One Goal Is En-Oeuf

Last updated : 16 March 2004 By Bernard Azulay

I was seeking out all the permutations of cheap flights to any of six destinations, on either of the two possible dates. The cheap flight phenomenon has been an incredible boon as far as following the Arsenal around Europe is concerned. Being able to bag cheap flights within moments of the draw being announced has often meant the difference between Ro and I enjoying a jaunt to another European destination, or me going on my tod, just for the game, on an organized outing where the closest one comes to some foreign flavour is the contrasting foul smell of the stadium's continental karseys (albeit that there's nothing foreign about the obligatory flooded floors)!

Consequently these flight finding missions have become an integral part of my Champions League experience. The further we progress in the competition, the more I cane my poor credit card. I end up working myself into an impatient lather, waiting for the moment when I can let my fingers loose on the keyboard to collar a bargain, before going on to brag to all my Gooner mates who haven't been so quick off the mark.

I'd already started making bookings to Madrid, Milan and Monaco, so I could hit the appropriate "confirm" button the second the UEFA suit announced our opponents. Obviously my feelings were more than a little mixed when I discovered all my efforts were in vain. Apart from saving a small fortune, I suppose I should be happy because we seem to have the "Indian Eye" over Ranieri's side. It is also brilliant that Dennis Bergkamp might at long last bring his considerable influence to bear upon both legs of a Champions League encounter.

With Bergkamp's aversion to flying, all the "will he, won't he" brouhaha must have proved an unnecessary distraction in the past. The last time Dennis travelled across the continent by car, Wenger left him on the bench for the entire duration of the game! As a result Arsène seems to have made an executive decision to leave him at home in recent times, no matter where we play abroad. While the strenuous schlep to Stamford Bridge will cause no such dilemmas, I can't help wonder whether Wenger will leave Dennis behind if the eagerly awaited gladiatorial battle between the Galacticos and the Gunners should come to pass in the Bernabeu? With the undoubted inevitability of Dennis' professional mortality, it would be dreadful if he was denied the opportunity of such a spectacularly appropriate swansong.

And if you think I am getting ahead of myself with such fate tempting thoughts, wait until I tell you that this died in the wool pessimist wasn't prepared to let all my hard work go to waste and in an uncharacteristically foolish and wanton act of faith (considering the capricious nature of our sport), I went ahead and booked our flights to Madrid. For someone who is too superstitious to speculate a red & white cent on the outcome of an Arsenal match, it is strange behaviour for me to not only gamble on us beating Chelsea but also on Madrid beating Monaco. Students of the form book might see it as a fairly safe bet. Personally I'm hoping that if heaven forfend, the worst comes to the worst, I might be able to flog our flights to Chelsea fans, or if necessary I could cough up an amendment fee for a flight to Nice.

If we come up short once again in our European expectations with an unexpected stumble at Stamford Bridge (there's no denying of the law of averages!), I guess my brinkmanship will be as much to blame as my presumptuous Gooner mate who has suggested on his web site that we should apply for tickets to the final in Germany, to avoid any disappointment. Yet in truth even a killjoy like myself couldn't fail to be affected by the air of optimism currently enveloping the club. A precious season ticket at Highbury this season is like having an adjacent pitch to St. Peter himself, while the faces of the rest of the Premiership are pressed up against the gates to our Elysian Field, enviously peeking through.

There was a sense in our performances against Pompey, Charlton and Celta Vigo that we've slipped into overdrive. While we've salivated over instances of sublime footie all season long, we're now witnessing entire performances played with the sort of swaggering rhythm which really makes us worthy of all the plaudits pumping out from the "slieveens" of a sycophantic media.

I am invariably left hurrying home, not sparing the horses because I'm so high on the thought of savouring such fantasy football, frame by frame in super slo-mo replay, again and again. Moments like Dennis' inch perfect pass to put the first goal on a plate for Titi against Celta and our deity's delicious free-kick on Saturday, directed at a sizable breach in the wall vacated by Sol Campbell, with the astonishingly precise arc into the very top corner of the goalmouth which was possibly the only point beyond the mammoth reach of man mountain Friedel. I firmly believed that we'd knocked much of the stuffing out of the Celta in Spain and didn't expect too stiff a contest. Raddy Antic's side had just suffered a 1-5 defeat at home to relegation rivals and with Henry bagging a brace within half an hour, one got the distinct sense that the Spaniards came out in the second half with damage limitation as the extent of their ambition.

Supremely dominant displays such as this are having a knock on effect in the Premiership. The Arsenal are now deserving of such respect from our domestic opponents that on Saturday Souness set his Blackburn side's stall out with two banks of four who hardly emerged from their own half. They sat back and challenged us to break them down. It must have been very frustrating fare for the home fans, watching the Arsenal play keep ball for long periods of the game, waiting for the inevitable injection of pace which would eventually pick their heavily guarded lock.

Still their manager would have been hailed as a hero if he'd succeeded in salvaging a precious point. He'd have you believe that they might have achieved this ambition if it wasn't for the "poxy decision" which resulted in Henry's goal. My respect for Souness is such that I will put his bitterness down to the heat of his disappointment in the immediate aftermath of the battle. On reflection he should realize that Henry might have reproduced the same fabulous feat a few minutes earlier, when the ref ignored a far more obvious offence in exactly the same spot.

However if I was a Rovers fans I'm not sure I'd agree with Souness' tactics. I believe it was a distinct lack of respect which lead to our defeat last season, as Rovers took the game to an admittedly less resolute Arsenal. Duff and Dunn might have made a crucial difference but they certainly didn't triumph by merely preventing us from scoring. Just as Utd appear caught in the downward spiral of disastrous results - dwindling confidence - disastrous results, the Arsenal appear to be gathering momentum on an upward curve where victory appears guaranteed even with the relatively mediocre performance witnessed at Ewood Park.

Last season one goal was never enough and instead of confirming the outcome with a second in the closing stages, you can be sure we would have been sweating in expectation of an impending equalizer. When I asked Wenger about the difference between now and then, he pointed to a "defensive solidity" which enables us to rest assured in the knowledge that "we will score at some stage". However it is not just the Arsenal's innate belief but the snowball of lavish praise which has produced a complete lack thereof in opponents like Rovers.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't luxuriate in Man Utd's last minute misery as they exited Europe. How could any ABU not enjoy the rare sight of the Red Devils being for once on the receiving end of such a gut wrenching defeat (seconds after the commentator fatefully told us that their toes were in the quarter finals!). And their derby day despondency was a source of much merriment. Red Mancunians will become even more rare in a city where their Blue counterparts won't let them live this one down for at least a decade. Yet I grow increasingly weary of Gooner enquiries "Are you watching Manchester?"

It might not be as many miles as the trek to the northeast, but the 500 mile round trip drive to Blackburn is without doubt one of the most arduous outings in the Arsenal calendar. Perhaps as a consequence Saturday's crowd included a larger proportion of northern Gooners who have suffered more than most during a decade in the Mancunian shadow. Personally I know they are watching and I could care even less. The song suggests that they continue to maintain some significance, when the maladroit Mancunian star is spinning so far out of orbit as serious competition that they now belong with the White Hart Lane bunglers, out there on the fringe of the Gunners glorious firmament.

Forgive me for gloating but as the glory hunting Moaner millions head for the hills, I'm off round to Highbury to secure our seats for a lip-smacking semi and hopefully another ecstatic European night at Stamford Bridge. After leading Utd to the land of milk and honey following so many lean decades in a silverware starved desert, if anyone could continue to dodge the bullets from insatiable fans, one might have thought it would be Fergie. It would appear that Fergie's monkey business with the assassins of the Coolmore mafia might prove to be the kiss of death, one contract he can't negotiate under the counter.

Meanwhile we've the small matter of achieving a result against Sam Allardyce's battle weary troops before we can equal the undefeated record. But if the ranting and raving in the press and on the radio are a premature requiem for Sir Alex, then it would appear that it only remains for the Mancunian funeral to pass the legitimate "Home of Football" in order that we might nail down the lid of the coffin.