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Tuesday 30 November 2010

Love In A Cold Climate

G'day fellow Gooners,

I certainly can't claim to be Nostradamus, with my assertions in recent weeks, that after treading water since the start of the season, without losing a game, those gombeens at Old Trafford were bound to come good at some point.

Then again, I'm certain it's not the first time we've seen one of Fat Sam's sides roll over and play dead for the benefit of his Red Nosed pal. Apart from Man Utd knocking us off our table-topping perch, the biggest wind up as far as I was concerned was the sight of the Red Devils positively gorging on the success of Fergie's decision to revert to 4-4-2 on Saturday.

When was the last time that the Gunners capitalised on our dominance, by putting Premiership opposition to the sword in such an unequivocal fashion at our place? Sadly we're all too often guilty of letting lesser opponents off the hook, failing to go for the throat at the first scent of blood and invariably ending up sweating out games, on the edge of our seat right up until the final whistle because we lack the killer instinct needed to press home our obvious advantage.

Amongst a relatively diffident Arsenal squad, I've often bemoaned the absence of the sort of big personalites who are capable of almost single-handedly grabbing games by the scruff of the neck. But then this is a perennial problem nowadays, in a more mercenary era, where the archetypal Tony Adams type 'dogs of war' are hardly growing on trees.

However, in my most humble opinion, a far easier failing for Arsène to address is le Gaffer's frustrating insistence on gifting away home advantage to less illustrious visiting sides, with his fixation on playing 4-5-1. I suppose many might contend that le Prof's's preference is more of a 4-1-2-3 formation, but which ever way you choose to analyse Arsène's line-up, after having been an advocate of 4-4-2 for so many years, it's suddenly become passé and for some strange reason our manager refuses to entertain the idea of playing a strike partnership any more.

There must be something to it, as Arsène is far from alone in forsaking old-school 4-4-2 tactics. Doubtless the statisticians have come up with a convincing argument that has converted virtually all of football's major players to 4-5-1, but while many opposition manager's have a more flexible, "horses for courses" attitude, it would appear as if our pertinacious gaffer has decided that there's only one way to play the game nowadays.

Wenger would probably contend that there's more pliancy in his line-up and that in fact we play with three strikers on the pitch in home games. However, all I know is that when visiting sides peruse the Arsenal team-sheet, I'm certain their defence must breathe a sigh of relief on realising that they only have a lone front man to contain and I'm convinced that this must serve to encourage their belief in being able to shut us out.

Whereas surely weaker opponents like West Brom and Newcastle would feel far more apprehensive about the prospect of having to stifle a pair of strikers of the calibre of Chamakh and Van Persie and would perhaps be sufficiently concerned about preventing us scoring, to limit their ambitions at the other end of the pitch.

With Robin's frustratingly brittle bones, we've yet to discover if the Dutchman can actually form a working relationship with our new Moroccan front-man. Yet we know Van Persie doesn't particularly enjoy leading the line and prefers to play a deeper role and with Chamakh's seemingly unstinting willingness to unselfishly work his socks off, it might prove that the pair of them would compliment one another.

But whether it be Van Persie, Chamakh, Bendtner or even Vela, above all, I firmly believe that the most important factor about lining up at home against the lesser lights with a couple of strikers on the park, is the psychological statement of intent, which says that we're far too good to worry about being outnumbered in midfield, because we're about to batter you where it hurts most.

However it's not just our failure to put teams under the cosh which is responsible for this rash of pathetic results at our place (as evidenced against the old enemy, where for once we actually went at our guests right from the off). I'm convinced it's no coincidence that the Gunners are far more likely to play with the handbrake off away from home of late. Aside from the fact that we're bound to find more room to hurt the opposition, when playing against teams who are forced to show a modicum of ambition on their home turf, I get the distinct sense of a more relaxed Arsenal side that's far more likely to enjoy their football on the road.

Whereas, not only do we risk visting players being inspired to play out of their skin in the glamorous surroundings of our grandiose gaff, but I fear that the Grove will never quite become "Fortress Arsenal", so long as the Gunners continue to shoulder the burden of an affluent audience that gets on their backs, the moment they put a foot wrong.

The contrast with our travelling support couldn't be more stark. Despite missing a sitter on Saturday (prior to scoring a stunning second goal), Samir Nasri's new ditty echoed around Villa Park, drowning out any noise from the home fans (if there was any?). This is the main reason I continue to attend away games so religiously, so I can continue to support the Gunners. Often the loudest noise at home games is the collective sound of 60,000 groans, as our fickle fans express their feelings that the football on offer is simply not an acceptable return for their obscenely priced tickets.

Consequently I can't wait for this evening's Carling Cup quarterfinal, where hopefully 10 and 20 quid tickets will attract the sort of support that's prepared to show their appreciation for a rare opportunity to be able to afford to watch the Arsenal play live.

Enuf of my whinging. Come on you rip, roaring Reds

Big Love



Can there possibly be a more fickle mistress than modern day Premiership football? There were plenty of deluded Wenger whingers calling for le Gaffer’s blood after the injury of our Derby Day debacle was added to by the insult of those cock-a-hoop cockerels (or Stratford Hotspurs, when I’m pulling the leg of my Spurs pals) qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages, while, following another fiasco in Braga, we’re left to sweat it out until our final group game.

Although any criticism of AW must be water off a duck’s back, to a manager who’s tenure is cast-iron, compared to the utterly farcical insecurity of so many if his contemporaries, who float in as the flotsam on the tide of instant gratification of their King Canute chairmen and who can just as easily end up washed up with the discovery that this team sport tide’s not for turning.

Notwithstanding all those poor touchline Johnnies permanently on the precipice of a potential nervous breakdown as a result of the relentless pressure, the punters certainly aren’t complaining. We savoured the widest possible spectrum of everything that is wonderful about the beautiful game, on a weekend which left the scintillating football of a 4-2 victory at Villa Park as a mere footnote in the tale of the top flight’s response to “the big freeze”, with what felt like a concerted effort to stoke up the temperature by several degrees.

We Gooners have grown accustomed to seeing our season shipwrecked during “black November” in recent times. Yet despite a miserable month, where the depressing gloom of defeats to Shaktar, Newcastle, Spurs and Braga was only temporarily lifted by all too brief interjection of decidedly fortunate wins at Wolves and Everton (where you could barely slide a Rizzla between the slim margins that separated success and failure), are we downhearted? You bet your life we’re not!

Considering we started out in the August sunshine, struggling to believe Arsène’s continued stubborn resistance to taking care of the pressing business of addressing the Gunners patently obvious inadequacies, most Gooners would’ve bitten the hand off that proffered the prospect of approaching the festive season with everything still to play for. Meanwhile we’re not so naïve as to kid ourselves that we remain in contention, courtesy of anything other than a Premiership marathon, where up until now all the contenders have been plodding along, merely jockeying for position, wondering when one of the contenders is going tp put their foot down.

Abramovich’s increasing interference might’ve ensured that Ancelotti’s Blues continue to sputter, but you sensed that Saturday was a day when others were determined to put in a burst as a statement of their intent. The Gunners certainly came out of the blocks in Birmingham as if their backsides were burning from the exhaust emissions of the timely insertion of a nitro-glycerine fuelled rocket.

Fabregas has been such a pivotal presence in the recent past, that those hardy Gooners who braved the trip to Braga, despite a general strike, would’ve expected to walks through arrivals on their return from Portugal, to be greeted by a posse of “the end is nigh” sandwich-board bearers. Perhaps it’s an image entirely of my own creation, but I couldn’t help but seek comfort when Cesc limped off last week. Saturday’s effusive display was more grist to the mill of my theory that no matter what Fab might contend in public about giving of his all to the Gooner cause, I can’t help but wonder if our skipper’s a more sullen and resentful private persona casts a demoralizing shadow in the dressing room?

It remains to be seen if Nasri, Wilshere, Arshavin et al are to cast off the shackles of their inhibitions and truly let rip with the free-flowing football in Fabregas’ absence, in the sparkling manner which left Villa struggling to catch their breath during Saturday’s frost-bitten first forty-five. But I’m sure I sensed a certain “joie de vivre” in Saturday’s display that we’ve rarely witnessed of late.

Perhaps this was merely a response to the bitter taste of the ignominy of events of the previous week. Yet despite being one of the greatest players on the planet, not only is Cesc some way short of the vocal “stand firm” leader we’ve required in recent matches, in his present state of mind, I can’t envisage him being a particularly positive influence?

Meanwhile, with 14 goals in our first 3 games, it’s hard to believe we’ve ended up making such heavy weather of potentially the weakest Champions League group. But then if we can’t beat a Serbian side that’s yet to secure a single point, we really don’t deserve to take our seat at the top table of Europe’s elite. I’m off to pick a bone with the bouncer who let Harry’s uncouth Hotspurs in.

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Monday 22 November 2010

Treacle (our mutt) Heads To London Colney To Teach The Lads How To Hang Onto A Lead

Handing Harry Redknapp’s mob the odd crumb of comfort in 17 years isn’t really grounds for the renting of Gooner clothes and the donning of sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless there were enough angry fans calling for the baby to be thrown out with the bathwater, when the final whistle blew on Saturday’s fiasco. Such frustration was perfectly understandable, as Spurs didn’t win this game; the Gunners presented it to them on a plate, as a gift-wrapped premature Xmas present.

Considering the huge police presence at these Derby games, it seems downright daft that the coppers should be so conspicuous by their absence at the most obvious point of contact, on exiting the ground. So it wasn’t so surprising to see Gooners letting off steam, as I also felt the inclination to want to punch someone, or something, because only 45 mins prior we’d pictured ourselves heading home with 3 points in the bag and that smug satisfaction of knowing we’d be sitting pretty atop the Premiership pile, even if it had only turned out to be for a couple of hours.

As things transpired, our capitulation proved to be even more infuriating with Chelsea getting beat in Birmingham, knowing we could’ve been heading to Braga as the current “Big Kahuna”. I say heading to Braga, but then as things stand at present, that might be easier said than done with several flights being cancelled due to a local baggage handlers’ strike.

It wasn’t until walking the dog later that evening when I finally managed to put Saturdays dumbfounding events into some perspective - note to Arsène Wenger: whilst also managing to hold onto the lead for the duration! Truth be told, most Gooners who witnessed quite how fortunate we were to come away from Wolves and Everton with all three points, they’ll be able to appreciate that our elevated Premiership status is something of an illusion. As much as I rue this rare Derby defeat and the bragging rights we’ve gifted our local rivals for the next few months (least until we reap vengeance at the Lane in Feb), in some respects it was a timely reality check, reminding us that we only reside amongst the top three, by dint of the fact that the competition has been equally inconsistent and the chasing pack only somewhat more so.

However, as it stands at the moment, it’s tantalizing to think that all it would take is a for us to put a decent run of victories together to perhaps be able to put ourselves in the box seat. Sadly Saturday’s slap in the face demonstrated that the Arsenal are still some way short of that “B of the Bang” blinkered focus and concentration for consistently grinding their way to a title triumph.

For some time now I’ve been grumbling about the Gunners inability to start home games with the necessary intensity and pace to immediately put the opposition on the back foot and often as not we’re particularly slow to come out of the traps in these early KOs. So I was delighted to get off on the right foot on Saturday, taking the game to Tottenham and rattling them right from the opening whistle. Yet despite our first-half dominance, having failed to fully press home our advantage, by killing the game off with a third goal, come half-time, it seemed obvious to me that our opponents were bound to rally at some point.

What disappointed me most about our Derby Day defeat was our patent inability to cope with the inevitable Spurs surge, when it came early on in the second half. For all the first-half brilliance in Fabregas’ cultured promptings, in his current “want away” state of mind, our skipper certainly is not now, or never really was what one would call ‘a natural leader of men’. Cesc was handed the captaincy as a carrot, not because he has the required character attributes and on Saturday when we needed a leader capable of encouraging his team mates to stand firm, calm them down and remind them of their ability to retake control of possession, sadly our skipper was no less guilty of a headless chicken impersonation than any of his team mates.

The only consolation at the minute is that we’re no less mired in mediocrity than anyone else. But where I can envisage both Man Utd and Chelsea benefitting from that all-important experience of knowing what it takes and being imminently capable of putting their noses to the grindstone when it matters, I’m far from being convinced the Gunners are any closer to being the real deal. Yet despite our more obvious and much debated shortcomings, with Van Persie playing his way back into fitness and the likes of Walcott, Ramsey, Vermaelen all still to come, in a season where the title is dangling there, waiting for anyone to demonstrate they’ve large enough cajones to make a lunge for it, I’m still a long way from giving up hope.

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Monday 15 November 2010

À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu

I always look forward to the annual Everton expedition. Like a comfortable pair of battered old shoes, Goodison Park remains a Coronation Street style peoples’ palace, compared to the modern glass and steel aesthetics of the Gunners’s iconic Canary Wharf-like atheneum. With chips & gravy for all, under the familiar shadow of Dixie Dean’s fixed bronze stare, rather than the exclusive surroundings of the Arsenal’s 190 quid a head pre-match haute-cuisine.

Followed by 90 minutes spent dodging either side of a post holding up the roof, in the positively ancient Archibald Leitch environs of the wooden Upper Bullens enclosure of the Toffees’ Grand Old Lady. Some jocular banter with the Scousers and best of all, skipping round Stanley Park, heading back to Lime Street station with three points in the bag, making just about bearable the traditional Sunday train delays due to seemingly inexorable signal failures and engineering works, which turn the return trip into a riotous Red Army trudge.

Moyes was spot on about neither side being at their best, but I’m certainly not bellyaching about it. It’s been a while since we awoke on a Monday morning to find the Gunners breathing down the neck of the league leaders. I imagine there’ll be plenty of pundits prognosticating about the Arsenal’s capabilities of mounting a credible challenge. Nevertheless, while the league table may never lie, the more avid spectators amongst us will confirm that the Wenger Boys still look some way short of convincing title-winning material.

I almost felt sorry for the Wolves fans on Wednesday, their evening spoiled by a first and last minute Chamakh attack that once again left Mick's Black Country boys feeling deservedly hard done by. And if Everton had pulled a goal back on Sunday with a little more time left on the clock for a Canonières meltdown, we might just as easily have collected a mere deux points, instead of six, from our forays North these past few days and would be going into Saturday’s big derby, with the Gareth Bale show arriving in buoyant mood, our neighbours retaining misguided delusions of reeling the old enemy back in.

Instead of which, our annual St. Totteringham’s Day festivities suddenly hove into view, with their customary inevitable feel, as we soar into 2nd, five places and seven points to the good of Harry Redknapp’s 'glory, glory' wannabees. On the face of it, with our squad returning to something vaguely resembling full-strength, with the likes of Van Persie and Walcott cooling their heels on the bench, hopefully impatiently waiting to remind us what they have to bring to the Red & White party and our manager getting more than his fair share, everything is looking decidedly rosy. So why am I not feeling more a flutter with excitement at the prospect of the Gunners kicking on?

Sure Cesc Fabregas finished Everton off in fine style on Sunday, with the culmination of a sadly all too rare flourish of dainty “pass & move” football at it’s very best. However considering how accustomed we’ve grown to Fabregas being the Gunners creative fulcrum, the inspiration behind all our most incisive moves, it’s disconcertingly evident in recent weeks that the Arsenal’s formerly shy and retiring skipper has developed into an all together different, more resentful creature.

After seeing Heittinga trying to bully young Jack Wilshere, to the point where poor Jack was left nursing his bruised limbs on the bench after the break, it’s not the occasional evidence of the Gunners biting back that bothers me, as many might contend that a sighting of this sort of mettle is long overdue. However Cesc’s couple of rash tackles, his recent relentless tendency to try (and more often than not fail!) to pick the perfect through ball and the fact that Fab’s struggling with that World Class trait of finding time and space in the most frenetic of circumstances, this might all be construed as evidence of his personal Barca frustrations boiling over and having a negative impact on the pitch?

I was gutted when Howard denied Samir Nasri a potential goal of the season on Sunday, following the French midfielder’s mazy run from inside his own half. Hopefully with the likes of Nasri and Wilshere stepping into the limelight, we’ll no longer be quite so reliant on the promptings of our Spanish pass-master. I’m certain Cesc will continue to shine when the Gunners are on song but it’s when our backs are against the wall that any underlying bitterness is more likely to manifest itself.

I sincerely hope time proves me wrong, but truth be told, I’d have rather Cesc had packed his bags for the Nou Camp than to have him trash so many wonderful memories, should we have to spend the duration questioning whether our skipper’s heart has long since departed London N5.

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Monday 8 November 2010

Martha to Andy Carroll's Arthur

If some French floozy has managed to distract an obsessed Arsène Wenger from his spreadsheets and his wall-to-wall diet of world football, long enough for some extra-curricular activities, well all I can say is that she must’ve presented him with some seriously attractive statistics. But then the scandalmongers obsession with salacious tittle-tattle in this country, is more an expression of the warped sense of moral propriety of their readership than their targets.

The only roasting I’m really interested in is the one I expect our manager to be dishing out in the dressing room after the Gunners casually coughed up another costly three points at the weekend. Despite all the much deserved plaudits earned by Chris Hughton’s Toon, sadly I can’t envisage them taking points off of any of our rivals on their travels, with the sort of smash & grab tactics they deployed at our gaff.

Sure Andy Carroll is a handful, Arsène acknowledged as much in his programme notes. But then how is it possible that a Premiership defence isn’t sufficiently well-drilled to know they need to pick him up at set-pieces. There was much mirth over the way the Everton backline joined hands the other week, but personally I adored this evidence of Moyes' regimented defensive drilling from the training ground being reproduced on a match day. If only we could see a few more signs at the Arsenal of this sort of concerted, disciplined effort to address our defensive frailties.

I can’t claim to be a seer to have predicted that it was only a matter of time until Flappy Handski’s next gaff, as unfortunately such is a goalkeeper’s lot. Some suggested he’d have done better to remain on his line but I’m delighted to see a keeper keen to dominate his area, by coming for everything inside his domain. However at the time I couldn’t fathom why he wasn’t able to beat Carroll to the ball considering he has the three-foot advantage of the use of his arms.

It wasn’t until watching the lowlights on the box later than night that I realized it was his indecision that was to blame. He started to come for the ball, hesitated and then realizing Chamakh had left Carroll with a completely free header, he had no choice but to challenge for it. Fabianski is a decent enough goalie, but he lacks that abrasive cocksuredness of a keeper who does everything with total conviction. If he hadn’t hesitated, he wouldn’t have been competing with Carroll from the standing start that left him struggling to get to the ball.

Nevertheless our susceptibility to defensive faux-pas notwithstanding, Sunday’s defeat was several more times frustrating than having our bum smacked by the Baggies. At least they caught us on a bad day and posed a threat by playing some entertaining footie, whereas on Sunday Newcastle merely endured because they wanted it that it that much more than we did.

Arsène’s argument for squad rotation is only valid if players need to be kept fresh for the business end of the season because we’re challenging for trophies. I’ve always been an advocate of starting with our best XI and hopefully giving players a breather once we’re a couple of goal to the good. I’m certain there can be little benefit when we’re forced to send our star turns on to rescue a result, since I'm convinced they end up no less spent than if they’ve played the entire 90. Besides which, as far as I’m concerned, above all it is the maintenance of a winning momentum which is most crucial.

Coming on the back of our defeat against Shaktar Donestk, we once again went into Sunday’s game against lesser opposition, with a low tempo, lackluster approach, as if we have just a little too much belief in our own ability and that this will eventually tell as the opposition begin to flag, without ever needing to match their work rate. The fact of the matter is that the key to success against such sides is for us to play the game at the sort of pace that they can’t live with for 90 minutes. But sadly when you start matches at such a pedestrian pace, without the necessary vitality, it becomes impossible to shift down through the gears, until invariably we go a goal behind and are forced on to the front foot.

Not to mention my bugbear about psychologically gifting away home advantage by lining up with a lone striker. If Hughton was brave enough to play 4-4-2, why couldn’t we go like for like, as surely it would’ve been better off to start the game with a front pair, than to have to risk chasing the game at the death with FOUR strikers?

There might’ve been some solace in the Scousers stuffing Chelsea, but in truth it only made me that much more enraged at having wasted a rare opportunity to reel the Blues back in. Although based on our current inconsistent form, we’re still some way from mounting a viable challenge.

Wednesday night’s trip to the Black Country is not one for the feint-hearted, against a Wolves side that’s bound to be indignant about their recent run of bad luck. Should the Gunners find the necessary fortitude, as we often do away from home, it’s only going to leave me feeling that much more mystified why we insist on playing Martha to visiting Arthurs in our own backyard!

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Wednesday 3 November 2010

Will we ever learn?

Is it just me, or does it feel like Groundhog Day, where we storm ahead in the Group Stages, then take our eye of the ball and end up having to make a bit of a scramble to get into the knockout stages, when we should really have been on cruise control.

We’ve got a tricky game in Portugal next and instead of storming into the last sixteen, we could end up having to play a full strength team against Partizan in the last game because we need a result.

Worst still this defeat could end up taking all the steam out of the momentum we’ve built up these past couple of weeks and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we end up making hard work of the Toon on Sunday as a result.

It seems as if Arsène sets far too much store in the need for rotating players, in order to try and keep them fresh. But there’s very little point in players being fresh, unless we end up involved in those important end of season games which are likely to test their energy levels. Besides which, nothing keeps players fresher than that crucial winning momentum and by the same token, fatigue creeps in a lot quicker with defeat.

See Ancelotti’s Chelsea this evening. He pretty much sent out his strongest XI at home against Spartak Moscow and although it sounded as if they were a long way from their best, they still had more than enough in the tank to roll over the Russians and maintain and build on the head of steam they’ve been building up in the Champions League.

Moreover by sending out a weakened side, Wenger will have only fuelled Shaktar’s determination to prove that we were wrong to take them lightly and it sends out the wrong message to his own dressing room, where flat-footed Gunners think they can get away with giving the ball away cheaply all evening. And the likes of Clichy isn’t sufficiently focused two minutes from half-time to appreciate that he’d be best putting the ball into Row Z, rather than conceding possession in a dangerous area and his midfield team-mates, the likes of Eastmond and Wilshere, complacently believing Clichy will take care of business, don’t bother to track the runners.

And don’t talk to me about Bendtner and Eboué! I had to laugh when one commentator suggested the Dane made a run to distract defenders, allowing Theo room to shoot. If he did, it was about as much running as Nick did all night, as he was sat on his heels all evening and as a lone striker, he was as much use as the proverbial spare penis and only slightly less infuriating for his apathy as Manny Eboué was with his customary headless chicken impersonation.

I’ve always believed that there is very little to be gained in terms of keeping players fresh, if you are forced to send the likes of Chamakh on to chase the game with 15 mins to go, as the French striker will have ended up no less spent than if he’d played the entire 90. In my humble opinion we’d have been better off starting with our strongest possible XI and then taking players off for the latter stages once we’d secured a win, as the players involved would have been no more fatigued for Sunday’s game and psychologically speaking, they’d have come home feeling a whole lot more positive!

Ho hum, two steps forward, one step back! So what else is new. Although it's only slightly more galling this time around, with our friends from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road crowing like it was going out of fashion. Bring on Spurs in the knockout stages so we can well and truly put a spanner in their glory, glory delusions

Keep the faith


Tuesday 2 November 2010

We're The Famous....

With the looming prospect of dropping two costly points on Saturday, when Gael Clichy careered down the left flank in the 88th minute against the Hammers, I offered up a little prayer that our profligate French full-back might for once find a team-mate with a decent cross. We’ve grown so accustomed to promising forays forward petering out with Gael’s final pass, that we were all left somewhat agog, when he played a perfect ball (with his right foot!) into that “corridor of uncertainty” between defence and keeper, for Alex Song to steal in and pull the rug from under the Hammers feet, by heading home the winner. I didn’t dare celebrate for an instant, before casting a glance towards the lino and the ref, convinced that someone, or something was about to spoil this rare fantasy.

I think everyone, including the team, believed Avram Grant’s confidence bereft Irons would prove to be relatively easy prey. But the combative likes of Parker and Noble are more than capable of showing up an opponent that isn’t really “at the races” and with our principle orchestrator having seemingly turned up without his baton (would Wenger seriously risk an unfit Fabregas, or as Lineker implied on MOTD, was Cesc merely preparing the ground with his hamstrung excuses for being on the missing list for an unglamorous midweek schlep to the Ukraine?), the Gunners were guilty of sliding back into their shell, waiting for the game to come to them, when we were all hoping they’d turn the heat up on the Hammers' hapless defence.

Nevertheless, as much as I would enjoy watching the Arsenal turn over the opposition every week, with a glut of goals in every game, rather than tearing what’s left of my hair out, with the stress of having to sweat it out until a decisive intervention at the death, there’s probably something far more positive about the Gunners nicking a last gasp winner, in a goalless game.

With Robert Green yet again saving his best for the Gunners and with both Theo and Samir hitting the woodwork, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking it was going to be one of those disappointing afternoons, where all hopes of a title challenge began to flounder. But in demonstrating the fortitude to keep plugging away in a below par performance, there is perhaps at long last a glimmer of the sort of steel on which genuine champions are founded.

For a while there I thought Chelsea were going to slip up, but if anyone’s got the knack of banking all three points while not performing at their best, it’s the Blues and it’s this winning habit which is likely to take some serious consistency of our own if we're ever going to reel them back in.

Three clean sheets on the bounce is not a bad start. I’m not a stats man but I’d guess it’s been a while since the Gunners achieved a succession of dot balls. Although Fabianski is growing in confidence, I can’t help but feel that with each additional shut-out, we’re that much closer to his next ricket. Whereas to my eyes Wojciech Szczesny really looked the part (kudos to the first terrace songsmith who manages to work our young keeper's bonkers moniker into a catchy chant) with a performance at St James Park that suggests he might possibly posses the sort of “big I am” personality that the introverted likes of Almunia and Fabianski patently lack.

I can appreciate Arsène’s reluctance to push Szczesny into the pressure-cooker spotlight too soon, for fear his promising career could be shipwrecked on the sort of glaring errors which might be inevitable for a player with such meagre big stage experience. The Carling Cup is the perfect proving ground for the Polish youngster. After tricky away games against Spurs and Newcastle, the quarter-final draw was a bit of a result. It’s a bit premature to be planning a trip to Wembley but with only three games between us and our long awaited debut at the new incarnation of the Home of Legends it’s hard not to get ahead of oneself, especially when the first of these is a home banker against the Lactics. Although for fear that similar expectation might permeate the dressing room, it could be argued that we might've been best served by a stiffer test.

Meantime if we can ease our way past Shaktar, into the knockout stages of the Champions League on Wednesday, it would be a great help, taking the pressure of the last two group games, easing the strain of fixture congestion and perhaps giving the kids more game time. It’s laughable to hear Shaktar’s manager explaining away his team’s inadequacies by blaming the Scandinavian ref’s Anglo-Saxon roots, but bristling with indignation at their humiliating trip to Highbury, we’re bound to face a harder examination on the Ukranian side’s home soil.

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