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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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Anonymous said...

Good read, cheers.

Anonymous said...

I am a Liverpool season ticket holder and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post about the game. It was a fantastic match and it was great to see Ray Kennedy get a magnificent ovation from both sets of fans. There were quite a few Arsenal fans in the pub after the game and the atmosphere was really friendly.
Good luck against the Mancs tomorrow! I think an Arsenal v Barcelona final has the potential to be a fantastic game.

Fine Whine said...

Gawd, Just got my computer back after nearly 3 weeks being fixed, damn technology!!. Gotta tell you though it was made worse for not getting my daily Arsenal fix. And of course catchin up with the goonersdiary. Good to see standards haven't dropped while i was away. Excellent post..