By Bernard Azulay
IT’S been a long while since I’ve been as disappointed by an Arsenal performance as I was by our dreadfully lame display against Liverpool.
There are some deluded Gooners who are suggesting it wasn’t so bad. After all, if it wasn’t for the Scousers’ late goal, we would’ve pinched a precious point.
However, I have to tell you that back on a sunny August afternoon in 1994, when the rebuilding of the Kop resulted in a reduced capacity at Anfield, I was amongst about 500 odd travelling fans who endured Robbie Fowler’s astonishing five-minute hat-trick.
Yet I experienced nothing like the embarrassment during the 3-0 drubbing that day as I did watching Arsenal last week.
In all honesty, I would’ve rather seen us mullahed by a similar scoreline (and we would’ve been if it wasn’t for the feats of our loopy German ‘keeper), than suffer this sort of heartless and morale-sapping showing, where we looked a beaten side from the moment Poll blew his whistle.
Up until last Tuesday, I’d had it in my head that with two encounters against Liverpool still to come, there was still plenty of hope of us pegging the Scousers back.
Sure, with our current inconsistent form, perhaps all three points at Anfield was a long shot.
But I was looking forward to the fact that we at least had an opportunity to give it a go.
After the boost of our late equaliser against Bolton and with the entire media writing off our season, I was fully expecting to see a pumped-up Arsenal side desperate to restore some pride by playing their way into some form.
What’s more, only a week away from the most glamorous encounter of our entire season, one would’ve expected the Gunners to be grafting their socks off to secure their place in the starting line-up.
However, instead of the "death or glory" performance I was hoping for, we witnessed just about the most insipid 90 minutes of football of this entire lacklustre season.
It is all well and good for Wenger to stick to his guns by always showing his unqualified support for his players in public but I often wonder if, as a result, they exist in some sort of bubble, where they just don’t appreciate that the party line doesn’t wash with the watching public.
No matter how many times our manager intones his mantra, it may ring true for a couple of the players who retain their youthful vigour, but for the vast majority of Tuesday’s team, there’s hardly a soul on this planet who’d agree with Wenger’s suggestion that they "gave everything".
For me, absolutely the worst aspect to this game was the sight of our lot suddenly steaming in after Garcia’s goal, with only three minutes left on the clock, as there couldn’t have been more stark evidence of the sort of fervour that had been lacking up until then.
It’s hard for me to express quite how soul-destroying it is to be heading off to Madrid in such a morbid mood.
I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to see the Arsenal play in the Bernabeu for so many seasons now, that I am struggling to get to grips with the fact that we’re finally going there, following an Arsenal side that appears shorn of all self-belief.
There was a time when it didn’t matter if we were travelling abroad to support the mediocre likes of Morrow, Selley and McGoldrick competing against a star-studded Parma team.
We had sufficient faith back then that, given enough grit and determination, we were capable of stifling any side and could always nick the odd goal over the course of 90 minutes.
However, times have changed.
Never mind the question of whether the current team have the "cahones", Wenger’s obsession with the beautiful game means his teams have never been built for containment.
You will already know by now if we have embarrassed ourselves in the Bernabeu.
But if our last chance of silverware is going to slip by, I’d much rather exit on a glorious 5-3 goalfest than lie down like lambs in a gutless game similar to last week’s nondescript 1-0.
Much has been made of the fact that there wasn’t a single player from these shores in the entire squad at Anfield.
Personally, I don’t think the inclusion of Ashley Cole or Sol Campbell would have mattered a jot, as Brits are no more likely to bring backbone to the party than any other player these days.
The absence of a genuine leader with the sort of strength of character to inspire and cajole the best out of those around him has been obvious all season.
It’s a self-perpetuating circle of decline, at a time when the club can least afford it. Perhaps all we require is a captain with some sturdy sea-legs, but with Wenger facing his stiffest task yet to try and turn this ship around, sadly he’s looking more like the obsequious Swede than the armour-plated Portuguese.
However, above all, we must maintain our faith. Listening to all the griping Gooners on the phone-ins last week reminded me of a much darker time a decade or so ago.
I participated as an extra in a crowd scene for a short movie entitled "Faith" which was being filmed outside Highbury. Such was the dearth of entertainment back then, that it was a feasible storyline to have a Gooner mounting a rooftop protest outside the club until they purchased a midfield playmaker.
Thanks to Wenger, we’ve been incredibly privileged to witness a wealth of world-class players pass through the Marble Halls since the days of such banal mediocrity and we absolutely have to believe there’s still plenty more to come.
* Contact Bernard at LondonN5@gmail.com