Now That's What I Call Va-Va Wenger!
We Gooners know what a gargantuan feat the Arsenal achieved last season as the first side in over a century to remain unbeaten away from home, continuing our goal in every game record (who could have ever dreamed "Boring, boring Arsenal" would manage a goal in every one of 40 consecutive games!) and a whole host of other records that continue to be shattered by an unbeaten run which stretches back until that day in December, when Graham Poll purloined the points against Newcastle. Yet I don't think I was alone in finding it a little ironic that as a nervy Arsenal brought home the Double rashers of bacon on the back of the renaissance of the famous "Arsenal spirit', the media bandwagon was suddenly speaking of our squad in terms of the second coming.
Don't get me wrong, last season we were privileged to witness many examples of the most wonderful football I have ever seen. However we were left on the edge of our seats during many hard fought, close encounters. We weren't exactly disposing of opponents as if they didn't exist, like we did during that other remarkable run-in to the title back in "98. It was more a case of sweating it out, relying on the fact that ultimately, we had sufficient class all over the pitch to carve out an opening (actually carving out several openings in most cases but usually failing to take advantage of more than the odd one or two). While naturally I wouldn't go so far as my Mancunian colleague might, belittling our title triumph with the suggestion that we owe our success to Utd's slipshod season. Yet I am not so blinded by my Gunner's bias to be unable to pay due "respek" to the inconsistencies of our rivals.
Taking the title on the enemy's own turf, was therefore just the therapy we needed to erase any inferiority complex. However the suggestion that we now have something to fear from the revenge of Fergie's wounded animals, makes it that bit more important for us to finally put the Moaners out of their misery, by reinforcing the shift in the balance of power and retaining the Premiership title. To be perfectly honest, having lost Richard Wright and watching Wenger shop in the Brazilian equivalent of Brick Lane market, while Fergie blew Utd's wad on Ferdinand in Bond Street by comparison, I was hoping we might hang on to everyone else's coat tails for the first couple of months of the season.
Until Cardiff last week, I wouldn't believe a word of the fanfare from the tabloid trumpets. I couldn't see on what basis they were touting us as the next best thing since sliced bread. I was merely praying that we might be able to keep ourselves in the picture, until the return to fitness of Ljungberg and Pires because I was concerned we might come a cropper without the creativity seen last term from the crucial contributions of these two. What I hadn't counted on was the considerable effect of confidence. I never fail to be amazed by this potency of this vital "X' factor in football. Between Arsène, the silver tongued soothsayer and the "success breeds success' sequel to last season, suddenly the much maligned £'" million Wiltord appears to have become a world beater, Ray Parlour is playing like a man possessed and sod Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell is spraying forty yards passes as if he was Franz bloomin' Beckenbauer.
I should be careful about going overboard, for fear of tempting fate. After all it was only Birmingham that we beat. Our commanding performance in Cardiff left me wondered if it was a reflection of our Championship winning credentials, or merely the fact that Houllier still has a long way to go. Since Sunday's game, even I am struggling to keep the lid on my enthusiasm, unable to argue with the instincts which sense indisputable proof of the former.
Without Pires and Ljungberg, the two midfielders most likely to bang in vital goals by backing up our strikers with their runs into the penalty box, I feared we might be overly dependent on our front men. However during one of our many incisive attacks on Sunday afternoon, when we drove at the Birmingham defence with positively frightening pace and precision, there was an instance when Parlour flew towards the corner flag, with a choice of anyone of five men pelting into the penalty area to pick out with a pass. Sadly his cross didn't live up to the quality of this astonishing attack, as he failed to bypass the near post defender. Considering the tropical temperature, this all-round display of unbridled enthusiasm (and please forgive me for such an unacceptable analogy) reminded me of Utd at their free flowing best, when Giggs, Scholes, Butt and Beckham all used to arrive in the area backing up their forwards.
On a day when only the Blues' keeper and the cobwebs that kept us from hitting the target, prevented a cricket score of a result, I could fill this paper with all the plus points (inc Gilberto, Kolo Toure, Aliadière). But the one that meant most to the majority of us was the marked difference in Patrick Vieira, compared with the player who came to last season's party, as though it wasn't worth taking his coat off. Perhaps it is a combination of not having spent the summer having his head filled with humbug about how much happier he would be elsewhere, or his renewed desire to carve out his own little piece of Arsenal history, as he dons the mammoth mantle of our retiring captain. Whatever the motive, it beats signing Rivaldo himself, to have Patrick back playing at his majestic best.
It's been a fortnight since we finally coughed up the best part of three grand required to renew our season tickets (two months overdue!) and it was only a week ago that I collected our precious little red booklets of vouchers. As we strolled around to the West Upper in the sunshine on Sunday, there was a sensuous security, patting the back pocket of my shorts to feel our passes to another nine months of footballing pleasure. The financial sacrifice might have left us stony broke but by ten to six we'd seen such wonders to behold, that they would have been cheap at twice the price.