Friday 26 August 2011

Stepping back from the brink

Udinese 1 Arsenal 2
Words: 623. Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 20 seconds.
From the second it happened, Wojciech Szczesny’s wonderful penalty save had an air of ‘defining moment’ about it.

As Antonio Di Natale prepared for the spot kick I was confident it wasn’t going in. I’m sure I think that every time a penalty is given against us and only remember when it turns out to be true. But there was an over-riding sense that we had earned our slice of good fortune after such a good performance and there was no way we would let the opportunity slip.

The first half was fraught but we weren’t as open as the home leg, and after half time we controlled the game and deservedly evened the score up. I dread to think what would have happened in the match and to the club’s fortunes had Szczesny not made that save and we went behind again so soon after our equaliser. But now, for at least another season, we can still count ourselves among Europe’s elite and feast on the riches that provides.

Credit where it’s due
Given the significance of the result, huge credit should be paid to Wenger and the players who performed so bravely for him. The likes of Jenkinson, Szczesny and Walcott excelled under the pressure. As I suggested on Tuesday, the game offered the chance to stop the downward spiral we’ve been on since February and you would hope the confidence the team will take from the result will help.

As for Wenger, I had wondered why he looked so cheery in the pre-match press conference; was it genuine confidence, impressive acting skills, or delusion over the weaknesses of his team? The truth is probably a mixture of all three but the win in Italy gives him more licence to stick with his approach and tell those of us who thought he was losing the plot that he’s still right.

The key now, of course, is to make sure what momentum the victory provides is not lost. It is almost inevitable, given the suspensions and injuries, that some of it will disappear with a defeat at Old Trafford on Sunday but realistically our season will start in September after the international break.

We must hope that at that point the money ‘banked’ from Champions League participation and the sales of Fabregas and Nasri has been used to good effect. It would be maddening, and not a little insulting to hard-pressed supporters who turn in week after week, if the funds are not reinvested. I disagree with Wenger that it is ‘super quality’ players that we need – I’d be confident proven Premiership experience will help us – but if that’s the route he wants to go down, he now has the funds to do it and no excuses will be acceptable.

A concluding dream sequence
I like to think of Wenger over the past few months as if he’s been taking part in a poker game. While Ferguson, Mancini and Villas Boas have happily piled chips on the table, a worse-for-wear Wenger has been placing the odd one or two and losing time after time. With the crowds and media watching on and begging him to change his ways, it comes to the winner-takes-all final hand. Then, with that long-forgotten glint in his eye returning, Wenger reveals that it was cold tea he’s been supping all night and his thinking is clearer than ever. With the piles of poker chips almost toppling over in the middle of the table, he calmly reveals a straight flush full of bright red diamonds. Wenger stands up, acknowledges the now-ecstatic crowd and walks away, leaving his winnings behind.

Szczesny’s save keeps the dream alive.

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