So I anticipate another fierce encounter this afternoon in a game that seldom reflects current form. Big games such as these, played in an electric atmosphere, provide the stage on which special players perform. It’s up to our side to seize the moment against the current Double winners and Premiership leaders and win the crucial individual battles all over the field that will culminate in the intense team performance needed today.
It is unusual that we are meeting our neighbours again so soon after our Highbury encounter. True, we disappointed that day because we rarely had the opportunity to show our capabilities and the sending off of Simon Davies so early in the game was obviously a decisive moment.
The fact that the referee subsequently took a different view to reduce that dismissal to a caution meant little in the end because the damage had been done on the day. It was always going to be a difficult task with a full team although even when we went down to 10 men we remained optimistic, although by then clearly very much up against it.
The second goal was crucial and we were unhappy with the way we conceded that one in particular. But we live to fight another day and now have a chance on our own ground to show, and build on, our improvement since then.
Indeed, we could have collected maximum points from our last three games, although the two wins and an away draw have done much for our confidence. And, as I was saying in my notes for the West Brom game, we should have won at Birmingham where our failure to seize the initiative was our undoing.
Ironically, we did not play well here in that game against Albion, although you could never gauge that from the 3-1 scoreline. West Brom battled well and we gave them too much room in which they created chances but, fortunately, could not put them away.
In contrast, we demonstrated that happy knack of taking our opportunities with Robbie Keane’s goal again the pick of the bunch. On another day, he could have had more as, on more than one occasion, a last-gasp tackle defied him as he tried to flick the ball through for what would have been another one-on-one assault on the Albion goal.
True, it’s a good habit to win well when you play below your best but that cannot continue today. If we achieve anything against Arsenal it will only be gained with graft, sweat, endeavour and enterprise. You have to give them credit as one of the most potent sides in this country and Europe but that respect must only inspire us to emulate their recently re-discovered consistency and success.
It will be tough and a time for brave hearts, ambition and that extremely apt sentiment, esprit de corps. We will only achieve today if we all pull together with the team ethic to the fore. And you too have a crucial part to play by lifting the lads throughout and making your support count as you have done all season.
Ironically, we are in exactly the same position with exactly the same number of points as we were after 17 games of last season, it’s uncanny. There is one major difference however and that is the strength of our squad this time around. At Christmas last year, we were struggling with injuries and the squad was decimated, that played a big part in our poor string of results in the second half of the campaign. Now though, we have strength in depth and we must ensure we utilise that to the full and look for a strong second half of this season.
In closing, it’s early but this is my last opportunity to wish you all a very happy Christmas from everyone here. I already know the present I want!
This is the game that the supporters of both clubs continually look out for when the fixtures for a new season are first announced. Even in the youth team, these derbies always meant a great deal when I was a player and I was lucky enough to play in a lot more at senior level.