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Monday 26 February 2007

Can We Kick It?

It’s ironic that it should be Abou Diaby who ends up injured, after his (unintentional) efforts to put John Terry’s head into row Z. In truth it’s a bit of a metaphor for Sunday’s Carling Cup Final, as all the artistry of Arsène Wenger’s Young Guns was rebuffed by the Blues undeniably staunch resilience. When it was reported that Terry was suffering from a touch of memory loss, if only someone could have slipped a red & white shirt into his bag, he might have come back thinking he was an Arsenal player!

Believe me I love Philip Senderos. You couldn’t possibly wish for a more committed and wholehearted player. However sadly I get the sense that past encounters with Didier Drogba and his inability to prevent the Ivorian getting the better of him, have done irreparable damage to the Swiss centre-back’s psyche. In this respect I would’ve felt a lot more confident to have seen Djourou lining up alongside Kolo Touré on Sunday, as at least his Swiss compatriot wouldn’t have brought any such baggage to the game. Whereas to my mind the individual battle between Senderos and Drogba was lost before they even stepped onto the pitch and thus it was a bit like watching Groundhog Day, seeing Drogba get goal side of Senderos to score the equaliser and then escaping him again to head home what eventually proved to be the winner.

The less said about the melée at the end of the match, the better. The fact that it was sparked off by a bit of shirt-tugging should leave them all, especially Kolo, our captain on the day, feeling duly embarrassed. Most annoying as far as I was concerned, was that with so much injury time still to play, I hadn’t given up all hope of our youngsters digging deep, for one last assault on the trophy. It would’ve been far more fitting for the Gunners to have gone out in a blaze of glory, than to have the fire of this titanic contest doused by the wet blanket of that unseemly stramash.

Still we have to take comfort in the thought that in the long term, the bitter taste of a Cup Final defeat is likely to stand many of these youngsters in a lot better stead, as they make use of such miserable memories, as motivation to go on and achieve the sort of greatness that is expected of them. Although I can’t help feeling that our Carling Cup kids really deserve to have something to show, in return for the unadulterated joy we’ve experienced throughout the course of this season’s competition, as a result of their audacious and totally fearless brand of football.

Arsène Wenger also deserves some credit, as in his desire to get the better of his opposite number, I’m sure there must’ve been moments when he was tempted to temper the enthusiasm of youth, with the inclusion of a couple of more experienced old hands. However this was one hand of cards which had to be played to its ultimate conclusion, as the amazing exploits of his incredibly talented bunch of teenagers, away from home against increasingly obdurate opponents, had earned every one of them the right to appear in the final.

What’s more, whilst Wenger has in the past been accused of belittling this competition, he has in fact almost single-handedly breathed life back into a tournament that in truth was looking long past its sell-by date. Instead of being the FA Cup’s poor relation, it has been Wenger’s policy of using the Carling Cup as a proving ground for the kids, which has given the tournament a unique and distinct flavour all of its own. Combined with the innovative “kids for a quid” type ticket pricing introduced by some enlightened clubs, the competition has evolved into a showcase for the country’s brightest young stars on the pitch, while the high-pitched shrieks of joy from the terraces have been confirmation of the cup’s newly acquired status, offering thousands of young fans an introduction to the pleasures of live footie that they might otherwise be denied.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not such a hypocrite as to suggest I wouldn’t have been a lot happier to have seen Thierry Henry holding the trophy aloft on Sunday afternoon. However the momentary misery of our defeat in the Millennium will have long since evaporated, while the legacy offered by the likes of Denilson, Traore, Walcott and co. is something that Arsenal fans are likely to be savouring for several years to come. Set against the background of such an incredibly bright future, a three-eared silver pot looks pretty worthless by comparison.

Meanwhile our manager is tasked with raising the mood in the Arsenal camp in time for Wednesday’s FA Cup replay at Ewood Park. As is often the case for successful sides at this time of the season, we find ourselves in the midst of a make or break period, where either the disappointment of Sunday’s defeat will prove to be the fuel which will drive us on to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup and the Champions League, or the damp squib that will see our entire season fizzle out in the space of a mere few days.

Obviously I have faith in the Gunners fortitude and in truth I wouldn’t be too unhappy if the FA inflict the sort of severe punishment on the club, for the handbags incident at the end of the match in Cardiff, that's been the catalyst for creating just the sort of fortress Arsenal spirit, which has proved such successful inspiration in the past. There’s no doubting the oodles of ability inherent in Wenger’s current squad. Now if we could add a burning sense of injustice, to spice up our patient brand of football, surely we’d leave patently inferior opposition such as Rovers and PSV, trailing in our wake?

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Sunday 25 February 2007

Tantalizing Fear Of The Unknown

To use an apposite yiddish expression, I can imagine Arsène will be absolutely "kvelling" with pride in Cardiff tomorrow, leading out his gaggle of fearless Young Guns.

When you think of the stick Le Prof has taken in the past for belittling a Mickey Mouse tournament, which had already been long since devalued by its turnover of assorted sponsors, Wenger is certainly entitled to a wry smile. In truth it's only been the boss' concerted policy to make this competition the Gunners' proving ground, that's actually put some meaningful oomph back into this fast flagging tourney, giving it a renewed lease of life, with a unique and totally distinct flavour; which for this particular Gooner, has made each successive Carling Cup game the most desirable and enjoyable "must see" encounters of the season.

Consequently, having been privilged to have been amongst the hardy Gooner core who've enjoyed such amazing knife-edge entertainment as the penalty shoot triumph against Doncaster up at Belle Vue last season and the astonishingly audacious footie witnessed on our away trips, against increasingly obdurate opponents in this year's competition, you can't possibly imagine the painful irony of watching on the box tomorrow, as 20 odd thousand relative Johnny-come lately's get to enjoy the culmination of this long journey, with it's much deserved fruit of a Cardiff final. Sadly I finally relinquished our precious Cup Final tickets earlier this evening, with great reluctance. I was torn between the dread of them ending up going to waste and the delusion that I might rise from the dead in the morning, dose myself up on the old Beechams and make sufficiently a miraculous recovery from the lurgy that's afflicted me these past few days, to jump in the car and drive to Cardiff.

However an attempt to take Treacle for a walk around the block turned out to be a sufficient a reality check to make me realise that it would be enough of an effort to get around to our own ground and I'm still struggling to come to terms with the fact that I'm still far too "Tom" for a long trip to Wales. So for all those of you who are fortunate to be going tomorrow, but who didn't earn your Carling Cup stripes on long schleps to WBA, Everton etc in the earlier rounds, then at the very least you owe me the small mercy of making yourselves heard in the Millennium, so that I might sit here, wrapped up warm, but envious as hell of all those making me feel proud, with a loud a distinct reminder to Wales and the rest of the watching world that there really is only "One team in London"!

We had planned of making a weekend of it in Wales, as we've often done for previous finals, taking the dog with us and staying on the seaside somewhere West of Cardiff. Usually my main motivation for such an outing would be so that we might avoid the much detested queues of traffic trying to escape back East immediately after the game. Additionally by making a weekend of it, it means that the result isn't quite the be all and end all, which I have to admit was more of a consideration than usual in this particular case, as I am sure even the most blinkered amongst us would agree that it wouldn't be that much of a shock if it should prove that some of the wiser old war-horses amongst the Gobby One's squad possess sufficient big game experience to somehow sneak a single goal win, through the slightest chinks of immaturity in what one imagines will be a sheer wall of youthful red & white enthusiasm.

I'm sure that if the dog was blessed with such an intellect as to realise, Treacle would be gutted that she's missed out on a rare chance for a much loved romp in the breaking waves along the beach, but thankfully the inclement weather means that we've not really missed out on much as far as our weekend break was concerned. However as kick-off time draws ever closer, I'm finding it increasingly hard to come to accept the fact that I won't be present tomorrow, to savour such a memorable day in person, as I have done with every other final we've been involved in over the past umpteen years. Will I be any less devastated if we don't win? Or more likely I'll be left feeling totally disgusted with myself, my absence being the principal factor in me being personally cuplable for the wrong outcome.

In truth winning will probably be just as hard to cope with, as I'm going to be absolutely gutted watching the resulting celebrations, doubtless with the inevitable ad break interfering with the most memorable scenes, as Rona and I are left with only ourselves and Treacle to hug. Worst of all will the fact that I will have likely set some sort of unimaginable precedent, which will mean I might have to end up banishing myself from every final that the Arsenal should make in the future!

However never mind my individual, petty problems (in the grand scheme of all things Gooner), without doubt the most wonderful aspect to tomorrow's encounter, is that the Arsenal will end up winners, no matter what minor twists and turns fate has in store for events on the pitch. Obviously like every other Arsenal fan it will be scant consolation if the kids should end up getting beat and I'd be lying if I said I'd be any less gutted about going down to a more experienced Blues side. However ultimately it's the incredibly propitious legacy for the future, promised from our appearances in this season's Carling Cup that is the prinicipal prize we'll be bringing back from the Millennium, as it's going to prove so much more valuable to us than a mere (basically pretty worthless!) silver pot!

Similarly it's going to be nearly as much fun knowing that Mourinho's mob are on a hiding to nothing, no matter which way the Cardiff cookie crumbles, as if they win, they'll only be doing what's expected of them and if they end up being undone by all that youthful vitality, it's going to be so unbelievably embarrassing for them. If karma has anything to do with it and we should be celebrating come the final whistle, amongst the many poignant images, I can picture one Ashley Cole, waiting to collect his losers medal, wishing he (and his mobile) might be swallowed up by his own a**ehole! And based on what we've seen of the likes of Denilson, Traore and co. to date, you'd truly have to be some sort of mug punter to actually back against the "unbelievable belief" that Arsène has instilled in his latest bunch of debutantes!!

Meanwhile tomorrow's titanic duel has a decidedly delicious "je ne sais quoi" about it, where Arsène has this joyful advantage over his arrogant opposite number. In normal circumstances, in the build up to such a big game both managers would know more or less what they will have to deal with, how to prepare, where the principal contests will be that will decide the outcome. However, how marvelous is it that in this instance the loudmouthed one is at such a complete loss, where Almunia apart, Mourinho can't be 100 per cent certain who will appear and in what position! Does it get more tantalising?

Even before events in Porto evened up the odds a little in our favour, it was obvious Mr Full Of Himself was fretting. After all what other possible excuse could Mourinho have had for making such a drastic statement as to commit himself to being in Roman's thrall for the remainder of his professional career? And if that wasn't obvious enough evidence of Mourinho's desperate efforts to rally his overpaid Chelsea stars, you only had to see the TV shots of him actually hugging Peter Kenyon, to know the man was resorting to clutching at straws, if he was trying to present a unified front with this snivelling changeling

We might be in a similarly disadvantageous position when it comes to predicting our eventual starting line-up. But the crucial difference is that whether we end up watching Denilson's delicate promptings, or it's Cesc who ends up conducting the Arsenal's orchestra, as far as we are concerned it really doesn't matter. We know full well that whoever is fortunate enough to end up getting the first team nod, as they have done in every other Carling Cup game to date, from one to eleven, they're going to enjoy the occasion and do their utmost to make the most of such a great opportunity.

As anyone present at the earlier rounds can testify, it may be the lack of quite so much pressure involved when playing such a youthful side, but there's been an element of fun involved in our Carling Cup games which sadly isn't possible when all the big guns are playing. And this fun has found expression in the sort of entertaining, indomitable football which has been an absolute joy for us punters in the stands, winning all due admiration from fans of both persuasions (obviously except our extremly bitter North London neighbours!). So no matter how far the Blues get in their efforts to grind out a result, hopefully at least one half of the Millennium Stadium is to be treated to a marvelous afternoon of the beautiful game, as it was always meant to beheld.

Wish I Woz There
Come on you Reds

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Tuesday 20 February 2007

Tired & Emotional (and I didn't even make it to Eindhoven!)

Hi folks

I wrote the following piece before heading out for work at 6am Monday morning and thus I was so utterly cream crackered by the time I arrived home, that I passed out on the couch, only waking up when the phone rang at 6.30pm to find out if I was coming around to the stadium for the FA Youth Cup quarterfinal.

Needless to say, it was 15 mins after KO before I eventually made it around to entrance S, with Cardiff having just scored an equaliser. I was amazed to see that people were still streaming into the stadium. The club had only opened the lower tier, but as the West side of the ground filled up, they gradually opened up additional blocks and having found the seat that was being held for me by my mate, behind the goal at the South end, even after I arrived, the blocks behind the goal at the opposite end of the ground were still filling up, to the point where eventually a crowd of about 10,000 (total guess) completely filled about 60 per cent of the lower tier.

It was great to see that so many had turned out to watch the youngsters. Perhaps time was a factor, as I was surprised that the club hadn't done a little more to publicise the occasion and I was concerned the crowd might end up looking a little sparse in a huge cavernous empty stadium. Especially after I'd originally been told by an AFC steward after we'd beaten Bristol at Underhill, that the quarterfinal was perhaps going to take place immediately following the first eleven's match with Wigan, which would have been great as I am sure many thousands would've stayed to watch the youngsters.

However this might have meant that all those who turned out last night, who aren't season ticket holders, wouldn't have been able to get in and this would've been an absolute travesty. One of the best things about such occasions and especially this particular one, is that with entrance prices only 3 quid for adults and a quid for kids, there were literally thousands there last night who, whether it be for financial reasons, or the lack of availability of tickets, have probably not been able to see the first team play live and undoubtedly, for many this will have been their first opportunity to get to see a game in our magnificent new stadium.

Although it also saddens me seeing the cosmopolitan make-up of the crowd last night and the vast numbers of young children who were present, as this is pretty damming evidence that there are huge sections of Arsenal fans who have now either been priced out of Premiership footie, or who are denied watching the Gunners regularly for one reason or another. I absolutely detest the Mexican Wave, as I find it an unnecessary distraction from events on the pitch. However there were hundreds of kids sitting around us last night who were getting a great kick from jumping up and down and generally joining in and having a great time and I always find myself thinking it's a crying shame that so many of these kids don't get to spend quality time with their folks on a regular basis, watching their heroes play live, in the way I was fortunate to do as I grew up.

What's more, on Saturday I was contacted by a mate on the mailing list an hour or so before kick off, as he had a spare ticket and didn't want to see it going begging. Andy knew that I occasionally take the lad who lives in the flat downstairs to games with me and he very generously asked if Jamal would like his spare ticket. For many years, the Arsenal have had just about the most cosmopolitan crowd in top flight football, with a reasonable mix of races and creeds of all colours and types. Nevertheless, walking around to the stadium with Jamal, to meet Andy, as we headed up the stairs and across the north bridge, amidst the huge throng, I couldn't help but notice that the faces of those around us were predominantly white.

Nevertheless, we are still fortunate to have quite a healthy mix, as if you study the crowd at places like Goodison Park and St. James, you will invariably struggle to find a dark skinned phizog amongst almost the entire the full houses at such clubs. Even though the teams themselves have such a substantial contingent of black players, sadly it would appear that as far as the fans are concerned, football remains largely a white man's hobby. It was only because I'd been thinking about it at the weekend that I happened to notice that there was a substantially increased proportion of black faces in last night's crowd, many with a couple of kids in tow

Despite the fact that they'd only opened up about a quarter of the stadium last night, you still had to queue for the duration of the half-time break, if you wanted to be served with anything to eat or drink and I can't help but think either the club, or Letherby & Christopher are shooting themselves in the foot, missing out on a substantially increased revenue from refreshments as a result of either not being able to serve people quickly enough, or because so many of us just do not have the patience to spend so long in a queue for such expensive crap - which reminds me of the old jewish bloke asking for the manager in a restaurant, because he has two complaints. "The food tastes like crap! And the portions aren't big enough"!

But if you can be bothered to spend the entire break queuing, then with hot-dogs and programmes, it has got to cost well over a hundred quid to take a couple of kids to a game, that's assuming you can get tickets and so this inevitably means that the Arsenal is going to become an increasingly elitist club, where for the vast majority of your average Joes, it's going to be a once in a blue moon treat.

Meanwhile, after dining on their Raymond Blanc, Michelin starred meal before the game, the 120 odd members of the Diamond Club are given a flask of hot chocolate to take out on to the "terraces" and then they are served little mini-hamburgers in their seats at half-time and after the game, when they have to wait half an hour for the crowds to clear, before they can drive their cars out from the car park under the stadium!

Now if only just a little of the incredible attention to detail that has gone into impressing all these Gooner high-rollers, had been diverted towards the problems of an ever ageing audience and some socially responsible schemes to make the Arsenal more accesible to young kids on a regular basis. Even from a less sentimental, strictly financial point of view, it would surely be a sensible move to take more measures to try and regenerate our crowd with fresh blood, merely based on the amount of merchandising bought over the course of their lifetime by every newly introduced youngster to the Gooner faith?

As it turns out, since starting this overly long preamble, I've actually stopped to endure an awful performance against PSV, where unsurprisingly we heard Arsène roll out his stock excuses after the game about where we "dropped physically" and "suffered from heavy legs". I am afraid this just doesn't wash with me and to be honest I am tired of hearing Arsène blame tiredness, as some of his players look a little more exhausted every time he repeats this mantra. What I want to know is where was the intensity in our performance right from the KO, for the first hour of the match, when we did have fresh legs.

Koeman seemed to take a leaf out of Mark Hughes book, as for almost the entire first half it was a case of attack v defence. But there was no urgency about our play, zero tempo and to my mind, the body language of the majority of our players suggested that this was just another drab day at the office and if they played long enough, they'd be rewarded with a goal, just for having turned up. Although Tony Adams seems to speak a load of gobbledigook for the most part these days, I have to agree with his half-time point, as I've always been a firm believer that continental sides cannot cope when forced to play Premiership style footie. I believe it frightens the life out of them, when instead of their opponents dropping back and defending their goal when they concede possession, they are in their faces, defending from the very front, pressing the ball with the same frantic pace we see most weeks

Instead of which we played to PSV's very limited strengths (at least going forward - their keeper and the centre-backs had a good night) and from the laidback, almost lazy way we went about this game, it was hard to believe we were actually playing for a place in the quarterfinals of the most prestigious tournament on the planet.

Like many others I'm sure, I texted my mates in Eindhoven at half-time, to express my fears that it was going to take a PSV goal for us to really get going. However that is where mental fatigue really took it's toll, as although we've managed to come back from the dead more times than I care to remember this season, we always knew that there was going to come a game where we couldn't manage this sort of rescue mission.

I am afraid tonight was the night, as with the home crowd buoyed by taking an utterly unexpected lead, suddenly for the first time all evening PSV began to gain some confidence and stroke the ball about a bit. Whereas by contrast you could positively sense the energy levels draining from the Arsenal and as we struggled to find any momentum, when we tried to change up a gear, for the first time sadly the tanks were so empty that we were running on fumes alone.

I knew Wenger would never take such a risk, but I actually wondered if Theo might have prospered better in such circumstances, where he might have had more room to do the business with PSV dropping back to defend and where he could have gained a head of steam, without having a player up his jacksey every time he receives the ball (as is likely to be the case if he plays against Chelsea). Then again, I thought Baptista might also be more impressive in a European environment, with more time on the ball, but he was bloody anonymous when he came on as sub, so shows what I know!

Just as someone commented on Saturday, we simply couldn't afford to carry so many under par players tonight. After being out for so long, Willie Gallas couldn't possibly be match fit and from what I saw, he was a yard short of the sort of pace necessary to do any damage going forward. I am unsure if Aw had any other options, but if he was insistent on including Gallas, I would have preferred to see him replace Senderos and use a younger, fitter, more energetic player at full-back.

Fabregas seems to have been struggling for form, ever since we had those amazing few days when we did for the Scousers and Spurs. It l;ooks as if our dependence on Cesc in every game early in the season, is beginning to catch up with him. And now he's suffering from the sort of vicious circle, where the less he's able to influence the game because of his mental and physical fatigue, the more frustrated he becomes and the harder he toils, with increasing ineffectiveness!

To my mind Thierry Henry hasn't been right all season. Usually you'd expect Thierry to be caressing the ball into the back of the net but a lack of confidence appears to be affecting his all important first touch. What's more, while Titi still has oodles of pace, just about his greatest asset is his turn of pace, where moving at what you assume to be full speed, Titi suddenly finds another gear, the turbo kicks in and suddenly his opponent looks like he's going backwards. When was the last time we saw Thierry ghost past a defender with the afterburners set to warp speed??!!

However it wasn't really a night for blaming individual performances as I can't really think of a single Arsenal player who had a good night and basically we were incredibly lacklustre all round. Obviously this is only our first defeat and we should really be holding our tongues until we see if we can turn it around in the second leg, instead of suddenly sticking the knife in at the very earliest opportunity. However the one thing which really struck me when watching on the box tonight, is that it is hard to picture anyone in or around this Arsenal squad who is capable of winding everyone up before such a big game, to ensure that right from the kick off, they start the game with such hunger and commitment that we see them really going for the throats of the opposition. Unfortunately it would appear from what we've been watching all season, that the only way this side can be motivated, is by the perceived sense of injustice of going a goal behind.

Additionally I have mentioned it briefly below, in my comment about the Valencia manager, but I am of the opinion that we must always start with our best available eleven. Lee Dixon made an interesting comment on Match of the Day the other weekend, when he revealed that often Arsène rest tired players even before they realised they were tired. I assume AW studies the statistical data and I can't help but wonder if he's a little bit too dependent on it for deciding on whether his charges are so fatigued that there's a higher possibility of them going out and getting injured if he doesn't act upon the info and rest them.

Yet while the data might not lie, personally I believe it simply cannot count for the essential ingredients of confidence and mental state, which can only be judged on instinct. As a result I'm a firm believer that a winning side doesn't feel anywhere near as fatigues as one that's been beat and so I reckon you maintain a winning line-up for as long as possible, resting players where possible, only after we've managed to go two goals up.

Who knows if we'd be suffering from more physical problems if Arsène wasn't quite so pragmatic. But no matter how cautious he is, he simply cannot account for the inevitable intervention of fate when it comes to injuries and both fatigue or plain bad luck are just as likely to be the culprits. But what bothers me is that every time Arsène rests one of our stars and refers to the problems of maintaining fresh legs in his programme notes, to my mind, he's constantly planting the seed in his players minds and thus if le Prof says they are tired, then obviously they must be feeling tired! It's certainly not the thinking which comes from the same positive school of thought of the likes of Ade Boothroyd, but then Watford aren't really the best example of the potential of positive thought :-)

Fortunately I was fully intending to travel to Eindhoven, until I was offered work Tues, Weds, Thurs and by turning down Tuesday, I'd end up losing out on the best part of five hundred quid for all three days, as the bloke found to replace me on Tuesday would continue working the other two days. However it wasn't purely a financial decision (although you could add at least another hundred quid as the likely cost of the spends on a boys day out), as I didn't want to leave my WHU supporting gaffer in the lurch (as he's more than enough on his mond at the mom).

As it turned out, I consider myself very fortunate, as I had far more fun on Monday night than I would've had in Eindhoven and right now I'd be struggling to stay awake on the long schlep home, or perhaps struggling for sleep, to find some solace in my dreams :-) and it only ended up costing me three quid instead of over £600 !! Yet as enjoyable a game as it was, watching the youngsters progress to a semifinal v Man Utd or Brum, they weren't particularly impressive against Cardiff.

As far as I'm aware Marc Randall was the only player who wasn't involved in the penalty shoot-out win in the last round against Bristol and I fully expected to see Randall run the show against a gritty, workmanlike, but far less talented Cardiff side, demonstrating why Wenger saw fit to take him and Traore along on the pre-season tour of Austria. Traore didn't play in the last round either and I imagine we missed his boundless energy on the left flank, à la Gael Clichy (BTW can anyone confirm that "Guy-el" is the correct French pronunciation of our full-back's first name, rather than "Gayle" as I've been screaming "allez Gayle" ever since he's been at the club and it would be great to know I'd got it right - it would also be interesting to find out if anyone has actually read this far :-).

Sadly along with Fran Merida and Nacer Barazite, Randall was very disappointing and it was only Jay Simpson, with his well taken hat-trick, who made much of an impression on the night. Defensively we were a bit of a disaster, conceding equalising goals almost immediately after we'd scored our first and then again after the second. Also I can confirm that it's absolutely correct that we play the same style of football throughout the club, from Stevie Bould's lads, to the first team, as on Monday night it was no less frustrating that we lacked any real width on our large pitch and I could've just as easily been watching the first XI, as we constantly tried in vain to plough a furrow through the heart of the opposition's defence, with our tippy-tappy passing patterns all too often floundering on the substantial (in number and size) Cardiff bodies.

Nevertheless, unlike their elders, they are through to the next round and at the end of the day, in a knockout tournament, that's all that matters

But that's more than enough of my prattle for one long-winded post. See you in Cardiff
Big Love

Sunday’s bore draw against Blackburn was the absolute antithesis of the thrilling entertainment we enjoyed up at Bolton last week. Yet I suppose if the Arsenal served up such footballing caviar twice weekly, it would soon taste like smelly fish eggs! Despite the sort of profligacy from the penalty spot that made for an incredibly stressful evening for every Arsenal fan, there were several instances of artistry in our interplay at the Reebok, that will have been appreciated by all genuine lovers of the beautiful game. When the seemingly interchangeable components of this Gunners’ squad are truly on their game these days, the breathtaking results are pure poetry in motion.

But then that’s probably been our biggest problem so far this season. We either tend to blow lightning-white hot, or lukewarm to the point of being tepid. The latter was certainly the case on Saturday, in a game played at such a slow tempo, that I had to keep nudging the missus to ensure she wasn’t nodding off! If I was partial to a conspiracy theory, I might surmise that a sneaky Blackburn supporter must have slipped a large dose of Bromide into the tea, that the Arsenal were invited to take with Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace on Friday. Or perhaps they were mistakenly served from her old man’s teapot, where sedatives are ‘de riguer’ to prevent the senile old bigot from causing yet another international incident?

Personally I prefer watching arrogant winners any day. Yet according to the farcically overblown comments in the media about the recent contretemps involving our lot, these hacks would have us believe that the Gunners are in need of a crash course in graceful losing. Cesc Fabregas might make like a doyen with a ball at his feet, but he only has to demonstrate a teenager’s (healthy?) disrespect, or Thierry Henry’s halo only has to slip slightly, for us to be perceived as a bunch of arrogant larrikins, lacking in the necessary humility to take a few punches in a bout of blame acceptance. Whereas in truth we are no more guilty of hubris than any other side with designs on greatness and if it were any other way, we’d be moaning that it didn’t mean enough to them.

Naturally I wouldn’t want to let the side down, so I’d place the Beeb top of my finger-pointing list, as partially culpable for Saturday’s lame performance. Sadly the FA Cup is the last bastion of live football on terrestrial TV and as such, the BBC seems desperate to squeeze every last drop of live coverage out of their lonely baby. At least I assume it’s the scheduling demands of the Corporation that are responsible for this recent trend for staggering cup games across the course of an entire weekend. This wouldn’t be a problem, so long as we didn’t end up with the short straw of the much despised midday start.

The atmosphere is usually the first victim of these early kick-offs and although our crowd did it’s best to raise the temperature, without the customary couple of hours spent quaffing alcoholic inspiration, there was an overall lack of intensity about this contest, which made it hard to believe that this was an Arsenal side, who’d all grown up watching FA Cup Finals on the box and whose careers had been inspired by dreams of imitating their idols, climbing those famous Wembley steps to collect the trophy.

Unbelievably it’s still not 100 per cent certain that Sunday’s Carling Cup encounter with Chelsea will be the last final to be staged in Cardiff. Brent council better get a wriggle on with the two “ramp up “ events necessary for the New Wembley to meet the necessary health & safe requirements. However on the assumption that the authorities involved will eventually make it happen, if only because they don’t want to end up looking like an even greater laughing stock than they are already, then supposedly the incentive of being one of the two teams to trot out onto the latest incarnation of the hallowed turf for the first time, has given an additional edge to this year’s tournament.

Or at least this has been the party-line of the tabloid hacks, with their trite requests for players to put into words what it would mean to be a participant in the New Wembley’s grand debut, when so many might have grown up several thousand miles away, where Wembley was something of a footballing myth, apart from the odd glimpse of the Twin Towers on a TV screen. The Arsenal’s desire to reach the final might have been evident in their death or glory triumph at the Reebok. Although I’m more inclined to believe that our extra-time inspiration was borne out of the fact that they were increasingly petrified of joining Gilberto, Baptista and Adebayor as the fall-guys in a disastrous penalty shoot-out.

However there was little sign of such a hankering to walk down Wembley Way for at least an hour of Saturday’s vapid showing, where there was such a lack of hunger and commitment that one could be forgiven for thinking that both sides looked as if they might have preferred to have been elsewhere. I’m sure we’d have enjoyed more entertainment pushing a trolley around Asda. At least we’d have been left patting the wedge in our back pockets, rather than paying through the nose for the privilege to watch a performance where, never mind wanting to reach Wembley, I’d have settled for some signs of an interest in earning a win bonus!

Mark Hughes might have been delighted in a defensive job well done, but in truth the 6-2 defeat a few weeks back was a far less one-sided affair. After all the energy expended disposing of Bolton and with a prize of a home draw against Man City in the quarterfinals, it will be a travesty if we don’t progress, as there can be no disputing the gulf in quality between the two sides. Yet as the clock ticked down towards the inevitable replay, it wasn’t so much my fear that the trip to Ewood Park could prove to be the proverbial ‘great leveller’ but the abject thought of yet another schlep to the North-West, after a week when we’ll have already clocked up nigh on a thousand miles travelling to Netherlands and Cardiff.

By now you’ll know whether Wenger’s rotation of 9 players against Rovers reaped a reward of fresh legs capable of running riot against PSV. Although I can appreciate Arséne’s reasoning, personally I’d much prefer to see us always start with our strongest XI, as was readily demonstrated by the Valencia boss on Sunday, who waited until he was winning 2-0 against Barca, before resting his star players for the midweek resumption of Champions League hostilities.

Yet our Carling Cup kids have certainly earned their Cup Final appearance. It would be a blatant lie to say I wouldn’t be any the less gutted if they end up losing to a more experienced Chelsea line-up, but after the revelation of youngsters performances to date, we can take a whole lot more than a worthless trophy from this tournament. Whatever the outcome, I’m hoping that by making a weekend of it in Wales, a win won’t be quite the be all and end all and considering they’ve overcome such increasingly obdurate opponents on route, you never know, the kids might just be ready to beat the Blues?

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Monday 12 February 2007

I Can't Believe It's Not Bitter

There’ve been a few awkward silences at work on Monday mornings in recent weeks. I mean what else are you going to talk about, other than the weekend’s footie? Yet we’ve all been treading on eggshells, for fear of making matters even worse for our West Ham supporting boss. I’ve grown almost as desperate as him, for the Hammers’ fortunes to take a turn for the better, just so that normal service might be resumed and I can get back to bragging about the Arsenal, instead of feeling the need to apologise whenever we’ve sneaked another three points.

And after the miserable outcome of West Ham’s ‘must win’ match against Watford, I’m not sure I’d have had the front to show my face this Monday, if we’d gifted our game to their closest rivals. For all Egghead Magnusson’s money the Irons can’t seem to buy a goal at the minute and I really have my doubts about Curbishley’s scatter-gun approach to trying to solve the Irons problems, by spunking up £19 of the Icelander’s millions on eight new players.

Rumour has it that Freddie Ljungberg turned down a massive £70 grand a week wage packet on offer at Upton Park; which in turn might lead one to conclude that the likes of Upson, Neill, Boa Morte etc. have all been tempted by similarly ignoble motives, rather than any burning desire to sweat blood effecting a rescue mission.

Curbishley certainly didn’t have a wealthy sugar-daddy to fund his creditable efforts to establish the Addicks as a Premiership team. He achieved this feat with relatively limited resources, by fostering a good team spirit within a close-knit club, where, in the absence of any prima-donnas, everyone was prepared to work their socks off to achieve mid-table glory.

By contrast, I can only begin to imagine the seeds of discontent currently being sown in the West Ham dressing room, with its small remaining core of homegrown Academy kids, who genuinely suffer the “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” taunts of the Hammers’ fans and who are truly desperate to cling to their Premiership status. How can you possibly expect a squad full of unfamiliar faces to present the crucial united front necessary to escape their current plight? Especially with all the discord that’s likely to result from the disparity in the new arrivals earnings, when their careers to date hardly justify such superstar salaries.

Moreover it’s hard to picture this somewhat random selection of panic buys playing their hearts out to avoid the prospects of lower league football, if they’ve all got escape clauses enabling them to bale out long before the Championship beckons. Between counting their money and nursing every slightest niggle, I wonder if some of them will find the time demonstrate whether they’ve a taste for the battle ahead?

With all those millions at his disposal, you’d think Curbishley’s job would be a doddle compared to Paul Jewell. With 14 players in and 11 out of the JJB since the end of last season, including the sale of most of Wigan’s more influential players, Jewell has virtually started again from scratch. Even the most blinkered Gooner had to have some sympathy with the Lactics on Sunday, as they were extremely unlucky to be returning from their first appearance at our new stadium, with nothing but a burning sense of injustice.

Although I do get more than a little peeved at how everyone seems to focus almost exclusively on the pressure faced by managers and clubs involved in the relegation struggle. Relatively speaking, the three points on offer in Sunday’s game were no less vital to the Arsenal. Can Arsène Wenger’s job be any less stressful, when, with a fraction of the financial muscle that’s now been made available to many of our competitors, Arsène is expected at the very minimum, to deliver a top four finish every season. Additionally with the Gunner’s entire operation having been turned up a good few notches, to tie in with the scale and the setting of our grandiose new stage, it would be an unmitigated disaster if we failed to achieve Champions League qualification in our first season at the new gaff.

It also bothers me that it only takes another dire England performance for the press to start pointing the finger of blame at our academy and it’s production line of foreign talent. When it truth England’s shortcomings are all due to the FA’s insistence on appointing a “yes man” who hasn’t anywhere near the strength of personality to command either respect from his peers, or anything vaguely resembling a work ethic from his over-indulged players.

In truth, with no Arsenal players involved, I’d find it quite amusing to see England stuffed by Israel, but if Maclaren is ever going to force club managers to desist from taking the Michael, he should be demanding his players be prevented from playing domestic footie for a period of time, once they’ve been ruled unfit for international duty. That way the likes of Ferguson wouldn’t be quite so quick to withdraw Wayne Rooney from a midweek England match, when he’s able bodied enough to play Sunday / Saturday either side.

Meanwhile in laying into the lack of homegrown talent in the Gunners squad, the media seem to have totally ignored the likes of Bentley, Pennant, Sidwell and Harper who could go on to earn England caps, after having learned their trade at London Colney.

Arsène wasn’t the only one sweating, with ten minutes left on the clock on Sunday. I was fortunate to find myself watching the match from the plush surroundings of an extremely posh Club Level pitch. As our prospects of all three points dwindled with each passing minute, I grew increasingly convinced that I was going to be personally culpable for our first defeat, due to having forsaken my customary seat. Having been offered a seat that costs an unbelievable 173 quid per match, gratis (never mind my complimentary half-time cuppa, it should be foie gras and Dom Perignon at those prices), I felt obliged to pass on the goodwill, by giving up my own ticket, to enable someone to take their six year old son to his first live game.

It was only on collecting my membership cards after the match that I realised my own self-interests paled into insignificance, compared to the life changing effect of our last gasp win on this young convert to the Gooner faith. As the three of us headed towards the tube station, the lad was on such a high that he was literally skipping along beside us, when according to his old man, only minutes earlier he’d been on the verge of tears. I doubt his mother would be quite so enamoured by her son’s new vocabulary, but you should’ve seen the pride in pop’s face, when the pint-size tot made a point of reminding me that the referee was indeed “a w***er!”

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Tuesday 6 February 2007

Karma's Gonna Get Ya

Hi folks

I have to be honest, as after an exhausting week, I managed to make it to Underhill on Friday night for the FA Youth Cup fifth round tie, thereby missing out on my weekly fix of jewish penicillin from my Ma's Friday night dinner. Having missed out on several previous opportunities to cast an eye over the promising likes of Fran Merida and Nacer Barazite, I was determined to catch this Youth Cup encounter.

Although I'm beginning to wonder if someone's trying to tell me something, as of my two most recent trips to Barnet, I arrived to find one match postponed and I couldn't get into the other, as they'd underestimated the expected crowd and there weren't enough stewards in attendance, to open an additional terrace. Turning up late as ever, I arrived to find a large throng of disappointed Gooners outside the ground and immediately gave up and went home, when I believe the vast majority of the more persistent present eventually got to see the game.

Then again I might as well have not bothered on Friday, as having crawled my way through the rush hour traffic (that always appears to triple on a Friday) and parked up at Underhill, only to discover I had a long hike all the way around virtually the entire circumference of the not so vast ground, with there being a change in the customary entrances in use, I'd already missed three goals by the time I stumped up my three quid entrance fee.

Although the first goal resulted from a massive deflection the second was supposedly a little bit special and it was bloody typical that it was the two players I'd specifically come to see, who'd already managed to get their names on the scoresheet. Thankfully I was the grateful recipient of a surprisingly detailed, ball by ball account from a particularly gregarious Gooner. Apparently Bristol City had replied by means of penalty and in truth I probably should have turned around and headed back home, as I proved to be a bit of a bok after that, with the remainder of the first half, the second half and extra-time offering little to write about other than the balls up before the break which resulted in Bristol's equaliser.

After extra-time and penalties (see below), followed by a decidedly uninviting schlep across the entire length of the capital, from Barnet to Dulwich and back to Highbury, merely in order to drop off a bit of wood which had somehow been forgotten about in the back of my motor, I eventually arrived home just in time for the dog to demand a trot, before promptly passing out on the sofa.

I believe it must've been the brightness of the sun, streaming in through the living room window which eventually caused me to stir with a shock the following morning, only to grab my mobile and discover to my horror that it was precisely eleven o'clock, the exact time that I was due to be meeting up at South Mimms. I was just grateful at that moment, for the small mercy that it wasn't any later and that Brian and John hadn't been left (in the words of Bob Marley) "Waiting in Vain" (as usual) for me to turn up.

They're both the sort staunch Gooners who would've undoubtedly considered waiting for me, but having informed them that it would take me at least an hour to get up to meet them, I am sure they were glad to be let off the hook by my assertion that they'd have to head off without me. Subsequent to which, I sat on the sofa considering my options , contemplating how I might make it up to Middlesborough in time for KO and if it wasn't for the fact that we were quite so strapped at the moment, I might well have dashed off to Kings Cross, hoping to catch up with them via a train to Teeside.

It's been a while since I last trusted British Rail to get me to a game and I wouldn't mind betting that these days, a one-way to the North East costs the best part of a one-er! With expensive outings to Cardiff and Holland on the immediate horizon, it wasn't long before I laid back down and decided that the Gunners would have to do without me for this one afternoon, opting for a further forty winks as an hors d'ouevres to the Scouse derby and a lazy day in front of the gogglebox.

Now while I've avoided telling an outright lie below, I've not been exactly forthcoming with the truth. However this has nothing to do with any fear that I might be accused of not being a genuine Gooner fanatic. It's simply down to the fact that I feel a complete and utter fraud, contributing to a Terrace Talk feature in the Irish Examiner, from the comfort of my armchair :-)

Peace & Love

PS. I suppose I'd better don crash helmet and flak jacket, in preparation for the barrage of stick I am likely to endure, from all those who've been on the wrong end of my "part-timer" teasing, whenever anyone else has whimped out of just such an outing!

Karma’s Gonna Get Ya

Philippe Senderos was struggling from the second he allowed Boro’s express train of a striker to get goal side of him on Saturday. Nevertheless from where I sat, it still felt like a fairly soft penalty. If one of our forwards had thrown himself down under the weight of Woodgate’s arm, at the other end of the pitch, Riley would’ve probably waived away the Arsenal’s appeals for a penalty. Whereas, despite the fact that the initial offence on Yakubu seemed to occur outside of the box, the ref appeared to make his mind up without a moment’s hesitation. Riley pointed to the spot and brandished the red card with such rapidity, it was as if he was intent on making a ‘how’s that for bias towards the big clubs’ type statement to all the home fans, who’d been taunting him with their (somewhat unjustified) “you’re not fit” and “12 men” chants, in the build up to this costly incident.

I am pretty sure Sol Campbell was in dire need of a fresh challenge and he probably wouldn’t be performing with anywhere near the same renewed enthusiasm, nor with such regularity, if he was still playing for the Gunners. Yet on witnessing Sol steaming in, with a couple of game saving, last-ditch challenges for Pompey, whilst watching Match of the Day, as he extended a long leg to produce the sort of trademark clinical tackle that made Sol the scourge of Premiership strikers, compared to the naivety of the lumbering Senderos’ somewhat clumsy looking assault, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been.

But for the want of some experience at the back, to add the calming influence of a touch more composure, to the mix of exuberant vitality in Wenger’s youthful squad. Or if only William Gallas hadn’t spent most of the season so far on the sidelines, we might not have found ourselves having to climb the mountain quite so frequently, coming from a goal behind for the umpteenth (14th?) time, to rescue a result and might well have mounted a more credible title challenge.

Boro’s a bloomin’ long schlep for a single point. Especially in light of the fact that yet another late kick-off “oop North” afforded us an opportunity to gain some ground on the Scousers, after their derby day draw. Not to mention that Bolton’s win left us in need of establishing some breathing space, between us and those also-rans who retain delusions of Champions League grandeur. In this respect I was a little disappointed to discover that Arsène had apparently adjusted our team selection, with a view to containing the attacking threat of Downing, when to my mind it should be the other way around and we should be letting the opposition worry about us.

Admittedly, amidst all the excitement of Theo Walcott’s outings in recent weeks, his appearances have been marred by the absolute absence of any end product, as apparently the shoulders of our young prodigy aren’t quite up to bearing the massive weight of expectation that’s resulted ever since his ridiculous inclusion in the World Cup squad. Walcott’s locker is without doubt fit to burst with all the required tools, but until such time as he learns to make the best use of them, in the eyes of many, Theo’s still some way from looking like the finished product.

What’s more, as a natural striker, Walcott lacks the instinctive awareness of his defensive duties when played out wide and he’s left Justin Hoyte a little exposed on our left flank. However, to my mind, by playing a somewhat uncomfortable looking Flamini in this position, in an effort to offer Hoyte some protection, not only does this suggest that Wenger doesn’t have sufficient faith in Justin’s ability to prevent Downing from supplying Viduka and Yakubu with ammunition, but no matter how versatile and wholehearted Flamini is, he’s a long way from possessing the necessary pace and trickery to outfox defenders out on the wing.

Thus we were left with, albeit an increasingly impressive Gael Clichy, as our single only source of width. Whereas I would’ve preferred a more positive selection from le Prof, with the prospect of exposing a weakness in Boro’s left-back; thereby ensuring we wouldn’t have to fret about Downing flying forward because he’d have been too busy helping out at the back.

Although perhaps a pragmatic Wenger was a little worried about the likelihood of lactic acid in the oxygen deprived muscles of those leg-weary players, who performed for most of the 120 minutes of our midweek semi-final. I’m unsure whether this was Fabregas’ excuse for a somewhat lacklustre effort, where he failed to orchestrate the entire show in customary fashion. Or whether I should be praising Boro’s tactical awareness, in demonstrating the determination to deny Cesc the space to do any real damage.

Whatever the case, doubtless the return trip back to London would’ve seemed a helluva lot longer, had the Gunners failed to dig deep and display the necessary fortitude to avoid defeat. While there was much to be admired in the resolve shown by the likes of Kolo and Clichy, it was perhaps our captain’s point blank refusal to accept defeat that deserves most credit. As if in response to some of the tabloid guff, Thierry grafted his socks off all over the park, desperate to get us back into the game.

Personally I prefer a captain who doesn’t play with his back to his teammates and I’ve often criticised the lack of a vocal leader. Yet in this instance I’ve absolutely no complaints about Henry’s efforts to lead by example. It’s hard to imagine anything more inspiring for some of our youngsters, than the sight of a player of Titi’s calibre, working back to regain possession on the edge of our own area and maintaining the energy levels, to ensure that ultimately he was in the perfect place to prevent us going home empty-handed.

The up side to having battled our way back into so many games this season, is that at least we should’ve gone some way to putting a sock in the mouths of all those who perceive us as a soft touch. Above all, it would be more than a little churlish of me to be complaining, after a week when our reserves have embarrassed our local rivals, on route to a place in the last Cardiff final. We also did Man Utd a favour, as all it took was the first goal on Sunday, for an already demoralised outfit to crumble completely. Similarly if I were a Spurs fan, I’d seriously hope that their failure to turn up for the second leg resulted from the psychological stuffing they received in blowing a two-goal lead at White Hart Lane. Never mind North London bragging rights, I was amazed by the lack of intensity of a Spurs team playing for their place in a final for the first time in five years.

What’s more, while I wouldn’t wish harm on anyone, there was almost a poetic poignancy, watching an ebullient Gael Clichy rampaging down the wing last Wednesday, as I relayed the news coming from my radio earpiece of Ashley Cole being stretchered off with a knackered knee, on the very night when Chelsea could no longer do anything about obtaining a replacement. Talk about karma coming back to bite you on the bum!

In scraping past Bristol City on penalties at Underhill on Friday night, sadly our U18s exploits in the FA Youth Cup weren’t anywhere near as impressive as our Carling Cup kids. However if the rumour proves true and they’ve earned themselves the reward of a quarterfinal, to be played immediately after the first XI’s encounter against Wigan, I can’t wait to see whether the likes of Merida and Barazite (two more of our Academy’s continental discoveries) are able to rise to such a memorable occasion, playing on the hallowed turf in front of such a huge crowd?

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