The way I see it - Sparta Prague v Arsenal

Last updated : 15 August 2007 By Jason Hogan

After missing out on getting a ticket for the game, I was left with no option but to listen to the game on the radio and as was the case so often the case last season, I spent a long, long time working myself up into and increasingly demented state as chance after chance went begging.

Even when Robin Van Persie stepped up to ram home the equaliser from the spot, I was still too keyed up to celebrate. All I could think about was the fact that time was running out and I didn't want us to start the season the way we did last year. I wanted us to get all three points and I wanted it badly.

Then with seconds of normal time to go, Hleb scored and suddenly I erupted and bellowed at my poor missus who was sitting on the living room sofa minding her own business. I could feel the veins in my neck popping as all my pent up frustration rose rapidly to the surface and gave way to joy, relief and a sense of vindication at seeing Arsenal finally get the justice they deserved.

It was a good five minutes after the final whistle before I calmed down and allowed myself to finally relax. Indeed after the game and having apologised to my missus for the umpteenth times she later joked that she now knew what it's like to sit in her living room with a caged lion!

On reflection, I have to say that I disagreed with a lot of Arsenal fans who have said that we played badly. I'm not saying that we didn't have our faults on the afternoon or that there were times when we looked altogether secure at the back. And I'm not dismissing the fact Lehmann treating us to one of his classic mad moments and literally gifted Fulham something to hold on to unnecessarily.

I just think that was a little wide of the mark for people to suggest that we played badly given the fact that it was Fulham's stand in keeper, Tony Warner who deservedly came away with the man of the match award.

I felt that the Arsenal lads deserved a little bit of credit. It would have been easy for them to throw in the towel and say to themselves that it wasn't going to be our day. Instead, they kept plugging away and eventually got the win they deserved. I'm not saying that I haven't seen the Arsenal play better but then I lost count long ago of how many times we have we played really well both home and abroad over the years and got nothing.

I'm now going to go on record and say something which I never thought I would say - I actually agreed with Andy Gray on Sunday. Now, anyone who has read any of my articles over the last few years will know that I am not Gray's biggest fan. I appreciate his passion for the game but there are times when his objectivity quite frankly sucks for want of a better phrase.

However, when Gray said on The Last Word that Sunday was a big, big day for Arsenal and that it was a massive result for us regardless of the fact that we were playing at home against one of the "lesser" teams in Fulham, it did strike a chord with me personally.

Deep down, whether we like or not, every Gooner on the planet knows that it's a guarantee that Thierry Henry's name is going to rear its head non-stop certainly in the press if not the media. His name will be used both as a stick to beat us with AND as an imaginary millstone around our necks at the same time.

We all know that Henry spent most his last season at Arsenal mainly on the periphery of things in many ways and we had to adjust to not having him at our disposal almost by default.

However, this was of course the first genuine competitive match we have played since he severed his ties with Arsenal altogether and buggered off to the Nou Camp. So in that respect this was the first chance for us to show the nation that the current Arsenal side are capable of standing on their own two feet without him.

From a psychological standpoint beating Fulham was massive. Whilst Fulham were surprisingly more enterprising in the approach and proved that they were no pushovers on the afternoon, we still found a way to overcome them. This was something we failed to do against the likes of Villa, Middlesbrough and Everton early on at The Grove last year remember and in terms of mounting any kind of title challenge it cost us dear.

Am I saying that the Arsenal have laid down a marker for the coming season? No, not really. Am I saying that we showed that we have genuine title credentials? No, of course not.

What I am saying is that there were things to come out of Sunday's game that were encouraging and we are not as vulnerable and frail as people outside of Arsenal like to think we are. Anyone who has a genuine knowledge of the game will tell you that confidence is a big part in this game. We have taken a step, albeit a small one in the right direction.

And for now, I am quite happy with that. I've been around long enough to know that there are times when you have to take things a step at a time in football. This is not the time indulging lofty expectations and empty boasts. You only have to look a couple of miles up the Seven Sisters Road for proof as to how that sort of thing can come back and bite you in the backside. I don't want to fall into the same trap.

Now let's look briefly at the first leg of our Champions League qualifier against Sparta Prague.

It appears as though we will go the Toyota stadium very much with the same squad that we had for the Fulham game. So once again it looks as though Hleb will play just behind Van Persie up front.

It's good to finally see Hleb playing in the role that I have always though suited him the best and having watched him in the role both against Inter in pre-season and against Fulham on Sunday there's seems little doubt to me that he enjoys that role too. It will be interesting over the course of the season how many times he gets to play in that role particularly when Eduardo and Adebayor are available again.

With Diaby, Denilson and Gilberto all ruled out in midfield, Mathieu Flamini looks like he will again be alongside Cesc in the middle of the park. Flamini has always been not one to lack in heart and many Arsenal fans liken him to a modern version Ray Parlour.

I think that there are small signs that the boy is actually improving as a midfield player. He had a really sound pre-season and though he has his critics amongst the Arsenal faithful I have to admit that I am not one of them. I don't think that he will ever more than a squad player for us but he is definitely a useful man to have around.

Bacary Sagna is likely to start once again at right back. I have to say that I've been pleased with what I have seen of him so far. He has a decent turn of foot and he seems to do things without any real fuss or frills and that's how I like to see my defenders operate.

The team tonight will probably be lead once again by Gallas. I tell you what folks, I couldn't believe it when Arsene gave him the captaincy over Gilberto and Kolo and if the quotes on this subject from Gilberto are true, then I think Arsene was even more out of order in not telling Gilberto to his face.

It's something I am not happy about I can tell you. Personally I would have given it to Kolo myself purely because he is the most committed and whole hearted player that I have clapped eyes on in a long time.

Anyway, I think tonight's game has come around at a good time for us in a lot of ways. We were scheduled to beat St James's Park tonight and given the choice, I am glad that we are playing in Prague tonight rather than facing a pumped up Newcastle in their first home game of the season particularly after the number they did on Bolton at the Reebok on Saturday.

This game has the right balance about it to me. Yes it will be a test and yes, there is plenty at stake. But I don't think the game in Prague will have sort of tempo and intensity and so it's a useful tune up ahead of trip to Blackburn on Sunday.

Tonight's game hasn't attracted the same level of hype as well. You can just imagine Fat Sam stoking the fires in the press and the media if we were going to St James's Park right now and how the press and the media would lap it all up.

I don't know what to expect from this game at all to be honest. Sparta are very much an unknown quantity even to a football junkie like me. I just hope that despite being short in terms of available personnel the Arsenal can go out there tonight and not be found wanting in terms of application and commitment tonight.

That's what got us a result against Fulham in the end. I hope we repeat the trick over there tonight.