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Sunday 19 September 2010

Bully Boys v Flat-Track Bullies

Hi folks,

I hope you'll forgive my failure to post out last week's missive. I wrote it on Sunday but in the knowledge it would appear in Wednesday's Irish Examiner and with me having referred to "tonight's game" against Braga, I planned on sending it out on Wednesday morning. Sadly along with most everything else that doesn't merit an alarm in my iPhone's diary, it slipped through my positively sieve like memory.

Then I guess, after having been left just a little egg on my face, by referring to the fact that I thought the Portuguese side would be no pushover, I wasn't in any hurry to publicise this fact following our 6-0 thrashing of Braga - although I've limited my embarrassment by also suggesting in my diary missive below that perhaps just getting to the group stages of the Champions League would be the equivalent of Braga's Cup Final and that they might not have the stamina to maintain the same adrenaline level for a six match European marathon. As it turned out, this looks likely to have been the case, as the side that turned up on Wednesday night bore absolutely no resemblance to the team that fought tooth and nail, to knock out Seville.

Meanwhile having taken the time to tap out the following diary entry, I might as well post it, in case there are those of you who've got nothing better to do with your Sunday morning and if only for my own pedantic pleasure of maintaining my weekly record of the season. Moreover, in light of such a gut-wrenching 94th minute capitulation at the Stadium of light last night (OK so we came away with a point, but it certainly felt like a capitulation), my comments about the sense that I have of a disconcerting undercurrent to the Gunners' team-spirit, seem all the more poignant.

But I'll say no more, or else I'll only end up repeating myself in this week's missive, which I will get around to either sometime this afternoon or tomorrow morning, save to say that it makes something of a mockery of Arsène's faith in this squad's new found maturity and resilience.

In the meantime, should I have nothing better to do with my Sunday morning, I might try and make some sense of the notes I took at the Shareholders Q & A on Thursday night and try to fashion these into something readable. Even if the event was sadly lacking in very much meaningful comment (most of which will by now have doubtless been reported elsewhere on the Interweb), by nature of the fact that the club have managed to sterlize the evening - after last season's outrageously exaggerated reports of le Prof's rumbustious response to criticism, when in fact it was one single question which upset Arsène and the remainder of the evening followed its customary reverential course.

Sadly the shareholders Q & A has followed the annual AGM down the road of only taking questions posted in advance and although this did not mean that the shareholders inquiries were strictly limited to non-contentious issues (although I have my suspicions that this might merely have been due to the limited number of questions emailed to the club in advance, as if there'd been a wider choice, perhaps some of those issues raised on Thursday night might have been conveniently omitted?) but the most distressing aspect to this change in format, is that this was perhaps the one and only occasion when Arsenal fans could involve themselves in earnest discussion with our esteemed manager, whereas with no open questions from the floor, it was no longer possible to respond to any of Arsène's answers, to explore further any of his thoughts on particular topics, which is a crying shame.

Personally I'm sure Arsène would have no complaints about being quizzed by those who pay his wages, even if not all of the queries were to his liking. But as is so often the case nowadays, we the punters pay the price for the incessant and unscrupulous media spotlight, of the sort that leaves the club eternally paranoid about allowing anything to escape their constricted, so often blinkered control.

Ho hum, one last forum for some interaction with those inside the walls of London N5 bites the dust. Pity :-(

Big Love

I’m oblivious to the specifics of the alleged infidelities in the Wayne Rooney furore, but I was disappointed Fergie left him out at Goodison, as I tuned in to Saturday’s live coverage looking forward to seeing the spectacle of Toffee fans in the Gwladys Street End donning Bob Marley wigs, to serenade Wayne with their rendition of “No Woman, No Cry”.

Still it proved well worth the mad dash around to the Arsenal, for the pleasure of watching the dying throes of the Merseyside encounter on the box and a rare instance of Man Utd receiving an agonising dose of their own late goal medicine.

With such a multi-cultural bouillabaisse on the Arsenal books, sadly we’ve grown all too accustomed to the costly injury toll of International breaks. I should’ve known it was tempting fate to tease my Spurs mates about losing Dawson and I was half-expecting Walcott to end up in a crumpled heap. Nevertheless, with Theo in such scintillating form and with Van Persie (another “sick-note” striker!) already ruled out for a couple of months, it was no less disappointing to see our precious ‘Road Runner’ stretchered off against the Swiss.

With Squillaci making his debut alongside Koscielny, a centre-back partnership that’s never played together, Chamakh on his own up front and the likes of Sagna and Clichy confined to the bench, Arsène's severely shuffled pack in advance of tonight's Euro curtain-raiser didn't exactly leave me bristling with confidence on turning up, tardy as ever, for Saturday's KO.

However in contrast to the way in which we’ve suffered in the absence of significant players in recent times, an important feature of Wenger’s most successful teams, has been the seamless integration of squad players with no apparent detrimental effect on our performance.

It was somewhat disturbing to see Jack Wilshere disappear straight down the tunnel when he was subbed after an hour and to see his replacement do likewise ten minutes later, with Diaby suffering the lingering effects of a bone-crunching, full frontal assault. Yet even with Denilson forced to take his first bow of the season, it was very promising to see such an unfamiliar line-up pass Bolton into a coma in 26-move build up to Vela’s 83rd minute finale.

I very much doubt Arsène expected our squad's depth to be quite so stretched this early in the season (or perhaps we'd have been less parsimonious in our transfer dealings?). It’ll be interesting to see who emerges from a treatment room full of our walking wounded, fit enough to play against Braga and whether we've sufficient quality to continue to build on Saturday’s momentum.

Judging by their performances against Celtic and Seville and the evidence of a ‘never say die’ team spirit that appeared more Premiership-like than the majority of our top-flight outfits nowadays, I certainly don’t expect the Portuguese side to be a pushover. Hopefully just getting to the group stages will have proved to be Braga’s cup final and they won’t have the stamina to be able to maintain this sort of adrenaline level for a six-match Champions League marathon.

Meanwhile, perhaps one of the benefits of being forced to send out the sum total of our summer spending, is that this unfamiliar pairing at the back aren’t burdened by the panic-struck baggage of our recent defensive insecurities. As a result, notwithstanding Koscielny’s unfortunate cock-up, both he and Squillaci appeared reassuringly composed, in the face of the “robust” attentions of one of our more uncomfortable opponents. Give them both a few games in front of our goalie and they’ll doubtless soon develop into the sort of nervous wrecks we’ve come to know and love!

In spite of Owen Coyle’s supposed affinity for the beautiful game, so long as Kevin Davies staggers on, his Bolton team continue to retain much of the familiar, in yer face, aggression that’s been the foundation stone for maintaining the Trotters Premiership status. I might be bitter about the bruising consequences, ever since artistry became the Gunners trademark under Arsène’s tenure. Yet while I might no longer be the physical game’s greatest advocate, as someone who was weaned on the workmanlike resilience preached by Messrs Mee & Howe, I’m certainly not knocking it.

Davies has that canny, Mark Hughes like knack of making himself enemy No. 1, by preying on less experienced opponents, getting away with blue murder with officials who can’t ever have played the game, both by inveigling free-kicks and when dishing it out.

The contempt evident on both sides of the partisan fence is often the yardstick of an utterly incompetent official. Cahill’s clattering of Chamakh was no more offensive than several other challenges. Never mind Atwell missing Song’s foul seconds earlier, with us all baying for blood after Davies had wiped out Koscielny just before that, with a “welcome to the Premiership” bodycheck that Big Daddy would’ve been proud of (if he wasn’t pushing up daisies), Atwell attempted to compensate by making the defender pay for his captain’s crimes.

As for the Arsenal skipper, in contrast to his poor previous performance, we were left positively purring as Cesc produced the sort of incisive passing which should really have seen us home & hosed by half-time, if we hadn’t been so profligate in front of goal. In spite of Fab’s symphonic footwork, I continue to sense the discordant body-language of a pouting teen who’s fed up of constantly being told to tidy his room, leaving others around him to do all the donkey work.

And if we’re talking commitment to the Arsenal cause, Arshavin might’ve struggled to escape the attentions of Bolton’s defence, but there was definitely no lack of pace when he dashed off the pitch, looking like he had a taxi waiting for him, when Shava mistakenly thought his number was up. Our star players can be as selfish as they like, so long as we maintain the current scoring ratio. But my sense of a disconcerting undercurrent in our team-spirit won’t be entirely dispelled, until we prove ourselves more than mere flat-track bullies by burying the big guns.

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