Fortune Certainly Doesn't Favour The Fearful

Last updated : 06 September 2004 By Bernard Azulay

I am no major fan of Italian football but nevertheless, even I marvelled at the majestic defensive feats of the AC Milan side of Baresi and co.. We are still a long way from equalling their 58 game undefeated record, especially when this Arsenal team cannot count on the same sort of parsimony and has to continue outscoring the opposition. However if all our opponents should come like lambs to the slaughter, as Norwich did on Saturday, then perhaps it is not such an unlikely eventuality.

I was expecting Nigel Worthington's side to at least attempt to ruffle the league leaders feathers with some rumbustious, committed footie. I said to my mate at half-time, I bet they get a rollocking in the dressing room and return to the pitch for the second forty-five with a little more fire in their bellies, showing the Arsenal a little less respect. In fact I have to admit that I was almost disappointed to be wrong (for once :-), as Norwich spent almost the entire second-half backing off our lot, as they did in the first with hardly a tackle worthy of the name.

It would seem that the longer our undefeated run continues, the swagger which comes with such an abundance of confidence seems to increase and the opposition appear to become increasingly timid. You expect teams like Norwich to make up for any deficiencies in ability, with commitment and hard graft but it was as if they were all too afraid of sticking a foot in for fear of being made fools of by our skillful side. Don't get me wrong, no one enjoys our "Invincibles" tag more than me and I am absolutely wallowing in this rare opportunity to smugly sing out to the rest of the footballing world that "We are unbeatable".

Yet I have to admit that much of the fun goes out of the game when it becomes too predictable and Saturday's match in my opinion was all too easy. The law of averages dictates that this Arsenal side will eventually come a cropper. Personally I don't think it will happen against any of our major competitors like Chesea or Man Utd (if indeed they remain a force to be reckoned with?). There's no difficulty in getting motivated for such glamorous football fixtures. I feel it will eventually happen on a day when complacency, or merely an off day when Lady Luck forsakes, sees a few too many Arsenal players under perform against a team they are expected to beat, who come out and show us absolutely no respect, but are in our faces from the first whistle. Perhaps a Villa side motivated by O'Leary (who has been our nemesis on a previous occasion), or a Bolton side steamed up sufficiently by Sam Allardyce.

Saturday could have been the perfect occasion for our opponents. With Cygan injured in the warm up, we had probably the most inexperienced centre-back partnership in the Premiership, with Kolo Touré partnering the young Justin Hoyte (a right-back by trade). And I personally take the blame for putting the kibosh on Lauren, as no sooner had the words "the defensive side of Ralphie's game has been improving" left my lips in the opening minutes, than he produced one of the worst defensive performances we've ever seen from the Cameroonian.

The fact of the matter is that the Arsenal are so potent up front, with potential goalscorers in all positions from the rampant Reyes, to Henry, Pires, Ljungberg and a Dennis Bergkamp who far from being anywhere near to a candidate for the knacker's yard, is in the form of his life. As a result this has distracted most from appreciating quite how thinly spread we are at the back. As was pointed out to me the other day, you would hardly believe that a team currently playing with the likes of Lehmann, Cygan and Gilberto as its spine could possibly be touted as such world beaters!

In my humble opinion we were there for the taking on Saturday if Huckerby hadn't been the only Canary to show a modicum of belief. I was half hoping that Lauren might have got himself sent off, both to avoid the post-match controversy which detracts from the more delightful talking points and because it is beginning to look like the Arsenal's opponents are going to require such self-inflicted handicaps, to give such no-hopers a glimmer of a chance.

Similar to the Blackburn game, it must be positively soul-destroying as the East-Anglians struggled to contain this Arsenal side, only to see us bring on players of the quality of Bergkamp and Edu as substitutes. And I assume like every Arsenal fan, I adore the fact that over the past couple of weeks we've seen the Kings Road pretenders top the table temporarily after struggling to secure three points by the odd goal, only to endure watching the Gunners hand out another imperious four goal thrashing to peg them back again.

You'd struggle to find more opposite characters than the endearing Italian and the arrogant man who's taken charge at Chelsea's helm. However all credit to Mourinho for the way in which he's managed to put his personal stamp on the Blues with such speed. He appears to have injected the all important element of competition into his team, compared to the more relaxed environment during Ranieri's reign. Yet with such competition for places it will be some feat for him to keep his entire squad happy. I wouldn't mind the Arsenal profiting from the potential fall-out. It's a bit bizarre that the talented likes of Glen Johnson could be playing for his country at some point, when he can't retain his right-back berth for his club. Since I keep harping on about my fears for the demise of the special Arsenal team spirit due to the lack of players from these shores, forget the likes of Trabelski, I'd prefer to see us capitalising on the surfeit of talent at Chelsea by snapping up Johnson.

Then again who needs British kids, when we have bairns like the fabulous Fabregas who as the song says "he's only 17, he's better than Roy Keane". Young Cesc has been a revelation so far. Watching the Spanish prodigy perform last season in the reserves and the Carling Cup, we saw little of the competitive edge to his game which he has demonstrated recently. What's more in passing the ball sideways and backwards, there was little, or no evidence of that special spatial awareness which has resulted in many Gooners lauding him as the new Liam Brady. Whereas his perceptive passing in the past few games has made it patently obvious why Fab was previously dubbed the best midfielder in his age group on the planet. It makes me wonder whether some of our other youngsters might shine in a similar fashion if they were given their head in the first team. The example of Cesc suggests that you just can't judge some kids' quality until they've been thrown into the cauldron of serious competition and have an opportunity to play up to the high standard of those around them, instead of playing down to the game of journeymen opponents in the tepid climate of reserve matches.

It is crazy that we now face a two week interruption for Internationals, when you consider the congested fixture schedule to come later in the season. With our current incredible four goal a game ratio all Arsenal fans crave continuity rather than the break which could throw a spanner in the works and disturb the magical spell Wenger seems to have cast over his squad. Although it should be time enough for Campbell and Vieira to return to fitness, which must be a frightening prospect for our opponents. For Arsène it will present an interesting dilemma. Wenger seem to have a respect for Gilberto which many of us struggle to fathom. I have made a point of studying the Brazilian's game to try and comprehend Wenger's reasoning. I find it most infuriating how many times Gilberto appears to win a tackle but somehow still seems to lose possession. Yet it would seem that as far as Wenger is concerned Gilberto is a crucial component in the Arsenal engine room, much like Makalele was to Madrid.

Consequently most of us believe that Vieira's return will result in Fabregas being benched in favour of last season's midfield partnership. While I understand Arsène's desire to protect the youngster by limiting his involvement in too many games, he is far too talented to be left out of the Arsenal line-up on a regular basis. Perhaps both Edu and Gilberto are somewhat 'persona non grata' after taking off to play in a friendly in Haiti (where apparently admission to the match was granted to those who gave up a gun at the turnstile!), so it will be interesting over the coming weeks to see if Arsène continues to keep faith with the Spanish youngster instead.

I also found Thierry Henry's post-match comments in Norwich quite illuminating. Despite putting one goal on a plate for his team mate and the extremely rare sight of Titi banging in another with his bonce, personally I don't think our French striker has quite hit his super human stride just yet (lord help the opposition when he does!). In the absence of Vieira and Bergkamp from the starting line-up, it was pleasing to see how much it meant to a player who has won virtually every accolade in the game, for him to wear the Arsenal captain's armband. We saw how concerned he was that he shouldn't be the "bad luck skipper" (and there is something reassuring to the realisation that they are as superstitious as me). Paddy will undoubtedly get a great reception if he returns as captain at Craven Cottage. I just pray that events over the past summer result in the good karma that will ensure that our gobsmacking form and generous fortune might just see us giving AC Milan's record a run for its money.