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Sunday 28 February 2016

No Heart, No Guts.....No Glory!

Theatre of our worst nightmares
If the Gunners’ pale imitation of genuine Premiership contenders over the past few months left me doubting our ability to go on and win the title, it felt as if Sunday’s defeat at Old Trafford was the kicker!

We travelled to Manchester with plenty of trepidation, at the prospect of a potential hangover from Tuesday night’s disappointment. Not that I was actually expecting an out of sorts Arsenal side to beat possibly the best team on the planet, but I was left seriously dejected following our defeat to Barca, with Messi’s second goal demolishing my faint hopes of us travelling to Catalonia in three weeks time with the tie still in the balance.

Sadly the team seemed to be equally deflated, as the Gunners simply weren’t at the races on Sunday. Journeying up to the North-West with their man-bags bulging with fancy smelling toiletries, it was so depressing that they couldn’t find room for just a little more heart.

When I looked at LVG’s line-up prior to kick-off, with Martial joining Utd’s long list of walking wounded and with Carrick and Blind as makeshift centre-backs, I thought that if ever there was an opportunity for us to break our decade long league duck at Old Trafford, this was it.

However, instead of seizing upon a prime opportunity to impose our superior ability upon this game and put Man Utd’s wounded lion out of it’s misery, the Arsenal seemed to arrogantly expect our hosts to stand there and watch us walk the ball into the back of the net.

Aside from Monreal lacking a finisher’s composure to make the most of a golden opportunity in the opening moments and Man Utd going to sleep for Özil’s set-piece and gifting us a route back into this game at the end of the first-half, De Gea barely had anything to do for the first forty-five minutes.

Listening to the commentary of events at White Hart Lane on my radio earpiece, it was of some slight consolation that Spurs were also losing. Yet unlike us, it sounded as if they were positively pummeling the Swans goal, in their efforts to turn this game around and we only had the goalkeeping feats of Flappy-handski to thank for thwarting the old enemy. By contrast, even the shock of conceding two quick goals couldn’t stir us from our insipid, lacklustre failure to put Man Utd’s goal under any real pressure.

With Giroud suffering from an eight game goal drought, I can understand Arsène wanting to shake things up. Yet while Welbeck and Alexis ran around a lot, none of our intricate passing moves were coming off and the thoroughly useless appendage of Theo Walcott was so anonymous that I almost forgot that he was out there.

In spite of the glimmer of hope offered by Welbeck’s goal just before the break, I remained pessimistic. I sat there at half-time knowing full well that this Arsenal side lacks character, the sort of leadership and personality of someone to stand up in the dressing room and demand “this ain’t gonna happen”.

So while Spurs continued to demonstrate their credentials, by dragging themselves back in front against Swansea and maintaining the pressure upon Leicester, even with the introduction of Giroud, the Gunners never really looked capable of turning up the heat sufficiently to rescue all three points. In fact, as the game wore on, we looked more in danger of being hit by another sucker punch and Herrera duly obliged.

With the Premiership’s penchant for late drama, in the past I would’ve never quite given up the ghost of getting something out if this game. Yet even after Özil snatched a second, it felt as if we might perhaps get lucky a nick a draw, but there was never any sense of the Gunners having the “cojones” to pull three points out of such a demoralized bag.

Unless we can we pick ourselves up off the floor in time to repeat Spurs feat of beating Swansea on Wednesday night, I certainly won’t be optimistic about our trip to the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road next weekend. Where we might well end up with the limit of our ambitions being to try and prevent Tottenham torturing us further, by challenging for a title that really should’ve been ours for the taking!

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Sunday 21 February 2016

Leo Messi Must've Been Left Quaking In His Boots

Wot no Mars Bars
Having only just filed the following missive to the Irish Examiner, it occurs to me that I've done ourselves a slight injustice. I sensed plenty of eager anticipation in the air as I meandered my way to yesterday's game (although 12.45 KO doesn't allow for much meandering, but at least it wasn't a tardy mad dash like last weekend!).

We were all hoping Danny Welbeck's last gasp goal would be the springboard for something special. But as it began raining the moment the game started, it was as if this doused all our enthusiasm and when nothing materialised from our early domination, all our former frustration resurfaced when we realised that sadly, it was merely more of the "same old, same old".

Watching Blackburn v WHU on the box, I've just witnessed Dmitri Payet pretty much secure the Hammers place in the hat for the quarterfinal draw, with another stunning free-kick, in front of an impressive turn out of Irons fans at Ewood Park. We might well fill that stand behind the goal at Rovers, but as I've just texted my WHU pal, the difference would probably be that I'd be standing there struggling to hear the dulcet strains of cockney, amidst all the Northern Gooners array of accents.

Can rely on Alexis to grab it
now if only he could start to do something with it?
I'm sitting here enviously thinking how we could've done with a similar inspirational moment, to save me from an arduous outing to Hull in a few weeks time. Although it was only the Hull keeper's fingertips that denied Joel Campbell and credit to Alexis, as unlike all those who spent most of the 90 shirking any responsibility, he did at least demonstrate the determination to earn that last minute set piece and grabbed the ball, intent on trying to decide the tie, but sadly it proved a "meat & drink" save, in spite of their goalie's spectacular aerobatics.

Another thing I was prevented from mentioning below (having already abused the required number of words!) was quite how refreshing it was during the first-half against Hull, to finally witness an inventive corner, where Theo (?) attempted a routine straight off the training ground, instead of our habitual stream of "hit & hope" corners

Considering the endless amount of time spent with the ball at their feet at London Colney, it infuriates the hell out of me when we earn a dozen corners during a game, seemingly without any set-piece surprises up our sleeve, in order to at least be able to attempt something different once in a blue moon.

Meanwhile what pissed me off most about yesterday's game was that the same Gooners who were happy to sing their heads off last weekend, couldn't raise a squeak of encouragement to try and stoke up some atmosphere. Sadly, as ever at our place, the inspiration has to come from on the pitch, rather than from us fans.

Watching the tourists seated in front of me, cowering at the increasing decibels of my ever more desperate pleas for someone in red & white to pull something out of the hat as the clock ticked down, it was obvious that there were no other travelling fans in my vicinity and it honestly felt as if I was the only person bothered about a long trek up North for the replay, as I implored the Gunners for all my worth, in the vain hope they might save me from this fate.

Here's hoping that's "inspiration" they've all spotted
An unappealing 5th round replay up at the KC Stadium is one of those outings that's designed to sort the hard core faithful, from the Gooner glory hunters. Yet when there's the possibility of an extra-time / penalties denouement, there will be many who dare not miss out.

Also, hard as it might be to put a positive slant on cramming another fixture into an already crowded calendar, from a psychological point of view I'm not entirely averse to the idea that our Premiership rivals might be left looking over their shoulders, fretting about the fact that we only need win games in hand to overtake them.

Finally, forgive me for repeating the reference to US elections below but I've included it in the feint hope that it might not end up being edited out, as if to prove how au fait I am with current affairs, or perhaps more accurately that I don't spend every waking moment watching footie!


Leo Messi Must've Been Left Quaking In His Boots

With the weather reflecting the mood of far too many apathetic Gooners, who seemed to feel that our FA Cup date was an untimely distraction, the early kick-off against Hull coincided with the heavens opening up. Even without the much-despised midday start, with the Tigers turning up on the heels of the high drama of last weekend’s summit meeting, it was destined to be a damp “after the Lord Mayor’s show” disappointment.

If the positively miserable conditions didn’t augur well, then the prospects of things brightening up certainly weren’t improved, when the radio commentary revealed the disturbing stat about us only winning 26 per cent of games with Mike Dean as ref.

As if to reaffirm his disfavour, Dean promptly failed to award a penalty. But it was too soon to start blaming his customary incompetence because everyone else in the stadium missed Bruce junior’s blatant handball. I would’ve been equally oblivious without my terrace tranny (and the inevitable wind up text message from my increasingly lary Spurs mates!).

With the game still goalless second half and facing the looming prospect of a replay, I was in a far less forgiving mood when Calum was felled from behind. This looked like a stick-on penalty from my viewpoint. By this time I was literally begging every Arsenal player within shouting range “I really don’t want to have to go to Hull!”

Ultimately, on an “after you Claude” afternoon, where no one appeared to want to take responsibility and where there was a frustrating lack of ingenuity evident in our incessant efforts to pick an intricate path through the massed ranks of Steve Bruce’s reserves, it was our lack of any real cutting edge that leaves us having to schlep back up to Humberside for a repeat performance.

Nevertheless, according to the obligatory cliché “at least we were still in the hat” come the final whistle. Some might argue that we’d have been better off finally taking our FA Cup bow, rather than risk more fixture congestion impinging on our title prospects.

However, unless we do proper justice to ourselves in Tuesday night’s titanic clash, our Champions League campaign might be all over, bar a ritual humiliation in Barcelona. I certainly wouldn’t want to be travelling to Old Trafford next Sunday, feeling only slightly less suicidal than our hosts, on the back of having pretty much made our exit from both competitions. Man Utd certainly won’t favour us with an open encounter, with LVG desperate to save his bacon after their Danish humiliation.

If we’re to have any hope of beating Barca, we badly need Alexis to play himself into some form. Aside from denying him game time, it’s inevitable other players lose focus when they see the big guns benched. I always believe there’s far more benefit in playing our best XI, only allowing them a breather after they’ve put the game to bed with a couple of goals; whereas there’s nothing to be gained by throwing them on to try and force the issue for the final 25 mins. They end up no less spent than if they’d been involved for the entire ninety.

Mo than enough
Elneny’s incisive passing and his appetite for the ball, during an entertaining opening spell, was at least one positive note. Albeit we were faced with Hull’s second string and it’s baffling why Wenger started with two defensively-minded midfielders and insisted on leaving both Mo and Matty out there for the duration, after having discovered that our guests ambitions barely stretched beyond the halfway line?

With TV milking as much live coverage as possible from the filthy lucre they’ve thrown at football, hopefully we won’t be lumbered with another early KO, to crucify the atmosphere again at the replay. With empty seats all over the shop on Saturday, I honestly couldn’t give away my neighbour’s unused ticket, I dread to think of the unearthly hour that the 3,000 Tigers’ fans had to drag themselves out of bed for the long trek down from Humberside.

         Amidst all the brouhaha about fleecing fans, it is infuriating that we Gooners get stung for Cat A price tickets at every other ground, but the 40 quid average cost for the 27 home games covered by my Arsenal season ticket is really not bad value entertainment nowadays. While we’re pleading poverty, tickets in the prawn circle for the ultimate glamour tie on Tuesday are changing hands for £500!

Following successive midday games, I’m convinced that the incessant messing with the fixture schedules, the resulting ruination of sacrosanct matchday rituals and the utter contempt for the sacrifices involved in schlepping the length and breadth of the country (and the continent), is a source of far more disgruntlement amongst the hard core, so long as the accountants seem intent on strangling the breath out of the beautiful game’s Golden Goose.

If Bernie Sanders, the proverbial red emerging from under his bed, by illiberal US standards and running for the presidential nomination across the pond, is indicative of an impending revolution, then first up against the wall will be those responsible for inflicting unreasonable, impractical and extremely unpopular kick-off times that are fast becoming the bane of long-suffering supporters’ existence.

Meanwhile I fancy the Gunners might fare better against Barca at Camp Nou. The limit of my ambition for the first leg is that Messi & co. don’t end up extinguishing all hope, in advance of our much anticipated outing to Catalonia. Above all, we can’t afford the sort of confidence bruising humiliation and the potential recriminations of a lasting hangover that would be of great comfort to our Premiership rivals. All together now “Who are ya!"

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Friday 19 February 2016

Wanted.....Debt Or Alive

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Danny's Back...And With Some Bang!

You'll have to forgive me for failing to post the following missive out last Sunday. I didn't even send out a link to the column in the Irish Examiner that appeared in Monday's paper, as has been my somewhat lazy habit in recent times.

With someone like Bernie Saunders, who appears to be as close to the proverbial "red under the bed" by illiberal US standards, seemingly capturing the imagination of a disillusioned populace, in the contest for the US presidential nomination across the pond, perhaps the revolution is not so far off?

However I've always sworn that when that day eventually dawns, first up against the wall in my world will be those responsible for such ridiculously impractical, unreasonable and unpopular kick-off times as noon on a Sunday!

As a result, with so many Sunday games nowadays, my responsibilities to the Examiner are fast become the bane of my existence. I was left so emotionally and physically drained after the high-drama of last Sunday's victory over Leicester that I would've much preferred to have returned home to wallow in our success, with my feet up in front of the TV, savouring the coverage of the subsequent encounters.

Instead of which, I was obliged to dash back and get my head stuck into my laptop, in order to bash out the following 800 words in time to meet the newspaper's deadline, whilst not wanting to add to the stress of the editorial folks in Cork, who were struggling to put Monday's paper to bed, in the face of there being so much action with both the round and silly-shaped balls on Sunday.

Consequently, I'm often left with the decidedly unsatisfying feeling that I've failed to do proper justice to the occasion. Instead of me focusing fully on the ensuing TV coverage of events at the Etihad, to try and ensure the draw that would serve to our best benefit, in typically illogical fashion, I end up feeling entirely responsible for Spurs taking the three points that would maintain the irritating hype about Pochettino's push for the title, on account of my failure to concentrate on the match, whilst reflecting on the fact that I've left out more significant thoughts from my missive below than I've managed to include.

Unfortunately for all of you, instead of being let off lightly with the more succinct (by my long-winded standards!) version of my weekly contribution, doubtless you've been waiting with baited breath for me to find the time to expound on Sunday's immediate, post-match reaction.

At least I was done and dusted in plenty of time to enjoy watching the highlights later that night on MOTD2. Along with every other Gooner, I was incensed that the Beeb's coverage failed to even mention Morgan's blatant foul at the other end of the pitch, when this resulted in the turnover of possession that led to Vardy being gifted a penalty.

Also, with others having suggested to me that Giroud was their choice of MOTM, after seeing the highlights I couldn't help but admit that I'd been somewhat harsh on Olivier below. Yet despite having been persuaded that our centre-forward certainly wasn't short on effort, I was still left with the abiding sense that Huth and Morgan had pretty much won the day, in keeping Olly quiet and that there was more than one instance in Sunday's match, where I was left thinking that an in form Giroud would've made more of his opportunities, either by getting his head on the ball and imparting sufficient power to bury it in the bottom corner, or where if he was really on his game, we would've witnessed Olly making the sort of instinctive near post runs that would've resulted in him making contact with the ball to direct it goalwards.

Along with every other Gooner, I'm hoping that Sunday's last second triumph will light the touch-paper for a concerted title charge because once the euphoria from the weekend had abated, in the cold light of day, we have to admit that the Gunners are badly in need of a moment such as this, to act as the catalyst, a turning point between the lacklustre Arsenal displays of late and a team that's bristling with genuine belief that nothing can thwart us from becoming champions.

Judging by the fact that I've seen no further mention, it would appear as if few Foxes fans chose to participate in any ticket price protest at the start of Sunday's encounter. Mind you, I very nearly found myself inadvertently joining in, by missing the first five minutes of the match. I was sitting in my car, listening to Arsène Wenger on the radio, thinking I had loads of time to get to my seat for a 12.30 KO, when to my horror, I suddenly realised I could hear the unmistakeable sound of the music coming from the PA system, announcing the two teams arrival onto the pitch.

Following a mad dash, I just made it out onto the terraces of the East Lower as the match kicked off and for once, I found myself as one of those annoying people, tardily taking their seat, enquiring if I'd missed anything noteworthy!

Listening to Wenger speak on the radio, only minutes earlier, I was convinced that the fact that Ranieiri has created such a formidable threat to the traditional Premiership hierarchy on such a shoestring budget, by comparison to the clubs who've all invested billions, in pursuit of the Holy Grail of Champions League football, the prospect of the Foxes actually pulling off such a miracle is potentially so embarrassing that Arsène and the other managers of the usual "top four" suspects must be absolutely desperate to see Ranieri's bandwagon derailed.

Otherwise they will all be left facing awkward questions from both the suits and the supporters, as to how it is that they are unable to unearth lower league goal poachers such as Vardy, or why they require upwards of £50-60 million, when the likes of N'golo Kanté (who has to be overtaking Dmitri Payet as the best buy of last summer) was available for a tenth of the this sort of exorbitant cost.

I imagined that as a result, such would be Wenger's desire for our multi-million pound stars to impose their quality on this encounter and put the Leicester jokers back in their box that I was expecting us to be suitably pumped from the opening whistle on Sunday. Maybe the club needs some "out of the box" thinking, waking the squad up at 4am and moving all the clocks forward, to try and fool the players' body-clocks because as is so often the case, we never seem to start playing until the second half of these early KOs.

Doubtless it's old news for the vast majority out there, but I also found it most amusing to discover that the Gunners have supposedly poached Leicester's greatest asset, Ben Wrigglesworth, the man supposedly responsible for overseeing the signings of the likes of Kanté, Mahrez and Vardy. According to Lineker on Twitter we got the wrong man and even if he's the right one, surely there's no better example of shutting this particular stable door, after all the thoroughbred horses have bolted because after this sort of run of luck, the bloke is probably unlikely to find another decent player in his entire career!

For me, there was a moment in the first-half against the Foxes which was pretty much symbolic of the crucial difference between the two teams and watching the incident again on MOTD2 that night, it appeared so much more exaggerated. Aaron Ramsey must've had a 30-yard head-start, when he was put through on goal, right in front of us and yet somehow Kasper Schmeichel came sprinting out of his area to beat Aaron to the ball.

If the Gunners were on song, Ramsey would've been on his toes, anticipating the through ball, but instead it was Kasper's absolute and total conviction that got him there first. Perhaps Aaron remains plagued by memories of Shawcross scything him down and shattering his limb, but I had the distinct sense that Ramsey would've won this race, if only he'd matched Schmeichel's commitment.

My colander-like memory is so woeful nowadays that I really can't trust it, but I'm sure there was at least one other incident during Sunday's game, in which the ball was played into that "corridor of uncertainty" in front of Schmeichel's goal and whistled harmlessly past. It might've been Mesut who came closest to diverting the ball into the net, I can't be certain, but whoever it was, I was left with the impression that if the Gunners were totally fired up and 100% certain that the title is ours for the taking, we would've witnessed the sort of commitment that would've resulted in him sliding at full stretch to get something on the end of this ball.

An encounter with an in-form Hull side this Saturday should prove a pleasant enough distraction and despite the imminent arrival of Barca next Wednesday night, hopefully Arsène will put out a strong enough side for us to be able to maintain our assault on a third successive FA Cup. Exiting this competition wouldn't be such a disaster in itself, but personally I can't help but feel that no matter how we do it, its absolutely vital for us to maintain the winning mood in the camp right now.

With many Gooners thinking that the game was up, after Chambers had replaced Koscielny at half-time on Sunday, Calum subsequently earned deserved plaudits for his composed performance. However, we need bear in mind the context because after Simpson had been sent off. Vardy was left up front merely to attempt to relieve some of the relentless pressure on the Foxes defence and mercifully Chambers wasn't exactly put through the wringer.

I'm sure I wouldn't be alone in being in need of a change of trousers, if he and the lumbering BFG were left to contain Messi, Neymar, Suarez and the rest of the Catalan cohorts next Wednesday night. It might go against all logic, but my instinct is that we might be likely to do better against Barca in the Nou Camp in the return leg than we will in the next week's daunting home game, where roared on by 100,000 lunatic Catalans, the Spanish Galacticos will be under more pressure to put on a show for their adoring fans. I won't be so surprised if the likes of Alexis and Walcott are more likely to find the sort of space on the counter, to do some real damage at the Nou Camp?

Yet whatever the outcome next Weds night, as far as I'm concerned, the most important thing is for us to be able to come away with our pride intact, after having put on the sort of respectable display that does suitable justice to our ability, in order for us to be able to carry the spark of momentum from Sunday's victory, out onto the park at Old Trafford the following weekend.

With all the media talk of how Spurs have stamped their title credentials, by beating a porous Man City, we urgently need to snuff out any perceived threat from the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road. The comments of Tim Sherwood and Danny Murphy might've rankled (I thought Sherwood was supposed to be a Gooner?), but based on recent form, I'm afraid that I struggle to argue with their contention about Spurs title credentials.

As scornful as I might be of statistics (compared to the indisputable evidence of my own eyes), I'm afraid that there's no arguing with Spurs superior goal difference and the fact that their recent record of results has afforded the enemy and the likes of Alli, Dyer and Aldeirweld the sort of momentum and confidence that makes their challenge appear far more credible than our own at present.

There is an argument that at the end of the day, Spurs might've done us a favour by taking points off Man City. But unless Kompany is to recapture his former resolve, City's defence will continue to concede goals and I remain unconvinced that a lame-duck manager, such as Pellegrini has now become, can motivate Man City to raise their game sufficiently to recover the box seat in the title challenge. How does the Engineer inspire his troops to put everything on the line in the remaining dozen games for the club, when they know he's out the door at the final whistle?

Myself, I can't help but wonder if Thierry Henry espied a significant indicator as to the lack of spirit in the City camp, when he remarked in his punditry of Sunday's encounter at the fact that Ihenacho was left celebrating such a significant equaliser, by the corner flag all on his lonesome?

To my mind, it's important that in the continued absence of Vertonghen, someone puts a spoke in Spurs solid defensive record because hopefully, the moment their backline begins to crack, all the memories of Spurs eternal fragility will come flooding back to haunt them.

Nevertheless, no matter how much the competition continues to insist on contributing to handing their opponents the title, on a plate, during the run-in to the climax of this season's campaign, or a renaissance at Stamford Bridge has Chelsea intent on playing a significant part in deciding who inherits their crown, or even if one of the challengers finally mounts a seriously consistent charge for the finishing line, if the Gunners are to prevail in this season's marathon, ultimately it has got to be of our own making.

The form table which flashed up on screen during MOTD2 showing green and red flashes for clubs' respective results in the last five games was pretty damming and for all the ecstasy of last Sunday's win, if we're entirely frank, up until now, (no matter what the bookies might say!) we've looked far from being genuine title favourites.

In selecting my best XI for last Sunday's "Fans verdict on title contenders" in the Observer, the only real dilemma was whether to include Mertesacker or Gabriel. I know there are many Gooners who believe that the BFG's best days are behind him and that the sooner Gabby becomes the regular first-choice the better. Myself I've yet to see enough of Gabriel, against top class opposition, for me to be convinced that he is the long-term solution.

I adore Gabby's wholehearted attitude and am certain that our somewhat introverted, undemonstrative squad needs as much of this sort of commitment as we can get. Yet Gabby looked as nervous as a kitten in that first-half against Bournemouth the other week, against a team who defends from the front and watching him offload the ball, like a hot potato, I can't help question if he's yet to acquire the necessary composure.

Doubtless we will find out who's best suited to play alongside Koscielny, depending upon which of the two receives the poisoned chalice of being selected to play against Barca. But for my money, so long as Per has the protection from Coquelin, screening our defence, I'd be inclined to go with Mertesacker's experience, despite the threat of Barca taking advantage of the BFG's obvious lack of pace.

Yet in light of what subsequently transpired on Sunday, it was remarkable that as a result of his long ten-month absence, Danny Welbeck didn't even enter my thinking, when considering our best XI! I suppose it was somewhat inevitable that I'd forgotten about the Gunners' forgotten man and even if everyone was fit, I'm not sure I'd be happy to drop Ramsey, in favour of Welbeck playing out on our flank.

Never mind a best XI, what is far more important, as far as I'm concerned, is that even if Danny's goal-scoring record and his finishing leaves a lot to be desired, his attitude and his energy-level might be just what the doctor ordered, as this campaign reaches the final bend and enters an exhausting finishing straight.

Watching Spurs on the box in recent weeks, I've commented on the fact that they appear to have more strength in depth on the bench, compared to our lack of obvious game-changers (unless Kieran Gibbs is set to regularly repeat the sort of game-saving goal he scored against the enemy). So it's wonderful to have Welbeck back in contention and I would've imagined that there will be no one in the Arsenal squad who's more keen to have an impact at Old Trafford and again really make them regret their mistake of letting him go.

After last night's humiliation in Denmark and their defeat to Sunderland, LVG is going to be feeling like a wounded lion, absolutely desperate to get the smallest crumb of comfort out of our game against them. I therefore won't be at all surprised if the Dutchman opts for an unambitious line-up, determined to at least salvage a face-saving draw against one of the so-called title contenders.

I therefore feel that if I'm to be convinced of our title credentials, the game at Old Trafford is absolutely crucial and that we need to use the spark from Welbeck's last gasp winner and Danny's added energy to truly fire us up, into producing the sort of peerless form that we've so patently lacked to date, where we've only managed to really produce the goods in such sporadic fits and spurts.

When I see the Ox charging about the pitch with the same intensity of Alexis, instead of grumpily going about his game, as if he's doing us all a great favour when he occasionally pulls his finger out, or Aaron imperiously strutting his stuff and timing his runs to perfection, instead of being caught on his heels, when Olly's near post runs inevitably result in the opposition keeper picking the ball out of the back of the net and when the Gunners finally demonstrate the sort of match winning form that screams their determination to be triumphant, only then will I truly begin to believe.

And for my money, if last Sunday's encounter wasn't the line in the sand, between nicking a last minute win against Leicester and dishing out a soul destroying defeat over LVG's seriously damaged goods, it ain't never going to happen. As they say, if not now, when?


Danny's Back...And With Some Bang!

Now that's what I'm talking about
The former Arsenal trademark of applying such relentless pressure, right at the death, so that flagging opponents inevitably succumb, seems to have become a rare phenomenon in recent times. Doubtless the wall-to-wall media hype was partially responsible for our euphoric post-match celebrations, which were so fulsome that one might have thought that the Gunners had just guaranteed the title, with our last gasp spoke in the wheel of the Foxes' bandwagon.

Yet amidst this explosion of unconfined joy at having eventually managed to restore the natural order of things, with Danny Welbeck’s winner on Sunday, I found myself struggling to recall the last occasion when we enjoyed an equally dramatic “football, bloody hell!” moment.

I guess you have to go back to the Cup Final of a couple of year back, but last gasp goals seem so few and far between nowadays that I was relieved to have worn my longjohns, as I’m embarrassed to admit that my own eruption involved a (mercifully minor!) loss of control of my bladder!

Normally, in a game of such magnitude, I’d be bellowing out my “never say die” encouragement, until my voice failed, or the final whistle blew. Yet when Mesut Özil finally found the touch that had been eluding him for most of the afternoon, with five minutes left on the clock and picked out an unmarked Mertesacker with a perfectly flighted ball, only for the BFG to glance a rare free header wide, it felt as if this might be the significant moment that we’d be left pointing to, for the remainder of a depressing climax to this campaign, when the Gunners blew both the three points and the title.

I spent most of the remaining minutes with my head in my hands, almost unable to watch as the seconds ticked away, towards yet another agonizingly frustrating date, with the unfulfillment of being the Premiership’s perennial also-rans.

Mind you, I originally thought the game was up when Nacho dangled a leg out just before the break. Vardy needed no persuading to accept this foolhardy invitation to take a tumble and when ref Atkinson duly obliged by awarding the spot-kick, it seemed almost inevitable that we would be left chasing the game second-half and even more susceptible to Leicester’s lightning counter-attacks.

Seeing Chambers put through his paces on the pitch during half-time only suggested that there was more bad news to come. It felt symbolic when the floodlights suddenly lit up the stage, seconds after the restart, as if some bright spark was attempting to alleviate the worsening gloom and doom, with the realization that Koscielny was the casualty.

In a woeful refereeing display, where Atkinson didn’t appear to get any decisions right, Simpson’s sending off offered little encouragement. It was only going to leave the Foxes going to ground, battening down the hatches to hang onto their lead, when we badly needed our guests to be a little more adventurous, in order to find some space to really trouble Schmeichel.

I’d always felt that Özil, Alexis and Giroud all had to be in song, if we were ever going to dent the increasingly durable ring of confidence that’s encircled Ranieri’s impressive outfit. However sadly all three weren’t at the races and it was business as usual for our guests, with Kanté and Drinkwater looking like the only genuine thoroughbreds as they covered every blade of grass.

At least Alexis was trying to make something happen, but as has been the case since his return, nothing was coming off and about the only positive to be drawn from the first hour of this encounter was the obvious evidence of quite how much we’ve missed Coquelin’s ability to recover possession.

Mouth-to-mouth for a title challenge, Welbeck style
It was therefore apparent that Arsène was going “all in” when Franny was replaced by Walcott. Thankfully this gamble paid off, with Theo soon breathing life back into this contest, by banging in an equalizer. The transformation between Theo of late, lacking in any real conviction and the player who totally resuscitated the Arsenal with his zestful appetite, was remarkable and there followed a brief spell, when it looked as if we were about to put our quarry out of their misery.

Yet this swing in momentum began to peter out and le Prof was left turning to Danny Welbeck as a last throw of the dice. It was a delight just to see Danny back in harness after his interminable absence. Yet for him to pop up with such a crucial contribution might just be the catalyst that we’ve all been impatiently waiting for. Hopefully this will prove to be the marker-point between an Arsenal meandering unimpressively towards our fate and a team that’s finally found the scent of a title charge, inspiring the desire and the dexterity necessary for us to be masters of our own destiny?
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The Observer's "Fans verdict on title contenders" - better late than never?

My answers to the questions posed by the Observer for their feature, in case there's anyone who still wants to read them:

1) What is your prediction for the game? (Please give us your tip for an exact score, plus a quick explanation)


Arriving at the Emirates on the back of their humbling of the former title favourites, I fancy that the Foxes will prove an entirely different proposition to the team that we turned over 2-5 at the King Power back in September.

As ever, the outcome will be dependent upon which incarnation of the Gunners turns up. We badly need the likes of Alexis and Giroud to rediscover their mojo, so that in tandem with the magical promptings of Mesut Özil, we might have sufficient firepower to trouble Schmeichel. The big question is whether we can match the visitor’s zest and intensity in the middle of the park, in order to prevent the likes of Kanté and Drinkwater running amok. Ultimately it might prove a tale of the two keepers and whether Petr Cech can outshine our guest’s goal minder.

2) Will you win the title? If so, why? If not, why not?

Obviously my heart says yes, but there’s about as much conviction from my head as has been evident in our far too tepid form of late. Fitness permitting, the Gunners undoubtedly have the talented tools to go all the way, but sadly we’ve yet to witness proof of them having the necessary appetite.

The taxing nature of a title race puts the emphasis on the whole being greater than the sum of the individual parts. With Ramsey inheriting the injured Cazorla’s much coveted central role and the Ox finally liberated from the shackles of his sideline yoke, their seemingly blasé body language leaves us increasingly frustrated that the same level of intense desire on the terraces is not made manifest on the pitch. 

To date that ‘I want a winner’s medal and nothing is going to stop me’ type total commitment has been demonstrated almost exclusively by Alexis, while the majority of his team mates appear to expect it to be handed to them, gift-wrapped (leaving some of out star names open to accusations of merely going through the motions, keeping their powder dry for the Euros this summer). If the Gunners are to scale the summit and remain there, we have to hope our Chilean Duracell Bunny is infectious and that they all catch this same vibe…sharpish!

3) If you don't win the title, who will?

As long as it’s anyone but Spurs! Although it would be most amusing to see the Tinkerman making a complete mockery of the traditional hierarchy.

4) What are the three other games in the remaining fixture list that most worry you?

One always looks forward to a date with our neighbours at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road, with similar amount of enthusiasm that one has for a trip to the dentist! The outing to Goodison is a potential banana skin, immediately upon our return from conquering Messi & his Catalan cohorts. Then there’s the minor matter of winning the title at the Etihad on the penultimate weekend.

5) What's been the best moment of the season so far?

Blowing Man Utd away in the opening 20 mins has been somewhat belittled by their mediocrity since. Not sure whether Flamini silencing White Hart Lane with his stunning brace in the League Cup trumps Giroud bearing his hat-trick of gifts for the Greeks and thereby resuscitating our European adventure?

6) Who has been the key player and what do they bring?

The privilege of watching Mesut Özil is, as they say, worth the price of admission alone, but Petr Cech has proved key, since he’s earned the points that would’ve previously been squandered, with him possessing that special aura, which lends composure to our defence and causes opposition strikers to fluff their lines.

7) Who is your most underrated hero?

Never thought I’d be glad to see Gibbs on the bench, but Nacho Monreal has been the epitome of consistency so far this season.

8) And finally, please list your side's best XI....

With Jack Wilshere the forgotten man, our best XI pretty much picks itself. The only real debate is Gabriel or the BFG, yet despite his increasing resemblance to an oil tanker, Per seems sufficiently composed, when afforded Franny’s protection:

Cech, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal, Ramsey, Coquelin, Cazorla, Alexis, Özil, Giroud.

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Tuesday 9 February 2016

Oh I Do Love To Be Beside The Seaside

It was interesting that the club promptly relented last week, following the furore that resulted from their decidedly untimely decision to try and sting season ticket holders for an additional few quid. Seemingly due to the "Category A" nature of the last of our seven cup match credits, when Barcelona visit in a couple of weeks time, the club intended to add a small additional sum to next season's renewal cost, but big up to Lois Langton at AISA as her communication with the club seems to have played some part in persuading the PR dept. of the error of their ways as far as this surcharge was concerned.

Alexis doesn't mind stopping in the rain
Nevertheless, it was the fact that the suits at the club chose to alienate fans (even more!) at a time when we're in such dire need of the sort of unity required, to try and breathe some life back into our waning title challenge that only goes to demonstrate the complete and utter disconnect that exists between those running the Arsenal business.

Football in this country has always existed on the premise that the normal economic laws of supply and demand do not apply and that the loyalty of us fans is infinite. Nevertheless, as was ably demonstrated at the well supported walk-out 77 minutes into the match at Anfield this weekend, it would appear that some fans have finally chosen to make a stand, refusing to allow their beloved club to plumb the depths of their already empty pockets beyond all reason. 

I for one applaud their efforts. When Premiership clubs are all benefitting from the massive increase in TV and sponsorship revenues, on account of the huge global audience, it's high time that those supporters who are the very lifeblood necessary to create the live atmosphere which makes football quite so marketable, stand up and make it patently clear that we will accept "no mas"!

Mind you, even with extra-time and penalties, sadly a match wouldn't last long enough for Arsenal fans to stage a similarly timed walk-out to express our anger at the highest priced tickets at our place! Doubtless I'm being an idealistic dreamer but it would be amazing if there was the sort of solidarity amongst all supporters of Premiership football for further effective protests in the future.

The display by the Bayern fans at our place earlier in the season, in leaving their seats empty aside from a banner expressing their disgust at our ticket prices, with them all eventually marching into the stand in unison, this was brilliant. I would've imagined that it really wouldn't take long for the message to strike home with the powers that be, if they were faced with the serious threat of the embarrassing sight of huge swathes of empty terracing. Perhaps we need Bernie Saunders on the case because if he's seriously going to bring Wall Street to heel then Premiership ticket prices should prove very small potatoes!

Meanwhile, there's the small matter of bringing the hounds to heel for next weekend's fox hunt


Oh I Do Love To Be Beside The Seaside
Be it ever so humble
While the Gunners might've desperately needed to pocket all three points from our day out at the seaside, I'll be delighted if the Cherries go on to consolidate their highly-prized place in the Premiership because the humble, yet most hospitable environs of Dean Court stadium is a very welcome addition to the top flight.

With an allocation of only 1,100 away fans at the 11,000 seater stadium, Sunday's game was always this season's hottest ticket, with reports of our East Stand seats changing hands for utterly ridiculous sums (15 x their 33 quid face value!). It felt as if the weather was equally clement, with the bright sunshine that greeted our lunchtime arrival in Bournemouth.

Yet the sunny disposition of us Gooners soon gave way to exasperation, with the news that Coquelin and Campbell had been left on the bench. Considering the "make or break" nature of this encounter due to our recent slump, the consensus on the terraces was that Arsène had completely lost the plot, by leaving out the energetic Costa Rican in favour of the far less committed Ox and by failing to reinforce the somewhat ineffectual midfield pairing of Flamini and Ramsey.

With Elneny having disappeared due to his wife having given birth, we were left hoping that our new Egyptian midfielder hasn't got himself a harem at home and a plethora of impending progeny that might mean we might never see him back. But none of us could fathom leaving Franny in reserve.

Watching the whole-hearted way in which the Foxes went about vanquishing City on Saturday, the thought of the relentless likes of Kanté and Drinkwater running rings around Flamini and Ramsey at our place next weekend is utterly horrifying. Yet what would be the point of Wenger keeping Coquelin fresh for this encounter, if we'd ended up losing against Bournemouth and struggling to peg back an eight point gap between us and the league leaders?

Although the travelling faithful were in good voice, the underlying indignation only intensified for the first twenty minutes or so on Sunday, as the blasé body language of the likes of Ramsey and the Ox was in such complete contrast to the intensity seen from a Leicester side, who really look as if they're relishing their opportunity, for what might well prove to be a once in a lifetime tilt at the title.

During this opening period, only our two star turns, Mesut and Alexis, looked capable of the sort of inspiration necessary to raise the entertainment level beyond the mundane. While of the rest of our outfield players, the Flamster appeared so wound up that he came far too close to ref Friend rewarding the Frenchman with an early bath; as for the rest their lukewarm and lackadaisical contribution only lends weight to the accusations that they're treading water, in the hope of retaining the wherewithal to be able to shine at the Euros this summer.

No stopping Mesut
However in typically fickle fashion, we were soon lauding Arsène's genius, when first Ramsey teed up Mesut's opener and then the Ox chipped in with his first league goal in sixteen long months. Nevertheless, while the two goals in such quick succession might've virtually killed this game as a contest (albeit with the customary aid of Petr Cech's unimpeachable consistency), in truth judging by the amount of time that we gifted the home side in dangerous areas, more clinical opposition might well have punished the way in which the Gunners subsequently took their foot off the gas.

I was hoping that we might go on and bury Bournemouth, with the likes of Giroud and Alexis banging in the goals that would enable us to face the daunting task of subduing the Foxes next Sunday (not to mention Barca nine days after that) full of confidence. Yet as the weather took a turn for the worse and the heavens opened up with the arrival of storm Imogen as we headed back to London, it was somewhat symbolic that it should’ve rained on our three point parade. 

Spurs nine-goal advantage leaves us languishing in third and while we might not have achieved the sort of convincing score line that could've made some inroads into this deficit, we're most grateful to have begun taking some baby steps towards dissipating the gloom and doom and to at least begin to repair the damage done in recent weeks.

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