Sunday, December 30, 2007

A win at Goodison caps off a great week for Arsenal.

It's funny how a few days can give perspective to proceedings.

On Boxing Day, you could be forgiven for thinking we were languishing in the mid-table doldrums after a goalless draw on the south coast, given the response from some Arsenal fans. United were, according to most, going to win the league at a canter, after their four goal demolition at Sunderland. We didn't have the squad, nor the goalscorers. Rosicky's miss was forcefully contrasted to Ronaldo's piledriver.

But a few days later and the picture becomes somewhat rosier. We triumph at Goodison; United get turned over at Upton Park. Suddenly, rather than being temporarily one point behind, we're two points ahead.

So, we're top again. Whether we can sustain this position or not is, of course, the pivotal question. Yet on several times already this season we’ve shown the guts and determination, not just flair, to grind out wins. We’re a hungry side, as well as a technically gifted one. If we can add stamina to this determination, we’re definitely in with a shout. United’s squad may seem the stronger, but ours certainly shouldn’t be dismissed, especially as I would ignore Arsene’s comments about not buying during the forthcoming window. If he wants to buy, he will. He just likes to throw others off the scent, old Arsene.

The scoreline, ultimately, was nothing short of magnificent. To put four past Everton on their patch is superb, especially as it’s a ground we’ve struggled at in recent times.

The main highlights and lowlights of the game were provided by our two forward players.

Eduardo showed a clarity and coolness in front of goal which I haven’t seen since Bergkamp. Indeed, the flick for his second goal reeked of the ice-man. That’s 9 goals already for Eduardo this season, and that’s without him really getting a fair amount of time in the team. His goals could be the difference at the end of the season if he can build on this start. He'll score more than another 9 in the second half of the season, I'll say that now.

Bendtner, conversely, had a bit of a rum time of it. While he would have gained confidence from being given a start, I hope he learns from his sending off. I seem to remember a young RvP having a similarly stupid sending off a few years back, and he learnt from it, ultimately. If Bendtner wants to become the great player he could become, he has to put his mental ‘roof’ on, as Arsene would put it.

It seems odd that we’ve been chastised in some quarters for winning without playing the elegant football we normally do. Yet, that’s what winning teams are about: mixing it up, playing tough football when it needs to be played.

It’s game like Everton that can decide whether leagues are won. It’s been twenty games now and we’re still top. United are still the favourites, but that seems to be more a media perception that stems from most people’s inability to accept we are where we are. Yes, United’s squad is probably stronger, but we’re top, not them. Despite what people say, after yesterday’s result, who’s to say that this will change any time soon.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Almunia and Bendtner the heroes in a game we should have lost.

It took a while, almost 46 minutes, to get going, but the game yesterday provided us with yet another memorable, borderline hilarious, victory over our North London rivals.

We won without playing very well at all. A few choice moves aside, the performance was not very good, no where near the quality of last week's deserved victory over Chelsea. One could make a strong argument for Spuds deserving a point, and they came very close to snatching all three.

But at critical moments, match-winners and match-losers step up. Robbie Keane, despite his talent, is not a top-four team match winner. he showed that with his penalty and by smashing the ball onto the bar.

And in contrast, on our side, two match-winners did step up: Nicklas Bendtner and Manuel Almunia.

Almunia was the more surprising, but in an extremely pleasant way. There are three type of goalkeepers: ones that lose you matches, ones that make the saves they should do, but no more, and those that make the saves they shouldn't make and win you games. Almunia is finally, having extricated himself from the first category last week, now beginning to look like a match-winning keeper. I say beginning; questions could still be asked about how he let in Berbatov's opener.

But his penalty save won the game as much as Bendtner's goal. If Spuds had scored again, it would have been a struggle to even get a point from the match. As it was, the initiative passed into our hands.

Bendtner, even from pre-season, has impressed me. He passes the ball with great thought and care, and his power in the air is undeniable. As a partnership of Ade and Nik seems unlikely, the battle between the two of them for a starting place will be interesting to see. I favour Bendtner, but only if he has the patience to make the position his.

It makes it two weeks in a row that we've scored headers from corners; we haven't been able to say that too often under Arsene.

Overall then, only a few players shone. We didn't pass the ball particularly well, we were second to almost every 50-50 ball, and we overcomplicated our attacks. But, we won; we showed the determination, more than anything else, to win despite some of our technical ability betraying us. To win playing badly is as important, if not more important, than to win playing well.

And, despite Man U also taking three points, we're still top of the league at Christmas. The last time that happened we won the league. Whether we will do so again is unclear; what is clear, is that this young team won't go down with a fight.

ps On channel 5 at the moment, Milan are playing Inter. A full scouting report is coming up in the weeks to come, but, for now, I shall simply say that it's a massive game, but it's a game we can win.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A closer game than it should have been, but still, job done.

An interesting game today, which was far closer than it should have been.

Chel$ea were without three of their most important players - Drogba, Essien and Carvahlo - while the players that make our team tick - Fab, Hleb and Flamini - all returned. Also, RvP lurked in the wings.

But it was a slow start to the match, and the returning players were clearly trying to find their feet. Of the three, Hleb was very quiet, shackled by Mikel and others in the Chelsea midfield. Fabregas did better, if his passing was a little off, and should have really scored at the death.

Flamini was absolutely excellent, (my Motm) flying into vital tackles across the pitch. His renaissance, more than perhaps any other player in the team, has been key to out current league position. Not only does he break up and restart play a lot more impressively and quickly than Gilberto, something which Cesc in particular benefits from, he is, for want of a better word, the team's enforcer. The first player into any fracas is Matthieu and he has embodied the new spirit within the team: never say die, and don't try and kick us off the pitch.

This was vital, as Chelsea attempted to do just that. Terry put in a series of poor, and deliberately spiteful, challenges, and the usual suspects also tried to put their foot in. It was no surprise to see Lampard try and rekindle his loving relationship with Cesc either.

I'm not a person who revels in the misfortune of others, but seeing Terry go off injured was blissful. My hope is that Capello will strip him of the England captaincy, but that is probably a dream too far.

His replacement, Ben-Haim, conspired with the usually infallible Cech to gift Billy G the easiest of goals. Gallas was immense today. He scored, defended well and was a true leader. Again, who now really thinks that not making Gilberto captain was an error?

The game started to open up in the second half and we should have finished them off. Seeing RvP return was blissful; suddenly, we began to have far more shots on goal and a real cutting-edge to our attack. He should have scored and had a goal disallowed. Not bad. Adebayor's goal could also have been given, if Ben-Haim hadn't fallen so easily.

Yet, in some ways it was a bit like last season. We didn't finish the game off when we could have, and Chelsea almost squirmed back into it. We fully deserved the three points and to have lost out to a last-minute equaliser would have been a travesty. Almunia helped us out on a number of occasions, but I'm still a little unsure about him.

Overall, if we couldn't beat them today, when they were missing almost all of their key players, it would seem unlikely that we would ever beat them in the foreseeable future. That we have shows just how serious we are as title contenders this year. It's looking increasingly likely, given Liverpool's crazy form, and Chelsea's odd year, that this is going to be a two-horse race between us and United. Whether we have the reserves to really edge them out will be thrilling to see; the game at Old Trafford will be absolutely huge, I'll say that already.

So, a good week all in all. Back on track, key players are back in the fold, and England finally have a world-class manager. After our recent travails on the road, all is again well.

ps, wasn't it a nice tackle by Cesc at the end?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

How bad is two outta three? A Long away run comes to an end.

Well, thank God for that. Finally, finally, our tired boys can return to London after jet-setting round southern Spain, the Midlands, and, er, the North-East.

First of all, read my last article: forget Sevilla. About as meaningless a game as a meaningful game can be.

But the last three fixtures warrant attention; three fixtures on the road, which have given us 4 out of 9 points.

The best came first, and it was no surprise given the line up. Hleb and Flamini gave us impetus and creativity and we saw the best forty-five minutes of our season (except the goal) during the first half at Villa Park. The second half, where we doggedly held on to get the points, was also impressive, albeit in a grittier, backs to the wall, style. An excellent three points, all in all.

But exit Hleb; exit Flamini. And on to St James.

Tyneside has rarely, aside from Dennis's lovely flick, been a great hunting ground for us in recent years, and even Adebayor's superb goal failed to give us maximum points. This was possibly due to us being unable to muster any sort of decisive attacking movement for most of the game after our early bang. If anything, we were probably lucky to escape with a point.

Finally, today, one of the worst league performances we've seen for a while - definitely the worst we've seen this season. The back four weren't too awful, aside from Kolo's continual tendency to pump futile long-balls up the pitch, but the rest of the team was bloody abysmal.

Adebayor continues to be an enigma. When a player scores twice in three games and still warrants criticism, something has to be amiss, and in Ade's case it was his complete lack of contribution to the wider team effort. The 'isolated up front' excuse only goes so far. If he was winning balls in the air yet has no one to play them to, I'd be more forgiving. But when a player wins nothing in the air, aside from, mysteriously, headers on goal, something is clearly amiss. Despite his goals, questions about his overall game should be asked.

As should they for our other goalscorer, Tomas Rosicky. Despite his goal today, about as meaningless a goal as they come in any case, he contributed little to the team. In the absence of Hleb and Fab, Rosicky should have stepped up and become the team's creative element. That he did not, and has not in the last few games, has surely shown him to be little more than a link man, albeit an effective one, in the Hleb-Fab-Flam midfield.

The rest of the midfield was similarly poor. Eboue should have been sent off in the first half after petulantly slapping an opponent; Gilberto showed why he's fallen so far behind in the pecking order; Diarra, whilst by no means awful, is not creative enough.

Eduardo, surprisingly, was hauled off at half-time. For a 'poacher' he's playing too deep at the moment, and with Adebayor not winning any ball for him, his ostensibly poor performances are unsurprising. I still think he will get better.

Things improved after Theo and Bendtner's introduction, but we were lacklustre, both in commitment and ability, and Boro were well-worth the three points.

So, a blip or the beginning of something worse? We had to, realistically, lose at some point in the league this year, but it's disappointing that we capitulated so meekly. After three games away from home, four points is by no means a disaster. But questions of whether our squad - not our first eleven - is strong enough to win the league should surely be raised after today's surrender.