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Monday 15 February 2010

Bangalore Gooner's Big Day Out

Hi folks,

There was a blinding piece on Sky Sports News last Wednesday about this Indian kid who'd won a prize of a trip from his home in Bangalore, to see his beloved Gunners play Liverpool, after sending in his amusing bedroom video of him serenading his webcam with his own selection of Gooner chants, where he's either seen the words online somewhere and put them to the wrong tune, or where he's made up his own original odes to the "EPL" (note to foreign footie fans, there's no greater giveaway of your geographic detachment from the beautiful game than to refer to it by the EPL acronym).

The montage piece on Sky Sports News was far more heart-warming than the video on it's own, but for all those who missed it, as with absolutely everything else nowadays, I've since found it on YouTube:-

I've alluded to it below, but at half-time last Wednesday, I was thinking to myself "poor lad", as our new stadium rarely rocks at the best of times, but after the downer of our previous four depressing results, at that particular point in Wednesday's proceedings, it seemed as if the Star Newx Corp, or whoever it was who presented the lad with what was perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel to the UK to watch the Gunners, couldn't have possibly picked a worse occasion for this pilgrimage, with his initiation into the Gooner tribe coming at a point in time where our entire clan (fans and players alike) all appeared equally depressed and as down in the mouth as I can recall (at least in our recent history at the new gaff).

Thankfully, ultimately it all turned out right on the night and our Slumdog Gooner probably benefited in the end because the euphoric high of success is so much more enjoyable, when one has travelled so much further to experience it, both in a literal sense (all the way from Asia) and psychologically, after climbing all the way back up from the depths of our recent despondency.

The ecstatic reaction to Abou's goal reflected this journey, as one might've thought we'd won the league itself, considering we all went so bonkers. But this was a combination of joy and relief, as if Abou had lifted the lid on the pressure cooker, affording us all the release of letting off all that pent up steam that's built up over the past few weeks.

In truth I half-expected this game to end up honours even. Following on from the battering to our moral by successive defeats against Man Utd and Chelsea, on paper, it wouldn't have been so bad to have bounced back with a draw against the Scousers, providing us with a point which would've helped to consolidate 3rd place. Additionally, Liverpool must have been so relieved to have scrambled back up into contention for Champions League qualification, so soon after having had such ambitions written off by everyone, that I'm sure they'd have bitten off the hand that offered them a draw which would've reinforced their claims to 4th place. And quite frankly their circumspect performance reflected the limit of Benitez' ambitions.

Therefore, although beating an uninspiring Liverpool side is nothing to write home about nowadays, I was delighted to see us show sufficient drive and determination for Diaby to score his goal, instead of us settling for a draw. I suppose the subsequent display of defensive nervousness was always to be expected, due to the fact that we'd completely lost the winning habit. Nevertheless, considering how impotent the Scousers can be in the absence of Torres and when their skipper is having one of his less committed outings, our lack of composure was somewhat disconcerting, as we made such a panic-striken meal of hanging on to our slender one goal margin.

Nevertheless, it felt as if a great weight had been lifted when Howard Webb eventually blew the final whistle and despite being on tenterhooks during the walk back to Highbury Quadrant, convinced that with 15 minutes still to play, Chelsea were bound to poop our party by conjuring up a last minute equaliser, or even a winner against Everton, the way all the other results went our way that night, it felt as if we'd completely cast off our recent defeatist shadow.

Mind you, it's impossible not to wonder what might have transpired if Arsène had played a full-strength side against Stoke in the previous round of the cup and we'd managed to maintain our winning momentum and retain our place in this season's competition? Then again we might still have succumbed to Man Utd and Chelsea and the fact of the matter is that Arsène would've felt forced to rest players in advance of the trip to Porto if we'd still been in the cup this weekend. So perhaps a win against Stoke would've only delayed our exit from the competition by one round.

But these are all 'ifs, ands & maybes' and as an advocate of always playing ones best team, I could now be cursing the fact that we're travelling to Portugal, disadvantaged by injuries and with legs full of lactic acid, after a bruising and exhausting effort to keep our FA Cup hopes alive.

Doubtless this is a debate which will be argued more vociferously, should we fail to progress past Porto. Whereas "Arsène knows" and we'll all continue to be happy bunnies if we ease our way into the quarterfinals of a competition that compliments our style of play (compared to the more physical and frenetic demands of our domestic cup competitions), as one of Europe's top eight clubs. However, pessimist that I am, I can't help but dread the day when our luck eventually runs out in the Champions League, an event which would be made all the more excruciating, if our North London neighbours continue to retain some hope of silverware this season.

Then again there'd be plenty of sadistic pleasure to be had if an expensive day out at Wembley and all those fleets of stretched limos hired to celebrate such a rare feat, all went to waste at the hands of a Chelsea defeat. However in view of the fact that it wasn't so long ago that Wembley was considered our Gooner home from home, it would nonetheless be more than a little galling if the Lilywhites were to get back there for a second time since it's been rebuilt, while we continue to wait for an opportunity to sing that much loved song!

Meanwhile we'll have to look to our kids to recover some pride against Chelsea, as we take on their reserves this evening

Come on you Reds
Big Love

It's a sorry state of affairs when one's aspirations for a weekend of football are limited to a desire to see one's local rivals prospects of silverware run their course for yet another campaign. Mercifully this was just a soupcon of the sort of crumbs of Schadenfreude, starvation diet that my Spurs pals have existed on for much of these past few decades. Fortunately normal service will be resumed this week and we Gooners can rely on Eastenders updates from the Lilywhite tom-toms, as the Champions League gravy train is rejoined.

Nevertheless, in spite of what seems like a concerted effort to reduce the oldest knockout tournament on the planet to a tawdry sideshow and the prioritization that is Arsène Wenger's vindication of our own premature FA Cup exit, I couldn't watch last weekend's live selection of beguiling battles for a quarterfinal berth, without feeling more than a little gutted about our lack of involvement.

Doubtless I'll be counting our blessings, if the Gunners travel to Portugal with fresh legs after their weekend off and run rings around the opposition on Wednesday night. Moreover, after having returned from Manchester with our tail between our legs twice already this season, we might've been saved from further embarrassment. Even if we'd ended up playing at Eastlands on Saturday by beating Stoke in the last round, the imminent resumption of the Champions League would've guaranteed the sort of weakened team selection, which might've struggled against Mancini's mob.

Some of these passionate cup encounters deserved far more than the bizarre and pitiful sight of such vast expanses of vacant terracing. The 7-cup matches included in the cost of an Arsenal season ticket appears to be the exception nowadays, as the majority of club's annual renewals cover few, or no cup games at all. With ITV squeezing every last drop of value out of their sole exclusive rights to a domestic competition, by spreading games across the entire weekend and offering as much live coverage as possible, I assume that in the current economic climate, many fans opted for an afternoon of armchair viewing.

It's downright tragic that on the one hand ITV are doing their utmost to hype up the flagging magic of a tournament that once formed the basis for every schoolboy fantasy, while seemingly oblivious to the negative impact of their tinkering on the way the FA Cup is perceived, due to the detrimental effect on the atmosphere of the ever diminishing attendances.

Despite half-empty stadia, you only had to witness the hungry way in which some of the less illustrious sides went about attempting to subdue supposedly more accomplished opposition, to appreciate that at some level the cup will always retain an intrinsic allure, amongst those professionals who've yet to be completely spoilt by obscene superstar salaries and who still strive to realise their dreams of a big Wembley day out.

Personally I'd be feeling more optimistic knowing the Gunners were fired up and supremely focused for a high-profile encounter against one of the European giants, rather than us going into a game against Porto as favourites and fretting that we might not produce the necessary intensity. Although there's hardly cause for over-confidence, after experiencing the sweet taste of victory against the Scousers for the first time in five outings.

I had some sympathy for this Asian lad who'd been flown all the way over from Bangalore, after winning a competition to find India's most ardent fan with a hysterical bedroom video. For 45-minutes he must've been wondering what all the fuss was about, as the forlorn mood of the past couple of weeks ensured that both in the stands and on the pitch, the atmosphere was as flat as a pancake. Fortunately for all concerned, the second half sparked a far more calorific contest, if only because it was far too bloomin' cold for both sides to stand around, waiting out a face-saving draw.

With the Gunners eventually taking the lead with 18 agonizing minutes left on the clock and with Chelsea, Man Utd, Spurs and Villa all in danger of dropping points, a chance to redeem our season in one foul swoop seemed far too good to be true, with plenty of time still for it all to go pear-shaped. As the terrace telegraph told of the scores elsewhere, making everyone aware of the magnitude of a potential mishap, the mounting tension became unbearable.

Right up until the final whistle I was expecting Gerrard to pull something out of the bag. It is perhaps a reflection of the lack of fight in Benitez' side, that they weren't able to take advantage of this palpable air of anxiety. Hanging on for dear life to a narrow home win against a lacklustre Liverpool might be no great shakes, but set in the context of recent bitter disappointments, it was an absolutely massive result, providing a timely boost to the moral in the Arsenal camp in advance of our trip to Portugal.

Such inconsistency (complacency?) amongst the top two offers a glimmer of hope of the Gunners having a say in the title shake-up. Although in truth we're left clinging to our continued Champions League progress to keep the flame of our campaign alive. Were the promise of a climactic finale in the Bernabeu to be extinguished, with nothing more tangible to play for than a top four finish, we Gooners will undoubtedly be left casting covetous glances at those fans who can continue to dream of "Wem-ber-lee!"

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Monday 8 February 2010

Bedraggled at the Bridge

Hi folks,

Perhaps like anything that one does for too long, le Prof has been cocooned in a comfort bubble of autocratic control of the club for so long that he's begun to take his position for granted, believing he need answer to no one else but his own obstinate self. Nevertheless one would've imagined that Gazides might've set Arsène straight, by suggesting to him that he needed to be seen to be doing something to address such an obvious deficiency in the striking department during the transfer window.

However while I'm not sure I agree, I can appreciate Wenger's logic, as he could've spent untold millions of the club's money, in an effort to resolve the problem (money, which for all we know, might be earmarked for some other purchase in the summer) and as I've mentioned below, there's no guarantee that the outcome of our games against Man Utd and Chelsea would've been any different.

Nevertheless, although Arsène has never been one for playing to the gallery, by pandering to the demands of the media and the fans, perhaps he should be more sensitive to the overall psychological well-being of his squad. Although this crucial run of four games might've come too soon for any new arrivals to have a personal impact on the pitch, they might've provided a much needed moral boost, whereas his refusal to act has left the likes of Shava et al contending with the certain knowledge that they are going to have to soldier on until the end of the season.

On the radio on Sunday, commentator and pundit both spoke in disparaging terms about Arshavin's body language at times. But then it's hardly surprising that the diminutive Ruski is looking a little disheartened, when he's endured a run of games where he's toiled away up front for little, or sadly no reward, trying to stand up to the more muscular oppositions' efforts to bully him off the ball.

I must admit that I've found myself grumbling about Arshavin's tendency to drift out of games, as he appears to lose concentration and focus late on. In fact I was a little surprised when he wasn't substituted when Eboue and Bendtner came on with fifteen to go, as Shava looked like he had run out of steam. However I guess le Gaffer felt it was worth leaving him out there, since other than Fabregas, Arshavin is perhaps the one other player in the Arsenal squad most capable of pulling something special out of the bag and perhaps his presence on the park could've occupied the Chelsea defence sufficiently to provide space for others.

However in truth it is perhaps the Russian who has most cause to feel a little disgruntled, as I very much doubt he arrived at the Arsenal expecting to play for long periods as a lone striker, shouldering the entire burden of the club's goalscoring expectations. And yet Shava's got on with the job, apparently whilst nursing an injury to his right foot which prevented him from using it in training. In an age when most players will cry off at the first sign of the slightest niggle, putting their own personal longevity before the club's cause, it's refreshing to hear of a player who's both prepared to put the club's needs before his own personal preferences and to play through the pain.

Although our team has been bettered twice by Chelsea, at least we're blessed with a far superior snooker baize like playing surface, compared to the uneven one they performed on at the Bridge yesterday. Bearing this in mind, all it would've taken was a favourable bobble here and there, for there to have perhaps been an entirely different outcome. I'm not for one minute suggesting this was an excuse, but before everyone starts throwing their toys out of their pram in le Prof's direction, we should perhaps be mindful of the minute margins between success and failure.

If Gael Clichy hadn't had cause to abandon his post in those crucial opening minutes, the Gunners might not have been quite so susceptible to the counter attack which resulted in the second, as perhaps they wouldn't have been anxiously chasing the game in such a gung-ho fashion quite so early on.

Moreover, while I might have argued below that the possession statistics were not significant because Chelsea allowed us to have the ball, for the most part yesterday's performance demonstrated that our side isn't so far behind the league leaders. This is perhaps my biggest source of frustration because it would suggest that Arsène isn't actually that far from getting it right.

Yet I fear that by not demonstrating the necessary ambition, by going out and breaking the bank for a world class keeper, to provide the sort of reassuring presence that the likes of Van der Sar and Czech offer our opponents between the sticks and by soldiering on without a recognised guaranteed 20 plus goal scorer, this could be a fatal mistake, if yet another season of unfulfilment precipitates Fabregas' departure and without his fulcrum. Arsène would be forced to begin again from scratch!

Meanwhile, Arsène truly needs to earn his corn in the two days between Sunday's demoralising defeat and Wednesday's encounter with the Scousers. It could be seen as a make or break match, in which we could either affirm our right to the cushion of a comfort zone between us and the chasing pack, or find ourselves fatally ending up rejoining the fray below. Ultimately, considering how relieved Liverpool must be feeling to have clambered back into 4th place, after having been written off only a couple of weeks back and in light of both sides energy sapping encounters this weekend, I won't be too surprised to see both sides settle for a face-saving, honours even outcome.

Go Gunners, please prove me wrong!

Keep the faith


I struggled to muster the enthusiasm to drag myself off the couch on Sunday afternoon. I'd been suffering from a bout of the lurgy for a couple of days and feeling decidedly ropy, the last thing I fancied was freezing my cods off on my motorbike, traversing the capital to Stamford Bridge. However, aside from being unable to abide the thought of my fifty quid ticket going to waste, football's perennial "funny old game" potential for ignoring the form book, meant that I couldn't bear the prospect of not being present, in the event the Gunners engineered an unlikely victory.

I wasn't particularly optimistic but I certainly expected a less frustrating encounter than the previous week's feeble 1-3 defeat to Fergie's mob. I assumed that as the home side, the Blues would be forced to show sufficient ambition, thereby affording us the sort of space necessary for us to profit from our passing game. I should've known better, as sadly the Arsenal's encounters with the top two have become thoroughly predictable.

Self-discipline might not be a character trait present in the Chelsea captain's private life, but on the pitch Terry and co. executed Ancelotti's game-plan to perfection. Let's face it, it's hardly rocket science! If the opposition gets enough bodies between us and their goal, the chances are that our efforts to weave a mazy path through the midst of their massed ranks will flounder time and again. The home side didn't even have to exercise much patience. Once we were forced to chase the game, after gifting them the opening goal, the Arsenal were always at risk of being undone on the counter, by such an incisive and clinical goal-getter as Drogba.

The truth of the matter is that Arsène Wenger's side have always been susceptible to being hit by a sucker punch, but this has become a much bigger problem because our one-dimensional modus operandi makes it far too easy to thwart us at the other end of the pitch.

Some might seek solace in the fact that, we once again dominated possession, but unlike boxing, you don't win football games on points, by being the aggressor. Besides, this was more a case of Chelsea allowing us to have the ball, as we were mugged off by the same rope-a-dope tactics made famous by Muhammad Ali in 'the Rumble in the Jungle' Mind you, it might've been a different story if the Gunners possessed just a little of George Foreman's physical prowess.

Perhaps Wenger was hoping Walcott's pace might stretch Chelsea's defence, offering us the alternative of the ball over the top. Sadly Theo seems to have regressed to a point where he's totally unrecognisable as the same confident player who curried favour with Capello with a hat-trick against Croatia. However when it's patently obvious to everyone on the planet that Shava isn't suited to leading the Arsenal line, it's hardly credible that a manager as astute as Wenger can obstinately continue to plough on, regardless.

West Ham lost again on Saturday, despite their new Arthur Daley win double-act stumping up for a brace of strikers. I'm not sure I swallow tales of a weekly wage that wouldn't be enough to fill the tanks of yer average Premiership player's fleet of supacars, but it shows just how obscene footballers' salaries have become, when Mido's mere £1000 merits incredulity! Similarly there'd have been no guarantee of us taking more than a point from the last three matches, if Arsène had chanced upon a stop-gap striking solution during the transfer window.

Even at his best, I'm still some way from being convinced Bendtner can provide a sufficiently consistent solution. But with the Dane apparently still short on match fitness, not only would the arrival of an alternative option up front have placated the clamour from all those who are beginning to believe Wenger has lost the plot, but more importantly it might have offered a psychological boost, to a side that is starting to appear no less frustrated than us fans, at having to constantly bang their heads against a brick wall.

There came a point during Sunday's debacle where it appeared as if frustration had got the better of Fabregas. I've plenty of sympathy with our midfield maestro, since the longer the game wore on and the attack of the Time Bandits continued to bounce back off the Blues experienced and well-drilled defence, the more it seemed as if our young skipper was the only possible source of salvation. While Chelsea's close attentions demonstrated that they were also patently aware that Fab was the one player in red & white capable of pulling something out of the bag.

Despite (or due to) the Spaniard's manful efforts, he appeared to visibly wilt under the burden of this responsibility, as the clock ticked down towards an inevitable defeat. Without an upturn in the Arsenal's fortunes and this campaign ending on a far more optimistic note, you have to wonder how much longer Cesc can be persuaded to resist the lure of a return to Spain and the freedom of playing for a Barca side, surrounded by big time, experienced winners.

Fabregas' talent certainly deserves more tangible gratification than merely grafting his socks off every season, for the fiscal benefits of Champions League qualification. Moreover if we don't stop the rot sharpish against the Scousers tonight, this could come under serious threat, if we allow ourselves to be dragged back down into the 4th place dog-fight.

Personally I only ever harboured feint hopes of a serious title challenge, but after having a taste of being back in contention, it would be a bitter disappointment to end up in the ignominious position of all the pundit's pre-season predictions. With a resurgent Liverpool turning up buoyed by the triumph of their derby day battle, Wednesday's game could prove a telling test of our mettle. We can but pray that the Gunners bounce back with a steely performance, coloured gun-metal grey, instead of powder-puff pastel pink!

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Tuesday 2 February 2010

A Battering At The Bridge?

There was me thinking a tortuous, 4-hour trek home in midweek, following a vapid goalless game against Villa was going to be my lowlight....little did I know!

Unlike le Gaffer, graciousness in defeat doesn't usually come hard for me. After all it's not my responsibility to massage some life back into our players deflated egos. Nevertheless I was bemused by the veneration of Sunday's victors because sadly the Gunners posed a pale shadow of the sort of stiff test to Man Utd that might've merited such slaverish praise.

In fact, although it might not have been anywhere near as significant, in some sense Sunday's defeat was even more humiliating than our capitulation in last season's Champion's League semi. Any team might've come unstuck against a full-strength Man Utd side inc. Ronaldo, Rooney, Ferdinand & Vidic, whereas for my money a defence of Rafael, Brown, Evans & Evra was there for the taking at the weekend and yet the Gunners couldn't even conjure up a shot on target, until late in the second half.

The seeds of Sunday's debacle were sown at Villa Park (or perhaps when the balloon went up at the Britannia the weekend prior, when predictably all the energy of the Arsenal's winning momentum evaporated with our second string's Cup exit against Stoke). You didn't need Fergie's footballing nous to know that Gael Clichy was a far cry from returning to fitness as one of the Premiership's most confident and fleet-footed full-backs. Clichy's trepidatious expression told all, as he was tested over in our corner of Villa's turf, looking every inch the nervous mark at the card shark's table, never knowing when to stick or twist and doing neither with any real conviction.

It was therefore no real surprise when Utd targeted our left-flank. Sure Nani's audacious trick deserved an ovation. But with our French full-back deprived of his searing turn of speed, or effective protection from his teammates, in running Clichy ragged to my mind the Portuguese dribbler still flattered to deceive.

Nani was certainly aided and abetted on route to his assist for Almunia's hapless own-goal, by Denilson's half-hearted attempt to block his passage. Perhaps he was concerned about conceding a penalty, but what was the Brazilian's excuse for all his other indiscretions. Denilson's display against Villa was so woeful that his inclusion in Sunday's side only lends credence to the rumours of his lovechild relationship with le Boss.

In the build up to Utd's second, he was one of 4 or 5 in red & white who could've done more to cramp Rooney's style. But from the revealing camera angle behind the goal of the Granny Shagger's unerring finish and Park's coffin nail of a 3rd so soon after the break, in both instances we once again witnessed the demoralising sight of Denilson barely breaking sweat to get back.

On the box that night, Hansen was spot on with his analysis of the difference between the two sides. Man Utd attack and defend as a team, as evidenced by the sight of Rooney galloping back to his own goalline in the 85th min to make a challenge, whereas it would appear as if some of the Gunners are of the opinion that tracking back isn't part of their job description!

Almost as galling as this evidence of the Gunners lack of heart, is Arsène's stubborn refusal to address the circumstances that saw us going into the most high-profile game of the season so far, without a single recognised striker on the pitch. Then again, for the first half an hour both Rooney and Shava looked equally isolated on their own up front. However the crucial difference being that our attack remains entirely one dimensional, making life far too simple for opposition managers.

As has become an all too common custom for our guests, Fergie merely set Man Utd's stall out to frustrate our intricate efforts to play through the middle of the park, with ten players behind the ball in the space bounded by the penalty area. Even in the event we should circumnavigate this barricade, by somehow finding some width, our diminutive strike force is hardly going to get the better of any aerial battles..

While Wayne waited patiently for an opportunity to spring the trap on the counter, Shava insisted on receiving the ball to his feet with his back to goal, providing Brown and Evans the opportunity to muscle him out of it most of the afternoon. And on the rare occasion Shava managed to turn and run at goal, highlighting Aids in Africa might be a righteous cause, but it seems that the red laces being worn by the Ruski and others as part of this "Lace Up, Save Lives" campaign should have come with an attached "couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo" warning!

For all the plaudits afforded Rooney by a sycophantic English media, on another day and if we'd been at the races, he might've been criticised for his profligacy in front of goal. But then a hat-trick would've been too much to bear, sending fickle Gooners scurrying home even sooner. It's painful enough being on the receiving end of Rooney's 1st and his 100th league strike and his presence as a permanent threat on the pitch on Sunday served as a constant reminder of le Prof's paucity of striking options.

Where Man Utd always have the hope of Wayne pulling something out of the bag on a bad day, we have Fabregas, Yet while the likes of Cesc, Song and Gallas gave of their all, in trying to salvage some pride, ultimately, as a midfielder, Fab isn't going to find himself with nearly as many goalscoring opportunities as Rooney. There were moments on Sunday when I imagined Fab hollering in his own head "am I really expected to do everything " and such irritation (not to mention his yen for Spain) is only likely to increase, without the introduction of complimentary World Class talent.

With Arsène failing to address the striking situation in the transfer window, all hopes will now rest on Bendtner being able to offer us some alternative. Sadly I've yet to see anything to suggest the Dane is capable of shouldering a 20 plus goals a season burden.

In truth if we were going to suffer such a chastening experience, we could've done with it coming a couple of weeks sooner, as then it might have at least forced Arsène's hand, by convincing him that we can't sustain a challenge while he continues to 'make do and mend.

Meanwhile Fergie's hoping we'll go the Bridge this weekend and "batter" the Blues. Considering the home side are likely to force us to play at a high tempo, I wouldn't be so surprised if we bounce back with a big performance. Although after dropping 5 points from the past two outings, it would be the ultimate irony if we earn a creditable draw, or even a win, when ol' Red Nose's mob are likely to be the only ones capable of reaping some reward!

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