Monthly Archives: August 2009

‘More Positives Than Negatives’ In Loss

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Arsenal suffered its first loss of the Premiership season on Saturday, falling 2-1 at Manchester United despite outplaying the defending league champions for the majority of the match.

A bizarre own goal from Abou Diaby provided the deciding tally at Old Trafford, when the French midfielder inexplicably headed a United free kick back towards goal and past the outstretched arms of Manuel Almunia.

The 64th-minute blunder gave United their second goal after the break, overcoming a 1-0 Arsenal halftime lead and overshadowing a fine display from the Gunners, especially the midfield of Diaby, Denilson and Alex Song.

The young trio was very solid in the absence of captain Cesc Fabregas, outplaying Manchester United’s midfield while assisting central defenders William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen in quieting the home side’s attack for much of the match.

Andrey Arshavin had given Arsenal the lead in minute 40 with a thundering strike from 25 yards out. And just moments after the break, Robin van Persie nearly doubled the Gunners’ lead, stopped at point-blank range by a brilliant save from Ben Foster after directing a cross from Arshavin on goal.

Arsenal were looking dangerous early in the second half, with Emmanuel Eboue also given a chance off of a cross but failing to control the ball. Despite the Gunners’ confident play and better scoring chances, the match turned around just before the hour mark.

Wayne Rooney was taken down by Manuel Almunia when running down a
ball floated toward the 18-yard box, and the England forward converted from the penalty spot to tie the match in the 59th.

The next five minutes featured a free kick from a similar spot and distance for each side, with a curling van Persie strike eluding Foster and smacking the crossbar to deny the visitors another lead. Moments later, Ryan Giggs lofted up a soft, innocuous-looking free kick into Almunia’s box, only to be met by Diaby’s head and directed into the Arsenal net.

It was a cruel blow for Arsene Wenger’s side, who saw Nicklas Bendtner, Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey come on in the later stages in an attempt to re-energize the attack. While Arsenal did put the ball in the net in stoppage time (via a van Persie effort), the play was ruled offside.

Reacting to the disallowed goal and seemingly to the way the match had turned, Wenger kicked a water bottle in disgust, only to be sent off by referee Mike Dean for the final few seconds.

Downplaying that personal incident in the post-match press conference, Wenger did voice his dissatisfaction with the outcome. “We go home with no points and that is very frustrating,” stated the manager. “When you play like that to go home with no points is very difficult to accept.

While mentioning disappointment with “the performance of the ref” in his comments, the Frenchman also focused on his team’s performance. “I’m very positive because we showed great quality,” he continued. “Our performance is very encouraging for the future and there are more positives than negatives from today’s game.”

From being very close to 2-0 up early in the second half to losing out on even a point at Old Trafford is tough to take. But, as Wenger said afterward, “We were very strong today. I am very confident, I just hope that this unexpected defeat will not derail their confidence.

“I feel we are equipped to challenge for the title,” he added. “Frankly, when you see a comparable two performances of the two teams, you can recognize that.

That point was echoed in the media on Sunday, with reporters realizing the Arsenal side that some had written off in the preseason can make a run for the Premiership title. As the Daily Mail’s Matt Lawton wrote in his article on the match: “The better team did not win, because the better team, by some considerable distance in this utterly absorbing contest, were Arsenal.”

Lawton also wrote that Sir Alex Ferguson should be concerned about his team, as some deficiencies have been exposed in its opening matches. He then added: “For Wenger, however, there should be no such concerns, and when the anger subsides and he can look beyond the rejected penalty appeal, that extraordinary own goal, the ‘anti-football’ tactics of United and what he quite rightly considers a witch-hunt for Eduardo, he will be able to reflect on this defeat with a fair amount of satisfaction.

“Ferguson was among those who thought Arsenal might struggle this season and here at Old Trafford was proof that they will not,” continued the article. “Wenger was right to have faith in his fast-developing players; that they will, indeed, challenge for the big prizes.”

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Wenger Rules Out Fabregas, Responds To UEFA Action Against Eduardo

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Arsenal heads into its first “Big Four” matchup of the season missing its captain Cesc Fabregas, who will be kept out of the match at Manchester United on Saturday.

The Spanish midfielder, who sat out the Celtic game in midweek, is still nursing a hamstring injury aggravated in last week’s win over Portsmouth. On Thursday, Arsene Wenger judged his star midfielder to be a “50-50″ chance at being included for the big Premiership clash, but then ruled Fabregas out at today’s pre-match press conference.

“Fabregas is out and his test was not conclusive this morning,” confirmed Wenger. “Therefore he will not travel. Ideally you want him to travel and to play, but he would not be 100 percent.”

Adding that everyone else who played in the European qualifier on Wednesday is OK, the manager mentioned yesterday that while Tomas Rosicky is fit for full training, he will also not be risked at Old Trafford.

Despite missing the two veterans and other first-teamers like Theo Walcott, Samir Nasri and Johan Djourou, Wenger believes his squad will travel to Manchester in a confident mood after beginning the season with four straight wins.

“We want to show that we can win the big games away from home,” he said. “This is a good opportunity to do it,” said the Frenchman. “We know we go to Old Trafford with a good belief and that is very important before a big game like that.”

While United have some injuries of their own, Wenger said his impressions prior to the match are due more to the Gunners’ ability and mindset. “(I am confident because) first of all the quality and talent of my players. Secondly the attitude, desire and togetherness of the team,” he concluded.

The Arsenal-Manchester United match was certainly the main topic of Friday’s press conference, but Wenger also addressed the fact that Gunner forward Eduardo da Silva has been charged by UEFA for “intent to cause a match official to make an incorrect decision” over the penalty incident during the CL playoff with Celtic on Wednesday night.

The manager had just learned of the disciplinary action from Europe’s governing body, and believes his player and club had been dealt with harshly.

“I find it a complete disgrace and unacceptable,” stated Wenger during the press conference (which can be viewed at http://www.arsenal.com). “We won’t accept the way we have been treated in this case for two reasons. One, I believe that you can debate whether it was a penalty or not. This charge implies there was intent and a desire to cheat the referee. Having watched the pictures again there was nothing conclusive. Two, it singles out a player in Europe to be a cheat and that is not acceptable.

He added that UEFA may have created problems for itself by bringing the action. “I’ve fought my whole life against cheating and I’ve seen some obvious cases where Uefa didn’t intervene.

“On and off the pitch, things have happened where no action was taken,” said Wenger. “This is the first time since I’ve been in football that the judgement has been made by the referee and is not accepted by the football bodies.

“Usually a situation that has been assessed and judged by the referee can’t be touched again. Now every single decision made by a referee can be challenged. So, for me, they’ve opened a very dangerous door here.”

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Gunners Cruise Into CL Group Stage

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Arsenal continued its strong start to the season, defeating Celtic 3-1 at the Emirates on Wednesday to capture its Champions League qualifier and advance (5-1, on aggregate) to the competition’s group stage.

Coming into the Celtic match with a two-goal advantage thanks to some fortunate bounces in last week’s away leg at Parkhead, Arsenal benefitted this time from a questionable penalty awarded when Eduardo went down in the box just before the half hour.

Judged to be brought down on the play by Celtic keeper Artur Boruc, Eduardo seemed rather to tumble to the turf without much contact at all. With the decision, the Croatian then calmy converted from the spot to score the game’s first goal and put the Gunners three-up on the aggregate scoreboard.

Eduardo’s actions have received much criticism since the incident, and my thoughts on the matter mirror those of the famed Arseblog, who made this succint statement in his blog today: “I’m not trying to excuse him or justify it but a little perspective is needed. Eduardo’s dive was not his finest moment but in the grand scheme of things it meant little and he does not deserve the kind of vilification he’s received from some quarters.”

While the SkySports commentators and some media reports focused more on the dubious penalty, it was Arsenal’s fluid passing game and collective movement that again was the difference versus Celtic, with the home side able to open up their opponents’ defense seemingly at will.

Second-half goals from Emmanuel Eboue — who was this writer’s “man of the match” — and substitute Andrey Arshavin put the European tie out of reach for the Scottish visitors, who again looked a determined side but couldn’t create many quality chances on goal.

Celtic did pull back a goal in injury time, when Massimo Donati brilliantly volleyed past Manuel Almunia. But that offered only slight consolation for their manager Tony Mowbray, who commented after the match that his team wouldn’t play a side in Europe as good as Arsenal again this season.

Arsene Wenger said afterwards “that in the two games Celtic were well organised and showed some great mental qualities. They never gave up at any moment, and for me, they are a good side. They were always one behind the score and when there is a technical difference between the two sides, it makes it even harder.

“We are now in the top, top league in Europe, with all the big names,” continued the Arsenal manager in his post-match press conference. “Somebody told me our team tonight had an average age of 23.9 years. That means if we can get out of the group stage, then in six months we can be even stronger.

“That is what we want to focus on, to continue to improve our team play, the speed of our game and show that we have made big improvements come Saturday (at Manchester United),” added Wenger. “We are orgainised and structured to go forward. The price we pay is sometimes we concede as well, but as long as we score, we do not worry too much.”

In just a couple of hours, Arsenal will find out the three European teams drawn into the same group with them for the opening phase of this season’s Champions League.

The Gunners — along with such notable teams as Barcelona, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Sevilla and the three other Premiership sides qualified for Europe’s top club competition (Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea) — are all included among the eight teams seeded within Pot 1 of the 32-team draw, meaning Arsenal would avoid facing any of those listed above until the knockout rounds of the competition.

*** UPDATE TO POST: Arsenal have been drawn into Group H for this season’s Champions League. The Gunners are top seed in the group, joined by Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, Olympiakos of Greece and Belgian club Standard Liege. ***

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Cesc Out Of Celtic Match; Reserves Win

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Although a morning test on Cesc Fabregas’ injured hamstring proved reassuring, manager Arsene Wenger reported that the midfield captain will still sit out the second leg of the Champions League playoff with Celtic on Wednesday.

Substituted at halftime of Saturday’s 4-1 win over Portsmouth, Fabregas has been the sole new injury concern for an Arsenal side looking ahead to the huge Premiership encounter at Manchester United on the 29th.

“His scan was quite reassuring as he has no muscular strain, but it will take a few days to settle down,” said Wenger in Tuesday’s press conference. “There’s a chance he’ll be fit for Old Trafford.”

Despite the injury to the influential Spaniard, Wenger believes his talented squad can cover for Fabregas and still retain the effective new formation put in place for this season.

Without planning to reshuffle the 4-3-3 setup that has produced 12 goals in three games, the manager hinted that Aaron Ramsey — who replaced Fabregas for the second half of the Portsmouth match — may be in line for a start in midfield against Celtic.

“I still have the personnel who can come in,” Wenger told arsenal.com’s Declan Taylor. “It is another chance for Ramsey. It’s a big season for him but don’t forget he is only 18.”

Taylor reports that despite the upcoming clash with defending league champions United and a 2-0 advantage over Celtic, the manager is not thinking about rotation for the Champions League playoff as qualification is of utmost importance for Arsenal.

“My target is to win tomorrow’s game, it’s a massive game for us and after that we will see what we do for the weekend,” said Wenger. “I will not rotate as a result of the Man United game.”

“It’s not job done (yet), it’s job to do. That’s how I approach it,” continued the manager. “We have done a big part of it but the most important (thing) is to get over the line and that’s what we want to achieve tomorrow.”

In other team news this Tuesday, Arsenal’s Reserves opened their season with a 3-0 win over Fulham at Underhill on Monday evening, with Gilles Sunu, Francis Coquelin and Roarie Deacon bagging the goals.

Coquelin looked particularly impressive in midfield for the Gunners, who started a bit slow but were able to assume command of the match after the half hour. Sunu opened the scoring in the 39th minute, holding off his defender on a run down the left side before blasting past the keeper.

A Sunu corner was headed in by Coquelin two minutes later (above photo, taken from the arsenal.com site), providing Arsenal with a 2-0 lead at the break. Arsenal’s dominance in possession and attack continued throughout the second half, as Jay Simpson and Nacer Barazite each had a number of chances on goal, only to be denied by keeper Neil Etheridge.

But it was the substitute Deacon who netted the third and final goal of the night. Scoring for Steve Bould’s Academy side on the weekend in a 1-1 draw with Sheffield United, the young English winger finished off a nifty one-two with fellow substitute Rhys Murphy with a left-footed strike from just outside the box.

The Arsenal Reserves’ next match comes away to Birmingham on September 1st.

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Arsenal Dominant In Home Opener

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Well, the football pundits may have been correct earlier this summer when predicting that Arsenal’s strikers might struggle to score goals with Emmanuel Adebayor gone and no replacement yet brought in.

With rumors throughout July and August that more of Arsene Wenger’s stars were considering to leave the Emirates, and with a supposed lack of cash available to bring in big-name signings, the Gunners were viewed by many to lack the talent to challenge for the Premiership title and fall outside the league’s top four places this season.

After three games against league and European competition, Gunner forwards have netted only once thus far, with Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner and Andrey Arshavin all yet to score a goal.

But it’s only their personal goal tallies that seem to be suffering, as Arsenal certainly look like trophy contenders after a third successive dominant performance in a 4-1 win over Portsmouth on Saturday.

The goals again came from the midfield and defensive positions, with Abou Diaby’s early brace setting the stage for another convincing win in the Gunners’ first match in front of home supporters.

Defender and former captain William Gallas scored for the third time in three games, while substitute Aaron Ramsey rounded out the scoring with his first Premiership goal for Arsenal.

Looking dangerous from the start, Arsenal opened up the Portsmouth defense at will to create chances on David James’ goal in the opening half. Eduardo da Silva, employed on the left flank of a three-man front, set up the first goal by sprinting past his fullback before cutting the ball back for Diaby to blast home.

Three minutes later, a classic Arsenal counterattack provided the 2-0 advantage. Arshavin collected to the right of Manuel Almunia’s box, finding Cesc Fabregas near the center of midfield. The Arsenal captain then floated a perfect pass out wide for the streaking Emmanuel Eboue, who centered for Diaby to slot home.

The match then looked more like an exercise on the training pitch for Arsenal, with Fabregas, Arshavin and van Persie all having excellent chances to build on the lead. The Dutch striker had a number of chances throughout the match, but was thwarted by some solid saves by the Portmouth keeper.

Against the run of play, it was Pompey who netted next, as Younes Kaboul rose above a slow-reacting Almunia to head home a cross in the 37th minute.

Fabregas was replaced at the break due to precautions related to a hamstring problem (more on his condition will be announced on Monday), but the Gunner attack was not slowed down. Arsenal continued to dominate possession and chances on goal, though John Utaka and Frederic Piquionne each had opportunities on the break for the visitors in the opening minutes of the second half.

Gallas’ goal in minute 51 — coming off yet another deflection at the end of a free-kick situation — restored the two-goal advantage and the sense of comfort for Arsenal.

Playing their free-flowing game with confidence again, the Gunners looked capable of equalling the six goals put past Everton the previous Saturday. Ramsey was put through by van Persie midway throught the half to rifle one past James for the 4-1 advantage, but that served as the final tally in a comfortable home opener for Arsenal, putting them top of the league (on goal differential), if only for 24 hours.

Still, the four scored against Portsmouth bring the total to 12 goals in three matches — all wins — for Arsenal. And while only one has been netted by a recognized striker, no one is complaining, including manager Wenger. “I feel we create good space for our midfielders to run in and to go into the box. On that front we look more dangerous.

“Our strikers at the moment are providers. For me, in a good team everybody can score and a good striker scores and provides,” added Wenger in an interview on arsenal.com. “At the moment, they provide more than they score, but I know that Eduardo and Robin van Persie will score so I am very happy that at the moment they don’t score and we still score goals.”

Asked whether he would like to prove the critics wrong who predicted Arsenal’s drop down the table this season, he said: “It would give me a lot of satisfaction, but you have to accept in our job the opinion of everybody and there is only one way to respond: win your next game. In our games it’s ‘shut up, let everybody talk and win your game’. That’s the best you can do.”

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Eduardo Fit; Theo Out; Where’s Vela?

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After encountering a slight groin problem in midweek that caused him to be withdrawn from the substitute’s bench against Celtic, Eduardo da Silva has been deemed fit to face Portsmouth on Saturday in Arsenal’s first home match of the Premiership season.

“Eduardo had a tight groin in the warm-up and he felt he could not play (on Tuesday),” said manager Arsene Wenger on Thursday. “He had no power and we had to change (the teamsheet) quickly.”

During that interview with ArsenalTV Online, Wenger reported no new injuries from that Champions League qualifier first leg in Glasgow. But, unfortunately, none of the injured players who did not travel with Arsenal for the European tie are fit to return for the weekend.

That group includes Theo Walcott, who was expected back for the Portsmouth match but apparently still has problems related to a back injury that flared up while on international duty a week ago.

“There is a slight concern (over Walcott’s back injury) but we believe it is a question of days and not of weeks,” the manager stated. “We will see if he is fit to face Manchester United next Saturday. It is always difficult to set a date. I thought he would be available for Celtic, I thought he would be available for Everton, but he wasn’t. That’s why we will be cautious.”

The manager mentioned Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri, Johan Djourou and Lukasz Fabianski when outlining the rest of Arsenal’s injured team members. But he made no mention of Carlos Vela, who was away with the Mexican national team for international tournaments this summer and may still be nursing an injury suffered during that time.

Some media sources have speculated that Vela’s absence in Arsenal’s first two games of the season might mean the club is looking to move the Mexican striker, potentially on a season-long loan to Fulham as part of a transfer deal to bring defender Brede Hangeland to the Emirates.

These rumors were included in a Wednesday article from the Associated Press, which also reported that Vela’s agent Eduardo Hernandez said the 20-year-old is recovering from an injury to his right ankle picked up during the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament, and that Arsenal is resting him as a precaution.

The story claimed that it was not immediately clear when Vela would be fit, and Hernandez did not address the speculation over a possible loan move.

Wenger denied any current pursuit of Fulham’s Hangeland in his press conference today. But with more than a week left before the transfer deadline, it will be interesting to see if the expected departure of Philippe Senderos is the only Arsenal first-teamer to leave for another club this summer.

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Lucky Or Not, An Ideal Result

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Arsenal will take a two-goal advantage home to the Emirates Stadium for next week’s second leg of its Champions League qualifier with Celtic, thanks to a 2-0 win over the Scottish giants at Parkhead on Tuesday night.

After scoring some wonderfully attractive goals in the 6-1 romp over Everton Saturday, Arsenal’s tallies in this European tie were far from beautiful. The first goal came just before the half, when a Cesc Fabregas free kick took a wild deflection off the back of William Gallas and ended up in the corner of the net. The Gunners’ other goal was courtesy of Celtic defender Gary Caldwell, whose stretch to block a dangerous Gael Clichy cross could only divert the ball into his own net.

Some viewers might consider the result a bit lucky for Arsenal, who did benefit from some fortunate breaks on both goals. But if either team looked more likely to secure a lead from this first leg it was the visiting Gunners, who now seemingly have one foot in the Champions League group stage with the road win, which represents the first victory in a European tie by an England side at Celtic Park in more than 25 years (since Nottingham Forest in 1983).

“We have a good advantage but it’s 180 minutes; we’re ahead after 90,” said manager Arsene Wenger in the post-match press conference. “When you want to go through you want to play well for 180 – that’s our purpose. Even with an advantage of two goals we want to finish the job at home.”

Admitting that the match was a fierce battle within a tough setting, Wenger added: “I felt collectively we dominated the game, but Celtic were always willing, fighting and counter-attacking. In the end, despite being in control, we scored two lucky goals. It was a big fight tonight and we needed a strong Arsenal side to win the game. The crowd and players were absolutely up for it and I believe with an average performance we would not have won the game today.”

While Celtic manager Tony Mowbray felt the nature of the goals was very disappointing for his side, he told Sky Sports: “But you can’t take it away – Arsenal were very good on the night, exceptional with the ball but brilliant without the ball.

“We struggled to pass the ball against very high pressure and I think Arsenal really gave us a lesson with the ball and without the ball,” added Mowbray.

That heightened pressure and slight formation change employed by Wenger’s side this season has proven very effective, even if none of the front three (of Robin van Persie, Andrey Arshavin and Nicklas Bentdner) have yet to score a goal in these first two games. Each has been effective in creating chances for themselves and for teammates.

Instead, the goals have been coming from the midfielders and defenders, areas considered to be weak spots by various pundits in their pre-season predictions. But more impressive than the goals from these positions has been the defensive roles performed by these players, with Alex Song and Thomas Vermaelen particular standouts in Arsenal’s opening fixtures.

New boy Vermaelen again looked strong and confident in the center of defense versus Celtic, and his pairing with Gallas already seems solid. Song, maligned in the past as not being up to the standards required for title contenders, displayed strength in the defensive/holding role in the middle of the park, consistently breaking up the attacks of the Scottish opponents.

Fellow midfielders Fabregas and Denilson, who were both mentioned as doubts a day before the match, each played the full 90 minutes in effective fashion. One benefit the two-goal advantage could offer to Arsenal is the opportunity for Wenger to sit out one of the hard-working midfield trio in the second leg next week, to have them fully rested for the Premiership match at Manchester United the following Saturday.

As the two-legged Champions League playoff falls within a demanding opening-month schedule for the Gunners, the 2-0 away scoreline is ideal. For it now forces Celtic to score at least two goals at The Emirates to even have a chance at overcoming Arsenal, and it also takes some pressure off next Wednesday’s return date, allowing Wenger to juggle his personnel to set things up to his liking in preparation for the massive league encounter at Old Trafford.

One more advantage that last night’s result may bring is an additional signing or two for Arsenal by the end of this summer’s transfer window. I am among those who believe that Wenger and Ivan Gazidis were hesitant to spend the cash taken in from the Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure transfers before being certain that the team had qualified for the Champions League group stages.

With participation in Europe’s top club competition — and the money it brings in for a club — not yet totally assured with the 2-0 win at Celtic, the Gunners do look a solid bet to make the group stage and therefore profit from some of the massive Champions league revenues for yet another season.

So, after the bulk of the summer without any incoming player since June, perhaps we will now see more focused attempts at bringing in that additional defender or hard-type midfielder that pundits and supporters alike believe is required for Arsenal to seriously challenge for trophies this season.

We’ll know soon enough, as the transfer deadline is less than two weeks away. Judging by the impressive way the Gunners have been performing on the pitch lately, maybe that one additional piece to the puzzle will be all that’s needed for Arsenal to capture some long-awaited silverware in the 2009-10 campaign.

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