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Monday 24 March 2008

Wenger's Walked On Water.....So For His Next Messianic Trick?

Escape to the country - I've only included this pic, as of all the bloomin' games, my payment for the match at Old Trafford was refused and so I had to walk around to the ground on Saturday with a letter asking them to represent the payment. On my way back with the dog, I decided to wander into the tiny plot of land which I believe was the cause of so much aggro in the development of the new gaff, with it being some sort of nature reserve. Well let me tell you, photos do lie, as it's a somewhat dilapidated patch of grass, which isn't even big enough to let Treacle off the lead for a run, where for example a feature such as the "herb folly" was true to its moniker, as despite the pretty plant pictures on the board, there wasn't a single herb to be seen!

It’s been a traumatic couple of weeks, watching the life-force drain from the cancer ravaged body of a mate of mine, day by day, until Laurie eventually departed this mortal coil in the wee hours of Thursday morning. Consequently it was a welcome relief to be able to lose myself in a crunch weekend of football.

Saturday’s results were a bit of a wind-up, with the likes of Sunderland, Reading and Blackburn making a mockery of the plaudits previously lavished on their opponents for taking points off the Gunners, with performances which now look to have been more a reflection of our own impotence than any inspirational resolve of these lesser lights. After such a lacklustre run against lower league opposition, “Grand Slam Sunday” couldn’t come quick enough, as far as I was concerned.

I even set the alarm on Sunday morning, which would normally be sacrilege on the one day a week when I like to wake at my leisure. But I had this wholly unrealistic notion that I might head off early to West London, so I could plot up in a pub near Stamford Bridge and watch the previous game in full, before a casual stroll to the stadium, rather than stopping at home and inevitably struggling to tear myself away from the TV and being left with a stressful dash across town, risking all sorts of stealth tax type fines, as I set off any number of the myriad of ‘Big Brother’ traffic cameras, in my efforts to try and make kick-off.

Inevitably I couldn’t kill the shrill sound quick enough. Jesus might have risen on Easter Sunday, but for me it was an excuse to roll over and be seduced back into the arms of Morpheus by the delights of that dreamy half-sleep, where everything is possible, even Theo Walcott scoring the winner in Moscow. It was a couple of hours later when I eventually stirred and ventured a big toe out from under the duvet, to discover I might as well have been in Russia. The temperature was more thermals and longjohns, than the customary t-shirts and shorts one hurries to dig out of the wardrobe at the first hint of Spring.

Ròna probably would’ve lit a fire, but there was heat enough for me emanating from the TV, as I sat back to enjoy the afternoon’s calorific hors d’ouevres from Old Trafford. Skrtel v Rooney said it all, as far as I was concerned. Yet while I wasn’t expecting the Scousers to pull off a minor miracle, I felt that their momentum of the past couple of weeks, meant that a draw wasn’t impossible.

If Fergie wasn’t, I’m sure Wayne might have been kicking himself at half-time for not falling over and earning a penalty in the opening moments. But as a lover of football, I had no choice but to admire an incident which epitomised Rooney’s entire performance. It’s nothing to do with being an “honest player”, as if he'd half a brain, Wayne would’ve hit the deck. The slow-motion replay portrayed a study in concentration, where good sense wasn’t about to impinge on Rooney’s utterly blinkered focus on putting the ball in the back of the net.

Steve Bennett might’ve given me license to leave the house at half-time for a more leisurely trip to Stamford Bridge, as all hope of Liverpool doing us a favour left the field with their diminutive Argentinian, but I wasn’t about to thank the over-zealous official. Who would’ve thought Ashley Cole might put a spoke in our title prospects in such an abstract fashion? As for Mascherano, he bore little resemblance to the relaxed pre-match interviewee, who referred to the potential contest with his close pal Tevez as “only a game”! There’s little doubt that in the current climate the feisty midfielder was a mug, but for my money his sending-off ranks along with the subsequent booking for Drogba’s goal celebrations at the Bridge, as a slightly more extreme case of the game’s tinpot tail wagging the football dog.

I’m awfully tired of hearing rugby practices cited as a model for the sort of example professional footballers should be setting for the youth of today. It is the passion that football inspires which makes it the world’s most popular pasttime (behind fishing?) and it’s the inevitability that our volatile sport will boil over from time to time which is part and parcel of the thrill of the beautiful game.

To my mind Alan Hansen had it right with his belief that Bennett should’ve been able to warn Gerrard to put a leash on their Argie Jack Russell, as I’m of the opinion that intent to harm a fellow professional is just about the only legitimate justification for the ref to ruin such a spectacle for the watching millions. Sadly the authorities fail to grasp the fact that the punters should be their primary focus and a red card should be a tool of last resort.

If we really wanted a staid, sanitised sport played by responsible adults, we’d all be watching rugby and while it’s true that kids tend to mimic their idols, surely we’re not so naïve as to believe that the game at grassroots would be all sweetness and light, if only all our professionals were to mind their Ps and Qs?

I recall that rapidly abandoned experiment in the late 80s when they miked up Elleray for a Millwall v Arsenal match and we all heard Tony Adams calling the Harrow schoolmaster a “f***ing cheat”. By those standards, a zero tolerance policy on dissent would’ve left more officials on the pitch than players.

Meanwhile I was still sitting at home watching events at Old Trafford when Fergie made his substitutions, with 15 mins left on the clock. If Man Utd should go on to take the title, you only had to look at Sunday’s squad to appreciate their principal advantage with their bench crowded with players capable of having an impact on a big occasion, compared to a selection of inexperienced youngsters who might have a tendency to be overwhelmed.

It was more by luck than judgement that I made KO at the Bridge. Thanks to empty Easter Sunday roads, I’d traversed London and was parked up in 25 minutes. But a single jam on the Westway and I might just as easily have missed the entire first-half! I took my seat beside a bold young Gooner, spitting fire and brimstone, accentuating the absence of my own bellicose fervour. Then I suppose it would’ve been more surprising if the tragedy that’s been played out these past couple of weeks had not had some impact on my customary ‘life & death’ perspective. Win or lose against the Blues, it hardly rated as significant, compared to the thought of a two year lad who would never get to kick a ball with his dad! But then like all the best drugs, I was soon comfortably numbed by familiar footballing themes and within a few minutes of lambasting Ashley Cole’s alleged telephonic proclivities, nothing else mattered but this ‘must win’ match.

Despite Almunia being the busier keeper first-half, there was no mistaking the air of confidence amongst the Gooners gabbing on the concourse during the break. Didier Drogba seemed to be the only serious danger, standing between us and the possibility of inflicting Chelsea’s first home defeat in donkey’s years. Considering the Blues have managed to drag themselves back into contention, there was much half-time merriment at our end of the ground, at the revelations over the PA that Chelsea remains a small town in Fulham. The announcements about all the tickets available on general sale for so many of the remaining matches in the run-in resulted in an amusing chorus of “buy one, get one free”

Although sadly it was Chelsea who had the last laugh and Avram Grant in particular, as they scored twice within ten minutes of the home fans’ “you don’t know what you’re doing” tirade at the Israeli’s substitutions! Anelka’s appearance might have given our defence more to worry about than Drogba alone, but in truth it was the muscular Ivorian who was the main difference between the two teams.

On his day Drogba is an incredibly potent force, who, with his pace and physicality, is capable of ruffling the feathers of even the most composed centre-back. It was obvious how hard Kolo and Gallas were having to concentrate to contain him. If the ball hadn’t got away from Drogba when he got goalside of Gallas in the first-half, or without the pressure of a last ditch tackle early in the second, he would’ve likely found the back of the net a lot sooner.

At least we enjoyed the all too fleeting euphoria of taking the lead. Yet the gradual erosion of our confidence in recent weeks, left us looking like we didn’t know what to do with it. Forcing home our advantage isn’t one of our strongest suits, but an Arsenal side on song and in the habit of winning, would’ve at least made Chelsea work their socks off to rescue something from the match.

Having had our entertaining tag rubbed in their faces all season long, obviously the Blues were understandably ecstatic at ramming it back down our throats. Our passing game can earn all the plaudits on the planet but it all amounts to nought without the points.

Who knows what possessed Adebayor to agree to such a radical makeover of his barnet while on such a hot streak, as he hasn’t been able to hit a barn door since he lost his locks. After such a long layoff, Van Persie still needs more game time to regain his sharpness and the ever-willing Flamini apart, our our midfield failed to demonstrate the sort of urgency that one would expect in this ‘do or die’ encounter.

I was hoping this would prove the perfect stage for Fabregas to return to his sparkling best and that Cesc would be inspired to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. Instead of which, sadly we witnessed the continued absence of the drive and dynamism of the Arsenal side that is an irresistible force. I actually can’t remember the last swift counter where we carried the ball from one end of the pitch to the other, without stopping on the edge of the area to exchange umpteen passes and perhaps a chat about the weather which is just long enough to allow the opposition to regroup.

As a result we appear sufficiently ponderous and predictable that thwarting us has become merely a matter of getting enough bodies behind the ball. Undoubtedly, we'd begin to regain the dynamism with a couple of wins under our belt, but the most common complaint during our worst run of form in 9 seasons has been the absence of bodies in the penalty area whenever we advance. It stands to reason that you can’t play the ball forward without a team mate in front of you and it’s hard to recall the last time we saw the likes of Hleb, Fabregas and Flamini all advance past the edge of the opposition area, making late runs towards goal with the sort of drive and determination to beat the most obdurate of opponents to the ball.

I headed along the Kings Road afterwards to SW London’s best kebab shop, so that at least my outing wouldn’t be a total loss and as I stood queuing for my lamb schwarma, I pondered the likelihood of the resurrection of the Arsenal’s season. The choice of chilli or barbecue sauce on my kebab was a more perplexing dilemma than whether I’d be prepared to sacrifice Sunday’s points, for success in a potential Champions League semi-final. Not that it should be necessary, but the prospect of such sweet revenge should prove an added incentive to overcome the Scousers.

Perhaps being written off as title contenders will prove the perfect tonic but as Arsène undoubtedly turns his attentions towards that elusive European prize, it mustn’t be to the exclusion of domestic affairs. As unlikely as it may be, I will be devastated if Utd do slip up and we aren’t in a position to take advantage!

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Anonymous said...

Arsene Wenger needs to look in the mirror as to the reason for us blowing the title. The refusal to strengthen in the transfer window was a catastrophic mistake. he continuously refers to the lack of depth of strength in his squad. WELL WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT ????
There are no goals from the wings.We have not replaced freddie or pires...