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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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