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Monday 25 January 2016

He's Done It Again!

Waking up on Sunday morning to find Spurs breathing down our necks in the table only added to the tension in advance of our afternoon encounter. I was convinced that the Chelsea side that turned up wouldn’t be the same one that’s struggled all season long and concerned that the psychological impact of us not having beaten the Blues for so many seasons, might be reflected in an inhibited Arsenal display.

After all the Gunners have hardly sparkled of late and all the talk of us being title favourites has seemed quite fanciful to those of us who’ve watched us eke out results in recent weeks. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 (whatever that may mean!), but considering how long it’s been since we last stamped our authority on a game, I would’ve liked to have seen Alexis out there from the start on Sunday, even if he wasn’t fully match fit and might’ve only lasted an hour or so.

There’s an intensity about Alexis that invariably makes things happen on a football pitch. With the Gunners pressing high up in the opening minutes, you could sense the nervousness in the opposition, the lack of confidence that results in previously composed players making uncharacteristic errors and even lacking in match practice, we really could’ve done with the additional attacking intent from Alexis that might’ve caused sufficient panic to enable us to press home an early advantage.

Instead of which, the Gunners complete failure to threaten Chelsea early on, afforded our guests time to settle and perhaps playing on memory alone, knowing quite how often they’ve managed to nullify us in the past, the Blues soon grew into the game, to the point where they were the source of such consternation that Costa was once again able to sucker one of our centre-backs into getting themselves sent off.

Truth be told, the Bambi-like BFG has been looking increasingly vulnerable, ever since being deprived of the protection offered by Coquelin. Gawd love him Flamini is a trier and it’s hard to criticize such a willing grafter, but there’s no denying how much more fragile we’ve been at the back in Franny’s absence.

Then Arsène only compounds the loss of Mertesacker by substituting our single most likely goalscorer. With the Chelsea fans’ taunts of “Diego Costa, he’s done it again” ringing in our ears, this really was a head in the hands moment, at the prospect of another Groundhog Day demise, but which was all the more galling because on this occasion it was at the hands of a far less formidable Chelsea side, who we really should’ve had the wherewithal to be able to beat.

There was the suggestion that Giroud had been a doubt prior to KO and I can understand the logic of leaving the pace of Walcott and Campbell out on the pitch to try and take advantage of the ageing legs of the likes of Ivanovic and Terry. Yet this presupposed that Theo was capable of actually having an impact upon such a significant game. Sadly he’s been such an anonymous passenger of late that even wearing the captain’s armband to honour his decade at the club, I don’t think there was a person in that stadium who truly believed Walcott capable of filling Giroud’s goalscoring boots.

You & Me Both!
Our brief sojourn at the top was fun while it lasted, but the table as it stands after yet another topsy-turvy weekend is perhaps a truer reflection upon current form. Moreover with the Gunners having long since become unfamiliar with the art of leading from the front, in trying to put some sort of positive slant on a gut-wrenching defeat, perhaps there might be some advantage to letting others make the pace, so we can return to making our more traditional late run on the rails.

Doubtless Arsène will trust in the expected leg-up offered by the long-awaited return to fitness of some of our long-term absentees, but unless Elneny is genuine first XI material, I would dearly love to see at least one more new signing before the transfer window slams shuts, if only to provide the rest of the squad with the psychological boost, by way of the club’s signal of our intent to go “all in”,
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Thursday 21 January 2016

Barcelona (via Bournemouth) Or Bust

(feel free to jump to the Irish Examiner's edited version, should it prove preferable to my overly loquacious load of old waffle below:

with me having procrastinated so long over posting this week's missive, to the point where it's already somewhat outdated, I assure you I won't take offence :-)

It amused me that on the same day that I spent the princely sum of 64 quid for a seat in the oxygen-starved environs, right up in the gods at Camp Nou for our Champions League encounter with Barca in March, my precious, highly-prized Bournemouth ticket also turned up in the post.

I doubt there can be much more of a contrast in top flight footie, between our trips to Camp Nou and the Cherries humble home at Dean Court, but with us never having had the pleasure of playing there before (at least not as far as I can recall...which admittedly isn't particularly far!!), ironically, tickets for the Arsenal end, for our rare seaside outing to the South Coast, are likely to prove far harder to come by than a seat at yet another glamorous clash with the Catalan Galacticos.

Obviously it would've been preferable if our date down in Bournemouth had fallen amidst warmer climes, closer to the end of the campaign. I can't envisage any Gooners, other than the odd, alcohol-fuelled lunatic, paddling in the sea come 7th February, at least not without a heatwave between now and then, whereas a Spring outing to the seaside might've proven far more alluring.

Nevertheless, with away fans receiving some 1500 from the mere 12,000 seats available at Dean Court,  Bournemouth was always going to be this season's hottest ticket. Presumably the vast majority of tickets went to those of us on the away scheme, but someone was telling me that there was a ridiculous threshold of SIXTY away match credits required for anyone not on the scheme who wanted to apply. Between the away scheme and I believe the box holders' (unfair?) entitlement to eight tickets for every away game, I wonder if any Bournemouth tickets actually made it into the hands of anyone else? As the same Gooner pointed out, away match credits are counted over a two season period and without checking previous fixture lists, sixty away games sounds like an impossible target!

Meanwhile, with home games against Chelsea and Southampton to come before then (along with our FA Cup date with Burnley), the match itself might prove no less crucial, when you consider the succession of far more daunting looking awaydays to follow.

But then with the table being so tight and most teams only two wins away from the top and two defeats away from being drawn into the dogfight at the bottom, every game has acquired a "must win" aura.

With Stoke having taken points from some of our competitors at the Britannia, folk have been trying to put a positive spin on Sunday's draw. From my perspective this point would've been far more acceptable, if we'd managed to hang on to all three at Anfield, as a four point haul, from two of the season's more awkward awaydays would be a perfectly respectable tally.

In any other season, a mere two points from these two outings would certainly not be perceived as title challenging form, but then mercifully this is definitely not "any other season" and should everyone continue on their current inconsistent path, our failure to convert awayday points into three might not prove too calamitous come the reckoning in May. 

Moreover it might be considered a marvel that we managed to come away from the Potteries unbeaten because any side would suffer under the weight of such significant absentees as Özil, Alexis, Cazorla and Coquelin, not to mention our catalogue of long-term casualties in the likes of Wilshere, Welbeck and Rosicky.

However, with each passing week, there's an increasing sense that someone is about to grab the Premiership box-seat and begin to run with it and I can't help but feel that the first team to do so, will be the eventual champions and I really don't want us to be left amongst the clutch of clubs trying to play catch up. That's the main reason I was disappointed on Sunday because if the likes of Silva and Aguero are beginning to find their mojo, Man City might not gift us many more opportunities to establish a cushion.

Frankly our form of late has been so uninspiring that it's astounding we've not been knocked off our top spot perch. I'm not much of a gamer but I'm counting on the possibility that the return of Alexis and Özil will add the sort of sparkle that will enable us to push the turbo-boost button before Man City. Preferably starting on Sunday!



Neanderthals' indignation at Aaron having the temerity
to have his leg shattered by Shawcross!

It might well be that for the want of any other credible challengers, everyone has the Gunners pipped as potential champions. Yet considering we almost had all three points in the bag at Anfield in midweek, two measely points seems scant reward from two exhausting awayday outings?

I’m certainly not moaning, as we’ve managed to negotiate a daunting week, with us ending up still looking down on the rest of the Premiership. Nevertheless, the mark of the Gunners title winning sides of yesteryear was that we could be deprived of the likes of Bergkamp, Henry, or any of our most influential stars and still retain sufficient guile and gumption to go to grounds like the Britannia and somehow manage to snaffle a crucial win.

However when I looked at Sunday’s starting line-up, deprived of the likes of Özil, Alexis and Cazorla, it was hard to envisage who was going to be able to unlock the door, against such an in-form Jack Butland.

It’s ironic that Aaron Ramsey continues to receive such stick at Stoke, for having the temerity to have his leg shattered by Ryan Shawcross. Yet instead of Ramsey rising to this ridiculous barrage, grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck and returning the compliment with added interest, he seems to disappear into his shell.

Similarly Theo Walcott didn’t appear to relish the prospect of getting clattered on a particularly parky afternoon at the Potteries. As evidenced by Arsène choosing to replace Theo with Iwobi for the last 20 mins, when recently it’s usually been the more energetic Joel Campbell that gets hooked. Although the Ox made a decent fist of it, it was a big ask of him to fill the boots that had been vacated by the sore tootsies of our German playmaker.

Yet on an afternoon where I feared we might be fatigued by the high-drama of our midweek efforts at Anfield, if we were bereft of the ingenuity to give Butland more of a work out, there were plenty of positives at the opposite end of the pitch. It’s almost becoming routine to the point of not being noteworthy, when the serene magnificence of Petr Cech once again comes to our rescue. If Cech’s composure is reminiscent of Seaman in his pomp, there was something equally nostalgic in the sight of the linesman at the Britannia responding with such frequent regularity, to our back four stepping up in unison with arms raised.

There’s no substitute for the sort of intuitiveness that derives from a defence that remains unchanged, game in, game out and thereby acts as a single unit. Doubtless I’m tempting fate for our backline to leave Costa all alone to score against us next Sunday, but with us seemingly having begun to develop the discipline and the confidence to know that there are no stragglers, there’s something decidedly satisfying, an almost balletic quality, in seeing all their arms raised as one, with an authority that almost guarantees that the linesman will acquiesce.

It could be said that with so many awkward awaydays to come, the Gunners have wasted an opportunity to firmly establish ourselves as the front runners. But my feeling has always been that if we could ride out our injury woes, while keeping ourselves in the title frame, we will be well placed to use the return of some of our star players, hopefully fresh, fit and raring to go, as a springboard to mount a real charge for glory. 

I only hope this begins with the return of Alexis and Özil for the Blues visit next weekend. With every other bugger taking advantage of Chelsea’s demise, it’s high time for a return of the natural order of things in the capital, with the Gunners demonstrating the shallow façade of mere monetary achievement, by finally demolishing the upstarts.

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Monday 11 January 2016

The Red & White Cup Runneth Over

Who's bright idea was the green kit?
Judging by the irritatingly incessant whining of the WOB, despite the fact that we’re currently looking down on every other club in the country, there are far too many Gooners, who simply can’t comprehend that the vast majority of footie fans spend their entire lifetimes waiting, mostly in vain, for their teams to win something.

With our own comparatively trifling, nine-year sojourn in the silverware-starved wilderness interrupted by the euphoria of successive, memorable May day outings to Wembley, this adds a certain spice to the recommencement of a journey that many seem to feel is now destined to always culminate in another end of season trophy party. But then it’s been so long since we last lost an FA Cup encounter that I guess it’s inevitable that we’ve become somewhat blasé. Folk seem to forget that every cup run requires a large slice of good fortune.

In spite of the incremental efforts to sabotage the highlight of the sporting calendar that is the 3rd round of the FA Cup, myself I’ve always adored this unique convergence of clubs from contrasting tiers of the football cake. The increased allocation of tickets for away fans will often result in a stonking atmosphere. Yet there’s simply no accounting for the incompetence involved in Sunderland returning around half of their tickets, too late, apparently for them to go back on sale to us Gooners.

The FA badly need to address the fact that there were far too many empty seats all over the shop this weekend. A good start would be for clubs to acquiesce to the “Twenty’s Plenty” campaign. Instead of Black Cats’ bums on seats prior to Saturday’s KO, there was a large banner draped across the empty section promoting this effort to limit costs for the travelling hard core to 20 quid.

Moreover, the rotation that results from prioritising Premiership ambitions sends the sort of signal that inevitably has a detrimental impact upon the intensity and focus of those involved. As evidenced by Laurent's uncharacteristic lapse in concentration, in gifting our guests the opening goal!

In the absence of the customary 3rd round fervour on the pitch, combined with the muted atmosphere off it, sadly Saturday’s encounter was a perfect example of the creeping diminution of the traditional cup “blood and thunder”. Still with BFS railing about their midweek relegation “nine-pointer” v Swansea, if Sunderland were gentle as a result, I guess we should be grateful that Cattermole & co. didn’t leave their customary black & blue marks on the Gunners. Seemingly everyone in the stadium, bar ref Atkinson, was convinced Giroud had been brought down in the box during the second half, but it speaks volumes that this match transpired without a single nasty tackle of note!

Watmore Jeff?
Iwobi hasn’t exactly pulled up any trees on the odd occasion that I’ve seen him play as a central striker for our U21s, but playing behind Giroud in Saturday’s rare run-out, he was about the only Arsenal player who looked really up for it in the first-half, as he was at least trying to make something happen.

Unlike Man Utd, we might not have taken a tedious 70mins to produce a shot on goal, but with five players on the park with alleged attacking instincts, it was particularly disappointing that we failed to put the prosaic Black Cats under the cosh.

After Sunderland took the lead some suggested that they’d rather see us lose than risk blowing vital Premiership points against Chelsea, as a result of a midweek replay. Mercifully we didn’t have to wait long for Joel Campbell’s retort and while this performance might’ve been far from the Gunners at our scintillating best, there was cause for optimism that this goal and the two subsequent peaches were all straight out of the “football made easy” book, as extremely pleasing on the eye, slick, passing moves.

Our cup might’ve runneth over and out if Sunderland hadn’t fluffed two great chances following the break, but after Ramsey came on and snaffled our second, there seemed little fight left in the relegation threatened, Wearside mongrels. I was hoping that the Ox would grab his recent opportunity of some proper game-time, but he and Gibbs both failed to impress and with pace being his greatest threat, it’s really hard to fathom why Walcott appears so reluctant to run in behind the opposition’s back-line.

Joel or Hector MOTM?
I was also disappointed that Reine-Adelaide only enjoyed a cameo late run-out, when the game was already won. This elegant teenage midfielder covers the ground with the sort of effortless grace that’s reminiscent of the panther-like Henry on the prowl and we’re all impatiently waiting to see if he can truly cut the top flight mustard. The consensus is that Bellerin was MotM, but I think Campbell shaded it. It must be unsettling knowing he’ll be sidelined as soon as Alexis returns, but after so many seasons in the shadows, it would be foolish to let Joel fly the coop just right now.

With Klopp struggling to muster a team from his decimated squad, Wednesday’s trip to Anfield is looking less daunting. If the unknown Elneny is the only guaranteed acquisition, with crucial matches coming thick and fast surely Jeff will be let off the leash before long? Obviously a home draw in the 4th round would be most expedient, but if not, please could we at least be presented with an unusual awayday outing?

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Sunday 3 January 2016

Where's Your Brolly Wally?

"1-0 to the Arsenal"
I recall watching such a mediocre Man Utd earlier in the season and wondering how on earth they were managing to remain there, or thereabouts, in touch with the league leaders. Similarly, I’m sure that any neutral watching our lacklustre win over Newcastle on Saturday would’ve found it barely credible that they were witnessing the current title favourites, in the process of going two points clear at the top of the table.

The afternoon looked like turning out to be even more profitable, when it appeared as if we were destined to stretch our lead over Man City to a somewhat more significant 5 or 6 points. Having dashed back home from the Arsenal, to watch the late KO on the box and with the plucky Hornets retaining their goal advantage, right up until the 82nd minute, it seemed as if the gods were really smiling down upon us Gooners on Saturday.

Our own 3-0 win at Vicarage Road was decidedly flattering and what with Spurs snatching a somewhat undeserved winner right at the death in Watford's last outing, even when City equalized, I thought that surely they were due to at least deny City a couple of points, by holding out for a draw. Seemingly Sagna had other intentions, seeing the 32-year old full-back storming down the flank in the 84th minute. Bakary appeared intent on dishing out some rough justice to all those Gooners who’d booed him at our place a couple of weeks back, by whipping in the cross for Aguero’s winner and thereby denying us a far more comfortable cushion, over the most obvious threat to our title aspirations.

Although I can appreciate the perceived treachery felt for any player who mercenarily forsakes the red and white cause to serve another pay-master, there are those former heroes who roundly deserve being given the bird by our crowd and those who’ve spent the majority of their career providing such loyal service that I’m always left feeling particularly uncomfortable, hearing their every touch booed upon their return to the club in an opponent’s colours.

Sleeper cell, or deserved payday
& a dreadlock holiday
I certainly felt that Sagna merited a more magnanimous reception. Not only can I not begrudge him wanting one last big payday before hanging up his boots, but with him having suffered a Samson-like disaster the one and only time he attempted to rid himself of his dated Bo Derek style dreads at the Arsenal, I often wondered if a motivating factor for his move was Baks desperate desire to finally see the back of his twee looking “Barnet”.

Who knows, perhaps much like Cesc Fabregas, Arsène’s apparent sleeper cell at Stamford Bridge, Sagna is merely inveigling himself into Pellegrini’s plans as a more permanent first choice, prior to perpetrating the ultimate act of sabotage, as this campaign reaches its climax? Truth be told, we might well end up requiring such chicanery and all the external aid we can get, if the Gunners are to carry on in such a complacent looking fashion as Saturday’s lamentably leaden-footed triumph.

Ultimately I was just delighted that Koscielny eventually found a means of securing the all-important three points, which meant that my brother-out-of-law might be invited back again. Sure with Petr Cech saving our bacon yet again, there was plenty of satisfaction in seeing the Gunners being able to win quite so ugly, when this essential title winning attribute has been on the missing list for much of the past decade.

Yet with Dave over from Dublin for his first match since we departed Highbury, it was disappointing that the Gunners failed to light up such a depressingly rain-sodden afternoon, with this encounter lacking even the odd isolated moment of "worth the price of admission alone", trophy-winning type example of the beautiful game (as evidenced in City’s two game-saving strikes).

With Özil’s body language frequently demonstrating his frustration at the lack of vitality of those around him, the miserable weather seemed to reflect the Gunners’ mood, as in the majority of them looking as if they’d much rather be elsewhere! It was only when Campbell came on for the last 20 minutes and really started putting himself about that the Costa Rican’s energy truly put into focus the comparative lethargy of the likes of the Ox, Walcott and Ramsey.

Wenger was on the verge of resorting to throwing the young Reine-Adelaide into the fray to try and conjure up some inspiration. The youngster was stripped off and waiting to come on, only for us to be denied an opportunity of seeing if he can cut the mustard, as he was promptly sent back to the bench when Laurent poked home what proved to be the decisive goal. So as the stadium finally rocked with a wave of euphoric relief, my own unconfined joy was tinged with a slight hint of sadness.

Hopefully the French midfielder won’t be left waiting too long, as he’ll likely play some part in next Saturday’s FA Cup encounter with BFS’ Black Cats. Doubtless with this being timed to demonstrate that Arsène isn’t quite so desperate to splash the cash, with more resources to be discovered from within. Whether or not Wenger reinvigorates our squad, by availing himself of a bulging wallet, we’re certainly desperate for some spark to reignite our recent indifferent form, with the return of Alexis’ dynamism the most likely source.
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