Arsenal: A mature display as Santi delivers the goods
By Bernard Azulay
It was brilliant to finally get the monkey off our back at Man City, securing such a convincing victory away from home against one of the big clubs. I’m still trying to work out how much of this was down to the fact that City were well below par.
Yet credit where due, for once the entire Gunners’ team were disciplined in doing their jobs. To such an extent that the home side barely managed to ruffle the feathers of a backline, who I am certain weren’t expecting to enjoy quite such a comfortable afternoon.
Santi Cazorla rightly deserved all the plaudits, as I can rarely recall the diminutive Spaniard imposing himself on a game in quite such an influential fashion. Perhaps he was inspired by the prospect of finally putting one over on his good pal, David Silva. But never mind Santi’s confidently struck spot-kick, or his perfectly placed assist for the second, it was his tireless graft in containing City, like a man possessed, that was most impressive.
Seeing Cazorla fearlessly throwing himself in front of the ball to block shots, effecting important tackles to win back possession on the edge of our box and his controlled composure in commencing the vast majority of our counter-attacks, left me wondering why we don’t witness this level of commitment from him in every match?
However Coquelin is also due high praise, for doing all the unglamorous graft alongside Cazorla. It’s no coincidence that our defence has acquired a far more calm and resolute aura in the past couple of games, with Coquelin providing such an effective screening role in front of them, to prevent our back four from being exposed quite so frequently.
The only downside to Coquelin’s contribution in Sunday’s significant triumph (aside that is from gifting Chelsea an unavoidable leg-up to the title) is that it lends Arsène a credible argument, to counter the clamour from all those who are desperate for him to sign a Matic-type stopper.
But I am certainly not complaining because it was wonderful to be watching an Arsenal side that at long last seems to be developing more maturity. Having adopted the same uncharacteristic tactics as those we produced at Upton Park, where we were happy to concede possession to the home side and sit and defend the last third, obviously scoring the first goal was crucial because it played right into the hands of our counter-attacking strategy.
It might’ve been an entirely different story if City had scored first and the Gunners had been forced into returning to our customary, far less responsible attacking style, where we’d have doubtless been picked off after that. Yet thankfully, with us being a goal to the good, we were encouraged to hold what we had. It made for a decidedly pleasant change to see the Gunners successfully take the sting out of the game.
As City’s corner tally mounted, I became increasingly convinced that the law of averages would eventually prevail, especially with Ospina, our relative shrimp of a goalkeeper seemingly so reluctant to come and claim the ball. Yet whether we are attacking, or defending set pieces, the added presence of Giroud appears to make a considerable difference.
With all our competitors winning this weekend, we badly needed the three points on Sunday. With the likes of Özil and Walcott waiting in the wings, they are far more likely to add momentum, if they’re returning to an Arsenal side on the charge.
It’s hard to believe we’re still playing leapfrog with the likes of United and Spurs, when you contrast our recent form with the way our competitors are toiling to secure wins.
With the Saints stubbornly refusing their predicted dip and with Sturridge to eventually return for the Scousers, hopefully the Gunners can use this win as a springboard for a purple patch to ease past the other also-rans.
Chelsea: Mourinho in no mood for mercy
By Trizia FiorellinoOur away form had been giving me sleepless nights for a while now. I’d also been fretting that City were beginning to reach their cruising speed just as we were perhaps showing a bit of vulnerability.
So the performance on Saturday was very welcome and timely.
Of course, Swansea were complicit in their own undoing but their errors nowhere near told the whole story. We were rampant and it was one of those games when Swansea should count themselves very lucky that we have a semi-final tomorrow. Jose uncharacteristically drove the team on very vocally to keep attacking during the first half — even when we 3-0 and 4-0 up. Up to now we have seen him call off the dogs when two up — seems he wanted to send out a message this time.
He called the performance “perfect” and it was as close to perfection as you could get. Interestingly, from my vantage point it did look that Jose kept shouting at Fabregas — about what, I have no idea. For his part, Fabregas looked confused and shrugged his shoulders and I have to have some sympathy for him as it seemed to me that everything was going through him. He was the conductor, the fulcrum of a devastatingly brilliant machine. I can’t imagine what more he could have done.
Swansea set out to play football — but this was what caused their downfall. You could regard it as brave, had they had been at full strength and still had the services of their star striker, but severely depleted and bereft off-front, it was foolhardy.
The Liverpool game will be a far more cagey affair. Even Rodgers, who has more self-belief in his managerial skills than most, will have heeded events at the Liberty. Jose, too, will hardly play all his cards in this first leg although we fielded a near full-strength team throughout this competition. The League Cup was, of course, the first trophy that Mourinho won in England. I can’t imagine he is superstitious but he is a winner and a trophy is a trophy so he will be keen to win it.
Not only is Jose a winner, he does like a fight and so he has challenged the charges bought against him by the FA. He is an intelligent man — he can’t possibly believe for one moment that the football authorities will admit to having an agenda against the club. We know that and he knows that — but Mourinho is also a student of human nature. He will know that a challenge to such a charge in the open domain might have an effect on future decisions and how we are refereed.
If you take the diving controversy that surrounded us a few weeks back; once one of our players had been booked for diving, it made no difference that he hadn’t actually dived, the perception we were a diving team was created. It made it easier for the next ref to book another Chelsea player for diving because this perception had now become “fact”. Before you knew it, four Chelsea players were booked for diving. In reality, one was nowhere near a dive, two dubious and one possibly was a genuine dive.
So how do you now debunk this idea that we are a diving team? You have to put something else out there — something that will generate as many back-page headlines. This theory that there is an agenda against the club is perfect — it gets everyone’s back up, the authorities, opposition fans, referees etc.
But what else does it do? It will make at least some referees think twice before giving cards against us. Jose doesn’t care that he will be found guilty anyway — he will have achieved his intentions.
The siege mentality has worked for him in the past and he knows it can work again. Ferguson knew, more than anyone, how mind games influence where trophies end up at the end of the season. Jose does too. Wenger sees himself above that sort of thing and it shows.
Jose will just ramp it up between now and May so I can only see more controversy. If it’s for the ultimate goal, that’s alright with me.
Liverpool: Struggle goes on to break binding chains of mediocrity
By Steven Kelly
It’s a sad sight, watching my fellow curmudgeons clutching at straws. "Watch the wheels come off when we play a decent team". Reverse jinx, ploy number 78. Well, anything’s worth a try.
Points, away wins, clean sheets. Bodies flying into last-ditch tackles, goalkeepers making vital saves and catching crosses. I’ve fallen down some crevice in the time continuum and now smiling hurts my jaw.
I shall try to play the scrooge role to its limit by frowning about how this doesn’t make up for the execrable start to the season, pausing only to glower at the league positions of recent scalps.
Okay, Swansea are ninth – but look what just happened to them. Sunderland and Villa have shocking home records and Liverpool merely nipped in and swiped the spoils while they were conveniently comatose.
This is going to be a tricky facade to keep up though, especially when you saw what the second goal meant to the players on Saturday. Lucas even took up crowd-surfing like some geek at a grunge gig. It was all marvellously intoxicating. So what if it was Aston Villa?
Beggars don’t get to choose their good times and though such sunny-side thinking can often lead down a path to mediocrity it’s equally blinkered to ignore signs of recovery.
At Villa Park you saw first-hand the enormous pain of being big and never having the players, money or league place to convince others. The predicted protest turned out to be a damp squib and that level of indifference is incredibly sad – and dangerous.
That is the big club fans’ fear, not of failure but of irrelevance. That’s why we were so pumped about last season, despite coming second. It may take another five years to replicate it but we’ll always struggle, fighting to break the seemingly binding chains of mediocrity.
So every gap-toothed simpleton who sings about Steven Gerrard falling on his arse, keep it up. In stark contrast I couldn’t think of a single retort I could make about the likes of Villa.
There’s been more snide digs at Raheem Sterling’s tiredness, generally from the same dolts who will be crying about his England performances soon and accusing Rodgers of “squeezing him dry”.
He had a poor game on his return though. Coutinho had one of those days that make a fool of anyone who claims he could become as good as Messi. Those know-nothing idiots are all now hiding behind sarcasm as their excuse (ahem).
Other than those two, everybody came good.
Emre Can has become one of those happy accidents you hope Rodgers persists with. I remember the late Gary Ablett having a blinding season at centre half but Kenny spent big money on Hysen and that experiment was ended.
You can mention Markovic’s fee now without an automatic rolling of the eyes. Hell, even Borini got a goal.
The Rickie Lambert pile-on at 2-0 symbolised a team and support that thinks the tide is turning. As long as a there’s a foothold in reality; check the teams we’re beating, look who’s next etc.
I thought we’d done well to score four against Swansea but apparently not. We may be playing Chelsea in the “Must We? Okay, If We Must” Cup but it’s a semi-final, it’s Mourinho and it’s them.
It might not be the time of ghost goals and penalty shoot-outs but there will always be an undercurrent to this match and Brendan will have to try to win one sometime.
The excessive needling is always present of course in that “oh go on, hate us like we’re a proper club, oh go on per-leeeease” type way.
Alright then, just this once though. Grrrrr...
Man Utd: Crisis over after our trip back in time
By Richard Kurt
Last week felt like a bit of a throwback for United fans, as we all enjoyed the phenomenon that has come to be described as the "mini-crisis".These wobbles used to be monthly, at a minimum, under Moyesy; under The Philosopher, they’re attractively rare. But a proper angst-fest it was after Southampton, as fans and pundits alike waxed lyrical about formational, tactical and selection doubts, amidst much general hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing. (No need to panic until you start seeing Reds teeth-wringing and hand-gnashing, mind).
Tempted though I was to join in as Saturday’s trip approached, with the doomlords eagerly reminding us of QPR’s surprisingly intimidating home record, it only took one exchange on BBC Five’s Friday night preview show to bring me to my senses.
A former player was being asked about the level of dinosaur QPR boss Redknapp’s coaching skills: “So, does he actually take training, then?”
Cue studio seat-shifting and the limp reply: “Er, well, he would definitely be out there on the training ground...”
Guffaw: no further questions, m’lud. We had forgotten that we were truly taking a trip back in time on Saturday, and that’s not just a reference to the Hoops’ crumbling ground.
If LvG couldn’t even outsmart poor old Redknapp, then it’d be time to find a large vat of fermenting Edam and drown him in it.
Louis duly earned his money, and proved my point, at half-time, with exactly the right changes in shape, personnel and approach, to which QPR had little to say. Once we subsequently went ahead, most of us knew the points were safe, and no amount of post-match Redknapp huffing and puffing about, umm, the amount of huffing and puffing his players had done should have fooled anyone.
But what about that atrocious first-half exhibition, then?” Fair point. Poor Di Maria, stuck out up top and wondering which way to turn, had looked as unhappily confused as an eight-year-old boy who’d been given a dress and some make-up for his birthday.
Thankfully, I’m not Louis’s press officer, so it’s not my job to come up with excuses and explanations for some of his madcap outbursts, such as seemingly inventing (then abandoning) the 5-1-2-2 formation.
As for the man who sort of is his press officer — or, at least, the communications director of MUFC — he had been busy prematch, dampening down growing expectations of a window spending spree. A typical story had appeared prominently in Friday morning’s Daily Mirror, for example, claiming a “transfer summit” between Louis and The Suits would be happening in London that day, whereby up to €150m worth of possible deals would be discussed. The ink had barely dried before United were actively dismissing it.
Similarly, you may then have spotted evidence of further such hosepipe-wielding in Sunday’s papers, wherein various disappointed Manchester correspondents wrote of being told that “none of United’s targets will be available in this window”.
I can hear you snorting cynically into your Coco Pops from here, and you’d be right: there’s no such thing as an “unavailable” footballer — it’s merely one whose financial package price you have not yet matched. And playing down expectations is classic pre-match behaviour from a chief executive’s team in a transfer window.
But it has to be admitted — hard tips about possible imminent activity have been thin on the journalistic ground. I’m usually swimming in speculative signals at this time of year but the only truly strong one I’ve had has been about a much-linked and old-hat north-western full-back. Be still, my beating heart. Let’s hope things pick up this week or else we’re going to be stuck next Monday paying condescending homage to “plucky Cambridge”. Or, if the worst happens on Friday, about yet another mini-crisis.
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