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Saturday, 28 August 2010

Rovers Return

Following a positively exhausting week, where chucking paracetamol down my throat every four hours has been my only means of staving off flu-like symptoms (sadly I can't pull a "sickie" as if I don't turn up for work, I don't get paid!) a 6.30am alarm in order to catch an 8.30am train, for an early KO at Ewood Park that's being screened live on Sky, well quite frankly, it's enough to test the devotion of even the most ardent Gooner.

I was enthusiastic enough last night, but come this morning, I half expected to hit the alarm, choosing instead to roll over and go back to sleep, to enjoy a leisurely lie-in, until tuning in to Sky Sports about five minutes before KO! But with my Egyptian Gooner mate, Amr, having made it all the way over from Cairo, to make it to Ewood Park, I would've felt guilty if I'd wimped out merely because of an early start and a tortuous (70 quid!) Virgin cattle truck trip to the North-West.

Despite having managed to drag my aching bones out of the sack in good time, I couldn't avoid the customary dawdle that ensured I ended up in a fairly typical lather, rushing up underground escalators in my efforts to make it to Euston to catch my train. Following a change in Preston, my abnormally early arrival in Blackburn allowed plenty of time for a leisurely stroll to the ground. But on meeting up with a mate who'd stayed overnight with his in-laws in Wolverhampton, it transpired that his lad had twisted his knee, whilst having a kick-about waiting for me and so we hopped on a bus instead.

Having panicked my Egyptian pal into thinking he'd better pull his finger out, to get there from his hotel in Manchester, if he didn't want to have travelled all that way only to end up missing KO, it was only on arriving that I realised it was a 12.45, not a 12.30 start. But still it was only 15 mins less cruel on those of us schlepping up from the capital and from my point of view, come the revolution, the match schedulers responsible will be first up against the wall, for their complete lack of consideration to the awayday faithful.

AFAIC an unalluring and extortionately priced, early morning outing to the wilds of Lancashire is exactly the sort of loyalty testing trip that teleportation needs to be invented for. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to whinge on, ad nauseam, as I'm sure it must sound like the trite tantrums of a privileged ingrate, to those of you stuck on the other side of the planet, having to get up at the crack of dawn, merely to watch the Gunners play on TV.

Yet it frustrates the hell out of me that the presence of the legions of the travelling faithful is increasingly taken for granted. When in truth it should be the likes of Sky Sports laying on trains and coaches and even paying us all a retainer, to guarantee our presence. Since without the hearty vocal contribution of the contingent of visiting fans and the response invariably provoked from the locals, their highly prized Premiership product would prove to be a decidedly insipid, unatmospheric affair (try watching a match with the sound muted!).

According to superstition, I felt like I should turn around and head back to Preston, when it struck me quite how early I was, as we strolled up to Ewood Park just in time for my mate's son to dive amongst the throng and try and catch a glimpse of the last of the Gunners and le Gaffer, exiting the Ellisons' coach that had brought them to the ground (I assume from the nearest luxury hostelry). I just had time enough to hold my iPhone above the heads of those in front, in the hope of snapping our leader, even if I couldn't see him.

One of the things I miss most during the close-season is the matchday programme, as it's perfect reading matter to be left lying around the flat, to be picked up and digested sporadically on my daily visits to the library, the smallest room in the house. Although the glossy paper might not make for ideal alternative material, when it comes to the more detested of our rivals, I can at least choose to express my disapprobation with their particular matchday publications, in the absence of any bog roll!

I assume that like most every other regular attendee at home games, the first thing I turn to in the programme are the notes from our esteemed manager and our captain's cogitations. I've always consumed their musings with a certain amount of skepticism, cynically wondering how much of what's written has come from their mouths, rather than being concocted by the person who produces the finished article at their behest?

On the occasion of our first home game of the season, I was understandably more eager than usual to digest the thoughts of our alleged want-away skipper. Much like Cesc's somewhat equivocal statement about his status at the Arsenal, I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to being somewhat disappointed with Fab's programme notes and the fact that he hadn't made more of an effort to allay Gooner concerns.

Read what you will into his comment "I don't want to discuss anything else from the summer. I made a statement saying I'm concentrating on the season ahead for Arsenal and I just want to look forward now." I'm sure I wasn't the only one who wanted more than this from Fabregas, but the blessing of consuming our captain's thoughts while sat atop the throne, is that it allows time for more considered reflection. In truth, it probably would've been fairly easy for Fab to have appeased the faithful, by feeding us a bunch of clichéd platitudes, about how much he loves the Gunners and how his heart couldn't bear to be parted from its home in London N5.

Yet the fact of the matter is that we all know that having arrived at the Arsenal at such an early age, Cesc has a perfectly understandable hankering to return whilst still in his prime, to do the business on home soil, for the team he supported as a boy and no matter which way you look at it, it's hard to argue against his yearning. With this in mind, I actually quite respect the fact that Fab refuses to treat us Gooners like a bunch of gormless idiots, by trotting out the sort of hypocritical, badge-kissing bullshit that we've grown accustomed to from less honorable money-grabbing stars, in these mercenary times.

Nevertheless, in spite of Arsène's best effort to reassure us of his conviction that our captain has accepted the circumstances as they stand and that Cesc is the sort of professional who doesn't know any other way to play, than to go out there and give his all, whenever he dons the red & white and in spite of my own instincts that the lad is the sort of "mensch" who'd be loathe to let his mentor down, ever since Barca and their unprincipled partisans began digging their claws into our captain, turning his head at every opportunity, I can't help but feel that as has been the case in the recent past, when our heroes or their representatives have fallen prey and sold their soul to the gods of Mammon, but have subsequently been left with no choice but to postpone their departure, on some level, whether this be conscious or sub-conscious, it is basic human nature for some elements of resentment to manifest itself in their performances.

I'm just about to watch highlights of today's game on Sky's Football First and so I don't know quite how obvious it was to those watching on the box, but it pains me to report, that based on Cesc's efforts (or lack thereof!) this afternoon at Ewood Park, if this is indeed representative of what we can expect from Fab the duration of this campaign, it really doesn't bode well for our prospects of some long-awaited success, as aside from the fact that he's the Arsenal skipper, for heaven's sake, the player who should be setting the tone for the rest of the team to follow, we've also grown accustomed to Cesc's timely promptings, as the orchestrator and focal point of all our most incisive football.

I can forgive anyone a bad day at the office and therefore it wasn't so much the fairly constant stream of badly timed and misplaced passes that bothered me. It was Fab's discouraging body language that was most perturbing, as Cesc produced a far too passable impersonation of Thierry Henry, in his most petulant mien, ambling back on losing possession, as if the responsiblity for chasing back and winning the ball was a task to be left to his more industrial, less cultured team mates and only exercising his finger pointing muscle at set-pieces.

I can fully appreciate Fab's reasons for pointing at an unmarked Samba, as surely it should be down to Diaby, or any of those team mates more greatly endowed with muscular and more physical capabilities (even if the French midfielder doesn't always appear particularly keen to make the most of his physical attributes) needed to mark the Rovers' monster centre-back at corners. But there's a right way and a wrong way to request that your team mates assume responsibility for this task and it felt as if Fab was only pointing out the unmarked Rovers' players by way of abdicating from his own obligations.

Then again, I was only thinking last week, when Cesc appeared for his first substitute appearance in the latter stages of our 6-0 romp against Blackpool, that in making his first start away from home, against Sam Allardyce's aggressive Blackburn side, this might actually sound like punishment, as you could hardly wish for a more stark contrast from the sort of football Fab might've been experiencing on the Continent (assuming this didn't involve spending an entire season picking up splinters, sitting on Barca's bench!), than a "welcome back to the Premiership", courtesy of 90 minutes worth of intimidation from Fat Sam's bullies.

Yet Cesc was far from alone in producing a poor performance this afternoon. I was left wondering if Alex Song has been introduced to Louis Saha's hairdresser and if so his stylist deserves to be shot for Alex's disastrous coiffure, having seemingly turned our rumbustuous holding midfielder into the archetypal 'dumb blonde'. And as composed a figure Laurent Koscielny cut in the first-half at Anfield, after being thrown in at the deep-end, against the albeit limited ambitions of the Liverpool attack, poor Laurent looked well out of his depth, being mugged off so easily by Diouf's unsophisticated skills, having an absolute 'mare for the first 45-minutes at Ewood Park.

What's more, having scored what eventually proved to be the winner, five minutes after the break, Shava spent much of the remainder of the match, seemingly as a passenger, believing he'd done his bit and doing his best teapot impression, standing around the pitch with his hands on his hips. In fact Theo's net-busting contribution and his shoot-on-sight willingness which is further confirmation of what appears to be a concerted effort on Walcott's part to step up to the plate, by repositioning himself from a peripheral, to a far more significant, central figure in the Wenger passion play, was perhaps the brightest spark in an inclement afternoon up at Ewood Park (I can't type Ewood Park without thinking of that silly joke about why the actor Edward Woodward has four "D"s in his name, as otherwise he'd be E-war Woo-war!).

In truth Rovers seemed to run out of steam somewhat after we scored the second. But with Allardyce top-loading his team, sending Samba up front as the clock ticked down, I grew increasingly convinced that according to the law of averages, a Robinson hoof would eventually result in us being breached by a clumsy knock-on of an equalizer at the death. Thus returning down South with all three points was all the more impressive, in light of such a well below average performance and the resulting relief experienced with the final whistle ensured that we all departed Blackburn in an extremely buoyant mood.

As we began walking back to the station, bemoaning the worrying impression we'd gleaned from our captain's underwhelming display, both Amr and I began cracking up, as we broke this down. When you consider that Cesc could have been sitting, with his feet up, soaking up the Spanish sunshine on the Barca, instead of being drenched by the sort of "never rains but it pours" type squalls that spilled down upon his head this afternoon, being paid considerably more substantial sums of money to perhaps come on for a 15-minute cameo, against the relatively tame likes of Racing Santander, rather than enduring the bumps and bruises of being kicked up in the air by Blackburn for 90 minutes and being able to impress the crowd, as he enjoys making pretty passing triangles with the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, instead of suffering the relatively consistent incompetence of, by comparison, the relatively second-rate skills of Song and Diaby, the Francophile gruesome twosome, alongside him at the heart of the Arsenal's midfield, when you express it in these terms, is it really so surprising if Cesc struggles to disguise his rancour? In his shoes, I'd be bloody fuming about my situation!

As it began to piss down again and we were caught in yet another downpour, we sought shelter, waiting to catch a bus back to the station. I'm not sure what they were waiting for (perhaps they were merely taking refuge from the rain?), but a kindly elderly couple allowed myself, Amr, his Italian girlfriend and a couple of other Gooners, to board the bus in front of them, as the last five squeezed on to a full bus load. I'd forgotten what you miss, when you drive to an away game, returning to the car and driving straight back to London after the final whistle, without experiencing any local colour.

Despite the Gunners relatively unimpressive display, we were dominant enough that it would've only taken another goal to make it feel like a far more comfortable victory. But I was reminded of the different viewpoint from the other end of the ground, as one of the local old codgers promptly opined that Rovers "waz robbed"! I'm assuming he was referring to a couple of dodgy calls in our area, at the other end of the pitch, which I've yet to see a replay of, but which I'm assuming might on another day have resulted in a penalty. But from a dubious penalty shout, to "we waz robbed" seemed a bit of a stretch and was the sort of blinkered bias which makes football the subject of such heated debate.

I'm pretty sure Amr's Florentine girlfriend didn't understand a single word of what the other elderly Rover's diehard was rambling on about. Having informed them that my mate and his partner had come all the way from Egypt and Italy, we were treated to this geezer's potted family history. Mercifully this meant that she didn't take offence to the stereotypical slur, as he told us that his sister was married to an Italian, who during the second world war had promptly put his hands up, surrendering along with all his compatriots, the moment they were confronted by the Brits and ending up being brought back to a prisoner of war camp in Blackburn, where for some unfathomable reason, he liked it so much that he never bothered going back after the war.

Doubtless Sam Allardyce's troops will roll over in similarly deferential fashion, on meeting his old mate Fergie. But I wouldn't be surprised if Fat Sam gets his team suitably hyped up to make life hard for some of other visitors to Ewood Park and in which case, our three points could prove quite valuable. Kalinic looks quite tasty and I won't be surprised if the Croatian conjures up a few goals this season.

I don't know what age Michel Salgado is, but surely the Rovers right-back must be closer to 40 than 30. Yet as was the case in our first away game up at Anfield, I found Arsène's point blank refusal to adapt our tactics to take advantage of the opposition's weaknesses very frustrating. Wenger seems to display a conviction towards sticking to his own game plan, which to my mind, in some circumstances it seems as if he's being stubborn to the point of foolhardiness.

Against a Liverpool side without a natural left-back and where Hodgson was forced to use the cumbersome centre-back, Daniel Agger, I couldn't believe that we completely ignored the possiblity of being able to terrorize the Scousers by taking Agger on down this flank. Instead of which, we stuck rigidly to our preferred method of cutting in towards the middle and trying to unlock their defence, by intricately passing our way through its heart, enabling the Scousers to block our path with as many bodies as possible.

Similarly my first thought on seeing Blackburn line-up with Salgado at right-back, was that we should be able to make life very uncomfortable for the cultured but aging Spaniard. If I'm not mistaken, in trying to conserve the defenders increasingly decrepit legs, Allardyce often substitutes him in the latter stages. But in leaving him on for the entire 90 this afternoon, considering Shava isn't exactly the hardest grafter on the pitch and that he drifted out of the game after contributing with the second goal, I couldn't fathom why he didn't swap wings with Walcott, instructing Theo to run Salgado ragged with his blistering pace, as in the right-back's shoes, absolutely the last thing I'd want is to have to cope with the speedmeister when on my last legs. Yet it would appear as if Wenger has complete disregard for the make-up of the opposition and the possiblity of probing their inadequacies, choosing solely to focus on his own game plan.

This might continue to work against teams where our superior ability will eventually tell, but there are times during the season, against more evenly matched opposition, where an ability to make such tactical adaptations, in order to probe potential weaknesses could prove to be the difference between winning and losing, but unfortunately Arsène tends to stick to his formula so rigidly, that I won't exactly be holding my breath waiting for him to alter his gameplan!

After making new friends with the locals, this old boy had taken so kindly to us, that for a moment there, I thought he was going to follow us into the station and onto the train back to London. Perhaps he thought he'd head off to make his fortune, as he had been questioning us about London weighting allowances, suffering from the common Northern misconception that Southerners are rich as thieves and that the capital's streets must be paved with gold.

Naturally news of the shock result at White Hart Lane spread like wildfire amongst all the Gooners travelling back on our train, as an unexpected bonus ball on our Blackburn lottery win. Now if only it wasn't for what sounded like untaxing and dreadfully routine wins at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge and we would've had the perfect weekend.

After three rounds of this campaign, although Berbatov might be producing occasional classy contributions (I must admit his mid-air volley looked quite impressive on MOTD) and Scholes and Giggs continue to confirm the old adage about form being temporary, but class is permanent, I get the distinct sense that we should have little to fear from the Red Devils, as they struggle to cling to the Blues coat tails, with Fergie having nothing like the strength in depth available to Ancelotti. Moreover, their somewhat forced goal celebrations suggest that at this stage at least there isn't an abundance of team-spirit spurring on Utd.

By contrast, sadly down at the Bridge they seem to be enjoying their football far too much to date, with opponents like Tony Pullis' Stoke seemingly merely grateful to be able to give the Blues a game! Having been without Essien for most of last season, it's galling to witness how much the Ghanaian gives the Blues, driving them forward from midfield. I don't know what their fixture list looks like, but I sure hope they're due to come up against a side soon, that's capable of giving Chelsea more than just a game and who can put a concerted spoke in their burgeoning confidence before it gathers too much momentum.

Meanwhile the Spuds away in the Carling Cup is a mouthwatering proposition for our kids. Perhaps Harry's recently discovered appreciation for the strain of their Champions League commitments will convince him that he also needs to give his first team squad a break from this competition. But then I'm forgetting that this Mickey Mouse competition is likely to be Spurs best chance and perhaps only chance of getting back into Europe next season!

Finally (phew!) my pal Amr reckons that there's a theory amongst Gooners in the Middle-East which I'm dying to look into, as according to him it is no coincidence that Samir Nasri is out for a month with an alleged injury and that instead le Boss has arranged for him to be struck down with a convenient ailment at this time of year in seasons past due to the fact that it is Ramadan? Here's hoping that Rovers haven't just cost us the services of RVP for an equally lengthy period, as sadly our all too fragile Dutch forward never seems to suffer from minor infirmities.

Onwards & upwards
Big Love

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