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Monday 28 March 2011

Hardly The Return Of The Lean Mean Hungry Gooner Machine

Hi folks,

I guess my failure to post out last week's missive is indicative of the sort of apathy I feel towards breaks for International footie. But I'm sending it out now, if only to satisfy my pedantic need to maintain a weekly record, so please feel free to ignore.

This week's rant to follow!

Big Love

Usually an International break at a season defining stage of the campaign is about as desirable as a hole in the head. But after having endured the masochistic battering of the perennial disintegration of the Gunners vain quest to end our barren run these past few weeks, I’ve rarely been more relieved by a brief period of respite from the relentless run of recent disappointments.

Obviously I couldn’t resist watching the cultured clash between Wilshere and Ramsay, in the middle of the park at the Millennium on Saturday, but it proved the painful opposite of “car crash” TV, as I sat there praying for the safety of the pair of them. Personally I’d prefer if Jack was playing alongside Aaron, or after seeing Scotland’s capitulation against the Samba Kings at our place on Sunday, better still if he was eligible to join the Jocks. At least then, we’d have no worries about Wilshere suffering under the immense weight of expectation of his entire nation.

However with the tabloids seemingly so intent on labelling the Gunners’ prodigy as England’s latest “great white hope”, I can’t help but have some concerns about whether Wilshere’s performance on the pitch will remain unaffected. I suppose nowadays, even St. Peter himself would struggle to avoid bad press pratfalls! But no matter elusive he is in midfield, the flimsy “red top” evidence to date suggests it might be something of a miracle if Jack develops the sort of rock solid temperament necessary for him to be nimble and quick enough to dodge the increasingly harsh glare of the media’s all-pervasive spotlight.

Whereas although I can recall Ramsey coming on apace before Ryan Shawcross attempted to separate Aaron from his right limb, I worry that his long stint on the treatment table (and our despair over some of his more diffident stand-ins) has resulted in him growing in stature in our memories, to a point where we now expect him to be the finished article, instead of the emerging talent that he was.

What’s more, after such a horrific injury, would it be so surprising if some of Ramsey’s youthful promise were stolen by the lasting psychological impact of his shattered tib & fib? What sort of rugged mentality will it take for Ramsey to charge around the pitch in quite the same committed fashion? With the likes of Blackburn, Bolton and Stoke all on the horizon, I guess it won’t be long before all is revealed.

If “car crash” TV is your trip, then I guess you need look no further than Il Trap’s Boys in Green. Just when you thought it safe to come our from behind the sofa, with Ireland about to cruise through a qualification game, two up in twenty minutes, they switch off just before the break to concede the goal which left us all on the edge of our seats for the entire second half.

I suppose for a football fan it was an act of sacrilege, not to even bother wandering around the corner on a sunny Sunday afternoon to watch Brazil do the business. But the thought didn’t even occur to me to fork out yet another fifty quid for the privilege of attending a meaningless friendly. However with a TV replay of Sunday morning’s F1 procession in Sydney hardly captivating my interest, I turned over to find myself regretting that I hadn’t made the effort. Needless to say I’m referring to Neymar’s natural talents, rather than the feast of feminine charms occupying the Emirates terraces (at least that is if I want any dinner tonight!). Mind you if I’d been there in person I might have missed out on amusing coverage of the stark contrast between the grim-faced Jocks, cutting a wretched pose with arms-crossed, all too familiar with yet another feeble outing from the Tartan army and the garish yellow and green fiesta going on in the Brazilian sections of the ground.

It seems Sunday’s entertaining fare was just the appetizer necessary to revitalize my appetite anew for the feast of football to come. Before that I’ll be holding my breath, hoping everyone returns intact from the array of farcical midweek International friendlies. I never imagined I’d be so looking forward to the Rovers return to the Emirates (and that was before I discovered the cult figure of John Jensen has become Blackburn’s assistant manager).

I only hope that the Gunners are equally reinvigorated on their return to the fold, able to galvanize themselves to make a real fight of our nine remaining fixtures. With my Spurs pals teasing me about taping Eastenders for them when they travel to Madrid (and with me encouraging them to make the most of it, as it might never happen again), I know our season is collapsing around our shoulders, when I no longer need worry about checking the Arsenal’s fixture list before agreeing to future work.

Nevertheless, while I might not hold out that much hope of us exerting the sort of pressure which might redeem our season with the Premiership Holy Grail, we’re still some way from the fat lady’s climactic choral reprise. Until then, personally I’d settle for the reassuring sight of some genuine fight in the Gunner’s young pups.

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Monday 21 March 2011

They Are The Passengers....And They Ride & Ride & Ride

We might've been better off if Arsène had been banned from the dugout instead of Fergie? Perhaps he'd benefit from an enforced change of perspective, because with each passing game, it becomes increasingly hard to fathom why le Gaffer continues to place his faith in our gormless Brazilian galoot; when, from our point of view on the terraces, it’s become as plain as the hooter on ol’ Red Nose’s ugly mush that Denilson and some of his equally diffident colleagues, are absolutely bereft of the necessary quality, or the required drive and determination to ever bring home the Premiership bacon.

It’s all the more galling, with the recent leveling of the competitive playing field, where, despite punctuating matches with all too brief moments of brilliance, no one challenger has managed to rise above the relentless grind of relative mediocrity. I’ve rarely ever felt that the title was more there for the taking, by whichever team is capable of pulling their collective fingers out for the remaining few fixtures, rousing the appetite to elevate themselves above the the more dispassionate also-rans. What’s more, I fear that such pedestrian form won’t put us in with a sniff of the title in future, with so many other clubs looking to kick-on.

Thus with Arsène constantly reaffirming the Solvite like strength of the bond between his young charges and their dogged desire to shake-off their tag of perennial under-achievers, I keep expecting them to produce the sort of statement of intent, which might convince the none-believers amongst us that there’s a possibility we might not bottle it again.

However for all that le Prof might prattle on about the Gunners proving their resilience, by clawing back a two-goal deficit to earn a draw against the Baggies, quite frankly I’m afraid that Arsène has completely missed the point of the two we dropped at the Hawthorns on Saturday! I can appreciate that from his point of view, Wenger feels obliged to focus on his players' positive attributes in perpetuity, but surely there must eventually come a time to share a few home truths?

1-0 down at the break, after enduring 45 all too predictable minutes of relentlessly prodding the ball from one side of the pitch to the other, where we only once managed to conjure up sufficient pace and momentum to threaten Carson’s goal, there was a palpable mood of frustration in our corner of the ground, with a first-half display that was such a pale shadow of a performance from genuine title contenders.

I can’t recall the last time Fat Sam’s Bolton failed to roll over for his pal Fergie. But with Owen Coyle’s Trotters still holding their own at half-time, I would’ve liked to grab hold of the Gunners individually and physically shake some sense into them. Or at least be reassured that there was someone in the Arsenal dressing room with the sort of presence and stature to remind his team mates that somehow, in spite their half-arsed efforts to date, they remain within touching distance of greatness; thereby lighting a sufficient fire under our backsides to go out with all guns blazing. Unfortunately I fancy that lunatic Lehmann is more likely to be instigating fights in a phone booth than winning us a title.

I don’t enjoy singling out scapegoats, in what is after all a team effort. I’m sure that in defence of Denilson’s contribution, le Prof would quote prolific passing statistics and completion rates (albeit that these don’t reveal that 90 per cent are played sideways and backwards, over a distance of less than 5 yards!). But I’m afraid that after doing my best to give the bland Brazilian the benefit of my doubts thus far, my patience in a player who appears to have absolutely no redemptive qualities, has eventually run its course.

It’s not ineptitude that aggravates me, anywhere near as much as an apparent lackadaisical attitude. Rumour has it that the distraction of scandalous off-field shenanigans has put the kibosh on our Muslim brother’s season. But in a rare substitute appearance after the break, at least Marouanne Chamakh ran around as if he meant it.

I know Shava is one of the few players capable of producing the sort of quality strike that got us back into this game. But in an awkward away encounter that demanded we set about the opposition with a warrior like desire, the Arsenal simply can't afford such nonchalant passengers.

Who knows what game The Grauniad's Joe Lovejoy was watching, but in my most humble opinion Arshavin didn't deserve to be anyone's Man of the Match, when our Moroccan striker was forced to get stuck in out on his flank. Moreover, I might have misread the circumstances, but until it dawned on the diddy-man that Bendtner was replacing Ramsey, I could've sworn he was once again guilty of taking a few steps towards the touchline, thereby only adding to my suspicions that Shava is hardly the most committed Gooner.

There's no doubt that with his indisputable talent, Shava would be one of our brightest luminaries, if the Gunners season was on song, but sadly the diminutive Ruski just doesn't have enough of the "right stuff" to spur on our spluttering troops. In the absence of our skipper, personally I'd great hopes in Samir Nasri stepping up to the plate. Perhaps Samir is simply running on empty, but after spending so much of the first-half of the campaign proving the absurdity of his absence from the French squad during the summer, sadly Samir has seriously gone off the boil compared to those scintillating early season displays that had many pundits touting him as a potential candidate for player of the season.

Another calamitous goalkeeping/centre-back gaffe is more grist to the mill of all those who point to our manager’s failure to address our defensive frailties. But to my mind, the complete lack of zest and vigour in so much of our insipid football of late, only highlights quite how dependent we are on the “make do and mend” presence of Alex Song in a holding midfield role, protecting our flaky rearguard.

Ancelotti’s mob appear to have a far more formidable propensity for ramping up the heat in the run-in than we do. But I’ve rarely ever been more grateful for an International break. Aside from the hope of some of our players recovering (both pride and fitness) in the interim, it gives me time to kid myself anew that instead of being infected by the air of insouciance around them, the likes of Wilshere and Ramsey can inspire the sort of fortitude that might enable us to make a real fight of it?

Above all else, keep the faith
Come on you Reds
Big Love

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Monday 14 March 2011

The Arsenal - Business Or Pleasure?

Hi folks,

I could've prattled on with a rant at least twice as long as this week's missive for the Irish Examiner (which was already a couple of hundred words more than what was required) and as a result, you are the "lucky" recipients of my cathartic efforts to get all my remaining gripes off my chest

It's growing increasingly difficult to argue against all those "throw the bath water out with the baby" Gooners who are beginning to lose patience with Le Prof. Nevertheless, if ever I need convincing of how fortunate we are to have Wenger, I always hark back to the fact that any number of massive clubs would be delighted to relieve us of his services and the certainty that they'll be dancing in the streets at the wrong end of Seven Sisters Road, the day Arsène does eventually hand over the reins.

However I can't help but wonder if the stability we've enjoyed during le Gaffer's tenure has reached a point where everyone at the club, from the suits to the playing staff, feels far too secure in their positions, to the extent that we appear to lack the edge of some of those sides whose employees exist with the permanent knowledge that they are only ever a few disappointing results away from being handed their cards.

There are obvious advantages to this situation, as most of the coaches of other major clubs will claim that they can't afford to risk their positions, by demonstrating the patience in some of their younger prodigies, of the sort that has given Jack Wilshere the opportunity to develop into such a promising star prospect. However we might well be enduring the downside to the Arsenal's rock solid immutability, as we jog along each season, with no wealthy benefactor throwing their toys out of their pram at our perennial failure to fulfill our expectations.

If I thought the performance against Barca was a complete betrayal of Arsène's footballing principles, it's nothing compared to the breach of faith that I'm beginning to sense, in the way in which I was sold a pup, when being convinced of the sound principles of moving to a new stadium. Personally I never ever wanted to move from my home from home, THOF in Avenell Road. However I understood the logic that the move was essential, in order to produce the sort of matchday revenues necessary for the club to compete with the rest of Europe's major players.

I was given to believe that an additional £3 million revenue per home game would afford the Gunners the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with any other club, in bidding for the games biggest stars. And yet having finally achieved this financial promised land, all we ever hear the Arsenal's CEO, Ivan Gazides prattling on about is "a sustainable business model", as if the Gunners' worldwide support, the people who fund the entire shebang from their hard-earned income, should merely be content with the prospect of our long-term existence, under the auspices of a manager who's able to work the oracle of Champions League qualification every season, on a fraction of the spending of many of those other clubs who aspire and regularly fail to squeeze their snouts into the trough of European football.

When you see the Arsenal spending £3 million on the close-season Club Level refurbishment of a couple of restaurants that are intended to produce a healthy return on the balance sheet, courtesy of all those high-rollers who (incredibly!) can regularly afford to stump up £200 for some matchday grub, instead of being invested back into the playing staff, you have to begin to question whether as football club, the Arsenal have lost sight of their principal raison d'etre, due to a shift that has seen us become primarily a profitable going-concern as a business first and foremost, with football as a mere subsidiary activity?

During the interminable delay before we were allowed to leave the Nou Camp last Tuesday night, I couldn't help but look around the cavernous expanses of empty terracing and be struck by the fact that aside from it's mammoth size, there's nothing very impressive about this huge concrete bowl when empty. In complete contrast to the impressive environs of the Emirates, with the absence of a Club Level, executive boxes, luxurious fine dining, or seemingly any apparent sign of the Catalan giants pandering to the obscene excesses of the corporate pound, one couldn't help but get the sense from their 95,000 fairly homogenous, cramped and uncomfortable seats, of an institution firmly focused on a single solitary objective, that of producing the best possible talent on the playing field.

Should Pep Guardiola fail to satisfy Barca's baying hordes, he has to answer for their disappointment. It seems to me no coincidence that the Arsenal's sojourn in the silverware starved doldrums dates back some six years, to the bad-blood which resulted in David Dein's departure. For all his perceived faults, perhaps Dein was the only suit at the club with a sufficiently close relationship with Arsène and with the burning expectations of a committed Gooner, to be able to call into question some of le Gaffer's more obdurate tendencies. Whereas in Dein's absence, we've been left with a bevvy of businessmen, who all appear to believe the sun shines out of le Boss's backside, with Wenger's miraculous achievements of maintaining the sadly all too gossamer like veneer of the Gunner's competiveness, simultaneously with a healthy profit and loss account.

Moreover, if there's no one at the Arsenal capable of expressing the obvious bare nakedness of our Emperor's not so new clothes, similarly with no one to question the fallacious verisimilitude of Arsène's seemingly unshakeable faith in players, who have time and again failed to prove they can cut the world class mustard, our retinue of constant under-achievers (need I really speak their names, as we all know who they are?) will endure in the warm glow of le Gaffer's unswerving adoration, picking up their vulgar wage packets, while resting on their laurels ad infinitum, when every Arsenal fan knows that for various regular squad members, the time for a "shape up, or ship out" reckoning is long overdue.

I didn't really expect to win at Old Trafford on Saturday (at least not until I saw Fergie's piss-takingly poor team selection) but what I wanted most was to see a reaction to our midweek humiliation, from a team of players determined to display the sort of passion and commitment which would at least serve to comfort us with the reassurance that they shared our pain (the sort of Gooner pride that had 9000 of us embarrassing the huge but hushed home support for the last ten minutes of the match, as we resorted to lauding bygone Gooner gladiators, with an endless, hearty rendition of "we won the league at Manchester" - with nuff respect to all those present, as this was of far greater comfort than much of the uninspired football on the pitch).

From the little I can recall (as I've been trying to erase the memory ever since), only the likes of Jack Wilshere and Laurent Koscielny showed anything like the sort of determination that was necessary to win the day. And it pains me greatly because this sort of wholeheartedness needs to be nurtured, by surrounding such fervent stars with the sort of stalwart personalities capable of encouraging the youngsters to ever greater feats. Instead of which, I seriously fear that it won't be long before their enthusiasm is stifled, by playing alongside the diffident and lackadaisical likes of Diaby and Denilson.

It's not the fact that the Gunners are so far from greatness that frustrates me, but the fact that we continue to remain only a couple of big personalities away from being able to fulfill all that potential. But the contribution of winners of the calibre of Carlos Puyol, or dare I say the John Terry of old and their ability to inspire those around them with their win at all costs willingness to risk all when required, unlike pass completions, or yardage covered, this is not something that can be measured on a statistical spreadsheet. As I result, at such downhearted moments as this, I wonder if a pragmatist like Arsène can ever truly appreciate this glaringly obvious missing ingredient in the current Wengerboys mix?

Myself I would've much preferred to have seen Aaron Ramsey in the starting line-up on Saturday, as even if Ramsey had an utter stinker, I would've rather we'd taken a gamble on his all action efforts and lost, than to endure yer another 90 minutes of sideways and backwards football from the shrinking violet that is Denilson, or the heartbreaking sight of Diaby languidly loping back towards his own goal, seemingly expressing utter indifference at the possibility of influencing play, once the ball had passed him by. Considering Arsène was perhaps the only one present amongst the 9000 plus Gooner contingent, who didn't know full well to expect yet another disappointing contribution from this midfield duo (and the likes of Rosicky), I can't help but feel that a more instinctive manager might have gone with the hunch of having nothing more to lose by giving young Aaron a go instead?

Meanwhile I don't want this to turn into a tirade that might see me align myself with the ever burgeoning band of Gooners who believe Arsène's time has been and gone. Just like big personality players, great managers don't exactly grow on trees and sadly many of us will never fully appreciate quite how privileged we've been to have savoured such fabulous football during the Wenger era, until such time as we've endured a succession of duff managers. In my most humble opinion Arsène is no less of a legend than he was when the trophies were rolling in wholesale, it's just that he and his players are crying out for someone capable of telling them what time it is!

Come on you Reds
Keep the faith
Big Love

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Patently Obvious (To All But Le Prof) That Some Of Our Weak-Willed Passengers Will Never Be Winners

Despite last week’s doom-laden prophecy, I was left reeling on the ropes, feeling no less punch-drunk following Saturday’s dismal FA Cup defeat. Taken in isolation, there’s absolutely no shame in being beaten by the world’s best footballing side. Nor is a defeat at the Theatre of Dreams anything to get too depressed about (or we’d have ended up slitting our wrists after any of our five previous trips to Old Trafford).

But to have the ignominy of our Carling Cup Final fiasco, compounded by the misery of our exit from two more competitions, in the space of only a few short days, well if this is more than most Gooners can bear, then heaven only knows what chance there is of the Arsenal re-discovering sufficient confidence to produce a concerted challenge for the Premiership title!

I tend to believe that Van Persie was aware the offside flag had gone up before he took his pot-shot at the Nou Camp (and if he wasn’t, he should be castigated for missing the target!) but our Dutch striker’s dismissal was none the less farcical. Right up in the gods, the sound of the ref’s whistle was utterly inaudible, amidst the cacophony of 95,000 fans. The only indication of the officials’ intervention was when the game was interrupted. So there was no way the Swiss ref could’ve been certain that Van Persie was guilty of a whole second’s worth of time wasting.

Besides which, the punishment certainly didn’t befit the crime. In a contest of such significance, what gives this jumped up official the right to rule on such a petty misdemeanor and potentially ruin the spectacle for all the watching millions around the world? Who knows whether or not he felt that the Arsenal had challenged his authority, by their tardy turn out for both halves, but I have to admit that from my (blinkered?) viewpoint, it certainly felt as if we were being victimized.

Nevertheless I can’t concur with all those (including our esteemed manager) who appear to be kidding themselves that this was the turning point. From my bird’s-eye point of view, Van Persie’s premature ejection was a complete red herring. Perhaps Robin would’ve been more clinical with the rare opportunity that arrived at his replacement’s feet late on and we’d have been left cavorting around the Nou Camp, thumbing our noses at the Catalans, after the ultimate smash & grab raid.

Instead of which, we were left penned in, for what felt like hours, rueing our defeat, until such time as tempers were bound to boil over and Gooners began venting their frustration by burning the nets situated in front of us, as some brave souls attempted to breakout. All the while, as if to rub salt in our wounds, the big screen intermittently flashed up the game’s statistics, confirming the hugely embarrassing no-contest of an encounter, in which we’d failed to conjure up a single shot on goal (on target or otherwise!).

I could cope with going out of Europe in a blaze of glory, but to me the inescapable agony of that big fat zero screamed a complete betrayal of Wenger’s principles. As far as I’m concerned and with Mourinho’s Inter being just about the only exception that proves the rule, if you allow Barca so much time on the ball, according to the law of averages, it’s inevitable that you’ll eventually end up sliced & diced by the purveyors of such fine quality football.

In the absence of Puyol and Piquet and as a result, deprived of their smothering blanket in the middle of the park with Busquets forced to play at centre-back, I was absolutely devastated that the Gunners allowed the psychological impact of their slender first-leg lead to completely dominate our tactics, by coming to the Nou Camp and like so many before them, failing to “park the bus”.

Never mind Wenger wanting an apology from UEFA, I feel we deserve some explanation from Arsène, as he’s always assured us that his Arsenal side are far better than this. Mercifully my mates dragged me to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia the following day (at 12Euros a pop to enter the cathedral, you’d have thought they’d have the funds to have finished it by now?), then to the Picasso Museum. With the slim solace of some culture and five cartons of fags, at least my outing wasn’t a total waste.

I had to be up at 5am for work on Saturday and wasn’t even sure I’d make it to Manchester. If it wasn’t for a couple of mates who travelled all the way over from Egypt, I might well have not bothered. I had to wait for them at Picadilly station, after they’d missed the train. And then when one of them dropped his ticket while we were queuing for a programme outside the ground, it seemed as if fate was trying to tell us something. Fortunately (?) for him, it was found by an extremely rare breed, an honest Mancunian and miraculously we managed to retrieve it from a steward.

Once inside Old Trafford, my defeatist attitude began to dissipate, when it was revealed Fergie was fielding 7 defenders. But it seems old Red Nose got it right and I didn’t, as he his somewhat bizarre team selection had more than enough to cope with the predictable lack of penetration, of an Arsenal side that took until the start of the second half to fully appreciate our humiliating predicament. Sadly as a contest, it was all over (bar the excuses!) with Utd’s second goal.

Until Arsène accepts the need to surround his star turns with personalities possessing the sort of appetite for success that makes them prepared to accept more responsibility than some of the weaker-willed passengers in our current squad, I’m afraid our Groundhog nightmares might continue ad infinitum.

To complete our indignity, we were forced to travel back, sardined into a train, without even enough space to plot up on the floor. Our pooped out, mollycoddled players wont know the pleasures of a claustrophobic and incredibly cramped three hour train ride on ones feet, back from the North-East. It’s certainly the stick I’d like to beat some of them with after such a demoralizing week!

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Monday 7 March 2011

With A Soupcon Of Quality Added To Sufficient Huff & Puff...Sure We Can Blow Barca's Wall Down

Hi folks,

It's hard to recall having to write a more awkward diary entry this entire past decade, in respect of having to file the following piece to the Irish Examiner today, knowing that it will appear on the morning after an encounter which might ultimately prove to be either the zenith, or the nadir of this season's campaign.

Still it had to be done and with me working in Kent for the ballet all day, I ended up agonizing at my keyboard for most of Sunday night and well into the wee hours of Monday morning, so I could forward it before leaving for work.

Sure enough, it was only a couple of hours after I arrived in Kent that I saw a text message, which confirmed that my missive was already out of date. Thus as delighted as I was with the news that both Van Persie & Fabregas are likely to make the starting line-up against Barca, I had slightly mixed feelings, because I'd been bemoaning the potential significance of our most potent striker's absence.

To be honest, I'm no less apprehensive, as I fear that it might be Alex Song who we end up missing most in our encounter at Camp Nou. Nevertheless having been given the opportunity of a bit of a rewrite after returning home from work, I must admit that I was tempted to start over from scratch, giving my piece a far more optimistic slant.

Completely aside from the risk of me oversleeping and missing my flight in the morning, after tapping away all night to produce a complete rewrite, above all I daren't make wholesale changes due to my superstitious fear of tempting fate. As my thoughts below read at the moment, they barely sound more positive than all those media pundits who have already written the Gunners off and so hopefully, come Wednesday morning I'll be left sucking on a few toes, while they struggle to remove both feet from their oversized gobs.

In truth, by traveling more in hope than expectation, I'm hoping that even in the event of the worst case scenario I won't be left feeling too suicidal and should we end up pulling off a momentous victory, my experience will be far more euphoric than any of the travelling faithful who turn up with loftier ambitions.

My single only demand of the Gunners is that we do ourselves justice, by performing at the level which we know we are capable of. Beyond that, it's in the lap of the gods. But I have to tell you that in contrast to all those who seem to have swallowed, hook, line & sinker the myth postulated by all those Barca sycophants about the Spanish side being infallible, I'm convinced our Catalan opposition are eminently beatable and as we've already proved, at our best, no other team is better equipped with the capacity to demolish the media built wall that's been erected around the Barca myth.

Meanwhile in the certain knowledge that there's no way I'd bother posting this rambling piece on my return, I thought I had better get it out now

Come on you Rip Roaring Reds

Big Love

Hopefully by the time you read this missive, I’ll be breakfasting on Las Ramblas, basking in the warm glow, after the Gunners have made a complete mockery of all those who believed we didn’t have a hope in hell of surviving beyond our outing to Camp Nou. Alternatively, I’ll be drowning my sorrows, dreading the threat of our season ending up in tatters, after Saturday’s trip to Old Trafford. Personally I’m never happier than when everyone else is writing off the Arsenal, as from past experience, this has often proved the inspiration for some of our finest hours.

Having endured Messi’s four-goal mauling last season, it appears that some of the traveling faithful have chosen to stop at home this time around, unwilling to face the risk of further ignominy in the Catalan capital. Such trepidation is understandable, with Song joining Walcott on the missing list. Hopefully the return of Fabregas & Van Persie will provide a massive moral boost. Yet with them both having a ready made excuse for a less than scintillating performance, it won't be such a surprise to see our skipper and our most potent striker struggling for the tip-top form necessary to tear the Spanish champs asunder. It’s not so much the fear of losing against Barca that bothers me, since there’s no shame in being beaten by the best side on the planet.

We may have relished the brief respite of The Orient’s reality-check against our reserves in midweek. But if the abject frustration of our Carling Cup catastrophe and Saturday’s failure to capitalize on a golden opportunity to turn up the heat in the title race, end up being combined with the disenchantment of a Champions League exit, it’s hard to envisage Arsène’s young squad having the bottle to instantly bounce back against Fergie’s more mature mob, by snuffing out their cup ambitions and serving notice that we’re not about to make them a present of the Premiership trophy.

However this is football at the highest level; where winners have an insatiable desire for success and limitless reserves of adrenaline, which enable them to thrive on the relentless barrage of big games as the season builds to a climax and the leaden-footed losers are left bellyaching about lactic acid build-up, fatigued by the demands of playing for 90 minutes every three or four days.

Sadly last Saturday’s scoreless draw was a long way from demonstrating the Gunners coming of age. We all turned up for the game in eager anticipation of a performance that might confirm the Arsenal’s imminent capacity to cast off the shroud of our perennial “nearly men” mantle. I won’t condone our fickle crowd venting their ire at our midfield duo so vocally because I firmly believe supporters are duty-bound to stay faithful, but I was no less vexed than anyone else present. By contrast to the anguish felt on the terraces, in Diaby’s languid demeanour and Denilson’s hapless football, these two players seem to epitomize the Gunners’ lack of appreciation (with a couple of exceptions) of the urgent need to kick down the door that had been left ajar by Man Utd’s defeat at the Bridge.

Sure if justice had prevailed (and if the officials had got the big decisions correct!), the pressure we brought to bear for the last half hour would’ve resulted in a game winning goal. But for once I have to agree with Alan Hansen’s suggestion that the key to success in a championship run is “to start quickly”. Yet instead of Sunderland harassing us to play at a high tempo, we seemed content to patiently push the ball sideways and backwards, waiting for the game to come to us, until eventually we began to run out of time and Wenger was forced to ring the changes. We seem to have completely forgotten the art of starting home games with the sort of intensity that's enabled us to steamroller lesser opposition in the past. Instead of focusing on our misfortunes, Arsène might do better to encourage some of his shot-shy troops to go out and make their own luck!

Still one of the good things about living on the Arsenal’s doorstep, is that you are never short of a Gooner or two to commiserate with, in moments of such great disappointment. When I headed to the local shops late on Saturday evening, you could positively sense the anti-climactic atmosphere, amidst the exchange of pleasantries that passed for the licking of red & white wounds, as we queued to pay for our groceries and contemplated the Gunners immediate future.

Despite subsequent Gooner glee over Utd’s capitulation at Anfield, in some respects it was that much more maddening, knowing that a win against the Black Cats would’ve left us breathing right down the leader’s necks. Nevertheless we’ve gained a point on Utd and with their Mayday trip to North London, our destiny remains in our own hands. Perhaps the return of Ramsey or Vermaelen will provide the necessary momentum. But unless our competitors are to continue falling over their own feet and we’re about to end our barren run by default, we badly need to discover some consistent form, before risking the increased heartache that's at stake, when one truly dares to believe.

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Tuesday 1 March 2011

Time To Prove Their Balls Have Dropped & That The Gunners Are Not About To Drop Any More?

I'm just glad I wrote Monday's diary missive in advance of listening to Alan Davies' latest episode of The Tuesday Club podcast (highly recommended & amusing aid for getting Sunday's anguish out of one's system), as otherwise I would've felt that it sounded as if I'd only regurgitated some of their opinions, word for word.

Alan Davies did however point out the relatively poor performance of Alex Song, which I neglected to mention, as I was expecting Alex to be one of our most influential players on Sunday and was particularly disappointed by the way in which the game just seemed to pass him by.

However, on reflection, I was only commenting at Leyton Orient the other week, that I was surprised to see Song starting in our FA Cup encounter, as in light of Alex's energetic style, if there was one player who I felt might have deserved a breather against the O's it was him. I don't have a programme to hand to check his appearances, but ever since we've commenced the recent hectic schedule, I've had the sense that Song is the one player who, when fit, seems to have played game in, game out, without Arsene considering it necessary to give Alex a rest, when he's rotated the majority of other players.

Maybe someone who's got the stats in their head will correct me, but if this isn't a misapprehension, then perhaps we should be cutting Song a little slack because it could just be that his disappointing display on Sunday was due to the fact that he's simply running on empty?

Amazing second half to the match at Stamford Bridge. I know he was somewhat to blame for Wayne Rooney's opener, but at a fraction of the cost of Torres, sadly I can't help but marvel that David Luiz looks a blinding purchase. With Utd at 0-1 up at the beginning of the second half, I was about to comment quite how solid their back four looked, even in the absence of Ferdinand. That was until seemingly someone stuck a rocket up Chelsea's backside.

Nevertheless, even in light of the subsequent pressure the Blues brought to bear, I still have the sense that even when Chelsea were at their most potent, Utd looked so much more composed than we tend to do in similar circumstances. I just pray that the Blues continue with their inconsistent (complacent?) form, as based on Chelsea's performance in tonight's game alone, I'm wondering if we should be celebrating their victory quite so enthusiastically because if they continue in a similar vein, we might have been better off with a draw?

Still, at least there was plenty of comfort in knowing how pissed off our Spurs pals will be with having been leapfrogged into 5th place. While I was teasing my Spurs mates, I made sure to remind them that this was poetic justice for all those times in the recent past, when I've given them stick for supporting Chelsea and all their Nazi neanderthals, when it suited them to see the Kings Road mercenaries mullah the Gunners.

I also reminded them that at this rate, they'll soon be leapfrogged by the Mickey Mousers as well and that they'd better win the Champs League, if they ever want a sniff of competing in the tournament in the future. Apparently, if they can't qualify in 4th, they'd be happier finishing completely out of the running, rather than having to compete in the Europa Cup! Naturally I assured them "ask and so shall ye receive" :-)

Meanwhile it's down to us now to consolidate tonight's wonderful result (with the cherry on top being the red card which ensures Vidic missed the trip to Anfield) by beating Sunderland on Saturday and I'm sure I'm not alone in my inescapable pessimism about the prospects of us blowing it against Steve Bruce's mob, as we've invariably tended to do, whenever we've been afforded an opportunity to capitalize on the competition's slip ups.

Hopefully we'll see Chelsea revert to their recent complacent form soon enough, especially if Cashley Hole is the arbiter of the Blues attitude, as with Malouda playing on his flank, it seems to give the cnut license to take his foot off the gas (mind you, no surprise if poor Cashley's become a bit shot shy!). Nevertheless based on the second half alone, my abiding sense was that both Chelsea and Man Utd's squads appear that much more formidable than our own.

Sure I appreciate that with our average age of 23, we are a work in progress and perhaps the eventual return of Tommy the Tank will afford us something of the solidity and composure at the back that still appears to be our biggest disadvantage. You never know, the Terminator might even to lend us the leadership capabilities, which we so obviously lack when our backs are up against the wall. But with the reports that we'll be travelling to Catalunya without the injured RVP, for my money, this is only more grist to the mill of what might yet prove to be the most significant disparity between the Gunners and our immediate competition.

When you see Ancelotti having the ability to turn to Doddier Drigba when the Blues were 0-1 down and Fergie throwing on the likes of Berbatov and Giggs to try and rescue a result, I can't help but make comparisons with the relatively blunt instruments at Arsene's disposal to spearhead an Arsenal recovery.

Perhaps Nicky Bendtner will yet prove himself to be anywhere near as brilliant as he is inside his own over-sized head. Yet no matter what the Dane does to make me eat my words, with the weight he must be carrying considering the size of his ego, can anyone seriously see the lumbering striker ever possessing the sort of grace of movement seen from RVP (or the likes of Berbatov and Giggs) of the sort the marks out the world's greatest marksmen? Or the pace and power of the likes of Drogba, the sort that has centre-backs looking at the opposition team sheet and conjuring up a niggle, rather than being embarrassed by the prospect of a 90 minute wrestle with the world's best?

Even if it's true that Marouanne's loss of form is merely due to the fact that his head's not right, while allegedly his lawyers do everything in their power to prevent him becoming the latest laughing stock as a result of a purported salacious scandal involving 3 Swedish birds, a Las Vegas Hotel room and nothing but a rubber raincoat covering the lad's embarrassment, as much respect as I might have for the Moroccan's work rate and his potential to provide AW with some much needed variation, it's hard to see Chamakh standing on the touchline as the Gunner's very own Superman, coming off the bench faster than a speeding bullet to save the day.

But I don't want to get too morose, as I'd better leave something to moan about should we not be able to live up to the massive weight of expectation that's bound to accrue in the media when Saturday comes. And you never know, the mighty Gunners might just be about to prove that our time has come?

Come on you rip, roaring Reds, it's in your own hands...all you gotta do now is prove yourselves worthy of making the cricket team by not dropping the ball

Big Love

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