Arsenal 5-3 Middlesbrough

Thierry Henry (25)
Joseph-Desire Job (43)
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (50)
Franck Queudrue (53)
Dennis Bergkamp (54)
Robert Pires (65)
Jose Antonio Reyes (65)
Thierry Henry (90)

About a month or so ago, my manager at work insisted that the Double-winning 1997-1998 Arsenal side was better than last year's undefeated league champions. Besides being completely wrong in general, that year's team would not have come back to win this game. No way. This Arsenal side, if they can play like this most of the year, looks like one that can finally shatter the black cloud of Manchester trebles that seem to still hang over us. No matter what the Arsenal does, some prick in a Man U shirt will inevitably say: "Yeah, but we did the treble...you'll never win in Europe." Oh yeah, Manure boy? Peep us out this season.

Now, the thing about Middlesbrough is that for the last 5-8 years or so, they have seemingly existed for the sole purpose of being annhilated by the Gunners three or four times a season (since we always seem to get drawn against them in the cups). However, their victory in last season's League Cup was a gigantic step forward for them...sure, it's a third-tier trophy, but it's the only one Boro has in over 100 years as a football club. Not only that, I thought that Steve McLaren bought very well this summer, and if anyone can get The Second-Tier Dutch All-Stars to play well as a unit, McLaren can. Matter of fact, I think they'll finish in the top eight or so this season, and anything less would actually be a disappointment (as commentator Alan Parry rightfully mentioned during the game).

The portents before the match weren't so good, though. I rose at 7 AM expecting a 9 AM kickoff, but then discovered that the kickoff was actually at 11. That's what I get for assuming. Also, Nevada Smith's has shown Premier League matches for free for as long as I've been going, but just today that implemented a $10 cover charge. You're KIDDING me, right? Oh...actually, I just checked on the New York Gooners website, and it turns out that this particular match was shown by the infamous worldwide highway robbers known as Setanta. That explains quite a lot, actually. But oh well...I had already made the trip, I wasn't going to be denied the chance to see the Gunners' home opener, especially after their spectacular demolition of Everton in the season's opening fixture. The sides lined up as so:

The Champions: Jens Lehmann -- Ashley Cole, Pascal Cygan, Kolo Abib Toure, Lauren Bisane-Etane -- Jose Antonio Reyes (Mathieu Flamini 78), Cesc Fabregas, Giberto Silva, Fredrik Ljungberg (Robert Pires 61) -- Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry

Middlesbrough: Mark Schwarzer -- Michael Reiziger (Stuart Parnaby 73), Colin Cooper, Chris Riggot, Franck Queudrue -- Boudewijn Zenden (Szilard Nemeth 78), George Boateng, Ray Parlour, Gaizka Zabala Mendieta -- Joseph-Desire Job, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink

I've already noted Arsenal's long history of stomping Boro, but there were actually two more important storylines on display with this match. First off, legendary Arsenal winger Ray Parlour is now in the center of Middlesbrough's midfield. I have to admit that I wish we could have found some way to keep the London-born star who signed for the Arsenal right out of school, but the sad reality is that there are too many kids pounding down the door for midfield spots (Fabregas, Flamini, Reyes, van Persie, Pennant, Clichy if he's not at left back, etc.). The parallels to Paul Merson leaving are frightening, especially since Boro was the club that The Merse signed for as well. In some ways, though, I'm glad that Razor moved on. He deserves to end his career somewhere where he won't be nailed to the subs' bench, somewhere where he actually has a chance to go back to Europe and maybe even win the FA Cup. Like I said, I really, really like Boro's team this year, and with Razor on their side, why can't they maybe even exceed the high expectations they have this time around? Besides the Parlour issue, this match also was Arsenal's bid to tie Nottingham Forest's 25-year old record of 42 League matches unbeaten. While it would take some nerve to complain about anything at all after last season's magnificent storming of the Premier League, it still would have been somewhat of a shame to fall at the final hurdle as far as that record was concerned.

With all of that said, the match started out brightly, with both sides making attacking progress right out of the gate. In particular, Parlour looked like a new man, one who threatened to be a danger from the first minute to the 90th. However, after that initial spell of strong play, Ray eventually faded into the background. This was a match that he no doubt wanted to grab by the scruff of the neck, but he ended up a virtual spectator for all of his customary running and effort. As the minutes ticked on though, Arsenal grew more and more dominant. Eventually, it got to a point where it started to look a LOT like the Everton match last weekend. Still, Mark Schwarzer is quietly one of the better goalkeepers in the league, and it was going to take something exceptional to beat him (at least the first time around...for whatever reason, be it him getting down on himself or whatever, it seems to be easier to score on him the second or third time than it is to beat him the first). Luckily, we have a certain mercurial French forward who lives for situations like this. It all started from our half, actually, as Jose Antonio Reyes unleashed a 40-yard lob of the highest caliber, right onto the foot of Henry. The Frenchman controlled, set himself up for a half-volley, and...well, he didn't smash it at goal, as you might expect. With a defender pressuring, and the gigantic 6'5" frame of Schwarzer lumbering out at him, Henry came up with an even better lob than Henrik Larsson's embarrassment of Stefan Klos in the Celtic-Rangers "demolition derby." At first, it looked like it was going to be too high (you try chipping someone of NBA height), but it looped wonderfully into the net, with (I think it was) Colin Cooper making a great stab at trying to keep it out. 1-0 to the Arsenal, and we seemed to be on our way to another Boro blowout. And, as the half wore on, it looked inevitable that a second (and perhaps a third) would come before Steven Dunn blew for halftime. Speaking of him, outside of two or three times where he got in the way of the ball (including one instance where he unwittingly made a fabulous block of an Arsenal pass, into a pass to a Boro player), he called a very good game. He showed a very un-English sensibility when it came to yellow cards, keeping it in his pocket for the most part. He calmed players down after rough fouls, and insured that the match never got out of hand without resorting to a sea of yellow (which all too often leads to the occasional overly-harsh red).

However, all credit to Boro. Every time Arsenal made a mistake, they capitalized in a major way. For that reason alone, they probably deserved at least a point out of all of this. Anyway, right before the halftime interval, Joseph-Desire Job got a routine pass, turned Cygan, evaded Lauren's desparate dive, and fired an absolute laser beam into the top corner. This is the only time you'll hear this phrase in today's report, but Lehmann had absolutely no chance. It was a stunning strike, although the fact remains that Cygan could and probably should have stopped him one way or another. Not to take away from the finish, but if Sol Campbell isn't out injured, that goal doesn't get scored. Period.

Halftime then, and in a bid to make the experience even more English, Nevada's has a guy selling meat pies over by the front door. They're pretty good, actually. The reason I mention it is because going to the pub is an odd experience in one sense. You come in off a busy city street, and all of a sudden it feels like you're in England. Knowledgable fans, chanting like on the terraces...you can almost envision being in Highbury. Then, the game is over, you walk out the door, and it feels like you've flown from London to New York in the span of about 35 seconds...it's what I imagine teleportation feeling like when they invent it sometime in 2060 or so. Or, even more accurately, it's the only time I've felt jet lag from walking out a door. The funniest part is that you walk out onto a busy street, and all those people walking and driving by have NO IDEA of the highs and lows and excitement that you just experienced...it feels like you're in on a secret.

While Boro had an awful first half (Mendieta and Zenden especially were just awful), they obviously came out in much better spirits for the second half. When you come into the locker room tied after a terrible effort, it tends to give you a new lease on life, a feeling like you can actually win this thing. So, it wasn't shocking when Zenden got a shot away 30 seconds into the half. Despite the fact that it was well wide, it should have been a warning to the Arsenal back four + goalkeeper that they needed to be on their toes. But, then again, when you're forced to play a shambling automaton like Pascal Cygan against a team with good, quick attacking players, bad things are going to happen. Sure enough, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink took a long ball from Franck Queudrue (who had an excellent match on the offensive side of the ball), and came up on Cygan. The French fullback tried the "wet paper bag" defense, and was shockingly beaten badly by the Dutch striker. Hasselbaink had all the time in the world, and his strike was an exceptional one. However, he was coming in on a pretty sharp angle, and his shot went to Lehmann's near-post side. Now, for those who aren't aware, one of the cardinal rules of goalkeeping in any sport (soccer, hockey, etc) is to NOT get beat on your near-post side. It's a crime for the man in between the sticks, and because of that, Lehmann was perhaps even more at fault for Boro taking the lead than Cygan was. The worst part was that even leaning the wrong way, even with as wonderful a strike as Hasselbaink came up with, Lehmann was still thiiiiiiiiiiiiis close to actually saving it. That's the maddening thing about him...he's usually a very good keeper, especially when dealing with crosses and high balls. However, every so often, he lapses into a Barthez-esque "million-dollar talent, 10-cent head" syndrome. 2-1 to Boro, and while they didn't necessarily deserve it in terms of the run of play, you have to credit them for converting the only two chances they had up until that point.

Three minutes later, it was 3-1 Boro. While Lehmann was arguably at fault for the second goal, there was no argument at all for the third. It was one of the most shockingly, amazingly, ridiculously boneheaded moves I've ever seen from a keeper of his caliber before. Queudrue had pushed forward once again, and looked like he was waiting for help to get into the penalty area. However, while a cross was the most likely play, you can't leave almost the entire net open in expectation of a cross. Maybe Queudrue isn't a feared scorer, but he IS a Premiership-caliber player, and fair's fair, he seized the chance that Lehmann gave him. From all of 30 or 35 yards, his long, curling shot was always going to elude Lehmann. As far off to the side as he was, no keeper on earth could have recovered to save it (though again, Lehmann made it close...damned 10-cent head). The pub was stunned. Highbury was stunned. 53 minutes in, 3-1 down, the record slipping away.

This may seem like a tangent, but bear with me. In professional wrestling, a common match theme is a smaller, scappy challenger giving the champion everything he can handle before eventually falling to a spirited defeat. And, in those matches, the turning point always seems to come when the champion seems to say: "OK, you've had your fun. But, I'll be DAMNED if you're taking this belt from me." And, when that comeback does happen, it usually begins with a devastating move that turns the tide, gives him time to recover, and then go on the offensive run that wins the match. In this most dire of moments in the match, the old veteran, Dennis Bergkamp, was the champion of champions, the man who drove the real stake into Boro's challenging heart.

Seconds after the Boro goal, Cesc Fabregas played a nice ball up to Bergkamp. Both center backs could and should have pressured him, but they kept backing off. I said to myself that if DB10 got the shot away, it was going in. Sure enough, with the Boro defense in retreat, the mighty Bergkamp produced a thunderbolt from the heavens...or, at least a screaming, low 20-yard shot that easily beat the diving Schwarzer. Boro was still up a goal at that point, but the second the net rustled, everyone knew. Or, more accurately, they KNEW. Unlike some sports (baseball comes right to mind), there is such a thing as clutch play in soccer, because it's a team sport in the truest sense of the word. If Middlesbrough had 5 or 10 minutes to digest the fact that they were up two goals in the second half at Highbury, there probably wouldn't have been a way back. Again, I stress that they're a very, very good side, and even missing Ugo Ehiogu and Gareth Southgate, have enough decent quality in defense to hold a lead, even in as fearsome a venue at Highbury.

But, they didn't have 5 or 10 minutes...Bergkamp ensured that it was about 45 seconds. And, it is not a mystery to anyone in the Premiership as to what happens when Arsenal not only gets rolling, but is put into any kind of a desperate situation. Hell, ask Inter Milan...after last season in the Champions' League, they know ALL about it. After that goal, Boro panicked...there's no other way to put it. They probably still had a very good chance to win, but when faced with as powerful a juggernaut as Arsene Wenger has assembled...well...I don't think even Man United or Chelsea could have stopped this onslaught. It took a while after the second goal, but the addition of Robert Pires was perfectly-timed by the manager. Once he came in, it really did seem inevitable. Sure enough, after Henry did great work unclocking the Boro defense, Pires was left with a simple tap-in for the equalizer. The pub EXPLODED, because I think every single person in there knew that more was coming. However, we didn't think that it would come as soon as it did -- Reyes' blast rustling the net was the first visual we saw after the replays of the third goal were finished. It actually caused a dleayed reaction, as some thought it was another replay. Actually, Arsenal pressured Boro right from the restart, one of their guys had the ball stolen right off his foot, and the Arsenal marched right up the field and scored.

You can't say Boro gave up, but the fight was pretty well drained out of them by then. So, unsurprisingly, another class goal from Henry added the fniishing touches to what ended up as a spectacular match. I love the fact that Arsenal is not only winning, they're doing it in absolute style. It won't be like this all season -- we will lose in the League at some point, and we will have to grind out a few industrial results along the way. But, let this serve as a crystal clear warning for those tripping all over themselves to anoint Diving Cheating Mourinho's Chelsea as the new champions. It's still OUR title, and Arsenal is going to have a LOT to say about who wins it this season, too. However, those are all thoughts for another day. Today, I'm content to bask and even wallow in the glory of an absolutely stunning comeback, a match that shows the true spirit and determination of Arsenal Football Club.

Next week is Blackburn at home for sole possession of the record. As long as those evil Setanta bastards don't have the game, I'll be a very, very happy man. Until then, "good to, good to be...good to be a....GOONER!!"


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