Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Laird of the Premier League...

...with an Unconvincing European Record

Manchester United were unlucky to exit the Champions League, suffering a 2-1 home reverse in the second leg that saw them lose out 3-2 on aggregate.

Mourinho's Real Madrid toiled without much by way of inspiration until Nani's deeply contentious red card. By that point, United were leading 1-0 through Sergio Ramos's own goal. They had defended in an organised and resilient manner, and looked capable of producing more of the same, until Modric weaved past a couple of challenges and belted in a sensational equaliser. Minutes later, still reeling, United succumbed to something that these days, seems inevitable: a Cristiano Ronaldo goal.

A man down, a mountain to climb. But still, with the situation now apparently favouring Madrid's counter punching style, United attacked with vigour and might even have plundered the two goals they needed only for some wayward finishing.

The most entertaining thing about an entertaining night was the look of helpless rage on the face of Alex Ferguson after Nani's harsh dismissal for a high foot.

Ferguson's team are the perennial beneficiaries of contentious decisions at Old Trafford in domestic games as referees bow to the pressure of United's standing in the game and to the fearful rages of their manager.

But in Europe, United and Ferguson don't have quite the same sway. Ferguson's face was the face of a man not used to such obstacles. Welcome to everyone else's world Mr. Ferguson.

It was back to normal, however, in the FA Cup game against Chelsea. Rio Ferdinand was not called up at the time when he needlessly tripped Fernando Torres from behind, off the ball, an offence that should have resulted in a red card.

And though a player in another shirt would doubtless face retrospective punishment for less, Ferdinand has gotten away with it.

Despite this, Ferguson persists with the laughably deluded idea that the FA seek to persecute Manchester United. He might have bullied most of Britain into submission, but his haul of only two Champions League titles shows that European competition is a different proposition.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Forget Fourth: Spurs 2-1 Arsenal

Progress at last... from bad to worse.

After seeming to stand still for so long, Arsenal are now clearly going backwards.

Barring an absolute collapse from Chelsea, Arsenal will not play in the Champions League next season.

Ignoring for a moment the bigger picture, the derby was far from Arsenal's worst performance of the season, but it was compromised completely by goal-costing errors at one end, and absolute toothlessness at the other.

For the first part of the game, up until the opening goal, Arsenal were quite dominant without creating much of note. Giroud and Walcott both threatened but were denied by late saving tackles. As so often this season, they were failing to threaten the opposition goalkeeper.

Then, when Arsenal's pressing slackened, Spurs took ruthless advantage. Sigurdson slipped through a simple   ball, the Arsenal back four stood and watched, and Bale ran on to knock tidily past Szczesny.

In typical fashion, Arsenal were stupid enough to repeat the same mistake a couple of minutes later. Parker bombed forward, and this time it was Lennon who ran through unmolested onto the midfielder's pass. Szczesny's rash charge out of goal made it so easy for the winger, who took a simple touch around the keeper and slipped the ball into the open net to double the home side's advantage.

There's been plenty of talk already about Arsenal's suicidal high line, inviting punishment by the pace of Bale and Lennon. But there was plenty more about the game to worry about.

Second half, Arsenal seemed to have grabbed a lifeline when Mertesacker's near post header flicked in off Bale. But after a brief period of danger, Spurs composed themselves again, and saw out the game with minimum fuss. Wenger's changes seemed to take the wind out of his own team's sails. Spurs made chances on the break, Arsenal created little.

Jack Wilshere was peripheral. The danger here is that Wenger is repeating a mistake he arguably made with Arsenal's last great central midfielder. After changing to 4-5-1/ 4-3-3, Wenger shifted Cesc Fabregas further forward, and while the captain scored more goals, he also lost some of his usual influence, especially in big games.

Wilshere needs to be in the centre of the pitch. He is a creative player and the temptation, with the current formation, is to play him in a position from which he is relatively free to roam. But when Wenger plays Wilshere in the hole, and Cazorla wide, he takes Arsenal's best two players out of their best positions.

Arsenal now lie well adrift of Spurs, five behind Chelsea, and showing no signs of putting together the sort of run they now need. The impression is that they are finally arriving at a nightmare destination that has threatened them for a long time. Wenger has done well in recent seasons to keep Arsenal in that top four, but he has also shown incredible hubris in refusing to alter his methods, inviting the very situation that the club now finds itself in.

It's been a long time coming. Arsenal are heading for the Europa League, and what lies beyond may be mere mediocrity. Is this the monumental kick up the arse that the club and the manager have needed? Is he still capable of leading the club out of trouble? Even if he does now choose to spend proactively, can he no longer be trusted to spend well?