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Saturday 15 April 2006

Tottenham still watching Eastenders...Arsenal going to Villareal!

I am sure that like many other Gooners, I felt that Sky's live coverage of Barca v Villareal last night seemed a far more interesting proposition than Man Utd v Sunderland, with a view to checking out our opposition next week. Even with resting the prolific likes of Riquelme, Forlan, Saurin etc , the Spanish side's performance only confirmed my concerns about the way in which many of the pundits have been talking about our semi-final as if it was a foregone conclusion.

Villareal are certainly not going to be the sort of pushover that some presumptuous footie folk would have us believe and we are going to have to produce the genuine Gunner's goods if we are going to get through to the final. To be perfectly honest, personally I would've preferred to be facing either of the other two footballing giants in the semis, as we've seen this season how we've been capable of raising our game for such high profile, glamorous occasions. What's more, on the basis that we are going to have to beat the big boys at some stage, if we are to finally get grubby Gooner hands on the big eared prize, I'd rather get them out the way sooner, rather than later, as with some of Europe's more mercenary stars, the closer they get to filling their nostrils with the scent of the football's most prestigious prize, the more they might be likely to motivate themselves to perform to the very maximum.

It also occurs to me that none of the mollycoddled main men in the Barca and AC Milan camps would've fancied meeting an in form Gunners side in the semis after witnessing the drama free way in which we disposed of Real and Juve without even breaking much of a sweat. However for the humble Spanish side, it didn't matter which of the teams they met in the semis, as they were going to be underdogs against any of them and in truth, of the three teams, you can be sure their South American strike force will fancy their chances of scoring against our young inexperienced back line, more than they would against the old defensive salts at Milan & Barca

When you consider how much further the lowly Villareal have progressed in this illustrious competition, than absolutely anyone would've expected (did I hear right this evening, that Villareal were a semi-pro side until the early 90s?), including even the most optimistic amongst their own fans, then it follows that they are likely to play with the sort of freedom of a team which has absolutely nothing to lose. Whereas if it's still up for grabs come the second leg, within the tight confines of the less than glamorous surroundings of El Madrigal, there might be some tension amongst the Gunners playing as the outright favourites for a place in the final, against a team we are expected to beat - it seems without even raising a sweat, if you are to believe some of the preposterously imprudent rubbish I've read.

Then again, when you reach this stage of such an arduous and long drawn out tournament and you appreciate the incredibly narrow margins between success and failure, a huge part in whether we are to progress or not, will be down to luck and the fact of whether fate has our name on the one piece of silverware that has to date eluded the inside of an Arsenal trophy cabinet.

It's a shame, as I was hoping that we might have done a whole lot better in the league, against Man Utd and Pompey and if we hadn't dropped what might prove to be a costly five points over the course of these two matches, Le Prof might well have been in a position to give a couple of players a breather today against West Brom. In fact some of those I've spoken to in the past few weeks actually pinpointed today's game, as possibly a suitable occasion for the long-awaited introduction of our lightning quick teenage prodigy.

Having sadly missed getting my first glimpse of young Theo Walcott's first performance in an Arsenal shirt, for the reserves at Underhill, I've been eagerly anticipating an opportunity to see if the starlet lives up to expectations. If it wasn't for the fact that West Brom are still battling for their Premiership lives and we are now becoming a little desperate to grab every last point in the dash to the line for the last Champions League spot, today's game might've been the perfect "end of season" affair, in front of a friendly home crowd, for Walcott to get his first taste of the big stage. Additionally, it would be a great shame for the lad if having arrived at THOF, we end up leaving without him ever getting an opportunity to tread the hallowed Highbury turf.

However Arsène faces some dilemma today. Does he rest players again and risk even further the possibility of relinquishing fourth place (to Spurs of all teams!), in the hope that the same players might appear refreshed, for our massive midweek encounter. I've already expressed my strong feelings about Arsène's failure to always start with our best XI away from home against Utd & Pompey, then he could've substituted the most fatigued if the game had gone our way. If we'd managed to maintain the momentum that had only just begun to build, tiredness would not have been nearly such a pertinent factor, since a winning side will always feel so much more full of beans

And if we'd managed to accrue the four points from the last six that should easily have been within our capabilities (actually I firmly believe that on our day, our current best team should have no problem in blowing their Utd counterparts away), Wenger would've felt far more comfortable about giving a couple of players a breather today.

Meanwhile it wasn't to be and on the other side of the coin, there is a point of view which would suggest that gifting our mortal enemy from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Rd. that highly prized Champions League place, might well prove to be in the Gunners' best interests. Psychologically speaking, it might not be so great to be going into the game against Villareal, with the players thinking that they still have a good chance of securing European football next season, by finishing fourth in the league.

If they believe there's a reasonable chance that we've blown it already, with all our eggs in the one Euro basket there will be no fail-safe and thus our entire squad will be guaranteed of being 100 per cent focused, in such a winner takes all climate, where they’d know that failure would mean no Champions League footie next season. Personally speaking, I am not sure I’d be able to take the pressure, as can you possibly imagine how tense it would be, if we end up reaching the 80th minute at El Madrigal, with the semi-final still on a knife-edge, knowing that defeat might leave us contemplating suicide,, rather than the absolutely unthinkable prospect of having to endure Spurs fans singing “Arsenal watching Eastenders” next season!!!

Whereas, heaven forfend, if we should end up a goal behind, in the 80th minute in Spain, I’d be wondering whether there'd be quite the same level of motivation for players with aching limbs full of lactic acid, to rally themselves for one last, fate-defying onslaught on the Spaniard's goal, if in the back of their minds there’s a feeling that, if the worse should come to worst, they will still be able to smother their immense disappointment in the security blanket of fourth place.

Am I the only sad bugger who sits here pondering every such permutation, surely not? Hopefully we’ll witness the denouement of my ideal scenario this afternoon and after sending out the big guns, we’ll be three-nil up in thirty minutes and while Titi’s taking an early bath, Wenger can introduce Jersey Joe Walcott to the Highbury faithfull. Then in the perfect world Tottenham will get turned over at Goodison, before Man Utd make mincemeat of them on Monday. Thus we can approach Wednesday night feeling so relaxed, that we will roll over the Spaniards and be booking our seats on the Eurotunnel even before the second leg starts.

It would be unbelievably wonderful, although somehow it just wouldn’t be the Arsenal if we didn’t end up finishing this surprisingly exciting season without doing everything the hard way!

Come on you rip roaring Reds
Big Love

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