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All Things Footie | Thursday, March 11 | Jordan

Cream of the crop

The Arsenal love-in that’s going on at the moment is making me uncomfortable. Last night, in an Altrincham pub, I watched Dennis Bergkamp play in Thierry Henry with a marvellous reverse pass—that prompted Ray Wilkins to comment that the Dutchman has ‘eyes in his backside’—who went on to score with a wonderfully crisp finish. The whole pub applauded, the patrons of a mancunian pub gasped at the talent and technique, then applauded the two Arsenal players. It’s a measure of the quality of football being played by Arsenal at the moment that it’s impossible not to be impressed, whether you’ve just been on the wrong end of a 5-1 hiding from them or whether you’re a supporter of their main footballing rivals.

I could eulogise all day about the talent, the team spirit, the effortless way in which this phenomenal footballing side do real justice to the beautiful game; but I’ll save most of it for the end of the season. For a team with such a contrast of individuals and personalities—from the underwear advertising Freddie Ljungberg to devout Muslim Kolo Toure—it’s amazing that the real strength of Arsenal football club is the togetherness of these players on and off the pitch. Every player fights for every other player: Robert Pires has a great chance to shoot at goal, instead he squares to his pal Henry because he’s on a hat-trick; after a goal is scored the whole team joins a ‘huddle’ chanting ‘together, together, together’ (Sol Campbells idea apparently).

As a fan of football in this country, I’m deighted that Arsenal took a punt on a virtually unknown (certainly in this country) but promising French football coach seven years ago. Without Arsène Wenger we wouldn’t be home to the best attacking player in the World, two of the best midfielders, and a side that’s playing football Serie A can only dream of. Even the mighty Real Madrid can’t match Arsenal at the moment, no side can, because there’s only one Arsène Wenger, and it’s all about that man.

Manchester United were unlucky not to have scored a second goal on Tuesday, when the excellent Paul Scholes had his second goal of the night ruled offside, but they were not unlucky to go out of the Champions League at the second stage for the first time in eight years. They were well beaten in Porto, outplayed at Old Trafford, and you can’t expect to keep out a side with last ditch sliding shot-blocks for ninety minutes. Ferguson was right to say that they barely had a shot on target, but that was only because United had been flinging bodies in front of shots all night. Wes Brown and Gary Neville made United’s defence look more solid than it has done for a long while, Brown in particular, but it still looked as though it could crumble at any moment.

I think a bit too much criticism has been levelled at Tim Howard—it was a better free-kick than it looked—though he should have palmed it over rather than pushed it out. The player who was at most fault for the goal was John O’Shea, caught ball watching while Costinha pounced on the parried shot; he could have at least made it difficult for the Portuguese international. I don’t know what’s happened to O’Shea. Last year, in his first full season, he looked like a marvellous promotion to the side; solid, economical, commanding and lively when played out wide. Impressive enought to earn him the all things footie young player of the year anyway. This year he looks nervous, edgy, and worst of all, he looks to have lost all the confidence he gained in 2002/03.

Of the eight teams through to the Quarter Final draw, the leaders of Europe’s top leagues all all represented: AC Milan lead Serie A, Real Madrid top La Liga, Arsenal are running away with the Premiership, Monaco sit atop Le Championnat and FC Porto lead the Portuguese I Divisão. The current Bundesliga Champions were kocked out last night, and the three remaining sides—Lyon, Deportivo La Coruña and Chelsea—are all in the top three of their respective leagues. By these criteria, it’s one of the most difficult club line-ups I’ve seen at this stage, and Friday’s draw should result in some really tantalising match-ups.

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