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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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Anonymous said...

despite the defeats, the last two matches have shown what this team is capable of. Hopefully they'll use the experience and work on finishing over the off season.

Anonymous said...

it all went wrong when ye lost 5-1it all went wrong when ye lost 5-1who was that team agin ........8 points up now -9....out of all cups

Bern said...

You'll have to remind me as I've long since forgotten. Must've been that meaningless Mickey Mouse competition which all the serious clubs use as practice for their kids, but which teams in the bottom half of the table take more seriously because they've not a hope of winning anything ekse

Anonymous said...

ye have no chance in winning anything .....4 years now an cry baby as a captain

anonymous said...

your optimism is well-placed and with your vantage point, encouraging. your accounts supply some lifeblood to my geographically and financially bound gunners- loving heart. thank you.