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Monday 26 April 2010

A Little Taste Of Their Own Lilywhite Medicine

Hi folks

One of my Spurs pals sent me a text after Saturday's 0-0 saying "You should be ashamed of yourselves" and perhaps I would've been left feeling ashamed if the Gunners performance was any more tepid than any of the other Premiership teams who played this past weekend. Moreover, if we were to feel ashamed, how on earth should the City fans have felt, having schlepped all the way down from the North-West to see their team and the talented likes of Tevez hardly manage a single shot on target (mind you, according to my unreliable recollection, we only managed about two, one in each half).

At least I only had to walk around the corner to see that pile of poop and I felt sorry thinking about my pal Aidan who'd travelled all the way over from Ireland and who on top of the cost of his flights and accommodation, he had to stump up a hundred quid for a Club Level seat. Paying for our season tickets up front, I imagine we don't feel nearly so aggrieved about Saturday's game as someone who's actually been forced to fork out readies on the day?

Then again, with season ticket renewals growing increasingly imminent, with only one more home game to go before the end of the season, I can't help but wonder whether a similarly woeful display against Fulham might impact on people's propensity to renew. With so many Club Level seats going empty for all but the most high profile games, it will be interesting to see if there's still a Club Level waiting list come the end of the summer?

Then again, I assume that the cost of a huge proportion of the Club Level seats are written off as a company expense, using money which would otherwise only go to the tax man. This seems to be the only logical explanation for the number of kids to be seen screaming down from the posh seats at half-time, trying to get Gunnersaurus to fire a t-shirt up in their direction, as I simply can't believe there can be that many Gooners who can afford to pay a couple of hundred quid a match out of their own pocket to take their young progeny.

Meanwhile, win, lose or draw, the only thing I demand in return for my annual investment in the Arsenal, is the feeling that our players have left everything out on the pitch. I rarely get that sense any more, as with each passing season we are confronted with more and more incontrovertible evidence of our heroes shallow commitment to the cause, which only runs skin deep, or more accurately only as deep as the pocket containing their over-stuffed wallets.

In some respects I was a little saddened by the vitriolic reception given to Adebayor. Not that it stopped me from booing as loud, if not louder than anyone else, but then there was little else that passed for entertainment in this match than participating, or getting carried away with the "blood lust". I think back to the anecdote about Adebayor's visit to a Crouch End tattoo parlour, where he was told of the tatooist's pal who has a whole house stuffed full with Gooner memorabilia and Adebayor's interest was piqued to such an extent that a visit was arranged and the Togolese striker spent an entire evening enjoying a personal tour of this unofficial cottage museum.

The account I heard left me feeling that the man was sufficiently interested in the club's history to have a genuine appreciation of our domestic club culture. Surely this couldn't have been the same player who caused such an uproar, by revelling in the disrespect shown to his former employers and their fans up at Eastlands only a few months later? I've not read any of details in the media but my guess is that if Adebayor could turn back the clock, he probably wouldn't have gone out of his way to antagonise us Gooners in such an OTT fashion if only because no one likes to feel quite so despised.

Nevertheless, in Adebayor's failure to do the right thing that afternoon, in the same way that so many before him who've scored against former clubs have shown sufficient respect in limiting their celebrations, he just demonstrated his lack of class, adding another notch on the bedpost of disillusionment that leaves us fans ever less convinced by their insincere badge kissing antics.

I enjoyed Andrey Arshavin's innocent "I am Gooner" exclamation as much as every other Arsenal fan when the diminutive Ruski joined the club on deadline day last winter. But I've becomes so inured to the mercenary "have boots will travel" nature of the modern footballer that I don't expect any more loyalty to the Arsenal cause from Shava, than any other player who views a couple of seasons with the Gunners in terms of their post-retirement pension plan.

Having grown so cynical over the years, sadly I couldn't hear tell of the Ruski's preparedness to play through the pain barrier, unable to kick the ball with one foot at one stage this season but supposedly still turning out because we were so desperately short on strikers, without questioning the veracity of this tale. I'd love to be able to believe that there are players in this Arsenal squad who are as desperate for success as we are and who are prepared to put their bodies on the line for the Gunners cause.

I often get the feeling that Arsène's "spirit and belief" mantra is something he might make come to pass merely by repeating it enough times. But it would be a whole lot easier to swallow if there were a couple of homegrown players in the current squad. I'm not sure it's that relevant to their success as they hardly abound with more "never say die" spirit than any other squad (but perhaps this down to the fact that they are Spanish?), but I haven't stopped mentioning my envy of the dozen homegrown players and half a dozen Catalans in the current Barca squad since recently discovering this fact. Nor do I think he's a particularly brilliant player, but I would give my eye teeth for a captain with Puyol's daddy like presence at the Gunners.

Then again, I wonder would it make that much difference nowadays. Jack Wilshere was set to become the first homegrown player to figure in an influential role in the first team, since Cashley Hole. Jack's pre-season efforts were sufficiently impressive that he looked ready to grab the big time by the balls and I'm convinced that if he'd progressed as expected, there would've been no way he'd have ended up being loaned out to play in Lancashire. I can only speculate, but my guess is that Wilshere's sojourn in Bolton is intended to bring him back down to earth, because all the hype and attention had resulted in the youngster becoming a little too "big time" for his own good.

I haven't seen too much of Jack's efforts for Owen Coyle's side but the most recent highlights I've seen suggest that Wilshere's been overshadowed by the talented Man City loanee Vladimir Weiss. But then the Slovakian youngster has a lot more to play for, with his dad about to pick the Slovakian World Cup squad. Whereas the problem with so many British youngsters is that they achieve such levels of fame and fortune at such an early age, that they believe they've nothing left to prove and that sadly the intense passion and determination of youth inevitably dissipates, before they've actually achieved anything.

Because he's British, we tend to forget that Theo Walcott made his bones (influence of the recent Sopranos reruns!) at Southampton. If he was a foreign import and hadn't scored a hat-trick for England, I'm sure we would've long since lost patience with Theo. But even a level-headed kid like Theo seems to struggle to keep his feet on the ground, in the current climate of celebrity idolatry. I'm blissfully unaware of most of the football gossip because I don't tend to read newspapers nowadays. I rely on the tidbits that Róna passes on from her perusal of the bible of ostentation that is Hello magazine and I seem to recall some tale concerning Walcott's WAG, where he bought her a £140k Ferrari for her 21st birthday (who needs the key to the door when you've got a Ferrari California?) which she felt was just too flash for her to be driving in to university.

I can tell you what cars some of the Man City players drive, as I was amazed to see their flash Audis parked up outside the stadium, waiting to be keyed by any malcontent amongst either set of supporters and I imagine there must be some petrolheads amongst you who can advise me what sort of supercar Walcott can currently be found at the wheel of, but I somehow doubt it's the VW Golf he bought when he simultaneously passed his driving test and picked up his first England cap (imagine parking the Golf next to the missus Ferrari!)

Listening to Soccer Saturday on Sky this weekend, after watching the Spuds abysmal failure at Old Trafford, it seemed as if every other player mentioned was a Young Gun out on loan, with Sanchez Watt working some magic for the assist in Leeds first against MK Dons, coming only seconds after Jay Emmanuel-Thomas had scored his fifth goal since going out on loan to Doncaster and then Wilshere putting in the cross for Klasnic to score Bolton's first.

Sczcz.....our young Polish keeper continues to impress Brentford fans in the Bees 11 game unbeaten run (lord knows we could do with lad making the first team grade pronto, if he's a less timid personality than any of our three other incumbents and it's only checking for the spelling of his name on the AFC web site that I've discovered he must be a determined lad, having come back from breaking both arms in a training ground accident in 2008) and with centre-back Kyle Bartley at Sheff Utd, Jay Simpson at QPR, Henri Lansbury at Watford, Gilles Sunu at Derby and Gavin Hoyte at Brighton, surely some of these nine players who kicked such serious butt in the FA Youth Cup last season, have got to come into contention at some stage?

Meanwhile it's more than a little ironic that it's an aging old pro like Sol Campbell who's the only player to come out of the last few matches with any credit, showing the sort of stamina and determination that a few more of our squad might learn from, as he almost single-handedly flies the Gooner flag of commitment. With prospective members of Capello's World Cup squad going down like ninepins, there's even some suggestion that Sol could be an outside bet for forcing himself into contention?

But then as someone who claims such complete disinterest in salacious gossip, I suppose it's more than a little hypocritical of me to suggest that the England camp might be more than a little distracted by their efforts to keep Fabio's latest captain off the front pages of the Red Top rags with the rumours of Steven Gerrard's latest off-field exploits?

Having lingered in contention for the Premiership marathon, until hitting the wall in recent weeks and having reached a Champions League quarterfinal despite the sort of significant injuries which left us without a recognised front man for so long, ultimately I guess the Gunners have over-achieved this season, compared to what was expected of us. And yet there's little satisfaction to be gained from this, when by and large we've been allowed to do so, courtesy of the inconsistencies of others, rather than us having earned the right as a result of playing entertaining football. Since by Arsène's high standards, we've hardly enjoyed a surfeit of beautiful football this season.

Nuff of my downhearted deliberations
Big Love


I honestly can’t recall the last time the Gunners were involved in an end of season encounter, where Spurs fans were hoping for us to do them a favour. We’ve grown accustomed to this particular shoe being on the other foot, with the Lilywhites season invariably long since over as we enter the league’s last few furlongs. Many has been the occasion when we’ve endured watching our remaining hopes of silverware ebb away, on the back of a positively heartless end of season Spurs performance, where they’ve failed to even ruffle the feathers of one of our Premiership rivals. Thus the knowledge that my Spurs pals were experiencing the sour taste of just such a disappointment was about the only consolation to Saturday’s tedious goalless draw with Man City.

You know you’ve endured an insipid 90-minutes of football, when the highlight of the afternoon has been the haranguing of Adebayor. But City were no less guilty participants in this pantomime of a competitive encounter. If it wasn’t for Nasri’s solitary effort on target just before the break, there would’ve been absolutely no material for the halftime montage on the big screens!

In some respects it was a relief that our feint hopes of maintaining a challenge had evaporated in those execrable last ten minutes of football at Wigan the previous weekend. This at least meant that Saturday’s non-event wasn’t quite so frustrating. But if the Gunners had the excuse of having nothing but pride to play for, I’m not sure how Mancini’s mob could defend a display of such apparent indifference, to the couple of thousand Mancunians who’d travelled South in the hope of fulfilling their Champions League dreams, by capitalising on what’s fast becoming our customarily woeful finishing straight form.

Whereas for us Gooners it was an afternoon of polar opposite emotions, as we welcomed back both cast-iron heroes and those who’ve cast themselves as comedic villains. With his buckwheat ‘barnet’ and harlequin style boots adorning his bandy, stockinged legs, the tall Togolese striker was entirely in-character as the puckish circus clown. Distracting the crowd from the prosaic contest on the pitch, Adebayor spent the first-half sporadically stirring up a chorus of ‘he’s behind you’ type boos, every time he came off the bench to stretch his long legs on the touchline.

A first-half which was only noteworthy for the number of times and the apparent venom in the way Kolo Touré kept clattering into the back of Van Persie. I know there’s no love lost between Kolo and Gallas and I’d forgotten how fond our Dutch striker is of hitting the deck, but for a centre-back who has always come across as a fairly laid-back character, there was more than a hint of malicious revenge in the Ivorian’s incessant harmful attentions. These were all the more perturbing with Van Persie starting his first match, following such a prolonged spell on the treatment table.

Our striker’s absence is a convenient excuse for the Arsenal coming up short, in another ‘so near but so far’ campaign. Any team would miss the world class promptings of a player of Robin’s calibre. Where Nasri (Fabregas et al) will float over the sort of set-pieces that are meat & drink to a keeper of Given’s quality, sadly there doesn’t appear to be anyone else in the current squad capable of consistently striking a dead-ball with such lethal intent. Although at the same time, Van Persie reminded us on Saturday of the age-old problem that our best striker can’t be in two places at once, whipping in corners at pace and getting on the end of them! But to my mind Robin’s more Berbatov than Rooney, stamping his class on games when given the opportunity, rather than grabbing matches by the scruff of the neck and forcing the issue week in, week out.

Having worked up the crowd with his Dick Dastardly warm up, I wonder if even Adebayor was taken aback with the frenzy of disapproval that greeted his eventual introduction soon after the break. It was positively bizarre as fifty thousand rose to give Vieira a fitting farewell ovation, applauding Paddy one moment and baying for his replacement’s treacherous blood the next. It occurred to me that Sol Campbell might have felt some sympathy, as he alone has experienced such fervent acrimony in the past.

In truth, I’m not sure one mindless goal celebration makes Ade a deserving recipient of quite such malevolent hostility, but this didn’t stop me and the majority of other fans from joining in, in the hope that in the midst of this surreal circus, a football match might break out. Sadly the sum total of the second half was Diaby’s speculative effort, leaving Shay Given writhing in agony with a dislocated shoulder, which would’ve been devastating, if only Ireland had made it to the World Cup.

Aside from a typically astute Van Persie set-piece, for me, the evidence that the scales in this Arsenal squad are weighted too far in favour of pretty passing football, to the detriment of instinctive goal-getting greed, were patently demonstrated by our failure to even try and test Given’s replacement. Without some intervention from the touchline and lacking intuitive striking nous, we neglected to adopt the shoot on sight policy, which might’ve been appropriate against a keeper with only two caps for the bloomin’ Faroe Islands (how bad does a goalie have to be, not to get picked for the Faroes?)

Perhaps it’s the cynical indifference of my advancing years or the fact that we’ve ended up in the 3rd place doldrums, as the only team in the top half of the table with nothing to play for. But I somehow struggle to get enthused by all the hype, for what appears to be such an exciting climax on paper, when the participants’ claims concerning their lofty ambitions are thoroughly contradicted by events on the pitch. Even the most blinkered fan can’t fail to notice that their overpaid heroes have grown so fat and lazy that it’s become a struggle for them to even feign their commitment.

There was a time when all issues at the business end of the season were defined by which team wanted it the most. Whereas it would appear that nowadays it’s merely a matter of willing one’s team to lose out, in a competition of mutual indifference!

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Tuesday 20 April 2010

Our Kingdom For A Keeper

Hi folks,

The last thing any Gooner might want to see is another table in which the Gunners feature even further down than 3rd, but I've reproduced this one in response to the increasingly disconcerting rash of critics coming out of the woodwork to denigrate le Gaffer, after yet another barren season.

The evidence above of clubs nett spend on players since the inception of the Premiership, highlights Arsène's amazing achievement over the last 16 years, maintaining the Gunners as a competitive force, for a fraction of what other far less successful clubs have forked out on their squads. Moreover, in answer to the clamour from impatient Gooners, who are convinced that the solution to our silverware drought is to spunk up millions, the figures above patently demonstrate that breaking the bank to bolster one's squad brings absolutely no guarantee of success.

To the contrary, with only three domestic trophies to play for each season, many Premiership managers have mortgaged their club's future in the pursuit of self-glorification and short-term success, with little or nothing to show for all the millions they've blown on modern football's "have boots, will travel" mercenaries. Whereas the Gunners have amassed shedloads of silverware over the same period, stumping up a relative pittance by comparison.

For the most part, our minimal nett spend compared to much of the competition is a reflection of Arsène's incredibly shrewd transfer dealings. Although if these figures include all those youngsters who've gone on to forge careers elsewhere, because they were unable to make the grade with the Gunners, I wonder if they've factored in the substantial cost of their development. And if I've one regret it is that sadly (as yet!) we've had barely any homegrown players who've played their part in the disproportionately small outlay on the Arsenal's squad

With the income from the 100,000 seater Camp Nou and 12 homegrown players (inc. 6 local lads) in the current Barca squad, it's no wonder the Spanish champs can afford to blow us out of the water when competing for star players. What's more, after having endured the Arsenal's multi-cultural bouillabaisse being caught napping, when out for an afternoon stroll at the DW Stadium on Sunday, unable to regain any momentum, after Fabianski's gift gave Wigan cause to believe that there might just be a point in them turning up for the last ten minutes, I couldn't help but wonder if the Gunners would've let themselves and the travelling Gooner faithful down so badly, if there was just a soupcon of a homegrown vibe at the heart of this Arsenal squad.

Then again, the homegrown double act of Scouse scallies, Gerrard & Carragher were no less guilty of swanning around in Liverpool's encounter with the Hammers last night, a game which was no less significant for both sides than our match against Wigan, but which from what I saw (as it wasn't exactly riveting fare!) seemed to have the fervour of a testimonial match. Despite the fact that like Wigan, West Ham were supposed to be battling to avoid the relegation trap door and the Scousers should be scrabbling to secure themselves some sort of European competition next season, both sides seemed to be suffering from a severe case of end-of-seasonitis.

Perhaps I'm growing more cynical with old age, or could it be that our overpaid footballing heroes are making less and less effort to disguise the fact that far from being prepared to sweat blood for the cause, as each successive season draws to a close they're actually only prepared to make a patently obvious token effort to prove themselves vaguely interested in the fortunes of an institution which is merely viewed as their cash cow. And if they can't be bothered to expend the sort of graft necessary to prevent its demise, or to achieve the level of success necessary to keep them in the extravagant fashion that they've grown accustomed to, well then there will always be another mug along in a minute for them to feign kissy-kissy with another shirt badge.

My Spurs mates were hoping that we would get a result at Wigan, in order that we remained sufficiently interested in the title shake-up to turn it on against Man City. I'm hoping that the Gunners are going to feel sufficiently shamefaced about events on Sunday, that they feel obliged to try and make up for it by putting on a bit of a show against City.

Although I have to admit that if we were to lose this weekend and this would guarantee that the Lilywhites would be left watching Eastenders again next season instead of joining us in the Champions League (I suppose there could be room for amusement in watching them get all excited about qualifying in fourth, only for them to fall at the first knockout hurdle in August?), I for one wouldn't be so disappointed to suffer a defeat against a team where, with the potential involvement of the likes of Vieira, Kolo, Adebayor, Silvinho & Wrighty's lad, it could end up taking on the uncommitted ambience of an inter-club practice match.

Meanwhile, Arsène has to appreciate that for the majority of football fans, sound economic housekeeping doesn't rank anywhere near as important as bringing home the baubles for us to celebrate at the end of a long season. The Irish Examiner sent me a note reminding me of the deadline for our end of season report and for a moment there, in the immediate aftermath of Sunday's massive disillusionment, I felt like suggesting to the paper that they need only cut and paste any one of the corresponding missives from the previous five, ultimately disappointing campaigns, since they've all basically said exactly the same!

Jens Lehmann fell on his feet, walking into the Arsenal's Invincibles in 2004 but Jens was found out the following season. Basically since then, I have been saying that until Arsène invests in a keeper who truly possesses a world class presence, our only chance of winning the title would be by default. With Chelsea seemingly falling over themselves to throw the Premiership crown and Man Utd having one of their least impressive seasons for many a moon, we've perhaps come as close as we are ever going to come, to being gifted the title this season.

Believe me, I wouldn't have turned it down, but it would've taken some of the gloss off, if we'd have ended up being domestic champions, largely due to the inconsistencies of others. But as far as I'm concerned, until such time as Wenger addresses the goal keeping situation, instead of continuing to insist on making do with the sort of monkeys that result from only being prepared to pay relative peanuts, we will always be dependent on the charity of others.

I've referred below to Arsène's apparent blind spot between the posts and I wonder if this is related to his clinical, scientific approach to football, compared to more instinctive managers. In my humble opinion it's both part of what makes Wenger so brilliant, while at the same time being perhaps his greatest weakness. Where the likes of Mourinho might send on three subs after the break, based solely on a hunch that the changes might throw a spanner in the opposition's works, Wenger will wait until the last 15/20 minutes because his decisions are based solely on statistical analysis of perhaps his players fitness, or his subs potential for having a significant impact. Le Gaffer's approach to the game is evident in his habit of describing every single facet of football in terms of a percentage.

Seeing our goalkeeping problems through le Prof's eyes, it is perhaps the case that a top notch keeper might only improve the Gunners' goal difference by a relatively small margin and as a result, Arsène cannot see the logic in breaking the bank and spending 30 odd million quid on a goalie, who is only half a dozen goals better than what we have already. Doubtless Wenger believes he can get away with spending a hell of a lot less, on players with the ability to balance the books at the other end of the pitch.

This might make for great entertainment, but the fact of the matter is that you simply can't outscore the opposition every single week. Instead of putting so much pressure on our front men, how much better would it be, if we could count on our keeper to assume some of the responsibility, so that we are not still sat on the edge of our seats, wondering if a two goal lead will be enough because of our inability to shut shop at the back.

Arsène's pragmatism perhaps prevents him from being able to compute the real value of a world class keeper, in terms of something quite so intangible as the benefits of having a big personality between the sticks, the sort of colossus, not necessarily in size, but in stature and presence, who's capable of intimidating opposition strikers and who spreads an air of calm reassurance amongst the rest of our defence.

I can't envisage our opponents nowadays giving a monkey's about which of our far too timid triumvirate of keepers they find themselves playing against. Whereas I want a goalie who's reputations is sufficiently intimidating that opposition strikers are forced to hesitate, or to over-analyze any attempt on our goal, in the belief that they need do something a little bit special in order to beat him.

Moreover, there's often an air of calm composure between the likes of Ferdinand & Vidic, or Terry & Carvalho when they need to clear their lines at the back, which I assume is due to the fact that they have complete confidence in a keeper who is thoroughly consistent in everything they do. By contrast our centre-backs all too often seem to express the exact same feelings of blind-panic that we endure on the terraces, in their frantic efforts to address the danger whenever our defence is put under pressure, because the frequent change of keepers and the fact that all three lack the self-confidence to dominate their area, means that our defence never quite knows what to expect from the man playing behind them.

The relationship between a keeper and the two centre-backs is just about the most important one on the pitch. I don't know for a fact, but I've always had this sense that le Prof's technique in attempting to instill "unbelievable belief" in his charges, involves treating them all as adults, expecting them to have learned their trade by the time they reach the Arsenal first XI. Sadly, in my opinion, Don Howe was put out to grass soon after Arsène arrived at the club. Seemingly Howe's sergeant-major methods were bad "feng shui" and all that screaming and shouting didn't fit in with Wenger's Zen philosophy.

Arsène not only revolutionised the Arsenal, but the ripple effect of his approach to the game changed the entire face of British football. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that absolutely everything the new broom swept clean was all bad. If they do, it's certainly not apparent in their actions on the pitch, but I can't envisage the current squad spending time on the training ground, enduring the sort of regimented defensive drills that are likely to have been an integral part of Don Howe's "old-school" training technique.

I'm all for the fluid, unfettered nature of the Arsenal's beautiful football, but at the back you want players to be so well versed in their expected role in any given situation, that their actions are entirely second nature. Amongst the best defences there is no thinking time necessary because centre-backs and goalie have the sort of intuitive relationship, which means that they're instinctively aware of what each other will do.

Jens Lehmann might at least have had the sort of confrontational personality which meant that unlike the current incumbents, opposing teams were aware of his presence (Jens could start a barney in a phone box). Yet I always had the feeling that all the bluff and bluster was something of a pretense, designed to distract from the fact that underneath, the big German goalie wasn't the bravest of characters. With opposing teams having learned to disrupt our defence by having a man stand right in our keeper's face at set-pieces, where Lehmann would have a row with anyone who stood on his toes, in recent times our keepers appear content to accept this tactic, as their excuse to stop at home.

In such circumstances, with two six-foot plus players standing nose to nose, it always amuses me to see a relatively diminutive schnip of a team mate tasked with separating the two, by standing in the middle. As far as I'm concerned, it will be perfectly obvious to me when (if?) the day should ever come that Arsène ever gets around to solving our goalkeeping quandary because he'll have drafted in a goalie with the sort of dominant, intimidating personality that has his team mates requesting permission to enter his six yard box.

Moreover, he won't need any protection at set-pieces because he has sufficient confidence in his own physical presence (and the fact that the use of his arms affords him a three foot advantage) that instead of trying to get around the player obstructing his path to the ball, he will simply go through them, to either claim possession, or in the process induce the ref to award a foul.

Every season of late, I've tried to find comfort in the thought that our success would've only enabled Arsène to paper over the cracks, hoping that our failure would at least force our manager's hand and his short arms, into long pockets, in order to address the more obvious of our squad's deficiencies. Sadly I've been proved wrong, as each summer Arsène has shown himself to be a mean pontoon player, preferring to stick instead of twisting and potentially going bust.

With his tendency to keep a tight rein on the purse strings, as if he was spending his own daughter's inheritance, I keep hoping that Arsène's frugality is due to a basic lack of spondulicks, rather than him being parsimonious by nature. With each passing season I expect the club to have reached the promised land, where all those highly profitable revenue streams from our new stadium and the purported additional £3 million per match begins to have some impact on the Gunners purchasing power. After all, since I already had my guaranteed (and far superior) pitch at my former home of football, this was the principal basis on which we were sold the new stadium project.

Meanwhile I've been waffling on for so long that Barcelona have lost to Inter since I began this lengthy preamble. I don't want to sound too smug, but in all the slaverish "best ever club side" type praise that followed our pumelling in Spain, I said that I fancied that the paucity of the Arsenal's performance would only be truly reflected in the fact that Barca were likely to make a lot harder work of defeating Mourinho's aging mob.

Driving down Aubert Park these past few gloriously bright sunny mornings, as I approach the bottom of the hill, the backdrop of a cloudless blue sky is suddenly filled with vista of the new stadium and the looming mural of the backs of the likes of Mclintock, Bould, Parlour and Rice, framed by the new apartment developments on either side.

It's a sight which has moved me to wonder what on earth some of these old Arsenal legends would make of the sort of limp-wristed displays that pass for end of season commitment from their modern day counterparts?

Come on you Reds


If there’s one thing that never fails to amaze me, it’s a football fans eternal propensity to rebound from the very depths of heart-rending disillusionment. In light of the array of significant injuries that have exposed the limitations of Arsène’s squad and all the pre-season predictions that we’d be the team most likely to end up in Liverpool’s predicament, until we were banjaxed by Barca, I felt that by and large the Gunners hadn’t done so bad, managing to stick around to the end of the season, like a not so malodorous smell. But it’s all gone pear-shaped since our capitulation in Catalunya, culminating in our disgraceful demise at the DW Stadium on Sunday.

Whereas by contrast if I was a cock-a-hoop Spurs fan, after their remarkable derby win double this past week, I couldn’t help but wonder how it is that my side suddenly bears absolutely no recognition to the team of impostors who threw in the towel against Pompey at Wembley?

Hard as they tried, my Spurs mates couldn’t get much of a rise out of me after our Derby debacle. For all their gloating about scuppering the Gunners last glimmer of a title challenge, their incessant leg-pulling wasn’t nearly so excruciating, when a Premiership trophy this season has always seemed little more than a pipe-dream.

Obviously I would’ve rather it had happened absolutely anywhere else but White Hart Lane, but in some respects there was almost a certain sense of relief to the perceived finality of events last Wednesday night. The length of the pole has been extended and retracted game by game, in direct proportion to the inconsistencies of the other two main contenders, but there was some solace in the belief that we had at least seen the last of this unattainable carrot that’s been dangling from it all season long.

If this Gooner Dobbin was in any danger of believing that there was still some slight chance of sinking my oversized molars into that juicy Premiership carrot, all such feint hopes of glory evaporated, the moment Vermaelen limped off the Lilywhite’s field of dreams, 1-0 down, after only 20 mins.

I couldn’t have been more wrong to mock Sol Campbell's comback. Faster, stronger and more committed than many players nearly half his age, Sol’s reminded us that unlike the majority of our decimated squad, he still retains plenty of the 'right stuff’ aura of a genuine title-winner. The Gunners have proved positively porous in Alex Song’s absence, with Sol’s unstinting resolve all too often the only bulwark between a potential landslide of embarrassment prompted by his team mates flaccid efforts.

Meanwhile I couldn’t escape this image of Fergie falling off his sofa for the second successive week, laughing hysterically at the success of his secret weapon, having successfully slipped the handicap that is Mikael Silvestre into the Arsenal camp - a defensive time-bomb designed to implode just at the point of maximum, devastating impact. Gawd love him, Silvestre might’ve scored on Sunday but for the most part he should be playing in a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe, having acquired the mantle of our very own Grim Reaper! Personally I’d much prefer to see the likes of Kyle Bartley, or any of the Gunners’ youngsters given a go, than to suffer the torment of Peanut Head’s obvious limitations.

Having skulked back down the Seven Sisters Road after our midweek humiliation, needless to say, there wasn’t too much Gooner gusto for Sunday’s crack of dawn departure for a lunchtime encounter with Wigan. After Wednesday’s ‘too little, too late’ cameo display from our much missed Dutch striker, the prospect of Van Persie starting his first match since November was perhaps the only saving grace for a long schlep to the North-West.

With inconsistency the only consistent element in this topsy-turvy campaign, even if Robin had remained fit there’s no guarantee that his contribution would’ve made a considerable difference; especially with le Gaffer’s current fixation on a 4-5-1 formation. Nevertheless, Van Persie’s introduction for the last 23 minute against Spurs was like turning on a light. Our tempestuous front-man immediately produced the sort of scintillating skills that highlighted exactly what we’ve missed these past four months from Arsène’s motley selection of pinch-hitters. By contrast to the delicate artistry of our Dutch thoroughbred, suddenly Bendtner, looked a clumsy, leaden-footed Danish dray horse.

In the past, the Gunners could often be guaranteed 'to get their groove on' with the sun on their backs. With Chelsea seemingly intent on stumbling over the finishing line, following their unconvincing efforts against Spurs, we’d not quite seen the last of the carrot. Myself I would’ve much preferred to see Van Persie and perhaps a big stick! Judging by the apparent apathy on display, for 80 insipid minutes on Sunday, it was hard to believe the home team were playing for their Premiership survival and that fate had left the door ajar, for the Gunners to make one last push for glory.

I’m sure this was far from being the only Premiership game with an ‘end of season’ feel, in spite of incredibly high stakes, where loyal fans on the verge of a nervous breakdown are forced to suffer the indolent efforts of overpaid mercenaries, who are already more focused on the prospect of working on their tans, or self-glorification in South Africa this summer.

Up until Fabianski’s costly fumble, it felt as if Wigan might as well have handed us 3 points. Instead of both sides merely going through the motions, we could’ve avoided the expense of a costly outing and all enjoyed a leisurely lie-in. Doubtless many Gooners will believe our Polack keeper culpable, but his momentary cock-up was symptomatic of an overall lack of concentration that's eventually brought the curtain down on another barren season. It’s not so much the defeat that bothers me, but the depressing fact that our season has expired with a shameful whimper, when the very least loyal Gooners deserve is a far more fervent bang for our hard-earned bucks.

Having gifted Wigan their Premiership lifeline, while hardly winning friends amongst the Hammers, Hull & Burnley faithful, how many more seasons will we have to endure our prospects of silverware floundering on a triumvirate of powder-puff goalies, before le Gaffer gets dragged to the opticians, kicking and screaming, to cure his genuine blind spot when it comes to the Gunners desperate need for dominant personality between the posts.

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Wednesday 14 April 2010

Is It Just Me?

G'day fellow Gooners

As someone who has been eating, sleeping and breathing Arsenal for as long as I can remember, in the past when we've been in with a sniff of a title at this climactic point in the season, I'd be pooping my pants at the prospect.

Sitting down to watch live coverage of last night's match at the Bridge, with the Gunners only three points behind the leaders with five games to go, I should've been a nervous wreck, kicking every ball, disturbing the neighbours as I bawled my head off at Bolton, frightening the dog and upsetting the missus, as she's always convinced that folks must think I'm referring to her with my caterwauling, screaming "You Cnut" every few minutes.

Instead of which, I sat there calmly watching the game, without once raising my voice to bellow at the inanimate box in the corner of the living room. Treacle spent the entire 90 minutes sprawled on the couch, twitching away as doubtless she devoured an entire carcass of bones in doggie dreamland, when normally she'd be cowering in a corner as a result of me not being able to restrain myself from screaming my head off.

The incompetent officials failure to punish the fairly blatant handballs didn't even trouble my blood pressure and as Chelsea accomplished their expected win, I couldn't even muster much enthusiasm when Kevin Davies came close to pinching a late equaliser. It's hard to put my finger on it, but there was a definite feeling of inevitability about Anelka's goal just before half-time and although this was far from an accomplished Chelsea performance, even if Bolton had managed to pull a goal back, you sensed that the Blues always had enough in the tank to take all three points.

In truth, I'm not sure why I bothered watching, because frankly, in contrast to some of the mouthwatering encounters over the past few weeks, Chelsea v Bolton was never going to be particularly high on entertainment value. But then I guess the fact that Murdoch's thieving conglomerate are fliching an extortionate eighty quid a month from my overdraft, including an additional tenner of my hard earned wonga for an ESPN subscription, means that I have to try and get my money's worth somehow.

I suppose somewhere in the recesses of the more optimistic bit of my brain, there was some faint hope that Jack Wilshere might feel sufficiently motivated to pull something out of the bag for the club he's grown up at. However I have to admit that if it wasn't for the fact that Wilshere was playing and if there was something more interesting on another channel, I would've been sorely tempted to turn over.

It's strange, as based on the wonderful feats of skill we saw from Wilshere in pre-season, if his progress had continued on it's expected path, I would've imagined he'd have remained at the Arsenal, where, with Fabregas now out for the remainder of the season, he might have had the opportunity to play a significant role in the closing stages. Whereas from the little I've seen of Jack's performances for Owen Coyle's side, although he hasn't looked out of place and certainly doesn't appear to struggle with the physical side of the game (was it John Terry Jack clobbered last night?), as far as his undoubted talent is concerned, he's struck me as something of a "little boy lost", unable to impose himself on matches to the point where he can make his ability count.

Perhaps it would be a completely different story if he was playing at the Arsenal, where our passing game suits his talents but I kind of suspect that there must've been an underlying motivation for sending him out on loan in the first place. I've always said that Wilshere's style of play reminds me of Joe Cole. In fact there's something about his movement on the ball which to my mind looks identical to Cole and as we've seen from Cole's somewhat sporadic career progress, he's the sort of stylish player who needs to play in a team that, if not built around him, is designed to accommodate his "libero" type role.

In truth I've not really seen that much of Wilshere in a Bolton shirt, but from the little I have seen and with Wanderers still struggling to ensure that they don't get dragged into the relegation dogfight, I must admit that I've wondered if Coyle is under some obligation to pick Jack in his first team (ie. that he was only allowed to go out on loan on the understanding that he would get first team football). Jack's apparent inability to impose his talent on the games I have seen, have left me thinking that in Coyle's shoes I would've probably opted for a less cultured footballer in his position and instead gone for a more practical, experienced old pro, to try and dig in, in games such as last night's match against the Blues. I haven't read any of the match reports but I wonder if the Bolton fans have actually seen evidence of what Wilshere is capable of since he's been there?

Meanwhile, back to my apparent apathy. Obviously I'm getting increasingly excited about the prospect of this evening's derby match. Having found an outlet for my mid-life crisis by way of my motorbike this past year or so, after one drenching too many, I have finally invested in some proper motorbike clothing. I might look like a belisha beacon and it certainly shouldn't be hard to spot myself on the terraces in my "hi-viz" jacket but I must give a plug to my motorbike couturiers Biker Gear UK as I am well chuffed with my new outfit. What's more, travelling to White Hart Lane on my motorbike with my crash helmet and my new armoured clothing, it will feel as if for the first time I will be suitably kitted up for the occasion :-)

I'm sure that like many other Gooners, I am somewhat astounded by Robin Van Persie's sudden return to fitness and will be more than a little shocked to see him involved in tonight's match. After all, after having been out injured for so many months, returning for the Derby match as his first competitive football since November would hardly seem like the most ideal situation, as one might've expected our Dutch striker's return to have been just a little more gradual, than for him to come back and be thrown straight into, what I hope will prove to be a cauldron of intensity at White Hot Lane this evening.

As every other visit down the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road, tonight's match will be no less traumatic and I will come away from there no less hoarse than usual, having invested every last ounce of nervous energy into ninety crucial minutes of football. Nevertheless, I can't help but question whether perhaps my enthusiasm is waning with the passing years, or could it just be the fact that I am struggling to buy into Arsène's conviction that our decimated squad are genuine contenders.

Maybe it's just the repercussions of our demolition by Barcelona that have left me feeling somewhat blue. It's not so much the sense that the Spanish side were a superior footballing outfit (which they obviously were against the eleven who played on the night) and how much I covet some of their talented stars, but more a case of how envious I am of the makeup of the Barca squad. Quite frankly, I'll be surprised if Fabregas doesn't try to angle a move to Spain this summer and Wenger won't be able to deny him if he wants to go. Moreover in all honesty, it's getting harder and harder to make any sort of cogent argument against his return to Spain, from Fabregas' perspective.

You have to wonder how much more fervent and committed tonight's Derby game would be, if both the Arsenal and Spurs squads were made up of a dozen homegrown players and half a dozen who were borne and bred at either end of the Seven Sisters Road. The counter argument would be that neither team would be in their current elevated Premiership positions without the multi-national makeup of their squads.

Nevertheless, I can't help but look at Barcelona's side and wonder how much more excited I would be, watching an Arsenal squad play every week, where I knew that for the majority of players, their desire for the club's success matched my own passion. Where I could rest assured that there was a homegrown core of players who were desperate to achieve something at the club they'd grown up at and who wouldn't feel anywhere near the same enthusiasm for winning trophies at any other club.

No matter how much players nowadays might try to proclaim their commitment to the cause, you know full well that in truth, they're committed to no one but themselves and their own selfish pursuit of wealth and glory. When I heard the story of Adebayor being in a local tattoo parlour and being told about the tattooist's Gooner mate who has a museum's worth of memorabilia and subsequently turning up at this geezer's house and spending the evening going through all his collection, I was touched, thinking that here was a player who truly had some special feeling for the club. It wasn't the first time that I ended up disillusioned with one of our players and I am sure it won't be the last.

With their superior goal difference, I guess we'd need Chelsea to slip up twice for us to have a chance of winning the title over the next few weeks and while I quite fancy that the race is a long way from being run, I think the real reason I'm struggling for my customary fervour in this sort of circumstance, is the fact that I've seen so very little from our squad in recent months to suggest that they have the look of genuine Champions.

Mind you, if the Gunners have got to cast off the disappointment of our Champions League exit, surely this can't be any harder than the task facing Tottenham, as their fans must've been so certain that their season was going to culminate in a May day FA Cup Final. Doubtless many of you will have already seen the amusing jokes doing the rounds, but for the benefit of anyone who hasn't:-
"For sale on eBay: 20,000 Spurs FA Cup Final 2010 t-shirts, 3,500 "Ossie Is On His Way To Wembley" mugs, 5000 Spurs "Champions League 2011" hoodies. Please contact Harry on tel: 0800 one nothing, one nothing, one nothing"

If we can take advantage of their semifinal hangover, we'll be back breathing down the neck of the league leaders, seemingly with every chance of making up the ground over the last four matches. I should be walking around with my portable defibrillator to jump start my heart every time it stops over the coming month. But bizarrely it doesn't feel necessary because the prospect of us winning the title just seems so unbelievable.

There you go. I've done my utmost to tempt fate, by writing myself into an embarrassing "foot in mouth" situation, whereby I'll be left taking it all back, after the Gunner give the old enemy the sort of hiding that leaves us all waking up tomorrow morning believing that a title challenge is really on. It's over to you lads

Come on you Reds
Big Love

PS. Sounds like I won't be the only one left with my foot in my mouth. Although he should be more than used to the taste of his own toes by now, as in trying to reassure everyone that Fabregas won't be going anywhere this summer, apparently that old duffer Hill-Wood has said that Cesc wouldn't even be guaranteed to get in the Barcelona team! I guess there's no more cast iron guarantee that Fab is off than our chairman's promise!

Following the massive anti-climax of last week’s Champions League exit, I was grateful that Spurs comical FA Cup curtain call presented us Gooners with a relaxing, stress free weekend. Between the Grand National, the golf and wall to wall footie, including live coverage of “El Clásico”, it was the equivalent of an armchair sports’ fan’s nirvana, plotted up in front of the box, not having to move a muscle from midday, to midnight, other than some frantic thumb work with the remote control.

Watching the massed ranks of Madrid’s quarter of a billion quid’s worth of individual footballing talent, being made to look so mundane by the buoyant Barca collective, as the Catalan side cruised into La Liga’s box seat with a decisive 0-2 drubbing in the Bernabeu, only served to confirm that there was absolutely no shame in our increasingly unequivocal European exit.

With Arsenal players dropping like flies in advance of last Tuesday’s mammoth occasion, initially our additional injuries only stoked the optimistic flames of hope, for a ‘backs to the wall’, against all odds outcome. But the eventual appearance of Silvestre in the starting line-up felt like the final doom-laden coup de grace. In an irony-filled season of over-achievement, this was the moment when it dawned on most Gooners that Barca was going to be a bridge too far for our devastated squad.

I suppose that in truth, the absence of so many star turns (Fabregas, Van Persie, Arshavin, Song, Gallas et al) was always likely to have an inhibiting effect. But perhaps the biggest disappointment was that the Gunners appeared not to have learned their lesson from the first leg. Without Pique and their talismanic skipper (Puyol might look like a 70s rock star and is nearly old enough to have been one, but what I wouldn’t give for a leader with his imposing presence in the Arsenal ranks!), Barca’s unfamiliar looking defence were ripe for being rattled by a fast-tempo, Premiership style, pressing game.

Instead of which, we were once again guilty of allowing our hosts far too much time on the ball, shadowing players in possession, instead of ‘putting them under’ and gifting them time to settle, so they could calmly pass it out from the back for Javi and Messi to weave their wonderous magic. Mind you, in Song’s absence, there wasn’t exactly a superfluity of tackle relishing Gunners on the pitch!

However, after somehow taking the lead, flabbergasted when the flat-footed Dane reacted faster than anyone else to poke home the rebound, it might’ve been a different story if Diaby had passed right, instead of left on the counter a few moments later. The Catalan giants might have struggled to recover from conceding 2 in such quick succession…sure and our lanky midfielder might’ve outshone Lionel Messi, dream on!

Looking for some slight solace, I found a missive from Nov 2005, where I stated that Messi had replaced Kaka as my favourite player. It took no great insight from myself, or the several million others who watched in absolute awe, as accompanied by Eto’o and Ronaldihno in their pomp, the diminutive Argie deity lit up the Bernabeu, slicing and dicing their derby opponents that day in a 0-3 demolition that even had the Madrillistas applauding the enemy off the pitch (I assume Marca was referring to the more civilised locals, rather than those who’d been lambasting Eto’o with racist abuse!). Now this really was Barca at their mercurial best.

Whereas it bugged me to hear the pundits bigging up the Catalans as “perhaps the best club side ever” based on the mincemeat Messi made of last Tuesday’s opposition, an Arsenal line-up that was always likely to come off second best. Without a leader out on the park, driving us forward, trying to restrict the home team to playing in their half of the pitch, we stood back and admired our hosts. This might as well have been an invitation to Messi to conduct the Gunners’ Requiem mass. Sadly Lionel duly obliged having us hung, drawn & quartered with Arsène’s head on his wall as a trophy, in the space of his 20-minute hat-trick masterclass.

Meanwhile should Barca make much harder work of Mourinho’s aging Inter, or Bayern’s 3-trick pony, this will prove a true reflection of the gimcrack efforts of the Gunners supporting cast, in the absence of so many leading men. If the Spanish side are destined to be crowned kings of Europe in Madrid come May, we might prostrate ourselves at Messi’s talented feet, but no less a factor in Guardiola’s success is the atypical team ethic, engendered in a dozen or so homegrown stars, half of whom are Catalan borne & bred.

True enough, Barca have sufficient spondulicks to poach some of the best talent on the planet, but if I’m envious it’s because their current squad is in essence the complete antithesis of the Galactico ethos and a model Arsène might try to emulate, if the Gunners are ever to develop a winning mentality, in these mercenary and ever more miserly times.

On paper Chelsea are the only one of the three squads that have the look of genuine title contenders and Man Utd’s draw on Sunday only lends weight to this argument. Yet I suspect that the Blues’ conviction and commitment might come under scrutiny over the course of the last four weeks. Much like ourselves and the majority of other Premiership clubs, it takes little to shatter the wafer thin veneer of unity, compared to deep dressing room bonds forged since childhood, combined with the added inspiration of a nuclei of players whose genuine local pride makes such a sham of all that shameless badge kissing.

After our demoralising mauling in Spain, the question is whether the Gunners can rediscover the spirit and determination necessary to capitalise on any unexpected results, with no better test that tonight’s match at White Hart Lane. I’ve been teasing my Spurs pals for weeks, with the ultimate ‘rock & a hard place’ poser - what if they play Chelsea on Saturday, needing a win to pip City to that highly-prized Champions League pitch, but knowing it might be handing us the title on a plate? Doubtless it would be Man Utd who’d be most likely to profit and on current form Man City pipping them for 4th.

Nevertheless, taking into account all the adverse circumstances, I’m just delighted to have reached this stage in the season, still able to savour such delicious wet-dream fantasies

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Tuesday 6 April 2010

More In Hope Than Expectation?

Hi folks

I'd love to be sitting in the sunshine on Las Ramblas right now, enjoying some tapas before heading off to the Camp Nou this evening, but sadly circumstances contrive to find me stuck in London, trying to soak up the excitement, vicariously, via the "Trains, Plains & Automobiles" type sorties of some of my mates amongst the garrison of travelling Gooners.

I've got friends who've flown to Valencia and who're getting the train back up to Barcelona. According to them all the trains are full and while they're fortunate to have a seat booked on one that gets them into Barcelona at 5pm, there are other Gooners there without a booking, who I imagine might be in a bit of a flap?

Other pals flew to the South of France and hired a car to drive across the Pyrenees (or is it through? I've never travelled this particular route) and last I heard they were heading to the Arsenal fan zone down by the port, an area doubtless set-up by the local authorities to try and contain any potential problems from pissed up Gooners.

Meanwhile my mate who flew to Gerona seemed to have the least tortuous trip, hiring a car for the short hop to the Catalan capital. But I've no doubt that as I write, the red & white hordes are converging on the city, from all points North, South, East & West, as along with the loyal travelling faithful, such a massive occasion is bound to have attracted it's fair share of Gooner glory hunters out of the woodwork. As Jasper Carrot commented on TV about the Birmingham fans, there's a decided smell of Cuprinol in the air .

Envious...who me, whatever gave you that idea! My mate purchased my ticket for tonight's match (at a princely seventy quid! I wonder how many of the local fans pay such exorbitant prices?), but in the knowledge that I wasn't going to be able to make it, I told him to make good use of it. However I still harboured some feint hopes of making it and in some respects I kept hoping to receive a text to confirm that he'd placed the ticket, so that I could stop vacillating and put the thought out of my mind.

Yet I knew exactly what was going to happen and that following a result last Wednesday which left us still in with a half decent shout of beating them, I'd be that much more desperate to be there. Thus in truth I was quite relieved to see that the one-day trips had sold out, as otherwise I might still have been sorely tempted to change my mind and from past experience, leaving at the crack of dawn, on those one day outings is an extremely gruelling business, where one ends up being herded into the ground at 8.45pm, so utterly cream crackered that it's hard to keep one's eyes open for the actual match.

I've been on many a Champions League outing, where I've seen Gooners arriving at the ground a little the worse for wear, due to excessive indulgence in cheap local booze and promptly passing out for the entire duration of the game! Then to have to join the sheep-like hordes being coralled back out of the ground, straight onto coaches to the airport afterwards and queuing for one of umpteen return flight back to London, only to eventually arrive home at 4-5am in the morning, I'm not sure I have the stamina any more for such 24-hour endurance outings.

Still, I suppose I've always got Wigan to look forward to and a trip to the JJB on Saturday week (sorry, that's the DW Stadium now, in honour of their egotistical former chairman - so next time we bemoan the fact that our gaff is advertising space for an Arabic airline, I guess we should count our blessings that we're not playing at the Hill-Wood!). Hopefully I'm merely keeping my powder dry for a trip to the away leg of the Champions League semi-final?

Naturally I'd be feeling a whole lot more optimistic if Fabregas was fit, as I would've really fancied Cesc to make the very most of his big return to Barca. I suppose the only slight consolation about our captain's injury is that it means we are at least not left feeling quite so hard done by, if we'd been deprived of our best player as a result of the booking he received for a perfectly fair challenge.

If the snippets of Sky Sports News I heard were correct, it would appear as if the odds are being increasingly stacked against us, since the injuries just keep coming, with I believe both Campbell and Rosicky at risk of joining Alex Song, Arshavin and the raft of other Gunners who've fallen victim to this cursed rash of afflictions.

With the Arsenal players dropping like flies, I'm trying to roll with the punches with each additional blow of bad news, trying to make a positive case for remaining players available for selection. Although I have to admit that I'm struggling to put a positive slant on Silvestre, with his oil-tanker slow turning circle and the prospect of Messi and Bojan running rings around him

Nevertheless, the more the odds are against us, the more hopeful I become, as I'm convinced it's going to be a "nothing to lose" attitude that will stand us in good stead tonight, allowing us the freedom to go out there and express ourselves. Mind you I wasn't particularly impressed with Theo Walcott's comments, where he appeared to suggest that if we can contain the Catalonian side for an hour or so, we could continue our habit of nicking a late winner.

The Gunners can't contain some of the Premiership's lesser lights, so what hope have we of grinding the life out of team as talented as Barcelona. Hopefully the absence of Puyol will prove a significant loss for the Spanish side. I have the utmost respect for this refugee from Thin Lizzy (with his shagpile barnet), as to my mind Puyol is the epitome of what a captain should be, making up for in experience, what he might now lack in pace. In fact, it makes Fab's feat of conning a penalty out of the aging war-horse that much more impressive.

But to my mind, there's a talismanic aura about Puyol, which will hopefully result in Barca being being far less assertive in his absence and I firmly believe that if we're going to get anything out of tonight's game, we simply have to take the match to them, defending from the front and trying to unsettle them, in the exact same way in which they ruffled our feathers at the start of the first leg. We simply can't afford to sit back and invite the likes of Messi to break us down, as this is likely to prove fatal on the wide expanses of the Camp Nou.

One of the most memorable factors in many of our more successful campaigns has been the fact that it simply hasn't mattered who has played, as Arsène has been able to seamlessly slip in squad players whenever required, with no apparent negative impact. On the evidence of our season so far, we've somehow managed to ride each additional setback, confounding all the pundits who insist on writing us off.

I'd be a rich man, if I had a crystal ball to predict tonight's result. Personally I'm not a betting man and superstition would always prevent me from gambling on my beloved Gunners, but if I was, I would certainly know better by now, than to bet against the Arsenal!

Obviously I'm as desperate as the next Gooner to make it through to the semi-finals, if not that little but more eager, hoping that by not travelling to Barcelona, I haven't missed our last Champions League boat for this season. But as many Gooners have pointed out, put into the proper perspective of the relative strength of our squad compared to some of the competition and the fact that we've survived thus far, in the face of all our injuries and the fact that we've largely been without a recognised front-man for the majority of this campaign, we really can't complain and so long as they go out there and do themselves justice at the Camp Nou this evening, I for one will be more than satisfied.

As for the travelling faithful, you're going to have to give it some serious welly, if you're to make yourselves heard because with the away fans being stuck at such high-altitude, right up in the gods and without any roof, any noise tends to merely dissipate into the night sky. If we can hear you on the box, then you're doing your job and I pray that the players do theirs

Come on you Reds, make us all proud
Big Love

PS. Apologies to anyone who finds themselves re-reading some of the comments made in Saturday's post in my missive below, but I've re-used some of the cracks (hopefully) for the amusement of Examiner readers

You could sense that unmistakable groundswell of hope, when the 4th official held up the board, indicating an additional 5 minutes of injury time on Saturday. I’ve always been a firm believer in picking our strongest line-up, no matter the opposition, so that tired players can earn themselves a breather, once we’ve built up a cushion. Whereas it defeats the object of the exercise, whenever Arsène leaves our best players on the bench. When they're thrown on at the death, to try and pull a result out of the bag, psychologically they end up dragging their feet at the final whistle, no less drained of adrenaline and no less spent, than those who’ve played the entire 90.

Our pragmatic gaffer can't compute such unscientific conjecture. Thus Wolves faced a weakened starting line-up and what must constitute the Premiership’s most pint-sized front line?

Despite our impotence, all due credit to the focus of Mick McCarthy’s stalwart mob. Our interminably patient efforts to pick an intricate path to victory, floundered on the massed ranks of the visitors resolute defence. As the klutz who fluffed his opening lines, Eduardo is badly in need of a confidence boost. At his goal-poaching best, the Croat striker would instinctively be caressing such sitters into the net. Doubtless the groans of 60,000 Gooners, only adds to his anxiety, as Eddie tries a little too hard to make his rare opportunities count.

With his dainty dreadlocks, Mancienne cuts a distinctive dash on a football pitch. But if the elegant England U21 is perceived as a ball playing centre-back, it was his commitment which caught my eye on Saturday. The Chelsea loanee looked like a dyed-in-the-wool Wanderer, constantly putting his body on the line, with his indefatigable efforts to break up our attacks.

As the clock ticked down towards the death-knell of a 2-point dropping draw, Arsène was eventually forced to throw caution to the wind, turning to last big guns left on the bench who’re still capable of making it out on to the pitch unaided by crutches. Considering our growing reputation for last gasp goals, it’s beyond me how anyone could take their leave prematurely, with the game balanced on a 0-0 knife-edge! Perhaps the Gunners have grown so accustomed to inflicting a sucker punch on flagging opposition that we seemed to be affronted by 10-man Wolves staunch resistance. As all our title fantasies ebbed away with every passing second, our efforts to break the deadlock became ever more frantic.

By contrast I can perhaps appreciate the Burnley fans heading for the exits, 0-4 down, after a positively humiliating 20 minutes. And every passionate fan can empathize with the TV pictures of the knucklehead punching the concrete bulkhead on his way out. 5 minutes always feels like enough injury time to conjure up one last effort on goal, but it felt like Walcott had blown this and that the game was up when he scuffed his shot. In a similarly frustrated vein, I turned to vent my anger, by giving my seat the sort of kicking that Theo should've inflicted on the ball!

Whether caused by angst, or an increasing air of resignation, the more hushed our crowd became, the more psychotic my own exhortations. Judging by their concerned glances, the kids in my vicinity were torn between events on the pitch and the prospect of a YouTube exclusive in the spontaneous combustion of the lunatic behind them. I should've given up on the Gunners sooner and saved a lot of heartache. The moment I opened my gob to proclaim "we could be playing until midnight and still not score", Bendtner finally broke the seal on the pressure-cooker of tension finding the back of the net. As the entire stadium erupted with an overwhelming expression of collective relief, I almost felt sorry for the woebegone Wanderers.

I’m bored of bemoaning our inability to begin games with the same intensity and tempo that we’re often forced to produce to secure a result in the last few minutes. This bad habit contributed to Barca catching us on the back-foot. To quote Shankly we were “lucky to have nil” come the break and we need to be whole lot more pumped for the trip to the Camp Nou, if we’re not to be steam-rollered again.

At 0-2 down on Wednesday, instead of encouraging them to try and salvage some pride, (the misnomer of) certain shell-shocked “supporters” seemed intent on coating everyone off. As a result in my own humble efforts to holler my support, I was forced to remove my far too loose fitting denture, for fear it might come flying out, leaving me having to recover it from the hair of the woman in front (“sorry love, my false teeth are chowing down on your barnet”).

Meanwhile there’s nothing like a family funeral to put the “funny ol’ game” into proper perspective. I did my best to maintain a dignified air of respect, as my aunt shuffled off this mortal coil on Thursday. But despite my best efforts to avoid my sister’s wrath, by eulogizing Barca instead of my mum’s sister, it wasn’t the heat from the crematorium warming my ear, but my uncle’s indecorous ballyhoo about building a stadium fit for footballing kings, but where we’re left counting on “alte kucke” pensioners like Silvestre and Campbell, due to our all too prudent manager’s “make do and mend” mentality.

Based on the “against all odds” season the Gunners are having so far, it’s not out of the question for us to achieve a shock result in the Camp Nou. Yet as with our Premiership campaign, we travel in hope more than expectation. I just pray we prove ourselves worthy competition in Catalunya. Away fans are stuck right up in the gods, at such a great altitude, that with no roof on the stadium, all one’s exhortations merely dissipate into the night sky with frustrating futility. Anyone know the Spanish for “Steradent”?

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Saturday 3 April 2010

Thankfully That Was Theo Flying Down The Wing, Not My Falsies

I waited until this morning to watch a replay of Wednesday's emotionally draining encounter. To be honest I've still not recovered from all the excitement and I'd guess that like many other Gooners (and perhaps our team?), I came away from the ground that night, feeling more than a little punch drunk, wondering exactly what had just transpired?

Although there's nothing like a funeral to put a trivial football game into proper perspective and my mum's sister made her exit from this mortal coil early on Thursday morning. Nevertherless it wasn't the heat from the crematorium burning my ear, but my uncle bemoaning the fact that Wenger failed to bring in centre-back during the transfer window, instead of his "make do and mend" approach and compromising with Sol "that alte kucker" Campbell!

On home turf, roared on by our crowd, I'd sincerely hoped to see an Arsenal side take the Spanish champions on, bringing some Premiership pace, to a Champions League match, putting the visitors under serious pressure and preventing them from doing to us, what we usually enjoy doing to other sides. However you only have to read Arsène's programme notes and those of our captain, to appreciate the amount of respect they have for Pep Guardiola's team.

After a season where we've grown far too accustomed to starting games on the back foot, as though we go out there to play keep ball for eighty minutes, waiting for the opposition to flag during the final stages and the waters of their defence to part, so that we can waltz through them, it seems as if we've forgotten how to start matches with a high intensity.

As a result, it was Barca who did to us exactly what we should've been doing to them. Right from the opening whistle, it was the visitors who looked most like a Premiership side, closing us down all over the pitch, preventing us from settling on the ball for one second. While all ten of Barca's outfield players pressed us all over the pitch, hustling us into making mistakes and immediately handing back possession, by contrast, the likes of Bendtner, Diaby and Arshavin seemed very flat-footed, only offering token attention to the man in possession, shadowing players but never really forcing the issue.

Thus Barca were allowed time on the ball in their half of the pitch, enabling them to spray the ball about and pick out passes at will, either because we were guilty of showing them far too much respect, or because too many of our players simply lacked the same intensity of the opposition. As our forward players stood off and made life far too easy for their guests and our midfield merely tracked those running with the ball, seemingly too fearful of committing themselves to the tackle, Barcelona's Galacticos were putting challenges in all over the park.

Obviously you can't maintain such a high-tempo up for the entire 90 minutes but by taking the game to us right from the opening whistle, Barca achieved their objective, by unsettling us to the point where it was 15 minutes before we even got a look in. While all eyes were on Lionel Messi, for my money, it was Busquets who was Barca's main man. Although aware of the graceful Spanish midfielder's presence, I guess one's eye is invariably drawn to the flair football of the likes of Javi, Iniesta and Messi when watching Barca usually. However for the first hour on Wednesday night, Busquets seemed to be the fulcrum, around which Barca rotated, dictating the pace and tempo with his neat, accurate passing, which was in complete contrast to our own frantic efforts.

I've been whinging for weeks now about how long it's been since we last saw an Arsenal side tear into the opposition from the opening whistle. Obviously it was to be expected that they'd be more circumspect against a side with Barca's reputation, but that's no excuse for the failure of certain Arsenal players to turn up the heat on the opposition sufficiently, to deny them time on the ball. This Arsenal side's best means of defence is undoubtedly to attack, as even Almunia can't be exposed when were playing in the opposition's half of the pitch.

Although Manuel might have done better with both Barca's goals, being caught out of position for the first and being beaten at his near post for the second, we really mustn't castigate our keeper, as we would've been dead and buried in the first ten minutes, if it wasn't for his somewhat miraculous goal saving feats and so Almunia deserves plenty of credit for keeping us in this tie.

I actually said to someone on Wednesday afternoon, as I was dashing to try and get everything done in time to get back for the game, that if we could restrict Barca and didn't get beat by more than 1-2 (which was the scoreline I kind of expected), I'd be quite optimistic about our trip to the Catalan capital. As it stands, we're a goal better off than that, but even after watching a replay of the game, I am still unsure whether the 2-2 draw was a result of Barca switching off and taking their foot off the pedal, or the inspiration of Theo's introduction and the fact that the Gunners suddenly rediscovered some belief.

It was a mad day all round for me. I left home at 8am, already stressing about fetching a truck from Greenford and making the trip to Kensington, Marden in Kent, back to Kensington and dropping the truck back in Greenford, in time for me to make the kick-off. I was debating whether to drive the car to Greenford, to take the tube, or to freeze my cods off on my motorbike. In the end, it was lucky that I went on the bike, as there was some major incident at Paddington that evening, which resulted in nose to tail gridlock on the A40 Westway flyover and the Marylebone Road.

Having only recently got back on the motorbike horse, after a serious accident 30 odd years back, I'm a very cautious driver. It's only a 125cc and struggles to do more than 50mph going downhill with a tailwind, but as a cruiser style motorbike, it feels a lot fatter than other bikes. As a result, I will often sit behind cars in the traffic, rather than risk squeezing along between the lanes, where all the grit and gravel collects and causes frequent heart attacks as the back wheel slides around.

But I was very impressed by my bravery on Wednesday, as I belted along, dodging between the queuing traffic, with only millimetres to spare between my wing mirrors and the wing mirrors of the cars on either side. And in the midst of a downpour which was a mixture of rain, hail and sleet, where the rain drops on my helmet visor made it almost impossible to see where I was going (let alone the massive potholes in the roads everywhere, since the ice and snow this winter), I eventually made it all the way to where I turn onto the Euston road, before I finally clipped the wing mirror of a stationary van, but mercifully the driver didn't lose his rag.

If I'd have been driving my car, I would've still been crawling along the flyover come half-time, but then considering how utterly one-sided the first-half was, this might actually have been no bad thing! Fortunately despite the inclement weather, I made it home by 7.25pm. But it's a brisk 15 minute walk back to my entrance at the stadium and the benefits of being able to beat the traffic on a motorbike are somewhat negated by the fact that it takes at least ten minutes at either end to get in and out of all the gear. As it was, I could hear the distinctive Champions League music in stereo, as I walked out the door, blaring from both the TV in the living room and bellowing from the stadium down the road.

I hesitated for a moment, as in the past in such circumstances, instead of the risk of missing an early goal, I've sat down and watched the first 45 on the box and then dashed around at the break. But after driving virtually the entire day without a break, only stopping to load and unload the truck, rushing non stop to try and make sure of getting back for the match in good time, I was damned if I was going to miss being there for the first half of the biggest game of this and any other season at our new stadium so far.

While the chances of me missing an early Arsenal goal weren't particularly high, based on our recent habit of starting matches at such a low tempo, I hadn't counted on the Barca onslaught. There've been times when I've been late for KO in the (albeit sadly in the all too dim and distant) past, when the Gunners have started matches at such a gallup that with match commentary coming through the earpiece from my terrace tranny as I've dashed around to the stadium, it's sounded as if we created loads of chances, only for the opposition to start to come into the game, the moment I've clicked past the turnstile and taken my seat. In such circumstances, I've felt the vibes from my neighbours around me, where they've wished I'd go away again, as "we were doing all right until you got here!"

By contrast, on Wednesday night, with Ibrahimovic wasting a couple of glaring opportunities, it felt that if I didn't hurry up, we could be dead and buried, with the game virtually all over by the time I got there. As I squeezed along my row, about seven entirely one-sided minutes after KO, putting up with the muttering complaints of the punters who get wound up by my tardy arrival at every game, I had the foolhardy bravado to announce "it's alright, I'm here now and we can start playing!"

Then again, at least I was watching when Barca eventually broke our resistance within seconds of the start of the second half, which is more than can be said for about half the crowd, who were still queuing, or returning from their half-time refreshments, only to find we were 0-1 down.

Is it just me, or am I imagining the groundhog day feeling of Arsène risking players who aren't quite fit for such big games, only for them to end up doing themselves more harm. So the Gallas gamble failed big time. If Gallas and Vermaelen had been on the pitch, Alex Song wouldn't have been in the position where his lack of concentration allowed Ibrahimovic to get goalside for both goals.

I don't know if it was a case of our crowd being shell shocked, but I was really disappointed by our response to going 0-2 down, as we fell so silent, only raising our voices to slag off our own players, or the referee, for his propensity to book every committed Arsenal challenge but to ignore Barca's underhanded antics, when our frustration at chasing shadows around the pitch eventually forced us into putting our foot in, as we grew ever more anxious.

I was getting so wound up by the mood of resignation amongst our crowd, knowing that this must be transmitting itself to the players, that I was really beginning to lose it. The quieter our crowd gets and the more they begin to get on the backs of our own players, the more I feel obliged to bellow my encouragement.

0-2 down and with all our Champions League hopes seemingly having gone up in smoke, after breaking my neck all day to try and get back in time to watch this match, risking all sorts of traffic violations on route, the very least I expected of them was to play for some pride. It will be interesting to see if Shava is involved in today's game, as I have to admit that when the little Ruski limped off, it occurred to me to wonder how badly he was hurt, or whether Shava had bottled it, using a minor niggle as an excuse to escape the spotlight, because he didn't fancy having to spend the remainder of the match tracking back to help out Bakari Sagna.

I sincerely hope that wasn't the case and that Shava's got more backbone than this. But then I'm not sure I liked the way in which Samir Nasri seemed so keen to depart the field of play, when he thought he was being substituted. Watching through my binoculars, I couldn't help but wonder if Samir looked disappointed when he discovered his night's work wasn't over and that it was Sagna who was coming off.

Meanwhile until the introduction of Theo lent the team some much needed impetus and gave the crowd something to get excited about, I was getting so frustrated by our complete and utter failure to try and encourage the lads and to prevent their heads from dropping, that I was eventually forced to take my false teeth out!

My denture has become extremely loose since I've lost yet another tooth and I'm in the process of getting it replaced. My howling efforts to try and stir the likes of Abou Diaby from his apparent stupor were growing ever more anguished. So I thought I'd best remove my denture, before it came flying out of my mouth with the vehemence of my rabid efforts to rouse them into trying to salvage some pride. I'm not particularly vain and I felt that it was better to be seen toothless, than the thought of the highly embarrassing scene of me having to rescue my false teeth from the hair of the woman who sits in front of me.

The only slight consolation about Arsène also losing his gamble with our captain, as Cesc succumbed to his injury after scoring the penalty, was that as gutted as I am to lose our most influential player for the remainder of the season, it doesn't feel quite so agonising to lose Fabregas to injury, as it would've been for him to have missed the second leg, as a result of what looked to me, like a perfectly legal tackle.

Don't get me wrong. Contrary to what many of the pundits might be saying, I feel strangely optimistic about next Tuesday's trip to Spain. My feelings might be totally illogical, based on our incompetent first-half performance on Wednesday, but in front of their 100,000 home crowd and on the Nou Camp's huge playing surface, I'm hoping that the Gunners will really go for it, as we've got absolutely nothing to lose, when few people expect us to progress after the first-leg result. On the basis that we've got to win the game, I just pray that we accept the fact that whether we go out there and play with extreme caution, or whether we go thoroughly gung-ho, Barca are bound to score and so we might as well play with a little freedom, because so long as we've got the ball in their half of the pitch, the likes of Messi cannot do any damage.

However I would've been feeling a whole lot more confident if we were travelling to Catalunya with our captain not just joining us as another anxious spectator, as you've got to believe that Fabregas would've never been more motivated than this opportunity to prove himself and his Arsenal team before his countrymen and women, on such a massive stage. As a result, I was devastated when the ref flashed a yellow card at Fabregas on Wednesday night and they revealed on the radio that this would rule him out of the second leg. Cesc looked so aghast that it reminded me of that moment when Gazza was carded out of the World Cup and Lineker turned to the bench to indicate that he'd lost it.

Mercifully Cesc seemed to wrap all his frustration up in that one shot from the penalty spot (although I can't help but wonder how much his fury aggravated his injury) and having done all he could to get us back on terms on Wednesday and risked doing more damage as a result, I sure hope his team mates make the most of his "leg up" on next week!

After having flashed so many infuriating yellow cards at Arsenal players, every time they slid into a tackle with their boots more than a blade of grass above the ground and having subsequently incurred the wrath of our foaming at the mouth fans, it felt to me as if the fussy Swiss referee attempted to redress the balance in one foul swoop (forgive the pun), with the sending off of Puyol. I'm a big admirer of the Barca captain and he's such an influential player for the Spanish side that combined with the loss of Piquet, it will be very interesting to see which of the two teams are most affected by their absentees.

Losing Fabregas for the remainder of the season is a mighty blow. But then considering the denouement of this strange season to date, in truth the loss of our captain should merely prove to be one more insurmountable problem, for the Gunners to stagger over?

Having miraculously salvaged plenty of pride from Wednesday's remarkable rollercoaster ride, I would truly love to see us make the most of the positive feeling, by tearing into Wolves this afternoon. It's all well and good playing keep ball, waiting for lesser opponents to tire so we can take advantage in the last few minutes, but I wonder how many matches we might have won in the first ten minutes, instead of the last ten minutes, if we were able to start with more intensity.

Considering the mammoth task we have next Tuesday, it would be great if for once we could destroy Wolves with the sort of blistering start that lesser sides just couldn't live with, enabling us to enjoy a comfortable afternoon, where instead of sweating it out until the 85th minute, making hard work of it and wondering "if" we're going to win, we could for once be sitting pretty after the opening minutes, wondering "by how many"!!

Considering we now live in hope (rather than expectation), perhaps I should get there early for once?

Come on you Reds
Big Love

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