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Thursday 30 December 2010

It's Behind You

I guess a comic ending at Wigan was fitting, considering it's the pantomime season. But as much as I adore Arsène Wenger, in my most humble opinion, if le Gaffer has one almighty blind spot, it's in his cold clinical attitude to the game and a statistical mindset, which apparently leaves him unable to weigh up the significance of such intangibles as gut feeling and the sort of instincts that might've convinced some of his peers to put out their best XI at Wigan, in the certain knowledge that we'd have been travelling to Birmingham on Saturday far less burdened by legs (or minds?) filled with lactic acid and any thoughts of fatigue, with a victory under our belts.

I can fully appreciate Arsène's logic in wanting to rotate his squad, during the hectic run of fixtures over the festive period. However I've always firmly believed that those players on the bench who spend long periods of the 90 mins running up & down the touchline and who then come on like Nasri & Walcott, to chase the game for the last few frantic minutes, they expend just as much adrenaline and end up no more refreshed than those who've played the entire 90.

Moreover, you only had to look at the disappointment etched on the faces of some of our players, as they came over to acknowledge the travelling faithful at the final whistle, devastated by their failure to consolidate Monday night's spanking of the Blues, with a win at the DW, to be able to appreciate quite how much more important it was for us to build some momentum tonight by maintaining that winning feeling, than to try and give so many of our best players some R & R.

That's not Diaby, Denilson & Squillaci in the starting XI?

Surely some mistake?

Instead of which, sadly, as is all too often the case, we end up climbing the ladder against Chelsea, only to carelessly slip back down the Lactic's snake. Pray tell me what exactly is the point in trying to keep players fresh for the business end of the season, if we are to end up with nothing to play for, before there's any blossom on the trees?

AW might be obliged to talk up a point away to Wigan, but we've patently failed to take advantage of a prime opportunity to try and exert a little pressure on Man Utd and perhaps more importantly (in light of the fact we've hardly performed this season with any hint of the consistency necessary to mount a concerted title challenge), we've wasted a rare chance to put a little breathing space between us and all those other Champions League wannabees.

We've also managed to ramp up the pressure on us to produce a result at St. Andrews on Saturday. Whereas I fancy that if Arsène had focused more on winning tonight's game than on maintaining his team on a statistical even-keel as far as fatigue is concerned, we could've been travelling to Birmingham at the weekend with everyone feeling a far greater sense of well-being, following a midweek victory and as a result with everyone able to perform with far more freedom, in hope of a win, rather than in fear of defeat.

As astute as Arsène was with his team selection on Monday night, he couldn't have been more wide of the mark tonight, if he'd tried. In fact the injury to Diaby was about the most fortuitous thing to happen up to that point in the match (although many might argue that we'd have been better off if Denilson, Fabianski or Squillaci to name but three, had been injured instead). However prior to Jack Wilshere's appearance from the bench, we struggled to put our foot on the ball and control possession.

Worse still Denilson & Diaby presented Wigan with such a powder puff core at the heart of our midfield that the likes of N'Zogbia & Rodallega were able to breeze through at will, to cause our backline a major headache.
Although I've often criticized Denilson as being neither sufficiently manly, or committed enough to play the holding role, nor nearly talented enough to replace Fabregas, I've always been reluctant to write the Brazilian lad off completely, trusting in AW's belief that the best is yet to come.

However from where we stood behind Fabianski's goal in the first-half, I caught sight of Denilson crouching down, seemingly trying to catch his breath, from as early as 10 mins in and enough times after that to leave me in some doubt about the lad's match fitness.

Yet far more disconcerting (and perhaps not unrelated to his fitness level) was the number of times during this evening's game that I was unable to contain myself from bawling out the Brazilian for ball watching. Now I come from the school of terrace thought where I've always believed that as supporters, we are there to support our team and as much as I might coat off a players in private, I've always felt that they are hardly likely to be encouraged to try harder & to work their socks off, when they're receiving untold stick from our own fans.

Perhaps I'm growing more intolerant in my dotage, or perhaps a midweek trip to Wigan, with a return to Euston in the wee hours, followed by a hard day's graft for the ballet, is such an exhaustingly long schlep, that the very least I expect in return is some evidence of earnest endeavour on the pitch. But where once I might have bitten my tongue and responded to the catcalls of other Gooners, by offering the target of their ire even louder encouragement, last night, on the many occasions Denilson wafted out a leg in his downright feeble attempts to halt the Lactics' progress, I found myself growing increasingly irate at his patent failure to put any effort into trying to recover the situation.

Although Alex Song still seems to get caught, failing to get goalside of his opponent on far too many occasions for my liking, to Alex's credit, he's in the habit of working like a Trojan to rectify matters, even if he does concede a few too many naive free-kicks around the edge of the area, in trying to make a challenge when chasing back towards our goal, when if he'd had the forethought to get goalside, he'd be tackling face on. Whereas this evening we witnessed a stark reminder of those miserable occasions from seasons past, when the TV pictures of us conceding a goal, shown from the camera behind the onion bag, these have frequently portrayed our Brazilian midfielder in the background, ambling back towards the goal, hardly busting a gut to get back and offer our defence some support.

Watching a game as an away fan, from behind the goal at the DW Stadium, this apparent indolence was that much more obvious, as time after time Denilson was bypassed in midfield and I stood there apoplectic with rage, at his lack of urgency to even attempt to make amends. It's as if the lad believes that once the opposition have breached his feeble midfield bulwark, the responsibility becomes that of our defence alone to deal with the threat.

By contrast, you only had to watch the likes of Scott Parker busting a gut all over the pitch at Upton Park the previous evening to appreciate the opposite end of this energy level spectrum. Where Parker has the experience to know that even if he has no chance of getting there to prevent the player with the ball from taking a pop at goal, he continues haring back at full pelt, in the knowledge that if the keeper should parry the ball, he might just make it in time to prevent a tap in.

Having done my best to argue that Denilson might still need time to mature into the sort of talented all-round ball player that Arsène obviously believes he has the promise of becoming, sadly I have to admit that I'm finally coming to the conclusion that if such basic tenets of the unglamorous, "water carrying" aspects of the beautiful game still haven't been banged into his seemingly impenetrable bonce by now, then they never will be?

If like life, the Gunners are a box of chocolates, I'm afraid that Denilson is always going to be the soft centre at the crucial heart of our side, that's likely to melt at the most inopportune moment!

But it's wrong of me to save all my disapprobation for the Brazilian. I'm yet to reach home on my long trek back from the North-East and so have yet to suffer the masochistic act of watching the highlights on MOTD. But on seeing Wigan score their equaliser from the opposite end of the pitch, it seemed to me that Flappy Handski had absolutely no chance of ever getting to the corner which resulted in the home side's second goal and if Lucasz had stopped on his line, it might have been a relatively easy save to make.

Moreover, I couldn't see enough to say quite how culpable Squillaci was for this goal, but whether or not the French centre-back was at fault, whenever I've cause to focus my attention on him, the one single thought that always comes to mind is that at his elderly statesman like age, if Sebastien was truly anything more than a journeyman pro, then surely he'd have been picked up by a bigger club, long before le Boss came a calling?

Thomas Rosicky was earnest enough in his endeavours and I've a feeling that amongst some of his more incisive passes was one that led to our second goal. Nevertheless for all Rosicky's hard graft, I invariably get the sense that ultimately his efforts result in very little end product. What's more, studying Thomas through my binoculars in the build up to a Wigan free-kick and his passive part in putting a seemingly haphazard wall together to protect Fabianski's goal, the Czech lad patently doesn't have the necessary personality to lead the troops as the Arsenal skipper.

But then who does in the current Arsenal side? To be perfectly frank, while I'm sure there were others out there on the park this evening who were keen to prove a point (if only the disappointment Bendtner expressed at the final whistle was mirrored in his performance, but then Nicky is no more a winger than I am!), as far as I'm concerned, the only player who I noticed demonstrating the necessary desire was Jack Wilshere and I left the ground thinking that (unless I missed the evidence of others in a yellow shirt showing their commitment to the Arsenal's cause) Jack alone proved to me that he wanted the three points on offer this evening quite as much as I did.

Having travelled up to Wigan on the travel club's "footie special" train service - a throwback to days of yore and something I hope they will persevere with, despite the fact that of the amazingly healthy turnout of 5,000 Gooners (so I'm told), only about a 100 of us came on the train - this at least ensured that I arrived at the DW Stadium sufficiently early that I was tempted to turn around and head for a stroll down Wigan Pier for an hour or so, for fear of ruining the tardy reputation that I've been cultivating for so many years.

The Gunners mimic this Gooner's tardy habits

Mind you I was somewhat surprised to discover that I'd arrived there even before the team, who's coach only rolled up to the ground an hour before KO. I'm don't usually arrive early enough to know whether this is the Gunners' customary schedule, but some might conclude that this sort of approach would suggest to the home side that we aren't really taking our opponents particularly seriously.

Add to this the revelation that Arsène had made eight changes, with the likes of Van Persie, Song and of course our club captain Fabregas not even bothering to make the journey, leaving what amounts to basically the weakest possible side Wenger could have put out, what more encouragement did Roberto Martinez require in order to motivate his team, by demonstrating to them that we were under the impression that we only had to turn up, in order to return back down South with all three points in the bag!

Still at least I was inside the ground early enough to take advantage of the free mince pies that were on offer on the counters of the bars on the concourse. Can anyone imagine the Scrooge-like suits in charge of the catering at the Arsenal making such a generous, festive gesture at our gaff?

Then again, they'd have to break open a few thousand boxes of mince pies to please a full-house crowd at our place, whereas I'm sure the local late-night grocers would've been able to cater for the shamefully meagre turn out of home punters at the DW (another reminder if one was required, that Wigan will always remain basically a rugby town).

Everyone (in red & white that is) left the stadium bitterly disappointed at having blown three points, against a team, which despite the best efforts of what appears to be Martinez's astute management, look very likely relegation candidates. Mercifully for the few of us returning back on the 23.15 charter train, not all was lost.

Arriving back at the station after an obligatory stop at Burger King to kill the waiting time with some fast food polyfilla, I was surprised to see the team coach once again, pulling into the station car park. Enquiries with the rozzers who were tasked with keeping the baying hordes (half a dozen weary Gooners and a handful of well lubricated locals) from bothering the occupants, resulted in the response "this lot....taking the must be joking". According to him they were heading back to Blackpool airport for a flight home to Luton.

However, after hanging around for half an hour or so, getting my nicotine level up for a four hour train trip, envious of the Gunners, with their feet up on the coach watching Match of the Day on their TV screens (wondering what they'd make of the highlights and whether any of them would groan at Fabianski's gaff for the equalising goal), it eventually came to light that there was fog at Luton airport and as a result, we were to be ejected from our First Class seats, as the team would be joining all the plebs on the return train trip and the front three carriages were reserved for their exclusive use (it was ever thus!).

While the typical "angry of Tunbridge Wells" whinging Gooners were threatening to write to the Travel Club for a refund, the rest of us were chuffed to bits, as (immature kids that we are when it comes to the slightest chance of fraternizing with our heroes) it positively made our day out. I was hanging out the window of the train, with my iPhone at hand, the video app all set up just waiting to hit the record button, only to discover that I should've remained in my seat, as I'd missed them all, as they'd taken a back route.

Mercifully I didn't make the same mistake twice and was hanging out the window, eagerly waiting to record their departure from the train when we arrived at Watford Junction. You'd have imagined that there would've been plenty of us who would've been eager to give the Gunners (or some of them at least) a peace of our mind. However in a world where our heroes have become more and more detached from their fan base (although nowadays at least the likes of Twitter has begun to redress this imbalance), hidden behind electrified fences and 12-foot metal gates, unless you have upwards of a couple of hundred quid to fritter away, in order to join the prawn sandwich supporters at any of these "black tie" charity dos, the prospects of an opportunity for any face-to-face interaction with these superstars of modern football have become so few and far between, that everyone was far too delighted to see them all, up close and personal, to even consider any negative comments.

Never mind the distress of schlepping all the way to Wigan only to see the Gunners blow it (again!), as you'll hear the lunatic comment (more then once) in the attached video, such a soppy thing as seeing your heroes pass by on the platform of Watford Junction positively made our trip!

What's more, I'm not sure we'd have flown through green signals all the way back down South, arriving back into Euston an hour earlier than scheduled, if it wasn't for the VIPs aboard our train?

Now if only Nicky Bendtner can answer my call for a hat-trick on Saturday, we'll all be happy bunnies. But then I thought I'd better get this posted before I go to work, as I very much doubt I'll be in quite such good humour after barely any kip before a hard day's graft for the ballet!

Come on you Reds
Big Love

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Tuesday 28 December 2010

Only One Team In London

Who could wish for more from Santa the Gooner, than a nodding Arsenal bulldog to adorn the dashboard of my motor and 3 points from our encounter with the Blues, which guarantees that the Gunners will ring in the New Year, if not as top dogs, then at least as the capital’s big kahuna. Despite the unremitting positivity of a new car mascot (that doesn’t do negative!), the optimism hardly abounded as we headed for the ground on Monday night, banking on the law of averages as our best bet for finally breaking our infuriating hoodoo against the Premiership’s big fish.

I suppose if you eat the competition's dust sufficiently often, there must eventually come a time when your desire to avoid the bitter taste of defeat will ensure that you are just that little bit more ‘up for it’ than an increasingly complacent opposition. Admittedly it would’ve felt slightly more fulfilling if a less flaccid display from Ancelotti’s side had forced the Arsenal to produce their scintillating best to beat the Blues, but it feels as if it’s been so long in coming, that absolutely nothing was going to spoil the euphoria of finally getting one over on Abramovich's plaything and the satisfaction of putting those Kings Road upstarts back in their place, in such emphatic fashion.

Although I’m not sure everyone welcomed the return of Flappy Handski, Arsène proved spot on with his team selection, with a centre-back pairing that went into this game without any of the baggage of Drogba’s recent bedevilment and with the inspired choice of Theo Walcott in his starting XI. Aside from the fact that Theo is a far more willing grafter than Arshavin (who’s work ethic nowadays amounts to little more than the energy our diminutive Ruski expends counting his obscene weekly wage packet!), it seemed as if the disreputable Cashley Hole was so focused on his forlorn attempts to bully his replacement as the brightest star in the Gunners firmament, that the Chelsea left-back completely forgot the raids down our flank, which have proved such a crucial facet of the Blues recent success against Cashley’s former employers

Additionally Ancelotti’s defensive selection served to our advantage, as Ivanovic is a far greater threat as a raiding full-back, than he is a bulwark at centre-back and in beating Ferreira, after giving him a three-yard start, Samir Nasri made the Portuguese stand-in look positively sluggish.

Still for forty minutes on Monday night it seemed as if the rope-a-dope tactics that Chelsea have perfected in recent contests might prevail once again. Mercifully the Gunners appear to have learned the lessons of various fruitless, one-dimensional attempts to pick an intricate path through the massed Blue ranks at the heart of the Chelsea rearguard, by at long last adding a bit of variation to our forward play.

By being equally willing to use some width to try to go around the Blue backline, instead of incessantly attempting to tippy-tappy their way through the middle of the park, or by mixing it up with the occasional long ball, Chelsea were unable to rest on their laurels, leaving us to retain possession, secure in the knowledge that our flyweight attacks would bounce back off the Blues’ heavyweight fortification.

Compared to a far bigger, beefier opposition, Jack Wilshere still looks more like the club mascot when he comes trotting onto the pitch. But if ever there was a player to make a mockery of the ‘men v boys’ analogy, with his increasing influence on such crucial clashes, Jack is the man. In fact considering our skipper had a bit of a stinker, by his world-class standards, in a match littered with Cesc’s misplaced passes, I was somewhat flabbergasted on returning home to find Fabregas had been awarded Man of the Match, when there were at least half a dozen more deserving candidates.

When you consider how Chelsea have communed with their travelling faithful, after grinding out results on the road in the recent past and how I’ve been envious of this allusion to a winning spirit within the Blue’s dressing room, you only had to look at the faces of the four lonely losers who came over to their corner of the ground at the final whistle, while the majority of their teammates trudged off the pitch without even acknowledging the away support, to appreciate that everything is far from hunky-dory in the Abramovich house.

The question is whether the Gunners can build on the momentum gained on Monday, by acquiring the sort of swagger that might have the likes of Wigan and Birmingham quaking in their boots at the prospect of playing host to the purveyors of such quality football. All our good work on Monday will amount to naught, unless we consolidate our success with the sort of honest endeavours, which will be necessary to endure on the road in the next few days and without which my nodding dog might end up lobbed out the car window in frustration, disappearing in my rear-view mirror, along with any remaining aspirations of an Arsenal title challenge.

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Monday 20 December 2010

Sunday Lunch Without The Spuds

A weekend without footie is like Sunday lunch without the spuds. Naturally I lapped up the meagre morsel of mashed swede from the Stadium of Light & Ewood Park on Saturday. Bolton pressed for an equalizer against Sunderland, with the sort of drive and determination that was sorely missed when we played Man Utd. While our skipper ponders our squad’s apparent insecurities against the better sides, myself I wonder if the finger of blame for the Gunners misfortunes can be pointed elsewhere?

After banning Spurs from any Xmas booze ups, judging by the tabloid tales of a bleary-eyed Ledley King, it seems Harry “He’s got a twitch” Redknapp relented and allowed the Lilywhites a night out on the town. By contrast, instead of Jack Wilshere’s customarily dull “tweets” concerning his big decision of the day, about whether to choose “Starbucks” or “Costa” for his morning cup of java, or loving pics of his two pugs (is there a theme here, with the Gunners and their slightly effeminate choice of dog breeds?), we were treated to some snaps of a somewhat tepid looking Xmas lunch at the Arsenal's training ground.

I’m not suggesting I’d be happy for the Gunners to be caught with their pants down, out on the razz (à la Bendtner). But considering how few players lingered long enough for these fairly drab group shots, one might deduce that there’s a decided lack of team spirit amongst this lot and we’re devoid of leaders with the force of personality to negotiate a night out for the lads with le Gaffer. Perhaps therein lies the problem?

Instead of reveling in the skills of Samir Nasri and joining in with the celebrations of our first against Fulham the other week, Arshavin showed a disdainful air of insouciance, as he turned and trotted back to the halfway line. The diminutive Ruski comes out with such crackpot claptrap that he might be deemed closer to certifiable than a typical example of our disunity. But this incident certainly alluded to the possibility that the Gunners are badly in need of some proper male bonding.

Apparently Barca are a shoe-in for the Champions League quarterfinals. There’s no disputing that on paper, man for man, they are better than us. The only way we’re going to beat them, is by demonstrating as a “team” that we want it more than them, matching their undoubted class, with some elegant skills of our own, but ultimately trumping the Spaniards with our passion and desire. Surely it’s not individual “belief” that’s the stumbling block, with so many stars having egos the size of houses nowadays, but their confidence in the Arsenal as a unit and the absence of that vital strength of character, capable of both encouraging and cajoling genuine conviction and a winning mentality out of the Gunners (never imagined I’d be drawing comparisons between us and the England cricket team!)

Having already confirmed my trip to the Catalan capital within a couple of hours of Friday’s draw, I suppose I’ve good reason for convincing myself that I’ve not wasted my hard-earned dosh on another embarrassing hiding. But personally I’m never happier than when the Gunners go into a big game with something to prove, as outright underdogs. Remember the Bernabeu and the San Siro?

Although I must admit that with the Spanish side’s scintillating form of late, beating Barca appears to be an increasingly daunting prospect. But two months is a long time in football and as disappointed as I was with the two sloppy defeats that left us with a more difficult draw, in some respects, as long as we do ourselves justice, I’d much rather we go out in a blaze of glory against the best team on the planet, than to see us lie down like lambs against the likes of Lyon.

Admittedly it would be galling in the extreme should the Gunners European aspirations evaporate, before those of our North London neighbours. After schlepping all over the continent in pursuit of the Champions League Holy Grail, I daren’t even countenance the prospect of Spurs actually having the “chutzpah” to succeed in their first ever tilt at the big-eared prize – in this format, (although I seriously doubt there can be many readers old enough to recall Blanchflower and co’s glorious semi-final failure in 62?).

Yet there might still be some solace, should we find ourselves forced to focus all our attentions on a concerted title challenge, while Spurs domestic ambitions take a backseat during Spring, to the distraction of their continued involvement in the tournament; only for the Totts to end up having to wait for all eternity, for another crack at a Champions League encore.

Meanwhile I’d have much preferred to have got the defeat to Man Utd out of our system against Stoke, rather than mulling it over, until Chelsea’s visit next Monday. Fortunately I only had to look out my window at the Highbury white-out at noon on Saturday before snuggling back under the duvet, knowing there was no chance of a game going ahead. But my heart went out to the thousands that travelled in vain, Mind you, in spite of their tortuous journeys, I imagine it might’ve been a novelty for some, for once returning from an away trip without the bitter taste of defeat.

I’ll be positively chomping at the bit by the time the Blues come a calling, stir crazy with cabin fever. After an impromptu winter break, I pray our football reflects the same enthusiasm from the Gunners?

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Tuesday 14 December 2010

Never Mind The X-Factor, Where's The "Who Really Wants It" Quotient?

It’s been a highly entertaining first few months of the season, with so many sides capable of playing with the sort of panache that has enabled them to take points from anyone, on any given weekend. But in some respects it’s felt as if we’ve been treading water, waiting for one of the big guns to kick on. The question is, are the Gunners merely pacemakers, or can we prove ourselves to be something more, when it comes to the crunch?

Certainly not on the evidence of our performance at Old Trafford. After yet more foolhardy full-back play presented “three for a tenner” with a flukey lead, following 40 mins of far too tentative sparring, much like Chelsea’s rope-a-dope display at the Bridge, Utd sat back in the second half and invited us to do our worst.

Once again, sadly our worst wasn't nearly "bad" enough. It was as if the Gunners were firing BB pellets, offering little more than a mere stinging sensation as they bounced harmlessly back off Utd’s defence, while we prayed in vain for an attack of the calibre of Clint Eastwood’s Magnum, capable of punching the sort of hole that might mortally wound Fergie's mob.

With most Gooners having few illusions about our tenuous sojourn at the table's summit, we'd have gladly settled for a draw. But it's also as plain to us as the red nose on Fergie's miserable mush that unlike the competition, Wenger's side simply doesn't possess the resilience to set it's stall out with containment as it's principal ambition.

All credit to Utd's solidity, but contrary to all Arsène’s assurances as to the belief that exists in our squad, an arduous trek back South in the wee hours of Tuesday morning felt all the more wretched, knowing that we'd performed without any real conviction.

Doubtless Arsène will turn to the stats, to argue that we deserved better. But for all our possession, in playing with the handbrake on, the Gunners never brought the sort of vitality and pace to this party, to sufficiently unsettle a more resolute opposition.

It’s a contradiction in terms to accuse an indolent Arshavin of recklessness, but if our diminutive Ruski deserved to be booked, then surely Rio’s full-frontal assault was nothing less than ABH? But then you know you’ve endured another night of unfulfilled expectations at the Theatre of Dreams, when the highpoint of the evening was some hearty “fat, granny shagger” ribbing of Wayne Rooney.

This was in response to the red mist that descended as Rooney lost his rag, when for once “Fergie’s rent-boy” ref failed to rule in the home side’s favour. I’m unsure whether the 60,000 Muppets heeded their manager's request in his programme notes to desist with the paedo chants, or if it was merely the Arsenal’s impotence which failed to inspire the home fans wrath. But just as I expect the Gunners to rise to le Gaffer’s defence, by producing the goods on the pitch, I often fear that we might end up regretting rubbing the likes of Rooney up the wrong way with such inflammatory antics.

With the incessant shenanigans of Nani and Anderson and relentless appeals from the terraces, I suppose Webb’s seemingly fatal intervention was inevitable. Although in this instance I like to believe that we played a considerable part in Utd's failure to nail down the 3 points from the penalty spot. From where I stood, I got the distinct sense that instead of focusing on finding the back of the net, Rooney burned with such intense indignation that he was hell-bent on imparting sufficient impetus on the ball to force the taunts back down the throats of a couple of thousand Gooners.

Mercifully we can take some comfort from a solitary cause for optimism, in the promising league debut of a young keeper, who might just have the necessary presence and personality to fill this gaping hole in the Gunners armour. Now if only Arsène could chance upon the Premiership Holy Grail of an equally charismatic outfield leader, the sort of character who might appreciate the significance of Rooney’s miss and who’d recognize this as the moment to step up and try to inspire his teammates to turn the screw, by grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck.

No matter if such efforts had resulted in glorious failure, it would’ve been far less unsatisfying than trudging away from the architectural wastelands of Old Trafford, wondering why we’ve put ourselves through the wringer once again, schlepping to the North-West on a Monday night, for a contest that was more Strictly Come Dancing than X-Factor, to support a side that’s patently failed another crucial examination of the hunger and desire quotient that’s likely to be the telling factor in a “who really wants it” title race.

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Monday 6 December 2010

The Chassé Is On

While everyone insists on making us Gooners ever more aware of the length of time the Gunners have dallied in the silverware starved doldrums, you’d have to be a pretty damn visually challenged footie lover, not to be grateful for the privilege of watching Arsène Wenger’s lads play live every week. Myself I never forget to count my footballing blessings, every time I stand, mouth agape, dumbstruck in awe, at the sort of breathtakingly balletic ball skills that leave us in rapture on such a regular basis - and as someone who’s grafted for a ballet company for 20 years and has watched the Gunners for twice as long, I feel fairly qualified to comment.

Few of us are getting carried away with our elevated status. We know full well that we only bestride the Premiership pile by default, We’re also reminded all too often how fragile we can be, as evidenced by the repeated sense of hanging on for a heart-stopping final half hour against Fulham on Saturday. Yet as frustrated as I am with our tendency to turn into a panic struck bunch of schoolgirls, how can we possibly complain, when we get to savour the sublime pleasures of the scintillating likes of Samir Nasri, pirouetting his way around Premiership defences.

I wasn’t even that upset at the sight of Koscielny switching off, or having his lights switched off in a clash of heads with his team mate more like and then conceding a soft goal. If Laurent was less honest (or if Squillaci hadn’t knocked all seven bells out of him), he might’ve gone down in a heap and got the game stopped before Kamara struck. There was another moment, when Nasri could’ve collapsed in the opposition’s box in search of a penalty, in the more cynical tradition of the modern-day mercenary, if he wasn’t so completely focused on his objective.

But I wasn’t pinning for the loss of a potential penalty because in Nasri’s intent and Koscielny’s commitment, there is perhaps a glimmer of the sort sincerity and hunger, which might yet forge a more tightly-knit unit of worthy contenders, out of Arsène’s multi-cultural bouillabaisse. Far from suggesting we’re anywhere near looking like the finished article, on current form, most Gooners will admit to their delighted amazement, to find themselves dancing into a positively arctic December as top dogs.

And yet our table-topping moment couldn’t possibly be more interestingly timed, coinciding as it did with the postponement of an opportunity for Fergie to affirm Man Utd’s position as the bookies favourites (even if we’ve come to expect the more exuberant unexpected from Ian Holloway and his Seasiders), following last week’s shellacking of Fat Sam’s side.

Unless the Hammers’ defensive Wallies (coming to a headline near you?) ship a shedload against City next weekend, Spurs will be playing Chelsea at the Lane on Sunday, knowing that if they get anything from Ancelotti’s dysfunctional Blues, we’ll be heading to Old Trafford the following night for an encounter that’ll suddenly assume an increasing “clash of the Titans” significance. Who knows, if we could just display sufficient obduracy to stick around at the top for a week or two, perhaps we could even begin to acquire that arrogant aura of true pretenders to the Premiership throne.

Judging by the way we almost eviscerated the visitors, leaving the Cottagers chasing Red & White shadows for the first 20mins on Saturday, the Arsenal certainly didn’t appear disadvantaged by the absence of our illustrious World Cup winner. I’ve already opined on whether there might be a silver-lining to the loss of our ‘want away’ skipper and if others continue to pick up the baton of our customary conductor, perhaps Fabregas himself could benefit, should he returns to a dressing room in more buoyant mood?

Although I’m a long way from counting my chickens (or turkeys!). The only predictable aspect to this Premiership campaign is that the immediate competition have all looked equally vulnerable, at times, against the league’s lesser lights. Nevertheless, few will take Arsène’s insistence on our new-found tenacity entirely seriously, until the Gunners produce an indisputably convincing performance against one of our two nemesi.

Meanwhile we’ve the small matter of qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages on Wednesday. But if we can’t beat Partizan Belgrade on our own patch, then we really don’t deserve to be there. I wonder if the sordid stench from FIFA headquarters in Switzerland might cast a malodourous whiff over UEFA’s cash cow monopoly of European football?

As far as I’m concerned International footie is merely an increasingly irritating bloodsucker that all too often slips under the bedside mosquito net of the domestic game. But I must admit that I baulked at the blatant inequity of it all, when it was revealed to me that last week’s decision means I might not see a World Cup on these shores in my lifetime (after all, aged only four, World Cup Willie is just about my only genuine memory of Bobby Moore & co.).

With so many big games coming thick and fast, perhaps my limp home from Saturday’s wonderful entertainment was psychosomatic. I’ve been offered two lucrative weeks work with the ballet after Xmas. Yet one look at a crowded fixture list leaves me fretting about what I might miss. So I’ve just about convinced myself that my increasingly decrepit joints can no longer bear up to grueling all-nighters in the theatre I guess I’ll be blaming Samir Nasri when I end up b’rassic in the New Year, but hopefully grateful to the Frenchman and his team mates for the sort of massive grin that money can’t buy!

Come on you Reds
Big Love
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