Thursday, November 26, 2009

Arsenal 2-0 Liege, and more apprehension

It's job done in Europe. Arsenal are through as group winners with a game to spare, and with the group we were gifted, that would have been the expected outcome.

That said, as I've been repeating over and over, even on otensibly comfortable nights this team looks vulnerable and there are continuing signs they will come unstuck against top opposition. The next such encounter is upon us and despite the 100% home record so far, I'm far from confident.

The last time we triumphed against fellow members of the top four was at chelsea, in that strange league game around this time last season. As I recall, we didn't really turn up that day, were trailing to a Djourou own goal, and then somehow turned the game without really doing all that much. Van Persie got one goal where he was clearly offside, then another from a half chance, and chelsea offered little in response.

But that was a different chelsea to what we will face Sunday, although the personnel hasn't changed much. They were unsure of themselves at home at the time, and Scolari, in hindsight, was probably already losing the confidence of his players. Since then, the Hiddink version outplayed Arsenal in an FA cup semi-final, battered us on our own patch in the league; United taught us a lesson over two legs in Europe, and won the league with a comfortable draw at Old Trafford; and we've drawn twice with Liverpool. And then this season we somehow allowed an off-colour United to plunder a win from a poor game in Manchester.

That's eight games, five defeats, no wins.

If you want to factor in the city defeat of this season aswell, it leaves the sense that this Arsenal side don't really deal well with the big occasion. It's something they really need to start doing. The young players are building experience, but we don't want experienced bridesmaids, or perennial nearly men. They need to win these sorts of matches, or the trophies will never follow.

It's all very well Wenger lauding semi-final appearances; the fact is in both competitions Arsenal were well beaten as soon as they encountered genuinely strong opposition.

chelsea have been talking up their chances before Sunday, you'd hope Wenger will use that to provide a little added motivation. The last time we beat Man United, I got the sense that maybe Ferguson didn't show us the usual respect. They went for the jugular early and it led to an open game, the type in which Arsenal almost always come out on top. Since then they've returned to the more cagey style that serves them well against Arsenal. But I hope chelsea are now perhaps seeing themselves as the better side and will get a little over-confident. They haven't played many difficult away games, and have lost at both Villa and Wigan. They also struggled at home to United to an undeserved victory, so while they are gaining a lot of plaudits they have some difficult tests ahead, especially, one expects, during and after the African Nations cup.

But let's face it, they'll look at Arsenal and see weaknesses to be exploited. These were shown again in Tuesday's game. While dominating against poor opposition, Arsenal needed two fairly lucky goals- unlikely to happen against chelsea- and gave up chances very cheaply. Liege twice rattled woodwork, should have had a penalty and missed a sitter. And as I watched Arsenal attack, the ghost of a fit Van Persie again haunted my mind. There was some nice stuff played, but not the type of thing you expect to see chelsea troubled too much by.

As stated, I'm not too optimistic about Sunday, though I can imagine it being a draw. Obviously, it's vital that we get the first goal. Then perhaps we could show some of the discipline of the second half of the Spurs game, and maybe open them up on the break.

What's most damning is the palpable panic surrounding the loss of Van Persie and, potentially, Gallas. This situation perfectly illustrates the shortcomings of an uneven squad. We have, on the one hand, Fabregas, Nasri, Rosicky, Arshavin, Walcott all available... but not one striker who you'd see as suited to the centre forward role. And when one of our first choice centre halves is doubtful, there is no talk of able deputies, only desperate prayers and nightmarish visions of what Didier Drogba could do to either Mikael Silvestre or, god forbid, his old buddy Big Philly.

Not that any of our rearguard has covered itself in glory against the big Ivorian. Arsenal have never beaten him, and the news that even Lamptard could be back is further proof that perhaps the gods are not smiling on us just at the moment. But then, this is the Premiership gentlemen- the gods will not save you. And the false one in charge of Arsenal should have done more in the Summer to prevent just this kind of "ill fate".

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