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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 fa├žade 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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