The term “Derby Day” has a different meaning here in the United States than it does in England or Europe, referring not to local soccer rivalries but to the first Saturday each May when a group of young thoroughbreds speed around a mile-and-a-quarter track at Louisville’s Churchill Downs in that most famous of horse races, the Kentucky Derby.
The annual “Run For The Roses” featured an upset winner in the 2009 edition of the Kentucky Derby yesterday. A 50-to-1 longshot named Mine That Bird waited until late in the race before impressively weaving its way through most of the field over the final stretch to win by a wide margin.
Approaching “the homestretch” of the horse race that is the 2008-09 Barclays Premier League, it seemed an outsider (either Aston Villa or Everton) was poised to earn its own upset and outlast one of the Big Four clubs to “win” Champions League status for the upcoming season by finishing fourth or higher in the final league standings.
But in the last month or so, with Villa losing speed after a strong start and Everton also fading a bit late in this race, it has been the “young thoroughbreds” at Arsenal who have made the impressive run late in the season to overcome the two challengers by a wide distance. The Gunners officially secured fourth place on America’s Derby Day by winning 3-0 at Portsmouth, with Nicklas Bendtner scoring twice and Carlos Vela notching his first Premiership goal.
Strong performances from a number of its younger stars that also include Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey highlighted the victory and allowed manager Arsene Wenger to rest some of the team’s top guns for Arsenal’s Champions League semifinal on Tuesday against the “biggest of horses,” Manchester United.
And while fourth spot in the league may not seem much like a “win” to the club’s supporters who had been used to seeing their side capture league or Cup trophies earlier in Wenger’s reign, it has to feel comforting that this injury-depleted Arsenal team has confidently recovered from a mid-season slump to maintain Champions League status for next season, and still be among the European sides left with a chance to lift this season’s trophy.
Keeping that hope alive will require some doing at the Emirates Stadium in mid-week, as Arsenal have to overcome a 1-0 deficit after a disappointing first-leg semifinal performance at Old Trafford. But Wenger believes his young team has the character and skill to advance past United and into the final.
Such is the faith and belief in the overall squad that he made eight changes from the starting lineup of the CL game at Old Trafford for the Saturday league match at Fratton Park. Yet the quality shown from what some termed “a collection of kids” on the Gunners’ team sheet was evident throughout the match, with a few players perhaps even earning a spot in the lineup for the return leg of the European semifinal with United.
“I have not decided on the team for Tuesday but some could play from today,” Wenger told reporters after the Portsmouth match. “I think we were dominant apart from a patch in the second half. They had the potential to make it 2-1 but we scored on the break and that finished the game for us. We prepare now for our next game, which is a big one, but we will be ready for it and you will see a very strong Arsenal team,” he added.
The Gunners did take control of the Portsmouth match early, with Bendtner’s header in the twelfth minute getting through the hands of keeper David James to provide the 1-0 lead. The opener came off a cross from Andrey Arshavin, who was later taken down on a run into the box five minutes from the break, resulting in a questionable penalty decision against Sean Davis. Bendtner side-footed the penalty shot into the right side of the net, giving the Gunners a 2-0 halftime lead.
Portsmouth began the second half well, but a left-footed strike from Mexican Vela in minute 55 secured the victory and the points, pleasing manager Wenger. “I never have any doubts about these young players,” he told http://www.arsenal.com. “I see them everyday and you can see there is a good communication, a good connection and we showed some good combination play. We work a lot on that; these players have talent.”
So, on a day that Arsenal’s London neighbors Chelsea were prevailing in a “local derby” match against Fulham to remain six points ahead of the Gunners for third place in the Premiership, Wenger’s stable of young talent displayed its potential once again to remind rivals that the Emirates is still home to one of the strongest and deepest squads in the league and in Europe.
Arsenal fans may be growing upset with the prospect of another trophy-less year at the Emirates, but the late-season form for this Gunners team after an injury-riddled campaign has offered a number of positives, showing supporters that they “still have a horse in the race” for this year’s Champions League trophy, for a potential final-weekends steal of third place, and — as evidenced once again in Saturday’s impressive display against Portsmouth — as one of the favorites for trophies in the near future.