As he drives into work this morning, Arsène will hopefully have taken notice of sage advice imparted from his battered copy of K-Tel’s Disco Fever for Billy Ocean was indeed a wise man and Red Light (Spells Danger). Maybe if it had been about red zones, he would have done although I am not too sure that the single would have been so successful with that alternative title. It probably would have; I am sure that somewhere lurks a hit which was in fact just a reading of the phone directory with a disco beat as a backdrop. We used to buy any old rubbish in those days, it’s the only way something as awful as Convoy GB could have hit the top of the charts.
The FA Cup final against Hull has brought Arsenal out fighting, in a civilised way of course. Ivan Gazidis was rightly critical of the number of tickets received and with last year’s increased allocation to Manchester City, there is still the opportunity that more than the original 25k allocation will be available. With 40% of the crowd supporting neither side, the FA has got the sums horribly wrong. It might be the FA’s blue riband event but it is not a celebration of the game, a festival of football. It is a major domestic trophy, one that has a dulled sheen compared to yesteryear and the way to bring that back, is involving more genuine supporters. I know that there are many people who sacrifice time without reward at the grass-roots – we have all come across them – but the FA could recognise their efforts in other ways; how about giving them a set number of England tickets each year, God knows the crowds for those matches need boosting. As for the corporate crowd, why 17,000? That is nearly 20% of the capacity of the stadium! The FA Cup final, like any other cup final, is about the supporters of the clubs involved, not anyone else. The problem of inadequate ticket allocations is nothing new, it existed when the crumbling terraces stood beneath the twin towers. The failure of the FA to tackle the problem remains the same as well as football remains a hostage to its fortune.
Those fortunes may be increased if reports in the Daily Telegraph are even vaguely on the right track. UEFAs FFP regulations are about to bite the transgressors where it hurts. If a toothless mouth can hurt when it bites; I can’t remember if it does, granny hasn’t done that for a few years now. Manchester City and PSG are, it seems, included in 20 clubs who have breached the €45m losses regulations over the rolling cycle. The sanction of banning clubs from the Champions League is not likely to happen with fines or transfer window bans issued. The punishment which will make the sit up and take notice of the regulations, which will make other clubs sit up and take notice of the regulations, is not an option at the moment. Compliance, it seems, wants comes through acquiescence not confrontation. The French champions believe their sponsorship deal that makes them profitable, is all above-board. City probably the same; if they disagree, the option of appealing to the CAS exists and will most likely be taken.
And therein is UEFAs problem. Whilst Arsenal, Everton and others can complain that the punishment is too lenient, none will; it would be breaking ranks within the English game and the cosy cartel at the top shattered. Perhaps that is what is needed, a bout of righteous indignation from one of the Premier League but the problem with that is not the action but the fallout afterwards. It would be no surprise if there isn’t a regulation in the handbook which prevents member clubs from taking such an action. The presumption of guilt has, by the way, come from the newspaper. To fail these rules takes some doing given the vagueness of the regulations and if City can’t show that they are heading toward compliance, then more fool them.
But let’s be honest, fining a club or banning them from a transfer window, isn’t going to bring about any change in mentality, it will just make events cyclical: a couple of seasons of making the right moves financially, big transfer spend followed by heavy losses incurred, fine and transfer ban ensues, only for the cycle to begin again. If FFP is to stick, banning clubs from the Champions League is the answer but it won’t happen, not because of sponsorship revenues either – well, had it been Barcelona, United or Real in the dock, perhaps but not City and PSG. UEFA quelled the clubs ambitions by bringing them ‘in-house’ but it doesn’t change attitudes. The formation of a European Super League haunts every decision. At the moment, it would be under UEFAs auspices but annoy enough clubs – or the right (wrong) clubs – and the charade of the football family will crumble.
Thankfully the business of football switches to its proper place tonight; the pitch. It’s a must-win game in a season of must-win games and tests. Everton have as much of a home banker as they could wish for tomorrow night so any ascendency to fourth place by Arsenal might be short-lived. As much as three points serves that purpose, it also applies pressure to Everton who face Manchester United this weekend. They may falter, they may not but to expect them to do so in the way Tottenham have done in the past couple of seasons is foolhardy. The team which has collapsing form is Arsenal and they need to rectify that with victory this evening.
His roll call might not have been too informative yesterday – a lot of ifs, buts and maybes about fitness – but he left no illusion about the importance of finishing fourth,
For many years I was sitting here and had to convince you that it was important that we were in the top four. Now it is in a reverse position, you say to me: ‘You realise how important it is for us. It is vital. It is vital for the young players as well. You learn more by playing against Bayern or Barcelona or Real Madrid than if you play in the Europa League. You don’t go backwards but you want to play with the top teams. It’s vital to me to do it. I want this club to play in the top level competition. For that you want to be in the Champions League.
There is a whole post in its own right about whether we learn anything from playing the likes of Barcelona or Bayern, there is nothing tangible upon which we can hang our hats. I wonder if Arsène is looking at the two the wrong way round, perhaps an analogy with possession of the ball; sometimes you have to go backwards to move forwards? As it is, he may dodge that bullet if Arsenal take maximum points from their remaining games, something of a tall order for a team that has taken two from the last twelve.
And yet, strangely, I expect them to do well tonight, to win comfortably even if the scoreline won’t necessarily reflect that. Let’s not build West Ham up too much and similarly overplay our problems. There is a reason The ‘Appy ‘Ammers are sitting below mid-table; they have taken 8 points from a possible 45 against teams in the top ten and none in the last four matches against those teams. Yes, they drew at Chelsea and beat Tottenham but they were so long ago as to be irrelevant. It’s a bit like us referring to beating Liverpool in the league and FA Cups as some sort of form guide; they got us to where we are now but frankly the performance levels were a million miles away from those we have seen recently.
Saturday’s win, despite being on penalties, is a win and confidence boosting. The fall-out is a lack of recovery time and whilst the club is fighting the fans corner with the FA, they didn’t do much to help the players with the fixture schedule. Laurent Koscielny’s return to training might offer Per Mertesacker a well-earned rest but if Mikel Arteta doesn’t play, Thomas Vermaelen may need to play the defensive midfield role alongside Kim Kallström; surely Aaron Ramsey cannot play tonight? Such is the bare bones nature of the squad, Abou Diaby might yet make an appearance. No disrespect to him or his abilities but Ramsey is vital to the run-in and should not be risked or play Russian roulette with his fitness.
The best we might hope for in terms of the starting line-up is not too bad, Arsène has to apply the handbrake to his own predilection toward being bullish regarding the players fitness:
Szczesny; Jenkinson, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Arteta, Kallström, Rosicky; Cazorla, Podolski; Giroud
If Rosicky does not make it, Gnabry on the right is an option with Cazorla playing centrally. It might even tempt the manager into using the more orthodox 4-4-2 with Cazorla on the left. That certainly would meet West Ham’s physicality in midfield, a stereotypical aspect of all Sam Allardyce’s teams. It will be a battle, for despite his pleasantries, the West Ham manager would enjoy nothing more than walking away with three points that wrecked Arsenal’s Premier League ambitions.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.