The Assault Of The Also-Rans

Last updated : 24 January 2005 By Bernard Azulay

If the Premiership is about to succumb under the weight of Abramovich's millions, I will be even more gutted if we were to give our title to the pretenders on a plate. At least some Gooner pride will remain intact if we go down with all guns blazing.

The Arsenal aren't yet back to their scintillating best but Sunday's performance was the closest approximation we've seen for some time, as we tore into the Toons with the sort of gusto which has been sadly absent from our game since our aberration at Old Trafford. I'm not certain whether the 75/25 possesion statistic was evidence of our absolute supremacy, or an indication of Souness' side's soft centre (the truth of which might be confirmed if the Toon manage to take points off Chelsea at St. James in the last game of the season!).

Whatever the case, it was wonderful to hear the Highbury library purring once again in appreciation of our incisive artistry. Amidst the disappointment engendered by Highbury's exceedingly high expectations and with all the dementing distractions it's easy to forget. So it was a pleasure to find myself screaming "football!" as the breathtaking red hordes swooped forward, reminding myself how incredibly privileged we are to be watching some of THE greatest exponents of the beautiful game we¹re ever likely to witnesss in an Arsenal shirt.

Unfortunately Shay Given's excellence saved the Geordies from an embarrassing scoreline. Only the keepers at the bottom two teams have conceded more goals than Given. Yet on the evidence of Sunday's game I would gladly swap both our hesitant goal minding monkeys for the decisive Irishman. I'm not saying our keepers are solely culpable for our defensive cock-ups, but they are responsible for an air of uncertainty at the back which was highlighted in an innocuous second-half instance.

I was staggered to see Kolo snatch at a clearance less than a yard from the goalmouth, handing possession back to the Toon, when Almunia should've preceded taking possession of the ball with the sort of piercing scream of "Mine" which would've left no one on the pitch in any doubt of his actions. However I've yet to hear some evidence that our Spanish goalie has the slightest grasp of English!

Without the all important cushion of second goal and with Alan Shearer hardly having a kick the entire game, as the clock ticked down I became increasingly convinced that the old warhorse was going to silence us with a sucker punch. It wasn't so long ago that I could have sat back, relaxed and read the Sunday papers, safe in the knowledge that we were amongst the best in the business at milking a fat 3 points, out of a slender 1-0 lead. Times have changed. With Arsène's attack-minded team my current lack of conviction over our ability to secure a clean sheet shut-out can be counted in the number of fag butts at my feet come the final whistle.

On Sunday I was sucking away on the cigs the entire second-half and considering the shocking news, I sincerely hope Highbury isn't host to any other goalies in Given's form. As I returned to my seat at the break with my customary cheese bagel and a cuppa, folks were at great pains to enquire if I'd heard a particularly pertinent half-time announcement. I thought they were pulling my leg with the revelation that the next home game signaled the start of a smoking policy. I snatched my neighbour's programme in the hope that they were having a joke at my expense. To my horror I discovered details of the ban in black & white.

You might think it no big deal considering Ireland's draconian smoking regulations but I'm outraged about the sudden change. They might have been considerate enough to wait until after our encounter with Utd, when my nerves are likely to be so on edge that I might have to consider stocking up on nicotine patches. If they'd announced such a policy for the new stadium at least we'd have fair warning. Yet based on the passive smoking premise, the most preposterous fact is that while we will no longer be able to smoke in the open air during the game, it appears that we are permitted to pollute the incredibly densely populated closed confines of the concourse at half-time.

I liken the permanent fixtures of the two old boys behind me to the two old men in the balcony on the Muppet Show. The second-half in the West Upper just won't be the same without the warm whiff of their cigars wafting around us. I guess the wrecking ball of the modern world is about to smash one more time-honoured tradition, which along with fragrance of hot-dogs, burgers, fried onions and steaming Bovril have always been the elements which are as much a part of my matchday experience as the football itself. It might remain the beautiful game, but not as I've always known it!

Meanwhile I found myself reviewing Chelsea's remaining fixtures this week. Apart from our encounter and their trips to Goodison, Old Trafford and St. James Park, it's hard to imagine the possibility of them dropping points in other matches. Along with everyone else I've decided to plump for the popular opinion that the Premiership is all over bar the shouting, in the hope that fate might fancy making us all feel foolish for being somewhat premature. Perhaps if the Blues are told enough times that the title is theirs, this might be the cause of some complacency.

I appreciate I'm clutching at straws but in truth it's an incredible feat that we can expect to compete when you consider their goals at the weekend were created by a strike force of Drogba and Robben who were reported to have cost around £40 million. Whereas the architect of Bergkamp's bit of magic, was recently an out of contract midfielder at Marseille. Consequently compensation was decided by the Court of Arbitration. We're paying for Flamini on the long finger, £65k a year for four years.

While we're counting on Utd and Chelsea kicking lumps out of each other in the Carling Cup, Mourinho will be hoping any chance of a title challenge will be concluded next Tuesday when Utd and Arsenal might take points off one another. Time was when I'd be filled with anticipation at the prospect of this clash of the Premiership titans. But that was when Fergie still fancied Utd's chances of out playing us, prior to his recent policy of attempting to put the wind up our players by clobbering the foreigners who "don't like it up 'em". These days I am left praying we can escape this encounter unharmed, without losing our heads, thereby avoiding any costly repercussions. Who would have imagined what was once a feast of football would become the assault of the also-rans!