Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Arsenal need to bounce back quickly in a season defining week.

With the loss of the Carling Cup final on Sunday, tonight's match takes on an even greater significance. Prior to Sunday, I may have tolerated a defeat, on the basis of us progressing in the CL next Wednesday and us having some silverware in the bag from Sunday. Now we have three games in a week which are all tricky fixtures, but must-wins nonetheless.

Beating Blackburn is a huge ask tonight, even with a full-strength time, let alone the motley bunch of youths and squad members we'll send out tonight. But if we were to lose tonight, draw on Saturday, and not progress in the Champions League, we'll be looking at a situation in which with two and a half months of the season to go, securing Champions League qualification is the club's only target. After all the promise we've shown this season, that would be hard to take.

The team news for tonight is not great. Henry and Rosicky have both sustained injuries which may seem that out of the side for 2 to 3 weeks. Diaby, one of our better perfomers on Sunday, is injured and will be probably missing for about the same length of time. Kolo and Adey are suspended, there's a rumour that Hoyte has picked up a knock and Jens will be, yet again, 'rested'. Personally, I for one would love Jens to be in the mix tonight, but if he's not we're looking at a team along the lines of:

Eboue Senderos/Gallas Djourou Gallas/Clichy
Hleb Gilberto Denilson Ljunberg
Aliadiere La Bestia

Walcott could start on the right, but at the beginning of the season he was usually brought on as as left-wing sub. I'm not sure why this stopped as he was quite effective cutting in from the left. Ljunberg should start but quite a few of us, despite his classic finish against Bolton, will be wondering how much more he can offer the team.

Gallas will play either centre half or left back, and Djourou will probably start.

Up front, our options are limited, with RvP, Thierry, and Adey all out. This is a massive chance
for Jeremie and The Beast, both of whom will probably be regretting their lack of impact in the final on Sunday. Both are essentially playing for their Arsenal futures so lets hope they can recreate some of their Carling Cup magic.

If everything works out we'll win, because even our reserves are a class above Blackburn's first XI. Bentley, McCarthy, Nonda and Pederson(sometimes), have class, but the rest of Blackburn's side are really just thuggish journeymen. However, it has been these types of players we've struggled against in recent years and the eternal pessimist in me can see Blackburn scraping a win in a dire encounter. I hope not, because winning the FA cup would mean a lot this year on its return to Wembley, and would also get this important week of to an excellent start.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Player ratings and more Cardiff considerations

Almunia, 7: Did well. Claimed the ball when it came in from corners or crosses, and made a couple of smart saves. Question marks can perhaps be asked about the first goal - would Cech have let it in? - but largely blameless aside from that. Main problem seems to be his lack of gravitas: he doesn't have the same presence as Jens, which might have unnerved the defence slightly.

Traore, 6. A weak link, I would have to say. Did well getting forward, but, especially when exposed by Diaby's defensive naivety, Chelsea had much joy in attacking down their right hand flank. Bale and Clichy may prove to be a superior partnership of left-backs.

Toure, 6: Defended stridently and marshalled the team well, before losing his temper and marring his performance. His form has been patchier this year than many have suggested.

Senderos, 6.5: Beaten by Drogba for the second goal, but was not at fault for the first and actually did reasonably well against his nemesis for the majority of the game. I still think there's a top defender in him.

Hoyte, 6.5: Solid without being spectacular. Whilst eminently preferable to Eboue at the moment in all areas apart from attacking flair, Justin really needs to learn how to get forward more if he's going to entrench himself in this position.

Diaby, 7.5: Excellent, Vieira-esque passing, movement and skill. Needs to tackle more and Wenger should stop playing him out of position on the left. It's clearly not his natural position, as seen by his frequent forays into the centre which left Traore exposed. A real prospect and let's hope his ankle is not too bad. Could have won the game early in the second half.

Denilson, 7: A massive test for the youngster, and one he came through in a largely positive fashion. Notably tired by the latter stages of the second half. Was slightly out-muscled by the, er, weight of Lampard, Essien and Ballack, but he won't be next time.

Fabregas, 8: Superb - largely dictated the game, and showed he can run almost any midfield. Also, extra-marks for taking on a man twice his weight and possibly coming off best. He needs more silverware though or he could become frustrated at the club. He also needs to start scoring and improve his shooting.

Walcott, 7.5: The real Theo Walcott stands up. A blinding goal which he thoroughly deserved, and which will hopefully shut some of his critics up. Not always able to beat Bridge, but showed enough talent to emphasise his colossal potential.

Aliadiere, 6.5: Huffed and puffed, and made a nuisance of himself without ever really looking like a real goal-mouth threat. If not now, when?

Baptista, 7: In retrospect, a good performance. If not for Cech's superb save he would have scored, and did cause the Chelsea defence problems. I'm still relatively undecided as to whether he's really Arsenal quality, but I don't think that performance would have done him too much harm.


Eboue, 5: Skinned for the goal, unable to get forward, and an idiot in the melee. A new right-back must be found, regardless of his attacking potential.

Hleb, 5: Disappointing. Nowhere near as effective as his cameo at the Lane. Rosicky may have been a better option, if he'd been available.

Adebayor, 5: Not given enough time and was unable to get into the game. His, perhaps understandable, reaction to the sending off was ill-advised, probably precluding any removal of his ban.

A few final points

- Whilst he has been subsequently praised for it, Mourinho's intervention - and Arsene's - onto the pitch was not the right thing to do. To me, it smacked of a manager desperate for the lime-light and prolonged the incident.

- Will the Chelsea fans be punished at all? The celery throwing was, obviously, unlikely to cause injury, yet still riled the Arsenal fans up, and it's also worth remembering that the reason Gary Lewin was able to treat Terry so quickly, was due to his presence at that end to treat Almunia, who had been struck by a missile thrown from the Chelsea end.

- Is winning everything? Would Arsenal fans prefer our current crop of inconsistent artistry, or a ruthless trophy winning machine? A lot rides on the future of our young lot, but they need to start winning things either this year or next.

- Drogba and Cech won Chelsea the final. Cech was magnificent; Drogba took his chances. They were the difference, and were it not for them we would have prevailed. For the difference between us and Chelsea to be so slim is obviously a cause for hope, but we need to start tangibly showing it soon.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Pyrrhic victories and moral victories: a weekend in Cardiff

I've literally just got back from Cardiff so sit back and relax: this may be a long one.

My first cup final and could have I asked for more? Yes, would be the answer: an Arsenal victory. But that rather obvious matter aside, it was a great day out in Cardiff; one in which I felt proud of the club, most of its players, and almost all its supporters.

Coming to the Arsenal end of the stadium was like a mini-festival. All the pubs were bulging; one had the Buzzcocks belting out as Gooners chanted our songs down the streets. Most pubs were so busy that we had to head halfway down Queen's street to find one in which we could get served in a reasonable amount of time. At this juncture I would add that perhaps its time that us Gooners stopped pandering to Spuds idiocy, and no longer chanted songs which use the 'Y' word, or songs of that nature. These chants wouldn't exist if not for the Spuds self-labelling, but I'm not afraid to say I dislike them.

It was my first time at the Millenium stadium and quite an atmosphere had brewed at the Arsenal end by the time I arrived. The stadium, despite being bigger than the Emirates, had managed to maintain a sense of intimacy much more successfully than our abode. Moreover, standing was almost mandatory throughout which further helped build the electric atmosphere throughout. No stewards telling you to sit down here.

Indeed, if the final had been decided on the fans' performance, Arsenal would have won hands down. The Chelski fans were pathetic: I didn't hear them chant til after they'd taken the lead, and their 'hilarious' celery throwing antics (we couldn't tell it was celery at the time I might add) further emphasised their lack of class. Aside from a brief lull after their second goal, the Arsenal fans were superb throughout, and we even belted out a few songs after the final whistle to our young lads collapsed on the pitch. I must admit to leaving before the presentation, but I didn't want to be anywhere near the stadium when Lampard et al. lifted the trophy.

The game itself was a frantic affair; a wonderful spectacle due to the ambition and attacking flair of our kids. Put simply, we should have been two or three up within twenty minutes. Had it not been for Cech - utterly superb throughout - we would have been, Baptista unlucky not to score with an excellent curling effort from outside the box. Theo's goal was superbly taken, and I can only hope this earns him some respite from the ridiculous criticism he's received of late. I'm happy I was there to see his first Arsenal goal.

But, despite having little possession, it was clear we were weak on our left side. Traore, our rawest player, was at left-back, and Diaby, whilst excellent, consistently drifted into the centre leaving the young defender even further exposed. It seemed apparent to me quite early on that Chel$ea would get joy if they attacked through their right-flank, but it still took a poor piece of linesmanship to gift Chel$ea their first goal.

My immediate concern was that the Chel$ea goal could knock the stuffing out of the young players. Far from it. Chel$ea didn't really threaten for the rest of the half, while we continued to stream forward; it's a credit to our youngsters that the game was still so finely poised until so late on.

The incident which changed the game, in retrospect, was the Terry injury. Us plebs in the opposite corner had no inkling as to what was going on, not even who was injured until the substitution was announced. The injury ultimately favoured Chelsea in a number of ways: it galvanised their players, slightly traumatised ours, and also removed one of their weakest performers (in the game itself) from the field.

It gradually became clear that our early energies were also being to take their toll on our players energy levels. Traore in particular seemed to be suffering, not least for the introduction of Robben, who offered Chelsea a far greater degree of creativity upfront than in the first half.

Still, we had yet more chances to seal the game. Diaby should have scored when one on one with Cech, and would have scored if almost any other goalkeeper had been playing. The major deficiency in Cesc's otherwise stunning abilities was demonstrated by his miss a few minutes later. It's an area in which he must improve.

With so many missed chances and young legs tiring, the winner had a certain inevitability to it. Denilson, who's distribution had begun to suffer as the second half progressed, gave the ball away, Robben skinned Eboue, and Drogba beat Senderos to score. The Chel$ea fans finally started singing; it never really felt as if we would get an equalizer.

All that was left was the unsightly melee. Many commentators have postulated that this rumpus almost came out of nowhere, but it had been brewing for some time. Chel$ea had put in a number of very cynical challenges throughout, hacking down players who were almost through on goal and constantly making snipey, niggling kicks. Coupled with a late goal and officials giving almost every 50-50 decision Chel$ea's way, Kolo had had enough of Chel$ea's excessively aggressive, unsporting attitude when Mikel grabbed his shirt. Adebayor was wrongly sent off, and I was astounded to see Fabregas and Lampard escape with yellows, as their little tete-a-tete seemed far more violent.

The melee also had the unfortunate effect of cancelling out any injury time that had been accrued in the game, ending our already slim hopes of a revival. The whistle was blown shortly after, and a number of our lot, including Theo, Cesc and Denilson all collapsed on the floor near our end, Almunia running from his goal to try and act as the paternal figure he'd become to the team.

Final thoughts? Another heroic defeat for the Arsenal in a final, the second in less than twelve months. A third cannot be countenanced; potential must be realised sooner rather than later.

Our team deserve all the plaudits they get from the game: they were the only one's really trying to play football. Its incredible that Chel$ea still play in their dull, long-ball, unadventurous manner, despite the money they have. Winning ugly is occasionally acceptable, but for it to become the norm for a team must sadden Chel$ea fans. At this rate they will be remembered like the Italian world cup winners of last year: winners, but nothing more; no myth of their greatness will ever be constructed in the manner of our Invincibles.

Chelsea's victory may have been pyrrhic, and ours moral, but ultimately they took the silverware home with them. I enjoyed my weekend in Cardiff immensely - but next time I want something more tangible than a moral victory to take home with me.

Player ratings to follow.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Carling countdown, Jens speaks!, Thierry's foot.

Only three days now until the big day in Cardiff and my first cup final. Obviously, it would be nicer if it were, say, the Champions League, but I'll settle for this for now.

The most positive news today regarding Sunday is the injury to Terry, which will see Chel$ea's 'talisman' miss the game. Personally, I had half been looking forward to him playing, repeating what he said to Ledley King to Baptista, and watching as the Beast crushed him under his gargantuan thumb. Heh.

A few others who won't be involved are Jens and Thierry, who were both in the news today. Jens has been complaining about the amount of games played in England and I think he's got a point. Much as the Carling Cup has proved a fertile breeding ground for our youngsters in recent years, it is, still, a pretty pathetic competition nowadays. We already have one domestic knockout cup - possibly the only one with any real meaning in Europe - and we don't need another. Perhaps it should only be open to non-Premiership teams.

Jens also made the point that despite all our recent games, he actually hasn't been playing too much, with Manuel coming in for all the recent cup matches. To my mind, goalkeeper is a position you don't rotate. If one man is up for the job, you continually use him to keep him at the top of his game. Jens was a fraction away from saving PSV's goal on Tuesday: would he have saved it if he'd had the sharpness which would have come from the two FA cup games? The rationale behind rotating our keepers at the moment seems to be an attempt by Arsene to placate Almunia, and even, possibly, to ease him into the first team next year. I've said it before: Manuel is solid back-up but he's not a first choice keeper for a club of our level. If we are to commit the folly of letting Jens go this year, a replacement must be purchased.

Thierry Henry has also been in the paper complaining of an inflammation to the ligaments in his foot. It amazes me sometimes how fickle football fans are: I've read several comments along the lines that Thierry is 'looking for excuses' due to his 'poor form', and even that we should have sold him when we had the chance. Indeed, the idiot behind me hasnow taken to shouting 'go away' (in less polite terms) to Barca every time Henry makes a mistake nowadays. I presume he didn't celebrate when Thierry scored our last minute winner against United earlier in the season.

Thierry's form of late is worthy of a (lengthy) article of its own. What I will say is that he is our top scorer of all time. He can do things with the ball that no one else can do in our current team. His form this season has been patchy, but he's still scored several vital and superb goals (Liverpool, United, Boro, Blackburn) since Christmas.

Before you abuse him, remember all he's done for the club, and remember all players go through dips in form. Also remember that Thierry's left hand side production line (pires/cole/reyes) has gone, and that Thierry may be adjusting to the start of the decline in his pace.

He stuck with us; we should stick with him.

Til later. Gb.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Goonerboy is one; Arsenal are one down.

Uncork the champagne! Get the party rings! Pull out the cocktail sausages!

Goonerboy is one!

Picture the scene (apologies in advance for the use of the third person, but I feel grandiose):

It was exactly a year ago today. Goonerboy returns from the pub 'tired and emotional' after celebrating Arsenal's historic victory. He has so many opinions wrapped inside himself that an outlet must be found. And thus the blog is born.

Three hours later, and even after realising that he had no programming knowledge whatsoever, Goonerboy has finally set up his blog, and a few RSS feeds for his two readers.

Since then things have changed. My initial plan to post daily was slowly chipped away by a combination of studying, working and, it must be said, lethargy. I've received lots of lovely favourable comments, some interesting criticism, and also some out and out abuse from some of the rather imbalanced souls who stalk the 'net.

Most importantly, and largely thanks to NewsNow, I've also obtained readers - nearly 200,000 unique page visits in a year. I hope I've entertained you and I will endeavour to continue. Who knows, my plans for the 'Goonerboy Cultural Review' blog may also come to pass at some point. Or, perhaps not.

Anyway, perhaps we should re-cork the champers on the basis of last night's result.

Another frustrating display, almost the antithesis of that famous night in Madrid. Despite our creativity we didn't have the cutting edge required to break through the massed ranks of PSV defenders. My dislike for Ronald Koeman - borne in 1993 when he fouled David Platt in that qualifier - continues to grow. I'm worried that he knows how to nullify, and even how to defeat, Arsene's tactics.

A tense return leg has been set up. If we are to progress we need at least two goals (or, a shoot-out, but who'd want that?). We were unlucky last night - on another day, Rosicky's goal would have creeped in, and Thierry's shot would have flown into the net. But the return leg will surely tell us as much about last year as this year. Was last year a one off? Was that our big chance to secure the Champions League under Wenger? Or can we do it again?

One thing's for sure: it's going to be emotional.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Oh dear, what a terrible game.

Arsenal is an obligation for me; a desired obligation but one nonetheless. So when I awake, how can I put this, in a rather poor state from being 'tired and emotional' the night before, I still put the effort in. I drag myself out of bed and across London to support the team that means so much to me. I would add that whoever decides games should be played at 12 on a Saturday obviously has no social life.

And then this. Two words, as suggested in my headline, spring to mind: oh and dear.

All credit to Blackburn, I've never seen a team so ruthlessly play for and achieve a replay. Keeping 47 men behind the ball all game worked very successfully. Whilst, on a rational level, I can understand their tactics, on a, perhaps higher plain of thinking, they did not play football against us. Ruthless pragmatism is not something I wish to associate with football.

Yet, despite their legions of defenders, we should have cruised the game. The reason we didn't was as much due to our deficiencies as their limitations. Henry is not a centre-forward and is badly missing Pires/Reyes/Cole. Watching Theo is becoming unbearable: I want him to succeed so much but today he couldn't beat his defender. Neither for that matter could Freddie, who was painfully awful, alternating between sitting on his backside complaining and failing to beat him man. Aliadiere's effort can't be faulted but, ultimately, produced nothing; Flamini needs too many touches and is not a good enough passer.

The only bright spot was William Gallas's return, but today we needed a match-winner and he was not one.

I've seen some poor football matches before but the game today is up with the best/worst of them. Turgid, frustrating, painful and pointless. And, to cap it off, another trip up North. Here's hoping eh?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bolton succumb to our Valentine's Day charms

Crikey, what a game. I wasn't expecting 120 minutes of, frankly, unmissable action: my prediction for the game had been for Bolton to edge us out in a dour affair.

But we did what we do best: fast, one-touch, incisive football. Gone were the hoards of long-balls pumped up from the back, which were a painful feature of the original tie. Back was Arsene's patented pinball football.

A bold team selection, especially in midfield, paid off. Hleb was utterly superb on his return, tackling, creating, running and passing with the ball almost glued to his feet. He's so instrumental to keeping the team ticking over at the moment that his performance last night highlighted just how much we've missed him of late. There is talk of a re-occurrence of his injury, but we should all hope for the best, because he will be instrumental to any success we have in Europe this season.

On the left, Rosicky was excellent and should have had an assist from a superb cross to Baptista during the first half. Diaby looks a little jaded after having been out for so long, but showed enough touches on the ball to remind us of his promise.

In between these three was the man of the match: Denilson. What a performance from such a young lad, over 120 minutes. He seems to play like Cesc but with a greater physical presence, and he's almost instantly established himself as someone pushing for a starting position in the team.

Other honourable mentions should go to Aliadiere, whose excellent run set up Freddie, Clichy, who is defying my early expectations of him this year, and Adebayor who should have had a hat-trick were it not for his inability to fire the ball into an open net. Adey's running, work-rate, but also incisiveness on and off the ball, have caused many teams problems this season. His finishing is not at the level of van Persie but he's putting himself in a position where it's hard to justify dropping him.

Put simply, the game should never have gone into extra-time. Despite Gilberto's excellent penalties against spuds, questions should be asked as to whether he should be our second choice penalty taker. Rosicky might seem a better option to my mind. Yet Gilbs miss only became an issue due to Baptista's howler of a game. He battled, kept running, and kept putting himself in positions to attempt shots on goal, but his touch and finishing were utterly atrocious last night. Despite his league-cup heroics, the jury is still firmly out.

But, this season, the longer games go on, the better we play it would seem. It was vital for us to score in extra-time because we would have lost the shoot-out. Say what you will of Bolton, but even the most optimistic Gooner would have to say that they would be able to find five penalty takers rather more quickly than us last night.

And thus up stepped Freddie to score a goal which asks as many questions as it solves. Is he back? Was that a last hurrah? Can he somehow return to the Freddie we all knew and love? Time will tell but that goal will have at least guaranteed him a few starts in the coming weeks.

The game ended in farce, Anelka somehow escaping a red-card, Baptista blazing the ball over, and then Adey scoring the simplest goal he'll ever get.

We deserved it. We deserved to finally break this ridiculous hoo-doo that a rather average team of hackers of had over us. And we did it our way, as it were.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Problems with English football? Blame the foreigners!

So after a week in which another insipid, embarrassing display is turgidly eked out by our excuse for a national side, the great English national obsession has returned: when all else fails, blame Johnny foreigner.

Not only do they steal our jobs, women, parking spaces etc., it is, of course, the hoards of foreign players in the Premiership which is the cause of our current squad being even shallower than an English undergraduate student.

Says who? Says Terry Venables, England assistant coach/wet nurse. Says Howard Wilkinson, chairman of the League Managers Association. Says Steve Gibson of Middlesbrough. People, in short, whose opinions still carry much weight in the opinion-forming red-tops of England.

It's interesting to read the blame shifted onto foreigners ruining our national game in the same week that the FA decides it can't be bothered to build a national school of footballing excellence in Burton; in a week in which Crewe, a club which has survived on the production of youth talent for so long, announces its fears on the future of English academy football; in a week in which another English club goes under the hammer, sold to foreign investors who care nothing for our game aside from maximising the lucre they can make from it.

And when even Sam Allardyce is refuting these suggestions, you know how deep the systemic problems in English football run. He puts his case simply and cogently: Gareth Bale, a prestigiously talented young footballer, was, but a few weeks ago, being touted around the Premiership for a price of £10 million. At the same time, Sam signed four European youngsters for less than a million Euros in total.

The Bale example serves its purpose. It illustrates the dearth of British talent being produced, painfully exacerbating the ridiculous inflation of their prices when they come to market. Remember Curtis Davies, who we were linked with? £8 million please, minimum. Mr Kolo Toure, half a million. I doubt Arsene has to use his economic training too much when thinking of these decisions.

The only way British football will improve is by coaching youngsters properly. I read an interesting piece this week in The Telegraph, which contended that Theo's current difficulties are probably caused by the lack of technical coaching he'd received until arriving at Arsenal. He's a fast lad and was probably told to just try and knock it past players and run past them. Only now is he probably receiving a decent footballing education.

Youngsters in the UK are made to play on full-size pitches, while attributes such as aggression and power are valued over technique. And when Steve McClaren issues useless platitudes such as hoping that English courage and heart will win games, you realise how bad things have become. Footballing ability, not 'spirit of Agincourt' speeches, are what win football matches Steve. Maybe you should try coaching that, if you can.

There's no point in running some 'affirmative action' campaign to give English players a leg-up into the Premiership. If they are, they'll be found wanting even more compellingly at International level. Moreover, teams such as Brazil and Argentina have, for a long time, not been the place where their international players ply their trade. We need a situation in England in which footballers are being produced who are good enough, or have the levels of technical ability, that they can play in a variety of leagues, such as the more technical La Liga, not just the up-and-at-em Premiership.

So before blaming Arsene for the problems of England, realise why he chooses who he does. He doesn't look at the passports of young players: he looks at their ability. And the production line has been derailed in England for some time, something for which he cannot be blamed and something which has even tried to reconcile - see the handing of a professional contract to the 17 year old Mark Randall this week. If anything a reduction in the number of foreign players in the Premiership would make the situation even more dangerous. It would lower the overall standard of English football and lead to greater defeats.

I'm glad we have so many foreigners in our league: it makes our league better, more enjoyable to watch. Rather than get rid of them, we should focus on creating players who can compete with them. Only then will we have a national team worth watching.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Arsenal slightly hungover after too much Carling.

Yesterday's result perhaps emphasises that we shouldn't really hope for anything about fourth place this season. Yet I don't think we should fall into despondency about not winning the game; if anything I was fairly pleased that we've come through another difficult away day oop North without a defeat, a marked improvement on last year.

We no longer seem to be a team that gets 'out-muscled' in away matches. When we don't get results its now more likely that we were simply out-played on the day, or that certain players under-performed. And when that player is Cesc, we're bound to struggle, given that our entire team is moulded around his ability to dictate game with his passing. Despite not playing the full 120 minutes on Wednesday, Cecsc was notably off-colour and never really got into the game.

The team is missing Hleb as well. For all his running and effort, Flamini is not a right winger and his limitations in that position were exposed yesterday. He lacks the creative vision and flair to be the type of threat that Hleb provides and which Walcott was learning. There might have been a case for throwing Theo on for the last ten minutes yesterday, but Arsene's decision to bring on Denilson was probably correct, helping us remain solid and earn a draw.

Mike Riley must have some form of vendetta against us because the penalty was slightly absurd. On first viewing it does look like a penalty, but Riley, a 'top-level' referee should have known better. Yakubu has subsequently admitted, so I've heard, that Philippe made minimal to no-contact in the incident.

One-nil down, again, and one-player down, things did not look good, so I'm pleased we battled back to win the point. Of course, it would have been nicer if we'd have used our dominance to have won the game, but I'm confident that next season the team will fully click. It took Ferguson about three seasons to turn round United, and it may be the same for us.

At the moment, Adebayor's touch is still betraying a little too often and Tomas is not providing enough clinical through-balls from midfield. But both have decent work-rates and will improve.

A pressing issue that must be resolved is Jens contract. He is such an important figure to the club that he must stay on next year. I really don't think Almunia as what it takes to get anywhere near the level that Jens is currently at. We need to keep Jens so he can keep making crucial, world-class saves, such as his one from Viduka's low effort when the score was one-nil. We also need him for his reaction to the penalty: he imposes himself in games and shows all the passion I want to see from Arsenal players. To let him go due to the 'one-more-year' policy would be criminal.

The match showed that things are getting better, but slowly. A positive first step would be to tell Adey and Thierry to stop doing that dance every time they scored, or at least to create an alternative version involving the whole team. An Arsenal conga perhaps?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Carling Cup semi-final second leg, player ratings.

Almunia, 6.5. Played well, but I’m not convinced he’s Jens’s long-term successor. He panics, rushes out of his goal, and doesn’t communicate with his defenders well enough. Whilst he’s improved since his arrival, if Jens is to leave we need to enter the market this summer.

Traore, 6. Clearly very raw, even allowing for some encouraging forward play. I don’t think he’ll be bursting into the first team anytime soon.

Kolo, 6. Should have scored in the first half, but otherwise decent enough performance.

Senderos, 7. Re-gaining the composure that makes him such a great defensive talent. Powerful in the air, but needs to improve his distribution.

Hoyte, 6.5. Massively improved from the start of the season and is finally looking like an Arsenal player. Whether he’ll ever really be a top-class defender is yet to be seen.

Denilson, 8. Excellent. Won tackles, took shots, passed the ball well: looked very much like the combination of Rosicky and Gilberto Arsene promised. A younger Fabregas?

Gilberto, 8. Oh, how we’ve missed Gilbs. Did an incredible amount of tidying up and ball-winning in the midfield which helped the team settle and dominate.

Diaby, 6.5. Some lovely touches and good distribution. It’s great to see him back and he needs a run in the team before we’ll really see the best of him.

Theo, 6. Caused problems with his pace down the right, but his final ball was lacking. His corners were pretty dire also. However, if you were the person sitting near me who shouted ‘go back to Southampton’, or were one of the countless others hurling abuse at him 1) you are a moron 2) please desist. He’s 17, he’s going to get better, and you’ll look mighty stupid when he does if you continue to abuse him. He needs confidence so support him.

Aliadiere, 7. Good performance, one that’s suggests he can contribute to the club in the second half of the season. He should start in the final. Whether he has a long-term future at the club remains to be seen.

Adey, 7. Excellent finish; huge-work rate. Those who boo Theo are undoubtedly those who also jeered Adey at the beginning of the season.

Rosicky, 7.5, Great performance: lots of energy, verve and imagination. I’d give him that goal.

Clichy, 7, did very well after coming on. Excellent coming forward and defensively. Hopefully now establishing himself as Cashley's successor.

Fabregas, 6.5, A little subdued, but helped keep the midfield glued together in extra-time.

Cardiff awaits for our young guns.

In the end, it all seemed a bit too easy: even after having given Spuds a 2 goal head-start, they still couldn’t progress.

Walking down the Holloway Road, it was quite apparent that this was big game for both clubs. A massive police presence to cope with the notably enlarged away end, showed that the Carling Cup has re-emerged as a trophy that clubs are interested in winning. This might partially be due to our use of exciting young talent, and also due to, until this year, Chel$ea’s monopoly on the Premiership.

On taking my seat, I noticed that only a handful of the season-ticket holders who normally surround me were present. So the crowd was, perhaps, a little like the team: inexperienced at the grove, and definitely very excited. My area, which, it has to be said, is usually quite sedate, was transformed into a veritable cauldron of noise - although the presence of a shrill ten year old behind me was not greatly appreciated.

Even the most myopic of Lily whites would admit that we dominated the game. They had a few chances, but a combination of poor finishing and alert goalkeeping put pay to any idea that they might take the lead. Indeed, had it not been for some clumsy finishing by Adey and Kolo, we would have gone in at half-time ahead.

The goal when it came justified our dominance. Some excellent work by the impressive Rosicky carved out an opening for Adebayor, who finished with wonderful composure. I do actually like the little dance he did with Henry, but I would echo Arsebloggers’ concerns about excluding the rest of the team. But, being Arsenal, nothing is easy. The twelve-year-old behind me had started screaming – literally – about how Almunia should be ‘worried, very worried’ about the free kick that led to the goal. Hopefully next time he’ll have learnt his lesson about the importance of not ‘jinxing it’ in football.

After holding out the Spuds for the last ten minutes, there was only ever going to be one winner in extra-time, with Aliadiere and Rosicky both bagged goals which their performances richly merited.

Onwards to Cardiff then, and the inevitable questions about who will start in the final. Wenger, cleverly, asserted that he would only play those who had been involved in the competition so far, which actually only excludes Henry, Lehmann and Gallas. I’d expect roughly the same line-up as last night to start the final, with an extremely strong bench.