28 March 2006

Before the Big Night: Arsenal-Juventus Preview

What a huge night for the Gunners. I'm edgy now, seven hours before the match. I don't know how I'll react as gametime approaches. Better back off on the caffiene today. I'm so thankful that I was able to be at Highbury for two matches back in November. Even for Sparta Prague, the atmosphere was electric; it really brought home for me how special the Champions League has become. But for Juventus? I can only imagine. It helps that the weather here is cool and misty -- a very London day. In fact, the forecasts are quite similar. So in my minds eye, I can see the bright green pitch glistening under the lights; rows of transfixed fans, tens of thousands, and yet still intimately close to the action; and the players, running their drills, loosening up and calming the jitters before that first whistle. And the roar that greets it.

So the match is progressing normally. Of course most of the stories are about Viera's return to Highbury, and why not. But of course that has no relevance after the first kick. What's going on tactically? Arsenal are missing Sol Campbell and Freddie Ljungberg. Sol was unlikely to start anyway but Freddie will be missed; Pires needs to play with immense energy today if we're to succeed. Of course, Emmanuel Adebayor is cup-tied and unavailable also. Arsene Wenger will have the services of Jose Antonio Reyes, Robin van Persie, and Abou Diaby, so at least a few of our recent injury worries are past us.

For the other side, Juventus are missing some key players as well. Alessandro Del Piero is unavailable after the Roma match and Pavel Nedved is suspended. The tough 1-1 draw against Roma on Saturday will surely have some effect, while Arsenal inadvertently took the weekend off due to poor groundskeeping at Fratton Park. It will be interesting to see what tactical formation Wenger will use, the standard Arsenal 4-4-2 or the 4-5-1 that served so well against Real Madrid. Given the strong midfield pairing of Viera and Emerson, it wouldn't surprise me to see the 4-5-1 to put more pressure on the middle of the pitch. But if we do, then Pires needs to have a huge game, and to provide defensive support for Emmanuel Eboue. Or perhaps Wenger will start Aleksander Hleb wide right instead.

I don't know and it really doesn't matter anyway. I'm excited and nervous, and more than anything I want to see a fiery, aggressive performance from the Gunners. We know they have it in them, and the Champions League has treated them well so far. Let's have at it, boys, and give THOF one more classic night under the lights. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

25 March 2006

Pompey - Arsenal Postponed

Well, that sucks. It's an odd feeling, anticipating a game, and then getting nothing. I was planning to head to a local pub to watch the match, the first time I'd tried at this particular place. They always have FSC on but I don't know whether they'd turn up the sound for a match or not. So now, no luck.

So we'll have to see when the match is rescheduled. I have to assume that it won't be tomorrow. Arsenal have Juventus on Tuesday, and only one rest day in between would be a bit much to ask. I would have preferred to play today, as we're on good form. Instead, we'll have to watch as Arsenal are passed again; as I write, Blackburn leads Sunderland (what a shock), so they'll pass Arsenal in the table. Bolton visit Boro on Sunday, while Tottenham host West Brom on Monday. Which means Arsenal could find themselves in seventh on Monday, through no fault of their own.

Still, having a game in hand could be nice, particularly against bottom-feeders Pompey. We'll see how it plays out. Tuesday is huge in any event, and now the players will have that extra rest. (Hm. A bit of an FA conspiracy? Nah, couldn't be...) Juventus face a tough match with Roma this evening, and will want a win over their big rivals. Del Piero is scheduled to rest but otherwise it should be a normal team playing. Will it make a difference for Tuesday? Let's hope!

Update: I'm keeping an eye out for news stories on this one. This one claims "Arsenal Relief" but doesn't have the quotes to back that up. Here are more details from the disappointed Pompey side. I'm sure they'd like to face the Gunners on a soggy pitch -- that's one way to gum up the Arsenal passing machine -- but no such luck today.

23 March 2006

Germany 4-1 US

Not a good night for the US. The first half was rather even, with both sides getting chances but nobody converting. The second half unraveled quickly, with sub Bastian Schweinsteiger scoring 20 seconds in. The US held for another half-hour, and then the wheels came off. Olliver Neuville, Miroslav Klose, and Michael Ballack all scored in a six-minute span, officially routing the Nats. The US got a goal back, but (as the Germans would say) it was merely an Ehrentreffer.

You could see this result coming from a mile away. The US didn't field its best team; Wednesday was not an official international date, so clubs weren't required to release players for the match. Yet Germany was able to put out its best team. Germany saw this as a must-win game after its 1-4 loss to Italy, and in particular coach Jurgen Klinsmann was under enormous pressure. If the US had even kept the match close, the pressure would build, and a loss would possibly have seen Klinsmann sacked.

In no way is this a pleasing result. And yet there's no need to ring the alarm bells for the US. The main purpose for the match (if I can read Bruce Arena's mind for a moment) was to consider some of the borderline candidates for the squad, and to gain some experience in a difficult situation. Those goals were met. Of course, the fans are ballistic. For whatever reason, a substantial portion of Nats supporters seem a touch bipolar. I was tempted to trawl the BigSoccer threads for some of the more incendiary comments, but it's probably best not to feed the flames.

In reality, very little has changed for the US since yesterday. Despite FIFA's bizarre #5 ranking for the US, the Nats have never been a potential favorite to win the World Cup. (Odd run about 80/1 on the prospect.) Even a repeat of the 2002 quarterfinal appearance would be a major accomplishment. Group E is going to be a dogfight.

So, US fans, set your expectations accordingly. And give credit to the team when it's due. Don't worry too much about yesterday; nobody will remember this match in four months. And if you simply must have something to worry about? Well, I'm sure we can find something.

21 March 2006

Fran Merida Videos

And now for some search-term pimpage...

Still no hard news on the Catalan youngster. The stories are all feeding on last week's rumor-spill, but I can't find any new information on the story. Speculation is that he'll be 'loaned' to Celta Vigo, as with Carlos Vela, but I haven't seen anything new on that.

Still, I know we're all interested in his abilities, at least judging by your search terms. So let's take a look:

Here a permalink.. And here's another video hosted on YouTube.

Yeah, looks like he's got some potential. It's hard for me to judge from these games, though. They're against young players which has to make a difference. I'd love to see video from the closed-door friendly from last Tuesday, but if any exists I'm sure it's closely held in Arsene Wenger's Fortress of Solitude. We'll see if the rumor has truth behind it...

A Tale Of Two Managers: Class vs. Ass

Jose Mourinho, on Saturday:
"It's a handball so it's not a goal and the decision is correct. What is not correct is the referee didn't see and allows the goal, the linesman didn't see but after pressure by Fulham they changed their decision."
Stuart Pearce, on Monday:
"It happens at times. The referee has made an honest decision and I will stick with that, I will never criticize referees. Jihai swung his arm out, there was no contact at all but we will live with the referee's decision."
Mourinho says the call was correct, but the ref was still wrong to make it. Pearce says that the call was wrong, but that the ref made the best call he could.

Enough said there. I'm starting to become a fan of Pearce. He's carried himself well since he was named manager at Citeh last March. He's probably a bit inexperienced to manage England, but still I wouldn't mind seeing him appointed. I think his work ethic and straigtforward honesty would serve the country well.

And I love the irony too. Here's a punk rocker as one of the real class acts as a manager. Cheers, Stuart!

18 March 2006

Arsenal 3-0 Charlton

A bit of an exhibition for Arsenal. Arsenal were in control throughout. Charlton looked to have little attack threat, while Arsenal were constantly threatening the goal. The statistics are a bit flattering to Charlton -- it's hard to believe that they actually held 44% of the posession, and I can't remember their one shot on goal. Arsenal were less dangerous in the latter part of the game, but only because they brought on three subs, and because they were looking for the 'right' goal, creating opportunities for first Bergkamp and then Toure.

So all around, a fine performance for the boys. None of the Gunners had a bad game, though Henry was uninvolved for much of the play. Hleb and Pires both had great games, and I think this improved wide play has been one of the major factors in Arsenal's resurgence. It takes the load off the spine of the team; in particular, it reduces the need for Gilberto to attempt aggressive passes. And it provides protection for the inexperienced fullbacks. In any event, Arsenal look as threatening and creative as ever, and it's good to see.

The win was crucial, as the rest of Arsenal's competitors for European spots also took three points: Birmingham 0-2 Tottenham, Blackburn 3-2 Boro, and Bolton 2-0 Sunderland. Of course, Birmingham and Sunderland are in the relegation zone, while Boro isn't far from it (and had the Roma match during the week). So no surprise on the wins. Still, Arsenal needed to keep pace, and did so easily.

Next weekend could be a bit of a challenge, as Arsenal travel to Fratton Park to take on Portsmouth. Pompey have won their last two and look to ignite a fight-back from relegation. Arsenal must keep their belief and get ahead early next Saturday. Again their rivals will have bottom-feeder opposition: Blackburn visit Sunderland, Bolton visit Boro, and Spurs host West Brom. So, another must-win weekend. But today's performance was custom-made for building hope. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

16 March 2006

Arsenal Midweek: Liverpool, Charlton, Squad Speculation, Merida

First, a quick note about Sunday and Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool. Obviously I'm incredibly pleased with the match. It could easily have ended 4-1 with better finishing from the Gunners. Liverpool finished with just 3 shots on goal, and two of those came from the goalscoring sequence. The whole Arsenal squad were outstanding; I will single out Cesc (yet again), Eboue, and Toure for having fantastic games. Yeah, it was a good week.

Arsenal have Charlton at Highbury on Saturday. It's clearly a match that Arsenal should win, but still it will be interesting for a few reasons. Both Sol Campbell and Robin van Persie are back for the Gunners, and I'm curious how Arsene Wenger will use them. Despite the ungodly spate of injuries, the back four have developed rather well in the current arrangement, with Flamini a pleasant surprise and Eboue a real revelation. Still, it has been a busy year for Toure and Senderos in particular, with extensive action for both club and country. A home match with Charlton would be an excellent opportunity to get Campbell back on the field and get some rest for the back line (probably Senderos, as the Campbell-Senderos partnership has never solidified). Even with Senderos-Toure remaining the first-choice partnership, a healthy and focused Sol Campbell is a huge asset to have.

Up front, similar problems present themselves. Robin van Persie was a fixture in the squad for much of the season, but he now faces stiff competition from Emmanuel Adebayor. The Togolese only has two goals in 6 Arsenal matches, but he's been solid, shown an incredible workrate, and has given Arsenal an additional dimension. I suspect that van Persie will see some time as a sub against Charlton and Portsmouth, but will start against Juventus. He's done well in the Champions League, and Adebayor is cup-tied. Overall, the important thing is that the squad is slowly regaining its strength, just in time for the stretch run.

And finally, a very happy birthday to Theo Walcott. The young Gunner turns 17 today. It's an important birthday for any teenager, but even more so for the professional footballer, as it means he's now eligible to sign a professional contract. His salary will increase immensely as a result. Getting a weekly raise of £1500 or more makes for a nice little birthday present. Perhaps he'll make his Arsenal debut on Saturday too. Cheers, Theo!

So. Let's do a number on the Addicks Saturday, shall we?

Update: Rumors are flying this morning that Arsenal have signed young Spaniard Fran Merida out from under Barcelona. The Sun is claiming that Arsenal are close to signing him, while Arseblogger claims it's a done deal. On Tuesday, Arsenal held a friendly with Brighton, primarily to give Campbell and van Persie a game. But the match report said that Matthew Connoly came off at 60' for "A. Trialist"... who was evidenly Merida.

What's more interesting is that evidenly Merida was 'signed' to Barcelona... except that Barca never actually signed the contract. Of course, there was a bit of controversy over that other Catalan kid we signed -- some guy named Fabregas. Arseblog provided a link to some video of Merida, and he looks to have skills. There's a lot of smoke around this rumor...

10 March 2006

CL Draw: Arsenal vs. Juventus

The draw is out. You could see it coming!

Arsenal will face Juventus in the Champions' League round of 8. The Gunners will start at home and finish in Turin. If they advance, they'll face Inter, Ajax, or Villareal, again starting at Highbury.

Arsenal v. Juventus
(Inter Milan or Ajax) v. Villareal

Lyon v. AC Milan
Benfica v. Barcelona

Quarter-finals: 28-29 March and 4-5 April
Semi-finals: 18-19 and 25-26 April
Final: 17 May

First thoughts: Juventus will be a challenge for sure. But the Gunners are sure to see it as a major challenge; I would worry more about a let-down with Villareal or Benfica. The reunion with Patrick Viera will dominate the news build-up, which is unfortunate but inevitable. Playing Juve will also present a very different tactical challenge than Madrid.

I can't wait!

09 March 2006

Best. 0-0 draw. Ever.

Because ESPN are crap, there was no point to trying to catch the match live (at least that I could find, in Indy). So I 'watched' the match online. via online updates and most of all Big Soccer. Which was a completely bizarre experience. There I was, sitting in my little cube, with the sounds of commerce and HVAC all around. And my guts are in a knot because of some lines of text flowing across my screen... and a soccer match being played 3,000+ miles away.

But anyway, what a fantastic match. ESPN2 did finally broadcast it, last night at 12:30AM. Of course they had to delay the start for 10 minutes, so my Tivo missed the last 5 minutes of the match, because ESPN are crap, as I have mentioned. I haven't watched much of it yet but have read everything I can about it. I'll do an analysis of the match later, after seeing it all. For now, just a couple comments about the result.

First of all, what a huge night for Arsenal. Even were we to go out in the next round, it's still a huge achievement to take out the Galacticos. The 1-0 win in the Bernabeu was an historic night for the Gunners, and yesterday became a wonderful memory for the last months of Highbury. There will be at least one more European night in the old stadium, and here's to another wonderful memory for that. But there's something special about inviting Real Madrid over to your house. What better than to have Beckham, Zidane, Raul, Ronaldo, et al over to take a last run at The Home Of Football, not for a farewell friendly, but for a real war of a match. And then taking the result.

I think it's also a huge night for the team in many ways. First, the two legs of this tie have really marked a point where the young Gunners have marked their intentions on the largest possible stage. We have had rough patches, and there are probably more to come. But this kind of game shows what Arsenal can become -- to the world, but more importantly to the Gunners themselves. Hleb, Toure, Fabregas, Senderos, Eboue, Flamini... all had outstanding games. That can only build their belief in themselves, and feed their hunger for more.

But it was also a big night for the old guard. Come what may, it is fantastic to see legends like Ljungberg, Gilberto, Pires, and Bergkamp fighting desperately for the colors. And Thierry Henry. If his ambition is truly to win the Champions League, this tie can only have taught him that Arsenal have every ability to match his ambition. No matter where you play, there is no guarantee of success; there are just too many good teams in Europe. But Arsenal on their night can be a match for any of them, and in particular are well positioned to take on the continent's best.

And speaking of... the next stages will prove to be interesting. Who will we play? The remaining teams make an amazing list: AC Milan. Barcelona. Benfica. Lyon. Juventus. Villareal. And either Inter or Ajax. We will find out tomorrow who we face. Some are hoping for one of the less-famous teams; others wish for Juventus and a faceoff with our old friend Patrick Viera. Personally, I would wish for Barcelona. They're the clear favorites in the field right now, and would present an immense challenge to the Gunners. But I think the team can respond to that challenge and rise to the occasion.

And don't forget: Arsenal are on that list too. And this performance will make any of those teams take notice.

08 March 2006

News: Tuesday Results, Mick and Mourinho

Wanted to drop in a quick post in advance of the big match today. And what better way to begin than by discussing yesterday's Champions League results?

Of course the biggest news is Chelsea's failure. But in reality, credit has to go first to a stellar Barcelona side. Taking a 2-1 lead away from Stamford Bridge was a huge accomplishment. Chelsea were always going to have trouble scoring twice at Camp Nou; in the event, they were barely able to squeak out a 90th-minute penalty. But perhaps more surprising were the mistakes made by Chelsea, from the del Horno red card to bringing on Robert Huth for Joe Cole.

Don't know what to say about Villareal 1-1 Rangers (agg 3-3), other than congratulations to Villareal. But Rangers fans can be proud as well, as their team performed quite well and nearly went on. Away goals rule can be cruel.

As for Juventus 2-1 Werder Bremen (agg 4-4), I can't help but be impressed by the fight in both teams. Who would have expected a 4-4 aggregate score from a German - Italian tie? Bremen's late fightback in the first leg (goals at 87' and 90') was matched by the Juventus reply yesterday. During the afternoon, as the match wore on, Landry kept telling me, "Don't count out Juve. They're patient." And so it proved, with the winner coming at 88'. The unfortunate part was that the goal came from an error by Bremen keeper Tim Wiese, who otherwise had a magnificent game. Such is the harsh world of goalkeeping.

So that's the results from yesterday. (The Inter-Ajax tie will finish on 14 March.) I did want to mention a couple other comments. First, a farewell to Mick McCarthy, who was finally fired by Sunderland. It's hard to fault the firing. Sunderland are on 10 points with 28 played. That puts them on a pace for about 14 points, which would shatter the previous record for worst Premiership performance. (Held by... wait for it... Sunderland, who went down in 2003 with 19 points.) Sunderland are winless at home, which is difficult to forgive. So yeah, it's no surprise to see Mick go.

What is surprising is that it's taken this long. Why make a move in March? The change was predicted early -- in some cases, before the season started. By Boxing Day, Sunderland had one win (over Middlesboro) and 6 points. You would figure that was enough evidence, but Mick was retained for another two months (and four more points, via a win over West Brom and a draw with Tottenham). It's clearly much too late to avoid relegation now, and has been for months. So why fire him at this point? A strange decision.

As for Mourinho. His behavior on Sunday was classless. West Brom manager Bryan Robson certainly wasn't any better. So why does Mourinho's behavior draw so much comment?

On Saturday morning, Chelsea were kings of the Prem: they'd won 22 of 28, had 69 points and a 15 point lead over their nearest rivals. They faced relegation-threatened West Brom. How can a win be anything other than business as usual for Chelsea? Sure, it may be a hard-fought match, but everyone expects the Blues to take three points. So when Mourinho dances on the sideline as if he's beaten Barcelona (sorry), how are we to react? Is he such a bully that he has to rub Robson's nose in the dirt? So insecure that he can't let the scoreline do the talking? Does he have so little belief in his team that two goals on West Brom is a major achievement? Then, after the match, he makes the post-game interview into a war of words with Robson. I'm sorry, but unless you're an unquestioning Chelsea fan, that's just going to look cheesy.

OK, enough of that. I'm excited and worried about today's match. It's great to have a lead and an away goal going into the Highbury leg. It's unlikely that the game will finish scoreless (7/1, according to Ladbrokes), and if Madrid score first it's a whole new match. Madrid will always be a threat to knock one in, so Arsenal can't afford to sit behind the ball and allow them posession. The small Highbury pitch will force a different game than the wide-open show at the Bernabeu, which will lead both sides to interesting tactical choices. Will Arsene stick with the 4-5-1 that worked in Madrid, or will he revert to the more familiar 4-4-2? Will Ronaldo perform better than the first leg -- or will he begin the match on the bench (as on Saturday)?

Lots of questions. I do know this. Arsenal have to attack, and they have to be patient. Holding posession in the Madrid half is the best answer to a lot of issues. If they can do that, and force Madrid to defend, I'll feel good. An early Arsenal goal would be perfect. But no matter what, I'll be fretting until the final whistle.


04 March 2006

US MNT vs Poland: What Does It Mean?

I'm pleased as hell that Arsenal got the 4-1 win over Fulham today. But I didn't spring for the PPV (ran a 10k race instead) so I won't see the game until FSC broadcasts it Monday. So no deep comment for now, except for the obvious points:That said, I'd like to comment on the Wednesday internationals, starting with US 1-0 Poland.

It's dangerous to read too much into international friendlies. But both Poland and the US fielded strong teams so I think the match was a relatively fair test. So if it's a test, how would I grade the US? I'd call it a solid B.

First of all, it's a win, and that's the important part. The match has been called rough and tentative by many, and that's true enough. But, you know what? So are most World Cup matches. Teams spend a lot of time feeling each other out, and get bodies behind the ball. That's exactly what we saw from both teams on Wednesday. Iran 3-2 Costa Rica was a heck of a lot more exciting, but doesn't tell as much about how the teams would react in a WC match.

The second-half play of the US was quite good. I liked the way they were able to maintain the attack without opening themselves to the counter. They held a lot of posession and worked some good chances. The match worsened later, with the weather, but that's to be expected. But the 30 minutes from the half to about 75' were quite well played by the US. And the defense did a very solid job for the whole match; they were organized and disciplined, and Eddie Lewis in particular had some good trips forward too.

So now, the bad. The US midfield was quite disappointing in the first half. They showed no cohesion and lost posession continually. They clearly miss Claudio Reyna, and that makes me nervous given his injury history this year. Bruce Arena blamed it on the hard pitch, but both teams are playing on the same patch of grass, and Poland were much more effective in the first half. The US-based players suffered in fitness and sharpness, while the Europe-based players were obviously not well integrated into the team yet. I would single out a few players for having less than effective games. Beasley, Donovan, Johnson, and Zavagnin were all less effective than I would hope.

But depsite the bad, the performance is bound to offer hope for June. We took on a WC-bound team, playing close to home, in a cup-like game, and got a solid win. That's good... because our group won't be easy. Italy showed their intent with their 4-1 win over Germany, the Czech Republic took a 2-0 lead before drawing 2-2 with Turkey in Istanbul, and Ghana acquitted themselves well in a 1-0 loss to Mexico. I know that Group C (Argentina, Ivory Coast, Netherlands, and Serbia & Montenegro) is considered the "Group of Death", but I think Group E will be plenty tough for us.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?