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Monday 1 March 2010

All Aboard For A Bernabeu Big Finish

Apologies for not posting this last week. If you'd rather skip straight to this week's missive, you'll find it here


No sooner are we sure that our Premiership dance is done, than fate goes and dangles yet another soupcon of hope in Gooner faces. The pundits allude to the Arsenal’s substantially less taxing run-in (on paper!) than the top two sides, as reason to suspect that we might still have a say in the title race. Such talk is all the more frustrating because, if I seriously believed us capable of stringing together the sort of consistent run necessary to avoid dropping another point between now and 9th May, with Man Utd and Chelsea still some way short of firing on all four cylinders and with both teams bound to hit another fence or two, we might well be in for a nail-biting finish.

However, despite getting the job done against Sunderland on Saturday, the fact that we couldn’t breathe easy until after an injury time penalty, was yet further evidence of our failure to kill off weaker opposition. While the Black Cats might’ve blown their chances of taking advantage of our inability to put them to the sword, you can be sure that not all of our eleven remaining opponents are likely to be nearly so accommodating.

Eboué’s performances might be as unpredictable as the weather, blowing equally hot and cold. But Samir Nasri’s crowd-pleasing trickery gives cause for encouragement that the French midfielder might yet fill the boots of Robert Pires and young Aaron Ramsey continues to impress. Meanwhile, with Theo Walcott finally getting some game time, in his commentary on the highlights, John Motson voiced the aspirations of every Arsenal fan, in contemplating whether our very own Speedy Gonzalez might be on the verge of playing himself into some form?

No matter what transpires on the domestic front, up until Wednesday’s trip to Portugal, I’d always retained a feint glimmer of hope of seeing Arsene stick two fingers up, at all his ‘style over substance’ detractors, when it all comes good for the Gunners in the Champions League.

I’m not about to bawl out our keeper, as everyone’s entitled to a bad day at the office and I’m sure Fabianski feels bad enough already, believing his two boo-boos to be entirely responsible for our first-leg defeat. Our goalkeeping woes are well documented and while Almunia, Fabianski and Mannone might well be decent enough shot-stoppers, all three shrinking-violets are out of the same mould, lacking the imposing, dominant presence of a genuine world class goalie.

Arsène’s selective eyesight remains a constant source of amusement, but I appreciate that he feels obligated to remain 100% faithful to his charges, backing them to the hilt, no matter the resulting ridicule and doing his utmost to deflect attention away from their individual and collective failings. Nevertheless, I couldn’t believe he was still harping on about the “incompetent, or criminal” official in his Friday press conference. To my mind the issue was not so much the taking of a quick free-kick (I don’t recall AW raising so much as an eyebrow, when we’ve profited in similar circumstances!), but the fact that the Gunners were so completely switched off, for Porto to be able to put one over on us quite so easily.

Perhaps le Prof would do better to be focusing on our own incompetence. Although far more infuriating to me, was the utterly unacceptable nonchalance, evident in the Gunners body language during the closing stages. While it’s true that we should have more than enough ability in the tank, to turn things around in the return leg, you really don’t want to be relying on this. And yet with more than ten minutes left on the clock, I sensed a damage limitation, air of resignation, as if we’d settled for having to overhaul a one goal deficit in a couple of weeks time.

Quite frankly I can’t imagine the likes of Rooney, or Lampard resigning themselves to a defeat in this fashion, in what could prove to be a season defining encounter. On the evidence of our irresolute efforts in Opporto, with a couple of exceptions, ultimately I was left wondering whether this Arsenal side possesses that ‘never say die’ backbone, with a sufficient plenitude of mettle to turn a team of nearly men into genuine winners?

In the heat of his post-match disillusionment immediately after the final whistle last Wednesday, our captain strayed from his manager’s “spirit and belief” mantra, in his ‘mixed zone’ interviews. I for one appreciated Cesc’s candor, as he commented on the schoolboy errors and the fact that too many of his team mates’ heads dropped after conceding the second goal. However Fabregas’ increasing frustration with an apparent lack of fight in this Arsenal dog is hardly a persuasive argument for his continued postponement of a return to his Catalan routes come the summer!

If we fail to dispose of Porto, it could be argued that this was our just deserts, after a first-leg performance in which the majority patently failed to fulfill Arsène’s assurances concerning their preparedness to sweat blood for the cause. And the magnitude of our defeat will only become apparent, when a decidedly uninspiring Porto are demolished in the quarterfinals.

Hopefully this was merely another example of us playing down to the level of our opposition and we’ll redeem ourselves in the return leg. Otherwise progress in the competition will be pointless if it’s only to result in more moral sapping embarrassment. I’m badly in need of a faith restoring Arsenal display, to remind me that on our day, we’re capable of giving anyone a run for their money. If only to maintain that flickering flame of hope in the more optimistic recesses of my mind, of a Bernabeu big finish in May.

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