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.