Monday, 29 January 2007

Could It Prove Josephine’s Lucky Night At Long Last?

It wasn’t until I arrived home from Sunday’s FA Cup encounter, when a flyer fell out of my matchday programme that had been handed to me by a pretty lass on my way around to the game. It was advertising the range of sexy lingerie on the Goonergirl web site and I should’ve realised a replay at the Reebok was always on the cards, as fate couldn’t resist the irony of sending Arsenal fans back up North for the most romantic night of the year.

It’s going to take a lot more than a “red cami & thong” twinset to pacify most Gooners’ partners, who’ll be left on their own, while we disappear off the Lancashire for Valentine’s Day. What’s more, considering Fat Sam’s physical side have stomped all over our FA Cup hopes up at their place, for the past two successive seasons, I can’t escape this picture of the loving wife, sitting up into the wee hours, wearing her sexy new outfit, only for all the candles to have burned down to the wick, before the old man eventually returns in a morose mood, with the sort of Allardayce inspired, almighty headache, which we’ve grown far too accustomed to in recent times.

Then again with the replay live on the box and judging by the rash of tickets offered online first thing on Monday morning, by those on the Away Scheme who are either in thrall to a missus who doesn’t share their passion and who won’t give them a pass for this particular night, or who simply cannot face the prospect of another masochistic trek to Bolton, there’s likely to be as many empty seats in the Arsenal end, as there’ll probably be in the rest of the Reebok.

Record FA Cup crowds, my arse! I’ve little doubt that a far more accurate picture of attendance figures, as a percentage of capacity, will prove that, while we might not have lost any passion for the tournament, long-suffering fans are feeling the pinch of extortionate ticket prices.

Personally I’ve passed the point of no return, where, having paid my dues and endured a succession of performances to slit ones wrists to at the Reebok, I’ll be schlepping back up to Bolton, just as I did earlier in the season, for fear of missing out on my reward, by not being present when the law of averages eventually proves to the Trotters that there’s no substitute for talent.

Unlike those teams treading a relatively easy route, against lower league opponents, it appears that we’re going to have to earn the right to our taste of glory, as one of the first teams to grace the new Wembley turf. It would therefore be most appropriate, if we exorcised the ghosts of the Reebok on route.

Meanwhile the stats suggest there’s a more pressing problem at our new gaff. Of the 17 fixtures seen at our new stadium so far, Sunday’s game was the 10th in which we’ve managed to battle back after going a goal behind. While Arsène’s attention to detail will have undoubtedly focused on the Feng Shui aspects that ensure an air of serenity in the Arsenal dressing room and while the pundits continue to heap praise on the surfeit of ability in our current squad, to my mind we’re still crying out for the sort of head-banging character, with the strength of personality to light a fire under the backsides of some of his far too laidback team mates.

Admittedly Bolton were bound to sit back somewhat after taking the lead on Sunday and credit where credit is due, we might’ve been dead and buried, if Nolan hadn’t been thwarted by a brilliant piece of goalkeeping that prevented an impressive passing move resulting in the visitors second goal. Nevertheless, almost from the moment we went a goal behind, suddenly the Arsenal began playing with a sense of urgency and a passion, whereby we almost laid siege to Bolton’s half of the pitch and left the likes of Campo, Speed and co. looking like leg-weary has beens, literally hanging on to the home team’s tailcoats, with their lead appearing ever more precarious, in the face of the vigour and vitality of the Arsenal’s onslaught.

I was just a little gutted to be on the wrong side of the ground for the best view of some of Gael Clichy’s remarkable second-half runs, as the young full-back rampaged down the flank. Ashley Cole! Who he? No doubt I wasn’t alone, when muttering under my breath whenever a shooting chance fell to Flamini. Yet whatever the French midfielder lacks in innate natural ability, much like his compatriot Gilles Grimandi, there’s absolutely no questioning his work-rate and commitment to the Arsenal cause. Combined with the bullish aggression of Kolo Touré and the increasingly fortissimo promptings of Cesc Fabregas’ cultured baton, we began to make the sort of music, which only left me cursing the frustrating lack of tempo to our staccato first-half performance and the fact that once again it took adversity to motivate Wenger’s troops.

Now if only Arsène could uncover the sort of player capable of inspiring the rest of the squad to play with this sort of intensity, right from the off, we’d be rolling most opponents over in the first 20 minutes. Hopefully we’ll extinguish any lingering pretensions Spurs have of playing in the last Cardiff final double quick, without affording them an opportunity to recover from psychological blow of the draw at White Hart Lane. Having dug our own grave and climbed back up out of it (as immortalised in the chant of the evening “2-0 and you f***ed it up!”), we can’t afford any ‘job done’ type complacency.

It would be marvellous if the young Gunners were able to add grist to the mill of Mourinho’s imminent departure, but I can’t say the prospect of a return to the Millennium is quite such an incentive, as the Schadenfreude of ensuring that we deprive Spurs of a glimmer of Mickey Mouse glory. We’ve grown accustomed to running a gauntlet of abuse on entering and exiting White Hart Lane. The hardest thing is holding in check the ear to ear grin that might give the game away, when walking along Tottenham High Road, to the sanctuary of the car, for a quick escape out of enemy territory.

However is it any wonder that we didn’t want 9000 scum, wrecking the karseys and scrawling on the walls of our pristine new arena, when you hear Telegraph journo, Roy Collins’ tell of how he walked out, of what he assumed would be the relatively genteel environs of White Hart Lane’s West Upper, at half-time, having suffered a verbal barrage for being a neutral and because he couldn’t bear “the vile abuse” directed at the likes of Baptista. The press box behind the dugouts at the Lane is a lousy pitch, but according to Collins “A limited view is to be preferred to the narrower, more bigoted one in the upper west.”

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E-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Sleeping With The Enemy

I was only a gnats whisker away from the possibility of facing the unenviable prospect of watching tomorrow night's encounter at White Hart Lane in the midst of the enemy. Aside from the fact that I would've absolutely begrudged handing Spurs 72 quid of my hard earned wedge for a West Upper seat, to watch our reserves play, I am sure it would've been tantamount to putting my life in the hands of some of the scum fans.

It's been some years since I was faced with having to watch the Arsenal play when sat amongst the opposition supporters. To give you some idea how long ago it was, David Platt was playing in red & white and I believe the occasion was Platt's first return to Villa Park since he left Birmingham several years prior, for the pots of money on offer on the continent

I can't recall how it happened that I'd missed out on a ticket with the Gooners, but with our allocation entirely sold out and with me still desperate to go, for some reason I'd been forced to get my old man to pay for a ticket with the home fans, on his credit card. However there was a cock-up on the day and arriving late as ever, I discovered an enormous queue at the ticket collection point, stretching off miles into the distance.

I found out that everyone was queueing because all the tickets purchased on credit cards had yet to be delivered to the club and they were still waiting for a motorbike messenger to turn up with them. With the match about to kick-off, I suddenly remembered that on my way around the ground, I'd paased a small kiosk where (contrary to the myriad of modern day all-ticket regulations), Villa were selling a few remaining tickets on the day.

It occurred to me that it'd be at least half-time, before I got to the front of the queue (assuming the motorbike ever turned up) and so I walked back to this kiosk and paid what I recall was a ridiculously reasonable amount, for a restricted view seat in the lower tier of their main stand (is it the Doug Ellis?). Thankfully I wasn't wearing any colours, so I didn't feel too conspicuous as I took my seat, surrounded by hard core Brummies, but it wasn't long into the match when my succession of stifled groans and moans gave the game away to most of those around me.

As usual I was wired for sound, attached to the earpiece of my terrace tranny, listening to the radio commentary on Five Live and when of all people, David Platt popped up with our first goal, I completely forgot myself and where I was, and automatically jumped up! It was only on getting to my feet and realising that everyone else had remained in their seats, that, to my horror, it suddenly dawned on me quite what a massive mistake I'd made!

I was sitting behind this enormous ugly docker who actually stood up and turned around and literally had his arm cocked and was about to lamp me with a right hander. But luckily for me, his girlfriend who was sitting next to him, was hanging onto his arm, doing her utmost to restrain her feller, warning him that they'd only end up being chucked out

I spent the remainder of the half sitting there quietly, seriously regretting my rash act of lunacy, overhearing this bloke and a few others around me, coating of the "f***ing Cockney bastard" in their midst. And so long before the half-time whistle I'd decided that discretion was the better part of valour and slipped away to seek anonymity elsewhere.

For the second half I found a different empty seat, right down the front, almost next to the Arsenal dug-out. They've rearranged things at Villa Park since, to ensure that there is a little more segregation between the home fans and the benches, to prevent any further aggro with the visitors dug-out. However back then I could virtually reach out and touch Martin Keown and there was a bloke beside me who spent almost the entire second half, incessantly repeating the same mantra "Arsenal are so boring. They are boring, boring, boring".

This bloke was intentionally trying to yank Snowy's chain, giving him brain damage, with this constant barrage of earache (I bet he used to do the same to all the visitors). I know I was getting so wound up, that I wanted to stick a fist in his gob, to shut him up. So heaven only knows how Martin managed to show such restraint. But then I didn't fancy a repeat of the previous incident, as I'd nowhere else to go. In truth, I just wished I'd had the balls to lean over and whisper some words of support to one of my all time favourite Gunners, just to let him know that I was on his side.

Meanwhile I can't possibly imagine what a nightmare it would've been watching tomorrow night's match sat in the West Upper at White Hart Lane, having to bite my tongue all night long. What's more it would've been even more mortifying, if the result doesn't end up going our way, as I'd have had to suffer some almighty stick from my Spurs mates and I almost think that watching the game on TV would be preferable to watching with the enemy, especially those who I have to speak to every day.

However it very nearly came to one or the other, after I missed out on the sale of our allocation of tickets to the match. I'd been keeping an eye out for ticket news but when the resulting arguments over ticket prices and allocations, ensured that it was delayed, I was absolutely horrified when I logged on to the AFCi web site on Saturday night, to discover that I'd missed the priority booking period for away scheme members, a whole THREE days prior.

Myself I think it's outrageous that Spurs greed for their share of our 60,000 gate (40 oer cent?) left them not wanting us to follow our recent policy of reducing prices for the Carling Cup. In recent seasons these games have had a special, decidedly high-pitched atmosphere all of their own, which has confirmed the presence of thousands more youngsters than usual. I know for a fact that while they might not have bothered giving away revenue for a sell-out game against the scum, at previous, less high-profile Carling Cup encounters, the club have given away blocks of tickets to local schools. What's more I am sure that the low prices probably mean that some families look forward to these occasions, as the one opportunity they have to be able to afford to take the entire family to a match. It was marvelous at the game at West Brom to find ourselves absolutely surrounded by family groups, dad and sons, for whom this is likely a once a season treat. What better way to have introduced ones offspring to our new stadium, but with a highly charged derby match.

Meanwhile it would appear that our tight-fisted neighbours have lived up to the stereotype, by insisting that both legs are category B matches (which punishes there own fans, as my mates were none to happy at having to pay an outrageous 72 quid for their posh pitches). While we appear to have got our own back by refusing to allow them the standard 15 per cent ticket allocationn for the second leg. It seems we've used the excuse that we've never had so many visiting fans at our place and that they are not sure they could cope with segregating so many as 9000, when to date the most has been only 3000. Apparently the compromise they've offered Spurs is 5000 tickets, allowing us the chance to ramp up the number of away fans gradually, so that perhaps next time they will be ready to cater for the 15 per cent figure that is part of the regulations for knockout tournaments in this country.

Personally I reckon it was simply a case of the suits at our club not fancying 9000 scum fans, doing their utmost to wreak havoc in our new stadium and ensuring that they leave it in nothing like the pristine state they find it, smashing all the karseys and graffitying everywhere. What's more, 9000 of their lot would have made for a far more intimidating atmosphere on the night and might have thrown away any home advantage. My Spurs mate is extremely angry "just another reason to hate your lot" as the limited number of tickets means that he won't be entitled to one.

I was up most of the night waiting to watch the pay-per-view broadcast of the Ricky Hatton fight. I always end up regretting pressing the button on the remote to pay for these live fights broadcast from the US and invariably I am struggling to keep my eyes open by the time they get to the main event and then usually I end up falling asleep the moment the protagonists enter the ring, waking up in the armchair with a stiff neck, having wasted an extortionate fifteen quid and desperate to know who won!

I went through a myriad of emotions sitting here, as at first I was incredibly angry with the Box Office, thinking that it couldn't possibly have been three days since I'd last looked at the web site and so they must have put out of date details up anyway, despite the fact that the tickets had gone on sale later than was stated and instead of a priority booking period, it must have been a complete free for all. In the end I was just gutted with myself for the shambolic lifestyle which had ensured that I'd forgotten to keep an eye on the matter and I sat here with increasing dread, more and more convinced that by the time Ticketmaster's computers were up and running at 6am, the match was bound to be a sell out already.

I couldn't go to bed without having an answer and after reloading the page on the web site all night and phoning Ticketbastard umpteen times, I eventually received the confirmation I feared, that all three thousand tickets had sold out.

It's only thanks to an extremely kind soul answering my desperate plea to the Arsenal mailing list that I've ended up with a ticket amongst us Gooners for tomorrow night. However I'll be very pleasantly surprised if our trip to White Hart Lane proves fruitful as I rather suspect that our youngsters might well struggle against the Spurs first XI.

Spurs fans were absolutely disgusted with their defeat at our place a few weeks back. It wasn't so much the getting beat (as they are more than used to having the mighty Gunners kick sand in the faces of their succession of weedy outfits), as the manner in which they were beaten, as it was felt that the majority of their team that afternoon were guilty of simply not turning up (with the sort of fire in their bellies that we've all come to expect from our Derby day encounters)

As a result, having been suitably admonished, I feel certain that they'll be well up for tomorrow night's meeting. What's more you can be sure Jol is bound to use the fact that they'll be playing our reserves, as a motivational tool. Not to mention that with Chelsea waiting as the opposition in the final, this is without doubt the very best chance Spurs have of securing themselves a guarantee of European footie next season (although I am afraid that with their recent bye into the next round of the UEFA Cup, after Feynoord were kicked out, I can't help but wonder if their name might not be on this Mickey Mouse trophy this season?). With their strong record at home and against the team Wenger is likely to put out, you'd have to fancy they'll be favourites?

Without doubt our best chance of securing a decent result will be if we can hold our own for the first half hour. I watched the Spurs v Newcastle game the other weekend, where Spurs came out of the traps like a greyhound and really should've been 4-0 up within the first twenty minutes. If it wasn't for the feats of Shay Given in goal they probably would've been. As I told my Spurs mate, I've no idea how they ended up losing that game, as their performance in the early period of that match was about the best I have seen a Spurs side play in donkey's years (although it only ensured I was left laughing even harder at their misfortune!).

I imagine we will face a similar onslaught tomorrow evening for the first 15-20 minutes and if we can contain them long enough to quieten down the crowd and have their fickle fans begin to lose patience, only then will I begin to feel somewhat more optimistic about our prospects. Although I guess we should be glad that Ledley King is still out of action, as according to my Spurs mates, their defence is some way short of watertight without their best player. In fact from the awe inspired tone with which they speak about their big centre-back, you'd think he was another John Terry!

Personally I'm just relieved that Tom Huddlestone still appears some way short of footballing puberty, as I can't hide the fact that I've great admiration for this youngster and have felt that he looks some prospect, ever since I first caught sight of him playing in an England U21 shirt. I can remember saying back then that I couldn't believe a player of such apparent promise was struggling to make it into the Spurs first team.

I actually committed high treason a couple of weeks back, when I was offered a spare ticket to see Spurs play Charlton. The thing that most surprised me, was that it wasn't until I saw Huddlestone in the flesh that I realised quite what a massive "shtureka" he is, as he's built like the proverbial brick outhouse. Whereas usually midfield players with his sort of passing ability are often stereotyped as being quite slight of build. Thus it was quite a shock when I saw his hulking great frame appear at White Hart Lane. Such a shock in fact that I turned to my Spurs pal for confirmation that this was in fact Huddlestone.

Personally I'd be extremely happy if Wenger was able to win Huddlestone over and persuade the youngster to follow the path previously trodden by Sol Campbell, as I feel he'd fit perfectly in our midfield. From what I've seen of him in the last few weeks, thankfully Huddlestone's decision making still appears to be somewhat suspect. However having served an apprenticeship at White Hart Lane, it would be wonderful if Wenger could pinch him just as he was reaching maturity.

If we're unable to prevent Spurs scoring during the first half hour of tomorrow night's encounter, the home side will be sufficiently encouraged that I will truly fear for our ability to turn the match around at that stage. However if, heaven forfend, we should fail to secure a sufficiently satisfying result, the really interesting thing will be whether Wenger has the bottle to stick by the Carling Cup kids for the second leg, or whether Cup fever will result in Arsène resorting to pulling out all the stops, by slipping in some more of our big guns?

Personally speaking, win, lose or draw, my feelings are that having brought us thus far, with such truly accomplished performances, as the ones we've witnessed to date at West Brom, Everton and Anfield, Wenger should stick by the youngsters. As in their shoes I'd be absolutely gutted to have got all that way, only to miss out on the prospect of playing my first ever first XI Cup semi-final, on such a grand stage as our new stadium. I'd feel incredibly cheated if it was me.

I am sure the temptation will be great and it would be absolutely horrifying to have to face the prospect of the sort of verbal assault I'll be in for from my Spurs mates, if they end up being the first team to record a victory at our new stadium (even if it is only against our reserves!). However it will be peanuts compared to the ammunition I will have for endless weeks of piss-taking, if the likes of Traore, Denilson and Walcott end up trotting out together at our new stadium, with a deficit from the first leg and with the 5000 Spurs fans present, all with a scent of the last Cardiff final in their nostrils, only for the kids to come of age, turning it around and cheating the scum out of their little bit of glory.

Obviously, better still would be to demolish them 3-0 again tomorrow and for the return leg at THOF2 to be a foregone conclusion, an absolute celebration of our total and utter superiority over our insignificant North London neighbours

Come on you Reds
Big Love
Bernard

Monday, 22 January 2007

Shine On You Crazy Diamonds

Hi Folks

Doubtless I could've written a few thousand more words on this one! But lucky for you I've got to go to work.

I'm not sure I was right to single out anyone below, in what was truly a great team performance and besides, when I got home, I rewound the Sky gadget and watched it all over again, where I reappraised some of my opinions about those who I thought hadn't had the greatest of games, simply because I was so impressed with the amount of graft they got through

Now if only the title was decided on our efforts against the top three, we'd be running round Stamford Bridge, Anfield and Old Trafford, with our todgers hanging out!

Big Love
Bernard
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Arsène Wenger’s vision for the Arsenal’s future was instrumental in the development of our 60,000 seater, concrete, glass and steel Gooner cathedral. After waiting almost six months to the day, since the birth at Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial back in the summer, we finally got to wet Wenger’s new baby’s head at the weekend. In the presence of the Premiership’s high-priests, we witnessed the sort of dramatic encounter on Sunday that was akin to the new ground’s christening, communion and confirmation all rolled into one.

Obviously we enjoyed spanking Spurs and the Scousers at our new gaff. But we didn’t go a goal down in these games. To savour a euphoric turn around against the old foe, with a 93rd minute winner, when we were a mere 10 minutes from a disastrous defeat, that would’ve probably handed the Red Devils the title on a plate and seen us cast adrift with the also-rans, not to mention putting them in the box seat, where they’d be relishing the prospect of returning to our new place in the future, this was the sort of historic stuff that will begin to lend our new home an illustrious legend all of its own.

Listening to the Five Live phone-in as we floated home from the game, still high on the adrenaline rush of those thrilling last few minutes, I heard a bitter Cockney red suggesting that we celebrated as if we’d won the Premiership title itself. Indeed there was absolute pandemonium, as we all went bonkers barmy when Henry headed home the winner. But personally speaking my own delirium wasn’t down to any fanciful notions of battling our way back into the title frame.

I’m sure this season’s marathon still has plenty of surprises up its sleeve, but I don’t think Sunday’s triumph will have an impact on the ultimate destination of the domestic crown. If anything I felt there were aspects to Utd’s performance, which only confirmed their title credentials and I’ve a feeling that in the long run they might well end up benefiting from this defeat. I didn’t think much of Evra when he came on as a sub against us at Old Trafford, but he’s beginning to look the Premiership part and I’m afraid that in Vidic, Fergie has finally found a partner for Ferdinand, of the sort who gives the heart of the Utd defence a solidity that hasn’t been seen since the days of Bruce and Pallister.

Old Red Nose is likely to make the most of their misfortune, as a means of refocusing on the run-in. I’ll be most surprised, if between now and the end of the season, his team ends up blowing another three points in the last 10 minutes of a match - and I wouldn’t fancy being in their shoes, bearing the full force of a Fergie tongue lashing if they do! Moreover, if required, the Utd manager couldn’t wish for more perfectly timed ammunition to persuade the Glazers to rustle up a few quid before the transfer window closes, to strengthen their squad for the big push. Whereas a win might well have had the opposite effect on the owners willingness to open their wallet.

To my mind there was only one team who couldn’t afford to lose on Sunday. This was epitomised in the build up to our first goal, in the way Fabregas and Rosicky refused to concede possession to Scholes and Evra on the edge of Utd’s area. And yet it was both sides fear of losing which prevented the sort of smorgasbord of wizardry that some were hoping for, as both sides grafted their socks off, thereby cancelling each other out. Although I was blaming our groundsman early doors, as instead of the slick sort of surface that suits our passing game, the ball appeared to be sticking in the puddles which had resulted from his over zealous pre-match watering.

My hope began to disappear down the same drain as the water, soon after Rooney struck. I envisaged us being caught on the break by a sucker punch, as we threw caution to the wind chasing the game. Earlier in the season and against less despised opponents, we’d have probably settled for a point once we’d scored the equaliser. However for the first time on Sunday we discovered the full potential of 60,000 Gooners, as we refused to accept a draw and drove the team on, raising the decibel level beyond anything we’ve heard at the new gaff to date. In truth Utd’s time wasting tactics only fuelled this fire, leaving them on the back foot, unable to change down a gear after Van Persie’s goal.

The subsequent discovery of Robin’s metatarsal injury was the only dampener on an otherwise magical afternoon. Considering the frequency of the fairly innocuous incidents which seem to result in these troublesome, long-term injuries, I’m convinced that it must be the flimsy, modern day football boot which is at fault?

Above all, it was wonderful to demonstrate an ability to grind out a win, even without the aid of such experienced campaigners as Gilberto and Gallas and when some of our most talented stars struggled to influence the game. Apart from the likes of Adebayor, Clichy and Flamini (at least as far as his defensive duties were concerned), there weren’t many impressive individual performances. I know Arsène praised our captain’s all round contribution, but as far as I can recall Titi ended up with the Man of the Match champers, in return for a sum total of two headers. But then who cares, so long as the guv’nor keeps conjuring up last minute winners.

The shoe will be on the other foot at White Hart Lane this week. Aside from the fact that Spurs will be desperate not to be embarrassed by our reserves, the semi-final of any competition is a big deal for our neighbours. They won’t want to blow possibly their best chance of guaranteeing European football next season. By contrast, I’m hoping our Carling Cup kids won’t feel under nearly so much pressure. With a bit of luck, they’ll relax and lay the Lilywhites to waste with a reprise of the absolutely bewildering display we witnessed at Anfield?

http://goonersdiary.blogspot.com
E-mail to: LondonN5@gmail.com

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Don't Like It Up 'Em?....I Should Coco!

Saturday’s triumph at Ewood Park might well be a turning point for this Arsenal squad. Perhaps not such an obvious catalyst as the defeat to Blackburn in December ’97, that sparked the heart-to-heart in the Highbury dressing room, which saw us go on to win the Double and it certainly won’t result in nearly so many column inches as the exploits of our Carling Cup kids, after scoring six at Anfield for the first time since 1914. Yet I’ve an inkling it could prove to be particularly significant.

Personally I’ve never set much store in the argument that our current side can’t cope with the physical aspects of Premiership football. Yet perceptions are everything in football and ever since the departure of Patrick Vieira, we’ve been perceived as a somewhat lightweight, pretty passing outfit, who could be bullied off the ball all too easily. As a result this has not only affected the approach of those opponents who’ve known full well that they’ve not a hope of matching us in a straight contest of ability, but it’s also impacted on the mindset of our own players.

We Gooners have grown all too accustomed to our players throwing their toys out of the pram in petulant, post-match tizzies, due to their frustration at the opposition’s 'spoiler' tactics, as if they’d some god-given right to demonstrate their talents unhindered. In some respects Arsène has probably contributed to this school of thought, as his steadfast refusal to criticise his troops has only encouraged their ‘hard done by’ attitude. Even in the face of overwhelming televisual evidence, we’re used to our manager resorting to blaming his myopia, rather than currying favour with the neutral and admitting his players’ obvious failings.

Then again, there can be no denying the loyalty that's engendered in the Arsenal camp, by le Prof’s unswerving principles. Sadly we now appear to be living in a world where nearly everyone has their price and where respect can be calculated by the fiscal cost of a player’s fealty. Thus the esteem of the Arsenal squad for their manager can be measured in terms of the trouble taken to prize Patrick Vieira away, or, mercifully, the failure (to date!) to persuade perhaps the world’s greatest player, that the grass is any greener elsewhere. You can be darn sure that if it weren’t for the mutual respect involved in the relationship between Wenger, the Arsenal’s sorcerer and his apprentice, Thierry Henry would currently be counting his wonga in warmer climes on the Continent.

By contrast, the Not So Special One might possess the man-management tools to motivate a Championship winning team, but there’s a certain insincerity about Mourinho, an inclination to stab his own stars in the back if it serves his purpose, that means there can never be the same element of absolute trust in the Chelsea camp. In all honesty, I’m convinced the title is Man Utd’s to win or lose, as Mighty Mouth will truly have to prove himself to be special, if he’s to convince his players to die for him out on the field, when there’s so much doubt about his own future.

Meanwhile I’m sure I’m not the only Gooner who’s found myself groaning in frustration because I’ve felt the Gunners have needed a good old-fashioned kick up the backside, after our abysmal efforts against the likes of Bolton and Fulham. When, instead of which, le Gaffer has come out and offered a conciliatory arm around his charges shoulder, blaming the opposition’s physical approach, or the fatigue in his poor little soldiers legs.

Arsène sure wasn’t short of a few excuses on Saturday, with the likes of Kolo Touré running his socks off for the third time in a week, down to ten men after only ten minutes, in atrocious conditions that weren’t suited to a passing team who prefer to keep the ball on the deck and against an aggressive Blackburn Rovers. None of us would’ve been too surprised if we’d succumbed to a set-piece goal and ended up blowing all three points.

However where our opponents highly-charged, pressing game might have forced a flustered Arsenal into conceding possession, far too cheaply, only a couple of weeks back, suddenly we’ve become an entirely different proposition. With 13 goals in the three victories since New Year’s day, the return of a reinvigorated Henry and surfing on a wave of confidence since last Tuesday’s demonstration of the boundless depths of ability amongst the youngsters in Wenger’s squad, any fear of the opposition has fast been replaced, by the knowledge that there’s a highly motivated young replacement, perfectly capable of filling the boots of anyone who fails to pull their weight.

It was extremely important to maintain the winning momentum on Saturday, as it’s just about the first time this season that we’ve escaped the inertia of inconsistency. Arsène recognised this, as in the past he would’ve reacted to Gilberto’s red card by sacrificing a striker and reinforcing our midfield.

However having finally hit our stride, there was no need to match Blackburn's muscle. Once our passes unerringly began to find their mark, Rovers could press all they like, as they only encouraged the pretty triangles that left them chasing shadows and looking like they were the man short.

Moreover there was evidence of a disdainful “no you can’t have the ball back” type resolve, which we’ve rarely seen on trips to the Northwest, as if the sending off only made us even more indignant. There was no sign of the shivering Southern softies, in face of the bare-chested Northern bullies and it looked as if the Gunners were going to grind out the eponymous “1-0 to the Arsenal” until the sensational interplay between Fabregas and Henry for the second goal, which as they say, was worth the price of admission alone!

There might've been plenty of empty seats amongst the home fans but I’m delighted to report that both Upper and Lower tiers containing the travelling faithful behind the goal, were swollen with nineteen coach loads of Green Gooners. At a bargain 79 Euros, I’m certain they’ll have all felt that the long schlep over from Ireland was worthwhile, if only for the perfect view of this ‘pièce de resistance’.

Both goals were evidence of the Gunners long overdue return to some real form, as Henry’s free-kick found the head of the single only Arsenal player in the penalty area for the first goal. While Henry and Fabregas were surrounded by the vast majority of the home side, as the two of them scythed their way through, travelling almost the length of the pitch, almost as if they were alone on the pitch, before Titi caressed home the second, without breaking stride.

If I’m left with one gripe, it’s the sense that ref Stiles couldn’t have possibly ever experienced the game as a player. Otherwise he’d have been able to appreciate that it'd take some kind of saint not to react to Robbie Savage’s aggressive assault. What’s more anyone who’s ever played the game would know that there was an absolute absence of malice in Gilberto’s instinctive flick of the leg, compared to Tugay’s criminal effort to knobble Fabregas. I’m sure most footie fans will agree that if Gilberto was going to get himself sent off, it was a great shame it wasn’t for giving Savage a seriously painful dig to remember him by!

Yet after seeing Chimbonda getting away with slapping Butt around the face on Sunday, the most galling consequence of this complete lack of consistency, is our “Invisible Wall’s” subsequent suspension for three crucial games. Talk about the punishment not fitting the crime! Man Utd, Spurs and Bolton are three games where we can least afford to loose Gilberto’s consummate ability to break up opposition attacks. Who knows, perhaps we’ll witness the sort of seamless replacement which might actually lead one to conclude that we’ve rediscovered something of the Invincibles (mind you, I wish it were otherwise, but I can’t help but have the horrors at the thought of Ronaldo terrorising Hoyte!). Hopefully Justin will come of age over the next few months and will allay all previous concerns about his defensive nous, as his confidence peaks along with the rest of his team mates.

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Saturday, 13 January 2007

Que Sera, Sera??

(since there was a problem with my blog which meant that only those using Internet Explorer or Safari could read it, I've reposted this piece from Monday. Someone on one of the help forums kindly pointed me towards a line of code in my template that was causing the problem and having deleted this line, it seems to have solved the problem, although being a bit of a techno nincompoop, I haven't really got the foggiest what it was doing there in the first place and similarly haven't got a clue what the consequences might be, but I guess if you are reading this, then it's worked out OK :-)

Setting off from South Mimms on Saturday, in murky, wet conditions, for a 400-mile round trip and in a none too optimistic mood with our Spanish midfield maestro suspended and with the game live on the box, none of us knew why we were making the long schlep to the North-West. In such miserable circumstances, us masochistic suckers for punishment know just what it’s like to be the moth, instinctively drawn towards the flame, even though there’s every prospect of having our wings singed once again, by another inconsistent performance from our fair-weather team.

Yet after suffering such frustrating outings as those to Bolton and Sheffield, you dare not stop at home, for fear of missing out on one of those special occasions, which obliterates the memory of former scars and serves as a reminder of the rewards on offer. to those of us who endure the hardship and expense of the travelling fan. Meanwhile the relentless rainfall on Saturday ensured that the further North we drove, the more I fretted that it might be a wasted journey, as the radio revealed that matches at Barnet and then Reading had fallen victim to the atrocious weather.

Sadly, even their famous Kop is not immune to the disease that afflicts all modern Premiership stadia, as recent encounters with the Scousers have proved disappointingly quiet. Despite this fact Anfield remains one of my favourite awaydays of the season.

Unlike the still somewhat soulless environment of our new stadium – especially with the recent, preposterously PC flag ban – there remains some sense that LFC has not totally relinquished its relationship with the club’s working class roots. Moreover there exists a mutual respect between the fans of these two great footballing institutions, as witnessed by the way in which the majority of us Gooners were moved, by Saturday’s emotionally charged and impressive “Justice for the 96” protest.

To be honest, you wouldn’t catch me complaining if us fans made our feelings known with this sort of demo more frequently, as in this instance it was the ideal kickstart to the atmosphere and made for a good old-fashioned, fervent FA Cup occasion.

In fact it was like stepping back in time, in more ways than one, as on the pitch we Gooners savoured a first-half smash-and-grab, followed by the sort of backs-to-the-wall, remarkably resilient display after the break that was far more George Graham than Arsène Wenger!

It was evident right from the off that it was going to take a big-hearted performance, if we were going to make it into the hat for the 4th round, as inspired by the home fans’ sonorous display of solidarity, the Scousers were bang up for it, hardly giving the Gunners breathing space, let alone time on the ball. In such a pressure cooker climate, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that those of us behind the goal were left holding our breath, when Gilberto was enticed into making a rash tackle on Alonso, in the box, right in front of us.

If this incident had taken place down the other end of the pitch, there’s little doubt that the Kop’s raucous reaction would’ve been likely to result in the ref awarding a penalty and the relief amongst us Gooners was positively palpable, when Bennett booked Alonso instead. Yet while I’ll concede that there definitely was contact and that it was far from being a blatant dive, there was some element of a wily Alonso attempting to earn a penalty.

I’ve an inkling that Bennett might’ve started the match with the thought in his mind that he was intent on clamping down on any attempts to mug him off with simulation and thus he jumped all over, what he perceived to be his first opportunity to prove this point. If he’d pointed to the spot and the Scousers had scored first, I suspect the afternoon might’ve taken an all-together less satisfactory course.

Tommie Rosicky proved his World Cup feats weren’t a fluke, when he tonked one in from outside the area in Hamburg, back in September and we’ve been waiting all season for a repeat performance. It proved well worth the wait and when he bagged a second for good measure, moments before the break, facing the prospect of a long second half siege, I enquired “Can we go home now?”

If the first forty-five flew by, the second half seemed to last an eternity, as inevitably the Arsenal sat back and failed to stem the endless supply of crosses. Mathieu Flamini has a big heart, but he’s no Steve Gerrard when it comes to natural ability, while Phillipe Senderos has all too often looked a nervous wreck at the back in recent weeks. Considering pre-match concerns that these two might prove to be our weakest links, it was a delightful irony that they both turned out to be our unlikely heroes, throwing their bodies in front of the ball and relentlessly thwarting Scouse attacks at every opportunity, with the sort of tireless display that typified the Arsenal’s stalwart second-half effort.

However it was almost inevitable that we were going to succumb at some stage and when Kuyt did eventually find the back of the net, we were fortunate to have the majestic Henry at hand, to prevent the home side’s resurrection gathering momentum and to kill the game off in such fine style.

Typically a brief burn of the Henry turbo would leave the likes of Carragher for dead, allowing Titi time for a cup of tea and a read of the papers, before the arrival of his opponent. The analysis on MOTD lauded Henry’s lightning pace but from our prospective, at full pelt Henry appeared a little short of his usual speed, struggling to catch up with Carragher. As it turned out, it was the loss of this race which enabled Titi to steal the ball, leave the defender for dead on the deck and go on to win the war. More sweet justice for those of us can’t forget the Liverpuddlian thievery in the ‘02 final.

Considering how often we saw Senderos, leaping like a salmon, to head clear, perhaps Benitez would’ve been better served by bringing on the diminutive Bellamy. However we left all such discussions to the post-mortems on the local radio phone-ins, as we departed Merseyside in a euphoric mood. Mind you it was ironic to hear one caller complain about our bullyboy tactics, talk about the bitten biting!

In general there’s no mistaking the Scousers pedigree, when it comes to their appreciation of high-class entertainment, as evidenced by the display of mutual admiration, as Henry took his leave before the final whistle. Unlike the yuppie Gooners who I overhear grumbling about their mortgage rates at half-time at our new gaff, I rather suspect Scouse aficionados might’ve been enviously marvelling over Rosicky’s stunning strike.

However I imagine Thierry was concerned to ensure we didn’t think he was too cosy with the Kop’s Henry appreciation society, as he reappeared with the rest of the team at the final whistle, to indulge in a bit of reassuring badge kissing.

Personally I won’t believe it until footie fans are actually walking down Wembley Way and for the third successive season, we now face a confrontation with our FA Cup nemesis, if we’re going to get any closer. Nevertheless it was great fun to finally sing “She wore a yellow ribbon in the merry month of May” without the lame ending of the last few seasons, since to my mind “Caaaardiff” doesn’t scan. Moreover I’d completely forgotten the magical sound of a rousing chorus of “Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be. We’re going to Wem-ber-lee!”

In light of the almost annual diminution of the atmosphere at the Theatre of Dreams, seemingly in inverse proportion to the record size of their theatre-going audience and the fact that it almost felt like the good old days at Anfield on Saturday, I’d have to say that it was an even better awayday than our triumph at Old Trafford.

While Liverpool will be absolutely desperate to ensure we don’t extinguish all hope of any domestic silverware, with the pressure off our Carling Cup kids on Tuesday, it would be bloomin’ marvellous if we could maintain the winning momentum, especially if I can find some Gooner mad enough to accompany me all the way back up there again!


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Half-term Harumph!

(since there was a problem with my blog which meant that only those using Internet Explorer or Safari could read it, I've reposted this piece from Monday. Someone on one of the help forums kindly pointed me towards a line of code in my template that was causing the problem and having deleted this line, it seems to have solved the problem, although being a bit of a techno nincompoop, I haven't really got the foggiest what it was doing there in the first place and similarly haven't got a clue what the consequences might be, but I guess if you are reading this, then it's worked out OK :-)

Having answered a few half-term questions for the Observer's The Verdict and having written a similar report for a Premiership supplement for the Irish Examiner, I though I might as well post it for all you sad Gooners, who like me, having nothing better to do with your time :-)

Although in truth, considering I wrote the Examiner piece after blowing three points against the Blades and prior to demolishing Charlton and gunning down the Cup holders on their home turf, I've no doubt it would've ended up sounding a whole heap more optimistic if I'd sat down to do it today. Hopefully the same will still be true after the kids have done us proud in the Carling Cup tomorrow night

I absolutely detest making predictions of any sort (especially in writing, when they can come back to haunt you and you can't deny making them!) and I'm none to fond of having to give marks out of ten to the Observer, in particular for individual players, as to my mind each individual's performance is so dependent on that of their team mates. For example someone gave me a hard time for marking Aliadière so low after the Bramall Lane fiasco.

However I usually have to rattle the marks off, five minutes after the match, as something of an afterthought and if I had my way, I'd give them all the same figure. What's more it is easy to suggest I should've been more generous, when reading these marks over a leisurely Sunday breakfast, but as I explained to this bloke, when one is stuck in traffic getting away from a game, embarking on a three hour drive home (traffic permitting), having schlepped all the way up there to watch such a frustratingly lacklustre effort, it's impossible to have a detached opinion. Similarly, I'm sure if I'd been received a call after Saturday's match, in the euphoria of the moment, I'd have doubtless forgotten the fact that Senderos came about a goal post's width away from giving away a disatrous own goal, or Manny Eboué's childish play acting and would've been inclined to have given everyone a ten!

As far as the relegation candidates are concerned, to be honest I only mentioned these three in the hope that I might be proved wrong, as to be honest, for us travelling fans, it would be a bit of a disaster to see Charlton, Watford and West Ham replaced by long treks to the likes of Derby, Brum and Preston. Personally I reckon that with the signing of Boa Morte and the return of a fit Dean Ashton, West Ham should have the firepower to effect a rescue. Sadly, while Watford have plenty of spirit, I doubt they've sufficient quality to avoid the drop and as far as Charlton are concerned, I'm afraid I've never seen more likely relegation fodder

Aplogies if I've ended up repeating any of the sentiments expressed below, elsewhere
Come on you Reds

Big Love
Bernard
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> What's the season so far been like? With a mark out of 10

Having recorded a triumphant victory at Old Trafford, a defiant draw at Stamford Bridge and 3-0 drubbings at home versus the Scousers and our local derby against the Dark Side, it's hard to believe the season so far could be so disappointing. Yet it's been the Gunners consistent failure to grind out three points in many of the less glamorous encounters which has proved our Achilles Heel. Ultimately the fact that Spurs fans feel they might be in with a realistic chance of finishing above us, just about says it all. Could do much better 6

> Where will you finish?

If we finish higher than 4th I'll be happy.

> Who will go down?

Sadly Charlton, Watford and on current form West Ham (as they're all short journeys for us travelling Gooners!)

> Who will be champions?

ABC. Anyone But Chelsea

> Your club's star man/men?

Adebayor for his goals and Gilberto for stepping up to the plate when needed. But above all Fabregas who's perhaps the most gifted footballer in the Premiership

> Your club's boo-boys, if any?

Julio Baptista is likely to become a target for the boo-boys if he doesn't prove to be more of a Beast than a pussycat. Certainly not Thierry Henry (as reported), since Titi could take a two season sabbatical and would still walk on water as far as we are concerned.
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Half-term Harumph

Off the pitch it’s been a historic season for the Gunners, sadly on the pitch so far it’s been largely forgettable. With the move to the new stadium, much of the first few games were spent settling into our new surroundings. As modern edifices go, there’s no doubt it’s a hugely impressive structure and having swapped our seats for a move from the upper to the lower tier, I am not complaining, because we’ve a marvellous view of proceedings, for less than half the £1875 (each!) we were previously paying.

However from the nostalgia that I’ve felt when visiting traditional, old-fashioned football grounds such as Craven Cottage, I cannot escape this sense that our new place lacks soul. No doubt fans of every other club who’ve experienced this traumatic transition will have shared similar mixed feelings about their new home, but it’s hard to imagine that I’ll ever have the same emotional attachment to our huge new arena, that I felt towards Highbury.

Old habits die hard and although there’s a good chance of getting stuck behind the procession of lorries fetching and carrying materials and rubble, I continue to pay homage to the muddy building site that has become of our majestic old home, turning off the main route to drive down Avenell Road almost twice daily, as if to masochistically remind myself that nothing now exists of the old stadium, other than the listed shells of the Art Deco East and West Stands. This painful memento of our marble halled past and the modernistic vision of the Arsenal’s future are encapsulated in the space a few hundred yards, as our new arena looms into view the moment you turn left into Aubert Park, filling the landscape at the bottom of the hill, like some gargantuan Gooner spaceship.

At night the new stadium is lit up by an eerie yellow glow from the lamps used to promote the growth of the grass on our pristine playing surface, giving it the appearance of a scene straight out of Close Encounters and this sci-fi theme continues on the pitch, where our inconsistent performances to date have been akin to a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In the recent past, a first half of a season where we’ve recorded a triumphant victory at Old Trafford, a defiant draw at Stamford Bridge and 3-0 drubbings at home versus the Scousers and our local derby against the Dark Side, would’ve been deemed a fairly successful campaign so far. In fact, in a straight head-to-head tournament with the other top three clubs in the country, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we ended up coming out on top. However there are 16 other clubs involved in the Premiership and while we’ve had no trouble raising our game to produce competitive performances in the glamorous fixtures, sadly basically the same first XI has consistently failed to turn up for arduous encounters with many of the league’s lesser lights.

Up until the somewhat flattering goalfest against Blackburn, in every other game at the new gaff, if we scored first we went on to win 3-0 (Sheff. Utd., Watford, Liverpool, Spurs) and when the opposition took the lead we ended up sharing the points (1-1 against Villa, Boro, Everton, Newcastle and 2-2 against Pompey). Add to this the points we dropped on the road against Man City and West Ham and we were soon lagging well behind the two horse race for the title. Any last vestige of hope that we had of inviting ourselves to this party, disappeared with our almost annual disappointing display at the Reebok, promptly followed by our first defeat to Fulham in 40 years, in a positively dire display at Craven Cottage.

This prompted the much publicised contretemps involving our captain, where rumour has it that Henry wasn’t at all happy to be told that Gilberto would be taking over the armband until the end of the season. Truth be told, Titi had been getting away with it up until then, as to my mind he hadn’t been “on his game” all season and most Gooner hopes rest on the return of a reinvigorated Thierry, in time to effect a rescue while we are still in with a shout of some silverware.

At our best we remain perhaps the most entertaining team in the land. Yet as we witnessed at Bramall Lane, losing to Sheffield Utd for the first time in 33 years, our Achilles Heel continues to be our inability to roll our sleeves up, when the going gets tough. Hopefully the steel that’s been so patently lacking of late, will be restored to the side in the New Year, when we welcome back the likes of Gallas, Diaby and Lauren, since Wenger doesn’t appear to have any intentions of adding to the club’s substantial debt during the transfer window.

The most optimistic note to date has been the performance of the kids in the Carling Cup, where Denilson, Traore, Walcott and co. have offered a glimpse of a bright Gooner future. On the basis that the law of averages would suggest that a repeat of last season’s feats in the Champions League would be most unlikely, then basically this season prospects of any silverware will all rest on the three days next week that involve our two condensed cup dates with the Scousers.
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Monday, 1 January 2007

High-Spirited It May Be, But It’s Hardly Haute Cuisine!

It would appear that the Gunners’ foreign contingent have yet to get to grips with our festive customs. Evidently they’ve failed to understand that tradition has the turkey getting stuffed, not them! I can fully appreciate Arsène’s concerns about the exhausting Xmas schedule and its effects on our young squad. In truth we were fortunate to come away from our trip to Vicarage Road with all 3 points and there’s no denying that compared to his brilliant displays earlier in the season, the likes of Fabregas were beginning to look a little jaded.

However if Wenger truly feels that squad rotation is the only means by which he can avoid the relentless round of festive fixtures taking its physical and mental toll, then to my mind he should’ve left Fabregas at home with his feet up. Or perhaps Arsène should’ve been a little braver and gone the whole hog, by playing our Carling Cup side.

At least they’d have arrived at Bramall Lane with plenty to prove and would’ve been guaranteed to have grafted. Rather than a first team, who, after being energised by the atmosphere and a rousing chorus of the wonderfully evocative Greasy Chip Butty tune (one of my favourite all time terrace anthems), to produce a profligate flurry of opportunities during the opening 10 minutes, all that initial vim and vigour evaporated and the display that followed suggested that they felt all 3 points were on offer just for turning up!

There would’ve been some consolation to blowing the points at Bramall Lane, if we’d returned for the Charlton fixture somewhat refreshed. Instead of which we’ve ended up losing ground on the likes of Bolton and Liverpool and having been forced to send Cesc on as a sub, to chase the game, Fab’s ended up no less knackered than if he’d played the entire 90. Perhaps most worrying of all, it was Cesc’s desperate desire to rescue a result that was responsible for the senseless tackle, for which he deservedly had his name taken, but which could end up costing us our FA Cup aspirations, with our best player subsequently suspended for our 3rd round trip to Anfield.

It’s all too easy to be wise after the event. Yet following on from our disastrous defeat at Craven Cottage, surely Arsène must be aware of the cause and effect psychological consequences of selecting a weakened side. You can be darn sure that Warnock will have made the most of this apparent show of disrespect, as a motivational tool to fire up his troops. But I’m also convinced that leaving players out is bound to have a negative impact on our lot, as Wenger is sending out an unspoken signal that we don’t have to be at our best to beat the likes of the Blades. Thus it should be no surprise that this is exactly what we got, a performance that bore very little resemblance to an Arsenal side at its best.

It was ironic to hear that Anthony Stokes had scored yet another hat-trick earlier in the afternoon. Personally I’ve not seen enough of the young Dubliner to pass judgement, as he’s never played in his preferred striking role in the few reserve team outings I’ve witnessed. Some would suggest that as a striker, Stokes is a yard short of the searing pace necessary to hack it at the very highest level (although this never hindered Teddy Sherringham) and according to rumour, Wenger will be cashing in on his prolific spell at Falkirk, by flogging him in the transfer window.

However considering Stokes currently sits atop the SPL scoring charts, I’m fairly certain he’d have proved far more suited to the unforgiving conditions and the physical nature of the battle at Bramall Lane, than an almost anonymous Aliadière. In fact, even if Anthony is not destined to win us the Champions League, if he’s capable of doing a job for us, on nights such as this, when some of his less doughty team mates obviously don’t relish rolling up their sleeves for such a scrap, then surely Stokes would prove a far more useful option than another airy-fairy, foreign bench-warmer?

Also you’d imagine Baptista would’ve been the ideal choice up front in such a muscular contest, since “the Beast” is built like the proverbial brick out-house. Yet no matter how much time he’s given, I am not convinced Julio’s ever going to adapt to the Premiership and I’m not certain he wants to. Much of the time Baptista treats the ball like a hot potato, preferring to release it before he can be targeted by a tackle. On the rare occasions when he did receive possession at Bramall Lane, either his first touch let him down, perhaps because he was intimidated by the defender’s imminent attentions, or when he did control the ball, instead of the Blades bouncing off him, as one would’ve expected, Julio looked like a lightweight, all too often hitting the deck and demanding protection from the ref, when he should’ve been protecting the ball.

One of principle differences between playing in the Premiership and La Liga is where in Spain Baptista would often have time to control the ball and look up to consider his options, there’s no such luxury in this sort of breakneck encounter, where it’s necessary to have a picture of what one intends to do with the ball, before it arrives at one’s feet. This robust climate tends to expose those who don’t have the footballing brain and speed of thought of a Bergkamp or a Fabregas. If I was left with one enduring image from our defeat at Bramall Lane, it was the sight of Baptista sitting on his backside in the mud, looking more like a dispossessed baba than a Beast, wondering what on earth he was doing there, when he could be counting his money back in Madrid. No one will be happier if he’s yet to prove me wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Julio make a swift return to the Continent at the earliest opportunity.

I can’t remember the last time Kolo Touré had such a stinker, nor can I ever recall the brawny Ivorian being outmuscled by an opposition striker. However sadly such rare mistakes from our most reliable centre-back were all the more likely to prove costly with Justin Hoyte at right-back. I’ve been prepared to cut Hoyte plenty of slack, because I’m so desperate to see at least one homegrown youngster in this Arsenal side. But there comes a point where even I have to admit that, defensively, Hoyte just can’t cut the mustard.

Mercifully the long-awaited return of Lauren should restore some much needed stability to the right side of our defence and when you add the experience of Gallas to this mix, hopefully we’ll once again have the sort of solid backline, which would’ve at least got away with a clean sheet and a point from Saturday’s lacklustre display. Obviously, along with everyone else, I’d love to win the lottery, but if I’ve one realistic wish for the New Year, it is for the return of a reinvigorated Thierry Henry, whose potency at the other end of the pitch would ensure that any defensive inadequacies pale into insignificance.

I was hoping we might be in for a game of “three and in” when Jagielka put on the keeper’s jersey and I’m not surprised Lehmann eventually went up for the last corner, as like me, he must have been baying for us to at least test the stand-in keeper, with a shot on target. In the Times it was described as “a brilliant, pulsating night” but personally I prefer my football to be foie gras, than Sheffield’s high-spirited but ultimately stodgy porridge.

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