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Wednesday 25 November 2009

Long Road Home

Hi folks,

I was late for work (as always!) on Monday morning, as I had to finish my diary piece and file it to the Irish Examiner. In some respects, it might have been wise for me to steer well clear of the handball controversy because such are the (entirely understandable) levels of anger and resentment on the other side of the Irish Sea, that I would only end up alienating Irish readers, no matter what I might have to say on the subject.

Nevertheless, as gutted as I am about Ireland's World Cup exit and the ignominious incident which did for the Boys in Green, this still doesn't detract from the fact that I don't think I've ever been more enthralled watching football, than when watching Thierry Henry turn it on. It's hard for me to hear friends and family lambasting the player who, while perhaps not the most supremely talented (with such stiff competition), Thierry's right at the very top of my list of players I'd be prepared to pay money to watch because of his amazing, animal like grace.

Consequently I couldn't resist having my tu'penny worth on the subject. By some coincidence Arsène also had his say, in his programme notes in this last night's programme, where he's also made reference to the point which most troubled me, in all the post-Paris brouhaha, where Irish ire over the injustice of it all, seems to have left everyone under the misapprehension that Ireland would be going to the World Cup, if it wasn't for Henry's handling of the ball, when actually if the goal had been disallowed, the game would've probably ended in a penalty shoot-out.

After the dreadful disappointment of Saturday's defeat was compounded by Jermaine Defoe's jamboree against Wigan at White Hart Lane, I was perhaps glad of the excuse to digress. But as a result, I decided to delay posting out my diary piece, until I'd found time to write a preamble which might hopefully make my weekly missive a little more relevant for those Gooners not interested in the events surrounding Ireland's World Cup demise.

Unfortunately (or fortunately!), I've been so busy that I'm only getting around to it subsequent to our 2-0 victory over Standard Liège. Hands up those Gooners who can truthfully say they were the least bit excited in the lead up to Tuesday night's encounter? If I'm entirely honest, such was my apathy towards another uninspiring Champions League meeting with the Belgian champions, that I'd completely forgotten about the game, until I received a text message from the chap who's leased Rona's ticket, to say that he couldn't make it and that his partner would be coming in his stead.

Doubtless I would've heard something on the radio during the day, to remind me that there was a game on. But then again, I'm an avid Radio 4 aficionado and I'd have been more likely to have been listening to The Archers, than the team news for this Tuesday's fixtures. I could've quite easily dawdled home from work, only to discover I needed to make a mad dash around to the stadium, when the increased traffic and the sight of people scurrying along with their red & white scarves flapping around their necks in the gale force winds, would've suddenly caused the penny to drop.

OK, so judging by the raucous hullabaloo coming from one corner of the stadium, there were a couple of thousand Belgian fans bang up for the match. But for the most part, this was an example of the charabanc of the Champions League commercial bandwagon, grinding its way relentlessly through the relatively banal group stages, for the benefit of the media, the advertisers, the all-important colossus that is UEFA's commercial partners and everybody in fact, except the players and us poor put-upon fans.

Season ticket holders might not feel the cost, when simply shoving their membership card into the electronic turnstile gadget, without actually having to stump up any hard cash for Tuesday night's fare (it was "tonight's match" when I started!! :-), but believe me, if we progress in the domestic cups, as well as the Champions League knockout stages and the club start tagging on the cost of each home cup tie, past the seven included in our renewal fees, to next year's total, we'll bear the brunt of having to pay for Tuesday night's relatively pointless exercise, as we are forced to sit down and scratch our heads and wonder where the money is going to come from, to meet the seriously inflated figure shown on next season's renewal forms.

As I was rushing around to the ground, late as ever, I was far from alone, as there were literally thousands still pouring out of the Arsenal tube, as the teams came out and that familiar Champions League refrain echoed out from the stadium. But where usually, many of these latecomers would be frantically charging around the corner and sprinting up the stairs beside Highbury House and across the North Bridge, as fast as their legs could carry them, for fear of missing an early goal, you could positively sense how insignificant Tuesday night's result was, or perhaps more accurately, you could sense that everyone was taking a run of the mill, one-sided drubbing of the European small fry for granted, in the plodding, unhurried pace of all those tardy Gooners.

With my terrace tranny tuned into Five Live, commentating from Budapest, Alan Green made some remark about the Champions League music making the hairs on the back of ones neck stand up. Yet while there might've been a lot more interest in Liverpool's car crash European campaign, I am afraid that personally speaking the sound of this music has been the precursor to so many meaningless Champions League group games that it really does nothing for me (at this stafe). Doubtless I will get in the spirit of things as we eventually get into the more exciting knockout rounds in the spring. But when I think back to how excited I used to get about a big midweek European clash, under the floodlights, when the hair really did stand up on the back of my neck, it's a great pity that the frequency of these mundane European matches has long since worn the gloss off what should be a special occasion.

I am sure I heard someone on the radio state prior to kick off that we could've lost last night's game 1-2 and still won the group! Considering what subsequently transpired, I reckon that the vast majority of Gooners would've gladly forfeited the match and given the Belgians the three points. Aside from the fact that this would've at least meant that for all those with trips to Greece booked for a couple of weeks time, they could've been travelling out to the Olympiakos game feeling that there was something to play for. But far more importantly, we wouldn't have ended up with so many players left battered and bruised and with poor Kieran Gibbs condemned to the treatment room for several months with a broken metatarsal, in advance of Sunday's crucial clash with Chelsea.

To be honest, I started fretting the moment I saw the name "Witsel" on the back of one of the Standard Liège players shirts and I suddenly remembered that this was the same Axel Witsel responsible for the horrific, leg-breaking tackle that I'd seen on YouTube, which was deemed so malicious that he subsequently received a three month ban. From then on, I spent the vast majority of the game worrying about picking up injuries and more players being ruled out for Sunday. I was studying the scene through my binoculars, every time an Arsenal player hit the deck, checking to establish whether it was just the immature Manny Eboué, doing his dying swan routine, or whether there was cause for real concern.

I held my breath several times when Alex Song hobbled to his feet, hoping against hope that Alex hadn't picked up an injury, because any last hopes of a win on Sunday would've gone straight out the window if we were left without even "one Song". I'm not sure that the Belgians were guilty of being overly physical, as I think that with us 2-0 up at half-time, our thoughts had already turned to Sunday's game. With Liège just trying to make up for what they lacked in ability, with their full-blooded commitment and with our lads not wanting to get knobbled before the Chelsea game, sadly this was inevitably a recipe for more problems.

I can just about still remember back to my own playing days, where as a left-back, I soon learned that you are much less likely to get hurt going for a ball with 100 per cent commitment, than you are if the least bit trepidatious, as instead of your body being relaxed, this will result in the sort of tension that can often prove a contributing factor in inviting harm.

Then again poor Kieran Gibbs had little say in his unfortunate metatarsal injury and watching the slow-motion replay, I have to admit that the Liège player did appear guilty of a certain malicious intent. But then again such incidents always appear much worse when viewed in slow-motion. Gibbs must be absolutely gutted, as with Gael Clichy out with a long-term problem, this was a rare opportunity for him to get a long run in the team and possibly challenge Clichy for his first team shirt. Not to mention the prospect of catching Capello's eye and perhaps even challenging Cashley for a World Cup berth, since I've heard more than one pundit suggest that Kieran could be an outside bet for Capello's squad.

However with Gibbs now looking likely to be out until March, he's bound to be feeling as if he's missed this boat, as he could struggle to get a game for the Gunners, once a fit and fresh Clichy comes back into the side and I guess Kieran's got to at least be playing regular first team football to merit consideration by Capello. But all this is of little relevance as far more immediate matters are concerned.

Personally I just pray that Traore is fit and first choice for Sunday, as for all Silvestre's experience, he doesn't exactly inspire me with much confidence and unlike the majority of our team, I get this worrying sense that Silvestre is not really comfortable in possession of the ball, but prefers to treat it like a hot potato. I imagine nerves are inevitable, when you come into a competitive game, after sitting on the bench for so long. Yet it seems to me as if Silvestre is perhaps just a little too aware of his own limitations and if I get this feeling, then doubtless so will any opposition striker worth his salt.

I really don't understand why Arsène left Gallas on the pitch, for such a long time after he and Shava clashed heads. On the radio they suggested Willie could hardly see out of his swollen eye socket (perhaps giving him an excuse for the awful tackle that looked a certain penalty from where I sat!) and I would've thought that once we were two goals to the good, we could've afforded to let Gallas go off and get some ice on his injury, as in my extensive experience, ice is many times more effective if you get it on the injury before all the swelling occurs!

Gallas' inclusion in the starting line-up on Sunday is no less crucial than Alex Song. Not just because Willie "is our mate, he hates Chelsea" but because unfortunately the alternative just doesn't bear thinking about!

With Vermaelen and Gallas at the heart of our defence, the likes of Drogba and Anelka will be expecting a stiff examination of their title winning credentials on Sunday. But with Big Phil Senderos and Silvestre having the turning circle of an oil tanker, I imagine the Chelsea strikers would be absolutely licking their lips, in anticipation of breezing past our lumbering stand-ins. What news of Djourou and I wonder when the likes of Kyle Bartley might be considered worth giving the chance to step up?

However if our squad is looking a bit shallow, when it comes to centre-backs who don't come with a "brown trousers a necessity" warning attached, it's not actually our back four which gives me most cause for concern in advance of Sunday's game, as I don't imagine the bookies will be taking too many bets, on us being able to keep a clean sheet, no matter what side we put out!

The likelihood of the Kings Road "arrivistes" breaching Almunia's goal is only going to be a big problem if we can't double their tally at t'other end and if Eduardo did little against Sunderland to suggest he's suited to Arsène's 4-5-1 formation, then to my mind, sadly Carlos Vela was no more convincing on Tuesday night!

To expand on my comment in my diary piece below, about Robin Van Persie, it's most odd, because while virtually everyone in our squad aside from our keeper, has been adding their name to the impressively long list of Arsenal goal scorers, myself I wouldn't have looked at this free-scoring incarnation of the Gunners and said that Van Persie was such a vital component. Others have suggested different and some pundits have been postulating about the development of a new tactical position, or a "false nine" as some have labelled Robin's role. As I understand it, this theory contends that Van Persie hasn't being playing the traditional part of a lone centre-forward, but that by dropping deeper, as a "false nine", Van Persie has provided the space for his team mates to exploit.

However we're not talking American Football here and unlike the Philistine sport player across the pond, proper footballers don't play the beautiful game according to a specified "play book" which dictates exactly what each players does and where they run. Football is a far more fluid game than the "septics" sissy version of rugby and I don't really buy the idea that Van Persie has been playing according to Arsène's precisely defined tactical instructions. There's no disputing the fact that our Dutch striker has been seen dropping deep, but for my money, he's merely been acting on instinct and looking to get more involved, by making himself more available to receive a pass, than if he was marauding on his own up front, on the shoulder of the opposition defence, where it's both harder to find him with the ball and for him to take possession.

Personally I find myself getting increasingly frustrated with Van Persie, when he takes up a more advanced position and it feels as if I am forever muttering under my breath, imploring Robin to stay on his feet, as it seems to me as if, nine times out of ten when the ball is passed to him with his back to the defender marking him and he knows he's not going to be allowed the time to turn and take the player on, Van Persie will hit the deck, looking for a foul to be awarded in his favour, for a challenge from behind.

As a result, if Van Persie is actually performing in this "false nine" role, I get the distinct impression that this is a natural, instinctive tendency, rather than some sort of specified tactical ploy, merely because Robin doesn't really enjoy the lone striker's role, knowing that he's got four defenders waiting to clatter straight into him, often before he even has an opportunity to control the ball.

So when Van Persie drop's deeper, I reckon he's merely trying to escape the close attentions of the opposition defence and receive the ball where he's more likely to find the time to turn and to have some impact on the game, without taking another whack on the shins (or the achilles, when he's got his back to his marker).

If this should have the effect of dragging opposition players with him and leaving a void up front for the likes of Arshavin, Fabregas etc. to exploit, then all well and good. But if this premise is the principle factor involved in the positive glut of goals we've enjoyed to date, then Eduardo, Vela, or anyone else for that matter should be able to slip into the same "false nine" role with similar results.

Van Persie's only been missing for two games and I have to trust that Wenger knows Eduardo and Vela both have more than enough natural ability to be able to do the job. But it pains me to say that from what I've seen so far, there's a big psychological difference, both in terms of these two alternatives not having earned their Premiership stripes to the same extent as our Dutch striker, so that neither they, nor their team mates demonstrate the necessary levels of confidence and in the way they are perceived by the opposition, in as much as they aren't deemed a sufficient threat for them to cause the sort of distraction amongst the opposition defence that provides others with the opportunity to take advantage.

No one will be happier, if (hopefully!) either Eddie or Carlos goes and leaves me with my foot in my mouth after Sunday's game, having utterly terrorized Chelsea's goalmouth or by dragging defenders around to such an extent that they afford Shava or Theo the opportunity to do likewise.

Still if it wasn't for the fact that le gaffer has chosen to stick quite so religiously to his recently acquired preference for this 4-5-1 formation (but then I'm hoist by my own "if it ain't broke" petard!), since we're at home to Chelsea on Sunday, I can't help but wonder if, in the absence of both Van Persie and Bendtner (with the Dane in truth the only player in our squad with the traditional natural attributes of a lone striker), we wouldn't perhaps be better off reverting to a 4-4-2 line-up. In light of the circumstances, I'm sure I'm not alone in not feeling particularly confident about Sunday's game, but whatever the outcome, I would be a lot happier to see us go out there and take Chelsea on, thereby giving the Blues something to worry about, rather than merely attempting to nullify the visitors threat, by matching them man for man, in the middle of the park.

Absolutely the last thing I want to see on Sunday is the Gunners going out to avoid getting beat, as we know only too well that this sort of negative attitude doesn't suit this Arsenal side because we're simply not cut out for grinding out a result. Besides, while the visitors might see a share of the spoils as an entirely adequate result, for us, a draw will only be a slightly better outcome than a defeat. But if we want to put a marker down as genuine contenders, in truth we need to display something of a gung-ho, sh*t or bust attitude, where we settle for nothing less than all three points.

But then what do I know? I only hope that we can trust in the Gunners traditional response to having our backs somewhat up against the wall and that it brings out the very best in us. And if there was any absence of anticipation in advance of Tuesday night's uninspiring bash, I guess I'm saving it all up for Sunday afternoon; despite my lack of optimism, I can already feel the excitement welling up as the weekend approaches.

Meanwhile (in case anyone is still with me!) I cannot sign off without expressing my heartfelt gratitude to those of my mates who's sterling stints at the steering wheel to Wearside and back last weekend, meant that I was able to while away most of the journey, snoozing in the back of the motor. As someone who covers so many miles on the road during the week for work, it was a rare treat to be able to sit back and allow someone else to do all the graft and it made an extremely disappointing and arduously long schlep just that little bit less painful as far as I was concerned

Come on you rip roaring Reds
Nuff Love

Amongst the beautiful game’s most enigmatic qualities is its capacity for turning heroes, to zeroes, as a result of a single kick of the ball (or a tap of the hand!). Gooners arriving at our ground last night will have discovered that the last of the eight massive murals has been erected. Our new stadium is now encircled by the images of 32 Arsenal legends, where ironically, the first of these that appeared included representations of Thierry Henry, with his arm draped across the shoulder of none other than Liam Brady.

It would be easy for me to court public opinion by joining in with the vitriolic vilification of Henry, which immediately followed events in Paris last Wednesday. Yet even though I could be no less distraught about Ireland being cheated of a place in next summer’s tournament, if I was actually Irish borne (as opposed to considering myself an adopted Irishman), I simply can’t allow this one calamitous event to taint all my memories, by turning the player responsible for some of the most wonderful football it has ever been my privilege to witness, into Satan’s spawn.

Henry is not a bad man and personally, I believe he only reacted in the exact same, instinctive manner as the vast majority would’ve done, given the same circumstances. Rumour has it that Domenech is little more than the equivalent of the ventriloquist’s dummy and that it’s Henry who’s the de facto head honcho of the French squad. As such, I imagine Titi feels the responsibility of guiding France to the World Cup finals even more acutely and must’ve been no less desperate than all those aging players out on the park, in the twilight of their careers, who just don’t have the security blanket of another four more years.

I’m not trying to justify, or condone Henry’s handling of the ball. With the thought of living out his days, forever trying to cope with agonisingly inflated repayment terms on the price of failure, Henry merely did what needed to be done, in order to try and win the day. Judging by the way in which Thierry sat down on the pitch, to join a disconsolate Richard Dunne, rather than wallowing in their success, I sensed that he was patently aware of the consequences and the fact that he’d just cast himself as the Emerald Isle’s pantomime villain for all eternity.

You have to wonder if Titi had the power to stop time and weigh up possible World Cup qualification, against the thought of forever being labelled a cheat, would he have reacted differently. Similarly, if the shoe was on the other foot, would we all still be climbing on our moral high horse and clamouring for a replay quite so vociferously, to satisfy our sense of fair play?

Meanwhile, in all the brouhaha that followed, many seemed to be under the misapprehension that Ireland would be going to South Africa next summer, if it wasn’t for Gallas scoring as a result of Henry having illegally kept the ball in play. In truth the Boys in Green blew a couple of great opportunities to put the result to bed during the 90 minutes and up until the controversial incident, I thought the ref had done particularly well, as a weaker man might’ve easily succumbed to awarding the French a penalty when Anelka went down in the box.

Yet without Gallas’ goal, it seems to have been conveniently forgotten that we would’ve likely been left facing the ultimate crap shoot of penalties at the end of the 120 minutes. I suppose in some respects we might be better off having someone else to blame than the prospect of one of our own enduring the collective wrath of the entire nation, after having put the ball over the bar.

At the end of the day, I’m sure there are plenty of Georgians who believe that Ireland are no more deserving of a replay than they were back in February, following a bizarre handball decision that went in Ireland’s favour and if there was an injustice, it was the positively criminal way in which seeding was introduced to the play-offs at the last minute, to lend the bigger nations an advantage. The irony is that on the evidence of what we’ve seen, this French side haven’t a hope of achieving the sort of dramatic improvement necessary for them to have an impact in South Africa next summer.

Moreover, the entire tournament is likely to be a whole lot less joyful for the absence of the Green Army. Yet to counter the increasing demands for technology to be introduced, to try and rid football of such dodgy decisions, I will always contend that it is the flawed, rub of the green factor that makes the sport so intriguing and without the element of controversy we’d be left with nothing to argue about in the pub all night.

I could perhaps abide the introduction of goal-line technology, but this is a slippery slope and ultimately I reside staunchly in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” camp. Although Fergie might have the pre-requisite red nose, I find the prospect of football turning into an all-day circus like the abortion of the sport played across the pond, complete with touchline Bozo’s with a pocketful of handkerchiefs with which they can interrupt proceedings at a whim, utterly abhorrent.

On the same theme of the vagaries of fate and fortune, after enduring the longest outing of the season, where our weary return from Wearside seemed almost twice the distance after such a thoroughly dissatisfying display and with a miserable weekend being rounded off by Spurs’ unseemly goalfest (our neighbours are an all together more potent threat with Krancjar pulling the strings), I am at least grateful to Henry for giving me cause to digress.

Wenger’s uncharacteristic criticism of our own troops was perhaps a reflection on the significance of this result. Instead of putting down the sort of marker that might confirm our pretensions as serious challengers and maintaining our momentum, we’ve instead reminded everyone of the Gunners’ soft under-belly. I never envisaged Van Persie as quite such a crucial cog in the Arsenal machine, but with Arsène having nailed his flag to our 4-5-1 formation, in the absence of the Dutchman (along with the Dane, Bendtner), our diminutive strikeforce suddenly looks decidedly lightweight.

At the Stadium of Light it was left to Alex Song and our centre-backs to instigate all too rare driving runs at the opposition, while Sunderland’s earnest endeavours restricted Fabregas to a couple of “Hail Mary” long range efforts. It’s not size that’s the principal problem, but the fact that circumstances have conspired to deprive us of forwards with the confidence and the swagger to grab games by the scruff of the neck.

It’s a positively baffling anomaly, considering we’ve been banging in goals with such gay abandon, but it’s hard to imagine messrs Cashley & Terry exactly quaking in their boots at the prospect of containing the likes of Eduardo and Vela.

After feeling as if we’ve been living out of boxes these past three years, perhaps now that we’ve finally unpacked, this “Arsenalisation” of our new stadium will inspire the fortress spirit necessary for us to prevail against the Blues. Although, in an ideal world, I’d be feeling a whole lot more confident, if Arsène could call upon a selection of our legends to climb down off the murals and give Essien and co. a good hiding!


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