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Wednesday 7 March 2007

Tuesday night's alright for fighting!

Hi folks

After seeing both the Scousers and Chelsea progress this evening, I am even more desperate for us to succeed tomorrow night. I hate to say it, but after their bye in the last round, I've an inkling that Spurs name might be on Europe's Mickey Mouse silverware this season. And while Hoops fans might be all too familiar with the annual heartache, it's going to seriously depressing if our season comes to an anti-climactic conclusion and we're left having to avoid all the bullsh*t nationalistic ballyhoo in the media, as the only side from these shores denied a quarterfinal berth.

Although I only watched highlights, I thought the encounters involving Liverpool & Chelsea were interesting and I have to admit (begrudginly in Big Mouth's case!) that both managers earned their corn tonight.

When Chelsea signed Cole, Schevchenko and Ballack last summer, I was convinced that with nothing to prove, such established stars weren't going to Stamford Bridge to graft their socks off in the unrelenting grind of the Premiership, as was perhaps demonstrated in their influential efforts this evening. Some might suggest Ballack has to limit his ambitions in a midfield where Lampard is their most offensive player. But to my mind, much like Desailly before him, Ballack has done little more than just enough to justify his place at the Bridge in the Premiership to date, especially when you consider Ballack has the ability to have a much greater influence on matches than has been seen from him so far.

I therefore felt it was quite poignant to see all three of them combine with Didier Drogba to manufacture the goal that put the Blues into the last eight of the Champions League. Perhaps Schevchenko's case is a little more complex but as far as Cole and Ballack are concerned, tonight's performance only confirmed my belief that the two of them are only really going to turn it on for such glamorous evenings as the grand stage of the Champions League.

ITV's co-commentator (Jim Beglin?) made an astute observation in the build-up. With such a muscular target man up front as Drogba, Ashley Cole was able to whip the ball in from deep, knowing Drogba's aerial ability and his physical presence would enable him to win the knock-on, when customarily, facing away from their own goal and dealing with a ball played from halfway inside their half, the centre back would be favourite in most cases.

I am as big a fan of the Arsenal's incredibly cultured football, as the next Gooner, but for a long time now we seem to have suffered from the lack of sufficient brawn to add to all that ability and ironically we appear to continue to do so even with a player nicknamed the Beast in our ranks up front.

Surely I'm not alone when I find myself sighing when our customary dominance of possession results in yet another corner-kick. Or the opposition's frustration at their inability to win the ball back ends up with them kicking one of ours up in the air, earning us the resulting set-piece.

Although Chelsea might not produce performances where their control of possession is as complete as many of our displays, you know full well that if the Blues win a dozen corners during the course of the game, the law of averages guarantees that at least a couple of these will end up with Drogba or Terry getting their head on the ball and producing decent efforts on goal. Whereas by contrast I find our apparent impotence in failing to not only to make the most, but all too often maiking absolutely nothing out of so many set-piece circumstances, utterly exasperating. Especially when you consider our tradition, where the likes of Bould and Adams were the virtual architects of the near post flick-on.

For a while there earlier in the season, it looked as if Gilberto might have grown into the Gunners' aerial threat, in addition to his responsibilities as chief penalty taker & stand-in captain. I wouldn't have been surprised to find Gilbo was taking the kit home to wash as well!

But a team's got to have more than one player with the sort of commitment and determination that makes them prepared to risk injury, getting their head on the ball, otherwise it makes matters all too easy for the opposition. Although it's not only the fact that we lack much of an aerial threat that annoys me. When you consider that we have so many supremely skilled strikers of the ball, it's a real wind up to see the likes of Fabregas or Denilson float yet another corner across, as meat and drink for the opposition keeper to collect.

To my mind it seems utterly obvious that a ball whipped in at pace is likely to prove much harder to defend against, if only for the fact its possible to impart so much spin on the modern day balls that a defender is just as likely to put it into their own net, as clear it. And with all the hours spent on the training ground, you would've thought they'd be able to find some time to conjure up the occasional set play involving just a little more guile than merely smashing the ball into the box? (then again remembering the farcical spot-kick cock-up involving Titi and Pires, we've hardly a great track record with such rehearsed moves!)

Perhaps it is no coincidence that we've lacked this sort of muscular presence up front, capable of winning a large percentage of aerial balls, ever since Arsène's been at the club. It coud be that the very physique which enables a player to win the ball in the air is often going to belong to the sort of footballer who lacks a sufficient turn of pace and mobility on the ground to present Wenger with the sort of statistical profile that doesn't arouse his interest?

What I do know, is that if we still haven't scored twice with only a few minutes left on the clock tomorrow night and we are forced to hoof the ball into the box in a last ditch effort to avoid a premature end to our Champions League campaign, I'm going to be tearing my hair out, once again, because we'll be left losing out in the air, with our only hope that the defender's knock down might fall fortuitously.

Meanwhile I'm not sure whether Benitez deserves praise for his tactical nous, or if Rijkaard was responsible for Barca's demise with his somewhat naive line-up. From the little I saw, it appeared to me that by playing three at the back, the Barca manager was guilty of contributing towards the congestion in midfield, that meant that the likes of Messi wasn't able to find sufficient space or time to be able to influence the outcome.

If we're able to manage the feat of maintaining our Champions League interest by beating PSV tomorrow night, in truth, on the basis that their bad form is likely to be transient and according to the saying, class is permanent, it's probably best that the Catalans are out of the competition. However so long as Etó'o is struggling to get back into goal scoring groove, there's a side of me that's sorry we might've missed out on an opportunity to exact some right proper revenge on the supercilious Spanish side.

However right now I'd be overjoyed to settle for a place in the last eight, as the way things are going, it will be even more devastating if we end up going out of the Champions League, as a result of a shot to nothing effort in Eindhoven, from a PSV side whose ambitions were limited to maintaining a clean sheet. Especially when, to my mind, if we can get past PSV, I'm pretty confident that whoever the seven other remaining sides are, they'd have more to fear from us than we'd have from them.

If the Arrogant One deserves credit for a half-time team talk which inspired the Blues to raise their game in the second-half this evening and if Benitez is deserving of respect for having outwitted Rijkaard, then similarly Arsène truly needs to pull something out of the bag tomorrow night to enable us to strike the right balance. Admittedly I will be absolutely gutted if we're guilty of not giving it a proper go, but bearing in mind PSV's own attacking threat, maintaining our patience will be an onerous task, without going so gung-ho that we play right into Koeman's counter-attacking plans.

Would a goal in the opening moments be too much to ask for? It would certainly save a few thousand Gooner fingernails, what remains of my hair, whilst going a long way to saving us all from what could otherwise prove to be an incredibly stressful evening.

As for all the other non-footballing distractions obviously we're now set for the ultimate irony, where doubtless the English FA end up throwing the book at us, following on from everything which resulted from the absolutely harmless melée of pusing and shoving in the Millennium. Whereas what's the betting we have to endure watching UEFA dish out a relative slapped wrist by comparison, as punishment for the madcap shenanigans witnessed at the Mestalla this evening, in which (if the tales of a cracked conk are indeed true) actual bone breaking punches were thrown!

Big Love