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Wednesday 29 March 2006

Old Lady Leaves Highbury Looking Very Haggard

Having scored one and made the other, young Cesc Fabregas will deservedly take all the headlines, as the Spanish starlet absolutely bossed the midfield tonight. But all over the pitch our players deserve the plaudits for such a masterful display.

For our first goal I had to do a double take. Was that really Robert Pires who produced such a crucial intervention in the middle of the park? I was flabbergasted to see Bobbie robbing Vieira of the ball with a perfectly timed tackle. Call me a cynic, but I can't help noticing that Le Bob appears to be a different player, ever since he's had something to fight for (ie. to prove himself worthy of more than just a one year extension). Alternatively, if he should appear slightly less enthusiastic against Villa this weekend, then perhaps he's just trying to put himself in the shop window, in games where he knows the rest of the world is watching. Whatever the case, or the motivation, it was wonderful to see the influential Pires of old appear this evening.

Perhaps I'm slightly biased towards the defence, due to the fact that I played as a left-back in my youth. But I've been a bag of nerves all season long, grabbing for Róna's hand every time any opponent attacked our back line because we've looked so shaky and dreadfully vulnerable. I'm not sure whether we can pinpoint the Madrid game as a turning point, or whether it's been a more gradual process. However it's evident since we encountered Real that there's a belief now present in this inexperienced back line that seems to blossom with every game.

Before tonight's match I would've expected someone with the tactical nous of Capello, the Juve manager, to have targeted us down our left flank and perhaps Mathieu Flamini had a similar thought, as almost from the first whistle our French full-back threw himself into the fray, with the sort of wholehearted commitment which was guaranteed to put the wind up the opposition. He was tackling anyone who dared venture down his flank, with a forcefulness which made me shudder all the way over in the West Upper and he stamped his 100 per cent committed personality on the game with an enthusiasm that almost guaranteed himself a relatively easy evening. What's more the Juve player's relative reluctance to be clattered by one of Mathieu's "ball and man" boneshakers ensured that our French stand-in at left back found license to maraud down Juve's right flank, overlapping Reyes, taking defenders with him to leave the Spaniard with more room.

Flamini's performance would've stood out for me, just for the way he set the tone with his first couple of challenges, if it wasn't for the fact that his three other team mates in our back line also produced incredibly flawless displays. Again Manny Eboué was unbelievably impressive, both for his strength and speed and for a maturity of performance far beyond his years (considering this youngster only made his first team debut a couple of months back). Meanwhile Kolo and Phillipe Senderos were also absolutely peerless, with Phillipe not even offering Juve a sniff by managing to avoid one of his almost customary gaffes.

Having walked back home...sorry floated back home from Highbury, on the sort of high which meant I arrived at the front door to our first floor flat without having to negotiate the stairs, I promptly sat down to watch the recording of the ITV coverage on our Sky Plus gadget, without even taking off my coat, something I haven't done in many a moon.

As a former manager of our neighbourhood foe, I know we are supposed to hate the kerb crawling lech in the commentary box, but I'm afraid David Pleat is one of the few TV pundits whose comments I often find myself agreeing with. However it really got my goat to hear the main ITV commentator moan about the Italians poor performance. Believe me, walking away with Serie A, eight points ahead of their nearest rivals, Juve are no pushover and the fact of the matter was that we simply did not let them play!

It was the same story after we beat Real Madrid. My Spurs pals were responding to my queries about whether I missed anything on the episode of Eastenders that night, by reminding me that "Madrid played really crap" but in truth both Juve and Real were only able to perform as well as we allowed them to play and it really winds me up that in defending as a team, the amount of credit we receive is limited in any way by the ineffectiveness of the opposition.

1-0 up at half-time, I came out with the customary "can we go home now?" as I was terrified that having secured the lead just before the break, we might spend the entire second half soaking up pressure by sitting too deep. It would've proved an extremely long 45 minutes if we'd done that and the fact of the matter is that we are just not the sort of team which is designed for setting out with the sole objective of maintaining a clean sheet.

However we certainly weren't guilty of sitting back and inviting pressure and I was delighted to see us go for the Italian side's throat (albeit that they only had four Italians in their team!) and along with every other greedy Gooner present, I was even a little disappointed that we didn't score a third and seal our semi-final fate. Ultimately this first leg was won due to the fact that despite the Old Lady's lofty reputation, Arsène's young side showed them absolutely no respect and to my mind this is the most obvious measure of just how far our team has come in recent times

If Patrick Vieira had returned to Highbury with Juve, to play the Arsenal team of only a couple of months back, it would've proved an entirely different encounter, with the Italian champions capitalisiing on our insecurity and lack of believe. Whereas it was evident from the first minute of this match that we were more than capable of mixing it with the very best European football has to offer.

In fact, as far as I was concerned it was a measure of how consummate a performance this was, that we were total masters of our own destiny. When we came out for the second half, my greatest fear was the possibility of shooting ourselves in the foot, with the one momentary lapse in concentration that is all a team like Juve needs to profit from. However it was evident quite how brilliantly Senderos, Kolo, Manny and Flamini performed all night that they saw off Trezeguet long before the end. I can hardly recall the powerful French striker getting a touch the entire ninety!

What's more Juve's frustration and the feeling of being so dominated was something so far beyond their experience, that this manifested itself in the two utterly stupid and senseless acts that got Camoranese and Zebina sent off at the death.

Another ten minutes and we might've buried them completely and even a supreme pessimist like myself is pretty hopeful that we'll go to Turin with such a psychological advantage, that Juve might struggle to pick themselves up. We saw this evening from their body language towards the end of the game that they were a roundly beaten side, as their heads had dropped and they were flagging physically.

I wondered whether the weekend off for our lot would prove an advantage or not. But when you saw how full of running we were, then I guess I needn't have been concerned, as it would seem that without the release of 90 minutes of football on Saturday, the coils of the Arsenal's overwound clocks were perfectly tuned to spring into action by the ultimate watchmaker, Arsène Wenger.

As we walked back down Conewood Street, past the Gooners celebrating outside the Gunners pub, Ró commented that she sensed the sort of satisfaction we used to feel from the old fashioned "1-0 to the Arsenal" type victories of George Graham's better sides. I knew what she meant, but it was even more amazing than that, as in addition to that incredibly secure "they shall not pass" feeling, there was the additional confidence of knowing we could cut a swathe through the Italian champs, almost at will.

There were a couple of instances in the second half when Thierry Henry was idling with the ball just below us, in his favoured position out on the left flank, before tapping it down the line and turning on the after burners, to leave his opponent/s for dead. Juve were only saved by the defender dashing out from the middle to put the ball into touch. As charming and as gracious a geezer as Titi is, you get the feeling that he's so aware of his own pace and talent, that he just can't help taking the piss. And no matter how many times I see him waste defenders, I could never tire of watching Thierry. He manages to take my breath away absolutely every single time. It's something to do with the air of effortless, animalistic ease of Titi at full pelt, which makes him such a pleasure to watch and sets him above all the other footballing greats.

The good thing about us going into the return leg two goals up, is that unlike a single goal advantage, where Juve could bide their time and patiently wait for the almost inevitable opening, at the Stadio Delle Alpi next week, they are going to have to go for us. And on the wide expanses of Juve's pitch, they will undoubtedly leave themselves open to our counter-attacking conquests. If we can shut them out for the first 15 minutes - I was going to say "silence the crowd" but I imagine after tonight, their cavernous stadium will be even more empty than usual - I have a feeling that their heads might soon begin to drop and so long as they don't get that glimmer of hope from an early goal, it could be another great European night.

I've always been a great admirer of Pavel Nedved, but I am not sure he's quite the influential player he once was. What's more Del Piero might have lost a yard of pace, but age hasn't affected his poaching instincts. Nevertheless, if Capello brings both back into the starting line-up next week, I doubt either of them will really fancy the weight of responsibility of having to turn this match around. Moreover Lilian Thuram has always been one of my favourite players. In my opinion there was a time when there wasn't a better defender on the planet. Yet these days the old French war horse reminds me of Marcel Desailly during his time at Chelsea. Where once you'd witness either of them having a massive influence on matches at both ends of the pitch, being able almost to singlehandedly secure a result, like Desailly, these days Thuram seems happy to do his defensive duties and get away with doing just enough to justify his inclusion and little more. He hardly strayed past the halfway line this evening and when Cesc nutmegged him for the goal, it suggested that the rapidly aging Old Lady of Turin requires a whole lot more than a rejuvenating "nip and tuck" :-)

In my humble opinion, absolutely the only thing that let us down tonight was the sound of some Gooner ingrates giving Patrick Vieira the bird. I can't remember the exact figures but in Arsène's pre-match conference, he spoke about how Paddy's nine years at THOF was the equivalent to something like 40 or 50 years of a career in any other warp of life. We should remember that although we suffered over the course of several summers, with all the will he/won't he sagas, at the end of the day Paddy didn't depart Highbury out of choice, he was sold by the club. And from what I've been led to believe, he was more than a little shocked at the way it worked out, in as much as he wasn't expecting the club to cash in on him.

We received £13 million for a player, who some say has somewhat knackered knees and as a result isn't likely to be able to play out a full season for his new club. If his body is on the verge of breaking down, it reached this state securing more silverware than most Gooners have seen at Highbury and more's the point, playing the sort of entertaining football that many of us who are longer in the tooth, never in our wildest dreams imagined we'd be enjoying week to week at THOF.

As a result Paddy deserves nothing but our heartfelt gratitude and those small-minded gits who booed him tonight, shamed me and our great club. We're all hoping our Champions League conquests will convince our latest captain to remain at the club. My instincts are that Thierry wont desert the Arsenal until he's seen us into the new stadium. However reading his programme notes after I got home this evening, where he says "the love the Arsenal fans have for Patrick Vieira is above even a Champions League Quarter-Final', I certainly hope he didn't realise that there were an extremely fickle few idiots who were booing Paddy towards the end, as this certainly wouldn't encourage Henry to act in anything but his own best interests. Personally, considering the circumstances of Paddy's departure and the fact that we never got an opportunity to express our gratitude and say goodbye, I was more than a little disappointed that we didn't make more of our opportunity to do so this evening. Considering the scoreline and the fact that Paddy's side had been so thoroughly beaten, it would've been wonderful to have given him a more gracious send off (mind you at least he didn't go the humiliating way of his two Juve teammates!)

The one other slightly disappointing aspect to tonight (although I wouldn't want it any other way!), is that it was such an utterly comprehensive and demoralising defeat for the Italian team that I can't exactly imagine the home fans dashing to the Stadio Delle Alpi for a second dose of humiliation. Unless things have changed, I believe that Champions League matches are not included in the Italian's season tickets, which is one of the reasons they get such disappointing turn-outs for European matches

If you saw pictures of the game in Turin against Werder Bremen, the stadium looked even more empty than it does usually and I'd imagine half of those who went to watch Juve play, when they had the advantage of two away goals, might not even bother turning up for next week's fixture. Apparently Juve will be sharing Turin's stadium next season, whilst the Old Ladyi undergoes a long overdue facelift, which involves the removal of the running track around the pitch, the development of English style, more intimate terracing and a REDUCTION of the capacity to something like 40,000

Unfortunately with my dreadful memory, I can't recall the exact circumstances, but I do remember a previous visit to play Juve which was a real wet blanket, where the Italians didn't bother to turn out to watch a virtual reserve team including hardly any of their star names and the Gooners in our section of the ground were more interested in knowing what was going on in the other group game being played that night, as I seem to recall, we needed an extremely unlikely result in this other match to have any hope of qualifying. To be honest I can't imagine next week's match at this soulless venue is going to be much more atmospheric. However I sincerely hope that in at least one corner of this concrete monstrosity the “craic” will be up to 90!

Peace & Love

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Monday 27 March 2006

Water, Water Everywhere..........!

It’s ridiculous to think that 15 million UK residents are facing water restrictions, including a £1000 fine for heinous hosepipe crimes and yet Saturday’s South coast encounter with Pompey was postponed because of a waterlogged pitch. Heaven only knows what the poor Kenyans must make of our dreadful profligacy, when their truly drought ridden country hasn’t seen decent rainfall in donkey’s years!

“Am I bovvered?” might’ve been Arsène’s response to Mike Riley’s final decision, following the ref’s 4.15pm pitch inspection. Three days prior to our biggest game of the season (so far?), I guess our manager might’ve been grateful to be able to afford his players an afternoon off.

Yet obviously Arsène hadn’t just endured a treacherous two hour trek to the coast, arriving in Portsmouth just in time to hear that the match had been called off and with nothing better to do than to turn the car around and head for home, just as the driving rain began to ease! As a result most travelling Gooners couldn’t appreciate Saturday’s utterly pointless and exhausting outing, from quite such a global perspective.

As ever the inconvenience for the long-suffering footie fan wasn’t a factor. We don’t rate any consideration because it’s taken as read that we’re all going to return to Fratton Park for the rearranged fixture, whenever it takes place. We were fully expecting to leapfrog Spurs into 4th place on Saturday. So the consensus of opinion amongst the miserable hordes heading back down the motorway to London, empty-handed, was that either the game should’ve gone ahead, or that they could’ve called it off a couple of hours earlier and saved us all from this pointless schlep.

Then again I’ve stood like a soggy sardine before, on the one open terrace behind the goal at that dilapidated dump, being drenched to the bone, while feeling as if all the home fans with a roof over their heads, were having a good giggle at the expense of us Gooners. However we sure laughed loudest on the afternoon of that fabulous FA Cup quarter final, right at the height of the Invincibles powers. We absolutely hammered Harry Redknapp’s side with the sort of stunning display which was well worth a soaking and which was particularly memorable for the good grace of the appreciative home fans who applauded Henry off the pitch.

Despite Fratton Park’s decrepit aura, it’s one of the Premiership's few remaining ‘proper’ old-fashioned football grounds. With its tight confines and rabid fans, atmosphere wise, I felt cheated on Saturday out of one of my favourite away trips (or worse still, there was all the aggro with none of the reward!)

Should we end up incinerating the Italians on Tuesday, it’ll be suggested that we reaped the benefits of a restful weekend. While in Turin, Del Piero limped off. Nedved was sent off and a ten man Juve dropped 2 points in a 1-1 draw with Roma.

Moreover it would’ve been nigh on impossible to play our passing game against Pompey with all the surface water and on such a heavy pitch. It could’ve proved a strength sapping mudbath, with a team desperate to maintain contact with the other bottom feeders and thereby avoid joining Sunderland as certain candidates for the calamitous chop. Hopefully Harry’s battle against the drop will be long since lost by the time we end up playing the rearranged match and his motley collection of mercenaries might not even have much pride left to play for.

You’ll know the answer by now, but on the other side of this coin is the possibility that the postponement could play straight into Juve’s hands. Professional footballers are distinct creatures of habit. The Gunners will have travelled down on Friday and begun their pre-match rituals, from the moment they awoke in some five star South coast gaffe. With it being a late kick-off, they’d have been kitted up and stretching limbs, long before Riley deemed the pitch unplayable.

After all this physical and mental preparation, but without the release of 90 minutes out on the park, they’ll have felt like overwound clock coils on their return trip to the capital and by the time they turn out for Tuesday’s extremely high profile encounter, they might be fit to burst with all this tension. We can but pray the effects are all positive!

Whatever the outcome, we’ll have a slightly altered perspective of the proof in this particular pudding, as our prime West Upper pitch has been allocated to UEFA’s sponsorship ‘partners’. The most annoying thing about such glamorous Champions League occasions is that these tickets often end up in the grubby hands of greedy touts, who’ll take genuine Gooners to the cleaners (some poor sod who flew in from Chicago for the Madrid match told me the CHEAPEST ticket he was offered was 700 quid!). While the remainder go to besuited, corporate types who often aren’t Gooners, or even footie fans in some cases.

Standing listening to the chatter amidst the throng queuing to see us play Real at Highbury, it was disappointing to think of all those Gooners who’d give their eye teeth to swap places with the sort of city gents who sounded like they’d be far more at home standing around their 4x4s, outside Twickers, swapping share tips whilst supping champers from their picnic hampers. It was sickening to think that some were really only there because Arsenal v Real Madrid was an event that one just had to have on ones sporting resume!

However I shouldn’t be moaning, as in return for being moved to an almost identical seat on the other side of the halfway line, we’ll get a refund cheque in a couple of months time. Consequently should you have noticed a section of Gooners on Tuesday night with broader grins than most, it will be those of us watching this veritable feast of European football for absolutely free!

Here’s hoping our smiles are even wider come the final whistle and it’s our current, rather than our former captain who’s had confirmation that his Champions League bread is buttered on it’s red & white side!

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Tuesday 21 March 2006

Fe Fi Fo Fum, Ireland Smelt the Blood of the Englishmen

Hi folks

I guess I should point out that my title is merely a decidedly unsubtle attempt to pander to the Examiner's Irish readers. As most of those who aren't fortunate to live in the Emerald Isle will have little appreciation of quite how much a victory over the Brits (even if it is just the egg chasers) means over there

Peace & Love

Despite the turgid diet of tabloid drivel about Titi’s future, I tend to believe that the Arsenal’s main man is far too much of a ‘mensch’ to leave us (and his mentor!) in the lurch, at our hour of greatest need. Considering how incredibly privileged we’ve been, to be treated to the marvellous array of magical feats, of just about the most gifted footballer on this planet, on such a regular basis since the turn of the Century, neither I, nor any other sane Gooner could blame Henry if he should ultimately decide to cash in his Highbury chips, while he still continues to hold all the aces.

However, in spite of my cynicism about loyalty and the lack thereof in these mercenary climes, I’m inclined to believe that Thierry will still be a Gunner at least until the beginning of next season.

Sky broadcast pictures during the week of the ceremony to install the first seat in our spanking new stadium, which now dominates the Highbury landscape like a magnificent, monstrous spaceship. My instincts are that Thierry will stay at least until he’s attracted all the additional bums needed to fill the twenty odd thousand extra seats.

Yet one thing is for sure, all the talk of Henry’s imminent departure has been guaranteed to crystallize ones appreciation of his incredible talent. Even after all this time he still has the ability to leave us all dumbstruck in absolute awe of his brilliance on a regular basis.

We saw the beautiful game played at its simplistic best in the build up to our first goal on Saturday, as the ball travelled from player to player, between one end of the pitch and t’other, in the blink of an eye. But as Henry pushed it past a Charlton defender, towards the byeline, I assumed his touch was a little too heavy and it was heading out for a goalkick.

Like many of the greatest athletes, he has the ability to make the most astonishing feats appear almost effortless. Turning on the afterburners, Titi accelerated past his opponent and not only reached the ball before it went out, but had the presence of mind to produce a perfect cut back, to leave Pires with the relatively easy task of sidefooting home.

It wasn’t the only instance on Saturday afternoon when those of us privileged to be present turned to one another, wearing expressions of astonishment which spoke a thousand words. Obviously I’d be devastated to think that Henry might be dazzling the fans on some foreign field in the near future. Yet whether he stays or goes, while Thierry remains a Gunner, I don’t think there are words in the dictionary to describe how incredibly blessed we’ve been to be able to gorge ourselves on the veritable feast of footballing poetry he’s served up over the years.

Charlton are the sort of team who rely on their team spirit, to make up for what they might lack in natural ability. I imagine Curbishley could be struggling to motivate his troops, without sounding somewhat disingenuous, amidst all the gossip about this shortlist for Sven’s successor. Thus the Addick’s abysmal efforts resulted in their gaffer getting the bird by way of “England job, you’re having a larf”.

I am not sure whether they were so bad, or we were in such fine form. A little of both I suspect. But a brilliant display warmed the cockles of Gooner hearts, on an afternoon when the biting, Arctic wind had everyone pulling their hats down around their ears, warding off the cold by becoming overly intimate with ones neighbours

By the second half we were positively taking the piss, with a period of possession which had the flag waving bunch of Spaniards beside us bellowing out the “olés”. Their delighted reaction to my cries of “venga Fabregas” was very reassuring, as I’ve always been uncertain whether I’ve been encouraging our Spanish starlet to get stuck in, or inviting him to attain sexual climax!

Ray, who sits next to me, pointed out the fact that our goalie had left his towel tucked in the net at the Clock End of the pitch. We all had a good giggle about Lehmann reinforcing the Germanic stereotype, reserving his pitch for the next match.

With everyone frozen to the bone and the outcome a foregone conclusion, only the hardiest (foolhardy?) of Gooners held out for the final whistle. As a result Highbury was half-empty by the time Dermot Gallagher eventually ended the Addick’s humiliation. Such was the apparent gulf in class, that on the radio they were making reality TV show cracks as in “I’m a Premiership team get me outta here!”

It was great to witness the return of the imperious swagger of the Arsenal’s Invincibles. As the bearer of the terrace tranny, I’m bound to keep everyone updated with news of the scores elsewhere. It’s a somewhat bizarre reflection on how far the mighty have fallen, to hear those around me expressing more of an interest in the progress of the likes of Blackburn and Bolton, instead of traditional rivals such as Man U,

It’s a decidedly unfamiliar experience to be approaching the final few games of the season, fretting about Bolton’s games in hand. Having kept our noses in front of Lancashire’s less venerated teams and leapfrogged Spurs into that absolutely crucial fourth qualification place for next season’s Champions League, we were back home and beginning to thaw out, before settling down to cheer on Birmingham.

Most of my Spurs pals are pessimistic about their prospects, thinking they blew their chance of securing some breathing space in 4th, before we finally began to find some form. Despite an unconvincing performance, they managed to snaffle all 3 points on Saturday.

I’ve never been a fan of rugby, ever since I was forced to play this Philistine sport at school. Being of slim build and quite nippy I was always stuck out on the wing. This suited me, since the two centres incompetent passing ensured the ball rarely ever reached me and I was able to avoid being clobbered by a burly bunch of classmates.

Yet by the time Robbie Keane scored Spurs’ second even the egg chasers seemed preferable to the dross on offer at St. Andrews. I was glad I changed channels just in time to catch Ireland’s match winning try at Twickenham and the resulting Triple Crown celebrations. I’ve never noticed it before but surely one needs to be certifiably mad to want to participate in a sport involving “Blood substitutes”?

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Saturday 18 March 2006

Never Mind The Lucky Shamrock, Anyone Got A Spare Pacemaker?

Hi folks

It's another "two for the price of one week" for you lucky people, following a major disaster last week, when the hard drive failed on my laptop. Obviously I've been a computer user for long enough to know that if there is one guaranteed inevitability that you can depend on with new technology, it's that it will eventually fail you. So fortunately I had the good sense to make back up DVDs of the masses of important information stored on my machine.

Unfortunately for this particular schmock, that was in January 2005!!

It's only thanks to the fact that I started this blog that all this season's diary pieces haven't disappeared and as far as those who receive my weekly missives by e-mail, I am grateful to Gmail for the fact that I still have all my addresses (otherwise I'd be even further up the wazoo than I am right now :-)

So unless you fancy finding yourself participating in this same disastrous, displeasure ride up kack creek without the proverbial paddle at some point in the future, I seriously suggest you heed my tale of caution and take the trouble of making regular backups. As even if you are fortunate to be an Apple Mac user like myself, sadly your precious computer is still going to give up the ghost at some point.

I was able to get my piece written and sent out to the Examiner thanks to Róna's laptop, but I've remained relatively incommunicado as far as the online world is concerned for most of the week. I can confirm that it's only when something is taken away from you that you truly appreciate it's value and I've been amazed these past few days by how incredibly dependent I've become on my laptop and its connection to the outside world via the internet (some might say that this could be an analogy for the situation with Thierry Henry).

Divorce would've definitely been on the cards if I'd continued to requisition my missus' pristine laptop, as she was already "kicking off" about the potential damage from every biscuit crumb dropped and every puff of cigarette smoke blown at her precious baby. So I was eternally grateful when a good pal I work with agreed to stump up for a replacement and deduct the cost from my wages (although it might mean us being restricted to a bread & water diet for the next few months :-)

I might end up having to run around the shower to get wet but still at least I'll be able to continue communicating with you guys

Big Love

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Hands up! Forget all the logical footballing excuses like the departure of our former captain. The Arsenal’s woefully
inconsistent Premiership campaign has been all my fault. We had the out-laws over from Dublin last week, as Róna had kindly (crazily?) offered her ticket to last Wednesday’s momentous match to her nephew. So her sister, Cliona and her Ma had taken the opportunity to come over with Rory for a visit.

Along with my own ‘skin & blister’ and my Ma, we all went out for a family dinner on Friday night. On route home, we were parked in a petrol station filling up the car, when Ro commented on a passer-by’s quirky ‘titfer’. It suddenly dawned on me that although I’d long since lost the strip of material used to tie around the top of this sort of headware, I’d forgotten all about my favourite Arsenal hat.

It had spent the entire season so far buried in the hall cupboard, from whence I retrieved it the moment we reached home. I was relieved to discover it was still adorned with the FAI shamrock badge that had been bought for me many years back on a trip to Lansdowne Road.

Thus I was feeling relatively confident walking around to the West Upper for Sunday’s game. For the first time this term I was wearing the hat which had been on my head throughout the course of so many success filled seasons. Just as it seemed as if all three points were about to slip from our grasp against the Scousers, my lucky shamrock worked its magic, with Steven Gerrard’s bizarre backpass gifting Henry the winner. Now if only my miraculous ‘titfer’ had come to mind sooner, we might still be challenging for the title and if we should go on an unbeaten run between now and the end of the season, I suppose I’ll have to shoulder the blame for the Arsenal’s dismal season to date!

I don’t know about the players, but as I slumped onto the sofa that evening, settling down in front of the gogglebox for the satellite broadcast of Juve v AC Milan, in order to cast an eye over our next Champs League opponents, I was utterly ‘cream crackered’. Having shouted my self almost hoarse at Highbury that afternoon, I was left feeling emotionally spent but for once incredibly satisfied, after 90 nervous minutes of a match of such significance, as far as the overall mood in the Arsenal camp is concerned.

After the anomalous experience of cheering Chelsea on to victory against Spurs the day before, it was absolutely vital we pegged back 3 points on our neighbours and leapfrogged the likes of Bolton and Blackburn. What’s more after tonking Fulham last week, we desperately needed to consolidate our Premiership form, by building on the confidence derived from snuffing out the Spanish giants and proving that we’re not Premiership lightweights.

Earlier in the week Gooners were flying in from all over the globe, many without the slightest hope of a ticket for the home game against the Galacticos. An Arsenal fan who flew in from Chicago told me that the cheapest ticket he’d found was priced at a blood curdling 700 quid. While he couldn’t countenance (nor afford!) spending more than the cost of his flight, he couldn’t bear watching this match from afar. So he was going to have to content himself with watching the game in the Gunners pub. He and thousands of other ticketless Gooners turned up on the night, merely so that they might be there at Highbury in person to soak up the pre and post match atmosphere.

Under the circumstances, having offered young Rory her ticket, I thought it’d be impossible find a spare with which I could reward Ro’s act of kindness. Luckily my uncle came up trumps. Their seats opposite us in the East Upper are requisitioned for an extended Press Box for European games and he and my cousin are offered an alternative, right at the back of the North Bank.

Apart from the heart bypass surgery which makes an assault to the summit of the North Bank such hard graft, uncle Herman has a famously nervous disposition during every Arsenal match, let alone the most tense encounter in my living memory (he’s been a season ticket holder since long before I was born!). Even when he goes to games, he spends much of the match standing in the concourse out the back because he can’t bear to watch. So those around where he sits are in the habit of sending Herman out when we badly need a goal.

Every Arsenal fan’s nerves were strained to the very limit last Wednesday and so Ro was the beneficiary of the fact that it could’ve been a serious health hazard for him. Fortunately we all met up after 90 minutes of the most exciting scoreless draw ever seen at Highbury and my cousin was able to warn us off making an instinctive phone call to thank his dad.

Mark reminded us that Herman can’t endure the live transmission on TV. So, believe it or not, he’s in the stark raving bonkers habit of watching the Teletext transmission for the duration of the match, but with half the screen covered up. The only information he gets to glean about the Gunners progress is governed by the rise and fall of the bookies odds. In this way he can then watch a recording of the game after it is all over, without knowing the actual score but with none of the worry over the eventual outcome.

I guess the Arsenal’s inexperienced back line surprised everyone, as few had much faith in our ability to shut out Real’s array of attacking talent for an entire 90 minutes. For the Arsenal and for Rory’s sake I was hoping we’d go for the Galacticos’ jugular. But once again it would seem that ‘Arsène knows’, as all over the pitch the Arsenal players put their bodies on the line, demonstrating the sort of resolve which makes me wonder about the impostors we’ve been watching the rest of the season. While Rory didn’t get to celebrate any goals, I’ve no doubt he’ll always remember the pulsating atmosphere of his first and last pilgrimage to Highbury.

Hopefully the famous Marble Halls are destined to resound to the euphoric celebrations of at least a couple more similarly momentous occasions, before the doors finally close on our historic home and we turn to a new page of a glorious Gooner future. But whether or not we progress past Juve and beyond in this Champs League campaign, I’m sure most will agree that last Wednesday night was a fitting swansong for the Home of Football.

Wednesday 8 March 2006

Consummate Cottaging

There was a woman crouched on the floor at the bottom of the stairs at half-time on Saturday, receiving some First Aid. I thought it must’ve been the shock of seeing the Arsenal score twice away from home. There’s definitely something about the style of football played by Chris Coleman’s Fulham, which seems perfectly suited for the Gunners. Yet I don’t imagine there will be too many Gooners jumping to Andy Gray’s premature assertion on Sky that “Arsenal are back” (he said the same after we thumped 7 past Boro). At least not until we’ve seen how we fare in our next two crucial fixtures against Real and Liverpool.

Following on from his impressive efforts in Madrid, Freddie Ljungberg might’ve managed to produce just about his only impressive league performance so far this season. But in truth the most influential factor in the way we steamrolled over Saturday’s opponents, compared to all our other lousy results on the road in this lamentable league campaign, was the vital first goal.

Wenger’s young side seem to be a totally different animal when they take the lead in matches and most of us are only too aware of the fact that this team can only truly be said to have come of age, when they prove they have sufficient ‘cahones’ to be capable of turning a game around. Although you won’t find many complaining if they can keep scoring first and continue to win at such a canter as Saturday’s one-sided contest.

Obviously our success at the Cottage in recent seasons helps, but it’s not just because it’s proved such a happy hunting ground that makes Fulham one of my favourite away fixtures. I was still watching Mourinho’s disrespectful shenanigans at the Hawthorns on the box and by the time his team appeared for the second-half, they weren’t the only ones running late. However skirting around the capital’s weekend traffic, I made it from North to West and was parked up in time to make it for kick-off.

I adore Craven Cottage’s ancient façade and it’s riverside setting. The impressive mammoth stadia of the commercial industry that is the modern game are all well and good. But for a sentimental traditionalist like myself, unlike the overwhelming enormity of the Bernabeu, or at Blackburn last week, where turnstile operators have become obsolete with new-fangled barcode reading entry systems, there’s something very reassuring about clunking ones way through the ancient turnstiles for the same 90 minutes of escapism that footie fans have been enjoying for the past century or so. I suppose I am all the more sensitive to the demise of our Saturday afternoon rituals with our imminent departure from Highbury.

However I’m not moaning about one modern addition at Fulham, as the away fans metal stand behind the goal makes for a great atmosphere. On Saturday the Gooners at the back were banging on the metal sheeting, whilst the rest of us were stomping on the flooring and combined with our vocal rendition, we managed to produce an uproarious racket of encouragement for the Gunners.

“Have you ever seen Chelsea play like this?” we enquired of the understandably quiet home crowd. Although truth is, we’ve hardly seen the Arsenal play like THAT all season and while we might be a far more attractive proposition in our pomp than Mourinho’s men, I wouldn’t mind sacrificing a soupcon of style for just some of the Blues relentless efficiency.

Mercifully we are blessed with a relatively easy run-in, including a few teams with little more than pride to play for. Having been so starved of successive good results for the much of the season, I remain convinced that if we could just get a run going and gather some momentum, there will be few of our remaining opponents who’d be capable of knocking us off our stride. By contrast Spurs face some pretty stiff tests of their rediscovered credentials in their last 9 games and as a result I am pretty optimistic that so long as they provide us with the opportunity, we are more than capable of pegging them back.

Then again in an inconsistent season all round, there’s only 10 points separating our neighbours in 4th and Newcastle in 11th place. It might be a far-fetched idea in practice, especially for those sides who will have started the season aspiring merely for Premiership survival, but on paper it’s only a matter of motivating their team to string a few results together, for any number of managers to claim that highly prized qualification for the Champions League.

I’d like to think that the battle for Europe and the relegation dogfight might ensure we won’t have to endure too many meaningless matches in the run-in. Although the counter argument was presented to us on Match of the Day on Saturday night, by the evidence of an absence of bums on seats at Villa Park and Boro. But I can fully appreciate fans not wanting to put themselves through the masochistic experience of paying extortionate ticket prices to suffer watching some of their star player, on outrageous wages, just going through the motions.

It made a pleasant change to be eagerly looking forward to the company of Lineker and co. on Saturday evening. Yet in their Goal of the Month competition the same programme offered evidence that some of Wenger’s highly paid collection of talent are perhaps culpable of the same crime. It certainly reflected our recent rotten form, as it was rare to witness a selection not only without a single contribution from the Gunners, but which included two goals scored against us.

Obviously I’m hoping Barca will serve up an hors d’oeuvres on Tuesday that will see the Blues taught a footballing lesson. But you can’t possibly underestimate the importance of Wednesday’s main course, both on the Arsenal’s immediate future and the club’s prospects of maintaining a place amongst the elite in the long term.

Success and failure in football are self-perpetuating and in recent months we’ve fallen victim to the fact that our opponents have been able to get ‘in our faces’, as their respect for Wenger’s current side has diminished. We desperately need to overcome the mighty Real Madrid and consolidate our success by stuffing the Scousers on Sunday. In one foul swoop we might restore our reputation as a force to be reckoned with and thereby earn the right to be afforded the very time and space required to be able to demolish all in our path.

If we can stifle Real for the first 20 minutes, I’m hoping that their increasing anxiety about cancelling out our advantage might leave them open to being hit on the counter-attack. However between you and me, I’d bite your hand off if you offered me a 0-0 slaughter!

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Wednesday 1 March 2006

Does It Get Any Better?

Sorry folks, you'll have to forgive me but I ended up having to finish writing my piece for the Examiner in such a rush and was left with so much more to tell of our momentous trip to Madrid, that I've only just managed to finish re-writing it.

I will also have to apologise for its rambling style, but it occurred to me that if I didn't get it posted before tomorrow night's second leg, it might not be worth sending it out at all

Peace & Love

The stallholder in the pub forecourt opposite Ewood Park on Saturday was doing a brisk trade flogging bright yellow “1-0 in the Bernabeu” t-shirts. Arsenal fans were arriving in Blackburn absolutely buzzing, still floating on a wave of world-beating euphoria, some 4 days after savouring our marvellous achievement, as the first league side to silence the Galacticos big guns in their own backyard.

It’s not surprising we went a little overboard with our celebrations (you’d have thought we’d won the Champions League itself), as aside from an equalising goal against the old enemy, the penalty shoot-out party up at bloomin’ Belleview of all places and the 7-0 slaughter of Boro, the Madrid match was without doubt the most refulgent star, in an otherwise murky firmament of our miserable season so far.

Unfortunately, unlike when we mullahed Inter Milan 5-1 in Italy, this match won’t prove to be a springboard for more Premiership success. Yet it was the same sort of historic European encounter, which will go down in Arsenal legend, as another triumph for Highbury’s humble advocate of the beautiful game, over corporate behemoths like Real, who with the unlimited financial backing of such wealthy sugar daddies as the King of Spain, assume that success should be theirs by right.

A tour of Madrid’s sporting cathedral and a stroll through their impressive museum seems designed to inflict an inferiority complex on all visiting supporters. There’s an absolutely dazzling array of prizes to reinforce Real’s success filled pedigree, along with some of the most outrageously ornate silverware I’ve ever seen, including a incredible Taj Mahal type monstrosity that lends weight to the theory which suggests the more ridiculous the trophy, the more Mickey Mouse the tournament.

However along with this incredible collection and all the interesting artefacts from Real’s prodigious past, perhaps the most impressive and somewhat intimidating installation, is the relatively simple gallery of Los Blancos player’s past and present. The imposing faces of Roberto Carlos, Zizou, Ronaldo etc. stared down at me from the walls, a couple of days after such star names, with their own museum’s worth of medals, had been undone by the inexperienced likes of Flamini, Eboué and Fabregas. It was a poignant testament to the fickle unpredictability that can make a mere football match so flaming magical!

And to think we nearly didn’t make it to Madrid at all. With the sort of typical military planning which makes my pal Kev the perfect travelling companion for someone so totally useless as myself, we were hussled out of the door at 4.45am on Tuesday morning. Well actually Kev was waiting in the car, having already issued his standard threat that if I wasn’t down in a couple of minutes, he would leave us with the number of a local cab firm. It’s the knowledge that he’s 100 per cent serious which appears to be the only means of getting me to pull my finger out.

With my shambolic lifestyle and my perennial tardiness naturally it’s all my own fault but as ever, obviously I have to blame someone else. I threw the last couple of essentials, the toothbrush, the mobile charger, into my rucksack and flew out the door to the car, where Kev and Ro were waiting impatiently. We had loads of time as we headed through the empty East London streets and as Kev stopped at an all-nighter for some grub and water, I sat in the car, running through a check list of all the things I’d managed to forget in my haste.

There were some DVDs which we hadn’t watched yet that I’d left out to take with but this wasn’t a big deal as we could buy a couple aborad. Leaving my sunglasses behind might be no bad thing, I thought, as if I’d taken them it would’ve virtually guaranteed that the sun’s disappearing act for the duration.

Only the absence from my rucksack of my red woolen Arsenal scarf felt like a bit of a ricket. But I managed to reassure myself that of all the 76,000 odd footie fans packed into the Bernabeu and with a collection of some of the best players on this planet out on the pitch, surely the fates couldn’t possibly be quite so fickle as to leave the outcome of undoubtedly the most important match of the season for both teams, down to the fact that one dumb Gooner had neglected to wear his red wooly scarf?

Besides I hadn’t forgotten my lucky ’71 shirt. No matter what high-tech gobbledigook goes on the label, to my mind the modern replica shirts are, and always will be nylon and so this relatively ancient cotton version is the only replica top I’ll wear. However these days I tend to only get it out for special occasions, perhaps trying to conserve any inherent luck for when it’s really needed.

So we set off again and it wasn’t until about five minutes later when I happened to mention the fact that I was still thinking of what I might have left behind, that Kev happened to mention that all we really needed were our passports and match tickets. While I always carry my passport and usually have my away match tickets in my shoulder bag, it suddenly dawned on me to my horror that after all these years of waiting, our guaranteed entrance to the Bernabeu had been left behind on the bedside table.

I am sure Kev thought I was joking at first, but I eventually persuaded him to turn the car around, only a mile or two from the Blackwall Tunnel. Naturally I was thinking that I wouldn’t have forgotten them if I wasn’t being so pressured to get out the door, while Kev put his foot to the floor, whilst I assume recalling the reason I wasn;t perhaps his first choice of travelling company and Ro was sitting in the back wondering what she was doing living with such a complete schmock.

After all it’s far from the first game where I’ve walked out the door without the tickets – the last occasion I only remembered them at the airport, when it was too late and all the resulting aggravation getting into the ground was the reason I wasn’t going to leave without them on this occasion. So you’d have thought I’d have learnt my lesson by now! You could cut the atmosphere in the car with a knife

Still mercifully Kev’s overly cautious approach had ensured he’d allowed time for a flat tyre, a multiple pile up on the motorway, an earthquake and any other act of G-d which might delay us. So thankfully we made it to the airport in the nick of time and onto the plane, albeit a sight more stressed out than planned.

At least our early departure meant we were able to arrive in Madrid and check into our hotel, with a good few hours to relax before the game. Otherwise I would’ve probably ended up nodding out in the Bernabeu and might’ve been fast akip by the time Titi sent us all into seventh heaven.

We’d had some concerns about reaching our seats in the gods without aggravating Ro’s asthma. Yet it was alright on the night as we rode all the way up on a series of escalators, a literal mechanical ‘stairway to heaven’ so to speak. Stepping out onto the heights of the Bernabeu terracing for the first time is a breathtaking experience for even the most blasé footie fan. It’s the incredibly steep incline that causes you to catch your breath and even without any vertigo issues, I found myself instinctively grabbing on to the metal barriers for grim death.

A full house at the Camp Nou is no less impressive but I can recall feeling frustrated sitting in the gods when we played Barcelona. Without a roof, no matter how loud you holler, the noise of a few thousand Gooners just dissipated into the night air. There’s an additional benefit overhead at the Bernabeu, as they’ve installed a bank of powerful heaters that had sweaty Gooners shedding layers of winter clothing, as we worked up a head of steam, making ourselves heard. Call me deluded but I remain convinced that we had an impact on the game during the 20-minute period after Thierry’s tremendous goal.

I guess the Gooners right at the back were banging on the metal sheeting behind them. It was like the sound of a drum conducting an incessant mantra of “Arséne Wenger’s red & white army”. We might’ve waxed and waned in volume but our chant went on ad infinitum. Despite Real’s control of possession in their efforts to conjure up an equaliser, I got the feeling that we were somehow reaffirming the Arsenal’s desire to stand fast. Doubtless I was dreaming but I got the distinct sense that our song seemed to drain the 70,000 home fans and their side of every last shred of belief, as though success was our destiny that sensational night.

Right from the first whistle of the evening it seemed as if this was a match of such import to the two underachieving titans, that both were too terrified to appear from under their shell. Eventually it was the timidity of our opponents which offered us sufficient encouragement to prevail. Call me greedy, but like most other Gooners I am just a little gutted that we couldn’t capitalise on Real’s feckless efforts to put the outcome beyond doubt

With the home fans hotfooting it away from the scene of their side’s strangely introverted efforts, and our sarcastic chant of “Adios” ringing in their ear, it was great to see the so many pockets of Gooners dotted around the cavernous concourse. For once no one was concerned about being kept in. We were all intent on squeezing every last drop out of this delicious encounter, knowing at the back of our minds that there might not be too many more like it for some time to come, while serenading the stewards and the Spanish coppers with chants of “we’re not going home” and the equally unconvincing assertion that “we’re on our way to Paris”!

When we were eventually let out to wind our way down one of the two towers at either end of the ground, we were relieved to discover the escalators were operating in the opposite direction. Most amusing was the scene straight out of “March of the Penguins” at the bottom of each level, as the bodies piled off the moving stairway, bumping into one another and we all pigeon stepped our way around onto the next section. All you could hear around you was the last vestiges of croaky voices, with almost every Gooner having sung themselves completely hoarse.

Standing outside the massive stadium at ground level was the gaggle of board waving Travel Club and Flight Options stewards, directing day-trippers to their respective coaches amongst the long fleet lined up in the parking bays. I had some sympathy for those being herded back onto their transport to Madrid airport, followed by a tortuous trip home.Yet I guess that at least they were there on the night. Which is a helluva lot more than can be said for all those other Gooners, who will without doubt be kicking themselves for having missed out on such a marvelous memory.

We joined all those heading down into the Metro to travel the 3 or 4 stops back into the centre of the city. Many headed for a Cuban Bar opposite the ubiquitous Irish Pub, where if you check out some of the photos on Arsenal World, you will see how a small corner of the Spanish capital was turned into a Highbury home from home, as many celebrated on into the very wee hours.

I wish I could say that I joined in the revellry and even as a non-drinker, it seemed fitting to raise a glass or two in honour of such a special occasion. However I have to admit that as the Metro reached the stop for our hotel on route, Róna and I had invested so much of ourselves in the 90 minutes of the match that we were both feeling physically and emotionally spent.

So as a shamefaced, party-pooping, interminably unsociable bugger, I’m embarrassed to inform you that we slipped off back to our little hotel, to breathe that sigh of relief as we slipped our boots off and put our feet up, to catch the highlights on TV, with believe it or not, a celebratory cuppa. To be honest I was half afraid to fall asleep, lest I woke up to find it was all a dream! I only know that a particularly good night was had by all because I was woken at 4am by the bleep of my mobile, with a drunken text message from Kev, our travelling companion, to warn me that he didn’t think he was capable of making it back to the hotel

By the way for anyone planning on going to Madrid in the future, we were fortunate to find this fabulous little hotel. Hotel Abalu is a small family run gaff in the centre of town with only ten rooms, each of which is individually decorated (apparently by the same decorator who did the five times more expensive Hotel Urban), with flat-screen TVs, wi-fi internet all for less than 50 quid a night for a double!

With the wi-fi internet, I was able to settle down the following night to watch the moneybags Blues v Barca on our flash TV, whilst tuning the computer into the live commentary on the internet.The only problem with this was that the audio was lagging about ten minutes behind the pictures, so I soon gave up. So much for the wonders of modern technology, not to mention so much for patriotism, as it seemed ironic to think of all the Madrid fans hollering for Chelsea to win and all the Gooners gagging for the British side to get stuffed.

Obviously Barca’s win was the icing on the cake for our Spanish outing. I only wish one of our teenagers would start producing the sort of influential performance we witnessed from Lionel Messi, who’s rapidly replaced AC Milan’s Kaka as about my favourit foreign star.

Absolutely the worst thing about Thierry’s tremendousgoal in the Bernabeu was the fact that for the following couple of days, both Spain’s sporting papers lead with stories lauding Henry’s talents. To be honest I am not really sure what a “flat-track bully” is, but I think Titi proved last Tuesday night (was it only a week ago, as it already feels like a magical memory from months back) that he’s certainly not guilty of being anything of the sort.

I love the way the Spanish sports papers analyze every single aspect of the game, breaking everything down with diagrams and statistics. Not that I can make head nor tail of half of them, with my pigeon Spanish, but it drives me stark raving barmy that the serious footie fan is so well catered for by the written media on the Continent, where all we get is gobby headlines writ large across the Red Tops, with plenty of photos to portray the latest bit of juicy gossip.

Whenever I pore over the dedicated sports dailies in Spain and Italy I get very jealous of the sort of detailed coverage football fans are treated to in such countries and can’t for the life of me understand why none of the media magnates have managed to make a go of one over here. Although I guess these days with everything that is available on the internet, it is all the more unlikely but personally I would love to be able to sit over breakfast the day after every Arsenal match and be able to read this sort of analysis of almost every kick of the game, instead of the collection of tittle-tattle that we usually end up ticking into in our tabloid trash.

It was back down to earth with a bump at Blackburn with our unsuccessful attempts to earn the right to be involved in such glamorous European occasions next season, However I have to be honest and tell you that it was hard to get too upset about another lacklustre effort on the pitch, as it’s not every week that I find myself travelling to an away game at the wheel of a gleaming red 400 bhp Ferrari Spyder.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to get to Blackburn, as I certainly didn’t fancy driving on my tod and I have a whole heap of trust issues about travelling to footie on a train - you wouldn’t mind the extortionate prices so much if they were guaranteed to get you there and back as stated on the timetables. But when I think of the rail network in this country, I am reminded of yet another of my old man’s favourite jokes about the chap in a restaurant who asks for the maitre d., in order to voice his concerns. “I have two complaints about this restaurant, firstly the food tastes like crap and what’s more the portions aren’t big enough!

So I was over the proverbial moon when a West Upper pal offered to drive me down to Ewood Park in just about the most beautiful car on the planet. And if this wasn’t good enough, my pleasure meter was flickering in a similar range to the speedo, when he pulled over onto the hard shoulder of the M6 toll road and invited me take the wheel for much of the remainder of the journey. With its paddle gear change and stuck to the tarmac like glue, I had some inkling of the sort of fun involved in Michael Schumacher’s “work”. To be honest I was a little relieved to be able to return to just enjoying the ride, as we pulled over for petrol before leaving the motorway. With the roof off and the sun beaming down on our bonces for the last few miles, I was able to savour the experience, without panicking about having to park this beast in front of a large audience at Blackburn.

Having such a gorgeous motor does have its advantages. As we neared the ground and with no obvious parking pitch in sight, my mate Stuart wondered whether he might offer a local householder a few quid to be able to leave the car on their drive. After all, who wouldn’t want a Ferrari parked up in front of their gaff. As it was we managed to find a pitch in a petrol station, where, after the chap organising the parking had given the car the once over, he arranged for the manager to move their humble vehicle slightly, so we could slip in beside it, in prideof place right by the exit and perfectly placed for a fast getaway (with none of the usual worries of being trapped in by the vehicles of those not in any hurry to get home). S’funny, no one offers to move their motor for my Fiesta!

Unbelievably (in these money grabbing times) you can queue up at the Ewood Park on the day and obtain a cash refund for any spare tickets. As a result, not only was I able to give the readies we received for my ticket to the pal I’d travelled North with, so we could sit together in his two seats, but the kindly lady at the counter was happy to do a straight swap for two together in the upper tier. Sadly Mark Hughes’ Blackburn weren’t nearly so charitable as the Rover’s box office and our improved pitch behind the goal turned out to be the last result of a yet another lamentable Premiership awayday.

Once inside we were forced to endure a further repeat episode of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, from a team which was totally unrecognisable from the one that triumphed over Real. It’s obvious that this brittle Arsenal side is more suited to European football, without the pressing game that exposes our lack of backbone. Looking up from a lowly 7th, many optimistic Gooners are hoping to have the last laugh on Spurs by winning the Champions League and thereby denying them a highly coveted place in this competition next season.

Even if we should dispose of Madrid, there’ll still be 3 quality teams between us and the big-eared prize. At some stage we’re going to have to prove we can roll our sleeves up with the best of them and demonstrate the sort of spirit that’s been so patently lacking in our woeful Premiership campaign to date.

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