With memories still fresh of Leicester's last gasp kick in the guts the previous weekend, half-time at Highbury on Sunday found me hoping that we weren't going to end up ruing a couple of golden opportunities to establish a omfortable two goal cushion.
It wasn't so long ago that the failure to bury a ball setup on a plate for an Arsenal player, would have resulted in the entire audience getting on the culprit's back with an audible groan ringing around the ground. Whereas the consistency of the high calibre football on offer at Highbury has seen the home crowd become a little more patient. We tend to applaud the delightful football which created the opportunity even without an end product, in the knowledge that there's no panic. Unlike London buses, there will be another one along in a minute.
However as with Blackburn's previous recent visits, after the break the ball continued to be attracted to Brad Friedel's big hands, like metal to a magnet. By contrast the hands on the Clock-End clockface wouldn't move quick enough. They crept around, far too slowly for my liking, towards 3.45pm and the longer the score remained at 1-0, the more one sensed a tide of tension sweeping over the terraces, transmitting itself onto the playing surface. After blowing four of the last six league points and the Blues slipping up against Bolton the previous day, a victory was vital both to reestablish our superiority at the top of the table and to stamp out any thoughts that Blackburn had become a bit of a bogey team.
As we gripped our seats for the white-knuckle ride of the entire second half, Souness and his side sensed their opportunity from the increasingly nervous atmosphere and the somewhat leaden Arsenal legs after our midweek endeavours against Locomotiv Moscow. Like the footballing equivalent of two chess grandmasters, Wenger responded to Souness' attempts to force the issue with the substitutions of young Steven Reid and Andy Cole by replacing the grace of Bergkamp with the graft of Ray Parlour. Arsène retained the energy of Edu in reserve to trump Souness' last card of an ineffectual Dino Baggio. If Baggio was a boxer, his season at Blackburn amidst the hurly-burly of the Premiership would be one fight too many. I guess at least he doesn't have to worry about any blows around the head, whilst he's counting his money!
It's at times like the last half hour on Sunday that I wish Highbury wasn't quite so deserving of the library ridicule. When the team most needed some encouragement from the crowd, to inspire one last effort to secure that second goal which would have enabled us all to sit back and relax, such was the air of anxiety that all you could hear amidst an audience of 38,000 was the sound of the players shouts on the pitch. The announcer had informed us at half-time that the Cork hurling team were the guests of both sides' O2 sponsors. While I am sure they will have been impressed by Highbury in all its glory, I bet they are used to a good deal more noise from a much smaller crowd.
Perhaps the Gooner faithful have become too blasé but we didn't once hear a rendition of "We are top of the league" to remind our lot what they were playing for. In an almost eerie silence, save for the lonely soldier in
Blackburn's barmy army, doing his best to stir things up by relentlessly banging his blasted drum (thank heavens I don't have to sit next to him!), the Arsenal sat back and invited Rovers on to them. It felt as though an equalizer was almost inevitable. When it eventually came, the biggest shock was that we finally caught a break from a referee who, in ruling it out for a foul was perhaps acting according to his conscience, after ignoring Henry's fairly blatant penalty claim.
The nearer we got to the final whistle, the more evident the nerves. Players who were previously retaining possession, calmly passing the ball out of defence, were suddenly hoofing it anywhere away from the danger zone. Earlier in the season we might have succumbed to Blackburn's brief bout of sustained pressure. But thankfully our defence now has an ever increasing look of solidity about it. To the extent that even Pascal Cygan is winning some begrudging plaudits from an extremely demanding Highbury audience. They would have previously been requesting his replacement the moment Keown returned to fitness.
What's more our right-flank has been virtually unbreachable whilst patrolled by the immensely powerful Kolo Touré. His marauding raids forward have been so effective that everyone has almost forgotten he was only moved from centre-back to stand in for the suspended Lauren. If Kolo lacks anything in close ball control, he more than makes up for it with his amazing pace, power and unquenchable enthusiasm. There are those, including Kolo himself, who say that his brother Yaya is better (from the little I've seen there is more than a passing resemblance to Patrick Vieira and not just in looks!). This incredibly versatile kid from the Ivory Coast has made such a positive impression on the Arsenal faithful this season that he has almost single-handedly silenced the West Upper whingers who would have otherwise been bemoaning our lack of transfer activity.
Still as the January window approaches, the speculation intensifies. Personally I prefer to focus on all the other promising youngsters on the Arsenal's books. One of the positive aspects to the weekend's heavy workout is that Wenger won't be tempted by Treble fever to include hardly any of Sunday's team up at West Brom. It looks like I might end up going to the Hawthorns on my tod. While the majority might prefer to remain at home rather than schlep up to the Midlands to watch the reserves, I am looking forward to another opportunity to rate some of our exciting prospects, in the hope they might produce a performance which will compare favourably to the cup exit of their counterparts at Man Utd.
After our remarkable European comeback from only one point after three games, to join Utd and Chelsea in qualifying as group winners, it was psychologically important to leapfrog Utd in the league this weekend. I always felt that Scholes was the missing X-factor attributable for Man Utd's recent mediocrity. With his return to fitness, it would have been a crucial fillip if we'd presented them with top spot as an Xmas present. We were on such a high after winning on Wednesday that it would have been easy to get carried away with the hype and humbled by Blackburn's work rate because of a big-shot attitude.
To be honest, having booked our flights to Vigo, I am relieved we can forget about Europe until February and focus on domestic matters. I spent a frantic couple of hours prior to Friday's draw, trying to suss out flight prices to feasible airports for the seven possible opponents. Touristically and financially speaking Prague would have been my preferred choice because it is supposed to be a beautiful city and the flights were peanuts. Failing that, so long as we weren't drawn against either of the German clubs, it didn't matter where we ended up. Not only do I think that on our day, we are capable of beating anyone but all my research was in vain because the likes of Ryan Air and Easyjet don't fly within 150 miles of any of the four remaining destinations!
Meanwhile I am absolutely made up that Thierry Henry is about to receive the recognition he truly deserves as currently the greatest footballer on the planet. I don't think Ronaldo has done enough in the past year to merit nomination. You could argue that Zizou is a more gifted player all round but from my biased opinion, he's had better years and Titi has entertained more than his compatriot during this period.
Fergie was probably playing as usual but he missed the point. As important as Henry is to the Arsenal, the key to our ability to beat the very best is the contribution from the like of Pires and Ljungberg. Titi terrifies the life out of our opponents and it will be crucial that his team mates can conjure up some goals while Henry distracts most of the defence. My optimistic mood is founded on the fact that after a frustratingly fallow few months, both these two appear to be finding some of the form which made them Highbury heroes in the first place. Henry is brilliant and will only get better, but mark my words if we are to fulfill our European and domestic promise, it will depend on Robbie & Freddie scoring double figures.