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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He reckoned he knew what I look like, but my picture in the paper is a good few years out of date and having never met him before, I didn't have a clue who I was looking for.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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