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Saturday 15 September 2007

One Team In London

You could sense some tension amongst us Gooners at White Hart Lane at half-time yesterday. As usual we'd pretty much dominated possession for the first forty-five, producing some wonderfully flowing midfield passing, without making it count in the final third. But with Manuel Almunia making such a ricket at the free-kick, with either the placing or the numbers in the wall and with Abou Diaby having blown a doozie of an opportunity to equalise, some of us were wondering if (for the first time this century!), the enemy were going to get one over on us.

I was standing there with my half-time cuppa feeling relieved I hadn't accepted a lift to the match from some Spurs mates. It was tempting, as they have a blinding parking pitch on someone's driveway, literally across the road from WHL. However it doesn't bear thinking about, having to endure the ride home with them gloating gleefully, if they'd got a result - as their company was hard enough to bear on the way back from their victory against Derby a few weeks back, where they'd offered me a spare ticket in the hope I'd prove to be their lucky mascot!

And if we were leading as the clock ticked down, I would've been forced to spend the last fifteen minutes watching them in their posh West Stand perch (relatively speaking, or at least in terms of price, as their seats remain extremely cramped and uncomfortable, compared to our much more luxuriously apportioned abode) through my binoculars, instead of the game, waiting for my cue to make a swift exit, long before the final whistle, if I didn't want to end up walking home.
Which is undoubtedly what would've transpired, as when I looked up to try and pick out their lugubrious faces after Fabregas' stunning strike sailed past Robinson, in the 80th minute, like all the other Spurs fans who lacked the belief in their side having sufficient backbone to retrieve the situation in the dying throes, they were already heading for the exit!

So thankfully I decided to drive myself and since I refuse to stump up an extortionate ten quid to park the car for ninety minutes, at the top of White Hart Lane, I ended up driving halfway back towards Wood Green, before finding a safe pitch for the car, with a long walk back to the ground. Naturally I was somewhat tardy for kick-off but I was far from the last, as Gooners kept on drifting into the stand for the first half hour of the game. It seems that many of them were the victims of over-zealous policing, having been forced to run the gauntlet of the queues at Seven Sisters Road station, where apparently the old bill were stoppping and searching everyone.

Obviously the football "intelligence" unit must have been reading my blog again and the details of our pre-arranged dustup with the scum fans, as aside from these searches, it was evident from the old bill's incredibly heavy handed approach after the match, that they must've been privy to some sort of apparently unfounded intelligence.

Once again the highlights shown on MOTD and on Football First later that night, seemed somewhat flattering, as from where I sat behind the goal, our strike force seemed fairly anonymous first-half. I know Manny carved out a couple of decent chances, working Paul Robinson and that he also won his fair share of balls in the air, but he and in particular Van Persie were otherwise both pretty anonymous. But perhaps I am being hyper-critical, especially considering Adebayor ended the day with a decent contender for goal of the month?

There was a euphoric sense of relief when Manny rose to head home Fab's free-kick for the equaliser and it only served to highlight the extremely thin margins between success and failure, as if Kolo Touré hadn't stood tall, with a tackle Tony Adams would've been proud of, a few minutes earlier, when Berbatov had gone past Almunia and was left with a gaping goal to aim for, it could've been a totally different story, without the ecstatic ending.

Instead of which, the jubilant Gooners behind the goal were left bellowing out a hearty chorus of "it's so quiet, it's so quiet at the Lane" as Martin Jol stood cross-armed, on the edge of his technical area, like a beleaguered Buddha who's already been convicted of his crime and who is merely awaiting the imposition of his sentence (when in truth he should be thanking his lucky stars if he ends up getting time off for good behaviour and escaping his Spurs slammer).

They don't come much more fickle than the Totts and they and their board deserve one another. On route to the Derby game a few weeks back, my Spurs mates were bemoaning their manager's dodgy team selections, while on the way back, after their 4-0 win, Jol was the best thing since sliced bread. Similarly, if they'd managed to win yesterday, Jol's star would've been soaring so high amongst the supporters, that there's no way they'd have been able to give him the boot. So for all we know, the suits at the club might not be too displeased with the outcome, as on the back of it, they now have the climate to be able to give Jol the totally undeserved elbow.

Surely only Spurs could contrive to shoot themselves in the foot, with the underhand shenanigans that have made Jol's position untenable, resulting in the premature exit of the best manager they've had in donkey's years!

Meanwhile, when Arsène rose out of the dugout sometime after the break, to remonstrate about a bad decsion, he was greeted by a derisory choruse of "Sit down you paedophile".

Supposedly everything is fair game when it comes to football, but I find the Spurs fans perpetuation of this particular slander decidedly offensive. I can't imagine how it must feel, knowing that his daughter might hear such outrageous allegations about her father. However in one sense I'm somewhat reassured whenever I hear the Spurs fans revert to type in this fashion, as to my mind this chant is so far beyond the pale (especially when a former incumbent of the Spurs job actually has three convictions for kerb crawling) that whenever I hear it being sung, I am convinced karma will prevail and the perpetrators will end up geting their just deserts.

And so it proved on Saturday, as we continued the second half, where we'd left off before the break, with the absolutely peerless passing that enabled us to dominate the middle of the park, creating a build up of pressure that eventually led to the equaliser and was only occasionally interspersed with the odd counter-attack, as we teased the Totts "you're supposed to be at home!"

Eventually Jol was forced into making a change and I was a little concerned when I saw young Aaron Lennon on the touchline, worried that his pace might prove a problem for the tiring legs of the likes of Gilberto. Brazil's captain deserved a medal just for being there, after turning out twice for his country in the past week, with the second game in the US only finishing in the wee hours of Thursday morning. With this in mind, Gilbo was bound to be a little leg weary, but along with everyone else, he continued to work his socks off.

I need not have worried about Lennon, as he his entry into the fray had little or no impact. Yet there were a couple of hair-raising scares before Cesc added what's fast becoming a customary contribution to the Gunners' goal tally. First Almunia redeemed himself, with a wonderful save when Robbie Keane was clean through on goal. It was a shut-out which required all the Spaniard's concentration, as the lino was standing there flagging for offside but was over-ruled by the ref because the ball to Keane had come off Flamini. And then when Clichy cleared Berbatov's initial effort off the line, I was amazed that the Bulgarian missed the target with his headed rebound.

When it eventually came, Cesc's long-range effort proved well worth the wait, as it was a 25/30 yard scorcher, which was destined for the back of the net from the moment it left Fab's foot, looping well beyond Robinson's despairing dive. The commentator on the Sky highlights I watched later put it most concisely "Dynamite...absolute dynamite!"

With a long ten minutes left on the clock, I wanted to put my hand up and ask "can I go home now?" Although the goal completely knocked the stuffing out of their fans, as they began heading for the exits, with their habitual resignation, to the traditional tune of "we can see you sneaking out", their manager hadn't quite given up the ghost. As Jol played his final card, sending on £16.5 million Darren Bent, we serenaded him with a rousing version of "you're getting sacked in the morning, sacked in the morning".

And naturally there was much merriment and the customary chorus of "what a waste of money" after Jenas sent Bent clean through on goal, only for the former Charlton strker to see his badly struck effort bobble past the post (to our great relief). Obviously there were some tired legs out there and there were a few more scares to come, as a result of conceding possession with sloppy passes and with an instinctive (but no less frustrating) tendency to sit back and hold the lead.

Denilson should really have put the result beyond doubt when put through on goal, but Robinson saved with his feet. However it was only moments later that we were able to truly relax and enjoy the euphoria of the afternoon, as Adebayor controlled the ball with one touch on the edge of the penalty area, swivelled and smashed a volley into the back of the net with some venom.

We've grown quite accustomed to watching the Arsenal completely outplay previous Spurs sides but with there being a fair bit of natural ability amongst the current Lilywhite incumbents, the most pleasing aspect to this particular match, was to see us completely outdo the home team for commitment and determination. As ever both our full-backs deserve special mention for their tireless running, with Clichy truly working his socks off, as if his very life depended on retaining possession. Moreover, while Flamini will never be blessed with the natural ability of a Dennis Bergkamp type ball player (who is!), in recent games the French midfielder has truly earned his Gooner spurs not just for his unflagging work-rate but also for his preparedness to take responsibility in linking up our forward play.

Poor young Abou might have had a bit of a stinker and both he and Almunia would've ended up as principal targets in a finger-pointing post-mortem, if the game had taken a different course with a second goal for Spurs instead of the equaliser. But then with his tall gangly frame, he hardly appears designed for playing out wide on the flank and in light of the outcome, I am happy to cut him some slack. More worrying perhaps is Van Persie's continued struggle to have some impact where it matters, as our principal front man. But then if I was at all bothered, any concerns evaporated on watching the Sky coverage later, when I witnessed the hand and back-slapping that went on between Robin and Le Gaffer, as the bench gloried in our decisive third goal.

Meanwhile those Gooners who were anxious to escape White Hart Lane for the sanctuary of less hostile turf might well have missed some of the celebrations at the final whistle, when the entire team were encouraged to gather in a huddle in the centre circle, before joining us in a few moments of mutual admiration at our end of the ground. I might have been glad of my upper tier seat, with a much higher and better perspective of the proceedings during the game, but I was gutted not to be down below after the final whistle, dead envious of all those who had an opportunity to bag one of the many shirts thrown into the crowd, as we ended the afternoon reminding the remaining Spurs stragglers that for the first time in three years "We are top of the league!"

I don't want to get ahead of myself with any far too premature predictions, but amidst celebrations that were reminiscent of those we enjoyed at White Hart Lane a couple of years ago, I don't think I am mistaken in detecting an ever burgeoning team spirit amongst this Arsenal squad, which could well hold the key to a season which promises some success, to accompany all that superlative entertainment.

Personally I didn't want to leave and I would've lingered even longer, if it wasn't for the fact that I was desperate for a fag. The anti-smoking regulations at White Hart Lane are even worse than at our place, as not only are you not allowed to smoke inside the stadium, but you aren't supposed to light up in the immediate environs, until one is off the property. This didn't stop me grabbing for my fags as we headed down the stairs, steeling my nerve for those worrying few moments outside the stadium, where one is identifiable by the exit from which one has left, before reaching the end of Park Lane and being able to lose oneself amongst the crowd on the High Rd.

However the scene outside in Park Lane and at the junction with the High Rd was more Baghdad than London N17, with a gaggle of Gooners gathered together by the old bill on one corner, I assume waiting to be herded in the direction of the station, while at the High Rd there was a line of about fifty old bill minibuses, all nose to tail along the road, in an effort to maintain segregation. The policing at WHL is always a little OTT, compared to at our place and often only serves to heighten the mood of tension. But this was extreme even by these standards, as if they were definitely expecting something to kick-off.

If it did, thankfully I was long gone, heading back to the car whilst recounting the afternoon's events on the phone to Rona, in an effort to avoid catching anyone's eye and to maintain my anonymity as an intruder in their midst. Although I soon decided to cut our conversation short, as I was struggling to contain the smile, that was going to give the game away amongst the gloomy hordes of down-in-the-mouth home fans. Once back in the car, it's 15 minute drive past Wood Green, through Haringey and on to Highbury and having arrived home, I promptly donned my "we won the league at White Hart Lane" t-shirt, in honour of the occasion, before heading out for a walk with the dog, to catch the celebratory mood in and around the local hostelries.

Roll on Wednesday, bring on Seville and the Champions League! Bring it all on!

Big Love


phatosas said...

I always like reading your site because your perspective is always one from inside the stadium rather than what we see on Tv. Living in the united states I don't have the opportunity to see Arsenal games live so reading your comments always gives me a feel on what it is like to be at the stadium in person. I think you are begining to see why I was willing to be patient with Cesc at the start of the season, he is one hell of a player. Van Persie on the other hand isn't really kickin it at the moment but he is still our second best player when on form. We need him to regain form as soon as possible because he is crucial for us this season. Maybe the game against Derby is coming at a good time, a couple of goals in that game would definitely give him some much needed confidence.

mad.redo1 said...

I can identify with imafidon above, being a Gooner in Malaysia. Having watch Arsenal in action only once in my whole life when they came for a tour in 1999 (after sp*ds presented the manure the title by losing) I always look enviously to those who can park their bums by the pitch at Highbury and now at the Emirates.

Looking forward for more thrills against Sevilla on Thursday morning (3.00am to be precise here in Malaysia)

Bern said...

My pleasure Imafidon. It's most gratifying if I can bring geographically challenged Gooners such as yourself just a little flavour of what it's like being there in person

I have always had the utmost faith in Fab's ability, but there was definitely something about his body language in pre-season and at the start of the season which worried me. The consensus of general opinion seemed to be that he looked a little jaded but I was concerned it was more of an attitude problem which might lead one to conclude that not everything in the Arsenal camp was rosy.

Whether or not this was the case and whether or not it was due to the air of uncertainty, with all the boardroom shenanigans and the questions about Arsène's future, or the fact that I believe they were all a bit taken aback to find Gallas had been given the club captaincy, we can only speculate.

A derby game is not really one to judge by, because if they can't get themselves up for Spurs, then we're in big trouble, but there are positive signs that whatever it was that was responsible for Cesc's comparative lethargy early on, has been resolved as it would appear as if his head's on straight now.

In addition to the wonderfully instinctive footballing brain which enables Fab to invariably pick the optimum pass, he also appears to be playing with the sort of smile on his face that wasn't evident previously and if Cesc carries on with this consistent goal scoring streak, he's go to make himself an unlikely candidate for top scorer (although I'm confident our strikers will be on a roll before too long)

Meanwhile I'm casting an eye over La Liga and Seville v Recreativo. While I've no idea about the calibre of the opposition, Seville's performance, with, their three Ks looking very sharp (Keita, Kerzhakov, Kanoute) certainly suggests that they will be no pushover this week - Kanoute's just scored Seville's second after 30 mins. Not to mention Chelsea target Dani Alves and the midfield promptings of the diminutive Navas.

I simply can't understand the Russian coach's decision to leave Kerzhakov on the bench for Russia's defeat at Wembley, as he only joined their ineffective strikeforce for the last ten minutes of the match and having heard he was a Seville player, I commented to my pal as we were leaving Wembley that we have nothing to worry about there.

However on the evidence of the first-half the Ruski striker looks very sharp, scoring Seville's first, with a real poacher's goal, as a good save from the Recreativo keeper dropped on the edge of the six yard box and Kerzhakov reacted faster than any of the three defenders who were perhaps in closer proximity.

I am not sure how well the Spanish side travel, but on the evidence of their good football, it promises to be an entertaining encounter on Wednesday - doubtless I've just tempted fate and put "the bok" on the game and it is now guaranteed to be a dour cagey affair!

phatosas said...

We would never understand what happened with Real Madrid in the summer but I think that was the genesis of all the problem. I listened to one of his recent interviews and I could understand why he feels pressure to play in spain. As long as he doesn't play in spain he would never get the respect he deserves because the Spanish people do do not believe the English league is good enough and I cant blame them when you have teams like Liverpool and Chelsea bearing the English flag in Europe.

When you have a player like Cesc, who has the ability to be as influential as Zidane, you have to do everything within your strength to keep him. He might not have that flair to keep the ball or get past people with ease but if you give him time on the ball in the midfield he would rip you apart. The passing, his vision and now his goal scoring is second to none at the moment. Arsenal has to do everything within its powers to keep him happy and to keep him at the club for a long time. If he continues at this rate he would be a lot easier to keep at the club even though his demand would be a lot higher, he would have such a heavy price tag that would scare away other clubs and hopefully we would win something and he would get the recognition he deserves. As long as he stays at arsenal we are guaranteed to win trophies for many years to come.

I would talk briefly about Sevilla, they are the most dangerous team in the league. I have been watching La Liga for a while now and believe me I would rather play Real Madrid or Barcelona than play Sevilla. The team is most dangerous on the right where Nevas and Alves form a combination very similar to the Henry+Pires combination. They do a lot of short passing and one-twos on the flank and they attack with pace in a very counter attacking game. If Alves has space to run he would exploit it and you will see him patrolling on the left for 90 minutes as a winger even though he is a right back. I don't worry about their strikers because what they do on the flanks opens up the attack and the likes of Kanoute get easy tap ins. You have to stop Alves to stop Sevilla. However he leaves a gap at the back which you can also exploit but I wouldn't advice Clichy to go bombing forward unless it can force Alves to sit back. I have a feeling Wenger rested Rosicky because he wanted to keep him fresh and understood the importance of winning the battle with Sevilla on the flank. If we can control their forays on the flank we can control the game and get an easy win.

Anonymous said...

Great report, Bernard. It's hard to make up on TV what the songs and chants are and yet, they are such an integral part of the "game experience".
Thanks for making the "TV experience" a bit more colorful.