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.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

AC Milan 0 - Arsenal 2 (Fabregas 84', Adebayor 92')

Epic. Just epic.

Even a good few hours after the conclusion of the game at San Siro, I still can't shake the feeling that I may have witnessed the finest display of pure football in the annals of Arsenal football.

The fact that the Gunners' performance humbled (or humiliated?) the reigning European and World club champions rightly magnifies the accomplishment. Most satisfyingly though is that they won on their own terms, by playing their scintillating brand of football rooted in hard work and in relentless dedication to the task at hand. They outhought, outfought and outplayed in every aspect of the game the golden-standard bearers of Champions League football.

A staggering number of superlative individual performances - and a delight to run through the specifics...

Almunia - 8. A very assured presence in goal, particularly the unsettling first 15 minutes of the game. Such was his command of his surroundings, I never felt we would concede throughout the entire game.
Sagna - 7. Not afraid to surge forward in support of Eboue. Supremely confident against Pato and Ambrosini throughout the game, made both of them look pedestrian.
Gallas - 7. The captain was back - and he marshalled his defense with confidence and authority. Tima and time again, Inzaghi, Pato and Kaka were left embarrassingly deep offside behind our quick-paced defensive four.
Senderos - 7. One of his best games of late - powered by a most welcome surge of confidence.
Clichy - 8. His best display in the Champions League this season. His partnership with Diaby controlled with authority the gaping hole on the right side of Milan's midfield that Gattuso never looked able to cover.
Hleb - 9. Plain brilliant display from the Belarussian. His effort rate and mobility, along with the accuracy and unpredictability of his passing game, allowed him to function very effectively as Adebayor's launchpad.
Fabregas - 9. Everything he did, he did magnificently well (which in the end included scoring) His vision proved second to none - his direct passes cut straight through a Milan midfield who was clearly unable to cope. His frequent surges upfront were also a constant threat; his brilliant goal fully deserved.
Flamini - 8. Proved, yet again, that he doesn't just play his defensive midfield position superbly, he owns it. The confidence he showed throughout the entire game encouraged Fabregas to push forward and hold the ball an extra fraction of the second that many times meant the difference between a decent pass and a great pass - as most of his were on the day.
Diaby - 7. The most remarkable aspect of his game was his defensive discipline - his partnership with Clichy worked very well and suffocated any kind of threats originating from the right side. Oddo found the combination way too much for him.
Adebayor - 9. As close to a clear 10 as performances come, he was everything he can be when at his best - strong, elusive, precise, unselfish and dangerous at all times. His ball control was truly marvelous, and his movement kept the Milan defense off-balance the entire night. His movement created plenty of penetration channels that Hleb and Fabregas took full advantage of. The Togonator was simply superb.

As tempted as I am to move the focus to the challenges ahead in the Premiership, I won't - this was too sweet of a performance to not let its historic meaning linger on for a couple more days. So enjoy the feeling, my friends, and take comfort in the fact that come Friday morning, every one of the remaining Champions League contenders will hope they draw anybody but the mighty, mighty Arsenal...

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Arsenal 1 - Aston Villa 1 (Bendtner 90')

A tough one to swallow

A scrappy point - and a most unlikely one by the looks of the events as they unfolded at the Emirates yesterday. And come mid-May, it won't be any surprise that the points won or lost in injury-time drama will make the difference between winning the title and coming in second. Remember the Gallas equalizer against United at the Emirates? The Tevez equalizer at White Hart Lane a couple of weeks ago?

The big question (and one whose answer I would like to think Wenger knows) is whether this was the hangover after the very traumatic past week or a sign of the decline that so many have been predicting - some, it must be said, with gleeful anticipation. While the Villa game did not answer this quandary, the game at San Siro on Tuesday easily could.

Although the game yielded one massive positive (we are still in first place, albeit by the thinnest of margins) the negatives of our carelessly poor link play and even poorer defensive work are far more glaring. Martin O'Neill (the most underrated managers in the EPL by far) devised a tactical masterpiece for neutralizing our free-flowing passing play through suffocatingly tight coverage. His team executed it extremely well - and we were not able to cope. Meanwhile, when on the counterattack, their speed and directness of play instilled panic in a defensive line of fast-diminishing confidence.

Here are the ratings:

Almunia - 8. By far the best performer in the team, he made a couple of absolutely critical saves and displayed the calm and composure that we have come to expect from him.
Sagna - 6. His incursions in support in the right midfield channel were somewhat effective in the first 30 minutes, but with Agbonlahor making himself quite the nuisance on the counterattack, they had to be kept at a minimum.
Gallas - 5. His influence on the back four seems to be fading fast. A very nervy display that was quickly mirrored by the entire defensive line.
Senderos - 6. Not as bad of a game as the score sheet would make you think. A few minutes before scoring in his own goal he could have done the same at the other end of the pitch.
Clichy - 4. The poorest display of the season for Clichy (the only player who is somewhat justified to still be hung over after the Birmingham City game - and the one who showed it) The trouble is, as long as his backup is Traore, he must get back in shape.
Hleb - 5. Unable to generate anything remotely creative. Double- and triple-covered as soon as he received the ball, he was unable to escape the pressure. Wide right or behind Adebayor, his contribution was minimal.
Fabregas - 5. Just like Hleb, unable to cope with the suffocating pressure from a very mobile Villa midfield. Moreover, there are no signs that his goal drought is anywhere near its end, and the lack of composure in front of the goal is very troubling. He should have easily converted the clear opportunity he had at the end of the first half - he scored from infinitely more difficult circumstances.
Diaby - 5. (Bendtner - 7) While the slickness of his dribbling was once again second to none, his speed and overall work rate were less than stellar - the lack of match fitness being partly the culprit. He never threatened the Villa back four and he rarely contributed creatively.
Walcott - 6. It is becoming increasingly clear that Theo Walcott's most potent threat is his speed - and that one of his most glaring weaknesses is his crossing ability (except for the one at the end of injury time in the Milan game) He looked overwhelmed by the opportunity to start alongside Adebayor, and their partnership never "clicked". Easily perturbed under pressure, was unable to find the right channels to run into (not that our midfield would have necessarily been able to find him, mind you)
Adebayor 6. Largely anonymous, worked hard but did not have much to show for it - the assist to Bendtner was absolutely perfect, and he should rightly receive credit for it. So there.

Next up, Milan - and at San Siro no less. Toure should be back, and so should Eboue (such is the state of our team, I am looking forward to Eboue's return...) And Robin van Persie should be available off the bench.

...I feel strangely optimistic about this one - although last time I wrote this sentence, it was in the preview of the second leg of the Carling Cup semifinal at White Hart Lane.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

11 games to go

With less than a third of the games to go, the season is drawing to a predictably dramatic finish – with three teams having a legitimate claim on winning the title, and no less than five others targeting the highly-coveted fourth spot.

In this post, I will take a look at the remaining fixtures for Arsenal, Man Utd and Chelsea and how they stack up against each other - and I will do it despite the fact that last weekend’s highly improbable events (and, somewhat consequently, results) may render the entire exercise hopelessly meaningless.

Let’s start with where we are at...

...and then take a look at the games left: (the teams have been ordered by current table ranking)

First off, the remaining fixtures of Arsenal and Man Utd seem oddly similar. Five of their fixtures are identical (those grayed out) and, in general, the others seem quite balanced. So, which games will make the difference?

The games against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge
Both Arsenal (on 3/23) and Man Utd (on 4/26) are going to visit Stamford Bridge. In terms of preceding mid-week fixtures, Arsenal seems to have a (potential) edge: their game comes 4 days after Chelsea's Carling Cup final rematch at White Hart Lane, while the Man Utd game comes after the Champions League semifinal first leg. (for both teams)

The games against fourth-spot contenders
Both Arsenal and United play Liverpool and Aston Villa at home (Arsenal as early as this weekend) so there is sensible parity there. The difference may be the Arsenal - Everton game at the Emirates in the penultimate match day of the season, which could have meaningful implications for both teams. We could be looking at sealing the Premiership title with a win, whereas Everton could clinch the fourth spot if they get a tie or a win.

Tricky mid-table fixtures for United (away to Blackburn, home to West Ham)
Blackburn has never been an easy place to go to (particularly late in the season, with the potential for an UEFA Cup spot potentially looming). West Ham provided a most painful upset earlier in the season.

Last game of the season
Both Arsenal and Man Utd are playing their last game of the season away to teams who may very well be in the throws of relegation and in need of a result to keep them in the Premiership. Under perfectly similar circumstances, is Arsenal’s trip to Sunderland tougher than United’s trip to Wigan? Although both teams are being managed by former Ferguson players, their teams’ relegation status on that day may play a bigger part.

Finally - the game at Old Trafford (4/13)
There is a good chance that, in the end, the title will depend on the outcome of the game between the two top title contenders. A defeat there would mean that we would have to do better than United at Chelsea (win if they tie or lose, tie if they lose) – that, of course, assuming that we perform similarly in the other fixtures.

…Just for the fun of it, if we throw the Chelsea fixtures into the mix, one striking point:

Chelsea arguably has a tougher fixture list – particularly away
Trips to Everton, Manchester City and Spurs make for a comparatively tougher remainder of the season and should compensate for the advantage of hosting both Arsenal and Man Utd at Stamford Bridge. Trips to West Ham and Newcastle (the latter in the penultimate game of the season, when they could realistically be looking at relegation) could prove very difficult as well.

Finally, a couple of key dates (subject to change, depending on the schedule of future FA Cup and Champions League fixtures)

3/23: Chelsea – Arsenal and Man Utd – Liverpool
4/13: Man Utd – Arsenal
4/26: Chelsea – Man Utd
5/11: Sunderland – Arsenal and Wigan – Man Utd

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

James Lawton in The Independent

Required reading for every fan of the beautiful game, James Lawton's column in The Independent reminds us all what the debate sparked by Eduardo's injury really should focus on.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Arsenal releases statement on Eduardo

Eduardo could make "a full recovery after nine months"

Arsenal FC has just released a statement on Eduardo's injury.

The news seems to be encouraging for the long-term - the preliminary estimate on the length of the recovery is quite similar with Diaby's last year.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Birmigham City 2 - Arsenal 2 (Walcott 50', 55')

Black Saturday

...What can I write that hasn't already been written about the game at St Andrews yesterday?

In a 2-hour span of a truly infamous day, we lost one of our players to a truly horrific injury that could end a highly promising career, then found a way to overcome a one-goal deficit only to fail to secure the three critical points through a late (and questionable) penalty kick decision.

The traumatic events that unfolded yesterday can mean so much during the final stretch of a football season - and they can spell the difference between pulling together or falling part. We can only hope that the adversity that this squad faced yesterday can provide the catalyst for the final 11 games of the season and a very difficult return leg against AC Milan at San Siro.

In the absence of Eduardo, the remainder of the season will depend on the timely return of Robin van Persie and the scoring contributions of Walcott and Bendtner - and, to a lesser extent, Fabregas. It will also depend on the leadership of William Gallas, who can and must rally the team around the tragedy of losing one of their teammates to a horrific injury that could arguably happen to any of them.

Can 'do it for Eduardo' become the rallying cry of this team for the remainder of this season? If it does, the story of this season could very well be one of the greatest in sports history- that of a championship won against all odds and against adversity that many of our players could not have possibly been ready for.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Arsenal 0 - AC Milan 0

Not over yet

First off, let's get one thing out of the way: we are definitely over our Old Trafford hangover. Over, done, way past it. Never happened.

...Now, to the Wednesday night affair...

As a fan of the beautiful game, rarely have I felt so satisfied with a performance that yielded such an unsatisfying result. Yet that was very much the case last night, when The Arsenal played a tactically sound and esthetically superlative game against the mighty Rossoneri di Milano. Unfortunately, it also happened to be one of the more woefully unproductive (wasteful?) displays in recent weeks, Adebayor's last-gasp opportunity the most glaring of the bunch. However, even though Milan have proven impenetrable defensively, our midfield and our defence made them look thoroughly impotent offensively.

As Champions League first leg results go, this one does not typically bode well for the returning leg - particularly against Milan. However, I must confess that I feel strangely optimistic about the return leg. The dynamics of the game at San Siro will be quite different - and we do not have a one goal advantage to defend with a conservative 4-5-1 formation. To go through, Milan must score - and so do we, but I think our speed and creativity on the break from Milan's sustained pressure could make the difference. If we score first, the rest could be history. I have a feeling Eduardo will contribute to this one - it's about time...

The ratings:

Lehmann - 7. Although barely tested, he made a couple of good saves and showed good composure throughout the game.
Sagna - 7. Brilliant defensively, he rendered Pato irrelevant for the entire duration of the game.
Gallas - 7. Was able to put the Old Trafford nightmare behind him and conduct his defensive four with calm and composure.
Toure (Senderos - 8) Has proven once again that he is by no means a liability in Toure's absence. Good thing, since Kolo is out for at least four weeks.
Clichy - 7. A little more reserved offensively, as good as it gets defensively.
Hleb - 9. No matter where he showed up, he created havoc with his superb ball control, movement and vision. His truly outstanding effort should have been rewarded with at least two assists.
Fabregas - 9. Fully aware of the occasion's magnitude, he rose to the challenge and put in a truly brilliant performance - just like Hleb, he fully deserved a couple of assists. He commanded the midfield with energy, authority and a sense of joyful unpredictability. His repeated passes to Adebayor were superbly weighted and crafted - he almost converted one of them early in the second half.
Flamini - 8. Matched Gattuso step for step, tackle for tackle - their duel may be the key of the second leg game.
Eboue - 8. (Walcott) As always, a mixed bag - greater threat than usual going forward and penetrating through the middle, lacked critical composure when presented with a fine chance by Hleb's perfect pass. Unnecessary diving in the box - his immature behavior on the pitch is becoming quite annoying, you can only invoke the "desire to win" so many times...
Adebayor - 8. A very labor-intensive performance against the most consistent central defensive duo of the last few years - Maldini and Nesta. Pity he could not reap the ultimate reward for proving himself a highly potent threat throughout the game. Well, there's always the return leg...
Eduardo - 7. (Bendtner) A better performance from our "fox in the box" - very mobile, always in motion, trying to draw as much attention as possible in order to create space for Adebayor. There may not be much personal chemistry between the two, but I like their on-the-field movement. The San Siro game may be his chance to shine and send us through.

Next up - Birmingham City. A critical game on many levels, most importantly for building up an 8-point lead at the top (however temporary) And don't rule out a surprise at St. James Park - I know I don't!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Manchester Utd 4 - Arsenal 0

What did just happen?...

I am still at a loss for words and for ability to fully comprehend the match as it unfolded - the game that promised so much took on a truly surreal note early on and never relented. What took place at Old Trafford seemed (and, hours later, still does seem) so far removed from any kind of plausible rendition of reality, I found myself disengaged from it no later than a couple of minutes after the start.

Five days after making the loudest and most emphatic statement of intent about our Premiership title credentials, we played (and I use the word generously) with no ability, desire, intelligence or anything that is to be expected from 11 professional footballers when they take on the pitch. It was as comprehensive and lifeless of a surrender as I have ever witnessed in a football game - and the type of performance that I did not believe this team was even capable of.

It is hard to single out the most disappointing individual performances of the game on a day when the team as a whole was truly miserable. Special mentions must, however, go to Bendtner, Hoyte and Traore. (the common denominators to our three worst losses of the season) And Eboue and Gilberto. And Hleb. And Toure and Gallas. That just about covers it.

The game clearly showed the fragility of this team's chemistry. Arsenal's fluid football - when at its best and most efficient - is the product of a mixture of very specific ingredients. If you alter the formula (or use the wrong substitutes) the final product just doesn't work.

In the end, this is a harsh reminder of the pitfalls of relying on a very young squad - when they lose, they are completely annihilated as belief and confidence get sucked out of them in plain view (remember the Sevilla defeat and the most recent trip to White Hart Lane?) There is hope however - after every loss this season, they bounced back very quickly. And emphatically.

One can only hope the same resilience will be on display on Wednesday against the "Rossoneri di Milano". We should be well rested, too - after all, we took the weekend off.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Arsenal 2 - Blackburn Rovers 0 (Senderos 4', Adebayor 90')

With a little help from our foes

Five points clear with 12 games to go. OK, let me say that that again. Five points clear with 12 games to go.

The coming-of-age party that this Arsenal squad embarked on back in July last year continued last night with a remarkably self-assured display at the Emirates. It wasn't just the ultimate "mission accomplished" feel of the outcome, it was the thoroughly comprehensive manner in which we dominated our opponents - in all fairness, Blackburn is a top 10 Premiership team, and one with a history of rising to the occasion when playing us.

The game started as brightly as we could have hoped. In the 4th minute, Senderos punished Blackburn's poor set piece marking by heading home unchallenged from Eduardo's swerving corner kick. Content with the scoreline, we remained in control for the rest of the first half, but without pressing the issue.

The second half brought a flurry of activity in front of Brad Friedel's goal (he remains, I truly believe, one of the most underrated goalkeepers int he Premier League) but the breakthrough eluded Adebayor, Hleb and Fabregas. I could see how, at times, the fragility of the one goal lead ominously reminded of the Birmingham City draw a few weeks back and of the perils of not exhibiting the proverbial killer instinct. And even though we were unable to build on the one-goal lead, Blackburn were superlatively tame for the entire half.

The one-way traffic eventually produced the second goal - in injury time. A superb pass from Fabregas found Hleb sprinting into space on the right side; he then found Adebayor in single coverage, who slightly lifted the ball with his first touch and released a fierce volley with the second. Friedel was beaten and the points were finally secured.

Most importantly, we go to Old Trafford on a well-justified confidence high - very much in contrast with the mood of the hosts of the Saturday FA Cup clash. The League table developments of the last three days added an even more intriguing twist to an already mouth-watering encounter.

Lehmann - 7. Not tested a whole lot, has shown safe hands and a fairly cool head.
Sagna - 7. A constant presence in Hleb's support, has played as a right-back/right-midfielder role the entire game. It stretched him thin, but it allowed Hleb the freedom to penetrate in the middle where he feels most comfortable.
Gallas - 7. A very good, assured performance.
Senderos - 8. Same as above, plus an extra point for the goal.
Clichy - 8. Omnipresent on the flank when pressing forward, he had the most difficult role - that of providing a wide outlet on the left in the absence of a true left midfielder, while keeping Bentley at bay - he tirelessly managed to do both.
Hleb - 7. Plenty of effort and movement, but once again lacking that killer last touch that splits the opponents' defense wide open. Great recognition of Adebayor's position for the second goal.
Fabregas - 8. Very mobile and creative - it truly takes careful observation to take note of his truly unique talent and contribution to the team's free-flowing game. It is so easy to take his ability for granted.
Flamini - 7. Great work rate and yet another commanding performance in a very crowded central midfield.
Gilberto - 7. Provided the safety that both Fabregas, Flamini, and oftentimes Clichy enjoyed when surging forward.
Adebayor - 8. EPL's Man of the Moment can not stop either scoring or turning in consistently solid performances. As much as Flamini has redefined the holding midfielder position this season, he has redefined that of the target man - constantly in motion, creating space and opportunity for either himself or his partnering striker.
Eduardo - 6. I have been firmly in Eduardo's camp since he joined the team - and remain in his camp still; however, he most definitely needs to improve his handling of the ball under pressure. Time and time again, he is too easily dispossessed - many times in our own half.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Manchester City 1 - Arsenal 3 (Adebayor 9', 88', Eduardo 26')

Back on top - of league and form

Many of us considered the trip to the Manchester Stadium as one of the three most difficult away games of the remainder of the season - along with those to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. As the day unfolded, however, not only our game proved to not be much of a concern, but the prospect of the other two trips became - well, easier to digest...

As it happened, we put in a thoroughly dominant performance, on an(other) afternoon when you feel we could have scored more than we did and when the only defensive troubles were self-inflicted. Rather surprisingly, the game turned out to be thoroughly lopsided in every area, whether this was because of our dilligence in midfield and ruthlessness of our defence, or because of a dismal performance of the hosts.

I do wonder, however, whether Adebayor's newly found form has anything to do with his pairing up front with Eduardo, who seems to be very capable of diverting quite a bit of pressure to himself, and therefore creating even more space for the big target man. (who, frankly, is nothing like a traditional target man)

On other fronts, Spurs almost did us the huge favor of beating man United, only to concede in the last throws of added time from a set piece. Our Portsmouth-based senior squad tied Chelsea, leaving them 6 points off the pace.

Overall, a great day - back on top by two points and making up two notches in goal differential. Ahhhh, to be a Gunner...

Finally, the ratings:

Lehmann - 7. Although largely untested, he seemed completely at ease and relished the opportunity to be Numero Uno once again.
Sagna - 7. Solid once again, compensated for Hleb's rather poor showing with dangerous, well-timed incursions in Man City's half. Also, kept Petrov at bay in a manner that very few other right backs in the league could.
Gallas - 7. Very strong in the back, helping Mad Jens in goal.
Senderos - 7.
Clichy - 6. An atypically anonymous performance from Clichy on the week of his very first French national team call-up. And a mistake that cost us a goal to top it off. (Sorry, I just had to mention it)
Hleb - 5. The rollercoaster ride of his performances continues - with a good dip.
Fabregas - 7. Back on track in all areas of his game, minus the scoring (although he was close on a couple of occasions)
Flamini - 7. He effectively shut down any kind of service from the City midfield, particularly Hamann and Elano.
Diaby - 7. Very high work rate - much more so than on his average performance.
Adebayor - 8. The goalscoring machine that he has become continued to churn goals. Two more today - and as timely as they get: one to get things started, one to kill the game off.
Eduardo - 7. His decision-making seemed a bit faulty on the day, but his goal more than made up for it.

We're off for a full 9 days. ("we", as in "the fans", since a lot of our guys are on mid-week international duty). Let's hope none returns injured - the month ahead is challenging enough as it is.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Arsenal 3 - Newcastle 0 (Adebayor 40', Flamini 72', Fabregas 80')

Flamini steals the show

Midfield enforcers are typically the type of working horses who do the dirty work of keeping impending threats from reaching the back four line - and, in the process, reaping skyrocketing foul numbers, yellow cards and the undying ire of the opposing fans.

Well, last night we may have witnessed the true arrival of Flamini as a new type of midfield enforcer. Yes, he still does the grunt work of shutting down the other team's passing channels and giving their midfielders little to no time on the ball. But what Flamini did last night (and will hopefully keep doing the rest of the season) is emerge as the second link-up player, who inspired his linemates, demanded the ball and distributed it with an efficacy matched only by Fabregas. Last night, their partnership was sparkling (Fabregas put in his best performance in quite a while) and - just like that! - their names both appeared on the score sheet. Pure coincidence? Don't think so. Keep in mind that Diaby arguably had one of his best outings as well.

Back on top then - okay, maybe just for a few hours, but you would have to reasonably hope that we will at least make up some ground on goal differential this week.

Finally, the ratings:

Almunia - 7. A fairly easy outing, very alert on a couple of quick Michael Owen incursions behind our back line.
Sagna - 8. Very active offensively, a great performance.
Gallas - 8. The White Hart Lane demons are definitely behind him. Solid, captain-like performance.
Senderos - 7. Awkward as he may be at times (he certainly does not have the elegance of others) he is nowhere near the clumsy defender that pundits make him out to be. More confident with every game.
Clichy - 7. Tireless and linking very well with Diaby throughout the game.
Hleb - 7. Typically sound performance, he seemed to truly enjoy himself last night.
Fabregas - 8. Inspired by his central midfield partner, he was truly electric.
Flamini - 9. Why not 10? I really don't know.
Diaby - 7. One of these days, another one of his cannonballs (see goal 1 in the Sunderland game) will spectacularly hit the net.
Adebayor - 8. The only question remains - can he maintain this run of form for the remainder of the season? He is certainly peaking at the right time.
Eduardo - 6. His confidence still rising, he is much more mobile than he used to be (as opposed to just waiting for service from the midfield) He is certainly starting to "feel" the Gunners' game...

Till Saturday.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Arsenal 3 - Newcastle 0 (Adebayor 51', 83', Butt o.g. 89')

"Move along, everybody, nothing to see here"

Well, well, well... Once again, the rumours of this team's demise have once again been proven to be greatly exaggerated. Although it took us a while to take full control of the game, the outcome was never in doubt. Newcaste huffed and puffed occasionally (most dangerously when Clichy had to clear the ball from the goal mouth) but two goals from Adebayor and an own goal from Nicky Butt settled the matter.

Quick ratings:

Lehmann - 7. Rather untroubled overall, seemed very much in control.
Hoyte - 6. A bit shaky at times.
Gallas - 8. The captain led by example again by putting the sub-par performance in the Carling Cup semifinal behind him.
Senderos - 7. Solid.
Clichy - 7. His incursions in the Newcastle half have wreaked panic over and over again - a shame that his partnership with Diaby is not quite there yet.
Rosicky (Eduardo - 7) Eduardo had another confident performance. His largely unnoticed "block" to help Adebayor penetrate for the second goal was priceless.
Diaby - 5 (Gilberto) Unconvincing, off pace with the rest of the midfield and striking force.
Flamini - 7.
Fabregas - 7. He was back to effectively marshaling the midfield and being the dispatcher of superb, unpredictable passes. His best game in a good while.
Adebayor - 8. Undisputed man of the match.
Walcott - 6 (Hleb) He started very poorly, but gained more confidence as the game progressed. Little chemistry between him and Hoyte - or the strikers, for that matter.

Now, it's on to the repeat of the same fixture, only with more serious league title implication. Let's hope for a similar performance - and result. It would do our goal differential a world of good.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A tricky tie but we should prevail

Was this the most trying week of the season for an Arsenal fan? Quite possibly. Not only we were comprehensively defeated at the hands of our North London arch-rivals, but news of the bust-up between Adebayor and Bendtner gave everyone reason to doubt the team's resolve, maturity and cohesion. The last one seems odd, since it is rather obvious (to anyone who bothers to read the body language of our players during the game) that our guys clearly enjoy playing with and for each other.

So it's the newly reborn Newcastle today, in a game that matters much more than it should under normal circumstances. Our players will be under very serious scrutiny from everyone: the fans, the press and, most importantly, the rest of the chasing pack. Is this the day when the team truly implodes under the weight of absences, injuries, and newly found expectation? Or is the team going to put the Spurs loss behind them with a fluid and efficient performance that will easily see them through the 5th round of the FA Cup? We'll have the answer in less than 24 hours - and what an interesting answer this should be. Without question, no other team has given their fans the type of rollercoaster ride that we have enjoyed as Arsenal fans - something to truly cherish.

Arsene Wenger suggested yesterday that we could see the best lineup he has available:
"Now we want to bounce back from the disappointment on Tuesday night and we want to do well on Saturday. When I am in the situation when I have to choose between the FA Cup and the Premier League or the Champions League, I will prioritise the two other competitions aswell. But at the moment the FA Cup is the next game and we want to win it"
The probable lineup, therefore, could look like this:

1 Lehmann

3 Sagna 10 Gallas 6 Senderos 22 Clichy

13 Hleb 4 Fabregas 16 Flamini 7 Rosicky

25 Adebayor 9 Eduardo

At the end of the day, we should be once again victorious. 3 -1 with a brace from Eduardo.

Spurs will knock out Man United and halfway through the second half, things will get really messy between Ferdinand and Tevez... You read it here first!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tottenham 5 - Arsenal 1 (Adebayor 70')

As bad as it gets

Arsenal crashed out of the Carling Cup at the hand of the same man who masterminded their only Champions League defeat of the year in Seville a couple of short months ago.

It was as comprehensive of a defeat as the Gunners have suffered in recent memory - the defense looked lost and constantly outpaced, the midfield showed no creativity, and the attack never received much service.

Despite having half of the first team on the field for most of the match, we were devoid of any cohesion, from the lack of initiative at Jenas' first goal ("Are you going to block? No? Oh, you want me to block?") all the way through the end.

As if the defeat itself was not damaging enough, the incident between Adebayor and Bendtner (which, needless to say, the entire press is running with) is particularly troubling. Not only does it reinforce the idea that this young team is far from reaching the maturity required to prevail over a lengthy campaign, it also creates a disciplinary dilemma for Wenger. Given how thin the squad has suddenly become, he can not suspend either of the two players. They are two of our only three bona fide strikers, after all. With the goal-scoring from midfield all but dried up, he doesn't have much of a choice.

The (very brief) ratings:

Fabianski - 5
Sagna - 6
Gallas - 4
Hoyte - 4
Traore - 5 (Eduardo 6)
Hleb - 5
Denilson (Fabregas 5)
Gilberto - 5
Diaby - 5
Walcott - 4 (Adebayor 7)
Bendtner - 5

Let's hope for a quick rebound against Newcastle to avoid the Black Week we experienced last February... Odds are, the team is rather unsettled right now.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A stronger than usual squad to face Spurs in the Carling Cup rematch

Injuries and the African Cup of Nations (plus the admission on Arsene's side that we might need some of our first-team firepower to get past the Spurs at White Hart Lane) have conjured up a significantly stronger squad than we had lined up two weeks ago.

The probable starting line up:

21 Fabianski

3 Sagna 31 Hoyte 10 Gallas 30 Traore

13 Hleb 15 Denilson 19 Gilberto 2 Diaby

32 Walcott 26 Bendtner

More encouraging, however, is the bench, which includes Fabregas, Flamini, Adebayor, and Eduardo. Depending on how the game pendulum swings, we could see any combination of the three coming in at some point in the second half (or, if I may boldly predict, extra time)

Massive game for the team - a tremendous confidence booster if we go through, and just as significant of a blow if we don't. I feel strangely confident about this one - don't ask me why. Go Gunners!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Fulham 0 - Arsenal 3 (Adebayor 20', 39', Rosicky 82')

The game of zero saves

On an afternoon when neither goalkeeper recorded any saves, we won comfortably, as a result of two Adebayor headers and a superbly constructed counter-attack which showcased Eduardo's speed and crossing ability, and Rosicky's smart in-the-box placement.

The fluency of our passing game was definitely there, even though a 4-5-1 Fulham tried to make it difficult for us to find space in the midfield. We linked very well and we were able to find ample space on the wings - with Fulham posing virtually no threat on the counterattack, both Clichy and Sagna made countless overlapping runs. This allowed Hleb and Rosicky to penetrate inside (where they seem to be most comfortable anyway) and cause all kinds of coverage problems to a very shaky Fulham defense.

Now, on to the ratings...

Almunia - 7. "Zero saves" says it all; he was largely untroubled - and therefore unnoticed - throughout the entire game
Sagna - 8. His vastly improved crossing skills have been fully on display. Without a doubt, he had one of his top games in an Arsenal uniform, tirelessly running the right channel in support of Hleb and Rosicky
Gallas - 7. Solid at the back, he led the defense to 9th clean sheet of the season
Senderos - 7. His partnership with Gallas looks more solid with every outing
Clichy - 9. Tirelessly working the left wing, he put in quite possibly his best game of the season. His cross for Adebayor's first goal was inch-perfect.
Hleb - 6. Another mediocre showing. The lack of creativity he has shown lately continues to be rather troubling.
Fabregas - 6. See Hleb
Flamini - 7. Continued the trend of becoming not only the midfield "enforcer", but also the main link between defense and midfield
Rosicky - 7. On the left in the first half, on the right in the second - and drifting towards the middle the entire game.
Eduardo - 7. In the second half, with the game in absolute control, Arsene Wenger moved Eduardo on the left wing and brought Hleb behind Adebayor in a striker-supporting role. Here is what I am wondering: provided he is disciplined enought to assume the defensive responsibilities that this role would entail, can Eduardo become our "new Pires"? I think he possesses the prerequisite abilities (good speed and ball control, complemented by an unquestionable knack for being in the right spot at the right time) We'll wait and see.
Adebayor - 9. Very refreshing to see how potent of an aerial threat our target man has become. When coming outside the box, his first touch has been absolutely impeccable.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Fulham - Arsenal preview

The end of (quite possibly) the most painfully uneventful week of the season is here. We are at Craven Cottage, which we must leave with three points. Anything less should be in the realm of the inconceivable.

By the end of this Fulham game, we will know quite a bit more about the resolve and belief that truly powers this team. The ability to rebound from poor results and performances is the trademark of champions - let's hope this ability will be fully on display tomorrow. The result is important, but so is the quality of the overall performance. At the end of the game, we must look once again as credible title contenders.

Here is to victory!

The likely formation:
24 Almunia

3 Sagna 10 Gallas 6 Senderos 22 Clichy

13 Hleb 4 Fabregas 16 Flamini 7 Rosicky

25 Adebayor 9 Eduardo

Prediction: Arsenal 3 - Fulham 1 (Adebayor, Eduardo, Fabregas)
Wishful/hopeful thinking prediction: Reading 1 - Man Utd 1

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Van Persie and Djourou out for 'a few weeks' as the squad gets thinner by the day

More injury news that we could do without - both van Persie and Djourou will be out for a few weeks, according to Arsene Wenger, whose squad is getting thinner by the day.

In less than two weeks, we have lost Toure, Eboue and Song to the African Cup of Nations, Diarra to our 'senior squad' (aka Portsmouth), and van Persie and Djourou to injury.

Yes, we will still field as solid of a starting XI as we can assemble at Craven Cottage, but the truth is, we can hardly afford any further injuries, particularly in central defense and at the holding midfield position (oh, Diarra, we may soon be missing you... well, not you exactly, but someone with the ability to play that position as well as you do, but more mature, less selfish and with better judgment)

Since the starting lineup writes itself, it is the bench that's worth guessing - I am thinking Lehmann, Gilberto, Diaby, Bendtner, Walcott.

Until Saturday.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Diarra heads for Portsmouth - new deal for Flamini close?

It looks like the inevitable departure of Lassana Diarra is finally taking place - the holding midfielder is joining neither Manchester City, nor Tottenham. He is supposedly instead joining Portsmouth, who have gladly met the asking price of £5.5m and will be paying him around £60,000 a week.

Even though we are to pocket a decent profit of £3.5m, I feel we are being left a bit light at the holding midfield position. Diarra could have provided the perfect cover for Flamini (whether injured or departed altogether) and, if needed, a decent alternative on the right side of the midfield - although he has not played in the wing since his Chelsea days. Gilberto has been struggling to regain form and pace when assigned in the spot and, for obvious (but different) reasons, Denilson and Diaby are ill-suited to the position.

I am hoping this can only mean that Flamini is close to signing a new deal - interestingly enough, the Arsenal website has just posted Arsene Wenger's brief statement on the "ongoing"talks with Mathieu's agents. This would be the best way to put this rotten week behind us...

Saturday can't come soon enough...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Poor timing for a poor result

...And rather poor timing for the launch of a blog that is supposed to celebrate the brand of pure football that has become the trademark of this club under Arsene Wenger's watch.

So far, this season has been markedly different that the three that preceded it - against all well-publicized pre-season odds, the team started by winning convincingly while playing exhilarating football. Most importantly however, in a few key games (such as Chelsea at the Emirates and Everton at Goodison Park) the team produced results at a time when their football wasn't at its absolute most fluent.

Fast forward to the second League game of the year. What could have (and should have) been one of the easier home wins of the season turned into the kind of slip that leaves you pondering over the validity of the "winning with kids" adage... Devoid of ideas, and, on this occasion, the desire and focus to overcome surprisingly worthy adversaries, our well-rested first-teamers relied more on the mystique of the Emirates ground than on their own ability and sharpness to garner the requisite three points. A few short days earlier, we had escaped with an improbable and wholly undeserved draw in the Carling Cup semifinal against the Spurs. On this occasion, the Emirates magic was just not there.

There is never a good time for this kind of result - however, one can argue that the timing for this one could have not been worse.


First off, the proverbial "confidence blow". After an uninspired performance against the Spurs by the "second string" squad, the first team was supposed to restore much-needed confidence ahead of the second leg at White Hart Lane - all they needed was a solid performance against an opponent of (arguably) lesser quality.

Secondly, the result comes at a time when pundits are already pondering over how much the absence of the African Cup of Nations players is going to affect our league title bid.

Finally, for the first time since mid-November, there is no mid-week game to provide any kind of a "bounce back effect" and help put this ugly week behind all of us. Every day between now and Saturday, we are left wondering
how the team will respond to slipping to second place at a time when the pundits du jour are running out of praise for United's resilience and strength...

...It's going to be one long week, that's for sure...

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Arsenal 1 - Birmingham City 1 (Adebayor 22')

A Tale of Two Halves (Yet Again)

During the first half, our game had a fluency and rhythm that I haven't seen since the first half of the Villa Park game. The goal was all but inevitable - and it should have not been the first either.

However, once we conceded early in the second half, we lost every bit of composure (somewhat uncharacteristically, particularly at the Emirates) All the staples of a poor performance were there in full display - poor, unnecessarily rushed passing (particularly in the final third) and rash decision-making.

All in all, a rather youthful performance on a day when we could have used some well-aged clearheadedness.

...Finally, the player ratings:

Almunia 7
Clichy 7
Senderos 7
Gallas 6
Sagna 6 (Diaby 5)
Hleb 5
Flamini 6
Fabregas 5
Walcott 5 (Bendtner 6)
Eduardo 6
Adebayor 6