"I havent got a thing to wear", whereas for Arsène Wenger........
You couldn’t wish for a more stark contrast between a sexy, midweek Champions League encounter, amidst the glamorous Milanese environs of the San Siro and a murky Sunday afternoon mudbath, on the brown field bog of the JJB. But before siding with Le Prof, in laying all the blame for Sunday’s bore draw on the unsatisfactory circumstances, we might do best to look a little closer to home for culpability.
I can well recall sliding about on similarly sticky and far worse playing surfaces in my youth. In fact, as a left-back, I actually relished such conditions, knowing I could win the ball with a well-timed slide tackle, without risking a nasty grass burn on the bum. However in the event of playing on such a boggy pitch, you didn’t need to be Einstein to appreciate the value of a coach’s advice to avail oneself of the few remaining blades of grass out on the flanks.
Quite frankly I find it utterly unfathomable how we’ve ended up challenging for honours, with a squad that doesn’t appear to include the option of a single natural winger within our ranks. Moreover I know not whether Arsène was remiss in his neglect of such a schoolboy strategy, or the likes of Hleb and co. were naïve (perhaps to the point of arrogance), but it was agonisingly painful having to endure their frustrating efforts to plough a somewhat impenetrable furrow through the mire, as they remained steadfast to twinkletoes principles, instead of adapting their tactics to best suit the less than ideal conditions.
In these high-tech agricultural times, you’re likely to find a more predictable playing surface on Hackney Marshes than the JJB. Yet up against our superior passing outfit, the home side were hardly going to profit from a snooker baize like pitch and when you consider that there were only 4000 less through the turnstiles at Wigan Warriors last rugby league home game, than the 19.5k present on Sunday, for a club with limited resources, the economic argument for a groundshare becomes glaringly obvious.
As they say, the conditions were the same for both teams and with the Steve Bruce expressing his gratitude to his managerial mentor across the weekend media, it was a pity that the favourite “whine” that was offered in return, proved to be of the corked sort, which only lends credibility to the archetypal image of the Southern Softie, fair-weather footballers who can only produce the goods playing on a pristine pitch, preferably with the sun on their backs!
Wenger has been manager long enough to know that part and parcel of winning the Premiership marathon is the ability to produce a side with sufficient mettle, not merely to survive in the face of adverse circumstances, but a steel-chinned team capable of flourishing, no matter how many haymakers fate has to throw at them.
It doesn’t feel right having a pop at the lads, in a week when we’ve positively revelled in one of the most peerless European performances it’s ever been my privilege to witness. Perhaps a somewhat subdued “after the Lord Mayor’s show” lacklustre display was inevitable, from players who’s adrenal glands had been working overtime to fuel last Tuesday’s highly-charged triumph.
No matter what twists and turns are to come in the climax to this campaign, the memories of our magical night in Milan will endure, undiminished. The Gooner invasion of the bars around Il Duomo left me commenting on the fact that I recognised so few regular awayday faces. However aside from the obvious attraction for a few glory-hunting liggers, the inter-continental mélange of accents around me only underlined English football’s global fan base. In addition to a few mates who’d travelled from as far afield as Texas, Cairo, Holland and Germany, the 5000 strong contingent was comprised of Gooners from all points in between.
Considering how many of the day-trippers had enjoyed an extremely long day, supping a traditional liquid diet, it could so easily have turned ugly. But one of the most pleasing aspects to the party mood, was the sense of a common bond between the two sets of supporters, with us both being such aficionados of the beautiful game. Despite enduring what was basically a season-ending defeat, the home fans not only had the good grace to express all due appreciation to the victors, but a Gooner pal who remained in the city the following day told me that they were shaking his hand, to compliment “il grande Arsenal”.
The San Siro’s turrets are one of the most striking features of this imposing stadium. I could’ve done with an oxygen cylinder on the seemingly eternal march up to our seats in the gods. But on eventually being allowed to depart, the red & white procession winding it’s way down the spiral walkways, with the “you’re not champions any more” chant, echoing out from these endless concrete chambers, is a sight which will live long in the memory.
I was hoping such a majestic performance might give us the sort of momentum, whereby a swaggering Gunners display would leave a lowly Wigan trailing in our wake. However where I can accept one bad day at the office, maybe even two, three in succession is a trend that suggests something is definitely amiss. While we might not have left our chin exposed, the evidence of recent Premiership encounters might lead one to some worrying conclusions about our beloved club's soft underbelly?
In spite of the widespread recognition for all he’s achieved and the fact that Wenger walks on water as far as most every Gooner is concerned, you can’t help but feel that it will take the affirmation of a Champions League title for Arsène to be truly inducted into the managerial hall of fame alongside the likes of Fergie, Clough and Shankly.
Another memorable image from Milan was the sight of Fabregas leaping into le Gaffer’s arms to celebrate his goal. Never mind all the paper talk of a preposterous pay rise, it’s evident that theirs is a far more cerebral relationship. Thus I can’t help but wonder if, on some level, the signals that Arsène sends out are responsible for the sort of marked increase in intensity that we witnessed against AC?
A British spine certainly hasn’t enabled the Scousers to recreate the European magic on a sufficiently regular basis in the Premiership and perhaps it’s merely a fact of modern day football life that the ‘galacticos’ not only attach more kudos to the big-eared European prize but that they simply can’t replicate the same increased levels of fervour for the relentless demands of domestic footie.
From my part, having staked such a well-earned claim for a major role in the run-in, with our efforts over the past eight months, it would be criminal to put all our eggs in the Champions League basket and merely let the Premiership race get away from us, at the sound of the last lap bell. Especially when you consider quite how influential the fickle finger of fortune can be in any two-legged Euro contest.
Assuming we can apply ourselves sufficiently to beat Boro and unless Gary Megson can favour us with a minor miracle by taking points off Man Utd in midweek, we will be a point behind Utd by the time we travel to Stamford Bridge. Messrs Gerrard and Torres appear to have hit the sort of purple patch which should present Man Utd with a stiff examination and it might well prove to be a decisive afternoon.
I’ve no concerns about us raising our game against our principal rivals. Yet no matter how well we acquit ourselves, I rather fancy we’ll all end up taking points off one another over the coming weeks. It might sound a little glib but ultimately football is a simple game and the Premiership silverware will be deservedly earned by whichever side is most motivated to prevail in ten successive cup finals. On recent evidence, our lot rapidly need to get the blinkers on!
Tuesday, 11 March 2008
"I havent got a thing to wear", whereas for Arsène Wenger........