25 May 2006

USA 0 - 1 Morocco

Cisko and I made the road trip to Nashville to lend our voices to Sam's Army and catch the Nats warm-up game against the Atlas Lions (African teams have the coolest nicknames) of Morocco. While the end result was disappointing, it's always a pleasure to watch top quality soccer with a knowledgeable and passionate crowd. Look for Cisko to post some photos soon.

It would be a mistake to read too much into the below par performance of the team on this day. Clearly, they still have some work to do to gel as a unit. There were some moments in defense where players looked uncertain and markers lost their men. Going forward, the U.S. lacked imagination and vision, and there were far too many errant passes and poor touches. But this is exactly the right time to have a poor outing. Hopefully, it will help to focus the players. I'll only be concerned if they don't improve over the next two games.

Full credit to Morocco who played an intelligent, if unattractive game. They were well organized, had plenty of men behind the ball and defended well. The U.S. found it difficult to create quality scoring chances and definitely needs to show improvement in the attacking third of the field.

I was a little surprised by the inclusion of Josh Wolff in the starting eleven. And to be honest, I think he did little to bolster his case, especially in the first half. His work rate was simply unacceptable and he was consistently beaten in the air. Eddie Johnson was a much livelier and more dangerous strike partner for Brian McBride.

John O'Brien was another surprise starter and had a very inconsistent first half before being subbed. He worked hard and was very involved, but his touch was often poor. He was a tremendous player for the U.S. in Korea/Japan, but he might only get one more half to prove he can be something more than a substitute during this World Cup.

Cory Gibbs got a start also and acquitted himself quite well I thought. He showed good speed, strength in the air, and tackling ability. He even got forward on a few occasions, but wasn't very effective at crossing or attacking. For this reason, I think Eddie Lewis will be the starter at left back, even though he's not the best defender.

The hamstring injury that Claudio Reyna suffered doesn't seem serious, but don't look for him to return before the Latvia game. It should prove interesting to see what adjustments Arena makes for tomorrow's match against Venezuela. I'd expect both the team's performance and the result to improve.

23 May 2006

Tuesday Transfer News: Rosicky now a Gunner

Well it's not taking long for transfer news to accumulate.

Much of it is speculative. Mahamadou Diarra is the subject of much of it, with reports sending him from Lyon to either Real Madrid or Manchester United. However, his agent is cooling the speculation (which to me says that he's deep into contract negotiations). Dirk Kuyt has been linked with Newcastle, perhaps after hearing from van Nistelrooy and van Persie the joys of the Prem. Many rumors circulate around Chelsea's surplus, primarily Wayne Bridge (Fulham, Tottenham) and Robert Huth (Fulham, Everton, Wigan). There are managerial rumors too; Iain Dowie left Crystal Palace and is probably in the running for several spots including Middlesbrough, Charlton and Ipswich.

But the biggest news yesterday (just confirmed this morning) centers around Arsenal. Arsenal have now confirmed that Tomas Rosicky has moved to the Gunners from Borussia Dortmund. Rosicky is a Czech international with 53 caps. (All US fans of course hope he has a poor group stage, particularly in the first match!) Unlike many of Arsenal's recent signings, Rosicky has proven success, but at 25 he's young enough to have many of his best years ahead.

Rosicky has usually played in a central midfield role to this point, but Arsene Wenger is more likely to use him on the left side, particularly if Robert Pires departs. In general, Arsenal suffered a drought of goalscoring from its wide midfielders, with unproductive years from Robert Pires, Jose Antonio Reyes, and Freddie Ljungberg in particular. He can be compared to Aleksander Hleb in some ways, but Rosicky spends less time on the ball and has a better shot. Here's some video:

Of course this is exciting for Arsenal fans. His actual success with the team is yet to be proven of course. Don't judge early; Hleb provides a good cautionary tale, taking several months to really integrate into the team. But Arsenal have now signed an established player, early in the transfer window -- two attributes that have escaped us of late. So good for us!

I'm off to Nashville later today for the US - Morocco match. I'll post photos and an analysis either late tonight or tomorrow. So for now: Come on you Nats!

22 May 2006

Birmingham Summer Clearance Begins

Now that the season's over, talk naturally turns to the transfer market as teams try to reload for next year. Clearly Birmingham City is the most talent-rich of the relegated sides. A quick look at their roster reveals a dozen names that won't be around next season for the Blues. Indeed, Steve Bruce has already confirmed the release of 8 players.

Definitely Gone

Jermaine PennantThe former Arsenal man was a consistent top performer for the Blues this season and several clubs are interested in obtaining the youngster. Liverpool, Tottenham and Fulham have all shown interest.
Jiri JarosikI'd look for the Blues top scorer and Czech national to head back east. Zenit St. Petersburg were interested back in January. His former club CSKA Moskow is also a possibility.
Emile HeskeyI thought Heskey was simply awful for Birmingham. But he's English and experienced, so another EPL side will likely nab him. Portsmouth and Blackburn are rumored to be interested.
David DunnHe was a big contributor at former club Blackburn and Rovers will certainly be looking to bolster their midfield for next season's European campaign.
Mario MelchiotThe dutchman still has a few good years of top flight football left. Manchester City are rumored to be interested. A return to Ajax might be a possibility also.
Nicky ButtButt was on loan from Newcastle and would be only too eager to return. He is certain to have a difficult time breaking in to the starting lineup however.
Chris SuttonThe veteran striker couldn't save the Blues from relegation after being purchased in January and has already been released. Even though his old club don't want him, I'm sure there are many Colaship sides who would jump at the chance to have a player of his caliber.
Walter PandianiAt 32, it's doubtful that any big European clubs will be interested in the former Deportiva la Coruña striker who never broke through at Birmingham. I'd look for a move back to South America for the Uruguayan.
Jamie ClaphamLooks like former club Ipswich Town are interested in signing the English defender. He probably doesn't have many other options.
Kenny CunninghamIt just might be a career for the 34-year-old former captain. If so, it's a cruel ending.
Stan LazaridisA return down under is in order for the 33-year-old Aussie.
Nico VaesenAlthough 36 isn't that old for a keeper, the EPL options for this Belgian are limited. It's either off to a lower league side or back home for Nico.

Probably Gone
Julian GrayI'd expect Steve Bruce to fight hard to retain this promising young striker to help next season's promotion campaign, but another EPL side might swoop.
Maik TaylorHe had a bit of an inconsistent season, but would make a valuable back-up for another EPL side.
Olivier TebilyThe French defender impressed in the final few weeks of the season and also apparantly had a falling out with Steve Bruce. I'd expect him to be a substitute for another EPL side next season.
Mikael ForssellHe was a revelation last season, but saw his goal production slow to a trickle. Still, last season's performance is probably enough for an EPL side to try to sign the former Chelsea man at a bargain price.

Transfer News Roundup: Monday

A good morning to you all. Despite reaching the end of the club season, it's a busy time for soccer news. The World Cup finals are less than three weeks away which of course keeps things hopping. More importantly, because of the world cup. much of the transfer news is getting fleshed out early. So, nothing earth-shattering as of yet, but there are a few juicy tidbits.

Let's start with Arsenal (of course) and some more about Thierry Henry. Of course he did agree to a four-year deal with Arsenal last Friday. Gunners everywhere rejoiced. Not only is he a fantastic player, the kind who can lift a whole team onto his shoulders at times, but he's also a class act. His comments at the news conference were like music to the fans' ears, complimenting the club, the fans, and English soccer as a whole. He was relaxed and happy in the news conference, and that as much as anything made for a happy weekend for Gunners fans. He declared that "I think with my heart and my heart told me to stay," and what Gunner wouldn't love him for that?

Evidently the club agrees. The stories out yesterday stated that Aresnal rejected two £50m bids for Henry, from Barcelona and Real Madrid of course. That's a record for a transfer fee, a crazy sum of money. With the two Spanish giants bidding against each other, who knows if the price would have risen? And yet the club chose to keep Henry over such financial windfall. And of course it's the right decision, even beyond the pitch. Having Henry in an Arsenal shirt guarantees publicity and worldwide fandom for the club. I suspect we'll see even more TH14 jerseys this summer.

Other Arsenal transfer news is developing too. There's no news on either Robert Pires or Ashley Cole, so we'll just have to wait on those. There is a story circulating that Sol Campbell is moving to Fenerbahce for something like £8m. It's unlikely that the club would turn down a bid like that, but it's also a bit difficult to believe that it's accurate. That price is too high for the current value. Still, Campbell appears to have worn out his welcome with the club and it would not be surprising to see him leave. Toure and Senderos are the clear first-choice defensive partnership. Pascal Cygan is still around, and Johann Djourou has been promising so far as a substitute. That's perhaps not as much cover as one would like, but maybe another signing is close, or perhaps Mathieu Flamini will now reveal his skills in central defense.

So we'll see what happens. Of course the biggest transfer news so far is that German star Michael Ballack has signed with Chelsea. He's a great player and will add to Chelsea's quality, but the real debate now is how will Ballack share time with Frank Lampard? This presents a selection and tactics problem for Jose Mourinho. He'll face some pressure to find space for both in the lineup, but at what cost for the team's tactics? It's easy to forget, but the pre-Mourinho Chelsea of 03/04 had essentially the same talent as today, but suffered immensely from an unsettled lineup and player squabbling. That's the risk that Chelsea face, and it's always possible that a signing like this will upset the apple-cart.

Chelsea are the focus of other transfer rumors too, notably the perennial speculation around Andriy Shevchenko, and the dissatisfaction of Shaun Wright-Phillips. Manchester United have the future of Ruud van Nistelrooy to consider, while Liverpool have been relatively quiet in the rumor front. Many rumors swirl around Wigan, beginning with Pascal Chimbonda's ill-timed transfer request. It's no surprise that Wigan's success has brought attention to their crop of players, and it's understandable that they would look to move into more prominent clubs. Still, Wigan have been a wonderful story for the past season, and it would be unfortunate to see that success put at risk with many players leaving. Here's hoping that they're able to solve that issue.

That's probably enough highlights for now. I plan to give a season recap for both Arsenal and the Premiership as a whole, perhaps in a week or so. In the meantime we have World Cup preparations to consider. The US have left training camp and have three preparatory friendlies before heading to Germany. They play Morocco on Tuesday in Nashville, Venezuela on Friday in Cleveland, and Latvia on Sunday in Connecticut. I'll be going to the Morocco match with the other Dave, and so I'll give a full report on the US Men's Team after that.

19 May 2006

Thierry Henry Stays!

Good news for the Arsenal!

A report went around last night that Thierry Henry had told the Sun that he is going to stay with Arsenal. Now the BBC is reporting that Arsenal have called a press conference for 2PM in the UK (that's 11AM in the US) to confirm the deal.

Of course this is absolutely fantastic. Thierry Henry is arguably the best player in the world, and he's certainly among the top five. And he will remain a Gunner for the forseeable future. The rumors have been thick for months that he was leaving, probably to Barcelona. But while watching the CL final Wednesday, I became convinced that Henry would stay.

Henry is clearly a complex and private person. But from what I can see, he is motivated more than anything by a love for the history of the game, and by a desire to seal his place in it. That's why winning the Champions League has been so important to him. And so the debate about him leaving all comes down to: where can he build his strongest legacy for the future?

Barcelona are a fantastic team, and it's clear that Henry would shine in that lineup. Imagine him playing alongside Eto'o, with Ronaldinho feeding them both and also getting balls in return. All three would complement each other and it would work great. But what would Henry's legacy be? Like another Dream Team that played in Barcelona, the story would be about the abundance of talent rather than one particular player. And Ronaldinho would be the first among equals in that lineup. Barca is and will remain Ronaldinho's team, and so Henry would have to be one of 'the other guys' in that lineup.

Compare that to Arsenal, which are unquestionably Henry's team. Whatever Arsenal achieve, it will be added to his legacy. He will be surrounded by some amazing talent in London too, so he can expect some fantastic play, but still he will remain the leader of the team. And after Barca won on Wednesday, what could he prove with them? If they won the CL next year, Henry would look more like the guy who signed up to get a trophy rather than the guy who made the difference.

It's clearly the right call. But still, you never know for sure what someone is thinking, particularly a man as unique as Henry. He's never been a stereotypical player, either on or off the pitch, and so it's dangerous to predict how he will think, what will drive his decisions. So having this confirmed is an amazing relief for Gunners fans everywhere.

Thierry Henry will lead the squad out next August at Emirates Stadium. Gunners fans everywhere are smiling. Cheers, Thierry! Here's to you!

18 May 2006

Barcelona 2-1 Arsenal

A crushing disappointment for the Gunners.

Before I get started though, congratulations to Barcelona. Despite all the drama from yesterday, the reason they won was because they were the better team. They've marched through the Champions' League like a team of destiny, and despite the man advantage they had to fight hard to wring a win out of the game yesterday. I tip my cap to them, they are a worthy winner.

For Arsenal, I can't help but be gutted. The match played out like so many of our earlier Champions' League ties: we built early pressure, took a crucial lead midway through the first half, then hung on for dear life. Only this time, Barcelona had an extra man, and that made all the difference.

Having Lehmann sent off at 17' was just too much to overcome. The team fought hard in defiance, and when they took the lead at 37' it was surprising but hard-earned. In the end though it was too big an ask. The Gunners had to withstand almost 80 minutes of assault from perhaps the top team in the world. In the end they held out for 69 before conceding. By then Arsenal were competing on will alone, exhausted from the endless chasing that Barcelona forced them into. The first goal broke their hearts, and the second then seemed enevitable. And so it was.

I don't think anyone can argue that Lehmann didn't deserve the red card. The foul itself was the product of poor defending and one split-second poor decision from Jens. But Lehmann's decisions and aggressiveness have kept us alive all season; let's not forget how crucial he was in getting the Gunners to the finals in the first place. It was a mistake, but with an extra tenth of a second, it's a brilliant play.

Referee Terje Hauge had some leeway on the call and could have made another decision. Had he played advantage, Barcelona would have scored, he could have awarded Jens a yellow, and the match would have been much more exciting. Hauge even said so himself. But he didn't. Other refs, in other games, probably split 50/50 on calling it as Hauge did or as I describe. Wenger and Henry both excorciated Hauge, and in general he had a poor match. His calls were inconsistent and unpredictable, and in several cases clearly wrong. The foul on Eboue that led to the Arsenal goal was debateable at best. The yellow card for Henry was perhaps the most wrong call I've seen all year; not only did Henry get nothing but ball, but he hardly touched the Barca player either. I won't blame Hauge for the result. His calls definitely ruined the aesthetics of the game, turning what should have been a beautiful final into grim trench warfare. But he didn't change the outcome of the match.

I am proud of the team. They fought hard and did everything in their power to hold on to victory. When Barcelona took the lead at 80', it was a sign of their respect that they did nothing other than hold on to the ball for the next ten minutes. I can't even fault Jens too much; as I said, his aggressiveness got us into the final in the first place. There were other mistakes too, but I don't want to dwell on them. Barcelona are a team that are going to expose any hint of weakness they find. Yesterday the Gunners nearly won, despite losing a man, and that should be the legacy of the match.

Arsenal fans will see this match through the lens of what happens in the next few weeks. We already know that Dennis Bergkamp will play no more, and it appears likely that Robert Pires will move to Villareal. There are questions about the future of Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole. And looming largest is the future of Thierry Henry. We could face a future where the heart of the recent Arsenal success have all played their last for the club, and that would forever color our thoughts of 17 May and the Stade du France. Perhaps not all is lost; Campbell and Cole certainly gave classic performances yesterday, and Henry himself offered a subtle hint that he will be back, leading the Gunners onto the pitch at Ashburton Grove.

Time will tell. For now: I congratulate Barcelona and salute a vailant Arsenal performance.

17 May 2006

CL Final: Barcelona-Arsenal Tonight!

We've done everything we can. Barcelona fans, Arsenal fans... all the preparations are made. If we got tickets, we're in Paris. If not, we know where we will watch the match. We're observing the rituals, keeping our lucky traditions. The elation of making it to the final has faded; now it's all about winning the trophy. The butterflies are starting, probably as soon as we awake if not sooner. One match. Today at 8:45PM in Paris -- 2:45 in Indianapolis -- it will all be decided.

And it should be a humdinger of a game. Cup finals have a reputation as defensive, conservative affairs, but they can be exciting goalfests too, as Saturday's FA Cup final demonstrated. Tonight, neither team will overextend themselves, yet they will be fighting to score; a draw doesn't help anyone. Much has been made of Arsenal's lack of attack in the match at Villareal, but don't forget, 0-0 was enough for the Gunners. They didn't need a goal, but they do tonight. And if either team gets an early goal... watch out!

Both squads are nearly set. The good news for Arsenal is that both Mathieu Flamini and Phillipe Senderos are in the squad. The consensus is that Ashley Cole will start at left back in place of Flamini. The center-half situation is a bit less certain, but it's probable that Sol Campbell will get the spot. I think most Gunners fans would prefer to see Senderos, both because he's earned it and because he's playing better. But he's not seen a match in a couple weeks so that makes it a tough choice. The other key question is whether Jose Antonio Reyes or Robert Pires will start wide in the 4-5-1. The Sun is reporting that Pires is the man; I'm skeptical but we'll see. If he is, that would give Arsenal the following lineup:

Eboue - Toure - Campbell - Cole
Hleb - Ljungberg - Gilberto - Fabregas - Pires

It's a proven lineup and one that can beat Barcelona. Barca are also mostly set; the one remaining question is whether Lionel Messi will start or not.Barcelona are the deserved favorites; there's a reason that they've been all but anointed as the best in Europe this year. They play a game based on a swift technical attack and organized passing. It's odd, but that seems an easier task for Arsenal to defend than the hoof-and-run of a Bolton or a Southampton. Still, they will threaten the Arsenal goal, and any free kick within about 40 yards will be cause for concern.

From an Arsenal perspective, the key to the match will be how well we can hold posession in the midfield. That was a struggle against Villareal and I don't like our chances if we struggle again today. Barcelona are too threatening and they won't miss the chances that Villareal did. But if we can sustain our attack, we should be able to break down Barca. Everyone knows about our threat through the middle, with Fabregas and Henry. Our wide threat has been a new development though and one that should prove productive tonight. Hleb and Eboue have created some real threat on the right side, and the familiar combination of Pires (or Reyes) and Cole on the left should help there too. And of course, Henry is a threat like none other.

I believe that the intangibles favor Arsenal as well. Barcelona have a successful season no matter what, with a domestic title, while Arsenal carry all their hopes in tonight's game. And Arsenal have a very good (and lucky) history with cup finals, most recently with last year's shootout win over Man Utd. It's really nothing like the previous home-and-home ties, and we'll just have to see which team is ready to get the job done.

So that's the paper matchup. As for the reality? I've done everything I can. I'm wearing the same redcurrant button-down shirt I've worn for all the Champions League matches this year. I'm wearing the Livestrong bracelet that I wore for the FA Cup final last year. Now, all there is to do is watch the match. Oh boy.


16 May 2006

CL Final: Barcelona-Arsenal Buildup

It's not been a quiet few days; there's been an FA Cup final and the World Cup Teams were announced. But for me, it all takes a back seat to the Champions League final. There's no way that this game would be anything but huge to Arsenal fans, but events this season have conspired to make the Champions League the solitary focus of our hopes. Everything from a successful season, to a fond farewell to Highbury, to our hopes of keeping Thierry Henry have been wrapped up into this tournament.

And it all comes down to this. The best part is that it's truly an exciting match to think about, for the neutral as well as the fan. Barcelona have earned their status as favorites through fantastic play and attacking flair. Arsenal have built Champions League success on tight defense, but they also come out to play and have the capability to attack as well as anyone.

Which is not to say that this must be a thrilling, end-to-end game. Like most cup finals, this game will probably begin conservatively, with both teams afraid to take early risks. An early goal would change everything, with both teams picking up the pace. My gut feel is that an early Barcelona goal would be very dangerous for the mindset of the young Gunners, while an early Arsenal goal would bring Barcelona out and herald a classic contest. But my gut says that the game could well remain scoreless until deep in the second half.

Time will tell. Of course the British press are covering the heck out of the game, particularly now that the FA Cup is awarded. A collection of some interesting articles:All are worth a read. I conciously avoided the numerous stories about the future of Arsenal's players, in particular Ashley Cole, Robert Pires, and Thierry Henry. There will be plenty of time for that after the game is complete; for now, the correct focus is on the match at hand.

And what a match it will be. I'll offer a tactical analysis tomorrow. For now, I'll say that I like Arsenal's chances, but in no way do I expect an easy game. I will predict a traditional victory: 1-0 to the Arsenal.

The tension is building. This is huge.

10 May 2006

Arsenal 4-2 Wigan; West Ham 2-1 Tottenham

I didn't want to write about the matches on Sunday; I was more interested in just enjoying the win. By now you're well aware of the details of Arsenal's win and Tottenham's loss, so I won't go into depth on that. Instead here are the 'take a step back' thoughts about what happened.

Obviously the Spurs illness outbreak was the major controversy. Tottenham are keeping that alive, requesting that the match be replayed. This is of course complete foolishness. If they hadn't been able to field a team, then of course the situation were different. But as it happened, Spurs had 11 on the field and 5 on the bench. They played a full 90 and lost. Now I suppose my feelings on this would change if it were proven that the illnesses were the result of a criminal action. But barring that, there's absolutely no way that the FA will grant this request; otherwise they open themselves to all kinds of replay requests whenever results don't go their way.

The illness story makes discussion of the match almost superfluous; any Spurs failing can be blamed on their sick players. Still, West Ham did their part; the team fought hard from the first whistle. I'm curious where they drew their motivation; Arsenal have suffered in similar situations this year. Still, all credit to the Hammers for doing Arsenal a favor. Gunner fans will buy a few drinks for Hammers fans this week, I'm sure.

And what about that Arsenal match? When the schedule came out in August, Wigan were supposed to be prime candidates for relegation. Instead the Latics have proven that they belong in the Premiership, and an Arsenal win was certainly not inevitable. And yet, every Arsenal fan had to feel confident that the team would turn in a top-drawer performance for the final match at Highbury. When Robert Pires scored on 8', it seemed the party had begun; news of an early West Ham goal added to the festival.

But Wigan didn't accept the invitation. Instead, they drew level on some dodgy defending and passive goalkeeping, and then took the lead on more of the same. The Gunners' concentration was lacking and Wigan took advantage.

But the Gunners were always going to win this match, and of course Thierry Henry provided the key spark. The first goal was the key. He perfectly timed his run to Pires' pass, and coldly beat Wigan keeper Pollitt. That goal, coming just two minutes after Wigan took the lead, made all the difference in the match. There was plenty more drama in the match -- Uriah Rennie's inconsistent officiating, Wigan's bouts of second-half pressure, the penalty call and red card -- but in the end the Arsenal win seemed the correct conclusion, both for the play of the teams and for the mood of the day.

And what a mood it was. The final match at Highbury was an historic occasion and the club did themselves proud with the festivities. The souvenier t-shirts in alternate red and white made for a beautiful stadium. And the Wigan fans weren't left out; they were given blue shirts for the occasion, truly a class act by the club. All 38,359 fans came prepared to send Highbury off in style, and the songs ringing through the stadium put paid to the "Highbury library" image. The atmosphere was electric, even when Wigan took the lead, and the forthcoming Arsenal (and West Ham) goals only added to it. When Henry completed his hat-trick and bent to kiss the Highbury turf, the day was complete; the subsequent good news and ceremonies only underlned the perfection of the day.

07 May 2006

St. Totteringham's Day

It came late, and left us plenty nervous. But it came with great style and excitement.

There's so much to reflect on. A very strange tale of food poisoning, complete with conspiracy theories. Old heroes and old enemies closing out their careers. A great game played by the enemy of mine enemy. A real cracking game at Highbury. Dodgy refereeing decisions. Missed penalties. Made penalties. Dramatic red cards. Emotional goal celebrations.

And farewell to one of the greatest stadiums we'll ever see.

There's so much wrapped up in one day, it's impossible to account for it all. I'll sum up the matches. Soon. But it's too soon, too raw to do it now. Today? All I could do was walk around in my Toure 28 jersey, singing in my excitement and pride. I'm so happy for the Gunners and for their fans. And most of all, I'm incredibly happy for Highbury. The grounds have seen their last shots fired in anger; never again will official football be played on the Highbury turf. And the last game saw this crop of Gunners do her proud, winning with grit and style, in a game that had meaning.

In 2006, St. Totteringham's Day came on 7 May. And Arsenal made sure it was a day to remember. Thank you, Gunners!

Final Prem Matchday: Preview

A busy day today, as every team is playing to finish the season. Unlike last year's relegation thriller, this year most of the key positions have been solidified and most games will lack external drama. The exception of course is the battle between Arsenal and Spurs for fourth.

And Spurs seem to have suffered bizarrely bad luck, as food poisoning has decimated their team. It's unclear who is affected and how much, so we'll just have to watch the match to see how it unfolds. Tottenham face West Ham, who have indicated that they have everything to play for, despite the upcoming FA Cup final next week. Of course this is a London derby and so the fans will be all over it; there's been a real kinship between the Hammers and Gunners this week.

Meanwhile, Arsenal face Wigan in the final match at Highbury. I'll have more to say later in the week about the passing of Highbury. But for now I'm going to concentrate on the game itself. The Arsenal lineup has already been announced:





It's a strong lineup and one fitting the final match at The Home Of Football. Based on the Arsenal TV Online video, it looks like the stands are already full and the players are warming up. Should be a real emotional day, and hopefully the team can live up to their end of the bargain.

It's twenty minutes to game time, and it's time to see what's happening. I'll check in after the matches. But for now... Come on you Hammers! And, of course, COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

05 May 2006

Man City 1-3 Arsenal

In the end it was a comfortable win but Citeh kept it close for much of the match. Both City and Arsenal had their chances in the first half, and Arsenal finally took the lead on 30' from a sweet Thierry Henry pass followed by a strong Freddie Ljungberg finish. It was Freddie's first Prem goal of the season, and it's good to see him get off the mark. Unfortunately the home team equalized just a few minutes later, with David Sommeil poking home after a corner. It was a poor piece of defending and a bit worrying to revisit our old difficulties at set pieces. So 1-1 at halftime.

The second half saw a real back-and-forth develop between the two teams, but the Arsenal subs made all the difference. The offense really gelled when Cesc Fabregas was brought on for Alex Song, but it was late sub Jose Antonio Reyes who took over the match, scoring first from an outstanding Emmanuel Eboue cutback and later from a generous Henry. Man City had their threats too, drawing a couple of fine saves from Lehmann, but in the end the Gunners made it look easy.

Just a word about Henry and Reyes. I would pay a chunk of cold cash to understand what their relationship is about. There seem to be real issues there; Henry didn't really congratulate him on the first goal (he found Eboue, who surely deserved acclaim as well) and was rather subdued for the second too. This is a long-standing pattern; I'm not one to over-analyze onfield relationships, but it's difficult to miss the tension there. And yet, Henry's selfless layoff found Reyes for the second goal, when he could have taken the shot himself. If they play that well together, then maybe the personality clash just doesn't matter. But with Henry's Arsenal future up in the air... well, I think every Arsenal fan wants him to be very, very happy with everybody at the club.

Player Ratings:

Lehmann: 7 A mixed game for Jens. Had a couple of absolute top-quality saves that kept Arsenal in the match. However he also allowed himself to get wound up by the City players, particularly Darius Vassell. Should have done better on the City goal. City used the familiar set-piece tactic of stationing a big player in front of Jens to impede him in coming for crosses, and it was effective.

Cole: 6 Nothing spectacular but very solid. Still needs to recover some speed but played the full 90 with no real worries. Looked solid and effective, though he didn't get forward as much as we would expect.
Campbell: 6 Bit of a mixed bag for Sol. For the most part he was confident, well-positioned, and able to deal with the attack. Had some problems though on set pieces and arial work. I think we're all beginning to understand how good Senderos is at defending with headers; Campbell was lacking in that department. Could stand to lose some weight. Should have had a goal on an early free header.
Toure: 7 Another excellent game. Had a touchy tackle in the box, that could have gone for a penalty on a different day. But generally kept the defense organized and effective. Clear choice for the next captain if Henry leaves.
Eboue: 7 One of the brightest lights for this season. His defensive play was only good today, but his runs forward brought a great deal of threat; his run and cut-back that found Reyes for the second goal was a thing of beauty. The scary part is that you can still see some room for improvement. It will be fun to watch him burst into the international scene this summer.

Ljungberg: 7 Did all his usual stuff -- worked like a demon, fought for balls, made timely runs. The one difference was that he got the goal, which was long in coming and well-deserved. Hopefully this sparks a Freddie renaissance.
Gilberto: 7 Did his usual Gilberto thing, and did it well. Seems like his forward passing is getting crisper and more dangerous. I've said it before, but Brazil fans must be happy to see him peaking at the right time.
Song: 5 Not really sure why he's playing for Arsenal. Yesterday's game was particularly damning, because he didn't play that badly; he just didn't do anything very helpful. In other words, this may be the best that he has to offer. Clearly has speed and agility, but continues to prove himself unable to mesh with the team. I suspect his loan won't be renewed, so hold off on buying those 06/07 "Song 17" jerseys.
Hleb: 7 Another good game from our #1 Alex. Had a fine shot saved by James; looked dangerous all evening. His ability to hold posession has proven to be the pressure-relief valve that we need.

Henry: 8 Built much of the threat for the Gunners all night. His assists unlocked both the Freddie goal and the second Reyes goal. If he leaves, the Arsenal are in trouble.
van Persie: 6 Difficult to rate. Played well and had some quality shots, but also squandered a couple of opportunities. Somehow allowed himself to get wound up by Sommeil, and was lucky not to receieve a yellow card from the uncharacteristically generous Graham Poll.

Fabregas: 8 (58' for Song) That Cesc guy? Yeah, he's pretty good.
Pires: 7 (72' for Hleb) Did well for himself, took a good outside shot that found James. Worked well in his 20 minutes of action.
Reyes: 8 (72' for van Persie) He does love the warm weather, doesn't he? Two quality goals, the first with quickness and power, the second with patience and placement. Hopefully we will see more of the same on 17 May.

So we're down to the last game of the season. Arsenal are now one point back of Tottenham, so fourth place will come down to the wire. If Spurs beat West Ham, they'll take fourth, but even a draw leaves the door open. Arsenal now need help and so every Gunner is becoming a true Hammer fan, for one week at least. Arsenal will have Wigan in the final game at Highbury, but aside from the history of the occasion, you have to assume that Arsenal have the ability to win that match. There's 10 days to rest after that, so no reason to save anyone; and with the historic occasion nobody will want to sit on the bench anyway. So let's get a win, Gunners, and the same to you Hammers as well.

04 May 2006

News: US Squad, Rooney, and Citeh - Arsenal

How about a quick trip around the news, followed by a brief preview of Citeh v. Arsenal? Sound good? Good!

Let's begin with the World Cup and the US team. Bruce Arena named the US squad yesterday. There are no huge surprises here; Arena likes stability and his squad reflects that. I was a bit surprised to see Brian Ching named, as I've not yet seen a match where he's impressed me. But somehow I suspect that Bruce Arena has a tiny bit more information than I do, and his success has earned a lot of trust.

Unfortunately, after naming Frankie Hejduk to the squad yesterday, Arena was promptly forced to replace him with Chris Albright. Hejduk suffered an injury on Saturday, and yesterday it was diagnosed as a torn ACL. He had played the remainder of the match and continued training too, before continued pain led him to the MRI room and a diagnosis. Horribly unfortunate timing on that, and Hejduk will be missed. Let's hope Albright can step up and show that he's earned his spot.

Meanwhile, England have until 9 May to decide whether Wayne Rooney can play in the World Cup. I don't understand how FIFA can just change rules around like this, but it's a common thing for the soccer federations (ask UEFA and Liverpool!) so I'll let it pass. Evidently Rooney has multiple fractures in his foot, which sounds grim. But Sven Goran-Eriksson is talking about taking Rooney even if he wouldn't be fit until the final, which is complete bollocks and demonstrates what a tool Eriksson is.

His time is limited however, and it appears that Steve McClaren is set to become the next manager for England. It's certainly not the worst choice. Middlesbrough's run in the UEFA cup makes him a media darling, which is all that the FA are looking for. Will he be a good manager? Uncertain. With England, his main challenge will be drawing superior performance out of extremely talented but ego-burdened players. Suffice to say, that's not been an issue at Boro. But I prefer McClaren to Curbishley or Allardyce. We'll see how it goes.

Arsenal are debating legal action against Dan Smith. I totally understand where they're coming from. My non-legal guess would be that they don't have a chance in hell of taking this forward. But the real problem is the lack of punishment from the FA. Their stupid rules mean that no further attention can be given to the issue. Without ranting more about it, I'll point you to Arseblogger's post which illustrates the idiocy with his usual delicate touch. He's got this one dead to rights; let's hope the FA wake up and realize it.

Arsenal of course travel to Manchester to take on Citeh today. Arsenal's injury situation changes daily. The good news today is that Ashley Cole is expected to start, and Mathieu Flamini is nearly ready and may be available today. In addition, Aleksander Hleb, Gilberto, Jose Antonio Reyes, and Freddie Ljungberg all return. The only new loss -- aside from Diaby -- is Emmanuel Adebayor, who's suffering from a sinus infection. Dennis Bergkamp and Gael Clichy are expected to be rested.

So again Arsene Wenger will shuffle the squad, balancing today's team against the Sunday finale with Wigan. I won't be surprised to see Thierry Henry rested for much of the game, after 72 minutes on Monday and with another match Sunday. City have been on a poor run of late, with a 1-0-4 record in April, the lone win coming at the expense of the skidding Aston Villa. No Arsenal fan can be sanguine about an away match in the Northwest, where the Gunners have suffered this season. Still, I'm convinced that a victory is in the cards today. Let's call it a comfortable 2-1 to the Gunners, with a late Citeh goal giving them consolation only.

A win brings the Gunners to within a point of Spurs, and it would bring a decent amount of pressure onto their shoulders. They'll face the derby with West Ham on Sunday, and I'm hopeful that the Hammers can nick a point. But we have to get three from City first. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

02 May 2006

Sunderland 0-3 Arsenal

An expected win for the Gunners. With Sunderland so dismal, particularly at home, it was difficult to get worked up over the game. Sure, it was must-win, but there was a sense that if Arsenal couldn't beat Sunderland, winless at home on the year, then they deserve what they get.

And somehow the game suited that downbeat attitude. Arsenal won handily, with three goals in the first half, but also never seemed to really be involved in the game. Taking the 0-3 lead into the dressing room, Arsenal seemed content to play the second half at reduced pace, satisfied to go home without injury.

But that intent was frustrated in the 92nd minute with a horrid tackle from Dan Smith on Abou Diaby. The reckless challenge saw Smith fly in, studs held high, and catch Diaby square on the ankle. His screams were unsettling and it was clear that he was badly injured. The outcome is a fracture and dislocated ankle. It's the same injury that Alan Smith suffered back in February, though the circumstances were completely different.

Much of the online debate now is around Dan Smith. The anger towards him is immense and it's clear why. Though Diaby is still new to the Arsenal, he's played well and done credit to the badge. And frankly, he's just a likeable kid. To see him injured like that -- especially so late in an essentially meaningless match, with nothing to gain for the hosts -- is simply unacceptable.

Was the tackle intentional or accidental, malicious or stupid? Nobody knows -- probably not even Smith. In the end it doesn't matter. It was clearly dangerous play and as such deserved a red card. Unfortunately, since referee Dermot Gallagher chose to show yellow, I believe the FA are unable to punish Smith further. And that's too bad because he clearly deserves to be punished. Smith offered an apology of sorts after the match. It's a mealy-mouthed politician's apology, more defensive than apologetic. Try again, Dan.

So there's nothing more to be done. It's happened and we have to move on. One thing is certain: every Arsenal fan is in full support of Diaby and will be eager to see him playing again. Let's hope that he has a full recovery and that he's back on the pitch quickly. And as for Dan Smith, his karma will have to punish him, because otherwise there's nothing to be done.

Still, it's probably a good thing that Sunderland are relegated.

On to Manchester City for Thursday. Let's get another win!

01 May 2006

Sunday Wrap-Up

Good morning, folks, and I hope the weekend treated you well. Unfortunately it wasn't great for the Arsenal as Tottenham 1-0 Bolton was the scoreline. I haven't seen the match, but evidently it was a near thing, particularly with a late penalty shout for Bolton. So things look grim for the Gunners' quest for fourth place. West Ham are Spurs remaining opponents, and the Hammers will rest players for the FA Cup final. But there's still a game to be played; we'll see what happens.

But even if Spurs win out, they miss Champions League play if Arsenal win the Champions League final. After last years' debacle, UEFA clarified the rules so that the winner is entered next year, regardless of where they finish in their league. Of course, at this stage that would bump Tottenham into the UEFA Cup. Of course, Martin Jol is agitating for a change; after all, that worked for Liverpool last year. I can understand where he's coming from... but after last year, things are rather clear. And it makes the Champions League even sweeter to know that a victory would cause Tottenham that much more pain.

In other Sunday news, it appears that Wayne Rooney has a broken metatarsal and is unavailable for six weeks -- coincidentally, the amount of time left before the World Cup finals start. This presents Sven-Goran Eriksson a real dilemma as he has to name his squad by 15 May. It seems that he's inclined to include Rooney on the team, gambling on his quick return to health. Let's hope he's right. Whether you're an England supporter or a neutral, you'll enjoy the matches better with Rooney on the field.

For Arsenal it's going to be a busy week: a visit to Sunderland today; a trip to City of Manchester stadium on Thursday, and then the final Highbury game on Sunday against Wigan. Obviously Arsenal have to win all three to keep the hope for fourth place alive, yet with such a schedule a rotating squad is a necessity.

Sunderland present perhaps the easiest target, yet it's also the easiest day to use the first-team players. There are plenty who are missing the match today due to injury; Arsenal are reporting that Gilberto, Mathieu Flamini, Jose Antonio Reyes, Theo Walcott and Philippe Senderos will all be unavailable, while Aleksander Hleb is doubtful. We'll see what kind of lineups Arsène Wenger has up his sleeves; it should be interesting if a bit unsettling. But whoever Wenger chooses today, a win can be all that we expect. Sunderland are frankly woeful; their home record stands at 0-4-13. Arsenal just can't be the first team to lose at the Stadium Of Light this year, no matter who's in the squad. So let's see some effort from the boys. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

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