It’s just a perfect day

I started off the night resting in my hotel room, SkySports on the television, droning away about something or another — probably about how poorly Nicklas Bendtner had played on the weekend. Every few minutes, when I thought about the impending match, anticipation nipped at the pit of my stomach. Negative thoughts kept popping up; it is an important match, our defense is shaky at times, we can’t concede, how will the players step up without Cesc in the team? On and on, invasive thoughts kept getting to me I needed to take the edge off.

Camera, video, scarf, hat, sweater, wallet, I stuffed them into my bag and skipped out into the night looking for a beer. The Marquis Cornwallis in Russel Square is usually quiet at 5pm and they have a large selection. Sloshed that down quickly and headed over to the free wi-fi at Starbucks to check my email, the edge to the anticipation dulled slightly.

Les had texted me to meet him at the Famous Cock right outside the Highbury and Islington tube station, quick trip to Kings Cross, switch to the Victoria line, and I’m up at the pub. As soon as I walk in, Les greets me “Are you Tim?” and “Can I get you a pint?”

Yes please, I’ll have a Young’s bitter.

That gets down smooth, and another and another, the edge is fully dulled now. Les and I talk about all the topics of the day, being a supporter, writing a blog, the Red Knights, cup finals, and him living right outside the stadium. 7pm, time to walk to the stadium I want to get there early.

We cross Highbury fields and continue the conversation, Les tells me that where he lives he can hear the stadium roar before he gets to see the goals on television. Bolstered by the confidence of several pints, I predict he’ll hear plenty of roars tonight.

We get to the stadium I head one way, him the other. The crowd is buzzing now and I pass the away supporter’s entrance and hear the sounds of them singing in Portuguese. This is not what I thought it would be. I thought there would only be a few Porto supporters but instead they sound like an entire stadium of supporters. They are absolutely roaring.

My gate is the next one over from the away pen, not behind the goal, but on the side line. Saturday I had the absolute last seat on the left, front row, right next to the away support. Not my favorite seat ever but not the worst either. I’m anticipating similar, something more toward the corner and further down to the front. Section 19, Row 25, Seat 574 is an incredible surprise; it’s further back and more important, you turn right toward the center line and away from the corner. I stand there in awe looking around. I’ve sat center line, upper deck before, but at twice the price. This is possibly the best seat I have ever gotten. Little did I know.

Before I know it, the Wonder of You is piped in and to my surprise the guys around me are all singing along. I must have found the 10 guys in the whole stadium who actually like that song. They loudspeaker switches to the Champions League song, the kids wave the Champions League logo in the center circle and now the Porto fans are chanting and stomping like mad. The Arsenal supporters roar back and suddenly the Emirates has taken on a different tone. I’ve never heard the Arsenal supporters sing so loud and I’ve never been so close to away supporters who are so vocal. It’s an amazing back and forth.

I can’t tell who won the coin toss but for some reason Arsenal switch ends of the pitch. That means that the first half is played in the other end of the stadium but the second will be played in ours. Odd, this is the opposite of how the game normally goes.

Kickoff comes and Arsenal are in it right off. The funny thing is that my section is still standing. Normally, the stewards force everyone to sit down but all of section 19, the away pen, and the section behind the goal are all standing, chanting, singing — it’s a war in our corner and the stewards want no part of it. I turn to the guy next to me and ask when they are going to make us sit and he says that they won’t, not for a game this big.

Immediately, Frank de Bleeckere makes it known that he’s not going to allow Porto to play the same rotational fouling tactic they employed at home. Small fouls are called right away and he even ticks one of the Porto players off right away, giving the “no more” signal for a foul. Later, I would jokingly ask one of my fellow supporters how come we can’t get him to referee our league matches? We’d win the league at a trot if a referee gave even a modicum of the protection de Bleeckere offered.

Then, Nasri picks up the ball in midfield, plays a perfect ball to Arshavin who is hauled down in the box. The crowd roars and in the confusion it looks to me like the referee has given a penalty, but no, after the tackle Nicky stole in and despite pressure he’s scored a tenacious goal.

Now we’re singing one-nil to the Arsenal right at the Porto supporters. Undeterred by the score line and the fact that we’ve gotten a very early goal, they respond with some chant that the guys next to me assure me is Portuguese for us being shit.

More singing, this time we’re singing “We’ve only got one Song” for Alex Song who is absolutely dominating the midfield. Up close, his ball control and power are quite something to see. In fact, everything he does is efficient; tackle the ball away, keep possession, turn away from two other midfielders dribble a little and pass to Nasri or Diaby who turn and move the ball up the field to Arshavin.

The little Russian dribbles, uses his body strength to hold off the Porto defenders, gets to the end line, and there’s Bendtner who could have gotten a parking ticket he had been sitting in the 6 yard box that long. Arshavin slots it to him and he couldn’t have missed that if he tried.

Now it’s “two-nil to the Arsenal!” and for the first time the Porto fans have gone a bit quiet. There were a few nervous moments as the half started to wind down, Porto were rocked but they held it together to finish the half without letting in a third goal. In particular, their keeper had a couple of very strong saves and kept them in the tie.

The other amazing thing about Section 19, Row 25 is that I got to get into the toilet right away at half-time. I even had a chance to get a hot dog though to my chagrin UEFA doesn’t allow alcohol sales at Champions League matches so I couldn’t top up and my buzz was starting to wear off. I guess that’s for the best, the Porto supporters seemed crazy enough, the last thing they needed was more booze to turn them into proper animals.

As I’m eating my hot dog I look at some of the “Arsenalization” in my section: there’s a picture of the Invincibles with Clichy making the number 1 sign and there’s a huge banner with all of the hat-trick heroes in Arsenal’s history.

Back to my “seat” for the second half and something has whipped both the Porto fans and the Porto side into a frenzy. The away supporters are now on their seats, making the throat-slash sign at us and chanting something at top volume. Porto responds and start to press Arsenal, the whole stadium knows that they just need one goal and this tie is all even. They are creating chances and I’m starting to get nervous again. We need another goal I say to the guy next to me, he agrees, one more would take the pressure off.

18 nervous minutes later, a moment of sheer brilliance from Samir Nasri turns the tie. He simply splits three men, dribbles to the end line and fires in an insanely acute angled shot off the post and into the back of the net. The stadium erupts in shouts of joy, the gate had been turned and relief spreads across the supporters as we know that the tie is ours.

The signing hadn’t subsided when Clichy (I think, I was still singing at top volume) cleared and Arshavin picked the ball up just short of the half way line, dribbled and played in Eboue who rounded the keeper to score a brilliant goal.

It looked like this from where I was standing:

Now there were smiles a mile wide and rosy cheeks shining under the floodlights.  Happy faces everywhere around me, it’s over for Porto. “Cheerio!”

The next twenty-odd minutes went by quickly with the banter between the Arsenal supporters and the Porto supporters the only real action in the stadium. One thing that I did notice at that point is that Arshavin is amazingly strong. At 5’6″ or so, you’d think he could be pushed around but he’s able to use that low center of gravity to push his larger opponents off the ball and more than once, you can see him actually lean into the defender to create space.

As the game finishes up Theo is introduced and the fans start chanting “Theo Theo Theo!” He has two left-footed shots buzz just wide after some outstanding movement down the right side, jinking back in and setting up the left. It’s almost as if he read Chris Waddle’s latest column where he criticized Theo for not being two-footed and decided to show that the weekend’s left footed goal wasn’t a fluke. I thought Theo was unlucky not to have scored.

And then, at the death, some more brilliant play from Eboue wins Arsenal a penalty which is taken by Bendtner. The team rewarding him for his hard work over the weekend and against Porto.

He steps up and settles the tie with aplomb and the crowd start chanting “Super Nick” in his honor. I remark to the guy next to me that Nicklas is going on the hat-trick heroes wall, just below Arshavin, and he is the first Arsenal player to get 3 goals in a Champions League match since Henry did it against Roma back in 2002.

The ref calls time right at the 90th minute and the crowd erupts in applause. It’s been a very special night for the fans, the players, and even the manager who let his emotions escape a bit when he leapt into the air celebrating Eboue’s 4th goal.

I turn and leave the stadium, again the benefit of the Row 25 seats meaning that I get to leave quickly. Back across Highbury Fields and toward the Highbury and Islington tube station reflecting on the night. I’m so amped up that I just want to jump on anyone with a red and white scarf, hug them and start singing, but I haven’t had enough booze to let down my defenses.

I grab a bus to the Angel station, switch to Piccadilly line at Kings Cross and I’m back to the hotel bar in time for a few pints to try to kill this adrenalin. I meet some Americans and talk football a bit slamming down as much beer as I can so I can hopefully get to bed some time tonight.

The pub closes at midnight and it would be almost another 2 hours before I’m able to get to sleep. As the last of the adrenalin is squeezed out, my body is spent, and I collapse onto the bed. As I drift off to sleep, I put on the It’s Up For Grabs Now Arsenal podcast and listen in wonder as Tayo predicts that Bendtner will come big in the big games.

Perfect, just perfect.

Arsenal v. Porto; any port in a storm

Let’s dispose of the chitter-chatter today and get straight in to the injury news. William Gallas has suffered a setback in his calf injury with the club describing him as being “back to square one” after admitting that they rushed him back. That Arsenal rushed him is not really a surprise, the other options at center back are Silvestre and Campbell. Silvestre is unconvincing at best and Campbell, while still a massive talent, is incapable of playing more than once a week. Any further injuries in that position could really put a dent in any hopes of winning a trophy this year.

There was an interesting exchange when Wenger was asked about Gallas’ contract negotiations. Wenger said that he’s meeting with William’s agent this week and if you remember, he’s previously said that Arsenal might break protocol and offer Gallas more than one year. He seemed to have pulled a 180 on that when he said “I am very resolute. Usually we always offer a one-year contract for an older player.” I’m not sure what he means there or if he has a replacement lined up already but it seems like Gallas could be on his way out.

Cesc, meanwhile, has a “small, small, small” and “grade one” hamstring pull which makes me really nervous. Last time I heard Wenger say that exact phrase Eduardo ended up sitting out a whole month. Dudu’s available today and that’s good, surely, but that Cesc has had a recurrence of his hamstring injury at this critical juncture of the season could be a real problem. Interestingly, after tonight, Arsenal have a month-long string of “easier” games before we face Tottenham at Wet Fart Lane. Could Wenger rest Cesc for that month?

Song, Diaby, and Campbell are all passed fit for the match tonight. I know a lot of people want to see Nasri in Cesc’s spot but I think Wenger will play Diaby there and put Nasri up front with Arshavin and Bendtner. Funny thing, too, Arsene will likely play a midfield three of Song, Diaby, and Denilson with Song squarely in the holding role, Diaby in the advanced role and Denilson in the very middle. What’s funny is that last year I remember thinking how much Denilson was going to be Cesc’s replacement and now it’s clear that he’s just not.

I’d even bet that some of you are eagerly anticipating Diaby in the attacking role. Diaby is 6/1 to be the first goal scorer and I might just put a pound or two on that.

Wenger has cover at right back with both Eboue and Sagna healthy so which of those two he’ll use is really up to him and will signal his intent: Eboue is more of an attacking full back and Sagna is more defensive.

A 1-0 win sees us through easily to the next round but any goals conceded will be a cause for grave concern since it means we have to score three or more to go through. Thankfully, Ladbrokes thinks the most likely scoreline is going to be 1-0 to the Arsenal and have it up at 11/2.

A 0-0 draw would be a huge disappointment and I have to think that’s highly unlikely. Yes, we are missing our leading scorer (in both the Champions League and the Premier League) but we have 10 other players in the squad who have scored in this competition. As you all already know, Arsenal spread the scoring around so I’m pretty confident we will get a couple of goals.

If we can work the ball around the way we did against Burnley and get some more of those deadly final balls from the wings, I have no doubt the goals will come. Like I said, I see Diaby getting the first, that in turn will open the game up as Porto will have to attack and should let our other creative players have more room to work.

A final score of 4-2 seems so unlikely given the history of the two teams and is a 40/1 bet but the thing is that I am very concerned with this team’s ability to keep a clean sheet. They have only managed 2 clean sheets in the last 10 games and given the sloppy way we concede goals (like the one against Burnley) I can’t be too confident that we won’t be breached.

Arsenal reportedly didn’t practice penalty kicks and I have to say that it would be a huge shame if the game ended 2-1 and we weren’t prepared. What are the chances the game will end 2-1? 8/1 according to the bookies, the second most likely outcome along with a 0-0 draw. Clearly the oddsmakers rate us to win but only by a hair.

Tonight’s official is Frank de Bleeckere and he’s been in charge of quite a number of high profile World Cup and Champions League matches in the past. From his history he’s not afraid to use yellow cards early in games to keep the match clean and that should be to our advantage. In Porto, Jesualdo Ferreira sent his team out to break up Arsenal’s play by rotational fouling on Cesc. If the referee chooses, he could stop that tactic and force Porto to play. That would be to everyone’s advantage, really. No one wants to see a 0-0 draw punctuated by dozens of tactical fouls. Well, no one apart from the dozen or so Porto supporters who will be at the match and Jesualdo Ferreira.

That’s pretty much all I know. I’ll be heading out to the Famous Cock (it’s a pub right outside the Highbury and Islington tube station) around 6pm GMT and it would be nice to meet up with some of you there and we can walk to the ground and get in a little early. REDaction is calling for all supporters to be in the ground early and get the atmosphere rocking, I’m bringing both the video camera and the still camera and hopefully the stewards will leave me alone tonight.

It would be special to get some action shots of a famous 4-2 drubbing of Porto in the Champions League, wouldn’t it?

There will be blood sausage

The day is going well I have to say. Started with some coffee and the photoblog earlier and then I met with blog regular fourstar for a traditional English breakfast of sausage, bacon, eggs, bacon, toast, and black pudding, made the old fashioned way, by Italians. It’s been about 3 hours and I’m still full. It’ll probably take an hour of walking to make me feel normal again.

In Arsenal news I’m starting to notice a trend; there are half a dozen high profile writers who basically do nothing but write pieces putting down Arsenal or Arsenal players. Most of these “writers” are formers players and they seem to love to wax nostalgic about the days when they could break ankles at will or some such nonsense. After reading today’s columns I’ve decided that Chris Waddle, Jaime Redknapp, Alan Hansen, and Tony Cascarino are the like the four horsemen of the shit-pocalypse.

Topless golf travel company shill and son of Harry “There Aren’t Enough English (insert one or more of: manager, player, owners) in the Premier League” Redknapp, Jaime has a paying gig over at the Daily Fail where he is paid actual British Pounds to write a paragraph like this:

Theo Walcott’s a very easy target, but I maintain that he will become a top footballer. He still needs more variation to his wing play. When faced with a full back who can match him for speed, he’s often too easy to mark. He needs to mix it up: come short, check, go inside, play one-twos and have more tricks. Pace alone is not enough. He played well against Burnley.

Maybe I’m just not getting it, maybe JR is just a comedian who has a keen grasp on the use of non sequitur’s for comedic effect. I’d probably use a 9 iron for the topless beach golf.

Meanwhile, former Liverpool player from the 80′s when Liverpool supporters were the most unbearable people on the planet, Alan Hansen, who very nearly cried on television when Liverpool were knocked out of the Champions League is still going on about Theo Walcott. I think this is because he has nothing else to do. There are literally no other players in the Premier League who are eligible for the English national team and since the World Cup is Liverpool’s only hope for a trophy that’s the only topic left for him to write about. Arsenal won the league at Anfield.

And finally, there’s blog whipping boy Tony Cascarino who also is paid human money to write a terrible column. Today’s “fiver” is classic Cascarino; take an Arsenal player who had a bad game and say he’ll never be good enough. Tony’s target today’s is Bendtner and admittedly, after his profligate display on Saturday, Nicky is an easy target.  But this is exactly what Tony does. He picks the low hanging fruit, eats it, and shits out a column. I haven’t used my international eligibility, I wonder if I could play for the Republic of Ireland too?

I’d suggest we all ignore them but when there’s almost no other news I think it’s perfectly acceptable to take a peek at their columns. If nothing else they are worth a laugh.

There isn’t any team news quite yet. John Cross from the Mirror tweeted today that Cesc is 100% injured and will not play against Porto. It’s a pretty big blow, if true, and further proof that International Friendlies are the worst thing since Jaime Redknapp’s last column.

Without Cesc one of our many other creative midfielders will need to step up. Who do you think can play in Cesc’s spot?

That’s it for today, I’m off to the National Gallery to look at some art and stuff. See you all later!