You'll have to forgive me, but in restricting myself for once to the required number of words in my column for the Irish Examiner, it feels as if I've left out more than I've included in this week's missive, hence this overly verbose addition!
In seasons past, my tardy habits have cost me dear but I have to admit that I've grown somewhat complacent in recent times, because the Gunners haven't been starting games sufficiently fired up to force the opposition onto the back foot right from the opening whistle and I've not missed an early goal all season
As a result, although I was hurrying across the North Bridge at 3pm on Saturday along with loads of other latecomers, there was little sense of urgency because few of us were exactly panicking about this prospect.
Obviously I was a little miffed when the roar went up, especially at the thought that I wasn't present for Shava's first strike in an Arsenal shirt, but on the radio they initially thought that it might've been Song who'd got the last touch. Nevertheless I hollered my delight and did a little jig of joy, because it's been so long since we made the sort of fast start to a game to gain an immediate advantage and thereby ensuring the sort of entertainment promised by the fact that the opposition would be forced to show a little more ambition in order to make up the deficit.
Some Gooners were a little concerned about Theo Walcott's inclusion in the starting line-up against a Blackburn side, who were bound to adopt the sort of bully-boy tactics much beloved by their overweight manager. Yet it was his return which was the principal factor in Saturday's 4-0 thumping, as a fresh-legged Theo lends the Gunners the sort of vitality that's been sorely lacking in our lacklustre performances of late.
It was our little Roadrunner's energy from the off which resulted in Shava and Song bundling the ball into the back of the net and in turn the early goal was responsible for all that followed, in a game which was more reminiscent of the rampant Gunners of old, with a sorely missed glut of goalscoring opportunities.
Similarly, after battering Burnley and all that euphoria in Rome on Wednesday (with it not mattering a jot that it was such a dodgy performance, after the shoot-out went our way), we've started to accrue some momentum which saw us going into Saturday's game with a buoyancy that we've not witnessed in a long time, with the first signs of the swagger returning to our game and instead of the wayward touches that have been prevalent of late, there was some pep to our far more crisp passing, thereby demonstrating quite how much difference a little confidence makes.
But then the omens were good as I rushed around to the ground, with the covers and an ugly layer of scaffolding finally being removed from the facade of the old East Stand, with it standing there as I turned into Avenell Road, resplendent in the bright sunshine, framed by a cloudless clear blue sky, in its brand spanking red & white coat of paint, in all its Art Deco glory.
With Rona not nearly so enthusiastic about going to new gaff in recent times because she's yet to have any feelings for the place, compared to the far more intimate family vibe of our seats in the West Upper at THOF (where she wouldn't have dreamed of missing a match!), we've been flogging her ticket for recent games to a young Gooner from the US, who's here on a six month footie pilgrimage.
Our septic pal has taken a warehouse job in order to fund his Arsenal addiction and truth be known, we've been so skint that Ro's relative indifference towards many of our home fixtures in recent weeks, has meant that she'd much rather have the readies. Although with the cost of any cup games being added to the price of next season's renewals (as the replay against Cardiff was the last of the seven included in the cost of our season tickets), the sensible move would be to put the cash in the bank, as I know we're going to regret not doing so, when we're struggling to come up with more than two grand come the deadline on 1st June!
I've also felt a little guilty taking all Zach's hard earned wages off him every week. Although I've learned to get the wonga from him up front, as I've felt even more heartless, relieving him of forty quid following some of our dreary 0-0 draws. In an effort to recoup some of his outgoings and for some added interest, Zach has been taking small punts on some long odds footie bets and I was delighted for him on Saturday, when he thought he'd had his first win, with a few quid on Shava as first goal scorer at 7/1.
However with the subsequent doubts over who'd had the last touch, we were both panicking about whether William Hill would pay out and he rushed around to the bookies in Blackstock Road immediately after the final whistle to try and collect his winnings, before they had an opportunity to amend the scorer. As a result, we were both relieved and I was somewhat surprised to hear that these gambling "ganefs" had duly coughed up.
Our last three domestic matches have produced ten great goals and Alex Song has been a constant and significant factor in all three of these games (which isn't bad when you consider that it wasn't so long ago that Arsène was to be heard telling fans at a shareholders Q & A session something to the effect of "I know that Alex is a centre-back and is not suited to playing in midfield"). Recent evidence would suggest that Song and Denilson are beginning to complement one another as a midfield pairing.
They both continue to frustrate me with their naive defending, where I find it very strange how often both of them struggle with the basic principle of staying goalside of their opponent and end up forced to attempt a potentially reckless challenge, in an effort to attempt a recovery. What's more, it must be a Brazilian thing, as Denilson seems to have acquired Gilberto's annoying habit of making a successful challenge, but somehow failing to come away with the ball. But Song seems to have the strength and determination to develop into a decent ball winner, with his no nonsense tackling style and with both he and Denilson having time on their side, they both deserve to be afforded plenty of patience.
By contrast, on the evidence of Wednesday's decidedly unimpressive performance and other recent games where they've played as a partenrship in the middle, although Denilson and Diaby might look like a decent midfield pairing, in reality they've yet to demonstrate that they're capable of developing into a force that's capable of controlling the middle of the park.
There've been rare instances when Abou has looked like a world-beater, but for the most part these have been brief cameo moments (Aston Villa away comes to mind) and it's hard to remember Diaby producing an impressive 90 minute display. Personally I was looking forward to seeing him get a run in a more central role because he definitely doesn't look comfortable when asked to play out wide. I seem to remember reading somewhere that his preferred position is playing behind the front man but wherever one play on the park, the princples of defending as a team are the same.
It was ironic to see the reversal of roles in the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday. Driven on by a home crowd, Roma's aging bunch of journeymen were bound to be more up for it than they were in the first leg. But watching them pressing us in our own half, denying us any time on the ball, one could be forgiven for thinking they were the Premiership side.
Unfortunately I was only able to watch the Roma game on the box and I was gutted not to have been able to go to the Eternal City. Although at least we've seen the Gunners play there before which meant that it wasn't quite so traumatic watching on the telly. But above all, the main reason I can't bear not being present is because I find watching the Gunners on box unbelievably stressful, especially when being forced to endure 120 cringeworthy minutes, followed by a "hide behind the sofa" shoot-out.
I'm a little loathe to comment on TV coverage of an Arsenal performance because of the possibility of not having seen the bigger picture, as the camera follows the ball. Yet while I wouldn't dream of slagging anyone in red & white out loud, when watching in person, I found myself screaming blue-murder in frustration during much of Sky's coverage of Wednesday's feeble display.
Even though we have a relatively inexperienced side, it's hard to imagine so many seasoned Internationals being over-awed by the occasion. Yet whether this was the cause, or whether it was due to a little complacency creeping in, after our dominant display in the first leg, right from the opening whistle I got the sense that we weren't nearly sufficiently pumped compared to the home team, as Roma were first to every ball and showed so much nore hunger and determination.
Some might suggest this game demonstrated quite to what extent Totti is a waning force, as I've no doubt that the Totti of old, who was frequently in the habit of winning matches almost single-handed, he would've found some way of taking advantage of all the time and space afforded to his side while in possession.
Some less critical Gooner seem to have watched a different game to me, but personally I was utterly incredulous at the way Roma kept walzing through our midfield, almost entirely unopposed. Eventually I found myself cussing everyone at such loud decibel levels, that I had to put a sock it in because I was scaring the crap out of the poor dog and I made myself sit here quietly, trying to coax poor, trembling Treacle back out from under the table!
However with our defence not knowing whether to stick, or twist (ie. whether to hold their line on the edge of our area, or to come out and close the space down), I was convinced that the likes of Totti, Vucinic or Riise would eventually punish us for inviting them to shoot, by spanking one in from just outside the area.
Mercifully we can forget all that having succeeded in the shoot-out. Although I am sure I wasn't alone in thinking that when it came down to penalties, our young team was far more likely to bottle it than Roma's experienced lot.
Consequently I'm happy to admit that I was wrong and all credit to the lads for the cahones they showed in stepping up to take their spot-kicks, even Eduardo, or especially Eduardo, because even though he failed to find the back of the net, hy taking the first, he was the bravest of the lot.
Plenty of Gooners have risen to defend Almunia's right to deal with the shoot-out in whatever way suited him. However I have to agree with Amy Lawrence on this one, as I really didn't like the way he stood on the edge of the pitch, bent double, with his back to the Gunners penalties. By doing this, he was hardly showing "unbelievable belief" in his teammates prospects of scoring. But then as detailed by the Observer's Gooner Gal in her recent blog piece, perhaps this was exactly the sort of timid display that one might expect of the macho man who'd recently been pictured in the tabs walking a toy dog in a fuschia coloured jacket.
I don't know about anyone else but from my point of view he could be a Medallion Man, or an outlandishly fey Dorothy, but I want a bold, balls-out, barmpot of a keeper with the sort of intimidating presence that makes him appear another two feet taller, to anyone striding up to take a spot kick, not a meek silent feller who instead appears to shrink between the posts.
Althougn now is definitely not the time to be having a pop at anyone, as I love 'em all at the mom and with everyone returning to full-fitness, I'm hoping that at long last we might begin to see the benefits of some genuine competition for places as we reach the business end of the season.
Bring on the Tigers - in the event we turn over Phil Brown's team, I'm off to see if I've enough left of my overdraft to afford two tickets to Wemberlee!
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com
Monday, March 16, 2009