Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hardly An Irresistible Force, But Mercifully Just Enough Oomph To Budge the Belgian Immovable Object

(returning back from Liège after a slightly more leisurely evening in '93, but with the likes of Hillier, Selley, McGoldrick and Linighan, it wasn't exactly a team of immortals who beat the Belgians 7-0!)

I am always far more confident about the Gunners giving a good account of themselves when they come up against any of the big fish in the Champions Lesgue, than I am whenever we meet some of the continents' lesser lights.

We know that at our best, we are match for anyone and when we travel to play the likes of Real or Barca as underdogs, the pre-match hype is such that we can count on everyone to be suitably fired up, with the adrenaline coursing through their veins. So that to a man, they are all going to be "at it" from the get go, desperate to prove themselves, with an intensity about their performance that guarantees the opposition are going to have to produce something a bit special in order to beat us.

By contrast, I was quite perturbed about the way in which everyone was talking as if we'd been gifted a bye into the knockout stages of the Champions League, taking our progress from such a relatively cushy group for granted.

There are no easy games nowadays, as the increasingly high-stakes mean that virtually everyone adopts a professional approach to the game. Even teams from the most Mickey Mouse leagues in Europe are capable of being sufficiently well-organised, to make life difficult for the most formidable of opponents.

I seem to remember that we frequently struggled last season to start games at a sufficiently high-tempo and in failing to put opponents under the cosh right from the off, our laid-back football afforded them the opportunity to get comfortable on the ball and to grow in confidence, to the point where we often ended up making heavy weather of matches which should've been much more of a doddle. Moreover, as we know to our cost, according to the laws of physics that are unique to football, a team that kicks off a match in a lethargic, slipshod manner will invariably struggle to find the impetus needed to suddenly acquire some momentum, in the event that the fates don't smile kindly upon them.

It's a self-perpetuating problem, as the more often weaker teams cause us some embarrassment, the more future opponents fancy their chances against us and attempt to take us on with their increased expectation levels and they continue to erode any perceived aura of superiority. And while we suffer the cumulative consequences, until such time as we are able to re-establish our air of authority, the likes of Chelsea continue to enjoy the benefits of the opposite side of this coin, as teams turn up against them expecting nothing, often being beaten (psychologicslly) before a ball has been kicked in anger.

Some will suggest that the fiasco of the first five minutes against Standard Liège was merely a series of misfortunate events which could happen to anyone, albeit not usually in such rapid succession and before some punters had even taken their seats! But I had some concerns about whether we'd be sufficiently motivated for this game, as I imagine that many of our players must be influenced to some extent by all the comments that they see and hear in the media and by leaving some of our most influential stars at home, Arsène was inevitably sending out the sort of signals that were likely to lead those in the starting line-up to conclude that they could expect a stroll in the park.

For a moment there, I thought it was meant to be Greedybayor represented in the impressive "Vendetta" banner that they unfurled before KO. But with all the hype about the Liegeois owing us a response to the 7-0 hiding that we dished out in the Cup Winners Cup back in '93 (a match which remains imprinted, even on my debilitated grey matter, mainly because it was one of those extremely rare occasions when even Eddie McGoldrick got on the scoresheet :-), the Belgian side were bound to respond to the locals atmospheric entreaty for some sort of revenge mission.

There was also no need to worry about Tommie the Tank being suitable pumped up. With Vermaelen returning to play in his country of birth, obviously the press office wheeled him out for the pre-match press conferences. But apparently this didn't prove of any benefit on the linguistic front, as Tommie's mother tongue is Flemish and so they still needed to have his answers translated into French.

Obviously the pundits all picked on Eduardo and the wanton act of over-confidence, where he conceded possession on the edge of our own area, thereby presenting Liege with the opportunity for the snap shot that resulted in the opening goal.

Myself I feel that Vermaelen's over-enthusiasm was also partially to blame, as Eduardo was attempting to break on a counter, following Liege's early corner. And I can't help but think that Song wouldn't have been needed in the box to scuff the ball out for this corner, if Tommie hadn't tried to storm forward at the very first opportunity, only to have his pass intercepted and to end up lumbering back, leaving Alex to plug the gap at the back.

But then you can play the "what if" blame game, until you are blue in the face, as some might suggest that Gael Clichy could've done more to prevent the cross which caused Song a problem and as they say in yiddish, if my bubba (granny) had balls, she'd be my zeida (gramps)!

Mercifully, having managed to rectify matters and to be returning back from Belgium with the all-important three points in the bag, there was no real harm done. Other than perhaps to offer Alkmaar and Olympiacos a little hope, by demonstrating our vulnerability at the back. I'm actually hoping that the shock of going 0-2 down might prove an extremely timely shot across the bows of the good ship Gooner, as if we'd been involved in a more customarily drab narrow margin victory, we'd have come back from Belgium still confident in the belief that we can breeze through this group stage, without ever really breaking sweat.

Doubtless I'm being idealistic and this match will have long since slipped of the radar of the Gunners involved in our subsequent games, as unlike us, they don't lose any sleep over the minutae of each and every match and aren't nearly so concerned as we would all like them to be? However I can but hope that when they're sitting in the dressing room prior to our encounters with Olympiacos and AZ Alkmaar, Arsène will be reminding them of the embarrassment they endured in the opening moments of tonight's match and the potential disastrous consequences of them not having their game face on from the get go.

If Wenger can succeed in stoking up the intensity levels sufficiently, you just know that instead of having to try and claw ourselves back from the brink of disaster, this Arsenal side is more than capable of tearing into the likes of the other two teams, to the extent that their irresistible force is guaranteed to impact on the immovable object, or in the infamously incorrect words of the All-Bran advert "the world will fall out of their bottom". Thereby hopefully leaving this batty encounter with Liège looking like nothing more than a bizarre anomaly!

We're on our way.....

Big Love
Bernard

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