Sunday, April 20, 2014

Arsenal Win 3-0 in FA Cup Final Warmup

Arsenal were largely outplayed in the first half of their game against Hull, but some strong goalkeeping by Szczesny, a friendly post and two moments of genius, both started by Ozil, led the Gunners to a 2-0 first half lead. The first goal came in the 31st minute, when Ozil sent a ball toward the middle of goal from the edge of the box. Cazorla picked it up and sent Ramsey through on goal, with the Wales international making no mistake to score in his first start since Boxing Day. The second goal came on a counter in the 45th minute, when a nice Ozil pass to Giroud was lofted across goal to Ramsey, who chested it right into the path of a charging Podolski. The hot German left no doubts with a rifled shot across goal into the far corner that was his third of the week. And thus a half in which Arsenal were often overrun in the middle, were outpossessed and had to hold on against attack after attack ended with them in a comfortable position, due in no small part to the return of their two stars from the first half of the campaign. Ozil looked sublime in his return with several through balls, the passes that set up both goals and some surprising strength in possession. Ramsey scored one and set up another. And Koscielny was also a welcome return.

The second half saw Arsenal play with more resolve and they all but sealed it in the 54th minute when a spell of possession led to Monreal sending a nice through ball to Cazorla near the touchline on the left. He sent the ball back across goal to Ramsey, whose shot was well saved by the Hull GK, but Podolski nabbed the rebound, took two touches to settle and then scored with a strong finish from close range (giving Ramsey his second assist). Ozil came off in the 60th minute for Flamini, a good substitution that might mean Wenger is finally paying attention to how the German was used at Real last year (though it could simply be injury recovery management). From here, the Gunners bossed possession and took control of the game, missing out on several chances to add to their lead. In the 64th minute, Giroud stole the ball from the goalie and had a relatively easy finish, though from an acute angle, and failed to score and in the 68th took a nice pass from Ramsey in on goal and then inexplicably passed it off, before being subbed out for Ox in the 74th minute – reinforcing the general consensus among many fans including me that this should be the final season for the Frenchman, who plays with real heart but insufficient finishing ability – particularly when compared to Podolski, who has scored 17 goals in 28 games for club and country this year (with only 20 of those starts). Sanogo then came on for a cameo in the 84th minute of a contest that fell into a relative lull over the last 20 minutes or so – completely missing a shot in the 89th that reinforced the notion he also has a long way to go to become a top striker.

In the end, it was Arsenal’s 14th clean sheet of the season, all with Szczesny in goal – though this one was assisted by some poor Hull finishing in the first half and the aforementioned post, when a Jake Livermore shot across goal that beat Sz thankfully hit it. Now three games stand between the Gunners and fourth place yet again, though the league campaign cannot be thought of as anything but a disappointment and missed opportunity. On the other hand, it might serve as a good foundation to move forward next season if the squad can be improved and they don’t lose any of their top players (Podolski and Koscielny, for two, have garnered considerable interest from top teams and Cazorla is showing some signs of discontent).   

Everton’s 2-1 win against Manchester United concluded an extraordinary week in England, and in world football in general. First, on Wednesday, Manchester City’s title run took another huge body blow as they were lucky to nab a late equalizer at the Ethiad against bottom dweller Sunderland. At the same time, Everton lost their advantage in the race to secure Champions League football, falling 3-2 to Crystal Palace. Then Sunderland pulled off another stunner four days later, taking down Chelsea and ending Mourinho’s unbeaten streak at the Bridge at 77 games. When Liverpool beat Norwich 3-2 in a back and forth affair started by a stunning goal from outside the box by Raheem Sterling (4’), they were suddenly the preemptive favorites to end their 24-year title drought and win their 20th title. The Reds now have a 5 point lead over Chelsea and 9 points over Man City (who have two games in hand), meaning they could draw or maybe even lose to Chelsea at Anfield next weekend and still win the title; though City do have a two goal advantage in the goal differential at present. That could mean, for those not paying attention, that Liverpool could win their remaining games except against Chelsea, City could win all theirs, and the Blues could win their second title in three years by goal difference.

Looking beyond England, Gareth Bale continued his largely under-the-radar brilliant first season in Spain by scoring a late winner to secure his first piece of silverware, beating Barcelona 2-1 in the Copa del Rey final. This seemed to be the final blow in a disappointing season for Barcelona, who find themselves five points behind Atletico with only * games left, out of the UCL before the final four for the first time in 7 years and generally uninspired and vulnerable, with rumours of major changes this offseason (though I’m suspect of the Messi links to PSG and City). In Germany, Italy and France, we might be seeing repeat champions – as Juve and PSG close in and Bayern has already wrapped it up. 

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