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Tuesday 29 September 2009

Vito Makes Arsène An Offer He Can't Refuse

Atmosphere wise, the short trip to Fulham is always one of my favourite outings of the season, as with Arsenal fans being allocated the entire Putney Stand, the craic in our stand behind the goal at Craven Cottage is invariably up to ninety.

Sadly the cost is even higher. I found myself in a seat directly behind a mate and his six-year old son. At an extortionate 98 quid for their two tickets (behind the goal!), this hardly constitutes a cheap day-out.

The perceptive pass from Fabregas and the exquisite take and finish by Van Persie, for the only goal of the afternoon, was the solitary memorable moment. Aside from a stalwart, ‘they shall not pass’, Man of the Match performance from our 3rd choice keeper, on the pitch, there was little else to write home about.

However watching the little ‘un standing on his seat for the entire match, tugging at his embarrassed old man’s sleeve, demanding clarification of the lyrics every couple of minutes and gradually gaining sufficient confidence to raise his little arms and participate in the incessant cacophony coming from our end of the ground, it was obvious he was having a ball.

I’ve no doubt his afternoon of communal singing will live long in this lad’s memory. Although I’d love to be a fly on the wall, to see the expression on his mother’s face, when the light of her life walks in and serenades his ma, with an example of his newly acquired knowledge of terrace tunes “he’s 5ft 4, we’ve got Arshavin, f**k Adebayor!”

You know you’ve arrived in one of the more affluent parts of South West London, from the moment the programme sellers fleece you for a hefty £3.50 for a matchday program. It wasn’t so long ago that one could stand on the terraces at Craven Cottage for less than this! But then in an age when the likes of Fulham are forced to try and compete with the footballing behemoths, who benefit from grounds with more than double the Cottage’s limited capacity, you can’t blame them for doing their utmost to milk their relatively small crowds for all they’re worth.

In the week which saw the official opening of the luxury apartment complex that has become of the Arsenal’s former Home of Football, it felt quite poignant to be walking along the length of the ancient, Grade II listed frontage of Fulham’s main Johnny Haynes Stand (the oldest stand in the league, dating back to 1905, with its original wooden seats), knowing this had been saved – for the time being – from the rapacious grasp of the property developers.

With Premiership football increasingly taking place in largely homogeneous, antiseptic modern arenas, where nothing changes but the colour of the plastic seats, it’s most pleasing for sentimental fans such as myself, that quirky, proper old-fashioned football grounds like Craven Cottage continue to survive.

Saturday proved an afternoon for sentiment, as the Gunners slipped away from SW6 with all three points in the bag, following a well below par performance, where we gifted the home side far too many opportunities to deny us this rare reminder of a bygone era with a “1-0 to the Arsenal” result.

Time was, when if the Gunners went a goal ahead, away from home, you could bet the house on us being able to shut up shop and squeeze the life out of the remainder of the match. However a slender single goal margin is never enough for Wenger’s side and if it wasn’t for the characteristic ineptitude of Zamora (surely a necessity, rather than the choice of a manager as intelligent as Hodgson?), or the unexpected excellence of Vito Mannone – with a name more befitting a Sicilian mobster, perhaps Mannone made Bobby an offer he couldn’t refuse? – we would’ve undoubtedly been heading back to Highbury with our tail between our legs.

I’ve heard some positive whispers about Wojciech Szcz….the Polish kid, who tended goal against West Brom but have no prior knowledge of our Italian stallion. However aside from the communicative hesitancy on Saturday that resulted in an early collision with Gallas, since his baptism of fire in Belgium, Vito put a foot wrong. By singing his praises I’m guaranteed to be putting ‘the bok’ on him and obviously by the time you read this, Mannone will have had a ‘mare against Olympiakos. But his continued presence in the starting line-up has lead to a good deal of speculation about the alleged throat infection that’s laid Almunia low these past 3 weeks!

If there’s any substance to such rumours, I’m delighted. Almunia’s a likeable enough geezer, but it would indicate that Arsène has at long last come to terms with the fact that all the tinkering in the world with his outfield players counts for nothing, without a commanding presence between the posts.

Manuel might well be a decent shot stopper. But until such time as the Arsenal line-up is blessed with a keeper capable of dominating his area, who exudes the sort of composure that provides our centre-backs with the reassurance of knowing exactly what is and what isn’t their responsibility, our defence is always going to display the air of vulnerability which offers encouragement to opposition strikers.

It remains to be seen whether Wenger’s in-house solution can solve this problem, but it will come as a massive relief, just to know that le Prof has finally recognised that the absence of a world-class goalie is always going to be the ultimate stumbling block, in any effort to mount a serious title challenge.

Meanwhile, along with the much welcomed addition of a couple of new ‘chansons’ to the Gooner repertoire, Saturday saw the confirmation of Eboué’s redemption, easing the young Ivorian’s insecurities as his name rang out, while he and his fellow subs spent much of the second half warming up on the touchline below us.

With Shava marking his return with a bit of a stinker, the diminutive Ruski was eventually replaced by Rosicky. But the rest of our midfield wasn’t really ‘at the races’, seemingly relying on the graft of Alex Song for all the donkey-work. Diaby is capable of impressive work on the ball, but without it, far too often he switches off, leaving our defence exposed, as he fails to track his opposite number.

Vito’s valiant display was deserving of a clean sheet, but fatalist that I am, I was convinced that all his hard work would end up undone, by a last minute fumble. Thus as the floodlights came on, I was far too nervous to be able relax and enjoy the serene backdrop, as the swans floated gracefully by on the river, with the waters of the Thames reflecting the sumptuous colours of a blood red sky, as the sun dipped over the horizon. There aren’t too many football matches with the added value of a real-life Turner landscape.

It was a shock to hear that Chelsea had lost to the same Wigan side that capitulated against us the previous week, but this result at least proves that Ancelotti’s team are human. Who ever happens to be wearing the keeper’s jersey in the coming weeks, if he isn’t going to be equally over-worked, in a succession of encounters that we’ll be expected to win, against less glamorous opposition, Arsène is going to have to get the troops fired up, ramping up their focus and intensity. Otherwise we’ll be counting on our luck to hold out, but are more likely to end up catching the Blues’ cold.

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Tuesday 22 September 2009

Normal Service Resumed?

Dashing around to the ground on Saturday, late as ever, an Only Fools & Horses
style t-shirt on one of the stalls caught my eye, featuring Harry Redknapp as
Del Boy and a rib-tickling variation of the Trotter catchphrase “This time next
year we’ll be Champions League”.

Most of my Spurs mates have been downtrodden for so long, that they daren’t
usually allow themselves to get carried away with early season flights of
fancy. Besides which, any pre-season optimistic stuffing has normally been well
and truly knocked out of them, within the first couple of disappointing outings.

Sadly for them, the majority were swept up on the waves of media hogwash which
suggested that the writing was on the wall for the Gunners. They all positively
revelled in the reports that our membership had been rescinded, to the elite
pack of four clubs that were previously guaranteed Champions League
qualification, eagerly swallowing the bait, hook, line and sinker, about Spurs
joining the likes of nouveau riche Man City, in crossing the Rubicon, to
declare war on the Premiership’s established aristocracy.

Thus even for customarily ‘simpatico’ Gooners like myself, it was hard not to
savour the double-helpings of Schadenfreude served up this past week. After our
North London neighbours were afforded a brief glimpse of the Promised Land, with
their momentary sojourn at the summit, it appears as if normal service has been
resumed, as suddenly it all appears to have started to go tits up for

I customarily tease one of my Spurs mates, with a text message to remind him not
to forget to tape Eastenders for me, whenever we’re involved in Champions League
encounters. So naturally with us 0-2 down after only three minutes last
Wednesday night, he couldn’t resist pointing out “this is much better than
Easties!” However with the Arsenal subsequently enjoying more than our fair
share of good fortune in Liège, by the time Eduardo added the climactic drum
beat lead in to the theme tune and credits, I fully concurred with my pal’s
sentiments, picturing the wretched look of dismay etched upon his face, as the
Gunners had once again gone and ruined his evening.

I suppose just the fact that I’m even focusing on the enemy is evidence enough
that Spurs fans weren’t alone in failing to heed the proverbial “don’t believe
the hype” warning. Mark Hughes might not be alone with his conspiracy theories
about Sunday’s Mancunian derby continuing on, as long as was necessary for the
established old world order to prevail. Yet both Sunday’s derby games suggested
that although the competition might have intensified a notch or two this term,
to the point where these upstarts might occasionally upset the odds, all the
money in the world cannot instantly bridge the gap of that big club mentality
gap that’s been established over the past decade or so.

Nevertheless with the likes of Robinho, Adebayor and Santa Cruz all absent at
Old Trafford and with the talented Slovak Weiss still sitting on the Sky Blues’
bench, Arsenal fans are undoubtedly taking the threat of City seriously.
Sunday’s two derbies were the perfect demonstration of the diminution of Gooner
expectations. Where once I would have sat down to savour such a feast of
football, praying for both big fish to drop points, it now appears to be in our
favour for them to beat the likes of City and Spurs. Still as much as the
results might end up benefitting the cause of the Gunners continued
qualification for the Champions League, our rivalry with Chelsea and Man Utd is
so entrenched that it really didn’t feel right cheering either team on.

In truth, I couldn’t help but share Hughes sense of outrage that the final
whistle wasn’t blown before Utd’s winner and as delighted as I'll be to
re-establish our North London superiority, I had mixed feelings about Robbie
Keane’s failed penalty shout, since there’s always so much pleasure to be
derived from watching Petr Cech pick the ball out of Chelsea’s net. Personally
I think I’d have preferred for there to have been no winners, with all four
clubs dropping points in two draws.

I don’t enjoy seeing any footballer suffer injury (although I can’t help but
feel there are karmic forces at work when Didier Drogba limps off) but that
didn’t stop me from smiling as I envisaged my distraught Spurs mates watching
their defence being utterly decimated, as King and then Bassong joined Woodgate
and Dawson, in the centre-back card school that’s become of the Spurs treatment

Meanwhile our own defence managed their first Premiership clean sheet the day
prior and Thomas Vermaelen continued to develop his burgeoning cult hero status
by bagging a brace and bizarrely leapfrogging William Gallas as the club’s two
leading goalscorers! One of which was the sort of 25-yard, top corner strike
that Thierry Henry himself would’ve been proud of. But far more important was
the soaring header that resulted in Tommie’s first goal, as now, for the first
time perhaps since the days of the fab back four, the Gunners appear to once
again have a genuine aerial threat at set-pieces and corners. It’s truly a
welcome change, after enduring so many frustrating seasons, where we’d become
so impotent in the air that the award of a corner had basically become just a
good excuse to nip to the karsey.

With Tommie the tank’s prolific goalscoring feats and the long-awaited return of
Rosicky seeming almost like a second new signing, there’s something of a
feelgood factor that could well burst forth over the coming weeks, with a run
of winnable games against some of the Premiership’s lesser lights. If the fates
should choose to smile kindly upon us and with the likes of Theo Walcott waiting
in the wings, who knows, perhaps Saturday’s result will prove to be the start of
the sort of successful run which might just enable us to return to setting our
sights on the big prize?

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Thursday 17 September 2009

Hardly An Irresistible Force, But Mercifully Just Enough Oomph To Budge the Belgian Immovable Object

(returning back from Liège after a slightly more leisurely evening in '93, but with the likes of Hillier, Selley, McGoldrick and Linighan, it wasn't exactly a team of immortals who beat the Belgians 7-0!)

I am always far more confident about the Gunners giving a good account of themselves when they come up against any of the big fish in the Champions Lesgue, than I am whenever we meet some of the continents' lesser lights.

We know that at our best, we are match for anyone and when we travel to play the likes of Real or Barca as underdogs, the pre-match hype is such that we can count on everyone to be suitably fired up, with the adrenaline coursing through their veins. So that to a man, they are all going to be "at it" from the get go, desperate to prove themselves, with an intensity about their performance that guarantees the opposition are going to have to produce something a bit special in order to beat us.

By contrast, I was quite perturbed about the way in which everyone was talking as if we'd been gifted a bye into the knockout stages of the Champions League, taking our progress from such a relatively cushy group for granted.

There are no easy games nowadays, as the increasingly high-stakes mean that virtually everyone adopts a professional approach to the game. Even teams from the most Mickey Mouse leagues in Europe are capable of being sufficiently well-organised, to make life difficult for the most formidable of opponents.

I seem to remember that we frequently struggled last season to start games at a sufficiently high-tempo and in failing to put opponents under the cosh right from the off, our laid-back football afforded them the opportunity to get comfortable on the ball and to grow in confidence, to the point where we often ended up making heavy weather of matches which should've been much more of a doddle. Moreover, as we know to our cost, according to the laws of physics that are unique to football, a team that kicks off a match in a lethargic, slipshod manner will invariably struggle to find the impetus needed to suddenly acquire some momentum, in the event that the fates don't smile kindly upon them.

It's a self-perpetuating problem, as the more often weaker teams cause us some embarrassment, the more future opponents fancy their chances against us and attempt to take us on with their increased expectation levels and they continue to erode any perceived aura of superiority. And while we suffer the cumulative consequences, until such time as we are able to re-establish our air of authority, the likes of Chelsea continue to enjoy the benefits of the opposite side of this coin, as teams turn up against them expecting nothing, often being beaten (psychologicslly) before a ball has been kicked in anger.

Some will suggest that the fiasco of the first five minutes against Standard Liège was merely a series of misfortunate events which could happen to anyone, albeit not usually in such rapid succession and before some punters had even taken their seats! But I had some concerns about whether we'd be sufficiently motivated for this game, as I imagine that many of our players must be influenced to some extent by all the comments that they see and hear in the media and by leaving some of our most influential stars at home, Arsène was inevitably sending out the sort of signals that were likely to lead those in the starting line-up to conclude that they could expect a stroll in the park.

For a moment there, I thought it was meant to be Greedybayor represented in the impressive "Vendetta" banner that they unfurled before KO. But with all the hype about the Liegeois owing us a response to the 7-0 hiding that we dished out in the Cup Winners Cup back in '93 (a match which remains imprinted, even on my debilitated grey matter, mainly because it was one of those extremely rare occasions when even Eddie McGoldrick got on the scoresheet :-), the Belgian side were bound to respond to the locals atmospheric entreaty for some sort of revenge mission.

There was also no need to worry about Tommie the Tank being suitable pumped up. With Vermaelen returning to play in his country of birth, obviously the press office wheeled him out for the pre-match press conferences. But apparently this didn't prove of any benefit on the linguistic front, as Tommie's mother tongue is Flemish and so they still needed to have his answers translated into French.

Obviously the pundits all picked on Eduardo and the wanton act of over-confidence, where he conceded possession on the edge of our own area, thereby presenting Liege with the opportunity for the snap shot that resulted in the opening goal.

Myself I feel that Vermaelen's over-enthusiasm was also partially to blame, as Eduardo was attempting to break on a counter, following Liege's early corner. And I can't help but think that Song wouldn't have been needed in the box to scuff the ball out for this corner, if Tommie hadn't tried to storm forward at the very first opportunity, only to have his pass intercepted and to end up lumbering back, leaving Alex to plug the gap at the back.

But then you can play the "what if" blame game, until you are blue in the face, as some might suggest that Gael Clichy could've done more to prevent the cross which caused Song a problem and as they say in yiddish, if my bubba (granny) had balls, she'd be my zeida (gramps)!

Mercifully, having managed to rectify matters and to be returning back from Belgium with the all-important three points in the bag, there was no real harm done. Other than perhaps to offer Alkmaar and Olympiacos a little hope, by demonstrating our vulnerability at the back. I'm actually hoping that the shock of going 0-2 down might prove an extremely timely shot across the bows of the good ship Gooner, as if we'd been involved in a more customarily drab narrow margin victory, we'd have come back from Belgium still confident in the belief that we can breeze through this group stage, without ever really breaking sweat.

Doubtless I'm being idealistic and this match will have long since slipped of the radar of the Gunners involved in our subsequent games, as unlike us, they don't lose any sleep over the minutae of each and every match and aren't nearly so concerned as we would all like them to be? However I can but hope that when they're sitting in the dressing room prior to our encounters with Olympiacos and AZ Alkmaar, Arsène will be reminding them of the embarrassment they endured in the opening moments of tonight's match and the potential disastrous consequences of them not having their game face on from the get go.

If Wenger can succeed in stoking up the intensity levels sufficiently, you just know that instead of having to try and claw ourselves back from the brink of disaster, this Arsenal side is more than capable of tearing into the likes of the other two teams, to the extent that their irresistible force is guaranteed to impact on the immovable object, or in the infamously incorrect words of the All-Bran advert "the world will fall out of their bottom". Thereby hopefully leaving this batty encounter with Liège looking like nothing more than a bizarre anomaly!

We're on our way.....

Big Love

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Vorsprung Durch Technik

We’d passed a sign “Players’ Car Park 150m” as we were looking for somewhere to park, some distance from Eastlands on Saturday. Obviously many of Man City’s multi-millionaire stars aren’t inclined to stretch their legs to retrieve their lary looking motors, as there were crowds thronging around a glittering array of expensive supercars, gleaming in the late summer sunshine directly outside the ground.

I’d imagine there’s a vast number of impoverished Mancunians who'd probably need a mortgage to purchase just one of the alloy wheels. Yet there was a hint of pride in the voice of the City fan, who informed us that apparently the silver Audi R8 belonged to Petrov and the white and blue one with the vulgar custom-paint job was Stephen Ireland’s (but then I guess the no. 7s on the side were a bit of a giveaway), as if to suggest that the ostentatiousness of the cars alone confirmed City’s new-found status amongst the footballing elite.

I guess it’s going to be some months before we discover whether City have more genuine pretensions of securing a highly-prized pitch at the Champions League trough. On paper, Mark Hughes squad certainly appears to have the proper credentials and perhaps Saturday’s sickening result will start the perception snowball rolling, as City begin to acquire the sort of big club aura, which might enable them to attract more stars and which might see them accruing plenty of points on account of the limited expectations of opposition teams who begin to afford them far too much respect.

Hopefully Man Utd might burst City’s rapidly inflating balloon next weekend. Although such desires are an indication of the downsizing of Gooner expectations. In the past we’d have been up for City and even our sworn enemy, Spurs, hoping they might take points from Man Utd in order to prize open the door for our own title challenge. But after losing two of our opening four and based on our form in recent seasons, only the most blinkered optimist would be focusing on anything other than the results which might best enable us to consolidate third or fourth spot.

If Saturday’s game achieved anything, it was to let Cashley Hole off the hook as no. 1 target of Gooner ire. There was a silver Lamborghini parked in front of the fleet of Audi R8s outside the ground and there was some speculation as to whether this might’ve been Adebayor’s. His subsequent performance suggested he’d be perfectly suited to such a tacky motor - all flash and no genuine class!

Unlike many Gooners, I was fairly ambivalent about Adebayor prior to Saturday, as to my mind I couldn’t really bear a grudge against someone who’s merely a product of the mercenary modern game, where the gods of mammon have usurped the footballing deities. I’m gutted he’s not still scoring goals for us but then he wouldn’t be and I rather suspect that as the novelty wears off and the winter draws on, it won’t be too long before Ade is back to his indolent best, spending his afternoons loafing offside. Let’s see how long he continues to “feel the love” from the City fans then.

However Adebayor can’t be all bad. I heard tell how he was having a tattoo done in Muswell Hill and the tattooist mentioned that his Gooner pal has an entire museum’s worth of Arsenal memorabilia. Obviously this pre-dates the beginning of divorce proceedings, when his love affair with the Arsenal was still in it’s first flush, as apparently Ade was still sufficiently enamoured, to arrange to turn up at this Gooner’s modest gaff and spend the entire evening going through his treasured collection.

I was no less infuriated by the striker’s lacklustre efforts last season but as “supporters” we’re contractually obligated to remain loyal to those wearing the red & white, no matter what we might think of them in private. There’s no good purpose to be served by us getting on our own player’s backs and to the contrary, as the sort of insecure person who seemingly measures his worth by his approval rating, the Togonator was a prime example of the perils of turning on one of our own.

With Van Persie having acquired a Heskey-like tendency to hit the deck and Bendtner so ineffective out on the right flank (hard to believe he scored in both games for Denmark!) our expansive football and dominance of possession counted for little without a cutting edge, while City fans taunted “you’re just our feeder club”!

Greedybayor’s revelations that his barney with Bertie Big Bollix Bendtner began over something as ridiculous as the Dane’s refusal to adhere to the dressing room footware policy, prompted an image of our glorious leader throwing his hands up in Gallic fashion, exasperated by futile efforts to snuff out such petty fires. Le Prof’s prodigious knowledge all counts for nought, compared to the nursery nursing qualifications needed, to keep the matches out of reach of such immature, ego-driven pyromaniacs.

Thus I’m sure any sense of striker-envy on the day was more than balanced out by the thought that it now befalls Mark Hughes, someone who’s hardly renowned for his sensitive side, to tiptoe his way around the minefield of wet-nursing his large bevy of spoilt brats (watching N. Ireland v Slovakia in midweek, it’s hard to believe the talented likes of Vladimir Weiss will be content to continue warming the Man City bench!).

I can fully appreciate Adebayor wanting to stick two fingers up at some of our fans. I didn’t appreciate the decidedly racist tone of the opposition fans’ chant when he wore an Arsenal shirt and although it was inevitable, I’m no less disapproving and definitely won’t join in, now that our lot have adopted this offensive ditty. Mind you, I have to admit to being tickled by City fans “he’s hung like an elephant and his missus is sore” variation on the theme.

A classier act would’ve appreciated that merely by putting the ball in the back of the net, was all the pain he needed to inflict on those who’d taken his name in vain. As he ran the entire length of the pitch, to rub it in, there was time enough for anyone with an ounce of common sense to appreciate quite how irresponsible his actions were.

Not that I’m condoning those Gooners below us in the lower tier who allowed themselves to be provoked into quite such a rabid, almost primeval response, but I was truly grateful not to be caught up in it. For several minutes it was like witnessing a stomach-churning flashback, as fans, police and stewards all lashed out at one another and defenceless civilians were dragged from the melée in a distressed state, struggling to catch their breath. Adebayor’s feeble post-match apology would’ve sounded even more hollow if someone had been badly hurt!

Personally I’ve always thought it preposterous that players are penalised for over-exuberant goal celebrations as it’s being able to share such unfettered moments of euphoria that is the very essence of the beautiful game. Moreover there’s invariably an obvious distinction between harmless expressions of joy and a blatant incitement to riot!

As for the stamping incident, I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed that the club gave official sanction to Van Persie getting on his high horse. Anyone who has played the game knows just how easy it is to lash out at an opponent in the heat of battle and our hot-headed Dutch striker could just as easily have been the offender as the target. But then perhaps in this instance the noble virtue of forgiveness has fallen victim to more practical considerations and having failed to take points off City on the pitch, we’ve adopted a “by hook or by crook” approach to try and ensure they drop points elsewhere in Adebayor’s absence.

Time was when Machiavelli was more likely to be the “librero” at AC Milan, than the chicanery on which the Gunners’ Champions League qualification depended!

Meanwhile we certainly don’t appear to have benefited from the International interlude. I doubt the 8 goals Belgium conceded did much for Vermaelen’s confidence but Rosicky’s return could prove significant. Traditionally weaknesses at the back have only been a problem for Wenger’s sides, when we’ve lacked sufficient potency to compensate up front.

Some contend we’ve a relatively easy run of games ahead, against lesser opposition. But personally I’m always more confident of this side rising to big occasion and I really don’t like the way in which our progress from a relatively easy Champions League group is being taken as read. There are no easy games nowadays and to my mind it will be our ability to impose ourselves in several less glamorous encounters in the coming weeks, which will be the true test of whether we’re likely to spend the season trying to cling to Chelsea’s coat-tails, or slipping down into a “no holds barred” dog-fight with the more ambitious sides amongst the also-rans?
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Tuesday 8 September 2009

"Diving Is Something English Players Don't Do".... Very Well!

Hi folks,

I read the contribution from my Scouse colleague at the Irish Examiner (I'd love to include a link but apparently the paper is having some teething troubles with their new web site) and the following missive seemed so tame and drab by comparison, that I was tempted to start again from scratch. Perhaps I'll find the necessary motivation later in the week, but I thought I might as well post the following, in case there are any of you with nothing better to do :-) and in the likelihood that I don't get around to improving on it.

It's far from my most entertaining work, but then I invariably struggle for the necessary inspiration during these International interludes

Big Love

Just as I’m getting back into the swing of things, we’re lumbered with another International interruption. Considering the Arsenal’s entertaining early season displays, I would’ve much preferred to have got the Old Trafford disappointment out of our system, by getting straight back on the horse against Man City. Whereas with a fortnight to dwell on our first defeat, the pleasing performance becomes increasingly overshadowed, by the frustration of having gifted Man Utd all 3 points.

Every genuine fan of the beautiful game will have been eagerly anticipating last weekend’s clash of the South American titans. Argentina v Brazil is invariably a mouth-watering prospect, but there was added spice to Saturday’s late-night encounter, with Brazil playing to guarantee their ticket to South Africa. While Maradonna’s side look like they are going to need the aid of all G-d’s limbs if they are going to get there! It will indeed be a much poorer World Cup without the presence of Lionel Messi. Although I was praying for the Argies to score, if only to put a sock in the mouth of Gary Birtles and his inane punditry.

It was not hard for Brazil to better the deplorably naïve defending of Diego’s team, but Birtles wouldn’t stop singing the praises of the Brazil backline and their superior positional sense. The ex-Forest journeyman appears to have forgotten that up until a few years back, the word “defence” did not exist in the Brazilian dictionary. Moreover it was patently obvious that it was the protection afforded by the likes of Gilberto and Melo in midfield, which was principally responsible for snuffing out the Argie threat.

I can’t watch Dunga’s Brazil without cursing the Gunners ineptitude and the flagrant false economy of our inflexible wage policy towards players over 30. William Gallas aside, our current squad is almost totally devoid of characters of Gilberto’s “been there, done that” pedigree, who have the experience and the stature to provide our young side with more authority, merely by their presence alone.

With only a one-year contract extension on offer to the over 30s at the Arsenal and with the Brazilian having spent a frustrating season confined to the bench by Flamini’s fine form, you can’t blame Gilberto for accepting the guarantee of three more years of financial security, playing in sunny Greece. However I don’t imagine it would have taken too much to persuade him to stay and I’m certain it would’ve worked out a lot cheaper than the cost of trying to replace him.

I suppose at the time, the club didn’t expect to lose Flamini. Yet ultimately, until such time as the Arsenal adopt a less rigid approach to the over 30s and are prepared to reward our senior statesman, by at least matching the sort of offer they can achieve elsewhere, the club will continue to struggle to cling on to our most experienced players and we are destined to remain a relatively inexperienced side.

By contrast, I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for England’s utterly pointless outing at Wembley on Saturday. A mate who returned from his hols on Sunday enquired if they’d played Slovenia, or Slovakia? I informed him that the visitors team included West Brom’s Robert Koren and that I remembered hearing they played their home games in Maribor, but this was little help and the two of us remained none the wiser. I can’t imagine Capello was particularly keen to risk his players, four days before England’s crunch encounter with Croatia and it would appear that this fixture’s sole raison d’etre was the revenue.

After John Terry’s injudicious contribution to the diving debate, the other almost inevitable outcome was that one of Terry’s team-mates would be guaranteed to leave the England captain with both feet stuck in his big gob. Needless to say, Wayne Rooney duly obliged. While it might have been true in the more virtuous days of yore that the brand of football played on these shores was not quite so focused on conning the referee, as an acceptable facet of the game, there can be no denying the fact that footballers have been going down in the penalty box since time immemorial. With the only difference being that there was a time when English players weren’t nearly so adept at the dark arts, as their Continental cousins.

However they’ve had plenty of opportunity to learn off the masters, in football’s modern, more cosmopolitan era, as the national traits (stereotypes!) of yesteryear have largely evolved into a far more homogenous game, where unfortunately the propensity for players to dive is likely to continue to increase, in proportion to the increasingly high-stakes that they are playing for. By banning Eduardo, UEFA have only achieved in setting a troublesome precedent (and thereby guaranteeing that poor Eddie gets the bird at Wembley!).

Meanwhile Cyprus v Ireland was hardly more compelling fare. But results are the be all and end all for Trappattoni and should he manage to work the oracle to achieve the miraculous feat of qualification, with such a relatively mediocre squad, I’m sure I won’t be alone in taking my hat off to him.

With Arsenal players disappearing off to all four corners of the planet, just as one was beginning to sense a burgeoning team spirit, I can’t help but fret about the potentially disruptive consequences. For example is Vermaelen going to suffer a hangover, when he comes up against any of the Spanish stars who battered his Belgian team 5-0? Will Van Persie perhaps benefit from finally finding the back of the net for Holland? Or will Fabregas return from the Spanish camp, having had his ears bent and his head turned, by tales of greener grass, more moolah and a much easier life on home soil?

Hopefully we’ll start where we left off, in Saturday’s ‘must win’ game against Man City, with the sort of commanding performance at Eastlands, which might just demonstrate to some that the love of money won’t always suffice!

After several seasons where all my Spurs mates have been up for Chelsea, relying on the Blues to be able to get one over on the Gunners, it’s most amusing that the shoe is temporarily on the other foot. Myself I envisage Abramovich’s legal dogs demolishing any legitimate grounds for enforcing Chelsea’s punishment, quicker than a can of Pedigree Chum. Nevertheless, based on Chelsea's impressive form to date, whether or not it’s well-founded, this sort of handicap could be the best means of ensuring there’s still something to play for come Xmas.

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