Thankfully, unlike the farcical officiating at the Etihad, the ref at St James’ Park on Saturday didn’t thoroughly spoil the spectacle for the watching millions, by sending the wrong player off in the opening seconds.
Even if it did take until half-time for the home side to eventually turn up.
Mind you, it’s never a good sign when you find yourself concentrating on the clock more than the events on the pitch, and with the Gunners visibly wilting before our eyes in the second-half, I ended up desperately willing the minutes to tick away fast enough for us to escape Tyneside with all three points still intact.
In truth, with us seemingly in cruise control, 0-2 up at the break, we really ought to have avoided the agony of all that nail-biting tension in the closing stages.
If we hadn’t been quite so casual about imposing our obvious superior ability upon Newcastle’s makeshift defence, this game would’ve long since been done and dusted and we could’ve been treated to a stress-free, comfortable triumph.
Perhaps the Toon had their “flip-flops” forcibly torn off by a tongue-lashing from their manager. Or maybe it was John Carver’s introduction of half-time calisthenics that energized his troops.
But this proverbial game of two halves gave us a completely different Arsenal in the second period, as we sluggishly returned to the fray like a side stirring from a half-time snooze.
Having just been bounced off the grand European stage, onto a far more prosaic tour of the provinces, it was hardly surprising there was something of a hangover. Especially after running themselves into the ground, in our game effort to turn the Champions League tie around in Monaco in midweek.
I had exorcised the demons of our depressing ‘Groundhog Day’ exit from the knockout stages following the first-leg fiasco and the foreign jolly was merely a much-treasured excuse to spend a few days catching up with a mate who abides in Aix en Provence.
Having savoured a seat at football’s top table for 17 successive seasons, Gooners can be a bit blasé about our Champions League exploits. But my brief stay in the South of France served to substantiate how the global significance of this competition has now grown to such an extent that it has become the closest thing the modern world has to gladiatorial combat.
Getting down with the Gallic locals, I booked a car share to the game and back, sharing the journey with fellow travellers (lunatics!) making a ten-hour round trip from somewhere near Lyon, to take in this sumptuous football feast.
To avoid an arduous trek to the away seats and to prevent me from being detained by “les flics” at the final whistle and potentially missing my ride back, I managed to blag a seat in the press box, where I found myself ligging with Bono and a gaggle of assorted luminaries at the break.
It was agonising sitting on my hands during the game and doubtless, if the Gunners had managed to snatch an injury-time winner, my non-partizan cover would’ve been well and truly blown.
It was in a humble Irish pub in Aix the following night when I was struck with the enormity of these events, as I joined the French who were gathering ‘en masse’ to savour an encounter between two teams from Spain and England; vociferously “oohing” and “aahing” as Messi singlehandedly mesmerized Man City and applauding Joe Hart’s astonishingly stubborn resistance in Camp Nou.
The only similarity shared between such a grandiose stage and a subdued St James Park at the start on Saturday was the altitude of the away fans, with us Gooners seated so far up in the Gods that all efforts to influence proceedings on the pitch felt frustratingly futile.
But with the Gunners on the back foot after the break, the place was soon rocking after Sissoko did what Welbeck hadn’t managed to do earlier on.
With all the teams around us picking up points, we badly needed to ‘climb back on the horse’ and revive the feelgood factor. The final whistle, when it came, was a relief, but this wasn’t about the performance, it was all about the result, enabling us to reach the “Interlull” with our Premiership momentum unscathed.
An international break has rarely been more welcome. Hopefully we’ll be returning against the Scousers in a fortnight’s time, with a semi-final ticket in my back pocket and with the Gunners grateful for the opportunity to refocus on the fact that we remain one of the few privileged sides still with so much to play for.
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