30 November 2005

Arsenal 3 - 0 Reading

Arsenal's impressive youngsters ended Reading's 23 match unbeaten run and taught the Royals a valuable lesson about quality finishing at footballing's highest level. By all accounts, Reading acquitted themselves well and were unlucky not to score, but the they'll need to learn to put away more of their chances if they wish to succeed in the Premiership.

Reading rested a few of their regular starters for this Carling Cup match, so they obviously weren't going all out to upset the Gunners. Promotion from the Colaship remains their priority, and rightly so.

28 November 2005

Thun 0-1 Arsenal; Arsenal 3-0 Blackburn

Sorry for the gap in posts. The Thanksgiving holiday is to blame, but it's been a wonderful chance to see family. I hope your week was just as good!

That said, I missed comment on a busy football week. And for Arsenal, a good week it was. On Tuesday they squeaked through to a 0-1 win over Thun in the Champions League, thanks to a Robert Pires penalty in the 88th minute. (Glad to see he still knows how to take them...) I didn't see the match, but reports indicate that Arsenal were a bit lucky to get the penalty that proved the difference. Thun came into the group stage as minnows, but three points from five matches belies their quality. Their loss at home to Ajax and both home and away to Arsenal came on last-minute goals; only in their loss away to Ajax were they never close to any points. I'm glad to see the little Swiss side earn respect among the big boys.

But I'm much more glad to see Arsenal maintain their 100% CL record (touch wood). They will go into the knockout stage as group winners. It's exciting to see a measure of European success for the Gunners, but the group stage means very little at this point. There will be no pushovers in the knockout stage. When Real Madrid is a possible first-round opponent, you know that the stage is fraught with danger. Still, the success is Europe is exciting.

After the midweek action, Arsenal resumed league play at Highbury against Blackburn. FSC didn't broadcast the match until 5:00PM EST -- seven hours late! -- so I didn't watch the game live. The result was certainly worth the wait: a 3-0 victory. Bullet point thoughts on the game:In the end, it's nice to get an easy win. Despite the energetic Blackburn attack, there was really never any anxiety in the match. And the result is useful; Arsenal are now third in the Prem, behind Chelsea and Man Utd.

Player Ratings:
Lehmann: 8. Very solid; gave Blackburn no hope in their attack. Made a few quality saves at key moments. A very good game.

Lauren: 7. Once again played well and locked down the right side. Blackburn looked elsewhere for their attack. Got forward well.
Campbell: 7. Solid once again. Had to make a few last-ditch tackles.
Toure: 6. Mostly good. Got a few chances on the attack that I'd like to see him convert. Has been a bit shakier than usual lately, which I'll attribute to lack of comfort with Cygan next to him.
Cygan: 5. Better than the last couple games, but still not the answer. Spent most of the game chained to the sideline, so at least he wasn't drifting to the center. Got much too far forward at times. Had a lot of cover from Toure and Reyes/Ljungberg.

Pires: 8. Well played throughout. Absolutely deadly pass that led to Henry's goal. Cleared a ball off the Arsenal goalline. Very good match for him.
Gilberto: 7. Well played today. Quiet but involved, with few of his (lately familiar) horrid passes to opponents. Had a cracking shot at goal.
Fabregas: 8. Again instrumental in the attack. Tends to start many of Arsenal's most threatening moves. Nicely taken goal, it was good to see him break through. Lots of other good candidates, but I'll call Cesc Man of the Match.
Reyes: 7. As always, worked hard, didn't get a goal, but was a positive force throughout. Spent a lot of time tracking back to cover the wing for Cygan.

Bergkamp: 6. Quiet game for the most part. He seems to lack the killer finish he's accustomed to. Still positive though.
Henry: 8. Another fantastic game. The goal was a classic move in its simplicity. Gives the opposition fits even when he's nowhere near the ball.

Ljungberg: 6 (72' for Reyes). Fairly good match. Spent more time protecting the wing (i.e., Cygan) than attacking, but that's appropriate given that he came in with a 2-0 lead.
Flamini: 7 (77' for Pires). Didn't make a big impression. Played more defensively than Pires, but that was appropriate given the scoreline.
van Persie: 8 (82' for Bergkamp). Absolutely stunning goal. I don't know what they're feeding the boy, but his confidence is brimming over, and his shooting touch reflects that.

Up Next: Home to Reading on Tuesday, in the Carling Cup. As I'm sure Landry will attest, Reading are on form and will not be an easy opponent. It will be interesting to see what kind of team Arsène fields for the match. Typically this would be a chance for many of the youngsters to play. I would expect a very young team, and a very difficult match. Especially given the weekend's match...

Away to Bolton on Saturday. This will also be a tough match. Bolton have given up only two goals at home, and Arsenal still haven't demonstrated any great quality when traveling in the Prem (notwithstanding the Wigan game). Should make for an interesting match!

22 November 2005

Reading Top the Colaship

Thanks to a thumping 0-3 away win at Ipswich, Reading have overtaken Sheffield Utd. at the head of the Coca-Cola Championship. The Royals are on fine form, unbeaten since opening day, and the Carling Cup match against Arsenal at Highbury next Tuesday could prove interesting. Obviously the Gunners are favorites, having won five on the trot themselves, but it will be a good test of Reading's readiness for possible promotion.

19 November 2005

Wigan 2-3 Arsenal

Arsenal's first away win of the year. An exhausting, exciting, surging game.

I commented extensively over at the Big Soccer thread, so I won't say too much about the game here. In short: the Arsenal attack was fantastic, the defense was troubling, but more than anything, it was satisfying to see the Gunners get an away win against a quality team.

The left back situation for Arsenal is troublesome. Over the internationals, Gael Clichy broke his foot; he'll be out for 3 or 4 months. Ashley Cole is not due back until early December. So we'll have a couple of weeks with a makeshift solution over there. Today, it was Pascal Cygan, and he just didn't get it done. I like him a lot, and think he has an undeserved bad rep. But his decisionmaking today was not good, and in particular his positioning was faulty. He kept drifting into the middle of the pitch, leaving the left wing horribly exposed.

We'll play some of the youngsters at Thun on Tuesday, but it will be interesting to see what Wenger does for next weekend's game against Blackburn. I would predict that he'll start Campbell and Senderos at center-back, with Toure moving to left back. We'll see how it comes out.

And finally, my thoughts on Wigan. This was my first chance to watch them this year. Let's be clear: their overall level of talent is probably below average for the Premiership. But they play an excellent team game, and they have immense belief in themselves. There were a couple times, particulary at 0-2 down, where they looked close to packing it in. But instead, they fought back into the game. Their last touch was missing in the second half, but still they worked chances, and could have easily tied the game. My guess is that they'll suffer an inevitable drop in form at some point, and will finish the season somewhere around the middle of the table; I don't expect them to qualify for Europe. But they are clearly a quality team, and easily deserve to stay in the Prem... more so than many established teams. (I'm looking at you, Newcastle.) And all credit to Wigan for attacking throughout the game.

Player Ratings:
Lehmann: 6. Solid overall, though not really tested. Not really at fault for either goal.

Lauren: 6. Overall a good game. Lost his mark against Camara for the first Wigan goal. I'm growing to value his steady, solid play.
Campbell: 6. Well played. Had a few key clearances at various points in the second half.
Toure: 5. Not bad but a few dodgy moments. Was involved in both Wigan goals, though I think he was left exposed by Lauren and Cygan in turn.
Cygan: 4. Bad enough when on defense, but horrid when he was attacking -- too far to get back into position. There aren't many choices for Arsene at LB right now, but I don't think this is the right one.

Pires: 6. Worked hard but most of the game flowed through the center. Had some nice touches though.
Gilberto: 6. Overall not bad. An important calming presence at times. Still has a horrid habit of passing straight to the opposition.
Fabregas: 7. Overall a very good game. Much of the attack flowed through him, and he was instrumental in the posession game that Arsenal used in the second half. His finishing needs to improve though; he should have scored on the backheel from Henry.
Ljungberg: 6. See Pires.

van Persie: 8. Excellent work. I think his directness has been a key component of Arsenal's improved attack in the last few weeks. His goal is a prime example: he took a shot that the keeper was likely to save... but didn't. He's very efficient and his shots are always on goal or close.
Henry: 8. Another fine game from the captain. Two good goals, and in particular the free kick was a thing of beauty. He was also key in the passing-posession game that kept the second half under control. Man of the Match.

Flamini: 5 (75' for Pires). Frankly, not very useful. He has skill and pace, but seems to have a hard time integrating himself into the team. Did seem a bit better as time wore on. Stupid to pick up the yellow card, he has to get better at managing his emotions.
Bergkamp: 6 (75' for van Persie). Helped Arsenal keep posession late in the game. Nothing huge but still useful.
Senderos: 5 90' for Ljungberg). No time to establish himself — I think he only had one touch.

Arsenal travel to Bern to take on Thun on Tuesday, then have Blackburn at Highbury on Saturday. See you then!

17 November 2005

World Cup Qualifying: Complete!

We now know the 32 teams in the World Cup. The remaining games were played yesterday. There were some notably dramatic finishes, as well as some foregone conclusions. At the end of the day, the last five teams had been added: Australia, Trinidad & Tobago, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Spain. There was some ugliness too; Turkey and Switzerland have some explaining to do. But in the end, the qualifying is finished, and we have our competitors. Here's a summary, with thoughts on each region.


Ivory Coast

Missing notables:
Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria, Morocco, South Africa.

Africa was the most surprising region. Only one team (Tunisia) returns from the 2002 contingent, and in fact the other four teams have never been to the World Cup before. Africa is a very competitive region, and teams can often have surprising success as a result (see Senegal in 2002, for example). None of these teams will be picked as favorites in their groups... but I expect at least one to go through to the next round.

Asia and Oceania

Saudi Arabia
South Korea

Missing notables:
China, Bahrain.

Same old story here: Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia all will attend. All three were included in 2002 and 1998. Iran also has been a regular recently, though China qualified instead in 2002. Without the home-field advantage, it will be difficult for Japan and South Korea to replicate their success from the 2002 World Cup. Asia just isn't as challenging, and the lack of competition will hurt these teams.

It's also interesting to see Australia will be included, after winning in the playoff against Uruguay. Only twice before have Oceania teams qualified for the finals: Australia in 1974 and New Zealand in 1982. So a 24-year drought has been ended. Or has it? Australia will move to the Asian Football Confederation on 1 January 2006. So perhaps one could argue that they won't be representing Oceania after all.


Czech Republic
Serbia & Montenegro

Missing notables:
Turkey, Greece, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, Belgium.

With 51 teams in the region and 14 places in the finals, you would expect some surprises from Europe. There weren't any huge shocks but definitely some interesting results. Turkey found 3rd place in 2002; in 2005, they miss by the thinnest of margins in their playoff with Switzerland. Greece aren't a World Cup regular by any means, but their win in Euro 2004 seemed to indicate a team on the rise. It's also interesting to see Russia out and Ukraine in, attending their first-ever finals. The Czechs haven't qualified since 1990, so they too will be unfamiliar faces. There are many European teams who have legitimate dreams of World Cup success, probably starting with hosts Germany. Some will be cruelly disappointed, of course, but I expect several European teams will advance past the group stage. But will it be 9 teams, as in 2002?

North/Central America

Costa Rica
Trinidad & Tobago
United States

Notably missing:

Same old story out of CONCACAF: US, Mexico, and Costa Rica all go through. What's interesting is to see Trinidad & Tobago qualify as well, thanks to their victory over Bahrain. It will be their first trip to the finals. They're certainly an uneven team, but they've shown flashes of attacking flair, and I'm hopeful that they'll do credit to the region in Germany.

But will CONCACAF have overall success? I have high hopes for the US of course. They've been playing well of late, and the team certainly has depth that compares with any other squad. But their lack of size may cost them in physical play against the more aggressive European teams. Mexico have also looked good throughout qualifying, and they have realistic hopes for a successful World Cup. I think both teams should expect no less than a trip beyond the group stages.

South America


Notably missing:
Uruguay, Chile

No big surprises here either. Someday, we will have to come to grips with a World Cup without Argentina or Brazil... but not in 2006. Ecuador are the relative newcomers, with only one previous visit. But that was in 2002 so they too will be a familiar face. Will COMNEBOL have success? Brazil will always be threats to win it all, and Argentina will also be a dangerous team. But we'll have to see if any other teams make it through to the elimination rounds.

So that's the summary. Mark your calendar for 9 December — that's when the group draw will take place. Once that's out, we can start to seriously speculate about favorites, surprises, and disappointments. But for now, 32 countries are celebrating the simple fact that they will be part of the largest spectacle in sport.

15 November 2005

Hoosier At Highbury Pt II: Sparta Prague

I've talked about the game already. Now I want to give my impressions from the day — my first at Highbury. My first in London, actually.

The flight in was draining. I arrived in London at 8AM; I spent the morning walking through Regents Park and trying to keep myself awake. I took an hour nap in the hotel, once I checked in, but I was eager to go to Islington, so I left rather early.

I was at the stadium about three hours before the game. That was OK with me, because I wanted to walk around the area for a while. I did a complete circuit of the stadium, taking in both the grounds and the neighborhood. It was dark, so I don't have as many photos; I'll have more for later installments.
There are very few stadiums in the US that are so integrated into a residential neighborhood, at least to my knowledge. Most are either downtown, in an open field surrounded by parking, or (for college stadiums) on a college campus. Wrigley Field is the one exception I can think of, though I'm sure there are others.

So Highbury is a very different experience. The neighborhood is, in american parlance, one of zero lot-line townhouses. On the north and west sides of the stadium, the entrances are essentially gaps in the rows of housing. On most of the west and all the south side, there's no access to the grounds. Only on the east side, on Avenell Road, does Highbury reveal itself in all its glory.

I took a walk around the neighborhood. With so much time before the match, the crowds had not yet arrived, but the area still bustled with pregame activity. Vendors set up their stands; police marshalled themselves; and a few early arrivals found food. The smell of grilling meats hung over the area. At 4:30, the darkening sky was still light enough to glisten off the damp streets. I wandered about, taking it all in, and snapping a few photos. After an hour or so, I headed to the T-Bird, met the Arsenal America crew, and picked up my tickets. After hanging out for a bit, it was back to the grounds for the match.

As I entered the grounds, the teams were warming up; Sparta were in front of me. The fans steadily filled the stands; my impression was that many were relative newcomers like myself, taking advantage of the midweek game. But I only had eyes for Highbury. My seats were in the East Stand, towards the south end. On TV, this would be across from the camera, towards the right side. Clock End to my left; North Bank to my distant right. I'd seen it on TV dozens of times. Now I was there, and not even my sleep-deprived brain could miss the spectacle. I was about eight rows from the pitch, which made it difficult to see the big picture, but great to see the play up close. As things go, it's a fairly small stadium. Usually it holds about 38,000 fans; for this match the capacity fell to 35,000. Evidently the Champions League matches require larger advertising boards on the sidelines, and several rows of seats must be left empty. 35,000 isn't huge — maybe comparable to a small I-A or large I-AA college stadium in the US. All I can say is, it doesn't feel anything like that.

The game itself was reasonably comfortable. Arsenal's early lead gave us a feeling of control, and Sparta Prague weren't able to mount too much pressure. I was immensely privledged to see a fantastic Thierry Henry goal, followed by two good strikes from Robin van Persie. I got to participate in crowd singing — for once I could tell what the words were! — though the East stands were a bit quieter than I would have liked. And finally, I was able to leave knowing that we'd won 3-0. I'm told that Arsenal have never lost in front of an official Arsenal America crowd, and I was glad we could keep that tradition intact. A magical night for me, and one I'll long remember.

I'll add more posts, on the Highbury tour and the Sunderland game. Back soon!

14 November 2005

MLS Championship (in case you missed it)

The L.A. Galaxy, owners of the snazziest uniforms in MLS, can now boast the league's championship trophy as well after topping the New England Revolution 1-0 after extra time.

Here are some quick statistics from the match that speak volumes about the relative quality and visibility of the soccer played in MLS:

11 November 2005

Banning Blades?

There's been a lot of discussion and debate over "blades" recently. In case you've missed it, blades are a new type of cleat that have become quite a fad among some players. Check out the Nike Mercurial Vapor and the Adidas Predator to see what these new, thinner and grippier studs looks like.

There is a perception among some that the new traction system is reponsible for higher incidence of injury. Sir Alex Ferguson, never one to sidestep a controversy, has come out boldly againt blades. Some argue that the increased traction these shoes offer transfers more force to ankle and knee joints. Others point out that the blades themselves are more prone to produce lacerations.

Remember all the hullaballo in the golfing world over square grooves? This stikes me as a very similar situation- a tempest in a tea cup. I find it very implausible that these new cleats increase the risk of injury appreciably. And all the attention just helps fuel the craze. Give me a pair of molded Copa Mundials any day.

09 November 2005

Hoosier At Highbury: Part I

Just a quick post to mention that I'm back from London. I'll give a full account of my overall experiences on the weekend, but I'll give a quick recap now, and comment a bit on the games.

In short, it was an amazing trip.

London itself was a great experience. I did several touristy things, and had a great time with it. But really the highlights were the Arsenal trips. The Arsenal America attendees (and the UK-based supporters) were just fantastic. The club did a great job of taking care of us, and really went out of their way to treat us well. And of course the matches were fantastic. Just a few comments on those:

Arsenal 3-0 Sparta Prague
A great match for the Gunners. After 15 minutes, I think nobody (including Sparta) had any doubts about who would win the match. Arsenal maintained pressure throughout the game, and it was clear that goals were inevitable. Thierry Henry's goal was a thing of beauty, though it's difficult to understand how Sparta could leave him unmarked. Then when he went off for Robin van Persie, the young Gunner took over the game, scoring two fine goals. The second was mostly due to some excellent work from Emmanuel Eboue, and it was good to see him making an impact too. All in all, a fine win.

Arsenal 3-1 Sunderland
Another good win of course, and one that had some doubts due to the club's recent indifferent form in the Prem. But Sunderland were simply overmatched; I applaud their willingness to attack but it left them horribly exposed. Any worries that the fans had about Arsenal's league form were quickly expelled when van Persie scored on 12 minutes, chesting down Sol Campbell's long diagonal ball and firing a rocket into the net. He was also involved in the second, with an audacious flick on a Robert Pires pass that set Lauren free down the right; Lauren's cross was perfect and Henry slotted home easily. Sunderland kept challenging, and were rewarded with a slightly dodgy corner, followed by a scrappy rebound goal that found Jens Lehmann's five-hole. The crowd were suddenly restless, but were set back at ease when Henry found the goal seven minutes later, sent through by Cesc Fabregas.

Suffice to say, I was very happy with the team. It's more difficult to comment on individual performances from within the ground (at least when you're seated ten rows or so from the pitch). But I'll also add a later post on my thoughts on how the team's doing now, also on the weekend.

Only problem is, now I'm incredibly eager to get back. It was a ton of fun, and I'm eager to see another match, as soon as possible.

01 November 2005

Sing for the Royals!

My blogging partner, an avowed Arsenal supporter, has often chided me for not throwing my support wholeheartedly behind a club. There is a certain amount of truth to his claim. While I do follow certain teams consistently- Real Madrid, AC Milan, Aston Villa, Seattle Sounders- I tend gravitate toward those teams who are playing the most attractive soccer. While this may make me appear to be a fair weather friend, I prefer to consider myself a fan of the game, rather than a single club.

But today, all that changes, sorta. I am officially declaring my undying allegiance to Reading FC, temporarily residing in the second tier of English football. The truth is I've been following their exploits for the past several years, ever since they acquired Marcus Hahnemann. Reading have a long history, but it's hardly storied or impressive. In recent years they've consistently flirted with promotion to the Premiership, but have always found a way to come up short. In that respect, they are reminiscent of my beloved Saints and Tigers. Last season, the Royals were on track for automatic promotion after the first half of the season, but went winless for 3 months after Boxing Day to fall out of contention.

Again, this season, Reading are off to a fine start and they and Sheffield Utd. have built a comfortable lead on the the rest of the chasers. In typical Reading style, they've done it on the back of the stingiest defense in the Championship, allowing a league low 9 goals in 16 games. The difference this year is that they're scoring goals at a frenetic (for Reading) pace of 2.1 per game. Today, they take on, and will surely dispatch a struggling Sheffield Wednesday. Given that Wednesday have a stingy defense themselves, I predict a scoreline of only 1-0, but that will be enough to ensure Reading extend their unbeaten streak to 19 games.

By the way, my decision to support Reading is completely unrelated to the fact that they were drawn to face Arsenal in Round 4 of the Carling Cup. Come on you Royals!

UPDATE: Reading 2 - 0 Sheffield Wednesday

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