the door for 90 minutes as we did on Saturday is not such a big deal with a secure defence. Sadly we still look vulnerable from set pieces. I’ve never been a fan of zonal marking and I wish someone could explain to me the supposed advantage.

I had the privilege of quizzing Frank McLintock some time back, when our defensive failings were under scrutiny. According to Frank, Don Howe would have our defence drilled into shape in no time at all and I was left with a souvenir bruise on my bicep to show for Frank’s vice like grip, as he illustrated how they marked touch tight in his day. As a result I couldn’t get out of my chair quick enough when someone else repeated the query soon after, so he might demonstrate by damaging some other dummies arm.

When man marking, you can track a player’s run so that you have the same momentum as them when leaping for a ball. Whereas in a zonal arrangement, as the attacker converts horizontal speed in to vertical height, surely the defence is at a disadvantage of having to jump from a standing start. What’s more the opposition ain’t exactly going to favour the defence by heading in their direction, as they’ll inevitably try to find the space between each zone.

As far as I’m concerned if every player is given an opponent to mark at set pieces, there is none of the uncertainty involved in waiting to discover who ends up in who’s zone. We certainly can’t afford a repeat on Wednesday night of the lapse in concentration against Everton that resulted in Cahill’s goal, as CSKA’s Brazilian trio won’t requre an invitation to take advantage

Considering Arsène’s customary reluctance to criticize his charges, it was interesting to hear his honest appraisal that “they were too confident to go there and take the points” in Moscow. If there was an element of complacency that crept in after wining two wins out of two in the Champions League, then hopefully the defeat against CSKA will have acted as a wake up call to remind them all that there are no “gimmees” , not in this game. In which case I’d hope that we certainly won’t be found wanting for the right attitude in this week’s return game. I guess we’ll soon find out?

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