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Friday 19 February 2016

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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