Friday roundup: Greece / Book launch / 125

So Friday rolls round again in a flash, apparently seven days after it last did. That doesn’t feel quite possible.

Olympiacos on Tuesday started badly and never really picked up, but if you haven’t yet filed that one away under ‘nothing to dwell too much on’ then I shall politely recommend that you do. The final – and even penultimate – Champions League group games have the habit of throwing up matches that mean the world to one side but not a whole lot to the other, and this was one of those. The outcome will not affect the pecking order of many of the players: Fabianski, Squillaci, Chamakh & Arshavin are benchwarmers and showed why, while Coquelin, The Ox and Frimpong did themselves no harm.

On Wednesday it was of course the Arseblog book launch, with the evening in the Tollington being a memorable and lively number. Arseblogger was ensconced in the corner getting wrist-ache (you at the back, stop tittering – he was signing his book), and the pub bubbled and fizzed with gooners aplenty. One of the most enjoyable things for me was putting real faces to virtual ones, with many of us introducing ourselves with the name of our blog or twitter handle first, and our actual names second. It really did put the social into social media and confirmed what a top collection of folk inhabits this sometimes peculiar online world we live in. Hats off to the driving force behind the whole thing too: the book is a tremendous achievement. Also impressive (and I have yet to ask him how he did this) was the fiddling of the night’s Champions League action, rapturously received via the pub’s many screens as you might imagine.

Finally, today starts a weekend of memories for the club with the unveiling of three statues at the stadium ahead of our 125th anniversary match against Everton. There’ll be legends and nods to tradition and panoramic photos and the Royal Artillery band and I’d be massively looking forward to it if only for the fact that I can’t make it. I was desperate to gurn into the panoramic photo for posterity, but there you go, it’s my son’s birthday party (he was founded more recently, though not in a pub in Woolwich) and that’s just the way it is.

Finally, back to Arseblog, and I’m on the arsecast today discussing a bunch of stuff. Always fun to do, so tune in.

So yes, it’s Friday. Wonderfully, marvellously Friday. Have a great weekend.

Next round, Robin

Arsenal 2-1 Borussia Dortmund

A fine win against a very decent side means that our last group game (Matchday 6 – aah, the romance of the cup) will be all stations to Dead Rubbersville.

In fact, it will be a reprise of 2009 when an Arsenal side already assured of top spot sent out the kids and lost 1-0 in Olympiakos. On the pitch that day: Bartley, Cruise, Gilbert, Merida and Vela (as well as Walcott, Wilshere, Ramsey & Song, all now firmly in the first XI.) I imagine we’ll see more of the same this time round, though I foresee Dortmund & Marseille keeping a keen eye on Wenger’s approach given how much things are in the balance beneath us.

There was, as expected, a cracking atmosphere in the German end, with a lot of choreographed singing and clapping. It was very impressive, very loud, and they had come in their thousands. There must have been around 6,000 in all. As well as the usual 3,500 in the away end, there was a whole other segment in the upper tier taken up by them. How did that happen? Did we give them more seats for a reason and does this set a precedent? I’d be interested to know.

Their arrival in numbers probably explains the riot police, extra vans and helicopter overhead, despite the fact there was not the faintest hint of aggro.

It was an enjoyable game, even if chances were at a premium. Which is why it makes it all the more impressive that we scored twice – we only had five attempts on goal and three shots on target all match (thanks, Opta). Gervinho should have added another but fluffed it. Fortunately, it never looked like being something we’d go on to regret.

Robin van Persie got both, of course, which will do his fragile confidence no harm… What is it now, 12 in 8? There was a good graphic in yesterday’s Telegraph comparing him to the other strikers in Europe – and another piece in the New York Times on whether he’s the best in Britain – and his goals to games ratio is quite superb, right up there with other European luminaries like Messi. What a player.

He cost £2.75m, doncha know.

Top spot tends to mean we delay any meeting with our nemesises – nemesi? – Barcelona by at least a round, but beyond the extra £5m it probably generates to remain in the competition a bit longer, I’m not sure how much first or second slot really matters. If you want to win it, you’ve got to beat the other biggies at some point. What difference does it make when, other than to confidence?

So overall an excellent win that ties things up neatly, and another win to notch into the bedpost.

Now, will Robin get a rest on Saturday? I expect he will.

Match preview / Poll results

Morning, trolololo! The sun is once again out, spring has erupted and my miserable mood has evaporated.

Arsenal are at the seaside today and I can’ wait. Wenger’s injury latest – always much anticipated – tells us that Fabregas is definitely back, Ramsey too, but that Walcott, Sagna & Song may not make the grade. (Don’t even get me started on who might be training next week, or not long after – I fear the mere mention of Players A, B and C might jinx things).

As I said before, at this stage it’s almost not about the personnel on the pitch. It’s about the response, the approach and the attitude. That’s what makes this game so fascinating: there’s been a whole week of behind-closed-doors contemplation, and seeing what comes of it is intriguing.

It’s really do or die now. Utd are ten points clear – a huge psychological barrier – and nothing less than a win will do. Apart from anything else, we need to stop the rot of a five-game streak without a win.

Blackpool, luckily for us, are in a rut of their own, having lost 10 or their 14 games since the turn of the year. So it’s two teams desperate to win, though cleartly for different reasons.

Come on Arsenal. No excuses.

BBC preview
Guardian Squad Sheet

FA Cup or Champions League?

In his impassioned press conference on Friday, Wenger asked:

“Would you swap winning the FA Cup for playing in the Champions League? Is it a trophy or not to be in the Champions League? Is it more important to win the FA Cup?”

Arse 2 Mouse put it on record that he’s prefer an actual trophy, an on balance, I too am of the view that winning a prestigious pot – something that gets a permanent spot on the programme masthead and in the record books – gets the nod. Isn’t that what this is all about?

Trouble is, the Champions League distorts everything. Most obviously, money plays a part – a successful run to the end can make the club £40m – but also prestige comes into play, both for club and player. If you’re not in it, it’s hard to keep big players (though Liverpool’s approach has been interesting: they have offloaded a ‘star’ player and bought heavily with the longer-term in mind). And as Wenger says, it’s also a measure of consistency – 13 years or so unbroken in the Champions League is without doubt a feat of its own.

It’s not an honour but it leads to big European nights, which can in some ways be as defining for a club, in terms of progress, as an FA Cup win.

Maybe I would revise my own opinion if an FA Cup win was followed by fallow years of no European Cup football. I’m sure in fact that I would.

So look, maybe the question is simply too black and white. It’s layered with complications. As some people said when I put it to them as a poll on Twitter, why can’t we have both? Fair enough. I was merely interested to know, if you had to, what you would pick.

Anyway, the results were conclusive [see below]. Very much a case of Platini 1-0 Bernstein. There were about 300 votes but I can’t imagine the 75%-25% split would change much if there had been 3,000.


Wednesday: forgotten

Random, late Friday night checkin from me. It’s been one of those weeks.

Was I surprised about Wednesday’s result? Not really. But I do think too much can be read into results like that. Part of the problem, I think, lies as ever with the format of the competition we were playing in. We waltzed through the first three games, scoring fourteen goals, needing just one point from the next nine to qualify. You can see how easy it might have been to consider it job done.

One of the following three games was always going to be a dead rubber. Had we won in Donetsk, the game in Portugal could have easily gone the same way. I’m not saying there’s an excuse for complacency but it’s the kind of situation – that’s to say, a situation in which there is still room for error – that is a breeding ground for it.

The good news for the weekend is that no such mental slack-off period exists. We might be second but we are five points adrift and Chelsea are showing little stomach for a cave-in. We need to stay with them.

And the other good news is the return of several players – Fabregas, Denilson, Song and Arshavin. On top of that, van Persie has resumed training, primed for a Dutch recall during which he will no doubt be trodden on innocuously and ruled out for another three months. Joking aside (or am I?) he should never have been called up but I can’t help but wonder whether he himself could not have been a little more understanding. How difficult would it have been to rule himself out? Not very. It’s a friendly, he’s been out for yonks, and he’s not exactly a fringe player in the Dutch squad fighting for his place, Kevin Davis stylee. He knows full well he’ll come back into the side whether he misses this one or not. I know he’s as orange as Phil Brown but the whole thing achieves nothing other than getting Wenger’s heckles up.

Anyway, if you want to hear Wenger in his own words on the injury situation (sad but true fact: talking about injuries is the most crucial and anticipated conversation of the week if you are an Arsenal fan), there’s a free clip below. Enjoy the weekend and here’s to three of your finest points sterling.

Belgrade Expectations

Here we go again! It’s time to get back on track, iron out our failings and learn from our mistakes. Simples.

Of course, losing is part of the rich tapestry of football. But losing while seemingly having forgotten the basics is harder to shrug off.

If you fall off a horse, they say, the best thing to do is get straight back in the saddle. Now personally, I wouldn’t know whether this is true or false as I’ve never sat on one. I’m quite probably the most allergic-to-horses man that has even set foot on earth. Many years ago I was invited and went to a horse race thing (rookie error for a townie like me), and despite only setting foot in the beer tent all day, my eyes bulged out like a bug and I developed a good line in loud, uncontrollable dad sneezes. Someone might as well have dipped my head in a beehive.

But the point is this: there’s nothing like a big game to remedy a recent bad one.

So what are we looking for tomorrow? Despite professing to being baffled by his team on Saturday, I suspect the Wenger knows exactly what is required. With Almunia out injured, we know already that Fabianski will get the latest in a long line of chances between the sticks against Belgrade. To say he’s under a lot of pressure to perform would be an understatement. The scrutiny will be immense. But he simply has to have an error-free game.

But even if he had been hypnotised by Gordon Banks and marinaded in the spirit of Lev Yashin he wouldn’t be able to do it on his own. To stand a chance of success, he needs not just his defence, but also the defensive screen in front of them, to remember what their jobs entail.

Whether that means changes in personnel, I’m not so sure. Sagna, despite a rotten game on Saturday, has not become a bad player overnight. He’s easily the best option at right-back. In the absence of Vermaelen and given the rustiness of Djourou, Squillaci and Koscielny are the best bets at centre-half (and besides, both have been largely impressive anyway). If you were going to make any change, you might consider Gibbs at left-back in the place of Clichy, who has not started this season well. If he is 100% fit then I’m all for it. He’s pushing Clichy very hard. But given his injury record, I’d worry about playing him if there was even the smallest chance it might backfire.

There is much more scope for change in the middle. Diaby has not even travelled and I can’t see any sense in using Eboue at all, other than as back-up to Sagna (which let’s face it, is the role that suits him most). Let’s remind Song of his defensive discipline – or else play Denilson. Play Wilshere and Rosicky from the start.

As for Arshavin; it’s clear he has his detractors but for his ability to change a game – conjured, often, from the depths of an average performance – I’d play him. He’s scored four goals in eight appearances (7 starts, 1 sub), let’s not forget. With scoring form like this, even allowing for a goalscoring lull, he is on track to beat his season best of 12 goals.

With Jollygood anonymous since his Braga brace, Chamakh will surely be holding the line again, but that’s fine – he’s made a good start to his Arsenal career with three goals in eight. He’ll need a break at some point but if we can keep him in one piece until Bendtner or van Persie return, then he’s very much the main man.

Overall though we need to concentrate and to iron out the silly stuff, but surely that’s a given. There’s always a positive reaction after this side has let itself down.

The trouble, though, with this team is that there’s often another massive disappointment after the positive reaction.

Now if Wenger can iron that little tic out, we’re onto something…

The Squill is mightier than the board

Good morning from the tail end of a blogless week. My main dilemma these last seven days has been: Barbeque – gas or charcoal? I’m leaning towards the former for ease of use but to the latter for guaranteeing the proper whiff.

I did, however, crank up the phone for the annual jamboree that is the Champions League draw.

Cup draws have certainly taken on a new ‘importance’ since the FA Cup draws of my youth, when someone would be glued to their radio in double maths on a Monday morning, but I know which kind I prefer. What purpose does all the farting about serve? It’s monumentally dull, even if it does give the country’s media the excuse they need to crank up the live text coverage.

This year’s draw gives us a relatively benign group – again. From a footballing perspective there are some interesting ties against teams we have not got a lot of previous with, and I’m all for playing new teams. But in terms of avoiding one of Europe’s heavyweights, we’ve done it again. We drew Inter Milan in the 2003-4 group stage (heh – remember the away leg!). Since then, we’ve had Porto and Seville and a host of tricky away ties, but no group of death as far as I remember. This is, I suppose, what seeding does. Seeding might make the bigger clubs happy, but does it make the competition more interesting?

So Partizan, Braga and Donetsk it is. I must say, I’ve always fancied a far-flung Champions League journey and Donetsk would fit that bill. Hmmm… how am I going to get this one past Control?

A look at the group stages from the Guardian here and Telegraph here.

Elsewhere, the news is good on the squad strengthening front, with the arrival of the ‘ancient’ Sebestien Squillaci. It appears the Squillster has got himself a three-year deal and cost a much more plausible fee of £3.3m.

And come on, let’s be honest – the relaxing of the over-30 rule is long overdue. Letting Pires go because he had hit 30 seems as nonsensical today as it did back in 2006. A defender at 30 is nothing – look at Sol Campbell.

“He is a real defender and is good in the one-against-one, good in the air, and can score goals on set-pieces as well. I believe he will be suited to the English game. He will train with us tomorrow morning, but will not be involved on Saturday [against Blackburn Rovers].”

Now just the one position left to fill, by my reckoning – and it’s D-Day -4.

Reckon it’ll still happen?

Right, that’s me tuning out for a few more days.

Gas or charcoal, gas or charcoal. Hmm.

Arsenal strike back in epic encounter

Arsenal 2-2 Barcelona

Arsenal v Barcelona flags
North Bank flags

What an unbelievable game of football. My mind is still boggling. I’ve seen some good teams at the Grove in my time and I’ve seem some defiant comebacks too, but both on the same night? As a spectacle, this one was epic.

Let it be said that Barcelona were staggeringly good for the first half an hour or so. This December, I will notch up a quarter of a century of watching Arsenal live and I am struggling to think of a better side than Barcelona in the opening phase of the match last night. Right from the whistle, they came at us. Their passing, movement and ball retention was so good that when I was later told the possession stats had been 71%-29% in their favour, I scratched my head and thought: From where did we get 29%?

@feverpitch told me they completed 274 passes in the first half. We managed 91. What a stat.

It could not have been more lop-sided. It’s hard to say how much Arsenal contributed to Barcelona’s magnificence, but the bottom line is we could not get the ball at all. The big boys would not give it to us.

Time and again, it was the shot-stopping skill of Almunia that saved us. I have no recollection how many times Barcelona hooped one over the bar or had a shot blocked or parried by the Spaniard, but it was a minor miracle that we made it to half time at 0-0.

Then came the second half, as it tends to. Half way to a douze points performance from the British jury, Almunia then immediately contrived to scuttle miles out of his area. Ibrahimovic merely chipped it over the by now retreating keeper. Nul points from the Spaniard and we were 0-1 down.

0-2 followed after, when the giant Swede ran through our static defence and thumped it in. No way back.

Except something changed. That something was the last throw of the dice in the shape of Theo Walcott. What an enigma he can be. Having played his best 45 minutes of the season against Burnley some weeks ago, he has since once again retreated into the shadows. Last night, out he popped again with a performance that immediately got Barca rattled. He was direct, lightning-quick, put in penetrating crosses or passes and changed the dynamic of the game completely with his goal.

We came to life in the last fifteen glorious minutes. All of a sudden, anything looked possible. Fabregas was bundled over – red card for the bloke from Scorpion. Up Fabregas stepped, blasted it in, 2-2.

In doing so, of course, he did something to his leg and although he hobbled on against all odds, it looks to be a bad injury – possibly a broken leg. How do you carry on playing with a broken leg? Let’s hope it’s not that serious.

Shall I talk about the referee? I can’t be bothered but I thought he was hopeless. Five yellow cards? How?

Overall, a gutsy, incredible comeback from an Arsenal side that had been utterly outclassed but never gave up. For all the flaws of this side, our indomitable attitude is fast becoming our hallmark.

We’re still in it, by the hair on our chinny chin chin. Haha!

Just testing something below… feel free to vote…


Kroenke business

I’m not quite sure where this week has gone. It’s absolutely motored past. However, I suspect I drifted along, basking a bit too much in derby delight, and before I could whistle, the Champions League game had been and gone, and Stan Kroenke had hoovered up yet more shares.

We continued our fine form, albeit against what turned out to be the limited AZ. We’re really purring, with Fabregas, van Persie and Arshavin proving that when it comes to world-class players, we are hardly scraping the barrel. Funny to think that whereas Real Madrid spent something like £220m hoovering up five superstars, our three musketeers set us back around £20m combined. Sell them tomorrow and they’d be worth about £100m.

It’s been a funny Champions League group though, reinforcing for me that the group stages are there to be lost, not won, for the big sides. The only wounds we’ve received so far – the two goals in Liege, the late equaliser at AZ and last night’s late clean sheet ruiner – could all be put down to Arsenal sloppiness.

I understand the need for guaranteed income for the big clubs – that’s the reality of things – but there’s no denying the competition only really hots up once the group stage niceties are out the way.

Of course, we’re not through yet but we’re very, very close with two games remaining.

The other main story of the week is, of course, the potential takeover of the club. Is everyone happy about this?

Well firstly, I suppose, it’s worth pointing out that it could well not happen. It might seem to the layman that it’s highly likely, but there are plenty of people who consider it to be a consolidation of his position and nothing more. Of course, Kroenke himself won’t reveal his plans, partly because it’s not in his nature to blab (or say anything at all), and partly because, as the Times puts it, “any public statements against future bid intentions must be unambiguous, otherwise the individual or group would, under the Takeover Panel’s rule 2.8, be prevented from making a formal move for six months.”

My own view is that, while in an ideal world it would be nice for Arsenal to be British-owned, and by Arsenal fans to boot, the reality is that football has changed massively and that most investors in it are from overseas.

But I would have to agree with those who say that, while he seems a benign and decent investor, a takeover financed by borrowing placed on the club’s books would be a bad move indeed. There’s no indication, of course, that this would be his approach. Peter Hill-Wood, in selling some of his own shares to Kroenke, clearly sees nothing but goodness through that fulsome ‘tache.

Here’s the view of the AST. It’s a position I agree with. Having more than one owner has worked well for us all these years, and additional debt would surely be madness – especially when that debt is not being used to strengthen the team or otherwise improve the club.

Anyway, that’ll do for now. I make a last-minute appearance on today’s Arsecast, chewing the fat on the week’s proceedings.

Otherwise, bring on the weekend. At the moment, the games can’t come fast enough for me.

Sizzling qualifier – makes a change

Arsenal v Celtic is a sizzling draw for almost everyone – if not, it seems, the clubs themselves.

How can you not look forward to it? The atmosphere will be febrile – it’s exactly the kind of game you hope for as a fan. It might not end up being a spectacle of technical excellence, but compared to some of the drab matches you get each season in the Champions League, it will be an absolute belter.

It’s a tough one though, for Arsenal. It’s easy to point to the fact that, until last week, Celtic had not won away in the competition in over 30 attempts, but at the same time they have only lost 3 of 14 matches against English opposition. The fact it is a British tie, with the general similarities in footballing styles and the usual historical baggage, makes it a derby game. And derby games are never that predictable.

Yes, there’s a gulf in income between the two clubs, but Arsenal are hardly the last of the big spenders, are they?

Not getting through doesn’t bear thinking about for either side – being knocked out before the group stage for the first time in over a decade would inevitably be a PR coup for the Wenger naysayers and boardroom battlers, and sniping is the last thing we’d need ahead of a crucial season. Lord knows, Wenger gets enough of that already.

So what else, other than news that the ex-malarial, ex-Arsenal Toure found life at Arsenal “boring” and that he was “tired of being with the same people every day”. I suppose being an Arsenal footballer is a job no different to any other job, but it does sound a bit crap, doesn’t it? Anyway, he’s gone off to be bored elsewhere so good luck to him. Frankly, I got bored of watching him every week too, so let’s leave it at that.

Tranfer-wise, like the European Cup we’re still all ears. We’re told in various roundabout ways that one or two are coming, but no more than that. It seems futile to think any more about it, to be honest. It certainly seems futile to work oneself up into a lather. When it does happen, we can all hang out the bunting.

Tonight, pre-season comes to a head with a trip to the Mestalla to play Valencia. I don’t usually travel away to see Arsenal, but the Mestalla is one ground I have been to – a 2-1 defeat some years ago – and apart from needing crampons to climb the steps to the away end, it’s a great ground for football. Great city too, though you probably won’t get much of a feel for that on the Arsenal.com live feed.

Anyway, I think I must be rambling.

1st June – Silly Season’s Greetings

Evening folks. I’ll keep this one brief for a simple reason: The season is over and the silly season has yet to begin in earnest. But I thought I’d poke my head round the blogging door anyway.

In fact, the transfer window opened today with a whimper – perhaps because it’s precisely now when players and managers head off to their sunbeds, leaving us to devour the titbits offered by the back pages and footballers’ agents. It’s not much to go on.

It’s also deadline day for season ticket holders to renew, a fearsome time when 40,000 people take an unpleasant seasonal financial hit. Was I ever considering not renewing it? Pah! Despite a season of decidedly mixed performances, and it being a hell of a lot of money, going to the football is as fun as it ever was and it’s a very difficult thing to quit when you’ve been doing it, as I have as a season ticket holder, for 15 years. I’ll be there again, of course.

Something of interest though: Some details on the TV and prize money have come out, revealing what we all knew already and explaining perhaps why Arsenal sank £16m into Arshavin’s purchase in January – that the Champions League remains a crucial cash cow for the big four.

The £23.4m we earned from the Champions League is the fundamental difference in TV revenue between us and fifth-placed Everton. That’s a hell of a lot of extra dough.

What is a little odd is that, while Chelsea earned a little more from the Premier League (thanks to finishing a place above us), we earned £3m less than them in the Champions League despite reaching the same stage, and playing an extra qualifying round. It being late in the evening, I’ve yet to work out how that might be. Something to do with coefficients? Seeding? I’m not sure.

It’s also instructive to see how little the Uefa Cup brings in. For a competition that, from next season, could require 19 games to win, the financial rewards are surprisingly feeble. Any surprise that Villa and the Spuds threw the towel in there?

Anyway, here’s hoping we get drawn against Lokomotiv Plovdiv or someone like that in the qualifiers.

Right, that’s it. Who will we be signing tomorrow, eh?

Update

The answer to that last question is clearly ‘nobody’ seeing that I’m a month early. Got slightly ahead of myself there.