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Tuesday 29 April 2008

Give the Flamster His Due

Its hard to believe the Eyties are offering Matty £80k odd a week but if it is indeed true then the club need to bite the bullet and pay the man whatever it takes to keep him here. I doubt they need to match the Inter package, as I feel sure he wouldn't pack his bags for just "a few bucks" but you could hardly blame him jumping ship if there are big bucks involved in the comparative difference between the two offers (which I assume, accoring to the media, must be the case at the minute)

Surely we should have long since learned our lesson on this front, as whatever it takes to keep Flamini at the club, it's going to be a lot cheaper than having to replace him.

What's more we can hardly blame Matty, as it must be very tempting to take the Italian moolah, knowing he could go on cruise control over there, compared to the amount of graft he has to put in covering so much ground for the Gunners. Moreover the club need to factor in the fact that he has probably been paid "bubkas" up until now and from the player's point of view, considering how marvelously he has made up for in industry and endeavour, what he patently lacks in flair, in all honesty how many better seasons is he going to have than the one we've just witnessed?

In light of their relatively short proffessional careers, Matty has absolutely no choice but to maximise his earnings while his star is at its zenith, as he'd be a fool not to. Especially when we've witnessed in the past the club's own preparedness to throw players out with the dirty shirts, when they've done with them. Loyalty is a two way street and considering the way in which the club attempted (albeit that they failed) to put such a contemptible squeeze on Dennis only a couple of years back, with an utterly embarrassing "pay as you play" extension, we can only expect from Flamini, what he knows he's going to get from the Gunners in return, who have only ever looked out for No. 1 !

So in my humble opinion they should simpy pay the man, as even if Matty is never again to have such an influential season, Arsène is going to have to go a long way to find a player of similar experience, with both the versatility and preparedness to put himself on the line all over the pitch. Moreover and perhaps most important of all, with such a young squad, where leadership qualities are hardly in abundance, it would be absolute madness to write off the one player who, for the majority of this season, has come closest to looking anything like a traditional captain out on the park.

While a recalcitrant Willie was keeping schtum, it was Flamini who was most often seen urging his team mates on (I often think Arsène only gave Gallas the captaincy according to the logic that if he was made guv'nor he'd have no one to barney with but himself?) and with so few players in the dressing room with sufficient presence to make themselves heard, surely it's senseless to forsake the Flamster for the sake of a few quid?


PS. I was delighted to see Ade achieve a hat-trick last night, giving it back in spades to all those Rams fans who were taunting the Togonator with that racist chant (you kind of expect such low life behaviour at White Hart Lane but I didn't think this disgusting drivel would follow him all over the country!). Besides which, what's wrong with being an elephant washer? It seems to me that these racist Neanderthals are also offending the proud folk who ply this trade across the planet with their derogatory remarks. I for one would be quite proud if my old man was charged with taking care of these magnificent creatures :-)

Moreoever I adored the two Manny's goal celebrations, as his post-match comments suggested these were inspired, or a piss-take even on Earnshaw's over the top efforts. I almost felt sorry for poor Earnshaw, as you got the sense that he'd had been practising his own celebration all season long and having finally got his long awaited and probably his single only chance to produce his routine before a live Premiership audience, we were going to get the 12" version whether we liked it or not!

Monday 28 April 2008

Who Ever Said Footballers Were Stupid?

Howdy folks

I've been in bed with a bug all weekend, but I am almost relieved watching the first-half of Derby v Arsenal on the box, as I would've been really sick to have schlepped all the way up to Pride Park to watch such a lacklustre first forty-five.

I'm just glad that Derby are so poor, or it could've been embarrassing, but meanwhile I thought I had better post this out, before a similarly poor second half showing necessitates a complete rewrite.

Meanwhile with Van Persie limping off at the break (with yet another injury) after his first goal in open play in SEVEN months and with Adebayor playing up front with his best pal, it will at least be interesting.

Macmanaman was giving Fabianski some stick at the break as the Setanta pundit, suggesting that he's too slight to be able to dominate his box against Premiership opposition

Big Love

Who Ever Said Footballers Were Stupid?

You know it’s been a disappointing campaign when you are left clinging to the PFA Awards for some solace. Yet in a season of such scant reward for such high-class entertainment, it’s of some comfort to see four Arsenal players voted by their peers in the PFA’s Premiership team of the season.

Mind you by the time you read this missive, we should have rolled over Derby and as far-fetched as it may be, while it remains within the realms of possibility (albeit outrageously improbable), it’s impossible not to reflect on the unlikely permutations of the remaining six results that would see the Gunners rise Phoenix like from the flames of our “close, but no cigar” season, to take the title.

As with most every footie fan, there’s this disconnection between head and heart, so that while I know full well that it’s not going to happen, hope continues to spring eternal that the likes of West Ham, Newcastle, Wigan and Bolton might achieve a collective miracle over the remaining couple of weeks.

It probably would’ve proved less painful if Man Utd and Chelsea had put us out of our misery, but with reaffirmation in their recent results that this is the beautiful game because there are so few safe bets and that the final furlong in the Premiership marathon is invariably the most arduous and unpredictable, in truth this has only heightened all our “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” torment, as we trawl through the ashes of our unsuccessful season fixating on each and every ember, every shot which hit the woodwork, or every decision which went against us, knowing that the slightest shift in the sands of fate would’ve left us all postponing our holidays, for the excuse for a knees up that is the traditional Town Hall parade.

The first-legs of the two Champions League semi-finals only accentuated this agony. The football in such weighty encounters is often inhibited by the intense fear of falling at the final hurdle. But aside from the cameo party-pieces from the likes of Messi and Deco, we witnessed little from any of the four teams that affirmed their right to a leading role in football’s greatest drama, whereas a scintillating display would’ve at least made it easier to accept the Gunners being cast as the gloomy understudy.

However, although events since the excruciating disappointment of our defeats at Anfield, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge have only underlined quite how close Le Prof is to getting it right, football is an unforgiving paramour. Not only are their no prizes for coming second (or third – and poor Avram could yet pip Utd and still be rewarded with the tin tack!) but in the Arsenal’s case, the majority of Gooners have become so spoilt by the way in which Wenger has (many would say miraculously considering the new stadium has necessitated shoestring expenditure relative to our immediate rivals) managed to set the bar so high over the past decade that it doesn’t appear to make any difference to them whether we are a hair’s breadth, or a hundred miles away, failure to bring home the bacon by way of a tangible trophy is just unacceptable.

I have to laugh at those throwing their toys out of the pram with obfuscated post-mortems pleading for wholesale surgery. Forgive me for mixing my metaphors but considering we’ve come so close and in fact, overachieved, in a season, which was expected to be one of rebuilding, it seems preposterous that some are suggesting we throw the baby out with the bath water.

To my mind these aren’t glory-hunters, they’re glory junkies, whose loyalty wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the sort of success-starved wilderness we’ve endured in the past. I simply couldn’t imagine such “supporters” in the shoes of a West Ham, or Charlton fan, or any of the majority of teams that start each and every season hoping in their hearts for a sniff of some silverware, but knowing in their heads that survival is probably the best they can hope for.
Talking of which, as I sat watching an increasingly breathless Geoff Stelling on Sky’s Soccer Saturday, as he tried to keep pace with the fluctuating fortunes of the various sides whose fate remains in doubt, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for the good old days, when everything was decided by twenty to five on a Saturday afternoon and all football related stress subsided for another seven days, with the familiar “De ne ne ne” tones of the Dr Who intro music, as opposed to the wall-to-wall live games that are dictated on an almost daily basis nowadays by the TV gods.

With terraces across the length and breadth of the country only partially filled with fans attached to their terrace trannies, like some sort of intravenous drip capable of doling out debilitating relegation details, or reinvigorating their very life-force with news of goals having a positive impact on their promotion, or play-offs prospects, I was almost sad to be a neutral bystander. But in the same breathe, having suffered more cyanide than saline from the Gooner life support system in the latter stages this season, I was glad to be on the outside, looking in on the thrill seekers suffering the last heart-stopping loop on the harum-scarum ride that is the glorious football season.

Meanwhile I imagine there’d be a consensus of opinion from most informed fans over the players’ choice of their Premiership team of the season. That is apart from disgruntled Blues (although I did say informed!). Personally I haven’t seen enough of Chelsea to pass judgement, but perhaps the perennial talents of the likes of Terry and Essien merit their inclusion. The funny thing is that it would probably be Arsenal fans that would be most likely to dispute the selection of Adebayor.

Personally I adore the Togonator for his work rate alone but even during his purple patch when he couldn’t stop scoring, Manny’s form, namely his first touch, wasn’t beyond reproach. In light of the number of goal scoring opportunities created by their respective teams, I can’t help but wonder if the 21 goals scored by Blackburn’s Santa Cruz amount to a far more laudable feat. And if he doesn’t merit inclusion in the team of the season, at only £3.5 mill, Santa Cruz must surely be a candidate for bargain of the season?

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Monday 21 April 2008

Surely “We All Agree…….”?

G'day fellow Gooners,

My missus is off to Tenerife shortly on an annual trip to meet up with the rest of the Ó Murchu clan from Dublin (or at least their own humble branch, as the island would undoubtedly sink into the Atlantic with the weight of the entire Murphy clan). I've grown accustomed to missing out on this annual family gathering in warmer climes, as it usually occurs mid-season, when it would mean missing out on far too many matches. However their trip is much later this year, which meant that the thought of joining them didn't even cross my mind, as I just wasn't about to disappear for the climax of the Premiership campaign and a potential Champions League semi/final.

I have to admit that I'm now regretting this decision somewhat, as a couple of weeks in the sunshine would be far preferable to what I imagine is going to be a couple of weeks of "could of, should of, would of" postulating, as the media hypes up the remaining Premiership matches and the penultimate round of Champions League matches, culminating in a Moscow Final, while we Gooners hide under the blankets, hoping not to have to show our heads again until August!

Meantimes, the further I get from the excruciating pain of the events of the past couple of weeks and the more I'm able to view matters from a dispassionate and considered perspective, the more I begin to appreciate quite what a miracle we have witnessed. If it was possible to put the events of the past eight months onto an Excel spreadsheet with some sort of complex formulae to estimate the outcome (doubtless the epitome of a Wenger wet-dream!) then it would've undoubtedly calculated that we didn't have a hope in hell of competing with our rivals this season.

I'm unsure as to the importance of set-pieces over the course of a season, but I’m sure the statisticians amongst us would be able to tell us how many goals the likes of Ronaldo has scored from free-kicks for Man Utd (more's the point, game winning goals?). Saturday's game served as a reminder quite how much we have missed Van Persie and it is quite astonishing really, that out of such a talented squad of players, we only have the one single player who is capable of being a serious threat from a free-kick. We've seen Kolo strike balls with power, but without the finesse and it seems Fabregas has the finesse, but apparently without sufficient power and the evidence we've seen so far suggests that only Van Persie possesses the complete package.

It was also great to see Van Persie taking corners, whipping the ball in with such pace that not only is the opposition keeper scared of being unable to control it, but any sort of contact could end up with it hitting the back of the net. Robin's corners are far more of a threat because of the pace he imparts on the ball. Yet for most of the season we've had to settle for Fabregas floating in balls which invite the opposition keeper to come for them.

What's more it was great to see the two of them trying a couple of training ground routines on Saturday, as I simply cannot recall the last time we witnessed a variation on the theme of whipping the ball in from the corner spot and I often have cause to wonder exactly what they spend all those endless hours of training doing.

Does it not strike anyone else as just a little bizarre that there aren’t any other Gunners amongst such a gifted squad who could pose a threat from a set-piece and that this side is as a result so disadvantaged by the absence of the injury prone Dutchman?

Where would we be now with another 15 plus goals to add to Adebayor’s 27? Additionally (and as much as I hate to knock le gaffer at a time when so many nincompoops seem to be having a pop at him, I guess Arsène has to answer for the following inadequacies) it’s also utterly unbelievable that our squad does not include a single natural winger and we’ve spent the entire season having to “make do” out on the flanks, either with a converted full-back, a converted striker, or a midfielder who’s lack of a left foot has meant that their first instinct is to head for the heart of the opposition defence, frustrating the hell out of me and every other Gooner for much of the season, as we’ve completely failed to heed that old adage that “if you can’t go through them, you go around them”

Eboué drives me as potty as everyone else, with his immature antics but it’s not so surprising that he’s never quite sure what to do with the ball when he arrives in the opposition area because he’s spent the best part of his young career playing at the other end of the pitch. Meanwhile we all assume Theo’s limited opportunities out wide result from the fact that a winger’s defensive responsibilities don’t come naturally to a player who’s only ever had to make runs into the opposition area in the past.

Meanwhile I’ve rarely seen a player who looks less suited to the role of a nippy little winger, than the gangly looking Diaby and sadly it seems to me that Abou has gone backwards this season because most of his rare run outs have been out wide where he doesn’t look at all comfortable.

Similarly Alex Hleb lacks the seering pace required in this position to burn off a full back and thus his instincts are invariably to head towards the middle of the park.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for the Ajax brand of total football, where players aren’t limited by their positions to specific areas of the pitch and where anyone has sufficient ability to fill in for any of their team mates. But for us to be lacking a single player whose first instinct is to burn off the full-back by heading for the byeline and supplying ammo for our strikers with an early, whipped in cross, forcing defenders to play towards their own goal, this is a severe deficiency in the Arsenal armoury, limiting our attacking options to those which various opponents have been able to successfully frustrate and forcing us to depend entirely on our two full backs for any width at all.

However it is not only out wide where we’ve had to “make do” all season. I’ve lost track of the number of home games which we’ve started with Adebayor on his own up front, with Alex Hleb supposedly playing a supporting role.

Hleb’s status has increased considerably this season, with various pundits lauding the Bielorussian playmaker as the best thing since sliced bread. Yet in my humble opinion Alex is not suited to “playing in the hole” behind a sole striker, as he just isn’t fast enough to be able to link the play and as a result we’ve all too often conceded home advantage with the Togonator isolated on his own up front. Alex just doesn’t have the brief bursts of searing pace of a Freddie Ljungberg or Bobbie Pires, to be able to arrive in the box in time to contribute 15 plus goals a season.

Again I’d have to defer to the statisticians amongst us, but from the impression I’ve gleaned, the Gunners most recent successful seasons have all included a 15 plus goal contribution from midfield, whereas this term, apart from Adebayor’s 27 strikes and Eduardo’s 12 (only four in the Premiership!), the only other notable contribution has been from Fabregas, with a total of thirteen, but with only seven league goals.

As far as the limitations of our squad are concerned, I very much doubt anyone would be focusing on the lack of depth if it wasn’t for the loss of the likes of Van Persie, Rosicky, Eduardo for the majority of the season and with everyone fit, Arsène’s outfit wouldn’t look nearly so threadbare. Hopefully Van Persie’s had his share of injury woes and should be due a decent injury free run come next season, but with Eduardo out long term and with the doubts over Rosicky’s fitness, Wenger has no choice but to address this situation by getting his wallet out.

Many of us might dispute Arsène’s contentions in Saturday’s programme notes about the quality of this season’s play, as being the best during his time at the club. However I can appreciate his depth of feeling about his young charges, as Arsène has put his heart and soul into building this squad for several years now, on a relative shoestring compared to his immediate rivals.

Although we are led to believe that there’s plenty of funds available now - and I don’t begin to suggest that I understand the complexities of the financing involved, but if the income from the new stadium has begun to improve the club’s situation, it seems common sense to me that our circumstances won’t improve dramatically until the revenue from all those properties currently being built begins to reduce our debts? – this definitely hasn’t been the case during all those years that Arsène has maintained our competitiveness, without ever putting us into the sort of dangerous territory occupied by all those other clubs who have spent so much beyond their means, while merely chasing the sort of dream football that we’ve enjoyed.

It will indeed be interesting to see how (and if) le Gaffer adapts to the change in circumstances (when and if that time has come), whereby he has the purchasing power to compete with some of the other big spenders. I don’t think he comes in the same category as George Graham, who didn’t appear to want to bring in any egos to compete with his own. Yet it seems fairly obvious that Arsène is more comfortable moulding talent, than bringing in established stars who’s temperament might threaten the delicate status quo in his young dressing room.
Meanwhile there can be absolutely no doubting the extent of the miracle that Arsène has achieved up until now.

I’m led to believe young Jack Wilshire was seen doing the business for the reserves tonight against West Ham, so I’m off to check him out on Arsenal TV, whilst trying to eradicate all those agonising thoughts of a Premiership table, which, after events this past weekend, would’ve now left us only one point behind Man Utd, if we had only won at Old Trafford! Fine margins indeed.

Keep the faith
Big Love

Surely “We All Agree…….”?

There was a risible reaction to the stadium announcer’s customary report of the attendance figure, as Saturday’s match drew to a close. There was a time when this announcement would result in a relatively restrained round of applause, which used to tickle me for some reason. It just seemed somewhat bizarre that people should be clapping themselves, merely for bothering to turn up!

Nowadays it’s become a redundant ritual, as the attendance figures appear to hover around the 60,100 mark at every match, no matter who we are playing. Where once this was the principal litmus test of the waxing and waning of a team’s popularity, it’s become a pointless exercise at our place because it’s not representative of the number of fans passing through the turnstiles, as it would appear that season ticket holders are included, whether they are present or not.

Never was this more obvious than on Saturday, as aside from Carling Cup outings for our reserves, I can rarely recall seeing so many empty seats at a competitive match at our new stadium. Then judging by the huge swathes of empty terraces seen at other grounds on the telly later that night, the Arsenal’s attendances are far from alone in being affected by a bout of end-of-seasonitis.

To my mind, considering how many would give their eye teeth to watch this Arsenal side perform live, it is positively criminal that we should be playing in front of anything other than full-houses. However I guess that for many Gooners, to all intents and purposes, our season ended at 5.45 last Sunday, as any lingering dreams of success evaporated at Old Trafford.
A traditional 3pm start would’ve undoubtedly proved a more attractive proposition for all those who aren’t so fortunate as to have our new stadium on their doorstep. But sadly these have become the exception rather than the rule, according to the ever more disturbing demands of the TV paymasters (is it so far fetched to imagine that a time might come when we are expected to turn up in the middle of the night, in order to cater for a TV audience on the other side of the planet?).

Even taking into account my typically tardy dash from home, five minutes before KO, there was no mistaking the strangely subdued atmosphere in the local environs compared to most match days. Normally there’d be the sight of red & white scarves trailing behind the scurrying figures of loads of other latecomers, or Gooners still spilling out of the Bank of Friendship and the Gunners pub, having dallied long enough to neck another draught or two, obviously only for medicinal purposes, to keep out the cold of a winter which stubbornly refuses to abate. Yet the surrounding streets were so deserted that if it wasn’t for the distant boom of the stadium tannoy, announcing the names on the two teamsheets, I could’ve been forgiven for wondering if I’d got the wrong day!

On the pitch, there was a similarly impassive feel to the proceedings, in an opening period where it couldn’t have been more obvious that this was an exercise in damage limitation for Reading, if Steve Coppell had parked the team coach in front of their goal, along with the rest of his troops. However as the game progressed, there was almost palpable evidence of the absence of the sort of intense pressure our Young Guns have endured these past few weeks, as they relaxed and began to roll the ball about, with the carefree air of a bunch of mates having a kickabout in nearby Clissold Park.

Unfortunately (at least for all the lesser lights) there’s no disguising the huge gulf in class that exists between the two ends of the Premiership table and within half an hour we’d torn Coppell’s game-plan asunder. I couldn’t help but have some sympathy for the earnest endeavours of the journeymen Royals (and their long-suffering, loyal support) as they were run utterly ragged. The Gunners flowing, one-touch passing game, which is so wonderfully easy on the eye, made a complete mockery of their efforts to man-mark, by dragging our guests all over the pitch, leaving them in a “stick or twist” quandary, fearful of following their target into unfamiliar territory and enabling us to exploit the resulting gaps in their five man rearguard.

Not for the first time, we failed to kill the opposition off, in a match where we were unable to take full advantage of the sort absolute dominance, which aside from a brief period in the second half, would’ve allowed Lehmann to take the day off. But then we witnessed a five-minute spell that was a metaphor for our entire season, as first Van Persie and then Walcott rattled the woodwork, with examples of the sort of breathtaking ball skills that are worth the extortionate admission price alone, but which failed to make an impression where it really counts. It was a matter of mere millimetres which was the difference between Van Persie’s free-kick bouncing down off the cross bar and over the line, instead of on it, but I’m reluctant to board Arsène’s “fates against us” bus.

More’s the point, the Dutchman’s unerring accuracy with a dead ball was a timely reminder of what might have been. If Robin had remained out of the treament room long enough to provide more than a measly eight goal return, we Gooners might not be spending the next month trying to avoid the back pages and enviously coveting our rivals involvement in all the Champions League ballyhoo!

Downhearted we maybe, but as the Gunners do their bit in the remaining three matches to try and ensure that their summer break isn’t curtailed by those extremely inopportune Champions League qualifiers, I’ve no doubt that they will continue to demonstrate their ability to produce football of a calibre that most Premiership fans can only dream of.

Sadly Theo Walcott failed once again to make the most of a rare run-out in Saturday’s starting line-up, as I’m desperate to see our “Wunderkid” develop into something more than an impact substitute. There are those who perceive the alternative as the worst player ever to wear the red & white. While it’s true that I’ve endured few more frustrating footballers than an unbelievably immature Eboué, I believe we can cut the young right-back a little slack, while Wenger tries to convert him into a winger. Moreover I find it hard to believe anyone can seriously think Manny Eboué is such a bad player that he brooks comparison with such big galoots as the likes of Gus Ceasar and Jimmy Carter?

Meanwhile, no matter how bare our trophy cabinet, how can we show anything but gratitude for the sort of entertainment witnessed in Saturday’s 2-0 slaughter, with Fabregas, our little Franco, the fulcrum around which all the most fabulous footie revolves. So long as our sorcerer’s apprentices continue to sparkle in this fashion, we’ve every reason to keep the faith. While those clowns clamouring for wholesale surgery would do better to consider those oh so fine margins between success and failure. Assuming Arsène learns from this season’s more obvious lessons, the Arsenal’s future remains incredibly bright.

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Saturday 19 April 2008

Post-match verdict - Arsenal v Reading

There was a risible reaction to the reported sixty thousand plus attendance, as the evident number of empty seats told another story. Yet again the demands of the live TV tail wagged the football dog, to the detriment of a sedentary supporting cast. Although an early KO against the Royals was hardly going to be the hottest ticket in town, after events of the past couple of weeks has left most Gooners feeling all footballed out.

On the pitch after an impassive opening period, the lack of pressure resulted in Gunners relaxing and running Reading utterly ragged, in a game that can only be described as a 2-0 slaughter. Our two goals were scant reward for the sort of high quality footie that demonstrated the huge gulf in class between either end of the table. An exercise in damage limitation for Steve Coppell's troops, turned out to be timely reminder of just how grateful we Gooners should feel, for the undoubted privilege of being able to enjoy entertainment of a calibre that the vast majority of Premiership fans can only dream of, with our little Franco the fulcrum around which the very best of our fabulous flowing football revolved.

No matter how bare the trophy cabinet, so long as our sorcerer's apprentices continue to sparkle in this fashion, we've every reason to keep the faith. The extremely fine margins between success and failure make a mockery of all those clamouring for wholesale surgery. So long as Arsène learns from this season's more obvious lessons, the future remains incredibly bright.

Monday 14 April 2008

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Blow 'Em Up!

My sister just phoned me to let me know that a colleague had a spare for Chelsea v Wigan tonight. I suggested that it was tantamount to trying to offload a ticket for the Israeli Independence Day Parade in the middle of the Gaza Strip and that I would have loved to go but sadly I’m all out of C4 explosive at the minute!

Under other circumstances, as a lover of the beautiful game who’s been known to wander down the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road on a spare Saturday, it would only have been the schlep across London that might’ve put me off taking in another match. However after the utterly devastating denouement of the Gunners’ season over the past few weeks, I’m afraid that like many of my fellow Gooners, I am all footballed out!

Even after forty years of watching the Arsenal I still struggle to reconcile the ecstatic highs and gut-wrenching lows of last Tuesday’s Champions League exit. I guess that’s what makes this amazing sport such an addictive enigma. The euphoric peak of the scintillating perfection of Theo Walcott’s run from the edge of his own penalty area, to put what we all assumed would be the winner, on a plate for Adebayor, lifted all of us present to such a head bursting, oxygen deprived altitude that the subsequent thud was almost physical, as poor Kolo inadvertently pushed us off this lofty perch, by committing hari kari at the other end of the pitch only moments later.

I’ve some sympathy for poor Theo. As had been the case a few weeks prior against Birmingham, the boy wonder had come up with the goods, when we most needed them, with the sort of game-changing, sublime skills that deserved to decide a Champions League quarterfinal. But instead of being the hero and grabbing all the headlines, just as at St. Andrews, subsequent events ensured that Walcott’s contribution will only be remembered as a mere footnote.

However as much as I struggle to comprehend how we can score two goals away from home in the Champions League and still fail to win the game, in the cold light of day, Walcott’s wonderful assist would’ve only helped to mask the inadequacies witnessed in the latter stages of this match and on Sunday at Old Trafford, where recent performances have been a microcosm of this season’s incredibly entertaining, but ultimately unsuccessful campaign.
In season’s past we’ve grown accustomed to dips in form around October/November time, but Arsène’s scientific management of his team’s fitness levels has invariably seen us come on strong both at the tail end of matches and at the business end of the season. But as they say, you cannot flog a dead horse and sadly the deficiencies of our far too shallow squad have eventually taken their toll.

If I was disconsolate trudging back to the car last Tuesday, I can’t imagine how my pal Billy felt, after having travelled all the way over from Texas just for this game. Yet no matter how devastated we were, I don’t think either of us would’ve missed the overall thrill of such a special occasion, for the world.

We struggled to find legal parking when we arrived at Anfield and on asking advice from a couple of locals, they invited us to follow their truck to park right outside their house. Obviously we joked between us about finding our ransacked motor resting on bricks when we returned, but then living in London, where such a hospitable act just wouldn’t happen, has made cynics of us all.

A somewhat more stereotypical incident occurred as we stood gabbing close to the ground, beside a pile of cardboard boxes, which eventually proved to contain nothing more than bright red carrier bags that were being handed out elsewhere as a publicity stunt. However two tiny Scouse scallies (aged about 7 or 8!) couldn’t care less what was inside the boxes, just that they were unguarded and we all cracked up as they invited us to load them up, before scampering off down the road. It didn’t bother them that there were two dozen coppers on the opposite corner, as they returned a couple more times, to gleefully make off with their haul of umpteen thousand carrier bags! Gawd only knows what they were going to do with them, but at least they felt like they’d had a result that night.

Perhaps it’s related to the fact that so many Scousers have Irish roots, but I’ve always felt a stronger affinity for football fans from either side of Stanley Park, than with those from anywhere else in the UK. If we were going to get knocked out by a domestic rival, then Liverpool was definitely the least distasteful of the three options as they are at least proper fans.

In fact I have to admit to feeling slightly envious, as even the hairs on the back of this somewhat jaded old git’s neck stood to attention, as the teams trotted out to the sound of such a moving rendition of the Liverpool anthem. This was the moment when one realised why the likes of my pal Billy had made such an arduous trek to be there.

It perhaps says everything that I can’t recall the reverse scene the previous week, but there’s nothing inspirational about the two teams entering the arena to the somewhat insipid and utterly meaningless sound of Elvis Presley, while such prominent areas of seating remain empty with so many of our Club Level punters preferring to wallow in the wooden floored, glass chandeliered opulence of their surroundings, rather than drinking in and heaven forfend, perhaps even participating in creating the sort of atmosphere that befits such an occasion.

There were a couple of half-hearted penalty shouts during the first-half and little did I know quite how prophetic it would prove, when I suggested that a similar incident in front of the Kop in the second half would surely result in a penalty. Amongst all the finger pointing since, at Senderos for losing Hyppia (although Almunia must share some of the blame for panicking and putting the ball into touch in the build up) and at Kolo for allowing Babel to get goalside, I can’t help but wonder if our fans behind the goal when Hleb hit the deck were as animated as those at Anfield, might they have swayed the mind of the Dutch referee sufficiently to produce a similar outcome?

There was some consolation in the thought that in our fatigued state, the Scousers might have a better chance of beating Chelsea than us, but we were nonetheless so demoralised and downhearted that few of us fancied Sunday’s trip to Old Trafford. In the absence of Flamini holding the fort in midfield, I had nightmare images of the flood-gates opening up, after an early goal and the Gunners drowning in some serious, long term psychological damage.

As it turned out, I was proud to be a Gooner on Sunday and no matter that we came up short once again, in my eyes the lads did themselves great credit by playing Utd off the park, if only for the first 45. It seemed to me that even old Red Nose himself was impressed by the reaction of his rival’s young squad. After all his dreams of a successful campaign had been left in tatters, it was perhaps not so surprising that a devastated Wenger was left clutching at straws, with his deluded implications of a “world’s against us” conspiracy, like some paranoid nutter. I would’ve much preferred a more honest appraisal of our downfall but then I guess graciousness in defeat is a trait which befits those who are more comfortable with getting beat!

When you consider that the Arsenal’s squad cost a third of the £120 million paid for Man Utd’s and you compare a subs bench comprising the likes of Bendtner and Hoyte with Tevez and Anderson, in truth Wenger has achieved a remarkable feat, by competing with the likes of Utd and Chelsea, with a team that’s recognised as playing the most attractive brand of football on the planet, on a fraction of his rivals’ budget. Moreover in light of the laughable pre-season predictions that we might struggle to pip the likes of Spurs for Champions League qualification, put into such perspective, we’ve far in a way exceeded the expectations of all those supposedly learned pundits.

However our expectations were grossly inflated by an all too ephemeral five-point gap and the way in which we strutted our stuff in the San Siro against the spent force that was AC Milan. So sadly instead of being able to appreciate any incremental progress, an empty trophy cabinet leaves many of us looking back on a season of under-achievement, screaming for wholesale changes.

There will be plenty of time for a post-mortem in the months ahead but I’m convinced that there isn’t too much wrong with this Arsenal squad that a world-class goalie, some proper leadership qualities and obviously a bit more depth, wouldn’t cure. Hopefully they will yet prove themselves to be winners, as having supped a suitably abhorrent draught from the cup of defeat, the spirit demonstrated at Old Trafford suggests to me that they have the determination to bounce back, with the added resolve to ensure that this season's bitter libation doesn’t pass their lips again.

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Monday 7 April 2008

Now Is The Winter Of Our Discontent....Or Is It?

I returned home from Round 1 last Wednesday, just in time to hear Strachan and Souness arguing the merits and demerits of a zonal defensive system on the box. Sadly I’m still none the wiser as to why Benitez, or any manager would choose to defend in this fashion. It might sound logical when players are merely static ‘Os’ and ‘Xs’ in a tactical manual, but in the melee in and around the six-yard box, man-marking is the only option that leaves players without any excuse for losing their man. If the first two-thirds of the Liverpool trilogy have served any purpose, they’ve surely settled this debate, as if Arsenal set-pieces in successive games can expose the shortcomings of a zonal defence, anyone can!

It’s been a far too familiar routine this season, to find myself slumping back down into my seat, after Fabregas has floated yet another corner into the out-stretched arms of the opposition keeper and so Van Persie’s long-awaited return was cause for celebration, if only for his ability to strike a dead ball. It’s hard to believe that for all the talent in this Arsenal squad, the Dutchman is the only truly potent weapon at set-pieces. Mind you, it’s never struck me as ideal that one of our main threats to the opposition goal at corners is nullified, because even our injury prone ‘boy wonder’ can’t get on the end of one of his own corners!

Sadly Van Persie’s return to proper match fitness seems destined to fail for this season at least and I was extremely disappointed to see us cede home advantage on Saturday, by lining up with Bendtner operating as lone striker. For most of the first-half you could be forgiven for wondering which was the home side, as the Dane was so utterly isolated up front that we hardly posed any threat. It was a perfect demonstration of how and how not to play 4-5-1, with almost every ball played up to Peter Crouch sticking to the lanky striker and Liverpool’s midfield making the runs to enable him to play them in.

I’m not sure whether Walcott was instructed to hug the touchline, or whether he’s been playing out wide so frequently that spearheading an attack no longer comes naturally to him. Only that morning they were showing Theo’s three favourite goals on Sky and although one of these was in an Arsenal shirt, the other two were scored for Southampton. It occurred to me that while we’ve witnessed plenty of examples of Theo’s blistering pace, we’ve rarely enjoyed the benefits of his predatory instincts.

The only good thing about the Scousers scoring first was that at least it guaranteed a proper contest breaking out second-half, compared to the decidedly tepid, almost testimonial like first-half fare. It felt as if this game was an unwanted inconvenience for everyone concerned. Then again, the Gunners never seem to turn up for these early kick-offs, until after the break. Come the revolution, the person responsible for the fixture schedules will be first up against the wall, as these are exclusively dictated by the TV paymasters, with absolutely no consideration for the poor punters on the terraces, or the prospect of turning a potentially thrilling spectacle into a bit of a wet fish.

Le gaffer had no choice but to throw caution to the wind and go for it in the second half. Yet despite developing into a far more exciting contest, for all our possession, there was an air of inevitability about the eventual outcome. I’ve rarely seen Wenger quite so animated but his touchline attack of St. Vitus Dance was merely an expression of the angst felt by us all, as any last title prospects ebbed away. Many had arrived at Saturday’s match wearing t-shirts in the warm spring sunshine, but as the temperature dropped dramatically, the weather seemed an appropriate metaphor for our winter of discontent.

Mind you hope continued to spring eternal with Man Utd’s slip up on Sunday. Perhaps this will merely prove to be a stay of execution for the optimists amongst us, when others might think it kinder to put us out of our misery already. However crucial injuries to Vidic and Ferdinand offer further prospects of a possible reprieve and at least it means we can go to Old Trafford next weekend still with something to play for, rather than the awful prospect of being caught between the red devils and Chelsea’s deep blue sea, whereby a win would only offer a leg up to our South London enemies.

However watching the highlights of Utd’s game only served to demonstrate the difference between the two teams at present. There’s a vitality to Utd when they’re on the attack, which has been absent from the Arsenal for some time now. Utd seem so much more incisive going forward because when the ball reaches their front men, invariably there are three our four teammates making more advanced runs, enabling them to maintain their forward momentum. Whereas by contrast when Adebayor or Bendtner receives the ball, having looked up to find the penalty area bereft of red & white, they are left with no option but to allow both teams to catch up with the play, or to pass it sideways or backwards.

Then again, we’ve hardly had the rub of the green in recent games and if we were scoring goals for fun, like ‘our friends from the North’, fatigue just wouldn’t be an issue and I’m certain we’d be looking no less dynamic. Hopefully Tuesday will prove a big enough occasion to inspire all concerned and if there’s to be a 12th man effect from the Anfield atmosphere, it could just as easily be the Arsenal who end up being the beneficiaries.

Fabregas has every right to comment on our fickle home crowd and the fact that our support isn’t as staunch as some. When you consider how often this season we’ve rescued games with last gasp goals, I couldn’t believe the air of resignation enveloping the Emirates as the clock ticked down on Saturday, signalling the now customary mass exodus. In some respects I’m almost relieved to be playing the second leg at their place, as at least I’ll be surrounded by the sort of loyal Gooners who won’t give up the ghost until the very last.

I’m not nearly so confident as I was prior to playing AC Milan, but I remain quietly optimistic, as I can’t help wondering if the passion of the home crowd will play into our hands, by forcing Liverpool onto the front foot. If the occasion is all it’s cracked up to be then no matter their manager’s instructions, I can’t see the Scousers tolerating the sort of tactics seen to date, where they’ve sat deep and allowed us to keep the ball

Invariably it’s the big game players who hold the key to such crucial encounters. I remain convinced the tie will be decided by Gerrard and Fabregas and whichever of the two turns it on most on the night. Gerrard undoubtedly won the first round on points and with second ending all square, hopefully it will be Cesc’s turn to inflict a TKO on Tuesday?

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