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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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