April Showers?

Last updated : 09 April 2003 By Bernard Azulay

What I didn't expect was the pinheaded pedant of a referee to ruin the enjoyment of the watching millions by putting the mockers on the match as a contest within four minutes. Sure there was little dispute about the penalty decision and according to the letter of the law, as the last man, Hyypia was duly sent off. However if the game is governed for the benefit of the spectators and on the basis that there was no real malice intended, when will someone in authority catch on to the fact that the paying punters are fast losing patience with the desperate need for officials to be able to use their discretion.

I had hoped that Houllier's side would at least stretch our closest rivals. Sadly circumstances permitted Utd a comfortable stroll in the park. Nevertheless there was no way we were going to let the small matter of a Man Utd win spoil our day, as we booted up the motorway to Birmingham. Making the most of a beautiful Spring morning, we lowered the soft top. With the sun at our backs and the wind in our hair, we simply switched off the radio commentary from Old Trafford and turned the music up.

Admittedly I was all the more disgusted after arriving at Villa Park to eventually discover that Utd had eroded our goal difference by another four goals. Yet in all honesty I wasn't too unhappy with this result because I was suffering from the delusion that the Arsenal were less likely to slip up, knowing that they were under pressure to produce all three points. After all it is almost a regular occurrence these days for us to have to play catch up, while our competitors put their feet up and watch us sweat. Oh for those bygone Saturdays when we were all in the same boat at 3pm! In fact I can't recall if it is a first and not that I am any kind of a fan of all the early kick-offs that appear to be the prerogative of football's Pay-Per-View masters, but it will be a real novelty should we beat Bolton at the Reebok. For once we might be able to enjoy Utd's endeavours knowing we already have the points in the bag. Who knows, if we continue shipping points at the current rate, it could be all over by then. Then again for some months now I have suspected that it will all come down to a mammoth, make or break match at Highbury, from which the winner might rightly walk away with the title. And after enjoying the entertaining football on offer at Everton on Sunday, I have a sneaking suspicion that Man utd might be taken down a peg or two on Tyneside.

After witnessing the awe inspiring way in which our captain almost single-handedly wrestled our encounters with Everton and Chelsea by the scruff of the neck and Henry's continued hot-streak for his country, I had almost put aside my usual pessimism at Villa Park. Before the game I basked in the sunshine in the park beside the ground, wondering what prevents our captain capping his defensive displays with such influential appearances in the penalty area every week. Perhaps it was all my fault for arriving early (I assure you only as a result of circumstances beyond my control). The Gooner gal who drove to Brum sent me a text before the game to give me the news that she had given Wenger a good luck kiss.

Having by some miracle seen an earring lying on the concrete beside the car that was made up of a stone previously set in my dear departed Gran's necklace and which I thought I'd lost in Valencia, I was in such a good mood due to this propitious omen that I replied by gladly offering to give Arsène a BJ in return for all three points. Amy was certain it was my salacious quip which could have scared Wenger into sending his team out not to win. It was hard to argue on the evidence of their first-half efforts.

Still if Thierry Henry's instinctive turn and strike after the break had flown into the top corner, instead of bobbling harmlessly off the roof of the net, we might have been talking in terms of a goal of the season contender, similar to his amazing effort against Man Utd at Highbury a couple of seasons back. Such are the small margins between scintillating success and frustrating failure. The motorway masochists and the tormented rail travellers amongst the Gooner guild are growing all to accustomed to our Arsenal idol's infuriating efforts as they flatter to deceive far too frequently. Similarly the dissatisfied diatribes from the doyens of our deadly Northern rivals during the course of the season, would suggest that this title will eventually end up in the hands of the least inconsistent of the contenders.

However whilst they appear to expect little more from a squad sliding swiftly along the apparent downswing of their cycle of success, the situation seems all the more maddening for the North London massive. We all know that the current star-studded collection of Arsène's diamonds contains sufficient a number of carats (injuries and suspensions permitting) to be more than adequately capable of conquering all before them. If the fates have decreed that we are doomed to deliver up our double Double to such an evidently unworthy enemy, Arsène might find fingers pointing at his failure to maintain the balance of British and foreign players, which has served so superbly in his previous successes.

On his arrival (it is incredible to think we will have enjoyed seven wonderful years under Wenger come September) he earned my immediate respect with his recognition of the importance of the idiosyncratic brand of the Arsenal bulldog spirit. He resolved to maintain the status quo as he sought out the continental caviare from which he's cooked up a cosmopolitan quiche consistently capable of collecting silver cups. Yet where once the English ingredients in this omelette were able to inspire their customarily less committed cousins from across the Channel to perform in a wholehearted manner which hadn't previously been part of their make-up, perhaps now the reverse is true. The likes of Ray Parlour might wonder why he should risk the precious tools of his trade in a bone crunching challenge when he sees certain team mates premeditated attempts to ride out a similar scrape.

Ultimately, heaven forfend, if we should end up falling at the final few hurdles in a season which started out with wet dream promise, we will be left wondering about Wenger's failure to refresh the Highbury hotpot with some Rooney like homegrown prodigies. How long do we have to wait to find out whether the hunger, or the lack of fear displayed by the likes of David Bentley or the Dubliner Bradley might stimulate the rest of the squad (not to mention adding an element of insecurity to those who are all too sure of their selection)? Personally I also cannot help but question the sagacity of the untimely sale of Matthew Upson, as I am certain he might have coped somewhat better in the face of typically frenetic Premiership pressure than poor, hapless Pascal!

Yet who am I to question the selection decisions of our indubitable seer. Moreover, in truth we shouldn't really have to worry about the apparent frailties of a defence which is all too often incapable of hanging on to a lead, when we can usually count on Henry and Bergkamp.

Last season we saw Pires and Ljungberg pulling the midfield strings in our sensational run-in to the title. They each took a turn at shouldering a stunning amount of the goal scoring responsibilities. To date this season I have been waiting in vain for one of them to hit a similar hot streak, in the belief that the brilliance of Titi would take us into the finishing straight but some midfield help might be the telling factor if we are to bring this double, Double back home to Highbury. Freddie remains my favourite, for at least he's beginning to make his traditional last minute appearances in the penalty area. Although it might be asking too much to expect him to recapture his stamina and timing with sufficient speed to repeat the way he soared towards the silverware last season. Whereas since his injury, I don't think I can recall a single occasion when Pires has had the confidence in his pace to push a ball past an opponent. These days he appears to prefer passing the responsibility on.

Perhaps we will still succeed in scrabbling over the finishing line thanks mainly to our forwards. After all there will be no greater reward for retaining our title on points rather than goal difference. Nevertheless if we are indeed destined to make history this season, it will be far more satisfying to see this squad do itself justice in the few remaining fixtures, leaving everyone (obviously with the exception of Fergie) in no doubt that we are "by far the greatest team". Considering he can leap tall buildings in a single bound, if I had to count on one super human being to help us fly over the few remaining fences, I can think of no better man than our captain for such a crucial job.