St.Andnews Years Day

Kevin Phillips

Due to a last minute flight alteration, I will be returning to the Irish Pub for tomorrow’s game, rather than heading to Birmingham as originally planned. My match tickets will therefore remain resting on my mantle piece at home, feeling unloved and abandoned, and Playwright’s Irish Pub will have to put up with yet more ranting, raving and unruly hand gestures. Although a pity, as I had been very much looking forward to returning to St. Andrews and have now unquestionably wasted 42 of my hard-earned pounds, this may prove to be a blessing in disguise. I say this as that small and ramshackle yet endearing stadium has become for us just as the Reebok once was, a hellish cavern of uncertainty and tragic finales.

First came Eduardo’s leg break and James McFadden’s set-piece brace, the second of which occurred in the final minute after a careless Gael Clichy foul, in 2008. Presiding over this event was not only the surrender of a 2-0 lead and 8 point platform at the Premier League’s summit, but William Gallas’s embarrassing tantrum, as he sat at the opposite end of the pitch, smouldering with an arrogant fury and isolated from his teammates. Then last year, 11 minutes after Samir Nasri’s beautiful 81st minute deadlock breaking strike, Manuel Almunia parried a deflected effort over his own head and into the net, in the process earning himself the nickname of ‘Morris Dancer’. Again it was an equaliser which gravely deflated a late title surge, and ruined my lovely, sun-soaked day out in the Second Capital. Add to this the tackle on Cesc Fabregas which ultimately caused his season-ending leg fracture, and you can see why St. Andrews has long since ceased to be Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp’s playground.

This time around, the memory of not one but two forgettable outings will no doubt be resting on the players mind, yet such recollections will not be the only difficulties facing the side tomorrow. Birmingham are a good side, and boast an impressive home record, having conceded defeat only once this season, to Everton. Alex McLeish has built a very productive team, with an omnipresent and thrifty back four in front of yet another talented English goalkeeper, albeit not as good as Joe Hart. Whilst not scoring many goals, this ability to concede even fewer (averaging 0.78 per game at St. Andrews) has so far helped fend off that second season syndrome, as Birmingham rest optimistically above the relegation zone, just. With the British stalwarts of Lee Bowyer and Barry Ferguson also providing a solid midfield basis, Birmingham will be looking to stride onwards following their last minute equaliser against United in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw.

Nevertheless, there not actually that good, and as Arsene will be prepared to play an almost full strength line up tomorrow, our boys should be more than capable of  causing the Blues some blues. Gael Clichy, Johan Djourou, Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Theo Walcott and Robin Van Persie should all return, hopefully still buzzing after Monday night’s impressive victory. As Arsene expressed after the Wigan match, communication amongst the team must improve, and more authority needs to be adopted from set-pieces. With Cesc back in the team one would hope for better organisation in these situations, whilst Johan Djourou’s presence will be as well received as Squallaci’s inevitable omission. With a team such as Birmingham, who will be looking to utilise Sebastian Larsson’s deadball ability and Nikola Zigic’s abnormal height, defending set-pieces will be absolutely vital. Should we do so successfully, it is unlikely Cameron Jerome will succeed where Didier Drogba failed, and facing an ageing midfield, defensive solidity could, and should be the basis for winning this match, and gaining a critical 3 points.

In other news, Arsene today didn’t quite rule out adding to the squad in January, yet you would be foolishly naïve to check the BBC gossip column in anticipation over the next month, at all. Having said that, it is likely Manuel Almunia has played his last game for Arsenal, as he isn’t getting any younger, or any better. If he does end up jetting off to sunny Spain, and Mannone remains in not-so-sunny Hull, Arsene may bring a Mart Poom-esque signing just to make up the numbers. Hardly exciting, but we will have to see. Joining Almunia through the exit door could well be Carlos Vela, as Arsene has admitted he would be open to allowing the Mexican to go out on loan, yet I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest that if Carlos does leave, he won’t be coming back. I for one haven’t been too impressed with him over these last few years, and whilst he does have talent, especially in the chipped goals department, Arsene doesn’t seem to see a place for him in the side. The attacking tripod now consistently deployed by Wenger often results in Vela occupying the left berth, yet he has never performed well in this position. When played through the middle, he has shown fleeting moments of excellence, yet remains unable to displace either Van Persie or Chamakh, nor even Nicklas Bendtner.

Finally, this week saw the departure of Havard Nordveidt. After 3 separate loan-spells, the 20 year old Centre Back no doubt caused much disappointment amongst fans by opting to move to Borussia Mochengla….you know the one. Whilst the fee remains undisclosed, one would muse that it is far less than Squillaci or Koscielny cost, and far less than the money this bright prospect could have earned, or saved, the club in the future. Seeing as he is a player who captained the reserves at 18, and of whom Arsene is believed to think very highly, he has presumably left due to his own desire to play more first-team football, something Wenger himself alluded to in his press-conference. We can only speculate what he may or may not have achieved had he stayed at Arsenal, but for every French, number. 18 shirt bearing, OAP Arsene purchases over the coming years, we will look back to this decision.

Anyway Happy New Year, and please let 2011 bring more than an Emirates Cup and an 02 giveaway T-shirt.

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