Tuesday 2nd October, 2007: Steau Bucharest 0, Arsenal 1 (van Persie)
Arsene's smiling. His top button is undone and his tie is loose. He appears to be filled with that inner glow of happiness that you sometimes see in people of an evangelical turn; the sort that keeps them warm on chilly nights as they go from door to door, confronting people they don't know, asking the impatient, sometimes angry people who emerge from behind their doors if they can perhaps spare a couple of moments and, if so, would they like to talk about Jesus? He's certainly a believer; every other word is believe or belief. He believes this, believes that; believes in his players, so much so that even they seem to be starting to believe in themselves - so much so that they "play with no restriction". I wonder who or what could possibly have inhibited them before? And so we are starting to believe too; the fans who come away from the games feeling, as Arsene wants us to, that "for an hour and a half, life was beautiful". They will show humility and respect to their former soviet bloc hosts, of course, but those courtesies observed, for the next hour and a half, life will be, by and large, we all assume, as beautiful as it has been everywhere else the team has played so far this season. That's the pre-match interview out of the way; so far, so beatific.
So, what do Arsenal do? As if they've taken heed of Robbie's Earle's desire to see a little more realpolitik from the team on their travels abroad, they go out and "win ugly". In a half empty stadium, Arsenal certainly show their Romanian opponents humilty and respect; perhaps a little too much. They almost gift Steaua Bucharest a goal when an unmarked striker heads in from a setpiece only to be ruled offside, the goal disallowed. Then, as if to atone even further for some perceived advantage of the team not having (Hleb apart) suffered under the yoke of a communist regime, Fabregas blasts over from six yards after good work from van Persie. The pass that sets him up comes on a silver salvour, from Alexander Hleb, of course. The man with the bruised and bloodied leg, must be made of steel, recovering from that tackle as he has, back running around tonight as bright and breezy as an infant. The young Spaniard's finish is uncharacteristically profligate and he runs from the scene with his palms held together at his chest, as if in prayer, pleading forgiveness from his more righteous teammates for the sin of wastefulness.
The game is on ITV4 and the channel is, with almost biblical portent, running trailers for a new, post-apocalypse drama series called Jericho. "1 Days To Go" [sic], reads the countdown on the trailer. The series looks as if it is trying hard, but it will have to go some to beat Peter Drury when it comes to being overblown and overwrought. John Champion, himself a defector from the other side of the Iron Curtain (he started with the BBC), is the only ITV man I can stomach. Clive Tyldesley is a close second in the least-liked stakes, but no one does more than Peter D. to show how far the standards have fallen since the glory days of Brian Moore and Hugh Johns. Here's an example. On 15 minutes, Adebayor is booked by Norwegian referee Terge Hauge ('Blackburn' Adam from The Apprentice) for carrying on play after having been ruled offside. 2 minutes later, Marin is booked, with equal pedantry but admirable consistency, for kicking the ball away after a free kick has been awarded for Petre's foul on van Persie. So far, so good. Drury, however, spends the rest of the half screeching about the disciplinary tightrope the unbooked Petre now walks, screeching "he's already been booked" and "Petre will have to watch himself now" every time the player kicks a lump or two out of one of the Arsenal players. It's only at half time that a member of the ITV backroom staff is able to sit Peter down with a nice cup of cocoa, rearrange the tartan blankets on his bath chair and explain the order of events.
Rada is booked - not, sadly, for being over-theatrical - and Drury, perhaps from the embarrassment of the Marin/Petre yellow card fiasco, provides the satirical match reporter with an open goal when he starts talking about "Fabregas' beautiful tackle". During the interval, we get to see the aforementioned as well as the Romanian broadcast director's own eccentric choice of highlights from the first the half. Almunia "Ay-Ay-Ay"s at his defence, a Bucharest player who's barely featured runs interminably in slo-mo and we get to see Cesc at his prayers again. Then there's the half time view from the pitch side. Arsene has ditched the humility and respect by now, of course, with the game stuck as it is at nil-nil. He glares at Eboue, glares at Hleb, glares at Adebayor when all the poor lad does is put the ball out of play so a Steaua player can receive some treatment. Even the hosannah-like choral interjections of the Champions League Theme that keep coming over the PA system for no apparent reason every couple of minutes or so, fail to restore in le Boss any of his pre-match saintliness.
This new mood of cynicism spreads quickly to the gantry as Jim Beglin offers some unsolicited advice to football club owners; they "shouldn't be interfering with football matters." Let's just hope Roman was tuning in, eh Jim? But if this jibe is aimed at Steaua owner Gigi Becali, it seems wide of the mark. Surdin, the player Becali fell out with coagh Georghe Hagi over when the latter refused to pick him, forces Toure into a last ditch headed clearance as his volley sails over the head of the AWOL Manuel Almunia. Then, on 71 minutes, substitute Iacob has an even better chance to put the home side ahead. The flag stays down as he runs on with only Almunia to beat, only for him to plant his shot high and wide. Whoever's picking the side, they're giving Arsenal a good game.
But by now Arsenal have ridden their luck as far as they'll need to. Adebayor now provides the side with a windmill-like target to aim at when the shorter pass isn't on. They now have an easy get out ball, as he seems to be able to pluck every high clearance they can throw at him out of midair , no matter how seemingly overstruck. This allows the midfield to advance and play off him more as the game goes on. With Gilberto, on for Eboue, there to tidy up in the central midield, the versatile and increasingly impressive Flamini moves wide right. He's on hand just behind van Persie when Adebayor's inviting cutback from the by-line just evades Fabregas' control. But Flamini is not needed. RVP11 is on on hand with a calm and measured finish, stroking the ball in high to the lefthand corner with his left foot.
Arsenal play out the remaining fourteen minutes with a few of those lengthy passages of passing and movement during which the opposition can only chase and watch as the ball is teased around them like the dance of the seven veils. There are some beautiful sequences as the clock ticks down, but none to match that which the team is putting together with these results. They've won every game they've played since that Jens Lehmann fumble gifted Blackburn an equaliser in the game at Ewood Park. "That is how you do it", crows Drury, and even I can't help but warm to him and his words. "An object lesson in European football. Nine wins on the spin..." I haven't checked this up, but if Drury and Beglin's stats are correct, we're the first English team to beat Steaua in Bucharest.
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