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Arsenal Unable To Prosper As Sagna Loses It

Arsenal 0 – 0 Manchester City

It has been six months since the last goalless draw at The Emirates. The opponents on that late April afternoon were Manchester City. Arsenal must be wondering what they had to do to score last night, denied by the woodwork on several occasions and the hard work of Joe Hart, ensuring that his place as England’s goalkeeper is unlikely to be challenged.

Arsenal began the match at frenetic pace, their celeripedean attacks unsettling the visitors, forcing their opponents to cede possession carelessly. That the threatened early breakthrough never materialised will mystify Arsenal to the ends of time.

Nasri set the ball rolling initially. The Frenchman found Jack Wilshere in space in the box, the youngster’s cross narrowly beating the outstretched foot of Robin van Persie. Walcott showed good composure in retrieving the ball but Kolo Toure interceded. Should Wilshere have shot? With hindsight it is easy to say and there are no guarantees as to what the outcome would have been.

Wilshere and Nasri were pivotal in Arsenal’s early chances. Following a Milner counter, Wilshere tested Hart from distance before van Persie struck the foot of the post before ten minutes had passed. Nasri and Walcott created panic in the visitors defence shortly afterwards, Wilshere’s goalbound effort stopped on the line by Hart.

Arsenal’s dominance continued unabated. Walcott shot narrowly wide before Fabregas hammered the post once more, Hart completely beaten before Theo Walcott hit the opposite post from the rebound, this time the England international’s blushes were spared as the Assistant’s flag signalled he was offside.

Half time came with the scores still level. The tempo of the first half could not be maintained, the fixtures over Christmas and New Year inevitably causing tiredness to creep in.

Still Arsenal knocked on the City door. Whereas in the first half, the woodwork had been their saviour, Joe Hart would be the rock which rolled backwards in Arsenal’s Sisyphean endeavours.

Having shot into the sidenetting early in the half, van Persie struck once more from distance. Hart stretched to his right, turning the twenty five yard drive around the post. The Dutchman’s late freekick was blocked comfortably by Hart as time ran down.

It was the last real opportunity. Half chances came and went but City’s defensive style was too much to breach on this occasion. Arshavin and Bendtner were introduced to no avail but it was a night where the robotic nature of City’s play won through.

For that, City showed great professionalism. They rode their luck but each player knew what their role in the side was. They defended in numbers, not always convincingly, but once the first twenty minutes had passed, rarely were defenders exposed without any support from others.

Whilst it is not a style that Arsenal employs nor in the modern English game a style which will bring them titles, they are second and difficult to break down. The timewasting aspect, feigning serious injuries when none exists will catch up with them. Robert Pires found that decisions went against following a media campaign to label him a diver. In excess of five minutes injury time was played last night; when they go to Old Trafford, they can expect double that.

The final action of the game was an unsavoury incident. Quite what provoked the headbutting from the normally placid Bacary Sagna is unclear; the foul by Zabaleta would have been punished and an opportunity to create more pressure. Instead the Frenchman lost his cool and butted the City player twice. Was it a build-up from the weekend? Did Sagna believe he was being targetted. Whatever the case, the reaction was unacceptable for an Arsenal player.

Both were dismissed, Zabaleta presumably because he did not back down when the first butt went in, making it appear as though he was responding to the antagonism. It means that Sagna misses the next three games – two of which he probably would have anyway – with his suspension ending once the final whistle has been blown at Upton Park.

A disappointing result on the night but taking four points from the second placed team is a marked improvement on recent seasons. Whilst United have a little daylight for now, there is too much time left in this season for it to be definitive. If anyone believes otherwise, they simply have to look at Chelsea’s capitulation this season.

’til Tomorrow.

Arsenal Need To Crush City’s Fighting Spirit

Manchester City arrive at The Emirates this evening presenting Arsenal with the first opportunity since 2006/07 to take six points from a top four team. On their travels, City have taken more points (20) than Arsenal (18) have won at home. That they have played one game more is not overly important, simply that the visitors have so far significantly improved.

So far this season, City have only travelled to Tottenham of the top four, a goalless draw on the opening day of the season. In short, they ought to be in the position they are in with the way that the fixtures have fallen. It might explain in part why their away record is looking good at the moment.

They arrive bereft of their most creative force – David Silva – and denying Jack Wilshere the chance to go, “Mario Who?“, with Balotelli out injured. Whilst the Italian international is beginning his City career, another is coming to an end surely with Adebayor losing to Kolo Toure by two falls and a submission in a training ground incident yesterday. I’m sure that it had nothing to do with the icy stare from Patrick Vieira either.

It is an unsurprising event; Adebayor cannot claim that he wants more money from Madrid since City will probably end up bearing the brunt of his wages when he leaves. Picking a fight with a colleague is the only other way out. He is perhaps the first high profile departure. How far his star has fallen is marked by his suitors: (the unrealistic) Real Madrid, (the realistic) West Ham and Malaga.

His fall simply serves as another warning to those whose head is turned by the offer of more money elsewhere: leaving Arsenal is not always a good career move.

Onto Arsenal. Arsene reported that he has no new injuries to worry about with nobody returning either. Given that the XI which took the field against Chelsea and Birmingham won those games at a canter, it would be a brave decision to change that line-up. Two players spring immediately to mind for resting; van Persie and Djourou. Yet with both likely to get a ten day rest for the matches against Leeds and Ipswich, they must surely start tonight.

Having pressed and harried in both recent wins, it is imperative that there is more of the same tonight. City will more than likely string five across the middle and look to frustrate. Arsenal need to get their passing game into full swing from kick-off,  stretching the visitors from the start. Walcott’s pace is more than a match for either of the visitor’s full backs, especially as Lescott is little more than a converted centre back, suspect positionally when faced with a quick opponent.

The line-up I would expect is:

Fabianski; Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy; Fabregas, Song, Wilshere; Walcott, van Persie, Nasri

With Manchester United winning last night, avoiding defeat is essential. A win would seriously damage the vanquished party in terms of a title challenge. Yet as we have seen this season, consistency is not easy to come by. If Arsenal do not lose, it will be the first time since the opening month of the season that they have gone more than three games undefeated in the Premier League. A good time to put that run together is now.

Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.

Manchester City Preview: Change Recent History And Win

With Chelsea eventually overcoming Wolves, this afternoon’s visit to Eastlands takes on more importance for both sides, if that were possible. Whilst a point would not be a bad result for Arsenal, City must win these encounters being the hosts. That, I suspect, is going to be how the season pans out with the top four matches, win at home and try to come away with the odd point or maybe a win.

Both sides go into the match on the back of comfortable midweek European wins. City has lost once in the Premier League this season – at Sunderland in August – and sit in second place, favourites this afternoon. That, combined with Arsenal’s wretched results in clashes with the rest of the top four in recent seasons, has created the expectation of a home win.

Theo Walcott noted that ‘underdog’ is a tag that Arsenal is not unhappy having,

That’s a good thing for us [if they go into the game as favourites]. We can go up there and express ourselves and try and get that result.

I think we could catch them on the counter-attack. I think it’s going to be a sort of slow game at times. I think with the pace we’ve got in our team we can catch them on the break. Only time will tell [whether we will get caught on the break ourselves].

It will require all of the guile that the midfield possess to break down the hosts defence. The expectation is that Mancini will nominate three defensive midfielders to counteract Arsenal; De Jong, Toure and Barry. Even so, Blackpool proved that numbers do not necessarily provide a defensive barrier, unlucky to have lost the game with ‘goals’ unjustly ruled out when considered in light of events that took place elsewhere last and this weekend.

Much will depend on Cesc prompting  in the absence of Jack Wilshere. It is a fixture where the close dribbling skills and lively movement of the youngster would have thrived. Space will be at a premium and creating width will be a key for Arsenal. For once, there will be someone who is consistent in the air to provide an alternative threat to the myriad of passes through defences.

Marouane Chamakh has nothing to be concerned about aerially for Kolo Toure – if he is fit – whilst Lescott and Kompany are not tremendous despite their height. Equally he has pace and movement to stretch the City defence with Nasri and Arshavin providing support in the middle, moving in from the flanks. Had Theo Walcott been fitter, I would have expected him to start to stretch City down the right and put Wayne Bridge under a lot of pressure with his pace. Having missed out in midweek, a starting place for Walcott seems unlikely.

Much though will depend on Abou Diaby as the main support from midfield for the Moroccan. Charlie Adam of Blackpool proved the susceptibility to City’s numeric advantage to late runs into the box and an in-form Diaby is equally, if not more, capable of providing such a threat. The Frenchman has an eye for goal but needs to be on the top of his game to force the hosts onto the backfoot.

Defensively, the return of Bacary Sagna bolsters the defence. He and Gael Clichy will need to be wary of the pace of Silva and Johnson. Whilst the Englishman has a touch of the ‘one-trick pony’, he can play on either flank and the Spaniard is devastating if allowed pace to cut inside. Both full backs need to be aware positionalluy. Likewise, Squillaci and Djourou are going to be occupied with Tevez who is City’s in-form striker. It seems unlikely that Emmanuel Adebayor will start, unsurprisingly his ego has created problems for Mancini in these circumstances.

It is a crucial afternoon for Arsenal. Avoiding defeat is the minimum target, a win would leave the gap  to Chelsea at five points and second place occupied. Goals away from home have been at a premium domestically, four in four games unusually low by the club’s standards in recent seasons. Yet one might be enough to secure the points this afternoon. And the bench will have guile and pace in abundance to provide alternatives in what I expect to be a tight match. The starting line-up will show few changes to recent weeks:

Fabianski; Sagna, Squillaci, Djourou, Clichy; Fabregas, Song, Diaby; Arshavin, Chamakh, Nasri

Rosicky or Denilson could provide an alternative to Diaby but I do not think that will be the case and Wenger’s comments about Arshavin in the week suggest that he has no intention of diminishing his goal threat by resting the Russian this weekend. Those who do not start today would almost certainly be in the Carling Cup starting line-up at Newcastle next week.

Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.

City Lucky To Get Nil In Bore Draw

Arsenal 0 – 0 Manchester City

The worst match I ever saw at Highbury was a goalless draw one autumnal Saturday when Birmingham City were the visitors in the early 1980s. Actually, I may have seen worse but this morning that is the fixture which immediately came to mind. David Seaman was in goal that day and it is far to say that he had nothing to do that afternoon as huff met puff and nothing actually happened. Well, not much anyway.

Manchester City arrived at The Emirates with a game plan. Unfortunately for Arsenal, nobody was nimble enough to let the air out of the fleet of coaches that the richest club in the world hired to park outside of their penalty area. Still, the City Board will no doubt be pleased that they have been able to drive them off the pitch without having to call a Kwik Fit fitter to get them moving. Arsenal is just sooooo middle class these days that we cannot even be relied upon to nick the wheels.

In truth, the complaints about the visitors tactics are misplaced. City needed to come away with a point having lost last weekend and duly did so; at this stage of their season, the result will always be of more importance than the performance. And, to a certain extent, the same held true for Arsenal, needing to halt a run of three successive defeats in all competitions.

There is not much to write about the match, ninety minutes that passed in a breeze of uneventful activity. Given was tested notably by Nasri and Diaby, the latter bringing a save from the Irishman which ended the goalkeeper’s afternoon with a shoulder injury. Robin van Persie’s delightfully curled free kick inched past the upright in the closest effort to a goal which could be mustered as Arsenal struggled to find a way past Given’s replacement, the Faroe Islands national team ‘keeper.

At the other end, City posed no threat at all. What little service their forwards had was snuffed out by the defence with relative ease. The afternoon may just have been what Fabianski wanted following last weekend, the biggest test was trying to complete The Guardian crossword using only the characters in The Godfather.

Wenger said afterwards:

You could see that the effects of recent defeats were in our heads. It was like we were forbidden to lose today and we just blindly throw everything forward because we knew we couldn’t afford to lose the game.

Understandable though it is, the outcome was disappointing.

For all of City’s spoiling tactics, there was enough guile in the Arsenal team to have made more of the situation. Confidence has taken a huge knock, rapid exits from the Champions League and the title race has created a chasm of disappointment into which some minds have fallen. The players need to pick themselves up and regroup once more, knowing that two wins creates a feel good factor at the end of the season.

That might be the last thing on their minds at the moment and I am sure that some are already looking forward to a South African adventure. There are still matters at hand which need to be resolved before then and the visit to Blackburn is the most immediate. The returning players, including Arshavin, can breathe new life into the dying embers of this season and let us hope that they do for the greatest shame would be that this season drift into mediocrity.

And look, a whole post-match blog without mentioning Him…oh, bugger.

’til Tomorrow.

Manchester City Preview: Time To Confound The Critics Once More

Manchester City arrive at The Emirates in a key fixture for both sides. city need the points in the race for fourth, Arsenal to ensure third place. More than that, Arsenal need to win following consecutive league defeats something that has always happened this season. Each time two Premier League defeats on the trot have happened, the next game – at home each time – has been won by Arsenal, with a clean sheet for good measure. More please, Sir.

All of the pre-match talk is coming from the visitors, bouyed by their derby…no, wait, they lost so presumably they think they are better than Arsenal, even if the Premier League table defies their logic. Having won the previous two encounters this season, scoring seven in the process, City’s attack will fancy their chances against a back four which has let in nine in the last three games, the makeshift nature emphasised by that statistic.

It is a return for five of the visitors’ squad, perhaps more emotional for Vieira, Toure and Him. Sorry, that was almost a Dom DeLuise moment there. The reception the three get will be marked in its difference; Vieira and Toure should be accorded the respect due for their endeavours in an Arsenal shirt, He is going to be jeered for the mark He made on Robin van Persie’s head and that goal celebration.

The lack of respect shown then will no doubt be reciprocated to Him, despite any requests to the contrary. I do not think it will motivate Him anymore than He will already be for the match. He feels there is a point to prove, so He will try to prove it. Definitely a Dom DeLuise blog this morning.

Arsenal welcome back Song and Eduardo to the squad for the match, the former likely to start, the latter a substitute. Robin van Persie should be part of an attacking trio alongside Bendtner and Walcott. Midfield requires some defensive nous to be applied, particularly on the right with Bellamy, Johnson and Tevez favouring that attacking channel. With Denilson absent, Emmanuel Eboue would be my choice, supporting Bacary Sagna at full back and Walcott in attack.

Defence though is Wenger’s problem. The back five collectively needs to put in a good performance following the debacle at Wigan. Manuel Almunia is missing once more which gives Fabianski another start, a point to prove to everyone and restore the good faith from the supporters, that the manager has given him. Wenger’s comments in the press conference yesterday though were backhanded. Fabianski is going to be a ‘great goalkeeper’ but his compatriot is a ‘future Arsenal No. 1’.

Lukasz Fabianski is apparently reading The Godfather to improve his English. I was not aware that Mario Puzo was a seer but no doubt he had the current Arsenal goalkeepers in mind with the children in the Corleone family. Fabianski is a ringer for Sonny, all headstrong and charging out of his area; Szczesny is Michael, Arsène‘s favoured goalkeeping son which just leaves Manuel to fill the role of Fredo. Manonne was a threat but he now sleeps with the fish.

Wenger also spoke of the summer months, Campbell will be spoken to – hopefully more about a coaching role than a permanent first team place – whilst talks are still ongoing with William Gallas. That a new deal has yet to be signed is not a particularly good sign, reminiscent of Flamini’s departure as is the absence through injury at the end of the season, but the centre back is entitled to take his time and compare the deal with other offers. That the door has not been entirely closed to staying is a positive also. Having lost control of the transfer speculation, Arsène sought to regain the higher ground by telling the assembled hacks that the Brothers Grimm were better storytellers and probably more accurate in their guesses about whom Arsenal will sign this summer.

Back to this afternoon. The starting line-up I would expect to see is:

Fabianski; Sagna, Campbell, Silvestre, Clichy; Eboue, Song, Nasri; Walcott, Bendtner, van Persie

That assumes all fitness tests are passed and no adverse reactions suffered to those conducted yesterday. It is a key fixture, one Arsenal need to win for confidence as much as the points. Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.

’til Tomorrow.

Time To Summon Some Spirit And Strength

When things go quiet in the club, you know that the PR people are actually doing their job properly. Of course that means that the media are starved of stories and therefore some daft tales take centre stage. It seems that Juventus are looking to do what Barcelona and Real Madrid have failed to in the past and take the club en masse to Turin with Robin van Persie and Bacary Sagna just the start of a trickle to the Europa League next season. Failing to win the title will apparently mean that Melo and Buffon will make their Arsenal debuts ten years after being first linked with a possible transfer to the club.

Of course, what could the players actually have said this week? What could they have offered following the consecutive Premier League defeats that would have made the situation any better? Frankly nothing. The squad has talked quite a lot in the past about focus and ability, the time to deliver, etc., but this past ten days such words would have meant little since the actions did not deliver.

Tomorrow’s match with Manchester City is key for both clubs. An Arsenal win combined with a Spurs defeat sees 3rd place confirmed and 2nd out of sight, a classic case of mixed emotions although for the first time since 2005-06 that would mean automatic qualification for the group stages of the Champions League next season. That combination would suit Manchester City in their attempt to qualify for Europe’s premier cup competition, not improving their situation whilst not making it any worse.

A City win tomorrow increases nervousness around Arsenal, with the gap between the two reduced to six points and a game in hand for the chasing pack. Failure to finish in the top three would class this season, overall, as no improvement on last in cold statistical terms. Fourth in the Premier League, fourth again. The players simply cannot let that happen for until the current spate of injuries, few could put forward any cogent arguments that this season had not been a step in the right direction compared to last. Not the finished article but a giant stride forward nonetheless. Third cements that argument.

Tomorrow is about showing the spirit which was evident earlier in the season, when the results went against the side in matches against the other top four sides, adversity brought out the best in terms of effort and application. Winning at this end of the season does not have to be pretty unless it is a meaningless match. Whilst key players are missing and with their physical absence, the mental strength is not there as well.

It is in these situations where Campbell and Silvestre should step up as senior pro’s. The former has shown the mental strength necessary as well as defying the years with his performances; the latter is well, the latter. They need to kick some strength into the rest. Little wonder that Arsène will be hoping Alex Song passes a fitness test. That and the appearance of Robin van Persie at kick-off would give the Arsenal team a more confident feel about it, from the stands anyway.

’til Tomorrow.

Whilst Man City Provide The Comedy, Sol Gives Arsene Food For Thought

This morning brought forth the first mention in less than a week over the future of Cesc Fabregas, apparently to be the subject of a £50m bid from Manchester City. Apparently, they have not been “put off” by the initial soundings made over any offer for the player’s services. Presumably those soundings were much more polite than any private thoughts may have been on the matter. Still, nothing like a good laugh to start the day.

Wenger invited such speculation by mentioning that he will be dipping into the carrier bag of used fivers stashed behind the pot plant in Ivan Gazidis’ office. It will be a summer where he will hope to get his business completed early, before national squads meet up for the World Cup. Transfer windows around international competitions tend to be a sellers market, clubs hoping that their saleable assets perform well to inflate their values.

For Wenger this is the problem. Players such as Villa – even if he were to perform admirably – will not increase their values greatly. €40m – €50m will always be his price unless there is a bidding war. With the price bracket that Wenger tends to buy in, the increase tends to be more marked, a €5m becomes a €10m player on the back of a good tournament.

You notice that the currency is Euros; quite simply, I cannot think of many English players whom Wenger would consider technically adept enough to sign. The members of the England squad diminish that number further. Of the international players from overseas who ply their trade in the Premier League, their price will already be overinflated as it is so the manager is within his rights to look further afield for comparable or perhaps better, individuals.

Sol Campbell has spoken in the aftermath of the defeat in Barcelona, offering the view that the Champions League tie should be viewed as the benchmark for this Arsenal squad. Being one of the few squad members to have won the title, his colleagues would do well to listen to his belief, something he hopes they will do.

The hunger and desire Campbell speaks of is assumed to be shared, it is a mental requirement for champions. The likes of van Persie, Clichy, Bendtner and Cesc have always spoken of this desire, the remainder you assume have it as well. The ability to learn from the defeat will be the key. Being on the receiving end of the constant Barcelona pressure – as Real Madrid were last night – gave the midfield and attack the level to which they have to raise their game, starting at White Hart Lane.

Comparing this team to The Invincibles as the media likes to, is a pointless exercise. The Champions of 2004 were at the peak of their powers whilst the current squad are not on that level yet. Even so, they are challenging for the title, the outcome of which will be decided in a little over 500 minutes of football.

Campbell raised an interesting issue. He said:

You’ve got to respect football in every way. You’ve got to go for the League Cup; you’ve got to go for the FA Cup, you’ve got to go for all competitions because you never know which one is going to come your way.

I agree with Campbell in one respect. The first trophy the players win will break the mental barrier, prove to themselves that they are winners. Wenger strives to maintain a balance. The League and FA Cups are used to blood younger players and keep squad members fresh, preparing them for Premier League action when called upon.

That policy has not borne fruit in those competitions and with the League Cup in particular, it is hard to see that it will. The mentality of the top six teams has changed in recent seasons. Manchester City, United, Villa, Tottenham and Chelsea have all reverted to fielding strong line-ups from the quarter finals onwards. It means that Arsenal’s talented younger players learn from playing seasoned professionals. Yet the squad as a whole could learn from winning a trophy, irrespective of its value.

That said, if the youngsters start in the League Cup, over time there is a probability that they will gain reward, assuming of course that this taste of first team football does not lead to them moving to another club, Fran Merida may be a prime example of that this summer.

There is a balance to be struck and Wenger has to bear in mind the injury risks for players, particularly in the junior competition which coincides with the group phase of the Champions League. The stats I noted last week show that Arsenal suffer a significantly higher number of injuries than their close rivals, missing players who arguably could make a difference in the key competitions.

It is a matter of priorities, the decisions for which Wenger is paid his salary. His obvious targets are the Premier and Champions Leagues, two competitions which are extremely difficult to win due to the consistency required in the former, the quality of opposition in the latter. There should be no suggestion that either be sacrificed for the sake of another trophy. It hints of desperation and defeatism to suggest that they should be. The question is whether Arsene can continue to give the lesser tournaments the lesser attention.

’til Tomorrow.

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