Will there be anyone fit to face Braga?

I’M oblivious to the specifics of the alleged infidelities in the Wayne Rooney furore, but I was disappointed Fergie left him out at Goodison, as I tuned in to Saturday’s live coverage looking forward to seeing the spectacle of Toffee fans donning Bob Marley wigs, to serenade Wayne with their rendition of “No Woman, No Cry”.

With such a multi-cultural bouillabaisse on the Arsenal books, sadly we’ve grown all too accustomed to the costly injury toll of international breaks. I should’ve known it was tempting fate to tease my Spurs mates about losing Dawson and I was half-expecting Walcott to end up in a crumpled heap. Nevertheless, with Theo in such scintillating form and with Van Persie (another “sick-note” striker!) already ruled out for a couple of months, it was no less disappointing to see our precious Road Runner stretchered off against the Swiss.

With Squillaci making his debut alongside Koscielny, a centre-back partnership that’s never played together, Chamakh on his own up front and Sagna and Clichy confined to the bench, Arsène’s severely shuffled pack in advance of tonight’s Euro curtain-raiser didn’t exactly leave me bristling with confidence.

It was somewhat disturbing to see Jack Wilshere disappear straight down the tunnel when he was subbed after an hour and to see Diaby, his replacement doing likewise only 10 minutes later, with a lingering limp from a bone-crunching, full-frontal assault. Yet despite all the changes, it was very promising to see us pass Bolton into a coma, in 26-move build-up to Vela’s 83rd minute finale. It’s been the seamless integration of squad players that’s been a significant feature of Wenger’s most successful sides.

I doubt Arsène expected our squad’s depth to be quite so stretched this early in the season (or perhaps we’d have been less parsimonious in our transfer dealings?). It’ll be interesting to see who emerges from a treatment room full of our walking wounded, fit enough to play against Braga and whether we’ve sufficient quality to continue to build on Saturday’s momentum.

I certainly don’t expect the Portuguese side to be a pushover, should they reproduce the same ‘never say die’ spirit seen to date. Their attitude against Sevilla appeared more Premiership-like than the majority of our top-flight outfits nowadays! Hopefully just getting to the group stages will have proved to be their cup final and they won’t have the stamina to maintain the same adrenaline level for a six-match European marathon.

Meanwhile, perhaps one of the benefits of being forced to send out the sum total of our summer spending, is that this unfamiliar pairing at the back aren’t burdened by the panic-struck baggage of our recent defensive insecurities. As a result, notwithstanding Koscielny’s unfortunate cock-up, both he and Squillaci appeared reassuringly composed, in the face of the “robust” attentions of one of our more uncomfortable opponents. Give them both a few games in front of our goalie and they’ll doubtless soon develop into the sort of nervous wrecks we’ve come to know and love!

While I might no longer be the physical game’s greatest advocate, as someone who was weaned on the success of the workmanlike resilience preached by messrs Mee & Howe, I’m certainly not knocking it.

Kevin Davies has that canny, Mark Hughes-like knack of making himself enemy number one by preying on less experienced opponents, getting away with blue murder when inveigling free-kicks and when dishing it out.

The contempt evident on both sides of the partisan fence is often the yardstick of an utterly incompetent official. Cahill’s clattering of Chamakh was no more offensive than several other challenges. Never mind Atwell missing Song’s foul seconds earlier, with us all baying for blood after Davies had wiped out Koscielny just before that, Atwell attempted to compensate by making the defender pay for his captain’s crimes.

As for the Arsenal skipper, in contrast to his poor previous performance, we were left positively purring as Cesc produced plenty of incisive passing&. In spite of Fab’s symphonic footwork, I continue to sense the discordant body language of a pouting teen who’s fed up of constantly being told to tidy his room, leaving others around him to do all the donkey work.

* Bernard Azulay


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