28 February 2006

Need a Galactico? Please?

It's been difficult for me to tolerate the reign of Florentino Perez at Real Madrid. Today though, mercifully, he's decided to step aside. It's a move that's long overdue.

I lived in Madrid for five years in the early 90's. Real Madrid were a true team back then and regular exposure to the likes of Michel, Butregueno, Sanchis, Hierro, Buyo and Gordillo is what cemented soccer into my psyche. From my attic apartment I could hear the cheers from the Bernabeau some three miles away and I became swept up in the passion and drama of the game. So the team's decline has been especially disappointing.

The current team is little more than a collection of playing cards, with about as much spine and grit. Madrid have never been known for their defense, but when David Beckham is the toughest bloke in your midfield, you've got problems. Perez has spent his time in charge building a team that is designed to sell jerseys, not win championships. And while he's been undeniably successful on the business side, he's been woefully inept when it comes to building a team.

I would expect a galacticos sell-off this summer.

25 February 2006

Blackburn 1-0 Arsenal

And so it goes. No links to stories, because I can't stand to read about the poor performance I just saw. I'll also avoid Big Soccer for a bit, because I can't stand the self-flagellation after a loss like this. I do understand it, though, because it's painful to see a match like this after such a fine performance in Madrid.

But of course that's not accidental. This Arsenal team has much more trouble with the Blackburns of the world than they do the Real Madrids. I spent much of the second half thinking about why that is -- or more precisely, what's changed since 03/04 that's made such a difference. There are a host of reasons, of course. But I'll talk to three that I've seen.

Tactics. Teams have learned exactly what kinds of tactics to use against the Gunners. The wall built by Rovers was well-designed, and pretty much the same as that used by Bolton et. al. It frustrates the Arsenal passing attack and forces players into holding the ball much too long.

Communication. In the past, Arsenal would defeat such tactics through precise passing and well-timed moves. But that precision is rare these days. I believe that much of it is due to the turnover in the team, from departures, additions, and injuries. Players are forced to rotate to unfamiliar positions and work with untested partners. That would be difficult for any team, but it's mortal for Arsenal's precision attack.

Attitude. As I've said before, I think it's rubbish to talk about a 'lack of desire'. I have no doubt that the team were desperate to win this game, and in fact had probably talked of nothing else since returning to London. But I think the team gets itself into trouble once the match starts, when the disruptive tactics and miscommunication results in frustrated play. Arsenal on form are a well-oiled machine, but matches like this drain the oil from the works... and the friction grinds at the parts. Different players show it in different ways: Henry's quiescence, Lehmann's blowups, Senderos' nervousness, Reyes' recklessness -- and one too many passes for everyone. In any case, they let it eat at themselves, and their play suffers for it.

I think a few inevitable changes will improve things: familiarity for the new, health for the injured, and experience for the young. There's really not that much qualitative difference between today's Gunners and the 03/04 team, and if they can hold on (and sign a bit of support), I don't think they're that far from a return to top form. But the discouraging, disappointing question at this point is whether all that will come too late. What is the chance of Henry staying if Arsenal miss Europe for next year? And, more importantly, how will the players react to losing him? (Hint: look at the reaction to losing Viera this year... but double that.) This team, these very players, are capable of every kind of success. But you feel that if they don't snap together soon, then the setbacks will last well beyond May 06.

We will see. A few thoughts on the players from today. But first, one comment on the tactics: Wenger has to stop playing Fabregas out wide. It's no surprise that our attack truly commenced when Diaby came off -- simply because that brought Cesc back into the middle of the pitch. That's two-thirds of the match where we had almost no possession, and that starves a team like Arsenal. Anyway, on to the players:

Player Ratings:
Lehmann: 6 Difficult to rate, because he was pretty good for much of the game, went mental for about ten minutes, and missed one difficult but saveable shot. Really, his form was mostly fantastic, but he put the team at much too much risk in the second half. I do like his aggressive sweeper-like tactics, but today those went too far. Needs to settle down -- but again, I think this is his frustration hurting his play. And he's not the only one to suffer from that.

Flamini: 6 Not bad, really. Probably tried to do too much at times, taking himself out of position. Not as good as his last couple games, but still he's done better at left back than we could have hoped. Still, let's hope Ashley Cole's return is imminent.
Senderos: 5 Suffers when his calm deserts him. Was decent for much of the game, but his nervousness was obvious both before and after the goal. Missed probably the best chance at an equalizer.
Toure: 7 Continued his fine run of form. Marred it with a few nervous moments, but avoided any serious trouble.
Eboue: 7 Still playing well. Suffered a bit more from the physical play of Blackburn, but still had some good defensive moments, as well as some nice attacking runs. Lauren/Eboue is starting to look like the same depth as Cole/Clichy did last year.

Reyes: 5 Had one too many touches several times. Clearly frustrated, leading to a couple fouls. Wasn't an obvious candidate for halftime replacement (unlike Campbell a couple weeks back), but still was clearly not on his game.
Diaby: 6 Rough. Some very good moments, but suffered from the lack of confidence around him. Willing to get stuck in, but still finding his way with a new team.
Gilberto: 7 Kept up his good form from Tuesday. Kept his passes simple, which helps enormously. However, with he and Diaby in the center, quality possessions were rare. But at least one of our players looks to be returning to form.
Fabregas: 6 Willing but unable on the wing. Doesn't keep his width and leaves the defense exposed. Much better once Diaby came off and Cesc moved to the center. Probably needs to take free kicks for us more often.

Adebayor: 7 Seems to have a rough touch but gets into some good positions. Hampered by a couple of poor offsides calls. Seemed our most dangerous threat for much of the game.
Henry: 5 An anonymous performance for our captain. Hungry for good service, of course, but that was always going to happen with Blackburn. If he had a shot on goal, it was unmemorable.

Subs (times from memory):
Pires: 6 (45' for Reyes) Followed a good Tuesday performance with a decent effort. Has shown at least that he's willing to work hard -- just needs to do it more often. Should have shot rather than passing to Henry.
Hleb: 6 (62' for Diaby) benefited from the improved service generated by a central Fabregas. Starting to show some of the form that brought him to London, but obviously needs more time to understand where his teammates will be.
Lupoli: 5 (81' for Gilberto) Fairly quiet in his first ten minutes of Premiership play. Was hindered by the garbage-time play of both teams (timewasting from Blackburn and chaos from the Arsenal attack).

As for Blackburn? I guess the best you can say for them is that they stuck to their gameplan. Really their attack wasn't generally threatening all that often. Still, the goal was well-worked by Bellamy (though he's still a twit) and their 80% possession for most of the first half was a credit.

Ah well. Let's see if some Thai food will dull the depression.

24 February 2006

Real Madrid 0-1 Arsenal

I may be the last Arsenal blogger to post on the game. And yet... it's still worth it.

By now you know it all. "Arsene Wenger got what he had demanded when Thierry Henry lead a superb team effort as Arsenal recorded a famous win in the first leg of their Champions League clash with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu." (Soccernet) "Arsenal thoroughly deserved their victory, with Henry and Jose Antonio Reyes missing other good chances." (BBC Sport) "There was genuine backbone to the spine of Arsenal's side and belief must surely now course through them for the remainder of their campaign." (The Guardian) "King Juan Carlos, Seve Ballasteros, Don Quixote, General Franco, Seat Ibiza, Zorro (?), your boys took a hell of a beating…" (East Lower) "But all in all, this was a fantastic, momentous result that will be remembered for years even if the job is only half done." (Goodplaya) "A night to be proud to be a Gooner no matter how long your website has been running." (Arseblog)

Yeah, it was that good.

I am by nature a contrarian. So there's part of me that looks for the alternate viewpoint. Real Madrid were not at their best, and certainly could have scored a goal or two at various points. Arsenal missed too many chances, and should have had more goals. The Gunners still have only a 1-0 lead going into the second leg, and Real Madrid are certainly a threat to score, even at Highbury.

Yeah, yeah. All true. But even so, it was a wonderful win. Everyone on the team played well, and most had fantastic games. And more than anything, it's such a relief, after so many lackluster performances (Anfield!) to have the team play with such energy and organization. It's like springtime after a long winter. And I think we're all entitled to enjoy it for a while.

With that in mind, player ratings may be a bit... generous. And why not?

Player Ratings
Lehmann: 9 While Real Madrid didn't mount as much attack as you would expect, they still had their chances, and Jens handled them all quite well. His save on Beckham (at about 30') was bold goalkeeping at its best. Between Casillas and Lehmann, this match was a real preview of quality World Cup goalkeeping -- Jens is rapidly building his case over Oliver Kahn.

Flamini: 8 Difficult to rate; he was facing top-quality opposition and Beckham did get the better of him at times. Yet he mostly kept Becks quiet, and was well involved getting forward too. One question, though. Does Mathieu get a handball in every match, or is it me?
Senderos: 7 Had a couple of shaky moments (the 30' Beckham turnover, and the near og header). But otherwise was solid and calm. Whenever Beckham got in a cross, Senderos was there to head it clear.
Toure: 8 How vital is it to have Kolo back? Took the lead in keeping the area clean and empty of threat. He was rock-solid, active, and vocal. Becoming a true leader on the club. If Henry leaves, it wouldn't surprise me to see Kolo as the next captain.
Eboue: 9 I can't begin to express how impressed I was by his game. Obviously the ACN did wonders for his confidence, and playing next to his Ivory Coast partner has to help. What a wonder to see him pickpocket Roberto Carlos, Cicinho, and Zidane at various points. Also made some very confident runs (with ball) into threatening positions. A true coming-out party for the 22-year-old.

Reyes: 8 Ruthlessly exploited the holes left by the wayward Cicinho. Has truly taken ownership of the winger role. Had to enjoy this moment.
Fabregas: 9 If Eboue had his introduction party, then Fabregas had his crowning. A game like his would impress anywhere; to do it in front of his countrymen was a sure lifetime moment. Handles his passes like a pool cue, slotting them precisely to where a streaking attacker needs them to be. It's no coincidence that Luis Aragones promptly announced that Cesc would get his first cap for the national team (ironically in a friendly with Ivory Coast). Have to call him the Man of the Match.
Gilberto: 8 I've been hard on Gilberto all year, but this match reminded us all of what he can contribute. Continually broke up the Real Madrid posession before the attacks started, and forced several bad passes that lead to Arsenal opportunities. An inspired performance.
Ljungberg: 8 Another great performance, missing only the final touch. Deserved to get a goal or two for his well-timed runs. Spent a lot of time covering for the defense. Freddie's been playing quite well, and just smells like he's about to go on a goalscoring binge.
Hleb: 7 Probably his best game as a Gunner. Still has a hard time choosing the right pass, and often missed some key opportunities. But was extremely useful in the tackle, winning posession in the midfield, and generally working his tail off. Unpolished but very useful.

Henry: 8 What can you say about a goal like that? There are very few players that can singlehandedly take the game over like that. He only did it for 15 seconds -- actually he was a bit wasteful for the rest of the match -- but it was the 15 seconds that mattered most.

Pires: 8 (76' for Hleb) Worked incredibly hard. (!) Pires is a bit bipolar in his performances, but we saw the good Bob on Tuesday. Probably a good effect on his chances for Valencia.
Diaby: 7 (80' for Reyes) Still rough around the edges, but looked amazingly fearless. I mean, think about it. He's 19, playing in the Bernebeu, in a huge internationally-televised match. And yet he showed no signs of nerves. Forced a huge, aggressive save from Casillas.
Song: n/a (90' for Fabregas) No real time to impose himself. Worked hard, anyway.

So, back to reality on Saturday: Blackburn. Ugh. Let's hope that we're just as committed when playing against an English side with a bit of the thug in their game.

But until then, let's enjoy Tuesday:

(Animation from Irelandboy on Big Soccer).

14 February 2006

News Roundup

A few news headlines for this Valentine's Day:

Bruised Reyes targets Real Madrid comeback
Arsenal's Jose Antonio Reyes has escaped with heavy bruising after fears he may have broken his leg following a two-footed tackle by Bolton Wanderers' Abdoulaye Faye in their Premier League match at Highbury on Saturday. (Reuters)

That's great to hear -- and unexpected, given our injury history this year. I was happy with the way Robert Pires played in Reyes' place, but it's good to have all options. And Reyes has given Madrid fits before; Zinedine Zidane famously asked whether Reyes was "on a motorbike" after Seville beat Madrid 4-1. Let's hope Zizou is equally confounded next Tuesday.

Lita suffers facial injury in night club
Championship leaders Reading have confirmed that striker Leroy Lita suffered a facial injury following an incident in Bristol on Saturday evening. (Soccernet)
An injury to watch for Premiership target Reading. Lita is their third-leading scorer (on 10 goals). Reading, on a 32-game unbeaten streak, don't need any distractions. However, with a 21-point advantage over third place, it would take a ridiculous collapse to drag Reading back to the playoff spots.

Barca have Chelsea pitch concerns
Barcelona have voiced concerns about Chelsea's pitch ahead of the Champions League tie on 22 February. (BBC)
The wealthiest club in the world, and they won't properly care for the pitch. What a joke. Of course, at that point you have to assume it's intentional. Or then again, maybe things are tighter at Chelsea than we expect. Either way it's a shame, and yet another example that you can buy players, and you can even buy victories, but you can't buy class.

Thun sack coach who steered them into Champions League
Thun have sacked the trainer who steered the tiny Swiss club to a shock place in this season's Champions League. The club announced on its website on Monday that Urs Schoenenberger would be "released immediately due to irreconcilable differences." (Reuters)
Now that's a darn shame. I don't know anything about the backstory here, but Thun have been a real shock this year. Even qualifying for the Champions League was a major accomplishment for a team with an annual operating budget just over $4 million. And they acquitted themselves well in group play, finishing in third and staying competitive in most matches. Thun are currently 6th out of 10 in the Swiss Superleague standings, and I'm sure that's a disappointment. But as Everton will attest, it's easy to suffer a drop in form after a surprising success, particularly with so many more matches to play.

And finally...
Nike Unveils New 2006 Jerseys for U.S. Men's National Team
Nike and U.S. Soccer have unveiled the 2006 U.S. Men’s National Team jersey, which will be worn this summer by the U.S. at the FIFA World Cup in Germany.
My reaction? Eh. They don't look bad, but I'm extremely disappointed that the away jersey is still blue. There was some hope that they would choose red, which would have inspired me to buy one. The stripes look nice, especially on the away jersey. Not sure about that stripe on the home sock, however.

But anyway, there's better news for the US Men's National Team: they're winning. A 5-0 victory over Norway was followed by a 3-2 win over Japan. It's easy to read too much into wins in friendlys, but these are two good teams. Japan is in the finals, and Norway only missed out in a playoff against the Czech Republic. So at least it's heartening that the US is showing some good form.

Anyway, that's enough for this morning. Now for a good result at Anfield. Come on you Gunners!

12 February 2006

Arsenal 1-1 Bolton

Over the field rang his clear voice calling: 'Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world's ending!' And with that the host began to move. But the Rohirrim sang no more. Death they cried with one voice loud and terrible, and gathering speed like a great tide their battle swept about their fallen king and passed, roaring away southwards.
J. R. R. Tolkein, The Return Of The King
I think everyone knew this would be a difficult fixture for Arsenal. Bolton have done a number on the Gunners of late, and our duct-taped back line wasn't one to inspire confidence. So I think all Arsenal fans greeted the first 10 minutes with a combined feeling of panic and gloom, as Bolton quickly put the Arsenal goal under all sorts of pressure. That pressure finally told at 12' as Kevin Nolan hit a high-quality chip that found the back of the net. The panic and gloom increased, and the match had 0-2 to Bolton written all over it. The players looked panicked too, scrambling frantically to get the ball forward but with little organization or effect.

Then came the Reyes injury. Abdoulaye Faye's two-footed, studs-out challenge was well over the ball; how he gets away with a yellow in that situation I can't understand. Early in the season, we saw plenty of red for challenges with much less 'intent'; this was clearly a very dangerous tackle and easily called for a sending-off. In any case, you know there's a problem when they're splinting the player's leg, and at 32' Robert Pires was brought in for the injured Spaniard.

At that point, the red mist descended over my vision; I wanted to see the Gunners kocking Bolton around. It was time to stand up and fight back. And I think they players reacted the same way. Jens Lehmann got tangled up -- I think with Nolan, can't remember -- which ended in a shoving match. Tackles came flying in from all the Arsenal players, and while they were no more threatening, at the least they looked fired up.

The second half saw the attack return for the Arsenal. Much of that may be due to the replacement of Vassiliky Diaby with Freddie Ljungberg. Diaby was energetic and involved, but his lack of experience (both with Arsenal and overall) meant that he tended to look somewhat random. Whatever the cause, Arsenal spent most of the second half laying seige to the North Bank goal. Only a determined defense, led by the on-form Jussi Jaaskelainen in goal, kept Arsenal at bay.

For all Arsenal's attack, the end of regular time approached without any reward. Bolton tried every trick in the book to run out the clock; it was to the referee's credit that he tracked the tactic and added on extra time to account for it. And that time paid, as Gilberto fired home the much-deserved equalizer at 92'. Thierry Henry nearly got a last-chance matchwinner, beating Jaaskelainen only to have the shot headed off the line by Ricardo Gardner.

And so: Arsenal 1-1 Bolton. Bolton may feel a bit unlucky to miss the three points, but the truth is that Bolton were hanging on by their fingernails for much of the second half. Arsenal could have taken the win as well, but the last-minute draw (especially following a determined fight-back) is an encouraging sign. As I've said before, Arsenal will be handed nothing easily this season, and will have to fight for every point. Taking a point at home isn't the first choice, but a scrappy, rough-edged effort like this exactly what the Gunners will need to produce time and again between now and May. Tuesday sees Arsenal travel to Anfield, and certainly the Liverpool match will be a challenge. But if they can produce the same kind of fight, they can get a result.

One side note: Did Sky Sports have some university class handling the broadcast? I was appalled at the poor quality of the broadcast. The camera work was poor, but the directing was even worse. They kept cutting to cameras pointed at empty parts of the pitch, or to long thoughtful takes on the managers, while the ball was in play. Look, I can appreciate that it's difficult sometimes to get to the right camera at the right moment. But at least try to find the ball, OK? I like Arsène Wenger, but I have no desire to watch him during the game. As for Sam Allardyce... ugh.

Haven't done this in a while, but:
Player Ratings
Lehmann: 8 Arsène made an interesting tactical adjustment; clearly Lehmann was directed to perform as sweeper and come well out of his box to clean up any long balls that Bolton shot through. That asks a lot of the keeper but it plays to Lehmann's strengths and he handled it well. I suppose I should fault him for his temper -- he was probably at risk for at least a yellow at a couple points -- but after the Faye tackle I was just as angry as Jens.

Flamini: 7 Playing pretty well at LB. I think he does fullback better than wide midfield, though he does exhibit a risky tendency to dribble the ball into the center of the attack, leaving the flank exposed. Switched to RB when Larsson was taken off. I've not been a huge Flamini fan, but this kind of flexibility points to him as a useful player, particularly as a
Djourou: 7 Still looks a bit raw but had a fine game nonetheless. Might be faulted a bit for the Nolan goal, but he wasn't far and to be fair Nolan made a fine shot. Had an excellent last-ditch tackle on Nolan a few minutes later. I've only seen him twice now but I would currently choose him over Cygan for sure at CB.
Senderos: 7 Had some fine tackles at key moments. Made a fine tackle on Matt Jansen that took an unfortunate bounce to Nolan for the Bolton goal. Got far forward at a couple points late in the game; his attacks were (unsurprisingly) unpolished, but I like the leadership and effort that's behind it.
Larsson: 6 Didn't do badly for his second game at RB. Has a bit of pace and plays with some fire. Acts a bit like Freddie's younger brother. Will be interesting to see what his role is with the senior team next year.

Reyes: 6 Was looking dangerous before the injury. I wish he could keep his feet more, but I think he does get a high share of hard tackles his way. Rightly or wrongly, he has a reputation, and so that encourages rougher treatment. No news yet on the extent of the injury, though a broken leg is feared. Faye's studs caught him right on the shin, and Reyes told the physio that he felt a crack. Not good.
Gilberto: 7 I'm still horribly frustrated with his passing; he had a few more howlers yesterday. But at least he was much more aggressive, particularly in the second half. And of course he had the key goal; that's worth a point right there.
Diaby: 6 The words "raw talent" come to mind. He's always involved in the play, and often makes that slight extra bit of effort that we've missed this year. He's still raw though, and it's clear that he's not yet sure how to work with his teammates. That will come, though. It's terribly unfair to comapre an 18-year-old with something like 15 top-flight games in all leagues to Patrick Viera. But I think there's a chance that, ten years from now, it's Viera who will be flattered by the comparison.
Fabregas: 8 Playing wide is clearly not his comfort zone, and (much like Flamini) he has a tendency to pull himself too far to the middle. Still, he's almost always contributing something useful. I liked seeing him take corners, and he did a fine job of it. Was much more effective in the second half after Diaby came off and he moved to the middle. Had the key cross that Gilberto fired home for the equalizer. A difficult call, but for that I'll name him Man of the Match.

Henry: 6 A difficult game to rate for Henry. He was clearly frustrated by the lack of service. But with the aggressive midfield defense that Bolton provides, he's unlikely to get a perfectly weighted pass to his feet every time. Still, there's something to be said for holding his teammates to a higher standard. Nearly got the winner at 94'.
Adebayor: 6 As with Diaby, he's still working to find his role in the team. At times there was a bit of confusion in the attack as he found himself running into his own team. Made a nice run to break free on goal, but had a poor second touch that spoiled the chance. He brings another dimension to the Arsenal attack, and I think that unpredictability will be incredibly useful. Will provide Wenger with some interesting choices once Van Persie is healthy again.

Pires: 8 (32' for Reyes) Showed that he can still have an excellent match. Was thwarted a few times by Jaaskelainen. Fought hard, was active and involved. Nice to see; these may be the last days we see Robert in an Arsenal uniform so let's enjoy the good performances while we have them.
Ljungberg: 7 (45' for Diaby) Interesting tactical swtich at the half, but moving Cesc to the center-mid really aided our attack. Freddie wasn't horribly effective, but his fight and desire is sorely needed and much appreciated. Switched to LB when Larsson was taken off, and did pretty well there too. Some stars would pitch a fit at playing out of position like that, but this is ithe second time Ljungberg has done so and it's been a huge help to the team at a desperate hour.
Bergkamp: 6 (73' for Larsson) Showed flashes of brilliance. Had a good chance that just swerved the wrong way. It's a shame to see his stellar career coming to an end in such a disappointing season, but it would do his legacy a disservice for him to stick around.

09 February 2006

ACN: It's Egypt and Ivory Coast

We've not been covering the African Cup of Nations in much detail. That's mostly because we just can't see it. There's probably some way to watch it online, via a Saudi internet feed or something. But there aren't any broadcast options for the usual US viewer, and so paying attention is difficult.

Which is a shame because it's been a fascinating tournament. Africa as a region is probably more competitive than just about any other save Europe. The World Cup qualifying provided just the latest examples of this, since four of the five African qualifying teams are newcomers to the finals, while powers like Nigeria, Cameroon, and Senegal will stay home. So the ACN has provided a pre-WC reality check. Are the newcomers really that good? Are the older powers in such a decline?

The answers have been a bit mixed. The traditional powers have done reasonably well, but none are in the finals. Both Senegal and Nigeria lost in the semis, so they both came close. Cameroon lost in the quarterfinals, though it took penalties to make the difference. All three teams performed well and went out by thin margins. The only real disappointment is South Africa; they lost all three of their group games without scoring once. South Africa is hosting the World Cup Finals in 2010, and they'll have a lot of work to do to make the team respectable before then.

The World Cup teams have been mixed too. Leading the disappointments is Togo, with losses to DR Congo, Cameroon, and Angola in the group stage. Ghana only had one win, but that was over Senegal; they lost to Zimbabwe and Nigeria. But they only missed the quarterfinals due to goal differential, so they might chalk it up to a tough group. Angola had four points, from the win over Togo and a goalless draw with DR Congo. They too lost out due to goal differential. Tunisia, like Cameroon, made it to the quarterfinals, and only lost to Nigeria on penalties.

Ivory Coast has been the big winner. They went through the group stages with little trouble, winning over Morocco and Libya and losing only to Egypt. They followed that with wins over Cameroon in the quarterfinals and Nigeria in the semifinals. The team has been impressive, and Yaya Toure (Kolo's little brother) has had a real introduction to the world stage. He'll be leaving Olympiakos for a big club this summer; the only question is which club.

Ivory Coast will be facing Egypt in the finals. Egypt have been a real surprise in the ACN, probably due to thier status as the host team. In particular, there were elements of controversy in their semifinal win over Senegal. In the 90th minute, with Egypt leading 2-1, Ibrahim Said took down Diomansy Kamara in the box. The referee ignored the incident, signaling a goal kick. Commentators have speculated that the referee feared to whistle a hugely unpopular penalty among a rabid home crowd (the match was played in Cairo). Further controversy has broken out after the match, as the team has suspended Mido from the squad. He was subbed out of the Senegal match at 79', and reacted by furiously berating coach Hassan Shehata. Shehata responded by sending Mido back to London. The irony is that Mido's replacement, Zaki, quickly scored the goal that put Egypt on top.

The contoversy has stained an otherwise impressive run by Egypt. Despite the home-field advantage, they were not a prime candidate to reach the finals. Yet they impressively won their group, with wins over Libya and Ivory Coast and a draw with Morocco. They easily handled DR Congo in the quarterfinals, winning 4-1, and followed that with the win over Senegal. It's been a quality run through the tournament, and it's unfortunate that it may be remembered for one dodgy refereeing decision.

The pointless third-place match is today, as Nigeria take on Senegal. Then the final will take place on Friday, as Egypt and Ivory Coast square off. The final is a rematch of the group-stage match, which Egypt won 3-1. That match may be a bit decpetive, as Ivory Coast had already qualified for the knockout rounds and rested key players. It's disappointing that US viewers won't be able to see the match, unless they have 3A Telesud (French commentary) or ART Global America (Arabic commentary) via the DISH Network. I may have to do some Googling to see if there's a live broadcast I can find.

And who am I rooting for? Until now, I've been hoping for Ivory Coast to lose, so that Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue can return to the depleted Arsenal back line ASAP. But now that they're in the finals, I'll be pulling for them all the way. I'm no fan of Didier Drogba, and it pains me a bit to root for his team. But Kolo is an absolute favorite of mine, and I'd love to see him take home some hardware. We'll see what happens.

04 February 2006

Birmingham 0-2 Arsenal

Good news: we won the game -- an away win, no less. Our last-ditch back line kept a clean sheet. Adebayor got his first for Arsenal. Henry got his 200th for Arsenal. And Sol Campbell will be back on Monday. And since Wigan drew with Bolton, Arsenal have crept back up into fifth place.

Bad news: Ivory Coast won, in a penalty shootout. So Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue will remain in Egypt at least until 9 February for the third-place match, if they lose to Nigeria on Tuesday. If they win, they'll stay until 10 February. Either way, I assume they won't play against Bolton on 11 Feb; hopefully they will at least be available for Liverpool on Valentine's Day. Ordinarily I would expect Wenger to rest them until the CL match against Real Madrid on 21 Feb, but I don't know if we can afford to let two defenders remain idle that long.

Also bad: Man United won over Fulham, so they remain 10 points ahead of Arsenal. (Arsenal do have a game in hand.) Tottenham host Charlton tomorrow, and I can't assume they'll drop points from that. Liverpool travel to Stamford Bridge tomorrow, and as much as it pains me to admit it, we need Chelsea to win that match. We won't catch the Blues, but catching the Reds is a very realistic goal.

So that's where we're at. Arsenal host Bolton next Saturday, and it will obviously be crucial to take three points from the match. We'll see how long the Sol Campbell saga continues; hopefully he's now right as rain and ready to get stuck in.

Arsenal Woes

It's a challenging time to be an Arsenal supporter. Things have been grim since the 7-0 beatdown on Middlesboro. We've lost 3 out of 4 played, and even the one win is deceptive -- we beat Wigan 2-1 in the Carling Cup but went out due to their away goal.

So effectively, that's four losses. The 2-3 home loss to West Ham is probably the worst of all, because it was at home and because we dominated so much of the play. Arsenal had 56% of posession and 16 shots; West Ham had only 4 shots, but 3 of those found the back of the net. Worse yet was Sol Campbell's meltdown. What happened on the pitch is clear enough -- a series of horrid errors that gifted two goals to the Hammers. It's less clear what followed next, but in any event, Sol was taken off at the half (for a midfielder; Arsenal had no defenders left). He showered and left the stadium before the game finished, and hasn't been heard from since.

The story since has been well-covered. The bloggers' reaction has been all over the map, from those calling for his head to those asking for more understanding.

Where do I fall? Much of the commentary has really bothered me, so I've thought on it a lot. There is certainly no denying that Sol has played extremely poorly in the last year or so, ever since he returned from injury last spring. Arsenal need better from their players, and I don't have any problem with anyone who says so.

What does bother me is the tendency to blame it on "desire" or "lack of effort". Frankly I think it's bollocks to assume that you can know a player's mental state from watching on TV or in the stands. I wouldn't be comfortable making those kinds of judgements about my coworkers -- people who I spend 45+ hours a week with.

I think one of the huge attractions of socccer is that it's so easy to identify with the players. They're not (obviously) freaks of nature in the way that basketball or football players are. There's very little equipment involved, so it's easy to see what players are doing. And with video closeups, you can see every emotion fly across the players' faces. Then you add in the interviews, the tabloid rumors, the "sources close to the player", and it seems as if every detail of their lives are laid out for us. Mix that with fans who invest so much time and energy and money and care for their teams, and it's no surprise that we start to feel like we can know the depths of these heroes of ours.

But it's an illusion. Perhaps not completely, but it doesn't matter. There's a good chunk of what we think we know about Sol Campbell that's wrong. It's worth remembering that when we see discussion of his 'desire' or 'where his head is at'. For myself, I'll focus on what we really do know, which starts with what he does on the field.

So where does that leave us? Sol's clearly out of the picture at the moment. Ordinarily I'd be OK with that, since he's clearly not been playing up to par. But right now, Arsenal's defensive woes are verging on the ridiculous, with eight defenders unavailable. When there's talk about bringing Martin Keown back into the squad, you know there's trouble. (I will not be disappointed if Ivory Coast lose to Cameroon this afternoon.) But whatever Sol's problems are, it's clear that they're affecting his play, and we'll just have to make do with whoever else we can find.

I'm really unsure what we'll see in the Birmingham match. Our away form has been bad enough, and this makeshift lineup won't add to the confidence. The back line will clearly be a mess, most likely with two central midfielders (Flamini and Larsson) playing as fullbacks. I do however like the partnership between Senderos and Djourou; they play together for the Swiss national team, and they seem to work well together. I would stick with the 4-4-2 -- we often look a mess when we use the 4-5-1 -- but instruct the wide midfielders to protect the back line a bit more than usual. The good news is that our new players are already having an impact; Diaby has been useful if a bit raw, and Walcott will possibly make his debut today. So it could be an interesting lineup.

Despite the poor form, Arsenal are still easily capable of acheiving a Champions League place, which must be the current goal. Even the loss on Wednesday didn't cost them too badly, as everyone ahead of them (save Wigan) dropped points.

So we'll see what happens. Come on you Gunners!

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