Lest We Forget!

Last updated : 25 March 2003 By Bernard Azulay

This from a man who claimed a bad case of diarrhoea as mitigation for a speeding offence! Yet he wasn't far wrong in his coarse commentary on this stage of the season. The nerves were only too apparent against Everton on Sunday. The tension in the air at Highbury was positively palpable. There was the odd moment when we stood and applauded the brilliance of Dennis Bergkamp, but by and large the occasion didn't allow for too much pretty football. After Van the Man's marvellous performance had ensured that Man Utd leapfrogged us at the top the previous day, nobody really cared too much. All we were interested in was passing the winning post, putting ourselves back in the driving seat and erasing memories of our embarrassing European exit.

Never was a win more vital. Otherwise it might have been impossible to recover both physically and mentally, in the space of the subsequent forty-eight hours. We would have ended up wondering if a season which had started with so much promise was all going to depend on the outcome of our quarterfinal replay at Stamford Bridge. Thank heavens Patrick Vieira came through with a consummate and dominant captain's performance. Paddy displayed the determination to pop up in the penalty area and slide home a crucial decider, only eight minutes after the necessary change of trousers when young Wayne Rooney struck his stunning equalizer.

It was the second time this term that we've had the misfortune to be on the wrong end of a goal from this truly gifted individual. There was a sense that the baby-faced marvel was capable of making something happen every time he touched the ball. OK so making a monkey out of the missing link/love-child of Lurch and Frank Leboeuf who has been posing as a centre-back named Cygan, might not be a mean feat. Rooney's real class was apparent in the lack of fear and respect as he ghosted past the likes of our World Cup winning Brazilian. His brilliance was reflected in the sound of squeaky bums echoing around the stands whenever Wayne was in possession. And our rear-end repertoire reached a right royal crescendo during an extremely tense last ten minutes, as David Moyes went for broke by bringing on big Duncan Ferguson for a defender. Having deep-throated Duncan's elbows, I am sure poor Pascal was as relieved as the rest of us to hear the sweet sound of the final whistle.

At least now we can travel to the Bridge on Tuesday night, knowing the retention of our title remains in our own hands. As a result, hopefully we will reap the benefits of being able to relax and play without the fear that the FA Cup is our best remaining chance of some silverware. Even if we do succumb to the law of averages against Chelsea in this competition (after stuffing them in successive seasons), it would be a huge disappointment, but it won't be the end of the world. It might have been if we'd bowed out of the cup on the back of blowing our three previous matches, with a ten day International break to mull over the mastery of our own downfall.

Such doomsday similes might appear facile considering the current apocalyptic climate but it is merely a reflection of the importance of our victory on Sunday, in order to lift the veil of depression to which we succumbed since our defeat in Spain. In the scheme of things, it may seem bizarre to attach so much importance to this beautiful game of ours while Baghdad burns from all the bombing (even to an addict like myself). I recall watching the World Trade Centre meltdown from our hotel room in Majorca. Nero might have managed it, but I wondered how we could possibly fiddle about at a football match while New York burned that night. It took a Philistine from the States to set me straight, with an explanation of the increased importance of such escapist distractions during these ominous times.

It wasn't necessary to be in Iraq to know what if felt like amidst all that exploding ordinance. Anyone in Valencia for their Las Fallas fiesta will have left with a ringing in their ears as a reminder of the sort of sonic pandemonium in Baghdad when the barmy Bush-Blair partnership finally pushed the button on their bloodcurdling Gameboy. I am no great lover of the Champions League format as is. The glamorous mammoth matches used to be once in a blue moon big nights. Familiarity must have bred some contempt because I much prefer the frenetic cut and thrust of domestic football, to the patient plod of the product on the continent. However if it wasn't for our participation in Europe, I would have never even heard of the annual spring festival in Valencia, much less visited the place to experience this amazing
event for myself.

After our tortuous trip to Blackburn, I had talked myself out of this trip until my pal's gentle persuasion twisted my arm to travel last Tuesday. The fireworks went on into the wee hours that night, with a repeat performance the following afternoon. Even the disappointment of our defeat that night couldn't put a complete downer on the climactic midnight spectacle, when the mad inhabitants congregate to watch hundreds of huge bonfires, as the enormous cartoon constructions on every street corner are put to the torch. Kevin and I almost went up in smoke ourselves along with several others, as the burning embers showered down upon our heads. We survived unharmed to make our flight home and it was during our long journey that my melancholia really began to sink in.

In view of our makeshift line-up, (the woeful Wiltord apart!) we didn't really perform that badly in the Mestailla. As everyone rightly pointed out, it was the three previous home draws which had left us in such a parlous predicament. My misery was only compounded with Friday's draw for the quarterfinals, as I am convinced that the current Arsenal side should be more than capable of keeping such high class company. As hard as I strived to seek out some small silver lining to our European demise (like the fact we'd avoided the expense of two further continental sorties - who needs another trip to the San Siro, give me Sheffield any day! -and certain incarceration in debtor's jail, not to mention a congestion free fixture list which should enable us to focus on the domestic task at hand), my abiding feeling was frustration at our failure once again to do ourselves justice in this tournament.

After Fergie had chastised the Arsenal side for supposedly attempting to intimidate the ref at Old Trafford, I had to laugh on Saturday as I watched his crew crowding round the official. Our self-effacing manager also felt the need to highlight the old soak's hypocritical comments because he is rightly aggrieved at being perceived as arrogant. However I have to take my hat off to Fergie, after simmering all season long, he appears to have brought his boys to the boil with perfect timing. If Utd's additional experience in Europe gives them an advantage, it's that there is no perceptible difference to the way they approach the Premiership. Whereas the Arsenal appear incapable of reproducing their hi-tempo performances. All too often we let foreign opponents dictate the pace of the game, when one feels our frenetic football might frighten the life out of them.

Moreover to my uneducated eyes, it seems that whenever we come up against a team with the temerity to stifle our intricate passing game, we all too often end up bouncing off the number of bodies between us and the goal. Thierry Henry is perhaps the most entertaining player in the Premiership but there is an old adage that says if you can't go through an opponent, try going around them and without a traditional centre-forward to receive the ball, there is little point whipping in crosses from the corner flag. Mind you this would also require a natural winger. Though we are rumoured to possess one of the most promising of his kind in the country in Jermaine Pennant, Arsene insists on picking those whose instincts are always to head towards the middle, instead of the bye-line.

If I have one criticism of the great man, it is his reluctance to risk untried youngsters even in situations where a win is already in the bag. Circumstances and the fact that he immediately grasped the mettle enabled Ashley Cole to become a regular fixture. Ashley aside, you have to go all the way back to Ray Parlour for the last homegrown talent to force his way into the Arsenal ranks! Nevertheless before I run away with myself and my petty remonstrations, I had a huge smile on my face as I skipped out of Highbury on Sunday and I must not forget "we are top of the league!"