The season so far: Part 3 – The kid conundrum

Arsene Wenger told the world “Watch out for us this season”, and so the world watched. Being his usual astute self, Wenger forayed into the transfer market and bought only Thomas Vermaelen, the Belgian defender from Ajax. Naturally eyebrows were raised on the lack of “big name signings” but Wenger, in his  normal manner, brushed aside the thought, instead, reiterating his faith in the young guns.

 

Arsenal started off in the most brilliant fashion, disposing of Everton and Portsmouth 6-1 and 4-1 respectively, an in the meanwhile eliminating Celtic from the Champions League with the minimum of fuss. With 15 goals in the first 4 games, it looked as if Wenger had been vindicated. Then came back to back defeats at the two Manchester clubs but these were followed by a remarkable run of 11 wins and 2 draws in the next 13 games. Arsene’s men were well and truly on their way to something special; or it would seem.

 

December rolled onto January and defeat in the Carling cup was one of the series of mixed results that saw Arsenal keep pace with the leaders and even top the table on occasion. February came and Arsenal’s good run continued with progression to the next stage of the Champions League, after an utter demolition of Porto. Next in wait – the champions. March was again mixed with good wins marred by the draw against Birmingham and the remarkable come-from-behind draw against Barcelona. This game though, would turn out to be one of the most significant of the season, not so much for the result as for the injury to Cesc Fabregas, their talisman.

 

Come April, and Arsenal were very much in with a shot at the title in what has become perhaps the closest title race in recent memory. April, was where it tailed off. After a scrappy 1-0 against Wolves, they were handed something of a lesson by Barcelona at the Camp Nou. The diminutive Argentinian scoring all four goals in what was a virtuoso performance by the European and World champs. With just the Premier League to play for, Arsene Wenger knew that if his side put in a decent string of performances, the title could well be back at North London. What transpired though was a string of poor results with reverses at Tottenham and Wigan and  draw at Man City. Arsenal are no longer in the title race going into the last day of the season, and by the looks of it, even third place is not guaranteed.

 

What happened then? It was all going so well and then … implosion! To start off, the summer signing of Vermaelen was an inspired one with the Belgian becoming one of the signings of the season. Eduardo, Bendtner and Vela were touted to be the main support cast to the main man, Van Persie but somehow they failed to deliver. The midfield was overflowing with options and Song has been the absolute unsung hero this season (no pun intended). The problem then, as it has been for a few seasons now, was injuries. Far too many players played far too less to really maintain that coherency and chemistry. Wenger was forced to play players out of position and this had a telling effect. The defence was also hampered by injuries and the only replacement Wenger brought in the transfer window was an ageing Sol Campbell, who though, has been one of the stand-out performers in the run in. Ramsey’s breakthrough season was also cut short by a horrific injury that will see him miss the first half of next season too. Add to this the fact that Van Persie was out for a major part of the season and the lack of firepower  becomes evident.

 

Another problem, and an even bigger one has been the attitude. As has been the case over the past few seasons, when faced with crunch situations and high pressure, they’ve often bucked under it. Much as they are the best “footballing team” in the land, they too lack that all important Plan-B when things don’t go according to plan. Often, they’ve been outmuscled and roughed up by physical teams.

 

With Chamakh confirming that he will be joining the Gunners at the end of the season, their striking options should be bolstered. Arsenal’s midfield certainly has a lot of options but many are too similar. Most of them tend to play the same game. Song, for all his defensive qualities, is still a touch player. What is definitely needed is steel in the middle of that midfield. Someone like ex-captain fantastic, Viera. Also, with Gallas’ contract running out at the end of the season and there still ebing question marks about his temperament, another quality center back to partner Vermaelen is most definitely needed. All said and done, one of the most pieces of business that Wenger has to do is to tie down his captain and shield him from the Catalan advances.

 

“In Arsene we trust” reads many a banner at the Emirates and it’s a sentiment echoed by many Gooners. It’s been FIVE seasons now without a trophy now and even the most ardent fans are beginning to raise a question or two. Arsene Wenger is no longer just the manager; he’s much more. He is building not just a squad but a football club. Arsene must realize that his footballing philosophy is great but he definitely need that extra bit of quality, grit and determination. Now rid of all debt and armed with a transfer chest of more than 50 million, there will be no question of a lack of funds next season. It’s time for the professor to go forth; to splash the cash and bring glory once again.

 

 

Cheers

 

 

The season so far: Part 2 – The Mersyside Melee

When Jamie Carragher said before the start of the season, “This is our year!”, people, for once, took him seriously. Coming off the back of a brilliant season where Liverpool, after years of making up the top 4, genuinely challenged for the title, they were expected widely to challenge for the title and perhaps finally win that elusive 19th title that would again see them as the undisputed kings of England. What transpired though, was a season that was marred with poor displays and inconsistency on the pitch, and a storm off it, in the boardrooms.

 

The off season was an interesting one with the sale of Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa to Real Madrid and the major signings of Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani. Aquilani’s signing was ans especially intriguing one because he was signed for a fee in the region of 20 million pounds and was going to be out for the start of the season for sure. Nevertheless, the core of the squad that had come so close to winning the title last season was maintained and it was “all hands on deck” to the title hilt.

 

The early season form was patchy with fantastic wins against the likes Stoke and Hull interspersed by a defeat against Villa and scraped-out wins against Bolton, Debreceen and West Ham. The next 10 games was what probably defined Liverpool’s season. The 10 games resulted in 6 losses, 3 draws and only a solitary win, albeit against bitter rivals Manchester United. Come November end, Liverpool’s title challenge was all but over and their qualification to the knock out stages of the Champion’s League hanging by a thread. This 10 game spell was probably the club’s worst in recent times.

 

The first half of December brought with it heartbreak; Liverpool were knocked out of Europe’s elite and were consigned to a season in Europe’s Tier-II competition. The players tried to put up a brave face by saying that “winning the Europa League will put a different gloss on the season” but it was there for all to see that they were desperately disappointed that they had let themselves and the fans down. The next few months were again mixed with Liverpool now struggling to hold onto a Champion’s League spot. Their form in the Europa League was marginally better though and they went through to the semi-finals without much difficulty. It was in the semi-final though, that their only chance of silverware was also taken away from them – a strike from Manchester United old boy, Diego Forlan, sent Liverpool out of the Europa League and extinguished hopes of any sort of silverware this season. With last weekend’s loss against Chelsea confirming that there will be no Champions League football next term, 2009-’10 is officially the worst season for Liverpool FC in recent times.

 

What then is the reason? On first glance, FOOTBALL seems to be the most obvious. What could possibly have gone so badly wrong with the core of the team still intact? The loss of one player could not have hampered them that much, could it? Xabi Alonso was massive for Liverpool, no doubt, but surely his departure was not the only reason. Of the 2 big signings, Glen Jonson really came into his own and has cemented his position as first choice for both club and country. Aquilani, however, is a different story. Heralded as a playmaker with great vision and a fantastic shot, he never really sparkled; probably because he never really played! He was out for the early part of the season with an injury but even after he was fully fit(or seemingly so), Rafa still limited him to 10 minute cameos. With Torres’ hamstrings and knees playing up from time to time, and him unavailable for a lot of the season, Liverpool were pretty toothless in attack with N’Gog hardly a replacement for the brilliant Spaniard. Gerrard too has had an ordinary season with off-field allegations clearly taking their toll.

 

All through the season, the boardroom battles have waged on with the owners publically disagreeing and sparring. They appointed Martin Broughton to sell the club which was for sale anyway. Rafa too got involved in these boardroom battles and took his eye off the ball – literally. He got in the mix of the power struggle and wanted more autonomy and so on when the focus should have been on the field. Also, the master tactician’s on-field tactics too left many a Kop supporter baffled. His insistence on playing 2 defensive midfielders against even lesser opposition left many shaking their heads. And with Rafa’s future looking cloudy, Liverpool FC supporters are looking at a long summer ahead.

 

All’s not doom and gloom though. If Rafa does stay, he will probably be working under new management, who will back him in the transfer market and he can get those couple of missing pieces of the jigsaw. With Torres likely to be fully fit and Aquilani beginning to look like the prospect who everyone thought he was, Liverpool could yet put a disastrous end to the noughties and begin the new decade with what may well be the 19th title and with Chelsea looking good to deny United their nineteenth, Liverpool could yet be the undisputed kings of England come May 2011.

 

 

 

Cheers

 

The season so far: Part 1 – The Italian invasion

 

The Italian invasion of West London was greeted with a great deal of expectancy. After the Brazilian fiasco followed by the Dutch revival of last season, Stamford Bridge was buoyant after the appointment of one of the foremost tacticians of Italian football. The summer was relatively quiet with the only big money signing being Yuri Zhirkov, and Daniel Sturridge and Ross Turnbull bolstering the English options.

 

Chelsea started off with a win in the Charity shield over Manchester United on penalties. Carlo’s diamond was unleashed on an unsuspecting premier league and Chelsea romped their way past teams in the early part of the season with hardly a hiccup. The group stages of the Champions league too seemed a breeze with 4 wins and 2 draws in the group stages. They looked unbeatable at times and were ruthless in attack and miserly in defence.

 

Then came the proverbial “blip” with inconsistency raising its head. Unexpected draws at Everton, West ham, Birmingham and Hull. The turn of the year saw Chelsea sitting atop the premier league perch and looking good for their first title post Mourinho. January and then Februaury rolled on with a few mixed results but Chelsea still held the edge. Then came the heartbreak. Carlo was out thought by his former cross-town Milan rival, and predecessor, The special one. Another year gone, another year Roman has to wait for his elusive Champions League.

 

The season has almost ended and Chelsea are in it for two major titles; They currently hold a single point advantage over Manchester United going into the last day of the season and they play Portsmouth in the FA Cup final. The double is very much on the cards.

 

Carlo Ancelotti’s diamond was the story of the first half of the season when it cut through all in its path but as the season progressed, loss of form and fatigue soon caught up with the ageing Chelsea squad and led to inconsistency. Going into the business end of the season, Chelsea look to be in a fantastic position with most of their players peaking. Drogba is the joint top scorer in the league and “Super Frank” has just had another 20 goal season. Yet, Chelsea’s main man this season has been Flourent Malouda. At the beginning of the season, many were questioning the Frenchman’s value to the team and there was even the talk of an exit at the end of this season. Employed by Ancelotti in both a wide position and in a more central role, he has reveled and has contributed not just to the scoring charts but in the assists column as well. The return of Joe Cole too bolstered the options but Essien has been a big miss with everyone else who has occupied his position struggling to show any sort of consistency.

 

With both Bosingwa and Ashley Cole out for long periods, Ivanovic has stepped up to the plate and has established himself as first choice. John Terry has not been at his usual brilliant best, off field problems and losing the England captaincy might be the contributors there, but has done well enough to steer the Chelsea ship through.

 

Two games left in the season now. One’s a cup final and the other may well be called a ‘League final’. Carlo’s team have to now show that they do indeed possess the nerves of steel and the suave that have made them the top scorers in the league. It may not have been a vintage season in terms of consistency but come the end of the season, they are exactly where they wanted to be; challenging for trophies.

 

 

Cheers

A night of opportunities lost

It was another fantastic European night at Old Trafford; it had goals, red cards, heroic defending and moments of pure magic. At the end though, Bayern Munich emerged with a loss on the night but a place booked in the semi-finals.

 

The drama unfolded even before kick-off. Wayne Rooney started. Clearly, he was only half fit but Sir Alex saw it prudent to pick him over Berbatov. The decision was certainly risky but what a decision it was! Rooney’s presence seemed to galvanize United who started off with an absolute blitzkrieg that left the Germans shell-shocked.   First, it was Gibson(another surprise starter) who put his foot through a Rooney lay off and squared Hans Jorg Butt all ends up. One nil inside three minutes. Then it was Nani’s turn. Valencia shimmied and conned Badstuder and fed in a ball that was finished off by Nani with a ‘Ronaldo-esque’ backheel. Two nil in seven minutes.

 

If the Germans were rattled after the first goal, they were literally in jitters after the second. They just didn’t know what hit them. Butt made a meal of a straightforward clearance and it went straight to Carrick who skewed his shot marginally wide. Bayern were looking to get a toe hold in the game but were simply being outplayed. The much fancied duo of Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery were all but anonymous with Ribery well cornered by a combination of Rafael and Valencia. On the half hour mark, Rafael had another glorious opportunity when he ran half the length of the pitch with the ball but poor decision making meant that he could not play in either Nani or Rooney.

 

Then in the 41st minute, United were at it again. Fletcher played a fantastic cross-field ball into Valencia who squared it to Nani, who unleashed an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net. Three nil and seemingly, game over. Just before half time however, Olic pulled one back for Bayern when he took advantage of some slack defending and beat Van Der Sar. Three one at the break.

 

The second half started with Gomez coming on for the ineffective Muller. Bayern started the stronger and clearly, the goal had galvanized them. Then in the 50th minute, Rafael pegged back Ribery and the referee awarded a free kick. Initially, the referee did not appear to show any indication of reaching into his pocket but a swarm of Bayern players surrounded him, and he soon showed Rafael a second yellow which meant that United had to play the best part of the half, a man down. United were now effectively playing with nine and a half men with Rooney looking increasingly like a passenger. He was taken off in the second half and was substituted by the returning O’Shea.

 

Bayern were now firmly in the ascendancy and were putting more pressure on United. United held on till the 74th minute. That was when a moment of absolute magic put United out. Ribery took a corner which he clipped to the edge of the box towards a waiting Robben. The Dutchman showed fantastic technique and finesse to guide a brilliant volley into the corner of the net. Three two, on the night; Four four on aggregate; Advantage Bayern.

 

Bayern then controlled most of the game, playing it about at will. United did bring on Berbatov and Giggs for Carrick and Gibson but it was too little, too late. Three two at the end. Bayern through on the away goals rule and they now go on to face Lyon in the semi-finals.

 

The game was a fantastic mix of beautiful attacking football and shrewd tactical calculations. Bayern read the situation wonderfully after the sending off and played to the hilt. Nani and Valencia both had stellar games with the former showing his full array of tricks and flicks. After the sending off, he looked United’s main threat and at times, Bayern had 5 men on him. Fletcher ran his socks off, as usual, and the defence held up pretty admirably, apart from a couple of moments of slacking off, which in the end proved costly.

 

One can’t help but think that Sir Alex’s quite evident lack of faith in Berbatov may in part have been the deciding factor. Starting with a half-fit Rooney might well have paid off with the start United got but bringing on O’Shea and not Berbatov for Rooney probably was where he missed a trick. Sure, O’Shea came in to shore the defence up and shut up shop but he could have come on for the pretty woeful Michael Carrick. Both Valencia and Nani were constant outlets throughout the game but in the latter stages, there was no central lynchpin for them to really play their game. Even with 10 men, United attacked but somehow had to check back on breaks because of the lack of a central figure.

 

In all, it was a night of missed opportunities. Sir Alex will be fuming, more at the manner of the defeat(over the 3 legs) than the match result in itself. A couple of moments of bad defending over the 2 legs (Olic, the beneficiary on both occasions) will certainly be infuriating. For the second time in a week, united slacked off from being in a position of strength and Bayern made them pay. Another  European season of ‘what if?’ has just ended. The Premier League awaits.

Europe tonight: A preview

Yesterday is history now. Once the dust settled in Spain and Russia, two of the four semi-finalists of the UEFA Champions League 2009-’10 have been identified. It will be a clash of Italian guile and steel against the Spanish flow and beauty.

 

A couple of massive matches tonight.

First, the battle for France, with Bordeaux taking on Lyon. On paper, it looks to be Lyon’s for the taking. Having lost their crown to Bordeaux last season, Lyon were very much the wounded animal in the first leg and ran out comfortable 3-1 winners. Bordeaux though, will be buoyed by the away goal and its more than likely that Blanc will instill confidence in his charges and a mouthwatering clash may well be on the cards; Lyon out to prove that they are still top dogs in France, and Bordeaux looking to show the world that last season was no fluke.

 

Old Trafford, the theatre of dreams. The big question tonight will certainly be one of whether the dream for the club from Manchester will continue or will it be a resurgent Bayern who will quash the dream. Their talisman, Wayne Rooney, who has been nothing short of sensational this term and has more than once been the spark that has really galvanized Manchester United’s quest for glory this season. With Wazza on the bench (at best), United look to have their task cut out. With Berbatov leading the line over the weekend against Chelsea, the cutting edge did indeed seem to be missing. For all of his touch, suave and panache, Berbatov has been found wanting on occasion. United’s backline looks to be coming good but an ageing Neville could be exposed. John O’Shea is fit again, but having not played a competitive game since September ’09, it remains to be seen if he will be risked in such a massive game.

 

Ferdinand and Vidic look to be recapturing the old magic but its early days yet. The midfield is likely to have Nani and Valencia on the flanks with Scholes, Park and Fletcher in the middle.  Sir Alex, over the past couple of seasons has been known to favor the 4-5-1 in the big games but always had either Rooney  or Ronaldo leading the line. It will be interesting to see if Sir Alex opts for a bolder 4-4-2 approach with either Macheda or Diouf alongside Berbatov. However, this appears most unlikely with a 4-4-1-1 with either Giggs or Park supporting Berbatov, looking the most likely option.

 

On the other hand, Bayern will be full of confidence after a fantastic week which saw them do a “99” on United and regained top spot in the Bundesliga with a win over Schalke. With Robben back In their ranks, their wings look formidable. With a plethora of options up front, Van Gaal looks to have a plan for every situation. Add to that, the return to fitness of Van Buyten, and Bayern look to be at full strength and at their peak.

 

With United seemingly struggling and Bayern in full force, Bayern look to be the favorites, regardless of what Van Gaal says. Trust Sir Alex to pull the rabbit out of the hat though. One thing is for certain, another glorious European night awaits at Old Trafford tonight.

 

 

Cheers