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Wednesday 31 March 2010

Albert Square Or The Bernabeu?

Hi folks,

Just heard a rumour that notwithstanding any major changes overnight, William Gallas will start against Barca tomorrow! Sadly my source wasn't forthcoming when I replied to his text in the hope of receiving some reassurance about our captain's inclusion.

I have to believe that Cesc will play and that his absence from training today was merely precautionary. We are all more than familiar with the sort of mind game shenanigans that precede such mammoth encounters. I've not kept up to date with the news, as I'm not so concerned with the opposition. But last I heard, on Sunday, Iniesta was injured and Javi was also doubtful. Although the absence of these two influential cogs in the Barcelona midfield would undoubtedly be a bonus, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see them trotting out at 7.45pm tomorrow.

Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, regardless of Barca's starting XI (perhaps with the exception of Lionel Messi!), first and foremost the Gunners need to be sufficiently juiced up, to believe themselves perfectly capable of putting the Spanish giants to the sword, so as to ensure that psychologically they have no fear of the aura of greatness associated with the Catalan side in recent times. Otherwise we'll end up losing this game before a ball has been kicked.

So long as the Gunners go out there with sufficient faith in their ability to take their opponents on, in the same way that we'd approach any other match, we'll at least have won the battle which means we need not concern ourselves with the contents of Pep Guardiola's teamsheet.

Myself I'm hoping that if Cesc's injury was as worrying as the media would have us believe, then he'd have been withdrawn at St. Andrews on Saturday. Moreover, I've faith that there's so much pride at stake as far as Fabregas is concerned, when it comes to an opportunity to prove himself against his colleagues from the Spanish national side, that he'd turn out tomorrow night, even with one leg tied up behind his back!

I was delighted when I read this text message claiming Gallas will get a run out. But then on reflection it occurred to me that although I'd probably only be just a little less sh*t scared than Sol's likely to be at the prospect of the sort of challenge he's about to face (if I can't sleep for the rabble of butterflies flapping around inside my belly, what's Sol's insomnia like?), after being out injured for so many weeks, such a mammoth, season making / breaking fixture is hardly the ideal circumstances for Willie's first competitive match? In Arsène we trust.

Meanwhile, I didn't get an opportunity to mention in my missive below that it was interesting at the weekend to hear John Terry refer to the fact that Chelsea expected Villa to tire towards the end of their humiliating thrashing at the Bridge. It seems clear to me that there's an accepted wisdom amongst the Premiership elite that the majority of domestic opponents are more vulnerable during the closing stages of games.

In keeping the more talented teams at bay, it would appear that the league's lesser lights are expected to expend so much energy, in closing players down in twos and threes and denying them the space to be able to do any real damage, that it's assumed inevitable that they will eventually flag.

I can't help but wonder if this has become such a widely accepted axiom that it is responsible for our own patient approach to many of our matches, where the Gunners appear to start games with a decided lack of intensity, as if subconsciously we've gone out there merely to play keep ball for 80 minutes, waiting for the opposition to run out of steam and the point where their defence will part like the waters of the Red Sea?

Obviously I appreciate that it's impossible to go hell for leather, playing at full pelt for an entire 90 minutes. But I honestly can't remember the last time the Arsenal tore into the opposition right from the off. Perhaps we've lacked that sort of surfeit of confidence, but especially at home, where one might expect lesser opponents to feel somewhat intimidated, I'd love to see us go for their throats and frighten the lives out of them, in the manner which has in the past seen us finish teams off in the first ten minutes, as opposed to the recent, far more stressful habit of keeping us on the edge of our seats, chewing what's left of our nails, waiting for an injury time winner!

You often hear the maxim, much beloved of the visiting team's manager, where he instructs his side to go out there and keep a lid on things for the opening rounds so as to quieten the home crowd. But this appears to be no great challenge at our gaff, as having dozed off to our dirge of an Elvis lullaby, we've 60,000 Gooners who could set their alarms for the 80th minute, knowing we'll be weaving mazy passing patterns until our patience runs its course and the time comes for us to try and turn the screw.

It seems to me that the biggest problem with this is that it allows teams time to settle down and encourages a growing belief that they can get something out of the game. As a result, I suspect that we've endured several matches this season, where despite eventually winning, these games have proved far more taxing physically and psychologically, than if we'd turned sides over in the first 30 mins and played keep ball for the last hour, against a side merely trying to cling to a respectable scoreline.

Mind you, much as I would "love it", I can't envisage us steaming into Barca tomorrow and away from home, I certainly don't imagine our Spanish guests to throw caution to the wind. With so much at stake in these matches, for both teams, the level of respect that they have for one another means that they are invariably cagey affairs, where both sides will fence with one another for 90 minutes, waiting for one moment of inspiration, or one major mistake to make the difference.

It would be downright foolish to play against a team containing supremely talented players of the calibre of Messi without showing them sufficient respect. However with all the media hype, perhaps the most important thing is that we don't end up showing Barca too much respect because like all animals, footballers sense fear and are only encouraged to take advantage of it. In my humble opinion, positively the best way for Clichy to avoid being tormented down his flank, is for him to be rampaging up the other end of the pitch.

Let's face it, Arsène's side isn't exactly set up to grind out a 90 minute shut out and therefore attack is undoubtedly our best means of defence because Barca's aren't nearly so talented at the back as they are going forward. Considering the way in which we've suffered this season at home to Man Utd and Chelsea, all I ask tomorrow is that we give it a serious go, taking the visitors on, rather than waiting until we concede a goal and are forced to do so.

There's no doubt that at our best, we can beat Barca and if we're not destined to do so, obviously I'll be gutted, but I will be that much more disappointed if we went out with a whimper. All I ask for is a lion-hearted Arsenal performance and you know what, if we can go to Spain next week with our heads held high and still in contention, Barca are going to be under such pressure to progress that I'd quite fancy us to pull off a famous victory.

I can picture my Spurs pals, with their fingers on there phone keypads, itching to text me tomorrow night to revel in our demise. Here's hoping all they have for me are the habitual Albert Square updates

Come on you Reds

I guess I must own up and admit my part in puncturing the illusion of the Arsenal’s title challenge. After having managed to maintain a composed air of relative incredulity these past few weeks, there was a moment at St. Andrews on Saturday, when I was being straddled by the enormous stranger beside me, as the Gooners in the lower tier behind Joe Hart’s goal exploded with joy and relief at the sight of Samir Nasri’s speculative 81st minute shot arrowing into the far corner of the net, when I truly began to wonder if the Gunners fate was perhaps written in the stars.

I should’ve known better than to let myself get carried away with the euphoric mood. By joining in with the resulting “now you’ve gotta believe us” chants for the first time, it felt as if I was personally culpable of tempting fate to kick us in the teeth, with Kevin Phillips devastating fluke of an injury time equaliser.

Truth be told, with the exception of Abou Diaby’s impressive performances, overall this was a somewhat insipid Arsenal display. We never really looked like troubling Birmingham’s terrific home record, until the late introduction of Nasri and Arshavin lent our attack some much needed inspiration. It was only after Samir’s strike had eased the mounting tension that we finally began to profit from the fact that the home side were forced to stick their heads out of their defensive shell, as the clock ticked down towards their impending defeat. Unfortunately we spent those fateful last ten minutes playing with a little too much freedom, since both subs were guilty of wasting gilt-edged opportunities to put all three points to bed.

The little Ruski might well blame the lousy state of the St. Andrews playing surface, as with the goal gaping, Shava was presented with a “harder to miss” opportunity from a few yards out, that he somehow contrived to skew well wide. And then having scored the first, Samir suffered an “after you Claude” moment, in attempting to square the ball to a non-existent team mate, when a greedy striker would've gobbled up the opportunity to grab himself a second.

If we’d held on, to grind out an old-fashioned “1-0 to the Arsenal” victory, neither miss would’ve mattered too much. After all, with both Chelsea and Man Utd scoring goals with such gay abandon, our title fantasies are hardly likely to be coming to fruition based on goal difference.

With both players being fairly recent arrivals, they might be inclined to believe that their best chances of achieving silverware lie ahead of them. Therefore I can’t help but wonder quite how dismayed they’ll be about such glaring misses, compared to those of us who’ve endured so many fallow seasons without a sniff of a title, only to come within touching distance of the Premiership promised land and to be denied entrance, as we are left rueing just this sort of profligate “if only” moment.

Much like Bolton was in the past, St. Andrews is fast gaining a reputation as the Gunners’ Bechers Brook. It felt as if I was supposed to have fallen at the first on Saturday. Tardy as ever and struggling to escape the North London traffic, I suggested my pals leave without me, when I realised I was going to be more than a few minutes late for our motorway meet.

However an increasingly disconcerting racket coming from my own motor had me terrified of ending up as one of those unfortunate footie fans who can regularly be seen, stranded on the motorway hard-shoulder on most match days. Having pulled up outside my Ma’s house, in the hope of borrowing her car, only to find she’d had the figary to go out in it, if the match had been live on the box, I would’ve probably given up at this point.

Mercifully the motor made it the few miles up the motorway to Watford Junction, where I boarded a train to Birmingham New Street and following a brisk walk, I was flabbergasted to find myself sitting in my seat, a full 45 minutes before KO! Meanwhile, while I’d been convinced my own car was about to go kaput, ironically the mates I’d planned on travelling with only just made it to the match, after the head gasket blew on their motor just as they arrived in Brum!

I suppose we should count our blessings, as at least it was at least a pleasant, sunny outing (to one of the country’s least attractive conurbations) and nobody broke any bones. But in my distraught state, after the gut-wrenching agony of the last gasp equaliser, I took the first train back to Euston, while completely forgetting I’d abandoned the motor at Watford. Mercifully a mate reminded me in the nick of time. After changing trains at Milton Keynes, much to my relief, the car limped back to London without further drama. But I spent the rest of the night feeling guilty that I was indoors with my feet up by 7.30, receiving progress reports as my pals were relayed South in a tow truck, eventually arriving home in the wee hours.

While I’ll be most surprised if we’ve seen the last twist and turn in such an unpredictable campaign, I suspect that a Man Utd victory over Chelsea next weekend might be accompanied by a soundtrack of the fat lady’s dulcet tones. There’s a “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” feel to our trip to the Catalan capital. I’ve mates flying to Valencia, followed by a 700km round trip train ride, while others intend driving across the Pyrenées after flying to the South of France.

Notwithstanding any goalkeeping inadequacies, the killer instinct that was on the missing list at St. Andrews is going to be crucial, if we’re to still be in with a shout of reaching the semis, by the time we travel to Camp Nou. Win, draw or lose tomorrow night, I'll be content, so long as we do ourselves justice, with a display that ensures the ultimate outcome is still in the balance. So long as the Gunners can match our own commitment, thereby demonstrating their insatiable appetite, then surely we can continue to believe that nothing is impossible?

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