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Friday, 27 December 2013

Oh What Fun……...

There was I relaxing after our arduous triumph at WHU this afternoon, when I get a call from the Examiner at 9.15pm wanting to know where my column for tomorrow's paper was! So not sure this is up to standard but at least the sub-ed at the paper received it in time for both him and me to sit back and savour it all again on MOTD

Eat, drink and be very merry and wishing everyone a happy & healthy New Year
Come on you Gunners

PS. Chant of the day "Tim Sherwood, woh hoo, hoo, ho, he comes from Borehamwood, he ain't no f*cking good"

PPS. Amusing moment of the afternoon - when Phil Dowd awarded us a corner and was doubtless testing out his knowledge of the language of the master race, chatting up our £42 million pound man, with Mezut staring at him bemusedly, when the tubby little f*cker suddenly dashed off in mid-sentence as it dawned on him that we'd already put the ball back in play.


Oh What Fun It Is To See Arsenal Win Away

            Boxing Day footie is always one of my Xmas highlights and there are few better places to enjoy it than at a dilapidated, old-fashioned ground like the Boleyn. It’s shame to think that it won’t be long before the Hammers decamp for the posher but sadly more antiseptic environs of the Olympic Stadium.

            Mind you, it’s always an outing that’s more pleasurable for the three points that we’ve grown accustomed to taking from our East London neighbours. The Irons made a decent fist of putting up a good fight and it took two goal-keeping cock-ups to really light the touchpaper, of what was up until then a disappointingly tame Boxing Day derby. I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for Mark Noble. He didn’t really deserve to end up on the losing side, after his tireless graft dominated the middle of the park first-half.

            However one sensed that it wouldn’t be too long before the floodgates of our undoubted superior ability eventually told, but it took the wake up call of West Ham taking the lead just after the break, to lend our forward play the necessary urgency required.

It might've been an entirely different story, if the Hammers had made more of their couple of breakaway opportunities, after Carlton Cole poached the lead immediately after the break. But after Theo’s effort bobbled through the arms of the Irons’ hapless keeper, there followed a scintillating ten-minute spell of football that sealed this victory. It left us comfortably savouring the remainder of our “jingle-bells” awayday, with a two-goal cushion that was unlikely to be threatened by Fat Sam “Allardici’s” goal-shy outfit.

It remains to be seen whether the Gunners can carry forward such festive cheer to St. James Park on Sunday. But with a fit Podolski returning to the fray like a man possessed, I feel somewhat more optimistic about our chances of surviving the hectic Xmas fixture schedule with our confidence (and perhaps our table-topping pitch) intact.

Losing Aaron Ramsey and the forward thrust he lends our midfield was a blow, but with Santi returning to some form, pulling the strings in the middle of the park and with the likes of Wilshere having served out the suspension for his one-fingered salute, it’s not like Arsene is short of options in the middle of the park. However if Lucas can provide le Prof with the opportunity to give Giroud a breather, without us having to count on the self-serving Bendtner, this could prove a big bonus.

Meanwhile, the sooner Koscielny returns, the better, as I remain far from convinced by our team captain playing in his stead. In fact, I’m not really sure I like the idea of Vermalen retaining the armband, as judging by this afternoon’s display, I have my doubts as to whether our Belgian centre-back is truly “on board”, seeing him sitting lazing on his backside in the West Ham penalty area, while our hosts were on the counter.

Yet it feels a bit “bah humbug” of me to be complaining, considering we’ve ended the day still sitting pretty on top of the league. Moreover, one of the benefits of bowling over to East London for three points on Boxing Day is that I was back home in time to enjoy most of the day’s late game on the box. If I had to stake my life on it right now, I’d have to admit that with their formidable strike force, Man City do look certain favourites. Yet I remain convinced that Pellegrini’s mercenaries will continue to display the inconsistency that will ensure they drop more points on their travels and with the title race so open, it only remains for one team to string a decent run together, in order to draw away from the chasing pack. Who knows, it might just be the Gunners.

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Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Yanking The Tail Of Pellegrini's Tiger

Not many Gunners meshuga enough to turn up at 9am with my pal Stuart
for the 5km South Manchester Park Run as a warm up for Saturday's match

Hi folks

It felt like something of a travesty to have to try and cram the events of the past week into Sunday's meagre missive for the Examiner and what with everything that has transpired since, you'll have to forgive me for waxing lyrical, in typically long-winded fashion, in an effort to include everything that editorial restraints forced me to omit.

Above all, I commented below about a moment that encapsulated Saturday's defeat, where Yaya Toure was bearing down on our goal at the other end of the ground, having begun his run on the halfway line and where from our perspective, high up behind the opposite goal, you somehow perceive the imminent potential threat and the urgent need to do whatever it takes to break his / their momentum, far more than one would from the sidelines, or sat lower down (or even out on the park, aside from those blessed with that sixth sense defensive nous necessary to snuff out any such danger).

The Flamster did his best to fell the huge oak that is Yaya, with what looked like a shoulder barge, but the way he bounced back off the big man, in a cartoon-like fashion would've been comical, if it wasn't for the fact that there was no one else left to stop him.

Having missed out on savouring the first 45 mins of the hilarious fiasco that our good friends and neighbours were enduring at the feet of Luis Suarez down the road, while I finished bashing out the following piece and filing it to the paper (before the editor was on my case!), I was relieved to at least be able to sit back and cackle over the second half, as things went from bad, to worse for AVB; and then be able to put my laptop away and put my feet up to relish a fuller version of the full horror of the worst home defeat at White Hart Lane for 16 years on MOTD2 Sunday night. Not without first catching up on Saturday's "Strictly" fix, after we'd crawled along in the inevitable M6 delays that had conspired to ensure we missed arriving back from Manchester in time to watch it).

It was only on seeing the highlights of the goals in our game that it dawned on me that it was $amir Na$ri who'd robbed Jack Wilshere of the ball in the middle of the park, in the build up to City's fifth goal! I was no less incredulous than Danny Mills and had to rewind the goal before he got around to reviewing them, as I couldn't believe my eyes. I can't ever recall Na$ri making a tackle in a red & white shirt, let alone muscling an opponent off the ball, in his hunger to add to the scoreline when already a couple of goal to the good!

It was only a couple of weeks back, when Na$ri was dropped for France, in the second leg of their WC play-off versus Ukraine and Valbuena ended up having such an influence in the way they squeaked through to Brazil that I was suggesting he'd lost his mojo! I couldn't have possibly been more wrong, as judging by his form ever since, the Frenchman has reacted to this swift kick in the rear, to firmly reclaim his sun lounger on Ipanema next summer!

With my colander-like memory nowadays, I've long since forgotten the specific circumstances of Na$ri's departure from THOF, but I continue to retain my perceived distaste for his mercenary exit as much as the next Gooner. However, having recently started taking my grandson, Riley, to the odd game, I suddenly find myself disturbed by the thought of an eight-year old's perspective of the spittle and bile pouring forth from the mouth of the old codger beside him, rancorously roaring "Na$ri you're a cnut" and the like and with him going home to proffer a word by word account to his seriously pissed off mum, of the unsavoury education imparted in the process of accompanying his grandad, while getting my footballing kicks on a Saturday .

Not that any such adult responsibilities prevent me from joining in, as loud as ever, but I always end up cringing, not so much from any moral standpoint, over what constitutes jocular terrace banter and what it beyond the pale, but more from the point of view that a nasty slating of this sort is likely to prove just the ammunition required, to inspire the sort of feats from the recipient that will make us eat our words. After just such a hearty chorus on Saturday, I turned to my pal Stuart and said "he's guaranteed to score a had-trick!"

But in muscling Wilshere off the ball, this was one of a number of instances on Saturday, where sadly Jack's much vaunted red & white striped heart was little in evidence. It's easy to talk a good game (remonstrating with the ref) and to gesture your way into Gooner good books by giving opposition fans the finger. But as they say, talk is cheap and Wilshere badly needs to let his boots do the talking, by demonstrating the sort of selfless willingness that proves his affection for wearing the shirt, without letting the fact that he's being asked to do a job, detract from the sort of focus that's demanded from a side determined to win every match.

Who knows, myself I couldn't lift my head of the pillow on Sunday morning, exhausted by all the travelling involved in the long schleps to Naples and Manchester (and the amount of emotion invested in every Arsenal match) and so perhaps we can write off all Saturday's events and put them down to the testiness that so often accompanies fatigue?

Although, always in such circumstances, I can't help but feel that fatigue wouldn't have been a factor on Saturday, if the Gunners had been stoked up enough to take Napoli on and do the job on Wednesday night, instead of sitting back and offering the sort of encouragement to the home team that eventually inspired some real belief. A fresh-legged showing might still not have been enough to beat City, but I wouldn't mind betting we'd have witnessed an entirely different performance, if they'd arrived at the Eithad on the crest of a Champs Lg group winning wave.

Despite having not woken in time to catch sight of the Sunday headlines, if I'm correct in perceiving that these scapegoated Wilshere in the main, I really don't think that is fair. OK so it's hard to knock Theo, after appearing for the first time in two months and coming up with two goals (with an exquisite finish for the second, especially considering the elevation required to avoid the reach of City's goalkeeping giraffe). Even by Mezut Özil's minimalist standards, the Umlaut made most like a sinecure on Saturday and still managed to produce an assist, putting the ball on a plate for Theo's first.

So for my money, when you contrast the graft of the likes of Aguerro and Negredo, with the work rate of Wilshere, Özil and Walcott, we were at least thee men light for the sort of 100 per cent performance that was required to achieve any sort of result on Saturday.

I managed to watch the second half of City's triumph against Bayern on Tuesday night. I spent ages tromping the streets along the seafront of the Neapolitan capital, looking for a hostelry that was willing to cater to the annoying tourist who wanted to watch a game other than the one involving the much despised Old Lady Of Turin - I saw several Gooners returning with souvenir Naples scarves showing the one-fingered salute (now formally renamed from "the Harvey Smith" to "the Wilshere") to Juve.

Having duly negotiated with a barman at this pub an hour before KO, I wandered off to see if there were any other options locally, but promptly returned in good time to take a seat in an empty room, only for another barman to turn the TV over to Galatasary v Juve.

At which point a couple moved in to watch the game and now not being in a majority of one, I sat there whinging about watching Manny Eboué & co, when we could be viewing two of the best collections of footballing talent on the planet, meanwhile getting ever more irate, as I watched the goals rack up at the Allianz Arena on my BBC Sport iPhone app. Mercifully someone eventually answered my prayer, with the bizarre weather that caused the abandonment of events in Turkey and the room in my boozer, enabling me to request the TV be turned over for me to watch the rest of the match.

Although I half wish I hadn't bothered, because with the return of David Silva for 70 minutes, I was left feeling even more terrified about the prospect of being next up as victims of the Etihad goalfest. With City's bristling attack bubbling with the confidence of their free-scoring recent form, even the journeyman workhorse winger that is James Milner began to look like a real player against Bayern!

But if City proved anything on Wednesday night, it is that Guardiola's Bayern appear eminently less Germanic in their nature than the team who tonked us in the first leg last season and far less robotic in their ability to roll over opposition teams.

Like everyone else, I felt that Atletico and PSG were the softest possible draws in the knockout stages. Personally I am utterly useless, when it comes to working out the permutations possible from the denouement of the Champs Lg group stages. Believe it or not, there've been several occasions when I've stood at similar games abroad, bellowing my head off, not quite knowing what was required, or whether we've achieved this and I've ended up having to turn to a neighbour at the final whistle to get the full SP.

Thankfully after enough of the locals had left the area of the Sao Paolo Stadium after the game on Wednesday night to free up the 3G phone signal and while we were left sitting there for an interminable amount of time (as usual) by the local constabulary, seemingly as one of the few folk in my vicinity still with sufficient juice in my battery (or perhaps the only one without the pennywise sense to worry about data usage in such circumstances!), it was left to me to appraise others of the final scores and the various possible permutations, when the Champs Lg gets down to the business end in the spring.

So I've several witnesses and as far as I was concerned, we were absolutely guaranteed to be drawn with either Bayern or Barca. Unlike the group stage draw, with the away leg already decided, normally I would've been sat at home with a myriad of potential flight possibilities up on screen of my laptop, iPad, iPhone, while watching the balls being drawn on the box.

Unfortunately I was stuck in the bowels of a hospital, having a scan on Monday morning, sending begging text message, asking Gooner pals to keep me updated. I didn't realise that I had to lie down for an hour, after having this injection, in an effort to improve the resulting images. I was thinking that it was a good thing that I'd remembered to bring my iPad with me to pass all the waiting time, until I opened it to discover that I'd foolishly neglected to charge it overnight and that as a result, I was entirely depended on my mobile, for news from the outside world.

With AVB almost simultaneously getting the "tin tack" down at Tottenham, the text messages with my Spuds pals were flying and in truth, ashamed as I might be, I couldn't help but adopt a sympathetic attitude (albeit that this is probably because I know that deep down, it's far more of a wind up because my sympathy is a reflection of quite how wide of the mark our neighbours at White Hart Lane remain from usurping our North London crown). 

The consensus seems to be that Levy bears most responsibility for their ongoing plight but I can't help but wonder if he'd have been better off sacking Baldini, instead of AVB, since it would appear that he's most culpable for Spurs scattergun transfer policy. What's more, with the Italian seemingly remaining in situe, I presume Capello must be favourite as far as "keeping it in the family" is concerned?

I'm no fan of statistics (as doubtless there will be pass completion stats to prove how efficient Mezut was on Saturday, despite barely breaking sweat as usual) but with yet another merry-go-round of personnel down the wrong end of Seven Sisters Road, I'd love to see a representation of how much Levy has spent on his catalogue of managerial mishaps.

What I do know is that I bloomin' well hope that the Spuds new leader is installed double-quick, to ensure that we don't end up on the wrong end of a "new-manageritis" result come 4th Jan. All of which I was busy surreptitiously texting, while lying prone on a hospital bed, much to the annoyance of the poor nurses and the radiographer, who kept popping in to tell me off, until she eventually shamed me into putting my phone down by revealing that they were watching me on the CCTV.

But as the details of our daunting Champs Lg draw flashed up on the Sky Sports web page, I explained to her that there was little point in me trying to relax now, not with all the stress of drawing the current holders and arguably the most efficient football team on the planet, thereby lengthening even further my odds of ever seeing the Gunners win the big-eared prize.

I was chatting with another Gooner on our extended coach trip on the return journey back to the port, after they eventually let us out of the ground in Naples, with everyone aboard struggling to accept that safety was the authorities' overriding concern, in taking us on yet another magical, hour and a half mystery tour. My pal, Joe had suggested we slip away and make our own way back to the hotel in a taxi, but I didn't fancy risking life and limb (and a nasty, knife-shaped wake up call "up the Arse") wandering around looking for a cab.

Although there was little more sense of security on the coaches, with everyone telling tales of how the Man City fans had been pounced upon after being dropped off at the port by the buses, as they disappeared into town in smaller groups.

As an example of quite how unreliable my memory is, I was thoroughly embarrassed as Barry revealed that I had completely forgotten our previous meeting. On exiting White Hart Lane a couple of seasons back and clambering on my motorbike, I managed to drop my mobile phone on the deck. The odds of my iPhone being picked up by a Gooner must've been pretty long, but much to my continued relief to this day (as I've yet to suffer the much dreaded trauma of permanently losing my phone - but doubtless I've tempted fate now!), it was picked up by Barry's son and on seeing the Arsenal wallpaper on my home screen, he announced "it belongs to a Gooner, I guess we'll have to give it back"!

Barry is one of the ever increasing band of Gooners who is on the away ticket scheme and who goes to most every away match, but who doesn't have a season-ticket and who can take, or leave home games because the whole experience bears such a little relationship to football as he once knew it in the environs of Avenell Road. Our conversation on the coach inevitably turned to our Champs Lg prospects, whereby we both reached something of a consensus that the two of us have both been chasing the big-eared Holy Grail all across the Continent for so long now, stuck on an interminable roller-coaster ride around Europe, to the point where our continued support is a given, with no real thought of the cost or the sacrifice involved. We could no more give up on this eternal, vain pursuit of the one trophy that eludes us all, than neglect to put our pants on in the morning.

However we both agreed that if we should eventually achieve our greatest ambition, we'll have reached the end of a very long road, where nothing was left but complete retirement! After all, how could you follow that? But I'm still eager for the opportunity to find out and despite missing out on an opportunity to book a cheap flight on Monday morning, I'll be there in Munich one way or another come 11th March and no matter how hard my Spuds mates try to put the wind up me, looking at the way our squad has bloomed so far this season, I'm thrilled at the prospect of pitting our wits against the holders and revenging last season's humiliation. Bring it on!

That's assuming we can build on our over-achieving exploits thus far and our burgeoning confidence remains intact come the Spring, starting with next Monday night!


Yanking The Tail Of Pellegrini's Tiger

I was very disappointed with the Gunners Groundhog day performance in Naples, but then I always suspected that the fact we went there, knowing we could afford to lose, was bound to have a negative impact upon proceedings. Mercifully I was able to watch the fascinating “Keane & Vieira” TV program back in our hotel room, where reveling in the glory days proved to be the perfect tonic before hitting the sack after such a poor showing.

I usually avoid official travel arrangements like the plague, preferring not to be herded like sheep by hostile carabinieri. But all the apocryphal tales of the Neapolitans taste for violence left us so paranoid that, not fancying being stabbed in the posterior, we ended up at the mercy of the outrageous local organization that left us missing the first ten minutes of the match, after the coaches took us round the houses, taking an eternity to make the short four mile hop from the port to the ground.

Despite the disaster of the footie itself, it was a marvelous outing worth making just for a gorgeous dinner on the seafront, wallowing in the winter sunshine, watching the sun set over the Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius as the backdrop.

Returning from Italy on Thursday, I just had time to enjoy an evening with Rona’s two sisters who were over from Dublin, before heading off to Manchester on Friday night, rather than a crack of dawn departure for Saturday’s early KO.

Obviously I would’ve loved to see the Arsenal break the fortress Etihad hoodoo, but I would’ve bitten your hand off for a draw and after such an exhausting week, in truth, I would’ve settled for a respectable result (against what is undoubtedly the strongest Premiership outfit) to be able to depart Manchester with our confidence still sufficiently intact, to be able to take all thee points off Chelsea next Monday night.

I don’t doubt that at our best, this Arsenal side is capable of beating Man City, but sadly this wasn’t the case on Saturday. To triumph against Pellegrini’s daunting array of talent, we needed everyone on the park to be attuned to the job at hand, fully focused and committed to their task. We definitely couldn’t afford to carry a couple of tired and jaded passengers, who appeared far too willing to leave all the donkeywork to their teammates.

Although it was frustrating that Giroud failed to make anything of his couple of very decent opportunities, I can’t knock the Frenchman because as ever he gave everything, by way of his tireless graft. However in midfield, only Flamini and Ramsey showed the necessary desire, appetite and intensity that was to be demanded in achieving any sort of result from this high-noon showdown.

From our vantage point, high-up in the Etihad, it was patently obvious that as these two were forced to press the opposition higher up the park, or out on the flanks, as the game passed some of their less willing colleagues by, that the likes of Silva and Aguerro would find space in behind them to be able do some real damage.

There was a moment when Flamini simply bounced off the brick outhouse that is Yaya Toure, which pretty much encapsulated Saturday’s contest. Despite Walcott instilling us with some hope with each of his goals, you sensed as if we were merely pulling the tail of the tiger, teasing City into exerting their authority anew with another goal.

Most disturbing was the sight of Wilshere being relieved of the ball at one end of the park and sitting there whinging, before ambling leisurely back towards his own goal, without a care for the fact that we were struggling to thwart yet another goalmouth threat. Jack urgently needs to rediscover his romance with the ball, to the exclusion of all his other high-profile distractions.

And while it was great to see Mertesacher assuming leadership responsibilities by giving Özil a mouthful, our new playmaker needs to learn some respect for the mug punters who pay his obscene wages and to understand that, for all his ability, Premiership football simply can’t afford any passengers.

Perhaps the worst result of the day was the sight of Koscielny being stretchered off. In the absence of Laurent's commitment, it’s down to Vermaelen now to maintain the defensive composure that might ensure that the illusory bubble of the past couple of months doesn’t disappear with the Xmas decorations.

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Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Red Sky At Night But No 3 Point Delight

Late KO's on Sunday are always a bit stressful, having to dash back home and bash out my missive for the Irish Examiner's deadline, knowing that there's a sub-ed sitting at work in Cork waiting upon me to be able to go home.

In truth, I was just relieved to be able to get it done in time to put my feet up on watch the highlights on MOTD2. Yet after seeing these, I wondered if I'd been too disparaging, as it came across as a far more entertaining encounter and on viewing again the number of times we got in on goal, only for the fast reactions of Tim Howard to deny us, it seemed as if we'd actually played far better than I'd first thought?

Then again, all I know is that from minute one, as we seemed to stand off Everton and invite them to do their worst, I wanted the Flamster out there, flapping his arms and bellowing, cajoling and encouraging his teammates not to allow our guests time and space to get their heads up and carve a huge hole through our half of the pitch.

Hopefully Walcott's return to fitness (and form?) might prove a remedy, but the other worrying factor for me is that despite the enthralling prowess of our interchangeable midfield at present, Sunday's starting line-up is sadly deprived on any real pace out wide on the flanks. With Everton's full-backs not having to concern themselves with the prospect of leaving themselves exposed to being outpaced, they were able to spend the entire match adding manpower to Everton's forward thrusts. And so long as we continue to play with the likes of Jack and Santi provisionally supposed to be starting out wide, I worry others might also attempt to take similar advantage.

Meanwhile, as I'm just about to leave for Stansted for the trip to sunny Napoli (please reassure me that the expression is "see Rome and die" not Naples)?, I thought I had better get this up and posted before I leave. 

I can't help but worry about the inevitable psychological impact of going into a game knowing that we don't need to win and can afford to lose by less than three goals. I will be pleasantly surprised if we kick-off in the Stadio San Paolo and take the game to our hosts, instead of again sitting back in our own half, inviting Napoli to show us what they have got. We really don't need to be affording the likes of Higuain an opportunity to build up a head of steam.

Besides, with the trip to the Etihad and a confrontation with Pellegrini's rampant strike force looming, we badly need to sort of convincing, professional performance in Italy that will enable us to take on City with the confidence to play our own game, rather than fretting about  thwarting theirs

Whatever is set to transpire, just how fortunate are we to be facing that absolutely tantalising prospect of a non-stop rollercoaster ride of scintillating footie......bring it on

Come on you Gunners


Red Sky At Night But No 3 Point Delight

I suppose at least it wasn’t an early KO against The Toffees, but after enduring the Gunners all too frequent failures to take advantage, or more often blowing an opportunity to play catch up in the recent past, I’ve come to detest the inevitable psychological impact of appearing later in the weekend than our competitors, already aware of the impact upon the table of whatever result should prevail.

With Chelsea, Man Utd and City all having left the door open for us to steal a march on the rash of inconsistency elsewhere, much like every other Gooner, obviously I was hoping to witness a performance against Martinez’s increasingly impressive outfit that would serve as a genuine litmus test, attesting to the burgeoning composure and maturity that’s indicative of a squad determined to show its mettle. Not to mention the alluring attraction of a seven-point breathing space that would’ve been likely to leave the vociferous Match of the Day pundit’s sheepishly struggling to retrieve their feet from their mouths.

With hindsight, whether it be conscious or not, or for both Wenger and the lads, the looming trip to Naples and the showdown at the Etihad in the week ahead was always likely to play some part in Sunday’s proceedings. I was desperately hoping that the Gunners would set the sort of “hell or high water” tone of a team showing a fully focused “only three points will suffice” type intensity and drive that would’ve been necessary to put the Toffees back in their box.

Unfortunately we were privy to the exact opposite, as my worst fears were realized right from the off and much as we did in Dortmund, the Gunners sat back and invited the opposition to do their worst. It’s easy enough to sit here now explaining away a couple of points dropped against the seriously powerful and enviable likes of Barkley, Lukaku and co., since in this form the Blues will continue to take points from our competitors. But it’s disappointing to me to think that we allowed this sort of knowledge to impact upon our approach to the game.

In fact you could’ve been forgiven for thinking that we were the visiting side, considering how much of the opening forty-five we spent camped in our own half of the pitch, seemingly waiting in hope of Everton’s energetic and wonderfully fluid start to proceedings to eventually run out of steam. Meanwhile suddenly this game seemed somewhat less intense, as the terrace tom-toms carried the news of the 3rd FA Cup draw and a corker of a potentially season-defining visit from our crisis-ridden neighbours

Much kudos to Koscielny for the blinkered concentration that continued to frustrate Lukaku all afternoon, but aided by the composure of Barry and the energy of Mirallas, Ross Barkley truly lived up to his billing, as a more muscular and powerful upgrade on our own (out of sorts) Jack Wilshere.

Watching our midweek encounter, I actually felt sorry for Steve Bruce’s brave Tigers, as they spent the entire night chasing shadows, trying to contain some of the most mesmerizingly fluid football that we’ve enjoyed so far this season. Then just as the lactic acid in our guests’ legs was beginning to bite, they catch sight of the likes of Walcott and Wilshere, stripping off to torment them some more.

But the shoes was on the other foot on Sunday, as wave after wave of Everton’s flowing football bore down upon our goal for much of the opening period. Mercifully we managed to stem this tide somewhat second half and to begin to gather some momentum of our own. In Flamini’s absence (until the last 20mins), it was left to Ramsey to motivate those around, cranking up the heat by finally getting stuck in.

However with Wilshere’s limited contribution seemingly reflecting the fact that he’s far from a happy bunny, when asked to fulfill a role starting out wide and having not exactly invested £42 million for the minimal amount of graft we can expect from Mezut Özil, when running back towards our own goal, Sunday’s draw leaves some questions about our ability to wrestle a result when we find ourselves under the cosh.

As disappointing as it was to see us suffer such a late sucker-punch from Everton’s exciting new star, instead of demonstrating the necessary equanimity to see the game out, I’ll gladly settle for the more learned opinion of those who suggest that this was a decent point earned. But with Pellegrini’s positively rampant strike force to come, our continued sojourn at the summit will depend upon a far more stalwart effort than was evident on Sunday.

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Sunday, 1 December 2013

Aaron Rises To The Occasion, But It's The Flamster That's the Arsenal's Own Man Of Harlech

A crisp sunny day for a drive out of “The Smoke”, the lilting Welsh accents of the genial locals, a clean sheet, three goals and a return trip back across the Severn Bridge from sheep-shagging country, plumped up by a seven-point cushion. Pretty much the “perfik” awayday.

We Gooners have experienced enough false dawns during our tiresome sojourn in the silverware-starved doldrums, to know better than to inauspiciously commence banging our own drum. Listening to the radio phone-ins, on the long schlep home, you could hear hesitant Arsenal fans postulating to the pundits, hankering for some sort of ratification of their premature (but increasingly plausible) sense that perhaps we are ‘the real mccoy’.

The Bluebirds new home appeared close to completion on our last trip to Ninian Park for a 0-0 FA Cup draw in 2009. Despite its resemblance to a myriad of other homogenous, identikit arenas, there was no mistaking this statement of Cardiff’s upwardly mobile ambitions. Yet with Gooners rocking up on Saturday, chiding their hosts outside the ground with “Red Army, Blue Army” taunts, I couldn’t help but wonder how much the Cardiff fans relished their schizophrenic welcome to the pernicious, tradition pummeling business that is the Premiership promised land?

With the entire Arsenal family rallying to the support of poor Pat Rice, I was counting on the sort of zealous performance that might do one of our club’s most devoted servants proud. Malky Mackay’s terriers have ably demonstrated their ability to take the top flight’s less focused prima donnas down a peg or two thus far.

Perhaps the hyped up return of Aaron Ramsey, our water-walking Welsh Jesus, impacted upon the surprisingly mooted atmosphere of these proceedings. Yet after Wilshere came so agonizingly close to repeating the feat of his opening minute goal against Marseille last Tuesday night, this seemed to set the tone for the afternoon. The dust-up I’d been expecting from Medel, the Bluebirds impressive midfield pitbull, never materialized and instead of attempting to ruffle our feathers, Cardiff were guilty of standing off and showing us far too much respect.

However, after first Giroud (aping one of my own more bizarre ‘senior moments’ as Olivier stood their gawping, following an imaginary offside whistle) and then Ramsey failed to take advantage, I was certain Cardiff were going to make us pay second-half. To their credit and perhaps as a result of a halftime haranguing from their volatile gaffer, Cardiff turned up the heat somewhat after the break. Again, if it wasn’t for a couple of timely interventions from Sczcny, Saturday afternoon’s ‘Aaron Ramsey love-in’ might’ve taken a far less gratifying course.

Still even when all five interchangeable cylinders of our attacking midfield engine aren’t operating at their smoothest, the Gunners rearguard have garnered this cumulative composure over the course of the past couple of months, to the point where we’ve recently become unrecognizable as the fragile ingénues of yesteryear.

Santi struggled to find his touch all afternoon and Özil continues to astound me. Considering the princely cost of our sporting pleasures nowadays, I spend an obsessive amount of time forsaking the entertainment, while studying Mezut through my binoculars, in my efforts to distill the footballing essence of 42 million quid.

Aside from the trifling matter of another two pinpoint assists on Saturday, as ever, Mezut spent much of the remainder of the match, lolloping around like a disaffected teenager. But then there’ll be one drop of the shoulder, or an unexpected feint that leaves two lesser mortals for dead and as several thousand smiling faces shake their heads in awe, suddenly the beautiful game’s wages of sin are self-evident.

Yet while Arsène’s aesthetes attract all the plaudits, it’s Flamini who’s fast forging the steely resolve that’s likely to prove the most essential ingredient, if our challenge is to survive the festive season’s onslaught of fixtures. Returning to the Gunners, in his more mature incarnation, Mathieu appears to appreciate that he carries the weight to become the flag-bearing “marechal” that we’ve pined for, ever since TA packed it in.

Amidst all the superlatives of late, not to mention the hilarious run on “AVB spent £100m and this tosh is all we have to show for it” t-shirts at our neighbours down the road, it’s perhaps the sight of the Flamster frantically cajoling our troops to rally around him, that’s responsible for the broadest of Gooner smiles. Who knows, this illusory bubble could explode in our faces before the cod grease blurs these lines, but in the meantime, you’ll forgive me a few moments to revel in the prospect that this Arsenal squad might've finally ‘come of age’.
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