Lazio 1 – 2 Arsenal
Ajax 0 – 1 Arsenal
THURSDAY 2nd AUGUST – LAZIO v ARSENAL:
Bleary-eyed and bloody knackered, I dragged myself out of bed at a hideous 5am to begin my journey to Amsterdam, the location of Arsenal’s final pre-season forays.
Having met my mates at Rayners Lane at 7am, we then went on our way to Heathrow to catch our 10am plane to Amsterdam. Before I continue, let me introduce you to my friends – for the sake of their privacy, I’ll call them Dschin and Bushpal. Like myself, Dschin is a Gooner through and through and it is via his platinum membership that this whole shebang was possible. Bushpal on the other hand is a closet Gooner. Officially he is a Blackburn fan (despite being born and bred in North London, weird or what?) and is also a keen follower of those c*nts known as Real Madrid (1-0 in the Bernabeu mate!).
Waking up at such an hour does wonders for the appetite, and so we were highly disappointed not receive anything more than a Dutch version of Twiglets as opposed to the customary ham roll on the flight. We arrived at Schiphol airport at 12.30pm before eventually getting to our hotel an hour later. I was the ‘winner’ of the first ‘mare of the holiday as I tried to get in the front of the taxi on the left hand side, little realising that it was the driver’s seat. Whoops.
After checking into our hotel which was a 15 minute walk to the city centre, we decided to go exploring and find out how best we could get to the Amsterdam ArenA later that day. News filtered through that Eduardo had received his work permit, thereby receiving clearance to don the red (and blue) of Arsenal, much to the relief of Dschin who had already bought an Eduardo no.9 home shirt.
Onto the real stuff. We arrived at the stadium in good time to sample the beer and grub on offer before settling down in our seats. A note to any away fans going there – beware! To get to the upper tier is a mammoth 120 steps, which is probably a clever ploy to make one hungry and thirsty to encourage much spending in the concourse. Being a Thursday evening the Gooner section was far from packed, although we did have the good fortune to bump into Frank Stubbs, who as some of you may know used to write for the official website. He and his pals blared out a rendition of a new (to me) Arsene Wenger song ("He’s a Frenchman with a plan/Arsene Wenger is our man/We believe in Arsene Wenger my oh my").
A largely second-string team was announced, with only Cesc and Gael being likely starters against Fulham, making it even more surprising that Big Phil was handed the armband ahead of the young Spaniard. This move surely rules out the outside chance Cesc had of becoming skipper, but assuming he stays for a while I’m sure he’ll get the opportunity one day. That said, I am a self-confessed fan of Senderos and was pleased to see him lead the Gooners out against such prestigious opponents.
You’ve all seen the game no doubt so I’ll keep the match review brief. Early on Justin just failed to make clean contact with a Theo cross, and immediately from the clearance Lazio countered and cut open up our defence, the striker rounding Almunia before a last-ditch tackle from Phil saved our blushes. The opener came on 18 minutes as Cesc picked up a lose ball in midfield and took a shot (Hallelujah!) which deflected fortunately into the path of Bendtner who finished well from an angle despite a poor first touch. It was just like watching a deflected Frank Lampard shot fall at the feet of Didier Drgoba, i.e. the kind of goal we didn’t score last year, so more of the same please. The equaliser came after Eduardo slipped (was he brought down?) in our box and so failed to clear a corner, the ball rebounding to Goran Pandev who beat Almunia at his near post. In fact, the corner stemmed from a defensive mix-up which saw Djourou having to hastily clear his lines as his keeper failed to come for the ball. This wasn’t the only occasion where the Spaniard failed to come out either – while his shot-stopping was fine his command of the box was less so. There was still enough time for Clichy to have a shot parried at the near post before we were again caught cold on the counter, this time Almunia foiling a header. This vulnerability to the counter-attack was symptomatic of the lack of our ‘Invisible Wall’ known as Gilberto. Whilst Alex Song had a decent game and showed his combative qualities, he lacks the tactical nous of the Brazilian and his innate ability to shut off angles for passes.
Cesc came off at half-time after having looked out-of-sorts in the first 45 while Rosicky came on to replace the impressive Gael on the left of midfield. 10 minutes into the half the Czechmeister sent over the perfect corner to the unmarked Eduardo, who duly nodded home his first goal in Arsenal colours. The way he lost his marker was simple yet brilliantly effective – he stood dead still, letting those around him lose their heads while he kept his (pun intended). The Crozillian’s confidence was up as evidenced by his Beckham-esque attempt to chip the keeper from inside his own-half, and he wasn’t too far either. Sloppy play by Flamini let Lazio in behind our defence as Mauri’s square ball was blazed over the bar by Rocchi, much to the relief of our Flamster who gave another energetic showing. He is a vital and versatile asset to the squad, a modern day Parlour, Grimandi and Garde rolled into one. A plethora of substitutions around the 65 minute mark disrupted the flow of the game, but nonetheless it was three of these subs who combined to nearly stretch our lead. Eduardo threaded the ball through to Robin, who left their keeper on his arse before squaring to Rosicky, who infuriatingly squared the ball once more to Justin. The goal gaping, our young Englishman somehow managed to strike the upright instead of the onion bag, giving us a horrible déjà vu feeling from last season. Lazio too hit the frame of the goal in their search for an equaliser and Robin hit a low drive which moved considerably in the air and almost fooled the Lazio keeper. Soon thereafter the referee blew the full-time whistle, thus giving the Gunners all three points, plus two bonus points for the goals.
The Ajax/Atletico Madrid game followed, and unfortunately our old buddy Jose was nowhere to be seen, so we took it upon ourselves to put our feet up and relax with a beer in our hand whilst watching the match. Unfortunately we relaxed too much as we somehow missed the first goal straight after half-time! To this day, I still can’t remember what we were doing/discussing that made us miss that goal but at least we were alert for Ajax’s second goal, a Wesley Sneijder howitzer putting them joint at the top of the table with us on five points.
FRIDAY 3rd AUGUST – THE DAY OFF:
Having gone to sleep relatively early the night before (no raving it up, we were shattered), we’d decided on a 10am wake-up to give us plenty of time to soak in Amsterdam. However we underestimated our fatigue as we eventually managed to get up at a whopping 1pm, and even then that was only because Dschin’s ridiculous text message alert tone woke us up with news of the Champions League draw – Sparta Prague, a tie which I would like to have avoided.
With half the day gone, we decided to prioritise our sight-seeing and naturally the Heineken brewery came out top of the list. For those of you travelling to Amsterdam anytime soon who are partial to the odd beverage, I highly recommend it – in only 11 euros (roughly £8) you get the tour, a free gift and, more importantly, three free drinks. With the beer being freshly produced on the premises, it’s the best you’ll get in the whole city. Somehow we managed to while away 2 hours there, leaving a potential trip to the Ajax museum dead in the water.
We returned to the city centre and headed for a pre-dinner drink to a British pub called Lord Mike’s, where we got a taste of home by catching a glimpse of Neighbours on their British satellite telly. As this was our only football-free night we had decided to live it up, so we asked the barman whether it’d be busy later that night, to which he replied: "Yeah it’ll be rammed, it’s the Gay Pride weekend in Amsterdam!" This was news to our ears, and not the good kind either, as we were three raging heterosexuals and knew that females would be a rare commodity that night. After an all-you-can-eat-in-an-hour buffet in a dodgy Chinese (you know it’s dodgy when there is a cat walking around like it owns the joint), we headed back to the centre. Instead of drinking beers all night (we’d had plenty during the day, we decided to have a night on the Amaretto and Coke’s. On what became a pub crawl, we ended up in a gaff full of women dressed up as nuns on a hen weekend and then onto a karaoke bar before going back to Lord Mike’s for our final stop of the night.
SATURDAY 4th AUGUST – AJAX v ARSENAL:
This time we managed to stick to our plan and wake up at a decent hour. We decided to absorb a bit of non-alcoholic culture as we headed to the Anne Frank museum. However, little were we to know that the Gay Pride parade was passing through the canal adjacent to the museum, and it was very surreal being in such a sombre place with a loud festival running riot outside it. After finishing up there, we headed back to the hotel to pick up the match tickets before going early to the stadium with the aim of having a nose around the club shop and possibly their museum too. Upon arriving at the stadium me and Dschin decided to purchase a program. Having departed with a combined 7 euros we found out that we’d been made mugs of as the ruddy program was all in Dutch! The vendor must have been laughing in his ‘tache when he said to us: "have some nice matches today".
After looking around the club shop in search of any memorabilia/nostalgia of our own Dutch legend Dennis Bergkamp, to our dismay the museum was shut. I had been very much looking forward to getting a picture taken with the European Cup, but alas I’m gonna have to wait ‘til next year after we bring it home to our own museum at the Emirates ;-)
Much like the Ajax/Atletico match on Thursday, the first clash on Saturday involving Atletico and Lazio was of little interest to us travelling Gooners. Indeed, the most exciting moments of the first-half was witnessing a sing-off between North Bank and Clock End Gooners. The only interest this match provided us with was the ritual booing of Jose, who scored the third and final goal for Atletico which gave them a glimmer of hope to walk away with the trophy.
In between the games Ryan Babel got a send-off from the home crowd and unsurprisingly got a negative reaction from us. "You’ll never play for Arsenal" was a chant heard throughout his presentation, although the last person we chanted that to did eventually end up with us – a certain Julio Craptista. As kick-off drew closer the Ajax fans flooded in and the Gooner faithful grew in voice. The lineup was a strong one with a seemingly first-choice back five and Alex Hleb supporting Robin up-front. Rosicky was restored on the left of midfield and Eboue looked to resume his right-wing partnership with Sagna which did so well against Inter the previous week. Denilson partnered Flam in the middle of the park and was a late addition to the starting XI as Cesc pulled out due to illness (maybe that’s why he looked so off-colour against Lazio?)
From the off it looked to be a competitive tie, moreso than most pre-season friendlies and Arsenal looked up for the fight. We bossed things possession-wise in the first 20 minutes and looked at our most dangerous from set-pieces. First a deflected free-kick from Rosicky saw the Ajax defence scramble the ball away before Kolo could get there, and then on the quarter-hour Robin flighted in a delightful free-kick which Kolo could only hit straight at Maarten Stekelenburg – a yard either side and the travelling fans would’ve been belting out the classic ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’.
The balance of play changed as Henk Ten Caate switched things tactically in his midfield by introducing the speedy former Charlton winger Dennis Rommedahl. Almost immediately it paid dividends as a through-ball saw Sagna lose his bearings thus allowing Rommedahl to cut inside him and Kolo, only to see his shot flash past the bar. Rommedahl’s introduction invigorated the home team as they came close through a long-range Maduro effort which went over and a Sneijder free-kick with Jens did well to parry wide. The half ended with five yellow cards as Ajax played hard (and some might say dirty). The Arsenal, however, gave as good as they got and I feel the days of getting bullied off the pitch are long-gone, touch wood. Robin was one of the recipients of the referee’s yellow and he was clearly targeted by the Ajax defenders who know of his suspect temperament and capability to see red mist. The best way for Robin to react was to keep playing his game and damaging his opponents with skill rather than by foul play, and I’m pleased to say that he did exactly that.
At the beginning of the second-half we took the game to Ajax. Clichy had a carbon-copy of his shot against Lazio saved at the near-post after a forceful run down the left. We didn’t have it all our own way thought as Rommedahl’s pace again got him into advanced position, his cross eventually being cleared by Kolo from under his own crossbar. Eduardo came on at the hour-mark, replacing the ineffective Rosicky. Hleb moved out to the left as a result and we looked a whole lot more direct with two strikers, a pacy winger in Eboue, and a creative one in Hleb. The 4-4-1-1 worked okay without living up to the heights it reached against Inter but having two strikers allows Robin to drift more to the wings and drop deep, safe in the knowledge that there will likely be another forward in the box if he does so. With 15 minutes left, skipper Gallas played a neat one-two Hleb and released van Persie who cut inside the defender and looked for all the world as if he was going to bury it on his lethal left peg, but Stekelenburg pulled of a wonder save low to his right. Straight from his save Gallas scooped the ball to the back post where Eboue was waiting, but his cross was miscontrolled by Hleb and the danger dissipated. Soon after that a Sagna hoof/ball over the top was latched onto by Eduardo, who used pace and power to shrug the defender off. Like in his outings against Barnet and Salzburg though, he took one touch too many as the keeper came out to smother his effort. Van Persie was inches short with the follow-up. Make no mistake, the pressure was building but could the ‘Dam withstand it?
They did more than withstand it, they nearly grabbed the points themselves as Huntelaar did his best van Nistelrooy impression by being anonymous all game only to pop-up with winner late on, but his headed effort hit the top of the bar and bounced over. Last season that would have gone in, so was the tide finally turning?With less than 5 minutes left on the clock it seemed that it’d be one of those days, and that feeling wasn’t helped by Gallas who decided to pass his way out of the box after the excellent Denilson won it back. This kind of fancy football is infuriating when we lose the ball (Row Z anyone?), but when it works and possession is retained it is a thing of beauty. Gallas passed it to Clichy, who knocked it forward to Hleb, who in turn layed it off back to Gallas. The skipper played it forward into the path of Clichy who had contuned his run, and he went on and on Forrest Gump-style before cutting inside and squaring the ball to Robin who manoeuvred it onto his right-side before lashing it past the previously impregnable Stekelenburg. 1-0 to the Arsenal, finally. The Gooners in the away section went positively nuts, not just because they were pissed or tripping, but because we had managed to grab a deserved late winner, one that would have deserted us last season.
There was still time for Jens to be called into action and John Heitinga to go through the back of our goalscorer, but we managed to hold on to the victory. After he was stretchered off I frantically texted a friend who was watching the game back home to see whether it was serious or not, but by the time he texted back with good news our hero was already out on the pitch celebrating another trophy in the bag. I can imagine how sweet it must’ve been for Robin to grab a late winner in front of the Ajax fans as he had been kicked from pillar-to-post during the game, never mind the hostile reception he got from the Ajax crowd.
A word about the fans, who were in great voice throughout the night. Clearly the alcohol and recreational drugs may have contributed towards this for some, but we outsang the home fans by a long way, I felt. The variety of chants was excellent compared to the Ajax fans’ rather tedious use of the clapper that we’d all been provided with. A personal favourite of mine was the Eboue chant, for it’s comic value if not for it’s lyrical ingenuity.
Getting out of the stadium was a bit precarious, especially for me as I had my van Persie shirt on. I tried my best not to make eye contact with any Ajax fans in case they thought I was trying to rile them up. Eventually we got back safely to the city centre and slinked off into the night for a farewell slice of pizza and pint of beer at Lord Mike’s.
SUNDAY 5th AUGUST – THE JOURNEY HOME:
Another ghastly early wake up was in store for us in order to catch the 10am flight. We managed it fairly well however, even having time to sneak in a cheeky breakfast at the airport’s McDonalds. The flight home seemed irrationally quick, within no time were we approaching the English coast, after which it was all eyes peeled for the elusive aerial shot of the Emirates. I even managed to grab a picture of the new Wembley too and it suddenly dawned on me that it was Community Shield day and that my journey home on the Tube could be surrounded by a swarm of United and Chelsea fans. After I bade my farewells at Rayners Lane to Dschin and Bushpal (who is off to New York next week for a five-week work stint – good luck out there mate), I stepped onto a train full of red and blue (and fluorescent yellow for Chelsea’s new away shirt). It doesn’t help that my home station is only one stop away from Wembley Park either but I managed to bite my tongue and not break out into song, thus saving my skin.
All in all, an excellent tournament for the players and a good weekend away for us fans. Watching pre-season games is always slightly more fun because it is relatively relaxed and less fraught with tension. They also give good indicators for the season ahead. In previous articles and match reviews I have focused on the tactical side of the team and individual performances (notable mentions go to Gael and Denilson this time round), but for this one I would like to champion the spirit inside the squad – having watched the replay of the Ajax game thanks to my new Sky Plus box, it was evident to see how much the players enjoy playing with each other and most importantly FOR each other. Robin made a great point last week after the Emirates Cup when he said that the players want to run for each other and play the ‘Arsenal way’, it seems that the departure of certain players has got rid of the hierarchy in the dressing room and the younger ones are thriving on this. Speaking of hierarchy, it was interesting to see Willy Gallas once again lift a trophy for us (although it wasn’t much a lifting-of-the-trophy, more a placing-it-down-in-front-of-the-squad thing…) It looks a straight shootout between him and the yet-to-return Gilberto to see who wears the armband. For the first time, I’m starting to accept the possibility of Gallas doing the job. Sure he may be a short-term stop-gap, but I think he has enough snarl about him to do it well. Gilberto seems more mild-mannered and while at times a calming influence is needed on the pitch, more often than not a captain shines through during adversity and his ability to cajole something extra out of his players. Also, because he has not been at the club long enough (and his only season with us was far from great), I don’t think he will get too big for his boots a la Thierry or Patrick did towards the end of their respective reigns.
Two trophies in the bag, only five days to go…the excitement builds!