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Borussia Dortmund Preview: Let’s Get This Show On The Road

Arsenal travel to Dortmund for what is on paper at least, the toughest of the three away fixtures. The Bundesliga champions showed impressive form at home last season, with a particularly miserly defence. Arsène believes that to qualify Arsenal need to take 3 – 5 points on their travels. Taking maximum points this evening will require an improvement in their attacking fortunes, especially as the defence is still in it’s ‘getting to know you’ phase.

It is hard to see Arsenal keeping a clean sheet tonight which leaves Wenger on the horns of a dilemma, whether to shore up the midfield with two essentially defensive players or to put out an in-form attacking line-up. He has identified the dangers of the Dortmund midfield, particularly Gotze and Kagawa, which suggests that a pairing of Song and Frimpong cannot be ruled out. That became more likely with Rosicky and Ramsey both failing to travel to Germany.

His two-match ban makes it crucial for Wenger to get the selection right beforehand. Pat Rice might well be briefed – and give the manager an escape route of being able to “blame someone else” if things go wrong as he jokingly pointed out yesterday – but he will not want to be making substitutions early in the game because the system is not working or the XI is outnumbered and outmaneuvered in midfield. Caution is going to be the name of the game.

To win this group, Arsenal will need to be at their counter-attacking best. Previous experience shows that fifteen out of eighteen points is required to finish first and get a relatively favourable draw in the first knockout phase. Recent seasons have shown how difficult that can be with four points gained on the road since 2005-06, the norm. Last season was worse, only the trip to Belgrade brought any reward and the consequence was a limited and difficult pool of opponents. Wenger will want to avoid a repeat of that scenario.

The last time Arsenal visited Dortmund, Tomas Rosicky scored to give the Germans the win that took them to the top of the group. Jens Lehmann was barely troubled after Thierry Henry gave Arsenal the lead. Arsenal were in a run of four 1 – 2 reverses, including the previous Champions League group encounter at home to Auxerre. It was also a season where distinguished by a dubious blue away kit although Gilberto Silva did set the record for the quickest goal in the tournament in the opening group match in Eindhoven. How welcome a repeat of that 4-1 victory would be, not just for the European campaign but also domestically.

If it were to happen though, even as a result of a blistering performance, the media would be entirely negative about it as that is the mindset of the club at the moment, Ivan Gazidis reportedly told the AST at the weekend. Chill winds are blowing through the UK at the moment, the legacy of Hurricane Katia. One is also about to blow through Europe according to the manager. His words will no doubt come back to haunt him as Arsenal are blamed for any economic slump, “It’s all Wenger’s fault, if he hadn’t mentioned it, this would not have happened“.

It is hard to see the current cartel in England changing as far as the TV rights are concerned, primarily because the rules of the Premier League are such that it would take a majority decision by the clubs to end the collective bargaining. Rather like turkeys voting for Christmas, it just won’t happen and that prevents a situation whereby the league becomes as financially uncompetitive as Spain. That the Premier League champions will come from a small pool of three or four teams does not mean that any gloating is necessary; that is as uncompetitive on the sporting front as Spain’s duopoly.

Back to this evening, my starting line-up would be:

Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Song, Arteta, Frimpong; Gervinho, van Persie, Arshavin

Most would include Theo in the starting XI, his pace a formidable weapon but simply, he is not in good form, Arshavin is. He and Gervinho have more subtlety about their play and enough speed to worry the German defence. Crucially, the Ivorian is more direct towards goal and Arsenal can ill-afford two wide men with inconsistent final passes. It is the Russian’s international and club form that wins the day for me. When Arshavin is in this mood and hinting at being in the goals, it is hard to drop him.

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

Barcelona 2nd Leg Ought To Be Fun & More

The most important fortnight of the season (© Hacks R Us PLC) is being disrupted by some transfer and contract talk which I suppose is better than the collective navel gazing about the strengths and weaknesses – real and perceived – of the second XI that played at Orient.

First in a long line of non-exclusives is Samir Nasri puts contract talks on hold – Arsenal set to lose star in Summer. Which is a nasty shock for Ivan Gazidis as he had only just adopted 147382BZ, just to the left of Ursa Minor, as a Christmas present for Arsène. That is, of course, not news. Not the star bit but the Samir Nasri stuff since it was actually announced by Arsène on on 3rd February,

I have always said we would sort that out in the summer, so there is no news on that front

Which should have killed the story dead but no, it is alive and kicking. And getting more ridiculous by the minute to the extent that what little credibility newspaper football journalists have, is rapidly being shot to pieces by links to Barcelona when there is no mention of the club in any interview.

Nasri though is optimistic about Arsenal and his future there,

It takes time for a team to develop into a winning side, but I think the time is right now.

It helps that belief when a final is less than a week away, no matter how disparaging comments from the manager and supporters have been in recent seasons about the competition. Footballers at this level want to win and this will do as starting point.

Indeed, it is a psychological boost to win but will the reverse apply should they suffer defeat against an unfancied  – look at most them, they’ve got faces that even a mother would struggle to love – Birmingham side. Personally, I believe that if they lose on Sunday, it will be a test but one that will be positively responded to in the longer term.

There have been enough critics writing this squad off over the years, this time I believe they would prove them wrong. But as we are going to win on Sunday, it should not come to this. Defeat is not an option.

Talking of which, that is exactly what Pep Guardiola has admitted in his pursuit of Cesc Fabregas this summer despite an official rumoured to have said £38m will seal the deal. It won’t as I suspect this is more why Sandro Rosell threatened to give to Ivan Gazidis if The Sun is to be believed. Which if you do, is more fool you. Gazidis probably said, “1 Cesc Fabregas = 1 Andy Carroll + 1 Fernando Torres“.

The gist of the matter is, apparently, another youngster signing legitimately for Arsenal – Jon Miquel Toral Harper – rather than staying at Barcelona. His DNA is obviously not that well developed yet. A rabid ego such as a man wanting to Barcelona president would be sure to want to avoid another humiliation at the hands of Arsenal over players but he is not alone in that sense.

Despite having been at the club when Cesc left, Rosell must surely be used to Arsenal laughing all of the way to the bank where Barcelona are concerned. The club has, after all, sold them enough pups over the years. And then refused to cower in the shadow of evil, preferring instead to face up to the bullying that the Catalans publicly attempted last year. Only for them to end up with egg on their face as they admitted poverty prevented them from paying market value for the Arsenal captain. A poverty which still strickens their club and will prevent them from getting Cesc this Summer. On the cheap that is.

And none of this is linked to the Champions League tie between the two clubs. At all. ’til Tomorrow.

Players Need To Bring Agents To Heel And Other Gossip

A quiet weekend without internet access so what has changed? Not much really although there was strenuous exercise undertaken by Stephane Courbis, Emmanuel Adebayor’s agent, as he sought to dig himself out of the hole he has quickly put himself into. Arsenal have rebuffed Milan’s advances so Mr 20% has to switch faces and deal with the Arsenal Board and Arsene now to renegotiate his contract, having tried to extricate his client from the club.

It is a similar situation for Alex Hleb as reports emerge that Barcelona are becoming frustrated at Arsenal’s intransigence over the transfer fee, reputed to be £15m. It is a simple situation for the prospective buyers to resolve; most transfers these days involve incentives and bonuses – ensure that the base value of the fee is more than Arsenal paid and then add in a couple of million as structured. It is pleasing to be reading of the Board taking a hardline with the Catalans if true, a stance that they have not always taken in the past.

As with these matters, the players are getting some flack despite Adebayor protesting his loyalty and his desire to remain in London. Hleb meanwhile has let it be known that he is unhappy in the capital and despite the sensible solution for him to move out of the city to suburbia, he appears to want out of the country.

The pressure exerted via clubs to unsettle players comes predominantly through media outlets. There will be carefully chosen words in a journalists microphone combined with misquoted interviews from the player themselves, translations so loose that if they were trousers, the wearer would be arrested for indecent exposure as said clothing ended up around their ankles.

That it is agents who will in the main be the ones to speak of such a move is little surprise. They are wheeler-dealers looking for a sizeable commission on any transfer so fluidity of the workforce is in their best interests. The sums of money that are talked of in signing-on fees turns heads as does image rights which earn commissions also, more readily than salaries.

It also gives the players what Hollywood likes to call ‘plausible deniability’ in its movie parlance. They can, if they so choose, distance themselves from such utterances either directly (Adebayor) or with statements of indecision (Hleb). The latter is fraught with dangers as a route of denial for other interviews tend to catch them out. Even so, the loyalty route is not an easy path for in the minds of some, the agent / player are one in the same in these situations. Opinions are easily formed with cheap words and hard to change.

And yet the players do not keep their representatives in check. Had Adebayor told his agent not to make any more public utterances, the credibility of the story diminishes but apparently this has not happened in either of the examples cited above.

The 2008-09 fixtures were released yesterday and will be unrecognisable once the various TV companies have got their grubby mits over them. With the clashes against teams believed to be the closest rivals pegged at the end of the both halves of the season, there is plenty of time to build up a winning momentum going into those matches. The flip side of that is the lack of opportunities to rectify bad results in the top four clashes. Perhaps Tomas Rosicky might be fit for those matches in May 2009 because he does not seem to think that he will be fit for the visit of West Bromwich Albion to The Emirates in August.

Rumours abound that Robin van Persie is Internazionale-bound although The Telegraph contradicts itself inside two paragraphs as per normal which undermines the little credibility that the story has. Equally rumours of a £15m bid for Daniel Parejo whom Arsene expressed an interest in last summer stretch credulity. Arsene is also reportedly after Raul Albiol of Valencia – amazing what an hour on the pitch at Euro 2008 does for a players desireability.

The winners of the Kenny Sansom books will be announced later this week.

’til Tomorrow.

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