Always a curious feeling going into a two legged knockout game. On the one hand we have the excitement of taking part in the final stages of the Champion’s League, one of the greatest club tournaments in the world. On the other hand we face the chilling prospect of trying to get past the five time winners, current holders and owners of some of the greatest footballing talents ever seen wearing the same shirts. On the other hand tonight will only be the first half, part one of two, with the only guarantee that of an undecided outcome. In short, this is the kind of night suitable only for those with three hands.
I never know what to feel about a first leg. I’m wound up like a hungry boa constrictor getting around his first wild pig of the day and yet I know from much experience that I will be left with a sense of anti climax after the final whistle regardless of the score. Just like the draw for the next round of the FA cup I cannot get myself interested in something that hasn’t happened and may not come to pass. We could be leading by two clear goals after tonight or losing by a similar amount and it will mean nothing. Nothing beyond a head start or a handicap at the opening note of the referees little instrument in the Camp Nou in just over three week’s time. Both circumstances could be dramatically altered within minutes of that note disappearing into the ether. A very odd state of affairs.
Is it important to win a home tie? Of course it is. It’s always important to win any tie. Is it the most important thing or is not conceding an away goal more significant? Is the away goal rule the biggest pile of dog doo in the history of the football rule book? Would you rather travel to Barca two one up or at nil nil? If they fail to score do they play with less panache in their home leg being all the time conscious of the damage a break away goal can do? Do we opt for Theo’s pace or Olivier’s guile and habit of scoring against the big boys? Is Danny fit enough to start? Will Alexis’ frustrating lack of form evaporate into a glorious exhibition of destruction against his old club? Do we defend as against Bayern or go for it and try to surprise them?
Today I am full of questions. Tomorrow I fear I will only have more. What can we predict with any certainty? Death and sex according to Woody Allen who went on to add “Two things that come once in my lifetime. But at least after death you’re not nauseous” he might have been talking of victory and defeat.
According to the form book we are Hull and Barca are us tonight. The switch from shoe in to also ran is a curious one for us fans and I suspect for the players. Supporters are swinging between the moodiness of an anticipated mauling and the thrill at the thought of overturning the odds and of a famous victory. We could of course defend with heroism and whatever luck is going around (apologies to Millsy for use of the forbidden concept) and stun them on the breakaway. We could get tonked.
But if we are cast in the role of Hull just remember what happened as you ate your lunch on Saturday and remember that as crazily talented as their players are they can only field eleven of them. As long as the referee doesn’t intervene to send any of our chaps off for an ill deserved early splash in the team bath then we too will have eleven guys out there and none of them will be there as a reward for winning a competition in Take A Break.
Our players are not mugs and our manager is not wet behind the ears. No one gave us a prayer before any of the historic European victories we have enjoyed down through the years and so what? Fuck the doubters and the spineless and the agenda driven anti Arsenal mainstream media; win lose or draw we’ll give it everything we’ve got and who knows we might just stagger out of the evening bloodied but unbowed. We might even give the darlings of the pundits a couple of bruises of their own to think about on the slow boat back to Catalonia.
I hate being underdogs, I hate the thought of defeat to certain teams more than any others and tonight’s opponents are among that select, foetid few. It makes me nervous not because I assume we’ll lose but because in the event of a defeat the taste will be so much more bitter. I believe we can do it, I know it will be tough. Obviously it won’t be the end of the world if we lose but it will put a dent in the momentum we’ve been trying to build since our run of unwelcome results in January. Then again it won’t mean a thing because of course tonight will end at the start of a kind of long drawn out half time.
Nothing will be settled. Nothing will be known. Nothing is certain. A curious sensation of detachment accompanies the butterflies and tension as I anticipate what may be a great European night. One nil to the Arsenal is my preferred outcome. Three nil would surely be too much to hope for and they’d rip into us with a nothing to lose attitude in the second leg. Two nil is a mischievous lead. Seemingly impregnable until you concede a goal and then the momentum shifts horribly in favour of the other lot. One nil might put them in fear of the away goal and so cause them to keep half an eye on the back door. Gives us at once something to defend and something to aim at. That’s not a prediction you understand. That’s just a positive scenario and one which I can actually imagine.
Anyway, time to stick the kettle on and rinse out my lucky Arsenal mug. Or not. I could of course wait and use it for a cuppa at any time in the next three weeks and I still would have employed it’s nebulous, recondite charms during the course of the tie. It’s an odd one to be sure. But then these two legged ties are odd aren’t they? Curious chaps. Jigsaws with missing pieces. Sausage sandwiches with no brown sauce. Story arcs with no denouement. A concerto with no final note.