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Sunday 27 October 2013

More Custard WIth That Trifle?

You’ve got to love this game of ours. The Gunners travelled to South London on Saturday with everyone and his dog expecting us to romp past a managerless Palace outfit, utterly bereft of spirit and confidence. Yet what actually transpired couldn’t possibly have been more different, as we encountered the stiffest of tests, against a team that was somehow magically transformed from the gutless relegation fodder that has rolled over and played dead in so many of their matches thus far. Even Chamakh, possibly the most reluctant goal-getter I’ve ever seen, was witnessed putting himself about a bit.

Superstitious doughnut that I am, I must admit that I first started fearing the omens weren’t great and that fate might relish taking a bite out of the backsides of all those who’d foretold a walkover in this potential banana-skin derby, when watching TV on Friday night. Less than scientific perhaps, but no less accurate than all those experts, the piece of bread representing the Eagles predicted a shock result, when it popped up out of the toasters before ours, amidst the flim-flammery of Dannys Baker & Kelly’s whacky footie show.

Mercifully, in spite of the Eagles admirable determination and with the aid of the massive gift of a penalty resulting from a mindless challenge in the box in the opening minute of the second-half, the toaster prediction method was proved fallible.

As was also apparent in our Champions League defeat to Dortmund in midweek, the Gunners are far more permeable in the absence of the protective midfield demolition work of Mathieu Flamini. The Flamster’s ability to remain out on the park, by avoiding injury and suspension, could prove to be one of the most pivotal aspects in deciding whether this is to prove a successful season.

Doubtless his early retirement on Saturday contributed to Sczcny’s opportunity to shine between the sticks and indeed, it will be a worrying blow if Flamini is ruled out for our crucial forthcoming fixtures. We’re likely to be significantly disadvantaged without the Frenchman at his ballistic best, to snuff out the prolific firepower of the likes of Suarez, Sturridge, Rooney and Van Persie. But then with the Gunners new ‘homme dur’ already being only one yellow card away from suspension, at least his substitution on Saturday postponed the almost inevitable booking that will invoke this ban.

Yet prior to an enticing and perhaps telling encounter with the Scousers (that could go some way to establishing either side’s genuine credentials) and a trip to Old Trafford, we’ve the trifling matter of the Mourinho circus coming to town on Tuesday night.

My instincts are that momentum is everything and that it’s best not to mess too radically with a winning formula. Besides which, fatigue isn’t usually a factor, so long as a team continues to triumph over all and sundry. Nevertheless, we struggled to muster an effort on goal against the Germans in midweek, compared to a sparkling opening 15 minute spell that knocked out Napoli. We lacked the sharpness and vigour necessary to combat an unrelenting Dortmund side.

Perhaps it’s a sign of old age, but never mind the players, I find the relentless drain on the reserves of adrenaline of twice weekly outings thoroughly exhausting. And with the weight our manager ascribes to the science of reading our players’ gas-tank dial and identifying when this is “in the red” and Arsène’s track record of treating the League Cup as a welcome opportunity to rotate regular first-teamers, thereby affording youngsters like Serge Gnabry the chance to grasp the nettle, I’ll be amazed if this philosophy changes just because it’s Chelsea that we’re playing on Tuesday.

Even if he is “not special anymore”, I can’t envisage Mourinho doing likewise, since the Chelsea manager will know that a win against a weakened Arsenal side won’t detract from the Blues delivering the first psychological blow, in his efforts to put a spoke in Wenger’s wheel.

I’m praying Arsène’s team selection demonstrates his appreciation of the importance of maintaining our winning momentum and his affinity with our yearning for a trophy of any description, in the knowledge that victory on Tuesday night will leave us only two wins away from an opportunity for our long-awaited deliverance from the silverware-starved doldrums. By contrast, there might be considerable repercussions, should we have the wind knocked out of our sails, in the event we get stuffed on home turf, by a side that are title favourites for so many.

Hopefully our encounter with Chelsea will prove to be the sort of trifle that hits their Bozo the clown boss full in the face!

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Sunday 20 October 2013

Preaching To The Converted

Apparently Dennis Bergkamp's media blitz to promote his new book includes Garry Richardson's Sportsweek on BBC Radio 5 at 9am this morning and in light of yesterday's amazing goals, you can't help but feel that there's a certain Kismet to the timing,

I'm sure I could wax lyrical with several hundred more words about yesterday's breathtaking efforts, but (some might think fortunately!) I'm limited by the Irish Examiner's requirements, which left me struggling to squeeze in as much as possible, on a day when contrary to popular opinion, after taking the lead, we took our foot off the gas, when we really should've put Norwich to the sword, without giving them the opportunity to drag themselves back into the match.

A word for the incredibly unfortunate Abou Diaby, as while I refer below to our squad's gradual return to full-strength, it transpires that poor Abou's has suffered a cruciate injury that's condemned him to continuing to be our "Invisible Man" until at least next March! Can there have been a more unlucky Arsenal player (taking into consideration Diaby's failure to fulfil his potential)?

Meanwhile, I'm still revelling in yesterday's sumptuous goals and here's hoping we've more of the same to celebrate come Tuesday night


With each passing week that the Arsenal remain unbeaten, it’s becoming ever more of a struggle for us Gooners to keep our feet on the ground. I’m constantly repeating the mantra “let’s see where we are in a month or two”, before daring to risk the potential custard pie of gloating prematurely that “the Gunners are back”, or presumptuously predicting any impending relief from eight barren seasons of this wearisome silverware-starved era.

Nevertheless, you don’t need to be a footie pundit to appreciate the impact of the Gunners blossoming confidence since the arrival of Mezut Özil. The inexorable rash of last-minute spare tickets that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing offered in recent times, has fast begun to evaporate, in inverse proportion to the number of begging requests from returning glory-hunters.

Moreover, it seems I can’t walk into any of my regular local emporiums, without getting a thumbs up from behind the counter, with every storekeeper seemingly intent on engaging me on the subject of whether this might be our season. Even my local newsagent has started questioning the Arsenal’s title pretensions. Although I suspect that he might be less interested in Aaron Ramsey’s ascension to Shiva-like, destroyer deity status, than whether the buoyant mood on Blackstock Road might inspire the quaffing of sufficient tinnies to pay for a family reunion in Amritsar this summer!

Yet after securing our pitch astride the Premiership summit for yet another week, by beating Norwich on Saturday, courtesy of some of the most breathtaking goals that we’ve witnessed since the days of Dennis Bergkamp, I must admit that I’m beginning to lose my own argument for keeping our powder dry. Even if this should eventually prove to be another false dawn, we’ve not savoured such a blindingly brilliant sunrise, since those heady days of a decade or so back and there’s no mistaking the puff-chested swagger of all those in North London who can’t help themselves from preening with this renaissance of Gooner pride.

Who knows whether the Gunners were flagging somewhat on Saturday, after schlepping all around the globe during the past fortnight of an interminable Interlull. Or if, after having scored one of the team goals of the season, the somewhat “hand-brakish” display that followed, was due to the fatal error of complacently casting an eye on Tuesday night’s testing European encounterHowever, even if the sum total of Saturday’s performance proves eminently forgettable, all four goals were testament to the sort of scintillating quality that will guarantee this game lives long in Gooner memories.

It felt like more than just a coincidence that Bergkamp was all over the British media this weekend, promoting his new book. Dennis and some of his most awe-inspiring strikes, were shown on the box just prior to Saturdays game, as the Dutch master revealed to Martin Keown his ambition to return to his Arsenal “home” in a coaching role.Before Wilshere found the back of the net (with his weaker foot), the combination of one-touch football in the build up to such a wondrous opening goal was so exquisite and left me feeling so privileged that I could’ve sworn it involved the participation of the ghost of Bergkamp-past.

After witnessing Mezut Özil’s lung-bursting break from the back, to casually creep into the box with perfect timing to head home our second, I feel more than a little sheepish about having dared to question the former Real midfielder’s willingness to roll his sleeves up. While Ramsey left virtually the entire Canaries defence laying eggs on the floor of their penalty area, dare I say, with almost Best-like “chutzpah”, as Aaron nailed all three 3 points with our third.

It would be hard to pick a better fixture than Norwich at home, for the potential banana-skin of our return after such a hectic International break. Still our guests gave as good as Houghton’s plucky side have got. Contrary to what some absent pundits perceived, believe me, at 2-1, with the Canaries’ choler up, after Howson bagged a stunning goal and with us urging more effort from the leadenfooted-looking Gunners, this game really could’ve gone either way.

But then the Weetabix of winning when performing below par is the breakfast of champions. What’s more, after bemoaning the lack of strength in depth on our bench for so long, with the recuperation of the likes of Cazorla et al, suddenly our opponents might be afraid of knobbling any of our star-turns, for fear of inviting an even stiffer test.

I adore Flamini’s commitment but was hardly disappointed when Ramsey replaced the dazed Frenchman and after Cazorla was afforded a much-needed hour of game time, Rosicky’s introduction lent us some much needed forward thrust. Additionally, although Giroud continues to convert a legion of Gooner non-believers, suddenly even the inscrutably blasé Bendtner is being viewed as a slightly more credible stand-in.

As evidenced by the wonderfully entertaining unpredictability of the competition thus far, if the Arsenal are to take one lesson from Saturday’s triumph, it’s that it doesn’t matter if you are currently the best in the land, you’re likely to be punished by the commitment of lesser Premiership mortals, should you fail to treat every opponent with maximum respect.

Hopefully the Arsenal’s rapidly burgeoning team spirit will ensure that we don’t suffer from such altitude sickness and combined with the beautiful game performed at its gobsmacking best, the view from up here is pretty close to perfect.

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Monday 7 October 2013

STILL Top of the League (even if only on goals scored)

Having bashed out the following missive immediately after Sunday's match for an 8pm deadline and having since seen the highlights on MOTD2, the replay of our goal at the Hawthorns shows that it was Mezut Özil's doggedness in winning possession of the ball back in front of our own penalty area, which enabled him to begin the attack that eventually lead to our all-important equaliser.

After having taken a certain amount of stick for daring to question whether our new German superstar might prove to be a bit of a luxury player, as I pondered whether the fact that Mezut barely ever breaks sweat might be indicative of a lack of industry, I feel its behoven of me to set the record straight. Özil demonstrated in the build up to the goal this afternoon that he's more than willing to roll his sleeves up and get stuck in when required. 

What's more, with us having marvelled at several more triumphant displays since I questioned Mezut's overall contribution to the team in the amount of graft he's willing to undertake, it has subsequently occurred to me that he possesses the same Bergkamp-esque quality of doing most everything on a football pitch with such deceptive ease that it's very plausible to perceive him as not putting in much of a shift.

There's a serenity about everything Özil does on the pitch that he never really looks like he's working his socks off and I must admit that my jaw dropped, when a mate suggested after Tuesday night's sensational victory that according to the stats regarding distance covered, Mezut was only 2nd behind the Flamster. I am therefore most happy to bow to the far greater insight of others on this particular subject.

It's been a while since we've enjoyed a smattering of stunning Arsenal contributions to MOTD's Goal Of the Month selection, testament to an absolutely magical month. Long may it continue

International breaks.....who needs 'em

A big thank you to the Irons, since dropping two points at the Hawthorns didn’t seem nearly quite so disappointing as it might’ve done, if it wasn’t for Spurs drubbing at home to West Ham. Moreover, after going in at the break a goal behind against West Brom, it felt far more like a point gained, than two lost.

I guess the Gunners were always at risk of suffering something of an “after the Lord Mayor’s show” reaction, following the neutering of Napoli in midweek, with a scintillating fifteen minute spell of football, which was as wonderful as anything we’ve savoured for some time.

Most pleasing on Tuesday night was the way in which we set about our Champions League opponents at such a high tempo, with an intensity which resulted in us blowing away Benitez’s side, without them having barely had a kick of the ball. By contrast, we appeared to lack the same high adrenaline level going into Sunday's game, with some perhaps guilty of reading too much into the extravagant flattery of the recent media hype.

Instead of setting about the home side, determined to put the Baggies under the cosh, I got the distinct sense that we were guilty of waiting for the game to come to us. In the absence this high-energy, fast-paced opening to the game, of the sort the could’ve quietened the home crowd and put their team on the backfoot, buoyed by the confidence of their triumph at Old Trafford, the likes of Berahino and Amalfitano required no further encouragement to ruffle a few more prima-donna feathers.

            Yet all credit to le Gaffer and his stubborn tendency to stick to his guns because if football management was a democratic process, the vast majority of us Gooners would’ve given Jack Wilshere a clip around the ear at halftime, consigning him to the bench to give our midfield prodigy time to get his head straight. Who knows whether the distractions of the overblown “fag-gate” saga were to blame, or whether this was just symptomatic of Wilshere being found wanting for the necessary blinkered focus on his football.

Nevertheless, despite it being obvious that Jack doesn’t enjoy being asked to do a job out on the left flank and although his effort on goal would’ve ended up going straight down the goalie’s throat, if it wasn’t for a fortunate deflection, Wilshere was responsible for dragging us back into the match after the break. Not to mention conjuring up the deliciously perfect pass that might’ve resulted in Giroud scoring the winner, if it wasn’t for Myhill’s determined goal-minding.

Yet we mustn’t forget that we had Anelka’s profligacy in front of goal to thank. In days of yore, you could’ve bet your shirt on the prolific French striker finding the back of the net and bagging all three points for the Baggies. Moreover, despite the contrast in the verve and vigour of our midweek victory, compared to Sunday’s somewhat flat-footed display, even when we were undone at the back, the Gunners continued to display the composure that we’ve accrued in recent weeks, in recovering the situation and this bodes well for the rest of the campaign.

Meanwhile, with Walcott confined to the treatment room for the time being, young Serge Gnabry appears to be our only natural wide-man. There’s no doubt that we look a far more resilient outfit with both Flamini and Arteta offering protection in front of the back four. But this leaves Wenger with a bit of a conundrum, perming three players from our glut of talented midfielders, when all of them possess the instinctive tendency to want to play through the middle of the park.

Still our hard-earned point at the Hawthorns was sufficient to take us into the Interlull, sitting pretty atop the league table (even if only on goals scored) and completely aside from the psychological significance, my Spurs pals can rest assured of me making the very most of another couple of weeks worth of crowing time.

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Wednesday 2 October 2013

When The Moon Hits Your Eye Like A Big Pizza Pie....That's Amore

With Naples being the home of the pizza, it seemed appropriate to head to Il Bacio  in Blackstock Road for some pre-match grub. But they were full when I phoned and it was only thanks to a cancellation that they managed to squeeze us in. I guess we should count our blessings that we didn't instead opt for some more local cuisine from Piebury Corner's new pie shop in Holloway Road, where the lovely Paul, Nicky and their local punters were attacked by 50/60 cowardly Napoli Ultra scum before tonight's game.

But then, as was evident with Napoli's utterly gutless second-half performance this evening, I guess their fans are a reflection of their heartless football team. It might prove a slightly different story in Naples, with Higuain back as a focal point for their attack. Still, when everyone was talking up this match as an encounter with our most onerous opposition of the season thus far, quite frankly I was amazed quite how easily we managed to roll over Serie A's high-flyers.

I'm assuming it must be related to the confidence currently coarsing through the club right now, but when we've so often been guilty in the past of commencing Champions League matches at such a low tempo and have as a consequence struggled to inject some real zest into games, most pleasing for me was the way in which we went about this match, right from the KO, with such wonderfully high-energy and gusto, that the Fat Spanish Waiter's football team were already two-nil down, without barely having had a kick of the ball.

I would have loved us to have finished the game off with a third goal, while we were so dominant, as I feared (needlessly it subsequently transpired!) that Napoli must have a period when they'd come back into the match and I was worried that if they did nick a goal, it might offer the visitors the necessary encouragement to drag themselves back into this match.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that it was inevitable that we would take our foot of the gas second half and frustratingly drop far too deep for everyone's liking, the fact that our feint-hearted guests never once bothered us with the sort of swift counter that would've previously ended all hopes of a clean sheet, is perhaps an optimistic indicator of the improving maturity of an Arsenal team that is finally beginning to learn from so many consecutive years of Champions League lessons.

I have to admit that when I discovered that Wenger had included both Flamini and Arteta in the starting line-up, thereby having to omit the likes of Jack Wilshere, I was initially disappointed because this seemed like a somewhat negative line-up on our home turf. However I'm happy to be the first to admit to being wrong because after the evidence of tonight's performance, this would appear to be the perfect combination for Champions League matches.

Both players are perfectly willing to get forward and contribute to attacking movements when the opportunity presents itself, but they both have the experience and the nous to know when to sit and offer themselves as a protective wall in front of our defence. This also appears to have the effect of liberating the three midfielders in front of them, knowing they can count on Flamini and Arteta to stop at home and ensure that our free-flowing attacking football cannot be undone, by being left short of numbers for the swift counter.

Moreover, as has been evident since Flamini's reintroduction, the Frenchman's presence and his maturity, in offering himself as such a wholehearted and committed screen in front of our back four and the snowball momentum of that special "winning feeling"has leant our entire defence a certain poise and unflappability that has previously been sorely missing amongst the frantic, panic-stricken footballers who've been so accustomed to conceding goals as a result in the past.

That breathtaking fifteen minute opening spell of football this evening, where the jaw-droppingly intuitive interchanges between Ramsey, Rosicky and Özil were as good as anything we've witnessed from Wenger's teams in the past, left everyone, bar the noisy Napoli fans in the corner, positively purring with pleasure.

What's more, as someone who has often knocked Olivier Giroud in the past, believing that our "oh so fabulous" French striker would never amount to a top draw centre-forward, I simply have to doff my hat to the man. I don't know how obvious it will have been to those watching on the box, but Olivier produced the epitome of a perfect centre-forward performance this evening. Giroud is proving himself to be the ideal foil for our ticci-tacca midfield and I barely recall a single instant in tonight's game, where he failed to either hold the ball up and open up the play for incisive forward movements, or induce a cunning free-kick from the clumsy opponent up his backside.

And in the second-half, where his team mates weren't quite as enthusiastic about advancing in front of our central striker, Giroud produced a trojan effort, winning the vast majority of aerial battles and ensuring that we weren't guilty of gifting our guests the sort of sloppy possession that would've made this a much harder workout for the whole team. Olivier might enjoy making sure that everyone is patently aware how much work he gets through in a match, with all his far too blatant and typically Gallic huffing and puffing, but as far as I'm concerned, he'll never come in for criticism from me, so long as he continues to put in such an industrious shift.

The only slight reservation as far as I'm concerned, is that both Rosicky and Arteta seem to begin to show obvious signs of heavy legs after the hour mark, with Thomas deprived of the vitality to continue making lung-bursting runs into the box and a little too guilty of giving the ball away, while Mikel's fatigue is too often evident in him ending up on the wrong side of his opponent, forced to make the sort of challenges that will inevitably result in us being forced to defend set-pieces in dangerous positions.

Never in a million years would I knock Flamini's commitment, with him producing the sort of biting challenges that set the tone for all his team mates and snapping at the opposition's heels, to the point where they're only too delighted to lay the ball off like a hot potato. Admittedly the incident occurred on the other side of the pitch to me, but I've no idea how Matty managed to avoid a yellow card this evening. Perhaps Champions League officials have received similar instructions to their Premiership colleagues this season and are making a concerted effort to keep their cards in their pockets. But in the past, the over-officious Champions League bods who seemed to want to promote a non-contact sport, would've been guaranteed to book our French midfielder.

Here's hoping Mikel and Thomas can last the course and that Matty might stay on the pitch long enough to maintain our stout defensive record. But then with the likes of Wilshere and Gnabry on the bench this evening and with Cazorla, Walcott, the Ox, even Diaby to come back, it could be argued that the current team is as balanced an outfit as we've witnessed in the Champions League to date and one that is capable of sustaining a proper challenge (instead of settling for qualification to the knockout stages as the height of our limited ambitions!).

Obviously you'd have to qualify any such euphoric optimism, with reservations over whether the likes of Nick Bendtner can contain his ego long enough, to offer sufficiently enthusiastic and conscientious cover up front, or if the likes of Vermaelen, Jenkinson and Monreal can slip seamlessly into this picture when required.

I assume Dortmund will present a far stiffer test than a Napoli side who surrendered quicker than the Italian army, but meanwhile, with each successive triumph, it's becoming harder and harder to contain the rapidly burgeoning mood of rapture. Considering the bonkers media bandwagon means that modern sides are only ever one defeat away from lurching between Arsenal legends and also-ran losers, I for one intend to make the very most of enjoying the moment while I can