I had hoped Ian Holloway would hang on at least until I’d written my Crystal Palace preview. He is the only real connection I had with today’s lunchtime opponents. I used to watch Ian from the cold stone steps of Twerton Park as he plied his trade for a then homeless Bristol Rovers during their most successful period in yonks. His playing style was akin to Matthieu Flamini but with goals. In Bristolian the word goal is pronounced to rhyme with ball (sounding more like gall) hence our terrace chant of “Holloway, Holloway, Holly Holloway, He gets the ball – he scores a goal, Holly Holloway.” He was one of those combative, no frills, all action midfielders who inspire team mates and supporters alike and even though he comes across these days as more than a little bit deranged he still holds a special place in my heart.
But of course he’s gone now and so I can’t really include him here. The only other image that immediately springs to mind when I consider our hosts is the Crystal Palace kit from the late seventies that looked like a cigarette packet. You remember – the white one with the diagonal flash like a pack of Embassy Blue Regal. These days they dress better but remain one of those sides who flirt with the big time and then slip away from view for a few more years. I must say their early results this time around don’t suggest that will change any time soon. In fact if it wasn’t for the truly woeful form of Sunderland (the only side Palace have beaten thus far) then the Eagles would be anchoring the bottom of the table, already adrift and with the outlook bleak.
We have had few notable dealings with them in the transfer market over the years. In fact all that I can recall is a couple of centre forwards one from them to us and one from us to them. Whether Marouane Chamakh will go on to enjoy a similar level of success with Palace as Ian Wright did with Arsenal remains to be seen, stranger things have happened I suppose, but the portents are not encouraging. Big Nic Bendtner was rumoured to be heading their way for a while and may be sat in the dugout this afternoon wondering at how curious life can turn out sometimes, let’s face it, if the Pulis rumours are true then our Danish sumo star must surely consider himself the single luckiest man in football today.
According to a bloke at work the game today represents a massive potential banana skin for Arsenal. Bill gets his views straight from the back pages and Sky Sports News. You can readily imagine how stilted our conversations are whenever sport is on the agenda. I employ him as a pundit barometer. I don’t need to read the gutter press nor watch gutter television to know which way their hot air is blowing, I just listen to Bill. He even likes the odd wager so certain is he of his sources and the veracity of their editorial line. In the last couple of seasons he has gleefully shaken hands with me on, among other things, Arsène’s demise. Out by Christmas was a recent prediction and that was a fiver I happily removed from his wallet. This time around however something is stirring. Arsenal are looking good this year. Arsenal have splashed the cash and have been transformed into title contenders. Arsenal, get this, have a great looking squad. Seriously. From the same people who told us all summer long how thin and weak our squad is, we now learn that the same squad bar an awful lot of departures and only one notable addition is significantly stronger. But, Bill warned me, title contenders and top teams can often come unstuck at places like Selhurst Park. Just when everyone expects you to win, you turn in a lousy performance or hit the woodwork and have goals disallowed and nailed on penalty appeals turned down.
OK so we all know these things do happen but if we have serious aspirations to the title this season we simply cannot allow such aberrations. I don’t believe in banana skins nor in bad luck costing you over the long haul. Yes maybe in knock-out competitions. Let’s face it if Chelsea can win the Champions League then it proves that anyone can win any cup tournament with phenomenal good fortune and a string of silly unlikely results. Not the Premiership though. Consistency, a settled, balanced squad with good injury cover in the reserves and one or maybe two players having the season of their lives. That’s what wins titles. I think our problem so far with that list is that we have only one player in absolutely dazzling all out amazing form and the fact that he is so very very young places a hell of a burden on his shoulders. It’s no coincidence that when Aaron is relatively quiet we don’t look so threatening. The problem as I see it is that he is still learning the game and at his age will suffer dips in form and won’t be able to achieve his best week in week out. When Bergkamp or Henry did it for us in the past they had been at the very top of the tree for long enough to deal with the demands of a long season. I think we need one of the senior players to stay injury free and get his performances up to the levels achieved by the man who is so far our player of the season.
I don’t care who the player is. Olivier Giroud has shown he can provide as well as score and if he does both or either every week he could well be the man. Santi has all the attributes, Mesut is still finding his feet in the hurly burly of the Prem so it might be too big an ask this early in his Arsenal career. As I say it could be anyone but it has to be someone. Football is a team game but successful teams have stand out players. It’s similar to cricket in this respect. In cricket no match is ever won by everybody getting forty five runs. Someone steps up and hits a ton. Aaron shows he has the skill, the lungs and right now the confidence to be that man, but when you factor in the time he has lost to that unspeakable assault at the hands of a Pulis protégé we are talking about a guy with equivalent experience of a twenty year old. It’s a hell of an ask for him to boss the midfields of every top side we face between now and May. I’ve said it before, if only Tomas was five years younger; the cruelty of the injuries suffered by Arsène’s squads over recent seasons cannot be underestimated.
So to the match. It’s an early kick off, so don’t get caught out by that. If you have the free BT channel my advice is using live pause to synchronise the timing, have the commentary on Arsenal Player and the pictures on your telly. Don’t whatever you do subject yourself to Michael Owen’s soporific insights, they will drain every ounce of pleasure you might otherwise derive from the spectacle. Of course if you’re lucky enough to be at the match you don’t need to concern yourself with such niceties, you can just sing your heart out and be the twelfth man that the away support so often is. Arsène was cagey about Jack after his ankle problems in midweek so I’m guessing he might be rested, but hey – what do any of us know? Plenty thought Aaron should be rested when he was at a similar stage in his rehabilitation as that through which Jack is currently playing. Form unpredictable, only flashes of what he is truly capable, often played out of position lacking a little composure and consistency – the parallels are obvious. Far from resting him Arsène played Aaron at every opportunity and if he feels the same will work with Jack then who are we to second guess him? With that in mind I expect the side to be similar to the Dortmund game with Santi in for Jack being the only change, after all they will want to redeem themselves and they’ll get a rest for the league cup game when the reserves will have a run out. So, given the unlikelihood of these predictions ever being correct, expect wholesale changes from Tuesday’s line up.
OK, it’s an early one so I’m off to walk the dogs and get myself in the mood. See you here later.