The Silence Of The Lambs

Last updated : 06 April 2004 By Bernard Azulay
You'll already know whether we've been broken by the Blues on Tuesday night, or have bounced back after the gut-wrenching disappointment of Saturday's defeat, to make it into the semi-final of the Champions League for the first time in the Arsenal's illustrious history.

I have to admit, in all honesty, that having schlepped to Cardiff for the past three successive seasons, I am not unduly distressed about missing out on another expensive outing this May. Especially as it would have proved a none too glamorous encounter. Millwall have made admirable efforts to achieve respectability, attempting to eradicate the recidivist hooligan element that revelled in the sort of savage acts which reinforced their "no one likes us" disrepute.

Nevertheless, if the infamous surgical masks have vanished from the terraces, it doesn't mean that the violent right wing Neanderthals who wore them have simply stopped supporting the South London side. A rare derby against the Arsenal might have proved an irresistible invitation. All their worst psychos might have come crawling out of the woodwork, wanting to settle ancient scores and prove off the pitch, what might have been a poignant mismatch on it, their adrenaline pumping at the prospect of giving the Premiership softened, bourgeois Gooners a good bashing.

Their encounter with the Mancunians might prove just as attractive and I pray that come May, the Welsh constabulary are suitably prepared. Otherwise it won't be an advantageous advert for Britain's beautiful game if they can't contain this particular passion play within the Millennium Stadium and it spills over into the streets of Cardiff.

You'll know by now whether I am right in remaining hopeful that we might have bigger fish to fry four days after the FA Cup Final. And if we've negotiated Beecher's Brook and the Chair in Chelsea and Madrid, the last thing we'd want is a melée with Millwall as a warm-up for our greatest ever challenge in Gelsenkirchen. Not that any disdain I might have felt for this domestic competition meant that I was any less devastated by Saturday's debacle against the Red Devils.

The Arsenal fans' only success of the day was that most were sitting comfortably in their seats at kick-off. An accident at Spaghetti Junction saw Utd fans still breathlessly bowling into Villa Park just before Scholes scored (fortunately for them!). Mayhem on the M6 has been responsible for us Gooners missing more than our fair share of semifinal footie. I will never forget hobbling to the Holte End on crutches, grateful for the TV on our coach which meant that unlike many, we at least saw the only goal of the game against Wolves in '98. We were caught in a complete gridlock, frustratingly within sight of Villa Park's floodlights, whilst being entertained by the Gooners who were daft enough to dive off an eight foot embankment after abandoning their cars and the unlucky driver . Consequently most Arsenal fans had left at the crack of dawn.

I thought I'd been clever plotting up at a hotel, one junction past Villa. But it meant we were caught up with the Utd fans on our way back to the match. We ended up missing the frantic first few minutes, as the Arsenal began a bad day at the office with their failure to bury the first of five great chances. Worst of all was the longest ever trudge back to the car afterwards. Or at least it felt like that surrounded by celebrating Utd fans. Naturally they were cock-a-hoop, but not about having made it to the final and the likelihood of an FA Cup consolation prize (when only hours earlier they might have expected to end the season empty-handed). No, the congratulatory chorus grinding a hole in Gooner heads suggested that they were far more concerned with putting the kibosh on the possibility of the Arsenal repeating (and belittling) Utd's own treble feats, before most of our fans had dared be so presumptuous to even let this fateful word fall from our lips.

Personally I wasn't grieving because the Gunners had frittered away a rare treble chance, or for our failure to break yet another record with a fourth consecutive final. Along with Dennis and any other Arsenal players involved in the 240 minutes of football which culminated in Giggs running round Villa Park showing off his hirsute charms five years back, I badly wanted to beat Utd on Saturday to exorcise the ghosts of '99. Some of these were laid to rest in last season's 5th round cup tie at Old Trafford, with the Welsh wing wizard's passable Johnny Wilkinson impersonation in front of an open goal, when it was harder to miss than to score. S'funny, after going on to win 2-0, I don't recall ingrate Gooners giving Arsène any stick for leaving Henry on the bench!

Yet such was the synchronicity on Saturday with the semi which turned out to be the springboard for Utd's treble, that I never dreamed our downfall might be due to a lack of desire on the day. If I was disappointed because our players were devoid of the sort of fire so obviously burning in Utd bellies, I was downright flabbergasted by our fans feeble efforts. It was as if the Arsenal had brought an '8,000 strong army of the Library's most silent lambs, who simply sat back and accepted their fate.

After Utd took the lead, I kept staring through my binoculars at the other end of the ground, in the hope that I just couldn't hear the Gooners in the Holte End. When our team most needed a twelfth man lift from the terraces, the Arsenal's "audience" remained completely becalmed. All I saw was a sea of inertia! Perhaps they were all similarly blasé about the prospect of proceeding to a 4th Cardiff final. Yet so voracious was my appetite for this particular victory that I was not only blue in the face, but completely hoarse long before half-time. Sadly it seemed that Utd and the vast majority of their fans were that much hungrier than the Gunners (certainly in the first-half) and our impotent army. We usually make more noise with only a couple of thousand. Perhaps the early start left our lot exhausted. But I couldn't fathom getting up before the cock crows to travel all the way to Birmingham only to be a silent bystander, allowing events to transpire without bothering to at least try and influence matters.

It's all too easy to criticize with the benefit of hindsight, but Le Prof's Henry ploy has paid dividends in the past. I might be a great believer in always starting with your best available team and I couldn't for the life of me comprehend what possessed a pragmatist like Wenger to throw Aliadière in at the deep end, only to sink like a stone. However Arsène is a manager who's worked absolute miracles with relatively meagre resources. He would have to be guilty of several season's worth of misdemeanours before Gooners would be entitled to gripe about the man who is single-handedly responsible for the greatest entertainment we have, or are ever likely to witness at our Highbury home of football.

We ended up listening to music on the drive home, because I just couldn't bear the sound of the same sad saps who couldn't be bothered to raise their voices in support of our team, berating our manager on the radio phone-ins. It was the height of hypocrisy. If I wasn't sufficiently embarrassed by their woeful vocal effort at Villa Park, their whinging left me ashamed to be included amongst the same tribe!

Fatigue and a little too much confidence could have been the recipe for a defeat which was frankly long overdue. Our midfield was guilty of not tracking their opposite numbers, possibly leaving them to a back line which has so rarely been breached. But I shouldn't really single anyone out, on a day when no-one shined overall. Although at one point in the second half Paddy seemed to be trying to rescue the situation almost single-handedly. Our reticent captain's "lead by example" efforts to rally the troops were admirable. But if we were lacking something, perhaps it was the sort of inspirational captain who could have turned and roused our fans from their torpor with a single clenched fist gesture.

If anything Saturday's demise was even more frustrating than the defeat five years ago. Personally I have never rated Giggs' ability to run the exhausted dinosaurs of our defence ragged, quite so highly. Yet as I recall the Welshman's "wonder goal" was the only thing to separate two evenly matched teams. Whereas we missed an opportunity at the weekend to reinforces the marked superiority of the current Arsenal squad. We favoured Utd with a fillip for the future which Fergie will undoubtedly use to rebuild their badly bruised confidence. When we should have left them facing any forthcoming encounters with the same sort of inferiority complex which has bedeviled us for so many seasons.

A cause for more current consternation is the cracks that Utd have inflicted on the Arsenal's air of invincibility. Suddenly everyone is talking up Chelsea's chances of administering a fatal blow in the Champions League and the tabloids are backtracking about our premature Premiership coronation. I always knew we were only one defeat away from a media bandwagon waiting to delight in the prospect that we might "bottle it", with many already reading the Arsenal's last rites.

If I was absolutely shattered on Sunday morning, I imagine our squad must have been more aware of their aching limbs than they've been all season (especially Reyes, after witnessing a slow motion repeat of Paul Scholes cynical attempt to rupture the Spaniard's knee ligaments). Lifting their spirits for Tuesday's game is possibly the most crucial task of Wenger's tenure. If anything a losing habit has even more momentum than a winning one. With the Scousers and the Toons both hitting a purple patch, there's every possibility that a European exit might be followed by a slump of seismic proportions at the weekend. It could conceivably result in the ultimate anticlimax of the Arsenal's record breaking season coming to a conclusion without a single piece of silverware to show for all their efforts.

I don't even believe we can afford to scrape through to the Champions League semifinals. We require a resounding triumph on Tuesday to reestablish the sort of superiority that will frighten the lives out of our Easter weekend opponents. That doesn't mean I won't be delighted with a dodgy 0-0 draw. It's not just that I've been desperate to see the Arsenal play in the Bernabeu these past few years, but I am also anxious to make use of our flights to Madrid, after recently finishing the last carton of Camels from the plentiful stock purchased in Vigo and being forced to pay five quid a pack again is far too great a shock to my system!

In fact I am looking forward (albeit with all due trepidation) to Tuesday night, to discover what sort of mettle this Arsenal side are really made of. Our players are constantly harping on about the best team spirit they've ever experienced. Well we are about to discover whether it is the genuine Arsenal spirit and the cause of our success, rather than merely a consequence of it. On the pitch it will be a night for real men in red & white to stand up and be counted. I only hope that unlike Saturday, the lummoxes on the terraces can do likewise.