We sailed away from France after stealing a draw in Lyon which gave us a smug 3-2 win on aggregate. Friedel reportedly fighting his way past the stewards to join in the celebrations with us in the stands. He loved it just as much as we did. What was more surprising than actually seeing Spurs manage to hold their nerve to qualify was seeing us score two important goals on 90+ minutes. We've finally moulded/in the process of moulding a side that plays the game for over 90 minutes. We've sought to eliminate the anguish of late defeats and disappointment that the past has presented on so many occasions.
We have the ability. We have the players. Will it be too much to ask for a squad that hasn't even had a year together to break back into the Champions League and/or finish above the neighbours that have looked below themselves at us for so many years? Confidence and self-belief is key. This is one key we mustn't misplace any time soon. Mentally we know that Arsenal can prove fragile, but they've shown they can push on just enough to scramble over the finish line. They've almost become experts at doing marginally enough. A far-cry from regular league challengers.
The past saw us more fragile than China dolls at times. Even falling to a heavy defeat in the FA Cup Semi Final last year was poor after dominating so much of the game before falling behind. Apologies for re-living that nightmare.
We enter a notoriously anxious and nervy period. The last few years has seen us exhausted of ideas around this period. Most of the players seemed as though they're already laying on a beach, soaking up a millionaire's lifestyle under the glaring sun half-way across the world. Some argue we lost 3rd place last year when we bottled a 2 goal advantage at Arsenal last year, I feel we lost it at the Etihad. Memories of the Defoe chance and Ledley's foul still fresh and lingering, unfortunately.
We've a fresh breed of confidence. A new backroom staff, new players and a renewed belief that this *again* may be the season we achieve what we've set out to do. We've kept our feet firmly on the floor. Lead has been found present in the soles of the players' footwear. Bale's been hitting just a bit of form lately, but off the pitch he's had a blunder. He spoke of Spurs being a "stronger team than Arsenal". There's been a history of this sort of bullish chat backfiring spectacularly. Of course, the idea is to rally the players to live up to this 'expectation', but at the same time it starts to place unnecessary pressure on the side. It gives our delightful neighbours the opportunity to disprove a statement that would've been laughed off 5 years ago. A dangerous game to play.
The progression of our club in the last 5 years has been overwhelming. In the period of great expenditure from Manchester City and continued investment from Abramovich in Chelsea, we've managed to ensure our own progress has not faltered. We've built a stable side, bought better (when we have done) on the whole and financially are complying with FFP. The decline of our close neighbours has almost been just as spectacular. Such is the financial incentive for players to maximise their earnings in a short career coinciding with a club that ensures positive financial figures are number one on the priority list mixes poorly on the pitch. Despite Arsenal being close to paying off the stadium and possibly having a war-chest to spend in the near future, little would've predicted that a side whom once went a whole season unbeaten would find themselves chasing the minnows that are Tottenham Hotspur for a top 4 finish. This seemingly no longer an anomaly but a formality.
Bale's interview was an interesting one. It can be seen here. I enjoyed reading little in the papers of players talking about the final third of the season and appreciated that the talking was being done with their feet. The side need to play with as little pressure on them as possible. Regardless of whether we break back into Europe's most prestigious competition, AVB has done a remarkable job. It's intriguing to see Bale talk of the new ground also. I don't expect him to play there, not in the lilywhite anyway, so I wouldn't look to much into that.
Hopefully this breed of confidence can shine for the remainder of the season. We first need to get through West Ham's Cup Final tomorrow night and push on from that. We've a tough run of fixtures awaiting us but it's the tough fixtures that have seen us play our better stuff.
Hopefully this formality will continue.
Ben - Follow me on Twitter here.