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
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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Tuesday, 6 April 2010