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Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Top (of the) Class

Maybe you were all expecting this on Monday? Well, I delayed putting pen to paper yesterday because I wanted to calm down properly before writing anything.

Arsenal’s performance last Friday, beating Leeds 5-0, was one of the most electric team performances I’ve ever seen. It’s easy to say that it’s all about Thierry Henry, and in many ways it is, but to ignore the part that the other 10 cogs in the Premiership’s most well oiled machine played is ignorant at best. Of all the goals, my favourite was probably Robert Pires’ early strike, the breathtakingly precise one touch passing from Pires, Bergkamp, Henry and Gilberto was absolutely incredible—and the finish wasn’t bad either. Henry’s four goals were all built on the backs of his teammates; the movement, the passing, the touch and the athleticism of every other player in the Arsenal line up—from Gael Clichy to Dennis Bergkamp—all contribute in equal measure to making this team great.

If Thierry Henry is a great footballer, but not as effective a striker as he could be, how come he’s scored 29 goals so far this season in the Premiership (eleven more than Van Nistelrooy)? If he’s Arsenal’s only player who scores goals, how come Robert Pires has 18 in all competitions (13 in the Prem)? If they can attack but are a bit dodgy at the back, how have they got the best defensive record in the Premiership?

If Arsenal manage to go the whole season unbeaten and lift the Premiership title it will be a more remarkable achievement than 99% of fans will give them credit for. Think back to August, when everyone wrote Arsenal off after United and Chelsea had spent the best part of £150m between them on players, and Arsenal had signed Jens Lehmann and Gael Clichy, and remind yourself how likely you thought Arsenal winning the Premiership was?

Have you ever seen a better team play football in this country? Because I haven’t.

Today is all about Chelsea. The Blues travel to Monaco tonight for what should be a fascinating battle with ex-Chelsea midfielder Didier Deschamps’ vibrant young side. Initially I called this match as a gimmie for Chelsea, Claudio Ranieri’s tight Italian back-line and Frank Lampard’s ruthless midfield will easily handle Monaco. Then I got thinking about the times I’ve seen Monaco play this season (which totals around four, all in the Champions League), and I can’t see it being so easy for Chelsea.

Fernando Morientes and Ludovic Giuly have the nous to open up any defence, and if anyone knows anything about containing an Italian-style midfield it’s Didier Deschamps. Without Damien Duff and William Gallas, Chelsea have suddenly lost a lot of pace in the side, and both Mutu and Crespo have been out of sorts recently. Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, while being a top class finisher of the ball, is not blessed with a particularly good touch, or the ability to move defenders in and out the way his teammates can. For me, like much of Chelsea’s season so far, it’s all going to come down to three young Englishmen—Frank Lampard, Wayne Bridge and John Terry. If they can all perform tonight, I fancy Chelsea to get a win, otherwise I think an Away Goal must be considered a triumph.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Catching up

I’m trying to think of something to write, and “What’s the point of scheduling a football match for 12:30 on Good Friday and not putting it on the TV?” is the best I can come up with.

I’ve not updated for a while, so I guess I’ll start at the start and go back to last week . . . .

The bookies must have been rubbing their hands with glee last Wednesday night, after the three favourites for the Champions League crashed out. AC Milan and Arsenal are undoubtably two of the most accomplished all round sides in Europe; and Real Madrid’s Galacticos almost make up for their defensive frailties—all were favourties to progress after good first leg results (some better than others, mind)—so what happened? The easiest to understand are Real Madrid, who—despite their incredible collection of attacking talent and fat Brazillian ex-World Player of the Years—seriously lack defensive steel. A partially converted central midfielder and a nineteen year old are the only defenders the team have; supported by two of the most attacking full-backs in the World, four creative midfielders, two forwards and a hideously talented but ever so cavalier goal-keeper. A lot of teams could score 8 goals against Madrid over two legs.

It’s more difficult to explain how the phenomenally well-organised AC Milan managed to concede four goals without reply—and the only answer can be desire. That and Juan-Carlos Valeron. Every footballer you hear talk about Valeron, from Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry to Alessandro Nesta and Andri Shevchenko, rave about the Spaniard. Louis Saha said recently that Henry and Valeron were the two best players in the World to watch, as did Vieira. The fact that an ageing player for a (largely) unsuccessful Spanish side gets so much recognition outside of his own country says all it needs to. Michael Ballack took Bayer Levekusen to the Champions League Final on his own, and I think Valeron can do the same for Deportivo.

Chelsea’s victory over Arsenal represented only the Premiership leaders’ fifth defeat in all competitions this season. It’s easy to blame a pyschological hangover from the previous weekend’s game against Manchester United (that the Gunners also lost) but I think it’s far simpler than that. On the day—6th April, Highbury, London N5—both teams were so close in terms of ability, desire and big game players all over the park, taht it could have gone either way. After a titanic 90 minutes in which both sides had periods of domination, a final burst of energy from the wonderful Wayne Bridge sealed the game. Arsenal were too exhausted to mount anything resembling a meaningful comeback in the last few minutes, and Chelsea won. I wish The Blues good look in the Semi-Finals (which they’ll win easily; Monaco will not score) and likewise in the Final.

Chelsea winning the Champions League would be a victory for Millionaire Playboys and big-business, but it would also be a success for my favourite football personality, Claudio Ranieri, and for young English talent: John Terry, Wayne Bridge, Glen Johnson, Joe Cole. The fact that Terry is the only ‘Real’ Chelsea player may or may not be significant, but to see an English captain lift Europe’s big trophy would stir a little pride in even the staunchest anti-nationalist (my cold, hard, self for instance). I can’t say I like Chelsea, but I certainly prefer them to United. Maybe that’ll change, maybe it’s just because Claudio Ranieri is everything that Alex Ferguson isn’t (funny, honest, fair, intelligent, able to laugh at himself), but regardless, I’m happy to wish the Tinkerman’s team the very best.

With the excitement of the Champions League over, it was time to get back to the Premiership over Easter, and for Arsenal fans to remember what winning feels like again. In 1999, on the way to the treble, United played seven games in 23 days; two against Juve and two against Arsenal along with Wimbledon, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds. This season, Arsenal have played 6 games in just 16 days; two against United, two against Chelsea, along with Liverpool and Newcastle. The scheduling by the good people of the Premier League and the Football Association Challenge Cup has been absolutely atrocious. To play an FA Cup Semi Final on Saturday morning, a Champions League Semi-Final on Wednesday night, then Liverpool on Friday morning, it’s no wonder that come Sunday afternoon the team looked dead on their feet against Newcastle. After their 4-2 thrashing of Liverpool, it was a hard earned point that Arsenal took away from at St James’ Park, and one that kept their record-breaking 32 game unbeaten ‘start’ to the season intact.

After their taxing solitary game in midweek, Chelsea managed to drop two points against Middlesbrough at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, and a further three yesterday at Villa Park, surely consigning their title Challenge to the same small, round filing cabinet as Manchester United’s. It’s no surprise that such a ‘new’ team as Chelsea’s struggled to keep themselves psyched up over an entire season, and I think we’ll see a far steelier challenge from them next year.

That’s a lot said about the big two, but there was some pretty interesting stuff going on below them this weekend too. Wolves seem to have decided that they’re not really interested in staying in the premiership, which is a shame—I kind of wanted them to stay up. All in all there are six teams in serious danger of relegation, two of which are down already (sorry Mickey, sorry Dave), and three of which are on the same number of points at the moment. Of those three, both Kevin Keegan’s Manchester City and Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth have the ability to pick up a few lots of three points, which will easily be enough to keep them from sinking; Blackburn and Leeds on the other hand . . . .

The problem with both the Yorkshire sides in the bottom six is that they really struggle to create chances. Both have forwards capable of scoring goals, but they both lack the creativity in vital areas that’d allow the likes of Andy Cole and Alan Smith to keep them up. It will come down to a question of which team fights for it more, and believe me there’s plenty of fight in both, but I suspect that Leeds’ tricky run in, finishing on May 15th with a trip to Stamford Bridge, could be one fight too many.

That’s all I can bring myself to write today, I’m sure I’ve ignored your team’s efforts; if I have then just bring it up in the comments below.

Before I go, I’d just like to thank Doncaster Rovers, Ross County, Airdrie, Plymouth, Carlisle, Hibernian and Stirling. My accumulator just wouldn’t have been the same without you.

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Monday, April 05, 2004

20/20 Foresight

That’s it. It’s over. Despite being top of the league by four clear points with a game in hand, and depite eight months of wonderful football, holding a new record for an unbeaten start to the season, and being in the quarter finals of the Champions League, the season is over for Arsenal football club. The greatest and most glorious victory in the long history of Manchester United football club at lunchtime on Saturday, confirmed them as finalists in the most important competition for any club this season. I’m certain Real Madrid and AC Milan would swap their European Cups for a shot at Millwall, and it’s a given that Arsenal would trade in their unbeaten streak and Champions League Quarter Final place if only they could have won on Saturday. It was a sad, sad day for Arsenal, and one that proves once and for all that United are obviously the better team, and always will be. Accusations that United can only beat good teams by kicking the hell out of their best players remain totally unfounded; they are not the new Wimbledon, honest.

And for those Arsenal ‘fans’ that seem to liken the concept of losing a football match with losing a relative to a horrific car accident—grow up, and go away. Every team loses, every defeat hurts (some more than others). I read in the paper on Sunday that Arsenal are being made to eat their words about going the season unbeaten, and being arrogant about their winning streak—as I recall, it has been those very newspapers that have been talking Arsenal up over the last six months. Everyone but the Arsenal players and staff have been talking the team up, and predicting success across the board. It wasn’t Arsenal fooball club that offered a ridiculously short 6-1 on the treble the other day.

On a serious note: on one hand, I want to applaud the Manchester United fans’ unflinching support of their team, and give credit to their input on Saturday—they really were a twelfth man for United. On the other hand, I want to see every last one of them banned from attending all games, for being the only bunch of mindless hooligans in the country that can throw coins at opposition benches and sing ‘that’ disgraceful song without censure or punishment. Banter is banter, taking the mickey is taking the mickey, but singing ‘sit down you paedophile’ is no better than singing ‘sit down you black b*stard’. I suppose you expect it from the kind of xenophobic low-browed northern monkeys of the stereotype, but not in real life.

Mick McCarthy must be gutted. Apart from the obvious glory of taking Sunderland to an FA Cup Final, I think he’d have liked a chance in Cardiff to square up against his nemisis; Royston Keane. I didn’t manage to see Sunday’s semi-final, but it sounded as nervy as Saturday’s, and it’s borderline who’s the dirtier team between Millwall and United. From what I hear, Sunderland can consider themselves a little unlucky, but if you can’t score then you can’t expect to win. Credit to Millwall, and here’s rooting (along with most of the rest of the country) for an upset in the final.

It’s easy to forget that there were a few more games this weekend. Chelsea kept up the pressure on Arsenal with a win at White Hart Lane—not that difficult a thing to acheive these days, and David Pleat had his usual excuses at the ready; he’s as bad as Houllier. It was the ref, bad luck, injuries, the players … never his fault. Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea meanwhile, are doing everything right, and promising a more exciting run-in than seemed likely a few weeks ago.

Liverpool surprised everyone by winning by a few goals against Blackburn yesterday, and Wolves surprised no-one by getting a roasting from a fired up Southampton side. Paul Sturrock has impressed me so far, not just because of the good record his team has under him, but because of the attitude he’s approached the club with. Many new managers going into a dressing room of ‘big’ players who are for the most part playing well—and doing well in the league—might begin his career at the club a little sheepishly. Sturrock however, has really taken the players to task about their weaknesses, and is effectively taking over from where Gordon Strachan left off (another who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind). Hats off to Rupert Lowe for his excellent choice of helmsman.

The big ‘six pointer’ tonight between Leeds and Leicester should be interesting, though I’ll always be reminded of Gordon Strachan’s comments on these kind of games:

“Six points? Really? I thought we’d just get the usual three, but if we get six that’ll take us well out of the danger area. I must have missed the memo.”

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