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Tuesday 28 April 2009

Anfield Eats Shava's Shorts

This is probably all a bit passé by now, but having started writing this in the wee hours last Wednesday morning, I've only just got around to finishing it and so in case it's of interest to any of you, I thought I might as well post it out before, hopefully, the events at Old Trafford tomorrow night prove to be the main course, to our Anfleld appetizer.....

Come on you Gunners

Having arrived back from Liverpool at 2.30am, after such an enthralling evening, I felt emotionally spent. Nevertheless on flicking through the channels on the satellite, trying to find some highlights of the goals, when I realised from the rugby and various other sporting info that I was at the wrong point in the Sky Sports News loop, I was delighted when I looked at the TV guide and discovered highlights of the entire game only an hour away. So I sat back to laugh my way through a recording of the episode of Shameless shown earlier that evening and dug out a couple of matchsticks to prop open the old eyelids, in anticipation of the feast of football to come.

I was most curious to see the events immediately prior to the game, as there were yellow and blue cards places on the seats at our end of the ground, for us to hold up in honour of the evening’s special guest, Ray Kennedy and to publicize the “Ray of Hope” appeal, in aid of Parkinson’s disease (that has ravaged one of my all time favourite Arsenal heroes). However while the number 5 was easily seen in the red and white cards being held up by those on the Kop, I wondered what exactly it was that would be revealed by our patterns of blue and yellow cards and whether enough of us Gooners were holding them up for it to work?

However sadly the hour-long highlight programme didn’t show this impressive terrace display but then I guess they had plenty of pukka football to squeeze into this hour-long package! (mercifully there was a photo in Sunday’s programme, showing that the blue and yellow cards at our end revealed the number 10, that Ray Kennedy wore on his Arsenal shirt)

Sitting discussing the game over dinner in Liverpool’s city centre earlier in the evening, one of our number propounded the theory that it might in fact be to our advantage for the Scousers to win that evening, as the more pressure they apply at the top if the table, the more likely it will be that Fergie will be forced to field a full-strength team for the Premiership game which occurs in the midst of our two-legged semifinal.

Obviously this then begged the question as to why we had all bothered making an arduous midweek schlep to Merseyside. Following a mental cab ride back to Anfield, involving a tortuous game of twenty questions with our meshugana cabbie, Liverpool’s answer to L. Ron Hubbard and a brief time-out, to pay my respects at the Hillsborough Memorial, still surrounded with all the floral and various other tributes from the 20th anniversary earlier in the week, I was making my way up the steps to our block of seats directly behind the goal and I posed the same question (as to what we were all doing there), to a couple of other Gooners who were pondering out loud, on whether they’d prefer Liverpool to win. One of these guys turned to me to suggest, not totally in jest, that he was only there for the match credits!

It never occurred to me to consider it, with (I assume) my membership of the away match scheme guaranteeing me a ticket, but I guess with us being only one step away from a possible Champions League final in Rome, there might be plenty of Gooners trying to up their away match credits, between now and May, in an effort to try and improve their prospects of obtaining a precious ticket for the final, in the event that we get there.

Anfield is always up there, close to the top of my list of away games and a midweek game under the floodlights still retains some of that special feeling of yesteryear (which has sadly evaporated with theatre like audiences at many stadia). But if ever we needed an answer to the question as to what we were doing there, it came in an enthralling ninety minutes of football.

What’s more, those watching on the box might have missed seeing the evening’s guest of honour being led out onto the pitch at the break and personally I was delighted to have made the effort to make the trip, if only to pay my respects to one of my all-time favourite Arsenal heroes. After all, Ray Kennedy won’t be around for ever and I much prefer to show my appreciation to the living, rather than paying tribute to them when they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, because the dead don’t know how many turned out in their honour!

Having accompanied my pal down to the concourse at half-time, I felt a bit bad about abandoning him, when I dashed back out to join in the applause, as the stadium announcer introduced the ex-Arsenal and Liverpool player. I wondered how many Gooners present were old enough, or well versed enough in their history of the club, to appreciate Ray Kennedy’s crucial contribution to the feats of the 71 Double side.

Right from the kick-off, you could sense Liverpool knew they needed to win this game and all credit to the Arsenal, as with 4th place virtually secured, many other teams might’ve gone their in a comfortable position such as ourselves and simply rolled over , in the face of the Scouser’s desperate drive to remain in the title shake-up.

The first-half might have contained little of the seven goal drama following the break but it was wonderful flowing entertainment nonetheless, with a cut and thrust about the game that was totally absorbing, as the Gunners responded to the intensity of the occasion, by zipping the ball about on the Anfield turf, in an effort to absorb the Liverpool pressure and to try and wrestle back some control of the game.

Alex Song demonstrated exactly why Wenger was wrong to leave him out at Wembley on Saturday, by getting around our midfield and breaking up the Liverpool attacks, trying to protect our patently vulnerable defence, in the sort of energetic fashion that just doesn’t appear to be in Abou Diaby’s locker (or at least on the evidence of what we’ve seen so far). If Alex was supposedly too tired to play on Saturday, there was little evidence of this only three days later and to my mind, what Wenger failed to appreciate when he sat in his office and studied the statistics, which formed the basis of Saturday’s team selection, was that when you trot out on the Wembley turf before an 80,000 crowd and the adrenaline begins to pump, fatigue just isn’t a factor.

Even in the absence of Gerrard, the Scouser’s were no less potent a force, driving forward at every possible opportunity and threatening Fabianski’s goal on many an occasion. I may be a little biased, but to my mind the Gooners’ taunts of “your just a fat Spanish waiter” directed at Benitez, are well founded based on his sparing use of Yossi Benayoun, as the little Israeli’s jinking skills were at the heart of virtually every Liverpool move and it’s sad to think that Rafa so rarely lets this little genie out of his box.

Apparently in his punditry for Setanta on Saturday, Nigel Winterburn had made a comment, alluding to Fabianski’s fragile confidence, saying that if the Polish keeper starts a game well, with a couple of confidence instilling touches, he usually goes on to have a blinder. By coincidence, when he dashed from his line in the first few minutes at Wembley and missed the ball, leaving Kieran Gibbs to clear off the line, I turned to my mate and suggested that this wasn’t likely to do much for the Pole’s confidence. But by contrast, in the first few of many Liverpool forays forward, Fabianski dashed from his line, to dive bravely at the feet of a Liverpool player close to the edge of his box and as the ball squirted away to another player in red, he was up in a flash and with no thought of his own safety and a likely kick in the head, he thwarted the goal threat, by again diving at the feet of another forward.

It was just what Fabianski needed to dispel the thoughts of Saturday’s nightmare and set the tone for the rest of his performance, where although some of his feeble attempts to punch the ball away when it was whipped into the box, saw him throwing the sort of shape, where all he needed was a cape to make his second rate Superman impression complete, he produced a commendable performance overall and didn’t really deserve to end the evening, having picked the ball out of his net four times.

I might be wrong, but I’ve a sense that when it came, our goal was largely against the run of play and watching from the other end of the pitch, we were all wondering about the legitimacy of Liverpool’s offside protests. Myself I couldn’t help but wonder if we might go on to regret having pulled the tiger’s tail a little too early in the proceedings and so it proved, as our defence visibly wilted under the early second half pressure exerted by the Scousers, to concede two quick goals.

In days past, that would’ve been “thank you and goodnight” in a game at Anfield and you have to credit the Gunners and in particular Shava, for his total lack of respect for the traditional order of things and for his voracious appetite, a hunger which had doubtless been heightened by having been denied his big Wembley day out.

I’ve rarely witnessed a clearer example of the potential weakness in Arsène’s armoury, in his apparent inability to draw on gut instinct as a tool, to be used in conjunction with his more clinical consideration of the physical evidence as to the condition and capabilities of his players. Arsène must’ve been just about the only person present at Wembley to be totally oblivious to the combination of largely intangible factors, that left the rest of us Gooners feeling pretty much convinced that Wembley was a purpose built stage for little Shava to shine upon.

Who would’ve believed our pint-sized Cossack would put his big performance on the back burner, to be brought to the boil only three days later and I can’t help but feel somewhat gutted that when it came, instead of his four goal haul putting the Pensioners back in their place and taking us to the final, by proving that there really is “only one team in London”, they’re basically just a hugely enjoyable irrelevance.

Mind you, Arshavin’s clinical finishing with both feet, in such a high-profile game, should at least serve him well, as all those charged with defending against him in future will be left guessing, not knowing whether it’s best to show Shava on to his right, or his left foot because he appears to be equally deadly with both. The best thing about going a goal behind is that the high of regaining the lead is so much more ecstatic and those of us behind Pepe Reina’s goal were in seventh heaven over the Russian’s and the Gunner’s third goal.

Never mind that it was a positively breathtaking, Kop silencing strike, but what impressed me all the more was the intensity of Shava’s focus, seizing the opportunity to rob Arbeloa, when by rights he should never have won the ball. Arshavin must have resisted the opportunity to pinch himself, to check he wasn’t dreaming when he despatched the fourth and I’m sure there was an instant before he slammed the ball into the back of the net, when an expression of incredulity was writ large across his face, as he was unable to believe the ball had arrived at his feet, with him totally unmarked, smack bang in the middle of the six-yard box.

By coincidence, on the long drive home, one of our number picked up a magazine in a petrol station which included a photo-spread that portrayed Andrey’s various bizarre facial expressions and Shava must have run the entire gamut of these in the course of Tuesday’s jubilant goal celebrations.

The majority of Gooners were too busy jumping up and down, revelling in what looked like being a truly memorable triumph and the most incredible awayday we’ve enjoyed this season (so far?), to even notice that the fourth official had held up the board indication 5 minutes of injury time.

As far as I was concerned Howard Webb had allowed this game to flow to such an extent, that I simply couldn’t believe he’d allowed for five minutes of stoppages. But then it was one of those nights when time does indeed appear to fly, by nature of the intensity of the non-stop entertainment. However Howard Webb, the nation’s best ball-head referee certainly doesn’t look jewish, but perhaps this was his personal slant on the recent Passover celebrations (if a little tardy), a festivity that involves eating several box loads of cardboard crackers which one really should pass over, because they won’t pass through, without the aid of an enema and a massive meal, where the youngest person at the table is obliged to read out the “ma nish ta neh”a piece which translates to mean “why is this night different to all other nights”
Well when I think of all the matches where I’ve bemoaned the ref’s failure to add on anything like an appropriate amount of injury time, as in almost every game if you allow 30 seconds for every substitution, booking and every time the physio makes an appearance, in truth there should be a minimum of five minutes added to almost every game. Yet according to the laws of Sod & Murphy (and the “ma nish ta neh”), why should this be the one bloomin’ game where Webb insisted on allowing for every single, heart stopping second of injury time.

I certainly saw the green illuminated “5” as within moments of scoring, once the explosion of joy had subsided, I had my binoculars trained on the sidelines, to find out how long we had to hold out. I held out my five fingers because I had no chance of making myself heard above the raucous abandon of us Gooners behind the goal. But I was trying to indicate to my mates that they might be best to temper their euphoria, considering we were still some 300 seconds away from it being all over.
If the Liverpool game was a boxing match, it certainly wasn’t one for the purist fans of the Marquis of Queensbury’s noble art. No, this was the equivalent of two sluggers, squaring up in the middle of the ring, attempting to bash each other’s brains out, with salvation only to be found in the sound of the final bell, or the thump of the canvassnothing but the sound of the last bell, or the sweet relief of the thump of a head hitting the canvass, with the loss of consciousness.

With the two teams trading blow for blow and defence a dirty word, there was some sense of it being inevitable that the momentum would swing the Scouser’s way once they’d been afforded an additional five minutes and would go down the other end and land the blow to earn them a creditable draw.

In truth it was probably right that the evening ended honours even, since neither side deserved to lose and both teams had provided us with some right royal entertainment, of the sort that was an absolute privilege to be present to watch. Although it was a gutter to give up the victory at the death, when we’d led on three separate occasions and I’m sure we’d have been a whole lot more miffed if the result had been more relevant, there were few complaints to be heard coming from us Gooners.
In fact we all trooped out a little shell-shocked, dazed and confused by the wonder of it all. I half expected to be woken up any minute, still in the back of the motor, on route to the North-West, having just dreamed up this far-fetched fantasy football. The daughter of one of my pals was a little concerned about us walking back with me wearing a top with Arsenal emblazoned across my chest. She wondered whether I might want to do up my coat to avoid any aggro. However I suggested to her that after such an enthralling encounter (and with honours even), the Scousers were more likely to want to come up and shake my hand than to give me a slap.

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Manchester Or Bust

Hi folks

Believe it or not, I've written over 2,500 words since last Tuesday's incredible encounter up at Anfield. But I've been so busy with work that I haven't managed to get this missive finished. Hopefully I will find a few minutes to finish it before Wednesday's big game so that I can post it, before it all becomes too outdated

Meanwhile if I was a Boro fan, I would've been angry if I'd spent my hard earned wedge to travel down South to support my team's struggle to retain their Premiership status, only to see my side lie down like lambs. I was amazed to here it revealed on the radio that Stuart Downing has played every game and has yet to score a goal. This just about says it all really. Perhaps they'd already written off the game against us but at only 0-1 down, I would've expected them to fighting for grim death to try and snatch an equaliser. But based on their apparent lack of intensity, I'm beginning to revise my opinion of Southgate as a manager, as on this evidence, they looked like certain relegation candidates.

Yet without any further ado, I want to watch the Barca v Chelsea semi and if I don't get this sent out now, I never will

Come on you Yellows
Big Love

I’m not sure what Fergie will have learned from his presence at Sunday’s stroll in the sunshine. I’m assuming he was only paying a visit to our place, on route to donning his penguin suit for the PFA Awards. Yet I doubt he was left any the wiser as to the Gunners line-up at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, by a game which, to my mind, really only stood as testament to the disappointing amount of fight left in Gareth Southgate’s dogs.

In the absence of Van Persie, Arsène might fancy the goal threat posed by Fabregas, playing in the more advanced role. Yet Cesc might not find Man Utd’s defence nearly so accommodating as Boro’s and for my money, the Gunner’s passing game is only ever truly on song, with our Spanish maestro at it’s heart, acting as the fulcrum, where Fabregas is best placed to bring all our other attributes into play, with the quality of both his long and short passing.

On the basis that we’re likely to have a better chance of outscoring Man Utd than keeping a clean sheet, personally I’d love to see us go for it, with a more offensive 4-4-2 formation. But le gaffer is hardly known for his gung-ho qualities and so I guess we can expect the Gunners to line-up with a lone striker.

Undoubtedly, over the course of 90 minutes, Adebayor is the player most likely to conjure up an inspirational, game-changing goal. I imagine that the Man Utd defence would be more apprehensive about the Togongator’s ability to do the unexpected, than Nicky Bendtner. Nevertheless, with Ade’s incessant tendency to stray offside, his apparent inability to get off the ground (to take advantage of his height) and his recent woeful first touch, where we’ve invariably lost possession as the ball has bounced straight off him, one could make a meaningful argument for selecting the Dane in his stead, since Ade patently isn’t suited to a role demanding so much selfless graft.

Several other selection quandaries were the source of heated debate on Sunday. Where Sylvestre appears more than competent when coping with the modest abilities of the likes of Marlon King, I get the sense that there’s an acute awareness of his limitations, which can result in brown-trousered bedlam, when he’s required to thwart more accomplished strikers. By contrast Djourou’s “too cool for school” tendencies might have me kacking my own pants at times, but I’d much prefer to have the Swiss youngster emanating a “no fear” air of calm amidst our defence at Old Trafford, than the probability of the panic-struck alternative.

Sunday was one of the few occasions I can recall a fit Bakari Sagna being confined to the bench. Can we conclude that Eboué will continue in the right-back berth? Admittedly, in Sagna’s absence, the immature Ivorian appears to have relished a return to his original position. Although ultimately our ability to deny Utd the ammunition provided by their raids down the flanks could prove crucial. If Arsène chooses to place his trust in the more responsible Sagna, I would’ve much preferred for the French full-back to have got his nightmare return at Anfield out of his system, with a confidence restoring run-out against an impotent Boro.

Selection and formation arguments aside, my principal concern is that le Prof doesn’t repeat the mistake he appeared to make at Wembley. Perhaps it was related to his esteem for Hiddink, but I felt his team selection paid Chelsea too much respect, instead of simply putting his faith in our most in-form XI. Arsène responded to his critics in Sunday’s program notes, explaining that with 9 games in 27 days, it’s essential that he makes the most of his resources. He also referred to the irony that the same people who were crying about the exclusion of Alex Song, were moaning about his selection six months back!

However, it felt almost as if Wenger was contradicting himself, as Monday’s weekly email from the manager revealed “it’s better to win, than to lose and rest players”. Perhaps if le Prof had stay true to this policy, Shava might’ve had less to prove at Anfield last week and would be saving some goals for a return to Wembley in May?

If Fergie learned one thing this weekend, it was how lucky Utd are that the little Cossack is cup-tied in Europe. Cesc and Shava have only played a couple of games together, but already you can sense an intuition developing between the two of them. I’m positively licking my lips at the prospect of a pre-season which will enable all of his teammates to tune into the diminutive Ruski’s wavelength and instinctively occupy the sort of vacant areas that Shava was finding on Sunday.

For the Gunners to triumph at Old Trafford, we need Utd to set the same cup final high-tempo that Liverpool produced last week. The Scousers frenetic pressure forced us to zip the ball around at the sort of furious pace that was far more likely to encourage the best out of us, than 90 minutes of tentative probing in a contest where the fear of loss prevails.

In spite of Ashley Cole’s suspension, I’ve a totally illogical inkling that our Wembley appearance will prove to be a dress rehearsal for Rome (hopefully with a different denouement!). Although the Gunners are guaranteed at least one cup final appearance, as by some weird coincidence on 26th May, 20 years to the day of Micky Thomas’ magical night at Anfield, the kids will be returning in the second leg of the FA Youth Cup Final, after they mullahed Man City 4-1 in the second leg of the semi on Weds.

It’s all too strange for words, as only the night before, apart from savouring the most scintillating awayday of the season (so far!), I was delighted to be present, to pay my respects to an Arsenal and Liverpool legend. Although it was a somewhat pitiful sight, seeing a Parkinsons riddled Ray Kennedy shuffling onto the pitch at the break, credit where it is due, with the impressive pre-match card display at either end of the ground, of Kennedy’s respective shirt numbers, the Scousers once again proved themselves a proper football family, when it comes to honouring their heroes.
Win against Utd and Wenger will once again walk on water. Lose and you can be sure certain short-sighted Gooners will be sharpening their knives. Many will be too young to recall Ray Kennedy’s goal at White Hart Lane in ‘71, on a night when the Gunners finally emerged, after an entire decade spent in the shadow cast by our neighbours and the “glory, glory” exploits of Danny Blanchflower’s Double side. No matter what fate and fortune has in store for us this season, we can savour a sumptuous feast of football to come, safe in the knowledge we’re in comparative clover.

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Monday 20 April 2009

Hands Up, It's All My Fault

Hi folks,

I'm sure I'm not alone in wanting to hide under the covers today, in preference to going into work and facing the torment of my colleagues. But I will smile and take it all on the chin, in the hope that I'll be able to give it all back to them in spades, in a couple of weeks time.

I must admit, as much as I hate the anti-climax of Wembley as a semi-final venue (for both victors and the vanquished - walking back to the car on Saturday, I overheard a Chelsea fan saying "Quote of the day, the bloke beside me asking his mate if he was going to stay for the presentation"!), after an absence of far too many seasons, it felt good to be treading that well worn path, back to what came to be known as THOF2 not so long ago.

In fact, as I weaved my way around North-West London from Highbury, with the roof open and the windows down, but in too much of a nervous rush to really enjoy the sunny late afternoon, I was amazed to find I hadn't forgotten all the old back doubles, as my tried and trusted route to Wembley came back to me, almost by instinct. With the promise of a parking pitch a few hundred yards away, I probably wouldn't have left the house until 4.15, if it wasn't for the fact that I had in my possession a ticket for a lad on the Examiner sport's desk who flew over from Cork on Saturday morning.

I was getting a bit concerned when I had no communication from him by 3pm and I was relieved to receive a call to say he'd arrived at Wembley. But just as we were parking up, I received a call from an unfamiliar number. Apparently the Corkonian's mobile phone was on the blink and he'd managed to borrow a phone from a stranger, to make a far too hastily arranged meet with me at the Bobby Moore statue.

He reckoned he knew what I look like, but my picture in the paper is a good few years out of date and having never met him before, I didn't have a clue who I was looking for. However my fears that our afternoon was already going pear-shaped proved unfounded, as the Bobby Moore statue wasn't nearly as mobbed with people meeting up as I'd imagined and a call to the Sports Ed at the Examiner provided me with the perfect description of this chap as something of a Harry Potter lookalike and I came across him quicker than you can say "Quidditch"!

If there was one consolation to losing at Wembley, I was back home within half an hour, which was a whole lot better than a long miserable schlep back down the M6 from Villa Park. But by contrast my Corkonian pal had to catch a flight back at 10pm that evening and if I was feeling depressed on Saturday evening, it must have been nothing compared to the trauma of this poor chap, as I can only begin to imagine the experience of only finding out he had a ticket for definite on Thursday, after having stumped up a small fortune for a same day return flight, followed by all that effort and nervous anticipation in getting to the game and actually getting his hands on his ticket, only to suffer such a disappointing outcome and the prospect of having to make a mad dash back for his long journey home.

By contrast, the height of our anguish only extended to having to make our way around Wembley, through the very midst of the throng of celebrating Blue hordes. I managed to keep any response to their taunts down to the odd "See you in Rome" to the least threatening looking fans, but I was keeping an eye on my pal Zach, who's been accompanying me to recent matches, as this was the first big defeat he's experienced on his trip over from the US and I was worried the incessant barrage might eventually get to him and he might end up saying something in response that would end up with him getting lamped and with me being obliged to try and come to his rescue. But mercifully Zach has soon come to the realisation that discretion is definitely the best part of valour when absolutely surrounded by ugly Blue numbskulls!

It was interesting watching Sunday's semi, as the Toffees' fans certainly seemed to turn the noise up a notch or two compared the the fans of the other three teams involved in the weekend's semis. Perhaps this was because of all the four teams, their fans were the least likely to be blasé about their big day out at Wembley and were therefore intent on making the most of it.

But from our corner of Wembley on Saturday, all I could hear was a muffled indistinct noise coming from the Chelsea end and in this respect it's much like our gaff, but on a grander scale, where the distances involved are so great that there is no chance of the two sets of fans feeding off one another to heighten the atmosphere and where there are small pockets of fans who make an effort to get chants going, but by the time these emanate out, one side of the ground is just starting to join in, as others finish and thus there were only a couple of momentary instances where we all sang as one.

What's more, the fact that Wembley's equivalent of Club Level occupies such a prominent position, separating the Upper and Lower tiers to such a great extent, this simply isn't conducive to creating a truly fervent, roof-raising atmosphere. The acoustics at the Old Wembley weren't exactly brilliant, but the design of the terracing, without the intercession of the coporate punters (who were right up in the gods if I'm not mistaken), meant that even if you were sat right up the back in the very last row, you still got to experience those incredibly atmospheric moments which were guaranteed to make the hair stand up on the back of even the most blasé fans neck.

Meanwhile Arsène has never missed an opportunity to sing the praises of the character of our current squad this season, usually in games when we've come back after conceding the first goal. I guess we're about to find out whether he was speaking the truth, or merely spouting the party line, in the way they respond to the disappointment of Saturday's defeat.

As I've told any Chelsea fans of my acquaintance, they can gladly have that one, in return for stuffing them in Rome

Keep the faith
Big Love

There’s the small matter of a semi-final with Man Utd to come, but for no logical reason, I’ve an inkling that Saturday’s match was a dress rehearsal for the Champions League final. If we should go on to gain revenge against the Blues in Rome, few Gooners will give a stuff about missing out on the FA Cup, as we’ve been there and done that. While the big-eared prize is the only major trophy that continues to elude the Arsenal and without it, le Gaffer’s CV, as one of the games greats, will never be truly complete.

However if we should end the season empty-handed, there’ll be more than a few knives out for le Boss, drawn by those disgruntled Gooners who felt he blew our best chance of a trophy, with his team selection on Saturday. Yet Wenger was in good company and there was some consolation in seeing Everton end Man Utd’s aspirations of a silverware monopoly, as Fergie also gambled and lost in Sunday’s second semi.

Albeit that there was one big difference, as just about any team Utd put out had a chance of overcoming Everton, whereas we really needed our best XI in order to beat the Blues. Although I got the impression that Arsène might’ve been guilty of paying the opposition too much respect, by attempting to negate Chelsea’s strengths (eg. with the inclusion of Diaby), instead of playing to our own and picking his in-form players in their most effective roles.

Admittedly Wenger’s decisions were bound to have been influenced by the vulnerability of our decimated defence. But considering a clean sheet was never on the cards, then surely the solution was an offensive line-up capable of keeping the ball in the opposition’s half of the pitch. To beat Chelsea we needed to make the most of their recent fragility, with a team suited to scoring more goals than the number of crucial calamities at t’other end of the pitch.

It’s all to easy to criticize with the benefit of hindsight but if Arsène does have a weakness, it’s that at times his approach is perhaps a little too scientific. I’ve no doubt that le Prof is in a class of his own, when it comes to computing black & white statistics. Yet on occasion Wenger seems completely out of touch with something as intangible as gut instinct.

My own gut instinct told me this was to be Shava’s big day. After the frustration of missing out on all the Champions League excitement, if there was one fresh-legged player in the Arsenal squad who was going to be inspired by an opportunity to shine on the Wembley stage, it was Arshavin.

In fact, if your looking to point the finger of blame for our FA Cup exit, I’m yer man! I’m not a gambler and never bet on the Gunners, but like many others, I was so convinced of our diminutive Cossack’s influence on proceedings, that having discovered a fiver on an online betting account (from an each-way Grand National result a couple of years back), I made the fatal mistake of backing Shava to score.

Perhaps Denilson’s inclusion was more evidence of Arsène’s analytical approach, based on the boy’s impressive stats. Either that, or the Brazilian lad is Wenger’s secret lovechild. When I think back to the sort of stick Song was getting only a couple of months back, it’s hard to believe that we were all so distraught to see him left on the bench. Yet Arsène’s faith in his players is so unshakeable, that even when it was patently obvious to everyone present that Denilson was having a stinker, le Prof refused to react.

Myself I would’ve much preferred a more positive 4-4-2 formation, since if Saturday’s performance proved one thing, it’s that Adebayor isn’t suited to the lone striker’s role. It’s hard to recall Ade (or any other Arsenal player for that matter) winning a single aerial battle and the Togonator’s first touch was so awful, that every ball seemed to bounce straight off him. Nevertheless, a less rational, more instinctive manager might’ve felt that the fact that Ade had done diddly-squat for 80 minutes, made it that much more likely that he’d conjure up a mercurial moment in the last ten, than the more pedestrian talents of Bendtner?

I’ll be amazed if we don’t experience some sort of hangover effect against the Scousers on Tuesday and I can’t believe Wenger was saving players for a game we can well afford to lose. Besides the possible negative psychological impact of losing two games on the bounce would far outweigh the importance of any effort to conserve energy.

Time will tell which of us will most rue the loss of our winning momentum, when we meet at Old Trafford next week. Charged on adrenaline, Chelsea and Everton certainly won’t be feeling fatigued, whereas the exhaustion was writ large across the hangdog expressions on the faces of the two losing teams.

Most disappointing was the absence of any sign of an edge to Saturday’s somewhat tame affair, that lung-busting, body crunching vim of those pushing it to the max, as if their very lives depended on lifting that ancient trophy. Watching the trio from the ’71 side of Wilson, Graham and Mclintock appearing in Sky’s sentimental “Time Of Our Lives” series, last week’s trip down memory lane left me feeling particularly nostalgic for an era when you knew it meant as much to those on the pitch, as it did to those of us on the terraces.

Regaling us with their tales of yore, it was evident that players spent almost as much time in the boozer back then (quaffing ale with their Spurs counterparts), as they did on the pitch. And yet their 70 plus games a season makes an absolute mockery of the superfit modern moaning Minnies, who require resting and rotating, after less than half as many matches. The respect positively oozed out of the screen, from men (even the reticent Graham) who’d been to the well and back together enough times, to truly appreciate the mettle of their teammates.

I doubt the occupants of the exclusive Bobby Moore Club were detained by the sort of unbelievably long queues for the karseys witnessed in the lower tier (as though the designers were desperate to retain the “rivers of piss” reputation of the old Wembley!), but watching them still meandering back to the posh seats 15 minutes after the break, these corporate cathedrals, with their plastic fans and phony team-spirit, leave me clutching at the last few straws of the seductive charms of the far more beautiful game of my childhood.

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Monday 13 April 2009

It's A Fickle Old Game

G'day fellow Gooners,

A sunny day out in Wigan! Now there's something you don't hear very often and it couldn't have been further from the truth the way we were all feeling at half-time. But the sun wasn't alone in wearing a smile by the final whistle, with the additional two goals at the death which were more than enough to mask our previous dissatisfaction with an hour of positively impotent football.

It was hard to believe we were the side with the extra man in midfield, considering how much difficulty we had in retaining possession and while it was Theo Walcott's goal which seemed to knock the stuffing out of Wigan, it was the removal of Denilson and the reversion to 4-4-2 (combined with the home side running out of puff and motivation) which actually had the most significant impact, as we went from a team who'd struggled to test Kirkland all afternoon, to suddenly returning to the expansive Arsenal side that's capable of cutting a swathe through all comers.

Considering I've knocked the pundits who suggested Cesc as their MOTM below, I feel obliged to make some alternative suggestion. I guess it would have to be between Shava and Song. Arshavin for having the nous and the determination to flick the ball to Theo, from a prone position, on the deck in the penalty area. Not to mention the hunger to pounce on Koumas' mistake for our third. Also it wasn't until I watched the highlights that it dawned on me quite what a marvelous team goal, it would've been, if Shava had found the net instead of the post a few minutes earlier (or if Vann Persie hadn't been offside when he stabbed home the rebound).

Perhaps Song was no less guilty than the rest of our midfield for the casual attitude that prevailed during the first hour of the game. But he came on strong with all of them once the substitutions had been made and I'd have given him the MOTM award, just to make sure that it was indeed Alex Song and not some impostor in a disguise who weaved his way forward for the final flourish.

Meanwhile I hope no one will take offence at my reference below to Hillsborough. On reflection it might sound a little callous of me to equate anything as meaningless as a ball game, to the tragedy endured by the families and friends of all those who lost their lives that day. Nevertheless, if the dead had a voice, I feel sure that more than anyone, they would espouse the belief that "the show must go on"

Peace & Love

As we headed North amidst the drizzle of a miserably grey Easter Saturday morning, my suggestion from the back of the motor that the weather was likely to improve, was greeted with understandable cynicism by my fellow Gooners up front. Wigan is a hop and a skip from Manchester and as we all know “it always rains in Manchester”.

However as I awoke from a welcome snooze, after an early start, to find that we were motoring along the A50, past the Britannia Stadium in Stoke, it was all blue skies and bright sunshine. With my radio tuned to the coverage of the emotional scenes at Anfield’s early KO, it was as though the sun itself had doffed it’s hat (the golden orb, not the gobshite tabloid!), in remembrance of that fateful day a couple of decades back.

Nearly every travelling fan has their own horror stories of the sort of sardine like circumstances, where we’ve felt in serious danger of having the very life crushed out of us, in the pursuit of our footballing pleasures. Hillsborough was indeed an “accident” waiting to happen and although there was some good to come out of such a tragic loss of life, with the resulting transition from the toilets of yesteryear, to the family friendly environments of our modern Premiership stadia, in some sense the mourning for the 96 who died will always be synonymous in my mind with the demise of the people’s game, as the price to be paid for the knee-jerk climate that spawned the Taylor Report, has been a metamorphosis into a more upmarket, more sanitized past-time for people who can afford it.

A major overhaul was inevitable but without the hyperbole that followed Hillsborough, we might have witnessed a more gradual, more benign transformation, something along the lines of the Bundesliga, where standing terraces aren’t seen as the exclusive domain of the devil’s spawn. It wasn’t the terraces that were responsible for all those deaths, but those who policed them and there are many who will argue that it’s no less dangerous to force fans who insist on standing, into some of the extremely cramped confines of many of our not so well proportioned all-seater stadia.

By contrast we Gooners are fortunate to have a wonderful, purpose-built new ground. Yet those of us who were weaned at our Highbury Home of Football continue to grieve our recent loss, as our intimate place of worship has been replaced by an antiseptic glass and concrete cathedral. Still it’s all trivial, relative to the genuine heartache of those who were left to cope with Hillsborough’s human cost. Yet many of the dead must be turning over in their graves, at the total transformation of the game since their harrowing departure from this mortal coil.

Arriving in Wigan, I’m sure I wasn’t the only Gooner to smirk at the not very old, nor particularly permanent sign, welcoming us to “the home of Premiership Football”. I assume Kieran Gibbs must’ve seen another sign, welcoming him to the home of Rugby League, judging by the way in which he wrestled Valencia to the ground just before halftime. Only the width of the woodwork and Wiley’s benevolence prevented us going in at the break with a 2 goal deficit and down to 10 men, following as lackadaisical first-half as we’ve endured all season.

Perhaps Wigan weren’t expecting such a healthy Gooner turnout (5000?), but with programmes sold out and with queues so long for the local delicacies, there was little to distract me from wondering what on earth I was doing there. You know it’s been a particularly pony performance when, after travelling all that way, the more gluttonous of the Gooner clan are prepared to miss 15 minutes of the second-half queuing for a pie!

But then it’s at such games that I’m reminded of the diversity of the Gooner Diaspora nowadays. As I came away from the JJB (or the DW as it will soon be known, which might be a testament to the largesse of the Lactics egotistical chairman, but which also comes as some solace, to think that our place might not be destined to retain is association with an Arabic airline for all eternity), I overheard the 4-1 scoreline being described as a decidedly flattering result for the Gunners, in broad Lancashire accents. But it was only as I turned to concur with the yokels by way of consolation, that I was forced to choke on my “you” and turn it into a “we” as I realised I was surrounded by red & white.

If you’ve seen the highlights, you might think this was a suitably positive performance, leading into a week, which could make or break our season. However for those present there was plenty of cause for concern, as to how easily we were unsettled by a Wigan side that was all over us, like a rash, until they ran out of steam in the last half hour.

I had to marvel at the pundits who made Fabregas their man of the match. Mon capitaine might have conjured up a couple of killer passes when we began to run riot, but he was out of sorts up until then, growing increasingly petulant over Wigan’s close attentions. Strangely enough this game probably offered more questions than it did answers, as it was only when le Prof withdrew the worst of a lamentable 5-man midfield, in Denilson and reverted to 4-4-2 that we began to make hay in the Wigan sunshine.

And when Song put the cherry on top, by walzing through the Wigan defence to score a fourth, we were all agog, wondering if we were suffering from sunstroke. Nevertheless, there were enough concerns about the “last man standing gets his kit on” nature of our patched up defence, to know that the 1-1 draw in Spain could prove fatal, if we approach the return game on the back foot, with any hint of some misguided belief in our capacity to grind out a 0-0.

Unless we take the game to the Spaniards, in their half of the pitch, it will be a long, nerve-wracking night, where we might end up rueing our inability to shift down the gears and suddenly regain some momentum. Should we fail against Villareal, I’m not sure it will be worth us bothering to turn up at Wembley three days later. But if we win, I fancy we’ll float there on a tide of euphoria, which will take us to the FA Cup Final. There’s no middle ground, either we’ll be proclaiming the Gunners have risen from the dead next Sunday, or it will be the lack of any prospect of pieces of silver that will result in Gooner Judases aplenty, coming out of the woodwork everywhere to denounce our master. Let us pray!

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Friday 10 April 2009

Cometh The Hour

Still salivating over Adebayor's goal the other night. For someone as gangly and as awkward looking as Adebayor, there was a grace and a fluidity of movement in the way he cushioned the ball on his left shoulder, before performing the overhead shot with his right foot, that made it just about the most perfect example of the bicycle kick that I can recall seeing (although with my positively sieve like memory that doesn't mean too much!).

At least that is in the heat of a proper match, as there was a natural, relaxed air to the way in which the Togonator performed this feat, that made it look like something you'd see on the training ground, rather than doing it amidst the tension of being 0-1 down in a Champions League quarter final.

It was also an extremely pleasant surprise that Adebayor actually managed to find sufficient space to perform a bicycle kick in the penalty area, without the ref blowing up, as nine times out of ten nowadays, there'd be such a throng of bodies in the box that one would automatically get done for dangerous kicking!

It was all the more amazing considering the fact that (and I am sure I wasn't alone) up until this point I'd been bemoaning Ade's every, infrequent touch as being far too clumsy and ineffective. I mean you know you are in big trouble, when you are absolutely begging for Bendtner to be brought on!

Having done the business, I would've made the swap, as Adebayor was likely to have been so chuffed with scoring such a picture book goal that it seemed to make sense to replace him with a player who still has plenty to prove.

Moreover I have to admit that I was somewhat disappointed that we seemed to settle for the draw after equalizing, when in truth we should've gone for the Spaniards throat. It was like watching Arsenal v Sunderland for much of the first half. Albeit that it was the Yellow Submarine making hay with their mazy passing patterns, while the Gunners were giving it the big 'un, in the vague direction of an ineffective lone striker.

In fact it was a repeat of the Roma game and I have to admit that utterly perplexed as to why it is that we seem to start these games totally devoid of the sort of intensity and focus that one might expect of a season making (or breaking!!) match. On paper Villareal's positive passing game should be perfectly suited to bringing the very best out of the Gunners and in the past, when we've got about such sides, persistently pressing them in two's and three's, the ball has become like a hot potato and we've forced them into constantly conceding possession, preferring to release the ball rather than being clattered.

Instead of which, we invited pressure on Tuesday night with a powder puff first half performance, constantly conceding territory as we ran away from the man with the ball instead of confronting them. On the face of it, you would have to say that there is something wrong somewhere, when we seem to repeatedly appear from the dressing rooms for such crucial encounters and instead of being energized by a frantic bout of headbutting the lockers, we look like we've just woken from an afternoon snooze? (it's not a literal suggestion, as knowing our lot, they'd fracture their skull from the slightest contact with a locker, but you get my meaning).

I can appreciate that having come back from 0-1 down, a 1-1 draw was a decent enough result, but I'm concerned that we might rue the fact that we didn't press home our advantage, as both psychologically and physically, the home side seemed to visibly wilt once they'd conceded the goal and having seen what Chelsea did at Anfield last night, I felt we could've done likewise, since Villareal were ripe for the sinking once the Submarine had been breached. And it would've stood us in far better stead, as it would take a far braver man than me to put their house on us being able to hold out for a clean sheet in next week's home game!

However having been so under the cosh in the first half (and having lost Almunia and Gallas), we appeared far too relieved with the prospect of coming away honours even, to even consider the possibility of putting the tie to bed. Thus it was frustrating to see us turn tail and pass the ball back into our own half, preferring to retain possession, rather than taking them on. I only hope we don't come to regret not having pressed home our advantage, having gained the upper hand, as who knows how next Wednesday's home leg will go!

I also owe an apology to Manuel Almunia, as I was under the misapprehension that if he could've carried on for twenty minutes, he might just as easily have remained between the sticks for the entire match and so I couldn't help but wonder if he'd instead decided to make the most of his opportunity to bottle it. But his three week injury confirms that I couldn't have been further from the truth and in fact I should be expressing my gratitude for his attempt to soldier on, when many players would've immediately been calling to be replaced and in fact his bravery might've been foolhardy, as perhaps he would've healed sooner if he'd been subbed straight away.

It just goes to prove that one must not judge a book by its cover, even ones adorned in fuschia, accompanied by fey toy doggies

Monday 6 April 2009

Summer Time And The Livin' Is Easy

G'day fellow Gooners,

Normally I find I've more to moan about in my weekly missives when things are going awry for the Gunners. But for some reason there was so much to comment on this week that it was a major dilemma deciding upon what to include and what to omit, without pissing off the sports ed at the Irish Examiner completely, by exceeding my quota by several thousands words. In fact, since I'm already on a yellow card for constantly filing pieces which are far too long-winded, I'm so paranoid about being sent off, that I ended up sending the paper the following piece with the last three paragraphs tagged on separately, to ensure I didn't get another black mark.

But after hearing of the rumours concerning Van Persie in today's tabloids, I couldn't not comment about the fairly constant press speculation concerning our most highly prized superstars.

For the benefit of those of you who don't get to read the Irish Examiner (since it's almost impossible to find over here in the UK - I've only ever come across one place to buy it, the newspaper kiosk in Camden, where they only stock something like Wednesdays and Friday's edition), they produce a blinding footie supplement in the Monday paper which I receive in the post and which, along with the matchday programme, makes up my reading material for the week, when sitting on the throne. IMHO, it's a shame it's not available on this side of the Irish Sea, as it's a much better read than many similar supplements in the Monday papers (apart from the Game in the Times). Alan Green provides a weekly contribution and in his column last week he inferred that we only had to turn up, in order to progress to an Arsenal v Man Utd semi in the Champions League.

One of the other stories I would've liked to have commented on in the paper was a tale I only heard yesterday, of a lad who was arrested by a plainclothes copper outside the ground, whilst flogging his Dad's Club Level seat at face value. When you consider that the same touts we see at games all over London, operate with apparent impunity between the Arsenal tube station and the ground, fleecing footie fans at every game, without any interest from the old bill, it seems utterly ridiculous the this poor Gooner has suffered the full weight of the law, with a positively batty three year banning order.

In truth I wanted to follow this sorry tale up some more, as the account I've read to date is that incredible, that I'm half hoping there is another side to this tale that doesn't make our new stadium seem quite such a laughing stock. It would appear that the lad believe the stewards have had it in for him for some time, as apparently his behaviour is far too boisterous for the sedate environs of the posh seats and some of the punters seated around them, who would supposedly prefer to watch their football sat in relative silence. He tells how some Club Level punters were searched and subsequently thrown out when they were found to have illegal substances on them (some of which would make for a far less aggressive atmosphere than the legal rivers of alcohol!) and how he was also searched, but despite nothing of the like being found on him, he was also ejected because apparently he failed their "attitude test".

Hopefully those fans associated with various supporters associations might raise poor Jamie Jubon's case with the club, because even if there's more to this tale than has met my eye to date, I honestly don't understand how the courts can possibly justify denying him his passion for the next three years, by means of a law which was instigated in order to prevent violent numbskulls from attending football matches and which is also intended to deal with the problem of proper ticket touts.

I could walk from the Arsenal tube station on any given match day and identify a dozen genuine pond scum scalpers, so why is it that our officers of the law seem to prefer to waste their time picking on those who are merely passing on spare tickets. On the face of it, the fact that our taxes are actually paying for old bill to don their civvies and have an afternoon out watching the Gunners, whilst they justify their presence by pinching the odd footie fan instead of the real culprits, this might lead one to wonder why exactly it is that they choose not to make even the slightest attempt to be seen to be taking some action, even if this was merely to deter the obvious touting activities by making their presence known. A less timid man than myself might believe the only conclusion to be drawn is that there must be some sort of corruption involved?

Come on you Reds
Big Love

I certainly hope that the Gunners aren’t as dismissive of the threat posed by Villareal as Alan Green was in his “Luck of the draw?” comments in last Monday’s Examiner. According to the increasingly bitter Radio 5 boyo, the Champions League quarterfinals are a foregone conclusion as far as Man U and the Gunners are concerned. You’ll know by now how much of a say Porto and Villareal have had on this matter in Tuesday night’s first leg, but if football was anywhere near so predictable, it would be the bookies on poor street, not the punters.

Sure we’re both favourites to progress to an all-English semifinal and I’d be very surprised if an uninspiring Porto side possess the wherewithal to unduly trouble Utd at Old Trafford. But unfortunately our match takes place on the pitch at El Madrigal, not on paper and even without the influential likes of the injured Cazorla, there remains enough quality in the Spanish outfit to ensure that it will be no stroll in the park.

Complaints forced Villareal to reduce the cost of our tickets from €75 to only a slightly less extortionate €70, as they revealed that they fleeced Celtic and Man U fans of a similarly outrageous amount, for the privilege of a pitch in their new upper tier facility behind one of the goals. Still we should be entitled to a warm welcome, as it would appear that we are subsidizing their Club President’s generous offer of free season tickets for the unemployed. As the town’s largest employer in his tile factory, this would appear to be a “let them eat cake” type sop for the locals, so if Fernando Ruig is forced to make fans redundant, they might struggle to feed their kids but they can still go to the game on a Saturday!

However we’ll be going to Spain on Tuesday feeling fairly optimistic about a potentially thrilling denouement to this season’s campaign, after the timely return to the Gooner fold of a fit and fresh Cesc Fabregas, to strut his stuff against the Sky Blues, in the balmy sunshine on Saturday. Despite a couple of worrying moments when City carved us open, for the most part the Gunners were so imperious, that it was hard to believe this was the same Arsenal side that capitulated to a 3-0 defeat at Eastlands in November.

Mind you City were a pale shadow of the side that was infused with the euphoria of their new found wealth back then, having apparently already settled for the relative comfort of mid-table security. This could be a fatal mistake, considering anyone in the bottom half of the table could feasibly be dragged back down into the relegation dogfight by a couple of bad results.

Nevertheless Saturday’s somewhat perfunctory three points served as a reminder that the Arsenal are an entirely different proposition with Fab orchestrating our midfield. Compared to the lightweight Gunners who couldn’t buy a Premiership goal back in February, suddenly we are back to being a match for anyone, at our best.

For once we appear to have profited from an International fortnight and while I continue to have concerns about the apparent fragility of Theo Walcott, he and Cesc were afforded an extra couple of weeks to regain their fitness. There was even a silver lining to the injuries to Van Persie and Diaby, as although I’ve never liked the idea of playing with a lone striker in home games, in Robin’s absence, a 5-man midfield appeared to be the best use of the resources available to Arsène on Saturday. What’s more this meant that Wenger wasn’t forced to sacrifice Alex Song and while an article in Saturday’s programme proclaimed that Denilson has had more touches of the ball than any other Premiership player, for all the Brazilian’s promise, he has yet to prove himself adept at providing sufficient defensive cover for Cesc’s creative instincts.

Although Song still has to demonstrate that he’s capable of developing into something more than a stop-gap solution in the “water carrier” role, he remains a reassuringly muscular presence in front of our back four. Should Arsène return to playing 4-4-2 when we’ve a full compliment of players, it will be interesting to see how Le Prof plans on juggling all the midfield options available to him.

It wasn’t until I was sitting there shielding my eyes from the sun on Saturday that it dawned on me that with the clocks going back, I had even more cause to regret having neglected to don a cap. On the radio Bobby Gould made a crack about Arshavin rushing to take the corners on the sunlit side of the pitch, suggesting that it must be a novelty for a lad from the cold climes of St. Petersburg.

Yet Shava was far from alone in having a spring in his step, as all the Gunners seem to benefit from having the sun on their backs. Compared to the somewhat lardy looking Kolo Touré who started this campaign (supposedly suffering the after-effects of malaria), our stout Ivorian centre-back isn’t exactly svelte, but he’s reacquired the trim body shape and language of a player who’s once again capable of imposing himself on matches, which is in complete contrast to the Kolo who’s cut such an incomprehensibly peripheral figure for much of the season so far.

In fact what with Adebayor rediscovering some goal scoring form, it’s as if the change to BST has been a watershed, as the Gunners have returned from the break with a renewed appetite for the business end of this campaign.

I was excited when I opened the post last Wednesday to discover our Wembley tickets. It’s been a while since I had the pleasure of what’s previously been an almost annual ritual. They’re bigger than any regular tickets, as if their size matches the significance of the occasion, but where last week I was glad of semifinal opportunity to see the Arsenal play at the other Home of Football because I didn’t particularly fancy our chances of beating Chelsea, suddenly I’m gutted to be going to Wembley, knowing a win won’t provide us with the requisite opportunity to see the Arsenal lift a trophy. Bring ‘em all on!

Obviously securing some serious silverware would be the best way of thwarting the incessant and typically underhanded efforts to sabotage this Arsenal squad. The same comments from Van Persie were interpreted by some in the media as a pledge to stay at the club and by others as a “match my ambitions, or I’m on my bike” threat!

Personally I find it hard to understand why players fail to learn from the experiences of the majority of those who have left the Arsenal in recent times. With the promise of wages beyond even wilder dreams and the failure to appreciate that they are a long time retired, they continue to be blinded by the greenbacks, into believing that the grass will be greener. The circumstances are somewhat different as far as Fabregas is concerned. After being plucked from relative obscurity at Barca and rapidly developing into such a pivotal Premiership force, I can fully appreciate that Cesc is always going to have a lingering desire to return to do the business in his own backyard.

I’ve no doubt that Fab will succumb to the nefarious solicitations of the Spanish giants at some stage in his career. You never know, the King of Spain could put his hand in his (country’s?) pocket tomorrow, to enable the likes of Real to make us a ridiculous offer that we’ll be unable to refuse. But failing this, I honestly can’t envisage Cesc taking his leave for at least another season or so. Call me a foolish idealist, but I’m inclined to believe that their exists a mutual respect between our captain and manager, which will ensure that Fabregas will remain at the Arsenal long enough to repay Arsène for the faith he has shown in the boy wonder and having done so, Arsène won’t resist Fab’s desire to fulfil this deep-seated ambition. When that fateful day does eventually dawns, Cesc will go with the gaffer’s and every right-thinking Gooners’ blessing.

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Wednesday 1 April 2009

The Bigger Gob...Brown or Fab?

Probably all a bit passé considering I wrote the following ten days back but since there won't be many of you with access to the Irish Examiner I thought I might as well get it posted, just in case you've nothing better to do with your time

Big Love

PS. Naturally not too much Arsenal related content but if you missed this week's missive you can find it here: Get The Flags Out?

Drawing Chelsea in the FA Cup semi, thereby missing out on an opportunity to put a spoke in Man Utd’s efforts to monopolize this season’s domestic silverware, won’t bother me nearly so much, if we get an opportunity to pour sugar in the Red Devils’ tank in the Champions’ League semis and trample over their dreams of European domination

However this presupposes that the wheels don’t come off Fergie’s spluttering charabanc sooner and that the Gunners will vanquish Villareal in the quarters, which is a task that I for one certainly won’t be taking for granted.

On paper, Friday’s quartefinal draw has been kind to the Arsenal and Man Utd, but personally I would’ve much preferred for us to have pulled a bigger fish out of the hat and to be going into the first leg in a couple of weeks time as unfancied underdogs, rather than slight favourites.

The Gunners have travelled to intimidating cathedrals of the beautiful game like the Bernabeu and the San Siro and beaten the odds, by pulling massive results out of the bag in recent seasons. Continuing this trend of raising their game for the big occasion, the current squad have looked like the genuine “title challenging” article in putting Man Utd and Chelsea to the sword. Yet it was hard to believe that this was the same Arsenal side who’d endured an embarrassing defeat to Stoke and who’d capitulated against City, only the weekend prior to giving such a good account of ourselves in both glamour games.

Consequently I have my concerns that a return to the scene of a white-knuckle ride, semifinal triumph at El Madrigal in 2006 (courtesy of Lehmann’s last-gasp penalty save) might not prove to be a sufficiently inspirational occasion to get the adrenaline coursing through the Gunners’ veins. We were fortunate in the last round to come up against a Roma side without the resources to take advantage of our lack of intensity in the Olympic Stadium. But Villareal’s ranks contain quality aplenty and I very much doubt the Spanish side will be nearly so forgiving, if they face an Arsenal XI that fails to put them on the back foot.

However having ended the Tiger’s FA Cup fantasies last Tuesday and sent them back up t’North with their tail between their legs and then following this up with Saturday’s Toon Town triumph, we continue to gather some crucial momentum, as we approach the business end of this campaign (while around us, others battle to prevent their offensives from going off the rails!). As ever the International break couldn’t be a more badly timed interlude and it’s crucial we return with a bang, in a “must win” home game against City, in order to restore the buoyant mood double-quick, before the “make or break” matches start coming thick and fast.

I know there’ve been times in the past when Arsène has been his own worst enemy, when it comes to winning friends and influencing people with his social graces, but the furore that followed last week’s cup game was a complete farce. One journo came out of the Hull manager’s press conference and commented that Phil Brown had all but accused Arsène of starting the holocaust!

When in truth Wenger’s only crime was that, as usual, he’d viewed the game’s most controversial incident (the offside goal) through his red & white tinted specs. There are times when I admire Arsène’s efforts to defend the indefensible, in the face of incontrovertible evidence and I’m sure his squad must appreciate a gaffer who stands their corner come what may. Nevertheless le Prof and virtually all his Premiership peers could do with taking a lesson in humility from Roy Hodgson, as the Fulham manager always comes across as a genuine “mensch”.

Personally I’d prefer one of our players to lamp someone from the opposition, than the abhorrent act of spitting on them. But from what I saw of the TV pictures, Fabregas was no more guilty of gobbing on Horton, than all Premiership players are of spitting at the fans, when they spend the entire match clearing phlegm from their throats.

Meanwhile, after an exhausting day driving a hire van on Friday, I was still debating how I was going to get up to the North-East the next day, when I returned to my motor to find it had been clamped. When I added the cost of the congestion charge, to 130 quid cost of the clamp, it was utterly demoralising to think that it had basically cost me twenty quid to go to work that day!

At the exact same time, fortunately I discovered that the FA Cup semifinal tickets had gone on sale (as otherwise I might well have missed out completely!). So while waiting for the clampers, I got on the phone to book our two Wembley tickets, as I was terrified the £100 cost might be refused once I’d paid to have the clamp removed. Sadly the upshot of this unexpected expense was that I ended up having to sacrifice Saturday’s trip to Tyneside, in order to see the Arsenal trot out on the remodelled version of the hallowed turf for the first time. Even the most faithful of us football fans are beginning to feel the fall-out from the credit crunch!

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Get The Flags Out?

Hi folks

Apologies as I never got around to posting out last week's missive. What's more with the International Break, there's very little Arsenal content in this weekend's despatch and with the tragic news of all those deaths at the game in the Ivory Coast, it all seems rather trivial by comparison.

Meanwhile having mentioned the barmy flag ban at the stadium when I wrote the followng on Sunday, by coincidence the very next day the club announced that they've rescinded it. Although with Van Persie, Bendtner and Diaby all picking up injuries on International duty, you'll have to forgive me if I don't feel too inclined to celebrate!

I suppose it's the time of the season when the stresses and strains will inevitably begin to take their toll, but it's ironic that we start losing players just as the squad was looking like it was about to return to full strength. Still I guess it could be worse and they could've received their knocks playing absolutely meaningless International friendlies, seemingly scheduled merely to finance the National Stadium!

Mind you, so long as we've eleven fit players to put out against Man City on Saturday, as it will be a welcome relief to get back to some proper footie business

Peace & Love


With the turgid diet of ropey reality TV shows offered by the weekend TV schedules on a Saturday night, there was relatively little competition for my attention on Saturday night. Otherwise, it might’ve proved a stiffer test of my loyalties, to remain tuned to the coverage of Boys in Green’s encounter with Bulgaria at Croke Park for 89 fairly insipid minutes, following the initial excitement of a rare Richard Dunne goal within 40 seconds of the kick-off.

Personally I believe it’s criminal that coverage of England’s matches isn’t restricted to ‘free to air’ channels, rather than depriving those who can’t afford the expense of subscribing to both Sky and Setanta. I know there was none of the same tension in the more appetizing friendly taking place at Wembley prior to the game in Dublin and that Slovakia patently failed to turn up (being so firmly focused on Wednesday’s high-stakes clash with the Czechs), but it pains me to admit that in contrast to Ireland’s agricultural efforts, the flamboyant football of Gerrard, Rooney & co was TV viewing to be enjoyed rather than endured. Considering it feels like such a chore, if there’s any cost involved in watching the Boys in Green on the box, in truth it should be the FAI paying the punters!

Obviously Trappatoni’s only task is to qualify for the World Cup finals and should he achieve this feat, no one will give a hoot how he manages it. What’s more, no matter what the result in Bari on Wednesday night, I won’t be at all surprised if “Il Trap” inspires his team to cover themselves in glory, by giving a good account of themselves against the current World Champions. Nevertheless, even at their most negative, there was something about the Boys in Green back in the glory days of Jack Charlton that made Ireland matches far more compelling viewing.

Perhaps the modern day squad are merely victims of the same malaise that afflicts professional football as a whole, whereby no matter how much players might attest to the pride of donning their national shirt, the sort of selfless mentality that once saw players putting their bodies on the line, in a ‘sh*t or bust’ pursuit of a heroic momentary result, has given way to a more selfish responsibility towards the long-term preservation of the tool of their trade.

Whatever the cause, in the past there was entertainment aplenty, witnessing the work-rate, commitment and spirit of an Ireland side, which made them worth the price of admission, even when grinding out a result. Whereas when I consider the current crop, in the absence of Duff and aside from Keane and perhaps McGeady, I’m not sure I’d be prepared to stump up my hard earned wedge to watch the remainder of this lacklustre bunch.

I have to admit that I flicked over a few times to see the Scots being trounced by the Dutch, with me having some partisan interest in Van Persie’s performance. As far as I’m concerned these International breaks are an annoying interlude to the real business of club football, with the timing of this particular one more irritating than most (especially when the likes of Togo risk playing Adebayor for 90 minutes, when we’ve been waiting his return from injury these past few weeks).

However, in spite of Northern Ireland’s wonderful result at Windsor Park, if there’s one thing that’s struck me from watching Wales, Ireland and Scotland this past weekend, it’s been the utter dearth of genuine World Class talent. What happened to the abundant mine of talent that once churned out such lustrous diamonds as Brady, Daglish, Giggs and Best and which in the past could almost be guaranteed to produce at least one gem in every generation, around which a national team could be built and who ameliorated the daily drudgery of football fans in their millions, enabling them to invest some feint hope of fulfilling their most far-fetched footballing fantasy.

It’s a global curse that kids nowadays are glued to the telly, exercising only their thumbs playing the latest “shoot ‘em up” computer game, instead of kicking a ball up against a wall from an early age. Yet countries with comparative populations still manage to nurture a sufficient number of semi-precious stones to provide their national sides with a soupcon of star quality. Obviously the days of the Green Gunners and the Scots Scousers are long gone. The opportunities are fewer and further apart, in an increasingly competitive environment, where the incredibly cosmopolitan make-up of the Academies at many top-flight clubs serve to demonstrate quite how far and wide their scouting networks are forced to cast their nets.

Who knows, hopefully in a few years time we’ll be flying the Welsh Dragon in honour of Aaron Ramsey dominating the Arsenal midfield (assuming we’re not still denied, by a ludicrous ban on national flags at our gaff!). Myself I’d love to witness a return of the Tri-colour and there’s been no better club for an Irish lad to make the grade than the Gunners, during a decade of Liam Brady’s ardent patronage. Although after witnessing such Great Green Hopes as Graham Barrett and Anthony Stokes reveal themselves to be mere goldfish, forced to splash around in a smaller pond after their Arsenal careers had floundered, you begin to wonder if we’re ever again going to enjoy the emerald glow of a real dawn to compensate for these false ones?

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