Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A 3 Horse Race?

Chelsea's hard-fought victory against a bus-parking Manchester City leaves them six points adrift, and with a visit to Old Trafford to come, a winning run between now and the end of the season would most likely secure them what seemed an unlikely victory in the title race.

Looking at the top three, Chelsea are probably the most likely to put an impressive run together, on paper. On balance, their starting line up at the moment seems stronger than either Arsenal's or United's. And they can be a truly formidable team when momentum is on their side.

I don't think they will win the league for a few reasons. Their squad is not as deep as they would like. Too many of their best players- Drogba, Lampard, Essien, Malouda, Torres- are having below-par seasons. And I think their players will prioritise the competition in which their manager is a specialist. That Chelsea side has endured some painful moments in the Champions League. That is the trophy they want and I think their league performances will come to reflect that.

They have had impressive home results of late against the two Manchester teams. But United are having a wretched season away from home, and City showed no ambition. I don't think Chelsea were anything close to their best in winning those games and as the tension rises in the last few games, they will need to play consistently well to make up the gap on United. If some of the aforementioned players regained their best form, it would be possible, but I still see United as strong favourites.

For the rest of this season, and all of the next, it will be fascinating to see whether Torres can find the class that seems to have deserted him. Chelsea may see the summer as an opportune moment to discard Drogba, an elemental player who is now showing genuine signs of decline. If Torres were Drogba's age, we would certainly be saying that he's past it. Maybe injuries have caught up with the Spaniard- consider how young Michael Owen was when he peaked- about ten years ago!

Chelsea may find themselves regretting what was an expensive transfer. The time was probably right to look to replace Drogba, but did they get the right man?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

He Knows

...And there is no need to be troubled about times and seasons, for the secret of the times and seasons is in the wisdom of Wenger, in His foresight, and His love. And what in human reckoning seems still afar off, may by the Divine ordinance be close at hand, on the eve of its appearance. And so be it, so be it!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Collapse Continues: West Brom 2-2 Arsenal

Man United, as has been said umpteen times, are lacking in flair this season.

Arsenal, although their style of play is overrated, have a bit more of it.

But as far as trophies go, it does not matter one iota.

The reasons for that were neatly summed up today.

The Premiership is populated mostly by mediocre sides.

West Brom are mediocre. Bolton are decent, but far from great.

To win titles, you have to beat those teams regularly. You have to do it when not at your best.

Neither Arsenal or Man United were at their best today. But if your defence functions properly, limited sides will still struggle to score against you. They are less adept at making clear chances. United's defence generally ensures that they only need one goal. So it was today.

Arsenal's defence, in the absence of Djourou, is appalling. That is no exaggeration. They are an absolute disgrace. They don't make mediocre teams work for their chances. And so they drop the kind of points you can't afford to. So it was today.

West Brom are not very good but if you give away free headers from six yards and open goals from hopeful punts, even a mediocre team will punish you.

Arsenal were left needing three goals in half an hour and against a team organised by Roy Hodgson, that was always unlikely. Well done on salvaging a point from a very grim situation. But the team needs to work harder on avoiding these grim situations.

Arsenal seem to only show urgency in situations of absolute desperation.

Apparently, a must-win game does not become important enough until they are trailing 2-0.

There is NO CHANCE, I repeat, NO CHANCE, that Arsenal will win the title. They will be two points behind United if they win their game in hand, but as far as I'm concerned, it may as well be twenty.

You have to be good enough to win the title. People can keep banging on about how United are below par, but United being below par will not win Arsenal the title. At some point they have to claim ownership of these matches, impose themselves, get the necessary results. They are incapable of it.

With a clean bill of health, there would be hope. With Almunia (or, indeed, a long past-it Lehmann) in goals and Squillaci and Koscielny in tandem? Not a hope!

My remaining wish for the season is that United do not wrap up the title at the Emirates. Arsenal may well stay in touch, which is the most frustrating thing, in a way. They are, in mathematical terms, a cunthair away from winning the title, but at the same time, I cannot imagine this team doing it.

As for the overall prospect of another trophyless season? It's frustrating. United and Chelsea and City and Liverpool are all in relatively poor health. There was a moment to be seized; that moment has passed. In defence of Wenger, one can point to financial constraints, and look to a brighter future. I can't see, however, that bringing in a better goalkeeper than Manuel Almunia, and a better defender than Sebastien Squillaci, would have broken the bank. The two of them are, quite frankly, cack. Every time they take to the pitch it makes a mockery of Arsenal's lofty pretensions.

It is hard to remember a time when the Arsenal squad was so littered with maligned players. Those two, Fabianski, Denilson, Eboue, Bentner, Diaby, Arshavin. All have been the victims of some pretty heavy criticism.

With the injury list as it is, some of those players would have to completely transform themselves to make it a glorious end to the season.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

United Failings Unpunished Again

Manchester United 2-1 Marseille. Aggregate: 2-1

On they stagger. United haven't been controlling games this season. They have been relying on an excellent defence. Against Marseille, shorn of both Vidic and Ferdinand, they were predictably less solid, and a more clinical outfit than the French team would have knocked them out.

For all the constant, sychophantic praise of Paul Scholes, he gives the ball away quite a bit and a midfield of him and Michael Carrick does not have the ability to horde possession or the legs for a midfield skirmish so United, after a whirlwind start and Hernandez's opener, sat deep and tried to win the game through Nani, Rooney and the Mexican.

This led to a strange contest. Unlike, say, Arsenal, who constantly commit six or seven players to attack, Marseille play cautiously, in the image of their manager Didier Deschamps. Even at 1-0 down, they never threw many bodies forward. Still, Gignac and Diawara missed wonderful chances to equalise before half time.

In the second half, they still refused to throw caution to the wind. Even when Valbuena came on, it was for the striker, Gignac. There were few clear chances, but a couple of situations where it was clear that they needed to flood the box, gamble on a cross. They retained their caution and United punished them when a rare decent move saw Valencia play in Giggs with a clever pass, and the Welshman square for Hernandez to net his second from close range. Wes Brown's own goal led to a nervy finale but United muddle their way through.

In fairness to Deschamps, he might argue that Marseille's controlled style of attacking was what kept them in the tie, that if they had commited further to attack, United would have torn them apart on the break. But United were clearly vulnerable, with Brown and Smalling an unconvincing partnership, and I think a more adventurous approach from the French team might have yielded a big reward. That said, even as it is they will feel that, on the balance of chances, they might well have gone through.

In fairness to United, while theirs was an unconvincing performance, injuries have depleted their squad somewhat. Twice tonight, there was an enforced substitution at right back- first O'Shea was replaced by Rafael, then Rafael by Fabio- meaning both Giggs and Scholes had to play ninety minutes. Understandable, then, that United failed to regain the tempo with which they started the game.

The plus point for United is the chemistry between Hernandez and Rooney. Rooney has always been at his most exciting when allowed to drop off and set up, as well as finish, chances. Hernandez is the ideal partner in this regard, as he plays off the shoulder of the last defender, is very quick, and shows clever movement. It's been a good few days for United, a bad few for Berbatov.

Then again, the poverty of United's current midfield means that Ferguson is likely to soon revert back to packing the midfield and using Rooney either from the left or as the spearhead of the attack.

The Cliche Corner part 1.

"These things even themselves out over a season"
What a crock of shit. Firstly, it's quite clear that big teams, most obviously Manchester United in the Premiership, do not suffer poor decisions as often as other teams. It's just that they whinge the loudest afterwards, as we saw with Alex Ferguson's childish reaction to the Chelsea defeat.

But even if there was no bias or fear involved in refereeing decisions, why the hell would they even themselves out over a season? People do know the meaning of "random" don't they? Random things do not "even themselves out". There is no grand plan.

It's like people claiming that "everything happens for a reason". If they mean everything happens as a direct consequence of something else, I guess they're right. But if they think every random event is all part of some grand, cosmic plan set out for the benefit of each individual, they need to wake up a bit.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Better Analogy Than I Can Come Up With

On today's Guardian podcast, Gregg Roughley pointed out the similarity between Saturday's game at Old Trafford and a certain scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Manchester United as Indiana Jones and Arsenal as the stylish swordsman.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Spine of Glass

For a team to be successful, we all know it needs to be strong down the middle of the pitch. A reliable goalkeeper, with a strong central defensive partnership in front. A midfield capable of destroying and creating in equal measure. A goalscorer up front.

Arsenal arguably have these components in theory, but almost never in practise. To be injury-prone is an Arsenal trademark.

Although Wenger still, unbelievably, refuses to buy an experienced goalkeeper of true quality, Szczesny has looked the best of the revolving bunch this season. He will now miss the rest of the season. Djourou and Vermaelen are the two best centre backs at the club. But they have had no opportunity to forge a partnership. While Vermaelen was impressing last season, Djourou was unavailable. This time around, Djourou has held things together alongside some frankly very erratic partners, while Vermaelen has fallen victim to the injury curse. And now Djourou himself has proven brittle yet again, and Arsenal are left with two apparently incompatible, error-prone defenders to see out the season.

Ahead of the defence, with Denilson and Diaby clearly not good enough to play for Arsenal, and Ramsey recovering from being Shawcrossed, Song, Wilshere and Fabregas established themselves as the unchallenged first choice trio. It is a midfield of flair and invention, even if they can be made to look lightweight at times. But when the back-up players are not up to the task, Arsenal cannot afford to see Cesc Fabregas suffer recurrent hamstring injuries, stalling his season time after time. Now Song too is missing important games, and Wilshere is holding things together despite his youth and inexperience.

Up front, Van Persie is, as proven by his New Year purple patch, a striker of real class. Nobody has ever doubted his ability to score goals, but in the last two seasons his link up play has improved and Arsenal play much better as a team with him in the side. But he is comically brittle and has never stayed fit for close to a full season. Chamakh and Bendtner could be good understudies to someone like Thierry Henry, who could be relied on to bang in goals all season long. Because of Van Persie's frequent, prolonged absences, they are being asked to do too much.

The evidence is that the spine of the Arsenal team is mostly made up of players whose fitness cannot be trusted in. Van Persie and Djourou have always been injury-prone. But after the last two seasons, Fabregas now invites that tag aswell. And Vermalen has been plagued by a problem of Rosickyesque proportions this season.

We still cannot be sure of the reasons. Is it just bad luck? Does Arsene Wenger sign too many brittle players? Is there a problem with the medical staff or with the training regime at the club? Are players rushed back from injury too often? Is the players' physical weakness somehow linked to their obvious mental weakness?

I have only talked about the main players down the middle of the team- no mention here of Abou Diaby's niggling problems, or Theo Walcott's, or Rosicky's. It is difficult to remember a time when Arsenal did not have a lengthy list of short and long term absentees. Worse still, it is difficult to suggest a solution, besides the fanciful one of dropping most of these players and bringing in more durable replacements, which in any case sounds like a recipe for more transition.

From Despair to Where

Is it time for sweeping changes? Is there reason to be optimistic in the title race? Will Arsenal win anything under Wenger again?

It's been two weeks of utter despondency for Arsenal and their followers. The first blow remains the worst- the team pretty well bottled the Carling Cup final, raising doubts as to their ability to secure any kind of silverware. The games since have done nothing to dispel those doubts. The draw at home to Sunderland in the league may yet be seen as very, very costly. The Barca game was the worst kind of humiliation, exposing the lie of Arsenal's superiority complex, as the team either attempted to execute a very negative gameplan, or, even worse, just lacked the balls to stick to their guns and settled for jogging around chasing shadows all night. Then there was the FA Cup loss to United, Alex Ferguson again outsmarting Arsene Wenger, and with a line up that, on paper, is one of the worst you will ever see United field. For all their vaunted style, Arsenal did not have the substance to make clear chances or the finishing prowess to beat Edwin Van der Sar. At the back, as always, Arsenal were caught out nearly every time they were attacked at pace. Even faced with an immobile midfield pairing of Gibson and O'Shea, Arsenal's laboured attacks mostly failed to test the strength of United's rearguard.

It's a time to look for positives, but most of them seem vague to me. It's a young team that is likely to improve, some say. But Arsenal are, in all likelihood, set to lose their captain and only world class player this summer. That won't help the team's development. There is no comparison with the loss of Thierry Henry, who was a fading force by the time he left, becoming troubled by injuries, losing his pace. And he was, let's not forget, a bit of an asshole who had a detrimental effect on some of the younger players. The season after Henry's departure, the team was clearly liberated and enjoyed their best campaign since 03/04. Without Fabregas, Arsenal will need someone to step up to the plate and show some leadership. Jack Wilshere has been Arsenal's best player through this difficult spell- that is both encouraging and worrying. He is only a kid and yet he is showing more fight and character than people who have been in the team for years. What does that say for the current squad?

It may seem harsh to be critical of Arsenal when they are outperforming big spenders like Man City and the champions Chelsea. But it seems to have become the Arsenal way to point to these disadvantages and claim a moral victory. To clarify, Arsenal do spend money too. Theo Walcott, for instance, cost a lot of money for a kid and so far injuries and a lack of natural talent have curtailed his development. And new, beefier contracts are constantly being signed by underperforming players. It seems Arsene Wenger wants to avoid the kind of situation that saw Mathieu Flamini leave for nothing in 2008. The great irony is that Flamini played out of his skin while his contract was running down- his first ever real run as a first choice player. He had been undervalued, while now people like Diaby and Denilson are overvalued. They are rewarded for mediocrity.

To constantly compare ourselves to underachieving overspenders exposes a small club mentality. Success and progress should be the only measuring stick. If Arsenal are to finish second in the league, Mr. Wenger will spin it as progress, and on the surface, he would be right. But the truth is Arsenal have stood still while others have gone backwards. Manchester United look like winning the league with a worse side than the one that finished 2nd last season. Chelsea endured a wretched winter, and many of their players look locked in decline. Manchester City are handicapped by the negative tactics of their manager and their team is still taking shape. Spurs have been distracted by the Champions League, and Liverpool spent most of the season in crisis. Stability seems to be on Arsenal's side and so this season has to be viewed as a huge opportunity, if Wenger's rhetoric is to be believed. He feels the team has matured but they were not mature enough to overcome their own nerves in a Carling Cup final. They were not good enough to truly test Barcelona over two legs. They are still not good enough to beat what is a poor Man Utd side. The league remains a target but to secure it they will need to show reserves of character that have not been shown by this set of players.

The fatal flaws of last season remain glaring. Defensive solidity was compromised by Vermaelen's niggling injury, but the team's collective approach to defending remains suspect. The downright laziness of Wenger's defensive ethos made clear by the contrast with Guardiola's Barcelona. Here is the most talented set of players in world football, working like dogs every time they lose the ball. Beyond the back four, Arsenal's players too often look uninterested in the defensive side of the game. Jack Wilshere has improved the team in this regard through sheer determination, but the midfield remains lightweight and unconvincing without the ball. Diaby and Denilson are happy to coast as squad players. In fact, beyond the first eleven, most players are unable to cope. Rosicky is stagnating. Squillaci has been a disastrous signing. Eboue barely gets a game. Bendtner and Chamakh cannot be relied upon to score goals when it matters- that has been clear in the last couple of weeks. Arshavin is talented but lazy- Walcott tries but is not talented. There are a number of players that most fans think are not good enough.

Arsenal have lost some easy games this season, but with the exception of a fine performance at home to Chelsea, they have come up short again in the toughest ones. Twice now at Old Trafford they have drawn blanks. They did not turn up at Wembley against Birmingham and paid the ultimate price thanks to one of the most amateur mistakes you will ever see at this level of the game. They won the first half against Barcelona thanks to some good fortune and some resilience, but retreated into their shells in the second. The lack of a winning mentality and the lack of defensive strength is summed up by the way Arsenal made an excuse of RVP's dismissal. At that moment, Arsenal were leading the tie with about forty minutes to go. Inter Milan had held out much longer minus a man the year before. With Arsenal, it was as if the tie ended with the red card. The players saw their excuse to run less, to try less, to hide. Arsenal had defended stoutly for the most part when 11 v 11, but suddenly every Barcelona move was puncturing the defence. Wenger ranted at the decision and then sat like some inanimate object while the game slipped away, refusing to make a change that was patently needed.

Injuries have hampered the team at a crucial time again. But the game against United has shown what a feeble excuse injuries really are. Because United are flexible, they were able to win playing two full backs on either wing. Arsenal have been unable to effectively replace Theo Walcott, even though he's not even that good a player. Without his pace, the whole system seems so one-dimensional. Arsenal only have one way of playing and without pace, it becomes so blunt, so lacking in incisiveness. For all their supposed artistry, Arsenal without Fabregas lack genuine creativity. They pass, pass, pass- sideways, sideways, sideways. Then there is the edge of the box and the brick wall it represents. Of course, United have played all season without a creative midfield player. They remain the foremost team because they are durable, flexible. They realise that for most teams, goals come from quick moves, counterattacks, crosses. They use proper wingers and they have centre forwards who score. It's simple and some may find it prosaic; certainly, this is one of Ferguson's least impressive line ups, but they succeed nonetheless. If it came down to a simple dichotomy, you could say that what drives Ferguson is the pursuit of trophies, whereas for Wenger, aesthetics get in the way. He wants to win, no doubt, but stubborn, flawed idealism has handicapped that quest.

Victory in the title race could, of course, be the making of this team, but victory seems far less likely to me than the table suggests. I had serious doubts before the Carling Cup final as to whether Arsenal could recover from defeat and events since the loss have gone as I expected. This season represented an exceptional opportunity to end the run without silverware and so far that opportunity is going down the toilet. I don't expect the teams around Arsenal to be in such poor shape next season and I don't expect Arsenal to improve much if Fabregas leaves. Wenger will see that the team has plenty more attacking midfielders and in a way, that's an understandable view, but what he has to do is fix the character deficit that has plagued this team for years. Fabregas has been one of the best players in the club's history and at the moment it seems he'll be leaving with one poxy, jammy FA Cup victory to show for his efforts. That is a sad state of affairs for a supposedly big club and if failure this season does not serve as a wake up call there is a danger of Arsenal becoming entrenched in a state of perpetual transition.

Wenger has become obsessed with moulding players, building a team in his own image. He is able to instil a playing style but not a winning mentality. He has proven incapable of that. When he arrived, there was Adams and company. They showed Vieira the way, but the 'Invincibles' were dismantled before a lot of the current crop arrived, and the only experience in the current squad is experience of failure. There is no sense of a torch being passed. There is a sense that they are playing 'good' football for its own sake and that losing is ultimately acceptable. It may hurt Wenger's delicate sensibilites, the idea that character has to be bought in, but it seems to me that that is the only way to grow a culture of success. If nothing changes, I think there should at least be some pressure on the manager. Pressure breeds success, comfort breeds complacency. The fans want to see success and familiar excuses are growing tiresome.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

This is a Problem Now.

Arsenal have not beaten Manchester United since the early part of the 08/09 season.

Today, Alex Ferguson fielded a weak side. The weakest United side Arsene Wenger has ever faced (not including a League Cup match years back). Arsenal were missing players but were much closer to what may be called "full strength". United ran out comfortable winners nonetheless.

Even if Arsenal pull themselves together for the remainder of the league season, much will likely rely on the game between the two teams at the Emirates. United will not be playing full backs on the wings, centre backs in midfield. We can't predict their line up but we can predict the way Arsenal will approach the game. United have got so used to it that it seems Ferguson can beat Wenger using any kind of starting eleven.

Arsenal are not that good, unless the object of the game is to play well between the two penalty areas. Against Barca, the pressure was so great that they failed even to do that. Against United, they were allowed to do it. United settled for winning the mini-games in both penalty areas. That was enough. In the space of a week, Arsenal have fallen foul of the best midfield in the world, and then no midfield at all.


It's why Alex Ferguson is the most successful manager of recent times. And the lack of it is why Arsene Wenger and Arsenal's glory continues to recede into the past.

Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal
After being outclassed at the Nou Camp, Arsenal took up the more familiar mantle of moral victory at Old Trafford. They owned the ball, played most of the football, exerted a lot of pressure... and lost. The extent to which Arsenal can cling to their moral victory should be tempered by the fresh memory of Tuesday night. Would any Arsenal fans have complained if Bendtner stuck away that late chance and Arsenal fluked their way through?

In any case, United did show more in attack than Arsenal did against Barca. They scored from their first decent attack. Denilson showed some fatal hesitation in midfield, failing to close down Rafael's poor first touch, and the Brazilian played in his twin down the right. The ball was worked inside to Rooney, he crossed first time for Hernandez, and although Almunia did well to parry a strong downward header, Fabio gobbled up the rebound. All very familiar for Arsenal fans. They had been allowed possession and showed some apparent menace up to that point, but their attacks stalled on the edge of the box. United had been wretched on the few occasons they had the ball, frequently pumping it straight through to Almunia. The first time they put a move together, however, Arsenal had no answer. This team can attack for 80 minutes and not break through, and they will not defend well for the other ten. It's an unfortunate mix.

Arsenal showed their intent at the start of the second period, and Koscielny stormed forward to find himself on the end of two chances. First he chickened out of shooting and tried to square the ball to Van Persie, but when the ball ricocheted back his way he produced a good effort which Van Der Sar did well to save. United showed their superior cutting edge again almost immediately; Rafael's cross found Djourou denying Hernandez with a desperate challenge, and as with the first goal, a United player was first onto the free ball, Rooney nodding into the far corner.

The game continued in this frustrating fashion. Arsenal did make some clear chances, and deserved at least a goal. Chamakh wasted the best one. Sagna's cross was deflected right onto his head, but the attempt was neither powered nor placed, and Van der Sar again made a fine save. United threatened sporadically on the break. Clearly, this had been their intention from the start, with their "midfield" comprising Gibson and O'Shea in the middle, Fabio and Rafael on the wings. They allowed Arsenal the illusion of control, confident that they could repel the Gunners' narrow, intricate attacks.

Arshavin played well first half, but faded, showing his lack of fitness. Nasri had his moments and was unlucky with a clever near post effort in the first half. Nobody played particularly badly. The team's ineffective style, its lack of cutting edge, was again exposed. Fabregas and Walcott may have made a difference, but on another day United would have had Fletcher biting into tackles, Nani and Park ripping Arsenal apart on the counter. Both sides were understrength but United are more flexible.

Completing a miserable day, Djourou picked up what looked a serious injury, leaving Arsenal down to ten men for the last ten minutes, and unable to launch a convincing attempt at an unlikely comeback. Then we were treated to the sad spectacle of Paul Scholes launching into two of his trademark rubbish tackles- booked for the first, but allowed the second, because even when leading 2-0 in the final seconds, United players are not punished by scared referees. They have fallen foul of some poor decisions in recent away games, but at Old Trafford, they can do whatever they like.

Arsenal can cling to the fact that United played with more or less the same tactics and style as Leyton Orient or Leeds. United will have something more tangible to hold onto at the end of the season.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why Arsenal Will Lose This Weekend

1. Fabregas is Out
Arsenal's captain is back on the treatment table, having been rushed back to play his old side on Tuesday night. Arsenal in general don't beat good teams, but without Fabregas, they can struggle against even mediocre ones, as proven by recent problems against Birmingham and Sunderland.

2. Manchester United have Character
(and Arsenal don't). I don't remember many times that Alex Ferguson's Man Utd have lost three consecutive games. Three consecutive games against Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal? I'd eat my hat. United tend to be galvanised by setbacks, and their players will be fired up after a week of nonstop hairdryer, following a terribly flaccid performance at Anfield. Arsenal? Their previous slumps this season have been mercifully short, but they are no strangers to imploding for a month on end at a very important time. The players are in a painfully familiar situation and I'm afraid they will expect to lose on Saturday. United have the winning mentality. If you compare the teams in terms of raw talent, Arsenal are probably better. Why then are United top, and so used to winning trophies? Because they have stronger minds, stronger hearts.

3. The game is at Old Trafford
Arsenal haven't won at Old Trafford since Emmanuel Adebayor's late goal won an early season game in 2006. Since then, Arsenal have played well and lost, played ok and lost, played terribly and lost at Old Trafford. The games, with the exception of that 4-0 beating in 2008's FA Cup, have been tight and United have rarely played brilliantly, but Arsenal seem to lack the mentality to win there and never score more than once. It can't all be bad luck.

4. Ferguson has the measure of Wenger
Arsenal only play one way. Or they only play well one way, when they try other ways, we get what we had the other night. This isn't the best of United's recent teams but they can defend, they can counterattack, and they use these aspects of their game very well against Arsenal. At the Emirates, where Arsenal tend to overcommit, United have twice won by a wide margin in recent years, by exploiting Arsenal's exposed defence on the break. While the games tend to be tighter at Old Trafford, as Arsenal do not attack quite so recklessly, United's habit of not making mistakes is vital. Remember the game at Old Trafford last season, when Almunia and Diaby made errors to turn the match around? Arsenal make the kind of mistakes that United don't. Ferguson will ensure it's not the kind of open match that Arsenal thrive in. The last time he set up to attack against Arsenal was the last time Arsenal won- when Nasri's double beat a team containing Berbatov, Rooney, and Ronaldo in 2008. He'll probably only play one striker this Saturday, and pack his midfield with the kind of industry and grit that Arsenal still cannot seem to match.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Food For Thought for the Hype Merchants

Sometimes, stats don't lie. Van Persie and Wenger can berate the officials all they like, but on Tuesday night, Arsenal did not have a single attempt on goal. The whole game turned into an attack vs defence exercise. While the red card contributed to that in the second half, there were no excuses for Arsenal's lack of forward momentum in the first. They were simply outfought, outpressed and outpassed.

As with that 2005 FA Cup Final, Wenger didn't plan it, it just went that way. Mourinho parked the bus, Arsenal crashed it. They tried to pass, tried to play, but the opposition were on another level, so it became, by accident, a rearguard action.

Keys and Gray may be gone, but the Sky Sports hype machine lives on, and you will still hear many more times this season that the English Premier League is the world's best. Arsenal are the second-best team in said league at the moment. They could not muster a single shot against La Liga's best. A common argument for the current superiority of English football is that the teams at the bottom can beat the teams at the top; all that that really proves is that the top teams in England are either in decline to some degree (United, Chelsea) or still progressing towards being a very good team (Arsenal for the last few years, Spurs, Man City, Liverpool). They are basically arguing that the Premiership is greatest because it has no great teams. Barcelona would wipe the floor with almost every team in that league, just as they do with almost every team in Spain. I have no problem with people stating that the Premiership is the best to watch, even though that is only a matter of opinion, but I would appreciate it if the pundits could just try to be a bit more critical-minded in suggesting why Wolves are able to take points off the top teams.

Almunia: Time for a Reevaluation?


Few Arsenal players emerged with much credit from the Nou Camp. They all chased and harried a bit, but a telling statistic after the game was that Barcelona's players ran a whole lot more (not sure of the exact figures). It's hard enough playing a team more talented, but when their collective work rate is superior aswell, you don't really stand a chance. Arsenal barely won a 50-50 challenge all night.

As has been the case in recent weeks, Jack Wilshere was at the heart of most of the good things that Arsenal did in attack. And at the back, Laurent Koscielny again won a few personal duels with Leo Messi. But Arsenal's man of the match, if such an award can be given on a night of failure, was substitute Manuel Almunia. He was in almost constant action, particularly in the second half, and quite a few of his saves were in one on one situations. In this strangest of seasons, it is quite possible that he has gone from first choice, to third choice, to the only choice, with Fabianski's season finished and, possibly, Szczesny's too.

It has been fashionable for a long time to deride the Spaniard. He first came into the Arsenal line up in 2004, soon after the team's 49 game unbeaten run had ended so acrimoniously at Old Trafford. His chance came at the expense of Jens Lehmann, who was somewhat unfairly scapegoated for the team's general loss of form. Almunia soon proved himself much more error-prone than even the eccentric German, and by the end of the next season, Lehmann was undoubted number one and a real cult hero, having helped Arsenal to the Champions League final.

Almunia became the main man early in 07/08, when Lehmann dropped horrendous gaffes in the first two league games against Fulham and Blackburn. Despite enjoying a decent season, the Spaniard never quite convinced people that he was a top stopper, and Football365 soon became fond of stating that Arsenal played without a goalkeeper. He's started every season since as number one, but it looked like this time around, with Fabianski finally finding form, and Szczesny looking like the next Peter Schmeichel, Almunia's stint was finally up. Will the performance last night have changed opinions?

Not mine. Almunia's best moments have generally come in games where Arsenal have found themselves under siege- in other words, games that only come around once in a while. This was the case at home to Barcelona last season, even though in that game, he still practically begged Zlatan Ibrahimovic to lob him for the opening goal. He was also impressive in another Champions Leage game, the away semi-final against United in 09, where Arsenal were outplayed and opened up at will. To be fair, he also had a knack of saving penalties, including one against Spurs that probably turned no points into three in 2008.

But the common criticism of Almunia has been his inability to make saves in the games that Arsenal dominate. The games where the keeper just has to make one or two interventions, to ensure that the attacking players can go on and win the game. And you never got the impression that he inspired much confidence in his defenders. His decision making has always been suspect. I will always have nightmares about an ill-advised charge to meet Ryan Giggs near the corner flag at Highbury, leaving Cristiano Ronaldo with an empty net during that temper-flared thriller in 2005. He has never lost that tendency to act on suspect impulses and it has often cost Arsenal dearly.

After the Birmingham game and Ben Foster's standout performance, some asked whether Manchester United should have stuck with him as Van der Sar's understudy. But Foster and Almunia are alike. Foster's best games come when he's busy, and a United keeper will not usually be busy. A United keeper will need to organise his defence, take crosses and make a few saves in between long stretches of boredom. Birmingham suits Foster better because they are a mid-level team, with lower expectations, and he can keep himself busy saving a steady barrage of shots. He will still make regular mistakes but they will not be noticed like they were when he was costing United points.

A big club needs a cool, calm, reliable goalkeeper and that usually means an experienced one. Almunia has experience, but it is of a questionable quality. Before Arsenal, he was a journeyman keeper in Spain, and in all his years in London he has not gained the trust of many. Wenger will probably continue, when given the choice, with the education of either Fabianski or, hopefully, Szczesny, and allow the Spaniard to leave in the summer. In an ideal world, he would buy a man of experience to help the defence along and avoid such catastrophes as we saw at Wembley, but that may be an expensive business and we know what Wenger thinks of expensive business. He would rather sit on the money and live with the inevitable mistakes. The future will arrive some day.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Wenger's Faith is Shaken

Arsene Wenger is sometimes ridiculed for his faith in young talent. Tonight he showed a lack of faith in some of his players.

How else do you explain the starting line up? Minus Alex Song, Denilson was left on the bench despite being the only other "holding player" in the squad. Fabregas started despite his clear lack of fitness. Van Persie started despite a similar problem, and both Chamakh and Bendtner were left on the bench. Wenger professes his belief in his squad, but tonight his faith only extended to his star men. Taking chances with the fitness of players has become a familiar ploy and this is not the first time we have seen it backfire. Last season, Fabregas played in the first leg of the tie against Barcelona and missed the rest of the season as a result. This time out, he was carrying an injury, I have heard, from the fifteenth minute on. Who is to say what damage had been done by the time his ineffective performance was finally brought to an end by second half substitution.

I know it meant a lot to the guy to play at the Nou Camp. But what about the team? What about the rest of the season? If he is playing a game when he's not ready, it is stupid of him and stupid of Wenger. It hinders Arsenal on the night and, possibly, for the rest of the season. The same goes for the Van Persie gamble. For Wenger to take these risks seems defeatist- like saying, "we cannot beat Barca without these players. Even if Fabregas is half-fit, he's better than a fully fit Denilson". Not the case, especially when playing Barcelona involves having to run yourself into the ground, constantly closing them down. It seems ludicrous to me that, with Arsenal down to ten men and trying desperately to hold onto that 3-2
aggregate lead, an already injured, immobile midfielder was left on, while a fit, defensively-minded one was left sitting pitchside. Fabregas was only withdrawn after Barca had turned the tie around.

After the red card, Barca commenced to batter at Arsenal's door with incessant pressure, and they had been cutting through at will for a long period before Xavi eventually found the net. Wenger failed to act, as if paralysed by his own rage at the injustice of Van Persie's sending off. Arsenal limped on with Nasri as the nominal out ball up front, and with Fabregas, Diaby and Wilshere forming a shield of foam in front of an overworked back four. A more proactive manager would surely have thrown on Bendtner or Chamakh, and Denilson. Admittedly, the enforced change of goalkeeper in the first half did not help, as without that, Wenger probably would have used Denilson at 1-1, knowing that he could still put on Arshavin and one of the forwards if needed.

Still, it seems amazing to me that Wenger seemed to wait for disaster, and then try and change things from a losing position. It's not like Arsenal were comfortably holding out, or even playing well, at 1-1. It was an incessant tide and the manager sat back and watched it grow instead of making changes to try to stem it.

What does all of this say about the likes of Bendtner, Chamakh, Denilson? It disgusts the manager when the fans show a lack of patience with still-developing players. What of his own lack of faith? If he really felt so daunted by Barcelona that he didn't feel he could cope without his main men, he should have considered the bigger picture, and how Arsenal would fare for the rest of the season without them. Because make no mistake, he risked their seasons by playing them in tonight's game. Whatever the manager's outward rhetoric, what kind of self-belief will Bendtner, Chamakh and Denilson carry into the rest of the season? The latter in particular must wonder how on earth he could be deemed an inferior option to the stuttering, choking Diaby, who seemed to lose the ball every time he had it tonight.

Battered again but...

...Barca are too good to have to rely on an extra man all the time. Throughout the first half, on the rare occasions that Arsenal were bold enough to try tackling, the holier-than-thou home players bitched and badgered at the referee. Abidal rolled and moaned when tackled cleanly by Rosicky, trying to get the game stopped, but when Wilshere did something similar minutes later, he was surrounded by pompous pricks trying to pull him to his feet. I'm not trying to make excuses, because Arsenal were completely outclassed, but from the moment Abou Diaby's penalty area foul on Messi went unpunished, practically every decision went the home side's way.

It was a surreal game in many ways. Arsenal had two shots, if you're being kind. The first came from the head of a Barcelona player, and gave Arsenal an undeserved equaliser. The second saw Robin Van Persie sent off in ludicrous circumstances after he didn't hear the referee blow for offside. So in effect, there was not a single legitimate effort on goal by the team in yellow. Even stranger, Bendtner should have had one, should have scored, should have put Arsenal back in a winning position, but his touch was poor and Mascherano and Valdes smothered the chance. That was with minutes to go, by which point Barca should have been into double figures.

The first half was a story of atrocious passing by Arsenal, under ferocious pressing by Barca. There was no threat on the home goal, while the pressure steadily built at the other end, without the steady flow of chances we saw in the first leg. Arsenal never looked comfortable under siege. They wanted to play football, but could not deal with the pressure they were put under, and because Rosicky, Nasri and Van Persie all prefer to move towards the ball, there was no way out, no way of finding even temporary relief. Their play became steadily more ragged, until Fabregas gave the ball away on the edge of the area with a silly backheel straight to Iniesta, who found Messi with a lovely dink through. The impudent Argentine clipped the ball over the flailing Almunia's head, then vollyed it into the empty net. That looked like game over, as Arsenal had offered no threat at all.

After the lucky equaliser, and the unlucky red card, Almunia kept Arsenal in it with a number of fine saves. The Spaniard had come on for Szczesny, who injured his hand saving an Alves free kick in the first half. 10 v 11, it was one way traffic. Rosicky, Diaby, Wilshere and Fabregas, anonymous until his mistake and not fit to play any real part, proved no real barrier in front of the back four, who were forced into all kinds of desperate interventions before a lovely run from Iniesta and deft touch from Villa sent Xavi through to provide the inevitable goal. Easy to say it from the vantage of an armchair, but Wenger really needed to make some kind of change to stem the tide after the red card. That said, there were no obviously robust options on the Arsenal bench.

The aggregate scores were level again with just twenty minutes to go, but with Arsenal's lack of defensive nous, there was no chance of holding out that long. They barely lasted a couple of minutes before Pedro was felled by Koscielny in the box, and Messi stroked the resultant penalty into the corner to give Barca the advantage. A further away goal would have sent Arsenal through. Late on, good pressing from Wilshere and Arshavin saw the fomer cross for Bendtner, but the Dane fluffed his lines. In truth, an Arsenal victory would have been a bit of a travesty after they had been comprehensively outplayed. Barca were amazingly wasteful in front of goal again, having seemed to create chances at will.

Arsene Wenger was livid with the referee, and put forth the opinion that Arsenal would have progressed if not for the red card. He's being overly generous to his own team, who had failed miserably to play to their best in the first half, and were gifted a goal out of nothing. But we'll never know quite how the second half would have panned out if both sides had eleven men. It's likely that Arsenal would have had a few more decent attacks, and a second goal would have left Barca needing four, so the home side could not have attacked with no thought of being caught at the other end, which is basically what they were able to do for the rest of the game.

But what Arsenal, the masters of self-pity, need to avoid is wallowing in excuses and perceived hardship. They were outplayed again over two legs, and as Guardiola fairly assessed afterwards, couldn't string three passes together all night. For Mourinho and Inter, that was all part of the plan. For Arsenal, it was an abject failure to live up to their own pretensions. They shouldn't lose sight of that fact because of a harsh decision. They need to concentrate on salvaging something from a season in danger of freefall. That quest starts at Old Trafford this weekend, where Ferguson's team will also be looking to bounce back from recent disappointments.

messi 2 (1 pen)
busquets og

Aggregate: 4-3

Another Downbeat Barcelona Preview

Some good news, some bad.

Fabregas will, it seems, lead the side out. Arsenal fans will dread a further injury to the captain as much as they dread an avalanch of goals. You just hope that he has not been rushed back, that this is not an act of desperation, because the season might not end with defeat tonight, but if Cesc Fabregas is ruled out for another few weeks, it will be as good as over.

Surely more desperate still is the surprise inclusion of Van Persie in the squad. Very strange to see the Dutchman back in contention ahead of schedule, rather than the opposite. He probably won't start, but if he does, it would not constitute a great vote of confidence for Bendtner and Chamakh.

Still, at least this latest injury news has provided for a bit more cautious optimism. Then again, with Arsenal holding a slender lead, discipline is going to be key, and from that viewpoint the absence of Alex Song may be more significant than the presence of Fabregas and Van Persie. Song remains the only player who can patrol the area in front Arsenal's defence with true competence. Wilshere and Fabregas never lack for workrate but their instincts are more attacking.

The contenders to step in, it seems, are Diaby and Denilson. Both endured something of a failed audition on Saturday against Sunderland. Diaby is like a lot of Arsenal's midfielders, in that he is too forward-thinking to be an obvious midfield anchor. He does have size on his side, but does not really enjoy the physical element of the game, probably because he has been injured so many times. He also lacks Song's ability to keep the play ticking over with simple passing. Too often, Diaby overcomplicates with too many touches and a general air of nonchalance that Barcelona's hectic pressing could well expose.

Denilson is the more conservative of the two, but lacks Diaby's imposing stature. He often looks lightweight in the Premiership, but that may not be such an issue against a team that threatens more with finesse than power. He has provoked the fans' ire many times both this season and last, and even felt the sting from his own captain after some inept play against Leeds. For a nominally defensive midfield player, he does have an unfortunate tendency to conjure goal-costing errors, and like Diaby, can project the impression that he is not really that bothered. This is not a game of beach soccer in Rio, it's a Champions League knock out game, so you'd hope that he is in a focussed mood if selected.

Given the choice, I would give Denilson the nod. Diaby does, despite his irritating style, have a certain X factor and can be difficult for the opposition to deal with. But in the absence of Song, Arsenal need someone reliable and disciplined. And Denilson is... well, he's more reliable and disciplined than Diaby. He has been tasked before with protecting the back four and his style, in comparison to the improvisational Diaby, is more suitable to a fluid passing game. Arsenal will need to hold on to the ball for a minute or two at some point.

Even if Denilson can rediscover some of his best form, Song's injury remains a massive blow. He was absent at the Nou Camp last season aswell, and that night, Diaby and Denilson failed to stem the constant tide towards the Arsenal goal, as Messi plundered a four goal haul. The Argentine will look to drop off into the very area that Song usually inhabits, and Xavi and Iniesta will relish the possibility of extra space there too. In the last few seasons, it has sometimes seemed that Arsenal only have a midfield in the attacking sense, and that the back four enjoys little to no protection when the opposition breaks. But Jack Wilshere's industry and maturity has contributed to an increased solidity in this campaign, and it's a pity that the first-choice trio has been broken up at such a vital time.

Arsenal lack a really tenacious ball winner at the best of times; without Song, I can't see them holding Barcelona. And as stated before, Walcott's injury is hugely unfortunate too, because his pace would have had you believing Arsenal could score one or two. Without that threat in behind, I'm not so sure.

All that you can ask is that Arsenal give it a good go and attack with pace where possible, without doing it in a naive way. It's a balancing act they pulled off pretty well at the Emirates, and it's worth remembering that the brilliant breakaway winner happened with Walcott off the pitch. Nasri might look to be a bit more direct than he's been in recent games, while Arshavin does make plenty of runs behind defences, as we saw at the weekend. If Fabregas can find the space and time to thread some passes through, Arsenal should make chances- especially with Barcelona's patched up defence minus Puyol and Pique. With Barca's wealth of talent, it depends more on what happens at the other end. With a great slice of luck, it could be a great night for Arsenal, but whatever happens, it should be a memorable game.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Another Favour: Kuyt 3-1 United

An uncharacteristically limp performance from United will have given some hope to those of an optimistic persuasion that Arsenal can still take the title, but much will depend on how Ferguson's team reacts to a week of disappointment in big games. United have shown their fighting qualities on numerous occasions over the years, and those qualities are not so pronounced in their main challengers, so it remains likely that United will take their 19th title and edge ahead of Liverpool overall.

United fans may console themselves with that very point- Liverpool may have won the battle, but United are winning the war. There is a bigger picture, though. Liverpool are showing genuine signs of revival under the man who presided over their last glory period. Despite the likely title triumph, there is a whiff of decay about the current United bunch. Giggs and Scholes are still relied upon too much, and this week contracts were signed by Carrick and Fletcher, player who have been around a long time but who have never threatened to reach the heights of the older guard. Carrick turned in a trademark anonymous performance alongside Scholes, while Fletcher was allowed to rest ahead of his own trademark, man of the match, kick-everything-that-moves performance against Arsenal next week.

Ferguson needs to spend money to bring in players with the craft to elevate Fletcher's graft, but in January he was inactive while Dalglish splashed piles of cash on Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. The former was the star man yesterday, leading United's defence a merry dance at times, most notably when beating three feeble challenges to set up Kuyt's first tap in.

As against Chelsea, United suffered from poor decisons. It was already 2-0, but not yet half time, when Carragher launched into a disgraceful lunge on Nani, leaving the winger with a nasty gash on the shin; Carragher escaped with a yellow card. Then Rafael, angered further by a high tackle by Maxi Rodrigues, flew into a similarly reckless challenge- again only a yellow card.

United had a brief spell of menace early in the second half but Rooney remains a distant relative of the player he was last season and with Nani off the field after Carragher's assault, the Red Devils lacked the ingenuity to come back with conviction. When Kuyt gobbled up the rebound from Suarez's free kick to seal his hat trick and make it 3-0, the game was over.

Unusual that Ferguson stuck with 4-4-2 after the Chelsea game, and unusual too that he left out Fletcher. With no Park or Anderson or, needless to say, Hargreaves, United lacked industry in the middle of the park and Liverpool set a high tempo that they just couldn't match. They are certainly going through a difficult spell, and Chelsea's win over Blackpool tonight means that the Blues are now nine points behind with a game in hand. Still, they tend to react well to this kind of result, and Arsenal may feel the bite of the wounded animal next weekend... It will be interesting, in the event of an Arsenal defeat tomorrow, to see who looks more dejected in the FA Cup game, and who reacts better to their confidence crisis.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

injury update

Jack Wilshere picked up a knock in the Sunderland game.

This means that Arsenal's first choice midfield trio are all doubts for Barcelona.

The black comedy continues.

Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland...

A disappointment, but a familiar disappointment. For Arsenal to drop points at home to Sunderland ought to be shocking, but it's not a completely unexpected result. Three big reasons for that.
1- Arsenal don't play well under pressure
2- Arsenal don't recover quickly from setbacks
3- Arsenal don't cope well without Cesc Fabregas

With the absences of Song, Walcott and Van Persie added to that list, it was never likely to be as straightforward a game as some assumed.

Bad luck played a part. Their keeper made a couple of great saves. Chamakh crashed a header against the bar. Arshavin sliced wide with Bramble falling all over himself and the Russian. And very late on, the same man was played through by Bendtner, danced around the keeper and rolled the ball in, only to be wrongly flagged offside.

But overall, it was the kind of Arsenal performance the Emirates has seen too many times- a slow start, turning into a frantic siege late on as Arsenal strive to secure a result. Since the move from Highbury easy home wins have never become a regular habit, and if you want another obvious contrast with the team that's going to win the league this season, there you have it. United have, if I'm not mistaken, only dropped home points once all season long. Arsenal have, by way of example, lost at home to West Brom and Newcastle.

The team needs more urgency at the start of games, but perhaps when the midfield features Denilson and Diaby, a lack of fluency is to be expected. The Brazilian has fallen out of favour this season, while the "new Patrick Vieira", as some idiots used to call him, is really a YouTube player who does a couple of amazing things during a game (that usually don't lead to a goal) and otherwise spends his time taking too many touches on the ball, slowing every move down and exhibiting a complete lack of footballing intelligence.

Arsenal created chances, particularly toward game's end, but without Fabregas the chances are never as frequent or as clear. We only really appreciate when he's gone the effortless creativity of the guy. I read recently that, statistically, he makes more chances on average than any other player in Europe. For all Arsenal's attacking midfield players, they find it difficult to replace that surgical precision. And for all the huff and puff of Bendtner and Chamakh, neither can blow houses down like Van Persie. A word even for Walcott, whose raw pace is a rare and precious commodity in the Arsenal squad.

Arsenal's injury problems have surely relaxed Barcelona ahead of the second leg on Tuesday. The man most likely to exploit the open spaces they leave behind them is out. And so is Arsenal's primary source of goals. The stalemate today increases the likelihood that Wenger will risk Fabregas and/or Song, and the way things are going, you wouldn't be surprised if that led to more injury problems. Remember that Fabregas played the first leg last season when clearly not ready, and as a result, wasn't seen for the rest of the season.

It all seems painfully familiar. A promising campaign falling apart in the space of a fortnight. The first two chapters of disaster are complete- the loss of the Carling Cup final, and the loss of vital points in the title race. Getting knocked out of Europe by Barca and of the FA Cup by United would complete a familiar picture.

It seems cruel that while Arsenal fall short of being a very good team, they are also a long way off being a lucky one. On Tuesday night they will need a whole pile of luck. Barca can step up as they like to, and Arsenal without Walcott will likely fail to break behind their high line effectively. And we can hardly expect Messi to be as profligate as in the last game, although you'd also expect Arsenal to defend much better than they did on their last visit to the Nou Camp. If Barca have a huge amount of possession- and there's no reason to expect otherwise- they will make chances. I think they will score a few and go through. Arsenal are unable to play the kind of disciplined game they need to.

It's a pity that the next week has become even more important than it should have been, as a result of that cataclysmic cup final. Because they messed up a relatively simple task, now the success of the season rests on two very difficult ones. If Arsenal cannot beat Birmingham, or Sunderland for that matter, why would the players believe they can win in Barcelona or Manchester? And if those games go badly, will the players have the heart or the energy to keep up with United in the league?

Sometimes it seems this Arsenal team are destined to fail, and that the only thing to be decided is how they do it. So let's sit back and find out.

Friday, March 4, 2011

If this season were a film....

it'd be Groundhog Day

OUT of Barcelona away: Van Persie, Walcott.
DOUBTFUL for Barcelona away: Fabregas, Song.

RVP, Fabregas, and Song were all absent for the Messi Show last season. So were Gallas and Arshavin.

This time, of course, Thomas Vermaelen will not play. And Laurent Koscielny is apparently out of the Sunderland game at the weekend. Suddenly that game looks a lot tougher. Again, expectation is growing, as the title race seems very close. Judging from how Arsenal dealt with expectation last weekend, I wouldn't be too optimistic. Then again, Sunderland are in a rotten run of form, and Arsenal enjoyed the best possible outcome in the replay against Leyton Orient- goals for Chamakh and Bendtner. With Van Persie out, you were starting to wonder where the goals would come from.

Still, if it's a straight shoot out for the title, who would you back:
The goal threat of Berbatov, Nani, Hernandez and a resurgent Rooney, or that of Bendtner, Chamakh, Arshavin and Nasri?
United's defence or Arsenal's?
Ferguson's scrappers or Arsene's bottlers?

Arsenal got a big favour from Chelsea the other night, but they'll need a few more if they're to win the title. Anyone who thinks this Arsenal team will win the rest of their games needs their head examined. They wouldn't even do it at full strength. To expect it of them now, injury-ravaged as they predicatably are, would be ludicrous.

You say pessimism, I say realism.
I think Arsenal will get turned over again in the Nou Camp.
I think the wheels will come off as the title charge enters its home strait.
And I'm afraid I struggle to see Arsenal coming through that FA Cup tie at Old Trafford. Especially because, assuming Arsenal have just exited European competition, Wenger will probably not be able to resist prioritising the Premiership.

It's a pity that the success or otherwise of this season seems to hinge on two games against Manchester United, a team Arsenal haven't beaten in what seems like a long time. Recent skirmishes have suggested that Ferguson found a formula to deflate Arsenal, and Wenger has failed to react in any meaningful way. I don't think the Arsenal players will relish meaningful head-to-head games with United- let's face it, if they weren't strong enough for Birmingham, they will find it difficult against United.

It'll be an Arsenal team that seems scared of winning, against a United team unaccustomed to defeat. You can call Darren Fletcher or John O'Shea or Michael Carrick average players; they'll be busy deciding which of their medals to slap you over the head with.

And much as Arsenal fans can trot out the holier-than-thou lines about thinking football is more than just a fight for trophies, it's getting a bit tired. We did not see Arsenal win a trophy on Sunday, and we nor did we see wonderful football. The game was fascinating and entertaining because of Arsenal's mental fragility. Maybe that's why people find Arsenal so fucking entertaining all the time- because they always give the other team a chance. Great football counts for little if it is only produced on the minor stage, with nothing at stake.

We're entering the stage of the season when true grit is what's called for, and if the Arsenal squad's mental state is anything like its physical state....

yes I am in a bad mood

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Oh No: It's "in Arsenal's Hands" Now

Chelsea 2-1 Manchester United
Two days later, another team in blue provides Arsenal with a much-needed boost. A nice slice of irony, in that United fall victim to refereeing decisions, rather than enjoying the usual positive bias.

First half, United outplay Chelsea. Enjoy a long, dominant spell, culminating in Rooney taking advantage of some very passive defending to send a low-flying missile past Cech from outside the area. He shouldn't even be on the pitch after his risible, unpunished attack on James McCarthy at the weekend. Carrick, Scholes, and Fletcher moving in from the right, are dominating the centre of the park.

Chelsea look pallid, a mere shadow of the team that won the double last season. A switch to 4-4-2 has exposed Lampard as one-paced, and Essien has failed to become the player we all expected. On the left, Malouda struggles for the form of last season. Rooney and Hernandez are terrorising Terry and Luiz at the other end, and Nani has Ivanovic looking much less assured than usual. But as soon as United take the lead, they predictably drop off, even though there seems an opportunity to kill the game off.

Second Half
A fairly soft goal turns the tide. A cross into the box is half-cleared, bounces towards Luiz to the right of the area. Evra chases the loose ball, gets there too late, can only nudge the ball onto the Brazilian's right foot, and the shot swerves inside Van der Sar's near post.

Thus begins a frantic, exciting 35 minutes or so, in which both teams attack with pace, make myriad mistakes. Chelsea have way more shots, but United seem to be attacking in a more measured, menacing manner. Rooney gets in on the left but seems conflicted as to whether he should shoot or pass, skews the ball well wide.

Then, two big decisions go Chelsea's way. First, Luiz, already booked, blocks Rooney off. No free kick, no second yellow. Minutes later the home side storm forward, and sub Zhirkov knocks a loose ball through Smalling in the area, and falls over the young centre half. No intent, barely even a challenge at all, but contact of any kind these days seems to yield a penalty. Martin Atkinson plays homer and points to the spot.

Lampard, having a poor game, still has the bottle to smash the penalty high into the net.

United rally, as they always do. Keep passing the ball. A fine move leads to a scramble, Fabio is denied. Chelsea respond in typically professional fashion, get the ball in the corner up the other end during stoppage time, and as United's frustration boils over, Vidic gets a second yellow for a foul on Ramires.

What it means for us
Arsenal now trail by four points. They hold a game in hand. Because they have a home game against United to come, if Arsenal win all their games, they will win the title.

Arsenal will not win all their games. But United do face an apparently tough visit to Liverpool this weekend. If Arsenal can hold their nerve and dispel the negative vibes at home to Sunderland, things might get interesting. Still, the talk of this as being one of the closest Premiership title race may prove premature.

If United play like they did tonight, I think they could batter Liverpool. Much of the intrigue derives from the return of Kenny Dalglish, and United's closing in on their 19th league trophy, which would outstrip Liverpool's record. But Liverpool remain quite a bad team, and are in the process of trying to bed in new strikers. I have a feeling it won't be as difficult a game for United as people are assuming.

And even if the league is "in Arsenal's hands"... could you really call that a safe pair of hands, especially after Sunday's debacle?

Van Persie is out for "at least three weeks". Don't expect to see him again this season. Just like last time, it seems Arsenal will visit the Nou Camp in depleted shape, and the task would have been hard enough with a full squad to choose from. That micky mouse trophy looks more desirable by the day.

Only a Slight Exaggeration

Wayne Rooney could borrow Ashley Cole's air rifle tonight, shoot one of the Chelsea players in full view of the referee, and he still wouldn't even get booked.

Rooney's elbow on James McCarthy at the weekend, and the staggering absence of punishment that has followed, is the joke that's been told too many times. The running joke that is now an embarrassment to the Premiership.

Manchester United players can do whatever they want, almost all of the time. Alex Ferguson is bigger than the FA.