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.