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Monday, 26 October 2009

Do we really have an appetite for a title challenge? Or will we be content to spend the duration playing also-ran leapfrog with the chasing pack?

Conceding a last minute equaliser against AZ Alkmaar might not prove to be a major calamity in the great scheme of things, but at the very least I was hoping it might serve as a hard learned lesson for our young side. However, sadly, the infuriating way in which we casually frittered away, what might prove to be a couple of decisive Premiership points at Upton Park on Sunday, would suggest that the Gunners gleaned little from our mishap in Holland.

Despite the recession-proof proliferation of roadworks, which are currently making life absolute murder for drivers in the capital and the fact that Stratford’s humungous Olympic stadium project has completely obliterated the succession of backdoubles that I first discovered nearly 40 years back, when my old man used to drive us to matches in East London, Upton Park remains a doddle of an away trip.

I knew it would be touch and go making the KO, if I stopped at home to watch the coverage of the Merseyside clash in its entirety, but the Scousers car crash season has made them compulsive viewing. I finally gave up on seeing Sunday’s earlier game through to its conclusion, when the ref added 5 minutes of injury time. I hopped onto my motorbike, hoping to hear the dying throes (over the engine noise) on the radio, with my headphones held firmly in my ears by my crash helmet. But I hadn’t made it past the end of my road, before the battery died (mercifully on the radio, not the bike!).

Thus I had to wait until I’d parked up right beside the Boleyn, to confirm whether it was a bunch of rowdy Scousers celebrating a second goal, or a riot of Cockney Reds, perhaps crowing over a Michael Owen equaliser, who were responsible for the huge cheer emanating from a Homerton boozer, as I barrelled past.

Upton Park is nothing like the intimidating arena of yesteryear, ever since they rebuilt the main Dr Martens stand and moved the pitch, so that the touchline is no longer literally in spitting distance from the terraces. Time was when visiting teams would draw lots, to decide who got the corners and throw-ins short straw.

Sadly, like the vast majority of Premiership stadia, it might’ve lost much of the intense cauldron-like atmosphere of old. But it’s not just its proximity, which ensures that West Ham continues to be one of my favourite awaydays. Thankfully the Hammers’ home has managed to retain something of that old-fashioned feel of a traditional ground, compared to many of top-flight’s more soul-less, concrete temples to commercialisation.

With Stoke having somehow snaffled a win at White Hart Lane and with news of Man City having dropped points against Fulham, it was all looking hunky-dory at halftime, as we’d suddenly been presented with a rare opportunity to establish some breathing space between us and the dogfight that appears to be on the cards, amongst the cotchel of clubs hoping to challenge for a highly-prized pitch at the Champions League tough.

We might only be talking in terms of a point or two, but psychologically, it could make a big difference for the Gunners to be perceived as being involved in a battle between the top three, leaving the likes of Liverpool, City, Spurs and Villa to play inconsistent leapfrog amongst the also-rans..

However with Carlton Cole making more than a nuisance of himself and his West Ham teammates working their socks off, to deny us the time and space to develop any rhythm in the middle of the park, most Gooners felt fortunate to be 2 goals to the good and I’m sure the Hammers must’ve felt hard done by.

In fact I initially feared for a soaking on the bike on the way home, when I felt what I thought was the odd raindrop on my head at the start of the second half. But then I always forget that there’s an upper tier above us in the Trevor Brooking Stand behind the goal. This is the Hammers’ “family enclosure” and perhaps the apocryphal tales from the bad old days leave me just a little paranoid, but with clear skies overhead, I certainly I hope it was rain, rather than disgruntled home fans showering us with something far more repugnant.

Meanwhile we might’ve also battered Blackburn, but Chelsea didn’t have to go behind twice in their romp against Rovers. As much as it sticks in my craw, I have to admit to an increasingly grudging respect for the efficient way in which they’re capable of dispatching lesser opponents, with an economy of effort, which really should serve to demonstrate the law of diminishing returns that applies to our lads infuriating tendency towards cruise control.

Instead of going for the jugular and putting the result beyond doubt, thereby allowing them to relax and enjoy a leisurely conclusion, we all too often end up paying the price of taking our foot off the pedal, leaving the pitch absolutely shattered both physically and mentally, after having been punished for our casual attitude and forced into fighting it out right until the final whistle.

Drogba and Anelka are developing a positively terrifying partnership and on current form, I can’t watch Chelsea without wondering what might’ve been, if it wasn’t for the limitless bankroll that blew Wenger’s efforts to sign Michael Essien out of the water. Perhaps Alex Song is set to develop into an equally influential player, but Arsène has admitted in the past that Alex isn’t a natural midfielder and while he learns his trade, wily opponents will continue to take advantage of his naïveté. While some might accuse his own colleagues of taking advantage of his willingness to work like a Trojan.

Not to take any credit away from the Irons resolve, as they could’ve easily folded but it felt more as if we shot ourselves in the foot on Sunday. I certainly can’t envisage either Chelsea or Man Utd letting the Hammers off the hook in such a slipshod fashion. Instead of establishing our credentials as potential contenders, we continue to lack the ruthless streak that is absolutely vital if we’re going to fulfil Wenger’s assurances of bringing home the silverware bacon this time around.

I’m all for seeing the Gunners strut their stuff, but after stumping up the best part of 50 quid to stand behind a goal, it feels downright disrespectful for them to be arrogantly playing keep ball, as if they expect the opposition to lie down and present us with a win, without ever having to break sweat. When forced at the death into demonstrating too little drive and determination, too late, this only highlighted quite how flat-footed we’d been up until then.

This might’ve felt more like a defeat than a draw, but there was at least the silver-lining of the point that puts our North London neighbours back in their rightful place in the build up to this weekend’s derby. I’m looking forward to a more committed outing on Wednesday, from a Carling Cup side hungry to catch their manager’s eye, with the likes of Gibbs and Almunia both capable of ousting their counterparts come Saturday.

I’ve always been a big fan of Gael Clichy, as even when he’s been prone to the odd defensive error, I’ve adored the energy he’s brought to the team, with his inspirational lung-bursting runs late on in games. However he’s been far more reticent about getting forward of late, but of far greater concern has been his apparent vulnerability at the back, which might well have proved even more costly if it wasn’t for Tommie the tank pulling out all the stops.

While I can accept Gael getting turned over occasionally by top-notch opponents, it’s totally unacceptable to see him falling down on the job against relative journeymen and with both Kieran Gibbs and Armand Traore breathing down his neck, should the likes if Gibbs produce a half-decent display against the Scousers, then this would present Arsène with the perfect opportunity to leave Gael out for a few games, giving the young French full-back a chance to rediscover his appetite and the sort of zest that was once synonymous with his performances.

As for the keeper situation, this is far trickier. I’ve advocated that Arsène should stick with one or another, rather than changing horses in mid-stream (now there’s a strange expression….what are the horses doing in the river in the first place?). Manuel Almunia is likely to get an outing in the Carling Cup and after Vito’s cock-up on Sunday, in palming the ball straight into Carton Cole’s path instead of getting a stronger hand to the ball and putting it into touch, should Almunia impress against the Scousers, Wenger is bound to be tempted to reinstate his more experienced keeper.

I’m glad it’s le gaffer who has to make this decision, as although Almunia is unlikely to let us down, we are all patently aware of his limitations and he’s never going to be the sort of dominate presence that’s needed in the Gunners penalty area. I’m yet to be convinced that our Godfather of a goalie has this capacity either, but in Mannone’s case, he might continue to develop into a more dominant personality. However can we continue to afford the occasional cataclysm while we wait to see if he grows into this role.

Considering it’s just about THE most important position on the pitch, surely the only conclusion we can draw from the fact that neither Arsène, nor anyone else for that matter, knows who our best keeper is, that this would imply that we’re actually having to “make do” with all of them and that if we really want to be considered as serious contenders, we need to go out and break the bank to bring in a goalie who everyone recognizes as the world-class business?

Despite it happening right in front of my eyes, I had to wait until I returned home to watch MOTD2 on Sunday night, to see how Van Persie’s last gasp header failed to find the back of the net. But if we were left feeling gutted, it can’t have been half as agonizing for us, as it was for the posse of premature evacuators who gave up on the home team with perhaps 20 minutes left on the clock. I know we’d been encouraging them that “You might as well go home” once the Gunners had taken a two goal lead, but I didn’t really imagine that they’d follow this suggestion, as the mass exodus from their seats in Dr Marten’s stand, directly to our right, inspired the now customary response of a chorus of “Is this a fire drill?” from us Gooners.

I half expected them all to come dashing back in when Carlton Cole pegged the first back for the Hammers. But if they’d rushed off to beat the crowds on the tube, believing there to be nothing worth staying for, it’s hard to envisage the look of disappointment, when they subsequently surfaced from the underground, to discover they’d missed the highpoint of their season to date!

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Anonymous said...

Come on you irons

Anonymous said...

wenger lovesw little boys good to see a total team of non british players what a joke. Ironsssssssssssss

Anonymous said...

/\ a racist piece of crap spud turd.

Anonymous said...

But Chelsea lost to Wigan and we did beat Wigan and you cant compare in this way whether we have gone 2 down at blackburn or not.

Anonymous said...

One of the best arse blogs out there at the moment - why not get yourself on News Now or Gooner News to get the traffic that the site deserves?