Tread Lightly on My Dreams

On Sunday, January 22, 2012, Manchester United will take the pitch against Arsenal at the Emirates. Cognizant of the simple fact that Manchester United handed Arsenal an 8-2 loss that is counted amongst the very worst in a period of 100 years, no one is giving much reason to believe that the Gunners have a chance against the Red Devils. I can’t justify my own optimism that the Gunners stand a chance, because it would take a miracle to overcome the odds. Fortunately, I still believe in miracles.

“It will be a bounce-back game. We have to turn up, we have the away game still in our minds so there is revenge to take,” said  Johan Djourou. Johan laments the simple fact that the Arsenal have not been doing too well when on the road, and he considers the losses to be improbable, practically inexplicable.

We are now just a few days from the rematch between Arsenal and Manchester United. On Sunday, January 22, 2012, the eyes of the world will be fixated on what is deemed to be a must-see game-of-the-week. If the outcome defies expectations, the show-down may very well be the game of the year.

I have tactfully equated the lop-sided match-up between Arsenal and Manchester United by drawing an analogy to the biblical battle between boy-king David and trash-talking warrior Goliath. In doing so, I was painting a vivid mental portrait of a battle which seems to have an outcome decided well in advance. No one expected the shepherd boy to slay the giant. No one expects a similar performance from Arsenal, unless Arsene has a direct line to the man upstairs. Even Arsenal fans probably believe Arsene’s personal friends are the one’s in, um, lower, hotter places.

Veteran forward Thierry Henry didn’t come out of retirement or anything, but he did come to the Arsenal squad on loan from the New York Red Bulls. He scored on just his seventh touch in the FA Cup at Emirates, then had to down-play his success by assuring fans that they should not expect a repeat performance in every game. Henry seemed loathe to embrace his legendary status, and after setting the bar quite low for subsequent games, he actually went out and managed to do just what he said he would probably do: namely, not score. We’d all love to see Henry return to his former glory by putting on a show against Manchester United, but now even his fitness for duty is in question. A calf injury sustained in training has him in the dreaded “questionable” category, and only time will tell whether or not he’s even able to play. It’s going to hurt my heart watching him sitting on the sidelines, helpless, when he is so needed right now.

In Old Trafford, Manchester United delivered a beating that stands alone as Arsenal’s worst defeat in 100 years? A beating that historical tends to stick out in one’s mind, and I’ve seen it compared to everything from prison-style gang-rapes to…Well, once you use that analogy, is there really any point trying to find another way to describe it?

Why do we even bother to watch sports? Is it purely for entertainment, or is there something more to it than that? I invite you to consider this for a moment, to contemplate the fact that you so often look forward to sporting events, only to have the outcome ruin your entire day. The agony of defeat is not a concept with which most of us are not already all-too-familiar. I would say, from copious experience, that our favorite athletic teams are far more than just an assembled group of highly-skilled performers. Our teams are part of our identity. We are who we are because of the teams with whom we affiliate ourselves. Whether our team rises or falls, we rise and fall right along with them. Herein lies the dangerous aspect of living vicariously through others and tying one’s identity to a team over which we exercise very little personal control.

Arsene Wenger has been the recipient of a great deal of criticism of late. Perhaps he is deserving of the vitriolic criticism which has questioned everything from his judgment to his sanity. I am confident that, as this season concludes, there will be vocal calls for Wenger to step down. I believe that Wenger has done as well as he possibly could with the team at his disposal. He’s encouraging his team to wake up and focus, and hopefully, every Gunner is getting himself fully mentally prepared before the actual battle begins. One cannot afford the luxury of believing it is possible to lose. Winning is the only option. A winning mindset is a prerequisite for a win.

To be sure, Manchester United is going to be expecting to repeat the man-handling they gave Arsenal earlier in the year. Likewise, Manchester United’s fans are going to be looking forward to the merciless beating, and most of the world will enjoy the show. Just as Romans in the Coliseum once clamored to see Christians torn apart by lions in lop-sided gladiator-style matches, the world will seek to bear witness to the Arsenal massacre. The world expects a bloodbath. The world WANTS a bloodbath.

Nevertheless, I believe Arsenal has a serious chance at worst, putting up a good fight. At best, they have a chance of winning. Granted, it is a slim chance, indeed, and I wouldn’t put my life’s savings on the line better in favor of the Arsenal. I think there’s a higher probability that I’ll eventually marry Pippa Middleton (hey, a guy can hope, so tread lightly upon my dreams, please.)

Arsene Wenger suffered his most emasculating humiliation when his Arsenal squad was mercilessly beaten by Manchester United. He has seen little improvement over the course of the season, and despite some glimmers of hope, the team’s performance has been uneven and inconsistent.

Some have pointed out that Thierry Henry has failed to live up to the hype. And who can blame him? No one can live up to the expectations set for him. I’m sure he’s beat himself up for being helpless, but let’s remember that he told the fans, in advance, that he wasn’t going to be putting on a scoring display in every game. He’s got a lot yet to prove, though, and considering he’s not one of those prima-donna living legends that chooses to escape the game while he is still on top and not yet in the decline that invariably comes with the advent of middle age, he’s going to have to scrape and claw to retain some semblance of self-respect. I’d say we owe him a chance to redeem himself, and I’m looking forward to seeing the focus and determination he brings to the pitch when Manchester United rolls into Emirates.

As I follow the running sports commentary, there is an obvious bias against the Gunners. Even Arsenal fans are exhibiting very little faith that their team can win on Sunday, much less manage to finish the season with a strong fourth-place showing.

Johan Djourou has been quoted as saying that Arsenal needs to keep the 8-2 defeat in the very back of their minds. I know and respect Djourou, but I’m not convinced this is the appropriate methodology for approaching the game. If I was on the Gunners this Sunday (and Lord knows I wish I was), I would be trying to think about the defeat every second of every day. Again, revenge is a phenomenal motivator. There’s a lot at stake, and the desire for revenge may well drive the Gunners to achieve a level of success no one expects but themselves.

Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has confidently stated he believes the Arsenal could still very well finish in the Top Four. Now, I know I’m going to receive a fair amount of criticism if my writing comes across as Pollyanna-esque. But, this is not me being me, the eternal optimist. This is Wojciech. When the Red Devils pounded eight goals against the Arsenal back in August, it was him that the balls were flying toward…And past. If he’s willing to have faith in his team, I dare say we should, at the very least, consider it.

Maybe Arsenal will win on Sunday, maybe not. If the Gunners do pull off a stunning victory, most will still deem it a fluke. I may be a journalist, but in my heart, I’m a Gunner for life. So I’ll take a fluke. I’ll take whatever I can get.

Both teams have suffered injuries and defeats this season, things which have a negative effect. Physical injuries heal, and the severity of the injury dictates the amount of recovery time. Defeats inflict a different type of wound altogether, leaving an emotional scar that heals much more slowly and perhaps never fully. Manchester United seems to do a decent job forgetting losses and moving forward. Arsenal, on the other end of the spectrum, seems to take losses very badly. The deep wounds left by the inflamed memories of losses past tend to heal much more slowly when fans, journalists, and sports analysts keep pouring salt into them. I, for one, am a healer. I’d rather remind the Gunners and Arsenal fans alike that we always have a glimmer of hope, regardless of how faint it may yet appear.

As I have stated before, the world has far too many “fair-weather” fans. I’m an Arsenal fan now and I forever shall be. I accept a loss about as well or perhaps worse than the next guy. I absolutely hate losing, as most people will attest that have competed against me in anything (soccer, ice hockey, Scrabble, chess, whatever.) I don’t like losing, because it feels like getting my own balls chopped off and handed to me, and I’m sure that’s how the Gunners are feeling right about now, as they prepare to face the Red Devils.

In my last article, I discussed revenge as being a powerful motivator. Truly, the need for revenge is about as powerful a motivating factor as anything I can come up with. But the need for redemption is just as important in my humble estimation. The Gunners need both. Manchester United has nothing to fear, so there’s a good chance that the Arsenal will be underestimated. There is perhaps nothing in life as purely and utterly satisfying as proving the cocky opponent wrong.

Manchester City is currently sitting pretty atop the heap. Even Manchester City is not counting out Arsenal. Maybe that’s because the Arsenal squad isn’t nearly as bad as many of us are apt to assume. The team’s season has been inconsistent, but in the eyes of many, Arsenal just needs to find it’s old groove again.

Joleon Lescott of Manchester City says that the team is preparing itself to take on the title contenders. Manchester City is focused on beating both Manchester United and Arsenal–the two teams which it deems to be the most realistic contenders for the over all title.

The game will be broadcast at 11:00 a.m. (EST) on the Fox network in the United States. Normally at that time, I’d be warming a seat in church, fantasizing about whatever it is I’m going to have for lunch. Well, January 22, 2012 may not prove to be a day that will forever live in infamy or anything…But I’d say it’s worth skipping church for. Trust me, I’ll be praying for the Arsenal from the comfort of my home, and God knows they need–and deserve–a miracle.

I am a professional freelance writer, blogger, sports journalist, and aspiring novelist with extensive writing experience on seemingly every topic under the sun. I like to consider myself to be something of a modern Renaissance man--an intellectual, philosopher, writer, humorist, martial artist, athlete, and musician. I spend my free time following the Arsenal, listening to classical music, perfecting the fine art of making an electric bass guitar sound like a dying animal, and working out. I have a B.S. in Liberal Studies from Excelsior College in Albany, New York, as well as a Master's in Theological Studies from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master's in Teaching from the University of the Cumberlands. I am a veteran of the United States Army and I received my Honorable Discharge in the rank of Captain about two years ago. I am recently married with a baby boy on the way. Naturally, that boy is destined to wear Arsenal kit from the day he is born. Ultimately, I hope to use my writing as a springboard to a career in comedy.