Fourth place is everything now

Shell-shocked Arsenal players after the defeat at Sunderland

Shell-shocked Arsenal players after the defeat at Sunderland

Sunderland 2 – 0 Arsenal

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

It’s been a bad week for Arsenal fans. A crushing defeat in Milan, followed by a comprehensive loss at Sunderland, and the evaporation of any remaining hopes of bringing home silverware. Arsene clearly broke a mirror in 2005, and good behaviour has not granted him any time off fortune’s sentence: it will now be seven long years without a trophy.

Yesterday Arsenal were beaten on a ground where just one week earlier they had been victorious. The matchwinner on that occasion, Thierry Henry, was conspicuous by his absence, and a succession of defensive injuries stacked the odds against us. Nevertheless we were outrun, outfought, and occasionally outplayed by a fresher and patently more motivated Sunderland side.

There is no point masking our disappointment. The FA Cup represented our most realistic chance of glory this season, and the draw could certainly have been more cruel, but this is an Arsenal side showing early yet familiar symptoms of the annual end-of-season collapse. We have played ten games since January 1st, losing five. Injuries are mounting fast and belief is fading faster.

There were some fans declaring that yesterday marked the end of our season. They could not be more wrong. To be out of the cup is tremendous blow, but Arsenal still have their biggest prize to play for: fourth place.

I have never subscribed to Arsene’s view that a top four finish is equivalent to claiming silverware. It’s nonsense. There is no explosion of joy, no entry in the record books, no trophy. But it remains absolutely vital. As bad as things are, falling out of the top four would be disastrous. It’s not a prize – it’s a necessity.

I’m gutted about the defeats to Milan and Sunderland, but if I had to choose between going out of the cups or suffering two league defeats, I think I’d choose the former. To win the FA Cup would be fantastic, but I’m not sure it’d be enough to keep Robin van Persie, or attract major talent to augment (or indeed replace) him. Fourth place might.

I don’t see the point in discussing the future of Arsene Wenger now – whatever your opinion, everyone is surely unanimous in their agreement that, for better or worse, he will be here until the end of the season. If he and the club decide to part ways then, I’d far rather we were able to offer a new a manager a brief to rebuild with the economic support and talent-tempting allure that Champions League brings.

In the light of recent results, some supporters have declared that we have “no chance” of achieving a top four spot. They are, of course, wrong. Take a glance at the league table – we’re the present incumbents. Arsenal have been incredibly fortunate that in a year when we’ve spent much of the time in disarray, our closest rivals (Liverpool and Chelsea) have conspired to be similarly calamitous.

Our next three league games see us face Tottenham, Liverpool, and Newcastle. As painful as our experiences at Milan and Sunderland were, I’d happily accept those defeats if fate were able to trade them for nine points from those forthcoming fixtures.

If, however, we lose, to Spurs next week, all hell could break lose. The day before, Chelsea and Newcastle both have relatively easy home games, and defeat to our rivals could leave us in sixth place and coming off the back of three consecutive defeats.

There have been big London derbies before. For Arsene Wenger, there has never been one quite as big as this.

Invincible, Immortal, & In the fourth round


Henry celebrates a magical return

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The diagonal through ball from Alex Song was perfect. It could have been played by Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, or even Dennis Bergkamp. The first touch was immaculate, the body shape breathtakingly familiar. The giant clock suspended from the Emirates canopy seemed to stop, dead. Time wound back to 2004 and, briefly, Thierry Henry was invincible again.

As he drew back his right-foot to strike the ball, the Emirates was momentarily hushed. Then followed the trademark sidefoot strike. Before the ball crossed the line, Henry glanced across at the linesman. He just had to check. Check that this was really happening, that it wasn’t a dream, that a cruel flag wasn’t about to deny him his moment.

He knew, of course, that the ball would settle in the bottom corner. When he’s wearing red and white, it invariably does.

The reception when Henry had come on as a 68th substitute had been deafening. When he scored his 78th minute goal, a storm of anticipation broke in an explosion of pure joy.

Thanks to EastLower for that amazing video.

Great athletes write their own storylines. Last night, Thierry Henry took a leaden game and carved himself a story, a headline and an accompanying photograph. Another moment, another memory, another myth. A 227th goal, and 60,000 very lucky Arsenal fans there to witness it.

Henry said after the game that it was the first goal he’d scored as an Arsenal fan. You could see that in his celebration. The nonchalance and the shrug of old were replaced with pure, unbridled ecstasy.

Everything else was eerily recognisable. He might not have the blistering pace of yesteryear – but he might not need it. Sprinting speed might be temporary, but it seems class is permanent. The control and finish were as good as anything Henry produced in his heyday. Put simply: given ten opportunities, Marouane Chamakh could not have scored that goal last night. Henry needed just one. Arsenal should only require occasional cameos from their ageing talisman. Yet on this evidence, they could well be match-winning cameos.

What’s certain is that Henry won’t tarnish his legacy. Indeed, last night his statue it seemed to swell and shimmer more than ever before.

Last night was, in many respects, the perfect night for an Arsenal fan. That Arsenal fan, I should add, is named Thierry Henry. He Has Returned. Long Live The King.

Return of the King: Welcome home Thierry


What is va va voom?

It’s many things. It’s a style, an attitude. It’s a grace, an impudence, a gallic flair. It’s instant control, a side-footed finish, and a shrug of celebration. And what is more, it’s back. As of today, for a period of six to eight weeks, Arsenal will once more be able to call on the greatest player in their history. Thierry Henry has returned.

In his first spell at the club, Henry netted a record 226 goals in 370 games. This time, he could play a maximum of ten times, starting with tonight’s FA Cup tie at home to Leeds.

If you’re in the ground tonight, savour it. If you’ve not yet got a ticket, grab one. Take your kids; take your grandchildren. In ten, twenty, even fifty years time they will be able to say they saw Thierry Henry in an Arsenal shirt.

In his pomp, Henry was the most exciting athlete I’ve seen on the Premier League stage. He combined the electric pace of a sprinter with balletic poise, and an incredible imagination with deceptive physical power. After arriving as a peripheral and shot-shy winger, he evolved in to Europe’s most stylish goalscorer. But you already knew that. The story has become myth, and the man a living legend.

Some have bemoaned Henry’s return, disappointed that the club have elected for a short-term option, and fearing that the player could tarnish his legacy. I can’t find room for such cynicism. The signing is clearly a practical measure. The African Cup of Nations has left us with a scarcity of strikers, and most of our primary targets are unavailable in this window. As Arsene Wenger has repeatedly insisted, the opportunity to take someone with Henry’s class on loan is simply too good to turn down.

And class, let’s remember, is permanent. Henry himself admits he’s not the same player. He’s not expecting to skip through gears and defenders with the same ease or regularity he did in his first spell. But if a chance is to fall in the box, I’d still rather it was to Thierry than any other of our attacking options – with the obvious exception of Robin van Persie. And the idea that anything that happens in the next two months could damage his extraordinary achievements in the past are absurd. It will take more than a few underwhelming cameos to shift his bronze immortalization from the stadium concourse.

I don’t expect miracles. But I do expect more great memories, starting with the roar of the crowd when he takes to the field tonight.

On the pitch, Henry often seemed to be able to write his own scripts. He himself could not have penned a better fixture list for his two month renaissance. The opportunity to compete in Premier League, FA Cup and Europe, with ties at home to Manchester United and away at the San Siro. There is even an option for a glorious farewell in one of the most hotly-contested North London derbies for years.

An Arsenal career that spans three decades is entering its final phase. The long goodbye begins tonight. Turn the page, enter the final chapter, and savour every moment. This is The Return of The King.  Prepare to pay homage.