Arsenal on a bad luck run to glory

2008-04-12 00:00

IN sport, any loser who blames bad luck is invariably labelled a whinger. At the highest level and on the playground alike, this response to defeat is considered sour and inadequate.

The legends lead the chorus.

“I’m not a great believer in bad luck,” says three-time Formula One motor racing champion Sir Jackie Stewart. “The disappointment is more likely to be the result of bad planning and bad preparation.”

Gary Player provided probably the most quoted sporting quote of all time when he noted: The more I practise, the luckier I get.

Time-honoured clichés follow, tumbling in their wake: “It’s all swings and roundabouts … “You take the rough with the smooth” … “It evens out in the end” … “What goes around comes around”.

This is all very well, and yet it is doubtful whether any sporting team has ever experienced such a sustained run of bad luck and bad decisions as Arsenal football club have suffered in the past seven weeks. Suspend the groans and sighs for a moment and consider this spooky sequence of events:

February 23: Arsene Wenger’s team concede an erroneous late penalty at Birmingham, costing them two points in the Premier League race against Manchester United and Chelsea.

March 15: Manu Adebayor’s early goal against Middlesbrough is incorrectly ruled out for offside, costing two more points in another 1-1 draw.

March 23: Leading 1-0 against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal are stunned when Didier Drogba equalises from an indisputably offside position, and they eventually lose 2-1.

April 2: Dirk Kuyt holds Aliaksandr Hleb in the penalty area, but the perfectly positioned referee Pieter Vink (Kuyt’s neighbour at home in Holland) fails to award the cast-iron penalty; Cesc Fabregas’ goal-bound shot is freakishly blocked on the line by team-mate Nicklas Bendtner; and Liverpool come away from the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final at the Emirates Stadium after a one-all draw.

April 5: Fabregas is obviously pulled down in the penalty area, but the referee waves play on and a 1-1 draw at home to Liverpool leaves an increasingly bewildered Arsenal further behind in the title race.

April 8: Drawing 2-2 on an epic night at Anfield and advancing to the semi-finals on away goals, Arsenal are bundled out of the Champions League by Steven Gerrard’s controversial late penalty, awarded against Kolo Toure for an apparently innocuous challenge on Ryan Babel; TV replays show minimal contact.

In the midst of such misfortune, it was no wonder that Arsenal fans had been praying the tie would not go to penalties because they would probably have been denied all five by the referee.

It was no wonder that after the match Wenger said his young side felt “a great sense of injustice” as they surveyed the wreckage of a season that had promised so much seven short weeks ago.

All but the most blinkered supporters of rival clubs would concede Arsenal have deserved better, much better. While other leading coaches pragmatically aspire to be “compact” to minimise risk and to do whatever is required to win, Wenger remains dogmatically committed to preparing a team that passes and moves, full of players who dare to dream and aspire to play the beautiful game in the most beautiful way.

This season, it seems, their reward may not be trophies, baubles to gather rust and dust; no, it will be something more precious — the enduring admiration of millions, nay hundreds of millions, around the world who have been thrilled by the sheer quality of their football.

In terms of providing pure pleasure, Arsenal have already been crowned as the people’s champions of Europe.

What has gone around may yet come around. Redemption, even justice, could still be granted at Old Trafford tomorrow afternoon when Arsenal strive to recover from their recent trauma to defeat Manchester United and mount a late charge for the title.

However, whether they win, lose or draw, nobody can say Wenger’s team have planned, prepared or practised any less than their rivals.

The simple reality — whatever the legends say, whatever the consensus might be — is that the Arsenal class of 2007/08 have been unlucky.

That’s not whingeing; it’s a fact.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby, general manager of SATV Sport and involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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