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Wednesday, 24 October 2007

The Heavens Must be Running Out of Flowers...

Tuesday 23rd October, 2007: Arsenal 7 (Fabregas 2, Hubacek [o.g.], Walcott 2, Hleb, Bendtner), Slavia Prague 0

Your evening starts out fractured and disjointed. You have a heavy heart and there's been a fire on a train at Hounslow Central so the Piccadilly line's suspended. Re-routed via Isleworth, you finally connect with the comforting azure of the Victoria line at Vauxhall.

Pools of sorrow...

Newsprint is flickering; like sunlight bouncing off ripples on a river it strobes across your work-numbed consciousness. It's as if you have been written into some modernist novella or updated 'Revolution #9'. Amy drinks because she's insecure ... Nike buys out Umbro for £285 million ... record levels of bare breasts on the box ... it's thanks to Graham Greene I am an addict ... Wenger sticks to his all-conquering guns...

And then you remember; you're going to see the Arsenal at the Emirates.

You buy your programme and stop for a very swift pint at the Auld Triangle, then join the murmuring throng of voices heading off towards the ground. How's the enemy? ... No, John went up there last week ... get your scarves, five pound your scarves ... No, I quite liked it because it was kind of brown ... We're on our way, we're on our way ...

There's no such fragmentation on the pitch though. Within minutes, Alex Hleb is teasing the Slavia defence by the corner flag below where you are sat in the upper tier, 'Clock end' Emirates. The football at his feet is like a ball of wool caught on a cat's claw. Once, twice, three times he drags it back, delaying the easy pass back to the waiting Clichy in the hope that something more exciting might come up. It does; an almost square ball out of nowhere to Fabregas just inside the opposition box. The pass is so good it would be downright disrespectful not to score. He's a well-mannered young man is Cesc so, politely and with due appreciation of the quality of this assist, he curls a sumptuous dipping shot inside the far post.

It's one of those goals that doesn't finish when the ball is sat there gently spinning in the net. A buzz of satisfaction hums around the Emirates for at least a minute in its wake. You sense that something special may unfold tonight when red and white petals start to float down from the heavens. There is sartori in the air.

The young lad next to you gnaws at something battered and wrapped up in newspaper facsimile. Someone who looks very much like Lawrie Sanchez strides along the crimson cinder track behind the opposition goal. The Slavia Ultras continue to cavort like Czech Ronald MacDonalds in their luminous red and white wigs. They shout Sla-vee-yay Pra-hah and some chant that sounds like Ah-lee Boom-bye-yay from the Rumble in the Jungle. Matthieu Flamini is booked.

Theo Walcott starts the game tonight. He's playing as a central striker not out on the wing. He looks sharp and is doing OK, but the ball isn't quite running for him and it's beginning to frustrate. At one point he gesticulates like a Frenchman at a moodily grimacing Adebayor. Around the 20 minute mark, the ball comes to Hleb from a defensive clearance and he slams it home by way of a heavy deflection off a Prague defender. Alex's face melts into a soppy smile. Fabregas finds Theo in space on the right. He floats a lovely ball in for Adebayor whose powerful downward header hits the boot of the Slavia 'keeper, Vaniak, on the line. Eboue conjures a shooting opportunity from an outrageous position on the right flank, blasting just wide of the upright after a glorious flick and shuffle past his man.

There's a lot of space for Theo and Adebayor to run into whenever Slavia press forward, so it's understandable that the Chechs' defencus is becoming less and less non shittus. The panic spreads to Vaniak in the Slavia goal. He miskicks a looping back pass horribly to hand a scoring chance to Walcott on a plate. It's just the stroke of fortune the young striker needs and he finishes emphatically.

More petals, more bliss.

At one point Arsenal pass the ball around amongst themselves in their own half and you get the feeling that Slavia might be more than happy if they were to continue to do just that for the remainder of the game. The half time whistle comes, to Czech relief.

The jumbotron behind us shows Hleb leaving the field. He looks like a Heroes-era Bowie and his play tonight has matched that album all the way; icy cool and pertinent, radical and brave. Someone should write a book about him, you know...

There's no letting up when the game resumes. Arsenal work the ball from left to right from their defence then right to left in their opponents' half. Hleb runs on to Cesc's diagonal ball, cuts inside and scores with a low drive. The heavens must be running out of flowers.

Waves of joy...

Hleb, Flamini and Fabregas play an oddly squashed triangle of one-touch passes between themselves. The ball comes back to Alex and his perfectly weighted pass is taken in his stride by the now vibrant and electric Walcott. There's something uncharacteristically dismissive, almost arrogant, in the cool flick of the boot with which Theo scores his second goal tonight. The despairing blast of the defender's boot at a ball that's already crossed the line merely emphasises the precision of the finish and you're reminded of the poise of Robert Pires and that other ghost of Arsenal past, Henry.

Before you can catch your breath, Hleb is off again, motoring down the left flank. He slots the ball into the feet of Adebayor who manages to wriggle it into space on his right. He finds Walcott just inside the box and his cute first time pass into the path of Fabregas is clinically despatched. Cesc lies down on the Emirates turf, arms outsretched and laughing. He looks for all the world like a kid who's starring in his favourite dream.

Hleb finally reacts to the latest in the series of provocations - digs, pokes, prods, nudges and clatterings - he's been subjected to all night and he is shown the yellow card. Wisely, Arsene takes this opportunity to rest some legs ahead of Sunday's trip to Liverpool. Flamini and Hleb, both already booked, and Adebayor are replaced by Gilberto, Rosicky and Bendtner. We wait almost half an hour for the young Danish striker to complete the scoring with a goal that combines power, persistence and fleet-footedness. But it's in the nature of us fans to be greedy; the Emirates is singing "we want eight".

The Slavia ultras and the Red Action wedge twirl red and white scarves at one another from their opposing corners of the ground. Their team has been well beaten tonight but still the Ultras from Praha can bring themselves to stomp and bob and sing. The PA plays the Jam - 'A Town Called Malice' - but there's not been all that much rancour tonight. Just those frequent showers of petals in this footballing nirvana.

Outside the ground, the evening has an air of bonfire night about it. There's a chill without but you've been warmed inside and the embers of tonight will see you through to Anfield. The red lights on the cranes around the site of the old stadium could be the glowing tips of burnt out sparklers as you approach them on your way home from this awesome firework display. We're on our way. we're on our way...

There are no disruptions on the journey home. Everything is easier now; even the writing.

L.U.V. on y'all,


Hear Bob read extracts from his diary of the 2007-08 season, "The Road to Moscow"!!

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