Archive for March, 2011

Arsenal Boing Back Against Baggies

115 comments March 21st, 2011

West Brom 2 – 2 Arsenal
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I didn’t see more than a few highlights of the game, but by all accounts we did rather well to dig ourselves out a hole that was entirely of our own idiotic creation.  Your attitude probably depends on whether your proverbial glass is perennially half full or empty.  My own personal opinion is that to praise the team would only reward their early bad behaviour.  If my housemate shits on the sofa but then cleans it up, I’m not sure that makes it OK to shit on the sofa.  If that makes any sense.

This was a terrible weekend for our title challenge…
United nicked it against Bolton, and Chelsea cranked up the pressure with a win over Manchester City.  Our draw at the Hawthorns means we’re not five points adrift.  With injuries mounting and an international break hardly likely to change that, there is the sense that our challenge might just be fading.

Manuel Almunia made a terrible error…
…but calls for Jens Lehmann to replace him our somewhat premature, judging by the manager’s latest comments about the German’s fitness.  Almunia is the man in possession and whatever doubts we may have about him we have to get behind him.  Let’s not forget he is essentially our third choice keeper behind Szczesny and Fabianski.  It would be wrong to expect miracles.

Andrey Arshavin showed what he is capable of…
His goal was superb, and his build-up work crucial to the equaliser.  We need to see more of that from the Russian between now and the end of the season.  He’s not only playing for a possible Premier League trophy – his future at the club is at stake too.

Robin van Persie’s scoring record is absurd…
I believe he now has 19 goals from his last 19 league starts.  If only we were more solid at the back, and could actually capitalise on his form.

The interlull is upon us.  Injury fears aside, it couldn’t have come at a better time.  This Arsenal side need to sort themselves out.

Thoughts on a busy week at Arsenal

2 comments March 19th, 2011

Hello all. Apologies for my absence over the past week: it’s been a hectic time in both my personal and professional life.  I thought that with Arsenal not having a fixture in that period, I’d get away with it.  How wrong I was.  It’s been a jam-packed week.

Here’s a quick rundown of my thoughts on what’s taken place.

The FA Cup exit
This game was horribly familiar.  Arsenal had plenty of possession, dominated the midfield, and yet lost to a more efficient opponent.

As soon as the draw was made the fixture had an ominous feel to it.  Our record at Old Trafford gets worse with each passing year, and one senses that after the defeat at the Nou Camp the players lacked the necessary belief to really take the game to United.

The goalkeeping situation
A year after Arsene Wenger plucked Sol Campbell from the club’s past in to its presence, he has made the even more surprising move of resigning the retired Jens Lehmann.

Let me be clear: I am delighted that Lehmann is back.  He’s a consummate professional and despite his 41 years is probably in as good a shape as ever.  He’s also a proven winner and, like Campbell, will give the squad some much-needed experience.

The chances are, however, that Lehmann won’t be forced to play: with Szczesny, Fabianski and Mannone all out injured, Manuel Almunia currently holds the gloves.  His performance in Barcelona was outstanding, and he made a couple of crucial interventions to keep the score down at Old Trafford too.  Today he’ll start against West Brom, in the reverse fixture of the game that marked the end of his reign as number 1.  It’s a big test but hopefully the fans, and Jens, will be fully behind him.

Other injuries
We oughtn’t be surprised that just as enter the season’s most critical stage, the injuries are piling up.

The continued absence of Cesc and Walcott certainly impedes our attacking threat, but it would be churlish to complain when we can also call on Van Persie, Arshavin, Nasri & co.

The bigger problem is at the back: Thomas Vermaelen’s season is now officially over, whilst Johan Djourou only has a small chance of returning before the end of this campaign.  There is a huge onus now on Sebastien Squillaci, who started the season well but has since faded in to the background.  He was a commanding presence in the home game with Stoke, and will need to be so again when called up.

Today’s game with the Baggies…
…is simply a must win.  Lose today and the negative momentum will derail our season entirely.

I’ve got to run and get back to the nonsense that’s been occupying me.  But it’s good to be back.  Let’s hope Arsenal think so too, and return from the midlands with three points.

Ref robs Europe of the game it deserved

152 comments March 9th, 2011

Barcelona 3 – 1 Arsenal (Messi 45+3, Busquets (og) 53, Xavi 69, Messi 71)
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

With the score at 1-1, the game promised to spill in to the contest we had hoped for.  I have no qualms about admitting that in the first half, Barca were completely dominant.  That their opening goal came as a consequence of a bizarre aberration from Cesc Fabregas is irrelevant: it was inevitable that they would score.

It was a stroke of fortune that brought us back in to the game – Sergio Busquets heading Samir Nasri’s corner beyond his own keeper.  But at that point, Arsenal were 3-2 ahead on aggregate and the tie was finally set to open up.  Barca would have to throw more and more men forward, leaving space on the break for Arsenal to exploit.

Unfortunately, within minutes Robin van Persie was given one of the most absurd red cards I can remember seeing.  Having been booked for a nothing challenge with the serial cheat Daniel Alves, he received his marching orders for taking a shot after being flagged offside.  SKY television suggested the shot had taken place no more than one second after the whistle blew.  The fact a solitary whistle can be almost inaudible in the den of the Camp Nou only serves to underline the ridiculousness of the decision.

With ten men, Arsenal had no out ball, and no threat on the counter.  Yes, there are plenty of stats that show Barcelona were better: I don’t doubt that.  But the game undoubtedly hinged on that one moment.

I don’t have much time this morning so you’ll have to wait a little longer for my full thoughts on the game.  Suffice to say I am disappointed that we lost and disappointed to be out of Europe.  But more than anything, I’m disappointed that an idiotic decision on the ref’s part robbed us of what should have been a thrilling final half hour.

Barca Preview: Arsene’s selection dilemmas

28 comments March 8th, 2011

There’s a rather big game on today.

This evening, Arsenal will face Barcelona for a place in the Champions League Quarter-Finals.  After we took the first leg 2-1 in dramatic fashion, the tie is delicately poised.

It presents this Arsenal team with fresh tactical challenges.  A 0-0 would be good enough to take us through, though any kind of strategy dependent on Barca failing to score is more folly than foolproof.

Arsenal have to try and present some sort of attacking threat – a goal at the Nou Camp cancels out Villa’s from the Emirates, and means Barca will need to score a minimum of three to win the tie.  They’re perfectly capable of it – let’s not forget Messi scored four in this fixture last season – but it’s a much bigger ask than 1-0 win, which is currently all they need.

When we lost their 4-1 a year ago, we were without Cesc Fábregas, Andrey Arshavin, Alex Song, Van Persie and William Gallas.  We have absentees again this time round: Vermaelen, Song and Walcott have all remained at home.  There was however a huge boost with the news that Robin van Persie has travelled.  Whilst the results of his final fitness tests are not yet known, his potential availability comes as a surprise and a lift.

Arsene has three selection dilemmas to face.

Replacing Song
In a game where you face the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, losing your best defensive midfielder is a significant blow.  However, it’s worth remembering that we managed to turn around the game at the Emirates with Song off the pitch – having been yellow carded, he was withdrawn and replaced by eventual match-winner Andrey Arshavin.

In that instance, the midfield trio became one comprised of Cesc, Wilshere, and Nasri.  Tonight, Arsene will want to add a player who has more natural ball-winning capabilities.  It comes down to a straight choice between Denilson and Diaby, neither of whom were particularly impressive in Saturday’s draw with Sunderland.

Although he’s naturally a more attacking player, I’d go for Diaby.  He plays the role regularly for France, and most importantly his quick feet and long stride can provide an outlet on the counter-attack, which could be essential this evening.

The central striker
Until yesterday this was seen as a straight fight between Bendtner and Chamakh.  However, Van Persie’s possible availability changes everything.  Neither alternative has the Dutchman’s undoubted combination of finesse and form.

If Robin can start, I’d rather he played an hour from kick-off and then was withdrawn.  The first goal will be so crucial in this game, and frankly he’s much more likely to get it than either the Moroccan or the Dane.

If Van Persie doesn’t make it, I’d go for Chamakh.  Bendtner might be the man in some semblance of form, but Chamakh has Champions League experience and a superior work-rate.  I also think Bendtner is the more effective substitute, and remains a good option from the bench.

Arshav-in or out?
Andrey Arshavin is undergoing something of a renaissance.  The injury to Theo Walcott has allowed him back in to the first-team picture and his performances have undoubtedly improved.  However, he remains a maverick who, whilst ostensibly deployed as a left-winger, plays a free role.  His defensive responsibilities are minimal, and he wanders in and across field looking for space.

Barcelona’s right back, Dani Alves, is one of their greatest attacking threats.  We cannot afford to run the risk of leaving Gael Clichy isolated against the Brazilian.  Arsene could look to play either Tomas Rosicky or Abou Diaby on the left flank in the hope they’ll track Alves more diligently than Arshavin seems capable of.  The number 23 could then be used as an impact sub, as he was in the first leg.

There are other alternatives: Arshavin could swap to the right with Nasri playing from the left.  Equally, we could just ask the Russian to actually attempt to play more conservatively.  I’m just not convinced he has it in him.

I find this the hardest to call.  Arsene will remember the impact Arshavin had as a sub in the first leg.  Does that make him a starter in this game, or will he look to repeat the trick?

At the moment my best guess as to our team is this:

Sagna Djourou Koscielny Clichy
Diaby Wilshere
Nasri Fabregas Arshavin

Not our strongest team, but strong enough to do it.

Come On You Gunners.

Dirk Kuyt: Unlikely Arsenal Hero

98 comments March 7th, 2011

Arsenal 0 – 0 Sunderland
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Ugly, one-paced and clumsy, Dirk Kuyt is an unlikely hero for Arsenal. He’s a much more suitable hero for Liverpool, or indeed eighties cult movie The Goonies. However, yesterday his hatrick saw Manchester United fall to their third defeat in five league games.

If Arsenal had that sort of record, the “chokers” line would be all over your back pages. After we threw away a four goal lead at Newcastle, United had a chance to extend their lead: they blew it. When we suffered the blow of a Carling Cup Final defeat, United had the chance to rub salt in to the wound by winning at Chelsea: again, they blew it. And yesterday, having seen Arsenal’s pursuit slowed by a 0-0 home draw with Sunderland, United, like the wolf arriving at the third little piggy’s house, blew it once again.

The gap now stands at just three points, though United have played a game more. It promises to be the tightest of title races, and that clash with United at the Emirates on May 1st looms ever larger on the horizon.

Those Arsenal fans whose glass is half-full will be delighted by yesterday’s results – particularly with the added augment of seeing Spurs twice lose a lead at Wolves. The other half will bemoan what they perceive as another missed opportunity. Personally, my opinion is that we were very unfortunate to drop points against Sunderland. With better refereeing, we would have won the game.

The first half was a fairly tepid affair, but even then we created chances. Sunderland’s Belgian stopper Mignolet did well to deny an angled drive from Nicklas Bendtner, and the Dane also came close with an acrobatic overhead kick. Had his attempt been a foot either side of the ‘keeper, it would have registered the opening goal. Unfortunately, it flew straight in to his open arms.

Sunderland were matching us though, and Wojciech Szczesny got down well to a long-range effort from the dangerous Sessegnon. Without Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, and Robin van Persie our spine was understandably less formidable than usual, and in their place the likes of Denilson and Diaby were unimpressive.

In the second half, however, Arsenal cranked up the pressure. The introduction of Marouane Chamakh also gave us an extra penalty box threat, whilst I thought that Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin were particularly influential, and took on the creative responsibility demanded of them by Cesc’s absence with gusto. It was the Russian who should have proved the match-winner. First he went through on goal after Nasri’s sumptuous pass, only to be first tugged then pushed by Titus Bramble. It was certainly a red card offence, and the most obvious foul took place inside the box. There is an argument that the first offence occurred outside the area. There is, however, no argument for what the referee chose to do, which was not to blow at all.

Perhaps the fact that Andrey got a shot away as he fell swayed the decision. I’m not going to criticise a player for attempting to stay on his feet. It remains the referee’s fault that he didn’t spot the foul. Look at the penalty Wolves were correctly awarded yesterday: Milijas did get an attempt in, but he was hugely impeded by the foul by Hutton.

If there was a smidgen of room for debate on the penalty incident, there is none whatsoever about the incorrect offside decision that denied us a winner. Nicklas Bendtner’s pass and Arshavin’s run were both perfectly timed, and his finish, rounding Mignolet to tap in to an empty net, deserved better than to be unfairly cancelled out.

There were other opportunities: Chamakh powered a header against the bar, whilst Koscielny should arguably have done better with a late chance, but in the end it wasn’t to be. I’m not going to come down hard on an under-strength team competing against an impressive Sunderland and unimpressive official. We’ll just have to hope that between now and May, we get the luck we didn’t have on Saturday.

This is the start of a massive, season-defining week for Arsenal. By Saturday, we could be either be in with a chance of a historic treble, or fighting for one remaining prize.

Come back tomorrow for a Barca preview.

ps. I was on the arsecast on Friday, where I talk a bit ramble about my early thoughts on the Barca game. Have a listen.

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