A couple of seasons ago, I traveled out to Spain to see Arsenal play Valencia, which was a game that knocked us out of yet another Champion’s League competition. March 19th, the day of the match, is known to the locals as ‘Las Fallas’ and is one of the major yearly festivals in the country. Essentially, it’s a pagan celebration to welcome the arrival of spring and it begins on St Joseph’s Day, which falls on the first Sunday in the month (St. Joseph being the patron saint of carpentry, of all things). In every nook and cranny of the city then, are hundreds of weird, grotesque and strangely naive statues built out of cardboard, papier-mache and other cheap DIY type stuff. At midnight (after a build up of rituals in national costume, dancing, flower displays and firecrackers) the entire city lights up like an angry god as the whole festivity thing is burned to the ground in sacrifice. A bit like our Champions League hopes that year. And the year after.
Anyway, the point of my digression (apart from recounting some of the pleasant memories I have of a visit to Europe with Arsenal) is to explain how it was that I came to witness the team up close and in agony. Our plane had landed at Luton about half an hour before theirs and so my mate Patrick and myself decided that we would stand near the team coach, welcome the boys home and do whatever small thing fans could to lift their spirits and give them a little support. It was something I immediately regretted though because firstly, it was a tacky Bay City Rollers thirteen year old girl type thing to do - and secondly, the grief on the face of every single player as they climbed onto the coach betrayed emotion far too private for our untimely intrusion. Patrick, a well meaning University teacher and an Arsenal fan since childhood, softly called out ‘well done’, but their emptiness was so black that it overwhelmed and swallowed any passing kindness. The criticism and taunts that they would suffer in the following days from the media were clearly nothing in comparison to that which they were all going to be inflicting upon themselves. After that I don’t think I could ever accuse them of complacency. Indifference is just not our problem in this competition at all.
I don’t know if Arsenal have a monkey on their back when it comes to the Champions League because I’m not an expert sports psychologist and my approach to supporting the team isn’t to confuse reality with a game of Championship Manager. Having said all that, there’s another part of me that niggles. I’m worried, for example, about simple things like just not being able to get it together when it comes to set pieces, and also not being able to deal with the problems of opponents irregular and unpredictable team formations.
I don’t believe for a minute that bad management or blinkered team selection has lead to injuries, poor game plans and lack of confidence, but that a shoestring of a budget and then annual misfortune has inevitably colluded to give us a string of severe problems. Of course, when this keeps on happening (in any given situation you can think of in life) it’s possible for fear to set in and the inability to achieve becomes a negative, weighty and self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Champions League, for all of its hype and glory is actually nothing more than an eminent cup competition, and the unlikeliest of teams (Porto for instance) can win one year and then have difficulty to qualify the next. Even Real Madrid, with all the experience and pedigree they’ve collated cannot guarantee success. Teams like Chelsea and Barcelona are flying high, but it’s equally possible that they could crash back to earth in the very next game if the cards are stacked against them. On the other hand, one good result like that at the San Siro can see previously written-off no hopers sail through at the top of the group.
The game against PSV at the Phillips stadium in Eindhoven took place exactly a year but one day from the date of the match against Inter Milan. I was hoping therefore that history would repeat itself (there’s nothing like Arsenal for bringing out the most flamboyant and unlikeliest of superstitions) but I realise now that no pattern to our underachievement in Europe exists – if it did the solution wouldn’t be this impossible to find for someone like Wenger.
Having two players sent-off adds a new shade of rouge to the collage of Champions League woe, meaning of course that we will now have to face Rosenborg (a don’t even think about coming home unless you win game) without both Lauren and Vieira. Luckily we’ve got Hoyte to cover the right back position, but Vieira’s absence is going to mean having to rely upon Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini in the central midfield. Perhaps the moaning fans will be pleased though - and the kids will get their chance to have a shot at the big one. This will be interesting.
Conceding a goal in the eighth minute from Van Bommel’s corner will inevitably mean torment over set pieces. Really Vieira should have done more to mark Andre Ooijer’s run into the box, but sadly it was Lehmann who was the more culpable of the two, adding to a growing list of mistakes in big games.
I was glad that I watched this one from the pub because I physically needed the twelve brandies that I gulped down, four of them in the last eleven minutes of the game when we were hanging on for dear life with only nine men. Regretfully, I was also gnawing through the headphones of my iPod (which hung around my neck) whilst the Highbury Spy, who was sitting next to me, feverishly began to chain-smoke. So what if Manchester United and Chelsea have qualified – why have comfortable, easy, sensible and ultimately boring games when you can experience the outrageous drama of nights like this.