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Friday 28 December 2007

We're Not Homophobic, We Just Hate Ashley Cole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Happy & Healthy New Year to one and all

Peace & Love

Monday 17 December 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 14 December 2007

Who's He Kidding?

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

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

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


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

Monday 10 December 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 6 December 2007

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

Hi folks

Is anyone going up to Boro on Sunday?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 3 December 2007

As Fat Sam Sows, So Shall He Reap?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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