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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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