Sunday, December 30, 2007

A win at Goodison caps off a great week for Arsenal.

It's funny how a few days can give perspective to proceedings.

On Boxing Day, you could be forgiven for thinking we were languishing in the mid-table doldrums after a goalless draw on the south coast, given the response from some Arsenal fans. United were, according to most, going to win the league at a canter, after their four goal demolition at Sunderland. We didn't have the squad, nor the goalscorers. Rosicky's miss was forcefully contrasted to Ronaldo's piledriver.

But a few days later and the picture becomes somewhat rosier. We triumph at Goodison; United get turned over at Upton Park. Suddenly, rather than being temporarily one point behind, we're two points ahead.

So, we're top again. Whether we can sustain this position or not is, of course, the pivotal question. Yet on several times already this season we’ve shown the guts and determination, not just flair, to grind out wins. We’re a hungry side, as well as a technically gifted one. If we can add stamina to this determination, we’re definitely in with a shout. United’s squad may seem the stronger, but ours certainly shouldn’t be dismissed, especially as I would ignore Arsene’s comments about not buying during the forthcoming window. If he wants to buy, he will. He just likes to throw others off the scent, old Arsene.

The scoreline, ultimately, was nothing short of magnificent. To put four past Everton on their patch is superb, especially as it’s a ground we’ve struggled at in recent times.

The main highlights and lowlights of the game were provided by our two forward players.

Eduardo showed a clarity and coolness in front of goal which I haven’t seen since Bergkamp. Indeed, the flick for his second goal reeked of the ice-man. That’s 9 goals already for Eduardo this season, and that’s without him really getting a fair amount of time in the team. His goals could be the difference at the end of the season if he can build on this start. He'll score more than another 9 in the second half of the season, I'll say that now.

Bendtner, conversely, had a bit of a rum time of it. While he would have gained confidence from being given a start, I hope he learns from his sending off. I seem to remember a young RvP having a similarly stupid sending off a few years back, and he learnt from it, ultimately. If Bendtner wants to become the great player he could become, he has to put his mental ‘roof’ on, as Arsene would put it.

It seems odd that we’ve been chastised in some quarters for winning without playing the elegant football we normally do. Yet, that’s what winning teams are about: mixing it up, playing tough football when it needs to be played.

It’s game like Everton that can decide whether leagues are won. It’s been twenty games now and we’re still top. United are still the favourites, but that seems to be more a media perception that stems from most people’s inability to accept we are where we are. Yes, United’s squad is probably stronger, but we’re top, not them. Despite what people say, after yesterday’s result, who’s to say that this will change any time soon.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Almunia and Bendtner the heroes in a game we should have lost.

It took a while, almost 46 minutes, to get going, but the game yesterday provided us with yet another memorable, borderline hilarious, victory over our North London rivals.

We won without playing very well at all. A few choice moves aside, the performance was not very good, no where near the quality of last week's deserved victory over Chelsea. One could make a strong argument for Spuds deserving a point, and they came very close to snatching all three.

But at critical moments, match-winners and match-losers step up. Robbie Keane, despite his talent, is not a top-four team match winner. he showed that with his penalty and by smashing the ball onto the bar.

And in contrast, on our side, two match-winners did step up: Nicklas Bendtner and Manuel Almunia.

Almunia was the more surprising, but in an extremely pleasant way. There are three type of goalkeepers: ones that lose you matches, ones that make the saves they should do, but no more, and those that make the saves they shouldn't make and win you games. Almunia is finally, having extricated himself from the first category last week, now beginning to look like a match-winning keeper. I say beginning; questions could still be asked about how he let in Berbatov's opener.

But his penalty save won the game as much as Bendtner's goal. If Spuds had scored again, it would have been a struggle to even get a point from the match. As it was, the initiative passed into our hands.

Bendtner, even from pre-season, has impressed me. He passes the ball with great thought and care, and his power in the air is undeniable. As a partnership of Ade and Nik seems unlikely, the battle between the two of them for a starting place will be interesting to see. I favour Bendtner, but only if he has the patience to make the position his.

It makes it two weeks in a row that we've scored headers from corners; we haven't been able to say that too often under Arsene.

Overall then, only a few players shone. We didn't pass the ball particularly well, we were second to almost every 50-50 ball, and we overcomplicated our attacks. But, we won; we showed the determination, more than anything else, to win despite some of our technical ability betraying us. To win playing badly is as important, if not more important, than to win playing well.

And, despite Man U also taking three points, we're still top of the league at Christmas. The last time that happened we won the league. Whether we will do so again is unclear; what is clear, is that this young team won't go down with a fight.

ps On channel 5 at the moment, Milan are playing Inter. A full scouting report is coming up in the weeks to come, but, for now, I shall simply say that it's a massive game, but it's a game we can win.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A closer game than it should have been, but still, job done.

An interesting game today, which was far closer than it should have been.

Chel$ea were without three of their most important players - Drogba, Essien and Carvahlo - while the players that make our team tick - Fab, Hleb and Flamini - all returned. Also, RvP lurked in the wings.

But it was a slow start to the match, and the returning players were clearly trying to find their feet. Of the three, Hleb was very quiet, shackled by Mikel and others in the Chelsea midfield. Fabregas did better, if his passing was a little off, and should have really scored at the death.

Flamini was absolutely excellent, (my Motm) flying into vital tackles across the pitch. His renaissance, more than perhaps any other player in the team, has been key to out current league position. Not only does he break up and restart play a lot more impressively and quickly than Gilberto, something which Cesc in particular benefits from, he is, for want of a better word, the team's enforcer. The first player into any fracas is Matthieu and he has embodied the new spirit within the team: never say die, and don't try and kick us off the pitch.

This was vital, as Chelsea attempted to do just that. Terry put in a series of poor, and deliberately spiteful, challenges, and the usual suspects also tried to put their foot in. It was no surprise to see Lampard try and rekindle his loving relationship with Cesc either.

I'm not a person who revels in the misfortune of others, but seeing Terry go off injured was blissful. My hope is that Capello will strip him of the England captaincy, but that is probably a dream too far.

His replacement, Ben-Haim, conspired with the usually infallible Cech to gift Billy G the easiest of goals. Gallas was immense today. He scored, defended well and was a true leader. Again, who now really thinks that not making Gilberto captain was an error?

The game started to open up in the second half and we should have finished them off. Seeing RvP return was blissful; suddenly, we began to have far more shots on goal and a real cutting-edge to our attack. He should have scored and had a goal disallowed. Not bad. Adebayor's goal could also have been given, if Ben-Haim hadn't fallen so easily.

Yet, in some ways it was a bit like last season. We didn't finish the game off when we could have, and Chelsea almost squirmed back into it. We fully deserved the three points and to have lost out to a last-minute equaliser would have been a travesty. Almunia helped us out on a number of occasions, but I'm still a little unsure about him.

Overall, if we couldn't beat them today, when they were missing almost all of their key players, it would seem unlikely that we would ever beat them in the foreseeable future. That we have shows just how serious we are as title contenders this year. It's looking increasingly likely, given Liverpool's crazy form, and Chelsea's odd year, that this is going to be a two-horse race between us and United. Whether we have the reserves to really edge them out will be thrilling to see; the game at Old Trafford will be absolutely huge, I'll say that already.

So, a good week all in all. Back on track, key players are back in the fold, and England finally have a world-class manager. After our recent travails on the road, all is again well.

ps, wasn't it a nice tackle by Cesc at the end?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

How bad is two outta three? A Long away run comes to an end.

Well, thank God for that. Finally, finally, our tired boys can return to London after jet-setting round southern Spain, the Midlands, and, er, the North-East.

First of all, read my last article: forget Sevilla. About as meaningless a game as a meaningful game can be.

But the last three fixtures warrant attention; three fixtures on the road, which have given us 4 out of 9 points.

The best came first, and it was no surprise given the line up. Hleb and Flamini gave us impetus and creativity and we saw the best forty-five minutes of our season (except the goal) during the first half at Villa Park. The second half, where we doggedly held on to get the points, was also impressive, albeit in a grittier, backs to the wall, style. An excellent three points, all in all.

But exit Hleb; exit Flamini. And on to St James.

Tyneside has rarely, aside from Dennis's lovely flick, been a great hunting ground for us in recent years, and even Adebayor's superb goal failed to give us maximum points. This was possibly due to us being unable to muster any sort of decisive attacking movement for most of the game after our early bang. If anything, we were probably lucky to escape with a point.

Finally, today, one of the worst league performances we've seen for a while - definitely the worst we've seen this season. The back four weren't too awful, aside from Kolo's continual tendency to pump futile long-balls up the pitch, but the rest of the team was bloody abysmal.

Adebayor continues to be an enigma. When a player scores twice in three games and still warrants criticism, something has to be amiss, and in Ade's case it was his complete lack of contribution to the wider team effort. The 'isolated up front' excuse only goes so far. If he was winning balls in the air yet has no one to play them to, I'd be more forgiving. But when a player wins nothing in the air, aside from, mysteriously, headers on goal, something is clearly amiss. Despite his goals, questions about his overall game should be asked.

As should they for our other goalscorer, Tomas Rosicky. Despite his goal today, about as meaningless a goal as they come in any case, he contributed little to the team. In the absence of Hleb and Fab, Rosicky should have stepped up and become the team's creative element. That he did not, and has not in the last few games, has surely shown him to be little more than a link man, albeit an effective one, in the Hleb-Fab-Flam midfield.

The rest of the midfield was similarly poor. Eboue should have been sent off in the first half after petulantly slapping an opponent; Gilberto showed why he's fallen so far behind in the pecking order; Diarra, whilst by no means awful, is not creative enough.

Eduardo, surprisingly, was hauled off at half-time. For a 'poacher' he's playing too deep at the moment, and with Adebayor not winning any ball for him, his ostensibly poor performances are unsurprising. I still think he will get better.

Things improved after Theo and Bendtner's introduction, but we were lacklustre, both in commitment and ability, and Boro were well-worth the three points.

So, a blip or the beginning of something worse? We had to, realistically, lose at some point in the league this year, but it's disappointing that we capitulated so meekly. After three games away from home, four points is by no means a disaster. But questions of whether our squad - not our first eleven - is strong enough to win the league should surely be raised after today's surrender.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Seville's as good a place as any to lose.

And so ends the longest unbeaten run - in all competitions - in the club's history. Not with a bang, but with a bit of a whimper out in Andalusia.

Being the calm rational lot I know you all to be, I hope you took this defeat in your stride because, well we have to, and also, more pertinently, it was quite a good game to lose.

Obviously, you never want your team to lose. But the logistics and reality of modern football prohibit interminable unbeaten runs. Anyway, if Arsenal never lost, it would hardly be exciting.

Yet, there are good times to lose and bad times to lose.

A bad time to lose? At the end of a 49-game unbeaten run, at the home of your bitter rivals, in a game dogged by poor refereeing decisions, simulation and cynical fouls. Losing a game can, and did on that occasion, knock the stuffing and belief out of a team.

Last night's defeat, whilst still having the poor refereeing, simulation and cynicism, will not knock the team out of its stride, and a few positives can even be taken the game.

Obviously, it would have been nice to win the match, top the group, and have a favourable draw in the second round. But look what happened last year: we topped the group, drew PSV - a 'weaker' team - and were promptly knocked out. The year before we drew Madrid, and recorded one of our most historic wins. In fact, aside from the final, the team we struggled most against in 2005/6 was Villareal. The Champions League is based on big games, and we've tended to well against big teams in the last few seasons. Bring them on, I say.

Moreover, several players will have gained vital experience. Armand Traore was given a rather torrid time, yet is an extremely talented young player and will learn from his travails. Nicklas Bendtner, who was one of our better players, will have gained more belief in his abilities from the game, and would also have been pleased in the faith shown in him by Arsene. Eduardo also notched a very decent goal, which he needed. I think he will surprise a lot of people in the second half of the season.

The major concern is Philippe Senderos who appears to be going backwards. Where was the rock who, according to recent reports, was very nearly made captain in 2005? He seems lost at the moment, and he needs to regain some confidence by the time Kolo heads back to Africa in January.

Certain players needed a rest before an exceptionally heavy December fixture list; we have three away matches coming up next week which are far more vital to our season than the game last night. As long as Cesc hasn't tweaked his hamstring too badly, last night was far from a disaster. In some ways, it might even have been a good moment to unsaddle ourselves of the burden of maintaining the unbeaten run. Sometimes, there are good times to lose.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Arsenal falter, but don't fail, without Fabregas, Flamini and Hleb.

Football matches are usually won and lost in midfield. The ball is, more often than not, won or lost in this area, and how play is distributed is, in any half-decent team, decided here. Teams that have confused, imbalanced midfields, or even try and bypass it with long-balls - step forward England! - are usually found out or frustrated pretty quickly.

So yesterday was always going to be a test given the list of suspensions and injuries. Losing one of Hleb, Flamini, Fabregas and Gilberto, despite the latter’s absence for most of this season, was always going to be a challenge; losing all four of them effectively ripped the heart out of the team.

Hleb, and more particularly, Fabregas need to be playing as often as possible: they are the creative hub of the side. Almost all our play is filtered through these two players. And Flamini’s running, tackling and speed of distribution has also proven vital to the midfield’s successful functioning this season.

So I was interested to see how we’d fare without them, especially when I saw the quartet of Rosicky-Diarra-Denilson-Eboue line up.

Overall, a mixed performance. Neither Diarra nor Denilson have the passing range or creativity of Fabregas or Hleb, and whilst we proved adept at winning and keeping possession, at times we looked slightly bereft of ideas. Solid performances from both of them, but nothing more. Rosicky had a half-decent game, capped by a fine goal, but seemed unable to vary his play from continually cutting in from the left-hand side. Eboue showed signs of a desire to run at players, yet suffered from a poor first-touch and a periodic lack of application.

They were not helped by Adebayor putting in another distinctly mediocre performance up front. His almost obsessive desire to attempt flicks, drag-backs and any other skill that complicated play meant our fluency was broken at critical moments. His shooting also left a lot to be desired.

Yet we prevailed. And we did so due to the sheer skill and desire of Billy Gallas and Sagna, a player who has emerged as, so far, one of the signings of the season. His cross, and Gallas’ header were both top-class, and came at a time when Wigan had perhaps begun to fancy nicking the game.

The second quickly followed, as did a deserved three points.

Two other players worthy of note were Theo and Bendtner. Theo looked like one of the few players capable of causing havoc among the Wigan defence. Bendtner already looks like he has more to him than Ade. What Ade has to bust a gut to achieve, Bendtner seems to achieve far more naturally. He has the look of a world-class centre forward to him already, and if he doesn’t achieve this status it’ll be due to mental reasons, not technical ability.

So, a good win, and one that puts some breathing space between us and United (thanks for the goal Nico!) We can win without our first-choice midfield; the evidence we have a title-winning squad continues to mount. Hopefully.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

There is something rotten at the core of English football, and it was finally exposed last night.

Yes, it does hurt.

I'd like to be one of those people who have wilfully, and with some justification, abandoned the national team in recent years. The England team is full of dispicable, greedy individuals, hyped to within an inch of their lives. Some really aren't that good at all. When was the last time, for instance, Steven Gerrard really put in a towering performance for England? It's a lot easier when he's surrounded by the foreign quality, which he apparently abhors, at Liverpool.

But despite the fact that I don't actually like many of the England players, it's still England. My support for the national team pre-dates that of my discovery of Arsenal by a good 3 months or so (I was 7 years old), and whilst Arsenal long overtook England in my affections, I still want England to do well.

But they don't, and they haven't done for a long time. Not just since Steve McClaren became manager, but from, almost, the minute we relinquished the World Cup in 1970. England have achieved nothing since then, aside from a world cup campaign in 1990, in which we beat the titans of Egypt, Belgium and Cameroon to reach the semi-finals.

It's too easy, and ultimately erroneous, to blame foreigners for this malaise. As Arsene himself has said, England didn't win anything between 1966 and 1996 when there were hardly any foreign players in the English top flight. The influx of foreign players hasn't made the England team worse; if anything, it's merely highlighted its long-standing mediocrity.

Why buy an English player for three times the price of a foreign player of comparable, if not greater, quality? And before guns are levelled at Arsenal, this club has actually produced or nurtured many decent English players in recent years - the likes of Bentley, Pennant or Upson, players deemed not good enough for Arsenal, but English players of quality nonetheless. I doubt there are many other top-flight English clubs who have produced as many high-grade English players as Arsenal in recent times, even if few have ultimately made the grade at the club. And Arsene doesn't look at passports: if they're good enough, they're good enough, whatever the likes of the Daily Mail and Jermaine 'tag-boy' Pennant may say.

No, the real malaise in English football culture can be seen in every English town across the nation: the dilapidated facilities; the coaches who insist on physicality over technique; the quagmires which serve as pitches; the kids forced to play on massive oversized pitches, instead of being taught basic pass and move tactics in smaller size arenas.

There is something rotten at the core of English football. English football is currently, and has been for the last decade or more, experiencing the greatest influx of money it has ever known. Yet where has this money gone? On Rio Ferdinand's Bentleys, on David Beckham's myriad houses; in short, into the pockets of top-level footballers and those that run top-level football.

The Premier League's inception could have been a chance to reinvigorate English football root-and-branch, to invest at the lowest and not just the highest levels of the game. Instead, we're left with the white elephant that is Wembley Stadium, crap coaches, and average players.

Because that's what's neglecting the next generation has done: produced an over-hyped and under-achieving generation of footballers who really aren't as good, when put together and shorn of the foreign team-mates, as they or the media would like to think.

Who knows when England will really recover from this nadir. For now, get a foreigner to take charge, not just of the team, but perhaps even of the FA. Maybe they could actually teach us a thing or two, if we're actually humble enough to listen.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Welcome back Manuel. I've been expecting you.

Oh dear.

Call it blind optimism, but I was almost beginning to believe; and then it happened, the inevitable: Manuel is back. The panic-attacks have resurfaced.

I admit I got carried away. In last week's blog I even admitted I might have got things wrong. Maybe Manuel was the solution to our goalkeeping problems. Who knows, maybe he still is.

Indeed his abilities as a shot-stopper have never really been in doubt; fire in a shot and Manual will probably, and athletically, save it. Moreover, and unlike Jens, pass the ball back to him and he's likely to clear it without giving us any heart-stopping moments of idiocy.

But put pressure on Manuel, pass the ball around the edge of the box, hit it long so it's almost close enough for him to get it - but actually still too far - and the problems begin to arise.

United should not have scored their second goal, and even if Almunia cannot be held completely to blame - where was Ronaldo's marker, after all - Manuel's propensity to panic, to rush off his line and unnecessarily expose his goal, is all too familiar. He did it more than once on Saturday, and he could have cost us more than one goal in an otherwise fine defensive performance.

If it all seems rather familiar, that's probably because it is. Cast your mind back to 2004/5. After a series of costly mistakes, culminating in a series of blunders in Greece during a Champions League match, Jens is dropped. Manuel comes in and, initially, plays well.

But then the big game; then the blunders; then the moments of panic that cost us. Any who recalls the 4-2 drubbing we received at the hands at United at Highbury during that season will remember how culpable Manuel was for most of those goals.

Once recalled Jens was superb, right up until his mistakes at the start of this season. He saved penalties to win us an FA Cup final; and, notwithstanding his red-card in that final, he was absolutely vital to our Champions League run in 2006. And he really wasn't that bad last season.
The question remains therefore: do we persist with a keeper who can't win us big games? And if not, what do we do? Do we recall Jens? Do we throw in young Fabianski? Do we have a goalkeeping crisis on our hands?

Who knows, maybe Manuel will battle back and prove me wrong again. But it seems the negative side of his game is back, and Arsene has to ensure this doesn't cost us. Because to lose out on trophies this year because of a dodgy trophy would be a tragedy.

How many chances does a person get to show they've changed? I suppose we'll soon find out.

Moments of hope from moments of disaster.

Oh readers: pity me. Pity my folly; pity my idiocy.

After a 500 mile journey, I reached the turnstiles of the Grove on Saturday. I reached into my pocket and found the wallet in which I had placed my season ticket.

The wallet was empty.

Panic. Sheer, unadulterated, complete, perfect panic. In retrospect, I probably could have gained entrance to the ground somehow, but as the panic gripped my mind, I was sapped of all clarity, of all rational thought. I thus did the only thing I thought reasonable: I ran to the pub.

Thus, if you saw a young man with a Cesc4 shirt on running the wrong way down the Holloway road at around 12.45, you probably caught a glimpse of Goonerboy during one of his weaker moments.

Anyway. My quick, if idiotic, thinking ensured that I only missed three minutes of the game, which, after a tense opening 45 minutes, finally spluttered into life.

On balance, either time could have deserved the win. United very nearly tactically outplayed us, with Hargreaves and Anderson doing well to break up our normally fluent play, while Rooney and Giggs marauded efficiently before them. Love them or, as you should do, loath them, Rooney and Anderson are very good players.

Yet the fact they didn't win, and the fact we prevented United from seeing out a seemingly certain 2-1 win, is a massive credit to The Arsenal. Few would have bet against United seeing out those last ten minutes, and yet they didn't, a testament to how far we've come this season.

And few players have come further than William Gallas. From a, in some quarters, hate-figure last year, he is finally showing the leadership and defensive skills that make him one of the best central defenders in the world. Melodramatic comments about 'dying' aside, he needs to continue to instil fire into the team if we're to challenge for honours this season.

Hleb put in another blinding performance, whilst Cesc was still excellent, despite the shackles imposed on him by a very congested midfield.

The only real negatives were the middling performances from Adebayor and Eboue, both of which can be partially explained away through the overly negative 4-1-1 formation we started with. Also, Almunia's keeping was brought into question, again. More on that later.

I had hoped for four points from the Liverpool and United games, but 2 will suffice. No defeats, and the manner in which we earned our draws, has surely confirmed our status as title contenders. A beautiful state of affairs, I'm sure you'll agree.

What's more, United are clearly rattled. You only have to see Fergie's ridiculous comments with regard to the referee or our fans, or Hargreaves attack on our 'so-called beautiful football' to see we've rattled their cage. That United have resorted to mind games already, merely emphasises the threat that they feel from us.

So, a draw can sometimes feel like a win, and sometimes a pub can almost feel like a stadium - of sorts. (Thanks to everyone in the Bailey for creating a great atmosphere.) And sometimes, after thinking you're staring catastrophe in the face, things don't turn out too badly after all.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A point won, but it should have been more.

Going to Anfield is never easy. In some of our other league winning campaigns under Wenger we've won there, but I also seem to remember Liverpool turning us over twice in 1998. And much of the team that played yesterday would have had the 4-1 hammering from last season lodged firmly in the back of their minds.

So, I'll take a point, especially after the way we played. But it could, and really should, have been three.

The last thing you ever want to do in a big match is go behind early, and so it was with a degree of trepidation that I saw Gerrard set up the free kick on the edge of our box during the opening exchanges. Questions should be asked as to how and why the ball got through the wall. That's two games now, at Anfield and White Hart Lane, where we've conceded soft goals from free-kicks that have put us on the back foot early on. Walls are there to block shots and protect the goal, not to dissolve as soon as a ball is hit towards them.

We seemed extremely nervous early on. We tried to keep at our normal passing game, but we also seemed intent on playing it at around 100mph, which played into Liverpool's hands. Much of this was due to Liverpool's pressing and harrying of our midfield, and Cesc in particular was not allowed to settle on the ball in the opening exchanges.

But we kept plugging away, and it soon became abunduntly clear that we had the capacity to score. After a wonderful pass from Cesc, Ade really should have done better in a one on one with Reina. This was followed by a woeful volley across goal from Eboue, who, when confronted with a free striking opportunity inside the box, yet again failed to deliver.

Indeed, Eboue was the weak link in the side, again. His passing was poor, his dribbling not always up to standard, and his gamesmanship was yet again over the top. Carragher, who has plummeted even further in my estimation after his constant fouling (including a clear penalty), certainly did make some form of contact with an arm midway through the first half, but not nearly enough to warrant the embarrasing, drawn-out reaction from Eboue. Maybe the African nations cup can't come soon enough.

Wenger's team selection did seem to play into Liverpool's hands. Adebayor, not as sharp as he has been at times this season, led the line admirably, as he always does, but didn't really look like scoring. Having Theo tucked in behind him from an earlier stage might have been a better option. I certainly would have sacrificed Eboue for Walcott from the off.

As it was, we first took control of the game, and then completely dominated it. Time and time again we patiently built our attacks, either to see them saved, or, more often than not, Liverpool hoofing the ball back down the field. The standard of Liverpool's passing was so atrocious, and so unambitious, that as time went on I grew more and more angry that we were the team behind, yet also slightly worried that it could be one of those days were the better team goes home empty handed. How Benitez can justify a long-ball policy with players of the calibre of Gerrard, Alonso and Mascherano is beyond me.

But cometh the hour, cometh the Cesc. Despite having missed an open goal earlier in the game, he kept plugging away, and the goal was a thing of beauty, mainly due to a sensational, Bergkamp-esque pass from Hleb. The finish was that most schoolboy of things, the toe-poke, but it was what we deserved.

A few minutes later we should have won the match when Cesc slammed the ball against the post and Bendtner screwed the ball over the bar. By my count, that was two efforts against the post, and two open goals missed; it should have been more than one goal.

A few players deserve individual praise.

Manuel Almunia has won me over. Questions might be asked about the goal, but it would be extremely harsh to do so. What was more evident was a series of superb saves, and a general steadiness at the back. Jens isn't going to play for Arsenal again if Manu keeps up this form, and I'm delighted to have been proved wrong.

I would praise Kolo, but he was simply awesome as ever. What was more heartening, was seeing William Gallas finally pull out a captain's performance for the team. His block near the end on Gerrard was particularly sensational.

Cesc was superb, as ever, yet it was Alex Hleb who was probably our man of the match. Liverpool simply could not take the ball from his feet, and the Cesc-Hleb combination is really pushing us forward in games at the moment, such is their understanding of each others games, and the breadth of their combined creativity.

Overall then, two points dropped, as much as one point won. But prior to the game, a point at Anfield would have been acceptable. Moreover, it's the first major test we've had this season, and we've come through it with flying colours. We've shown that against the big boys, we can still play our game, not give up, and not be muscled out. But we still need to see what happens next weekend before we get too carried away.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Football from another planet.

He wasn't on the field last night, but Robin's words are the only ones that come close to our standard of play last night. We were utterly superb, and destroyed poor old Slavia who must have cried themselves to sleep. All credit to their fans though - many stayed til the bitter end, scarves aloft, still cheering. When you see that type of dedication, you can't help but be moved.

Two individuals who deserve an extra bit of praise are Alex Hleb and Theo Walcott. Both have had their fair share of critics during their time at Arsenal, and their performances were particularly gratifying for those of us who've stayed loyal to them through good times and bad.

Alex proved again that he has some of the most devastating close-control in European football, but, more than that, he showed how vital he is to our midfield. He's a player who can, and has on many occasions, make things happen for the team. He might not be the most prolific goalscorer in the world, but as his one, if not two, goals showed last night, he knows where the goal is, and can score given the opportunity. He is a player who will help us win trophies this season.

As for Theo, well; I wonder if the idiot who used to sit behind me in the stadium still wishes he'd 'go back to Southampton'? No? Didn't think so. He's a young lad still finding his feet, yet last night Theo showed us what he's capable of: blinding pace, superb finishes, wonderful dribbling. He scares defences. Whether he's ready for a start on Sunday remains to be seen; personally, I think he could be a sensational impact sub against the likes of Carragher and Hypia.

My only reservation with Theo is the fact he's English. This will inevitably lead to a media campaign that will hype him to hideous levels, and could have a real negative impact on his performances. Let's hope Arsene can shield him, and that he has the maturity to deal with it. One only needs to look in cashley's direction to see the perils of believing your own hype.

We've hammered Derby by 5 goals already this season, but putting 7 goals past any team in the Champions League is a real statement of intent. We mean business this season.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Beauty against the beast and another three points.

Firstly, apologies for my absence. I suppose that's what happens when you move, change job and, er, socialise too much. For the record, I now have a 6 hour journey, each way, to see the mighty Arse, so cut me some slack.

Anyway, onto the match.

There's a reason why Bolton's enclosure was half-empty yesterday, and it's not just because they're bottom of the league. They play a strange mutation of football, one which seeks to glorify its worst elements to near ridiculous heights. Fouling and long-balls: that's all Bolton have. And that's not football. People pay to watch football. They travel hundreds of miles to watch teams pass the ball, to score, to create and entertain. They do not want to see a bunch of thugs kick and batter each other. There are plenty of other sports for people if they seek this form of entertainment. Boxing perhaps; dare I say it, rugby as well.

So it was good to get one over Bolton yesterday, and not just because I want Arsenal to win every game they play; it resembled some form of triumph for the beauty of sport over its darker side.

But we made hard work of it, and perhaps should have been down to 10 men early in the first half. Cesc, who can be rattled, was wound up by a particularly disagreeable challenge from McCann, and after receiving a yellow card, proceeded to hack down Campo. Another referee might have sent him off, and it was one of the few sensible decisions Riley took all afternoon to recognise what had happened did not warrant ruining the game.

The profligacy of Ade almost cost us as well. He's a bizarre player to watch at times. He can pull a first touch out that can make you weep with joy, and follow it with a finish that comes straight from the Steven Gerrard in Moscow training manual. He has the talent, but will his need for so many chances cost us in bigger games? I hope not.

The real stars of the show yesterday were Alex Hleb and Theo. Hleb had a wonderfully creative performance, that merited at least an assist. Indeed, it was his ball to Theo that led to our second goal.

Theo himself was a joy to behold, running with pace and verve at a baffled Bolton defence. It summed up Ade's afternoon that he possibly, accidentally, blocked a shot from Theo that might have crept in. Theo's lack of goals doesn't bother me at the moment; they will come in time. The same can be said about Eduardo, who had a far better performance than has been suggested in some of the papers this morning.

It was also good to have Rosicky back. With both him and Hleb in the team, we look far more threatening. I just hope he can stop getting these little niggles which seem to plague him. He will be crucial in our upcoming games against United and Liverpool.

One player who was pretty dire yesterday was Eboue. His passing was poor, he doesn't seem to know what he's doing on the wing, he dives and he blasted a chance over. It might just be rustiness after a prolonged absence, but the diving is nothing new and he's got to cut it out. Remember what shirt you're wearing.

All in all, so far so good. We're currently pretty unstoppable, and whilst we've benefited from an absence of top-four opposition, and a plethora of home games, we've done the business and you can only beat the team in front of you.

A season defining week awakes. How we perform against Liverpool and United will say a lot about how we're going to do this year.

ps - a note to Gunnersaurus.

Overall, I think you're a lovely mascot. In fact, I'd go as far to say that you rule. However I've been asked to request that you either get a new t-shirt firing gun, or that you take better aim. I've seen one t-shirt reach the upper tier this season. That type of finishing just isn't good enough.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Arsenal show new depth and grit in a bruising encounter.

It's never easy to go to Upton Park; we found that out last season, where a last minute winner ended a match we should have won. Indeed, it had been seven years since our last win at the Boleyn.

A combination of factors ensured that Saturday's match ended in a more positive manner.

Firstly, a degree of luck. You get the feeling that the offside decision that denied Freddie a goal may not have been given last year, while Dean Ashton rarely heads straight at the goalkeeper when virtually unmarked. The feeling on West Ham boards is that they were owed a penalty as well, from a Senderos shove on Ashton.

Secondly, grit. It would be harsh to characterise West Ham as no more than a team of bruisers, but they clearly have a few players who do like to stick the boot in. Ironically, it was one of their less thuggish players who put an appalling tackle in on Alex Hleb before half-time. How Noble remained on the pitch is a mystery: accident or not, that was a leg-breaker of a tackle and we should be thankful that Alex - who Curbishley praised highly after the game - escaped with only heavy bruising.

Last year, in the face of such tackles, we may have folded. Thierry would have probably put his arm round Noble in an effort to broker the peace. This season, we have Matthieu 'don't fuck with my team' Flamini, who promptly clobbered Parker shortly afterwards. Even Cesc notably went after Noble.

I'm never one for condemning violent play, but there's a time and place to show that you'll stand up for your team-mates, and won't let yourself be bullied. With Flamini and Sagna, we finally seem to have some 'enforcers' in the side, who prevent the more physical teams from pushing us around.

Thirdly, we're scoring a variety of goals. RvP scored a great header to win the game, and were it not for the inspired Rob Green - who always seems to have a blinder against us - he would have had more. Green made fine saves from long-distance efforts from Flamini and Clichy, and also made a smart save to deny Adebayor.

Adebayor is undoubtedly one of the key figures in the team at the moment, but he needs to score with his first or second chances more often. Due to the type of team we are, he normally gets enough chances to score, but in top-level games, we might be punished for a lack of clincal finishing.

Overall, it was a real scrap. The value of these victories cannot be underestimated: we're starting to win ugly in physical matches, the real mark of a team with championship winning credentials.

The importance of the win was hammered home as United also ground out another 1-0 win. One of the most frustrating things of late has been watching United come away with points after very average performances. They've kept themselves within touching distance and are undoubtedly waiting for us to drop a few points ourselves.

The season seems to be boiling down to the following key questions already. Will Benitez tinker himself out of a title? Do United have the firepower to challenge? Can we maintain our heady start to proceedings? And, hilariously, will Chelsea finish in the top four?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Please go and sign this petition.

Just a quick one today. Go to this site and sign the petition.

I know it's unclear how effective these things are, but over a 1,000 people have signed this one already; quite clearly, it's better than nothing.

The debt-laden takeovers of English clubs, by foreign owners with questionable backrounds, must stop. If the FA can't/won't do anything about it, then the government has to. I know that the UK has turned into a tax-haven for the mega-rich, thanks to the efforts of Thatcher and her successors, but to stand by and watch our national game be sold off in this manner needs to end.

And if you don't believe me, take Arsene's word for it. Honestly, every day I find a new way to admire this man.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Does anyone still think we need, let alone want, a takeover?

Ah, vindication. I'd like to imagine David Dein will apologise for his mistake, pack his bags and swan into a sunset that matches his own orange skin-tone; but of course he won't.

What mistake would that be? Imagining that Arsenal need an oligarch; that Arsenal needed the colossal fortune of anyone, let alone the utterly repugnant Jabba the Hut lookalike that is Alisher Usmanov.

Today, Arsenal published their full year results for the first season we've fully spent at Ashburton. And by doing so, one of the worst-kept secrets in football has come to light: we are bloody loaded. Our turnover has now breached the £200 million mark; operating profit has increased by 274% to over £51 million, and that's before the profit we made from player trading is taken into account. We are the richest club in Britain, and snapping at the heels of Real Madrid.

When Ashburton Grove was built a lot of people gave it the 'comical' nickname 'Cashburden Grave'. Their logic was that by building a very expensive stadium, we would saddle ourselves with huge levels of debt that we would never repay. Yet, all we were doing is following one of the most basic law of economics: you have to spend money to make money. And when this money is spent efficiently and carefully, lots of money comes back.

Yes, we still have a large amount of debt on the balance sheet, but this is countered by a) our large (£73 million odd) cash reserve b) the Highbury property development, which will wipe a considerable amount of debt away in one stroke and c) the massive increase in revenue and profits that the new stadium has given us.

Because we have sensible directors who plan for the long-term, we also have very-secure low-interest debt. Total debt repayments per year currently stand at £20m. To put that in perspective, it has been recently suggested that Man United are currently paying almost £100 million to service the debt that was taken out by the Glazers to buy the club. You have to keep asking yourself who the takeover benefits in that situation? Glazers or United? It's not hard to answer that question.

Furthermore, and as importantly, the increases in revenue come from within the club: gates, programmes, merchandise etc, not from external sources such as TV revenue which can fluctuate and change without our consent or planning.

The bottom line is that the only reason for wanting a takeover has been negated. We have enough money, more than enough in fact, to compete for any trophy. That it hasn't been spent was Arsene's choice. And considering we're currently top of the league, and free-spending Chelsea have just had their manager sacked so Abramovich can run the team himself, I think it's not a bad way of going about things.

So in the end, who would a takeover benefit? Not the club: it doesn't need new money or new management. A takeover would only serve to benefit those who took control of the club, not the club itself, a sentiment which would fit with the following quote, taken from an 'anonymous Emirates source':

"David always sees himself as number one. He wants to be chairman. The Arsenal board put Arsenal first. The board see themselves as the custodians of the club. That is the difference."

Let's continue to back the club; let's continue to back the board. We don't need a takeover and we don't need David Dein. We are one of the best run clubs in world football. To use an old adage, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Arsenal destroy Sevilla in a powerful statement of intent.

I usually get nervous before almost all Arsenal matches, but for some reason a strange calm came over me before yesterday's match. If I was a betting man, I would have backed Arsenal to win 2-0, and, as it turned out, my optimism wasn't misplaced.

I initially felt slightly like I did after our victory against Juve in 2006, slightly disappointed that it hadn't been more of a contest. But then, as someone pointed out to me, this was largely due to our utter dominance in the match, not due to any real deficiencies on Sevilla's part.

We now seem to have a team of players who can fight as well as play. Few players sum up this transformation as much as Sagna, especially when compared to his predecessor, Eboue. Eboue was always good going forward, yet he also dived around the pitch in a fairly despicable manner, and had a unnerving tendency to forget his defensive duties.

Sagna is just as good, if not better, going forward, and defends like a lion. He wins the ball, somehow, almost every time, and if he can't then he usually commits a foul. That's what I like to see. I banged on for most of last season about how we needed a proper right-back, and clearly Arsene thought the same.

The attacking duo played better together than they have for a while, even if Adebayor needs far too many chances to find his range. It was good to see Robin get a goal, and especially a scrappy one. We haven't scored enough of those scrappy goals over the last few seasons, and they're often the moments that decides games. Eduardo's goal was also great to see, and I imagine it won't be the last time we see a Hleb to Cesc to Eduardo to goal passage of play this season.

Hleb defended well, and continues to impress, Rosicky was excellent, and Fabregas now seems to have acquired the ability to score deflected thirty yarders. It finally seems to have been taken on board that if you don't shoot, you don't score, something otherwise known as the Lampard theorem. Indeed, as Goodplaya pointed out, Cesc's goal had the whiff of a Lampard-special. Let's now hope that Cesc doesn't put on 4 stone as well.

The only negative of the night was, again, Diaby's performance. I know he's being played out of position on the left, but this doesn't justify the fact that he doesn't seem to be giving it his all. At one point he jogged, in an almost carefree manner towards the ball, only for a Sevilla player to sprint past him and gain possession. Diaby clearly has the ability, but why should Arsene give him a chance in the centre if he's not willing to work hard in other positions when called upon?

Diaby's performance was nearly the antithesis of Flamini who, very quietly, is establishing himself as a real presence in central midfield, and he seems to be happy to play the defensive foil to Cesc. The growing proficiency in Flamini's play, to go with the enthusiasm and effort he always had, make him a difficult player to drop at the moment.

Overall, it was a performance that should have been noted around Europe. Sevilla are not only one of the best teams in Europe, they're one of the best in the Champions League. Yet we simply did not allow them to play, and instead tore through them with our passing and technical ability. Put simply, playing the way we did yesterday, we can beat any team in Europe.

How does Mourinho's exit affect Arsenal?

I admit that I usually go to bed pretty late - well, for a non-student - so I saw the whole of last-night's events enfold on an almost minute by minute basis: the initial reports, dismissed; the BBC and SSN suddenly going into overdrive; the final, fatal confirmation from the club.

He's gone. And, to be frank, as Arsenal fans, we should be grateful.

People have talked about English football 'losing a personality'. To an extent this is true, but its also debatable whether he's the type of personality we really want to have around. Ok, he came out with the odd-quip that was amusing. And, ok, his ego-centric style of management very effectively took a lot of weight off his players shoulders. He was the star of the team; the players were merely his tools.

But this was also the man who branded our manager a 'voyeur', an unacceptable slight in light of the utterly odious allegations still sung about Wenger around the country, a man who bullied a senior referee out of the game, who criticised Britain's emergency services after they had saved the life of one of his players, who stood there and lied to the faces of reporters and fans around the country when asked about his role in the Ashley Cole affair. A man who accepted nothing with humility; a person who appeared to have been born without an inch of grace.

And then there was the style he implanted in his teams. To grind out a win with a deflected goal was the pinnacle of achievement in Mourinho's tactical landscape. And that he chose to play such boring, percentage football was made all the more galling by the enormous chambers of credit that lay behind him. Mourinho could, and perhaps his successor will, quite easily have constructed a team which had a style to match the substance he so clearly craved.

His tactics, his personality, the way he told his players to behave towards opponents and the bottomless pit of cash he had at his disposal will always demean his achievements. I always remember his irritation with reporters over the lack of 'respect' Chelsea had been given, despite the trophies he had won. Quite simply Jose, you never conducted yourself in a manner which would earn respect, and, hence, you were given none.

I was never truly envious of Mourinho's achievements because I felt he had earned them the wrong way, and I genuinely mean that.

But on a purely results-based level, his sacking is madness, absolute madness. Mourinho has never lost a home game. He has won five trophies in three years. And, most painfully for Arsenal fans, Wenger never beat him. Wenger vs. Mourinho was a reminder that style doesn't always win out in football, even if Mourinho was lucky to meet us during a prolonged period of transition. The 2004 crop would have beaten him, I'm sure, but I'm certainly glad to see the back of him in terms of his record against us.

So, and I'm sorry to continually bang on about this, but if any further evidence was needed that Russian oligarchs are not needed, look at Abramovich. He has just sacked the most successful manager in Chelsea's history over a whim, over the alleged failures in Mourinho's summer transfer market policy. Abramovich wants galacticos and style; Mourinho wanted hard-workers and power. There was only ever going to be one winner.

And in his place comes the stooge, Grant. And in the place of dull victories may come a serious period of instability, perhaps even dull defeats.

In the long-term, Chelsea may find a manager who can combine style and results, a Hiddink, perhaps. But such times are far in the future. For now, Mourinho's sacking should seriously dent Chelsea's hope of silverware in the coming season. Something that can only work to our advantage.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dein the architect of instability as his ally buys more shares.

I suppose I should be careful with a headline like that. It could be construed in a negative way against the delightful Mr Usmanov, who has already used his stooges to ensure that any criticism about him is removed from the internet.

However, I suppose Mr Usmanov, when you have a background which is allegedly (I learnt that trick from Ian Hislop) questionable, and you come out of nowhere with the intention of using my club as a financial or political instrument for your own personal gain, with no interest in the traditions and values of something so beloved by so many people, don't be surprised if people raise questions about your past. And that you have reacted to these questions through forcing independent Arsenal blogsites to remove content speaks volumes.

In the midst of all this, one thing has become surprisingly open for debate: the role of Stan Kroenke. When I first learned of Kroenke's involvement in the club, I was not impressed, and I retain my reservations about a highly leveraged takeover. But if it's between Stan and Usmanov, there is no question: it's Stan all the way.

Peter Hill-Wood expressed the current situation, and the changing perception of Kroenke, quite clearly:

"I would think Kroenke is probably a long-term investor and I would welcome him as a shareholder more than Usmanov — unquestionably.

"He is involved in sport and understands it. As for Usmanov, I am not sure what he wants or why he wants to get involved. He is clearly a very determined fellow but it won't get him anywhere. It doesn't change anything. The board is absolutely resolute and they have no intention of selling to Dein and Usmanov.

"This is all very disruptive and I can understand the fans being upset. The club has been stable for many years and this is destabilising it. I think David is very much the architect of that."

For all those who swallow the Dein PR line about the current board being a bunch of old fuddy-duddies, P H-W's comments are right on the money and show a clear understanding of the situation.

Why is Usmanov becoming involved in the club? Who the hell is he? Why is he being so aggressive in his purchasing of shares? And why is David Dein being such an unquestionable idiot?

I actually think that Dein truly believes that he is the man to lead Arsenal forward, which would be great, if it wasn't for the fact that the club is fine without him, and that his current actions show he will stop at nothing to gain control of the club. At the moment, Dein is showing that he will destabilise the club in order to gain control of it, and, for me, that's not on.

Other things need to be said about Dein, which seem to have been forgotten. Look at the time lines in these two articles.

In the early 1990s, Dein had to sell a considerable amount of his shareholding to Danny Fiszman, in order to repay debts that his company, London and Overseas Sugar, had run up due to the collapse of a company called Esal Commodities. Dein had become very good friends with Rajendra Sethia, the owner of Esal in the early 1980s, and the two had done a great deal of business together. This would have been fine if Esal hadn't collapsed with debts of £250 million, after it emerged that Sethia had systematically defrauded a number of banks across the globe. Sethia was, therefore, a massive fraudster who, at one point, was the largest bankrupt in history. If you don't want to take my word for it, read 'The Beautiful Game?' by David Conn. Besides from being an excellent book on the state of modern football, the 2nd and 3rd chapters shed a great deal of light on Dein's largely unsuccessful business dealings in the 1980s.

Draw your own conclusions about his business sense from the above story, but, for me, Dein has lived off the appointment of Arsene Wenger for the last ten years. Despite the PR story, Dein did not make Arsenal Football Club as it currently stands; if anything, it's the opposite: Arsenal made him. Dein opposed the move to Ashburton Grove, a move which has seen the club's coffers explode over the last year. We have an excellent board, who have the best interests of the club at heart. If they have to do a deal with Kroenke to keep Usmanov and Dein at arm's length then so be it; better Kroenke than Dein and Usmanov.

All this has overshadowed a great start to the season by the team. And I blame Dein completely for this. The entire instability currently racking the club stems from his quest to run the club; a quest which shows little concern for anything apart from himself and his own gain.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

That was more than just a derby win.

What a game yesterday. At the time I was forced to use a combination of streams, radio, BBC text and Chris Kamara to try and keep up with the action, but having watched the full game subsequently, it seems unlikely that there's going to be many more games this year with quite that many incidents.

Watching the game post-facto merely hammered home just how many potential turning points there were. If Berbatov had, as he perhaps should have, scored at 1-0 or 1-1 we would not be celebrating today. Only Clichy's body and an incredible recovery tackle by Kolo saved us on those two occasions. I would talk about the Darren Bent miss, but I'm still laughing.

The first half performance wasn't great, but wasn't completely abject. Bale, a player with considerable talent, scored a cheeky, if technically impressive, free-kick to give Spurs the lead. It's difficult to know where to apportion the blame. On the one hand, Almunia should have got down to save it; on the other, Hleb should have blocked the shot. Coupled with Almunia's rush of blood which led to the Berbatov chance at 1-0, I don't think it's harsh to say doubts remain about his big-game ability. But I am warming to him, especially when he showed the fire to stand up to Huddlestone.

The other player who disappointed was Diaby. Not only did he miss an absolute sitter - again - he looked somewhat lackadaisical at times. He couldn't deal with Chimbonda or Malbranque, which is a pretty powerful indictment of his performance on its own, but he doesn't always look like a player giving his all. It takes a lot for Arsene to haul a player off before the 70 minute mark, and that Diaby exited after 50 or so minute says a lot.

But what is most heartening about our current squad is their ability to play for the entire 90 minutes - to grind out wins or draws even if it takes until the last minute to do so.

No-one epitomises this never-say-die attitude more than Flamini. You can question his ability, although he actually passed the ball around and broke up play well yesterday, but his sheer drive and spirit is a joy to behold. Every team needs a Grimandi, as it were.

Adebayor similarly embodies this spirit. In truth, he missed a hatful of sitters yesterday, chances that often decide matches. But he never gave up, and yet again he came up with the goods in a big match. And as for his second: an early goal of the season contender, not just for the strike but for the flick. Joyful.

Yet we all know who the star man is: Cesc. At 20 years of age, he is dangerously close to becoming the complete midfielder. Last season I criticised his lack of goals, as many others did. So this season, patently, he's decided to start scoring, and start scoring when it really matters, when it's 1-1 at the Lane and pride and points are at stake. Trophy winning teams have players like Cesc at their heart; that's all I'm saying for now.

Kolo also deserves a mention for some truly heroic defending and leadership. Clichy was excellent, and Sagna must be in the running for the player to adapt most quickly to the Premiership and to the club. Gilberto did a job at centre-back, but we really need Gallas to return asap to look really secure in that area.

Last year, we came from a goal down at the Lane, before falling to a last-minute equaliser. This year, we won, and as I wrote a few weeks ago, the draws are turning into wins. So, yesterday wasn't just a lovely derby win, it was another sign that the current team has the ability to win trophies.

They no longer shirk from the fight; they're finding the last-minute winners; end-product is being produced. And the team have successfully overcome the first real test to their credential as title-contenders.

But the Premierhip is a marathon, albeit one with a pretty hefty pace. When injuries really start to kick in, perhaps then we'll know just how much this result really means.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A picture that says a thousand words....

Full match report to follow tomorrow. Just a quick reminded of what a lovely day it's been.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

No Beckham, no Lampard, no Rooney: a team.

International weeks have been boring for a long time due to the dearth of quality football played by the England side for so, so long. I sometimes watch other international matches, especially those with Arsenal players, but it's hard to muster too much excitement until the world cup/european championships are actually reached.

So, it's genuinely a pleasure to report that the England Russia match last night was actually enjoyable, something that I haven't been able to say about watching England for what seems like an age.

And why was this so? Less galacticos; more team-spirit. Instead of the England team being the 'Can David Beckenham win 1,000 caps' show, (watched by ten viewers in America), balance and and a degree of coherency was evident in the team.

So in central midfield we had Barry and Gerrard, a pairing that actually compliments and balances each other. Barry is one of the players who's patiently and quietly been plugging away for quite a while now, turning out consistently good performances for Villa. He's also one of the few players in the England set-up with a genuine left-foot. His performance last night was wonderful, one of the best I've seen for a long time. He did all the things a holding midfielder should do: break up the movement of the opposition from midfield to attack, and in turn push England's play from defence to attack. If Lampard replaces him, it'll be a tragedy. The central midfield partnership for England should be Gerrard or Lampard with Barry or Hargreaves. Only then will there be any balance to the midfield.

The need for a holding midfielder has been obvious for some time now; what hasn't been as apparent is the need for balance in the forward line. Rooney and Owen can work together, but it remains to be seen whether they can really bring the best out of each other. Yet what is clear, is that Owen loves Emile Heskey. Yes, Heskey. Owen is an instinctive poacher, and a great finisher, but he needs service of the type Heskey can provide. Should McClaren keep Heskey in the team over Rooney? It's almost incredible that this question is being asked, but it is, and McClaren somehow needs to come up with the answer.

The other area which appears to have improved is the right-wing. Now, SWP is clearly not perfect. His final ball often leaves a lot to be desired, and he still has moments of tactical naivety. But how refreshing is it to see a winger who can actually take on and beat players? For too long, we've been in the thrall of Beckham-mania, especially since his false renaissance in Estonia. Yes, he can pass the ball well and take free-kicks with metronomic accuracy, but SWP is a better overall player than him now, far better in fact, and SWP is first choice for the foreseeable future.

So, England finally play like a team, and it's no coincedence that this has happened when some of the bigger names have been forced out due to injury. Whether McClaren takes this on board or not will remain in question until the next round of qualifiers. I hope he does.

Elsewhere, Eduardo scored, again, and Slavan Bilic thinks he's one of the best strikers in the world. Excellent. We also don't seem to have suffered any injuries, although Lassana Diarra maybe feeling a little shame-faced after France's humbling to Scotland last night.

Right, so international fortnight is finally over. Next stop, The Lane.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Arsene Wenger's magic, he wears a magic hat...

....and when he saw the new three-year deal offered to him by Peter Hill-Wood (*deep intake of breath*), he said I'm signing that.

It's been obvious for a few days now that this has been on the cards; one can only presume that any delay caused was due to Arsene inserting a number of his own specific clauses:

Section a. 1) I will not be made to buy any player over the age of 21 years of age. Ever. In fact, make that 18. No, 17.

Section c.3) I will get a large tub of Haagen-Daz, cookies and cream flavour, after every home match. With chocolate sauce.

Section d.2) The club anthem will be changed from 'The Wonder of You' to 'The Wonder of Arsene', or 'Hey Arsene you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind, hey Arsene! hey Arsene!'.

In all seriousness, it's great news. Arsene is a visionary manager, who's brought the longest sustained period of success to the club since the 1930s golden-age. More than that, he's ensured we have a club to be proud of, both on and off the field. For all the anguish some of us sometimes feel about him not always buying established talent, there's something noble about buying young and developing, rather than gratuitously spending unsavoury amounts of money, and in turn fuelling the hideous bling-culture of (post)modern football.

When we win Arsene's way, it seems right. I would prefer fewer trophies using Arsene's way of management, than many with a shady Russian oligarch fuelling our success, whether that be Abramovich or Usmanov.

The signing also brings some much needed stability to the club, at a time when greedy businessmen - that's you Usmanov, Kroenke and Dein - are trying to exploit our club for all its worth. It's good to know that the core people running the club, Wenger, Fiszman, Friar, Edleman, Peter Hill-Wood et al., are decent, honourable people, who care about the values and traditions of the club, not just its money-making potential.

Arsene had this to say about why he stayed:

"Arsenal is the club of my life. I have been entrusted with complete freedom to implement and execute my plans on what will make the team successful and that means I have a responsibility to the fans to deliver silverware and also a responsibility to the players to help turn our potential into prizes. This Club has deep-seated roots and a tremendous heritage and it is my aim to uphold these important values and help create new history for future generations to recount."

Well, Arsenal is the club of my life too; it's good to know the manager shares my opinion in this area. It's also wonderful to see that he recognises the club's values and traditions which he has, and hopefully will continue, to uphold.

Arsene says he has 'complete freedom' in his job. I still think appointing a director of football would be a good idea, as people who try to micromanage every activity in their jobs often get bogged down in detail and seriously tired after a while. But if that's the way Arsene wants to work, so be it. It's worked pretty well so far, after all.

This may not be Arsene's last contract at the club; indeed I'm pretty sure he'll stay until we forcibly eject him as an octogenarian. But this is still great news. Here's to three more years of Arsene, and, hopefully, more years of silverware.

Monday, September 03, 2007

A team is born, but there's a long way to go yet.

An absolutely fantastic performance on the weekend, one that made me proud to be a gooner (tm pending) and also believe that this team has the ability to win trophies this year. However, I also remember writing this article in October last year after the 4-0 destruction of Reading, so I'm trying not to get too ahead of myself.

At half-time yesterday, it seemed the game was all but won An early penalty by Adebayor and a wonderfully scrappy goal by Fabregas - from a corner, a corner! - had helped put us in the driving seat to such an extent that the second half almost seemed to be a formality. Pompey's defence was shocking. They failed to put a man on the post that would have prevented Cesc's goal, and further japes continued in the second half.

Yet football matches have a knack of changing very quickly, and when Senderos was, very harshly, sent off for pulling Kanu down with his little finger, the game immediately came alive. How the referee instantly judged this to be a professional foul, whilst letting James stay on the field is a trifle baffling, I must say. I certainly don't think that we benefit from the 'Old Trafford' effect that certain other clubs get when referees turn up there.

But we dug in and scored next, thanks to quick thinking from Cesc and Rosicky, and some comically awful Pompey defending. Adams, who again kept a low profile on the Pompey bench, must have been rubbing his eyes in disbelief.

We then conceded after what I thought was a moment of utter brilliance from Kanu, but which turned out to be one of the flukier goals you'll see this year.

That we didn't concede further was partially due to luck but also thanks to some titanic defending at the back. Kolo and Gilbs were, to put it simply, utterly heroic. Clichy was magnificent on the left, and Flamini continued to show that full-back should be his position of choice.

In midfield Rosicky had his best game for a long, long time, Hleb did well before tiring (undoubtedly due to the illness which almost ruled him out of the game), Denilson made a few sloppy passes but otherwise did well, and Robin played well for the team without threatening as much as he would have probably liked.

Almunia made a number of saves, but his distribution remains absolutely rotten. At times it was the same as the CL final: he kept on punting the ball back to Pompey time and time again through futile long-balls to Adebayor. He needs to learn how to re-start play more effectively.

Diaby and Adebayor remain enigmatic. Diaby displayed some lovely close-control to carve out openings, but was let down by a poor final ball and, to put it mildly, some sloppy finishing. A work in progress, undoubtedly, but what will the final work look like? As for Adebayor, he's clearly giving his all at the moment, yet his shooting, decision making and crossing were all poor. I'd still like to see Bendtner given a bit more of a chance.

Fabregas almost flotated on air during the game. He is the heartbeat of the team; the fulcrum around which everything revolves. My main criticism last year was his lack of goals, which now no longer seems to be an issue. The main problem will be keeping hold of him.

Overall, it was a wonderful performance, full of fight and spirit but also blinding technique and passing. At one moment a man near me stood up and let out a heartfelt cheer due to a piece of sublime passing. That's how good we can be.

A team is clearly also being formed and its for this reason I can say that I genuinely haven't missed Thierry yet. We now have eleven men who play as a unit and play for each other, in a way that simply wasn't present during Thierry's tenure as captain. Teams win trophies - that's an important point to remember and why I'm increasingly optimistic about this season.

Whether we can keep it up is the big question. It's been a tremendous start to the season, but the first real acid test is coming up in two weeks time: White Hart Lane. A win there and this season could prove very interesting.


Goonerboy was quoted in the Financial Times on Saturday. Whilst I am obviously proud of this, I was also blissfully unaware until I was told by a fellow blogger. So, if you see me quoted anywhere again, unlikely as this may be, do drop me a line via the comments or the contact form, as I may not actually be aware...

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Diarra is a good signing, but is he what we need now?

So, with the predictability that can only come after weeks of winking denials, we added one more body to our squad at approximately ten to midnight last night.

Lassana Diarra is an excellent player. A Chelsea supporting friend of mine told me how he had become frustrated at Mourinho's unwillingness to give young Lassana more of a chance, as he was clearly a very talented guy. Indeed, and as Gunnerblog has already pointed out, the sale has raised the ire of internet-using Chelsea fans. They clearly wanted to hold on to him, even if Mourinho didn't.

The eleventh hour nature of the deal was undoubtedly due to the fact Chelsea didn't want to sell Diarra to us; but, and like the Ashley Cole situation last year, the player must have clearly have wanted to leave, and to specifically join us. Chelsea, even with their wealth, don't want to carry dead-weight, just as the sale of Glen Johnson earlier in the day had shown.

But notwithstanding his abilities, do we really need a player like Diarra? He's a central midfielder who can fill in at right-back. Now, of all the positions in the squad, central midfield seems, just about covered, as does right-back. The signing seems to bolster my belief that Arsene likes to target central midfield players due to the fact that technical and passing abilities are needed above all in this position, two attributes that Arsene values most highly. As he has consistently shown, he clearly feels that if a player has sufficient technical ability, he can play in a range of positions.

Yet what we clearly needed, and what we've needed for over a season, is a left-winger, and we've done nothing in this transfer window to remedy this deficiency.

I would hazard a guess that Diarra is being earmarked by Arsene as Gilberto's long-term replacement. The combination of a contract that soon needs to be renewed, reaching the dreaded 'logan's run' age, and the fact that Arsene overlooked Gilberto when it came to the captaincy seems ominous. Is Gilberto still in Arsene's long-term plans?

If nothing else, another body is always another body, and Diarra is clearly a very good player.

But is he what we need to compete this season, or is he another part of a future machine? I'm not so sure.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Craig Murray on Alisher Usmanov: not nice reading.

Craig Murray was formerly British ambassador to Uzbekistan and knows a thing or two about the current state of Russian and Central Asian politics.

In this article (unfortunately published in the Daily Mail) he talks about the growing reliance of the UK on Russian energy. However, the bits I have cut out the portions that should interest gooners the most:

Putin signed an agreement with Turkmenistan to expand a pipeline and massively increase the transit of Central Asian gas through Russia.

Key to this triumph has been Alisher Usmanov and his Gazprominvest Holdings. This subsidiary is the channel for massive slush funds. In November 2004, for example, a payment of £44million to Gulnara, the daughter of President Karimov of Uzbekistan, secured that country’s gas contracts for Gazprom from under the noses of the US.

In return for the cash, Putin instructed Karimov to kick out a US military base that dominated Central Asia, and Gazprom secured the strategic kingpin to dominate the Central Asian and Caucasus gas reserves.

Usmanov has become close to former German Chancellor Schröder through the Nordstream project. Analysts believe this has sparked a determined drive by the Schroeder’s political allies to persuade the EU to remove sanctions against Uzbekistan.

These sanctions were imposed following the Andijan massacre in which 700 pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by Karimov’s troops in May 2005. It also appears to explain a waning of German support for the rival Caucasus pipeline project.

I ask Kuprianov what precisely are the roles of Schroeder and Alisher Usmanov within Gazprom. Again, he is surprisingly candid.

‘Herr Schröder is chairman of Nordstream. His role is to use his influence with European governments to persuade them to support the Nordstream project and to remove political difficulties. Alisher Usmanov is not connected to Gazprom, but to a subsidiary, Gazprominvest Holdings. Mr Usmanov’s skills as a financier are well known. He devises vehicles for handling our most difficult and sensitive financial transactions.’

I had known from my own intelligence sources while British Ambassador in Uzbekistan that Usmanov was in charge of Gazprom bribery and slush funds. I had not expected Kuprianov to come so close to saying it straight out.

Usmanov is therefore a link between Putin and Karimov. Karimov has been 'president' of Uzbekistan since 1991, and in that time has been repeatedly criticised for human rights violations.

Usmanov is, it would seem, a supporter of a tyrant and has been extensively involved in bribery and slush funds.

Thank you again David Dein. You have clearly been meticulous in choosing who to invest in our club.

Dein sells Arsenal down the river to satisfy his own ego & Usmanov profile.

David Dein cannot be trusted. That has now become abundantly and painfully clear. First of all, he tries to get an American sports owner in behind the board's back; now, after being ousted from the board for that act of dishonesty, he's involved a Russian crook to financially back his seemingly unswerving desire to become chairman of our club.

He has literally whored himself to the market and found, it would seem, anyone who will give him the money to finance a takeover bid that will lead to him being chairman, without a thought to the traditions and principles upon which Arsenal football club was built.

There's a lot that needs to be said about Dein personally. About how trading in Arsenal shares bailed him out of his failed sugar trading venture in the late 1980s. About how that sugar venture failed due to his involvement with a fraudster. About how he's lived off the PR of recruiting Arsene Wenger, and their subsequent friendship, for ten years. That article will be written over the coming days.

For now, let's take a look at the lovely man who now, thanks to David Dein, owns almost 15% of our club: Alisher Usmanov.

Now, let me speculate. I'm going out on a limb here, but I should imagine Usmanov is not an Arsenal supporter. More than that, I imagine he wouldn't even be able to locate the stadium on a map, tell you who Dennis Bergkamp is, who Charlie George is, or indeed anything about the club's history. Well, aside the facts his PR men have told him. His heart and soul is hardly welded to the club; what's he going to do when the going gets tough?

No, Mr Usmanov is only interested in the money and power that Arsenal football club can give him. The financial return is easier to understand, but don't underestimate the power he can and also wield if he controls one of the world's biggest clubs, especially if his pal Roman is controlling Chelsea just down the road. He will gain a level of political immunity that the Russian oligarchs are realising that purely business assets cannot give them.

He had this to say about his usual business strategy:

“All our projects work the old-fashioned way. We borrow money and invest it in a new company that is as a rule either in a state of bankruptcy or in serious financial trouble. After gaining control over its assets, we improve its finances so that we can make a profit off its future activity. After a certain period of time, we return the money to lenders."

So, he's clearly marked us out as an operation he can turn round and make money off. This money will not go back into the team, club or community, but back to banks and his already considerable back pocket. The man is worth over $5.5 billion, after all. At this level, he is interested in the club as a 'financial investment', not as a sporting operation which means much more than that to the millions of Arsenal fans around the globe.

But let's get personal. This man is a crook and possibly a gangster. He's a man who was 'wrongfully' imprisoned in the 1980s for extortion, and spent 6 years, yes 6 years, in a Soviet detention camp. Of course, as his lawyers have pointed out, he was wrongfully imprisoned. I wouldn't be surprised if they claimed he was the Uzbek Nelson Mandela.

Since then, he has made his fortune in the bandit capitalism of 1990s Russia, investing in the metals, mining and media sectors in particular. It is around this time that it is alleged that Usmanov made substantial connections with the Russian underworld; it has even been suggested that the British National Criminal Intelligence Service was monitoring him at this point for alleged links to mafia figures.

On the arrival of Putin, Usmanov cottoned on pretty quickly - unlike his compatriot Mikhail Khordokovsky - that to do business in Russia nowadays, you tow the Kremlin line. And while he has denied it, his purchase of Kommersant - a major Russian business paper - at the same time that Putin was re-monopolising state control of the Russian media is a pretty big coincidence, one Usmanov has been forced to deny. After all, this is what happens to journos who don't agree with Putin's policies.

So, here's man who's been imprisoned, who's helped erode freedom of speech in Russia, who's best mates with the lovely Mr Putin, who's undoubtedly made his money in the shall we say 'slightly' shady ways that the other oligarchs did, and who has been consistently linked to the Russian mafia.

You can say that there's a lot of speculation in this article, and there is. But this is only because every Russian oligarch, including our friend Roman, is notoriously secretive about their pasts. I'd love to know more about how Mr Usmanov went from being a convicted felon to a multi-billionaire in the space of a few years, but the information is simply not out there. And whilst its a cliche, in this case there is certainly no smoke without a quite considerable fire.

I would say a few things. One, this man does not have the interests of the club in any way at heart. He is only thinking of himself, how the club can financially benefit him and, as importantly, how it can politically protect him from meeting the same fate as Khordokovsky. The purchase will raise his persona and protect him from any tenuous 'fraud' charges.

His nationality, and I will say this clearly now, has nothing to do with it. If he was English and had led the same life I would say exactly the same thing. It's who he is, not where's he's from that bothers me. Sometimes money, despite what it can bring you, is tainted. His certainly is.

Ultimately, the question you have to ask yourself is this: even if this man can bring us trophies, does selling the heart and soul of our football club in return constitute a fair deal? I don't think it does and I would say this to Mr Usmanov in the vain hope he's reading:

Fuck off. You know nothing of our club and its history. You are not needed nor wanted.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dein's Arsenal shares sold for £75 million.

This has just been released:


Red and White Holdings Limited ("Red & White") today announces that it has
purchased a 14.58% stake in Arsenal Holdings plc ("Arsenal") from David Dein for
£75m, and that it has appointed David Dein as its Chairman. Red & White also
announces that it has committed funds to enable it to increase its stake in
Arsenal. However, Red & White confirms that it has no current intention to make
a takeover offer for Arsenal or to acquire a shareholding in Arsenal which would
trigger an obligation to make a takeover offer for Arsenal save as set out in
note 1 below.

Red & White is an investment company established specifically to hold equity
interests in Arsenal. Red & White is jointly owned by Mr Alisher Usmanov, a
leading Russian businessman, and Mr Farhad Moshiri, a London-based investor and
long time business associate of Mr Usmanov.

In his role as Chairman David Dein will develop proposals to support the future
success of Arsenal and will focus on increasing Red & White's stake in Arsenal
as outlined above. Red & White believes that in light of the fast-changing
landscape for football, both in the UK and globally, it will be able to assist
Arsenal and ensure that it will be able to thrive in the future and become the
leading football club in the world. Specifically, Red & White believes that in
order to remain competitive at the top level of the game, Arsenal will require
access to significant funding.

Additionally, Red & White believes that the continued involvement of Arsene
Wenger, over and above any renewed contract, is vital to the future success of
the club.

Red & White intends to approach the Board of Arsenal in the near future to
discuss its ideas, to understand the future direction of Arsenal and to explore
areas of potential cooperation.

Commenting on the announcement, Farhad Moshiri said:

"We are very excited not only to secure a significant stake in one of the
world's most famous football clubs but also to have secured the involvement of
David Dein for the future. Arsenal is a great club with huge potential and we
look forward to increasing our stake and exploring ways to help support the
future development of the club for the benefit of all fans and shareholders."

David Dein, Chairman of Red & White, added:

"I have always had the best interests of Arsenal at heart - I've had a love
affair with the club since I was six. I firmly believe that the involvement of
Red & White with a significant stake and the long-term commitment of Arsene
Wenger are absolutely the best outcome for the club, fans and shareholders
alike. I am delighted to have found, in Farhad Moshiri and Alisher Usmanov,
individuals who share my vision for Arsenal and of where it needs to go to be
the world's leading football club."


So not Beresovsky, but another very rich Russian. And Dein is still involved.

Haven't time to comment further on it at the moment, but will later.

This values the equity of the club at just over £500 million, and, given Arsenal's net financial liabilities of around £230-250 million, attributes a total value to the club of around £750 million.

Interesting? Worrying?

Arsenal massacre Sparta, but tactical problems remain.

As I said yesterday, the first goal in last night's game was always going to be crucial. A quick Spartan goal, and we might have been under the cosh a bit. As it was, we pinged in an early goal and the remainder of the game turned into a pre-season friendly.

The return of Gilberto to central midfield brought some much needed stability to proceedings, but the performances of a few other players was worrying.

Diaby still seems to think he has ten minutes on the ball every time he collects it, and even then he often gives the ball away. I still see a lot of potential in him, but the way he conducts himself sometimes seems to strike me as lazy. I know I'm being critical but I think he could improve his attitude a little.

van Persie is searching for a partner. Him and Eduardo did not go to plan last night, although obviously it's far too early to completely rule out the possiblity of the two of them working together. So far, Bendtner seems to be the only one capable of really giving Robin the ball where he wants it. Some of my doubts about his attitude and selfishness are resurfacing, I have to say.

I also would have like to have seen Bendtner more involved last night and I worry that Arsene is not using him enough. He's going to be a fantastic player, but he's very different to what we currently have; a good thing, I feel. Whether Arsene thinks so as well, I'm not sure, and it would be a terrible waste to not implement Nicklas's talent properly. He will be a success somewhere; I hope it's with us.

At the back, I would say that Senderos and Hoyte both did what was asked of them. Hoyte will probably never be more than a squad player, but he's a very good one to have around. Phil has the potential to be first XI, and after a difficult year last season, he really has a chance to prove himself again. I hope he does.

Theo had a bit of an odd game. He started brightly with an assist, and some zippy running and passes, before descending into obscurity. His crossing notably dipped in quality, and seemed to involve punting the ball into the air as high as possible at times. Odd. So encouraging signs from Theo, even if they only came sporadically.

Eduardo, overall, did well, especially after Fabregas came on. He provided a lovely assist to Fab, before scoring a goal INSIDE THE SIX YARD BOX at the end. I've capitalised this freak occurance, such is its importance. Maybe the fox in the box has finally arrived, after years of searching by Wenger. Moreover, the fact he looks fairly comfortable on the left-wing, means we may have finally found a Bobby mark II. Here's hoping.

Fabregas also took his goal well and touchingly dedicated it to Puerta. I've debated this with others, but I'm still of the mind that there should have been a period of silence before the games last night.

So we're through to the more lucrative rounds and our odyssey to Moscow can properly begin; I hope. It was nice, if a little boring, to have a comfortable win, even if the role of certain players in the team remains slightly fuzzy. Onward to Russia!

A major pointer to Arsenal's future to be announced this afternoon.

My good friends over at Arseblog and Gunnerblog have their ears to the ground a lot more than me, and have found out that David Dein is to have a press conference this afternoon.

It could mean that the play we were all expecting, Dein selling to Kroenke as the first stage in a takeover bid, is about to transpire.

However, other names, darker names, have been mentioned, chief among them - and I stress this is merely a rumour at the moment - Boris Berezovsky.

This man cannot become involved in our club. He is a crook and a gangster. He acquired his business skills and empire in the bandit capitalism that gripped Russia during the 1990s. He is, however much he denies it, probably the force behind MSI, the group responsible for the Tevez and Mascherano debacles. He has suffered several assassination attempts, the most recent occuring in July of this year.

Moreover, the only man to attempt to investigate Berezovsky's murky past was murdered. In 2004, Paul Klebnikov, who wrote the book 'Godfather of the Kremlin' was shot dead in Moscow.

I won't write any more on this man for now, as it's too early to tell what's going on, but even I would prefer Kroenke to him.

Here's hoping tonight's conference isn't too unsettling.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Adriano, Jens and 300, the sequel; Antonio Puerta RIP.

First things first: comment must be made about the alleged Adriano transfer. And when I say alleged, it was definitely offered: Arsene doesn't comment in the way he did unless something was put on the table.

The exact details seem unclear. It seems we were offered Adriano on a year long loan, while Inter wanted either Rosicky or Flamini in return. Whether they wanted those players on loans or permanent deals, I'm also unsure.

To my mind, Arsene was right to turn this deal down; the last Brazillian we had on year-long loan hardly worked out, and Baptista was in a lot better shape than Adriano. To put things simply, Adriano is overweight and has an appalling work ethic. He has obvious, devastating talent, but he's in the process of wasting it. We probably do need another striker, but I would be loath to lose Rosicky, or even Flamini, on a player we would have to rehabilitate with no guarantee of reward.

Another player who won't be leaving the club is Jens, despite some fairly scurrilous reporting in the media overnight. Whether he's injured or not is, obviously, a matter of contention, but Arsene would be stupid to let him go now. I'm fairly sure, unless Almunia suddenly starts to display Cech-esque abilities, that Jens will be back between the sticks in two or three weeks time. Hopefully this period of chastening will sharpen his form.

The Spartans return tonight, but this is no Thermopylae, especially as Repka is out injured. Whilst I don't think the game will be a repeat of Liverpool's walk in the park last night, I would be surprised if we were tested too stringently by Sparta. Who knows, an early goal could make things uncomfortable, but, and similarly, an early goal from us could turn the game into a training match.

Personally, I'm hoping to see the likes of Bendtner, Diaby and Walcott given a chance. Perhaps the game might be a good occassion for Eduardo to open his Arsenal account. I also hope that the Spartans don't try and inflict any serious injuries on us after the brutal game in Prague.

Finally, I'd like to mention Antonio Puerta. Purely by chance, I watched the Seville game in a local pub and saw Antonio collapse. I've never seen first hand something happen like this in sport before and I have to admit to being rather affected by it.

By all accounts Antonio was a lovely guy and a wonderful player. I can also say with some certainty that he had, or even was, been monitored by Arsenal scouts.

It's at times like this that, as fans, we have to look past the essentially petty divisions between clubs and recognise that what has happened affects all football supporters. It is an unmitigated tragedy and, as such, I would like to forward my heartfelt condolences, and those of my readers, towards Antonio's family and friends. Rest in peace mate.