I had to finish the following piece in a mad rush, in order to get it filed to the paper prior to Monday's deadline, before dashing out of the house to get to Reading. Sadly I didn't end up leaving in time to meet up with a mate, as arranged, but with it only being a 45 mile drive, it wasn't such a big deal heading out on to the M4 on my tod.
Although it wasn't until I turned off the motorway that I really began to regret missing out on a lift, as I'd completely forgotten quite what a nightmare parking can be, in the concrete jungle around the Madjeski, for while my pal was able to park up in the shopping precinct adjacent to the ground, courtesy of his blue disabled badge, the local council must be absolutely coining it in, from all the other unsuspecting visiting fans who must regularly risk leaving their cars in what is an empty, terribly tempting pitch, so close to the stadium. From past experience I was at least aware that this is a guarantee of a parking ticket.
On the subject of Blue Badge holders, it seems that they've been cracking down on the abuse of disabled privileges around our new stadium, as there was a small crowd gathered at the top of Aubert Park after the Man Utd match, watching a tow truck picking up a large 4 x 4. I must admit that I also dallied briefly, I suppose attracted by the Schadenfreude of seeing the face of the owner returning to find their vehicle being removed.
But I didn't need to wait to revel guiltily in the misery of others, as it seem the tow trucks had been very busy during the course of the 90 minutes. Heading back to Highbury Quadrant, there's a spot at the top of our road which we've previously labelled "Cripple Corner" because of the proliferation of blue badges. I've always found it somewhat ironic on the many occasions I've been walking around to the game, late as ever, to see folks parking up in this spot, placing there badges on the dashboard and then literally sprinting from their cars, in an attempt to make KO. It would appear that folks have become so accustomed to being able to abuse these privileges that they've absolutely no shame, whereas in their shoes, I would at the very least feel obliged to limp a little, for the benefit of anyone watching!
Thus I couldn't help but feel slightly amused as I rounded the corner to discover a gaggle of gutted folks all sitting along a low wall, staring at the empty spaces previously occupied by their vehicles.
Meanwhile I might not have made my lift to Reading, but my efforts to do so meant that I arrived in plenty of time to spend half an hour driving around looking for somewhere to leave the car. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to bribe the attendants guarding the assorted car parks (for badge holders, hotel guests etc), I eventually gave up and was following the signs to the nearest "£10" parking, when I was fortunate to spot someone leaving their car on a grass verge, where there was room for one more small vehicle.
Although there's always some small satisfaction to be gained from finding free parking, to be honest, I'm often happpier stumping up, just for the reassurance of having somewhere safe to leave the car and knowing I don't have to spend the entire game fretting that a great result is going to end up soured, or bad day out capped by a fifty quid parking fine on returning to the car.
However one's exit from a huge car park can often add an extra hour to the journey and after driving around for so long, I was just keen to dump the motor and get to the game. What can I say, we ended the evening back on top of the table, having hardly been tested, there was no ticket on my windscreen when I got back to the car and I was out onto the motorway and back home relatively quickly. Does my life sound so sad, if I say it doesn't get much better?
After watching the weekend's games on Match of the Day, I wasn't feeling particularly optimistic about our prospects, as like ourselves, Man Utd look capable of scoring against anyone, but I have to admit that the Moaners appear somewhat more solid at the back. Although I wouldn't want to wish harm on anyone, let's put it this way, I wouldn't be so unhappy if Vidic ended up getting himself crocked for a couple of months (and even less miserable if he missed the rest of the season!).
Yet I was in a much more positive mood following my brief trip to Reading, The Royals might have managed to frustrate us, right up until Flamini (our defensive midfielder!!) arrived in the box to score the opening goal, but after that, once the home side were forced to come out of their shell in the second half and chase the game somewhat, instead of merely trying to prevent us from winning it, we literally sliced and diced them, with a performance where we were never really forced out of first gear.
The football that we savoured in the build up to our second and third goals (and the one that was incorrectly ruled offside) was pure poetry in motion. Although I'm sure most of those present behind the goal at the Madjeski will confirm that until we came out for the second half, with our tails up after the taking the lead on the stroke of halftime, we had looked a long way from playing at anywhere near our best.
I'm not going to name names but focusing on a couple of players with my binoculars during the first half, I gleaned the distinct impression that on a particularly brisk night, there were those in red & white who would've rather been elsewhere. Obviously I might be mistaken but after the adrenaline rush of performing before an audience of a billion around the globe in our last glamorous encounter, I suppose it's perfectly understandable if some of the Gunners were struggling for similar motivation on a brass monkey Monday night amidst the new-town tedium of Reading.
But then I guess this bodes well, because if we can blow teams away in this fashion when not at our best, then we can only begin to imagine what we have to look forward to, when we're firing on all cylinders. Yet if it was true on Monday that our far superior ability eventually began to tell, there are games on the fixture list in the none too distant future (with a fairly daunting December!), where we're unlikley to get away with it, unless all eleven can match the opposition with sufficient commitment and the sort of wholehearted attitude that will enable our ability advantage to come to the fore.
I am sure there were others (Kolo, Sagna etc.) but from my perspective there was only one Arsenal player on Monday night who demonstrated, without any doubt, that he was performing (as ever!) at 100 per cent. Whereas, for example, both myself and my mate beside me happened to notice a 50/50 ball where Rosicky's effort was sufficiently tentative that we both remarked on him "bottling it". I really don't think Gael Clichy would know how to do anything without absolute commitment. What's more I always cringe at the sight of a Gunner going for a ball, when it's patently obvious that there's an element of half-heartedness about their approach because they're principally concerned about the prospect of picking up an injury, when they should be demonstrating a totally blinkered focus on winning the ball. From what I recall of my childhood education on the pitch, it was often the more timid of the two players competing for a 50/50 ball who invariably came off worse.
By contrast to those who might've been a little less focused against Reading, Gael Cllichy continues to impress me more and more, with each passing match, as I find his enthusiasm and his energy levels increasingly mind-blowing. On those rare occasions when Reading advanced up the pitch and Gael wasn't goal side (of Kitson?) when the ball was directed down his flank, despite giving his opponent several yards start, I don't recall a single instance when he was beaten to the ball and there were a couple of occasions when Clichy arrived so far in advance of the Reading player, that you could be forgiven for thinking his opponent was running backwards!
It was also good to see Diarra get a run-out as sub, as the Frenchman shows similar enthusiasm in his desperation to prove his worth to Wenger. And with the likes of the French international, the Brazil captain and Theo on the bench, I adore the fact that there's so little room for complacency, with such genuine competition for places.
Mind you perhaps the best part about Diarra's appearance on the pitch was the fact that it inspired a rousing rendition of a relatively new chant (at least it's the first time I've heard it) from the Gooner choristers, which had me giggling away. I only hope Cashley Hole returns to fitness in time for our mid-December meeting with Chelsea and that on the day, Diarra gets a look in, just so we might hear the whole ground resound to several reptitions of "Diarra...he left the Chelsea scum, 'cos Ashley wants his bum"!
There was one other conclusion which I drew from a weekend without an Arsenal game to focus on. I found myself watching Pompey v Man City on Sunday and it was interesting to think that these were two of the gaggle of clubs, currently performing relatively well in the wake of the leading pack, because to my mind there was one obvious difference between us and them. Watching possession passing from one team to the other as this game progressed, it suddenly dawned on me quite how brilliant the Arsenal are at keeping the ball.
Reading's tactics were quite strange for a team playing on their own turf but then I guess Coppell felt under pressure to try something different, after last season's supremely efficient demolition (and it might have been the same on Monday, if Ade's had managed to find the inside of the post in the opening blows). Mind you I imagine many of the home fans must've been tearing their hair out in frustration during the first half, as it was as if the Royals had been instructed to adopt a zonal defence, whereby they sat right back, to take up defensive positions around their penalty area, allowing us as much possession as we wanted, apparently without even attempting to retrieve the ball until we threatened to encroach into their box.
Perhaps Coppell's plan worked up to a point but surely there must be a correlation between the number of goal scoring chances we can to create and the amount of time in possession of the ball and we looked so incredibly comfortable while they stood of us, that in the shoes of the Royals fans, I would've been screaming my head off, demanding that my team put us under some sort of pressure.
However if ball retention against a remarkably reticent Reading was no big thing, it was another matter all together against a Man U side, where Hargreaves, Anderson etc. were giving us absolutely no quarter. Nevertheless, there were periods during the previous week's match where it looked as if Man Utd might need their own ball if they were going to get involved in the game, as we certainly weren't allowing them to play with ours!
Watching the Arsenal every week, doubtless I take the standard of our football for granted to some extent, but watching the broadcast of the game at Fratton Park, I couldn't help but notice the marked difference in the way that moves kept breaking down when both teams were guilty of giving away the ball. We might often lose patience, whilst waiting to see some end product but there's a truism in football that says you simply cannot concede a goal while the ball is at your feet and while most of the pundits would have us believe that we will eventually come unstuck because our defence doesn't match up to Man Utd, it should be remembered that it doesn't matter how solid (or not) we are at the back, so long as we retain the ball.
Meanwhile I've managed to prattle on so long that if I don't wrap up this long-winded missive post haste , it will soon become so outdated that I will end trashing it, rather than sending it out. Appologies for the delay but it's been a very long week work wise and tonight is the first night that I've managed to stay awake long enough to get it finished.
Although my views on International weekends might be well known to you by now, I am quite looking forward to this one, merely from the point of view that it's hard for me to get my head around the thought of this entire country supporting l'il ol' Israel on Shabbat (the Sabbath).
Naturally an eternal cynic like myself simply cannot help but have some suspicions, as surely the likes of Abramovich will have been tempted to interfere, if only to prove to himself how powerful he is, perhaps offering the Israelis a few million for a new stadium if they go easy against the Ruskies. On the other hand (as the Fiddler on the Roof would've said), the home side's record in recent times might lead one to conclude that they are indeed "the Chosen People", at least when playing within the much disputed confines of the Holyland.
On the basis of their home record, it wouldn't be such a surprise for them to achieve a result, especially when you consider that their players are going to be only too aware that they will be performing before their biggest TV audience ever and each one of them will be going to bed on Friday night, to dream of this chance of a lifetime to produce the sort of impressive display that might catch the eye of watching managers and earn themselves a highly-prized opportunity to join Benayoun on the Premiership's big stage.
Although I'm not about the change the habit of a lifetime and start predicting results, but I'd quite fancy the Israelis to pull it off and breathe life back into England's qualification prospects and Steve McClaren's managerial career, by taking points off the Ruskies, IF it wasn't for the fact that I really rate Gus Hiddinck. Who knows how Hiddinck would fare when it comes to making the most out of the world class talent available to an England manager, but when it comes to achieving results by means of relatively modest resources, I'm afraid there is no better man. On the basis that there is bound to be a number of chinks in the Israeli armour, it seems to me that there's a fairly high probability that Hiddinck has prepared his team to best take advantage!
Mind you, for all those who would be devastated at the thought of next summer's tournament taking place without any England involvement, the truth of the matter is that actually perhaps you should be grateful to Hiddinck for doing you all a huge favour, by saving you from all the undoubted misery when Steve McClaren's side fail to live up to expectations once again.
Alternatively if Israel manage to take a point or three off the Russians, then as a PR exercise, this game could prove bigger than the Six Day War in terms of their popularity.
When Saturday comes, just for the day, I guess we'll all be Yiddos
Peace & Love
After a decade or more of racking up huge debts, chasing the Champions League Holy Grail around Europe, it's basically the lack of any further lines of credit that's forced me to curtail my customary habit of following the Arsenal absolutely everywhere. With the exponential increase in the costs of tickets, travel and the amount of time off work required to achieve an 100% attendance record, I doff my hat in all due reverence to the ultra-loyal band of Gooner-holics who manage to maintain the nigh-on monastic devotion necessary, to ensure that social, domestic and occupational responsibilities don't ever impinge on their footballing pleasures.
Obviously the nature of the overblown corporate beast that has swallowed whole the previously unencumbered blue collar kingdom of the beautiful game, means that there were probably plenty present in Prague last week who are in the fortunate position to be able to write off the cost of their outing, as a tax deductible 'entertainment' expense. Nevertheless, I often survey the vast majority of working stiffs like myself, who's faces I see every week, on terraces up and down the country, with ever increasing wonderments and incredulity. For while they remain ever-present on all the European trips, I'm beginning to feel like a positively lightweight part-timer by comparison. Even by blowing every last disposable penny of what must amount to far more than basic wages and with the most 'sympatico' of football supporting bosses, I honestly struggle to comprehend how they continue to manage it?
Although I'm prepared to suffer the deprivations of being penned in and herded like lary Gooner livestock, on organised one day outings, in preference to stopping at home and screaming pointlessly at an inanimate television, personally speaking, I believe one might as well have been to Leicester for all the broadening of one's mind by this sort of tawdry travel experience. Whether it's the cut-price hospitality of promiscuous East European cathouses, or Prague's abundant cultural heritage that tickles one's fancy (better still, a historic building that happens to be a brothel!), it's downright criminal to travel to as interesting a city as the Czech capital, without enjoying any cultural interaction.
While those long-suffering saps who support lesser lights like Spurs, live in hope of UEFA Cup trips to some godforsaken town in the back o'beyond, the thousands of pounds worth of debt I've acquired on the Champions League merry-go-round has enabled me to hop off at many of Europe's most alluring destinations. From Rosenborg to Panthinaikos, Porto to Spartak Moscow, with Real, Barca, Inter and Roma in between, we've savoured a sumptuous cultural meze across the length and breadth of the entire continent, most of which just wouldn't have been on the menu if it weren't for football.
I consider myself most fortunate to be in possession of an "I was there" t-shirt, to prove I was present in Prague a couple of seasons back, when Thierry Henry unexpectedly returned from injury to finally trump Wrightie's goal-scoring record. However I've yet to tick off Seville or Bucharest and I'm gutted that I'll have missed out on experiencing two more unlikely destinations during this group stage. It wasn't just because I'd already been to Prague that I wasn't too bothered about being unable to afford last week's trip.
Actually if I was going to miss out on an away game, I couldn't have picked a better one if I tried and I ended up feeling quite sorry for the fifteen hundred odd day-trippers who would be trudging through Stansted in their rain sodden replica tops in the wee hours of Thursday morning, after having frozen their cods off in the pouring rain, whilst enduring an anti-climax of an encounter, a dreadfully dour affair compared to the previous goalfest. I suppose it's a reflection on quite how far we've progressed in recent seasons, as it wasn't so long ago that the travelling hordes would've been returning in high-spirits, celebrating qualification for the later stages, considering it a job well done to have achieved this objective via a goalless draw, on a murky miserable night so far from home.
Instead of which, there were more than a few disgruntled Gooners giving vent to their indignation the following morning, believing Arsène was wrong to send the kids out to do a man's job, when winning the group should've been his priority. You only had to see how the home side celebrated their hard earned-point to appreciate quite how desperate they were to redeem some self-respect, after having been so humiliated at our place. As a result Slavia worked their socks off all night, to stifle any possible potential for threatening their goal. Credit to them, their spoiler tactics were sufficiently efficient that their keeper could've remained in the dry of the dressing room, considering how unemployed he was for most of the evening.
I doubt we did ourselves any favours by adding insult to the injury of the seven stabbing wounds inflicted a fortnight earlier, as Le Boss left four of team that played Utd at home and four more on the bench. A similar line-up might've made mincemeal out of Sheffield Utd but in the frenetic mêlée in the middle of the park in Prague, they lacked the composure to carve a path through committed Champions League opposition, where no quarter was ceded merely out of respect for our youngster's reputation.
Denilson is undoubtedly a star in the making, in the same mould as Fabregas, but the Brazilian youngster hasn't had much game time and the conditions were hardly conducive for him to replicate the feats that have always marked his Spanish team-mate out as such a precocious talent and which are the trademark of every genuine midfield class act, namely the appearance of having time and space on the ball, where none exists, to pick out the killer pass.
Consequently perhaps we can cut the likes of Bendtner some slack because our strikers saw so little of the ball. Eduardo might be the current incumbent of the actual shirt, but we've waited with stoic patience for the return of an authentic no. 9, ever since we saw the last of the likes of Smudger and Hartson. Although the loping Dane has proved he has the appropriate tools in his locker, with his brief cameos as an impact sub, I'm concerned he could be in danger of being devoured by the enormous weight of Gooner expectation. Perhaps I'm prone to being hypercritical due to Bendtner's 'Bertie Big Bollix' reputation (which wouldn't be quite so disturbing if the youngster had actually done something to merit such an inflated ego). But I was none too impressed by the images on TV, of him lurking at the mouth of the tunnel as both teams trotted out for the second-half, as if he was avoiding the cold and the rain, determined to be the last arrival at this disagreeable party.
Instead of which, you'd imagine he'd be raring to get out there after such a disappointing first-half, desperate to prove to le Gaffer that he was borne to perform on the glamorous Champions League stage. It'll be a crying shame if Nicklas' career goes the way of so many of the "too much, too young" modern generation of professional footballers, following in the path of the Brit-pack likes of Pennant, Dyer and Jenas, who, coming from modest backgrounds, acquired the supercars, the bling, the birds and all the other trappings of success at such an early age, that they were convinced they'd cracked it, with nothing left to prove. But for all their material wealth, they've been treading water ever since, with no medals to put on the table.
Meanwhile Bendtner's ego might not be the only worry for Wenger. The worst thing about a fixture free weekend is that without any football to fill the Arsenal related column inches, the Red Tops will fill the void with vacuous gossip. I only hope the team spirit on the pitch stands the test of the recent undercurrent of alleged bad vibes between our keepers and those that have resulted from Arsène's apparent reluctance to give the Brazil captain a regular run-out (let alone the armband!).
As it stands I can fully appreciate Wenger wanting to stick to a winning formula, but we've just drawn three games on the spin and you can just picture the flock of vultures waiting to pounce come the transfer window, if the laidback Gilberto begins to lose patience. Hopefully the panacea for all such signs of unrest will prove to be a return to winning ways against the Royals. It might not be a total cure-all but hopefully it will keep the tabloids off our case!
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com