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All Things Footie | Thursday, March 25 | Jordan

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What a week of European football, for the first time in a while, the match-ups and matches really did the competition justice. Both the current champions AC Milan, and many people’s favourites for the trophy, Real Madrid, came back from a goal down to score four at home, announcing their intentions to the other semi-finalists. Milan’s Kaká was simply sublime against Deportivo, working, crafting, scoring, assisting, entertaining. The boy is going to be very big, as anyone in Milan will tell you; he reminds me of Rivaldo, but far more dynamic and a better all-round player—more of a contributer. A regista with more attacking flair than most—a bit like Falcao. Great footballer.

Arsenal v Chelsea was just as I expected it to be, Arsenal dominated the first and last 20/25 minutes, in which Chelsea spent most of their time kicking Vieira, Pires, Edu, Henry, Ljungberg and Bergkamp as hard as they could. In the the 20/25 minutes before and after half time, Chelsea took the reins and through Bridge, Duff and Lampard, created a number of decent chances. Both defences were fabulous, Campbell and Terry, Cole and Bridge, Gallas and Lauren, but a special mention for Vieira, and my man of the match Kolo Touré, who on top of all the solid defensive work he did, made at least three spectacular goal saving tackles or blocks. Sometimes, I wonder what Ars&egave;ne Wenger did with Touré’s raw enthusiasm and athleticism to turn him into the best centre half in the country. And that’s no exaggeration, it’s approaching the end of the season now, and no-one can touch his performances this year, he’s been absolutely brilliant.

Eidur Gudjonsen, who had a poor night I thought, poached a goal when Jens Lehmann hesitated for just half a second coming out to clear a long ball. Arsenal defend high up the pitch, they ask their keeper to do these things, and sometimes this will happen; if the system gives away four goals a season, it still results in the meanest defence in the league, so it can’t be all bad. Everyone knows what happens when Chelsea score first against Arsenal though, and within ten minutes, Robert Pires latched on to a marvellous Ashley Cole cross (don’t get to say that very often) and put a perfectly directed header into the bottom corner (don’t get to say that very often either). I suppose you have to ask why John Terry, William Gallas or Marcel Desailly weren’t able to beat Pires in the air, but you have to credit Pires’ salmon-like leap and a header straight out of the top drawer.

The late ‘talking-point’ (don’t we just love ‘talking-points’) was captain Marcel Desailly’s sending off for a second bookable offence. I don’t see how anyone can have any complaints, his first booking was at best simply stupid (or Rio-esque you might say) or at worst a professional foul, his second was a poorly timed lunge at a player who’d skinned him with a great knock-on. Chelsea will not miss him that much though; Gallas and Terry will handle the central defensive positions comfortably, and Glenn Johnson will surely fill in the right back position. Perhaps Ranieri is worried about picking a young attacking full back to face Robert Pires and Ashley Cole, but he shouldn’t be—attacking them is the best way to keep them quiet.

I thought the result was fair enough, both teams played very well in patches, and matched each other almost everywhere on the pitch (though I couldn’t help but feel like Arsenal were trying to contain more than trying to destroy Chelsea). I think we’ll see a more imperious Arsenal in the return leg at Highbury, with Chelsea’s ‘physical’ tactics not working on an away crown, and I fully expect Arsenal to win.

Chelsea and Manchester United have one big thing in common this season; both have tried to stop Arsenal by playing dirty, and I don’t expect this weekend’s league match between Arsenal and Man Utd to be any different, nor the Semi-Final tie the week after. Wenger knows that United—Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Roy Keane—will be swinging at shins and knees all afternoon, and while I think we’ll see a full strength Arsenal this weekend, I expect him to rest the precious three for the Cup game, Henry and Bergkamp will switch for Kanu and Reyes, and Pires will make way for Ray Parlour’s comeback. I would be very surprised if an entirely full-strength Arsenal meets Manchester United this weekend, Bergkamp can’t play three games in seven days can he? Regardless, I expect Arsenal to win this weekend, and to get revenge for the 1999 semi-final next; with perhaps Reyes continuing his FA Cup purple patch.

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