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26 Mar 2004 00:00
A dozen nationalities, a broad palette of skin tones, cutting-edge footwear and the latest techniques in male grooming: this match was a London thing all right.
The capital has been waiting for a game such as this for a long time; if nothing else, just to flash its footballing wad in the face of the rest of the country.
Not only is everything bigger and better in London, it is more often played to feet too.
Down in the Russian quarter, of course, things are at their flashiest. There’s Fishnets restaurant, offering three-course fish-and-chip suppers to the regulars of the Shed. There’s £120-million worth of new footballers too. Such is the high pitch of status anxiety in the big city, the millionaires came into this match as the paupers.
It is the boys from the north London quartier who were the talk of the town.
Setting trends in the league, Arsenal have learnt how to strut the catwalks of Europe too. And they wear gloves with short-sleeved shirts.
In the opening exchanges of the match between Chelsea and Arsenal on Wednesday night Arsène Wenger’s side seemed determined to lower the temperature to new depths of cool.
Instead of being cushioned by the instep, passes were played with the toe of the boot. Schoolkids, of course, are told to leave that part well alone, but the Gunners can turn the big toe into a big surprise. Arsenal’s movement, too, seemed different, often cramming three players into their favourite corner of the field.
The heights of the left wing are like a members’ club for Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Ashley Cole. They could frolic in the corner until the early hours, creating immaculate triangles that somehow keep their team in possession.
They may never have created any chances from such play, but since when was cool supposed to be practical? Of course, Arsenal’s style is often called into question by those who could never hope to match it. Hey Bobby, what’s the French for arrogance? And it is true that for a 15-minute spell in this match they appeared shaken from their gait.
Chelsea’s willingness to cut the frills and bang in the crosses forced the Gunners on to the back foot. Then the home side scored their goal.
In any in-crowd there are those who cling on, and Jens Lehmann could lay claim to that role.
He gave away the Chelsea goal, taking too much time to make a clearance and allowing Eidur Gudjohnsen to close him down.
In a team full of players who seem to find time and space without effort, it must be tempting to try the same for yourself.
Sadly for Chelsea their spell of dominance — like all trends — soon came to an end. Arsenal picked up the pace and began to string their passes together again. From the right-hand corner flag they pieced together a patchwork that stretched back across the field and allowed Pires to add the final flourish.
Here, however, is the trick. Arsenal did not win this match on style alone, nor was defensive grit Chelsea’s only offering. Just as cities thrive by melding the gifts of those who come to inhabit them, so England’s best football teams like to mix it too.
Who’s that blocking a fierce shot from Frank Lampard on the edge of his box? Why, it’s the flash dilettante Pires.
Who’s rolling over the floor after only the barest hint of contact? Scott Parker, please stand up and dust yourself down.
‘We’re not here to advertise English football”, said Henry afterwards, his baseball cap at a fashionably jaunty angle. Which is fair enough coming from a Frenchman.
But even if this game has not left Milan and Madrid racked with insecurity, the mix of qualities shown here may at least prompt them to pull their socks up. Over the knees, as fashion dictates. —
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