Serendipity lurks as the omens gather

Last updated : 02 April 2006 By Aidan O'Byrne
It's the feeling you get, or at any rate the feeling I've had this week, when you witness eleven highly trained athletes mugging an old lady and realise you heartily approve of their actions.

The old lady in this case was of course the current runaway Serie A leaders Juventus, whom it was widely theorised would be a far tougher proposition than Real Madrid for the young guns of Highbury's final season, given the defensive nous and tactical dominance that she commonly displays. Arsenal, it was said, would get found out when not afforded the space that Real had donated them, especially in midfield, and of course there was the prospect of Patrick Vieira proving for sure that he was still better than his erstwhile understudies. In the end, such detractors were themselves proven misguided, as the 18-year-old tyro pinched by Arsene Wenger from Barca's youth team for a pittance showed that one central midfield berth at least is booked up on merit for the forthcoming decade. Ab Fab stuff, and in the end Juve's quality was shown only in that they (and especially Buffon) managed to keep the score to 2-0.

The serendipity itself arose on a couple of levels. One's a fairly low-key one which for some unknown reason has been the backdrop to the season so far, as the wounds of disappointing domestic performances and cup exits have been salved only by immaculate European displays. This of course continued. But the level with far greater impact was seeing how the gutsy performances of the youngsters inspired the senior pros to play beyond themselves, for which there can be no better summation than the inch perfect sliding tackle executed by one Robert Pires on his former club and international side captain the aforementioned Vieira. He's been saving that up for about twenty years, I think, without hitherto displaying it in his game, and the fact that he jumped back to his feet to lay in Henry, who fed Fabregas, who conned Thuram and slid a disguised shot past the world's most expensive goalkeeper, all in around the same time it's taken you to read this, well that just defied rational belief. I was still trying to figure out if I'd seen the tackle right when the Clock's reaction told me we'd scored. In the second half, before Juve lost their rag totally – and a couple of kiss-blowing players with it – I had a far better view of Henry's goal, fed to him by an angelically unselfish Fabregas. The cross came just behind Henry and he dug it out for a wonderful goal (though by now I was wondering if Cesc had placed the centre square on purpose to let Thierry look better rather than just feed a simpler tap-in from a forward ball). I'd said before the game that I'd be happy with any scoreline ending in a zero, so the fact that the clean sheet I'd wanted was also delivered was great – again the telling point was the back line's budget basement cost compared to the £100m or so on the Juve line-up sheet.

But by the time I'd stopped blinking in disbelief, I found it was Saturday and I was back in my seat again, this time watching a sorry Villa side get decimated in all senses other than having a player dismissed. Rather worryingly, Vieira understudy no 1 (Fabregas) limped off with an injury which might yet rule him out of Wednesday's match in Turin, though Vieira understudy no 2 (Diaby) took over pretty seamlessly, and eventually added a joyfully celebrated first goal for the side to complete a rout. In between there had been two magical goals for Henry, an Adebayor pick-up-the-scraps header from what should have been his first of the day, and then there was van Persie. You'd perhaps have forgiven David O'Leary, to this day still Arsenal's record holding player for appearances, to have sighed in relief as Wenger pulled Thierry off to rest up before the trip to Italy (and much to the chagrin of the guys in front of me in the North Bank, who'd had money on his hat trick), and perhaps thought it reasonable of him to hope a striker just back from a lengthy lay-off with a broken foot would be a bit rusty.

But no, he scored a goal which I thought at the time was probably the best I've ever seen that close up, given that it combined the perfect footwork (seemingly breakdancing MC Hammer style with the ball back from the goal line to create space in front of the sprawling Sorensen) of a Bergkamp rounding Dabizas at St James Park (while I was off skiing), the instinctive eye for an opportunity to score, and to prove something at the same time, of Ljungberg's chip over Schmeichel on his debut (which was in front of the Clock End, at the other end of the ground from me), the acute angle and on-the-line defender avoidance of Kanu's third at Stamford Bridge (a game which I'd skipped on grounds of economy, and thereby vowed never to do the same again), the sheer power of Batistuta at Wembley (which I'd grimaced at from the thankfully now demolished Olympic Gallery). Had the net broken I'd have had a decent chance of breaking a finger trying to catch the ball, but it held, and I was so in awe of the display in general, and that goal in particular, that I neglected for a full twenty minutes after the final whistle to find out that Bolton and Spurs had lost (though I was later to chuckle when told that the Lilywhite chatrooms had seamlessly switched to "good UEFA Cup draw" mode), and that Man U had thereby made up some ground on the supposedly all-conquering defending champions. All this when I'd only been hoping for Robin to win us a corner!

On Sunday, just to complete the picture, I found myself watching as the ante-post underdogs stormed off to a blazing start that they'd never relinquish, charging through the choppy water, truly coming into their stride at Craven Cottage and then kicking through the pain barrier to be clear and worthy winners just about level with my old school playing fields, all this while stroked by the first Frenchman to have ever taken part in the race. Are you with me yet?

Is it hubris to hope that Oxford's boat race victory is another reflection of the serendipity effect, and therefore an omen of success to come in the 18 games which Arsenal will have played since our blazing start at the Bernabeu if we should indeed find ourselves at the Stade de France in May, which would represent one redcurrant game for each minute of the dark blue's winning time on the weekend that they defeated yet another former European champion*? Well, I reckon not – while yes, it would indeed be hubris to expect such an outcome, all the same when you travel primarily in hope rather than expectation, that's when serendipity can weave its magic for you.

Taxi for Gatwick on Wednesday morning, please?

* Note to younger readers: hard as it may now be to imagine, Aston Villa have in fact won the European Cup in 1982. Go figure. That's like having Accrington Stanley in the league, isn't it? Err, hang on...