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Tuesday 29 January 2008

All We Are Saying...Is Give Matt A Song?

It is getting embarrassing now, as Matthieu Flamini produces just about his most influential performance of a season so far, where he's flabbergasted most Gooners, by fast becoming our most influential and most consistent player and yet Matty has never once heard us Gooners express our gratitude from the terraces.

Even the trusty old "Allez Matthieu" is a bit of a mouthful and yet I persevere with it because i instinctively feel the need to show my appreciation in some fashion. But it really is about time that some of our wittier terrace songsmiths found a suitable ditty with which we might regale the Flamster's prodigious feats.

Matty was everywhere this evening. If Adebayor had got his head over his wayward volley, Flamini's pinpoint crosses would've resulted in two goals, but in addition to making our first and spanking home an absolutely stunning second goal, the Flamster was busy blocking shots and relieving the Toon of the ball with last ditch challenges at the other end of the pitch (on the rare occasion Newcastle made it that far forward!).

I got home in time to watch a replay of the highlights on Sky, where according to the commentator Flamini has become known as Gattuso amongst his team mates and you can understand why, as the former utility player is fast becoming the Arsenal's own midfield general. Moreover, in addition to the incredible amount of graft Matty puts in, on and off the ball, I am not sure if it's something that's developed as his confidence has grown, or whether I simply haven't noticed it in the past, but it's only in recent matches that I've become aware quite how demonstrative Matty has become in encouraging his team mates and directing traffic on the pitch. Gallas might be the incumbent as far as the armband is concerned but from what I've seen in the last couple of games, it's Flamini who is the most vocal, keeping up a fairly constant stream of chatter to ensure everyone maintains their focus and making sure they are all where they are supposed to be on the park. To my mind he's looking more and more like a natural leader with each passing game.

Again tonight Flamini and Clichy were our two best players on the pitch and Gael could do with a song of his own as well. Thankfully it's easy enough for me to show my appreciation with "allez Gael", although according to the media it is pronounced more "Guy-el" than "Gail" but I refuse to defer to pronounciation dictates. I was sitting with someone tonight who posed the question whether I'd choose Clichy over Ashley Cole at his best and although you could make a case that in defensive terms, with his experience, Cole might have had more nous (in his prime!), I don't think I've ever seen a more energetic full-back than Clichy and as an opponent, I would be much happier facing Cole in the last ten minutes of the 90, than the terrifying thought of having to try and contain Gael, with his infinite energy levels.

It might seem a bit churlish to have a whinge, after we've tonked the Toon for a second time and leapfrogged Man Utd to regain top spot. However, the three goals aside, our performance overall this evening wasn't exactly scintillating. It's a measure of how woefully weak Newcastle are that it didn't have to be. When you think of it, it was a similar tale to several other games, where in the first half we might have totally dominated possession, but with Newcastle getting all eleven behind the ball, we actually struggled to break them down and Shay Given was hardly overworked.

After taking the lead on the stroke of half-time, the Toon were forced to show a little more ambition and the game opened up a little, as we began to find some space to get in behind them. But if I do have one complaint, it is that when we'd broken the back of Newcastle's resistance with the second and third goal, as is all too often the case against patently inferior opposition, come the end of the season we might end up regretting the fact that we lack a ruthless streak.

I can't help but feel that if the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez were playing tonight, they would've shown no mercy but would've gone on to help themselves to at least a couple more goals. Whereas we seem far too content to maintain possession, taking the piss somewhat, by playing amongst ourselves, all too often opting for a pass back into our own half of the pitch instead of pushing forward for another attempt on goal, on a night when we really could've eliminated Man Utd's goal difference advantage in one stroke.

Who knows, perhaps Pompey will pull off a surprise tomorrow night and take a couple of points off Utd (although it's even more unlikely with most of Pompey's first choice strike force in Ghana at the moment!). However if the match at Old Trafford runs true to form and Man Utd retake top spot on goal difference, it's a bit annoying to think that we might've wasted an opportunity to erode this advantage.

Man Utd have to go to St James Park next month and hopefully there will be sufficient time for Keegan to have some impact on the Toon by then, as on paper "Souper Kev" has a far more decent first XI than the utterly impotent team we've played in the last couple of games. Then again, the one thing Keegan can usually be guaranteed to bring to the party is the sort of infectious enthusiasm that can inspire players to considerably increase their performance levels , but watching his post-match interview on Sky, Keegan in his current mild-mannered incarnation appears a long way from the ebullient "I would love it" personality from the past. Perhaps this was a natural reaction to having seen his team rolled over 3-0 twice in three days, but similarly we've seen little evidence on the pitch in the last two matches, by way of evidence of any "sweat blood for the cause" type Keegan effect. Hopefully it's just a little too soon, after only three games and Keegan's motivational qualities will come to fruition in the nick of time, for their sixth encounter under his management, coincidentally their meeting with Man U!!

If I have one other gripe, on a very good night, it is that perhaps far too many Gooners just don't deserve to see their team challenge for the title. Watching the highlights on Sky, I have to admit that I found it more than a little embarrassing as it looked so awful to see the Gunners playing out the last three minutes of injury time before a stadium that looked so empty on TV. I know full well that plenty of us stayed to the final whistle to applaud the team off the pitch, but many more had long since left and on my television at least, with so many empty seats directly in front of the cameras, it looked as if there was hardly anyone left to show their appreciation. It's not as if we've spent that much time on top of the pile in recent seasons and so on a night when we regained top spot and when we should have been serenading the team off, demonstrating how much it means to us that "we are top of the league", instead our players went into their now traditional huddle in the centre circle, with far too few "supporters" left in the stadium to give the moment much meaning.

In their shoes, you'd have to wonder if the thought wouldn't cross their mind "why on earth did we bother"?

Sure I appreciate that people have trains to catch, traffic to negotiate, but we should take heed, as in my experience it's wise to savour these "top of the pile Ma" type moments when you can, as you never know how long you might have to wait for the nest one!!

Big Love

Monday 28 January 2008

If You Can Keep Your Head?

“He’s gonna quit in a minute” was the somewhat predictable chant which echoed around our stadium on Saturday, as we begun to relax and enjoy our second half domination of a relatively toothless Toon Army. There were moments during the first forty-five when Newcastle threatened and if Gael Clichy hadn’t been perfectly placed to head clear Alan Smith’s goal bound effort, perhaps it would’ve been an entirely different story.

However much to every Gooners’ great relief, by and large this match ran true to form, as apparently Arsène Wenger appreciated the need to send out a team that was capable of demonstrating that the midweek debacle at White Hart Lane was nothing more than an aberration.

All week long I had to endure the taunts of my many Tottenham pals, as they tried their utmost to get a rise out of me. According to their somewhat deluded perspective, Tuesday’s defeat represented a significant turning-point, as far as the North London status-quo was concerned. I suppose such a cocky reaction to their progress in the Carling Cup was to be expected, as they’ve had so little to crow about these past nine years. But by the end of the week I was beginning to regret the fact that I’ve tended to go lightly on them in recent times, as they’d become so downtrodden that there was little satisfaction to be gained from rubbing their faces in the Arsenal’s complete and utter domination. Although following the veritable barrage I’ve suffered these past few days, I very much doubt my Spurs mates can expect such a sympathetic silence in the future!

Mind you, obviously I would’ve preferred that the circumstances were different, but I have to admit that I’ve actually enjoyed the resumption of the vitriolic repartee between us, after they’ve spent so many years bereft of any decent ammunition. What appears to irk them most, more than anything, is that a triumph of El Alamein type proportions from their point of view, is for us Gooners nothing more than a minor blip in a much bigger footballing landscape.

In all honesty, the most distressing consequence of our failure to progress to the Carling Cup Final, is that come the end of February, it’s bound to bug the hell out of me that Spurs fans will have an opportunity to see their team play at the new Wembley stadium before us. Our not so neighbourly enemies might harp on about the big guns who were on the pitch come the final whistle, but over the course of the two legs, to all intents and purposes, they were competing against our second XI.

Thus even though our reserves bowed out of this Mickey Mouse competition in such an embarrassing fashion, our misery remains a mere pin-prick, a fleeting pain, by comparison to the euphoric pleasure I’ve enjoyed on their patch over the years. The way they celebrated the other night one might’ve thought they’d won the league itself, whereas amongst all those ecstasy-filled encounters on their turf that are too numerous to list, I’ve actually had the privilege of seeing the Gunners win two league titles at White Hart Lane, on route to the doubles of ’71 and ’02. These were all the sweeter for the way in which our exploits expunged the myth of what was once thought to be the unrepeatable double feats of the last truly successful Lilywhite team. But even I’m not old enough to have a memory that stretches all the way back to ’61 and the era of Danny Blanchflower’s glory, glory boys!

As I said to one of my Spurs pals, his seven year old lad will probably end up banging on to his own grandkids in his dotage, about the time he saw Spurs put five past the Arsenal (and doubtless the kids will view the old codger’s extravagant ramblings as evidence of his advancing senility!). By contrast, if our season should continue on its current successful course, in any of the other three vastly more significant competitions, any memory of last week’s nightmare will have been erased long before May.

According to the law of averages, Spurs were long overdue a win and if they hadn’t been quite so profligate in front of goal, they could’ve walloped us in the first leg. Determined to avoid a reprise of the “2-0 and you f***ed it up” taunts that resulted from our kids’ magnificent turn-over in last season’s semi, Spurs came out suitably pumped. And while Juande Ramos had his players high on adrenaline, as if it was their cup final, Wenger’s troops must’ve been supping camomile tea as their pre-match tipple, to ensure that the likes of World Cup winner Gilberto wasn’t over-excited at the prospect of nannying the kids in such a glamorous Carling Cup encounter!

Perhaps Arsène might’ve been more gracious in defeat, but this doesn’t make for good copy in the red tops and so we only got to read the quotes that portrayed le Prof as a bitter, bad loser. However he was correct in some respects, as it wasn’t a particularly poor performance, but on the night Spurs peaked. While with an utterly feckless display from such a senior authority figure as our (some would say “has been”) Brazilian midfielder, Diaby’s dodgy decision making and Walcott’s inability to influence the game (to the point of being totally anonymous), the Gunners were simply carrying too many passengers for them not to be undone.

Personally I felt it was a mistake by Wenger to send Adebayor and Eduardo into the fray at 4-0 down. Send them on at half-time perhaps, when there was a chance of them turning the game around at only 2-0 down. But a four goal deficit was too big an ask and not only did it defeat the object of resting them, but as events proved, such is Adebayor’s pride, that he was in serious danger of a red card and a resultant costly suspension, as he ran around like a headless chicken, so determined was he to try and rectify matters.

Far more than this insignificant result, it’s been the subsequent hoo-haa about an alleged headbutt that’s really got my goat. It’s indicative of the media’s laughable sheep mentality that they’ve made such mileage out of the incident between our two strikers. I can testify that all those outraged journos, who’ve since mounted their high-horse, to moan about the fact that a suitable punishment hasn’t been meted out to a player who has set such a dreadful example for delicate and impressionable youngsters, not a single one of them has actually witnessed this incident with their own eyes. Otherwise they’d know that all talk of a headbutt is pure fiction. Then again, they’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story, so why on earth should they start now!

They are hardly the trappings of a terrace hard-man (not that I’ve ever claimed to be one) and on the rare occasion when it has ‘gone off’ outside a football ground, it’s served me well to be able skirt around any aggro, posing as a train-spotting civilian, with my terrace tranny, binoculars and all the other match day essentials I’ve acquired over the years (a pack of tissues is a godsend for a runny nose, but you wouldn’t leave home without them if you’ve ever been caught short in a paperless karsey that would make the black-hole of Calcutta seem like a sweet-scented Jacuzzi!).

Without my tiny tranny on Saturday, hundreds around me would’ve been none the wiser about Havant’s first-half hi-jinks at Anfield and without my binoculars at White Hart Lane, I wouldn’t have had a close up of Adebayor walking up to Bendtner and stunning the Danish lad with a somewhat over-enthusiastic and foolhardy slap across the schnoz. My reading of the situation was that there was no malice intended and it was just our over-hyped Togolese striker’s attempt to galvanize the young gun and to ensure his head had not dropped.

However considering the rumours about Bendtner’s ‘Bertie Big Bollix” ego, Adebayor would’ve undoubtedly been wiser to keep his hands (NOT his head!) to himself. Studying the Dane’s doleful demeanour as he remained on the bench on Saturday, there was no suggestion that he’s forgiven, or forgot! With this incident in mind, our midweek defeat might have proved more significant if it had dampened the mood in the Arsenal camp. Many, me included, went to Saturday’s game fearing a potential repeat of the consequences of last season’s Carling Cup calamity, where we exited the FA Cup and the Champions League in the space of the three subsequent games and our entire campaign imploded.

Thus a defeat to Newcastle would’ve felt like a disastrous déjà vu and would’ve actually given Spurs fans a good reason to gloat. Mind you, it’s all gone quiet again, after it was business as usual with our respective FA Cup results. They might try heeding Kipling’s call to treat the two impostors of triumph and disaster just the same. For our part, I don’t think there can be many Gooners who could’ve imagined that Flamini and Clichy might be the main difference between the two. Mercifully these unsung heroes ensured we made it into the hat for the fifth round and with Monday’s draw pitting us against Man U, it couldn’t possibly be more poetic. We have to pray that Le Prof assigns sufficient psychological importance to our trip to Old Trafford, that he won’t risk losing an all together more significant hand of poker by playing the kids’ card again?

Sunday 27 January 2008

Thank Heavens The Toon Are So Utterly Toothless

After looking like we might be coming back to the boil in the second half at Craven Cottage, it seems as if Tuesday's debacle has seen us take a bit of a backwards step (perhaps understandably?). Cesc was decidedly off colour today with so many of his passes going astray and to my mind when Fabregas is on the pitch, the Arsenal only ever seem to truly tick when the little genius is at the races

However the result was the be all and end all this afternoon and it seems to me that there were a couple of influential factors. Obviously the fact that the Toon are so utterly toothless was a boon. N'zogbia has caught the eye in the past and I seem to recall being impressed and devastated at the same time, when young Milner scored a last minute scorcher against us up at Anfield but along with the anonymous has beens Duff and Owen and a much over rated Alan Smith, they rarely got a look in this afternoon (apart from the moment when Gael Clichy made his amazing goalline clearance). It's hard to believe Duff is the same player as the little wing wizard that was and although it is perhaps harsh to judge Michael Owen when the ball rarely reached him, he's a shadow of the player who so terrorized us in his Liverpool days. Owen's principle asset was his acceleration over the first couple of yards and it would appear that all the hamstring injuries have taken their toll on Owen's explosive qualities and without it, Owen isn't able to escape the attentions of his marker and is therefore rarely able to find the sort of space where he's available to receive the ball. The busiest the England striker was all afternoon was when he was trying to con the ref in appealing for handball!

More importantly, as far as the Arsenal are concerned, considering there wasn't really a significant improvement on Tuesday's abysmal performance, for my money the most influential difference was the inclusion of Flamini instead of a feckless Gilberto in the crucial holding role in midfield and the return of the ever impressive Gael Clichy.

Unlike many Gooners, I've always been a fan of Flamini because a player is alright in my book so long as he gives 100 per cent when wearing the red & white. However, I will happily admit, that in Flamini's former "bit part" role as a utility player, along with everyone else I couldn't have possibly imagined that Matty would go on to become possibly the most important name on the team sheet (in the absence of any viable alternative with Gilberto's dramatic dip in form and Diarra's departure) and along with Clichy, the player of the season so far.

I was studying Matthieu closely during moments in todays match and it would appear as if he's rapidly developing into a genuine leader on the pitch, as he's constantly bringing his greater experience to bear, for example issuing instructions to those behind him to push up after we'd gone a goal up, to try deter all around him from their natural tendency to drop off a little, but to continue to deny Newcastle any space to play in front of our defence. What's more, with his enthusiastic and often precise sliding tackles and his willingness to join in the play going forward (despite the relative limitations of his natural ability), Flamini's wholehearted and 100 per cent committed attitude sets the standard which hopefully encourages everyone else to follow. Flamini's preparedness to put his body on the line for the Arsenal cause is the sort of commitment that is reminiscent of Vieira and Petit during the 98 double season and Im convinced that it would've been a totally different story if Matthieu and Gael had been playing on Tuesday, as we wouldn't have been over run in midfield and Clichy's threat going forward would've meant that the likes of Jenas and Lennon would've been occupied in the way that Milner and Carr were today, in trying to defend this threat, thereby preventing them spending much time operating in our half of the pitch.

In almost every match Gael continues to offer further evidence of quite how fortunate we were that Ashley Cole had his hissy fit over not receiving an extra few quid in his weekly truckload of wonga and I can't imagine how soul destroying it must be for our opposition, as again we saw this afternoon when the Toon defence were flagging late on, Gael continued to make mincemeat of them with his astonishing energy levels. It is just unfortunate that one of his incredible runs, with the dummy in the penalty area to lose the defender, didn't end up resulting in a fourth goal.

Meanwhile, although Newcastle looked quite bright early doors, by the end of the afternoon, we were sufficiently dominant and stamped our authority on the game to such an extent that I will be amazed if the Toon return on Tuesday without a psychologically pessimistic outlook and hopefully we'll be singing a reprise of "he's gonna quit in a minute" long before this afternoon's 50th minute lead.

My main concern from this afternoon's match was to hear the ever increasing indications from our crowd of them losing patience in Theo Walcott, as Theo struggles to fulfill his promise with each passing appearance. I don't think there can be any doubt that the youngster has talent and it is merely a matter of finding a means by which he can learn to make the most of his attributes, as up to now he has invariably failed to do the business. But we absolutely must continue to show faith in the lad, as I remain confident that when the rest of the team truly begins to click and we really get our passing game going again, in an Arsenal side that is truly playing to something like it's full potential, Theo will begin to shine.

In the meantime, perhaps Arsene's biggest quandary, is how he is going to make the most out of Diaby, as he doesn't look at all comfortable playing out wide and like Theo, he's struggling to make his ability tell. Diaby produced another cameo performance today, where all too often his runs ended up down a blind alley, taking on one player too many, when a simple lay-off would be better. At least with Abou there appears to be no lack of self-confidence, as demonstrated by his willingness to shoot on sight, but it's hard to see how Arsene can accommodate Diaby in a 4-4-2 formation that includes Fabregas, Flamini, Hleb and Rosicky

For a moment there this afternoon, I thought AW was bringing on Hleb and Bendtner rather than Hleb and Gilberto and I thought it was going to be interesting to see whether Adebayor and Bendtner would kiss and make up and whether the two of them would actually pass to one another. After the substitutions I was watching Bendtner on the bench through my binoculars and his body language and his expression positively screamed out how pissed off he was. When Theo walked off and like the gentleman he is, came over to shake hands with his team mates on the bench, Bendtner did shake his hand, but couldn't have done so in a less enthusiastic manner.

Personally I can't believe that the Daily Mail/Evening Standard are making such a big deal out of a supposed head butt, when those of us watching on the night saw Adebayor slap the Dane around the face. There is a massive difference in the malicious intent involved in a head butt and a slap! Also I was somewhat disappointed in some of the Gooner reaction to Tuesday night's disaster, as its patently wrong to accuse the likes of Fabregas and Gallas of not trying. They were trying alright, but they were always on a loser playing in a side where there were at least four passengers. The difference between the two teams was that Spurs came out suitably pumped up for a team that had been beaten by our kids in the semi last season and all eleven of their side performed to their best, as if it was their cup final. By contrast with the laid back likes of Gilberto as an authority figure, we came out as if it was just another game to us and as a result it was all too easy for Spurs to catch us cold with their first goal. After that we were always going to struggle, as the longer the game went on without us getting a goal back, the more we chased for one and the more likely it was that Spurs were going to catch us on the counter.

I have had to take stick all week from Spurs fans who are all convinced that this was a significant result and are 100 per cent certain this it is proof positive that the North London tables have begun to turn (poor deluded fools!). What seems to bother them most has been their inability to get a rise out of me. Yet for those of us who have had the pleasure of seeing us win two league titles at the sh*t hole, a defeat in a Mickey Mouse Cup semi (for our reserves!) is small change by comparison. In all honesty, the most disappointing aspect to Tuesday night's loss, is the thought that Spurs will get an opportunity to play at the new Wembley before us. Then again, the most amusing aspect about it is that as I said to my Spurs pal, his seven year old lad will probably be telling his grandkids in years to come about the night he saw them beat the Arsenal 5-1 (and they will all assume he's suffering from dementia!). Whereas, by contrast, if our season continues on its current successful path, we will have forgotten all about it long before May!

Big Love

Monday 21 January 2008

Feel So Made Up, Don't Wanna Go Home

Hi folks,

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I managed to miss Adebayor's first goal on Saturday. I would've been there long before, if it wasn't for the fact that the parking pitch I've used in the past no longer exists and as I frantically drove around looking for somewhere else to dump the car, I didn't dare risk being towed away. What's more I could see the traffic wardens eagerly ticketing all those motors in the immediate vicinity of the ground, who's owners had failed to take note of the matchday restrictions that allowed a maximum of an hour on the 'pay and display' bays. It occured to me that if I drove around for very much longer, I wouldn't need more than an hour!!

I eventually gave up and headed over onto the other side of the Fulham Palace Road, knowing it would mean a bit of a hike back but at least, after emptying all the rifle in my pockets into the 'pay and display' ticket machine, I wouldn't spend the match (or the remainder of the match!) fretting about a fifty pound parking ticket.

Believe it or not, I almost missed Ade's second goal as well. As I stood there chatting to a couple of mates, getting the SP on what I'd missed so far, it eventually dawned on me that there was no milk in the coffee I'd bought on the way in. With it being close to half-time, I was heading up the stairs to nip out a get some before the break, but fortunately I hesitated long enough to witness the attack which resulted in our second.

Even if I had missed them both, it would've been worth the short trip to Fulham to enjoy the communal singing that went on for most of the second half, not to mention the most entertaining forty-five minutes of football we've witnessed since Villa Park.

When I got home, I found a text message on my phone from an Egyptian Gooner pal, who wanted to know exactly what we were singing (see below), so I guess it must've sounded quite good on the box. When I got back to him with the details, Amr told me that he'd be reporting back to Kolo and Eboué, when checking their passports the next day. According to his response, I was dead envious to hear that he was singing our new chant from his villa on the beach in Sekondi, accompanied by the sound of the Atlantic lapping on the beach below.

I believe Amr's old man is a bit of a CAF (Confederation of African Football) bigwig and so if it wasn't bad enough that he was out in Ghana for the African Nations (as I would absolutely love to get to this tournament one of these days), but it just about took the biscuit to hear that he was getting paid to be there, as an organiser at the Sekondi venue.

Ho hum, I guess I'll just have to draw the curtains, shut out a grey, miserably damp day in London and make believe, as I settle down to cheer on Kolo and the rest of Les Elephantes (although in truth I should perhaps be supporting their opponents, in the hope that the contingent from the Gunners get sent back sooner, rather than later!)

Peace & Love

After an utterly exhausting week involving a killer, 100 mile commute through the Blackwall Tunnel, right across the capital to the ballet’s new stores in Kent and back, every day (never mind the scenery schlepping in between), if not a home game, I was relieved that we only had a short hop to Fulham’s riverside home in West London on Saturday. Yet even with the bliss of a bit of a lie-in, I still struggled to haul my far too rapidly aging bones out of the sack, walk the dog and get out the door in good time to make it to the match.

In fact with it already being 2.30pm when I headed out past our new stadium, I was half tempted to stop and watch the “beamback” at our place. At least I’d be guaranteed of seeing the entire game. But with a ticket for the real thing in my pocket, it seemed barmy to pay a further 15 quid to watch the match, on one of the two giant screens - although I’m curious to know what the atmosphere is like (if there is any?) at one of these live broadcasts of away games, which I guess they’ve introduced to try and make maximum use of the facilities at the new gaff.

However I wasn’t about to blow out what’s recently become one of the most enjoyable awaydays of the season and besides, with a favourable wind and some good fortune on the parking front, I might just make it to the Cottage in time. Sadly I neglected to take into account the fact that the weekend traffic across the capital has become dire, ever since the introduction of the congestion charge on weekdays. As I inched my way along the Marylebone Road, I soon had to come to terms with the fact that I was going to miss the kick-off, in order to avoid getting too stressed out and falling foul of the infuriating proliferation of speed cameras on route, or finding myself involved in a road rage incident with a dawdling weekend driver.

Mercifully at least our match was live on the radio and as I became more frustrated with each passing minute, with my progress hindered by a procession of ostentatious Chelsea tractors (as in those driven by Sloanies rather than Stamford Bridgies, although these it’s hard to differentiate between the two!), I heard tell of how the Gunners were similarly impeded in their pre-match warm-up, as apparently Al-Fayed insisted on walking right along the path of one of Pat Rice’s exercise routines. I assume the Harrods boss is far too shrewd to believe his slapstick buffoonery to be a viable alternative to him bankrolling Roy Hodgson’s rescue mission. Subsequent events demonstrated that Mohammed’s pre-match party-trick might have included taking a pitch roller to the legs of our entire backline and an extremely fragile Fulham still would’ve struggled to beat us.

Personally I believe Fulham are shooting themselves in the foot before they start, by allocating all 3,800 seats of the Putney Stand behind one goal to their visitors. With the availability of tickets, the proximity of the Cottage and the nostalgia of one of the few remaining old-fashioned grounds in the Premiership, our annual trip to Fulham tends to attract all the old Gooner faces out of the woodwork, along with thousands of other part-timers.

Recently some others clubs appear to have cottoned on to the benefits of bunging opposition fans way up the in the corner of a stand, as far as possible from the action, rather than offering their visitors the traditional prime pitch behind a goal, where their raucous encouragement might exert some influence over the proceedings. By contrast, perhaps in their desire to flog a few more tickets, Fulham appear to have failed to appreciate that cost of a few unsold seats is relative peanuts, compared to the fortune they stand to lose if they should fail to retain their Premiership status. With the exception of last season’s aberration, in recent times their hospitality has ensured that Fulham has felt more of a fortress for us guests, than anything generated by their genteel home fans.

As a succession of awayday pals have fallen from the path of full-time, righteous devotion to the Gooner cause, I occasionally wonder what it is that motivates me (other than my obvious obligation to Examiner readers!) to make the personal and professional sacrifices necessary to ensure that for eight months, year in, year out, my entire life revolves around the Arsenal fixture list. Could it just be habit? Would the sky fall in if I didn’t make it to a match, or worse still, would the Gunners get beat (would we be top now, if I’d bothered schlepping back up to the North-East for the Boro game)? However as caffeine is to coffee and nicotine is to cancer sticks, it’s the unforeseen that is footie’s addictive ingredient. Even after all this time, I never fail to be amazed by this “funny old game’s” unerring capacity for unpredictability.

After Man Utd leapfrogged us last weekend and with me fully expecting both Utd and Chelsea to roll-over Reading and Birmingham, while we faced a return to the scene of last season’s cock-up, with the Cottagers set to benefit from Hodgson’s vast wealth of experience (albeit annoyingly nasal!), could this be the weekend where our title bid finally began to show (the pundits much predicted) signs of becoming a bit frayed around the edges?

Instead of which, as the radio reported on our two rivals struggling to exert their superiority in both ‘away bankers’ and following a relatively uninspiring first forty-five, which truth be told, was a tale of two crosses, two headers, two goals, the Cottagers confidence continued to crumble before our eyes. Fulham proved to be the perfect antidote to a malaise which has afflicted us for the past month and which made for a brand of football that was more Wimbledon than Wenger-ball. The two-goal cushion resulted in a transformation after the break, where we were back to our imperious best, stroking the ball about with the renewed authority of genuine title contenders, compared to a penchant for more “hit & hope” practices in recent weeks.

Although it might still be something of a novelty that we’ve been blessed with a tall centre-forward who can truly hang in he air, to score with his head (even if we continue to fail to threaten from corners), it was our third goal which was a thing of beauty. A trademark, mazy passing move, followed by some fabulous trickery in Eduardo’s approach play, but most positive of all was the sight of Rosicky, arriving late in the box to stab home, à la Pires and Freddie at their best. Fabregas should’ve followed this up with a fourth, as an absolutely breathtaking demonstration of Hleb’s ability, in leaving half of Fulham’s bamboozled defence for dead, as he cut in from corner flag directly in front of us, truly deserved to be finished off with a similar flourish.

However it was wonderful to watch a Gunners side playing with a smile on their faces. Obviously I will be gutted if the title comes down to goal difference, as we might regret not being a little more ruthless in the face of such feeble opposition as Fulham. It might well have turned into a massacre, if we’d truly hit top gear, but I adore the fact that instead of whinging when he scuffed his shot wide, Cesc joined a a gaggle of the Gunner’s art appreciation society in a moment of backslapping, as they paid all due respect to the sublime skill of Hleb’s virtuoso contribution in the build-up.

Sadly both our rivals eventually overcame stubborn resistance to achieve predictable results. Yet it proved to be a significant weekend in the sense that all signs of a potential derailment have disappeared, as the Gunners got back on track with a timely return to being arguably the most stylish exponents of the beautiful game in the Premiership (if not the entire planet?). But if our trip to the Cottage goes down in Gooner memory, it will probably be for events on the terraces.

Time was when terrace wags would conjure up a witty new chant almost every other week, whereas nowadays it’s become an all too rare event for a new ditty to be added to the somewhat staid Gooner repertoire. As we all craned our necks on Saturday, trying to discern the lyrics of the chant emanating from the far corner of the terrace, there was a “by jove he’s got it” moment, as almost as one, the remainder of us caught on and were able to join in, without that embarrassing pretence of mumbling the unknown lines.

The vast majority of efforts to introduce a new chant invariably sink without trace, but as demonstrated by a melodious 20-minute rendition of “Adebayor, Adebayo...oo..oor, Give him the ball, And he will score” (to the tune of the Beach Boys “Sloop John B” - I wanna go home) sung by virtually all 3,800 of us, this one is definitely a stayer that’s set to resonate across the Premiership landscape, so long as our lanky Togolese striker continues to do the business.

Meanwhile if we’re going to get to sing our new song at Wembley come February, compared to their flaccid display in the first leg, the youngsters are going to have to raise their game considerably at White Hart Lane on Tuesday and how can I possibly not be looking forward to two games against KK’s Toon. Keegan’s hardly been employed to park the bus in front of their goal and so at the very least, the week ahead holds the promise of some terrific entertainment.

Monday 14 January 2008

Caught With Our Pants Down By Birmingham! But A Repeat Against The Cottagers Will Prove A Right Royal Pain In The Backside

Hi Folks,

At least Fat Sam's impromptu departure from the Toon means he won't be chasing Diarra (but that doesn't preclude others from sniffing around the discontent midfielder, not to mention the queue of clubs who'd be lining up if Gilberto was perceived to be unhappy).

Alardyce's Bolton side was renowned for being well organised and I knew something wasn't right when we played on Tyneside. At one point during the match when Newcastle were awarded a corner, I happened to focus on their full-back (Habib Beye?) through my binoculars and I was surprised by the look of bemusement on his face. The former Marseille captain didn't know whether to stick or twist, as he made a movement as if he instinctively wanted to head forward to the penalty area and then stopped, not knowing if he was supposed to be stopping at home to guard the back door.

I couldn't believe that such a shambolic lack of organisation could exist in a professional (let alone Premiership) outfit and I construed from this that the Geordie faithful were merely paying for Fat Sam to have a bit of a free ride?

Meanwhile if I don't get this piece posted now, it will be another week before I get around to it, so....

Peace & Love

There seemed little point to rushing home after Saturday’s match, as it wasn’t as if the managerless Toon were about to do us a favour in the live broadcast from Old Trafford. Then again, there was a glimmer of hope that we might retain top spot, when this game reached halftime without any goals. But within five minutes of the re-start, I was heading for the kitchen to eat my way out of a depression, after Man U had struck twice. While I sought solace in the consolation of a chopped liver sandwich that was exactly what the Mancs made of the Toon, with a win which was worth an extra point, both in terms of its positive effect on our rivals goal difference and the psychological impact of retaking the box seat in the title race, in such an emphatic manner.

I’ve no doubt that there are plenty of twists and turns still to come in this season’s contest, but if it’s destined to go all the way to the wire and the Gunners end up only a gnat’s whisker away from glory, we might well look back on this weekend’s failure to convert our almost total domination of possession into three points as pivotal.

I stood there right up until the last moment, willing the whistle out of ref O’Dowd’s mouth, whilst imploring the lads on to nick a winner. Considering we’ve made quite a habit of stealing a victory out of the jaws of a draw in recent times, I couldn’t believe that the vast majority had long since started flooding out of the exits. I’m sure I must sound like a broken record and I know it’s easy for me to talk, when I’m already at home with my feet up, whilst others are queuing at the station for a couple of hours. But when we go to so much trouble and such expense to watch live football nowadays, I just can’t fathom why folk are in such a desperate rush to get back home on a Saturday evening?

Maybe it’s just another soul-destroying symptom of the recent cultural trend towards football as theatrical entertainment, rather than a participatory sport. It’s been a long couple of seasons since we last enjoyed the excitement of a title challenge at this time of year and to my mind far too many amongst the “audience” at our new stadium lack the ability to appreciate quite how privileged they are. With Saturday's game balanced on a knife edge, I don’t care how much longer it’s going to take to get away from the ground, even if it ends up doubling the length of one's journey home, surely this is a paltry price to pay to be cemented to one’s seat along with sixty thousand other bricks, in a wall of sound that’s capable of sucking the ball into the back of the net, for the last gasp winner that would’ve nailed top spot for another week and crushed the premature hopes of leapfrogging us amongst listening Utd fans?

Surprisingly, this Arsenal squad continues to display plenty of never-say-die spirit, in spite of this infuriating amount of movement in the stands. Yet I’m convinced they can’t possibly be oblivious to it. As I marveled once again, in complete awe of Gael Clichy’s seemingly limitless energy levels, as our flying full-back produced yet another lung-busting charge, along almost the length of the pitch in injury time, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more inspired the Gunners might be to ignore the build up of lactic acid in their legs for one last unstoppable surge towards the opposition goal, if half the crowd weren’t already resigned to the result, with their backs to the action in their habitual dash for the exits, but were instead displaying their solidarity by remaining in their seats, refusing to accept our fate by roaring the lads on to the last?

Meanwhile, in truth we should’ve had no need for a late winner on Saturday, since, in such a one-sided contest, Birmingham should’ve long since been put to the sword. Wandering home afterwards, I overheard glum looking Gooners everywhere, proffering their ‘backseat’ punditry. Many seemed to think we’d lost some momentum, after the majority of our first XI had enjoyed a ten day break from competitive action, having been omitted from our two cup encounters in the interim. Myself I’ve always been an advocate in the past of not messing with the team sheet, once they begin to achieve a winning groove. The way in which we conceded a sloppy equalizer, so soon after the start of the second-half, perhaps lends credence to this theory, as there was some suggestion of complacency involved in this costly lapse in concentration.

Although it felt like a defeat, Saturday’s draw suggest a refocus is required, to return to the sort of concentration levels that have been such a crucial factor in our challenge to date. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been necessary, without the distraction of a couple of days off. Yet there were some signs on Saturday that they might’ve benefited from their break, as I believe we caught brief glimpses of a return of our passing game, which has been markedly absent for more than a month, while we’ve resorted to “Plan B”.

Hopefully this last hiccup won’t seem nearly so significant, if fresh legs begin to bear fruit, by reinvigorating the Gunners. There’ve been plenty of occasions in the past when we’ve questioned Le Prof’s selection policy and in his shoes, many of us would’ve had a half-fit Van Persie on the bench, in the hope Robin might be able to pull a match winning rabbit out of the hat. But if there is one area in which Wenger has demonstrated his expertise over the years, it’s been in the extremely precise monitoring of his player’s fitness, developing this science to the point where (with the exception of Walcott and some of the other more accident prone amongst his charges) he’s often in a position to be able to rest players, before they succumb to fatigue related injuries.

Mercifully Arsène has avoided Rafa Benitez like incessant rotational tinkering, as he appears to appreciate the need to maintain a balance between this pragmatic science and the ethereal art of encouraging the sort of cohesion that can produce a tightly knit first XI who are prepared to die for one another.
Another common complaint from disgruntled Gooners, whilst we whinged our way home on Saturday, was that following a scintillating first-half of sublime skill, Alex Hleb was almost anonymous after the break. It seems that having lost his cool, as a result of the opposition’s painfully close attentions, Alex was distracted to the point of disappearing, in stereotypical “don’t like it up ‘em” fashion of the Arsenal of yesteryear.

When one sees a virtuoso talent of Hleb’s class, haring after an opponent to exact his revenge by blatantly hacking them down, I want to shake him by the shoulders, to remind him that the most painful reprisal is to let their feet do the talking (with the football!). Yet even at his best, for all his ability on the ball, Alex’s artistry all too often amounts to nought where it matters. However, against City, he was far from alone in being culpable for this lack of impact in the last third, as for all our domination in midfield, actually Maik Taylor was actually little busier than Almunia.

With Beckham and his boy sitting in the players seats behind the bench, it occurred to me that for all the hospitality he's received, in return you'd think he could at least hand out a few lessons in the art of hitting a dead ball (and perhaps give Almunia sufficient practice that he has the confidence to come and take them!). We're on the edge of our seats whenever we concede a corner but we're hardly on tenterhooks when taking them, as we grow increasingly exasperated at the sight of Fabregas floating yet another ball straight down the keeper's throat.

It’s hardly like for like, comparing Birmingham’s obdurate defending, with the basket case of the Toon backline. But watching Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Giggs rampaging forward on TV later that evening, even through Gooner tinted glasses, it was hard to deny that Man Utd seem to possess a far more incisive threat, compared to our patient but all too often fruitless probing. Not that we haven’t seen the Arsenal carve up opponents who dare to allow us time and space, like a knife through butter, but when it comes to genuine pace, as a full-back, Clichy isn’t going to spend much time in the opposition penalty area and Theo Walcott is without doubt still a work in progress.

Channel hopping on Saturday night, I happened upon a “Classic” Arsenal performance which showed Thierry Henry gliding past opponents as if they were running backwards. There was no reeling Henry back in, once he’d beaten a defender, whereas stopping the Arsenal nowadays is a matter of simple mathematics, which merely involves getting sufficient numbers behind the ball.

Unless we resort to Plan B, Wimbledon stylee, planting long balls onto the head of big strikers, for the likes of Eduardo to profit from the knock downs, we rely on the guile of Fabregas and Hleb to pick a path through the massed ranks. Although we’ve demonstrated that we’re not totally dependent on Cesc, the more matches I see, the more convinced I become that it’s only when Fab is on top form that we truly purr like a well-oiled machine. When he’s below par, the Gunners tend to grind like an ungreased engine, crying out for “Little Franco” and his can of WD40.

Obviously I’d be much happier if we were still looking down on all our rivals, but if we can continue to maintain our challenge whilst out of sorts, I’m sure we’ll be handing out a hiding, or two of our own before long. I only hope the Newcastle saga rumbles on for a couple of weeks. Should the Toon win their replay against Stoke, we’ll be playing them twice in three days and with so many virulent winter bugs about, I really wouldn’t want to be struck down by a bad case of “new manager-itis”!

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She Wore A Yellow Ribbon In The Merry Month of February

(having failed to post last week's diary piece, I then proceeded to write a massive preamble following Wednesday's lucky escape against Spurs and have to apologise that I am only now getting around to posting them both - should you prefer to jump straight to this week's missive, I will be posting it immediately after this one)

Hi folks,

I was so 'cream crackered' when I finished writing this week’s missive on Monday, that having forwarded it to the Examiner, I didn't get around to posting it and it now feels somewhat outdated, after events on Wednesday night. Nevertheless, I've tagged it on below, just in case some of you have nothing better to do :-)

I've just about recovered from the Spurs game, as it was a bit of a stressful evening all round. I was in deepest, darkest Kent until around 3.30pm that afternoon, at the ballet's new stores in Marden ("home of the Kent Air Ambulance" - no reason to mention this, other than the fact that I've now driven past this sign so often that the two now seem synonymous) and I had to deliver a van load of cozzies to the Colisseum in Covent Garden, take the rental van back to Greenford and collect the car, to get back in time for KO. Crawling along the A40 at around 6pm, still on my way OUT to Greenford, I thought I was never going to make the match, as once it gets past the point where they close the roads around the stadium, the local traffic and I think I actually got young Jamal out of bed, merely to ask for his mobile number, to tell him that I would give him a call to come around and meet me at the ground if I couldn't sell Ro's ticket. How cruel was that! I ended up flogging it to an extremely grateful Scandinavian and was left feeling very guilty for even mentioning it to Jamal.

Coincidentally it was another Scandinavian who benefited on Wednesday. I would've missed most of the first half, if it wasn't for the delayed KO. But as it turned out, I was trotting around to the ground, as fast as my nicotine-addled lungs could carry me, just as the players were coming out. The last time I was tardy for a match, I missed Eduardo’s early goal on New Year’s day and I don’t know whether the sound bounces off the concrete and brickwork of the rapidly rising construction of residential apartments that now stands in place of the old North Bank, but I was more than a little amazed that, for a goal scored against derby rivals, keeping us on the top of the Premiership pile, the only celebratory noises I heard were those coming out of the Gunners pub.

In the past I’ve always been annoyed when Ro hasn’t been able to make it to a game last minute, mainly because I get so embarrassed trying to sell her ticket, as I can’t bear the thought of being taken for a tout, wandering around to the game spouting that oh so suspicious “anyone need a spare” dirge. Perhaps I’ve a dodgy demeanour but it feels as if I might as well be peddling the plague, for the look of contempt I seem to catch from the majority of folk.

In this instance, not wanting to miss another early goal, I was in such a hurry that I was having to look back to see if anyone showed any interest in my offer. Unlike all the other home matches that are included in our season tickets, I’d actually had to go online to purchase these two seats at a cost of thirty-five quid (tickets for the second leg at White Hart Lane are an extortionate forty-four quid, I suppose because Spurs know they can get away with it – whatever happened to reduced prices for the Carling Cup??!!) and so I would’ve been that bit more annoyed if one had gone to waste.

But with the game having already kicked-off and considering we’d have missed a fair bit by the time we took our seats, in my head I’d already decided that I’d tell anyone that the price was thirty quid if we made it before anyone scored and twenty quid if we missed a goal. When it came to it, when this young lad piped up “How much”, I was too afraid of putting him off to ask for any more than twenty. However I ended up kicking myself.

I continued walking, telling him to hurry up if he was interested and occasionally glancing back to see if he was still in my slipstream. As a fit looking youngster, I can only assume that he was lagging behind because he was reluctant to believe his luck. But he eventually caught up as we crossed the North Bridge, where I suggested that we leave sorting the money out until we were inside, rather than delay, or risk being arrested for touting (although in truth it was probably something I said merely to try and reassure him that he wasn’t about to be ripped off!). However he already had a small wedge rolled up in his hand and as he peeled off a twenty, he revealed quite what a bargain I’d offered him. His old man had come over from Sweden for his last live match and they’d been fleeced for 140 quid a pop by a tout, whereas (as I suspected from the fact he was heading back towards the tube station) he’d just about given up on getting in to see this game.

Apparently a tout had offered him a ticket for 90 quid and with no better offers, he’d headed off to the cashpoint beside Highbury House as he only had £60 on him. But the tout had disappeared by the time he’d returned. It’s funny, as if I’d asked him for £60 he probably would’ve been a whole lot less wary of me. But it was well worth the fifteen pound loss I made on the amount I’d paid for our tickets, as the look on his face was absolutely priceless. After paying a small fortune for a seat up in the gods, in the corner of the upper tier on his last visit, the look of wonderment on his face was more gratifying than any amount of greenbacks, as I walked him through the turnstile, to our fabulous pitch, close to the halfway line, about halfway back in the lower tier.

If the back of the Upper Tier is like watching a match from the roof, then halfway back in the lower tier is like the game is being played in the same room and this lad was so chuffed that he was straight on the phone to his Gooner dad in Sweden (who was watching on the box), to marvel over his great view in stereotypical “hurdy gurdy” stylee.

I’d missed out on buying our own seats for this game. While I was fretting about applying for tickets to the second leg at White Hart Lane, I’d managed to forget all about the fact that the first leg wasn’t included in our season tickets. Luckily it wasn’t too late when the penny eventually dropped, but it turned out to be a day after the date for buying one’s own seat. Consequently, since our seats are about half a block away from the halfway line, I decided to try booking seats in the next block along and so it was some coincidence when, of all the seats in that block, I was offered two in the row directly in front of us, only one seat closer to the halfway line than our regular pitch! I guess we must be right in the middle of the row and so the next seat along is considered to be in the adjacent block.

Normally we’d enter Block 18 but heading to our seats via Block 17, I didn’t have my bearings and so didn’t have a clue where our seats were precisely. What’s more, at the old place it would never have been a problem, but at the new stadium the faces change from game to game and so it’s not so easy to locate one’s seat. I was tempted to sit in the first two empty seats we came across, when I looked along to see that there weren’t any spaces in the vicinity of where our seats should be, as I didn’t fancy that embarrassing palaver of having to get people to stand up to check the number on the back of their seats. But with so many people arriving so late because of the problems with the trains, it would’ve been even worse to have to start moving around again, if someone turned up to claim these seats.

There were a few regulars around who recognised me (although I imagine most would only know me by my foghorn like voice), but who were looking at me as if to suggest “you’re in the wrong row you numpty”. Eventually, after getting enough people off their backsides and establishing where our two seats were, I kicked out a couple of people who were two rows in front of where they were supposed to be.

The Swedish lad, Linus (isn’t that the name of the kid with the comfort blankie in the cartoon….Peanuts – having been superceded by the Simpsons et al, it’s hard to believe one can forget the name of a cartoon that was once such a cultural landmark) turned out to have followed his old man into Goonerdom and was taking in as many Arsenal matches as he could afford, on a pittance of a wage from a temporary job at House of Fraser, whilst taking time out to travel after finishing school. I felt bad for him at first, because it was such an awful Arsenal performance. In truth we could easily have been three or four down by halftime and would’ve been, if Spurs hadn’t fluffed their lines so badly in front of goal.

I was thinking that in his shoes I would’ve been absolutely gutted, to finally get to witness an Arsenal v Spurs derby live, only to see us get beat for the first time in eight years. However I was amazed at how philosophically he was taking the prospect of a defeat, suggesting “I suppose we have to lose against them sometime”. Apparently he was so delighted just to be there, that anything (everything!) else was a bonus.

The writing was on the wall for Jenas’ 37th minute goal, almost from the moment we arrived. Listening on the radio walking around to the game I’d heard commentary on a Bentdner header but apart from this, I can hardly recall us troubling Spurs’ replacement keeper. By contrast the Lilywhites looked like scoring almost every time they crossed the halfway line and even from the stands, you could sense the air of blind panic in our defence, as the opposition created chance after chance. Unlike Cerny in the Spurs goal, Fabianski certainly wasn’t going to strain a muscle from suddenly being called into action after standing around in the cold!

Am I completely bonkers, or am I correct in my perception that when Senderos and Djourou last played together as a centre-back partnership they made quite a reasonable fist of it? Whereas on Wednesday, not only did our backline look as if they hadn’t played together, they performed like complete strangers. When the goal eventually came, it was far from the first time Spurs had breached an extremely naïve offside trap, although myself and everyone else who was close to being in line with the play, was absolutely certain the linesman had got it badly wrong.

It just goes to prove quite what a difficult job the officials have these days, with the speed of our game. I have yet to see a replay of the Spurs goal but I’m led to believe that the officials weren’t at fault and that Keane was onside when he received Berbatov’s through ball in the build up to the goal, despite the fact that we all believed otherwise.

On paper I would’ve been most concerned about Justin Hoyte, coping with the pace of Aaron Lennon and in an inexperienced back line of Hoyte, Djourou, Senderos and Traoré, I guess the guile of Berbatov at his best was always going to be a problem. With Justin being a rare homegrown lad, no one would be happier than me, to see him force himself into regular first team contention. I can’t claim to know his parents but I do remember seeing them on the athletics circuit when I was competing for Shaftesbury Harriers and this intangible connection puts me in Justin’s corner more than any other young Gunner. In fact the perfect scenario would be to see both Justin and his brother Gavin playing in red & white.

However, as much as it would please me to say otherwise, from the little I’ve seen to date, his performances have not been particularly convincing. Perhaps he’s a little too inhibited when playing for the first XI and too worried about his defensive responsibilities to make the most of his genetic advantage (coming from a family of sprinters). Yet he seems to hesitate about going on the overlap and beating a full-back for speed down the flank, as he invariably seems to come to a halt, afraid to advance past the line of the penalty area, where his penetration might cause a proper panic.

And if Justin doesn’t demonstrate his sprinter’s speed going forward (I’d love to se a table of the Arsenal player’s best times for 100 meters, or at least those of the likes of Walcott, Clichy, Traore and Hoyte as judging by their accelerations over short distances, I’ve no doubt they’re able to post respectable 100m times), I’m afraid he doesn’t exactly fill me full of confidence when he’s facing a class act in defence. Hopefully we’ve yet to see the best of him, as he must have displayed more talent than we have seen to date, to inspire such confidence in his ability from the coaching staff (both at the Arsenal and for England – although I sometimes wonder if selection for the England squad is a given for any English Gunner who’s actually made it through the ranks!).

I assume Jocelyn Hoyte-Smith must be Justin’s aunty, as she was about the most memorable runner bearing the Hoyte family moniker and with all the competition allegedly bang at it these days with the creatine and various other dubious vitamin supplements, perhaps Justin’s biggest disadvantage is that his aunt is now a BAA anti-doping officer.

I assume Djourou must’ve taken a knock during the first half, as I could see no other reason why Wenger chose to move Justin to centre-back. I can’t recall if Sagna was any more impressive after the break, but as a unit, our defence was certainly no more secure, with more holes than all those in Blackburn Lancashire (not in the Rovers defence but the Beatles song) For once my awful memory is a blessing, but even I can’t forget that Spurs continued to carve up our defence almost at will, whilst mercifully wasting several more good goal scoring opportunities.

However while none of our backline did themselves much justice, I definitely don’t hold them entirely culpable for gifting Spurs their best opportunity to record a win against the Gunners in many a moon. For my money, the fact that they were left so exposed to Spurs rampant front line was due to the lack of protection they received from midfield. If we’d ended up on the wrong end of a defeat, the one person who was most guilty in my eyes was Gilberto. Never mind “the Invisible Wall” our Brazilian midfielder has become a blatant liability, as a shadow of the reliable rock he once was.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Gilbo wants out, as I get the distinct impression from his body language that his heart’s no longer in it. I sincerely hope I’m proved wrong, as you can be one hundred per cent certain that we’re going to be needing a player of his previous stature, composure and versatility during the course of this campaign. Yet even the way he ran to close Spurs players down didn’t look particularly committed and where once Gilberto could be relied on to break up opposition attacks and lay off the simple ball which would start the counter, on Wednesday he was half-hearted in the tackle and constantly conceding possession with far too casual passes.

Hopefully it’s merely a symptom of his lack of match practice and the fact that a Carling Cup encounter, playing alongside all the kids, was hardly the perfect game to get a World Cup Winner’s adrenaline pumping.

Meanwhile I was grateful my new Swedish pal eventually got to celebrate an Arsenal goal and when it came Theo’s goal resulted in a rush, which was less euphoria and more relief. It was interesting to note that Berbatov reverted to type the moment the game took this fortunate turn for the better. Where the Bulgarian striker was everywhere when his team were in front, suddenly his demeanour took on a more disinterested air, as his enthusiasm visibly evaporated. There’s no doubt as to his remarkable ability, but to my mind Berbatov is a “fair weather player” who won’t be seen digging in and getting his shorts dirty whenever the going gets tough (basically he and Spurs are perfectly suited!)

Thus this bunch of slieveens from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road will be gutted to have blown such an great opportunity to have put this semifinal to bed, with their profligacy in front of goal. Yet you can be sure this encounter will have instilled them with plenty of confidence for the second leg and our youngsters are going to have to raise their game considerably, if we’re going to deny the enemy a rare appearance at Wembley, whilst earning our own first outing to the new national stadium.

Doubtless I’d be sick as Michael Palin’s moth-eaten parrot, if I’d seen my team’s prospects of silverware disappear in the first week of the New Year (leaving fans with the depressing reality of watching their side play out five months of yet another success starved season), as a result of the sort of managerial pragmatism, which persuaded the likes of messrs Moyes and Hughes to tinker with their respective squads on Saturday.

In the recent past, resting star players for cup encounters has been the sole province of title challengers and relegation candidates. But with the FA Cup having been passed around amongst the big four, for the past 12 years and the remainder of Premiership clubs forced to chase the Holy Grail of European football via promotion to the mini-league of also-rans, suddenly everyone is at it.

Along with inflation, the state of the NHS and the failure of the national team, it seems to be fashionable to blame Arsène Wenger for such widespread belittlement of the oldest knockout tournament on the planet. Instead of which, events this weekend would suggest that we (and the FA!) should be grateful to le Gaffer for instigating this trend and unwittingly being responsible for giving this aged competition the kiss of life. By leaving out all those players in need of a little R & R following the festive fixture pile-up, this has resulted in a levelling off of the playing field, which has produced the most enthralling 3rd round in many a moon, full of the sort of cup shocks that were thought to be a thing of the past.

Besides which, far from detracting from the tournament, I believe there are many Gooners out there like me, who look forward to these rare reserve team run-outs in Cup competitions, with even more enthusiasm than we have for the twice-weekly appearances of our first XI. Aside from the fact that we’ve grown accustomed to the privilege of seeing so many scintillating performances from the Young Guns in recent cup campaigns, compared to the edge-of-the-seat nervous tension involved in the majority of our other matches, there’s a carefree, nothing-to-lose aura to these games that often results in an unusually genial, but fabulously fervent atmosphere and gives the youngsters a license to fully express their abilities, with a freedom that simply wouldn’t be possible in the pressure-cooker climate of the Premiership or the Champions League.

Thus I set out early Sunday, on a crisp, sunny winter’s morning with such a jaunt in my step, that miracle of miracles, for once I even managed to arrive at my mate’s house on time! It seem such a rare event that one gets to tick off a previously unvisited stadium nowadays, that I’d been looking forward to the trip to Turf Moor ever since we’d pulled ‘Burnley away’ out of the hat. I remember Burnley as a top-flight side from my childhood soccer star annuals, a side that included such lumiaries as the likes of Ralph Coates (in his pre-comb over period), Colin Waldron and Leighton James. If I recall correctly Burnley appeared on the second page in my late 60s, early 70s annuals, immediately after the Arsenal, or only separated by Birmingham City.

The club’s tag line proudly lauds their status as “founder members of the football league” (I guess they’ve got little else to glory in these days) and my trip to Turf Moor means that I’ve now seen the Arsenal play against all eleven surviving clubs from the original twelve founding members (Accrington FC were the only club to disappear). However I suppose in recent times they’ve suffered, along with all the other Lancashire Mill town clubs like Blackburn, Bolton, Preston, Oldham etc who are all struggling to attract fans from a relatively small catchment area and to prevent them from defecting to their more glamorous Mancunian neighbours.

I was relieved to cadge a lift as the 2pm KO meant an ungodly 6.30am start for the coaches, whereas we didn’t depart until gone 9am and with such good weather and little traffic, we covered the 230 odd miles in under 3 hours (which I daresay wouldn’t be possible without the aid of one of those convenient little gadgets to warn one in advance of all the different speed traps). With time to kill, we plotted up in a café beneath an aircraft hanger sized modern supermarket. We had a good giggle, when I phoned a Gooner pal who was stuck at home with her bairn, as she suggested that we’d be lucky to get a cup of instant coffee, let alone anything as sophisticated as a latté. But it seems the place must’ve come on a bit since she her last visit, as my lactose intolerant mate’s request for a hot chocolate with soya milk didn’t even rate a raised eyebrow, and a long queue of clued-up locals all ordered the entire ridiculous range of variations on the theme of coffee.

One of the few advantages to the strict smoking regulations is that the gathering of nicotine addicts outside grounds, sucking furiously on our cancer sticks, trying to raise our nicotine levels in order to cope with the 90 minutes of anxiety ahead, is that it often affords even a painfully shy soul like myself, an all too rare opportunity to chat with strangers. Although the Arsenal sold all 3,200 of its allocation of tickets behind the goal, I was surprised to discover there were several areas of empty seats in the other three stands. However it would appear that Burnley shot themselves in the foot somewhat and created a fair amount of disgruntlement amongst their fans, with a somewhat short-sighted effort to maximise revenue from this match. In order to purchase a ticket for Sunday’s game, home fans had to buy a second ticket for another match at the same time. I’m sure this must have put off both Burnley fans and neutrals from coming along to watch them play the Premiership leaders.

While we Gooners were in full voice behind the goal, I was a little disappointed that the home fans hardly raised the roof (although I suppose it’s not so surprising considering they’ve had little to shout about without a home win since October!). Who knows quite what a difference a full-house of happy fans might’ve made, as the revenue from the second ticket they were forced to buy must be relative peanuts compared the sort of money Burnley would’ve received, if their crowd had roared them on to extend their cup run.

In truth, compared to some of the weekend’s stirring encounters, this match never really caught fire. I was actually quite astonished that ref Alan Wiley managed to restrain himself from producing a single card for the first hour (even if there was a couple of tackles that at least merited a quiet word, if not a booking). And then he had to go and ruin it with an utterly needless red card. In the event, mercifully it didn’t have that much of an impact on the match itself, as Burnley continued to try and take the game to us, even with ten men. But I never fail to be utterly outraged that the man in the middle can spoil the match as a contest, for all those who’ve travelled long distances to watch it live and for the millions watching and listening around the world, with one irrational decision, which in light of the recent rash of two footed tackles, has been made merely because he fears castigation from the authorities, if he failed to crack down on what he incorrectly perceived to be a malicious lunge

Perhaps it was a tactical decision by the Arsenal to make use of the long ball, for while Turf Moor isn’t a particularly uneven pitch, it’s hardly the snooker-baize like playing surface that best suits the precision of our passing game. Although I’m delighted to have a tall centre-forward like Bendtner, who now gives us the option of a Plan B, I never imagined that we would turn into Wimbledon, hoofing the ball from back to front at every opportunity. A stranger could be forgiven for wondering which was the Premiership side, as it was Burnley who stroked the ball around, often using Elliot Wade as their outlet on the flank. The tricky winger gave young Traore a torrid afternoon and alongside him, the bag of nerves that was Philippe Senderos hardly inspired us all with confidence for the coming month ahead without Kolo!

Still, although I was disappointed that all those who’d “only come to see the Arsenal” didn’t get to enjoy the high-class entertainment that they were probably expecting, I suppose the only thing that really mattered is that the Gunners new brand of more agricultural football got the job done in the end. The telling difference between the two sides was that with Eduardo’s ice like calm in front of goal, we scored with two of only three decent chances we created all afternoon, whereas a lack of composure in front of goal saw Burnley blowing the best of their opportunities.

Hopefully we’ll be back to the beautiful Arsenal by the time Wednesday’s Carling Cup semi comes along, on our pristine pitch, where Arsène will undoubtedly stick to his policy of playing mostly second string players. It would be great to be taking a comfortable lead to White Hart Lane for the second leg. Then again, in such a results orientated “business” if yet another long hoof down field ends up responsible for an old-fashioned “1-0 to the Arsenal” you will hear few complaints from this quarter of Highbury.

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Tuesday 1 January 2008

Half-Term Report - Could Do (Will Do!) Better

(not one bob, two bob, or shish kebob, you get three for the price of one this week, as it seems that I left this half-term review saved as a draft but neglected to hit the "publish post" button - I don't know about a prize, but read all three and the one thing you will get is...committed :-)

Hi folks,

It's that time of year when we're asked for a half-term report for the Irish Examiner's mid-season roundup in their Arena supplement and you will find mine somewhere down below a typically long-winded preamble!

It was a strange game today. Unless my memories are somewhat rose-tinted, this somewhat tepid encounter with West Ham bore very little resemblance to New Year's Day London Derbys of yesteryear, where plenty of liquid festive cheer would guarantee a great atmosphere on the terraces and on the pitch, the frenetic football would be up to ninety, with tackles flying in all over the pitch in a contest where no quarter would be given.

I guess to a great extent the game was killed by such an early goal, where once again Eduardo served notice of his ruthless killer instinct in the penalty box. And when Gael Clichy lumped the ball up to Adebayor after 18 minutes, this contest was all over bar the shouting. Most of which came from the corner of the stadium inhabited by the Irons' fans, as they tried in vain to tease us into responding and raising the atmosphere with their "It's like a funeral" and "We hate Tottenham more than you" chants.

I know that London Derbys these days don't tend to be anywhere near as heated because so few of the players on the pitch can relate to their importance (mind you we had a record TWO English players involved today :-) to those of us who spend our days consorting with the enemy at work and amongst friends and where a Derby win can guarantee us a couple of months peace, putting a sock in the mouth of the more gobby opposition fans. Yet the temperature on the terraces can usually be guaranteed to inspire a somewhat more heated contest out on the park than today's decidedly tame affair.

Obviously my tardy nature ensured that I was still trotting around to the ground when Fabregas teed up Eddy's goal and I should've known then that this match was unlikely to catch fire, as the roar from those watching in the Gunners pub drowned out what must've been a fairly muted response inside the ground!

Mercifully I made it to my seat in plenty of time for our second and even after seeing the replay on Match of the Day, I am still not sure how Ade managed to find the back of the net from such a tight angle, with his weaker foot. I'm also unsure how it was that the Hammers defence didn't manage to prevent the ball from going in, as two of them seemed to stand there watching as the ball bobbled back of the far post and over the line. I thought at first that it was an own goal, as they stood there looking like frightened claret and blue rabbits, caught in the glare of Gooner headlights, as their car crash transpired in what seemed like slow motion.

With only a single goal cushion, I always have some trepidation about tempting fate with a chorus of "we are top of the league" for fear that our boasts might be a little premature if events should take a turn for the worse. But being two goals up after only 18 minutes, I was amazed that we've already become so blasé about our elevated status, that we can't even be bothered to rub our success in the faces of watching/listening Spurs fans and the rest of the footballing world.

Personally I still want to take every opportunity to celebrate straddling the Premiership summit, as not only has the novelty yet to wear off, after looking enviously up at the leaders for the last couple of seasons, but I want to keep singing this ditty until I'm bored, because you know full well that the moment we begin to take top spot for granted, fate will pounce on the opportunity to sink it's teeth into Gooner backsides. And for those of us long in the tooth to have endured more than one era in a silverware bereft wilderness, we should know to enjoy the novelty to the full, as you never know if it's going to be your last chance to give this chant a run out before falling victim to the cyclical nature of success.

The most we Gooners could lift ourselves out of our lethargic mood, was for a half-hearted response to the Hammers' fans, to remind them that there is indeed now only "one team in London". Chelsea might be scrabbling results like their marginal win at Craven Cottage to maintain contact with our coat tails and it would be wrong to write them off. But even while they maintain the basic ingredients within their squad that was responsible for their unlikely bout of success, I sense that when it comes to the nitty-gritty of the run in come the spring, the aura of disquiet which has enveloped Stamford Bridge is unlikely to inspire that 'run till you drop', 'die for the cause' ethos from the uncommitted likes of Ballack and Carvalho and it would take a supremely talented outfit, that was head and shoulders above the opposition, to be able to prevail in the Premiership without this staunch spirit.

Perhaps I should be thankful that I wasn't left exhausted after another edge-of-the-seat drama, but enjoyed instead a relaxing afternoon, where we rarely looked in any danger of dropping points. However I found myself sat next to a young Gooner who'd travelled all the way over from Sweden. Having been scalped for seats at the Spurs game and having only escaped returning for a second sucker fitting, courtesy of a kindly copper who warned them off paying 150 quid for tickets which the Swede thought must've been fakes because the old bill told them that they wouldn't get into the ground with these, I was grateful that the lad at least got to see the second goal (and that I wasn't alone in missing the first!).

But they'd also been at Upton Park on Saturday and I didn't want them going home thinking our gaff really was the library of legend, compared to the noise made by the Neanderthals at the Boleyn. With the team relaxed at 2-0 up, I was truly hoping the crowd would up the ante and inspire us to really go for their throats, as the Irons were suffering from a touch of "after the Lord Mayor's show" syndrome and were ripe for the sort of plucking, which might have eroded Man Utd's goal difference advantage in one game.

Yet in truth, the "hurdy-gurdy" lad was happy as Larry just to be worshiping at the altar of his Gooner pilgrimage, furiously snapping away with his digital camera until the memory was full, only to turn to the one on his phone, doubtless texting pictures to all his envious Gooner pals back in land next to the one with the midnight sun.

It was me who ended the match feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Phoning friends who hadn't seen the game, they all seemed to have been given the impression that it was an impressive Arsenal performance. It was a great result, but in my humble estimation, it was little more than a workmanlike display, aside from a ten minute spell towards the end of the game, when West Ham had given up the ghost and for just about the first time since Villa Park, we strung a sufficient number of passes together, resulting in some muted "olés"

I guess I should just be glad that we got the job done, after a gruelling festive fixture schedule. But I couldn't help but feel that with West Ham a beaten side, there for the taking, we wasted an opportunity to rediscover some of that early season sparkle which has been so noticeable by its absence of late. There was some evidence of our efforts to tune-up the Arsenal engine, with the occasional backheel, wall pass and the odd one-two, but we're still some way from recapturing the E-type Jag like roar referred to below. Maintaining the motoring analogy, hopefully West Ham was just an opportunity to top up the anti-freeze and we're saving the "full service" for Sunday's trip to Turf Moor and it will be a case of holding onto our hats, as we let leash all the horse power under the Gunners' bonnet?

Meanwhile with Arsène revealing the suprising news that Song will be joining Kolo and Eboué at the African Cup of Nations, we're going to be thin on the ground for centre-backs. According to the post-match interviews, either Le Prof is perfectly comfortable with the replacements he has in reserve, or perhaps his assurances that there will be no additions to the squad during the transfer window are merely part of a ruse, a strategy designed to ensure that every club with an available centre-back prospect (or keeper?) hasn't already inflated their price in expectation of our interest?

Personally I like the fact that he's come out publically to express his confidence in our current squad, as it not only saves us from all that pointless speculation but in truth there are very few bargains to be had in the January sales, with so many clubs chasing so few quality players. Basically, for the most part, transfer window purchases all too often smack of desperation, as if you look at the majority of business that is likely to be done in the coming month, it will comes from those clubs who have no choice but to try and salvage something from an unsuccessful season.

Matthew Upson's recent form is bound to cause many Gooners to ponder what might've been if we hadn't let him leave the club. Yet Upson's hirsute change of image only suggests to me that there's still a young lad hiding under all that facial hair, struggling to acquire the sort of gravitas that he obviously feels he doesn't possess.

Yet even as a lumbering centre-back Upson looks a whole lot more lithe than at least one of his team mates. At 2-0 down, I couldn't understand why Curbishley appeared so reluctant to throw Dean Ashton into this unenergetic fray. That was until Ashton eventually made an appearance, looking far more stuffed than our Xmas turkey. Considering the young centre-forward is being touted as a future England no. 9 and with players supposedly courting the eye of Fabio Capello, I'm dumbfounded by Ashton's fat-boy "who eat all the mince pies" appearance.

It doesn't say much for Curbishley's man management skills either and it's downright disrespectful to the fans, considering so much of their hard earned cash is being diverted into the striker's wallet. You'd think the least he could do in return would be to count a few less calories.

Then again perhaps I'm making a mountain out of an overweight molehill, as I guess Xmas wouldn't be Xmas without a bit of a calorific blow-out. But in Ashton's shoes I'd keep my tracksuit on, until trimming back down to an acceptable level otherwise he's soon going to end up acquiring the slimline Frank Lampard's old label.

But that's more than enough of my babble for one post, so wishing you and all your nearest and dearest a very happy & healthy New Year

Peace & Love

Back in August, we Gooners would’ve undoubtedly bitten the hand off, that offered us the opportunity to reach the halfway stage in this campaign, top of the league, having qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League, with the kids facing the tantalising prospect of humiliating Spurs in the Carling Cup semifinal.

Considering the way in which we were being written off prior to the start of the season, as the top four team most likely to struggle to cling to the coat tails of the other three, it’s utterly amazing that we’ve managed to establish ourselves as the current frontrunner, in what many perceive to be a two-horse race.

Personally I wouldn’t be so quick to discount the prospects of Chelsea and Liverpool. If ever there was a poisoned chalice, it was the one Avram Grant chose to drink from. Obviously, the Gobby One was always going to be an impossible act to follow. Where Blues fans wouldn’t of dreamed of questioning Mourhino’s decisions, it’s patently clear from their discontent with their new gaffer that even if Grant had been the most qualified person on the planet, there’d be more chance of peace breaking out on the West Bank than the Israeli being accepted at the Bridge.

Few could’ve predicted Chelsea’s imminent implosion prior to the start of the season but it seems almost poetic that their spoilt child of a sugar daddy chose to break his toy, rather than let anyone else play with it. Abramovich’s influence over the management structure might have had a negative impact on the spirit in the Chelsea camp but the basic ingredients remain the same. Even if Grant should fail too harness these, if their owner should so choose, he’s more than capable of buying Chesea’s way back into contention!

As for the Scousers, one look at the depth of talent in their squad suggests that even if Benitez is incapable of setting aside his European ambitions in favour of a more blinkered focus on the Premiership battle, there remains the possibility that this Liverpool side could click at some stage, in spite of the Spaniard’s compulsive tinkering.

Meantime the tone of the Arsenal’s campaign was set in the opening game, reiterating the extremely diaphanous difference (a matter of millimetres!) between success and failure. Our entire season might well have taken an entirely different course (and Lawrie Samchez might still be in gainful employment) if it hadn’t been for Alexandre Hleb’s 90th minute winner against Fulham.

Subsequent last-minute goals to win games against the likes of Man City, Spurs, Sunderland and draws against Liverpool and Man Utd, have helped to bond our disparate squad and foster the development of this marvelous sense of purpose. The more the media and the pundits have written us off, as being unlikely challengers, waiting for us to fail so as to validate their predictions that we are too young, our squad is too shallow, or too foreign to be able to tough out a marathon Premiership title challenge, the more determined we’ve become to demonstrate all the vital credentials necessary for a successful campaign.

While the red-top tabloids seize so predictably on every wooden spoon opportunity to stir the pot, with their scurrilous stories of disquiet and disenchantment in the Arsenal camp, amongst the likes of Diarra, Gilberto and Lehmann (although our sour Kraut keeper does little to disguise his disgust!), the resolve and grit that we’ve witnessed on the pitch tells an entirely different tale.

There wasn't a single player from these shores, amongst the 11 different nationalities that made up our 15-man squad at Everton. Consequently, across the length and breadth of the country, almost every time we’ve taken the lead, we’ve taken great pleasure in responding to earlier taunts of “Ing-ger-lund” from xenophobic home fans who blame Wenger for everything from the woes of the national team, to the unemployment rate, with a much-favoured reprise of “you need more foreigners!” And as we enthusiastically bellow this out, full blast, I must admit to being tickled by the irony, as I look around, at some of the stereotypical Gooners with crew cuts and moody Prada, who look every inch like founding members of the BNP!

We were extremely privileged early season to be watching some unbelievably attractive football. According to all the pundits, the likes of Fabregas, Hleb and Van Persie were all emerging from the huge shadow cast by Thierry Henry’s presence, to begin to play to their full potential. Perhaps there was some truth to this but personally I tend to believe that it wasn’t so much that they were inhibited by the great man’s presence, but more a case of them being able to count on his magic when the chips were down. Whereas in his absence I sensed a renewed determination from the squad as a whole, to demonstrate that this Arsenal team was anything but the one-man band many perceived us to be in the recent past (including plenty of Arsenal fans).

You didn’t need to be a brain surgeon to appreciate that having lost a 30 goal a season striker, if others didn’t step up to the plate to pick up the slack, we were going to be in big schtuck. It’s been this realisation that has re-energised this Arsenal side and seen us develop into a potent and far more resolute force. Just about the most common comment to be heard coming from Gooners this season, every time we’ve pinched the points with a last gasp goal has been “we would’ve lost/drawn that game last season” and it’s very true. Where once our new stadium’s premature evacuators would’ve already been on the platform at the Arsenal tube station, having long since resigned themselves to our fate, hopefully many of them will now have to remain in their seats right up to the death, not daring to make an early exit, ever since this side has acquired the marvellous attribute of not knowing when to give up.

It’s become evident that Cesc Fabregas had only hinted at his greatness before now, as Cesc has blossomed into a fully rounded player, acquiring Stephen Gerrard like status as the Arsenal’s very own midfield general. Our little Franco has become the fulcrum about which the blur of all our best one and two touch, mazy passing movements revolve. Moreover, Fab has now added goals to his game, as where once we’d be left tearing our hair out in frustration, while the Arsenal tried to pass their way right up to the goalline, at long last the Gunners are grasping the mantle, with Fabregas leading the way with his preparedness to shoot on sight.

You know something is in the air when Mathieu Flamini starts appearing on the scoresheet. Previously the Forgotten Man, Flamini has been the revelation of the season so far, after being left out in the cold by Arsène, supposedly subsequent to expressing his reluctance to play at full-back. However having managed to make his way back into le Gaffer’s good book, Matty has rapidly become the indispensable heart of the Arsenal engine room. With his wholehearted graft as the perfect foil for Fabregas’ genius, the former utility player has forced Wenger to leave Gilberto, the Brazil captain, cooling his heels on the bench for most of the season.

Gael Clichy regularly takes my breathe away with his unbelievable bursts of pace and there can be few Premiership players who can match the French youngster’s astonishing energy levels, late on in exhausting games. While the way in which Bakari Sagna has slipped so seamlessly into our back-line, instantly adapting to the frenetic pace of our football, suggests he was borne to be a Premiership player. To my mind Flamini and our two full-backs, Clichy and Sagna have been the standout players of the season so far.

Alex Hleb also deserves mention, as Arsène appears to have instilled the confidence that’s finally enabling Hleb to fulfil some of that early promise. Yet while he’s winning many new admirers amongst the neutrals, we Gooners continue to whinge about the lack of end product to much of his best work. Nevertheless Hleb has been brilliant to watch, with periods in some matches where he’s almost been unplayable. Alex started the game against Man Utd in such great form, that for a while there it looked as if the only way the visitors were going to get a touch, was if they were given another ball to play with. Such a comparison might sound like sacrilege, but it’s not just the sagging socks and dishevelled general appearance, but his bustling body shape and peculiar poise on the ball that put me in mind of the great George Best.

Inevitably William Gallas arrived at the club with the baggage of several preconceptions, which made us all suspicious of his ability to devote himself to the Arsenal cause with the necessary selflessness. It wasn’t just the fans who were somewhat taken aback when Arsène awarded Gallas with the captain’s armband and it’s not the first time I’ve criticised le Gaffer for using the captaincy as a carrot. I’m of the opinion that players won’t tend to respect the captaincy as a position of authority, unless they believe it’s been earned.

However I’m happy to admit when I’m wrong and in Willie’s case, it would seem to have been an astute move on Wenger’s part. Gallas appears to wear the responsibility well, to the point where he takes the club’s success so personally that we’re fast becoming accustomed to the sight of our centre-back storming forward, to single-handedly influence the outcome, contributing to date with three crucial goals, rescuing a psychologically significant draw with a 93rd minute equaliser against Man Utd and reaffirming the proper order of things in the capital, with the winner against Chelsea.

The Arsenal’s early season sparkle left the media in raptures. Yet while we might have appeared absolutely unbeatable on the highlight packages seen on Match of the Day, in truth these purple patches of purist football were rarely strung together in performances that have provided cogent proof of our title contesting credentials. Although Adebayor has been nose to nose with Ronaldo in the leading goalscorer stakes, avid Arsenal watchers will confirm that Ade has been struggling all season to find his touch. You can’t knock the gangly Togolese striker, as he’s grafted like a Trojan, often on his own up front in the absence of the injured Van Persie. What’s more, if he somehow manages to maintain his current strike rate, few Gooners will give a monkey’s if his first touch continues to fail him.

However he’s far from the only Arsenal player who’s spluttered in and out of form to date. If I was comparing the Gunners to a motor car, up until December and more precisely, half-time at Villa Park, we resembled a V12 E-type Jag, an utterly unique, rip-roaring wonder to behold when all 12 cylinders were firing in tune. But an absolute pig to maintain, all too often coughing and chugging because the timing needs attention every time it’s taken out of the garage.

Yet perhaps I’d have been best counting my blessings, as the team that came out after the break against Aston Villa and the one that’s appeared ever since, has looked more like a clapped out FSO Polonez, held together by string, after clunking all the way over from Kracow. We might’ve risen to the occasion against Chelsea on “Grand Slam Sunday” but our two previous outings in the Northeast were woeful. The point we earned against Newcastle was more of a reflection of quite what a rudderless ship the Toon are under Fat Sam and although I was absolutely gutted to see our unbeaten run come to an end against Boro, it was an upset waiting to happen and only came as confirmation of our poor form.

On reflection it’s hard to believe that we’ve made it to the New Year back on top of the Premiership pile, whilst we’ve continued to struggle to produce any of that early season razzamatazz. I suppose we can credit this to more fine margins, in two game changing penalties (Almunia’s save in the N. London derby and Ronaldo’s miss at Upton Park) and three long balls at Goodison!

Nevertheless we are still top (as I write) and the important thing is that if we’ve managed to maintain our challenge through such a miserable spell of form, it bodes very well for the coming months, when Fabregas and co. inevitably rediscover the magic.

Having been so solid early season, even Kolo Touré has been guilty of mistakes of late. Thankfully recent events have proved that Man Utd’s centre-back pairing is not infallible, as if there is one area where are where our rivals appear to have an advantage, it’s in the calm assured partnership at the heart of their defence, compared to the frantic lack of composure we’ve so frequently displayed whilst dealing with set pieces. I have to begrudgingly admit that Vidic was a wonderful signing for Utd, as not since Bruce and Pallister, have they looked quite so resolute at the back.

By contrast we’re not overly blessed with reliable centre-backs and with Touré (and Eboué) joining up with Les Elephantes for the African Cup of Nations, January could prove to be a telling period. I’ve always believed that if we could remain in contention until Kolo returns and providing Van Persie can recover full fitness long enough to offer a significant contribution to this campaign, we will be in their with a shout come May.

Then again, considering we’ve already been scrabbling around amongst the also-rans by this time of the year in recent seasons, with the treat of a trip to Milan and an opportunity to knock out the holders in the Champions League, most Gooners will be more than grateful to be back where we belong, mounting a credible title challenge, rather than merely making do with the sop of 4th place qualification for a return to Europe.