Downhearted Before Derby Day? - Not Bloody Likely!

Last updated : 11 December 2002 By Bernard Azulay

After giving ourselves such a leg-up in the Champions League, it would be a crying shame to have to start again from scratch when the competition resumes in February. Yet the pessimist in me can't help but postulate that it would be fairly typical of my team to throw away our three point advantage with a poor performance against Valencia. If only because it would be so un-Arsenal like to make light of qualification for the quarterfinals, instead of leaving us tenterhooks to the very last.

Likewise in the Premiership. I had few illusions about coming home on Saturday with all three points and the sort of comfortable cushion at the top which would have left us approaching Sunday's derby dust-up without a care in the world. However if I have cause to conduct a post-mortem after the mishap in Manchester, it is not to castigate our players (apart perhaps from one anonymous individual) but to set the record straight as far as the muppets in the media are concerned. Not for the first time I wondered if I'd been watching a different match to the various pundits who were left heaping praise upon the home team. Perhaps some opinions were coloured by the feint traces of egg on the faces of those responsible for the reams of vacuous gabble, extolling the virtues of the Gunners and prematurely reading the last rites for old red nose's Mancunian dynasty, in all the pre-match hype.

They might need to con themselves that the team they touted as such firm favourites were outclassed, but don't let them kid you. Credit where credit is due, the Gunners were outgunned by a severely under strength side who more than made up for any deficiencies in ability with their work rate. I am not normally an Opta loving statistic spouter but I was so bothered by the absolute bunkum in all the match reports that I found myself frantically bashing the keyboard of my computer, searching the internet for some facts to confirm that I hadn't dreamt up my own rose-tinted image of the game.

The Arsenal's fundamental failure was our inability to take advantage of long periods of domination. Yet it is a sign of how far we have come that despite Utd's admirable efforts to snuff out any threat by surrounding the likes of Henry and Pires with three players snapping at their heels in an instant, I cannot ever recall an Arsenal side looking quite so comfortable in possession of the ball at Old Trafford. I was for once grateful to the anoraks at Opta for absolute proof of this, in the possession percentages and the figures for shots on goal and corners, which all favoured the visitors. But as my colleague can gleefully cackle, it is indeed balls in the back of the net which are the only integers that count.

Let's face it, even if we'd had the benefit of Bergkamp at his best from the beginning of the game and some more bite in midfield from the likes of the boy Parlour (who I fancy unlike Freddie Ljungberg wouldn't have allowed the advancing figure of John O'Shea to leave him for dead!), Man Utd were always going to be that little bit more motivated after their embarrassment last May. And that was before the media had given the Arsenal and Thierry Henry "the big 'un" thus ensuring Fergie didn't have to trouble himself too much with his team talk.

As we saw later that night on the Premiership, Ruud may have accepted a little hug from Henry when presenting him with his goal of the month prize, but out on the pitch he was taking no prisoners. Defending from the front, working out wide, it was as though he was determined to prove there's far more to his game than a mere goal poacher. More worrying was the fact that Utd reminded me of the Arsenal last season, in the way that no matter the loss of their major players and the increasing length of their injury list, the understudies slipped in seamlessly, in some cases making their presence felt more than the cocks of the walk in their first choice cast.

Personally I would have bitten off the hand that offered a point prior to this portentous fixture and far more disappointing than the defeat was our failure to find the net and continue our incredible, fifty-five match goal scoring run. There might have been nothing to crow about on the day but contrary to what many in the media would have you believe, we Gooners certainly weren't silenced. Nor were we particularly miserable. It was only May when we walled out of Old Trafford with the title. We will be doing our utmost to remind the Utd fans of this fact for decades to come, let alone the same year. Moreover there won't be many teams 2-0 down at the Theatre of Dreams and still topping the league. Downhearted? Not bloody likely!

That the Reds' perceived wrong hadn't been righted by this result was evident from the levels of animosity outside, as most of us attempted to furtively slip away from the stadium. I felt a little guilty about the sense of self-preservation that prevented me from opening my mouth in defence of the poor Gooner in a replica kit who was foolish enough to find himself segregated from the majority, facing a full-blooded barrage from all sides. Yet I was grateful for the years of experience of just such vibes, that saw me and many others surreptitiously slipping our hats in our pockets and zipping up our coats concealing our colours as we climbed down the stairs.

There was a mad moment when the vitriolic verbal volley of "I hate these cockney bastards" and an array of other less printable epithets from the bloke beside me had me wondering whether my southern origins were obvious even with my mouth shut. Until, I found myself smiling at my own stupidity. With our "see you on the motorway" refrain still ringing in my ears, I was reminded that there were far more cockney Reds around us than Southern Gooners. Then again perhaps a desire for acceptance ensures they all develop a Mancunian drawl during the drive North!

Accompanied by Treacle our dog, I'd journeyed up the day before. Otherwise with the midday KO I would have probably spent most of the match sitting in motorway traffic. As anyone will tell you, it is impossible to find a bed anywhere in the city when there's a match at Old Trafford unless you book months in advance. So Treacle and I spent the night before and after the match in a B & B some miles away on Saddleworth Moor. Even in the bleak midwinter it was a wonderfully picturesque setting and I imagine it must be truly magical in May. I made a tentative reservation for the end of that month just in case. The best result of this trip was our truly invigorating walks around the Pennine Way. Who knows perhaps next time we can better that, coming back as Champions of Europe?