It was a result which has left me feeling a lot more optimistic than I was when I got into the car on Wednesday night, after our fairly apathetic efforts against Everton.
In times past, a point on the road was seen as not such a bad result. Yet because we've let wins against the supposedly weaker likes of Bolton, Leicester and Everton, slip through our fingers after going a goal up, each of these three games has registered the disappointment level of a defeat, rather than a draw away from home. I suppose it might have something to do with Utd's current relentless three point procurement regime, in spite of the fact that our immediate competition appear to remain some way short of playing on song.
I was most disappointed for young Shane to be returning to Dublin after such a dismal performance but then not every day can be Xmas and I was just grateful that at least one of his first two awaydays proved to be a great day out. Wednesday night wouldn't have been so bad if we'd succumbed to a superb performance by the Toffees. We were merely out grafted and out fought by an Everton side who always seem to save their hungriest performances of the season for our visit to Goodison.
David Moyes proved what a canny tactician he is, as many would have thought it his starting line-up was suicide. It was Shane who first piped up in surprise "Are they playing with three strikers?" I incorrectly predicted that perhaps Rooney would be playing out on the left. Yet Everton had no need of any midfield spectators. They would have spent much of the evening watching the ball sailing over their heads and on to that of big Duncan Ferguson because, in the knowledge that they wouldn't be able to out play the mighty Arsenal, Moyes had struck on the perfect 'route one' ploy.
Poor Pascal Cygan will be relieved that he doesn't come up against the likes of the aggressive Scottish centre-forward every week. Our bald centre-back had a miserable night as Ferguson constantly made a monkey out of him. I assume from the fact that he wasn't on the bench, Keown must have picked up a niggle. In most Gooners opinion it was a no-brainer that our own 'Mr Angry' would have been much better suited to such a combative contest. It was some initiation for Cygan, perhaps the first time he's had to play against the epitome of a British no. 9 (albeit in a 10 shirt), who've gone out of fashion since the beautiful game became less of a sport and more a part of the entertainment business. I've always been a fan of big Dunc and think it is a great pity that a striker of his calibre has been prevented from having the sort of impact on the game which might have been possible without all the periphery (injuries and incidents) associated with his troublesome career.
Perhaps the biggest indictment of our lacklustre performance was the fact that we created so few chances. It might be frustrating but the Arsenal's far more common problem of failing to find the net from a succession of strikes on goal, is a whole lot more acceptable than a rare 90 minutes when we could only conjure up a couple of promising attacks. I suppose it didn't help that an already impotent looking Arsenal were deprived of Kolo Touré so early on. It was ironic that Kolo ended up limping off after badly bruising his foot in a typically full-blooded challenge on Kilbane, of the sort which were flying in from Everton all evening but which were decidedly lacking from our lot. There is invariably a guaranteed vim and verve to Kolo's presence on the pitch which is positively infectious on the rest of the team and without him the remainder looked decidedly flat.
In times past, when Everton scored their almost inevitable equalizer, the Arsenal's away contingent have been so accustomed to our 'never say die' spirit being a deciding factor, that we would have been up out of our seats, turning up the volume to urge our team on, convinced that we could nick a last minute winner. I can't tell you when but it feels like so long since we last snatched a victory at the death, from the jaws of a draw, that after Radzinski's goal on Wednesday it felt as if it was all over. Even with 10 left on the clock it seemed as if our fans were resigned to our fate.
My mood went from bad to worse, with news that Utd were beating Bolton. I was cursing the failure of Sam Allardyce's side to come up with as concerted an effort as they had against us at the Reebok. That was until I saw the highlights on the box and realized that Bolton had really done us proud but once again the Red 'sold their souls to the' Devils had been bloody lucky. In view of Bolton's tradition for taking big teams down a peg or two, I'd earmarked this particular match day as one of the few with the potential for the Arsenal to gain ground on our rivals. It certainly wasn't supposed to be the other way around.
Our undefeated run has been quite remarkable, but I walked away from Goodison thinking that unless Utd were to suffer the enforced absence of one of the crucial components of Scholes, Keane, Ruud Van Sh*t Himself or Howard (who would have imagined we'd have four Yank keepers in first class footie!) to upset Fergie's success machine, the Arsenal might actually have to win every single game, if we are to maintain a grip on our prospects of pinching the title off Utd by beating them here at Highbury in March!
I thought the Toons looked in terrific form when conquering Southampton in the Cup. Dyer has been sparkling as a makeshift striker during their injury crisis and there is something of the Vieira in the long legged Jenas. On returning to the car, I was desperate to establish whether they were at home against Utd at the weekend because if so, I would have quite fancied their chances. Yet my optimism waned distinctly when I discovered otherwise.
I rarely bother with my phone's WAP feature. Perhaps it's just me, but this wonder of modern technology would make Stephenson's locomotive look positively rocket like. Consequently we were probably halfway back from Liverpool before I'd sussed out Utd's fixtures to the end of February on it. It wasn't just the slow speed which made for depressing reading. Their awkward encounter with the Toons apart, I couldn't seriously envisage Utd dropping a single point in any of these games.
My fatalist mood improved dramatically watching Saturday's fabulous display. If other teams attempt Everton's tactics, it could amount to a far less entertaining end to the season. In essence the Arsenal weren't that different to the team which played midweek, but where the Blues had been successful in stifling us, as before, Boro proved the perfect foil for encouraging the very best we have to offer. I was just sad that Shane wasn't still with us to share an Arsenal display of such artistry. It might be a little churlish of me to complain after a 4-1 drubbing (when only against Wolves in the past seven games had we scored more than a single goal!) but if I have one minor criticism, it is that we could have managed an even more considerable improvement in our goal difference.
As I said to Róna on route home, I would be absolutely inconsolable if the title run-in is so tight that we end up conceding the Championship on account of one sloppy goal gifted to Boro. Our library like crowd bears some of the blame. After our fourth goal and a humble rendition of "we are top of the league" a hush fell over the ground which made me wonder how many of us really gave a hoot. We should have been celebrating the fact that we'd leapfrogged Utd for the day and continued breathing down their necks. With a little encouragement, we could have gone on to establish a record 7, or 8 goal blitz. Instead of which Highbury regulars have become so blasé about our regular exhibitions of brilliance, that they've begun to take it far too much for granted. We can hardly blame the lads for switching off in the silence which prevailed until the final whistle. It wouldn't have been such a shock if we'd conceded a second which would've given the result a completely different perspective.
On a more positive note, since his return from injury, all our games have been against the sort of opponents, where Patrick Vieira at his best could have single-handedly grabbed the match by the scruff on the neck. Evidence of his lack of match fitness has been seen in his failure to impose his imperious dominance on the outcome. Whereas on Saturday we saw the first signs of our captain returning to something like his best. I wonder how many Boro fans responded in the affirmative to our enquiries "Are you coming back for more?"
I was determined not to let Utd spoil my good mood, as they are often in the habit of doing in their televised games with a last gasp kick in Gooner guts, after an afternoon of unrequited hope. So having sat down to watch with absolutely no expectations, I was treated to an entertaining afternoon in which the Toons showed future visitors to Old Trafford the advantages of taking the game to Utd. I suppose that since it was '93 when an opponent last scored a spot-kick at Old Trafford, it was always unlikely that it would be Shearer who would break this particular duck.
I grew up with the maxim that two wrongs don't make a right and I can't help but wonder if the officials had a TV in their dressing room, where the ref would have seen his first-half ricket, highlighted at the break. I'm sure it's not done consciously, but I have lost count of the number of times I've witnessed dodgy second-half decisions, from a ref who's appeared to try and balance out a blatant error before the break. I was so certain that this would be the case that I bet my pal on our sofa. Durkin the gherkin has been the target of several tirades of Gooner abuse down the years. His public enemy status is just a little below Graham Poll, as he hasn't yet had an abusive chant dedicated in his honour. Yet at least he cannot be accused of being intimidated at Old Trafford, as others of his profession are in Fergie's presence.
He certainly went up in my estimation for coming out and admitting the error of his ways on live TV, in front of the watching millions. However I don't know who he's kidding, other than himself, about the disallowed goal! Paul certainly won't have to put his hand in his pocket in Gooner pubs for the next couple of months, or at least until the next time he's on duty at our gaff.