The view from the away end before the game
Well that was an interesting trip. I got back home at 3:30 this morning after missing the boarding for a Eurotunnel train by ten minutes and then having to wait for two hours for another one. The reason we didn't make it was, having been locked in the ground after the game, we were then locked in the compound outside the away end for another 15-20 minutes. Thankfully, after winning the game, the Gooners were in good spirits. The police, in fairness to them, were friendly and helpful to us and allowed our group of four to move away from the official escort in order that we could get back to our car (in the act of doing so we got talking to another Arsenal gentleman who, it turned out, went to school with my Dad - who was with us - in Dover over 50 years ago!) We had been warned about the possibility of trouble with the local fans but that couldn't have been further from the truth. Every Anderlecht fan we came in to contact with was friendly and cheerful, despite the way we'd won the game. There was no hint of a problem with them, but that wasn't the case among our own support (a little more of which below).
We left home around 8am yesterday to make the short trip to Brussels via the Channel Tunnel. It was a very painless journey and we arrived at Constant Vandenstock stadium around lunchtime. A quick visit to the club shop to buy some souvenir scarves for me and my two boys and we went and found some parking at a nearby shopping centre (as advised at the stadium). Not really knowing how far we were from the city centre, or how long it would take to get there etc, we decided to stay put and enjoyed a nice steak in a local brasserie. Before too long it was time to make our way back up to the stadium ready for the gates to open.
Meeting another Arsenal legend
As we walked up to our entrance we met Alan Smith and he kindly stopped for a photo. Another of those helpful policemen then showed us the way in and we entered the stadium. Five minutes later we were asked by the same policeman to leave as the stadium wasn't open yet! Out we filed along with a handful of the supporters who had arrived on the Travel Club coach. And then we waited. This was the only interminable part of the day as we were given several conflicting messages about when the gates would open. Eventually they did, just as people were beginning to get a bit frustrated outside the turnstiles. As is often the case when you go abroad it was "sit where you like" and this almost always causes an issue. Arsenal really need to insist that the fans are told to sit in the seats allocated on the tickets for reasons of safety. The Arsenal steward in our section said less tickets had been issued then there are seats - this was to prove to be wrong.
As kick-off got closer it became obvious that there were far more people than seats. The aisles and the bulkheads were beginning to fill up. I have to say at this point that I have never seen quite so many paralytic people in one place. And then it started, just as the game kicked off. I can only assume that people were trying to get up the steps in to the overcrowded stand and began pushing. This lead to others pushing and falling, and this lead to punches being thrown and Arsenal supporters going at it with each other. It only really went on for about five minutes until they all calmed down and moved further up the stand, but the atmosphere never recovered until we went 2-1 up. I'm told people were also on edge in the other part of the away end. It could have been very dangerous indeed last night. In fact it was very dangerous. People could have been hurt regardless of the punch-ups going on around them. And how people weren't seriously injured when we scored, as I'll explain later, is something of a miracle.
Waiting for the gates to open pre-match
The game itself was truly awful. Arsenal were worse than disappointing. I'm always someone who only really cares about the result, but we are playing so badly that the win only papers over the serious caverns that have opened up. Anderlecht are not a good side. They would struggle to be at the bottom of the Premier League. Yet last night they were better than us. Their pace out wide was something we couldn't deal with. Calum Chambers' lack of speed was badly exposed on occasion, while Kieran Gibbs was done time and again by his winger. However, there are things I need to take issue with from stuff I've read elsewhere today.
Regular readers will know I feel there is no substitute for being there at a game. Last night appears to be a case in point. I've read today how Nacho Monreal was all over the place and I'll admit, for their goal, he was out of position. However, he spent the rest of the game carrying Per Mertesacker and covering Kieran Gibbs. I thought Monreal had another fine match. By the same token I've seen Flamini getting slagged. I'm simply not having that. For me, and many of the people stood near me last night, Flamini was far and away our best player on the night. I don't know how it has come across on the TV but let me tell you that Flamini's play in front of the defence, and covering across for Chambers, kept out Anderlecht time and again last night. I was apoplectic when Wenger took him off and left Ramsey and Wilshere out there on the pitch. Wilshere was a disgraceful show pony last night, as was Ramsey. I'm sick of seeing fancy flicks with the outside of the foot when a simple pass will do - one clear example was in the first-half when Cazorla broke in front of Wilshere and a simple side-foot pass would have put him in on goal, but Wilshere tried to flick a ball to the heavily marked Welbeck and then lay there holding his ankle again. Jack has played pretty well this season, but last night was an embarrassment. He wasn't alone, of course.
I've also seen nothing but praise for Alexis last night. Clearly this is based on the non-stop effort of the Chilean and that is laudable. However, when he got the ball last night he invariably tried to do too much himself. He was constantly caught in possession and added little or nothing to the play until the last two minutes. Having said that, the fact that he is always on the move, always trying to make something happen, meant it was he who set up Chambers for the excellent cross to Kieran Gibbs, and it was his persistence that saw the ball get to Podolski for the winner.
I told you he'd be the man
Having gone 1-0 down we were reliant on Emi Martinez making two outstanding saves to keep us just one behind. The youngster really played his part and was another of the very few positives from the performance (his deputy, Ryan Huddart, is the most powerful looking 17 year-old kid I've ever seen). I was pleased when Joel Campbell came on (taking off Welbeck at 1-0 down was an unfunny joke though) but disappointed that he once again wasn't sent through the middle. Even when Podolski was eventually thrown in to the mix Campbell, the only centre-forward on the pitch, was still on the right-wing.
When we got our equaliser it was from the only proper cross we tried all night. It was a great ball in from Chambers and was begging to be put away. The quality of Kieran Gibbs' volley should not be underestimated, however. It was a truly great finish from the full-back on a night when he'd been pretty awful. His decision to celebrate was given short shrift by The Ox (another who added plenty when he came on) as some of the players felt we could win it. The reaction to the goal in the away end was one of relief, but some of those drunks I referred to earlier went a little mad. An old man in front of us, well in to his seventies, went to the ground in the melee of bodies. What is wrong with these people?
Within another minute or so it was 2-1. The Ox beat his man inside the area and Gibbs finally got a cross past the first defender. The determination of Alexis to do something right came to the fore. He somehow retained his balance as he controlled the ball towards the touchline and simply hit it hard across the goal. We had the luck as it was deflected straight back on to Podolski's left foot, but he had the composure to take a good touch before burying it in the roof of the net. The away end was a scene of carnage. I swear I thought people were going to go over the barriers at the front of the upper tier. A youngster came from behind us and seemed to try and leap over a couple of rows of seats. Of course he never made it and that meant another pile of bodies. In the other part of the away section my brother and one of our mates were trying to stop a man from being trampled after he'd been knocked over in the craziness that enveloped a number of people. How people weren't seriously hurt in there I don't know. I celebrated as madly as for any last minute winner, but diving on top of people and losing control completely? I just don't get it.
So somehow Arsenal came away from Belgium with a win. I don't really know how. but I was delighted for Podolski who is a real hero to the Arsenal fans despite the way he is disregarded by Arsene Wenger. I said on Tuesday that I fancied Podolski to make a difference last night, and he didn't disappoint did he? The singing after the game was superb, having been pretty non-existent through the game, and it was a joy to have been there just for the final five minutes. Now the players have to get their fingers out and play much better at Sunderland on Saturday.