May The Force Remain With Us

Sounder minds than mine can evaluate the implications in our "jeux sans frontières", but the one statistic shouting at me was that these craftsmen from La Coruna included eight Spanish nationals, while Seaman and Sol Campbell were the only contributors from these shores to Wenger's multinational force. The most devastating consequence from this defeat to Deportivo was the potential destruction of that "winning feeling", which had been steadily accruing in the Arsenal camp, until last Tuesday night.

Before Xmas the loss of extremely influential players like Henry, Adams, Keown and Cole would have left us dreading the team news prior to each game, bemoaning the weaknesses of Wenger's increasingly limited choice of replacements. Whereas in recent weeks our run of victories had begun to instill in Gooners everywhere, this air of invincibility. Our sublime skill going forward meant that it did not matter who Obi Wenger Kenobi picked to plug the growing number of gaps, the air of confidence about the camp was such that each and every member of the squad was capable of cutting the mustard. Until a club of La Coruna's calibre tore our defence asunder and exposed the fact while still waters run deep, squad strength can only be stretched so far. At the highest level in European competition there is no substitute for experience in defence. Alex Ferguson might have been ridiculed at the time for risking Utd's season on a replacement for Stam whose pensionable age entitles him to a free pass for public transport, but how our back line might have benefited last week from the calming influence of a cool, collected Laurent Blanc.

Early this season, I can recall screaming at Thierry Henry and his pals to play the simple ball, tearing my hair out in frustration as our attacks forever floundered on their fancy flicks and ballsed up backheels. However I have been happy to eat humble pie, as the practice of Pires, Henry and Bergkamp has made for the ultimate in footballing perfection of late. Yet where against Bayer Leverkusen they managed to bang in our first two attempts on goal, against Depor, not only did they fail to capitalize on a couple of early opportunities, poor old Thierry couldn't put a foot right all night. Considering his sensational form, it is hard to begrudge him the odd stinker. I only wish he had accepted the fact that it wasn't his night and let someone else take that penalty. As he stood facing the North Bank with the ball on the penalty spot, you could sense his apprehension. Just that week I had read a quote from Gazza about the penalty process, in which he described the goal posts shrinking and the keeper growing before his eyes. Seeing Henry in a similar predicament, I imagine I was amongst a majority present who wouldn't have fancied putting our money on him converting this one. Sadly Molina's save signalled the death knell against Depor. It was a great pity, since Ljungberg's arrival on the pitch had brought about an injection of enthusiasm. Having secured the penalty, who knows where the momentum might have taken us if we had managed to get on the scoreboard.

In the past, anything but a victory at the Highbury library, has seen the fickle faithful heading for the exits long before the final whistle. I've been disgusted by expressions of disapprobation from the disgruntled few. It was a rare sight to see the vanquishers applauded off, rather than our vanquished heroes being booed. Either this was a magnanimous gesture to a marvelous display from the Spaniards, or merely our only means of ingratiating ourselves with the Galicians, in the hope that having qualified for the quarterfinal, they won't give up the ghost against the Jerries this week.

In the space of ninety minutes, all our old inferiority resurfaced. Just as the beautiful dream had begun to boil, the gas had gone out and no-one had a coin for the meter. A draw would have been sufficient for our fantasies to continue simmering sweetly, instead of which I suddenly feared our season could fall flat in the space of three successive failures, leaving us destined for our perennial place as also rans. Consequently Sunday's match at Villa Park wasn't just crucial in terms of a continued assault on the Championship, it was vital for the feelgood factor. With the frantic schedule of fixtures facing us in the next few weeks, winning is imperative for the momentum that masks fatigue.

The tragic tale in the Sunday papers of the plight of poor Paul Vaessen, who passed away last year aged 39, saw memories of 1979 come flooding back. This was the man who literally had the world at his feet, with his goal in the semi final of the Cup Winners Cup securing the Arsenal's victory in Turin, against a Juve side whose home record in European competition had been unblemished for a decade. A subsequent four match semifinal saga against Liverpool in the FA Cup, saw our weary legs undone in the final, on Wembley's wide expanses, by Trevor Brooking's talented West Ham. Apparently Brian Talbot collapsed on the coach with exhaustion, but still managed to turn out four days later for one of the biggest nights in the Arsenal's history, a European final at Heysel. Despite 15 games in 45 days David O'Leary managed perhaps his most memorable performance in red and white, to mark the mighty Mario Kempes out of the game for 120 minutes, only for Valencia to win on penalties. The perfect example of a season which promised so much, but ended so painfully empty handed.

Let's hope that moment on Sunday when "safe hands" gambled on the right direction to produce a stunning save, will galvanize the Arsenal, in order that we might run the gauntlet of the ghosts of the more recent past. Even without their top scorer, I can't help but feel that Utd wouldn't have made such heavy weather of a decidedly workmanlike Aston Villa. The core of Ferguson's side might be favoured by the fact that they are habitually accustomed to the pressure and have positively thrived on it in the past. Yet is has been a while since they've been bothered by anyone breathing down their necks, let alone the binary breath of both the current challengers for their crown. As far as I am concerned, our titanic encounter at Old Trafford can't come soon enough and I am saddened at the thought that an FA Cup semi final place will cause a postponement of this peach in the Premiership run-in. We might see a repeat of '98, when Overmars exorcised any inferiority complex, or heaven forbid, a tonking like last term will put us southern upstarts firmly in our place. Or a stalemate could see the Scousers steam past us both. It will certainly prove more conclusive than the vacillating views of the string of morose managers who in defeat each week, are expected to opine on the outcome.

Another silverware starved season might be insufferable for us Gooners, but when I ponder on a weekend including an imperious lob from Pires, the boy Beckham's virtuoso volley and the fact that the Arsenal have not failed to score in thirty-one league games, without doubt we've not wanted for some of the most wonderful football it has ever been my privilege to witness.


Meanwhile despite endless explanations, I still remain completely confused about the convoluted qualification permutations this week. If after an amazing 0-3 Arsenal triumph, the cameras should focus on a bemused Gooner "boat-race" in the stands of the Stadio Delle Alpi, it'll probably be me, not knowing whether to jump for joy because we've qualified, or to cry for having fallen at the final hurdle before a knockout stage which could favour any team with a bit of luck on their side.