I really should not be reliving such a depressing month on my birthday of all days. But hey ho, I am a professional and will plod on regardless. March commenced with Arsenal's confidence shot to pieces (why do all of these articles seem to begin like that?) as team of the season Reading came to town, with many expecting them to take Ashburton's cherry. A slightly nervy first half found Hahnemann in good form, but Shorey's trip on Baptista gave Arsenal an early second half penalty which Gilberto tucked away with customary applomb. Baptista pounced on Ingimarsson's slip to make it 2-0, but Cesc Fabregas shanked Bikey's header into his own net for an unecessarily tense finale. A splendid Lehmann save from Sidwell in injury time preserved a much needed three points.
But there was no doubt that most Gooner minds were cemented onto the midweek visit of PSV Eindhoven, who promised to be stern opposition as they protected a one goal lead. Arsenal stayed patient as Alex marshalled his backline with supreme authority, but the Brazilian deflected a Denilson corner into his own net and it was game on. Adebayor marauded through minutes later, but blasted his shot straight at Gomes, while Fabregas' shot went close as the home side closed in for the kill. A clearly unfit Henry appeared from the bench, and promptly tore a stomach muscle taking a free kick. It was his ultimate contribution of a frustrating season for the skipper. Alex Hleb raced down the right flank to chase down the Korean left back whose name escapes me and fouled him by the corner flag. The depressing inevitibility of Alex heading home Cocu's flighted free kick was etched onto our features. Our terrible home support chrystalised in an instant as thousands poured our of the exits like a bottle of blue nun, provoking me to give a parting few people a piece of my mind. The final whistle sounded and our season was effectively over, cue the invasion of Chavs and Spuds onto the forum. I sank into my seat to watch PSV celebrate like they had won the tournament, a mind numbingly average team who had exceeded the ceiling of their ambition. On a personal level, this defeat proved more painful than the reverse in Paris. We got what we deserved this time.
Ten days later, we journeyed to Goodison with every excursion feeling like a box to tick. Utterly devoid of any importance, with our first choice front two out for the season and Adebayor suspended for his ghost punch (scooby doo and the gang have yet to get back to me on that one), the team reflected the mood of the travelling support. Lifeless, apathetic and lacking in inspiration. Everton won an injury time corner which the Reds' failed to clear and Andy Johnson hit an last gasp winner (did I say gasp? More of a resigned sigh). Hailstones the size of golfballs fell from the sky, literally cutting my head as Phil Neville smashed the match ball inches from my face as the final whistle sounded. I hope I get the opportunity to formalise a similar return one day. An international break followed which, for once, was quite welcome, respite from the bland obligation that our campaign had become. Once the absurdities of the national game were settled, it was another trip to Merseyside, this time in glorious sunshine to jockey for third place with Liverpool.
Quite simply, with the exception of Adebayor and Gallas, nobody was bothered. The absence of the inspirational Gilberto stuck out like a Boy George lookalike at a ku klux klan rally. Peter Crouch slid home an early Pennant cross, then climbed to head home Aurelio's flighted free kick. Daniel Agger was to head in another set piece (noticing a pattern in the goals we concede?). The Scousers put the brakes on as they contemplated a midweek game against Barcelona, after Adebayor twice struck a post, Gallas thighed Toure's flick on in for a consolation. Resigned to their fate, the travelling Gooners' began to party, 'we're gonna win 6-3' and 'let's all have a disco' blared out from the away end. We really had to amuse ourselves somehow! But Peter Crouch brilliantly took down Pennant's cross, manouvered past Toure and blasted in a fourth. It would prove to be the goal that would burgle us of third place. The travelling contingent may have jested in spite of the pain, but the joke would truly be on us. March, much like Rachel Stevens, was something I was glad to see the back of. But the pain would continue yet, we'd bent the bars of the cage but we couldn't escape.LD.