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Friday 28 December 2007

We're Not Homophobic, We Just Hate Ashley Cole

The sight of Nickie Bendtner's salmon like leap in the Lilywhite penalty area, late on in Saturday's North London derby, only seconds after sprinting onto the park, was a wonder to behold.

There might be nouveaux Gooners, for whom results against Chelsea, or Man Utd might mean the most, but for old-school Arsenal fans, Spurs are, and always will be enemy no. 1 and by coming on to nick a winner, the young Dane has instantly endeared himself to the terrace faithful, earning a special place in out hearts with this one wonderful header.

For a big lad, Bendtner has great ball skills and appears deceptively quick over the all important first five yards. Additionally, as we saw against Blackburn, he appears to be blessed with that amazing, positively Paddy like, leg-extension quality, which enables him to pick an opponents pocket at a distance where it just doesn't look possible.

But best of all, in my humble opinion, is that not since Hartson or Smudger have the Arsenal been able to call on the services of a player who has the semblance of a traditional no. 9.

"So" I hear everyone ask, "with Pompey not having hit the back of the net at home since way back in September and parking the proverbial bus in front of their goal, limiting their ambitions to merely trying to hit us on the counter, why the hell didn't le Gaffer give the young Dane more than the last 10 minutes of the scoreless, bore draw at Fratton Park to make an impression?" It's unfair to throw someone on so late in a game, as it can take ten minutes to pick up the pace of the match.

We were definitely more dynamic once the Danish striker joined the fray (not really sure what this means - it's probably something I read, but it makes for a nice alliteration :-) and judging by all the other Gooners grumbling about the game back at the coach afterwards, I am far from alone in becoming increasingly frustrated with Arsène's preference for playing a 4-5-1 formation with Adebayor so isolated, all on his own up front.

To my mind it's totally unacceptable when playing at home, as I firmly believe that we are handing the opposition defence a massive psychological boost, when they hear prior to the game that they've only got a lone striker to cope with. And while I can understand Arsène opting for a less gung-ho line-up against the better sides away from home and perhaps even choosing to start with only one up front against the likes of Pompey, when the limits of the opposition's ambitions become evident and when we've spent the entire first half struggling to create a single chance on goal of note, surely it's time to ring the changes after the break, in order to give his subs a fair crack of the whip?

After Nicky's winner against Spurs, the only reasonable explanation I can come up with for Wenger's apparent preference for attempting to avoid using the striker in midweek, is that perhaps this was Le Gaffer's effort to rein in the possibility of the lad's runaway ego, after his saviour like performance on the Saturday? Nevertheless, even in the event that Bendtner's "Bertie Big Bollix" reputation is something that requires Le Prof's consideration, with Man Utd having already banked their three points, courtesy of Roy Keane's shambolic outfit (were we really considering stumping up £9 mill for Craig Gordon?), surely Arsène's only priority, with the score 0-0 at the break and with the home side only too happy to take a point, was to enable us to be more potent up front.

And sadly Abou Diaby's second half appearance didn't exactly ramp up the pressure on Pompey's defence. I hardly recall Abou making it into the opposition's penalty area and in fact can only recall him constantly losing possession.

Obviously if we'd beaten Pompey I wouldn't be griping and doubtless this incident wouldn't have merited a mention. What's more I'm certain that it had absolutely no influence over the outcome and at the time it was all good fun, as Abou's half-time antics provided us with a bit of a giggle on the terraces.

But with hindsight, in truth I am somewhat incredulous that we witnessed such utterly unprofessional behaviour. Perhaps Jens Lehmann's become so bitter that he has turned into a saboteur (or perhaps this is merely a reflection of a warped mind which will always jump at the first available conspiracy theory?), but has anyone else noticed the fact that Jens no longer comes out to join the warm up prior to games? When have we ever seen another substitute keeper not come out to help his team mate warm up? Mind you it's a rarity for me to arrive at a match in time for kick-off, let alone see the teams warm up, so perhaps I am not best placed to offer an expert opinion. But as far as I was aware, it is standard practice for the two goalies on a team sheet to warm up together. My question is, what exactly does Jens do, while the rest of the team appear on the pitch prior to a match? Does Arsène merely allow him to remain in the dressing room with his feet up?

Jens does appear at half-time (as this doesn't involve him having to belittle himself by being Manuel Almunia's ball boy!!). But on Wednesday, where I assume he must have been the instigator, he didn't even want to go in goal. As the subs wandered over to our end of the pitch at the break, Jens appeared to hand Abou Diaby his goalkeeping gloves and Diaby duly obliged by going in goal, so Jens could fire a few lame shots at him, as Bendtner joined in with the skylarking about (who knows, perhaps they were playing three and in and just never got to the third goal?).

Naturally Diaby isn't used to going for balls with his hands and so we saw him stretching his long legs, to reach several shots with his feet. Coming out on a cold and windy night, after sitting on the bench for 45 minutes, I wonder what Wenger's reaction would've been if Abou had strained a hamstring, over stretching himself.

Perhaps I am being a little over sensitive as a result of ending the evening behind Utd, but when I think about it, it is hard to imagine the Man Utd subs, or those of any other team with a more disciplinarian gaffer, messing about like this during the break, for fear it would be bound to get back to the boss and they'd be guaranteed a bollocking!

Meanwhile, like I say, Abou's warm up in goal wasn't the reason we failed to beat Pompey and although I was disappointed, as I assume like Wenger, I expected him to have a much more influential impact going forward when he came on, he was far from being the only culprit, in what was ultimately a very lacklustre performance.

For most avid Arsenal watchers, as much as we tried to ignore it, basically we knew this was a result waiting to happen and worse might be to come, if we don't pull our collective fingers out at Goodison tomorrow. In truth the writing has been on the wall for several weeks now, as we've basically been just about getting away with it since we scrabbled a win at Villa Park. When I look back at our displays in the five Premiership games since our trip to Brum, aside from increasingly rare instances of individual feats of brilliance, it's hard to picture a single performance where we've produced the sort of football that befits a team of genuine title contenders.

The list of excuses is many and varied....we never play well in early KOs, we've missed Van Persie, but where only a couple of weeks back I was witnessing purple patches of passing excellence, capable of humbling the most formidable of opposition, which left even a pessimist like myself "daring to believe", on Wednesday we looked more Mike Yarwood than Muhammed Ali. Suddenly we seem to be offering such a poor impersonation of championship contenders, as we neither float like a butterfly, nor sting like a bee.

In my most humble opinion there are several factors involved. But it does seem to me that although we have proved in the past that we are capable of winning games when Cesc Fabregas is not on the pitch, when Cesc is out on the park, if our Spanish prodigy is off colour, the entire Arsenal machine seems to be out of kilter.

Cesc wasn't at his best against Spurs, but it didn't matter because the result was the be all and end all. And when we look back at the end of the (hopefully successful) season, last Saturday's derby will only be remembered for Bendtner's header and the outright impertinence of Fabregas' cheeky backheel. Whereas there were no such redeeming moments of significance, to mask Wednesday's stinker of a game. Then again it wasn't such a bad display, after all Cesc didn't do anything dreadful. It's just that the boy-wonder has set the bar so incredibly high, that a below par effort stands out like Cashley's boyfriend's sore bum.

This Arsenal side seem to be like a finely tuned Swiss timepiece, where Cesc is the mainspring and whether wound too tight, or too loose, the slightest fault turns the entire watch into a useless piece of showy jewelry. If Cesc is carelessly giving the ball away, with all too casual passes that don't find their mark, strangely the rest of the Arsenal side seem to show symptoms of the same disease. But most obvious of all, as far as I'm concerned, it's only when Cesc really starts to tick that his team mates respond accordingly and suddenly the ball becomes a blur of movement as the one and two touch passing moves all find their mark and while we draw intricate patterns on the pitch, the opposition are left chasing shadows.

I adore the fact that little Tommi Rosicky is prepared to put himself about, defending from the front with the sort of bravery that certainly didn't come naturally to his predecessor, Robert Pires, who was more likely to be seen jumping three foot in the air in anticipation of an impending tackle, rather than putting a challenge in himself. However Tommi wasn't bought for his defensive capabilities and what we really need are the guaranteed 10 to 15 goals a season that was Robert's contribution to the Arsenal party.

We've been waiting patiently for Rosicky to score the sort of goals that first put him on Wenger's radar, when playing for the Czech national team and for a moment it looked like he'd popped up with one on Wednesday, until we heard the whoosh of the side netting. When it comes to attacking midfielders, we can't afford any passengers, especially when playing 4-5-1 and it really is about time Tommi started to pull his weight. For inspiration, he need look no further than our opponents tomorrow, where from midfield, Cahill is perhaps the Toffees' most potent attacking threat.

Although if I don't hurry up and get some kip, I'm not going to find out which of these two comes out on top at Goodison, as I'll never make the coach in the morning.

With so many people away on holiday and with an ever decreasing circle of awayday playmates, as so many eventually fall by the wayside, joining all the other glory-hunting part-timers (you know who you are :-), I couldn't find anyone to travel with to Portsmouth or Everton. After a couple of pleas on the Arsenal Mailing List, my faith was eventually restored, when two kind souls came to my rescue, at lunchtime on Boxing Day.

But having arranged to meet one of them at a South London tube station, my route to the Arsenal tube station took me right past the Supporters Club coach, waiting to depart on Gillespie Road. I couldn't believe that I walked past, without stopping to ask if they had room on the coach. By the time I made it down to the platform, I was wondering if I'd made a ricket, as a five minute walk home after midnight on Boxing Day sounded a lot easier than having to find my way back from wherever I was dropped off in South London.

Twice I started heading back up the long tunnel from the platform to the street, looking for a signal on my mobile phone and twice I changed my mind, not wanting to miss a train. After being kind enough to offer me a lift, I didn't want to leave my mate to drive to the game on his own and I didn't want to miss an all too scarce train, only to discover the coach was full.

Eventually with no sign of an approaching train in the near future, I headed all the way back out of the station and phoned my mate and having heard that he had his nephew in the car, I walked back to the coach, relieved to find they were able to accommodate me.

The area around Fratton Park isn't particularly welcoming on a normal match day, let alone Boxing Day night and the biggest drawback about travelling on the coach was that I don't think I have ever arrived at a match so early. This wouldn't have been so bad, if I could have sat on the coach, read the papers and had a kip, but it disappeared after dropping us off and so I was left wandering the streets around the stadium for THREE hours!

After killing half an hour (and doubtless all the good bacteria in my gut) chatting to a programme seller, while chomping my way through a turkey & stuffing burger (where compared to the delicious Murphy stuffing I was missing, that was on offer in the spread Rona had laid on for the family back at home, the grey mush from the bowl in the burger van looked more like a prop stolen straight off the set of Oliver Twist!), I was even contemplating drowning some alcohol sufficiently to be able to bear the taste, in order to waste the remaining couple of hours, anaesthetising myself in a local hostelry - and those who know quite how much I dislike (as opposed to being a "bah humbug" teetotaller) alcohol, will appreciate quite how bored I was.

But not having travelled on a coach to a game for many years, I'd forgotten that it does also have its advantages. At least I was able to get back on the coach after the match and fall akip and forget the misery of being knocked off the top spot, almost before my bum had hit the seat, with none of the guilt that goes with falling asleep in a passenger seat in a car and leaving the driver to do all the work without offering any real company.

So the 9.30 departure to Liverpool on Saturday seemed much more reasonable, until it eventually dawned on me that our game kicks-off at 5.15, not 3pm. Heaven only knows how I am going to kill three hours at Goodison before the game (without getting robbed :-).

Hopefully this time I will have reason to stay awake on the way back, to discuss our glorious triumph, or at least so I don't fall asleep before providing the Observer with a few words for their "the Verdict" column. I'm also hoping that we hear a repeat of Wednesday's entertainment highlight, in the form of the chant of the evening

In light of Sol Campbell's recent outburst on the radio, about an alleged breach of his human rights and considering the recent appearance of a notice in our matchday programme announcing a new anti-social behaviour, text message service, where one is supposed to tap in the relevant "key word" be it "FOUL, RACE, SMOKE, STAND, TOUT, HPH (for homophobic", it was most amusing to hear (and join in) with a hearty chorus of "We're not homophobic, we just hate Ashley Cole"

A Happy & Healthy New Year to one and all

Peace & Love

Monday 17 December 2007

The Gooner Ghosts of Xmas Past, Present....and Future?

Obviously I would’ve enjoyed Sunday’s aperitif from Anfield a little more if Man Utd had shipped some points, as this was one of the few fixtures where one might’ve expected them to slip up. Nevertheless as they picked Liverpool’s lock, by means of the sort of canny tactics that left the losers marking fresh air and exposed, once again, what are to my mind the patently obvious limitations of a zonal defensive system, in truth Fergie’s side probably did us a favour. With Utd having leapfrogged us briefly, it meant that when we kicked off against the Blues half an hour later, there were no ifs and buts, we simply had to win, if we weren’t going to gift our rivals a massive psychological advantage.

In the past couple of seasons we’ve suffered from a slight inferiority complex in our encounters with Mourinho’s mob, whereby we’ve been far too happy to settle for merely avoiding defeat. Consequently perhaps the most pleasing aspect to Sunday’s triumph was that even though Almunia might have been the busier of the two keepers and despite the fact that I spent much of the second half cutting off the circulation in Rona’s hand, as my grip intensified in direct proportion to the blind panic that gripped me, every time the Blues poured forward in search of an equaliser, there was no mistaking the distinct sense of a role reversal.

Who knows whether the presence of Drogba and Essien might’ve made a difference? What’s more if John Terry had remained on the pitch to mark Gallas, it might not have proved quite so easy to muscle the Chelsea captain out of the way, in the way Willie did with Ben Haim, before heading home on the stroke of half-time. Certainly with Terry’s prowess in the air, I would’ve been more worried with him on the pitch, taking up a position in and around our penalty area, as Chelsea desperately tried to salvage something during the last twenty minutes.

Yet setting aside all the various minutiae of the match itself, from the moment the Arsenal line-up flashed across the bottom of my screen during the later stages of Part 1 of “Grand Slam Sunday”, showing us to be at full strength with the welcome return of our Arsène’s first-choice midfield trio of Fabregas, Hleb and Flamini, as far as I was concerned there was absolutely no mistaking who was the hunter and who was the prey in this crucial contest. I’m told that this news inspired the loudest cheer of the afternoon in assorted Gooner hostelries.

In recent encounters we’ve believed that at our best we could beat the Blues but there’s been an obvious air of fragility that an in-form Drogba or most recently Michael Essien was able to capitalise on. The heart of our defence might not yet be the impenetrable bulwark that Utd are blessed with, in the Ferdinand/Vidic partnership, but there’s a mental toughness about this Arsenal team now, which wasn’t present previously.

Additionally, although Avram Grant has overseen a run of relatively successful results since he succeeded Mourinho, Chelsea’s air of invincibility has still been eroded, to the extent that their fans would’ve been relatively satisfied to have “achieved” a draw against us. Where in the recent past such a result might’ve been perceived as two points dropped. As a result, instead of the nervous hush that might’ve fallen on the home crowd who might’s spent much of the second-half fearing an imminent equaliser, we Gooners were “giving it large” on Sunday, enjoying our new found dominant role in this fractious relationship.

Then again the animosity felt towards Cashley Hole also helped to stoke the fires of a fervent atmosphere, on a brass-monkey afternoon. Cashley was well wide of the mark if he thought the passing of time might have healed this gaping wound. Having been denied the opportunity to fully express our ire by the left-back’s absence from the corresponding fixture last season, terrace wags dusted off their inflatable mobile phones and the fake Ruski bank notes, to ensure Cole bore the full brunt of Gooner disapprobation on such a global Premiership stage.

Under normal circumstances I don’t hold with giving stick to returning ex-Gunners. I would rather show my gratitude for services rendered than provide them with added inspiration to prove a point with an influential performance. But I made an exception in Cashley’s case and I was up on my feet with the worst of them on Sunday, spitting venom, every time he ventured anywhere near our sideline.

A hearty chorus of“I’d rather have a Willie than a c**t” echoed around the concourse at half-time for the benefit of the Blues fans in earshot. With Gallas’ goal being tangible evidence that we got the better end of this particular deal and with Gael Clichy proving himself to be a younger, fitter, hungrier replacement, perhaps we should be patting Cashley on the back for his act of betrayal. However it was a stab in the heart that hurt so badly because we were left without a single homegrown local lad in our squad, to whom we could all relate. I used to belittle Spurs fans for their inability to get over Sol Campbell’s treachery and while I still think them a sad bunch in every other respect, I can at least appreciate their point blank refusal to let this issue slide.

Obviously it wouldn’t nearly so likely without success on the pitch, but little by little, I seem to be recapturing that sense of belonging, which has been so eroded over time. Cesc Fabregas need do little more to prove he’s one of us, after he sent the ghost of Xmas past packing with one more bruise to remember him by, as he clattered Cole at the death. And the ghost of Xmas present brought tidings of comfort and joy on the terraces, leaving me with less cause to complain about the sense of anonymity amidst the crowd of sixty thousand in our new stadium. The mate who sat next to us at Highbury tells me that a lady in front of him was handing the mince pies out at halftime on Sunday and with Rona having slipped out prematurely to get the teas in at the break, without someone to celebrate Gallas’ goal with, I turned to find myself high-fiving it for the first time ever with my previously unresponsive neighbour. Perhaps there’s hope yet for our new ‘home’ of football?

Friday 14 December 2007

Who's He Kidding?

Rumour has it that Shevchenko rocked up to Chelsea’s fancy dress Xmas party masquerading as a Premiership striker (I guess Cashley will have gone as the Ghost of Xmas Past!). Hopefully he won't persist with this sham for Sunday's embarrassing encounter with the genuine article, in the form of a fit again Robin Van Persie.

All we want for Xmas is a six-point stocking filler v. Chelsea and Spurs to substantiate the fact that there is only “one team in London”. But for the moment I will settle for Arsène being able to select a more inspirational first XI (and in particular a midfield) that’s once again comfortable wearing their Champions elect mantle, as opposed to the depleted outfit who’ve dipped into ‘an accident waiting to happen’ groove in our last three games.

Due a big game: Michael Essien...whoops, our former nemesis will be joining Drogba in absentia....home banker!


Due a big game: Mathieu Flamini...I don't think many Gooners would've ever imagined we'd be counting on the return of the fearsome Flamster

Monday 10 December 2007

Don't Know About Space, But Everyone Can Hear Me Scream In Highbury

After getting away with it at Villa and gifting Fat Sam a reprieve on Tyneside, our trip to Teesside proves one exhausting outing too many for the Gunners' depleted squad, making even a beleaguered Boro side look good, with our most mediocre of three successive surprisingly unconvincing displays. We can but hope to bounce back off the ropes with the return of our big guns and to be back to our bobbing and weaving best to avoid a knockout blow next Sunday!

I guess I should come clean about my role in Sunday’s defeat at the Riverside and the untimely demise of an unbeaten Premiership run stretching back to last April. Having traveled to Newcastle in midweek, I couldn’t find any awayday meshuganas mad enough to accompany me on an early morning return to the Northeast on Sunday. I didn’t fancy the risk of driving the five hundred odd miles on my tod, in my increasingly decrepit, little Fiesta, nor was I going to gamble a further 92 quid on the single only Sunday train connection getting me to Teesside in time for kick-off.

After spending only a couple of hours in the sack, tossing and turning in frustration at our abject failure to take advantage of our game in hand against the Toon, before having to get up for work on Thursday morning and then joining what seemed like half the population of this country, hanging on in there until 5am Sunday morning to cheer on Ricky Hatton, I had just about given up on making it up to Middlesbrough.

There would’ve been no hesitation about going, if I could’ve spent the journey as a passenger, catching up on some much-needed ZZZZZs in a mate’s motor and yet, so loathe was I to miss my first league game of this campaign, that even as I sat watching the brave Hitman taking a high-definition battering on my pal’s enormous plasma screen, I was still debating in my head whether the Gunners would survive without my support.

However in truth, perhaps I’d subconsciously already seen the writing on the wall, in the way we’d been left clinging on by our fingertips in our last two outings and I had some sense that this might prove one debilitating away trip too many for the Gunners’ depleted squad. Otherwise, on seeing the bleary-eyed brigade of hard-core Gooners already gathering at the ground at the crack of dawn, sheltering from the cold behind the line of coaches as I passed by on my way home from watching the boxing, I wouldn’t have been able to resist dashing home to don my longjohns, grab my ticket and return in time to try to blag my way on to the Travel Club trip.

Instead of which, I am embarrassed to admit that the call of my bed won out in this barney with my customarily steadfast Gooner fealty and rather than spend ten hours in a cramped coach seat in return for 90 minutes of live footie, I made the far too sensible decision to take advantage of my recent Setanta subscription, set my alarm for ten minutes before kick-off and stuffed my face, before curling up under the covers with the dog as a hot-water bottle.

As angry as I was with the Arsenal’s abject performance, come the final whistle that afternoon, there was at least some consolation in knowing that I didn’t have to get out of bed to endure it. Mind you I have plenty of sympathy with armchair fans everywhere, as Sunday proved a reminder that a poor performance is far more stressful when watching at home on the box, where only Treacle, our terrified pooch (and half of Highbury) can hear me scream!

I’m not a sore loser, unlike an awfully immature Manny Eboué whose tendency to throw his toys out of the pram is certain to end up costing us eventually and who urgently needs to learn to channel his temper towards the task at hand. I was gutted that we gifted Fat Sam a reprieve in midweek, but considering the way in which Boro ran their socks off, it was hard to begrudge Southgate’s side some reward for all that graft. Yet while both Northeast teams took the plaudits, few seem to appreciate the extent to which our utterly lackluster efforts contributed towards the outcome. I guess it will only become apparent quite how badly we performed in both games when our immediate rivals give one, or both sides a right hammering.

The truth of the matter is that our two trips to the Northeast have proved a nasty reality check. Unfortunately both displays might serve to demonstrate to Chelsea and our other upcoming opposition, that beyond all the hyperbole, this Arsenal side is largely made up of mere mortals. In the absence of the precocious midfield promptings that have inspired the rest of the team to raise their game to date, we begin to look strangely mediocre. My biggest fear now is that unless we bounce back immediately, all the confidence and the head of steam we have built up over the past few months could evaporate almost overnight.

As the once calm-air of authority who had the nous to mask much of our defensive fragility, poor old Gilberto suddenly looks a shadow of his former self and while Diarra pulled his weight against the Toon, I didn’t like the fact that he seemed to go missing in action on Sunday. Although he was far from the only Arsenal player to go AWOL, as there were times when I forgot Eduardo was on the pitch and the impact of Bendtner, his replacement, was minimal.

Adebayor is an honest grafter and it’s hard to argue with his goal scoring record, but the odd stunning strike aside, for the most part he continues to struggle to find his touch. As he did against the Toon, Arsène left me utterly baffled when he brought on Bendtner, another big lad, to play alongside Ade, encouraging long-balls, but with no one in the vicinity to win any knockdowns?

Rosicky might have at least given the hardy travelling Gooner faithful something to celebrate but Tommy has been largely anonymous all season long and he must bring more influence to bear than these all too rare strikes on target. Perhaps they were acting according to Arsène’s instructions, but the raiding runs down the flanks from our full-backs was the most obvious missing ingredient from both games. Without Clichy and Sagna as an outlet, or to draw opposition players, there was little evidence of our customary ball retention.

Believe me, the Toon and Boro aren’t the first teams to play a pressing game against us. But where in the past this tactic has presented us with the space to cut opponents to pieces on the counter, without an outlet on the flanks and in the crucial absence of Fabregas and Hleb we began to look like frightened rabbits, caught in the glare of the opposition’s headlights.

A stranger watching might’ve wondered which of the two teams was top of the league as Boro began to produce some cultured footie as they grew in confidence, while without the one-touch, pass and move style that usually provides us with a spare man, we resorted to hoofing the ball in a blind panic.

It’s hard to imagine that the returning Matty Flamini can lead an Arsenal revival all on his own. Most Gooners would’ve ridiculed such a preposterous suggestion prior to Matt’s surprisingly influential contribution this season. We can but hope they’re working overtime in the treatment room to get a couple of the more gifted Gunners back out on the park before Sunday, to assist Flamini in ensuring that the damage suffered so far is only superficial and that by this time next week, our North-Eastern blip is a long-forgotten nightmare

Thursday 6 December 2007

We Are (still!) Top Of The League.....Aren't We?

Hi folks

Is anyone going up to Boro on Sunday?

Whilst on route to Toon Town this afternoon I was checking out my sadly all too limited options for getting to Sunday's match. In truth, if it wasn't for missing out on two days wages, it would've probably worked out cheaper to stay up in the North East. Mind you, having been kind enough to offer me a lift up to Newcastle today, I wouldn't have wanted to leave my good pal Steve to drive all the way home on his tod. Then again, he might as well have been, as despite the fact that I always find it a bit of a wind up when the person in the passenger seat falls asleep on me, rather than having the good manners to keep me company while I'm slaving away at the steering wheel, I did just that tonight and promptly passed out, almost the moment we hit the A1.

Honest mate, I wrestled with Morpheus for a brief while there, but I guess loading five arctics worth of scenery on Tuesday took more out of me than I realised and I was out for the count before I knew it. The next thing I knew we were pulling up at my motor, just off the M1 near Northampton. Sincere apologies for being such a liability of a passenger and good on ya for such a sterling stint at the wheel.

As for Sunday, apparently there is a train from London which supposedly gets into Boro at 12.30 but the service is so unreliable at the best of times and it's been a while since my last disaster of a train trip that I've dared run the risk of the extremely dodgy Sunday service on the trains. If the trains were so unreliable yet a relatively cheap means of transport, it wouldn't be so bad. But at 92 quid return to Boro, I refuse to pay such ridiculously extortionate prices merely to run the risk of not getting there in time for KO.

Apparently Teeside airport is only down the road from the Riverside Stadium, but according to BMI, the cheapest return flight available now for Sunday is 367 quid and considering I couldn't afford the couple of hundred quid cost of the trip to Seville, I certainly can't stretch to this extravagance.

Consequently, even if I did get my headlights sorted in time (and since I've not got around to doing this in the past three months, this is hardly likely), I am not sure my little old Fiesta is up to these 500 mile round trip hauls any more. Getting back from Northampton on the well lit M1, with only main beam and sidelights wasn't too bad and although I managed to commute to Oxford for a week without my headlights, I am not sure I'd fancy doing 250 miles along the A1 without them (although I imagine most of the journey will be in daylight). I could perhaps arrange to pinch my Ma's motor for the day, or I might even hire a car rather than leave her stranded. But I really don't fancy doing the entire journey on my tod.

So if anyone is similarly stuck for some transport, or better still, if anyone should have some room in their motor, leaving from somewhere this side of the Watford Gap, I would be extremely grateful to hear back from you?

As for tonight's game, firstly is there anyone on the list, or does anyone on the list know of a Gooner gal who drives an azure blue MGB GT ? Just curious as we were parking up in a car park in Newcastle and this lass with a Southern accent at the pay & display machine looked vaguely familiar?

There was a time when we would've been only too happy to come away from St James Park with a precious point but as we removed our oxygen masks while trudging down from the gods after tonight's game, you could sense an abiding mood of disappointment, at our failure to take full advantage of our game in hand. From where I sat, Diarra was just about the only outfield player to come away from tonight's game with any credit, just for his gutsy determination to retain possession during extremely aggressive passages of play. Almunia had a decent performance, pulling off a couple of fine saves, but as for the rest of them, a stranger looking on might've been astonished to be told that this Arsenal side was the best in the land at the minute!

What really annoyed me was that we ended up making one of the most mediocre Toon teams we are ever likely to meet, look fairly accomplished. While I am fairly certain that Fat Sam wouldn't have been given the "tin tack" even if we'd tonked them, when I think of all the times he's encouraged his Bolton side to try and bully us out of the points, I can't believe we've passed up such a perfect opportunity to pile on the pressure for the lugubrious t*sser! Instead of which we've earned Allardyce a reprieve, as no one is focusing on the fact that we were a load of crap but is reflecting on how well Newcastle did to stem the red & white tide (when sadly the tide was never in at St James Park tonight!)

Above all, I believe that eventually this will be viewed as two points dropped, rather than a point gained because unless Allardyce can achieve a drastic improvement in the Toon, I can't see them taking points off any of our immediate rivals. To the contrary, I reckon that on a good (bad!) day, the likes of Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez and Giggs willl literally tear the Toon to bits. I was watching much of the match through my binoculars (I couldn't even read the seat number on my ticket, let alone see what was going on on the pitch from our seats right up in the gods!) and I happened to focus on the Toon defender (Beye?) at one point, after they'd been awarded one of their far too many corners. I swear the look of bewilderment on his face was an absolute picture, as it was plainly apparent that the Frenchman (Senegalese?) didn't have the foggiest where he was supposed to be and I watched briefly, as he struggled over whether to stick or twist, eventually deciding to trot back towards the halfway line as cover for an Arsenal counter (can't recall seeing a single one of these this evening!!)

In all honesty I find it absolutely astonishing to think that we were playing a Premiership team who's defence was so utterly disorganised and shambolic that they don't all instinctively know where they are supposed to position themselves for corners! Needless to say, Adebayor's stunning fourth minute opener apart, I also cannot believe that we failed so miserably to test this lack of organisation. I am beginning to think we must've totally imagined that Tomas Rosicky scored two long range corkers for the Czech national side because I've lost count of the number of times Tommy's been in the clear and presented with a perfect shooting opportunity, but has chosen instead to pass the ball inside, to a team mate who's surrounded by at least two opponents!

And considering how bad the Toon defence is, it is hard to believe that we saw so very little of Clichy and Sagna, testing their full backs down the flanks. I can't remember the last time our two fleet-footed full backs spent so much of a game inside their own half and whenever it was, I am sure it must've been against more intimidating opposition than Newcastle. As for Adebayor, I find it hard to criticise him because he always grafts like a Trojan but I know that I am far from alone in being fed up with the Togolese striker's woeful touch. And what on earth was Arsène thinking. OK so he was correct to take off Eduardo, as he had disappeared out of the game completely in the second half (frankly he wasn't particularly conspicuous during the first period either), but to bring on Bendtner to play up front with Ade, well to my ignorant mind this was totally senseless and I would love Wenger to explain the point of having two strikers who are (should be!) capable of winning the knock downs, when there is nobody present to knock the ball down to?

But the player who came in for the majority of my disapprobation (and of many other present) was Gilberto. In a chicken and egg scenario, I am unsure whether his form has dipped because he hasn't been getting much time on the pitch (until recently), or whether he's been left out of the equation because he's been so far below par. But whatever the case, come back Matty, all is forgiven, as Gilbo was guilty of giving the ball away even when we weren't under pressure

But enough of my whinging, after all, "We are (still!) top of the league"

If anyone has any transport suggestions for Sunday I would be extremely grateful if you'd get back to me, until then
Big Love

Monday 3 December 2007

As Fat Sam Sows, So Shall He Reap?

Geographically speaking, Saturday’s trip to Birmingham was the least daunting of the three we face, in a week which is set to test the indefatigability of even the most devout amongst the Gooner faithful. After our weekend jaunt to the Midlands, on the face of it, you’d have to be stark raving bonkers to follow this with a 500-600 mile round trip trek to Tyneside on Wednesday, only to repeat the journey at the crack of dawn for Sunday’s lunchtime KO on Teeside. Especially when all three matches are live on the box!

But football is a compulsive addiction much like any other, whereby eventually free-will goes out of the window and frequent indulgence becomes almost obligatory. As Arsenal fans we're more fortunate than most, as habituation hasn’t made our highs any less intense. To the contrary, we grow more euphoric with each subsequent game, as the Gunners scale increasingly higher peaks of passing perfection. With each 3-point haul prolonging our sojourn at the Premiership summit, we dare to believe.

Perhaps if our football wasn’t quite so pleasing on the eye and I wasn’t so worried about missing out on another special performance, I might be prepared to sacrifice one of the 3 away games to the comparatively trivial aim of appeasing the folk at work. However as our campaign evolves, it’s beginning to acquires the scent of the sort of red-letter season that demands an 100% attendance record. Doubtless come May more than one Gooner will end up with their Arsenal obsession cited as the principal cause of their divorce, or their place in the dole queue!

On route to Villa Park my pal reminded me that we have a mutual friend who’s divorce papers are proudly displayed as a badge of honour, in a frame on the office wall in his home, because they cite the detrimental impact the Arsenal had on his and his former wife’s social life. His response was that at least they had a social life!

I’m fortunate that my missus shares my passion (or at least when matches involve a brief amble around the corner), but considering our own relatively non-existent social life, I’m sure Róna might share such thoughts. I invest so much emotion into watching an Arsenal encounter that I invariably end up far too exhausted after going to a game, to entertain the prospect of doing anything other than putting my feet up and propping my eyelids open long enough to enjoy Match of the Day. I was relieved to make it home on Saturday, in time to savour the incredibly satisfying first-half highlights on the box.

Footballistically speaking (to quote a Wengerism), based on recent form, Villa should’ve been the most formidable of this week’s opposition, with their obvious improvement under O’Neill and with Ashley Young and Agbonlahor seemingly on fire. Yet the home side hardly had a chance to demonstrate their progress during the first-half. Gardener’s opening goal aside, they spent most of the 45 minutes doing a decent impersonation of our dog Treacle’s futile dance as she chases her own tail.

On thinking about it, we’ve probably sat in the Upper Tier of Deadly Doug’s stand along one side of the pitch when Villa Park has hosted Cup semis (in the days before the FA began to milk their cash cow and ruined the specialness of the final, by staging semis at Wembley or the Millennium). Yet I’ve grown so accustomed to our view from behind the goal, or by the corner flag on our annual outing to Villa Park that it felt strange to be taking our seats elsewhere. I’m certainly not complaining, as our new pitch afforded us a far better perspective of the proceedings, from which we were best able to appreciate our silky first-half skills, including several breath-taking periods of prolonged possession which were a wonder to behold.

Not for the first time, we teased the jingoistic home fans with a jaunty chorus of “you need more foreigners” and while out on the park our players made an incontrovertible case for Wenger’s brand of multi-cultural football, we reiterated the point from the terraces, with a rousing rendition of “Have you ever seen England play like this…..have you f**k!”

Our dominance was so imperious that some managers might have been moved to knock on our dressing room door at halftime, to respectfully enquire if they might have their ball back at some stage after the break. Not being one to stand on such ceremony, the Belfast Boy inspired his team to wrestle it back for themselves.

I’ve never liked John Carew, ever since he put the kibosh on a marvellous trip to Valencia, by knocking us out of the Champions League. I don’t know how good his English is but perhaps something was lost in translation and he took O’Neill’s encouragement a little too literally, as he hacked down Alexandre Hleb with a cynical, ‘can’t beat ‘em, batter ‘em” type tackle from behind.

Villa were always bound to come back into the game at some stage and although we’d proved we could cope without Fabregas in the first-half, once Hleb limped off to join the ranks of our walking wounded, his absence proved to be the loss of one midfield maestro too many, enabling the home side to take command, while we struggled to retain possession..

Whatever the combination of contributing factors it was a Jekyl & Hyde type game of two halves, where inevitably we began to rue our all too customary inability to kill off our prey, whilst we had them in our sights, with the additional goals that would’ve been all due reward for our earlier dominance. Considering Villa put us under the cosh for much of the second half, it was pleasing to see us demonstrate such staunch resilience but it should’ve never come to that.

The first-half might have flown by far too quick, but as the temperature continued to drop and the conditions deteriorated, with a torrential downpour, we endured a stressful second 45, gnawing away at our fingernails as at times the Gunners clung on to the three points by theirs. Meanwhile a display of passing perfection which might’ve been a walkover, developed into a griping, harum-scarum duel.

Without the calm at the eye of this storm, where Hleb had been the fulcrum around which our passing moves evolved, no sooner had we won the ball back in defence than we kept gifting it straight back to them. As O’Neill went for broke offensively, Wenger tried to shore us up at the back with Gilberto and by the end we were the ones baying for the respite of the final whistle.

Wrapped up against the cold with padded coat, scarf and silly hat, I’d stared in awe earlier, at two buxom Gooner birds in sleeveless Arsenal shirts. Perhaps they’d hoped their hardy madness would merit them being shown on the box, or perhaps they knew better than me that we’d all be sweating it out at the death.

If, as I suspect, Villa subsequently end up taking points from our rivals, Saturday’s result could prove significant. However it was absolutely crucial that we avoided defeat on the day. With the majority of the media and their obligatory pundits having predicted a dodgy season for the Arsenal, they’ve been forced to wait a long time for us to falter and on the back of our awful display in Seville, a second successive failure would’ve resulted in a blinding flash, as all the hacks whipped their “told you so” knives out.

Instead of which, we head to Toon Town with our tails up. It will be a “no-contest” if we end up facing the same Newcastle side that laid down like lambs against Liverpool. But Allardyce had an annoying habit of raising Bolton’s game against the Gunners and we could’ve well done without the added inspiration of his new job being on the line. I hope the Gunners travel to Tyneside whilst being force fed a non-stop visual diet of a video montage made up of all the flying elbows and assorted old school, sly skulduggery that Fat Sam always encouraged from Davies, Nolan, Campo and co. against us over the years, to remind them of their black & blue debt of gratitude.

It is an utterly preposterous reflection on the ridiculously impatient nature of this results orientated business that a defeat against such an in-form Arsenal team could merit the “tin-tack” after such a brief tenure. However with no love lost between us and Newcastle’s lugubrious gaffer, if it should transpire, nothing would give me more pleasure than to see us gift wrap his zebra coloured gold watch!

Monday 26 November 2007

Never Mind Southern Softies, What About Those Namby-Pamby Northeners?

I’ve curtailed my halftime habit at home games of playing hide and seek with the stewards on the stairwells, while surreptitiously sneaking a few pulls on a cigarette, ever since a steward mate of mine warned me that they’d started confiscating membership cards (which constitute our season tickets!) of anyone caught smoking. Apparently a grovelling letter of apology will get it returned after a first offence, but get caught again and one is in danger of losing it for good. And the umpteen thousand on the season ticket waiting list is enough to make me worry that this is no idle threat.

Yet while the Arsenal might be doing their bit to save me from the ravages of lung cancer, it seems I am likely to end up losing the remainder of my teeth instead, as I nervously chomp my way through the packets of sweets that have now replaced the cigarettes, as this particular footie fan’s equivalent of a comfort blanket. Mind you if the conditions get much colder than they were on Saturday, I am going to end up needing one of these as well!

Now if I was really organised I'd be taking a flask and some nosh, like some others I saw last weekend, as being deprived of a cigarette at the break wouldn’t be nearly so bad, if one was able to obtain some refreshments, without having to queue for the entire 15 minutes and risk missing the start of the second half. At our old gaff, you could always guarantee getting a warm up from a cup of tea or a Bovril, without missing a kick of the ball and it’s hard to believe that the club have failed so miserably in their ability to cater for the increased numbers, with the facilities at our grandiose new ground.

On a freezing afternoon like Saturday, surely the club must be missing out on a small fortune in revenue, for while the 8,000 Club Level occupants are fortunate to be inside, in the warm, supping on their free beverages, it seems as if, like myself, the vast majority of fans in the upper and lower tiers just can’t be bothered with the huge halftime queues.

Instead of which, everyone stands there feigning nonchalant disinterest in Gunnersaurus and his little helpers, circling the pitch perimeter, firing tightly wrapped t-shirts into the crowd by means of a positively lethal, air gun type contraption, which could take someone’s head off if it wasn’t pointed skywards. That is until one of these airborne missiles comes your way, at which point, regrettably, one can’t resist participating in the undignified scrabble. Myself and the missus will have to see if we can master the rugby line-out tactic, so that I can lift her up to gain some advantage, as for the second time on Saturday this prize eluded me, as it bounced off several folks’ fingertips to a chap in the row in front, only for him to smugly boast that this was the second time he’d been the unwitting beneficiary of the fact that none of us was going to make the cricket team.

Until Willie stole into Wigan’s box to head home in the 83rd minute, it had begun to feel like the three points were also about to slip through our fingers, along with a crucial opportunity to gain ground on Man Utd. Despite totally dominating possession, we gifted Wigan perhaps the two best first-half goal scoring opportunities, with two free headers that resulted from a couple of moments of defensive indecision. Following the break and the news that Utd were behind at Bolton, the more fickle Gooners began to express their frustration at our failure to trouble the Wigan keeper.

However despite my continued concerns about the solidity of Arsène’s first-choice partnership at centre-back, if there’s one attribute that William Gallas has added to the Arsenal party, it’s his winning mentality. For the second consecutive home game, we have to be grateful for Gallas’ tenacity, as without his late goals we’d have lost against Man Utd and failed to capitalise on their slip-up on Saturday.

I had to chuckle listening to Carlos Queiroz’s comments on Match of the Day about Bolton’s intimidating tactics. Arsène always gets slaughtered over the Arsenal’s “don’t like it up ‘em” attitude whenever he does likewise. Myself I quite relish these ‘Beauty & the Beast’ type confrontations, so long as the opposition doesn’t resort to the sort of malicious attempts to inflict GBH, such as Marcus Bent’s cynical assault from behind on Denilson. To my mind it’s the physical nature of our football and the levels of commitment, which make the Premiership a far more enthralling proposition than the less intense brand of the beautiful game played on the Continent.

In the knowledge that the majority of sides would be swiftly put to the sword in a straight contest of ability, we’ve grown accustomed to the opposition paying us the compliment of trying to kick us off the park. Theo Walcott is far from the finished article, but he's come a long way from the lightweight scnhip of last season, who was so easily muscled off the ball.

On an afternoon when Wigan’s Michael Brown spent the 20 minutes leading up to his inevitable booking, charging around like a headless chicken, clattering into anything that moved, it was very pleasing to see young Gunners like Denilson, Diarra and Clichy, standing their ground in the face of such aggression. Whereas in the past we’ve acquired this faint-hearted reputation as a result of players who might’ve had more of a tendency to ‘bottle it’ when it comes to earth-shuddering 50/50 confrontations, more concerned with self-preservation than maintaining possession.

Having held out for so long, Gallas’s goal knocked all the stuffing out of the visitors, while at the same time forcing them to be more ambitious. It wasn’t long before we took advantage of the Lactic's efforts to venture forward, cutting them to pieces with a swift counter that ended with Rosicky securing all three points, as he scuffed home our second off the inside of the post.

It was then a matter of sweating out the remaining minutes of the radio commentary from the Reebok, fully expecting the inevitable last gasp equaliser after news of the four minutes of injury time. What has bothered me most in the past when Sam Allardyce’s Bolton have bullied us out of the points with a lion-hearted display, has been the knowledge that the very same team would be likely to timidly lie down like lambs against their Lancashire neighbours. However under Megson it would appear that Bolton were able to overcome their inferiority complex for the first time in nearly 30 years.

I’m sure it was no coincidence that this defeat occurred with Vidic absent at the heart of Utd’s defence and on the face of it, Bolton away is a more taxing proposition than playing Wigan at home. However where previously one might have questioned the Arsenal’s strength in depth, could it be significant that we stood the test of coping with the enforced absence of the likes of Fabregas, Hleb and Flamini, while Fergie mistakenly assumed he could afford the luxury of leaving out similarly influential figures, from an already depleted side?

The finely tuned Arsenal engine might clunk and grind a little without our first-choice stars but crucially we made it home safe. Meanwhile Alex might want to renew his AA subscription for the jump-start Man Utd require without Ronaldo & co.

Friday 16 November 2007

Arsenal Pass The Ball

Hi Folks

I had to finish the following piece in a mad rush, in order to get it filed to the paper prior to Monday's deadline, before dashing out of the house to get to Reading. Sadly I didn't end up leaving in time to meet up with a mate, as arranged, but with it only being a 45 mile drive, it wasn't such a big deal heading out on to the M4 on my tod.

Although it wasn't until I turned off the motorway that I really began to regret missing out on a lift, as I'd completely forgotten quite what a nightmare parking can be, in the concrete jungle around the Madjeski, for while my pal was able to park up in the shopping precinct adjacent to the ground, courtesy of his blue disabled badge, the local council must be absolutely coining it in, from all the other unsuspecting visiting fans who must regularly risk leaving their cars in what is an empty, terribly tempting pitch, so close to the stadium. From past experience I was at least aware that this is a guarantee of a parking ticket.

On the subject of Blue Badge holders, it seems that they've been cracking down on the abuse of disabled privileges around our new stadium, as there was a small crowd gathered at the top of Aubert Park after the Man Utd match, watching a tow truck picking up a large 4 x 4. I must admit that I also dallied briefly, I suppose attracted by the Schadenfreude of seeing the face of the owner returning to find their vehicle being removed.

But I didn't need to wait to revel guiltily in the misery of others, as it seem the tow trucks had been very busy during the course of the 90 minutes. Heading back to Highbury Quadrant, there's a spot at the top of our road which we've previously labelled "Cripple Corner" because of the proliferation of blue badges. I've always found it somewhat ironic on the many occasions I've been walking around to the game, late as ever, to see folks parking up in this spot, placing there badges on the dashboard and then literally sprinting from their cars, in an attempt to make KO. It would appear that folks have become so accustomed to being able to abuse these privileges that they've absolutely no shame, whereas in their shoes, I would at the very least feel obliged to limp a little, for the benefit of anyone watching!

Thus I couldn't help but feel slightly amused as I rounded the corner to discover a gaggle of gutted folks all sitting along a low wall, staring at the empty spaces previously occupied by their vehicles.

Meanwhile I might not have made my lift to Reading, but my efforts to do so meant that I arrived in plenty of time to spend half an hour driving around looking for somewhere to leave the car. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to bribe the attendants guarding the assorted car parks (for badge holders, hotel guests etc), I eventually gave up and was following the signs to the nearest "£10" parking, when I was fortunate to spot someone leaving their car on a grass verge, where there was room for one more small vehicle.

Although there's always some small satisfaction to be gained from finding free parking, to be honest, I'm often happpier stumping up, just for the reassurance of having somewhere safe to leave the car and knowing I don't have to spend the entire game fretting that a great result is going to end up soured, or bad day out capped by a fifty quid parking fine on returning to the car.

However one's exit from a huge car park can often add an extra hour to the journey and after driving around for so long, I was just keen to dump the motor and get to the game. What can I say, we ended the evening back on top of the table, having hardly been tested, there was no ticket on my windscreen when I got back to the car and I was out onto the motorway and back home relatively quickly. Does my life sound so sad, if I say it doesn't get much better?

After watching the weekend's games on Match of the Day, I wasn't feeling particularly optimistic about our prospects, as like ourselves, Man Utd look capable of scoring against anyone, but I have to admit that the Moaners appear somewhat more solid at the back. Although I wouldn't want to wish harm on anyone, let's put it this way, I wouldn't be so unhappy if Vidic ended up getting himself crocked for a couple of months (and even less miserable if he missed the rest of the season!).

Yet I was in a much more positive mood following my brief trip to Reading, The Royals might have managed to frustrate us, right up until Flamini (our defensive midfielder!!) arrived in the box to score the opening goal, but after that, once the home side were forced to come out of their shell in the second half and chase the game somewhat, instead of merely trying to prevent us from winning it, we literally sliced and diced them, with a performance where we were never really forced out of first gear.

The football that we savoured in the build up to our second and third goals (and the one that was incorrectly ruled offside) was pure poetry in motion. Although I'm sure most of those present behind the goal at the Madjeski will confirm that until we came out for the second half, with our tails up after the taking the lead on the stroke of halftime, we had looked a long way from playing at anywhere near our best.

I'm not going to name names but focusing on a couple of players with my binoculars during the first half, I gleaned the distinct impression that on a particularly brisk night, there were those in red & white who would've rather been elsewhere. Obviously I might be mistaken but after the adrenaline rush of performing before an audience of a billion around the globe in our last glamorous encounter, I suppose it's perfectly understandable if some of the Gunners were struggling for similar motivation on a brass monkey Monday night amidst the new-town tedium of Reading.

But then I guess this bodes well, because if we can blow teams away in this fashion when not at our best, then we can only begin to imagine what we have to look forward to, when we're firing on all cylinders. Yet if it was true on Monday that our far superior ability eventually began to tell, there are games on the fixture list in the none too distant future (with a fairly daunting December!), where we're unlikley to get away with it, unless all eleven can match the opposition with sufficient commitment and the sort of wholehearted attitude that will enable our ability advantage to come to the fore.

I am sure there were others (Kolo, Sagna etc.) but from my perspective there was only one Arsenal player on Monday night who demonstrated, without any doubt, that he was performing (as ever!) at 100 per cent. Whereas, for example, both myself and my mate beside me happened to notice a 50/50 ball where Rosicky's effort was sufficiently tentative that we both remarked on him "bottling it". I really don't think Gael Clichy would know how to do anything without absolute commitment. What's more I always cringe at the sight of a Gunner going for a ball, when it's patently obvious that there's an element of half-heartedness about their approach because they're principally concerned about the prospect of picking up an injury, when they should be demonstrating a totally blinkered focus on winning the ball. From what I recall of my childhood education on the pitch, it was often the more timid of the two players competing for a 50/50 ball who invariably came off worse.

By contrast to those who might've been a little less focused against Reading, Gael Cllichy continues to impress me more and more, with each passing match, as I find his enthusiasm and his energy levels increasingly mind-blowing. On those rare occasions when Reading advanced up the pitch and Gael wasn't goal side (of Kitson?) when the ball was directed down his flank, despite giving his opponent several yards start, I don't recall a single instance when he was beaten to the ball and there were a couple of occasions when Clichy arrived so far in advance of the Reading player, that you could be forgiven for thinking his opponent was running backwards!

It was also good to see Diarra get a run-out as sub, as the Frenchman shows similar enthusiasm in his desperation to prove his worth to Wenger. And with the likes of the French international, the Brazil captain and Theo on the bench, I adore the fact that there's so little room for complacency, with such genuine competition for places.

Mind you perhaps the best part about Diarra's appearance on the pitch was the fact that it inspired a rousing rendition of a relatively new chant (at least it's the first time I've heard it) from the Gooner choristers, which had me giggling away. I only hope Cashley Hole returns to fitness in time for our mid-December meeting with Chelsea and that on the day, Diarra gets a look in, just so we might hear the whole ground resound to several reptitions of "Diarra...he left the Chelsea scum, 'cos Ashley wants his bum"!

There was one other conclusion which I drew from a weekend without an Arsenal game to focus on. I found myself watching Pompey v Man City on Sunday and it was interesting to think that these were two of the gaggle of clubs, currently performing relatively well in the wake of the leading pack, because to my mind there was one obvious difference between us and them. Watching possession passing from one team to the other as this game progressed, it suddenly dawned on me quite how brilliant the Arsenal are at keeping the ball.

Reading's tactics were quite strange for a team playing on their own turf but then I guess Coppell felt under pressure to try something different, after last season's supremely efficient demolition (and it might have been the same on Monday, if Ade's had managed to find the inside of the post in the opening blows). Mind you I imagine many of the home fans must've been tearing their hair out in frustration during the first half, as it was as if the Royals had been instructed to adopt a zonal defence, whereby they sat right back, to take up defensive positions around their penalty area, allowing us as much possession as we wanted, apparently without even attempting to retrieve the ball until we threatened to encroach into their box.

Perhaps Coppell's plan worked up to a point but surely there must be a correlation between the number of goal scoring chances we can to create and the amount of time in possession of the ball and we looked so incredibly comfortable while they stood of us, that in the shoes of the Royals fans, I would've been screaming my head off, demanding that my team put us under some sort of pressure.

However if ball retention against a remarkably reticent Reading was no big thing, it was another matter all together against a Man U side, where Hargreaves, Anderson etc. were giving us absolutely no quarter. Nevertheless, there were periods during the previous week's match where it looked as if Man Utd might need their own ball if they were going to get involved in the game, as we certainly weren't allowing them to play with ours!

Watching the Arsenal every week, doubtless I take the standard of our football for granted to some extent, but watching the broadcast of the game at Fratton Park, I couldn't help but notice the marked difference in the way that moves kept breaking down when both teams were guilty of giving away the ball. We might often lose patience, whilst waiting to see some end product but there's a truism in football that says you simply cannot concede a goal while the ball is at your feet and while most of the pundits would have us believe that we will eventually come unstuck because our defence doesn't match up to Man Utd, it should be remembered that it doesn't matter how solid (or not) we are at the back, so long as we retain the ball.

Meanwhile I've managed to prattle on so long that if I don't wrap up this long-winded missive post haste , it will soon become so outdated that I will end trashing it, rather than sending it out. Appologies for the delay but it's been a very long week work wise and tonight is the first night that I've managed to stay awake long enough to get it finished.

Although my views on International weekends might be well known to you by now, I am quite looking forward to this one, merely from the point of view that it's hard for me to get my head around the thought of this entire country supporting l'il ol' Israel on Shabbat (the Sabbath).

Naturally an eternal cynic like myself simply cannot help but have some suspicions, as surely the likes of Abramovich will have been tempted to interfere, if only to prove to himself how powerful he is, perhaps offering the Israelis a few million for a new stadium if they go easy against the Ruskies. On the other hand (as the Fiddler on the Roof would've said), the home side's record in recent times might lead one to conclude that they are indeed "the Chosen People", at least when playing within the much disputed confines of the Holyland.

On the basis of their home record, it wouldn't be such a surprise for them to achieve a result, especially when you consider that their players are going to be only too aware that they will be performing before their biggest TV audience ever and each one of them will be going to bed on Friday night, to dream of this chance of a lifetime to produce the sort of impressive display that might catch the eye of watching managers and earn themselves a highly-prized opportunity to join Benayoun on the Premiership's big stage.

Although I'm not about the change the habit of a lifetime and start predicting results, but I'd quite fancy the Israelis to pull it off and breathe life back into England's qualification prospects and Steve McClaren's managerial career, by taking points off the Ruskies, IF it wasn't for the fact that I really rate Gus Hiddinck. Who knows how Hiddinck would fare when it comes to making the most out of the world class talent available to an England manager, but when it comes to achieving results by means of relatively modest resources, I'm afraid there is no better man. On the basis that there is bound to be a number of chinks in the Israeli armour, it seems to me that there's a fairly high probability that Hiddinck has prepared his team to best take advantage!

Mind you, for all those who would be devastated at the thought of next summer's tournament taking place without any England involvement, the truth of the matter is that actually perhaps you should be grateful to Hiddinck for doing you all a huge favour, by saving you from all the undoubted misery when Steve McClaren's side fail to live up to expectations once again.

Alternatively if Israel manage to take a point or three off the Russians, then as a PR exercise, this game could prove bigger than the Six Day War in terms of their popularity.

When Saturday comes, just for the day, I guess we'll all be Yiddos

Peace & Love

Arsenal Pass The Ball

After a decade or more of racking up huge debts, chasing the Champions League Holy Grail around Europe, it's basically the lack of any further lines of credit that's forced me to curtail my customary habit of following the Arsenal absolutely everywhere. With the exponential increase in the costs of tickets, travel and the amount of time off work required to achieve an 100% attendance record, I doff my hat in all due reverence to the ultra-loyal band of Gooner-holics who manage to maintain the nigh-on monastic devotion necessary, to ensure that social, domestic and occupational responsibilities don't ever impinge on their footballing pleasures.

Obviously the nature of the overblown corporate beast that has swallowed whole the previously unencumbered blue collar kingdom of the beautiful game, means that there were probably plenty present in Prague last week who are in the fortunate position to be able to write off the cost of their outing, as a tax deductible 'entertainment' expense. Nevertheless, I often survey the vast majority of working stiffs like myself, who's faces I see every week, on terraces up and down the country, with ever increasing wonderments and incredulity. For while they remain ever-present on all the European trips, I'm beginning to feel like a positively lightweight part-timer by comparison. Even by blowing every last disposable penny of what must amount to far more than basic wages and with the most 'sympatico' of football supporting bosses, I honestly struggle to comprehend how they continue to manage it?

Although I'm prepared to suffer the deprivations of being penned in and herded like lary Gooner livestock, on organised one day outings, in preference to stopping at home and screaming pointlessly at an inanimate television, personally speaking, I believe one might as well have been to Leicester for all the broadening of one's mind by this sort of tawdry travel experience. Whether it's the cut-price hospitality of promiscuous East European cathouses, or Prague's abundant cultural heritage that tickles one's fancy (better still, a historic building that happens to be a brothel!), it's downright criminal to travel to as interesting a city as the Czech capital, without enjoying any cultural interaction.

While those long-suffering saps who support lesser lights like Spurs, live in hope of UEFA Cup trips to some godforsaken town in the back o'beyond, the thousands of pounds worth of debt I've acquired on the Champions League merry-go-round has enabled me to hop off at many of Europe's most alluring destinations. From Rosenborg to Panthinaikos, Porto to Spartak Moscow, with Real, Barca, Inter and Roma in between, we've savoured a sumptuous cultural meze across the length and breadth of the entire continent, most of which just wouldn't have been on the menu if it weren't for football.

I consider myself most fortunate to be in possession of an "I was there" t-shirt, to prove I was present in Prague a couple of seasons back, when Thierry Henry unexpectedly returned from injury to finally trump Wrightie's goal-scoring record. However I've yet to tick off Seville or Bucharest and I'm gutted that I'll have missed out on experiencing two more unlikely destinations during this group stage. It wasn't just because I'd already been to Prague that I wasn't too bothered about being unable to afford last week's trip.

Actually if I was going to miss out on an away game, I couldn't have picked a better one if I tried and I ended up feeling quite sorry for the fifteen hundred odd day-trippers who would be trudging through Stansted in their rain sodden replica tops in the wee hours of Thursday morning, after having frozen their cods off in the pouring rain, whilst enduring an anti-climax of an encounter, a dreadfully dour affair compared to the previous goalfest. I suppose it's a reflection on quite how far we've progressed in recent seasons, as it wasn't so long ago that the travelling hordes would've been returning in high-spirits, celebrating qualification for the later stages, considering it a job well done to have achieved this objective via a goalless draw, on a murky miserable night so far from home.

Instead of which, there were more than a few disgruntled Gooners giving vent to their indignation the following morning, believing Arsène was wrong to send the kids out to do a man's job, when winning the group should've been his priority. You only had to see how the home side celebrated their hard earned-point to appreciate quite how desperate they were to redeem some self-respect, after having been so humiliated at our place. As a result Slavia worked their socks off all night, to stifle any possible potential for threatening their goal. Credit to them, their spoiler tactics were sufficiently efficient that their keeper could've remained in the dry of the dressing room, considering how unemployed he was for most of the evening.

I doubt we did ourselves any favours by adding insult to the injury of the seven stabbing wounds inflicted a fortnight earlier, as Le Boss left four of team that played Utd at home and four more on the bench. A similar line-up might've made mincemeal out of Sheffield Utd but in the frenetic mêlée in the middle of the park in Prague, they lacked the composure to carve a path through committed Champions League opposition, where no quarter was ceded merely out of respect for our youngster's reputation.

Denilson is undoubtedly a star in the making, in the same mould as Fabregas, but the Brazilian youngster hasn't had much game time and the conditions were hardly conducive for him to replicate the feats that have always marked his Spanish team-mate out as such a precocious talent and which are the trademark of every genuine midfield class act, namely the appearance of having time and space on the ball, where none exists, to pick out the killer pass.

Consequently perhaps we can cut the likes of Bendtner some slack because our strikers saw so little of the ball. Eduardo might be the current incumbent of the actual shirt, but we've waited with stoic patience for the return of an authentic no. 9, ever since we saw the last of the likes of Smudger and Hartson. Although the loping Dane has proved he has the appropriate tools in his locker, with his brief cameos as an impact sub, I'm concerned he could be in danger of being devoured by the enormous weight of Gooner expectation. Perhaps I'm prone to being hypercritical due to Bendtner's 'Bertie Big Bollix' reputation (which wouldn't be quite so disturbing if the youngster had actually done something to merit such an inflated ego). But I was none too impressed by the images on TV, of him lurking at the mouth of the tunnel as both teams trotted out for the second-half, as if he was avoiding the cold and the rain, determined to be the last arrival at this disagreeable party.

Instead of which, you'd imagine he'd be raring to get out there after such a disappointing first-half, desperate to prove to le Gaffer that he was borne to perform on the glamorous Champions League stage. It'll be a crying shame if Nicklas' career goes the way of so many of the "too much, too young" modern generation of professional footballers, following in the path of the Brit-pack likes of Pennant, Dyer and Jenas, who, coming from modest backgrounds, acquired the supercars, the bling, the birds and all the other trappings of success at such an early age, that they were convinced they'd cracked it, with nothing left to prove. But for all their material wealth, they've been treading water ever since, with no medals to put on the table.

Meanwhile Bendtner's ego might not be the only worry for Wenger. The worst thing about a fixture free weekend is that without any football to fill the Arsenal related column inches, the Red Tops will fill the void with vacuous gossip. I only hope the team spirit on the pitch stands the test of the recent undercurrent of alleged bad vibes between our keepers and those that have resulted from Arsène's apparent reluctance to give the Brazil captain a regular run-out (let alone the armband!).

As it stands I can fully appreciate Wenger wanting to stick to a winning formula, but we've just drawn three games on the spin and you can just picture the flock of vultures waiting to pounce come the transfer window, if the laidback Gilberto begins to lose patience. Hopefully the panacea for all such signs of unrest will prove to be a return to winning ways against the Royals. It might not be a total cure-all but hopefully it will keep the tabloids off our case!

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Friday 9 November 2007

Who the f*** are Man Utd......?

......and the Reds go marching on, on, on!

It took a moment for us to realise that a goal had been given in the dying throes of Saturday's game. From our position in the stands, we assumed Howard Webb was about to call time in the last chance saloon, once the ball had stopped ping-ponging around Utd's penalty area and that we Gooners would be trudging out of the stadium seconds later, crestfallen at having ceded such a big psychological advantage to our principal Premiership rivals.

Once the initial euphoria had subsided somewhat, I found myself contemplating the frantic activity in the press box, as all those journos were forced to bash out the polar opposite match report, from the one they'd been preparing to file a few moments prior, perhaps crediting the Arsenal as worthy title contenders, instead of writing us off as lightweight impostors.

In truth, no matter how over-hyped Saturday's clash of the Premiership titans to maximise the theatre for the billions watching around the planet, no prizes are handed out in November. Yet while you may not be able to win a league title before all the leaves have fallen off the trees, you can definitely lose one (as, sadly, we've demonstrated all too ably these past couple of seasons), and I believe this was in the back of the minds of both managers in the tactical deployment of their respective troops.

Perhaps Wenger wouldn't have opted to play 4-5-1 if Van Persie was fit, only he knows. Yet even if this was the optimum use of the players available to him on the day, if I'm honest, with the Arsenal's star in its ascendancy, I was more than a little disappointed to be lining up at home against Man U, with a lone striker. Adebayor might have already bagged a handful of goals (before his current seven game barren streak) and has contributed to the team effort with his Trojan work rate, but I think most watchers would agree that when it has come to the crunch, in and around the penalty area, to date Ade has struggled to find his touch.

So it was that whilst we dominated possession in the centre of the park for long periods, the most common complaint on Saturday was that far too frequently when we advanced forward, there was no one in the box to be able to inflict any real damage. Whereas the more incisive approach play of Rooney, Tevez and co. meant that although they saw less of the ball, they looked far more likely to threaten our goal with it, while we patiently tried to pass it through the eye of a needle.
Nevertheless there was some suggestion that Utd were guilty of showing us too much respect and I believe the recent progress of this Arsenal side was reflected in Fergie's focus on containing us on the counter, with his midfield duo of Anderson and Hargreaves both sitting deep for much of the match and concentrating almost exclusively on their defensive duties.

I've been impressed with Anderson ever since seeing him stand out whilst playing for Porto last season. Despite his distinctive locks, with my premature Alzheimers, I'd forgotten this was the same player, when casting an appraising eye over the new additions to Utd's squad, in a televised pre-season game against Glentoran, where the Brazilian youngster's ability shone like a beacon.

The cheating little sod hardly went about winning friends and influencing people in his first appearance at our place, when demonstrating absolutely no shame, in not even feigning a bit of a limp, but jumping to his feet just moments after he'd managed to get Fabregas booked with an outrageously melodramatic floorshow, as though he'd been felled by a bullet. Yet in spite of a somewhat more restrained performance on the ball, Anderson still managed to impress and I wonder if he might've been more influential if not fettered by Fergie's instructions.

Meanwhile I'm not sure there are too many Gooners who'd agree (just yet!) with the latest contention that Alex Hleb is the best player in the Premiership. For my money, too much of Alex's best work still amounts to nought and he lacks sufficient pace to be able to support a lone-striker. However Hleb's poise and confidence increases apace with each passing game, to the point where he now has this matador like quality which makes me want to shout 'olé' each time he drops a shoulder and leaves a defender for dead. There was a period at the start of Saturday's game where Utd were having such difficulty relieving Alex of possession that it appeared as if our guests were going to need their own ball if they were to play a part in this encounter.

It's not only Hleb who has benefited from our new-found fearlessness. Its awe inspiring watching the incredibly energetic Gael Clichy take on all comers down the left flank, late in the game and on the rare occasion space opens up in front of Kolo Touré, he appears positively unstoppable when he storms forward. While with his preference for the no. 10 shirt, you just know that Willie Gallas has never really accepted the limitations of his centre-back role, when just like every other child at heart footballer he continues to covet heroic goal-scoring ambitions. Willie's wishes were fulfilled at the weekend, where it was 'Gallas of the Gunners' rather than 'Roy of the Rovers' who saved the day for the Arsenal.

I'd just been thinking how quiet Ronaldo had been when he popped up in the penalty area to tap home what looked like being the winning goal. Having stunned us Gooners into silence and given those pesky premature evacuators their cue to miss the rush and take their habitual early leave, the abiding mood on the terraces was that the game was well and truly up.

However if there were few tangible clues as to which of the two teams is better equipped for a title challenge, the thrilling conclusion to Saturday's compelling contest did prove to be a reaffirmation of our side's never say die spirit. Despite the most rousing atmosphere to date, Rooney's goal just before the halftime left me reflecting during the break on the potential disadvantages of our new home and the possibility that we're more susceptible to conceding goals in the closing stages of both halves.

Apparently Sam Allardyce has commented on the fact that the Arsenal are the fittest team in the league, but instead of making the most of this advantage by going for our opponents throats when they're beginning to flag, I get the distinct sense that we might occasionally be guilty of switching off somewhat, merely winding down the clock, waiting for the whistle. The players on the pitch must be aware of all the movement in the stands, as all those who are more interested in the beer, their bellies, or beating the rush home, head for the exits. As the atmosphere and all the intensity of the game appears to evaporate with the activity on the terraces, obviously there will be opponents who remain sufficiently focused to make the most of this shortcoming as Man U did when opening their account on Saturday.

Mercifully the Gunners went and proved my theory wrong with William Gallas' last gasp equaliser. I might've been still screaming as loud as ever, urging them on to the last as always, but in my head, like the majority around me (not to mention all those who were already on their way home including many who must've missed the goal – poetic justice if you ask me!), I was already contemplating how I was going to cope with my workmates merriment over our misfortune.

Of the 60,000 present, it was perhaps only some of the eleven in red & white on the pitch who maintained sufficient belief and refused to give up hope and this bodes very well for the massive challenge ahead. Other than this, some might draw conclusions about the comparative strengths of the two sides' keepers, with Almunia responsible for a couple of obvious rickets and the possibility that Utd appear a little more solid in defence. Yet with the talent at Wenger's disposal, why should we be "bovvered", when the occasional error at the back will only increase the prospect of our footballing pleasures. It was in this vein that I tried to console my neighbour at half-time on Saturday, by suggesting that at least going a goal behind meant that we were guaranteed a great second-half.

The only other obvious opinion one can draw from Saturday's encounter, is that if there was any danger of peace breaking out between the two managers whilst they were both trying to knock Mourinho off his perch, the Chelsea manager's departure has resulted in a return to business as usual and the outbreak of the sort of hostilities that are bound to keep us all engrossed in the coming months ahead.

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Wednesday 31 October 2007

"Steve Gerrard, Gerrard......"

".....he kisses the badge on his chest, then hands in a transfer request. Steve Gerrard, Gerrard"

(I have been working all hours, fitting up Snow Queen for the ballet in Oxford but having written the following in the wee hours Monday morning, I thought I had better post it to my blog before tonight's Carling Cup encounter at Sheffield leaves it looking somewhat outdated)

I’ve been castigated in certain Gooner quarters for suggesting that up until recently we hadn’t actually been playing as well as the media hyperbole would have you believe and that our elevated status was more a reflection of the mediocre start to the season made by our competitors. I stand by this, as I firmly believe that the fact that the much unfancied Flamini and our two full-backs have been our players of the season so far, is all the evidence needed to confirm that many of the more illustrious Gunners had yet to hit a genuine groove.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we haven’t entertained, as we’ve produced purple patches of absolutely sparkling football, ever since day one. But with Arsène having set the Arsenal bar so incredibly high, up until the trouncing of the hapless Slavia Prague last Tuesday, to my mind the individual instances of brilliance were too disjointed, stalling on a wayward pass, or without any sting to the final ball.

With so many of our players still struggling for the delicate touch and control that is their trademark when in top form - even those who’ve been banging in goals for fun like Adebayor, Van Persie and of course Fabregas, might’ve been working their socks off, but few present would suggest they were in top form – we had yet to witness 90 minutes, nay even 45 minutes of the sort of total footie that would stand as testament to our true title credentials. That was until Sunday!

Obviously our confidence must’ve been soaring, after seeing off the Czech lambs to the slaughter in the Champions League midweek, where we laid down the sort of marker, which was bound to make the rest of Europe sit up and take notice. But after Gerrard attempted to strike the cover off the ball with his extremely effective opening gambit (albeit aided by the sort of gaping hole in our wall which the Liverpool captain could’ve driven a truck through!), the 40-minutes which followed was as dominant a display as I’ve seen from an Arsenal side playing at Anfield.

Not that there wasn’t continued frustration at our failure to capitalise on our first-half superiority, as all our flowing football came to naught in the final third. Far too frequently we resorted to a diagonal ball into the box that was meat and drink to Hypia and Carragher, with a solitary and somewhat isolated Adebayor all too often out-jumped. Considering we can move the ball with such incredible pace, I simply cannot fathom our reluctance to continue down the flanks to the byeline, from where a ball whipped in is much harder for the opposition keeper to deal with and which would force the lumbering defence to attempt to clear, whilst running back towards their own goal.

However it’s churlish of me to moan about such trifling matters as actually putting the ball in the net, or the odd misplaced pass, when from a purist point of view the Arsenal were poetry in motion for much of Sunday’s match. That doesn’t mean that that there was a sudden improvement in the level of individual performances, but you sensed that everything was ramped up a notch for what was an all-together more high quality contest than many we’ve played to date. Our passing was crisper with the ball forced to travel much more quickly around its triangular course, by the way in which Mascherano and co. were doggedly hunting us down in packs. While on the rare occasions that we were not in possession, 0-1 down and facing their stiffest examination of the season, our defence was a study in concentration, knowing they couldn’t afford a second slip up.

The media have praised us to the hilt for sticking to our principles. Yet in truth Arsène Wenger’s side only knows one way to play, as suggested by the refrain which echoed out from our end of the ground for long periods of the game “Liverpool hoof the ball….Arsenal pass the ball”. In hindsight the script was written in the way the two managers set their stalls out, with our five-man midfield forcing the Scousers to chase shadows for much of the match, but with Adebayor struggling to make much of an impact. However with the home side’s three pronged forward line, their occasional foray’s forward were somewhat more direct, forcing Manuel Almunia to demonstrate that Lehmann hasn’t been left on the bench merely out of spite.

Naturally going a goal down wasn’t what we’d have wished for, but without Gerrard’s early strike I rather suspect we’d have witnessed a far less enthralling contest, with both sides probing for a weakness without really committing men forward. Whereas Liverpool were on the back foot right from the restart since we had no choice but to force the issue, taking the game to them as if we were the home side and they the visitors.

You could sense the effects on the Liverpool psyche of Benitez’s constant tinkering, because once the initial euphoria of taking the lead had subsided a nervous hush fell across the home crowd. Then again it’s not the first time we’ve found ourselves teasing “where’s your famous atmosphere” at Anfield. Although my own nerves were also up to ninety. The previous day’s results at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge had made it even more important that we reaffirm our right to sit atop the pile, as despite our dominance in this game, without Fabregas’ 80th minute equlaiser, instead of singing our praises, the media would’ve undoubtedly begun to write us off as lacking sufficient substance to maintain a credible challenge.

It’s either black or white as far as the press are concerned, either we are the best thing since sliced bread, or a bunch of immature kids who can’t possibly hold their own in the manly marathon ahead. Obviously this was just the first in a succession of formidable hurdles, but it was vitally important that we didn’t fall at the first as personally I believe Sunday’s fightback could prove psychologically significant in the mental development of this young squad, as is next weekend’s encounter with Man Utd. And if we can emerge from both these fixtures with our unbeaten record intact, the Gunners will have thrown down the gauntlet by establishing the pace the competition will have to keep up with, if they’re to continue breathing down our necks.

Stranger things have happened but considering our dominance, I would’ve felt incredibly hard done by to have departed Anfield with our tails between our legs and when it eventually came, Fabregas’ equaliser was nothing less than we deserved, making our nine hour round trip trek seem worth every arduous, traffic-ridden minute.

Mind you it all could’ve worked out very different. Standing queuing for my half-time cuppa, there was little evidence of any panic in the air at our end of the ground. With continued patience and plenty of application, it always felt as if we had the weapons to prevail. However just as I was about to be served, my mobile phone rang and it was Róna on the line, in a frantic state, having just exited Brent Cross Shopping Centre, babbling about the car having been stolen.

For a minute there, I thought the fates were against me and it was all going to pot, that I’d be ending the weekend with the Arsenal conceding top spot to Man Utd and with my motor knocked off! Meanwhile it was only moments later that the penny dropped and having enquired of my missus if she’d applied the steering lock, I was virtually certain that she’d merely returned to the wrong floor of the massive car park.

Mercifully it wasn’t long before she retrieved the motor and much to my relief, by the end of the match the Arsenal had been restored to the top of the Premiership table, a fitting place for the country’s leading exponents of the beautiful game as it is meant to be played

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