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Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Arsène Wenger's Red & White Army Makes A Long Overdue And Most Welcome Return

G'day fellow Gooners,

In some respects I kind of wish I'd posted the following diary entry out as soon as I'd finished it, as it would've sounded a good deal more prescient in advance of last night's match, than in the warm glow of the aftermath of a resounding 4-0 victory, where at long last, the Gunners began to look something more like themselves again.

It's bad enough having to write one of my weekly missives for the Irish Examiner in advance of a midweek match. But it was that much harder writing it, when I knew it might be outdated the following day and so I sat for hours staring at a blank screen, trying my best not to focus on the FA Cup game, in order to avoid being left with egg on my face, by the time my column appears in the newspaper's Wednesday sports supplement. As a result, as far as I'm concerned, who ever it was who decided to maximise TV revenues, by spreading the FA Cup matches over the entire weekend and running into Monday night, come the revolution they will join my long list of those who will be first to be lined up against the wall.

Moreover it meant for an incredibly stressful day for me, trying to get my missive finished in time to leave for work, driving to Kent and then getting everything done in time to get back home for the game. As it turned out (due to numerous circumstances beyond my control), I ended up parking up outside Highbury Quadrant just as the game kicked off and according to the sadistic laws of Sod and Murphy, by the time I'd scuttled around to the ground, as fast as my weary bones would carry me, I was just approaching Turnstile H, when the roar went up to greet Eduardo's goal.

Eddie couldn't have waited a couple more minutes to celebrate his return to action, enabling me to have time to make it to my seat? Although I was somewhat more fortunate than many of the other tardy Gooners, as at least I had my trusty terrace tranny to convey specific details, while many other late arrivals were left dashing around the ground, not even knowing who'd scored.

And in truth, from what I'd heard of the commentary on route, I got the impression that we'd started the game at such a gallup, that if it wasn't for our profligacy in front of Cardiff's goal and their young goalie's admirable efforts to deny us, we could've already been at least two goals to the good.

I was gutted I'd missed KO, as Red Action had decreed this to be flag day and I was looking forward to seeing whether they'd been successful in encouraging Gooners to ignore Keith Edelman's barmy flag ban, in order to try and bring a little more colour to the ground. However judging by the fact that I actually can't recall seeing a single flag around the place after I eventually arrived, either their pronouncements went unheard, or the club had got wind of the activity and had confiscated all the flags on entry into the ground (which would explain why I don't recall seeing any Welsh flags amongst the away fans either)?

Now we must not go getting carried away, as after all this was only Cardiff and in truth, in my humble opinion, by neglecting their customary "in yer face" tactics, City were guilty of standing off us and showing us far too much respect on the night, thereby allowing us the time and the space to get our passing game going and to recover some much needed confidence.

The one area in which Cardiff could've tried to gain some advantage was in their work rate and if I was Dave Jones, I would've been seriously disappointed by his side's failure to pressure the ball from the opening whistle, to try and unsettle us.

Mind you, compared to the utterly insipid way in which the Gunners have gone about their uninspiring business in many of our recent encounters with lesser teams, I was extremely happy to see us go at it, hammer and tong, taking the game to the visitors, with the sort of verve and energy that's been sorely lacking of late.

I don't think it's a coincidence that this dynamism coincided with the inclusion of Eduardo and Carlos Vela. Not only did it make for a refreshing change from the languid apathy of Adebayor that's been so frustrating so far this season and which has left the Togonator looking like a player who's already made his mark and who therefore has little appetite, other than to mark time until a big money move to the Continent, but it also benefited Nicky Bendtner no end.

With Eduardo and Vela constantly driving forward, the increased number of bodies arriving in the opposition box gave Cardiff's defence so much more to think about, diverting attention from Bendtner and thereby providing him with plenty of opportunities to take on who ever was left with the responsiblity of trying to contain him. Whereas we've grown accustomed to seeing Bertie Big Bollix struggle to retain possession when, two or three opponents can focus all their attentions on thwarting the big-headed young Dane.

It's amazing really, as one would struggle to recognise the Arsenal side stroking the ball around last night, tiring Cardiff out, as they spent the entire evening chasing shadows, as being the same team who struggled to string two passes together against Tottenham, in the first half at White Hart Lane the other week.

As a result, I imagine that all the empty seats in the ground once again last night, will probably be filled for a change, when Saturday comes, as all those fairweather fans will wake up today and read about the Arsenal's entertaining display in their morning papers and suddenly fancy "some of that" this weekend, as with Arshavin's potential debut and Eddie's continued reintroduction, the Arsenal will return to being the place to be and to be seen!

By contrast, as far as I'm concerned, last night's relative goalfest was all due reward for those of us who paid our dues over the last few weeks, on long and exhausting trips to Cardiff, Hull and Goodison. And so it wouldn't be at all surprising that as a result of all those who turn up on Saturday, expecting to sit back in their comfy seats and be treated to a similarly satisfying encore against Sunderland, if fate serves them up an anti-climactic scoreless bore draw, or a dull single goal game, since this would be no more than they deserve.

The reason I try to go to every game is so as to ensure that there is never any chance of me missing out on such an enjoyable performance as last night's and you will have to forgive me, if I am a little loathe to share such pleasures, with the fickle not-so-faithful who feel they can pick and choose their Gooner moments!

For a natural pessimist like myself, it's been a rare pleasure to have felt this innate optimism that the Arsenal would be all right, as soon as we got all our players back. I swear that I was even tempted to predict below that we might end up giving an opponent a real "schmeissing", although last night was a little premature, as I imagined it might take place once we'd returned to full strength and we began to gather some momentum, gaining that "winning feeling", as our passing game clicked back into place.

But I'm certainly not complaining, for although we all know one game does not a season make, but with the confidence the Gunners have garnered from giving out the same sort of humbling football lesson to Cardiff, as was meted out by Spain to England in midweek and with the potential for a big Premiership weekend ahead and our crucial Champions League encounter to follow, we couldn't have possibly picked a better time to rediscover the genuine Gunners, as opposed to those lacklustre impostors of the past couple of months.

Before I go, a word about the Cardiff City fans. Doubtless the high-profile policing and the fact that so many of the old bill were kitted out in full riot clobber last night, stands as testament to large number of "bwad bwoy" scum, amongst the Bluebirds' faithful. However credit where credit is due, their support of their team, in the face of a fairly abject performance (which was only prevented from becoming a cricket score by their keeper's fearless efforts), was seriously loud and pretty constant.

If a stranger had walked into our gaff last night with the score at 4-0, according to the volume level coming from the Cardiff City end of the ground, compared to the relative lack of noise coming from the 50,000 strong home support, it would've been only natural for someone to assume that it was the visitors who were victorious.

But then standing around watching the highlights on the concourse of the lower tier at half-time, you only had to glance around at the vast majority of the Gunners' middle-aged, middle-class "audience", to appreciate why the crowd at our new home is unlikely ever to crank up the decibels, to the point where it becomes a truly intimidating place to play, rather than a glamorous stage that opposition teams look forward to performing on.

Although it would be wrong for me to end on a pessimistic note, after the seriously positive boost of last night's dominant display. So all together now "She wore, she wore......"

Come on you rejuvenated Reds
Nuff Love

I was amazed to see a full house at our place last Tuesday for the Brazil v Italy friendly, but then I suppose the Brazilian national team will always provide a big draw, as they’re guaranteed to bring a riot of atmosphere and colour wherever they play. Pre-match, the pubs in the Holloway Road resounded to the beat of the samba drums and during the game it was great to see our ground bedecked in Brazilian flags and the Tricolore of the Italian Azzuri.

Bizarrely any such flags would’ve been banned on a regular matchday, as killjoy Keith Edelman (the Arsenal’s former MD) instigated a ban on national flags, as a hammer to crack the nut of a particularly petty barney between Greek and Turkish Cypriot Gooners, who objected to the sight of one another’s national colours.

However Edelman was never a genuine footie fan at heart and now that he’s been given the heave-ho, I’d hope that none of the stewards will bother enforcing this bonkers ban, as the colourful sight of the stadium last week has inspired Red Action to call for all Gooners to get their flags out for the lads, for the Cup replay against Cardiff.

I certainly can’t envisage the stewards ejecting fans from the away end for flying the Welsh dragon and so not only would it be wrong to discriminate against the home fans, but the International friendly should serve as an example to the club that, to the contrary, they should be encouraging anything that is likely to make the atmosphere at our home games a little less sterile.

The sight of Gilberto sweeping up in his water carrier role in front of the Brazilian defence was also a poignant reminder of the sort of presence and composure that the Gunners have sorely missed in our immature and somewhat lightweight midfield of late, in the absence of players with the sort of stature and experience of Gilberto and Flamini.

Not that Flamini was anywhere near approaching his dotage, but when one considers Arsène’s apparently strict policy towards players over 30, our squad is destined to remain relatively inexperienced. It seems inevitable that we will struggle to retain the services of players who pass the three decade threshold, no matter how much they want to continue to play for the Arsenal, since one can’t possibly expect them to suffer the insecurity of a one year contract, when they and their families are likely to benefit from the promise of a far more comfortable retirement that would result from an irresistible three or four year deal, which other clubs can offer them, knowing they need only put a little security on the table, in order to lure the player away.

I’m all for having a hungry young side, as hopefully, aside from Bertie Big Bollix Bendtner, they should have everything to prove. However, even if it’s just to have them around as squad players, I believe every dressing room needs a couple of “been there, done that” elder statesmen, to calm their teenage teammates ruffled brows in moments of high drama.

As evidenced by the number of successful numbskulls, football management is not rocket science, but there’s a crucial amount of chemistry involved. Of late Arsène’s magic touch as an alchemist might’ve eluded him, but while many Gooners continue to contest our need for new basic ingredients, I remain confident in le gaffer’s ability to get it right. So long as the Gunners can remain in there with a shout for some silverware, when those base guile, pace and goal poaching elements become available, with the return of Eduardo, Walcott & Fabregas and the introduction of Arshavin.

After our replay against Cardiff was postponed and with Sunday’s 6th round FA Cup draw, I can rarely recall having our route to Wembley mapped out so far in advance. With advantageous home draws against Burnley and Sheffield Utd or Hull to come, if we’ve managed to overcome Cardiff, it’s hard not to tempt fate but I imagine fans of all those clubs still in the hat are already dreaming of being only 90 minutes away from a cup final day out.

Meanwhile Martin O’Neill’s luck had to run dry at some stage and after their defeat at Goodison and with a midweek encounter with CSKA Moscow, it could prove to be a significant weekend in the Premiership, if Villa’s confidence takes a dent against Hiddinck’s Blues and we can capitalize with a win against the Black Cats.

Judging by the lack of focus on the Arsenal in the media, I quite like the fact that we’ve already been written off, in the eyes of many, as the lack of expectation can often have a liberating effect on the pitch. Yet one only has to cast a glance at the seamless introduction of some of Man Utd’s supporting cast against the Rams, to realise that it’s that winning momentum which is key at this stage in the season, as we approach the final turn.

If the Gunners are going to avoid yet another silverware starved summer and the ignominy of our first ever failure to qualify for the Champions League, we’ve simply got to escape the inertia of the past few weeks, by achieving the sort of results, which will begin to restore some confidence and which will hopefully result in a return of the sort of swagger that might give us the impetus to make an impact in the home stretch and make more than a few media folk eat their words!
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