Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday March 4 2007
Nick Hornby talks at length in Fever Pitch about how your team's fortunes can sometimes reflect your own. Is this the product of an obsessive mind or an example of fate glimpsing from behind the cloak? Well whatever, Arsenal's sudden propensity to defeat coinciding with a couple of weeks of ill health for myself (in fact, I picked up a throat and chest infection the night we trounced Bolton at the Reebok), it's difficult not to feel that Arsenal's recent travails have reflected my own. So when my Grandad fell and dislocated his shoulder on Thursday, my mood hardly improved. Then on Friday night, an amusing yet frustrating 'industrial accident' occurred. Thanks to my pursuit of all things Arsenal, poverty decrees that I cut my own hair, in a moment of absent minded stupour I forgot to reattach the blade to my clippers and the upshot is that I am now bald as a coot and looking not too dissimilar to Villarreal's defensive lynchpin Pascal Cygan (or a rather more cheerful Billy Corgan for any Smashing Pumpkins fans out there). Predictably, I was serenaded with more than one rendition of 'Are You Britney in disguise?' on my journey to meet my friends in the public house last night!
Come match day, I did not feel confident about this one at all. With morale in the team low and the cue for the treatment table at London Colney resembling a Rio de Janeiro conga line, I felt Reading may become the first side to beat us at the Grove. My matchday began in unconventional fashion. You may remember a few weeks back, I posted some pictures from the opening of the Supporters Services Bureau, well following a write up of the evening I produced for the Gooner fanzine (no plug intended), I was kindly invited by head of Supporters Services Sue Campbell for a behind the scenes look at the work the staff do for Supporters Services, not to mention a sneak preview of upcoming projects. I am hoping to have something on the gooner website in the week about my findings (subject to editorial approval). I will post the lonk here as and when. Anyways, having had the strange sensation of celebrating a last minute winner for United in the Tavern (I really do not want Chelsea winning the league), I made my way to the ground with the sharp easterly wind feeling even more prominent against my unguarded skull.
The match began in a fairly tepid fashion, it was easy to decipher that confidence was low as the passing was not executed with the same joie de vivre. Walcott began upfront and looked lively early on, using his pace to cause Ingimarsson problems. Penetration from the full backs was largely absent, Djourou is a centre half by trade and Clichy, manning the touchline down below me, was clearly suffering with his foot injury, not only was he not making his overlapping runs, but even more uncharacteristically, he did not want the ball on his left foot. Baptista buzzed with opportunism, dropping deep to collect the ball and feed the onrushing midfielders. Around half way through the first half, a gilt edged opportunity presented itself. Baptista received the ball yards from goal, squared it to the lurking Fabregas, but the ball became stuck under his feet with the goal on all fours with its arse in the air before him. It was a miss scarily reminiscent of Rosicky's slice against CSKA Moskva. The Gunners should have scored minutes later, an old fashioned, 'Invincibles' style breakaway from a Reading corner, led by the emperious Gallas, saw Gallas play Ljungberg in, but Freddie tamely aimed his shot straight at Marcus Hahnemann. It was to be Freddie's only contribution in yet another ambivalent display. He will surely not be an Arsenal player next season. Yet he was still substituted to the sound of thunderous applause, while Baptista was berated for getting involved and looking to trouble Reading's backline.
Both sides returned for the second half with renewed vigour. Sidwell and Little looked to support the isolated Lita for the Royals, whilst Arsenal cranked up the heat themselves. Fabregas struck a venomous drive which arrowed towards the top corner, only for Hahnemann to thrust out his left arm in steadfast denial. Clichy must have had an injection at half time, or maybe a can of red bull, because he latched onto Baptista's slightly overcooked pass with his customary lightning speed, where he was tripped by Andre Bikey. Nobody seemed to want to take the penalty, so Gilberto once again stepped up and slotted home with consummate ease. The skipper demonstrated a coolness which betrayed his wayward blaze against Bolton. Eleven minutes later, the lively Baptista got a deserved goal, his touch was clumsy in trying to go round Graeme Murty, but he used his awesome power to maul the Reading skipper (well o.k he shrugged him aside, but the Beast metaphor is a writer's dream isn't it?), clawing at his ears and feasting on his torso like a lion chewing on a zebra's corpse, and spat the ball into the back of the net (I think there some ribs in there too). Baptista celebrated with an almighty roar, beating his chest with primitive poise, his eyes glowing red like the firey brimstone of hell, fangs bearing the blood of his victim.
The Gunners appeared to recapture their groove as Reading went forward and were unlucky not to have a penalty, as the Beast skipped around Hahnemann, but the American keeper shot a sedative laced dart into his backside, causing the Beast to crash to the rocky terrain. (O.K, so Hahnemann tripped him, but I'm enjoying myself o.k?) Reading continued to pass the ball and play the game in the right way, as has been their custom, and Sidwell became more influential, heading over a Glen Little corner. Jens decided that Reading hadn't given him enough to get angry about, so he spat venomous bile towards William Gallas, who was trying to mark two players. Gallas took exception and their teammates had to intervene. Personally, I felt it was much ado about nothing, Lehmann and Gallas are winners and as such, are passionate about getting a result for the team. Incidents like that never trouble me, I always want to see the players desperate to win and even at two nil, they are demanding perfection. I do not see this kind of passion in West Ham United at the moment and we all know where they are.
Diaby replaced the ineffective Ljungberg and Walcott began to fade and slopiness began to take hold. Reading have shown they are capable of staging a fightback this year, but entrapy seemed to infuse the limbs of Djourou, who was caught lingering in possession and reached a climax when Hleb, usually erstwhile and economical in possession, gave the ball to Harper on the edge of the area, Jens got out of his cage again and was rightly furious with Hleb. Reading made the last few minutes nervous, as Little's corner was headed on by Gunnarsson and Cesc Fabregas backheeled the ball into his own net. Coppell's side piled on the pressure and Gooner hearts were thrust firmly into mouths as a game of head tennis in the Arsenal area saw the ball fall to the lethal Steve Sidwell, his volley was clawed wide by Lehmann, the replay confirmed that the ball took a second ricochet off of Jens' ribs which could easily have seen the ball squirm into the net. The final whistle sounded and minds are switched firmly to Wednesday night. Adebayor came to greet his team mates kitted out in an awful white suit which will surely see a misconduct charge and a three match ban under rule E14, 'Failing to respect/observe the decorum/etiquette of common taste/eyesight.' I can exclusively reveal, through my mole in Soho Square, that the F.A allege Adebayor then took a train down to Portsomouth, burst into the Chelsea dressing room and 'aimed a punch' at Frank Lampard.
In closing, I would like to profess my admiration for Steve Coppell's Reading. As the Football Association are keen for odious sides like Blackburn and Bolton to drag the Premiership product through the mud, it is refreshing to see a side like Reading come up to the Premiership, keep faith with the players that got them there, and play football of an extremely high calibre- and prosper with a series of spellbinding displays. Reading are a side, with all due respect, bereft of star names, they are a humble and hard working team who not only play aesthetically attractive football, but do so in the correct spirit. I sincerely hope that they beat Bolton to a UEFA Cup spot. Reading get very little credit in the media because Coppell is not a sickening self promoter like the Paul 'I'm well funny I am' Jewell, or hippo head down at the reebok. LD.
Date:Sunday March 4 2007
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