Yet again the Gunners salvage a massive, last minute three-points, from the jaws of a draw which could've resulted in us coming to a grinding halt, losing all the momentum we've gained over the past couple of weeks and which would've afforded the competition the couple of point cushion which might've brought the curtains down on our own challenge. All credit to the lads for this, as I certainly can't knock the resolve which has resulted in so many game changing goals in the dying throes of games which would've previously slipped through our grasp.
What's more, as I've said below, in a week where we've put five past the Portuguese champions, it seems a bit rich for me to be having a pop. To have won both games without our talismanic skipper is brilliant and should only add to the burgeoning mood of confidence within the Arsenal camp. Hull might be perceived as relegation fodder but I think I'm correct in my belief that they've not succumbed to many sides on home turf in recent months and ever since they began their Premiership adventure with a win at our place, this upset has lent some added spice to all our subsequent encounters, as the Tigers try to recapture the spirit and the mood of what must've been a heady first couple of months in the top flight.
However we still managed to make hard work of yet another match where victory should've been considerably more comfortable and the outcome should've been settled long before Bendtner pounced on the rebound from Denilson's speculative, long-range effort. There've been plenty of times in the past when I've bemoaned Bendtner's apparent flat-footedness and his failure to come out of the starting blocks, quick enough to seize upon various goalmouth opportunities, but I have to commend him for being on his toes in this particular instance, enabling him to react quicker than the Tigers' defence and to be both first to Myhill's perilous parry and to have the composure to sidefoot it home.
I think I dug out Denilson in last week's missive and doubtless I'd have been doing likewise this week, if it wasn't for him playing such a significant part in winning the match, as I spent much of the 90 cursing under my breath about the Brazilian's predilection for hitting the deck at every given opportunity. Sure Denilson won his fair share of free-kicks as a result of the robust nature of the challenge, but many was the occasion when only my loyalty as an Arsenal supporter prevented me from screaming at him to "stay on your feet for f**k's sake" and stand up to the opposition, instead of constantly trying to con the referee.
There were instances where quite frankly I found Denilson's over familiarity with the turf just a little embarrassing and I'm sure if I was a Tigers fan I would've found it no less irritating than the duplicity of some of the Porto players, who found a willing dupe for their chicanery, in one of the most fussy referees I've witnessed (even by Champions League standards).
The Porto match wasn't quite the pushover suggested by the 5-0 scoreline. There's no doubt that the early goal settled the nerves somewhat, but with the away goal rule, the second was somewhat less significant and it wasn't until Samir Nasri's breathtakingly beautiful third, some time after the hour mark that we were truly able to relax, as the visitors from Opporto visibly wilted. Nevertheless there was the odd hairy moment, immediately after half-time. Yet in truth, with the exception of a couple of players this is not a particularly impressive Porto side and if we hadn't turned them over in the return fixture, I always felt that if we'd ended up paying the ultimate price for our "schoolboy errors" in the first-leg, the magnitude of our defeat would only truly become apparent, when Porto were comprehensively mullahed in the quarterfinals.
Perhaps the one disappointment for me of the last two victories is that I was hoping that Theo Walcott's performance at Stoke would be the springboard for a scintillating end to Theo's season. This didn't quite materialize against Porto or Hull (or he didn't have much of an opportunity, with only 14 and 24 minute run-outs as a sub in both games), but I'm still hopeful of Theo bringing his pace to bear in significant fashion for the Gunners end of season party.
Meanwhile having survived two league matches in the absence of Alex Song, hopefully I won't have the opportunity to lay into Denilson after Saturday's derby with the Hammers, as Alex is restored to the heart of our midfield, where the triumvirate of Fabregas, Diaby and Song would be my preferred option, with Nasri, Arshavin and Walcott battling it out for the two wide roles in Wenger's 4-5-1. Although I'd quite like to see a return to 4-4-2 in some of our home games, with Shava given an opportunity to play in tandem with Bendtner (as sadly Eduardo's somewhat anonymous substitute cameos suggest he's still some way from finding his pre-injury form).
In Cesc's absence, Samir has also shown brief glimpses of what he's capable of in a more central role and the French midfielder could yet fill Robert Pires' boots, by offering a similarly significant contribution. And everything must be rosy as far as the Arsenal midfield is concerned, when I find myself arguing for the inclusion of Manny Eboué, due to his remarkably impressive form of late.
Even in defence things are looking up. Nevertheless I will be mightily relieved to see the return of a fit William Gallas, as I get the distinct sense that Sol Campbell's confidence is an extremely thin veneer, which might be shattered at any given moment. One could even offer an argument for the inclusion of Silvestre in Sol's stead. I've never been the greatest fan of Fergie's cast-off but despite Silvestre's limited pace and ability, he is at least aware of his own limitations. Whereas I fear Sol is capable of coming unstuck simply due to an inability to accept that he might not be quite the same player he was a few years back. Then again, how much worse can a partnership of Sol & Vermaelen fare against the likes of Drogba and Rooney than Gallas & Vermaelen did earlier this season? Although perhaps the answer lies in the fact that I'm fairly certain that I wouldn't fancy seeing this theory put to the test!
But mercifully Gael Clichy seems to be coming back into some long-awaited form. Up until recently Clichy's defensive woes seem to have inhibited him from offering us any threat going forward and this has been much missed considering his late, lung-busting runs down the flank were previously the lad's greatest asset. But there appears to be a light at the end of this particular tunnel, as he even conjured up a shot on Saturday. I'm unsure whether it's my premature Alzheimers, or his piss poor previous performances which prevent me from recalling Gael's last effort on goal?
Doubtless I'm not in the majority, hoping for the likes of Man Utd or Chelsea in Friday's quarterfinal draw. However, aside from the fact that it would save me a good few hundred quid on travelling to the away leg, I would feel a lot more optimistic coming up against either of them now, than I would if we waited until we get to the Bernabeu in May. Besides which, on the basis that we are going to have to beat them at some stage, if we want to get our hands on the trophy, I would much prefer to have the opportunity to prove ourselves over the course of two legs, than to have it all come down 90 minutes, with fate and fortune playing a more significant role. Not to mention that the consequences of such a monumental clash are bound to have a positive / negative impact on our respective domestic campaigns.
Obviously should the draw throw up a Spring outing to Seville or Athens, I certainly wouldn't grumble, but personally I'd like to dispose of the domestic competition, on route to seeking revenge against Barca in the final
Bring it all on!
Many has been the occasion in seasons past where Man Utd have managed to put the dampener on a weekend of favourable results, with the infuriating frequency of their last gasp match winners. It wasn’t merely a three-pronged attack that made the Mancunian side’s satanic moniker seem so apt, but the likelihood that Ol’ Red Nose (sorry that should be Sir Ol’ Red Nose) had mortgaged his soul to the Devil.
However, with the Gunners resolute reprise of our role as the irritating fly in the title challenge ointment, stubbornly refusing to be swatted away, we appear to have assumed this mantle of ‘the Late Late Show’ specialists, with events at the KC Stadium on Saturday culminating in yet another, crucial injury-time strike. Perhaps opposition fans will now be casting similar aspersions about Arsène. But then surely you’re on a sticky wicket questioning Wenger’s virtue, a man who wouldn’t even be caught wearing horn-rimmed spectacles?
The longer we keep pace with the top two’s results and continue breathing down their necks, the more the real becomes the spectre of the Arsenal’s threat, for all concerned. Nevertheless, in spite of Nicky Bendtner pouring another seven days worth of benzene on the flame of our Premiership title fantasy, once the incendiary euphoria of the 90th minute mayhem on Humberside burned itself out, in the cold light of the Cottagers capitulation at Old Trafford, it’s hard to argue with the bookies odds.
Doubtless I’m hoping that the longer I continue to disbelieve, the greater the chances of the Gunners making a mockery of my scepticism. Yet no matter how much I might want to imbibe in Arsène’s assertions about our “unbelievable belief” (to quote Gooner Merse in all his articulate glory), the pessimist in me knows that Paddy Power didn’t get fat on picking the wrong favourites.
The realist in me cannot escape the feeling of foreboding that while Man Utd and Chelsea continue to perform in fits and starts, ultimately both teams know what it takes to stretch for the line and win by a short head. By contrast, although the Arsenal persist in conjuring up cameo moments of sublime magic, all too often I struggle to convince myself that they really want it. This is not a malaise that’s exclusive to the Gunners, it the curse of modern day football, as one could have the same qualms about many of the star-turns involved in the vast majority of Premiership matches.
On some level the obscene salaries and the celebrity lifestyles of our superstars nowadays must bear some responsibility. In boxing it was said that a fighter only truly retained a taste for the sport, so long as they remained hungry and that they lost a certain edge, the moment they were lifted up, out of the poverty from whence so many came, to the lifestyle to which they’d always aspired. Surely footballers are similarly susceptible to a loss of appetite?
Mercifully there will always be the rare exception, for whom their competitive nature and a love of the beautiful game runs so deep that they remain unaffected by all the trappings of a multi-millionaire lifestyle. But for the rest of our top-flight stars, with all the flash cars, the bling and the fawning WAGlettes that they could possibly wish for, while still at such an impressionable age, this must surely impact on their motivation. If going out and giving their all on a football pitch for 90 minutes has not merely become a job of work, then at the very least their craving for success must be somewhat blunted, by the fact that it has nothing more to offer them than professional satisfaction.
In a world where a footballer’s status is measured in inverse proportion to the MPG of their latest gas-guzzling supercar, how on earth does a manager convince his young charges that all the millions in their offshore bank accounts won’t offer anything like the same feelings of fulfilment, as the opportunity of reaching their eventual retirement and being able to reflect upon the blood, sweat and tears that were required to earn the odd relatively worthless bauble on their sideboard. Besides which, being a team game, they’ll always be able to sit back in their Florida sun lounger in their dotage and proclaim to the grandkids that “I could’ve been a contender” if it wasn’t for the glass jaws of the rest of those bums!
Meanwhile it seems decidedly churlish of me to be having a dig, in a week when we’ve enjoyed the unadulterated pleasure of Samir Nasri’s slalom run in the Porto penalty area (perhaps a tad over-effusively praised on the radio as “shades of Maradonna”). After his profligacy in front of goal only four days prior, what odds would you have got on a Bendtner hat-trick in our 5-0 romp into the Champions League quarterfinals?
Nevertheless, as stand-in for Gallas, Sol Campbell seems to have become the standard bearer for the Arsenal’s abiding fragility. Sol gives me the impression of an over-inflated balloon, pumped up to the point where he’s one catastrophic pin prick away from our campaign (and his career) exploding into smithereens.
While players pledge their allegiance to the cause (as their agents tout them across the Continent), if all that is required in the modern game is for the Gunners to prove themselves that little bit more committed than the competition, then I say bring on Man Utd or Chelsea in Friday’s Champions League draw. Only by exorcising our inferiority demons can the Arsenal acquire the assuredness of genuine contenders and enable me to truly begin to live the dream.--
e-mail to: londonN5@gmail.com