Sunday Best? Are We Sure Arsène's Not Naked!

Last updated : 03 January 2005 By Bernard Azulay

Yet even if we should have the good fortune to demolish Rosenborg, I don't think the bookies odds will alter dramatically. With our captain still cooling his suspended heels on Sunday and with our injured Brazilian duo, Arsène is left to choose from a squad which is somewhat lightweight looking in midfield, which must make the Blues favourites in everybody's book.

It's certainly not a scenario I would have chosen but it will nonetheless be a bit of a novelty. In fact on a completely masochistic level, I am quite looking forward to establishing whether this Arsenal side still has what it takes to baton down the hatches, lash themselves to the helm and head for the eye of the pretenders hurricane, leaving all those know-it-all news folk totally nonplussed with a traditional backs-to-the-wall Arsenal triumph.

If we can steal the wind from Mourinho's mainsail it will be bloomin' marvellous. In light of the circumstances, I'm sure many Gooners would gladly settle for a single point. But even if we are forced to entertain the unthinkable, you won't catch me conceding our title before Santa's tasted soot. Talk to me at Easter when an 8 point gap might not be quite such a trifle!

What's more, whatever the result, Sunday's match might serve as a lesson in humility. In struggling to contain Roman's ragbag collection of previously rampant, mercenary Cossacks and preventing a minor pogrom taking place at Highbury, for once the shoe will be one the other foot. Many of this team will be introduced for the first time to the sort of intimidating task that most of our opponents have faced for the past couple of seasons.

I am also hoping Vieira might benefit from his little break. There is some suggestion that Paddy isn't 100% fit. Personally I feel that his peerless ability has enabled him to get away with playing on auto-pilot for far too long. Vieira is like a V12 E-type which needs regular ton-up runs to keep the motor ticking over sweetly. Instead of which his engine's become all coated with carbon and completely out of tune, from merely nipping round the corner to Sainsburys a couple of times a week. So now when Paddy does put his foot on the pedal against PSV or a goal down to the Scousers, he tends to splutter to life, making much harder work of what was once all so effortless.

If Flamini is to replace Paddy against Rosenborg then by now we might have a better idea but as I write, after witnessing his performance at Old Trafford last week, I really don't fancy the Frenchman has the presence to fill one of our captain's shoes. The media might be having a field day over our goalkeeping musical chairs but since neither keeper exactly inspires me with confidence, I would much rather we retain possession further up the field.

When Fabregas was partnered by Gilberto for the opening games of the season, I seem to recall his performances were far more potent in the last third of the pitch. Whereas Cesc appears a little more inhibited and cautious in Paddy's presence. Yet it seems far too tall a task to expect the inexperienced Flamini to hold back the high-spirited Blue hordes in their current sparklilng form. Being man of the match against Man Utd wasn't such a great compliment, but young Gael Clichy impressed again as sub on Saturday. Freddie Ljungberg was head and shoulders above everyone in this game and so my midfield choice against Chelsea.would be some combination of Freddie, Fabregas and young Gael. Not wanting to leave Arsène without anything to do, le Prof can decided between Pires and Reyes who is furthest from their lamentable form of late.

If Arsène isn't showing signs that he's feeling the pressure, it would seem that the "red tops" are going to continue desperately whisking up their well worn wooden spoon until he damn well begins to. Unlike Chelsea, sadly we don't have the luxury of two and nearly three world class players in every position. As a consequence, complacency is always going to be a worry. Virtually our entire team is far too comfortable in the knowledge that their name will be on the team sheet every week.

In picking Almunia, Arsène isn't implying that Lehmann is entirely to blame for our inability to keep a clean sheet. The drastic demise of our form since the absolutely magical performance against Villa seven weeks back is largely due to the mystifying machinations of a footballer's mind. By changing keepers Wenger is merely rolling the dice in the hope they might come up double sixes and he might luck upon that ethereal variable to spark the renaissance of the Invincibles from the increasingly indolent Arsenal side of late. Then again no matter how hard Wenger tried to convince Lehmann that he wasn't being made a scapegoat, I imagine the frown lines I spied through my binoculars on the glum face of our German keeper, reflected his fears for the success of le Prof's ploy, knowing there would be no way back!

Whereas there were no evident worry lines as a relaxed Wenger held court in the press conference room following our Carling Cup exit. When quizzed about the infamous handshake with Fergie, there was much hilarity as Arsène replied "I didn't want to feed you more for the next three will have to rely on your creativity". And with a wry smile Wenger was also
happy to confirm that the refreshments in the dressing room remained the same as before!

However it would appear that Arsène is not totally impervious to all the tosh in the tabloids. I'm told he took umbrage after he was misquoted about being prepared to take Mutu. I'm not sure why but it seems Wenger was sufficiently miffed that at last Friday's press conference he only spoke to the daily papers and declined the regular conference for the Sunday papers. In the past, outwardly at least, Arsène has always given the impression that he's taken the ravings in the press with a pinch of salt. I cannot ever recall our manager punishing the media in this fashion, which is far more in Fergie's style.

Apparently the Arsenal set yet another record for the most goals scored at this stage of the Premiership on Saturday. Just imagine if Arsène should bring home the Champions League trophy. The tabloids will be baying for the men in white coats to take Wenger away!