Over Land And Sea (If only we can get past Drayton Park!)

Last updated : 29 March 2004 By Bernard Azulay

But I didn't expect to come to a complete standstill after only a few seconds of having started the car. I will be pleased if thousands more Gooner aficionados are able to get tickets when our ambitious new stadium finally comes to fruition.

Yet if this sentimental old fool had mixed feelings about our increasingly impending departure from the famous Marble Halls beforehand, it seems I now have good cause to curse the ambitious Ashburton Grove project every time I leave home. In fact sadly I might be destined to denounce the ongoing disruption resulting from the the building works possibly twice daily for the next couple of years.

Apparently the club have issued an edict amongst their staff that it is forthwith to be referred to as the "new stadium", instead of Ashburton Grove, in order that their new baby doesn't get lumbered with a moniker which might hinder its eventual sponsorship potential. As this prime piece of London real estate has lain fallow for so long, it is interesting to witness the wholesale changes as the stadium and the vast assortment of ancillary buildings rapidly begin to take shape. However it would seem that in the local council's infinite wisdom, the powers that be have decided to close off a couple of roads in the vicinity.

The resulting gridlock around Drayton Park was an absolute nightmare last Wednesday and is likely to remains so for the foreseeable future. This is our main route from here to virtually everywhere. The irony wasn't lost on me that the concrete on the foundations has hardly had time to harden and already our new stadium was "nausing" up my chances of making it to a match Not any match mind, but only a Champions League quarterfinal. I hope it's not an omen!

After taking nearly an hour to make it across just one set of traffic lights at Holloway Road, mercifully we sailed through the early evening gloom and were searching for a precious legal parking space in SW3, as the players took to the Stamford Bridge pitch. If I wasn't already sufficiently stressed by being even tardier than usual as a result of the traffic, not to mention fretting about the most crucial football match of the season so far and the key to our first ever Champions League semifinal, we were so late that I was forced to abandon the car in a bay which wasn't legal until 8pm, with the additional trauma of knowing we might return to find a fifty quid parking fine on the windscreen if it was detected by a traffic warden in the next 20 minutes.

It was a calculated risk. Considering the negligible cost of travelling to our quarterfinal match compared to any of the other potential opponents, I would have happily forked up for the fine, rather than waste any more of the match driving round and round in search of an alternative pitch. It would have been a paltry price to pay for qualification to the semis. Moreover what's a mere fifty quid flutter for someone who has already presumptuously spunked up the 120 quid price of flights to Madrid? Last season we would have left the Bridge without an away goal and would have been guaranteed to find a ticket on the windscreen on our return to the car. But the way fortune has been favouring us Gooners this term, it was no surprise to find ourselves going home, having got away with both.

Ranieiri is indeed an endearing gentleman. And it's downright ridiculous to expect a coach who created the best team spirit seen at the Bridge for decades without spending a red cent last season, to instantly conjure up the rabbit of a squad with a winning mentality out of thin air, merely by throwing the Ruskie's millions into the Blues' hat. Nevertheless I really don't rate the Italian's managerial credentials. Perhaps he's a great coach, but as a club's "capo" he's far too nice a feller. Judging from his animated antics on the touchline (I haven't the foggiest what sort of affliction St. Vitus dance is, but Claudio appears to be suffering from it!), his fruitless efforts to get his players to follow his instructions would suggest that while there might be a whole lot of love between them, there's far too little respect.

It was the first time I've heard Chelsea's new "Kalinka" theme tune, as we hurried along the Kings Road to our entrance and it is indeed a catchy little number. I was picturing their players dancing out of the tunnel squatting and kicking in choreographed Cossack style! In light of the pressure applied by Chelsea in one of the best performances I've seen from the Pensioners, the result might be perceived as more than acceptable. One might perceive that the fact the Blues now have to score at Highbury will play perfectly to the Gunner's counterattacking strengths.

Yet no matter how crucial that all important away goal, I wish in some respects that we still required more. Experience has taught me to be most wary of awkward encounters where a 0-0 draw will suffice. It can result in players resting on their laurels, merely attempting to maintain the status quo and if matters should go awry, it can prove impossible to regain the necessary momentum.

Moreover there have been certain indications in both of our mammoth encounters this week, which might give one cause to question whether these are the cumulative effects of fatigue, or perhaps the first sign of complacency raising it's disconcerting head. Players like Vieira have set such supreme standards, that I suppose with our relentless fixture schedule the occasional rare indiscretion is inevitable. With his pacific "smile man" pre-match exchange in the tunnel with Utd's frigid under Führer our captain certainly didn't display the demeanour of a player primed to go on the "B of the bang".

Paddy's overall performance against Man U might have been sufficiently peerless to deserve the MoM award from some quarters. Yet there was the odd rare lapse which could lead one to wonder whether he's been wallowing a little too much in the wall-to-wall media hype. He'd have to be a saint not to succumb to a little too much self-belief!

I noted when he allowed Djemba-Djemba to get goalside of him in midfield. He managed to recover possession by means of the extension of one of his extraordinarily long legs. Paddy might have been good enough to get away with it in this instance but I would be a lot happier if he retained a tight rein on the opposition for the entire 90, without slacking off for a second. Against the likes of Milan's Kaka (should we come up against perhaps the only player to have scaled the same peaks as Henry this term), he might not be afforded the opportunity to redeem himself.

Meanwhile I am hoping that the momentary loss of concentration in some, is more than made up for by those Gunners who have positively come into their own in the last few games. Pires and Edu appear to be relishing every magical moment on what we hope will prove to be a 14 game road to Gooner glory. In the space of a few weeks the Brazilian has gone from being a "jack of all, master of none" replacement in Arsène's mind, to the most composed player on the pitch. In some cases even taking on the Omain man' mantle of our imperious captain.

As for Le Bob, I am bound to "manger" on a few of my own "bon-môts" because he's taken plenty of stick from me for his previous penchant for levitating three foot in the air in avoidance of the odd lunge that promises even the slightest possibility of any pain. I've also cursed his horizontal hanky-panky, conspicuously attempting to con the ref when he might have remained vertical and conjured up a valuable effort.

It can't just be a consequence of Frank Lampard (by the by Lean Lamps would be far more appropriate than Fat Frankie because he's long since lost all that podgy baby fat ) yanking his Gallic chain because Pires is playing like a man possessed, courageously getting stuck in where once he would have just jockeyed his opponent, tearing around the pitch like a Trojan with an uncharacteristic work ethic that might give credulity to the tales of alien invasion. That Dartagnan dared damage his coiffure with his crucial headed goal, as they say, 'nuff said!

Young Gael Clichy might have been guilty of allowing the cross which led to Utd's late goal on Sunday but he would have been the MoM choice of most canny Gooners. According to the media, the Arsenal's only purchases last summer were Lehmann and a promising (albeit sadly injury prone) Swiss defender Senderos. Plucked from the relative anonymity of France's fairly mediocre equivalent of our 2nd division, the £250k transfer of Clichy almost went unnoticed. It's the perfect example of Wenger's amazing talents and his unflinching ability to create such influential oak trees, out of unknown
tiny acorns.

Wenger was criticized by many for gift-wrapping Utd's equalizer with negative substitutions, but in truth we'd already shut-shop, sitting back and inviting Utd to give it their best shot. Arsène was merely hoping that fresh legs might help our cause by relieving some of the pressure. I'm unsure whether it was fatigue, too much self-belief, or the fact that the ball has been running for us so frequently recently, that we've developed delusions of invincibility? Whatever it was, we should have known better against a wounded animal of Utd's calibre.

Such sucker punches from a side who might be down, but who never know when they're out, are not so common these days, but Man U remain the archetypal last minute merchants. I only hope we bring the lessons learned from such a fatal mistake to the momentous semi on Saturday. It was sad that Sunday afternoon fell so flat, after we'd just attained the truly incredible undefeated achievement. However if there's a silver lining it could be that we won't be arriving at Villa Park quite so cocksure, perhaps riding for a fall, but will instead be sufficiently focused to stuff Utd for an entire 90 as opposed to the 75 minutes of last weekend's warm up!

Sid and Nancy, I mean Sven and Nancy (sorry but I have this image of Sven as Sid Vicious, in his leather pants with a safety-pin through his nose, standing on the stairs in the "My Way" video sticking two fingers up to the British media!) slipped out of Highbury with ten to go and missed the climax completely. I can only assume it was at Nancy's behest that they both went off prematurely, because it was such a captivating conclusion that even the Arsenal's regular part-timers were lingering for the final whistle. Sven would have been no more mistaken about the result than the fallacious stories in the following morning's papers about his future. Then again, in truth, who apart from the tabloid scandalmongers actually gives a monkey's for the comings and goings of the national team manager (and his missus), as long as his side's succeeds on match days?