Please don’t take my Champions League away

Posted by Bryan McAleer

Courtesy of Quaid KocurArsenal supporters in New York City pack into the Blind Pig to catch Tuesday's match against Wigan.

It's 1:45pm on Tuesday in New York City. The masses are settling in for the stretch run of the work day, but I'm staring at the clock plotting my escape. Everything is prepared: shirt and scarf stashed in my bag, excuse seeded ("offsite meeting"), and my route plotted (1 Train to the L, 31 minutes travel time). Like all my prior covert midday operations, this one will end at a familiar destination: a pub watching Arsenal.

Aside from the odd league fixture, midweek during the season has always meant one thing to me: Champions League Football. Those "Famous European nights"? Well, stateside, they are famous European afternoons. For as long as I have supported Arsenal they have been a part of my season routine. Fifteen consecutive years Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League. Thirteen consecutive knockout rounds without a Thursday in Slovenia in the mix; just glorious Tuesdays and Wednesdays of scheming ways to see the Gunners take on Europe's elite.

The streak hinges upon yet another Tuesday, although this time it's not Barcelona or Bayern Munich walking out the tunnel. It's Wigan Athletic. Fresh off a dramatic FA Cup victory, the Latics need a win to keep their hopes of another Houdini act on the final day alive. Dropping points here means Arsenal's fate would rest at the mercy of the enemy heading into the final Sunday. Take care of business and there will be no need for the old lasagna recipe to be dusted off. If ever there were a time to duck out to watch the match with fellow Gooners, this is it.

The clock hits 2pm. Go time. I grab my bag and slip out the side door trying to conceal my excitement as I walk past my co-workers. My confidence for securing the vital three points is high as I head for the subway.

I arrive at the Blind Pig, home of the NYC Arsenal Supporters, fifteen minutes before kickoff and it's already packed. A peculiar blend of fans makes up the midweek crowd, a mixture of the kit sporting regulars intertwined with the business set. For every scarf there is a suit jacket and slightly loosened tie. I'm going with my standard hybrid approach: 98-99 Bergkamp shirt accented with a Guinness stain over the "J" in JVC (picked up from a beer shower after the Cesc winner at the San Siro), pulled over a button down. Yes, the double collar and jersey over work clothes are both serious fashion violations, but I'm sticking with what's got me here, darn it! I grab a pint, settle into my usual corner and commence my pre-match routine of pacing while going through the lineup.

It's pouring in North London and Arsene Wenger is already soaked despite being snugly tucked into his trademark Nike sleeping bag. This new Puma deal can't begin soon enough. As the teams line up for kickoff, a familiar foe checks his watch and blows his whistle signaling the start of play. "Well at least we have Tottenham fan Mike Dean calling today's match, sure we will get a fair go of things," one of my fellow Gooners groans. Not exactly the positive energy I was looking for to start the match. Announcer John Champion informs us that Wigan players were forbidden to have any alcohol in celebration of their FA Cup triumph, thus extinguishing my hopes that they would still be drunk. That confidence I had upon leaving the office is beginning to wane as the match kicks off.

Arsenal get off to a flying start, a recent trend that has settled in since dominating the first half against Manchester United a few weeks back. Each chance is met with a collective "Ahhh" from the pub. The nervous energy is starting to dissipate as the Gunners find their rhythm. The din in the Pig is growing with every attack. In the 10th minute, Arsenal win a corner and the crowd starts baying "Arsenal, Arsenal" as Santi Cazorla lines it up. The ball loops in towards Per Mertesacker who plays a sublime dummy (I shall not be convinced otherwise) and bounces to an unmarked Lukas Podolski for the opener. The celebration is more relief then raucous. Having lived through countless one goal nail-biters, we all know this will be a full 90 minute test of our resolve. Sure enough, a panic-inducing moment affirms our caution as Laurent Koscielny flings his boot high above his head to barely snuff out a ball over the top. This one is far from safe.

As the half winds down, the lead is tenuous but it is a lead nonetheless. And then disaster.

Mikel Arteta gets called for a questionable foul considering the non-call on Wigan moments earlier. "It's that time of the match," someone mutters, referring to Arsenal's innate ability to concede right before the break. I shoot a weary glance to no one in particular and up the tempo of my pacing. Shaun Maloney steps up and buries it. Stunned silence in the bar. Somewhere up Seven Sisters Road a commemorative statue of Mr. Dean is being commissioned. I feel the Lloyd Christmas dry heaves coming on. Thankfully, the halftime whistle blows moments later and I make a beeline for the door.

The conversation outside is surprisingly calm considering the events that unfolded moments before. "Typical Arsenal isn't it?" is the most common sentiment I overhear. I ask my friend, Quiad, his prediction for the second half. "I think we'll win 3-1, but not before I have a heart attack." I nod hopefully in agreement, about the result of course, not the chest pains.

As we shuffle back in for the restart, the TVs flash an ill-timed Europa League promo, a grim reminder of our fate should we fail to win. The opening minutes are all Wigan. The goal has brought back their belief and whatever post-FA Cup sluggishness they had at the start of the match has evaporated. Wigan press forward and put Arouna Kone through one on one with Wojciech Szczesny. The air is sucked out of the room as he strikes the ball towards our goal. Save. I can barely compose myself to join in serenading our man of the moment. "Wojciech Szczesny, he's got game, we can't spell his ******* name, la la la la".

Moments later another panic sets in as Wigan have ball in the back of the net; thankfully the offside flag is fluttering in the wet London night. It's beginning to open up as the visitors look to capitalize on their momentum and nab the go-ahead goal.

The mood among the support is growing restless as Arsenal spurn some golden chances to take the lead. Teddy KGB runs through my head "Hanging around, Hanging around, Wigan's got alligator blood". Why does every match need to feel like an elaborate form of torture? Thankfully, relief is on the way.

Santi whips a ball into the box and finds a streaking Theo Walcott who gets there at nearly the same time as Joel Robles. A collective gasp goes up, hands suspended halfway between celebration and disbelief, as the ball hangs in the air for a split second before trundling into the back of the net. Cue pandemonium. "Theeeeooooo, Theeeeoooo" rings out amid the hi-fives and hugs.

Courtesy of Quaid KocurArsenal's three goal spurt in the second half settled the nerves of all in the Blind Pig.

Before the last bars of "Oh to be a Gooner" wrap up, Arsenal are charging forward again. Santi powers a header into the path of a streaking Podolski who deftly flicks it over the onrushing Wigan keeper and into the back of the net. "3-1 to the Arsenal" has a cathartic feel to it as it echoes in the bar. Moments later Aaron Ramsey slots the ball home punctuating an electric eight minutes and sending the bar into a state of ecstasy. I feel like I can breathe for the first time all afternoon.

Around the 85th minute the suits slowly begin to trickle out, satisfied that they can safely return to the office with three points in hand. As the final whistle sounds the updated league table flashes on screen, Arsenal firmly rooted in fourth, a critical point ahead of Tottenham. Destiny remains in Arsenal's hands; one final win and our Champions League dreams are safe for another year. We all need to relive this again on Sunday and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Bryan McAleer is an ESPN FC contributor based in NYC. He is an Arsenal and USMNT supporter with a penchant for Dennis Bergkamp, 10am pints, and the '94 US denim kit. Follow him on Twitter: @mickaleer

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