Thursday, March 6, 2008

Arsenal - inspiration strikes!

(Alternate title - the longest blog post ever)

On Tuesday, March 5th, 2008 Arsenal did it.
They beat the Champion's League title-holders, AC Milan, on their home turf in Italy.
No, it wasn't the final or even the quarter-final (that comes next), but it sure felt like it.
And boy, does it feel good.
To understand this moment, the arrival of a young Arsenal team on the greatest stage of European soccer, one must understand where they've been over the last 17 days - as I'm typing this I can't believe that's all it's been. Five matches in 17 days. If you've never seen soccer played at this level, the European game I mean, that amounts to a hell of a lot of running with people chasing you for nearly ninety minutes straight.

Feb 16 - Arsenal leads the English Premiership by five points (a win counts for three points, a tie one, a loss zero, and the league winner is the one with the most points at the end of the season) when they meet Manchester United in the lowly FA Cup. The match counts for zilch in the grand scheme of things and the Arsenal coach, the one they call the Professor, Arsene Wenger, makes a tactical decision to rest some key players in preparation for their upcoming Champion's League match against AC Milan. The decision backfires almost as soon as the first whistle blows, Manchester United romps to an easy and humiliating victory, scoring three goals before the half. I'm watching the match in a dark Irish Yonkers bar full of Manchester United fans at 12 in the afternoon with two of my friends, one who is willing to be persuaded to root for the right team if i can convince him Arsenal is worth the effort. I can think of no less convincing performance than the one Arsenal delivers in this match. To top it off, before the match he bets my other friend $50 that Arsenal will win "to make things interesting." We decide the 50 bucks is his Manchester United fan club initiation fee.

Feb 20 - Arsenal plays AC Milan in the first of two Champion's League matches
(in Champion's League each team plays a game at home and the winner goes through based on aggregate points. An away goal counts as two points) - the winner goes on to the quarter-finals. After the timid display at Old Trafford against Manchester United, I'm hoping and praying that Arsenal can step up at home to meet the Italians who are said to have Champion's League in their blood. This is the same AC Milan team, led by World Player of the Year - the masterful Brazilian, Kaka, who so easily dismissed Manchester United on their way to glory last season. The build-up is intense as the young Arsenal Gunners take the stage against the more experienced Rossoneri. I leave work early and head to a local bar/grill (who serves beer in the coldest mugs I've ever laid hands on) to watch.

The match lives up to the billing, and both teams play a brilliant game - it's class versus class. This time, I'm the only one watching - it's the middle of a weekday in a suburban strip mall bar - not too many soccer fans about. I'm happy to see Arsenal shows no psychological scars from their weekend beating but they also can't seem to find the back of the net. In the end, they run beautiful circles around Milan but have nothing to show for it. Arsenal's leading striker - the big African, Emmanuel Adebayor, heads a sure goal into the goal post at the last second. The game ends tied at 0-0. So Arsenal visits Italy in the second leg and will play AC Milan on a field where no English team has won before. I should feel optimistic, but the one-two punch of the beating by Man U and the lack of killer instinct before the net against Milan have my guard up. My friend Danny, a Roma fan who I credit with bringing me back to soccer after many years away from the sport, puts it in the right perspective - at least they didn't give up an away goal.

Feb 23 - Back in the Premiership, Arsenal plays away at Birmingham. It's a match Arsenal is expected to win - especially if they want to keep their five point lead
at the top of the table ahead of Manchester United. I didn't see the game but there's no shortage of news about it. Three minutes in, Eduardo "DuDu" DaSilva, a Brazilian-born Croatian national who is one of Arsenal's brightest upcoming stars, suffers a compound fracture of the leg and complete dislocation of the ankle, one of the worst injuries in world soccer history, as a result of a bad tackle. The entire team is visibly shaken by the incident and Arsenal falls behind 1-0 in the first half. It takes 18-year-old Theo Walcott to light a spark in the second, scoring twice in five minutes, to take the lead, 2-1. Just when it looks like Arsenal has managed a victory on this gloomy day, a questionable penalty is awarded to Birmingham in the dying seconds, and they hit the back of the net to end the game in a tie, 2-2.

William Gallas, Arsenal Captain and moody Frenchman (Danny really dislikes Gallas - it's a Italy/France thing) literally walks off the pitch in tears as the game is still being played, and has to be restrained from kicking the advertising billboards on the way out. He knows how valuable each and every point is at this stage of the season and one point can mean the title, especially with Manchester United storming up behind you (they stomp Newcastle 5-1 later the same day). I appreciate the passion of Gallas but at this moment, Arsenal looks like a team who has lost more than a couple of precious points at the top of the table - they look like a team who has lost it all.

March 1 - Back at home, Arsenal plays another Premiership match against Aston Villa. Villa is a scrappy side and the test is not expected to be easy, especially considering the swiss cheese psyche of the Arsenal team. The best news of the week is that Eduardo has had a successful surgery and is recovering after the horror of the the Birmingham match. The doctors are even saying he may play again in nine months time. After seeing the injury on YouTube (I can only imagine how awful it must have been on the field), I think hopes of a professional European soccer career are optimistic to say the least, but I wish him all the best. By all accounts, Eduardo is just a decent young guy who was plucked from the minnows of Croatia to play for one of the biggest teams in one of the most competitive leagues the world and he just walked in and started playing - pure class. It goes without saying that a win against Villa would go a long way toward recovery, as the team will need to be at their best when they travel to Italy for the second leg of their Champion's League match against AC Milan. Unfortunately, I have plans to work on this Saturday and I'm taping the match but I get to watch the first twenty minutes or so live before leaving.

Here it is, a do-or-die match with everything at stake in the Premiership, a real opportunity to pick the team up and "do it for DuDu" and I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for the first goal to come so I can exhale...and when it comes it is as if fate has some sick and twisted sense of humor, because it is Phillip Senderos, the big, bald goofy Arsenal defender who I just cannot muster any faith in because of his perpetual deer-in-headlights expression, who accidentally knocks the ball into his OWN GOAL! I turn the TV off. I bury my head in my hands. I cannot believe what I just saw. I turn the TV back on - yes, it really happened and there's the score to prove it, Aston Villa - 1, Arsenal - 0. I turn the TV off again. It's time to go to work.

I find out later that Arsenal escaped complete pants-pulled-down-to-the-ankles embarrassment by scoring with the last kick of the game in extra time to tie, 1-1. So they came within a hair of literally beating themselves but with a last gasp managed to tie themselves. Honestly, you don't even need another team on the pitch when you're playing this bad. And just in time for Milan...Wenger tries to spin it as a valuable point and a valiant team effort despite the Eduardo hangover - I'm not buying it. Not for a second. This team is falling apart. The young guns, who started the season with such wonderful promise in what was thought to be a year of re-building are finally...running...out...of...gas. And by the way, Manchester United crushed Fulham 3-0 to come within a single point of Arsenal at the top.

March 5 - Champion's League in Italy, second-leg, winner advances and the loser goes home. It is a rainy Tuesday here and I simply cannot think of anything but the match ahead. Fortunately, my clients are on to other things today and I'm able to arrange my schedule to go home to watch the match and keep up with the office via email. Everything goes according to plan until a last-minute tweak comes up on a job and suddenly, I'm running late for the 2:45 game time. I have to remind myself that it's not worth dying over as I struggle to maintain a reasonable speed on the stormy drive home. I curse XM radio for not having a station that will even acknowledge the existence of soccer. It is 3:00 when I finally pull into my driveway. I race inside and turn the TV on - the match is already in progress.

There is no score yet but Arsenal is under heavy pressure from the Italians and look to be on the back foot. The commentators catch me up and it seems Arsenal has been backed-up since the start. It's not surprising that AC Milan are attacking because an Arsenal goal is worth two but it is surprising that AC Milan are attacking with such confidence and getting so many chances. My heart is racing and my palms are actually sweating, I can't sit still. At some point my wife arrives home with my two-and-a-half-year-old-son, who sits on my lap, joining me in cheering Arsenal on as they slowly and deliberately turn the momentum of the game. But the wicked signs of cruel fate are still there: Alexander Hleb gets dragged down at the edge of the box while driving to the net which should result in a penalty kick for Arsenal but instead Hleb is carded for diving. It is an awful call that has me screaming at the television and wondering aloud if the ref is Italian. Not long after, the brilliant Cesc Fabregas fires a screamer guessed it, hits the goal post. I can't help but think this is going to be another long night. At some point, my son decided he'd rather be playing with his cousin next door so I'm left alone to pace my living room, walking laps around my coffee table, as the first half comes to a close with Arsenal looking dangerous but again nothing to show for it. I spend the brief halftime break frantically checking email and I am relieved to find that all is generally well back at the office.

I spend the entire second half on my feet. And what a second half it is. Almost immediately after the restart a golden opportunity lands at the feet of Phillip Senderos, "the "deer," who botches the shot badly, handing it straight to the keeper. I can't take much more...The Gunners are firing now and it's clear they are methodically breaking down the older Italian side. Kinks begin to appear in the wall of the AC Milan guard, and even the great Kaka appears flustered by the swarming Arsenal players who attack the ball like lasers and refuse to share possession. This is the best I have seen Arsenal play all season and they are getting better as they go - a true masterclass. But still, they have nothing to show for it. The clock is ticking and the score remains 0-0. And I know, a goal can come in a flash and change the entire game and it doesn't matter what has happened to that point. I've enjoyed the inspired Arsenal team play so much in this half that I actually forgot they still needed to score and that's always the knock against Arsenal - they play such beautiful, technical soccer but it's always one pass too many, at the expense of goals. With only ten minutes to play in regular time, I'm beginning to sweat again and the doubt is creeping...will AC Milan steal this? Will the mystique of the homefield, the fortress at the San Siro, prove too great a force to overcome? I don't want this to go to penalty kicks - I'm not sure I will survive that.

And then it comes. In the 84th minute, Cesc Fabregas weaves through the defense and just when it looks that he's searching for a pass, he blasts a surprising long-range shot from 25 yards that skips across the turf and just
past the out-stretched hand of the giant Milan goalie and inside the corner post. It doesn't register at first, because the shot also took me by surprise and the camera angle wasn't clear, but there's Cesc racing across the field to hug Wenger and yes, it really happened and there's the score to prove it, Arsenal - 1, AC Milan - 0. At this stage of the game, it's unlikely that AC Milan will get the two goals they need to tie (Arsenal's one away goal is worth two) but just to be sure, Wenger sends on the speedy Walcott who makes a nice run down the flanks and feeds Adebayor a perfect pass that he easily puts away for a final score of Arsenal 2, AC Milan - 0. I am elated and exhausted all at once. And proud. So strange that I am so proud of this English soccer team made-up of mostly non-English players, who I watch from a distance. Even the Italians are clapping for Arsenal as they soak in the glory and live on to play another day.

Unfortunately as of this post, virtually all evidence of the match has been pulled by YouTube due to copyright infringement claims by UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, so you'll just have to take my word for it - it was something.

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