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.


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