Saturday, April 5, 2008

Arsenal 1 - Liverpool 1 (Bendtner 54')

The title fight is over

Enough said. On an afternoon when we should have (but not necessarily "could have") won, the disparity in quality between our second string and Liverpool's second string was evident - and it did not flatter us too much. For long periods of time, Liverpool looked more coherent, more capable to mobe the ball and create opportunities, and ultimately more likely to win the game. Unfortunate as it may be and defeatist as it may sound, I am afraid Tuesday night will mark the last meaningful competitive game of our season. At this point in time and with the level of physical exhaustion that many of our players are clearly showing, qualification seems very improbable.

We lasted longer than last season - and certainly longer than many have predicted. The football has been absolutely amazing at times, and we have produced results even when our form was not at its highest. However, the scarcity of our numbers (as well as some very lengthy injuries to critical players) eventually caught with us and was our downfall.

No individual remarks or ratings today. I thought pretty much everyone was average, Fabregas and Flamini a tick better than most. One more thought: I was very surprised and disappointed with the team's reaction to Bendtner's goal - not one player went to him to congratulate him, while most actually immediately turned their backs at him. While it is no secret that Bendtner does not have many friends in the squad, the public showing of his standing within the squad was most unsettling - a most unprofessional display that gave me pause...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Arsenal 1 - Liverpool 1 (Adebayor 22')

More than just talking points

Whatever it was that last night's fixture lacked, drama and controversy were not on the list. Instead of a regular rundown of the game's main events, here are a few intriguing talking points that I personally will keep thinking about until the kickoff of Act II of the Arsenal - Liverpool Trilogy at the Emirates on Saturday.

Absolutely ludicrous refereeing
Whether Kuyt had met the game's Dutch referee before or not, the entire officials' team must rank as one of the most incompetent that I have ever seen in a game of such importance. Aside from the botched penalty call (for which the referee was perfectly placed, yet he refused to make the obvious call) there were two little-publicized - but awfully wrong nevertheless - offside calls (one for Flamini's pass to van Persie in the first half, the second one for Bendtner's positioning as he was saving Fabregas's shot from near the goal line) that would have cost Arsenal two goals. In the first instance, van Persie made a perfect run between Liverpool's central defenders and sent his first-touch shot over the crossbar - had he scored, he would have been flagged for offside, even though replays show that van Persie started his run from a clearly onside position. Same for Bendtner - if he had somehow managed to recover and send the ball in the net after clumsily deflecting Fabregas's shot on goal, he would have been flagged for offside, even though the replays show Hyypia clearly behind him on the goal line.

Saturday's game looming large
It's an odd statement, I know, but the game on Saturday may mean even more than the one we just witnessed. We have everything (and then some) to play for. A win would bring us three points from first place and place us ahead of Chelsea, who, playing at Man City, are hopefully due to drop the points they should have (and almost did) last week. Getting the three points would also provide a tremendous confidence boost for the return leg; scoring two or more goals will reinforce the idea that we absolutely can score at Anfield as well.

To rest or not to rest
We are in no position to rest players (although you feel that the "minor injuries" reported for van Persie and Adebayor may be just that and that Walcott will be handed a start alongside Bendtner upfront) Certainly Fabregas, Flamini and Hleb could use a day off as well, but with all that's hanging on this game (and having Diaby suspended) it will not even be a possibility. Resting players is an option, however, for Benitez. Will he do it and if so, how far will he go in risking the potential confidence shift ahead of the return leg of the Champions League quarterfinal?

Bendtner and Walcott - not fitting in
Two quick notes about the young Dane and the English prodigy, neither of whom seem very comfortable on the pitch - for very different reasons. Bendtner, who can not stop scoring when wearing a Denmark shirt, looks as if playing under tremendous pressure and with great fear - of a missed pass, of any wrong decision - that he can not seem able to shake off. (his comical-if-he-wasn't-on-your-team gaffe was not physical clumsiness, but rather the mental lapse of a player under heavy mental pressure) As for young Theo, his teammates seem to ignore his presence on the pitch at crunch time - which caused him visible frustration during the game. And this was not the first time this happened - he received virtually no passes during his almost 15 minutes of play at the end of the Chelsea game. More homework for Arsene...

As for the brief ratings...

Almunia - 7. Average performance, highlighted however by the save at the beginning of the second half, which could have sealed the tie for good.
Toure - 7. A bit shaky, but dangerous when going forward. Gerrard blasted past him too easily when he set up Liverpool's goal.
Gallas - 8. Commanding performance, rendered Torres inexistent. Let's hope the same holds true on Saturday and next Tuesday.
Senderos - 6. A bit more nervous than usual.
Clichy - 7. Cemented his status of one of the team's MVP's of the season with another fine performance. Matched the energy of wild-man-of-the-match Kuyt step for step. Threatening and pacy when going forward.
Eboue - 4. Sloppy and uninspired. Tired of watching him not contribute anything on the pitch. Anything.
Hleb - 6. On and off throughout the game, he looks as if he feels the grunt of the long season more than most. The burst into the box that resulted in the missed call of the match was pure genius.
Fabregas - 6. Under heavy pressure from Mascherano and Alonso, he had a very hard time finding either space or time. Rather ineffective.
Flamini - 6. High workrate, he managed to keep Gerrard under control for most of the game - except for that fateful run that set up Liverpool's goal.
(Bendtner - 5) See above
Adebayor - 6. On one hand, he is not getting great service from his midfield. On the other hand, his effort rate is not what is used to be.
van Persie - 6. Still on the (pretty long, apparently) road to form recovery. He is getting (some) opportunities, he must begin converting. Anfield would be the best place to do just that.
(Walcott - 6) Looked very dangerous on the left wing in the first part of the second half. He has to find a way to insert himself into more combination play and force others to play the ball to him. (see above)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bolton 2 - Arsenal 3 (Gallas 61', van Persie 67', Fabregas 90')

Against all odds - and circumstances

What a game at the Reebok yesterday!... In the most difficult of circumstances (the Reebok itself, torrential rain, being 2-0 down after 30 minutes of play and down to 10 men after Diaby's well-deserved red card) Arsene's kids found the resources to rise from their own (rain-soaked) ashes and produce an improbable, but well-deserved result.

In all fairness, the first hour of the encounter was at best forgettable - and at worst, most frustrating and dispiriting, the few positives (van Persie finally getting proper service from the midfield) easily outweighed by obvious negatives (van Persie wasting proper service from the midfield) Thoroughly dominated on the ground and in the air, we were a bit fortunate to get through the 60 minutes only 2-0 down.

It was after the crunch-time substitutions (Adebayor for Bendtner and Walcott for Senderos) in the 60th minute that our game started to show any hint of coordination - and fortunately, this was soon rewarded with a most timely goal from Gallas, who slipped behind Bolton's far post coverage and slotted home unattended from Fabregas's corner kick.

The dynamics of the game changed for good, and we looked like a team reborn. Five minutes later, we were level, van Persie converting a penalty kick earned by Hleb after a nice combination between Flamini and Adebayor.

At this point, Bolton started throwing players forward (their efforts handled dutifully by a suddenly confident Clichy-Gallas-Toure back line) and even though you could see the inevitable third goal coming, it was not to happen until injury time. Hleb found space on the left, ran inside the box and found Fabregas with a perfectly weighted pass. Cesc took an unconvincing shot, but a couple of deflections saw it end up in the back of the net. And that was it: the most improbable of goals to seal the most improbable of victories.

So what does this mean, realistically? Even though the title seems out of reach (with United looking incapable of dropping points at the moment) the effect on the team's morale is hard to underestimate - and it will hopefully carry over to Wednesday's game.

...To the ratings:

Almunia - 6. A sub-par performance from our unconstested first keeper. Under a lot of pressure during the first 60 minutes fo the game, he seemed too often nervous and unsure of himself. truth be told, his incredible save from the Bolton corner kick in the 54th minute saved he game (and, as it was, the points) for us.
Toure - 7. A more than pleasant surprise on the right flank - more than willing to run into the strangely wide spaces that he was afforded - and used efficiently. His crossing could use some work - particularly since he is the likely de facto right back for the remainder of the season.
Gallas - 7. Proved that he is at his most effective when he leads by example (vs. pre-game pre-game made-for-Sky in-the-huddle motivational speeches. His first goal - and his relentless surges up front - carried the torch of this most memorable comeback.
Senderos - 7. Solid, I thought. Still a bit to easy to shake off the ball at times, but overall a very solid defensive performance.
Clichy - 8. Man of the match for me. In the absence of any defensive help from Diaby (while on the field), van Persie and Hleb, controlled the defensive left side and managed to carefully time and weigh his frequent runs on the wing. Defensively impenetrable during the team's late run. A superb individual show.
Diaby - 4. And even a 4 may be too much for a player who - with every lazy and uninspiring appearance - is becoming more of a liability than an asset to this squad. He doesn't cover defensively, he keeps the ball too long, his passing is often erratic - and his judgment lapses are staggering. A well-deserved red card for a truly reckless challenge.
Hleb - 6. Somewhat more effective than in the previous games. Had a hand (a foot, actually) in both the second and the third goal. The crispness of his passes was good, but their effectiveness lacked yet again. A good effort, but once again he seemed more than eager to drift inside and let Toure fill the space on the right.
Fabregas - 6. Game in and game out, his demeanor projects the mood of the entire team, who - for better or worse - takes its attitude cues from him. This time, he covered the entire despair-to-ecstasy range - and his game followed.
Flamini - 6. Rather anonymous. To make a difference, he must bring more than just tirelesness - once again, his decision-making has left a lot to be desired.
Bendtner - 5. Equally impotent offensively, with or without van Persie's support.
(Adebayor - 5) His introduction was partly responsible for the late turnaround. He added movement and creativity that was sorely lacking until his - and Walcott's - introduction.
van Persie - 6. His movement - on and off the ball - is regaining its smooth and unpredictable flow. His "finishing touch", however, is not quite back - yet. (the Liverpool triple-header is, however, the best opportunity to find it)
(Walcott - 7) His speed made a tremendous impact - he looked dangerous and full of ideas from the moment he came on and threw the Bolton defense off-balance with every touch of the ball. He should get the start on Wednesday on the right side - he has earned it.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Chelsea 2 - Arsenal 1 (Sagna 59')

Slipping away

With a costly loss at Stamford Bridge, our challenge for the Premier League title took a turn for the nearly impossible (a significant downgrade from the previous "highly unlikely" path) If there is a silver lining, I can't find it. Our forward play was for the most part uninspiring, although our defense deserves accolades for looking impenetrable. There is certainly hope for the future of our defensive line, for Sagna, Toure and Clichy had outstanding performances - directed by a very effective Wiliam Gallas. It is only after Eboue dropped at right back in Sagna's place (what a great performance; his injury was most untimely - and costly) that Blues were able to create real danger in our defensive third.

It's most unfortunate to see such a great title run come to this. The squad looked tired (and did so for a few weeks now, our thin numbers looking pushed past its limits) and devoid of ideas and ability to play their trademark beautiful game. In all honesty, the performance today was a scrap at best, yet another example of "too little" - and the result is unfortunately fair, as we did not deserve anything from this game.

As far as the remainder of the season goes, there is the Champions League quarterfinal against Liverpool to look forward to - and we are not looking in "pole position" any longer. Not by a long shot. The Milan game is now officially an anomaly in a string of poor performances and results that (nothing new here) have exposed the mental frailty required by a sustained challenge for the EPL title.

...The (very brief) ratings:

Almunia - 9. A superb performance, agile and commanding.
Sagna - 8. Very solid - his defense was superlative, his goal perfectly executed.
Gallas - 7. He was in charge and assuredly so. Drogba was his assignment - and one he minded very effectively for most of the game.
Toure - 7. Almost back at his best, alert in the air and always there to clear the lines.
Clichy - 8. To his credit, you will have to go back and check the team sheet to make sure whether Joe Cole really played today.
Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini, Eboue - 4. Our midfield was flat, produced service of no quality and was unable to combine with any kind of consistency. A collective poor effort.
Adebayor - 5. It's official - you can not rely on one true striker (no matter how effective he may be during particular stretches of the season) to carry the team to a Premiership title. It just can't be done.
van Persie - 4. His contribution was once again disappointing - his ability to spark the team renaissance during the last few weeks of the season was greatly overestimated, since he is just not the player who started the season so promisingly.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Arsenal 1 - Middlesbrough 1 (Toure 85')

Another two points bite the dust

(Disclaimer: The following game review is being written less than two hours after the final whistle - therefore the disappointment, frustration - and consequent bitterness - have had no chance of wearing out)

How bad is it going to get before it gets better (assuming that it will get better) and is it going to mean anything by that time?... Let's run through the negatives of the day:

We dropped two more points - which makes 8 in the last four games - and we have not recorded a win in the League since February 11.

The 5 point lead at the top of the table has evaporated. We are in second place, with poorer goal differential and having played one more game than Manchester United. And, yes, that means that our title chances are not within our control any longer. We now have to watch and hope that our title rivals will drop points.

We are headed for the toughest run of games of the season: away at Chelsea and Bolton, Liverpool twice at home and once away, and then away at Manchester United. To remain in the running for any silverware, the margin of error is minimal.

In all fairness, at this time, we do not look like a team capable - or worthy, for that matter - of winning the Premiership any longer. We rolled back to the form we exhibited early last season, conceding an early goal and then spending the rest of the game in desperate search of an equalizer against a 10-man defense. The goals dried up - and even our trademark passing game has become flat and predictable. This young team does not show the belief and mental strength that Arsene Wenger believes it has. Undoubtedly, his post-game remarks will once again highlight those very traits of his young team.

Middesbrough went ahead in the 24th minute and outside that goal, created nothing. Not that they made any attempt either - their possession was poor and inconsequential. For most of the game (and virtually for the entire second half) they defended with the entire team behind the ball and absorbed - with a certain degree of luck - all the pressure that we were able to bring forth. It would be preposterous to credit Southgate's tactics for the point his team ended up with. While in the end effective, their tactical approach to the game was deplorable.

We, on the other hand, were a throwback to our form at the beginning of last season - deploying our spellbinding passing game to little scoring threat and counting on our suffocating pressure to eventually yield a goal. From someone. From somewhere. It worked - yet again - but it only earned us a point when three were absolutely required. As in the Villa game however, we could have easily ended up empty-handed.

...On to the ratings:

Almunia - 7. A very quiet day at the office. Disposed of the few threats that came his way with calm and composure.
Sagna - 8. Once again, very good - however, his partnership with Eboue seems to not be entirely "clicking."
Gallas - 7. Another good performance, it was good to see his partnership with Toure back at tis most effective.
Toure - 7. Back at his best - hard to assign any blame for the goal, the entire defense was caught napping. A very solid performance, capped by a very important goal. His incursions in the Boro half were always dangerous and quickly opened up passing channels.
Clichy - 8. Tireless once again, although in a somewhat unproductive way. His frequent runs in support of Hleb certainly added... something, but not in a terribly effective way.
Hleb - 6. Quiet and seemingly unable to find his touch the entire afternoon. His pass that Fabregas should have converted in the 65th minute was pure genius. There was wasn't enough of it throughout the entire game.
Fabregas - 5. Still in search of form. The away Milan game is quickly becoming the exception in a long string of poor games - by the rightfully elevated standards that he is judged by. The creative spark is gone, the confidence in front of the goal is gone. (If you want indisputable proof, run through the highlights of the first handful of games this season - you'll see what I mean)
Flamini - 6. His work rate was as high as we have come to expect - this time, however, it did not amount to much.
Adebayor - 5. Not one of this better performances - the goal he scored should have been allowed, but he spent the rest of game disputing calls he did not get.
van Persie - 5. His contribution was insignificant; his understanding with Adebayor needs quick rebuilding.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Champions League Draw: It's Liverpool

A likely all-English path leads either to the Cup or to an rematch against Barcelona

Earlier this morning, the draw for the quarterfinals and semifinals of the Champions League took place in Nyon. The Gunners were once again ignored by Lady Luck and handed a tie against Liverpool with the first game at the Emirates. If we go through, we will play (first game at the Emirates - do you see a pattern here?...) the winner of the Fenerbahce - Chelsea quarterfinal. If we go through to the final, we will play the winner of a likely Manchester United - Barcelona semifinal.

Here are the complete results of the quarterfinal draw:

Arsenal - Liverpool
Fenerbahce - Chelsea
Schalke - Barcelona
AS Roma - Manchester United

The semifinal draw:

Arsenal/Liverpool v Fenerbahce/Chelsea
Schalke/Barcelona v Roma/Manchester United

...So, an all-English path to the final - and then, it's either United or Barcelona. Tougher than it could have been - but has anything come easy this season?...

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Wigan 0 - Arsenal 0

Still in control of our destiny - although just barely

Yes, we are still in control of our destiny - which, by definition, means that if we win all of our remaining games, we win the title. On one hand, the string of draws that saw our five point lead at the top (almost) evaporate offers little hope of a nine-win streak. On the other hand, our title challengers (both of which have displayed less than stellar form this past weekend as well) will drop points as well - at the very least in their Stamford Bridge face-off.

Still top by two measly points is little consolation for a game that we should have found a way to win, regardless of the condition of the pitch. On no pitch deemed playable - although the JJB field really stretched that definition - should we have not been able to score one goal against a prime relegation candidate such as Wigan. But it happened, and United is now favored to claim the top spot in a little over one week's time, after a trip to Derby (a team unable to mount any kind of challenge) and a home game to Bolton (a team "safe" enough in the standings to mount any challenge - particularly at Old Trafford)

For the record, I am not buying the "at least we're not losing" line - one win and two looses equate to just as much as three draws - especially at a time when goal differential is becoming quite irrelevant. The title - at least in this final run - is decided by the number of dropped points, not by the number of games in the "lost" column.

And now, to the ratings - with the hope that on its season-closing trip to the JJB (and with the title fight still undecided) United will face a Wigan team in need of points to survive relegation...

Almunia - 7. Showing the leadership that we grown to expect from him every single game. With the exception of Valencia's shot in the second half, quite untroubled.
Sagna - 8. One of the few highlights of the game - at times he looks like he can do no wrong on the pitch. Despite the condition of the field, his timing, work rate and movement were remarkable. Superbly consistent throughout the game - and the entire season.
Gallas - 7. A solid performance, although you feel that his leadership has suffered in recent weeks - Flamini and Senderos are quickly emerging as the "clear heads" in our defensive third - and it is a refreshing sight indeed.
Senderos - 7. How in the world can you keep him on the bench when Toure returns - after the type of performances he has put in lately? I could be wrong, but this will be the only season of Gallas' captainship of the team - and maybe even in the starting lineup. Toure - and, to a lesser extent, Senderos - seems ready to wear the captain's armband.
Clichy - 8. He and Sagna deserve the only true accolades for the never-give-up attitude he displayed throughout the game. Tirelessly advancing down the channel ineffectively covered by Hleb, he provided cross after cross in an always-crowded Wigan box where we could get a hold of anything.
Hleb - 6. Never got any traction - literally and figuratively. He was the one player whose game was affected by the field conditions to the absolute greatest extent.
Fabregas - 5. Outside a clever through pass that set Adebayor up for what should have been the first (and probably only) goal of the game, he was nowhere near his brilliant display at San Siro. Two poor decisions in the second half when he broke free of coverage saw him first try to pass the ball when he should have shot and then shoot when he should have passed the ball.
Flamini - 7. His work rate was outstanding - particularly since anything less his full dedication could easily have cost us all the points.
Gilberto - 5. It is a sad day when one of the stalwarts of your team's glory days looks as out of place (and off pace) as Gilberto looked yesterday. He is still capable of precise, piercing passes that can set the entire team in motion, but alongside Flamini, he looked very slow and, at times, uncommitted.
sure he would not receive any service. On a day when opportunities were few and far between, he did not show the needed composure
Adebayor - 7. Worked hard but the playing surface and suffocating marking from Wigan's back line made to convert either of the two chances he had. His newfound understanding (and maybe recovering relationship) with Bendtner is encouraging.
Bendtner - 7. One of his better performances, I thought - won most of the long balls sent his way and was able to send useful passes all around. I am quite confident that given a few more starting opportunities, he would find (scoring) form - van Persie is back, however, and he is not going to be denied the starting spot.

And, finally, a word about van Persie. He looked good, he looked dangerous every time he touched the ball and seemed to effortlessly find his way past opponents. If we are to find much-needed late season scoring form, he could be key to our efforts. His unique playmaking/goalscoring mix could add spark to our predictable attacking patterns of late.