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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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