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with me having procrastinated so long over posting this week's missive, to the point where it's already somewhat outdated, I assure you I won't take offence :-)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