The powers that be granted the pissheads amongst us something of a reprieve by moving our New Years' Day fixture to January 2nd. Personally, Boxing Day football is one of the great traditions of my family and I never want to part with it. New Years' Day football is just a horrible idea. I am always haunted by an occasion on the first day of 2002, when I undertook a journey to Leicester with a stinking hangover, only for the game to be called off. Troubled Charlton arrived at the Grove with the match billed as Wenger v Pardew round two, but it was Charlton who were dealt a series of knockout blows. Scott Carson was in fine form, but the Gunners' assumed an early lead when Sam Osei Sankofa hauled down van Persie in the box, resulting in a penalty and red card. When the returning Henry wrapped home the penalty, you senses there was no way back for the Addicks. Henry sprinted to the touchline to throw some shapes with the injured Adebayor that would leave most of us nursing either seriously bruised egos or severely broken hips. Justin Hoyte benefited from fine interplay between Henry and Hleb to make it 2-0 and dance a jig of delight that only someone scoring their first goal for their boyhood club could perform without a hint of self conscious. Arsenal's first English scorer this season against Alan Pardew's men, you couldn't make it up.
Henry added another after the break, his enforced constitutional was looking an increasingly shrewd move, before selflessly realising Robin van Persie's rising stock in the team, by allowing him to smash home an unstoppable spot kick that makes you think he should be our regular spot kick incumbent. It was time for another of English football's great traditions, Third Round F.A Cup day. Usually, I watch the draw begging for Blackpool away or some other such outpost (I must have been the only person on earth who whooped with delight when we drew Carlisle in 2001). But a trip to Anfield always has a certain je nai s'ais quios about it, all the more pertinent because of Liverpool's vocally and visually impressive 'Justice for the 96' campaign. There was no room for sentimentality on the pitch though, as Tommy Gun tore the Scousers a new a hole with two marvellous first half strikes. Dirk 'Diggler' Kuyt set Gooner hearts a flurry, but the travelling 6,000 when ballistic when Henry's never say die harrying saw him dispossess Carragher to settle the score at 3-1. At that point, I truly believed our name was on the Cup. Four days later, around 1,600 of us trudged back to Anfield for what we assumed would be a grissly Liverpool revenge mission. Indeed, the travelling contingent were singing '3-1 in the proper cup' before kick off, suggesting we were anticipating a pasting. It came, but in a quite incredulous manner. The much maligned Baptista hit four, missing a penalty in the process, the much maligned Aliadiere got one (with four assists to his mane as well) and the even more maligned Song were on the scoresheet in an incredible 6-3 reverse with our reserve team. Abou Diaby made a long awaited return from injury to add some sentimentality. This was my favourite game of the outgoing campaign. I can well understand why people would vote for either United game, but on a personal level, having travelled in vein for a game that never was, this had an extra satisfaction to it. 'Fortress Anfield,' we implored mockingly to our hosts.
The Gunners' turned in a display of grit and determination at Ewood Park the following Saturday. The ever popular Robbie Savage combining thuggery and theatrics to get Gilberto sent off. Sadly, Rob Styles did not see fit to punish Tugay's cowardly lunge on Fabregas. A Kolo Toure header saw the ten men take the lead, while Henry and Fabregas' personal game of wall ball from one end of the pitch to the other saw Henry curl home a stunningly crafted winner. Thierry was looking at the top of his game again and his Christams hiatus looked to have paid dividends. The hotly anticipated visit of Manchester United followed on, and it was a game that did not disappoint. Wayne Rooney slid home an Evra cross as the Gunners' looked out of ideas. It was later to be revealed that Mr. Wenger instructed his troops to batter United in the last 20 minutes. With Ronaldo subbed and van der Sar keen to waste time, the Gunners' followed their boss' instructions to a tee. Firstly, sub Robin van Persie slid in on the backpost to equalise from Eboue's cross. The catharsis was to be short lived as it was later discovered that van Persie had broken his foot scoring. He would not play again in our ill fated campaign, if there was a moment that encapsualted our season, one of our best players breaking his foot while scoring against big opposition was truly it. Arsenal went for the jugular and the Emirates erupted with ecstasy when Henry planted a stoppage time header beyond van der Sar to give the Grove it's first resonant memory.
A bottle dodging trip to the Lane came next, with Wenger sticking with the kids for the semi final first leg against Tottenham. Tottenham did their usual and shot their bolt in the first half, Berbatov heading in Lennon's cross and Baptista diverting a Lennon free kick past his own 'keeper to give Spuds a two goal advantage. When Baptista missed a sitter in first half stoppage time, you senses Tottenham's time might have come. But Baptista linked up brilliantly with Walcott to give the Gunners' a precious away goal, and when Paul Robinson toddled out of his goal (all that sugar had gone to his head) to meet Justin Hoyte on the touchline, Baptista was left with the task of sliding into an empty net. Perhaps tellingly, he celebrated alone as Hoyte and Eboue accepted most of the plaudits. I got out alive, but a friend got a friendly punch in the face for his troubles, as is usual at the Lane. No Spanish police were present. The 'orrible orcs arrived at the Grove, as we were once again gifted a difficult Cup tie. (Sort it out Brooking, Blackpool away, eh? Just once!) Kevin Nolan gave Bolton the lead as Arsenal looked visibly frightened of their muscular visitors, but a stooping Kolo Toure gave us a replay and just what I was not looking for, a midweek away game at the Reebok.
January closed with the Semi Final second leg as Tottenham came to town. A bizarre ticket row had ensued in the build up to the match, with the Metroplitan Police refusing to allow 9,000 Spuds into the Grove (those of you who have been to the Lane will need no explanation as to why), while Tottenham sought to leech off of Arsenal's popularity by insisting that we charge maximum price for the game, ensuring they could obtain a maximum return from their 45% gate receipt entitlement. It was to elucidate the chasm between the clubs, Tottenham saw this as very much a category A fixture, for Arsenal it was positively fourth street (to quote an old Dylan song). The line ups also reflected this, as Denilson absolutely ran the show, making the Totts toothless trio of Jenas, Zokora and sub Huddlestone look moribund, in fact, I'm sure I could see stars circling Zokora's head. With twelve minutes remaining, Adebayor collected Rosicky's pass to put the Gunners' 3-2 up on aggregate. '2-0 and you f****d it up' reverberated around the Grove. But a glancing mido header from a late Jenas free kick forced extra time. In hindsight, the constant replays and need for extra time well and truly killed our season off at a time when injuries were hurting us. But youth told through, as Aliadiere capitalised on Rocha's mistake, and a Rosicky piruohette and shot saw the ball cannon in off Chimbonda for an own goal and the Spuds' end again emptied with embarassing propensity. It was unfortunate, because there was nobody left to gloat at come the final whistle. The Gunners' young charges had made it to Cardiff to face Sibneft Rovers. A last minute winner against United, knockiing Liverpool out of both domestic competitions on their own patch, beating the Spuds with the reserves, months do not come much better. But to slightly subvert an old Sinatra tune, 'flying high in January, knocked down in February,' it was all about to go a shape o' the pear, we were just too busy going bananas to see it. LD.
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