Diamond There Forever

Last updated : 16 October 2002 By Bernard Azulay

It was in complete contrast to Eindhoven, where the cathedral appeared to be the only edifice built prior to the advent of the lightbulb. There was more than a little irony that our first away match in the Champions League took place in a town built almost entirely on the back of an electrical goods manufacturer, when so many thousands of Gooners in the UK were left gawking at the black box in the corner of their living rooms, unable to believe that they weren't able to watch live pictures of such an amazing performance from their beloved Arsenal.

Mercifully those who stopped at home last Wednesday didn't have a tube strike to contend with, unlike the previous week when they were left frantically phoning around to try and find one of the few pubs able to provide a live broadcast. Thankfully, for all those thousands up and down the country who wanted to watch the most entertaining team in the land, the powers that be from Independent TV decided, in their wisdom, not to alienate the football supporting public even further and relented over their daft decision to broadcast another Arsenal match to the miniscule amount of cable customers of their obscure news channel.

I was incredibly grateful for the cheap flights that enabled us to go to both games, so that I wasn't left tearing out what remains of my hair, wondering whether I'd actually be able to watch the matches on TV. And I was pleased for my mate Nell and all those Gooners who didn't travel, when I received his response to my habitual half-time text message. I was able to glean the opinions of the studio pundits instead of hearing how he was still stuck on a bus in traffic, trying to track down one of the hostelries rumoured to have the match live.

It would appear that the TV transmission told a different story, as the views I have garnered from Gooners since all suggest it was a half-decent performance. Whereas watching from the terraces of the Stade Abbé Deschamps I witnessed our weakest showing of the season so far. With our much respected manager and his large contingent of players from across the Channel regularly providing such incredibly entertaining fare, the Arsenal have won many admirers in France. The French public might be confounded as to why these same players can't produce the goods when playing for their country, but they appear to seek solace for the bitter disappointment of bombing out of the World Cup, in the crucial French contribution to the Arsenal's adventures at home and abroad.

Our "you only come to see the Arsenal" chant never seemed more appropriate as the butcher, the baker, the fromage maker all turned up in their droves expecting the prodigious encounter predicted in the French press. Moreover with so many more able to watch on the box, as a result according to the laws of both Sod and Murphy we were virtually assured a mediocre match.

Perhaps it is only when they return home that our Gallic Gunners fully appreciate the sort of detailed scrutiny they come in for in the dedicated sports papers (with the sort of interesting coverage we can only dream of from our gossip-mongering media). Or that they are not able to laud it over opponents who might have witnessed them cock it up when they were kids at Clairefontaine. Whatever the reason, the likes of Henry and Vieira often seem to struggle under the weight of expectation when appearing on home soil. Without the same high profile (soon come!) Pascal Cygan has no such worries. He was one of the few players to create a favourable impression on the night.

Our performance in Auxerre was more of a throwback to our form away from home in Europe of the past few years than the super confident Arsenal-über alles of recent weeks. Albeit with one drastic difference, our anonymous Brazilian World Cup star stuck a goal in at one end and our little known Le Boeuf lookalike made a substantial contribution in stopping our opponents doing likewise at the other. Some might suggest we profited from a soupçon of fortune considering Auxerre crashed one against the crossbar as the clock ticked down but it could just be that Cygan and Gilberto proved the difference in our ability to get the job done.

I turned on the TV in our hotel room on Thursday wondering if Pascal's sudden rise to prominence might merit a call up for his country. The two forthcoming French internationals are a little premature as far as he is concerned. However I imagine the new national coach will be little different to his predecessors. I recall the time Vieira spent as a sub when he and Manu Petit were perhaps the best midfield pairing on the planet. Lemerre's stubbornness at that time suggested he didn't want to be seen to be taking his lead from a potential candidate for his job. Having picked Gallas and Dacourt, one might accuse Santini of a similar mentality. Personally I am far from bothered that our less than beautiful ball-head has a decent break and the continued motivation to prove himself. I just wonder where the French coach's head is at when Cygan is riding the crest of a consummate wave and Gallas is coming of the back off Chelsea's Viking catastrophe!

Driving back from Stansted airport I heard that the Arsène had received the kiss of death compliment of the Manager of the Month award, with fate tempting tongues of Thierry's Player of the Month recognition on top! With each twist of the Arsenal's record breaking ride round football nirvana I grow more hysterical about hitting the wall. The Black Cats broke their duck last weekend, followed by their seven goal midweek warm-up, the pundits were writing Sunday's match off as a foregone conclusion (not to mention all the gambling Gooners who will doubtless be reluctant to admit that they succumbed to the temptation of the outrageous odds in a two horse race of 16 to 1 - but then we should have all learnt how rarely the bookies get it wrong) and on the evidence of Bolton and Auxerre the previously purring Arsenal engine might have just begun to pink.

Sitting at Highbury on Sunday, bathed in the bright sunshine of a beautiful, crisp autumnal afternoon I was soon told to shut up, as I began to annoy everyone by reeling of these negative vibes. If Kanu had been the worst culprit midweek, when he kept putting us on the back foot by losing possession, he soon put a stop to my pessimism against Sunderland. I hadn't finished my cheese bagel before his two goals in ten minutes had my mates turning to me to make sure I was munching on all my misconceptions.

My heart went out to Peter Reid, I could imagine the effort he'd just put into his enthusiastic teamtalk "Keep it tight early doors, quieten the home crowd...!" Strangely enough, after the euphoric celebrations, Highbury fell surprisingly silent. It wasn't just that the match was over as a contest, we were truly dumbstruck without adequate superlatives to describe what we were watching. So we just sat there drinking in a standard of football beyond our wildest dreams, responding occasionally to the Wearsider's attempts to wake their side from a shell shocked stupor, only to remind them of their supporting role in our smash-hit. Somewhat too literal in poor Sorensen's case. His painful injury put a slight dampener of proceedings, so I was delighted that we were able to round the afternoon off with what is likely to be Niall Quinn's last curtain call at Highbury. Less mobile perhaps but as cantankerous as ever on the pitch, Niall remains a Gooner favourite, receiving a generous ovation deserved by such a decent gentleman.

Another blinding performance by our ball-head centre-half ensured he was the subject of the buzz around the terraces. Arsène appears to have unearthed another diamond at zircon prices, saving the Arsenal all the millions Manchester paid for Rio, the rougher gem. Martin Keown might have some task on his hands to oust a player who made his home debut on Sunday with the composure of someone who has spent his entire career in our back line.