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Monday 28 February 2011

L'Attente Continuer

We bumped into Frank McLintock outside our turnstile at Wembley on Sunday and I was hoping that this might be a good omen. I jokingly suggested to our double winning skipper that “I wouldn’t mind having you in the middle of the park this afternoon”. Little did I realize quite how prophetic this would prove to be. Instead of a steely leader of McLintock’s calibre, facing down the Blues’ physical challenge, we had the far too lightweight likes of Thomas Rosicky fart-arsing around at the Gunners’ fulcrum.

I don’t really want to point the finger at our Czech midfielder. After all, it’s not his fault he’s not Cesc Fabregas. But without Fabregas’ finesse and with Tommie’s frustrating tendency to hit the deck at the slightest touch, he certainly wouldn’t be my first choice to play at the heart of this immature Arsenal side, when we are crying out for the sort of effusive stand firm leader who’s capable of galvanizing the young Gunners.

At the end of the day it was absolutely gut-wrenching to be the architects of our own downfall, only moments away from an additional thirty minutes of football, which might well have allowed the Arsenal to impose our superior technical abilities as Birmingham began to flag. Yet if I’m entirely honest, from the moment we arrived at Wembley on Sunday, I couldn’t escape the sense that the Bluenoses wanted it just that little bit more than we did.

While we Gooners are whinging about several silverware starved seasons, our cup positively overfloweth compared to most Brum fans, who hadn’t seen their side win a trophy in their entire lifetimes. As a result, everything about Sunday afternoon seemed to reflect a "Big Four" club that was perhaps just slightly more blasé about playing for the least illustrious of four potential tin pots this season, against a more modest Midlands outfit, who were hell bent on making the most of their best and perhaps solitary opportunity to bring home the shiny bacon.

Having done my utmost to obliterate the nightmare of our semi-final outing a couple of seasons back, I headed for football’s most famous stage wondering if I could remember the old routine of backdoubles to a favorable parking pitch that used to be such a familiar traffic free trip to our former home from home. At least this lack of familiarity ensured that I set out in time to soak up some Cup Final atmosphere before kick-off.

I’m told there was little change from 400 quid for the “cheaper” club level seats (face value!). But despite football’s best efforts to price itself beyond the reach of the ordinary fan, there was something quite nostalgic about the irreverent sight of pissed up fans peeing in every available nook as we trod the hallowed path towards the bronze statue of Bobby Moore.

I’d felt quite optimistic when I’d opened the curtains that morning, to reveal the bright blue sky of a crisp autumn morning. I thought that having the sun on their backs might suit the Arsenal’s pass masters, but as the day deteriorated into a grey wet drizzle, it occurred to me that the Midlanders might feel more at home in such muddy weather.

In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if I was cursed for giving the cold shoulder to the gypsy who accosted me with some shiny trinket at the petrol station. But then this would be a lot easier to swallow than the obvious lack of mystery to the Gunner’s misfortune.

From the Gooners living in close proximity who rolled up an hour before KO, to the Blues fans who’d spent all day getting tanked up in honour of their “up for Cup” occasion. From the raggedy-arse Gunners who bowled up in their regular tracksuits, to the besuited Blues, in outfits that were doubtless made for their big day out. From the sight of a forlorn Fabregas and Walcott, nursing their frailties on the bench, to the likes of Roger Johnson and Liam Ridgewell who hadn’t trained all week but who turned out in spite of their niggles.

Not that it makes me feel any better, but I suppose there’s a certain justice that with nothing else to play for (as surely McCleish’s “kick it to the big fella” football won’t succeed more than once?) Birmingham’s journeymen prevailed over the Gunners’ precocious talents, who potentially still have several paths to glory.

Bob Wilson swears that bitter taste of defeat to Swindon in ’69 was the making his double-winning team. If the sense of disappointment of Wenger’s side is indeed as deeply felt as that of their fans, then we can but hope that the weekend’s events will be the motivation, starting Wednesday night and over the coming weeks, to prove that they are made of similar mettle?

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Monday 21 February 2011

Back Down To Earth With A Bump

As ol’ Red Nose himself once put it so succinctly, “football eh, bloody hell!”

I was expecting the entire gamut of emotions over the coming weeks, but we Gooners have encountered the full spectrum in the space of only four days. After the ecstasy of the coming of age of our stadium, Koscielny and Wilshere in last Wednesday’s breathtaking display, I must’ve still been high on the euphoria when I decided to dig my motorbike out for Sunday’s brief, but decidedly brisk hop from London N5 to E10.

Although it’s symbolic that Leyton is located just on the other side of Hackney Marshes; since in footballing terms the ramshackle mish-mash of a dilapidated secondhand stand, functional modern flats, office space and seating that is Barry Hearn’s Brisbane Road fiefdom, is positively world’s away from the glamorous environs of the Emirates. Our obstructed view from the antique East Stand (relocated from Mitcham Dog Track in the late 50s) was doubtless the inspiration behind the afternoon’s most amusing ditty – “We’re all standing in a future block of flats”

With many of the sixteen hundred Gooners meeting up on Sunday to collect precious Wembley and Barcelona tickets from one another, which had previously turned up in the post, it was perhaps inevitable that we’d embrace East London’s carnival atmosphere. Although with matchday programmes costing an extortionate five quid, it felt as if these were priced to ensure that their Matchroom impresario spared every expense in bringing on the balloons and pre-pubescent dancing girls for the pre-match celebrations of the O’s most prestigious occasion in many a moon.

But then you can hardly blame Barry Hearn for milking the FA Cup for all it’s worth. It’s a drop in the ocean compared to the best part of 150 quid for a couple of tickets for the Carling Cup final and 76 Euros for a pitch up in the gods at Camp Nou, as the depth of the pockets of the put-upon travelling faithful are tested to the full in the near future. Then again, far better to be stumping up the cost of supporting a successful club, than a fistful of spondulicks to compliment a cotchel of Gooner regrets!

It wasn’t the most auspicious start to Sunday’s proceedings, as my arrival at the ground was greeted with news of the quarterfinal draw. It was hardly inspiring to hear we were playing for the right to face Man Utd away. But if the home side needed any added motivation, they had the huge carrot of a trip to Old Trafford and the shot in the arm of such a massive financial inducement.

Few of us expected an easy ride against The O’s, after witnessing Crawley Town’s heroics. Not to mention the Toffees putting one over on Ancelotti’s overpaid mercenaries and having my faith restored in karma, by Cashley Hole’s penalty miss. However where events at Old Trafford left you wondering which was the Premiership outfit, compared to the intensity of our contest with the Catalan giants, Sunday’s game was a complete and utter role reversal, with the Arsenal producing a record number of passes, as Leyton lulled us all into a false sense of security.

Much like Messi & co, we were guilty of taking our foot off the pedal after scoring first. Instead of demonstrating the sort of killer instinct, which might’ve put the tie to bed, we were content to sit back and pass the ball amongst ourselves, expecting the opposition to tire from chasing the game and to present us with a gift-wrapped second goal, when we should’ve really forced the issue.

I can fully appreciate Arsène’s decision to give a much-deserved breather to many of the team that beat Barcelona. Albeit that Alex Song’s inclusion on Sunday was baffling, considering he’d be first on my teamsheet for what promises to be an agricultural encounter with Stoke on Wednesday night. But where I was delighted with the inclusion of Ignasi Miquel, our hungry young Catalan centre-back, who played like he had a point to prove, I’m not sure why he bothered with Bendtner. You can make excuses for the Dane, with him being played out of position on the flank, but for my money he’s far too wrapped up in his own ego, to ever produce the sort of commitment and desire necessary in cup football.

Myself I was already pondering the fate of our reserves against Fergie’s fledglings (considering both sides might still have bigger fish to fry come the quarterfinal) when the O’s unknown Frenchman brought me back down to earth with a bump. In truth, having seen quite how much it means to the lowly East Londoners, I’d almost be happy for the Orient, if it wasn’t for the fact that they’ve forced us into yet another unnecessary replay.

Still after the week of wonderful football we’ve enjoyed, it would be positively churlish of me to moan about more of the same!

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Thursday 17 February 2011

Arsène Wenger involved in hail Mary tactical masterstroke shock!

It was a brave move by le Boss, withdrawing Alex Song with 20 minutes to play. With Alex walking a yellow card tightrope since the opening minutes of this match, I suppose it was a considered gamble because as fatigue began to take it's toll as the clock ticked down, there was always the risk of the game getting stretched and Song being forced to stick an inadvertent leg out, thereby missing the second leg by getting himself sent off.

However as Shava took up his position out on the flank and Samir joined Jack in the middle, despite Wilshere's ceaseless graft, with everyone beginning to blow bubbles with all the effort that had been expended, I must admit that I was bricking it somewhat at the prospect of having to hold six World Cup winners, plus Lionel Messi at bay in the middle of the park in Alex's absence

I felt we needed to score early in the second half, if we were going to get anything out of this game, in order to energize both players and fans alike. But like most everyone present tonight, I would've long since settled for the 1-1 draw which would have left me travelling to Camp Nou in a couple of weeks time, still clinging to the feeling that we had plenty to play for.

Strangely enough, my ticket for the second leg turned up in the post this morning. I'd pondered whether this was mere coincidence, or by design, with the club thinking that they had better get these tickets sent out, lest a 0-4 thrashing resulted in a rash of demands for refunds. On opening the envelope to discover my gateway to a seat up in the gods of the Camp Nou enclosed, I couldn't decide if this was a good, or bad omen.

I wondered if I'd be coming home this evening thrilled at the sight of my right of entry to the return match sitting in its place of honour on top of my bedside table, or would I be returning with my tail between my legs after another Barca spanking, wanting to bury this all too visible reminder of the money I'd wasted on a trip that I'd be looking forward to, like a hole in the head.

Mercifully I've no need to worry about finding the enthusiasm for an outing to the Catalan capital, following a truly magical evening at the Emirates, of the sort that we've been waiting for ever since we moved in to the new gaff, so as to finally start the ball rolling with the sort of ecstatic encounters that will begin the roll call of genuinely historic results, to lend the place the sort of memories that echoed around T (former) HOF.

For a moment there this evening, as I made my way to my seat and caught my first sight of all the flag waving, amidst the electric big game hullabaloo of atmosphere that only occurs on such special occasions, I experienced a nightmare déjà vu of that miserable evening against Man Utd the season before last, when our cacophonous crowd was silenced in the six minute semi, as all that atmosphere was sucked out of the stadium by gut-wrenching goals from Ji Sung Park & Ronaldo.

As a result tonights game kicked off with this particular atheist praying to the footballing gods for this evening's fun to last just a little bit longer! And it almost felt like a self-fulfilling prophesy when Messi went clear early on and we all held our breath as his unusually wayward chip over Wojciech slid past the far post.

But it wasn't only our stadium which came of age in this evening's encounter, in a game where it felt as if both Wilshere and Koscielny enjoyed a rite of passage. While Laurent might occasionally appear somewhat clumsy and is prone to conceding the odd needless penalty, I'll gladly accept the occasional mishap from our French centre-back because as this season has progressed I've grown increasingly impressed with the conviction with which Laurent appears to do everything and I'm much happier seeing him learn from his mistakes while bowling over the opposition with his "balls out" challenges, when compared to the feint-hearted way in which some of his peers tend to waft a leg towards a tackle.

As for Jack, what can I say, other than to suggest that if ever we needed confirmation, the performance we witnessed tonight proved that he was born to do the business on such big occasions. Of all the players out there in red & white this evening, including Cesc, Wilshere's ability to find space and time on the ball where none existed left me thinking that based on this performance, he'd be the one player who'd look least out of place amongst the Catalan's "greatest team on the planet".

Although admittedly with Busquets and co. constantly smothering our skipper in his more advanced position, it was perhaps the attention paid to Fabregas which afforded Wilshere with the opportunity to shine in his slightly deeper role.

As has been said before, with the benefit of having just struggled to stay awake to savour a replay of the game, it wasn't so much what Barcelona did with the ball in the first-half that impressed me (although this was indeed impressive enough), it was their running off the ball and the zeal they showed, hunting in packs to recover possession that stood out, along with the intuitive understanding that enabled them to incessantly find space between the line of our midfield and defence and the precision timing of the runs behind our backline (as evidenced by the fact that the replays prove their goal wasn't in fact offside!).

They produced an amazing stat on the radio at half-time (but you'll have to forgive my sieve like memory for the fact that I can't recall the exact details), stating that Jack Wilshere had complete the most number of passes for the Arsenal, with something like 22, whereas the average for the Barca players was around 37, with the highest being Iniesta (I think?) with somewhere in the region of 50!

Whether it was inevitable that they couldn't maintain this pace for the entire ninety, or perhaps the possibility that Barca have grown so accustomed to the opposition losing heart, once the deadlock has been broken and they can afford to slip into the sort of keep ball session that has the other side chasing shadows (talk about the biter being bit - now we know what it feels like when the shoe is on the other foot!), but we began to take advantage of the Spanish side's definite drop in tempo after the break.

It was interesting to hear Robin admit to not knowing how he'd beaten Valdes at his near post, but for my money the success of the shot was in the instinctive way he brought it down and smacked it, without the hesitation that might've given the goalie time to set himself. Whereas it seemed to me as if he was so desperate to score with his previous couple of efforts, that in thinking about producing the perfect strike, Robin dallied too long, taking the unnecessary touch that enabled the defender to pressurize him.

From start to finish, the winner was a thing of beauty and seemed to demonstrate one of the changes we made second half, in mixing it up a little more, by either attempting the occasional long ball, or getting it from back to front far quicker and depriving their midfield of an opportunity to crowd us out.

Lest we forget, amidst so much euphoria, it may only be half-time in this particular encounter, but so long as we do ourselves justice in Barcelona, I'm honestly not that bothered what transpires in the second leg - although obviously come the day I'll be as desperate as every other Gooner to beat the buggers!

But there will be no shame in exiting the competition against the tournament's very best (by some margin). With an away goal in the bank, in their post match interviews the Barca players didn't look particularly bothered by their defeat. Although with Sagna back in the side in Barcelona and Piquet now suspended we've can be forgiven for feeling just a tad optimistic!

Meanwhile I'm hoping that the confidence that will be engendered amongst the Gunners by tonight's victory will be carried over into our forthcoming encounters, with us beginning to acquire the sort of swagger that comes so easily these days to the all-conquering Spanish champs. Not forgetting the fact that in the process we've managed to steal Spurs thunder, in rolling over another Eytie team of OAP has beens :-)

All in all not a bad night's work
Come on you Reds
Big Love

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Monday 14 February 2011

For all those Wenger whingers….

....who are constantly complaining about AW's reluctance to compete with the big spenders - mind you, it's not like we've been moaning about the club's failure to spunk up £50 million on a single out of form striker, but how about five bob for a thoroughly out of character agricultural "stureker"? The evidence of Chelsea's performance at the Cottage suggests that even in some parallel world, where the Arsenal suits had stumped up £75 million (the revenue from approx. 25 home games!), the gamble of breaking the Gunners piggy bank would've been no guarantee of buying the sort of hunger, drive and intensity of commitment necessary to produce genuine championship contenders.

Those goals that we savoured from the Gunners on Saturday were obvious evidence of the sort of intuitive relationship that develops between a bunch of players who've spent endless hours on the training pitch, understanding the movement of their colleagues without barely needing to take their eye off the ball.

By contrast, despite Chelsea's dominance against Fulham, their somewhat ponderous play and their failure to pick the runs of their £50 million investment for the hour that Torres was involved, this demonstrated the difference between developing a team over time and throwing together a bunch of egocentric individuals.

Sure enough David Luis undoubtedly appears talented enough to provide a comely return on Abramovich's investment some time soon and I certainly wouldn't have been too distraught to have found the shaggy haired Brazilian in the Arsenal's Xmas stocking. But while Chelsea were dropping two points, Ancelloti was still discovering where to make the best use of their brand new centre-back.

Moreover, in the middle of the park, the wiry looking Ramirez appears as if he's beginning to fulfill his energetic promise. But when you contrast the vivacity of the Gunners attacking efforts in recent weeks with the Blues pedestrian play, there's no question which of the two teams look more potent going forward, despite a depth of strikeforce talent that leaves the likes of a world class Dodier Drigba cooling his heels on the bench.

Perhaps we need bear this in mind in future, before having a pop at le Prof's recalcitrant tendencies when it comes to guarding the alleged gazillions in the club's coffers (as if it was his own hard-earned dosh)? In case we needed reminding, it can buy you diamond rings, but money can't buy you love.

Most amusing from my point of view was the thought of all my many Spurs mates roaring on the Cottagers this evening, to ensure that Chelsea didn't leapfrog the Lilywhites into that precious fourth place (for the moment!), when these past few seasons I've had to put up with our fickle North London neighbours singing the Blues praises, in the hope that the Kings Road mercenaries would keep the Arsenal under their wedged up thumb. Mercifully our two most abhorrent rivals have returned to being best of enemies, while with all veracity, we Gooners are restored to our rightful place, as the "one team in London" :-)

Come on you Reds
Big Love

Who The F*** Are Barcelona?

With the two legs against Pep Guardiola’s Barca, a side that’s widely perceived as the paradigm of the beautiful game, sandwiched between domestic gaucherie, but no less season defining games against the likes of Wolves, Leyton Orient, Stoke & Sunderland (not to mention the trifling matter of a trip to Wembley, for an opportunity, no matter how meretricious, to win our first trophy in five years), I guess we’re set to witness the entire wonderful panoply of the footballing spectrum over the coming weeks. I for one am salivating at the prospect.

Despite the significance of our glamorous encounter with the Catalan giants - as the litmus test that will either provide le Gaffer with incontrovertible grounds to continue blowing the Gooner trumpet, or which, heaven forfend, might only accentuate his obstinate obsession with blowing smoke up our backsides – the surrounding fixtures might not hold the same fascinating allure, but are likely to be no less demanding dust-ups.

There’ll be much dancing in the streets should we manage to stifle Messi and co. over the course of our two games. But it don’t really mean a thing unless we can also eliminate the lapses in concentration and the sort of naivety that can be undone by the pandemonium of Delap’s penetrating Yorkers, or Zigic’s growth hormone excesses. It’s the “horses for courses” astuteness of managers from these shores that makes for such competitive fare and a far less predictable brand of football than the two-team tyranny of La Liga.

However, if the Arsenal are to aspire above and beyond Birmingham and the Cup of many beverages this season, then we must show our mettle as a winning machine; a side that can prevail under any circumstances. Up until now, it’s been our inability to really convince as team capable of relentlessly notching up the victories that has most Gooners merely feeling grateful to have arrived on Spring’s doorstep with everything still to play for.

Yet with each passing week, so long as the Gunners maintain the Premiership pace, ahead of the chasing pack of Champions League contenders and close enough to the leaders to be able to pounce on further fallibility from Fergie’s troops, even the more skeptical amongst us are struggling to keep our expectations in check, trying to stave off tantalizing thoughts of a nip and tuck challenge for the title, until we’re certain of our Championship credentials and we’ve rounded the bend into the finishing straight. After all, it wouldn’t be the first false dawn we’ve suffered these past few seasons.

With Van Persie hitting a long overdue purple patch, Fabregas playing like a man possessed by a ravenous appetite for success (even if he’s inspired by a desire to discharge his obligations to Arsène, by securing the silverware that would enable his exit from the Gunners in all good grace?), Nasri on the mend and kicking in with the sort of sublime gifts that we’ve not enjoyed since the best of Bobby Pires and Jack Wilshere intent on fulfilling the promise of a positively mouth-watering homegrown garnish, the Gunners have no cause to fear Barca, or, for that matter, any of the multi-million pound collections of mercenaries on the planet.

From 1 to 11 (or to 53, as is the hare-brained habit in shirt-number bingo nowadays) we’re a match for anyone on our day. It’s beyond that where our limitations might be exposed, with no obvious stand-in for the likes of Song, in the pivotal protection of two centre-backs who’re short on the sort of experience that equips a defender with genuine authority, or a Robin to Van Persie’s Batman, with an equally prolific strike-rater as the injury prone Dutchman. At our trophy-winning best, Wenger was able to seamlessly slip in replacement squad members with no obvious impediment to the team. Whereas until the likes of Denilson, Diaby, Chamakh & Bendtner prove they can cut the Wenger-ball mustard, I can’t help but feel that our challenge rests on the all too precious few.

It could be argued that we’ve a better chance of surprising the Spanish champs at this stage in the competition, before Barca get a scent of the trophy at the business end of the tournament. Personally, I’m eager to see us prove how far we’ve progressed, from the abject humiliation of last season’s defeat and with my trip to the Catalan capital long since booked, I will gladly settle for the Gunners travelling to Spain in three weeks time still with something to play for.

What’s more, there’s no telling the sort of confidence boost we might benefit from, so long as we leave the field with our heads held high on Wednesday night, with the swagger of a team that’s taken on the world’s best. Every connoisseur of the beautiful game will be looking forward to the promise of a footballing extravaganza. Although I have to admit that the experience will be a whole lot less stressful, if Spurs have succumbed to AC Milan in the San Siro because my only real fear from Barca, is the ignominy I stand to endure should we end up exiting the Champions League prior to our covetous North London neighbours.

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Monday 7 February 2011

Regrets...Will We Have A Few?

(but then again, hopefully too few to mention!)

Not that we needed any reminding (following our traumatic implosion on Tyneside) but football’s a fickle old mistress. It feels as if it was only yesterday that we were reveling in the return of an almost fully fit squad - which perhaps bore some relevance to le Prof’s reluctance to put his hand in the Arsenal’s deep pockets during the transfer window and his rush to send the likes of Ramsey, Eastmond, Emmanuel-Thomas & Bartley back out on loan.

But then in the blink of an eye our we're back down to the bare bones, deprived of Nasri, Song, Denilson, Vermaelen, Djourou & Fabianski by injury and Diaby by suspension. With our midfield decimated and Koscielny & Squillaci our last two centre-backs still standing, suddenly it’s looking decidedly remiss of Arsène to have resisted the inclination to strengthen our squad, thereby girding the Gunners’ loins for just such an eventuality.

While many footie fans were glued to the hyperbole gushing from Sky Sports News during the dramatic last hour leading up to the transfer deadline last Monday, Arshavin tweeted “I don’t watch transfer TV. I play for Arsenal, there’s no point”! Arsène must have been feeling quite smug at half-time at St. James' Park after we’d steam-rollered an utterly spineless Newcastle side, who’d spent most of the first 45 arguing amongst themselves.

I’m glad that for once I’d managed to arrive early, or else I’d have missed most of the fun. But my sympathy is reserved for those poor Geordies who lost complete faith during the Toon’s first-half capitulation and who appeared to be heading for the exits long before the break. In light of the fact that the Gunners are all too often guilty of failing to make the most of their advantage by putting the opposition to the sword, going into half-time four goals to the good, I couldn't help but make the fatal mistake of counting unhatched chickens, believing it'd be a rare treat for us to be able to relax, sit back and enjoy a glut of goals, a comfortable 3 points and even perhaps the confidence boost of a clean sheet.

Yet after the red mist descended and ref Dowd had sent Diaby loping off the pitch, within minutes the Toon had pulled two back and a couple of thousand Gooners up in the gods behind the goal, were all turning to one another with aghast expressions on our faces, as the unlikely possibility dawned on us, of this encounter descending into another “squeaky bum” débâcle.

From our far-sighted perspective, both penalties felt like a sympathy vote from Dowd (or perhaps a “serve you right” response to Cesc casting heat-of-the-moment aspersions on his profession’s probity?) and I’m not convinced he’d have given either decision if the contest had still been goalless. But even then, there remained an air of incredulity at the prospect of us throwing it away completely.

If ever fans and players alike have needed the reassurance of a big galoot coming off the bench, to offer some “stand firm” resolve, it was at St James’. Instead of which we failed to make do with a far too lightweight Tomas Rosicky, who’s in danger of being felled by a stiff breeze and the madcap Manny Eboué (with Marouanne Chamakh’s seemingly becalmed on the bench by fears that litigation can’t keep a salacious scandal out of the media forever and a narcissistic Nicky Bendtner, who might perhaps be more effective, if only he showed a modicum of love for the Gunners’ cause that he apparently has for himself!).

By the time Tioté iced the Toon cake with his stunning strike, there was a certain inevitability about the way in which we waved the white flag, in the face of the momentum of the home side’s astonishing comeback, which left us trudging down from the heavens at St James’ Park with our tails firmly between our legs.

Still with the impressive Ivorian returning from suspension and with the possibility that the Toon might be intent on proving that there’s life on Tyneside in the absence of Andy Carrol, if I’d been offered a point earlier in the day, along with the prospect of Man Utd’s aura of invincibility ending up in tatters in a defeat to Mick McCarthy’s mob, I’d have bitten your hand off.

I boarded a flight back from the North-East, praying the 5% left on my iPhone battery was sufficient for providing 5 more minutes of radio commentary of the injury time being played at Molyneux. Instead of an agonizing flight home, the mood was lifted dramatically as we heard the final result just before take-off.

Messi’s hat-trick wasn’t exactly music to my ears later that night. But injuries & suspensions aside, so long as there’s no long-term psychological impact from Saturday’s collapse, along with the pleasing confirmation of Cup Final tickets on Monday morning, even a pessimist like myself would struggle to deny that the Premiership table looks more promising.
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