Goonergirl: Making Relationships Work

There is not much I can write about Arsenal Football Club that hasn’t been written already. But I’m going to try anyway. It’s not a matter of choice, becoming a supporter. Many people will call me crazy and dramatic, but most fans and supporters of teams will know just exactly what I mean when I say that it’s the team that chooses you.

People joke about fans “having relationships” with their teams, and they’re not too far off the mark. The only difference is that with a team, you are risking your heart weekly, sometimes even twice a week when there is European football, and there is more of a chance that you’ll get badly hurt, knowing all the while that it’s a life-long bond, and hence the risk of a lifetime of potential pain and heart-break. You may be wondering why we put ourselves through it, day in and day out, even when there is little hope, and even when things look bleak.

It all comes down to the reason why we ended up supporting that team in the first place. How we fell in love with the club and continue to have that bond strengthened every season. Now for many people, this will involve a victory, if not a trophy. But for most others, it will be something far stronger. My entire relationship with Arsenal has been during the Wenger era, and hence a large part of my love for the club has been based on and around his values – the insistence on playing beautiful-to-watch one-touch football in the world’s most physical football league, the elegant balance between youth and experience, and strength and style, the belief placed in nurturing and giving opportunity to young talent, and the very different attitude (at that time especially) that Le Prof  brought along with him, among others.  Ironically, a lot of my current Arsenal-related frustrations stem from the club’s resistance to change in the tiniest ways, leading to our assets turning into liabilities.

All Gooners know very well how it feels to face trophy-less seasons one after the other, without much hope of things changing in the near future. I have to admit that this is the season when I’m most worried about the team. It’s going to be a hard season anyway – with the battle for top 4, as well as the EPL title having more, stronger contenders than in previous years – in addition to worrying about a near non-existent defence and your team just losing it. And neither Arsene Wenger nor the club board-members and executives have done much to soothe these justified fears and worries of all the fans. For the last few seasons, transfer windows haven’t really meant a whole lot of excitement for Arsenal. This summer has been no different, and we’re still a few weeks away from the transfer deadline of August 31. There are many questions – will Samir Nasri and/or Cesc Fabregas still be wearing the red and white this season? With the well-documented tendency for injuries, will the ever-thin squad depth of the Arsenal be enough to sustain them throughout the season? Will we still have a Champions League spot come May 2012? And most importantly – what the hell is going to happen to our ever-leaky defence? Are we going to be able to handle losing yet another defensive player (aka Gael Clichy, who, in spite of all his mistakes, was still a good, experienced player) without any additional bolstering? Are we actually going to sign any more players (hopefully the likes of Mertesacker, Cahill, Jagielka and Mata) before September begins?

To add to all these concerns, Arsenal have been handed one of the toughest starts to the season, where they play twice a week for the entire month of August – the campaign starts away at Newcastle, followed by the home leg against Udinese in the CL qualifier, followed by Liverpool’s visit to the Emirates, followed by the away leg of the Udinese match, and finally to top it off,  a visit to Old Trafford. Fun times ahead …

Arsenal fans have a right to be disgruntled, unhappy and frustrated. The repeated reassurances that “we know what is wrong and we are taking measures to rectify them” are not instilling adequate confidence. My faith is certainly shaken, but all I’d like to say to fellow Gooners, plead even, is this – our team deserves to be supported, no matter what. Yes, we have a right to demand better performances, and a better situation than what has been for the past few seasons. It is only fair, and we are not wrong in wanting our team to win. We have every right to wish for silverware sooner rather than later, and I am not asking for continued patience or mute acceptance of Wenger’s tactics.

But what have we got to gain by constantly criticising them? There has been, and continues to be enough negativity and nay-sayers surrounding the team from all quarters, without us fans adding to the mix. But Wenger’s not a fool. Extremely and exasperatingly stubborn, yes. And neither are the players. They know where they’ve gone wrong, and they will be as eager as us, if not more, to finally break the trophy drought. I’m not suggesting that by us simply supporting the team, we can turn them into champions. This won’t happen without the necessary additions to the squad, and a paradigm shift in the approach. We need the right balance between youth and experience. We can offer solutions and analysis and then be exasperated when things still don’t change. But why not put positive energy into unconditional support for the team, at the same time?

They have put us through enough heart-break, and gut-wrenching moments since 2005, and I don’t blame any fan for not wanting to get their hopes up, or even block themselves from the sheer pain. I am not even foolish enough to suggest that we are good enough to win the League. (To be honest, I’ll be happy enough with another top 4 finish at this stage) But come Saturday, I’ll still be wholeheartedly supporting them because they’re “my team” and I love following them no matter what. Yes, I’m being cliché, and possibly foolishly optimistic, but I still believe in the core of the club I have continued to be in love with since 2002-2003, and that bond is unlikely to ever change. Which is why, in spite of all my worries and doubts, I’m still insanely excited to have my weekends occupied with football again! Come on you Gunners!!!

What Did We Learn from The Community Shield Game?

Now that the euphoria/ doom & gloom and the snap judgements have died down, what were the real takeaways from the community shield?

Understandably, United fans have been on cloud nine, since most of it is good news from the Red camp. What was most reassuring for me was the list of players NOT on the pitch in the second half, when we outplayed Man City. That list reads:  Giggs, Fabio, Park, Hernandez, Valencia, Fletcher, Owen, Berbatov, Vidic, Ferdinand, Carrick and Lindegard to name a few – a decent first 11 could easily be put together from that list, and it’s probably a more accurate representation of United’s starting line up. We may not have the wow factor of Ronaldo and Tevez, but we’re starting to look like the team of 2008 where we had quality cover for every position.

Ashley Young’s sumptuous cross and Smalling’s assured reaction; what could be more pleasing to see the new players stepping up in a game big on nerves if not on significance! Besides, the surprise selection of Smalling at right back would have brought a smile to many United fans. Having lost 2 versatile players – Brown and O’Shea, it was good to see SAF nudge Smalling into the role, where he did gallopingly well, providing plenty of attacking intent and adding to Kolarov’s problems. A couple of moves where he combined with Nani were also excellent. He may be tested by high quality wingers, but they are few and far between and we now know he can provide good cover in the right back position and offers the advantage of height.

Jonny Evan’s remains a liability. But at least we also saw the good side of his game. He gave the ball away dangerously, and continues to be suspect in the air. He was at fault for both goals when Everton came back in injury time last year, and didn’t pick up Dzeko in this game, right at the end, giving him a free header which fortunately Dzeko missed. But he made a couple of great tackles and went on a storming run as well. Let’s hope he gets the time to work out his weaknesses, since his talent is clear to see.

Very little has been said about Anderson, but he put in a very solid performance as well. Didn’t waste the ball, put in a lot of yards, always made himself available for the pass, and was very confident in possession. His problem may be that he is neither an out and out ball winner, nor specialist attacking midfielder, and in recent times, all the fashion is for such specialized midfielders. But Anderson has the engine and the game to become the classic box-to-box player that United have had a tradition of – in the mould of Keane and Robson. He’s still young and I believe that the penny will suddenly drop after one good season, and everybody will be talking about him as the next Keane.

And with Cleverley grabbing all the headlines, you have to feel for Carrick who is everybody’s favourite whipping boy – the same Carrick who was superlative against Chelsea in the semifinals, and is generally good enough against most premiership teams. So if all goes well, and a certain Dutch Master heads to Old Trafford, United’s central midfield options will be Carrick, Fletcher, Cleverley, Anderson, Sneijder and auxiliary support from Park and Giggs. I think that should be good enough, don’t you?

De Gea is unfortunately in the position where public opinion, fuelled incessantly by the media will vacillate between the two extremes of Massimo Taibi and Schmeichel/Van Der Saar. There’s just no middle ground in this discussion. No room for Barthez, Carroll, Ben Foster and Tim Howard, all decent goalies on their day. The cliché is of course that as a United goalkeeper, you have to wait 70 minutes for your first save, but you still have to be brilliant and focused, for 80% of the games. Let’s hope his concentration is as good as his ability.

For good reason, United fans are excited. A new season, a new generation of players who all seem fit for purpose, a great pre-season with everybody looking sharp and ready. Ferguson’s magic is still working. The next generation of United seems to be in safe hands. Clearly, United have the quality to win the league and with the possible additional of Schneider, might make a better fist of the Champions league, where incidentally, they did quite well till the final. And there are still the likes of Pogba, Morrison et al waiting in the wings. Of all the young players, the one I worry about is Welbeck. A wonderful player, but risks becoming the next Theo Walcott – not quite striker, not quite winger and not enough by way of either goals or assists. He needs to become a striker in his own head first, and make sure he gets into the right positions and puts chances away more consistently.

A few words on Man City:

The game may have flattered United a little bit because Man City were clearly off pace and sluggish. Perhaps their pre-season hasn’t really been as robust and it’s something Mancini may still be working his way through. Balotelli is a significant liability though and as Gary Neville put it on Sky, if he was a 25 goals a season player, you can understand the leniency, but he isn’t and it must be a huge distraction for both the manager and the players. City also fielded the same team as the FA Cup semi-final, with the addition of Clichy in the second half, whereas United had many new faces. But more significantly, there wasn’t much change in the style, with City adopting largely a counter attacking strategy, relying on the brilliance of Silva, and set pieces, for their opportunities. It was instructive that Mancini replaced Balotelli with Gareth Barry – hardly a sign of attacking intent. Barry and Milner together on the pitch probably also qualify for the most unimaginative midfield pairing, whatever else their qualities are.

Statutory warning:

Despite all the excitement, let’s not get carried away, we did one on Chelsea last year as well, in the Community Shield but then the start of the season collapsed spectacularly. Somehow I think this year will be different, especially with all the big games early in the year! 

Why The Chasing Pack Have It All To Do:

Amongst fans of all hues, it is the Manchester United fans who should be sleeping the easiest as pre-season kicks off and the new season is just a month away. 

Manchester United had one of their more average seasons in recent years, by all accounts, and yet managed to win the league by 9 points. This came with the strange mix of a near perfect home record, coupled with mid-table away form. The deficiencies and threats to the team were all too obvious. Ageing stalwarts (Scholes, Giggs), an initially misfiring Rooney, tactically significant injuries (Valencia) and the poor form of the central defensive cover (Evans) were all identified by fans and critics alike. Most importantly, though, there was the absence of a true playmaker at the highest level. There was also the prospect of a retiring Van Der Saar and fears of the post Schmeichel debacles, in goalkeeping. 

Sir Alex and David Gill have moved quickly and decisively to plug those holes. The arrivals of Young, De Gea and Jones will certainly ease many of the problems faced last year. It is the centre piece that is still a question. 3 players on the move – Nasri, Modric and Sneijder, and 5 clubs looking fighting over them – Spurs, Arsenal, Inter, Chelsea, United and Man City. It looks like Modric has set his heart on a Chelsea move. Sneijder’s wage demands are likely to be too steep for United, so Nasri seems like Sir Alex’s primary target at present. 

Yet, it’s worth remembering that it’s the other clubs that have a minimum of 9 points to make up over United. Chelsea have just made a massive change in appointing a manager, who has sorted out the back room. But impressive though AVB has been so far, he remains untested in the Premier League and he faces a number of challenges on the pitch. The overall age of the squad, the rumoured lack of team spirit, the well chronicled spectre of player power, the specific positions of weakness i.e. the lack of wide players, midfield creativity, lack of squad cover, the misfiring Torres and the disgruntled Drogba. And of course, the key task of settling the team following the summer transfers. It would be a brave man who bet on Chelsea to win the Premier League this year. 

Which leaves Arsenal and Man City as the other genuine contenders. Arsenal’s problems are largely Wenger-created. His commitment to a philosophy of prototype young, creative and often diminutive players is past it’s sell-by date and Arsenal risk becoming a caricature of Barcelona. One that shares the style but not the substance. Wenger has over-stocked the team with central midfielders (Fabregas, Nasri, Wilshere, Song, Denilson, Diaby, Ramsey) and ignored a number of other critical positions. Arshavin and Walcott are makeshift wingers, there is no credible second striker to the injury-prone Van Persie, Arsenal’s goal-keeping problem is the oldest unsolved problem in the League, and Sagna is arguably the only defender who could hold his place in any Premier League team. To make matters worse, Gooners are bracing themselves for an exodus – with Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy all looking elsewhere.

Man City’s problems are altogether different. They finally broke through to silverware last year by winning the FA Cup, but were inconsistent and infuriatingly defensive over the course of the league, especially given their spending. Man City have probably bought enough strikers in the past 5 years to make a full team out of them. City can arguably buy any player who isn’t part of the loyal core of the top 5-6 teams in the world, if they want to. And yet, when buying comes so easy, the stability of the team itself comes into question. City need a first team that plays together long enough to gel, and more importantly, to truly care – for each other, the club and the team. Unfortunately team spirit and understanding are not on the transfer market. 

I’m sure even ardent Spurs and Liverpool fans aren’t seeing their teams quite as title challengers just yet, so it’s really upto Chelsea, Man city and Arsenal to get over their respective problems and make up those 9 to 12 points that separated them from the trophy last year. Of course, it is quite conceivable that Manchester United will do better this year – the league winners usually go over 85 points for the season. That’s the real gap here. Especially if United manage to conclude the deal for Nasri as reported, before their pre-season, they will have the whole summer to bed the new look team in. Rivals beware. 

11 Points From United v Chelsea, Champions League Quarter Finals

1. Heroes: My first thought after the game was: what a good football match it was. Yes, Chelsea were off their scoring form, but never a weak team. And despite the history and the high octane environment, the game was played in good spirit with plenty of friendly exchanges and respect. Vignettes of Rooney and Cole exchanging a smile, or Terry and Giggs, an appreciative handshake can be seen in the many photographs of the game. There were no bad tackles, no malicious intent, and even the red card for Ramires was for 2 technical fouls rather than a rash challenge. Chelsea fans might feel that the team was too well behaved, perhaps and a little anger might have been useful to fire them up more. The ebb and swell of the game itself, however, were enthralling. Chelsea did manage a significant number of shots, though most of them didn’t trouble VDS – it shows they had their chances.

2. Midfield Energy: The obvious stars of the game were Giggs and Rooney and the media are justifiably salivating over them – but it’s hard to pick out a poor performer on the night on either side. Torres has become the fall guy, but he worked hard in the first half and was in the game. Of course, Giggs was inspirational and who would have thought that Giggs and Carrick against Lampard, Essien and Ramires could end in anything but misery for United! A part of the reason for that of course was Rooney’s rampaging role, taking in both midfield and offensive duties, coupled with Park’s bottomless energy supply. There was a point when the commentator asked “are there 2 Parks on the pitch?” – It was a valid question as he was at the time tracking back to stop Ashley Cole.

3. The Unsung Park: While on Park, everybody is going on about the fabulous passes Giggs made for the goals, but the real flashes of genius in the goals came not from Giggs but his team mates. Giggs’s pass to Park was a 10 yard pass to an unmarked player. It was well spotted and calmly executed but hardly requiring genius. But I wonder how many players, outside of centre-forwards, at that stage of a Champions League quarter final, would have the presence of mind to receive the ball cleanly, drop it at their feet and smash it in with their wrong foot as though they were seasoned strikers? Big-game Park did. And embellished his already legendary status amongst the United faithful.

4. Understanding is Priceless: John O’Shea didn’t have a happy evening defensively – as he found it hard to cope with Malouda on the wing. But O’Shea is another player who rises to the occasion and often plays beyond his capability. And while his runs down the flank (and crosses) were willing but unspectacular, his reverse pass for Giggs, almost looking the other way, was inspired. And in that instant, you understood why expensive teams like Chelsea and Man City have struggled against well drilled units. That moment of understanding, of trust, for Giggs to make the run and for O’Shea to find him with the pass, cannot be bought. It has to be earned through familiarity.

5. Pain? What Pain? Rio was hobbling after 10 minutes and in some distress. You wouldn’t know it to see him through 90 minutes. Either it was a miraculous cure, or he endured some discomfort to play through. Either way, it was the kind of gutsy decision that every team needs, to fire them up. He’ll probably miss the next few games but the job was completed on the night.

6. The Deposed King: Hard to not feel sorry for Didier Drogba. Arguably the most magnificent centre forward of our times, the warrior supreme, has had to endure an ignominious season, first thanks to his own form and then due to Chelsea’s struggles to fit in Fernando Torres. I’m sure that at a club like Man United, Drogba would have been backed to the hilt, nurtured, protected, allowed to regain form and unleashed on hapless opponents at the business end of the season. For those who doubt that, I have just 2 words. Wayne Rooney. There are so many ways in which Torres could have been inducted into the team. Maybe ask Drogba to go all out for 70 minutes, and then let Torres loose against tiring defences? Ancelotti is up there with the best managers, but right now he has two demotivated strikers and Chelsea’s most prolific goal scorer is one Daniel Sturridge.

7. The Treble: won’t happen. Quite apart from the fact that Man City could easily win the semi final if United turn out to be flat after tonight. And Arsenal could conceivably catch up in the league. Or Raul and Schalke have a surprise in store for United. Then of course there’s the matter of the insurmountable Barcelona. Unless… United get past Schalke and Barcelona have the kind of off night they endure once a year. Unless… United play out of their skins and are absolutely irresistible. Unless… Unless…

8. Strange Season: So a season which started with most United fans resigning themselves to relative failure and a rebuilding process now stands within touching distance of greatness. United may still win nothing. But this team’s redemption is now complete. They may lack the sex appeal and fantasy quality of past teams, according to many pundits, but it strikes me that they’re peaking at the right time. Unusually, many players have actually returned to fitness or form in the last 3rd of the season. Rooney, Valencia, Carrick, Park and Ferdinand have all put their troubles behind them to give United momentum at a time when typically teams are struggling to maintain it.

9. The Warhorse: What is it with Ferguson? He once said that “success brings power, not the other way around”. How does he do it? It can’t be luck that Chris Smalling turns up just when Ferdinand’s body is showing signs of wear and tear. That O’Shea returns to fitness just when Rafael suffers an injury. Or that Carrick starts performing like a star just after signing a new contract. How far can he take this “average” team?

10. Second String: to appreciate the Man United team’s capability, remember that the weekend game against Fulham took in 8 changes from the first leg against Chelsea and won at a canter. Not counting anybody who actually made the field yesterday, leaving out long injured players (Fletcher, Rafael, Hargreaves) and questionable signings (Bebe, Mame Diouf), United’s “second string” team would look like this: Berbatov, Owen (Wellbeck), Obertan (Cleverley), Scholes, Anderson Gibson, Brown, Smalling, Evans, Fabio, Kuszczak. It’s not a team to make anybody cower in fear, but more importantly, any 2-3 players from this team could come into the first team and we would still expect to win.

11. Hernandez and Bebe: It’s better to win a game and lose one, rather than have two draws. (50% more points). Similarly, it’s better to have a star signing and a dud, rather than 2 average ones. The jury may be out on Bebe (let’s wait till next season, shall we?) but Hernandez’s 18 goals this season, many of them critical ones makes the Bebe punt worthwhile! Bottom line, while a lot of clubs buy cautiously like professional managers, Fergie behaves like a Venture Capitalist. A successful one, apparently.

Premier League Weekend: Squeaky Bum Predictions

Man United – Bolton
What I’d like:

a comfortable 2-0 or 3-0 victory, with an early goal from Nani / Rooney/ Berbatov, comfortable through the game. Smalling nullifying the physical threat of Kevin Davis, and defensive midfielders working hard to track down Sturridge and Elmander.
What’s likely to happen:

Kevin Davis to pull out right and look to physically dominate Evra or Brown. Bolton’s midfield to be competitive and try to outrun United’s potentially soft midfield. Man United to have enough firepower to score a couple of goals at home, but a 2-1 result to be likely with a nervy finish. Could as easily turn into a 3-1 as a 2-2.

 

West Brom – Arsenal
What I’d like:

Arsenal lose their shape and discipline, with an early goal from West Brom’s Odemwingie unnerving their defence. Woy Stodge-son’s rigid structure to frustrate Van Persie and Arshavin all afternoon. Lots of Arsenal posession but little by way of finishing. Possible late breakaway goal by Brom making it 2, despite a later goal from RVP (my Fantasy pick!). A boring 0-0 would be fine as well!

What is likely:
Arsenal score once in each half, no real tension, West Brom unable to handle Nasri/ RVP. Comfortable victory, and lots of comments from Arsenal and Wenger about being ready to go undefeated for the rest of the season. Arsenal to go all out for a 3rd goal which will see them equal Man United’s goal diff.

Chelsea – Man City

What I’d like:

as a fan, a high scoring draw – 3-3 would be good. Dzeko to get a couple and a Silva freekick. With Chelsea scoring from an own goal, a Luiz header and a Lampard goal (note, no forwards).

What is likely:

Tight game with few chances. Tevez to nick one for City in the first half. Chelsea to once or twice in the second. Anelka to score for Chelsea.

 

Sunderland v Liverpool
What I’d like:
Sunderland batter Liverpool, like they did Chelsea. Liverpool suffer from Euro hangover – tiredness and demotivated, like Man City and Arsenal, only needing to play for 6th place, which would look safer with Bolton having lost. I’d even be okay if it was a 0-0 (Reina in my fantasy team!)
What is likely:
Actually, Sunderland should probably do well. They’ve had some tough games against Spurs and Chelsea but will probably relish having Zenden / Wellbeck back and should nick a win. Liverpool will probably finish above Bolton anyway.
Spurs v W-Ham
What I’d like:

A VDV goal, or two. (Fantasy)

What’s likely to happen:

a facile spurs victory, with a consolation goal from Demba Ba – who can’t stop scoring even if he tries, apparently.

CITY v. Aris: a night to remember

Manchester City v. Aris

Thursday 24th February 2011 8:05pm KO

My journey to the ground was a typical one, a few drinks on the train then to Mary D’s to meet up with mates for the now traditional pint before the game. I wasn’t sat in my usual seat for this game, had a better view of the game and fantastic view of the amazing Aris fans that just sang, chanted, danced & bounced all game. Made the atmosphere brilliant and I thought intimidated our loyal, loud supporters into not singing as often. I also felt the tension and nerves in the ground as with all this expectation and money and only a 0-0 away it would be shocking and embarrassing if money bags City were to falter against weaker opposition.

City started the game really well which hasn’t happened many times this season and really took the game to Aris in the early minutes, an early mistake from an Aris centre half gave Dzeko an early chance and boy did he take it well and watching his celebration it obviously meant a lot to the under-pressure striker! His second one followed shortly after his first which again was a great finish into the bottom corner. I hadn’t seen City start a match and take the game to the opposition in a few months now and this second goal eased the nerves of the City faithful. The 2nd goal as well as the 1st was celebrated with the ever so popular ‘Poznan’ celebration, I even got a girlfriend who id taken to the match to join in the fun! Good half by City who eased the early pressure off towards the end.

Second half was in my view more Aris than City and they really showed there class that they have in their team that obviously they displayed in there group matches especially against reining champs Athletico Madrid. However, City was good defensively and later seen Aris off with a deflected shot from Yaya Toure that went into the bottom corner. GAME OVER! Although in all credit to the Aris fans they still didn’t shut up and showed that European fans like them are so passionate about football and to be honest made me so jealous because I wish our fans could be like that sometimes! Overall another good experience at Eastlands that will live long in the memory. I just love European nights, something very different from the usual.

Destiny beckons :)

February has always been one of my favourite months. I mean, it was when I was born, of course I’m going to have a soft corner for it! However, since the year 2008, I have also been aware (rather uneasily) of a bit of a “jinx” surrounding the month – particularly around the last week, which is when my birthday is. The jinx refers to football, and Arsenal. It all started on February 23, 2008. Arsenal, sitting pretty at the top of the table, were playing Birmingham City at St. Andrews. A win would guarantee a firmer hold over the rest of the title rivals, and put the Gunners eight points clear at the summit. That day was also my 19th birthday. And incidentally, it will also be remembered as the day when Arsenal’s Eduardo Da Silva suffered that horrible leg break, the Gunners let Birmingham equalise deep into injury time, William Gallas infamously had his crying “sit-down” on the St Andrews pitch post the final whistle, and unfortunately it saw the slide of Arsenal into fourth place by the end of the season.

I didn’t think anything of it, apart from it being extremely unlucky that one of the strongest memories of my 19th birthday would be the images of Eduardo’s splintered tibia and fibula. And 2009 was definitely not as bad as 2008. But the month did not yield us even a solitary Premier League win, forcing us to be satisfied with a 1-0 victory over AS Roma at home in the Champions League, and a 4-0 win over Cardiff City at the Emirates in the FA Cup. However, the return of Eduardo in style, with 2 goals scored was one of the most heartening and heart-warming images for Gooners around the world. But, little did we know, that his previous red-hot form on that return from injury, would in fact never be fully restored, even decreasing, as sad as it still is to admit.

2010 however was another blow. It was February 27 and Arsenal were playing away to Stoke at the Britannia Stadium. The fact that we went on to win the match 3-1 showed just how much we’d learned from our previous Birmingham experience. But the ugly truth was that yet another leg was broken and yet another Arsenal player had to be stretchered off the pitch. That it was the young Welshman, Aaron Ramsey, who had been in great form all season, just made it worse to bear. I am sure, no Gooner will ever forget these images – neither of Dudu, nor of Ramsey.

So, this time, in 2011, when yet another Arsenal-Stoke encounter was scheduled for my birthday, you cannot fault me for being extremely apprehensive, and even a bit scared. A professional 1-0 victory and no serious injuries did calm my nerves, and even got me thinking that maybe, just maybe, the jinx is starting to lift. But then I heard about Walcott’s ankle sprain, and Fabregas’ tweaked hamstring – minor injuries that nonetheless prevent them from playing against Birmingham City at Wembley tomorrow, in the first show-piece of the season.

But, jinx or not, the Gunners are as close as they possibly can be to the first trophy since the May of 2005. And ultimately, no amount of superstition and silly worrying is going to matter. What will matter is their never-say-die spirit, their determination and hunger to win, their self-belief, and their strong desire to repay the love and support of all the fans, as well as the faith and belief Le Prof has invested in them. They certainly deserve it on the strength of performances and a new found steel in their attitude this season. They also deserve it for sticking to Wenger’s and Arsenal Football Club’s philosophy of how the game should be played, and giving supporters, haters and neturals some beautiful football in the process.

It all comes down to what happens in the 90 plus minutes tomorrow at Wembley. I am going to be a nervous wreck of a Gooner Girl, and emotionally drained by the end of it, irrespective of the result. It’s games like these that I live for, that we all dream for when it comes to “our team.” It is their time. Destiny beckons for this group of youngsters and others alike. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!!!

Sky Sports Own Goals

Arsenal: Lucky number 3? Or is it 1?

1 and 3 seem to be the preferred Arsenal numbers at the moment. Though I’d personally favour 3 over 1 any day! Today, however was not one of those days. Yay to Robin Van Persie for his brilliant hattrick which had trademark RVP goals – superb finishes, delightful on the eyes, and oh so simple 🙂 Equal boos for his missed penalty. Now, I’m not one to moan about a 3-0 victory, but you don’t expect Van Persie to take such a ghastly penalty now, do you? It was hopefully just a two second phase that has already passed. What’s that you say? Agreed? Good.

“Persie_Official Robin van Persie
1st off all thank you all for your nice messages. I’m very pleased with my hattrick today. Sorry for the penalty, promise next one will go in”

What hasn’t been said about this season so far? If I can hazard a guess, not much at all. It’s a difficult road indeed if I decide I will not write until I can find something that hasn’t been written about. And I’m not just talking about football here. I’m a writer, duh!

Okay, so the Gunners. I wasn’t too pleased with the performances against Leeds (The 1-1 draw) or Ipswich Town (I mean honestly, a championship side that has been beaten 7-0 by Chelsea who have been in such a rough patch, and we lose 1-0?) Okay the difference of one goal won’t be a problem for Arsenal to overturn on Tuesday, especially at the Emirates, but it was the attitude of the players that worried me that night more than anything. Call it lack of motivation, complacency, just a bad day at the office – what may have you … it’s understandable. I mean, it’s a lot to ask of anyone to perform at the top level week in and week out, a lot of the times (like now) more than once in a week – but these players have reached that level because they’re better than the others, and because they do have the ability to do it. Belief and motivation (especially when there’s a trophy, if not more, to be won!) are going to be the two most important things for the Gunners during the second half of the season.

Notable mentions?

Szczesny has been brilliant in the injury absence of Fabianski (that looks like it’ll continue for a while) – assured, sharp reflexes, not too many glaring errors, calm head etc. Definitely someone I’m looking forward to seeing more!

Nasri has been consistently scintillating this season and I’m happy to see that it continues in the new year – Na Na Na Na Nasri!!!

The return from injury and great form of the duo – Fabregas and Van Persie has been key to the team’s performances, and more importantly their mentality. Definitely a major boost 🙂

Walcott and Wilshere are improving with every single game, and that can only be good news for Wenger and Arsenal.

Alex Song has been consistently reassuring and amazingly solid as ever. I am however, worried about his HORRIBLE new look – taking a leaf out of Abel Xavier, are we? The rest of the team need to help him out! I propose a “How I Met Your Mother” style intervention 😀

Johan Djourou has been immense this season. Yes, he has made mistakes. But for the most part, he’s been solid in defence.

The increased vigour and physicality with which we are playing these days. It’s nice to see the Gunners get in some nice tackles and hold their own physically against teams who try to bully them and get the ball off them. Definitely an improvement. Also the desire to get the ball back when not in possession. I have not seen the whole team work together like this in that area, in a long time!

Dishonourable mentions?

Defence. It’s been the Arsenal code-word this season for “disaster.” We seem better recently, but you can’t run the squad of a world class team (which is the only one in the EPL still in the running for all 4 trophies) with just three fit centre-backs. Vermaelen is supposed to be back in 6 weeks but the way his injury has gone, there is no guarantee (which is SUCH a shame because we’ve missed our favourite Belgian holding the fort) so I certainly hope that Wenger is not all talk – we need another centre-back, I will definitely bolster our defence, etc etc.

Arshavin and Bendtner. Okay I am used to Bendtner’s flashes of good football mixed in amongst all the c**p, but the Arshavin we have been seeing this season is a stranger. Where is the cheeky brilliant Russian we were used to seeing in the Number 23? Something’s definitely not right, and I’m hoping with all my heart that there is a quick solution to that problem. I cannot bear to see him like this any longer 😦

General profligacy in front of goal. Today was a prime example. Yes we won 3-0 and yes Al-Habsi (as well as the Wigan defence) was immense in the first half but c’mon people! This is ARSENAL we are talking about. They need to be getting the goals equal to their domination of the opposition (which in today’s game was pretty much ALL the time. HOW we ended up being just 1-0 up at half-time is beyond me) Every game, especially ones against better opposition, are not going to be so gracious with chances. We need to be better at finishing. And killing games.

Well. That’s all this Gooner Girl can muster at the moment. Nothing new. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing that hasn’t been said before. But come on you Gunners! Wembley awaits 🙂

Happy New Year Gunners!

While it has been a somewhat tumultuous week in terms of football, I’d still say most Gunners would not be too unhappy about 3 games played, 7 points in the bag, and a third place going into 2011.

However, this does not mean that we are not allowed to be exasperated with those 2 dropped points. They will hurt. And we have every right to feel a bit aggrieved. Especially after this has been the sort of Gunners tendency that has tended to let them down in past seasons. Cruising at 2-1 with the opposition reduced to ten men does not immediately translate into 2-2 final time courtesy own goal from the team in front.

Yet another own goal by an Arsenal player is certainly not welcome. Though, I am not going to mention bad referee decisions including a certain penalty that should have gone Arsenal’s way immediately after Squillaci had inadvertently headed into his own net. This was our own doing. 3 away points were ours to lose and that draw did feel like a loss, especially with table leaders United having dropped two points the day before at St. Andrews. How important are those dropped points going to be at the end of 38 games? Only time will tell

Two urgent key words for the Gunners in the New Year are consistency and defensive stability. I would still say that the Gunners are in with a chance at the title, and the Carling Cup is certainly ours to lose, so I would be foolish not to be hopeful. However, I am, as ever, cautious. Not because I don’t have faith in my team. But because I care too much.

The Birmingham City match was ideal to kick start a potentially successful 2011. Recent encounters against them, both at St. Andrews and at the Emirates have been physical. They like to get ‘stuck in’ and it has been proven to affect the Gunners. However, I was happy to see that the team was able to retain the improved physicality, refusal to be bullied, commitment to possession, and tackles when not in possession which they showed against Chelsea. That said, B. City were extremely lucky not to be down to nine men just before half-time. The culprits? Lee Bowyer and Roger Johnson. That’s all I’m going to say before any possible action by the FA.

However, I do admit that we were lucky on the whole, in terms of refereeing decisions. I am not completely sure about the free-kick that led to RVP’s opener for Arsenal, but hey, luck is a very fickle thing in the English Premier League and we’ve been on the wrong side of it far too many times for me to feel bad for Birmingham, or to complain. It was nice to see Van Persie get on the scoring sheet (albeit aided by a huge deflection) and though he missed two great opportunities to build up on his first goal, I am happy to slowly see him get back to the lethal RVP who has been so effective for the Gunners in the past.

Samir Nasri continues his superlative form – both in terms of creative play and goal-scoring. Cesc Fabregas is almost back to the El Capitan we love and love more. Walcott is still quite inconsistent at best but like I’ve said before, even if he keeps scoring and/or creating chances, like he has been, I’ll not grudge him the time he needs to get to that next level. Arshavin continues to be the very unusual mix of exasperatingly lazy and awe-inspiringly brilliant, but he seems to be getting somewhat of an impetus which can only be good news. Defence is still uncertain at best, especially when Birmingham floated in long balls, and then had Zigic come on as a second striker, but here’s to Fabianski building on some great saves and good performances!

Overall, a 3-0 away win at a ground where not many teams have gotten away with three points is a great way to start the New Year. We need to apply the same formula when we play against teams who play a similar style to Birmingham … that is, try to intimidate Arsenal with a physical style … a Man City visit to the Emirates awaits us, followed by the FA Cup game against Leeds on the weekend, followed by the Carling Cup semi-final against Ipswich next Wednesday.

Come on you Gunners!!!