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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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