Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Albert Square Or The Bernabeu?

Hi folks,

Just heard a rumour that notwithstanding any major changes overnight, William Gallas will start against Barca tomorrow! Sadly my source wasn't forthcoming when I replied to his text in the hope of receiving some reassurance about our captain's inclusion.

I have to believe that Cesc will play and that his absence from training today was merely precautionary. We are all more than familiar with the sort of mind game shenanigans that precede such mammoth encounters. I've not kept up to date with the news, as I'm not so concerned with the opposition. But last I heard, on Sunday, Iniesta was injured and Javi was also doubtful. Although the absence of these two influential cogs in the Barcelona midfield would undoubtedly be a bonus, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see them trotting out at 7.45pm tomorrow.

Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, regardless of Barca's starting XI (perhaps with the exception of Lionel Messi!), first and foremost the Gunners need to be sufficiently juiced up, to believe themselves perfectly capable of putting the Spanish giants to the sword, so as to ensure that psychologically they have no fear of the aura of greatness associated with the Catalan side in recent times. Otherwise we'll end up losing this game before a ball has been kicked.

So long as the Gunners go out there with sufficient faith in their ability to take their opponents on, in the same way that we'd approach any other match, we'll at least have won the battle which means we need not concern ourselves with the contents of Pep Guardiola's teamsheet.

Myself I'm hoping that if Cesc's injury was as worrying as the media would have us believe, then he'd have been withdrawn at St. Andrews on Saturday. Moreover, I've faith that there's so much pride at stake as far as Fabregas is concerned, when it comes to an opportunity to prove himself against his colleagues from the Spanish national side, that he'd turn out tomorrow night, even with one leg tied up behind his back!

I was delighted when I read this text message claiming Gallas will get a run out. But then on reflection it occurred to me that although I'd probably only be just a little less sh*t scared than Sol's likely to be at the prospect of the sort of challenge he's about to face (if I can't sleep for the rabble of butterflies flapping around inside my belly, what's Sol's insomnia like?), after being out injured for so many weeks, such a mammoth, season making / breaking fixture is hardly the ideal circumstances for Willie's first competitive match? In Arsène we trust.

Meanwhile, I didn't get an opportunity to mention in my missive below that it was interesting at the weekend to hear John Terry refer to the fact that Chelsea expected Villa to tire towards the end of their humiliating thrashing at the Bridge. It seems clear to me that there's an accepted wisdom amongst the Premiership elite that the majority of domestic opponents are more vulnerable during the closing stages of games.

In keeping the more talented teams at bay, it would appear that the league's lesser lights are expected to expend so much energy, in closing players down in twos and threes and denying them the space to be able to do any real damage, that it's assumed inevitable that they will eventually flag.

I can't help but wonder if this has become such a widely accepted axiom that it is responsible for our own patient approach to many of our matches, where the Gunners appear to start games with a decided lack of intensity, as if subconsciously we've gone out there merely to play keep ball for 80 minutes, waiting for the opposition to run out of steam and the point where their defence will part like the waters of the Red Sea?

Obviously I appreciate that it's impossible to go hell for leather, playing at full pelt for an entire 90 minutes. But I honestly can't remember the last time the Arsenal tore into the opposition right from the off. Perhaps we've lacked that sort of surfeit of confidence, but especially at home, where one might expect lesser opponents to feel somewhat intimidated, I'd love to see us go for their throats and frighten the lives out of them, in the manner which has in the past seen us finish teams off in the first ten minutes, as opposed to the recent, far more stressful habit of keeping us on the edge of our seats, chewing what's left of our nails, waiting for an injury time winner!

You often hear the maxim, much beloved of the visiting team's manager, where he instructs his side to go out there and keep a lid on things for the opening rounds so as to quieten the home crowd. But this appears to be no great challenge at our gaff, as having dozed off to our dirge of an Elvis lullaby, we've 60,000 Gooners who could set their alarms for the 80th minute, knowing we'll be weaving mazy passing patterns until our patience runs its course and the time comes for us to try and turn the screw.

It seems to me that the biggest problem with this is that it allows teams time to settle down and encourages a growing belief that they can get something out of the game. As a result, I suspect that we've endured several matches this season, where despite eventually winning, these games have proved far more taxing physically and psychologically, than if we'd turned sides over in the first 30 mins and played keep ball for the last hour, against a side merely trying to cling to a respectable scoreline.

Mind you, much as I would "love it", I can't envisage us steaming into Barca tomorrow and away from home, I certainly don't imagine our Spanish guests to throw caution to the wind. With so much at stake in these matches, for both teams, the level of respect that they have for one another means that they are invariably cagey affairs, where both sides will fence with one another for 90 minutes, waiting for one moment of inspiration, or one major mistake to make the difference.

It would be downright foolish to play against a team containing supremely talented players of the calibre of Messi without showing them sufficient respect. However with all the media hype, perhaps the most important thing is that we don't end up showing Barca too much respect because like all animals, footballers sense fear and are only encouraged to take advantage of it. In my humble opinion, positively the best way for Clichy to avoid being tormented down his flank, is for him to be rampaging up the other end of the pitch.

Let's face it, Arsène's side isn't exactly set up to grind out a 90 minute shut out and therefore attack is undoubtedly our best means of defence because Barca's aren't nearly so talented at the back as they are going forward. Considering the way in which we've suffered this season at home to Man Utd and Chelsea, all I ask tomorrow is that we give it a serious go, taking the visitors on, rather than waiting until we concede a goal and are forced to do so.

There's no doubt that at our best, we can beat Barca and if we're not destined to do so, obviously I'll be gutted, but I will be that much more disappointed if we went out with a whimper. All I ask for is a lion-hearted Arsenal performance and you know what, if we can go to Spain next week with our heads held high and still in contention, Barca are going to be under such pressure to progress that I'd quite fancy us to pull off a famous victory.

I can picture my Spurs pals, with their fingers on there phone keypads, itching to text me tomorrow night to revel in our demise. Here's hoping all they have for me are the habitual Albert Square updates

Come on you Reds
Bernard
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I guess I must own up and admit my part in puncturing the illusion of the Arsenal’s title challenge. After having managed to maintain a composed air of relative incredulity these past few weeks, there was a moment at St. Andrews on Saturday, when I was being straddled by the enormous stranger beside me, as the Gooners in the lower tier behind Joe Hart’s goal exploded with joy and relief at the sight of Samir Nasri’s speculative 81st minute shot arrowing into the far corner of the net, when I truly began to wonder if the Gunners fate was perhaps written in the stars.

I should’ve known better than to let myself get carried away with the euphoric mood. By joining in with the resulting “now you’ve gotta believe us” chants for the first time, it felt as if I was personally culpable of tempting fate to kick us in the teeth, with Kevin Phillips devastating fluke of an injury time equaliser.

Truth be told, with the exception of Abou Diaby’s impressive performances, overall this was a somewhat insipid Arsenal display. We never really looked like troubling Birmingham’s terrific home record, until the late introduction of Nasri and Arshavin lent our attack some much needed inspiration. It was only after Samir’s strike had eased the mounting tension that we finally began to profit from the fact that the home side were forced to stick their heads out of their defensive shell, as the clock ticked down towards their impending defeat. Unfortunately we spent those fateful last ten minutes playing with a little too much freedom, since both subs were guilty of wasting gilt-edged opportunities to put all three points to bed.

The little Ruski might well blame the lousy state of the St. Andrews playing surface, as with the goal gaping, Shava was presented with a “harder to miss” opportunity from a few yards out, that he somehow contrived to skew well wide. And then having scored the first, Samir suffered an “after you Claude” moment, in attempting to square the ball to a non-existent team mate, when a greedy striker would've gobbled up the opportunity to grab himself a second.

If we’d held on, to grind out an old-fashioned “1-0 to the Arsenal” victory, neither miss would’ve mattered too much. After all, with both Chelsea and Man Utd scoring goals with such gay abandon, our title fantasies are hardly likely to be coming to fruition based on goal difference.

With both players being fairly recent arrivals, they might be inclined to believe that their best chances of achieving silverware lie ahead of them. Therefore I can’t help but wonder quite how dismayed they’ll be about such glaring misses, compared to those of us who’ve endured so many fallow seasons without a sniff of a title, only to come within touching distance of the Premiership promised land and to be denied entrance, as we are left rueing just this sort of profligate “if only” moment.

Much like Bolton was in the past, St. Andrews is fast gaining a reputation as the Gunners’ Bechers Brook. It felt as if I was supposed to have fallen at the first on Saturday. Tardy as ever and struggling to escape the North London traffic, I suggested my pals leave without me, when I realised I was going to be more than a few minutes late for our motorway meet.

However an increasingly disconcerting racket coming from my own motor had me terrified of ending up as one of those unfortunate footie fans who can regularly be seen, stranded on the motorway hard-shoulder on most match days. Having pulled up outside my Ma’s house, in the hope of borrowing her car, only to find she’d had the figary to go out in it, if the match had been live on the box, I would’ve probably given up at this point.

Mercifully the motor made it the few miles up the motorway to Watford Junction, where I boarded a train to Birmingham New Street and following a brisk walk, I was flabbergasted to find myself sitting in my seat, a full 45 minutes before KO! Meanwhile, while I’d been convinced my own car was about to go kaput, ironically the mates I’d planned on travelling with only just made it to the match, after the head gasket blew on their motor just as they arrived in Brum!

I suppose we should count our blessings, as at least it was at least a pleasant, sunny outing (to one of the country’s least attractive conurbations) and nobody broke any bones. But in my distraught state, after the gut-wrenching agony of the last gasp equaliser, I took the first train back to Euston, while completely forgetting I’d abandoned the motor at Watford. Mercifully a mate reminded me in the nick of time. After changing trains at Milton Keynes, much to my relief, the car limped back to London without further drama. But I spent the rest of the night feeling guilty that I was indoors with my feet up by 7.30, receiving progress reports as my pals were relayed South in a tow truck, eventually arriving home in the wee hours.

While I’ll be most surprised if we’ve seen the last twist and turn in such an unpredictable campaign, I suspect that a Man Utd victory over Chelsea next weekend might be accompanied by a soundtrack of the fat lady’s dulcet tones. There’s a “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” feel to our trip to the Catalan capital. I’ve mates flying to Valencia, followed by a 700km round trip train ride, while others intend driving across the Pyrenées after flying to the South of France.

Notwithstanding any goalkeeping inadequacies, the killer instinct that was on the missing list at St. Andrews is going to be crucial, if we’re to still be in with a shout of reaching the semis, by the time we travel to Camp Nou. Win, draw or lose tomorrow night, I'll be content, so long as we do ourselves justice, with a display that ensures the ultimate outcome is still in the balance. So long as the Gunners can match our own commitment, thereby demonstrating their insatiable appetite, then surely we can continue to believe that nothing is impossible?

--
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Ancelotti's Premiership Managerial Credentials Might Be Looking A Little Limp, But Not So His Amazing Dancing Eyebrow

G'day fellow Gooners,


Any team would suffer from the loss of such influential players as Michael Essien and Cashley Hole (or one influential player and one greedy bastard!), even the Blues bumper squad, with two or three players for every position on the park. And yet when I look at all the players still available to Ancelotti on paper, Chelsea continue to look like the outfit with the more worthy title-winning credentials. Fortunately, it would appear that not everything in Roman's garden is quite so rosy as the facts might suggest.


I've a feeling it might also have been at Ewood Park, or some equally desolate North-Western outpost of the not so beautiful game, but I well remember a scene from a hungrier age, when after grinding out a significant victory against equally uncultured opposition, I watched on enviously, as the TV pictures portrayed a poignant moment, as the entire Chelsea team communed with their "no history" travelling hordes, in a spirit of togetherness, handing over all their shirts to show their appreciation for their support and sending them all back on their long schlep home, feeling an integral part of the Abramovich tribe.


Contrast this to the disconsolate solitary sight of Drogba trudging over to the away end at Blackburn, after dropping two points on Sunday, to partake in the same ritual, as if he was on particularly melancholy, automatic pilot. I've pondered in the past whether a mature Chelsea squad might've reached the point where the trappings of fame and all that fortune would take the edge off their appetite.


More recently, despite the amazing dancing eyebrow that appears to be the only channel for Ancelotti's expression, I've wondered whether the Italian's utterly impassive persona has the capacity (or the linguistic capability even) to rouse a bunch of aging old pros from their complacent slumbers? But while such questions are open to endless speculation, perhaps we've witnessed irrefutable evidence of late that the gossamer-thin veneer of togetherness, which binds a dressing room full of over-inflated, overpaid egos has been shattered for good, ever since the salacious John Terry scandal was splashed across the titillating pages of the tabloids.


Somehow, with his charisma by-pass, I just can't envisage Ancelotti having the personality to put Humpty back together again and if Chelsea are to come on strong again, it will have to come from within and Terry, Lampard and co. will have to prove that they still have sufficient hunger.


Personally I feel that unless time has eventually withered Ol' Red Nose's appetite, it's got to be Fergie whose favourite for engendering a title winning unity of spirit in Utd's camp and so long as their spud faced Roman Candle remains fit, Wayne Rooney's likely to provide the fireworks on the pitch that will inspire his team mates and continue to push them all the way.


Perhaps it is the fact that Arsène's current squad have yet to actually win anything but when I look at this Arsenal side, I still struggle to see them as a team of genuine contenders. Even if circumstances hadn't contrived to make Sol Campbell such a significant signing and he'd remained on the periphery of the squad, Sol's hulking great stature lends our squad a somewhat more imposing presence. Nevertheless until we really begin to acquire that all-important winning aura, it's hard to imagine this Arsenal side lining up in the tunnel and intimidating opponents in the way our immediate rivals do.


Nevertheless, there's absolutely no mistaking a mushrooming mood of well-being amongst the Arsenal camp. As one of his greatest detractors in recent weeks, I'm delighted that even Denilson appears to have caught the bug, as demonstrated by his fifth minute pot-shot and the resulting exuberant celebration from a player who's always struck me as a somewhat shy, retiring sort. Yet while we all know our side to be capable of the sort of scintillating skills that can scythe their way through the tightest defence, we've yet to prove that we possess the unwavering focus and blinkered concentration necessary to attain the level of consistency that can prolong our challenge right through until 9th May.


Personally I would much prefer if all the pundits were still writing the Arsenal off, instead of jumping on the bandwagon of our gathering momentum, but so long as we can continue to go from game to game, keeping up the pressure on the other two, we should benefit from the added impetus of a burgeoning confidence and an increased appetite. And in my humble opinion the Premiership title is merely a matter of keeping our end up, while we wait for the other two contenders to capitulate. It all sounds so easy expressed in such terms but ask me again in three games time, as if we beat Birmingham and Wolves and come away from White Hart Lane with thee more points, even my pessimistic self will have no choice but to begin to believe.


Meanwhile on Sky Sports the other week, Tony Adams told how he felt that the 38 game title marathon had to be the no. 1 target. I'm sure that the vast majority of other football fans (with the obvious exclusion of the Totts) would be delighted to see Le Prof's purist vision and his point blank refusal to join the space race, prevail over the other two. Yet while all of us Gooners and the footballing public in general might recognise le Gaffer's genius, it's obvious that the big-eared prize, the one trophy missing from the Arsenal's illustrious list of honours, is the Holy Grail necessary to truly vindicate Wenger's greatness.


Amongst the current first XI, Fabregas alone would be the one Arsenal player to walk into the Barcelona side. But mercifully time and again the inherent beauty of this game of ours has been witnessed in a demonstration of a whole that's been far greater than the sum of the opposition's individual parts. It would perhaps be somewhat naive of me to suggest we might contain Messi & co., where so many others have failed.


I rather fancy that we'll end up going to the Nou Camp needing a result, following a rollercoaster ride of score draw which will be responsible for more than a few Gooner heart-attacks. Should such a prediction prove true (and they very rarely do), we'll travel to the Catalan capital with the pressure off and hopefully produce a performance where absolutely anything is possible.


The only thing I can be certain of is that we'll be savouring one hell of a sensational spectacle, while our poor Spurs pals are keeping their customary tabs on the comings and goings in Albert Square


Come on you Reds

Big Love

Bernard

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With the noisiest North corner of our impressive new stadium being directly opposite the section of away fans in the South end, this huge arena’s two most vocal areas are separated by such a vast distance that sadly, there’s rarely any decent banter between the two sets of supporters these days. I guess the Hammers fans are in the habit of having to try and create their own amusement. But this encounter has become a pale shadow of the North v East London derbies of old, where no matter what transpired on the pitch, the spontaneous battles of Cockney choral tennis kindled on the terraces would invariably guarantee an amusing afternoon.

This didn’t stop the Hammers fans from trying to provoke some sort of response from the rest of the Arsenal’s silent hordes on Saturday, as they teased “we hate Tottenham more than you!” Having shown our heartfelt appreciation for this vocal expression of their aversion to our North London neighbours, there was in fact a half-hearted attempt at a riposte, with a fairly flaccid chorus of “we hate Chelsea more than you”.

Compared to the murderous animosity of the dark ages, nowadays West Ham and Arsenal fans share something of a common bond, in our contempt for the other two London rivals. Consequently I was left contemplating quite how delighted the Hammers fans will be, when we make the short trip to White Hart Lane with a weakened side, deprived of Tommie Vermaelen due to the automatic three game suspension resulting from Saturday’s dismissal. Nor do I imagine there’ll be too much rejoicing down the Barking Road, if Tommie’s three game ban should end up handing the Blues the title on a plate.

Alex Song dropped back for the remainder of Saturday’s match, to manfully plug the gap resulting from Vermaelen’s red card. In Gallas’ continued absence, hopefully Alex will do likewise whilst Tommie is suspended, as I’m sure I won’t be alone in wondering how many changes of underwear might be necessary should Arsène resort to a pensionable centre-back partnership of Campbell and Silvestre.

Being that much more mobile and as a centre-back by trade, Song would seem to be the most obvious stand-in. But with Alex having rapidly grown into his influential holding midfield role (and many Gooners choice as player of the season so far), where he provides formidable protection for our defence, I can’t help fear that we might be exposed without him playing in this screening role. We coped during Song’s recent suspension, but the weaknesses in Wenger’s squad are patently evident. We’ve been blessed by the phenomenal way in which Alex adapted to his new position, but there doesn’t appear to be a single other player who’s particularly suited to this strenuous task.

My qualms about Almunia relate to his timid personality and the lack of presence that prevents him from dominating his area and which allows an air of insecurity to prevail amongst those around him. However Manuel once again demonstrated his shot-stopping prowess on Saturday, in denying Diamante from the penalty spot. Having failed to capitalise on the spot-kick and their man advantage for the rest of the match, perhaps more pertinent for the Irons would be the ultimate irony of Vermaelen’s resulting suspension affording a point or three to their relegation rivals, when we play Wolves.

To my mind, this is why the rigidity of the current disciplinary regulations are so ridiculous. When anyone gets goalside of a defender, it’s entirely instinctive of them to adopt a ‘by any means necessary’ approach to denying the opposition an attempt on goal. In such circumstances, I always wonder whether the ref might’ve been influenced, if our crowd was a little more intimidating. But it’s downright daft that such an innocuous foul should result in us, the paying punter, being deprived of seeing our star players perform and that it is so often the opposition’s adversaries who end up being the only ones to profit.

While all the pundits produce their ‘end game’ predictions (surely the Glenn Hoddle seal of approval has got to be the kiss of death?), I’m trying to remain philosophical, savouring a thoroughly unexpected ride without getting entirely sucked in. I'm terrified that no sooner will I succumb to harbouring serious expectations, than the huge Monty Python foot of reality will come squelching down upon this illusion. In a climate of red & yellow card inconsistency, it will be a crying shame if ref Atkinson’s spur of the moment severity proves to be just such a harbinger of the Gunner’s doom.

Although there’s a growing sense that our success is fated. In which case Vermaelen’s enforced absence will merely be another example of the infinite elasticity of the Gunners’ “bouncebackability”. At least Tommie the Tank should be fresh for a positively mouth-watering quarterfinal encounter with Barca. My only disappointment with the draw was that my ultimate fantasy climaxed with sweet revenge against the Catalans in the Bernabeu. The only difference being the possibility of fate and fortune playing a much bigger role in a single 90-minute final, than is likely to be the case over two legs.

Nevertheless how can anyone not relish the prospect of a meeting of the two most entertaining footballing teams on the planet? In comparing both sides on paper the Spaniards will be expected to prevail, putting us in a ‘no lose’ situation as considerable underdogs. But I’m confident we’ll be sufficiently pumped up to do ourselves proper justice and if we’re going to be the best, we’ve got to beat the best. Worst case scenario, we take a gracious Champions League bow. But in the event we master Messi & co. there’ll be no holding the Gunners, as we swagger all the way to a May final, where revenge against the old foe would prove equally scrumptious.

--
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com

Monday, 15 March 2010

Time To Prove Were Genuine Contenders, Not Glass-Jawed Bums

Hi folks


Yet again the Gunners salvage a massive, last minute three-points, from the jaws of a draw which could've resulted in us coming to a grinding halt, losing all the momentum we've gained over the past couple of weeks and which would've afforded the competition the couple of point cushion which might've brought the curtains down on our own challenge. All credit to the lads for this, as I certainly can't knock the resolve which has resulted in so many game changing goals in the dying throes of games which would've previously slipped through our grasp.


What's more, as I've said below, in a week where we've put five past the Portuguese champions, it seems a bit rich for me to be having a pop. To have won both games without our talismanic skipper is brilliant and should only add to the burgeoning mood of confidence within the Arsenal camp. Hull might be perceived as relegation fodder but I think I'm correct in my belief that they've not succumbed to many sides on home turf in recent months and ever since they began their Premiership adventure with a win at our place, this upset has lent some added spice to all our subsequent encounters, as the Tigers try to recapture the spirit and the mood of what must've been a heady first couple of months in the top flight.


However we still managed to make hard work of yet another match where victory should've been considerably more comfortable and the outcome should've been settled long before Bendtner pounced on the rebound from Denilson's speculative, long-range effort. There've been plenty of times in the past when I've bemoaned Bendtner's apparent flat-footedness and his failure to come out of the starting blocks, quick enough to seize upon various goalmouth opportunities, but I have to commend him for being on his toes in this particular instance, enabling him to react quicker than the Tigers' defence and to be both first to Myhill's perilous parry and to have the composure to sidefoot it home.


I think I dug out Denilson in last week's missive and doubtless I'd have been doing likewise this week, if it wasn't for him playing such a significant part in winning the match, as I spent much of the 90 cursing under my breath about the Brazilian's predilection for hitting the deck at every given opportunity. Sure Denilson won his fair share of free-kicks as a result of the robust nature of the challenge, but many was the occasion when only my loyalty as an Arsenal supporter prevented me from screaming at him to "stay on your feet for f**k's sake" and stand up to the opposition, instead of constantly trying to con the referee.


There were instances where quite frankly I found Denilson's over familiarity with the turf just a little embarrassing and I'm sure if I was a Tigers fan I would've found it no less irritating than the duplicity of some of the Porto players, who found a willing dupe for their chicanery, in one of the most fussy referees I've witnessed (even by Champions League standards).


The Porto match wasn't quite the pushover suggested by the 5-0 scoreline. There's no doubt that the early goal settled the nerves somewhat, but with the away goal rule, the second was somewhat less significant and it wasn't until Samir Nasri's breathtakingly beautiful third, some time after the hour mark that we were truly able to relax, as the visitors from Opporto visibly wilted. Nevertheless there was the odd hairy moment, immediately after half-time. Yet in truth, with the exception of a couple of players this is not a particularly impressive Porto side and if we hadn't turned them over in the return fixture, I always felt that if we'd ended up paying the ultimate price for our "schoolboy errors" in the first-leg, the magnitude of our defeat would only truly become apparent, when Porto were comprehensively mullahed in the quarterfinals.


Perhaps the one disappointment for me of the last two victories is that I was hoping that Theo Walcott's performance at Stoke would be the springboard for a scintillating end to Theo's season. This didn't quite materialize against Porto or Hull (or he didn't have much of an opportunity, with only 14 and 24 minute run-outs as a sub in both games), but I'm still hopeful of Theo bringing his pace to bear in significant fashion for the Gunners end of season party.


Meanwhile having survived two league matches in the absence of Alex Song, hopefully I won't have the opportunity to lay into Denilson after Saturday's derby with the Hammers, as Alex is restored to the heart of our midfield, where the triumvirate of Fabregas, Diaby and Song would be my preferred option, with Nasri, Arshavin and Walcott battling it out for the two wide roles in Wenger's 4-5-1. Although I'd quite like to see a return to 4-4-2 in some of our home games, with Shava given an opportunity to play in tandem with Bendtner (as sadly Eduardo's somewhat anonymous substitute cameos suggest he's still some way from finding his pre-injury form).


In Cesc's absence, Samir has also shown brief glimpses of what he's capable of in a more central role and the French midfielder could yet fill Robert Pires' boots, by offering a similarly significant contribution. And everything must be rosy as far as the Arsenal midfield is concerned, when I find myself arguing for the inclusion of Manny Eboué, due to his remarkably impressive form of late.


Even in defence things are looking up. Nevertheless I will be mightily relieved to see the return of a fit William Gallas, as I get the distinct sense that Sol Campbell's confidence is an extremely thin veneer, which might be shattered at any given moment. One could even offer an argument for the inclusion of Silvestre in Sol's stead. I've never been the greatest fan of Fergie's cast-off but despite Silvestre's limited pace and ability, he is at least aware of his own limitations. Whereas I fear Sol is capable of coming unstuck simply due to an inability to accept that he might not be quite the same player he was a few years back. Then again, how much worse can a partnership of Sol & Vermaelen fare against the likes of Drogba and Rooney than Gallas & Vermaelen did earlier this season? Although perhaps the answer lies in the fact that I'm fairly certain that I wouldn't fancy seeing this theory put to the test!


But mercifully Gael Clichy seems to be coming back into some long-awaited form. Up until recently Clichy's defensive woes seem to have inhibited him from offering us any threat going forward and this has been much missed considering his late, lung-busting runs down the flank were previously the lad's greatest asset. But there appears to be a light at the end of this particular tunnel, as he even conjured up a shot on Saturday. I'm unsure whether it's my premature Alzheimers, or his piss poor previous performances which prevent me from recalling Gael's last effort on goal?


Doubtless I'm not in the majority, hoping for the likes of Man Utd or Chelsea in Friday's quarterfinal draw. However, aside from the fact that it would save me a good few hundred quid on travelling to the away leg, I would feel a lot more optimistic coming up against either of them now, than I would if we waited until we get to the Bernabeu in May. Besides which, on the basis that we are going to have to beat them at some stage, if we want to get our hands on the trophy, I would much prefer to have the opportunity to prove ourselves over the course of two legs, than to have it all come down 90 minutes, with fate and fortune playing a more significant role. Not to mention that the consequences of such a monumental clash are bound to have a positive / negative impact on our respective domestic campaigns.


Obviously should the draw throw up a Spring outing to Seville or Athens, I certainly wouldn't grumble, but personally I'd like to dispose of the domestic competition, on route to seeking revenge against Barca in the final


Bring it all on!

Big Love

Bernard

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Many has been the occasion in seasons past where Man Utd have managed to put the dampener on a weekend of favourable results, with the infuriating frequency of their last gasp match winners. It wasn’t merely a three-pronged attack that made the Mancunian side’s satanic moniker seem so apt, but the likelihood that Ol’ Red Nose (sorry that should be Sir Ol’ Red Nose) had mortgaged his soul to the Devil.

However, with the Gunners resolute reprise of our role as the irritating fly in the title challenge ointment, stubbornly refusing to be swatted away, we appear to have assumed this mantle of ‘the Late Late Show’ specialists, with events at the KC Stadium on Saturday culminating in yet another, crucial injury-time strike. Perhaps opposition fans will now be casting similar aspersions about Arsène. But then surely you’re on a sticky wicket questioning Wenger’s virtue, a man who wouldn’t even be caught wearing horn-rimmed spectacles?

The longer we keep pace with the top two’s results and continue breathing down their necks, the more the real becomes the spectre of the Arsenal’s threat, for all concerned. Nevertheless, in spite of Nicky Bendtner pouring another seven days worth of benzene on the flame of our Premiership title fantasy, once the incendiary euphoria of the 90th minute mayhem on Humberside burned itself out, in the cold light of the Cottagers capitulation at Old Trafford, it’s hard to argue with the bookies odds.

Doubtless I’m hoping that the longer I continue to disbelieve, the greater the chances of the Gunners making a mockery of my scepticism. Yet no matter how much I might want to imbibe in Arsène’s assertions about our “unbelievable belief” (to quote Gooner Merse in all his articulate glory), the pessimist in me knows that Paddy Power didn’t get fat on picking the wrong favourites.

The realist in me cannot escape the feeling of foreboding that while Man Utd and Chelsea continue to perform in fits and starts, ultimately both teams know what it takes to stretch for the line and win by a short head. By contrast, although the Arsenal persist in conjuring up cameo moments of sublime magic, all too often I struggle to convince myself that they really want it. This is not a malaise that’s exclusive to the Gunners, it the curse of modern day football, as one could have the same qualms about many of the star-turns involved in the vast majority of Premiership matches.

On some level the obscene salaries and the celebrity lifestyles of our superstars nowadays must bear some responsibility. In boxing it was said that a fighter only truly retained a taste for the sport, so long as they remained hungry and that they lost a certain edge, the moment they were lifted up, out of the poverty from whence so many came, to the lifestyle to which they’d always aspired. Surely footballers are similarly susceptible to a loss of appetite?

Mercifully there will always be the rare exception, for whom their competitive nature and a love of the beautiful game runs so deep that they remain unaffected by all the trappings of a multi-millionaire lifestyle. But for the rest of our top-flight stars, with all the flash cars, the bling and the fawning WAGlettes that they could possibly wish for, while still at such an impressionable age, this must surely impact on their motivation. If going out and giving their all on a football pitch for 90 minutes has not merely become a job of work, then at the very least their craving for success must be somewhat blunted, by the fact that it has nothing more to offer them than professional satisfaction.

In a world where a footballer’s status is measured in inverse proportion to the MPG of their latest gas-guzzling supercar, how on earth does a manager convince his young charges that all the millions in their offshore bank accounts won’t offer anything like the same feelings of fulfilment, as the opportunity of reaching their eventual retirement and being able to reflect upon the blood, sweat and tears that were required to earn the odd relatively worthless bauble on their sideboard. Besides which, being a team game, they’ll always be able to sit back in their Florida sun lounger in their dotage and proclaim to the grandkids that “I could’ve been a contender” if it wasn’t for the glass jaws of the rest of those bums!

Meanwhile it seems decidedly churlish of me to be having a dig, in a week when we’ve enjoyed the unadulterated pleasure of Samir Nasri’s slalom run in the Porto penalty area (perhaps a tad over-effusively praised on the radio as “shades of Maradonna”). After his profligacy in front of goal only four days prior, what odds would you have got on a Bendtner hat-trick in our 5-0 romp into the Champions League quarterfinals?

Nevertheless, as stand-in for Gallas, Sol Campbell seems to have become the standard bearer for the Arsenal’s abiding fragility. Sol gives me the impression of an over-inflated balloon, pumped up to the point where he’s one catastrophic pin prick away from our campaign (and his career) exploding into smithereens.

While players pledge their allegiance to the cause (as their agents tout them across the Continent), if all that is required in the modern game is for the Gunners to prove themselves that little bit more committed than the competition, then I say bring on Man Utd or Chelsea in Friday’s Champions League draw. Only by exorcising our inferiority demons can the Arsenal acquire the assuredness of genuine contenders and enable me to truly begin to live the dream.

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Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Time To Put Away Childish Things

As much I struggle to maintain a tight rein on my aspirations as we turn into this season’s home straight, with my eternal pessimism reminding me of the realities that were patently apparent in the hidings we’ve suffered at the hands of Chelsea and Man Utd, it’s hard not to be swept along on the tide of optimism that’s floated so many Gooner boats these past couple of weeks. Having been repeatedly written off, the Arsenal have consistently managed to shove a foot back in the door, each time the competition have left it slightly ajar. As a result, there eventually comes a time, when you can’t help but wonder if perhaps fate is working as “Les Cannonières” cornerman this season?

With Chelsea dependent on Drogba and Man Utd. relying on Rooney, (in the continued absence of Van Persie) it’s bonkers to think that we’re banking on Bendtner for the main thrust of our goal scoring assault. Yet despite the bevy of sitters shunned by our Danish striker against Burnley, such is this burgeoning mood of predetermination about our domestic challenge that much of the Saturday's half-time chatter focused on the possibility of Spurs drawing or winning against Fulham and their continued involvement in the FA Cup causing a postponement of our derby clash, to the point where we could end up with a much cherished opportunity of winning the league at White Hart Lane (again)!

Myself, I only wish I was as certain as some of my Spurs mates, who’ve become so inure to swallowing the bitter pill of the Arsenal’s success, that they seem convinced the cards are fated to fall our way. Personally I still find the whole proposition just a little fanciful, as aside from a couple of seriously impressive outings, the Gunners have looked a long way from being genuine contenders.

Then again, I suppose anything is possible, in a season where the other principal parties have insisted on passing up each of their opportunities to grab the bull by the horns. But as tempting as it is, to get caught up in this swell of enthusiasm, with all the pundits pointing to our comparatively easy run-in on paper, I prefer to hold my whist for the time being, until the Gunners convince me that we’ve not merely arrived in this situation by default, but that we’ve truly got the taste in our mouths for a serious assault on the title.

Until I’m confident the Gunners have gained the impetus to lift me up onto the board, I daren’t risk that harum-scarum ride. At least not before I really start to believe we’re capable of surfing all the way through that turbulent emotional tube until May, without fear of certain drowning, when the wave of expectation comes crashing down upon our heads.

Living around the corner to the ground, I was able to take advantage of a last minute freebie for the Ireland v Brazil friendly. At half-time we headed downstairs, hoping for a warm up amidst the atmosphere in the lower tier (sadly all samba drums and no bodhráns), taking the opportunity to check out various displays on the walls of the lower tier concourse at the South end of the stadium. We’re usually separated from these by the section of away fans - one would work up quite a sweat walking virtually the circumference of the stadium, or hiking up to the top deck, across, down and back again in the 15 minute break!

Looking at some of the images on the walls of teams from yesteryear, celebrating their success, my pal commented on the number of “real men” in each of these Arsenal squads of old, alluding to the potential lack of character in our current crop of Playstation prodigies. They must be equally riled by the ‘men v boys’ definition of every Arsenal defeat and I’m sure we’ve seen signs, of late, of a concerted effort to cast off this ‘easily bullied’ reputation.

We’ve witnessed encouraging evidence of the likes of Theo Walcott, Samir Nasri and Abou Diaby beginning to pull their weight and even Manny Eboué knuckling down and finally providing a return on the manager’s faith (which many believed misplaced!). While apparently others, like our captain continue to play at the risk of aggravating a niggle. But with us holding our breath every time Burnley threatened our slender, single goal advantage on Saturday, it’s the infuriating sight of the likes of Denilson ambling to catch up with an opposition counter, that contradicts Arsène’s “spirit and belief” mantra.

Momentum is key at this stage and Saturday’s result should’ve been far more convincing. But if we can continue to build, without any slip-ups and begin to develop the swagger of a team determined to take what should be theirs by right, there will soon come a time when I can no longer ignore the evidence and for better or for worse, I’m forced to immerse myself in the white water of a traumatic title chase.

Meanwhile that’s on the assumption that the engines of the good ship Arsenal have been stoked by midweek success and that with the elimination of the Portuguese champions, we’ve managed to maintain a course for Madrid in May. Should we fail to overturn a one-goal deficit, such a breach amidships of a premature exit against Porto could sink our season completely, as we’re likely to be left with no wind in our sails, listing towards yet another unfulfilled campaign.


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Monday, 1 March 2010

All Aboard For A Bernabeu Big Finish

Apologies for not posting this last week. If you'd rather skip straight to this week's missive, you'll find it here

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No sooner are we sure that our Premiership dance is done, than fate goes and dangles yet another soupcon of hope in Gooner faces. The pundits allude to the Arsenal’s substantially less taxing run-in (on paper!) than the top two sides, as reason to suspect that we might still have a say in the title race. Such talk is all the more frustrating because, if I seriously believed us capable of stringing together the sort of consistent run necessary to avoid dropping another point between now and 9th May, with Man Utd and Chelsea still some way short of firing on all four cylinders and with both teams bound to hit another fence or two, we might well be in for a nail-biting finish.

However, despite getting the job done against Sunderland on Saturday, the fact that we couldn’t breathe easy until after an injury time penalty, was yet further evidence of our failure to kill off weaker opposition. While the Black Cats might’ve blown their chances of taking advantage of our inability to put them to the sword, you can be sure that not all of our eleven remaining opponents are likely to be nearly so accommodating.

Eboué’s performances might be as unpredictable as the weather, blowing equally hot and cold. But Samir Nasri’s crowd-pleasing trickery gives cause for encouragement that the French midfielder might yet fill the boots of Robert Pires and young Aaron Ramsey continues to impress. Meanwhile, with Theo Walcott finally getting some game time, in his commentary on the highlights, John Motson voiced the aspirations of every Arsenal fan, in contemplating whether our very own Speedy Gonzalez might be on the verge of playing himself into some form?

No matter what transpires on the domestic front, up until Wednesday’s trip to Portugal, I’d always retained a feint glimmer of hope of seeing Arsene stick two fingers up, at all his ‘style over substance’ detractors, when it all comes good for the Gunners in the Champions League.

I’m not about to bawl out our keeper, as everyone’s entitled to a bad day at the office and I’m sure Fabianski feels bad enough already, believing his two boo-boos to be entirely responsible for our first-leg defeat. Our goalkeeping woes are well documented and while Almunia, Fabianski and Mannone might well be decent enough shot-stoppers, all three shrinking-violets are out of the same mould, lacking the imposing, dominant presence of a genuine world class goalie.

Arsène’s selective eyesight remains a constant source of amusement, but I appreciate that he feels obligated to remain 100% faithful to his charges, backing them to the hilt, no matter the resulting ridicule and doing his utmost to deflect attention away from their individual and collective failings. Nevertheless, I couldn’t believe he was still harping on about the “incompetent, or criminal” official in his Friday press conference. To my mind the issue was not so much the taking of a quick free-kick (I don’t recall AW raising so much as an eyebrow, when we’ve profited in similar circumstances!), but the fact that the Gunners were so completely switched off, for Porto to be able to put one over on us quite so easily.

Perhaps le Prof would do better to be focusing on our own incompetence. Although far more infuriating to me, was the utterly unacceptable nonchalance, evident in the Gunners body language during the closing stages. While it’s true that we should have more than enough ability in the tank, to turn things around in the return leg, you really don’t want to be relying on this. And yet with more than ten minutes left on the clock, I sensed a damage limitation, air of resignation, as if we’d settled for having to overhaul a one goal deficit in a couple of weeks time.

Quite frankly I can’t imagine the likes of Rooney, or Lampard resigning themselves to a defeat in this fashion, in what could prove to be a season defining encounter. On the evidence of our irresolute efforts in Opporto, with a couple of exceptions, ultimately I was left wondering whether this Arsenal side possesses that ‘never say die’ backbone, with a sufficient plenitude of mettle to turn a team of nearly men into genuine winners?

In the heat of his post-match disillusionment immediately after the final whistle last Wednesday, our captain strayed from his manager’s “spirit and belief” mantra, in his ‘mixed zone’ interviews. I for one appreciated Cesc’s candor, as he commented on the schoolboy errors and the fact that too many of his team mates’ heads dropped after conceding the second goal. However Fabregas’ increasing frustration with an apparent lack of fight in this Arsenal dog is hardly a persuasive argument for his continued postponement of a return to his Catalan routes come the summer!

If we fail to dispose of Porto, it could be argued that this was our just deserts, after a first-leg performance in which the majority patently failed to fulfill Arsène’s assurances concerning their preparedness to sweat blood for the cause. And the magnitude of our defeat will only become apparent, when a decidedly uninspiring Porto are demolished in the quarterfinals.

Hopefully this was merely another example of us playing down to the level of our opposition and we’ll redeem ourselves in the return leg. Otherwise progress in the competition will be pointless if it’s only to result in more moral sapping embarrassment. I’m badly in need of a faith restoring Arsenal display, to remind me that on our day, we’re capable of giving anyone a run for their money. If only to maintain that flickering flame of hope in the more optimistic recesses of my mind, of a Bernabeu big finish in May.


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Pretty Pretenders, To Battle-Hardened Contenders?

Hi folks,

Having been struck down by a particularly obstinate bout of the lurgy, I didn't get around to posting last week's piece and as a result, it's become somewhat obsolete, with everything that's transpired since. Nevertheless, I will post the older missive after this one, just in case it's of interest to anyone. After having questioned our mettle following the defeat in Porto and quite how much we really want it, it was great to see the Gunners show what they are made of at the Britannia on Saturday.

After all, based on our experience of the previous fiasco at St. Andrews, I don't think any of us would've been particularly surprised if we'd folded on Saturday, with none of the Gunners showing any real taste for a fightback, after seeing their team mate scythed down in such a horrific fashion.

I've grown very cynical in my dotage and despite the heartwarming scenes after our victory at Stoke and the thought that Aaron's injury might serve some purpose, as the catalyst that could engender the sort of "fortress Arsenal" type spirit which might yet make for a memorable season, I can't help but wonder quite how genuine this sense of unity is and whether it can endure in the sort of concerted fashion that will ensure we can go from now, until the end of the season without dropping another point.

Don't get me wrong, as it was obvious at the Britannia that everyone wanted to do it for Aaron, but without a somewhat fortunate, last gasp penalty, it might've been a different story. Moreover there's an all-pervasive mercenary credo amongst footballs' modern superstars that I sometimes wonder if we will ever again see that genuine "never say die" attitude, which has served far less talented Arsenal sides so well in the past.

Nevertheless, in truth, it's no longer a matter of us showing this sort of rapacious hunger, to prove quite how much we "want it" nowadays, but merely necessary for us to demonstrate that we want it just a little more than the competition, which is an eminently more feasible proposition considering all three teams' current circumstances.

Bendtner produced a great header for the equaliser, but I remain to be convinced that he has the capacity to produce a consistent run of title-winning firepower. Besides I'm not sure it's part of Nicky's over-inflated makeup to be committed to anything but his own self-glorification. Although no-one will be more delighted when the young Dane proves me wrong.

With some Gooners having already labelled Shawcross the Butcher of the Britannia, I might have to don my tin hat for suggesting there was no harm intended by Stoke's young centre-back. I've mentioned below the history that others have referred to. However who amongst us wouldn't have applauded the sight of Martin Keown inflicting what Big Fat Ron liked to call "a reducer", on an opposition player with Greedybayor's reputation as an archetypal wind-up merchant?

I understand Arsène's "anti-football" argument and although the grind of battling against beligerent sides such as Stoke, Blackburn and Wolves will inevitably take it's toll and perhaps eventually scare off our skipper, because at some stage Cesc is bound to opt for the more sedate environment of La Liga, we have to guard against throwing our toys out of the pram and turning ourselves into victims.

In spite of the physical nature of British football, the likes of Torres, Tevez and all the world's best players continue to want to test themselves, in the most fast-paced and competitive league on the planet. Obviously money is a big factor. But there are few fans better placed than ourselves to know that there are specific attributes necessary in a player for them to be able to flourish in the game in this country, as we've witnessed more than our fair share of footballers who might've been capable of prospering on the Continent, but who just couldn't cope with the demands of our domestic brand of the beautiful game.

I want to see Arsenal players protected from injurious tackles as much as the next Gooner, but I would be absolutely gutted if the recent trend towards a "nanny culture" began to impinge on our football, to the point where it begins to detract from unique the nature of the game in this country. As a defender in my dim & distant youth, I already find it a crying shame that the tackle from behind has been outlawed entirely. I fully agree that defenders cannot be going through strikers to get to the ball, but to see a centre-back struggling to stay with a pacy attacker, but still having the presence of mind to hook his leg around and deprive the striker of the ball with great dexterity and perfect timing, this for me has always been an art form which should never have been outlawed.

The thought that I might sound like Jimmy Hill is frightening, but to my mind one of the biggest problems with officials in the modern game is that they are career referees and too many of them have never actually played football. Otherwise, there would be room for referees to use their discretion, in the application of the rules. Naturally they'd still get it wrong with consistent regularity, but they would at least have the capacity to apply the laws, using "intent" as a principal guideline.

Then the poor paying punter might not have to endure a dozen bookings in a game that doesn't include what I would term, a single "dirty" tackle and we wouldn't end up stumping up for expensive tickets every week, only to find so many of our favourite players sidelined by suspension.

In addition to the loss of Aaron Ramsey for the time being, sadly just as the youngster was beginning to prove himself to be the real deal, another potentially significant consequence of Saturday's encounter could be the suspension of Alex Song for the games against Burnley and Hull, matches where the absence of Alex's muscular presence could prove a serious disadvantage (especially when it would appear that, if fit, the far less combative Abou Diaby might be our only alternative!).

While I wouldn't like to trust to my positively sieve like memory, as far as I can recall, although Alex might have made plenty of ill-timed, or clumsy tackles over the course of this season, I don't remember him committing any fouls that I would deem genuinely worthy of a booking. Nevertheless he's still managed to accumulate a sufficient amount of yellow cards, for it to be neccesary for him to serve out a two-match suspension. What's more, as we approach the business end of the season, I'm sure we'll have to suffer several other Arsenal players sitting out games as a result of this toting up system. Not to mention the galling prospect of seeing our competition benefit, as a result of some star names being similarly absent from the opposing teams, in games they are involved in.

I could understand the reasoning, if Song had been guilty of regularly kicking opposition players up in the air, but on the basis that so many of the bookings nowadays are accumulated for relatively petty misdemeanours, kicking the ball away, pulling one's shirt over one's head in celebration of a goal, or industrial backchat to the officials, how can the authorities possibly justify depriving us poor fans from watching the players we all pay to see?

Enuf of my whinging
Come on you Reds...let's win it for the Welsh lad
Big Love
Bernard
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It felt like déjà vu at the Britannia on Saturday, as the Gunners stared down the barrel of another ‘there but for the grace of…’, bone crunching, potentially career-wrecking challenge. Understandably, , the grotesque sight of poor Aaron Ramsey’s distorted limb, left the shell-shocked Arsenal players so utterly aghast, that just as it did at St. Andrews almost two years to the day, it seemed as if our season was about to implode before our very eyes.

Perhaps we were merely overdue a slice of compensatory good fortune, by way of an inept official’s charitable 90th minute penalty. Or, with the majority having already endured the anguish of Eduardo's atrocious injury, maybe we refused to entertain the idea of an encore of the Birmingham debacle. Instead of meekly lying down like lambs and inviting Stoke to add insult to Aaron’s harrowing injury, we stood up to be counted.

I’m reminded that Shawcross clattered Adebayor from behind last term, after they and the ball had crossed the touchline. Yet despite any such previous, as far as I’m concerned, in this instance the young centre-back’s only crime was that of being fractionally late, in a 50/50 challenge. In fact it was a display of the sort of over-enthusiastic commitment to win the ball that I’d usually applaud from one of our own. Judging by the youngster’s distraught reaction to the damage he’d inflicted, I find it hard to believe that there was any malice intended. I’m not even certain he deserved a red card?

Nevertheless, I fully appreciate the frustration that's given vent to Wenger’s mounting persecution complex, even if there's nothing more sinister afoot than the law of averages. The more our opponents adopt a physical approach, both in an effort to combat our superior ball-skills and to attempt to get under the skin of a side that’s perceived not to enjoy a robust encounter, obviously the higher the risk of us being on the wrong end of industrial challenges.

You certainly can’t legislate against the sort of committed football, which lends that crucial element of unpredictability, to even the most inequitable of Premiership encounters. Not without the slightest expression of heart and passion being viewed as a heinous crime, worthy of mandatory punishment and the danger of our fervent domestic contest developing into the same sort of sterile annual procession witnessed on the Continent.

This might be easy for me to say, as I'm not in fear of a snapped Achilles, torn cruciate, or broken bone, every time I pull on a pair of football boots. We might well enjoy a short period of immunity, in the immediate aftermath of Ramsey's misfortune, because on some level, the incident could have a subconscious impact on certain referees. But in the long run the Arsenal are due the exact same inconsistent levels of protection afforded to every other Premiership side.

The ferocity of modern day football rarely comes across on TV. It’s only up close, in the ‘cheap’ seats that you truly begin to appreciate the intense, breathtaking thwack of a full-blooded challenge. But from where I sit, the best means of combating an overly physical approach is by giving as good as we get, thereby dissuading opposing sides from focusing on a perceived ‘don’t like it up ‘em’ chink in the Gunners armour. Only then will the odds be evened out, to the point where our players are no more at risk than anyone else.

Meanwhile, after celebrating Bendtner’s equaliser with the Gunners’ gleeful prodigy one moment and then witnessing poor Aaron writhing in agony the next, as the prime target of the oppositions’ bruising attentions, I can’t help but ponder our captain's continued motivation, when Fabregas could be receiving perhaps twice the remuneration without anything like the same threat to life and limb, while plying his trade on Spain's far less frenetic plains. Perhaps a climactic conclusion to our campaign will distract the jewel in Wenger’s crown, from the strain of constantly treading a fine line between the burden of carrying this Arsenal side and these terrifying aide-memoires of the perils of a career-threatening injury!

Sadly I fear we still lack both the potency up front and the security between the sticks, to maintain the sort of consistency necessary for a really big finish. I also refuse to get carried away with all this ‘easiest run-in’ claptrap. In what’s fast proving to be the most volatile Premiership battle, there are no surefire bankers. Besides, it could be argued that the Gunners are more likely to produce their ‘A’ game against some of the bigger fish, than in less glamorous encounters, especially against sides scrapping to avoid relegation.

Hopefully Saturday’s show of unity was not just for the cameras and in contrast to St. Andrews, having turned tragedy into 3 points, perhaps this triumph will prove to be a watershed, where Arsène’s young squad unearth the maturity and the mettle to finally make the transition from pretty pretenders, into battle-hardened contenders?

Meantime, with Hilario, by name and nature, tending the Blues’ onion bag and Man Utd struggling to find their customary groove, so long as fate continues to insist on chucking us such charitable lifelines, it would be awfully rude of us Gooners to look this stable full of gift horses in the mouth!


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