I Can't Believe It's Not Butter

Last updated : 04 November 2003 By Bernard Azulay

Now whether it was because the knife was hot, or the butter merely tepid I am not sure, because this wasn't quite the scintillating Arsenal performance which produced the same scoreline last season. Perhaps with their financial problems and the Viduka fiasco we caught Leeds on a particularly bad day. Yet on the evidence of my own eyes, the way the lambs of this Leeds defence laid down, they look very much like relegation fodder.

Which is sad really because hearing how heartily the 30 odd thousand strong Elland Road massive sang their hearts out, raising the roof of the Revie Stand with "we're gonna win 5-4" and "let's go f****** mental" sung with more than a little irony, one could not only be forgiven for wondering which side was winning, but for thinking that these passionate fans deserve a little more than this miserable side. Perhaps the most poignant reflection on this club's immediate future was how little of his customary grit and determination Peter Reid has managed to inspire in this team.

By contrast if you were looking for evidence of the healthy spirit within the Arsenal camp, there was a wonderful moment when the entire team gathered around Gilberto in one huge huddle to celebrate the Brazilian's goal. I have a feeling that the FA might have done us a favour with all the bans resulting from the Old Trafford fiasco. We won the league by seven points after being docked two for the previous, far more serious punch-up at Utd in '91. I still have a vivid memory of Tony Adams holding the trophy aloft on the town hall balcony whilst being serenaded with the theme tune to our Championship run-in "You can stick your f***ing two points up your arse".

I am hoping that similarly the FA's punishments this season might act as a focal point for the entire squad to rally round and plug the gaps as necessary. Hopefully come the end of the season we might be expressing our gratitude to the authorities in a similar fashion? That's assuming Moritz Volz returns from Fulham to fill-in for Lauren and Thierry Henry can stay fit.

Henry dazzled again on Saturday to the point where the Leeds players all looked positively terrified by his presence. Up to now Titi has been responsible for retaining top spot virtually single-handedly (aided by our opponents inconsistencies). As a result, as winter draws nigh and the temperatures continue to drop, I grow increasingly fearful of the potential for pulls and strains with every breathtaking burst of Henry's incredible pace. His importance is such that I'd want to wrap him in cotton wool. Yet when I asked Wenger if he was tempted to take Titi off at the break he responded that he didn't think it necessary because Henry ³didn't have to dig deep physically². It must have been soul destroying from a Leeds perspective, to know they'd been torn apart by Henry playing only at half-throttle.

That he doesn't accept defeat graciously is probably what makes Wenger such a winner. However in triumph, he is invariably most humble and hearing his glowing reference to the Leeds youngsters (Milner & Lennon), I find it dumbfounding that anyone can accuse the demure Frenchman of arrogance. Although I have to admit to being a bit disappointed to hear Arsène rising to Fergie's bait on Friday. In my opinion he should have risen above what appears to me as a puerile ploy to deflect media attention from the factious Ferdinand feud. Still it appears that Fergie will have time aplenty to plot any subsequent stirring of his oversized wooden spoon when he is confined to another spell in the stands.

There were some more encouraging signs on Saturday from the midfield runs of the likes of Ljungberg that our reliance on Henry might not continue to be quite so total. Although from behind the goal it looked like he was half an hour late in arriving, even Pires popped up in the penalty area to slot one home (albeit from a fairly acute angle that a keeper as capable as Robinson should never have been beaten). The contribution from midfield might be crucial if we are going to conquer Kiev at Highbury on Wednesday. With our narrow playing surface we often struggle to break European teams down, especially when Henry can't go to the bathroom without being accompanied by at least a couple of markers.

For what it is worth (well everyone else seems to have had their tuppence worth!), my theory about our European tribulations is that we tend to be too tentative compared to our domestic performances. I don't think there is a team anywhere who would be comfortable defending our counterattacking at its best, when we break from the back and bear down on the opponents goal in numbers, before they are able to get ten men behind the ball. But all too often in Europe we appear to over complicate our play with additional sideways and backwards passes which ruin the element of surprise.

Perhaps it is a psychological effect of the number of games played in these group stages because there is less pressure for a result when there are games to come in which sufficient points can be earned to qualify for the knockout stages. Well we'll find out on Wednesday when hopefully we will witness a positive reaction to the pressure of knowing that only three wins from three can guarantee our progress.

Prior to Saturday, it was a pleasant surprise to see 27,000 at Highbury in midweek for the visit of lowly Rotherham in the Cup of countless drinks. Far from being devalued, this tournament has now taken on an importance all of its own. Most Arsenal fans look forward to a rare opportunity to cast an eye over the potential stars of the future. What's more, it was wonderful to sit in a North Bank which was packed with thousands of young kids whose parents had taken advantage of the reduced price tickets to give their offspring a rare Highbury outing.

A draw against a Premiership outfit must be a financial lifeline for many Nationwide teams. 3,500 Rotherham fans turned up, knowing that they had a reasonable chance of putting one over on their illustrious opponents. Considering the eventual result, I was almost glad that the Millermen gave their fans a bit of a run for their money with a late equalizer. It looked as though we all might get a chance of a spot-kick in a sudden death shoot-out which clung on for dear life, giving us all masses of entertainment value for our ten quid tickets. I was trying to imagine how amazing it must have been for the two 16 year-olds in the Arsenal line-up. You only had to witness the wild celebrations of players who were desperately hungry for further opportunities to impress in the next round, to appreciate that this cup is far from worthless.

Meanwhile I am glad that the exertions of a North London Derby come after our European exploits. My Spurs friends are so gloomy about their prospects that they are unable even to muster the usual bluff and bluster but as we know, form goes out the window in such circumstances. However in an era when some players change clubs more frequently than their underpants, you have to wonder how many of those involved actually appreciate the long term recriminations of their efforts (or the lack thereof!) for those on the terraces.