Please accept my apologies if my by now customary flights of fancy are a little more fanciful than usual but yesterday I awoke with a migraine. The only efficacious pain medication I’ve found in these circumstances sends me a little, not to put too fine a point on it, doolally. I’ve been returning slowly to planet earth but it’s been a circuitous route and bits of me may still be out there somewhere.
Imagine my surprise therefore on throwing back the curtains, sipping my coffee and opening the sports pages of Večernji List to find renowned Croatian football correspondent Robert Junaci in a lather over the anticipated visit of Arsène Wenger and his Arsenal team. We have a match today? This calls for decisive action. I resolved then and there that I’d better put down my Croatian phrase book ( Where is the nearest philatelist? : Gdje je najbliža filatelista? ) and get straight on with the job in hand, viz. producing a knowledgeable and above all relevant pre match piece for Positively A.
Before I pushed my favourite Zagreb based daily aside however, my eye fell to an interview with Marko Rog wherein the young midfielder’s views were solicited upon the prospect of facing the North London giants in the Champions League. He was asked a series of penetrating and incisive questions of the ‘What is your favourite colour?’ variety so beloved of Smash Hits journalists but did reveal that he rated Mesut Özil the most dangerous of the Arsenal players. Sounds like a sensible young man to me. He deftly deflected the question as to whether he’d like to play for Arsène Wenger by protesting that, having only just arrived in Zagreb, now wasn’t the time to talk about leaving. Given that almost all the best players at the Emirates are only there for the opportunity to work under the great man we could all have answered the question for him.
Before heading to the old Smith Corona and spooling in a fresh sheet of foolscap to write this piece, another snippet caught my eye. Per Mertesacker will be missing tonight after making an unscheduled stop on the way home from training. His car apparently came to rest in the remnants of what had been, only moments before, a roadside fence. The unfortunate incident itself wasn’t news but what amused me was the opening sentence which loosely translated read “High guard Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker, who avoided military service in Germany because it does not fit in the tank,” It does not fit in a tank? Really? Wow. BFG indeed. One wonders whether the Deutsches Heer couldn’t have found him some other employment where he’d be less inhibited by his generous dimensions. I’m guessing being the peaceable, gentle soul that he is Per didn’t mind not being squashed inside a 43 tonne Schützenpanzer Puma death machine.
With Hector and Aaron not travelling, and if my Croatian paper is to be believed, then those two and Per join the short but acute injury list as non travellers. This leads me, Sherlock Holmes like, to assume the team sheet will feature M. Debuchy among the back four and an attacking midfield berth filled by A. M. D. Oxlade-Chamberlain. I am as you know averse to team selection predictions. One had just as well predict the likelihood of snow at Christmas 2022 for all the good it does any of us but I wonder if those left waving their pals off on the runway at Heathrow haven’t made the changes more obvious. One doesn’t want too many alterations to a winning team and with a few enforced ones already in place there is less room to chop and change elsewhere.
All shall be revealed in good time but whichever side the manager selects will need to be on its mettle against a very confident team who are super excited to be playing in the Champions League and are acutely aware how easy it can be to slip through the cracks of the group stage. My Adriatic sources assure me that the Zagreb players have woken every morning for months now thinking only of the Champions League. These guys are motivated. They have a fantastic home record and would love to add such a prodigious scalp as Arsenal’s to their collection. Now one can only assume that my sources spoke metaphorically when using such bloodthirsty imagery. This may be a club who’s CEO and manager are awaiting trail on bribery and corruption charges and who’s fans have a reputation for fiercely partisan loyalty to their team but for goodness sake they aren’t Stoke City.
So, while we should be safe from losing our heads, or any part thereof, we still need to put in a good shift to come home with the points. I expect the experience of Captain Arteta to be crucial in negotiating the rapids of the Sava. With his steadying influence and Theo’s pace on the counter we ought to be able to get the job done. Certainly if the enthusiasm of the home team overcomes their cautious instincts then our first goal against Stoke at the weekend may make a tasty template for tonight.
Tell me, can you experience an anti climax in advance of an event? Does the concept even exist and if so what does one call it? The Germans probably have a long convoluted word comprising several shorter ones to describe what I’m getting at. A sort of ‘looking forward to something even though you know it will leave you strangely unsatisfied’ feeling. Something like freutsichaufetwasobwohlsiewisseneswirdihnenseltsamunbefriedigtverlassen sounds about right.
In any event this is how I feel in the run up to these matches. I am quite naturally excited beyond words at the prospect of my club competing at the highest level of European football, as every fan must be. I am equally conscious of the debt we owe Arsène Wenger for getting us there yet again. It really has been a phenomenal achievement and we should be eternally grateful. However the group stages, and to an extent any competition where there are two legs to a tie, leave me knowing that whatever the outcome I cannot cheer too loudly nor sink too far into despair because nothing will have actually been decided. Unlike a straightforward knock-out tournament the early games in a group stage or the first leg of a knock-out match leave one playing all sorts of future possibilities out in one’s mind. Did we do enough? Can we overcome the deficit? Maybe someone else will slip up, maybe we made a great start but could stumble later. The thing is so nebulous, the outcome so equivocal it leaves me feeling all freutsichaufetwasobwohlsiewisseneswirdihnenseltsamunbefriedigtverlassen in the build up to tonight’s match.
So what to do? Well, I think the only think we can do is hope for ninety minutes of entertainment. Either a nail biter that goes to the wire leaving us panting and weak like an ageing and unwisely over athletic lover, or a beautifully constructed performance of control and goals eaten slowly and with relish over the course of the evening. I think we should just enjoy the game as a one off and let the future arrive in its own good time. It’s going to anyway so why try to second guess it? Win, lose or draw all we can wish for is a good game, no injuries, nobody bribing the referee and the spectators all getting home safely. Not, you understand, that I’d be averse to a thumping great win. Theo is overdue a Croatian hat trick, after all, it’s been seven years since his last one in Zagreb. Now that’s a nice thought to savour as we all count down the minutes to kick off isn’t it?