Monthly Archives: April 2009

Gunners Fall 1-0 To United

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To start with, I apologize for being a bit late with today’s post, but I had a few problems at home last night. After driving home yesterday in a bit of a daze while contemplating a disappointing performance by my Gunners in the first leg of the Champions League semifinal, I heard a strange noise upon entering the house. It turned out that water was streaming out of the bottom of the hot water heater in the basement, and required a couple of hours’ work with my Wet/Dry Vac to clean up the mess.

During that cleanup, I got a phone call from my parents that my grandmother was being taken to the emergency room, which meant some anxious time at the hospital waiting for diagnosis and results from the doctors there. “Gram” is 90 years old and beginning to fail physically, but we were told this little medical scare was a minor heart thing and will require some monitoring for the time being.

So, a very eventful night for me, one that seemed to affirm the truth of that old saying that “bad things usually happen in threes.” And what terrible thing occurred to round out the trio, you ask? Well, being such a passionate Gooner, it was witnessing that poor display from Arsenal at Old Trafford (via Internet stream at work) that has them down 1-0 halfway through the two-legged semi to determine which English side heads to Rome for the CL Final.

It may sound weird to compare a lost soccer match to bigger or more important or costly family and home issues, but as you may realize by now, things have gotten to the point that my day-to-day outlook and emotions seem to follow the fortunes of Arsenal FC. (If you’re at the same level of fanaticism or have read Nick Hornby’s novel “Fever Pitch,” you’d understand.) So, I was already “down in the dumps” even before I saw the mini-flood in my basement.

And that was all due to the lackluster showing from our boys, who just didn’t seem to “want it” as bad as Manchester United. It wasn’t so much the performance from Arsenal’s patched-up defense, but some of the players further forward on the pitch. What happened to the “audacious” approach in attack being mentioned by Arsene Wenger for his side in this away leg?

I thought Kieran Gibbs performed well at left back, considering the opposition and occasion he was facing. And while Mikael Silvestre was partly to blame for the Man Utd goal, he did show us some more positive moments later in the match. Overall, the defense was shaky at times, but thanks to some fine saves from Manuel Almunia, Arsenal do still have a chance to get past United and into the final with the second leg on home turf.

But that will only take place with some changes in strategy and attack for the Gunners. Like some other bloggers have mentioned, I couldn’t understand why a number of Arsenal players were slotted somewhat out of position for this contest. With Cesc Fabregas in the hole, Abou Diaby on the left and Samir Nasri in the center of midfield, Arsenal did not look very threatening at all.

I was hoping for a breakout kind of game from Adebayor, but didn’t see the effort or spirit in the man from Togo. He and Diaby were most disappointing, in my opinion. And the pace of Theo Walcott was basically contained by Man United, which all resulted in a very stagnant offensive display from Arsenal in one of their biggest matches of the season.

While a Nicklas Bendtner header and the efforts of Eduardo offered a bit of hope late, the equalizing goal never came. In fact, the score could have been 2-0 or 3-0 to United, who did play well throughout, meaning things could have been worse at this stage of the game. So, I guess that gives Arsenal supporters some minor “positive” to take away from the first leg.

Keeping a clean sheet at the Emirates in Leg 2 will be tough, but remember, no opponent has scored vs. Arsenal at the Emirates since Christmas. And since Arsenal did score twice against Manchester United at the Emirates earlier this Premiership season, there’s certainly hope that the Gunners can still advance to the final. Even a 1-0 scoreline would suffice, leading to a penalty shootout to determine the finalist.

After the match, Arsene Wenger stated that “you will see a different Arsenal next week” (in the May 5 return leg), with many wondering how things can change. Will the return of Robin van Persie for the second leg be the answer? Hopefully a change in formation? A more composed defense to allow more runs from the fullbacks?

Whatever the case, something will have to change to keep Arsenal in the hunt for their first piece of silverware in four years, and to help take this Gooner out of the doldrums and looking to bigger and better things from his Arsenal.

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Lineups Announced For Big Match

ESPN’s Soccernet site has listed the lineups for today’s big match between Arsenal and Manchester United in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal at Old Trafford.

For our Gunners:
Almunia
Sagna
Toure
Silvestre
Gibbs
Song
Diaby
Fabregas
Nasri
Walcott
Adebayor

(Substitutes: Fabianski, Djourou, Eboue, Ramsey, Denilson, Bendtner, Eduardo)

For Manchester United:
Van der Sar
O’Shea
Ferdinand
Vidic
Evra
Fletcher
Carrick
Anderson
Ronaldo
Tevez
Rooney

So, it looks like Arsene Wenger will have his side begin in some form of a 4-5-1 to go against a strong Manchester United team in this massive game.

Here’s hoping you’ll be viewing the match somewhere, whether it’s at a pub/gathering spot or online while at work.

Let’s Go Gunnners!

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Injury, Team News for CL Semifinal

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With just 24 hours remaining before the “biggest match of the season” at Manchester United in the Champions League semifinal, some additional injury news have hit the Arsenal team for their travel north for the first leg of the European competition.

Manager Arsene Wenger has mentioned that defender Kieran Gibbs is struggling with ankle and groin injuries and could be a doubt for the match at Old Trafford, further weakening the Gunners defense. With William Gallas gone for the season and Gael Clichy out with a back injury, Gibbs has filled in admirably the past few weeks at left back. With Mikael Silvestre also a question mark for the match, Wenger is hoping one of the two will feature tomorrow at the back alongside Bacary Sagna, Kolo Toure and Johan Djourou — who did make it through training on Tuesday.

Captain Cesc Fabregas also made it through training OK on Tuesday, according to reports, but Wenger did note that Robin van Persie will not be available due to injury and Eduardo could potentially also be left out. That could mean that young Mexican Carlos Vela would be included in the team, although in one of the more bizarre news items relating to the Gunners’ injury front, Vela actually spent a day in quarantine and away from team training this week.

The 20-year-old had been visited by some friends from Mexico, where more than 150 deaths have been blamed for the swine flu-like virus that has been spreading across the globe. But he has since been cleared to rejoin the squad (on Tuesday), and would be available to play.

With Andrey Arshavin Cup-tied and not available for Champions League matches, it will be interesting to see Wenger’s lineup for tomorrow. I think we may see some form of a 4-5-1 formation from Arsenal, with Song in front of the back four, then Cesc and Diaby in the middle and Nasri and Walcott out wide … with Adebayor up front. And I have a feeling we may just see Eduardo at some point in the match, with Wenger counting on the Brazilian-Croatian’s guile and experience to pop up in the box and nick an important away goal.

Much of the pre-game banter from “experts” has centered on the major task for the bare-bones Arsenal defense to go against the imposing attack from Manchester United, with some focusing on that weak situation at left back for the Gunners being a major disadvantage.

But I believe that right-winger against left-back confrontation will be a key position for both sides, as Theo Walcott vs. Patrice Evra could be just as important as Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Gibbs/Silvestre in deciding the outcome of the match/semi. Walcott has certainly gained in confidence since his return to action, and his speed does cause some problems for opponents.

If there’s an advantage for the Gunners in any area in this contest it would be overall pace on the pitch, one aspect that seemed too much for Villareal to handle the last round.

But the depleted back four and inexperience in some positions have to be overcome for Arsenal to head home with a solid chance at getting to their second Champions League final in four years. Still, veteran Kolo Toure Kolo Toure believes that all the pressure lies on the shoulders of Manchester United in this Champions League semifinal.

The Ivorian told Arsenal.com’s Richard Clarke that his Arsenal side “can ‘play free’ at Old Trafford because Sir Alex Ferguson’s team are not only the reigning champions but favourites to lift the trophy again this year. The centre back also argues that football without shackles will be Arsène Wenger’s best tactic on the night.”

Toure added that “we are going there to do the best we can, playing free and passing the ball. We know when we play football against Man United, they struggle a lot.

“They are a really good team going forward but at the back they have conceded a few goals, like us,” he continued. “We have the same type of team – we both like to play but sometimes you can be caught out at the back. I think the team that will win will be the one that defends the best. A clean sheet in the first leg would be fantastic but they are a really strong team and they can score at any time. But we will go there and give 100 per cent.”

Considering that Porto was able to score twice at Old Trafford in the last round, I can certainly see Arsenal scoring at least once in this away leg. And I’ll be a bit daring and forecast a 2-1 win for the Gunners.

So, now you have seen my predictions for Arsenal’s formation and for the final score for tomorrow’s big match. What are your views and predictions for this huge encounter against Manchester United?

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‘Audacious’ Approach For Away Leg

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Looking to reverse the result of the recent FA Cup semifinal encounter in the upcoming Champions League semi against Manchester United, Arsene Wenger stated that the European competition’s format will call for his Gunners side to be audacious in the away leg on Wednesday.

One would think that a team with a depleted defense facing a major European semifinal clash on the road would opt for a cautious approach for such a match, but Wenger’s sides, of course, have always favored the attacking option.

“At this level you have to be audacious away,” said Wenger, referring to the advantage of goals from visiting sides in the Champions League knockout stages. “The weight of the away goal in European football could be discussed I feel. It may be a little bit too heavy.

“We have spoken about it, maybe making it a Carling Cup rule where it only comes in at extra time,” he continued in an interview for the club’s official web site. “At the moment you are encouraged to be very cautious at home but very audacious away from home.”

It sure wouldn’t be a surprise to see Wenger’s men pressing forward in the encounter at Old Trafford on Wednesday, but what might surprise some is the strategy employed by the Frenchman the last game or two, where Cesc Fabregas was moved into more of an advanced role to help bolster the attack.

We have seen this ploy with Fabregas used by the manager this season, and I for one had not been too impressed by the results, with Cesc not making much of an impact in some matches when used this way. But the difference these past two instances has been the choice to deploy Samir Nasri in Fabregas’ natural role of lying deeper as a playmaker, which has resulted in success (evidenced by the brace for Fabregas on Sunday).

As Wenger told http://www.arsenal.com, “Usually Fabregas plays deeper with Nasri higher. I wanted to test how it would work the other way around. It could be reiterated that we will do it again because it was quite convincing. But that is open; we have 48 hours to study that then make a decision,” he added.

Since Andrey Arshavin is unavailable for the Champions League matches, I can see why the manager is considering this option for Wednesday while looking for additional ways to worry the formidable Manchester United defense. But I’d still offer that Cesc is not suited to that more advanced role the way a Dennis Bergkamp or Arshavin was/is, and the Spaniard is more able to control a match from his deeper slot. With only one “striker” up top and Cesc in “the hole” in a match like this, I’d wager there’s more a chance we see less from the Arsenal attack than what resulted on Sunday against Middlesbrough, as the Man Utd defense might welcome such a setup from their semifinal opponents.

But, then again, it’s been the versatility and “interchangeability” among Wenger’s players that has played to his advantage over the years, so some switching among roles back and forth throughout a match like this might be the way to confuse the opponent enough to nick an important away goal. With both teams and both managers very familiar with the opponents, it might just take that slight change in setup to make the difference as to who advances to the final. Wenger admits that Sir Alex Ferguson knows of the Arsenal approach, but believes that Fergie “will think it will be an exciting game between two teams who try to play. We know each other well but still the talent on the pitch always surprises you. But I believe that both teams will go for it and it will be an exciting game.”

“If you go to Old Trafford without belief you make it very difficult from the start,” claimed Wenger. “We’ll go there with belief, with desire and with enjoyment as well. We enjoy being where we are.”

Sunday’s win over Middlesbrough only seemed to add to the Gunners’ belief and confidence. Speaking after the Sunday win over Middlesbrough in preparation for the big mid-week match, Wenger believed it “was a very good game against a Middlesbrough team who played in a very positive way. We dominated it and we made some brilliant passing, some brilliant combinations. The first goal was absolutely outstanding and you could see that the team enjoy the way we play and loved the game.”

Tune in here tomorrow for more buildup to the CL semi, with an injury update as well as a look on positional matchups that could be key in determining who will head to Rome for this year’s final.

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Fabregas Brace Downs Boro

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A goal in each half from captain Cesc Fabregas saw Arsenal emerge 2-0 victors over Middlesbrough at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.

The win stretched the Gunners’ unbeaten run in the Premiership to 20 matches, and maintained the squad’s level of confidence heading into the Champions League semifinal clash with Manchester United on Wednesday.

Fabregas had only one goal up to this point in the season, but the Spaniard scored in the 26th minute off a sublime bit of passing from an Arsenal break , and then notched another in the 67th after rounding keeper Brad Jones.

The loss put Boro further into relegation uncertainty while the three points from the comfortable win saw Arsenal move six points behind third-place Chelsea in the league table.

More thoughts and analysis on the Boro win and the CL Semi will follow in tomorrow’s post.

Happy Sunday!

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Thoughts On Boro, Cesc and the Youth Squad

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Friday’s weekly pre-match press conference from Arsene Wenger brought some positive news on the injury front as Arsenal prepare to face regulation-threatened Middlesbrough early Sunday afternoon in a Premier League match at Emirates Stadium.

Center-back Johan Djourou and keeper Manuel Almunia are among the possible returnees to bolster the Gunners defense this weekend after overcoming knee and ankle problems, respectively. Both will face Saturday or pre-game tests to determine their match fitness, while Emmanuel Adebayor is back in the squad but also will undergo a Saturday test session, according to Wenger. The manager did add that Robin van Persie “is not available and of course the other injuries – like Gallas and Clichy – are not back. Robin will definitely miss the first leg of the Champions League Semi-Final too.”

That midweek matchup with Manchester United will loom large at Emirates Stadium this weekend, playing a role in Wenger’s decision on who to include and leave out of the lineup Sunday. The manager claimed that Chelsea and third place in the Premiership are still in Arsenal’s sights, considering the Gunners are just six points back of the Blues and still have to play host to Chelsea in the EPL.

Wenger’s reasoning for continuing to push for third includes a change in Champions League format for this next season, as he mentioned that “next year it could be much tougher. This season’s third place team will go straight into the groups but the fourth team will be subject to an open draw of all qualifiers.”

While Middlesbrough are the lowest-scoring Prem side this season, they did defeat Liverpool not long ago. And believe it or not, Boro manager Gareth Southgate is unbeaten in his last five games against Arsenal. But I think the confidence in the current Arsenal squad should carry over into a home victory, with enough attacking options available even with some players left out.

I would be inclined to rest Bacary Sagna and Denilson, two players who look tired at the moment, which could give time to Eboue and Diaby in their slots. Cesc Fabregas, who has not looked his best against Chelsea and Liverpool this past week, may also see the bench come Sunday, in hopes of having the captain refreshed for the Champions League encounter.

Fabregas may soon see more time away from the pitch, as the FA has officially charged the midfielder with two cases of improper conduct dating back to the aftermath of the FA Cup win over Hull City in March.

According to the FA statement: “One charge concerns his behaviour in coming onto the pitch after the final whistle, the second charge relates to an alleged spitting incident.” In the Friday press conference, Arsene Wenger remarked that he feels there is little evidence against the 21-year-old and he was “very positive” about the outcome.

“I personally looked at the reports, I looked at the video evidence, and there is nothing in there really against Cesc,” said Wenger. “I don’t know (about an appeal). I have to see what we can do about that. I am not a great fan of appeals because I said at the start that we are very open to co-operate with the FA investigation and I don’t think we should stop that.”

One interesting thing I noticed when reading the official statement from the FA is that Hull City manager Phil Brown was also charged — “with improper conduct and/or bringing the game into disrepute in relation to media comments made after the game concerning referee Mike Riley — according to the release.

The statement noted that both Fabregas and Brown have until 12 May to respond. Any decision or action regarding the matter will have no effect on Cesc’s availability for Champions league matches, but I have a feeling we’ll see him miss some BPL action relating to this situation.

Speaking of resting some players for a “bigger” upcoming match, Arsenal’s Under-18 side saw some top performers omitted yet came back from two goals down Saturday to earn a 2-2  draw against  Spurs. With the FA Youth Cup Final coming up (after the Young Gunners dispatched Manchester City side 4-1 mid-week to wrap up their semifinal round in a positive 6-2 fashion), manager Steve Bould had taken the opportunity to leave out some of his more regular players.

Congratulations to Jack Wilshere, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and the boys for knocking out the holders and advancing to the final (Arsenal’s first FA Youth Cup final appearance since 2001), where they’ll meet Liverpool over two legs (dates yet to be announced) to determine this year’s victor.

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‘Half happy … half unhappy’

After viewing yesterday’s epic match at Anfield, the one image I’ll remember most is the one above, of Andrey Arshavin almost quizzically flashing four fingers to the crowd after smashing home his fourth goal of the night in the 90th minute of one of the most exciting matches of this Premiership season.

The diminutive Russian, who has now scored seven goals in seven games, was easily the evening’s shining star in what should have been an Arsenal win over Liverpool to move closer to third place in the league table. But once again, some shaky defending at the back just moments after a goal saw the Gunners lose two points late, thus leaving Anfield with a 4-4 draw.

In a game that included some shoddy defending from both sides, an incredible seven goals were knocked home in the second half alone, with Arshavin’s second of the night the most brilliant of the bunch. Nipping in to swipe an errant ‘Pool pass, he unleashed a spectacular long-range effort in the 67th minute to level the Merseyside match. Moments like that and his last-minute sprint and strike off a Theo Walcott feed have led to some supporters (on a web forum I frequent) already breaking out the “Arsenal legend” claims about our new number 23, even while they’re feeling a bit upset about the night’s final result.

Considering Arshavin’s performance, it was surprising to see comments of his own after the match, as he still believes he needs work on adapting to the Premiership game. The Russian told arsenal.com’s Richard Clarke that “If you look at the first half you never saw me except for one moment when I scored. It is difficult for me but I will try and I need time.”

Believing that “everybody else is ‘common’ to play with each other,” Arshavin added that he still has “to go through pre-season and after that everything will be in a good place. “I feel good but also disappointed because we did not get the result,” he told the club’s official site.

Goals from Arshavin actually gave Arsenal leads three different times during the eight-goal affair against Liverpool, but the injury-time equaliser from Yossi Benayoun left the Russian and his manager with mixed emotions.

“When we pressed forward we played good but when we dropped back it was very dangerous for us because Torres and some tall players won the ball,” stated Arshavin. “They got the second ball and tried to shoot but everybody must take responsibility for losing balls not just the defence and the goalkeeper. Everyone must help.”

Arsene Wenger was “half happy and half unhappy” with the result. Speaking about the night of mixed emotions, the manager believed “it was a game of a frenetic pace, and of top quality. Both teams created many chances and you can see when you play on a good pitch you can play football in the Premier League.”

Wenger comments on the club’s web site continued with him saying “we are  half-happy because we scored four goals but we are half-unhappy because we conceded four. As well, to be 4-3 up with two minutes to go, the team is disappointed. It was another great performance tonight and Liverpool maybe thought a draw was a fair result. The big regret we have is that 10 minutes into the second half we are 2-1 down, but not from something created by Liverpool; from balls we didn’t clear properly from the back.”

Leading up to last night’s match, most Gooners anticipating the encounter in Liverpool would certainly have had history on their minds recalling that most memorable of Arsenal matches twenty years ago at Anfield when the Gunners snatched the league title away from its rivals. Yet the morning after this latest Liverpool fixture, I compare it to two more recent games — the 3-3 draw against Leicester (in 1997?) which featured Dennis Bergkamp’s amazing hat trick, and the 4-4 scoreline earlier this season versus Spurs — both of which saw stoppage time goals by the opponents to wipe away seeming victories. Like my memories from those pulsating contests, I’ll remember some brilliant goals by an Arsenal star in this one only for a resultant three points to be reduced to one.

Such comparisons only add to the disappointment felt after Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal loss at Wembley, and point to the unsettling feeling and related questions concerning the current state of the Arsenal back four leading into the Champions League semifinals. Could Mikael Silvestre have been any worse the past game and a half? How soon will Djourou (and Almunia) be back from injury? Even with Alex Song’s recent strong performances in midfield, should he potentially be (or have been) used to partner Kolo Toure in defense? How can Wenger’s men tighten things at the back for the matches with Man United?

Even without Arshavin available for the CL, I am confident that Arsenal will score against the Red Devils. During and after the quarterfinal round, I heard a few pundits pick the Gunners to advance past Man U and into the final in Rome. But that was before the Gallas and Djourou injuries; I’m not sure the experts’ predictions will remain the same.

The situation and outlook is one that’s been repeated often in recent years: With the young Gunners once again building in confidence and attack, can the defense be tightened up and the inexperience overcome to prevail in big matches and actually win something? I guess we’ve heard that question too many times lately from naysayers, though even the most ardent of supporters must also have similar concerns.

But I’ll conclude by going back to Arsene Wenger’s post-match comments, where he noted that the fact his players “came into the dressing room very, very disappointed says a lot about their character. It shows they wanted to win and that we go for it every time. It takes quality to respond like we did today, only three days after the [FA Cup].”

During the club’s recent run of performances, I would agree with those thoughts and do believe that the character displayed in 2009 is a positive for the club as it heads into the CL semis. Like Wenger, I am also half-happy and half-unhappy with the result last night, yet still do believe in Arsenal’s efforts to build on the experiences the past few seasons and come away with some type of trophy come the end of May.

Let’s make the first piece of silverware in four years the big-eared one that crowns the champions of Europe!

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