No Miracles, Just A Little New Year's Resolution?

Last updated : 02 October 2003 By Bernard Azulay

Yet while those wonderfully generous credit card wallahs were happy to cough up nearly three and a half grand for our season tickets (interest free!), even they weren't about to countenance the folly of a five hundred quid overnight trip to follow my team to Moscow.

The nip in the air the past couple of night's suggests it might soon be time to dust off the warm astrakhan "titfer", which is a much loved, well worn memento from a miserable night in the Ukraine. Five years ago the Arsenal were undone by Dynamo Kiev's dynamic duo, Shevchenko and Rebrov. Mercifully Mikhailichenko's modern day Dynamo are supposedly a shadow of the previous collection of computer generated Trons. This was a side synthesized in the laboratory, by the leviathan mathematician/manager Lobanovsky. During an amazing 25 year tenure his team of statistically superior titans helped
themselves to an assorted collection of Soviet, Ukranian and European silverware.

Having already ticked off Kiev on my Champions League itinerary, I am not so concerned that I can't afford the inflated cost of a return trip (naturally that is, not until the fixture draws near!). But I have to admit that I am more than a little bit miffed about missing out on the opportunity of an introduction to Mother Russia.

I also owe a big debt of gratitude to Ryan's ma, because without the budget airline of the son she begat and the fleet finger tapping on the net which found their dumbfounding £3.99 e/w flights to Milan, much like our own Dennis Bergkamp, I might have missed out on all the away matches in the group stage. Having followed the Arsenal over land and sea for so many years, with my presence on the terraces always assured no matter what adversity fate threw our way, a Lotto win notwithstanding, it might be hard to accept my almost inevitable admission into the legion of armchair Arsenal fans. It baffles me how those with apparently no greater means than myself manage to make it to every game home and abroad.

Being in hock for our season tickets, I was actually hoping that we'd find ourselves accommodating UEFA's corporate partners for the European encounters at Highbury. Many Gooners grumble, but I always welcome our turn to be moved out of our regular seats because the club are kind enough to compensate us with an entire refund of the cost of these tickets. Annoyingly, the seats invariably end up occupied by Arsenal fans fleeced by touts, or by employees of Ford and the like, with little or no previous interest in the Arsenal.

Instead of moving us, it has always baffled me why the club don't save themselves a small fortune and a lot of aggravation, by allocating UEFA the seats which are apparently already available. But you won't catch me complaining because their 300 odd quid refund for the two of us has been perfectly timed in the past, to pay for a European jolly, or two, which might have otherwise been out of the question. Sadly it wasn't to be this season and I therefore intended to forsake the group stage away games in favour of keeping some of my plastic powder dry, in the hope of progressing in the competition.

We usually justify our foreign jaunts on the basis that by grabbing bargain flights before they disappear, the two of us can enjoy a 2/3 day break, for about the price I alone would have paid on an official overnighter (that's assuming we are sufficiently humoured by the football and don't find ourselves flying back from Milan with a suitcase full of haute couture!). Personally I avoid these group excursions like the plague, but there will have been few other options for Gooners going on the first two exotic outings.

Aside from all the incidental costs, for the best part of the 1500 quid it will cost to travel on organised overnight trips to all three games, the compact convoy of Gooners will "enjoy" the pleasure of being chivvied across the continent, like cattle. Herded on and off planes and in and out of stadiums, with a "hail fellow well met" friendly welcoming committee of local militia with their water canons, these loyal fans will have forked out for little more foreign flavour than that which they would have found on an awayday to Leicester! Or at least this will be my argument, as I try to settle on my sofa on Tuesday afternoon.

If, true to form, I become frustrated by events being shown on the box, it probably won't be long before Róna is begging me to go to Kiev in a couple of weeks time. As Treacle runs for cover under the coffee table and the offensive smell confirms Liffey's fear, Ró is bound to be fretting that the neighbours will think I am committing hara-kiri because I'm attempting to make myself heard in Moscow. Far more unnerving than my irrational concerns about not being present and unable to influence matters on the pitch, is the angst I am bound to feel about much more influential absentees. In addition to Bergkamp, to date we've lost the services of Ljungberg, Campbell and perhaps crucially, our captain.

Now if not for our annihilation by Inter in the opening game, I would have been able to relax, put my feet up and watch, as Wenger used this match against Locomotiv merely as a proving ground. He could suss his best potential line-up when the impending suspensions begin to bite. If we'd begun our campaign with 3 crucial home points, we could regard anything we achieved in Tuesday's encounter as a bonus. Instead of which it is behoven of a severely depleted side, to bring the Arsenal back from the brink of Champions League calamity. We can only begin to imagine the ripple effect of the both the financial and footballing ramifications of a premature exit. All would be far from lost with four games still to go. But considering Kiev took all 3 points against the Russians, we really can't afford to come back to Highbury with "bubkas"!

I can envisage only two possible outcomes. A triumph in adversity which would once again leave Wenger testifying to the remarkable spirit of this squad. Or a bungling debacle which would delight the vultures of the media because they'll be able to pick over the bones of a squad which they've all slated for its apparent emaciated appearance. We've witnessed some of the Arsenal's finest moments when their backs have been up against the wall in this fashion and it remains to be seen whether Wenger's stand-ins can step up to the plate. I just pray that they don't arrive in Moscow with any inclination about playing for a point!

Not that it was necessary, but Newcastle provided a timely reminder on Friday that the current team bears absolutely no resemblance to Arsenal sides of the recent past, that were schooled in the art of keeping clean sheets. One might think the rhythm method might be second nature to a squad with the capacity to seduce us with some of the sexiest football on the planet. Yet such virile footie comes at a price. Arsene could have an army of family planning instructors and still couldn't ensure the sort of responsible football which might result in the occasional clean sheet. After our captain limped off on Friday, few could fathom why Wenger pulled off Parlour. To continue my lurid analogy, Parlour was the only midfielder left on the pitch who knows how to cross his legs. The way our trio of Pires, Gilberto and Edu subsequently backed off, they were like hot totty, positively gasping for it, as far as the hot-blooded likes of Dyer and Jenas were concerned!

Thankfully we were left lighting our fags and sighing with satisfaction after Henry finally brought the sweaty encounter to a consummate climax. Titi certainly didn't fake it! I couldn't help feeling sorry for all the Toons facing a long journey back to the North-East with nothing to show for their efforts. At least it would have been some consolation for all those Bar Codes who weren't able to attend because it was impossible to get back home via public transport, from a fixture which had been scheduled with absolutely no thought for all the long-suffering fans. All three points were probably more than we deserved as most Gooners will confirm that we are still some way from hitting anything but the briefest bursts of form and it is therefore surprising to find ourselves still looking down on all our Premiership competitors. It's certainly not that we are playing better than anyone else but have just managed to be a tad more consistent

At this rate we will be "found out" eventually as Inter easily demonstrated. The god fearing Arsenal fans of the jewish persuasion might have thought this time had come on Friday, the start of the jewish New Year, when they could have provoked the wrath of their lord by their failure to observe his festival. The sight of several empty seats suggest that the Yid Army is far from being exclusive to Spurs. Perhaps the irreligious amongst us who were at the game owe a vote of thanks to people like my pal Nell, who sacrificed his first home fixture in 12 years for the sake of the rest of us. Alright so perhaps he was motivated merely by his fear of being ostracized by his family, but as they say "The lord moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform".