Smash-and-grab Anfield assault makes trek north oh so worthwhile

SETTING off from South Mimms on Saturday, in wet conditions, for a 400-mile round trip and in none-too optimistic mood with Fabregas suspended, none of us knew why we were making the long schlep to the North-West.

In such miserable circumstances, us masochistic suckers for punishment know just what it’s like to be the moth, instinctively drawn towards the flame, even though there’s every prospect of having our wings singed once again, by another inconsistent performance from our fair-weather team.

Yet after suffering such frustrating outings as those to Bolton and Sheffield, you dare not stop at home, for fear of missing out on one of those special occasions, which obliterates the memory of former scars and serves as a reminder of the rewards on offer, to those of us who endure the hardship and expense of the travelling fan.

Unlike the still soulless environment of our new stadium — especially with the recent, preposterously PC flag ban — there remains some sense that Liverpool FC has not totally relinquished its relationship with the club’s working class roots. Moreover there exists a mutual respect between fans of these two great footballing institutions, as witnessed by the way in which the majority of us Gooners were moved by Saturday’s emotionally-charged and impressive “Justice for the 96” protest.

To be honest, you wouldn’t catch me complaining if us fans made our feelings known with this sort of demo more frequently, as in this instance it was the ideal kick-start to the atmosphere and made for a good old-fashioned, fervent FA Cup occasion.

In fact it was like stepping back in time, in more ways than one, as on the pitch, we Gooners savoured a first-half smash-and-grab, followed by the sort of backs-to-the-wall, remarkably resilient display after the break that was far more George Graham than Arsène Wenger. It was evident right from the off that it was going to take a big-hearted performance, if we were going to make it into the hat for the fourth round, as inspired by the home fans’ sonorous display of solidarity, the Scousers were bang up for it, hardly giving the Gunners breathing space, let alone time on the ball.

In such a pressure cooker climate, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that those of us behind the goal were left holding our breath, when Gilberto was enticed into making a rash tackle on Alonso, in the box, right in front of us.

If this incident had taken place down the other end of the pitch, there’s little doubt that the Kop’s raucous reaction would’ve been likely to result in the ref awarding a penalty and the relief amongst us Gooners was positively palpable, when Bennett booked Alonso instead. Yet while I’ll concede there definitely was contact and it was far from a blatant dive, there was some element of a wily Alonso attempting to earn a penalty.

Tommie Rosicky proved his World Cup feats weren’t a fluke, when he tonked one in from outside the area in Hamburg back in September, and we’ve been waiting all season for a repeat performance. It proved well worth the wait and when he bagged a second for good measure, moments before the break, facing the prospect of a long second half siege, I enquired: “Can we go home now?”

If the first 45 flew by, the second half seemed an eternity, as inevitably the Arsenal sat back and failed to stem the endless supply of crosses. Mathieu Flamini has a big heart, but he’s no Steve Gerrard when it comes to natural ability, while Phillipe Senderos has all too often looked a nervous wreck at the back in recent weeks.

Considering pre-match concerns that these two might prove to be our weakest links, it was a delightful irony that they both turned out to be our unlikely heroes, throwing their bodies in front of the ball and relentlessly thwarting Scouse attacks at every opportunity, with the sort of tireless display that typified the Arsenal’s stalwart second-half effort.

However it was almost inevitable that we were going to succumb at some stage and when Kuyt did eventually find the back of the net, we were fortunate to have the majestic Henry at hand, to prevent the home side’s resurrection gathering momentum and to kill the game off in such fine style.

For the third successive season, we now face a confrontation with our FA Cup nemesis, Bolton, if we’re going to get any closer.

While Liverpool will be absolutely desperate to ensure we don’t extinguish all hope of any domestic silverware, with the pressure off our Carling Cup kids on Tuesday, it would be bloomin’ marvellous if we could maintain the winning momentum, especially if I can find some Gooner mad enough to accompany me all the way back up there again!

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