Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why United Can Beat Barca

It seems certain after this week that the Champions League final will be contested by Barcelona and Manchester United.

Barca are a formidable team, and it seems at times that other sides are terrified of even trying to play football against them.

But Arsenal's 2-1 win at the Emirates against them earlier in the competition will surely give Alex Ferguson hope.

The Gunners did need a bit of luck, but they managed to get at Barca's defence and, eventually, score two fine goals, enough to win out on the night.

Their gameplan, or the game they were forced to play, consisted of sitting off Barca until they entered the Arsenal half, then pressurising them, and when they won the ball back, breaking quickly behind Barca's attacking full backs.

It worked for Arsenal, for ninety minutes at least, and United are better equipped to do it than Arsenal are. Arsenal are a possession team who were forced to play mostly on the break because Barca would batter them at their own game. United are more used to playing on the break, more adept at soaking up pressure and then striking. They are quicker, they play with natural wingers. All of their players, including those up front, seem to enjoy working hard when the other team has the ball. They are better at breaking up opposition play than Arsenal, and under pressure, their defence is much less likely to crack.

Arsenal's victory was quickly forgotten after their timid, shotless showing at the Nou Camp in the second leg, but Alex Ferguson only needs to beat Barca on one night, over ninety (or 120) minutes. You wouldn't have believed it watching lastnight's farce, but it is possible to play football against Barcelona and come out on top.

Because Arsenal are a poor man's Barcelona, Ferguson may see Sunday's game at the Emirates as a chance to again test out the game plan he will use in the Champions League final, one he has honed over numerous recent victories against the misfiring Gunners.

An Ugly Game Ends With A Beautiful Goal

Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona

There was not much on show at the Bernebeau to contradict my claim from lastnight, that European football is in decline.

Barcelona are, undoubtedly, Europe's best team. They are so good at their style of football that most teams just try to contain them, and kick them, and hope for a goal on the break. This is part of football. When one team is inferior in terms of ability, they are forced to adapt to give themselves a chance of winning the game. Real Madrid may be the second best team in Europe, but they are some way short of Barca in quality and style, and they were not going to play open, expansive football, and risk getting tonked 5-0 again.

Barcelona are aware of this, but it seems to breed a pomposity that leaves a bitter taste. They seem to believe that their footballing superiority equates to a moral superiority. Paradoxically, they go to great lengths to gain further advantage in the course of a game by illegitimate means.

Approaching half time, it had been a poor game; bitty, but not particularly dirty. Things got out of hand when Pedro ran into a Real player and crashed and rolled and cried, claiming, as did his team mates, that he had been elbowed.

The atmosphere in the stadium and on the pitch grew poisonous, and at half time there was a ruckus that saw Barca's sub keeper Pinto dismissed.

Admittedly, Real played in a robust fashion, and a red card was always a distinct possibility. What is disappointing is the sense that Barcelona play to try to get opposition players dismissed, rather than relying on their footballing superiority. Pepe's tackle on the odious Dani Alves was high and reckless, no doubt, and may have warranted a red card, but it was hard to shake the notion that the badgering behaviour of the Barca players throughout the game influenced the referee's decision.

As against Arsenal at the Nou Camp in the second round, Barca were given a numerical advantage early in the 2nd half, and their play improved as a result. Here, there was not the avalanch of chances that Almunia faced in the earlier game, as Real retained their earlier shape and discipline. But Barca, and Messi in particular, simply found more space. It probably did not help Real that Mourinho was banished from the touch line for throwing some sarcastic barbs in the aftermath of Pepe's dismissal.

The first goal was vital. Real had played poorly in possession before the red card but their initial plan may well have involved scoring late, as they have done in the two recent games against Barca. Even reduced to ten men, they would not have regarded a goalless draw as a disaster. But Barca's away goal sucked the life out of the home side.

Messi drove to the edge of the box, and not for the first time, had an effort blocked. Xavi moved the ball wide to Afellay, on as a sub. As the Dutchman faced up to Marcelo, the full back stumbled slightly, and this gave Afellay the time to make a yard of space and cross into the goalmouth where Messi, sprinting across Ramos, deftly knocked the ball through the legs of Casillas with a first-time volleyed finish.

It was a great cross, a great run and a great finish, but better was to come, and all neutrals will at least have one fond, lasting image of beauty from what was a nasty game. With the clock ticking down, Messi ran from close to half way with the ball seemingly glued to his feet, jinked past a couple of challenges and sped through to knock the ball right footed into the far corner.

That goal killed the tie and means that we will, barring minor miracles, see United and Barca in a repeat of 2009's final.

This game will remain a talking point, however. Certainly, Barcelona are the team that neutrals would prefer to see progress, but their behaviour has sullied the image they project of representing all that is good in the game.

Real Madrid did not come to play, but this was not a surprise to anyone. But there was a sense that Barca recognised the difficulty they would have in playing through those massed ranks of white shirts, and made it a priority to get a Real player sent off.

The red card may have been deserved. Pepe's tackle was high, potentially dangerous, but contact was minimal and there's no doubt that Dani Alves was feigning injury. We have seen Pedro and Sergio Busquets do the same. There may have been some niggly fouls elsewhere in the game, but the bad atmosphere was created more by play-acting than by any genuinely dangerous tackles.

It may be the case that Barcelona see it as fair that if other sides will attempt to stifle them through strategic fouling and negative, spoiling tactics, they will play dirty too by rolling around, pretending injury, and crowding the referee. But if that's the case they really need to drop the air of moral superiority. After all, a lot of people don't see one way of playing as inherently superior or more right than all others. Some might say that while Barca are perhaps the best passing side that football has ever seen, they lack the swagger of some of history's other great teams, and can even seem robotic by comparison.

What should not be lost amid all this is that they are certainly preferable finalists to Real Madrid, evebn if Mourinho's team feel they did not get a fair crack of the whip. It is rich of Mourinho to get so self-righteous in condemning Barca's apparent use of the 'dark arts'. From Porto to Madrid, via Chelsea and Inter Milan, his teams have showed a constant willingness to bend the rules of the game in their own favour.

A cynic might suggest that this is all that unites the very best teams. What worries me is that there are not very many good teams around anymore, and that this Champions League has failed to produce many games that will be remembered for the right reasons.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Real v Barca again

After lastnight's debacle, tonight's contest between the two best teams in Europe ought to be refreshing.

Barca's 5-0 win in the league at the Nou Camp is receding into memory, as impressive as it was. While it provided the platform for Barca to romp home in the league, it also provided Mourinho with food for thought, and in the two recent games, he has implemented a far more effective plan for dealing with Barca's burgeoning ability.

In the 1-1 draw at the Bernebeau, Real came back to win a point despite being a man down. In 120 minutes at the Mestalla in the Copa del Rey final, they kept Barca out, and Cristiano Ronaldo's fine header won the cup.

In both games, Barca have been on top for significant periods. And yet they only broke through once, and that a penalty.

They are not playing as freely as they did in that 5-0 win. That was never likely to be the case, because this stage of the season brings a heightened pressure which makes it harder to play expansive football. They will, of course, commot to their unique brand of attacking, but they need to find a cutting edge to slice through that dogged Madrid backline.

The tie against Arsenal showed their weaknesses almost as well as it did Arsenal's. With Barca so superior, in the second leg in particular, how did they come within a cunthair of being knocked out by a late Arsenal goal?

They were wasteful in front of goal over both legs and they simply cannot afford to replicate that against a team that will not give them as many chances.

There is also a popular argument at the moment that Pep Guardiola has mismanaged his squad. He does not have the strength in depth that Mourinho's team boasts, but in what many argue to be a relatively easy domestic league, he has failed to give Messi, or some of his other star players, much of a rest. Some say that this may be contributing to the team's less spectacular performances as the season goes on.

In a way, it's a match between two teams who are good defensively, while not having particularly good defences. Barcelona defend by keeping the ball, but when their teams do manage to get at them (which is pretty rare) they can be opened up on the break. Mourinho's Inter did this brilliantly in the first leg of last year's semi-final.

Recently, Mourinho has found some extra solidity by using the centre back Pepe as a destructive presence in midfield, sacrificing the more refined qualities of Mesut Ozil. Ozil played, and was little more than a spectator, in the 5-0 defeat. That game exposed the inadequacies of some of Real's defenders. Sergio Ramos is unconvincing, and Marcelo is better on the attack than in his own penalty area. Even the usually unflappable Carvalho looked flustered and lost.

But nearly all defenders prefer to defend deep, not leaving spaces in behind for speedy attackers to exploit. After that humiliation, Mourinho will never again attempt to play a high line against Barcelona. With Khedira injured, he'll bring Lassana Diarra in, and Madrid will look to fill the space in front of their own back four, cutting off the supply line of short, incisive passes between Barca's interchanging front five.

Can Barca use the wide areas effectively? Zlatan Ibrahimovic was turfed out because he impacted on Barca's ability to press as a unit in all areas of the pitch, and also because he was so disappointing over those two legs against Inter. Now, in his absence, they again lack a tall, physical presence up front, and are unlikely to score from a high cross into the area. So Real will look to defend narrow, and push Barca into playing the ball wide.

It should be a fascinating tussle between two contrasting philosophies.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

European Football in Serious Decline.

I've been saying all season that the Premiership is fairly weak this season.

But Schalke would struggle to stay up in the Premiership, and they've reached the semi-finals of the Champions League.

They beat last year's winners 5-2! In their own stadium!

And yet United looked more convincing against them than they have against any domestic opposition all season.

A United team that most agree is one of Ferguson's weakest.

What does all that say for the state of European football?

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Horse Had Long Since Bolted

Bolton 2-1 Arsenal

... and that naive talk of the title can now end.

The contrast between United and Arsenal was demonstrated for the umpteenth time this weekend. Both found themselves needing a goal in the closing stages. For United against Everton, the goal felt inevitable. As for Arsenal, tension took over, chances were wasted, and a decisive goal given away at the other end.

I don't really have much else to say, other than what I've been saying for months on end.

This blog has become a broken record, Arsenal look a broken team, and Wenger a broken man.

All of this frustration can lead to something positive if there is now genuine change this summer.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Goodbye Dignity, Hello Champions League Qualifying Round

Spurs 3-3 Arsenal

Chelsea are into second after the latest in a growing line of collapses.

3-1 up not long before half time, but there was never much point celebrating.

Spurs came back to win a point, and nobody was too surprised. It would have been more surprising to see Arsenal negotiate the rest of the game with a bit of authority.

THINGS STARTED WELL when Walcott burst through onto a vintage Fabregas pass. Corluka had no chance of catching Walcott and he slipped a tidy finish, Henry-style, into the bottom corner.

As against Liverpool, Arsenal showed that they could not hold it together even for a couple of minutes. After the whirlwind start, one might have hoped that Arsenal had turned a corner, but instead they immediately served notice that anarchy still reigned.

Corluka saw Van der Vaart make a clever run off the typically dopey Diaby, played a good pass infield, and the Dutchman was in behind the Arsenal defence. Diaby could not even bother throwing his lazy arse in front of the shot, which flew past Szczesny and in at his near post. 1-1.

Arsenal got their noses in front again. Tippy tappy tippy tappy BANG. A bout of short passing around the Spurs area ended with Nasri taking a potshot, which clipped off Dawson and scipped past an unsighted Gomes.

Close to the interval, a mistake by Gallas from a right wing cross saw the ball break to Walcott. He stood up a lovely cross for Van Persie, whose initial header was brilliantly clawed away by Gomes. The rebound dropped for Van Persie again, and he lashed it into the roof of the net.

Of course, for the team that can blow a 4-0 lead, 3-1 is a narrow advantage.

Minutes later, Szczesny rushed out to stop Bale, who was injured in the collision. This could perhaps have signalled that Arsenal's luck was turning, only for the fact that, moments later, Tom Huddlestone found the net with a left-footed piledriver from long range. Half time: 3-2.

Throughout the second half, there was never a sense that Spurs were thumping on the door, but they didn't need to. Arsenal's attacking was less convincing, and the first decent spell they had in the half ended with Spurs equalising.

Lennon was sent racing in behind Sagna, and Szczesny rushed out rashly, and clearly fouled the winger. Van der Vaart buried the penalty, and for the second time this season, and the third in three seasons, Arsenal had blown a two-goal lead against their local rivals.

Although Fabregas drove a decent effort straight at Gomes, if anyone deserved to win the game, it was Tottenham. Szczesny made a couple of decent stops and, for the most part, Arsenal were hanging on. When Wenger made changes, he was fairly cautious, keeping three central midfielders on the pitch. Despite that emphasis on possession, Arsenal's passing game went to pieces, and they spent a lot of the second half launching hopeful, ineffective long balls.

Chelsea won at home to Birmingham and they are now 2nd. The crumbliest, flakiest team in the world continues its slow, sad decline of 2011. Since the Carling Cup collapse, they have beaten two teams- Leyton Orient and Blackpool.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

...And it's back "on" again


What a missed opportunity this season has been.

Newcastle 0-0 Manchester United

If Arsenal had managed to recover their composure after the Carling Cup final defeat, they would surely now be favourites for the title.

If, If, If

To suggest that Arsenal could have "recovered their composure" implies that they had any to begin with, which is, on the basis of recent seasons, highly debatable.

But the fact remains: opportunity knocked, and instead of answering the door, Arsenal bolted it, drew the curtains and hid under the bed.

Manchester United will still be Champions, but there is a temptation here to use the word "default". Their home form is amazing- two points dropped all season. Their away performances have been constantly unconvincing- often with results to match. All of their away victories (a paltry five) have involved an element of good fortune.

Arsenal's away form has been the best in the league. Their problem is the reverse of United's. All season, the Gunners have tried and failed to gain some momentum at home. There have been precious few convincing or even enjoyable home performances in the league. The Chelsea game stands out as a high point, but also, as I said recently, an aberration. More representative examples are the inexplicable capitulations to West Brom and Newcastle, the unforgivable collapse against Spurs, the boring, goalless draws of recent weeks. Much is made of the lack of atmosphere at the Emirates, but the Highbury Library saw a fair amount of success despite its usually hushed ambience. This season, the atmosphere has mostly reflected the performances- insipid, lacking in dynamism. An air of resignation at times.

There is an air of resignation now about Arsenal's title hopes, despite another mini-slump from United. The players' media rhetoric is hollow, and borders on insulting at times. "We will not give up", they say. Recent performances suggest they already have.

Perhaps United's overall lack of intensity against Newcastle owed something to the ever-growing conviction that Arsenal would not take this title even if you tried to hand it to them. There was no great sense at the end of the game that United had suffered a genuine blow. Arsenal could, theoretically, give the leaders something to think about if they were to win convincingly at Spurs tomorrow night.

I would have been more confident of a win if United had actually beaten Newcastle. That's how much I doubt the character of this Arsenal team. Had United won, there would be a sense of freedom, perhaps, in Arsenal's play, safe in the knowledge that the title was out of sight. As it is, United's dropped points will probably only increase the feeling that Arsenal have messed up their big chance. They will feel that a win would give them hope, but also know, deep down, that if they were going to win this season's title, they would have got their act together long before now.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Hardline View

"Arsenal are a gutless team playing for a clueless manager in a soulless stadium"
-Myles Palmer

And since the disappointment of the Wembley calamity against Birmingham, there has been little evidence to contradict that viewpoint. Arsenal are second in the table, but almost solely on the basis of points won before Spring. Since the Carling Cup final they have collapsed in a manner that for any other team would be deemed incredible. From Arsenal, this is now what most expect.

It is not really true to say that Arsenal have challenged for the title this season, though that is what Wenger will claim, being either deluded or disingenuous. Their away form was good enough for long enough to put them in a position to challenge, and possibly to win. But they stopped playing as soon as the real pressure kicked in. United had a genuine wobble for two games, losing at Chelsea and Liverpool in the space of a few days, and Arsenal failed miserably to take any kind of advantage, even when presented with the kindest home fixtures you could hope for.

This weekend, when United were dealt a blow in losing an FA Cup semi-final to their hated neighbours, Arsenal were again generous enough to cheer them up by reminding them that they don't have a genuine rival for the title.

Most of us have known this for some time. When Arsenal blew that two goal lead to Spurs, were played off the park by WEST BROM, and when they failed to test Newcastle's defence in an embarrassing defeat, all at the Emirates, there was no sense that this team had improved on last season. There was also no game that suggested the team had turned a corner.

When they beat Chelsea convincingly at the Emirates, the players talked the talk. They acknowledged that they had set a blueprint for how to play in every game- pressing high up the pitch, working hard to deny the opposition time, then striking in attack. Days later, they blew a 2-1 lead at Wigan, who had just had a player sent off. And as the season went on, it became clear that the energy of the Chelsea performance was a mere aberration.

Ok, Arsenal are unbeaten in the league since that abject showing at Old Trafford. Ok, they lie second in the table (for now). Progress cannot be measured only through a team's league position. They may have finished only 3rd last season, but Chelsea were Champions last season, while this campaign, they are locked in decline. Spurs and Man City are not strong enough, yet, to sustain a challenge. And Liverpool were, until quite recently, a club in turmoil. Arsenal are second in a weak league. Unable to challenge an uninspiring United side.

With none of Arsenal's major rivals in optimal shape, this was the season that Arsenal's stability should have led to success. Instead, this collapse invites the question of whether Wenger's Arsenal is turning into a story of stagnation rather than stability.

There is scope for improvement, of course. But that improvement must, simply must, come in the form of transfers. Arsenal's captain has the look of a man who is simply waiting for a move, and not a single one of his team mates, with the exception of a fucking 19 year old, has stood up to show some leadership. None of them have character, and none of them are learning it, because they have nobody to learn it from.

Wenger's great project, dismantling the Invincibles to build a young and brilliant team, one to grace the sprakling stadium his vision has helped create, that project has been a failure so far.

It needs an injection of new ideas, some open-mindedness at last, but the manager's stubborness is starting to look terminal. Six years and counting.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Other Great Cock Ups, part 1: Spring 2008.

Eboue's late blunder against Liverpool got me feeling nostalgic about other comical cock ups from recent bumbling Arsenal teams.

2008- Champions League Quarter Final, second leg: Liverpool away.
The culprit: Kolo, and everyone else.

Arsenal endured some rotten luck in this tie, but stupidity was the ultimate reason they lost it. With minutes to go, Theo Walcott produced a rare moment of brilliance, racing past numerous challenges from the edge of one box to the other on a marathon sprint, then pulling the ball back for Adebayor to slot home. With the score at 2-2, Arsenal were heading through on away goals. In this situation, most good teams know how to shut up shop and hold on.
As soon as Liverpool kicked off, they sent the ball wide down their left, where Ryan Babel waltzed into the box. Arsenal had been caught snoozing after what should have been the decisive goal, but the danger would probably have been quelled by William Gallas, who was shaping to confront Babel. But Kolo panicked and performed a clumsy-looking windmill impression behind the Dutchman, who conjured some contact and went down to win a penalty. Gerrard converted, and Babel scored another in stoppage time to remove any doubt.
It may have been a harsh penalty, but Toure was stupid, Arsenal were sleepy and unprofessional. It was already becoming a familiar theme...

2008- Premiership: Birmingham away
The culprit: Gael Clichy

People like to pinpoint the Old Trafford capitulation in the FA Cup, but Arsene Wenger practically forfeited that game with his team selection. This was the day that a promising season really started to fall apart.
First, Eduardo was snapped in two by Martin Taylor's dopey lunge, and Arsenal played the rest of the first half in a daze, despite their numerical advantage after Taylor's dismissal. At half time they trailed to James McFadden's fine free kick.
Pulling themselves together, Arsenal did enough after the interval to win the game. Theo Walcott plundered a quick fire brace, and Adebayor should have squared to Bendtner to finish off the game, but shot selfishly because he hated the Dane.
Still, that should not have mattered. Conceding once to 10 men was bad enough- surely Arsenal would not do it again. Birmingham had not posed much of a threat, but as we have seen countless times since, if you can't make a chance, Arsenal will make one for you. In the final minute, Gael Clichy sized up a loose ball in his own penalty area, unaware, somehow, that a Birmingham player was ready to steal in. Clichy recovered to nick the ball away but the referee awarded a penalty. McFadden scored, Gallas lost the plot, Arsenal's season fell to shit.
Clichy's mistake was probably the single stupidest thing I have seen an Arsenal player do. Some might argue that his career has not yet recovered.

The Title Race That Never Started is Over

Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool

Silly little team!
Undignified old manager!

It's sad. For all the hype, the Premiership is in a poor state. Manchester United are not as bad as they've sometimes been made out to be this season, but they are very flawed. Yet their march towards the title has never been in serious doubt. Arsenal are a let down to themselves, their manager, their fans, and the neutrals who want to see a relatively weak United team properly challenged.

Overall, the game showed some of the worst facets of this spineless Arsenal team. Ciorcumstances called for a performance of some tempo and commitment but instead Arsenal played at the now familiar pre-season pace. Liverpool, despite a patched up defence that lost both Aurelio and Carragher to injury during the game, mostly repelled Arsenal's overly narrow, overly intricate attacks with ease. There were few chances and the game drifted towards the third consecutive goalless result at the Emirates. Arsenal simply looked too nervous to play with any real style and the crowd responded in frustrated, subdued fashion.

Then, seven minutes into the eight added, Arsenal won a penalty, Fabregas felled by Spearing. Van Persie coolly slotted the ball away, and tension finally released, the stadium erupted.

But this is Arsenal, and you know it's never over. Kuyt shot from kick off, Szczesny scurried back to save, cleared the ball. The eight minutes were up but the game went on as the ball had not been "in play" while Arsenal celebrated what they assumed was the winner. A long ball came forward, Arsenal were all over the place, Kuyt nearly got in on the left of the area. Clearances were sliced, tackles were feeble, until a clumsy one on the edge of the box gave Liverpool a free kick. Only Arsenal could contrive this preposterous situation having got ahead so late.

When Suarez could only find the wall, the home fans cheered again, but those cheers dissolved into disbelief as the moronic Eboue chased the looping deflection, and needlessly pushed over Lucas, who was facing away from goal. After a dramatic pause, Andre Marriner pointed to the spot. Arsenal had ballsed it up yet again.

Kuyt kept his cool to bury the penalty in the corner, and the last whistle finally blew, three minutes after Arsenal supposed it was due. In fairness, though, there was never an opportunity for the referee to blow up. For two minutes on end, the ball was in and around the Arsenal penalty area, as the team found a new way to manifest their debilitating nervousness. They have had many comical implosions over the last few years, but this must rank with the most darkly hilarious.

The comedy continued as Kenny Dalglish quite rightly, and quite audibly, told Arsene Wenger to "piss off" as the Frenchman responded in typically sour fashion to his latest misfortune.

"Misfortune". Not the right word. If someone keeps literally shooting himself in the foot, he is not unfortunate. He's an idiot.

Arsenal are that idiot. Eboue best embodies the brainlessness, but it has been present in his absence on many occasions. For much of the game, it seemed Arsenal's only problem was that they had lost their attacking verve at the worst possible time. But when they had solved that problem with the goal, they served a hilarious reminder of their other flaws. They are the last team in the world you would trust to defend for two minutes- just two minutes! A while ago, I suggested that this team were destined for failure, and the only question was how they would arrive at that point. They keep finding new, ridiculous ways.

You have to say, that's pretty sad, and so is the manager's continued insistence on blaming anyone but himself or his team. If that attitude is not dropped, more "misfortune" awaits.

another shite post

BARCELONA's run of four games in eighteen days against REAL MADRID started with a 1-1 draw in the league game at the Bernebeau. The title run in in Spain lacks intrigue because Barca are eight points clear and there is no chance they will relinquish that lead. Even had Madrid won this game, you wouldn't have given them much hope. But the game was interesting as a prelude to the bigger ones on the horizon.

Barca showed yet again their lack of a ruthless edge. Every team has its flaws, even one as accomplished as this Barca, who are embarrassingly superior to every other team in Europe.

David Villa has gone nine games without scoring, and snatched at a couple of chances lastnight. It seems ridiculous to be critical of Messi, who is going to finish with more than 50 goals this season, but he has developed a tendency to be a little too cute in front of goal. It does not usually matter, because with Xavi and Iniesta pulling the strings, there is usually another chance on the way. But in the very biggest games, it could prove costly.

You only need to reflect on the Arsenal tie. Over the two legs, and especially the second, there was an evident, yawning chasm in quality between the two teams. In the deciding game, Arsenal could not manage a shot, whereas Barca, after RVP's red card in particular, produced an endless litany of wasted opportunities, as well as the three goals. 4-3 on aggregate, the final score, did not do justice to the balance of play over two legs. It could have been 14-3. But had Bendtner stuck away that late chance, Barca could have gone out. That surely served as a warning- they need to take more of their chances, or their greatness will go to waste.

In the latest game against Real, Barca held the expected monopoly on possession. But chances did not flow. Mourinho was never going to repeat the mistake of the Nou Camp game in autumn, when he abandoned his habitual policy of containment against Barca, and saw his team spanked. While Barca were, again, the better side, they failed to finish the game off, even at a goal and a man up. Real always looked as of they could score from a set piece.

Eventually, a penalty was awarded, Ronaldo stuck it away, and the ten men had a point. It was a good performance from Barca and they will doubtless play with more intensity in the games to come, but so will Real, and it must worry Guardiola a little that recent big matches have seen his team fail to turn a stylistic superiority into a scoreline to match. I wonder if Real might be the team to punish their profligacy.

City 1-0 United, The Treble is OFF

They say you can't buy team spirit but City certainly played with character and commitment in beating their neighbours at Wembley. They are still pretty dire to watch at the best of times, but their defence against United's, with no Tevez and no Rooney, meant that the first goal was always likely to be decisive.

It came early in the second half when Michael Carrick, just when it seemed he had left behind his poor form, ballsed up on the edge of the box, presenting the ball to Yaya Toure. The Ivorian is, they say, the most overpaid of players in this overpaid league, but he is also one of the most underrated. In a match lacking in midfield class, he stood out in general, but particularly here as he powered past a flat-footed Vidic and slipped the ball through the legs of Van der Sar.

United had started the game well, but faded badly, perhaps lacking energy after the Chelsea game midweek. If Berbatov had converted either if two early, gilt-edged chances, the dream of a second Treble might well live on.

Instead, Arsenal have the chance to make it a very bad weekend for United by beating Liverpool today and adding pressure to the title run in. But this game ought to test Arsenal's own nerve aswell. Liverpool were impressive in dismantling City in their next game and Luis Suarez has added a much-needed new dimension to their attack. His strike partner Andy Carroll is exactly the kind of player who tends to trouble Arsenal's sometimes feeble backline. It remains to be seen whether the unexpected early returns of Szczesny and Djourou will lend the title charge a new impetus, or if the impotence of recent weeks will continue.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Between Arsene Knows and Arsene Goes

This is the middle ground I occupy. Between two militant bands. The one- whose numbers are dwindling- possesses an unshakeable faith in the manager's ability to keep Arsenal at or near the top. The other- becoming louder and louder- screams that his head should roll.

But it ought to be pointed out that Arsenal are 2nd in the league and clubs that sack managers while in such a position invite the term 'basket case'. The worst thing that can be said about Arsenal these days is that they have missed some pretty big opportunities, and I think the manager is at fault for that, but at the same time, you can't really see them hurtling down the table and out of Europe any time soon.

The people who call for his head are being unfair and unrealistic. But their complaints might help, in a perverse way, because for too long there has been a sense that the only real pressure on the manager, the only real expectation, is to finish fourth at least; that winning nothing is acceptable.

Maybe Wenger won't win anything with Arsenal again. I'm certainly not convinced that he will. I think he has lost something in his switch to prioritising the future of the club. He has forgotten some of the fundamental ingredients of success on the pitch. But at the same time, the club has not fallen to pieces, and shows no sign of doing so. They continue to qualify with ease for the Champions League. Even if Wenger does not win another thing, at least he will have left the next manager with a good foundation to build on.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Two Dead Ties

At 7.45, an eagerly-awaited tie kicked off. At about 8.00 it was over.

Real Madrid 4-0 Spurs

Harry Redknapp picked an adventurous line up. Bale, Lennon, Modric, Van der Vaart and Crouch were all set to start. But Lennon felt sick and so, minutes before the start of the game, Jenas stepped into the starting eleven.

Maybe this late shift unnerved Spurs, as it took Real only four minutes to pierce their rearguard in straightforward fashion. Adebayor, so often the scourge of Tottenham in his Arsenal days, rose unchallenged to power a corner kick goalwards, and Modric could not clear the ball from beside the post.

A rotten start got worse courtesy of some jaw-dropping stupidity. Peter Crouch had already been booked for a late, reckless lunge, and when the ball broke loose in similar fashion minutes later, he amazingly launched into a reprise. Marcello got to the ball first and Crouch was off. On Sky Sports, Ray Wilkins moaned about Marcello's fist-pumping when he saw his opponent's fate, but there was only one thing worth complaining about, and that was Crouch's idiocy. Naivety had threatened to derail Spurs as early as the qualifying round against Young Boys, and although they seemed to have matured since, tonight they regressed.

In the first half, however, the home side seemed unsure of what to do with their numerical advantage. Madrid are more built for fast counters than patient probing, and with Spurs sitting deep, they struggled to find opportunities. For their part, the visitors were pretty wretched in possession, and Modric never found the space to prompt. But there were glimmers of hope as the half wore on. A quick, long throw from Bale caught out the Real backline momentarily, but as Van der Vaart chested the ball down and set himself to strike, Carvalho chased back to execute a last ditch challenge. Dawson's raking diagonal pass sent Bale racing behind the clueless Ramos, but the Welshman could only find the side netting from a tight angle.

The second half was an altogether different affair. Real came to terms with their advantage, attacked with conviction. Redknapp sent Defoe on for Van der Vaart, but, typically enough, the striker failed to involve himself in the game. To be fair to him, he was given little opportunity. Still, Spurs remained resolute for a while, and we were given a snapshot of why Barcelona are so much better than their bitter rivals. Where Messi, Iniesta and Xavi can find space in the tightest of avenues, Madrid looked blunt and predictable, until a quick corner from Ronaldo caught the Tottenham back line napping. Di Maria's cross was perfect for Adebayor- again unmarked- and Gomes could only stand and admire as the majestic header soared into the corner of his goal.

After that, the only question was how many. The answer, two more, was somewhat harsh on Spurs, as they were not often opened up. It suggested a ruthlessness on Madrid's part, and that may be vital in the event of a semi-final against Barca, who were amazingly profligate against Arsenal. First Di Maria whacked an unstoppable effort into the top corner from the edge of the box. Then, substitute Kaka found a pinpoint cross for Ronaldo, who volleyed on-target, and Gomes fumbled into the net to complete a miserable night for Tottenham.

The night's other game started with a surreal goal and ended with a surreal result.

Inter 2-5 Schalke
When Manuel Neuer raced from his goal to clear the ball to halfway, it seemed he had swept up to good effect. But it fell to Dejan Stankovic, and his exquisite first time volley sailed back over the keeper's head, and hit the net before even bouncing. A truly sensational strike, and not the first time Stankovic has scored a volley from ridiculous range.

The rest of the night belonged to Schalke. The score was 2-2 at half time, but after the interval Inter's defence went to pieces. Raul put the Germans in front to bolster his amazing goals record in the competition, with a typical piece of opportunistic forward play and a poked finish. An own goal from Ranocchia and a red card for Chivu later, an emphatic finish from Edu, his second of the night, killed the tie, and ensured that meaningless second legs will be the order of next Wednesday night. Man United and Chelsea could be forgiven for thinking that their tie is now effectively a semi-final.

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The shortlist for PFA Player of the Season

Samir Nasri

Carlos Tevez

Gareth Bale

Nemanja Vidic

Charlie Adam

Scott Parker

Monday, April 4, 2011

Told Ya So

This blog has consistently questioned the character of the Arsenal team over the last couple of years and it has equally consistently been proven sadly right.

Saturday summed up the problem, and the painful contrast with Manchester United, pretty neatly.

On the face of it, the pressure was all on United. They had to visit West Ham, a team playing well, fighting for their lives. Upton Park is a ground that has seen some failures from United in the past, most recently a 4-0 League Cup drubbing a couple of months back. And Ferguson had to try to balance the need to win with the need to keep players fresh, with Champions League and FA Cup action still on the horizon.

Arsenal no longer have such distractions. It was up to the players to decide whether this was a blessing or a curse, and they seem to have settled on the latter. They are wallowing again and the season is fizzling out into familiar failure.

A home game against Blackburn was about as generous as the fixture list could be. Although Rovers are, like West Ham, struggling to avoid relegation, their away form of late had been wretched, and Arsenal would surely look to exploit their travel sickness. A performance of tempo and drive was called for. As has often been said, if Arsenal played the way they ought to, they would have too much for Blackburn.

So what was the problem then? I would suggest the same old answer- a lack of character. One can accept a team not playing to the limit of their potential every week. But too often, when it really matters, Arsenal turn in listless, lethargic displays. Either too many of the players don't really have the needed desire to turn skill into success, or they are so paralysed by the desire that they become ineffective on the big occasion. Either way, some of the players clearly need to go, and better ones brought in. And by better I don't necessarily mean people of greater skill. I mean people of greater character.

Man Utd were again 2-0 down at half time on Saturday. But they had been attacking with menace and few would have doubted that once they got one goal back with a chunk of time to go, they would win the game. Sure enough, once Rooney curled in a brilliant free kick with about 25 minutes remaining, there was a sense of inevitability about the rest. Rooney scored another fine goal to level matters, and even though the penalty decision that allowed the same man to complete his hat trick was quite farcical, it was only a matter of time either way until United took the lead. Hernandez' goal underlined United's superiority.

Contrast that tale with Arsenal's game later the same day. At half time, the game was goalless, the crowd frustrated, the players off-colour. But it was a comparatively shallow hole next to the one United found themselves in. All the Gunners needed to do, with Blackburn offering little attacking threat, was find one goal. Even after the helping hand of Nzonzi's red card, the home side failed. Worse still, this was the second home game in a row in which Arsenal had failed to break down a team enduring a woeful run of form away from home.

If the game happened in August, there's no chance it would have finished nil nil. Once these players get the idea that there's something on the line, they freeze. Maybe now that the title seems to be slipping away, they will play with some kind of freedom again. Something similar happened last season after those chastening consecutive defeats to United and Chelsea. But I won't be fooled. No matter how often Arsenal impress between now and the end of the season, to me, they'll be doing the usual- turning on the style when it doesn't matter. Changes need to be made this summer, and that's the bottom line.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

When the Game Matters, the Form Deteriorates

This has been the case for the last four seasons.

In 07/08, Arsenal led the league for most of the season, but collapsed miserably in the end, drawing four "easy" league games in a row, committing countless individual errors, and ultimately coming in third.

In 08/09, Arsenal recovered somewhat from an erratic start to challenge for both the FA Cup and the Champions League. A kind run of fixtures mid-season saw the team hold onto its top four place, but as soon as the big games came, the collapse followed. A hiding against Manchester United in the European Cup semi-finals, and, in a familiar twist, a goalkeeping error proving costly in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea.

In 09/10, Arsenal were mostly consistent against the league's lesser lights, but their wretched record against Chelsea and United ensured they were unable to convincingly challenge for the title. Despite both those teams showing signs of decline, Arsenal lacked the quality to rise to the top. They were swept aside by a far superior Barcelona in Europe, and yet another Almunia error signalled the end of whatever title hopes they harboured, in a game at Birmingham.

This season, the continued decline at Chelsea and United has meant that if Arsenal progressed, they would win the title. Sadly, the picture as we enter April is a familiar one. Arsenal have at least managed to beat Chelsea and, in one leg, Barcelona, but the benefits of those results are negated by a troubling tendency to drop points against frankly substandard sides. For example, Arsenal have won 2 points out of a possible twelve against two of the promoted teams, West Brom and Newcastle. At St. James', they amazingly managed to blow a four-goal lead. That echoed an embarrassing collapse early in the season at home to Spurs.

Arsenal entered springtime with hopes in four competitions. In a matter of weeks, those hopes have evaporated, and the performances have been almost uniformly woeful.

When United lost consecutive games recently to Chelsea and Liverpool, the league was, apparently, "in Arsenal's hands". Typically, they have contrived to drop it on their own toes, aggravating the pain of those cup defeats to Birmingham, Barcelona and Manchester United reserves.

At the end of another unforgivably colourless performance and goalless result against Blackburn, there was a palpable sense of discontent in the Emirates crowd. The atmosphere had been flat throughout, after a promising start dissolved into lethargy. The most noise the Arsenal fans made all day was with the brief flurry of boos that greeted full time.

Questions are being asked of the manager, and are being asked with more conviction than ever before, and so it should be. If Arsenal want to be a big club, they have to expect more than a team that consistently fails to perform in matches that matter. Wenger has professed faith in his players, year after year, and it seems certain now that his faith is misplaced.