What Sort Of Mettle Are We Really Made Of?

Last updated : 18 November 2003 By Bernard Azulay

Having raised the bar of our expectations to such seemingly unobtainable heights, there are many Arsenal fans and plenty in the media who can't appreciate the simple three point pleasures and the stuttering performances which have seen us grind out a quarter of this season as the only unbeaten side in the land.

A repeat of the 4-1 thrashing of the Elland Road relegation fodder was merely a reminder of difference between last season's completely devastating display. Similarly our encounter with our North London neighbours was never going to live up to the tonking they suffered when they last dared to show their faces at Highbury as this resulted in Titi Henry tearing them asunder virtually singlehanded with his goal of the season contender. Nevertheless there was a certain pleasure to Saturday's somewhat fluky success which was a nostalgic throwback to the "Lucky Arsenal" of yesteryear.

By contrast a dismal decade since their last success at Highbury has left Spurs fans so demoralized, with their expectations so stunted that for those who continue to attend this annual meeting, it must be a loyal act of masochism equivalent to self-flagellation in religious terms. At least going a goal down within five minutes guaranteed an even more intense atmosphere on Saturday. You can imagine the Lilywhite euphoria in their corner of Highbury as Anderton rekindled all their hope for the best part of an hour, only to see it extinguished by a cruel twist of fate with Freddie Ljungberg's deflected shot. I almost felt sorry for them as we sadistically sent them packing to the sound of "Beat Arsenal! You're having a larf!"

It's not surprising that Wenger was left blaming fatigue for our somewhat lacklustre showing. I was left exhausted merely by all the tension of our midweek Champions League clash. I can't possibly imagine the physical cost of hammering at Dynamo's door for almost the entire ninety with our desperate efforts to keep our European hopes alive leaving them pounding the length of the pitch as the game became more stretched at the death.

Having both suffered and celebrated over so many unexpected turns of events before the fat lady sings over the years, I am usually the last to give up hope in such circumstances. Yet on Wednesday I have to admit that like the rest of the Highbury faithful, I succumbed to being resigned to our fate for about the last ten minutes. Usually Wenger's gung-ho efforts to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by throwing four strikers into the fray, would have us Gooners out of our seats, screaming our heads off in an effort to inspire one last gasp blitz before the final whistle with a passion which might obliterate any thought of the players' oxygen deficient limbs. Whereas on Wednesday a strange hush befell Highbury as though we all believed our Champions League hopes were already dead and buried. Myself I was sitting back, slumped in my seat, almost certain that Sod's Law was going to leave us with a trip to Milan which would be hardly worth taking with nothing but pride to play for.

Still it didn't stop me superstitiously grabbing for Róna's hand every time the ball came within shooting distance of either goal. The tension became so unbearable that by the time Ashley Cole popped up with his 88th minute header, I was gripping her hand so tight that I nearly broke her wrist as I levitated out of my seat and punched the air in joyous relief that we will hopefully be sitting in the San Siro in two weeks time, with our qualification prospects intact. I thought it most appropriate that it was the only homegrown player on the pitch (Parlour having been subbed) whose never-say-die commitment resulted in a sprint out of defence and into the penalty area to steal the winner.

Although it would appear that Inter have stopped their Serie A rot, I have always fancied our chances to exploit their weaknesses on the wide expanses of the Milanese pitch. It is our last group game which is my greatest concern, as I envisage a similar slog to last week, against a Locomotiv side who will have undoubtedly learnt from all those who have come to Highbury and achieved their aim of defying our ability with an obdurate defence.

However no matter how far we are destined to travel on this season's European adventure, one cannot possibly over estimate the importance of last week's result. Such are the small margins between success and failure in football that after expending so much effort on Wednesday, I am almost certain that without that last minute winner, the Arsenal would have suffered such a blow to their morale that we wouldn't have managed to find the resolve for Saturday's comeback and our premature exit from European competition might have blighted our entire domestic campaign.

Instead of which, we go into another International break with renewed faith that our Champions League fate rests in our own hands. What's more, we've somehow managed to retain our place atop the pile, whilst remaining unbeaten in encounters with all our most earnest competitors, without ever having settled into the sort of stride which this side is most eminently capable and of late without the crucial driving force of our team captain, Patrick Vieira. Aside from our two further European encounters, the Arsenal now face a programme where we don't come up against a "quality" team until our trip to Stamford Bridge on 21st February.

Unlike last season, we certainly won't have shot our bolt before the end of autumn. There have been some slightly encouraging signs of late, like the sight of Pires appearing in the box in time to tap home on Saturday. Hopefully we can play our way into some kind of form when it matters, just in time to tonk the lesser lights of Leicester and Wolves, while our competitors are taking points off each other. However my greatest fear is that the opposite might prove true and that unglamorous trips to the Midlands might not be enough to galvanize this team out of what some perceive as a tendency to go a goal down as a result of the fatal mistake of thinking winning is just a matter of turning up.

The quality running throughout the Premiership these days is such that in almost every opponent there is someone capable of making the most of momentary complacent lapses. Many suggest it is the results against our immediate competitors which are most crucial but in my humble opinion it will be our performance in the coming period which will determine our true Championship credentials. There is no motivation required for titanic encounters against Man Utd or Chelsea. Yet with the possibility of our squad being down to the bare bones, it will be bringing home the bacon on a miserable afternoon in Bolton or Birmingham which could prove the Gunners' greatest burden.