Emmanuel Adebayor is remembering the moment it all went wrong for Arsenal. Those six crazy minutes at Anfield on Tuesday when, inexplicably, Arsene Wenger's team conspired to throw away what would have been a remarkable 2-2 draw with Liverpool and with it a place in the semi-finals of the Champions League. It sounds like Adebayor is still having trouble coming to terms with it.
"That penalty for Liverpool, to be honest, for me it was like I was watching a video or a game on a PlayStation," he says. "Why? Because I just couldn't believe it." He describes it like an out-of-body experience, a moment made all the more surreal because as Ryan Babel tumbled in the Arsenal penalty area, Adebayor was still in the act of prayer - a little ritual he has after he scores a goal. One moment he was thanking the man upstairs, the next he was using the kind of language that would be generally frowned upon in church.
"We were trying to do something, to equalise and it was not easy and then six minutes from the end of the game we did it, we came back to 2-2. As a player you think 'Fuck, we came back to 2-2, we had a good chance and we lost'. Sorry about the language but you must know what I mean. We were in the Champions League semi-final and you can imagine how excited we must have been. If I remember, Torres passed the ball to somebody - maybe Kuyt? - and when they passed the ball to Babel I was praying and watching. Then I saw the penalty had been given and I was like oooofff."
He hunches his shoulders and shapes that famous lean 6ft 4in frame as if he has taken a punch to the stomach. Deflated. But not for long. Just a few minutes in his company and you realise that Adebayor is not the type to dwell on life's disappointments. He is a charming bloke who speaks more rapidly than Theo Walcott ran through the Liverpool defence on Tuesday. He is animated and excitable, ideas tumbling out about why Arsenal's season has been so disappointing of late, about why they will beat Manchester United when they meet the Premier League leaders tomorrow. Everyone else might be crying for Arsenal's season but not their Togolese striker.
Adebayor has 25 goals this season, he is on the shortlist for the PFA player of the year and he is evidently a young man in a hurry. At 24, he is possessed by that spirit you detect in so many young Arsenal players nurtured by Arsene Wenger, a conviction that the possibilities are endless, that the sky is the limit. His analysis of the two games against Liverpool is that they lost through a mix of two bad penalty decisions and divine intervention and he certainly has not lost his sense of humour.
Adebayor is trying very hard to rationalise that Champions League defeat to Liverpool, once again he goes over what it was Arsenal lost, enunciating it slowly and deliberately. "To be five minutes. Away. From a semi-final. We didn't take that chance and to be honest that is very difficult to accept," he said. "At 2-1 you can understand [if you lose] but when you get it back to 2-2 and you are going through and all you need is to hang on for six minutes - I think that is even more painful."
So he was really still praying when Kolo Toure knocked Babel over in the area? Yes, he says and goes into an earnest explanation of how important his religion is to him, about how he prays before kick-off and at half-time in case something happens in the game. I venture that on this occasion the Almighty appears to have cocked a deaf ear in his direction. He considers it for a moment and offers an explanation. "He can't help me out every single time - maybe Babel prays as well."
There are plenty of theories on why Arsenal have blown a five-point lead in the Premier League, gone out the Champions League and won only two of their last 12 games. Not enough experience? Playing football that is beautiful but fragile? Too much expectation on too many young players? Resting players for the FA Cup tie against Manchester United which ended in a 4-0 defeat and came at the start of their decline? Adebayor adds another two: "concentration and humility".
A first he is difficult to pin down on the subject. Humility? Is he actually saying before they hit the rocks in February and March, Arsenal expected to cruise through to the Premier League title in second gear? What Adebayor really means is that they failed to realise just how difficult their most recent run of games would be. He does not mean the games against Chelsea (they lost) or Liverpool last Saturday (they drew) but the four straight draws with Birmingham, Aston Villa, Wigan and Middlesbrough that crippled their season.
"You can feel that those are the games that, no matter what happens, you have to win," he says. "When you see Birmingham or Aston Villa you see the team and inside you think 'We can win 1-0 minimum'. You know what I mean? We had the penalty against Birmingham [which allowed James McFadden to equalise in the last minute], then there was Wigan. But at the end of the day those are the most difficult games you can play in England.
"You play against Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United, it's a different game, they are all big stars and they want to play football. Playing against them, most of the time it is easier playing against Manchester than Wigan because [against United] everyone is in position they know what to do when they get the ball. When I get the ball [against United] I have a chance to get one against one because they play attacking football as well. You match up and you have a lot of chances to score. It can be 2-2, 4-2.
"When you play against Wigan or Everton. I'm sorry, I respect them a lot but the first thing is they work hard defensively and then offensively it is like 'We will see what we can do'. It is always complicated, it is always difficult. These are the games that are going to be most difficult as a player. To be a champion, no matter what happens, you have to win against Middlesbrough and Wigan and Everton. They are the teams that you have to beat. It's no good if you beat Manchester, Liverpool, Chelsea if you've have lost against Middlesbrough and Villa. In our heads we think games like Wigan are going to be easy and when we step on the pitch it is not as easy as we think. It means that in our heads we are not ready."
It is an honest assessment of how this Arsenal team have lost their way this season and Adebayor says that his team are not going to make the same mistake twice. "From this season - man, I can't tell you how much we have learned". They will not be doing the same again - "Next year if we are five points ahead in March, for sure nobody will catch us". It is not just themselves whom Arsenal have blamed, they are also fed up with the refereeing decisions that Adebayor says cost them two penalties in the three recent games against Liverpool.
"We have a big chance against Manchester to show people that what happened in the first and the second leg against Liverpool was a mistake by the referees. It's unbelievable, in the Champions League first leg game we had a penalty the referee didn't see [Dirk Kuyt's foul on Alex Hleb]. In the Premiership against Liverpool we had another penalty against Cesc [Fabregas] and the referee didn't see the foul by Lucas [Leiva]. And then in the second leg they had a penalty and the referee saw it. We have to just forget about it. But if we had won the first leg 2-1 we would have been talking about another scenario."
They may have just one win in seven Premier League games but Wenger and his players still have that slim hope of catching the leaders Manchester United. Six points behind, five games to play, the chase starts tomorrow. Last season, in September 2006, an Arsenal team without Thierry Henry went to Old Trafford and won thanks to an Adebayor goal six minutes from time. "The game is quite similar to last season because then people were saying no matter what happens they will win because Thierry was injured," Adebayor says. "But now we are fighting to come back and to win the title, it is going to be interesting game.
"I think if we win at Old Trafford we can win the title because it will bring our confidence back fully. For us to go and win there will be a huge thing. We are not so far away from that. Every morning in training, no matter what, our football is attacking. We are not going there to sit back. We cannot. Arsenal football is to push the ball forward all the time, everyone knows that. We are going to put them under pressure, we will show what we can do."
By the end of the interview, Adebayor seems to have forgotten about that penalty at Anfield. He is discussing why Arsenal can be so difficult to beat when they take the lead - "Normally, when Arsenal are 1-0 or 2-0 up the game is almost finished because we keep the ball so well" - and why he cut off those dreadlocks. The maintenance was a major inconvenience apparently and don't get him started on how painful it was to have them re-plaited. Through the window the sun has re-emerged over Arsenal's little football paradise in Hertfordshire. Adebayor strolls out to have his picture taken, still talking ten to the dozen, giving lie to the belief that it is all doom and gloom around this club.
Togo tale: The lowdown on the land that produced Adebayor
Life expectancy: 57 years
Religions: Christianity, Islam, Voodoo
Currency: CFA Franc
*ABOUT THE COUNTRY
Togo became independent in 1960 having previously been a German, then French colony, changing hands in World War One. The official language remains French, with local dialects Kabye, Mina, Ewe and Dagomba also spoken.
*Football: The Sparrow Hawks have never advanced beyond the first round of the African Nations Cup, but qualified for the 2006 World Cup, where they lost all three matches. Adebayor's sole countryman in England is the Aston Villa forward Moustapha Salifou, who has made three substitute appearances for Martin O'Neill's side.
Record scorer: Adebayor, 16
World Ranking: 87
Biggest win: 5-0 v UAE, 21 November 2007Reuse content