Tuesday 28th February 2012
Everyone with a birthday that falls in the football season will have lots of memories surrounding the games that tie in with that date. Two League Cup Final defeats, a 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford and the horrible injury to Eduardo personally spring to mind on the negative side. After an extremely entertaining weekend celebrating reaching the age of 42 however, Sunday's offering was very much the cherry on top of the cake!
We are all big enough to admit this hasn't been our greatest season and if we believe what the media keep telling us, this is our nearest geographical rival's best since the days of black and white telly. For these reasons alone, Sunday and the last couple of days have been extremely enjoyable for us Gooners.
The ten days building up to it of course, could not have been worse.
The trip to Milan proved marvellously entertaining off the pitch but couldn't have been further from that in our first leg. Two of our greatest ever memories following our team come from matches in the vast San Siro, our disappointing 4-0 defeat joins them for all the wrong reasons.
Don't get me wrong here as we were well beaten on the night but luck certainly wasn't on our side either. RVP saw a fine volley well saved in the second period and a good headed chance went begging too. While Milan benefited from a 'soft' penalty decision, we were unlucky not to see one awarded in our favour.
All in all it leaves us with a mountain to climb if we are to progress.
Sunderland to Sunderland via Milan is not only an illogical journey but the kind that only football seems to necessitate. Of course the cheaper prices helped for our FA Cup tie but he number of travelling Gooners present at the Stadium of Light was absolutely magnificent.
The type of football we play is very much suited to a good surface. We all know that. I mentioned the condition of our hosts' pitch in my thoughts about our league win and seeing it again before the cup tie didn't fill me with confidence. Whatever the level of football a bumpy surface is a great 'leveller'.
Both goals were unfortunate and the 2-0 defeat brought our FA Cup bid to an abrupt end. A night out on Wearside drowning our sorrows seemed the only way to deal with it as our thoughts turned to derby day one week later.
Home fixtures, whoever we are playing, see me head to London N5 confident of victory. Our home record down the years suggests there is no reason to feel otherwise. On Sunday however, especially given our previous two results, you could definitely feel the sense of trepidation in the streets. Deep down I think we all knew another defeat, especially given the opposition, would be very difficult to take.
From minute one I felt we looked sharp, confident and well and truly up for it. Worryingly stretched at the back at times in the early stages I still think both goals were a tad fortunate. With two defenders looking to block the first it was a case of deja vu from Sunderland as the first looped up into the empty net.
A goal so early gives plenty of time to recover and once again we poured forward, so the second came as a mighty blow.
I sit in the North East corner of the stadium so had a pefect view of the penalty incident in 'real time'. I know the referee and his assistants are wired up these days so can speak to one another without the need to meet. For this reason alone I cannot understand why the penalty was given. Both officials must have been 100 per cent sure a foul was committed. Yet in 'real time' it was obvious to all in that corner of the pitch that Chezz pulled his hands away and did not touch the attacking player.
The fact that we didn't crumble in that situation cannot be under-estimated. Once again we poured forward, and this time we were rewarded, when Bac thumped home a header to give us a lifeline we more than deserved.
Shortly after and our stadium was absolutely rocking, RVP's magnificent control and turn only matched by the quality of his strike. We went into the half-time break with our chests puffed out and with fire in our bellies.
Our work rate and desire had been first class and I include Theo in that, despite what has been reported. Very little came off for him in the first period but nobody could fault his work rate. We genuinely had a conversation at half time about whether it would be better for him to come off. For me however, if he kept up his work ethic in the second period, there was every chance the more potent side to his game would shine through. Easy to say now with the benefit of hindsight of course but I genuinely thought and expressed that at the break.
Despite our shaky start, nobody could be faulted on Sunday, especially in the second period. There was no-one better than Super Tom Rosicky and his goal was not only thoroughly deserved but the noise that met it nearly lifted the roof from the stadium.
In fact the singing and colour once Theo had buried two more was arguably the first sign that our 'new' stadium is finally becoming our new 'home'. Talk about making the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end! It was simply magnificent.
Scoring five against Tottenham doesn't happen very often in league football. Doing it from two down against a team enjoying their best season in my living memory made it an incredibly satisfying day. And on my birthday weekend too ;-)
Anfield next then as the tough games come thick and fast.
For now however, if it's alright with you, I'll enjoy Sunday's post-match fall-out just a little bit longer.
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