Monday, March 30, 2015

Liberal Thought Police at it Again: Dunham Style

Lena Dunham has made a career of pissing enough people off so those who adore, or merely support, her keep her consistently in the news. That this is the case should not take away from her inchoate role as one of the voices of her generation or the reality that she is an extremely talented writer who combines an unapologetic confessionalism with crisp, popping and often-hilarious prose. But it was little surprise to read the vitriol that followed the release of her witty Shouts & Murmurs piece in this week’s New Yorker, comparing her Jewish boyfriend to a dog.

The piece is not only clever but quiet funny in parts and continues a long tradition of self-effacing Jewish humor. That it targeted her boyfriend rather than herself should take nothing away from the piece, which was funnier by a New York mile than most of the rather plaintive fare that page tends to offer from week to week. Among the items (set up as an either/or): 8. I feel that he is judgmental about the food I serve him. When I make something from scratch, he doesn’t want to eat it, but he also rejects most store-bought dinners, 9. This is because he comes from a culture in which mothers focus every ounce of their attention on their offspring and don’t acknowledge their own need for independence as women. They are sucked dry by their children, who ultimately leave them as soon as they find suitable mates, 10. As a result of this dynamic, he expects to be waited on hand and foot by the women in his life, and anything less than that makes him whiny and distant, 13. He doesn’t tip, 14. And he never brings his wallet anywhere, 27. In fact, he has hair all over his body, like most males who share his background.

Alright, some of it combs the edges of offensive, but not in a way that should be mistaken for anti-Semitism, particularly since Dunham is half-Jewish herself. The furor started with the Jordana Horn’s post in Kveller titled
“Lena Dunham Equated Jews to Dogs & That’s Not Alright” (with the leader “Anti-Semitism”) and then exploded on the reader response section of the website, growing to a boiling point of cyber vituperativeness that it ultimately compelled David Remnick to respond (TNR). All comedy will offend someone, and anti-Semitism is still rampant across Europe, the Middle East and parts of America, but this seems like an odd target given the more obvious examples available across the cultural and political landscape.

The tiresome nature of the criticism follows in what has become a left largely devoid of any sense of comedy or the difference between clever irony and cruel humor. The new film Get Hard appears to fall substantially toward the latter, but there is generally a humanity in Dunham that seems more apt to lean toward self-indulgence and self-obsession than cruelty. That the left can no longer tell the difference appears to me to highlight the failure to capture the essential nature of America or to galvanize the masses to support their perspective. Instead there is a tendency toward indignation and reactionary fervor that only serves to reinforce the ire of those who already agree with them.

It is strewn from article to article of the once excellent Salon, across the blogosphere, on Daily Kos and The Huffman Post, and the generally humorless The Nation. Liberals appear to have developed a double standard nearly as close-minded as the conservatives they are always attacking with apoplectic shock. If you believe in free speech, it must be free speech for all, including those you find offensive. If you want to have reasoned debate and dialogue, you have to actually listen to what others say and attack the merit of the argument rather than the person making it. If you want to convince others to be critical of their own perspectives, you must be willing to do the same. And if you want to actually change people’s minds, maybe it is time to stop talking from the vaulted air of moral and intellectual superiority.

At the heart of the problem is the inability to recognize the fact that progressives are consistently losing to conservatives, and have been for the better part of 35 years now. Why is the support not coming and why is the discourse employed unable to garner the support, or even ear, of many outside the inner sanctum of people who already support the cause of social justice and equality? Could it be that offering opinions as deified instantiations of truth makes it nearly impossible to start that dialogue in the first place? For anyone who reads this blog, you know that I fall with the very group I am critiquing here, but I do find it troubling that those fighting for more justice and equality fail to recognize their own faults.

These go beyond the deep indignation and humorlessness I mentioned above to include consistent ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with them (rather than substantive attacks on the positions themselves), an ironic cynicism that cuts off the possibility of change and allows followers to sit back smugly but inert, writing for each other in prolix and overly academic prose that cuts off anyone beyond the aforementioned inner sanctum, censuring voices they disagree with on campuses and in the media and largely existing within a bubbled sense of moral certitude that does little to unite the people behind a cause that they, at the core, believe in. Until the left acknowledges their own faults and close-mindedness, it seems to me we will continue to talk to each other rather than engaging in the public sphere in meaningful ways, working to change the world for the better.

Lena Dunham should not, in my estimation, be considered a progressive champion. She is a feminist voice that damns the hypocrisy of those who claim women should be proud of their bodies unless those bodies don’t meet some preordained specifications, who acknowledges that women might like sex and have their own ambitions and who catalogs the life of a subset of her generation in a compelling manner. Yes it is privileged, as everyone argues, but does that make it any less interesting or relevant to the contemporary world? And do a few funny quips about Jewish traits and their facsimile to a dog really deserve the level of bile they have elicited? I think there are better things to talk about, including the left’s complicity in its own relative irrelevance.

March Madness: And then there were Four

After an excellent first weekend, there was some fear the second couldn’t live up to the excitement the first four days gave us. And some would argue the Thursday and Friday games justified that fear – with Michigan State – Oklahoma the only one to go down to the wire. But then the weekend came around and all four games were still in the balance with less than 8 minutes to play, even as Gonzaga and Arizona faded late. With the 12 games that made up the long weekend, we are down to the Final Four – Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke and Michigan State – and have a better idea of who might be playing for that Championship, and arguably winning it.

The first game of the four pitted Arizona versus Wisconsin in a repeat of the Elite 8 matchup from last year. Arizona started slowly and Wisconsin built a big early lead, but then the Wildcats found their game and crawled back to take a three-point halftime lead. Unfortunately, that was the same advantage they had going into the second half last year, before blowing the game late. This year, they were outscored by 10 in the second half (55-45), with Wisconsin hitting three after three (10 in total) to roll past the Wildcats yet again, with Frank Kaminsky’s 29 points the most impressive performance of a team whose offensive prowess (they were the top scoring team last year) sorely underestimated yet again. Arizona will have to wait another year, having lost in their last five trips to the Elite 8, while Wisconsin will hope to pull off the upset of the tournament next Saturday.

Kentucky came into their matchup with the Fighting Irish a mere three games the first perfect season in 39 years, with a team that many assumed would make quick work of the smaller Notre Dame. But something funny happened on the way to their coronation – the underdogs outplayed them for large stretched of the game, tied at halftime and leading for much of the second half. But for a few lucky plays, some clutch free throw and making their last nine shots of the game, the upset would have been completed. Even with that impressive late game display, the Irish will look back at a few missed opportunities that could have secured one of the greatest upsets in recent memory. Instead, Kentucky heads to Indianapolis for a rematch with their Big 10 foe from last year. Given how impressive the Badger’s offense looked against Arizona, they will need to improve to win that game. I still wouldn’t bet against them.

The third game matched two teams with iconic coaches that few expected to be this far in the tournament – Tom Izzo’s Michigan State against Rick Pitino’s Louisville. It was a back-and-forth affair from beginning to end, with Louisville taking the early lead, Michigan responding and then a late run right before halftime giving the Cardinals an 8-point lead. A dramatic offensive collapse by Louisville in the second half, not an uncommon occurrence with this mercurial shooting team, saw a drop in productivity from 40 to 25 points, while Michigan scored 33 (after 32 in the first half). Michigan was playing impressive D, particularly down the stretch and in the OT period, but failed to put the game away, and were actually lucky not to lose, as Louisville missed one of their last two free throws in regulation. But Valentine and Trice stepped up in overtime and Dawson had 11 rebounds, including the critical one, putting in a Forbes’ miss with 31.7 seconds left in the game. The only team not expected to be here, they will certainly make Duke nervous.

And they should be, after a less than impressive display against Gonzaga that could have easily seen this young team (with three freshman starters) out if not for the Zags shooting 37.5 percent from the field and going ice cold after Kyle Wiltjer missed a gimme layup that would have tied the game at 53 with about seven minutes to play. Gonzaga, incredibly, only scored 1 point for the rest of the game, missing shot after shot (when they didn’t turn the ball over) as they fell away and Duke pounced. The final score of 66-52 belies a tight game, which Gonzaga actually led 38-34 less than four minutes into the second half before allowing the Blue Devils to go on a 9-0 run. The young Duke team did show real resolve, but the fall off in form on three separate occasions within the 40 minutes means they will have to improve dramatically on this performance if they are to take down a suddenly hot Michigan State.

Looking at the two match-ups, it is hard to go against Kentucky, though they will have to find a way to stop Kaminsky and get out to defend the deadly Wisconsin three. I see them winning the game though. And with Duke-Michigan State, I am going to go with the upset, with Tom Izzo’s men outplaying Coach K’s first foray into coaching a team of youngsters. Both games should be good, and might well come down to the wire, as half of the quartet from the last two days have. Should be fun to watch!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What an Opening Weekend: Madness in March Indeed!

March Madness is back, and began with a great first weekend. It all started Thursday, with one of the greatest single days in the history of the tournament. There was a record five games decided by one point, and another four by three points or less. Friday restored order a little with all but one (Providence) of the higher seeds winning, but Louisville did just squeak by UC Irvine by two, Wichita State was challenged by Louisville and Maryland were given a tough test by little Valparaiso. The weekend saw more upsets and close games, with the #1 seed Villanova taken down by NC State, #2 seed Virginia falling to a lower-seeded Michigan State for the second year running, Utah blasting past Georgetown, Wichita State crushing a Kansas team that couldn’t make a shot, Notre Dame needing overtime to cruise past Butler, and West Virginia surprising with a statement win over Maryland. Some thoughts on the first four days of the tournament (excluding those two qualifying games) and who is looking good to get to the Final Four.

1. Michigan State’s March Magic: as a youngster, I was an Indiana fan, and still root for them whenever they play. But forgoing the Finals a decade back, they haven’t been the same team since Bobby Knight took his leadership and temper to greener pastures. I also came around to rooting for Michigan when the Fab Five showed up and did everything except win a Championship. But little by little, I couldn’t help but gain increasing respect for Tom Izzo and his ability to get one team after another to perform in the tournament. This appeared to be one of his weaker squads in recent memory and yet they are on to the sweet 16 again, and have a good chance to make it back to the Final Four. A lot of fans must be happy he didn’t make the jump to the NBA a few years back.

2. Villanova Blow it Again: Jim Wright is a quality coach that has pushed Villanova to the next level, reinventing the team that hadn’t done much since the Cinderella victory over Georgetown in 1985. But one thing he has not done is found a way to build a team that can really compete in March. The past two years, he led his team to the #2 and then #1 seed in the tournament, but poor shooting performances saw them go out to eventual champion Connecticut last season and then fellow 80s Cinderella story NC State on Saturday. In the past, it has often been the case that his teams didn’t have the pure shooter necessary to win tight games, but this year they became one of the best jump shooting teams in the country. Not on Sunday though, as they missed shot after shot, including over 10 lay ups, and flopped out when their final pass flew over the heads of everyone. Is Wright the man to lead Villanova back to the Final 4? I’m starting to have real doubts.

3. ACC Accolades: The latest victim of Michigan State was, of course, Virginia, the #2 seed in the same bracket as Villanova. But that was the first and only loss for ACC this weekend, with Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Notre Dame and Louisville still in the dance party. Pretty impressive, particularly when compared to the Big East, who have had a terrible tournament with only Xavier still hanging around a year after winning it all. The Pac 12 isn’t doing so badly themselves, though, with UCLA proving the critics wrong, Arizona favored by many to reach the Final Four and Utah still in it.

4. Kentucky Carpetbagger: one might argue John Calipari is a greater recruiter than he is coach, building one incredible team of blue clippers after another. Yet getting those young stars to gel, as he has done for most of his career, even as so many of them depart after a year or two at Kentucky, is certainly impressive. Calipari has won coach of the year three times, led 21 20-win seasons, nine 30-win seasons and been to the Final Four five times (with three different teams), and won a title with Kentucky in 2012. But he has also been a part of two vacated seasons, the 1996 U. Mass team that made it to the Final Four and the Memphis team that did the same in 2008, making him the only coach to ever accomplish that rather dubious accomplishment. He was implicated in neither case, but it hard to believe he didn’t have any knowledge of or participation in the alleged wrongdoing (including questions about Derrick Rose’s SAT scores leading to the “lost” 2007-2008 season). What he has done this season could validate his controversial career, particularly if Kentucky win their last four games of the season to complete an undefeated season for the first time since Bobby Knight’s Indiana in 1976. Based on their performance in the first two games, they will be hard to beat.

5. No Cinderella Story Left: one thing missing from a great first weekend is a true Cinderella team that has pulled off a couple of shockers to make it to the Sweet 16. UCLA, Michigan State and NC State all pulled off upsets, but they are perennial participants and have all won titles in the past. In fact, UCLA and NC State are the only teams left with a seed higher than 7, and Michigan State, Wichita State and Xavier the only ones with seeds higher than 5. This should make for quality games across the second weekend, with arguably no “bad” or “weak” team left in the bracket.

My picks for the next round of games are as follows: Notre Dame over Wichita State (though this is a tough one), North Carolina over Wisconsin, Kentucky over West Virginia (of course), Arizona over Xavier, UCLA over Gonzaga (this is a pick from the heart, but I do think the Bruins have a real shot for the upset), Louisville over NC State (another tough one), Duke over Utah and Michigan State over Oklahoma. Let the games begin … again!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Behind Door #1 … Ted Cruz

And behind door #1 is our first candidate to officially announce his candidacy for President … coming from the lunacy fringe of the Republican Party. He is a Senator from Texas who has only been in office for two years, but has already erected an impressive record of obstructionist, bad science, ideological posturing and attacks on any group not in the one percent. A few highlights of Cruz’s short political career:

- He claimed climate change is a "leftist conspiracy," which apparently includes microwave technology to raise global temperatures, Obama-led weather machines to create storms and huge blow driers that can reduce the California aquifors to 20 percent (as part of a 20-year drought) and using millions of invisible portable heaters to melt the polar caps.

- Has called Social Security, the program that largely ended widespread poverty among the elderly, a “Ponzi Scheme.”

- Compared the Affordable Care Act (remember how that was going to destroy the country’s healthcare system) to Hitler and the Nazis.

- Wants to turn Medicare into a voucher scheme that benefits doctors and the healthcare industry, but hurts the elderly (Oedipal complex much?).

- Claimed: “Net Neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.” (of course, ending net neutrality would slow down the Internet, at least for those who can’t pay up, but why bother with facts when a good bon mot is available).

- Once said, ““Twenty years from now if there is some obscure trivial pursuit question, I am confident I will be the answer.” Maybe biggest jackass of 2015?

- Finally, he said, ““We have never had a president who over and over again openly, aggressively defies the law. If he doesn’t like the law, he refuses to enforce it, or he simply proclaims it changed.” One wonders if he was talking about Obama or George W. Bush.

Let the craziness begin!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Did United Just Secure the Top 4?

With their 2-1 victory at Liverpool today, United moved a step closer to the Top 4 finish that was their primary goal this season. The title seemed a step too far, there was no European football to vie for and cup runs almost always come down to a little luck. But after a troubling start to the Louis Van Gaal era, they were quietly moving up the table, even as many thought the quality of play and defensive, possession-first approach was stylistically and productively wanting. The loss to Arsenal at home in the FA Cup and Liverpool “top current form” in the league status heading into this game led many to believe they would pip United to that fourth spot. Some protestations arose after last week’s impressive thumping of Tottenham, though many put the win down to the abject performance of the North Londoners. The victory today has changed the narrative yet again, however, and while the season is not over and anything can happen in the last 8 games, Liverpool might look back on two mistakes in the game that turned the tide of the chase, coming on the tail of the iconic mistake that arguably cost them the title last season.

That mistake was made by one of their greatest players in history, falling down at the most inopportune of moments, just as they looked to be heading into halftime 0-0 against Chelsea, with a point enough to keep them atop the table with three winnable games to go. They lost that game 2-0 and City, of course, went on to win the title, with Liverpool dropping two more points chasing goals against Crystal Palace (incredibly blowing a 3-0 lead). Ironically, or aptly, it was the captain who was again to blame in this loss, as his stomp less than 45 seconds into his halftime substitution meant Liverpool would have to chase an equalizer a man down. Gerrard went as far as coming out to speak to the press afterwards, apologizing to his teammates and the fans; begging the question of what led him to such a mindless error so quickly after entering the game. Some believe it is his irritation and disappointment at not starting the game and becoming increasingly peripheral in his final season at Liverpool, but it is a pity that his most important contributions over the past two seasons cost them the title Gerrard so desperately wanted to bring back to Anfield and maybe a top four finish this season (and the over 60 million pound windfall that entails). The first Liverpool mistake came earlier from the man Gerrard replaced, 18 minutes after Mata had opened the scoring with a fine finish from a Herrera through ball, chipping it slightly over Mignolet and across goal. Liverpool were being overrun in the midfield, but a fine pass from Henderson found Sturridge at the edge of the box. Rather than shoot, he sent it across to a charging Lallana, who tried to pass it into the far corner, though it veered just outside the left post. It was a gild-edged chance and one he will look back at ruefully.

Mata’s second, on the other hand, was a thing of beauty. It started when the impressive Michael Carrick broke up play in the middle of the park, then sent a perfect pass forward to substitute Angel Di Maria. The Argentine paused for a moment then sent a sublime chip toward Mata, though a yard behind him. The Spaniard stopped, sized up the ball and then pulled off an unlikely side scissor kick that buried the ball in the far corner. It was one of the goals of the season, made more important when Sturridge blistered the ball past De Gea at the near post with 21 minutes to go. United earned a penalty in extra time, but Rooney was well saved by Mignolet, meaning he has now gone a decade since his last goal at Anfield. That will matter little to a United team that seemed to be floundering as recently as two weeks ago, even as they kept accumulating points.

Their lead over Liverpool has now risen to five points with only eight games to play, though those eight games include City at Home, Chelsea at the Bridge, a game at a suddenly resurgent Everton (even as they were the final English team in and then out of European football in less than 24 hours) and home against Arsenal in the penultimate game of the season. Liverpool arguably have an easier run in, though they head to the Emirates in two weeks and still have a game at Chelsea themselves. Southampton and Tottenham also won this weekend, keeping themselves at the edges of the race, particularly given that the Saints have arguably the easiest run-in of any of the Top 7 (with Spurs at home and City on the road their only games against the others) and the Spurs a close second (Burnley-A, Aston Villa-H, Newcastle-A, Southampton-A, Man City-H, Stoke City-A, Hull City-H and Everton-A).

Looking at recent history, it seems likely the Top 4 will finish as it now stands, with Chelsea, City, Arsenal and United heading to the Champions League (though not necessarily in that order). But all four still face tough fixtures and Chelsea appear to be in the midst of a mini-slump that could even see them lose the title, though it seems highly unlikely, particularly with the fortuitous 3-2 win over Hull. After going up 2-0 with two great goals in the first nine minutes, from Hazard and Costa, the Blues gave both back to Hull City in 73 seconds, leaving the sides level at halftime. Hull had several chances to take the lead in the second half and would have but for an incredible triplet of fine saves by Courtois in quick succession before equally poor goalkeeping by McGregor at the other end allowed Remy to score the winner with his first touch after coming on for Costa, who appeared to have a hamstring problem again.

Going back to United, without playing great for large parts of the season, they have lost few games and now stand on the precipice of returning to Europe and building on the major summer investment from last season. Van Gaal started with a system that neither the fans nor the players appeared to like and then recognized the fact and should be commended for his flexibility and willingness to abandon tactics that just weren’t working. The job is not yet done but they stand a step closer, attempting to again prove the pundits and their critics wrong. I’m not sure I would bet against them at this point!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Arsenal Sneak to Sixth Straight Win at Newcastle (2-1)

Arsenal headed to St. James Park today knowing Newcastle were suffering through an injury and suspension crisis and that they were undefeated in their last ten games here (and had only lost one of the last 18 overall). After a sluggish start, Giroud scored two quality goals in quick succession, seemingly all but settling the match just as Newcastle appeared ready to give it a real go. The first came from a Cazorla free kick that was headed by Welbeck right into the path of Giroud, who reacted quickly to direct it into the far corner with his knee. Welbeck should have made it two less than a minute later, as a lovely touch, turn and pass by Sanchez gave his a free shot from 11 yards out that he got terribly wrong, sending it wide. A moment later, Sanchez sent him through on goal for what should have been an easy finish, but his first touch was heavy and the chance was gone again. Luckily, Giroud is in imperious form, and his 28th minute header from a corner was perfectly placed into the far corner without even leaving the ground. And so Arsenal headed into the break with a relatively comfortably 2-0 lead, recognizing that the Chelsea lead would drop to four points if they held on (though the Blues have two games in hand).

The second half started with Newcastle looking dangerous and then, in the 48th minute, Cabella sent in a cross that Sissoko finished well into the far corner to make it 2-1. Like far too many games this season, Arsenal took what should have been a comfortable win and let their opponents back in with some slack defending and lack of poise on the ball. A fine shot from Perez just missed the far corner moments later and after a poor pass from Coquelin, Perez drove down and got off another shot, though this one was wide. All of a sudden, Arsenal were giving the ball away, committing fouls and looking discombobulated. Welbeck led a break in the 54th minute, but again sent a terrible pass into the middle that was easily cleared, killing the threat. Then a terrible back pass from Ramsey after a good battle in the middle, led to another Newcastle attack, though Sanchez ultimately got the ball back. In the 59th minute, Arsenal were pushing forward to stem the Newcastle wave of attacks when yet another loose pass from Welbeck left me wondering why he was still on the pitch and whether Wenger had fallen asleep on the sideline or again forgotten that he has substitute completely.

Two minutes later, Gouffran probably should have equalized with a free shot from a few yards out after a corner (that included a penalty appeal for handball on Monreal). Ospina had a fine save soon after and then Janmaat sent in a quality shot on 66 minutes that flew just wide. Arsenal got forward for a rare foray, but a bad pass from Coquelin quickly ended their possession. It was becoming increasingly inexplicable why Wenger wasn’t changing the team up with a sub or two to settle things down and see out the win. And then he finally did so, with Flamini and Rosicky coming on for Sanchez and Cazorla in the 71st minute, right after an incorrect offsides call took away a chance for Giroud to snag his hat trick. Flamini appeared to catch the apparently contagious “give away”disease almost immediately, giving Newcastle a chance after his first pass of the afternoon went wayward. On 73 minutes, Cissoko muscled the ball from Coquelin after a short spell of Gunner possession and sent it to Cabella, who finished a nice run with a decent shot, though it was blocked and safely collected by Ospina. With less than 20 minutes to play, Newcastle were looking like the far superior team and likely to equalize. In the 77th, a nutmeg past Chambers left Guttierez free down the left and he sent a dangerous pass across goal, that luckily no one was there to meet. Welbeck got free down the left soon after, but he cut off his own angle and shot meekly at Krul in the end.

Newcastle were playing with great hunger and determination and the Gunners holding on for dear life, having trouble putting together more than two or three passes at a time, with Ramsey and Welbeck giving the ball away almost every time they touched it. Koscielny blocked a shot that was headed toward goal in the 86th, leading to a corner that Ospina ultimately collected to momentarily relieve the frenetic pace of the game. Newcastle inexplicably took off Ameobi and brought on a youngster with two minutes left, undermining their own momentum and giving Arsenal the chance to finally take off Welbeck and replace him with Bellerin. Ospina again collected a cross just before four minutes of extra time started. Giroud earned an important free kick after wonderful holdup play and Arsenal suddenly started to control possession, with Bellerin almost executing a cross to Giroud for a simple tap in, though Krul snatched it impressively. And after a last Newcastle attack, the whistle finally blew and Arsenal had somehow held on for the 2-1 win, even though they were thoroughly outplayed in the second 45.

That makes it six in six for the Gunners for the first time since early 2012, though, important as Man City, Tottenham and Southampton won their games today. They will, of course, now pick up on United, Liverpool or both after their game tomorrow. Three quick thoughts on the win:

1. Welbeck Wobbles: Danny Welbeck can never be accused of lack of effort in a game and his goal against United a few weeks ago might well add itself to the annals of the history of that famed rivalry. He is always good for a great dribble or two, some decent passing, a nice cut toward goal and tracking back well. But three things he still fails to get right too often are his first touch, his passing around the box and, of course, his finishing. Early on in this game he was gifted quality opportunities on two successive occasions. Both times, a terrible first touch eliminated them and that was before the wayward shot and terrible first touch one-on-one with the GK, mentioned above. He did send the header toward Giroud for the first, but was otherwise wasteful and naïve around the box and gave the ball away over and over again throughout the game. To me, it’s a question of confidence and intelligence in the final third, something Wenger could certainly work with him on this summer as he tries to take the next step up in quality in his career, but it is worrying that he has continued to demonstrate the very traits that caused United to lose faith in him and allow the sale to their rivals. Given the dearth of goals and assists, one is left to wonder why Walcott can’t seem to get on the pitch with any regularity since returning from injury himself and whether the rumors of his imminent departure might be true.

2. Giroud Purple Patch Continue: Arsenal were struggling early in the game, with Newcastle having a few half chances in the first 20 minutes. But then Giroud got his 16 and 17th goals in quick succession and the game was all but won. It was his fifth league game running with a goal, the first time he has done that at Arsenal, and 8th in his last 9. Both goals showed a level of quality that demonstrates his improvement since returning from injury, with first a clever redirect with almost no time to react and then a beautifully cushioned header into the far corner. Giroud is hot, taking the first half burden off of Sanchez and showing that the pundits were absurdly misguided when they argued the Gunners were a one-man team (particularly as they have the most players that have scored at least one goal of any team in the league).

3. Sanchez Needs a Rest: Aaron Ramsey has shown glimpses of his old form since returning from his latest layoff, scoring in two successive games before today. But Sanchez has had, it must be admitted, a rather poor run of form that started around the time of the New Year. There has been no decline in his incredible work rate, but there has been a marked deterioration in his productivity. He had some lovely passes and some nice dribbles in the game, but seems to be lacking the confidence and killer instinct he showed earlier in the season. With only one goal in his last 12, it appears Wenger needs to give the Chilean a rest sooner rather than later (and not just the final 20 minutes of a game). Wenger admitted as much earlier in the week but inexplicably played Sanchez from the start. He has done better with squad rotation this term than in recent seasons, but it really seems he has to risk upsetting his star if he is to get the best of him for the run-in.

Newcastle are sliding a little (with one win and one draw in their last six), but a great run before Pardew left late last year has essentially ended any fears of relegation rather earlier than some might have expected. With the second half display, they might gain confidence they can finish the campaign on a positive note though. Arsenal, on the other hand, are the second hottest team in the entire league and probably wish they could have put the first half of last season together with this second half, as they would have run away with the virtual title. Instead, they need a miracle to finish at the summit this term, though a true title chase certainly seems in the offing for next year, particularly if Wenger brings in the defensive reinforcements necessary (and if rumors of Cavani are true, another striker that could really contribute to that push).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Arsenal Five for Five after Monaco Heartbreak

On February 16, 2011, Arsenal hosted Barcelona at the Emirates as the clear underdogs in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 clash. The year before they were trounced by the scintillating Barca team by an aggregate score of 6-3. But after falling behind 1-0, the Gunners exploded for two in the second half and had an epic win, with Wilshere arguably playing the best game of his entire career with Arsenal. The return leg saw that wonderful victory unwind into disappointment, right on the tail of a disastrous Carling Cup loss to Birmingham. After a resilient first 44 minutes when the Gunners held Barcelona out, our captain and star Cesc Fabergas made an appalling error, giving the Spaniards the goal they needed to square the match. Arsenal needed a goal and it came as a gift early in the second half, an own goal error by the Cataluñans. Arsenal were back in business until an insane second yellow on Robin Van Persie (for taking a shot after an offsides whistle he clearly couldn’t hear). Down to 10 men, Arsenal held on for a time before two goals in quick succession had Barcelona back to the good. With time running out a through ball to Nickolas Bendtner left him one on one with the GK Valdez, but the self-pronounced “best striker in the world” missed wide and the Gunners were eliminated.

The next year, Arsenal matched up with an AC Milan team far removed from their three finals from 2003 to 2007. But a disastrous first leg away saw the Gunners down 4-0. Hope seemed lost until three goals put them within one of extra time. But Robin Van Persie came to the rescue, of the opposition, by missing a sitter from four feet and Milan held on for the 4-3 aggregate win. The past two season, Arsenal lost the first legs at home to Bayern Munich before coming back to win and draw on the road. In 2013, they lost the first leg at the Emirates 3-1, then won 2-0 at Bayern to fall out on away goals. In 2014, an early missed penalty by Ozil and a red for our error-prone goalkeeper meant the 1-1 draw at Bayern was not nearly enough to overcome the 2-0 loss at home in the first leg. And as was the case two years ago, Arsenal again had a rough first leg to find themselves down 3-1 heading to one of the stoutest defenses in the UCL this year.

The first leg 3-1 loss to Monaco was a flat performance by a team that has been playing well for most of the year, but mirrored the past three Round of 16 problems. Arsenal just weren’t up to the task and their poor finishing (particularly Giroud, who missed four gild-edged chances and sent two other shots off target) and defensive mistakes put them in an almost impossible position. That the very man, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who gave them hope with a late scorcher made the mistake that ended the tie only a few minutes later, adds to the notion that this is a team that just doesn’t perform at the highest level in Europe when it counts. Arsenal were valiant today and had 16 minutes to find the goal that would have seen them through, but they were a goal short yet again. And so it is now five years without a Final 8 berth and further evidence that Wenger is one rung below the truly great coaches, who have all found a way to win one (or more) European Cups.

Monaco actually started the game tonight with the upper hand, with two decent chances in the first 10 minutes. But Arsenal settled into the game and had their first good chance when a Bellerin cross found Giroud between two Monaco defenders on 14 minutes, though his connection was a little off from an odd angle and he sent the ball wide. The game was back and forth, with Koscielny having a quality chance to open Arsenal’s account, though his shot from close range hit the post. Then, on 36 minutes, Giroud was sent in by Welbeck. His first shot was blocked, but he pulled a quick 360 pirouette and finished into the roof with his right foot from an acute angle. It was the first goal conceded at the Stade Louis II in the UCL this year! Two minutes later, Welbeck almost made it two with a free shot from 15 yards blocked by a defender’s legs on its way into the net with the keeper diving the wrong way. It was a lucky break for Monaco and not the last one they would have in the game. On 42 minutes a second one came as Sanchez was downed in the box by a Monaco defender, but rather than point to the spot, the referee booked the Chilean for a dive; odd given that Sanchez had his back to the defender. Again, Arsenal could have easily been lining up for their second and before halftime two other half chances would go wanting. Yet the half ended 1-0.

Arsenal came out for the second half with great hope and Giroud had a half chance within the first minute, though he probably should have taken a touch rather than his wild volley stab that went wide. They were rampant from here, but the second goal was elusive against the disciplined Monaco defensive formation, who started pushing forward in the middle of the second half and kept the ball away from the Gunners for a time. Aaron Ramsey came on for Coquelin in the 61st minute to restore some forward momentum and Ozil had a decent chance within a minute, though he sent it wide. The game was back and forth, with Monaco almost securing the tie with more than one breakaway, but each chance fizzled and Ramsey ramped up the pressure on 79 minute, bringing the Gunners to the brink of an unlikely comeback (a team hasn’t recovered from a home first leg two-goal deficit in the European Cup since the 60s). Walcott had hit a cross off the post but the rebound ended up at Ramsey’s foot after a poor clearance and sent it across goal and in. He look like the player from the first half of last year and hope was renewed … at least for the 15 minutes and change before the double whistle signaled another “almost Arsene moment.” It truly was almost, as a save on the line by the Monaco keeper on 83 minutes kept Monaco from conceding a historic third.

The Gunners can now focus on finishing in the Top Four and maybe winning a second FA Cup running. But it is a bitterly disappointing fifth straight exit at this stage, particularly if one realizes that the Gunners were one of eight or nine missed chances from taking the tie, even with the terrible first leg. They were undone again by an inexplicably flat performance in a big game, defensive errors (again in a big game) and the inability to finish their chances. The one positive one can take is that this team, which one expects to remain more or less intact next year, now has the experience of near misses that might just catapult them to the next level. The chances of Wenger finally winning a European crown become even more remote though and one wonders how many more chances remain to right that glaring lacuna in the cv of our French philosopher king.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

EPL: What We’ve Learned So Far

We are now three quarters of the way through the 2014-15 English Premier League season and what a season it’s been, with wonder goals, upsets galore, fans marching out of stadiums before halftime in protest and even a scuffle among two of the most respected managers in the world. So what have we learned so far? The most obvious lesson is that the EPL remains the most competitive league from top to bottom in the world. As just one example, yesterday a team that was languishing in the bottom three with only four wins all season (Burnley) beat the team that has won two of the last three EPL titles and was even at the top as the New Year turned (Man City). The next day Southampton visited Chelsea with one of the best defensive records in football, having only conceded one headed goal all year. That number doubled in the 11th minute, when Diego Costa got off his mini-snide with a free header he steered easily across goal. Then the Saints, who have been having trouble scoring for months faced the uphill task of equalizing against a team that is undefeated at home for a year and who have only conceded six goals at Stamford Bridge all season. So of course they earn only their second penalty of the season (they missed the first), score and hold on for the draw with some incredible goalkeeping from Fraser. Today, a hot Tottenham headed to Old Trafford to try and add to the pain of losing their FA Cup tie with Arsenal, only to get crushed 3-0. These three games are emblematic of why people across the globe watch this sport week in and out and follow their clubs with the passion of Joan of Arc. Every week brings big surprises, sublime goals, gritty wins, heartbreaking losses and brilliant play from some of the best players in the world. Sure Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern have deeper squads with more world class stars, but it is the rare season that they are not at the top of their tables worrying that one draw against a midtable team might end their league dreams (at least for the first two). So onto the list …

1. Mourinho’s Transfer Magic Masks Mayhem: Chelsea all but secured the Premier League title yesterday, as Man City lost to Burnley, meaning they have won only five of their last ten games. It has been a surprising collapse from the titleholders, but should take nothing away from an impressive Chelsea team that Mourinho built with two excellent signings to address the weaknesses of the last campaign. The first was the striker they needed to replace the misfiring Fernando Torres, the type of gritty and prolific scorer the Portuguese manager covets. While Diego Costa’s scoring has fallen precipitously in recent weeks, the haul of goals early on will probably make the difference in crowning Chelsea champions, and his goal today secured an important point to balloon their lead to 6 points (with a game in hand). The second was the capture of the former Arsenal and Barcelona star Cesc Fabergas. While he too has seen a noticeable decline in form in the second half (which has been the tendency in his career since 2009, as Barcelona rather bitterly pointed out after selling him last summer), he still has seven more assists than anyone else in the league and was the driving force of the imperious Blues as they built a sizable early lead. Mourinho has worked his magic again and even as the dismal display last Wednesday meant he still awaits a third UCL crown, he already has a trophy with the Capital One Cup and should add yet another league title to his cv by mid to late April. Yet one can’t help but comment on the siege mentality he has installed at Chelsea and a sense that the ugly way his team sometimes play (particularly in big games) maybe shouldn’t be rewarded as often as it is and that, while he is charming, many of us wish he would shut the f*** up sometimes. His failure to give Real what his successor did a year on (the hungered decima Champions League crown) and loss to PSG up a man for a full 90 minutes show that overly negative tactics can backfire. Yet that was certainly not the case today, as they were all over Southampton, only denied a winner by one of the best goalkeeping performances of the season.

2. Arsenal’s “Almost” Anguish Afoot Anew: one of the biggest critiques of Arsene Wenger over the past decade has been his inability to bring in the talent necessary to mirror the success of his first eight years in charge; even as many pointed out the move to the Emirates playing a big role. This has changed in the past two windows, with Ozil and Sanchez coming in for big money and increasing the hope that a sustained title chase is right around the corner (with Ozil helping to bring home a FA Cup title last May, ending the nine-year trophy drought). The recent signing of Gabriel at CB only further solidified the belief that Wenger has changed for the better regarding his transfer policy and is ready to build a team that can actually win the title that has eluded him since the 2003-04 Invincibles team. The reality is that he has been building the spine of this team for some time, even as some of his best players departed. In the past few windows, he has added two players that have developed to a level near the top of the game – Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud – and improved the quality of the surrounding squad (with Ramsey up and down but Koscielny becoming a top tier CB). He signed the talented Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is starting to live up to all the hype and finally challenged his shaky goalkeeper with the capture of Ospina, now marshaling between the sticks. And one of his initial flops, Frances Coquelin, has grown into one of the best DM’s in England. Yet one could argue that the Gunners would be right in the race for the title now but for his failure to make the final two necessary signings last summer – a DM and a CB, particularly as the capture of Gabriel and the return of Coquelin are both at the heart of the improvement in this team. Gabriel not only for the games he’s played, but for pushing Mertesacker to play with a little more resolve and for giving him much needed rest. Coquelin, on the other hand, has changed the entire dynamic of a team that was conceding two goals a game far too often, turning winning positions into draws and, against Swansea, a loss. If he had signed the quality DM the pundits have been demanding and replaced the departed Vermaelen this summer, could Arsenal have challenged for the title? The answer is almost certainly yes (particularly considering they have dropped 13 points from winning positions this season – including late concessions to both Man City and Liverpool in the first half). In any case, Arsenal are among the hottest teams in the country at the moment and have a chance to finish in 2nd place and win the FA Cup, having beaten both Manchester teams in the past two months and, but for a slip-up at Monaco, shown they can win beautifully or ugly. That sort of momentum could lead them to finally win that elusive 12th title next season.

3. English European Éclat Evaporates: I discussed this in another post last week, but it is troubling how poorly the EPL teams have done in the Champions League and Europa League since Chelsea’s success in 2012 (UCL) and the UEFA Europa League (2013). On Wednesday, it is likely that Everton will be the last English team standing in Europe, with Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City all eliminated in the Round of 16 of the UCL and Liverpool unable to even qualify out of their group. In the Europa League, all have fallen at the Round of 32 except for Everton, who take a 2-1 lead to the Ukraine on Thursday. Chelsea were among the favorites for the title and Arsenal seemed to have been given a knockout draw that made them dark horses. But flat performances from all three, and the others in the lesser competition, again show a decline in European quality since United’s fall from grace. One wonders if it’s just a blip on the path back to the glory of the 2000s, but English teams will have to double-down to improve going forward.

4. Upstarts Uneven Fortunes: There are many young managers across the English landscape and their fortunes have diverged widely in recent years. Roberto Martinez, for example, looked like he was exceeding the early hype last season taking an Everton team to the cusp of the top four, a position they held after beating Arsenal 3-0 in April before a late “Tottenham style” fade, ultimately settling for the Europa League spot. This year they have fallen down the table dramatically, sitting on the edge of the relegation zone. What has happened? Lukaku has not performed at the same level as the two previous campaigns, injuries have plagued the team and, like with his Wigan reign, the defense is conceding far too many goals. Martinez will likely get another year as long as Everton stays up, particularly as he is so universally liked across the world of football, but will have to improve next season if he isn’t to get the sack. Another young manager who already accomplished that dubious honor is Paul Lambert, who impressed as the coach of the promoted Norwich City before taking on the ambitious job of returning Aston Villa to glory. It was always a tough ask and he is now looking in from the outside, as Tim Sherwood seems to have rejuvenated their fortunes in the league and has them through to the semifinals of the FA Cup. Sherwood himself took a further step toward quieting the critics, building momentum just as he had at Tottenham last season. A third coach, Brendan Rodgers, was given the biggest task of any of the young managers when he moved up from Swansea (promoted the same year as Lambert’s Norwich) to Liverpool. Last year, only a Gerrard slip kept him from taking the Reds to an unlikely title, but this year the team seemed to take three step back, with the departure of Player of the Year Suarez and the injury of his impressive sidekick Sturridge lingering on painfully, like the bitter aftertaste of a Justin Bieber song. But since Sturridge’s return, Liverpool have stormed up the table, accruing the most points in the league over the past few months and now challenging to get back into the top four. Rodgers is clearly the cream of the crop at the moment, though Sherwood is certainly impressing again, albeit at the other end of the table just trying to keep the Villains up while completing an unlikely FA Cup run to glory. And one should also mention Mauricio Pochettino and the impressive work he has done with Tottenham but, as an Arsenal fan, that’s as far as I’m willing to go on that front. In fact, the loss at Old Trafford today might mean that aforementioned “Tottenham Fade” is already underway.

5. Referee Referendum: this has not been a good year for officials in England or really across Europe. Just looking back five days, we saw one of the top ranked referees in the game miss at least five clear calls, including the red card that might just cost PSG in the next round, even after their impressive victory over Chelsea. But every weekend, poor decisions have been made and the calls to include some sort of video replay system are gaining momentum. The nature of that challenge system are still difficult to conceptualize without undermining the flowing nature of the game, but it might be something worth considering if the integrity of the game is to remain intact. In this vein, one could argue that Mourinho has a point this term in arguing that Chelsea have been disadvantaged by officials that seem to be allowing too many penalties to go uncalled. Many other teams can feel aggrieved by the terrible officiating that has been going on as well. Oddly, Arsenal is not really one of them, as for the second year running, few calls have gone against them after bad calls arguably cost them a title chase twice in four years. Whether video replay will be brought into the game is open to serious debate, but more strict standards have to be enforced and side judges given the confidence and power to help the lead official when they miss a rather obvious call. An interesting suggestion I read yesterday was punishing teams for surrounding referees, taking away the free kick. This would certainly curtail the embarrassing display we saw from Chelsea Wednesday, and give referees more time to make the right decision unfettered by biased interventions.

6. Relegation Battle Roiling: early predictions had all three promoted teams struggling this season and maybe heading right back down to the Championship. With nine games to go, that prediction is on the mark, though a few perennial EPL stalwarts still sit in danger of facing the drop themselves, including a Sunderland team that just avoided it by their chinny chin chins last year and an Aston Villa team that are improving but not out of the woods yet. Leicester City can always look at their improbable come-from-behind victory over United early in the campaign as the highlight, but 7 points from safety with a game in hand means they will have to have a strong finish to have any chance. Right above them is a dire QPR team that looks like the worst in the league, with a mixture of aging former stars and young players that can’t seem to provide the consistency they need (even as Charlie Austin is putting on a wonderful display up front). Finally is Burnley, who essentially ended the title challenge of City yesterday but still have a lot of work to do if they are to push Hull, Villa, Everton or Sunderland into their spot. Don’t count them out yet though! My prediction at the moment is that those three actually do return from whence they came, though Sunderland could still save one of them (Burnley being the most likely at the moment).

7. Encouraging English Echoes: for some time now, England has suffered without a world-class striker, beyond the erratic Wayne Rooney (in big competitions, at least). And, as any football fan knows, the inventors of the game have failed to win any major international competition since the 1966 World Cup victory. Now they appear to be awash in striker riches, with Charlie Austin, Harry Kane (in particular) and Saido Berahino all having great campaigns, together with the up and down Danny Welbeck and just returned Sturridge. Since the next two games are friendlies, one hopes England manager Hodgson gives the youngsters the chance to shine up front. Looking across the pitch, England might have hopes of improvement in the future, with the rise in stature of players like Ox, Henderson, Cahill and Sterling and the potential of a host of others including the currently floundering Barkley (who did score a late third in Everton’s victory). The truth is that the golden era of Lampard, Gerrard et al, never really lived up to the hype and that this next generation thus has less pressure on them to take the next step and get England back toward the top of European and World competition. This might be facilitated by the fact that Spain is going through a transitional period between their aging stars and the next generation, Holland’s star-studded team is aging rapidly and Germany could well suffer through a hang over in the European Cup next year.

8. Five Fight for Two: with only nine games left, one could argue that five teams are realistically competing for the final two spots in the Top Four or, if Man City continue to play as they did yesterday, six teams for three spots. In any case, assuming Pellegrini and City right the ship, it is a hot race with Tottenham trying to finally crack the nut that has kept them just outside looking in since 2010, Liverpool to get back to the Champions League for the second year running, Arsenal to keep the Wenger streak alive, Southampton to show the pundits have no idea what they’re talking about and United to demonstrate that a team can’t possibly waste 151 million pounds in one summer with nothing to show for it but a huge wage bill. At present, it looks likely Arsenal will secure one of those spots (and maybe even sneak second), but who will take the all-important fourth place? My prediction is that hot Liverpool sneaks past United and snags it, though Tottenham could certainly have something to say about it before the end of the year (even as the loss today hurts that cause). United have been finding ways to scrap out results in the league, even as complaints continue about their ennui-inspiring tactics, but the loss to Arsenal together with a really tough run of fixtures and the absence of a consistent scorer all means they could well suffer a second year in European Thursday night football. The victory today, however, must have uplifted their hopes and begged further questions about whether Di Maria should even play upon his suspension return. Southampton should be congratulated for their season no matter what happens, given the dire predictions that ensued after they sold half their team to Liverpool, but their lack of goals makes it hard to see them make up the six points that currently separate them from fourth place, even after the impressive draw today (and the same may go for Tottenham, in the same position, with the added problem of the worst goal difference of the Top 7, by far).

With so much money and prestige on the line, expect more heart stopping plays, sublime goals and last second heroics as we approach the conclusion of the season. Sure Chelsea’s coronation seems preordained, but beyond them almost everyone is playing for something and the stakes are higher than ever. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Arsenal Beat West Ham 3-0 for 8th Straight at Home

Arsenal returned home from their emotional win at Old Trafford in the FA Cup Monday to host a struggling West Ham today. Given their history (Wenger has lost only 4 of 35 matches against the Hammers) and the form of the two teams, there was a sense this might be an easier ask than the first game between the two this season, when Arsenal were lucky to escape with a 2-1 win. Dominating the early going, the Gunners could have easily had three goals within the first fifteen minutes. A clever back flick by Giroud from an Ozil pass left Walcott free on goal from four feet, but he got the ball caught under his feet before being fouled in what should have been a penalty, though it was a tight call. An Arsenal counter two minutes later left Sanchez with one man to beat, though he didn’t. And then on 14 minutes, Sanchez hit a quality header that was well saved by West Ham GK Adrian.

Ospina had to stretch himself to save a fine Noble shot from a Jarvis cross on 22’, after a good break almost opened the scoring. A few minutes later, Jarvis again beat Chambers down the left and sent in a fine cross, just headed out by Koscielny. As has become a pattern, Chambers was being beaten too easily down the right flank, allowing dangerous crosses to fly into the box or players to charge into the box. In the 26th minute, he executed a fine cross of his own, which should have been finished by Ramsey, with his decision to volley rather than head the ball allowing Adrian to palm it over. As the clock rounded the 30 minute mark, the Gunners passing was starting to go astray with more frequency, and Jarvis got past Chambers too easily for a third time, though Koscielny was again able to clear the cross. On 33, Walcott was free on goal a second time, after a great through ball from Ramsey, but he shot weakly right at the Hammer’s keeper. A Sanchez shot two minutes later finished off some lovely passing from Arsenal, though Adrian came to the rescue yet again.

On 38 minutes, Koscielny saved an almost certain West Ham goal on the counter, as Sakho appeared to be heading toward a one-on-one with Ospina before the CB accelerated back to force a corner. In the 43rd minute, a good run down the right line and then pass from Walcott to Giroud, was slipped through to Ozil, who shot hard but right at the GK with the rebound coming to a charging Walcott. Unfortunately, he completed a hat trick of missed chances by sending it high and wide. Then, just as it looked as if they would head to halftime scoreless, Giroud finished a wonderful final putsch with a lovely cutback and left footed shot across goal to the far corner. Arsenal were suddenly up one nil on almost the last kick of the first 45, though it was arguably just given their 12 to 4 shot advantage and 72 percent possession.

The second half commenced with Arsenal knowing they might well need a second goal, as the Hammers have scored at least once in their last five encounters with the Gunners. And that goal almost came within four minutes of the restart when Sakho clattered into Ospina after a fine Jarvis cross (from the right side this time) and Noble ended up with a free shot, though he sent it wildly high and wide. Sakho was almost in on goal in the 53rd minute, but Koscielny was again to the rescue, just beating the striker who has 8 goals in the league this season. West Ham were starting to dominate possession and get balls into the box, though the Gunners defense was holding up under increased pressure. The first corner came in the 56th minute, after an intervention by Monreal sent the ball out, though the short corner to Downey was crossed long and out. An Arsenal counter a moment later should have led to a goal, as three Gunners lined up on the far post before Ozil sent his cross from the edge of box too close to the keeper. It summed up a day where Ozil was decent but not decisive enough in the final third. On the other end, Jarvis had a decent shot after a second corner, but sent it over from close range.

In a bizarre event that seemed apropos to recent refereeing, Chris Foy went off with a calf injury, replaced by Taylor as the clock moved precariously close to 60 minutes. Arsenal had another chance to score soon after the switch, with Walcott whiffing at a ball in the box after some excellent passing, but West Ham were still threatening. Another Arsenal counter came to nothing as Ozil again failed with a final ball in a four on three and then poorly weighted a pass to Sanchez, before a lovely one-two with Giroud almost set him free on goal (he was marginally offsides). Welbeck came on for Sanchez in the 65th minute, possibly giving the Chilean a rest before the return tie against Monaco Tuesday. Ozil sent a cracker to Welbeck in the 67th minute, and then, after some interchange, ended up with a clear chance to shoot, though he inexplicably instead sent it across goal to Walcott, the ball ultimately ending up at the feet of Ramsey, who sent his shot just wide of the far post. One wondered why Ozil didn’t shoot and why he seemed to be reverting to the form that has garnered him considerable criticism over the past 14 months. A sloppy pass by Welbeck cost Arsenal on the counter when both Giroud and Walcott appeared to be open for through balls but they were starting to dominate possession again and seemed poised for a second, if they could just get improve their precision in the final third. Walcott was replaced in the 72nd minute by Cazorla, probably disappointed at failing to convert any of the three quality chances he had in the game. A fine first touch and burst by Welbeck left him in the box with a fine chance to shoot, but he instead tried to slide it through to Monreal at the far post, with the left back marginally offsides.

Arsenal are both rewarded and punished for their tendency to complete the extra pass or two in the box and were suddenly playing with real verve that finally paid off in the 81st minute, when Chambers intercepted a West Ham pass, leading to a throw in and a one-two between Ramsey and Giroud in the box that the Welshman finished with a hard, rising shot past Adrian. It was 2-0 with only eight minutes left in regulation. Ozil came off for Flamini a minute later and it was the Frenchman, with his first goal in a year, that ended any West Ham hope, as a great Cazorla pass across goal was easily finished in the 84th minute for a 3-0 lead. Job done, and the Gunners saw out the remainder of regulation and three minutes of extra time without any problems, with Welbeck just missing a goal with a well placed header just before the final whistle.

Koscielny was arguably the man of the match, with intervention after intervention relieving the pressure on the Arsenal goal, too often the result of Chambers being beaten down the left flank or Mertesacker finding himself out of position. Coquelin was excellent again and Giroud’s fourth in four and 15th overall in an injury-shortened season continued to impress. Cazorla was able to add another assist in a short cameo, reminding that he is a pivotal player in the team. Welbeck was also bright down the left wing, though he could still improve his decision-making in and around the box. Maybe most importantly for the Gunners, however, was Ramsey finally scoring a quality goal as he looks to rediscover the form he displayed throughout the first half of last season. Overall, Arsenal have now won their eighth at home in a row, their best run for a decade, and it drew them to within one point of Man City, before the second place team play their game against Burnley tonight. Next up for the Gunners is the second leg against Monaco, before a trip to Newcastle next weekend. As the season moves toward its conclusion, some may wonder what might have been had Arsenal played like this from the start of the season …

Friday, March 13, 2015

England’s European Woes Worsen as Chelsea Collapse

With Chelsea’s exit from the Champions League Wednesday, it became increasingly likely that Everton will soon be the only English representative left standing in European competition, with eight teams left in the UCL and another 16 in the Europa league. Man City and/or Arsenal could turn around their ties against Barcelona and Monaco but having to travel and overcome one and two goal margins, respectively, seem equally unlikely. So what has happened to England over the past few years, wilting on the greatest club stage (and it’s far superior grandchild)?

Arsenal are perennial combatants under Wenger, always making it to the UCL and then generally getting through their group, but they appear poised to be knocked out in the first knockout round for the sixth year running. That might be understandable when facing powerhouse Barcelona and Bayern twice each, but their terrible performances in the first legs against AC Milan (though they did almost turn that one around at home) and now Monaco, remind us that fourth place is not the “trophy” Wenger continues to label it. They have actually been in fine form since the New Year’s Day loss to Southampton, but played their worst game of the season when the most was on the line. Even then, they had countless chances to score four or five goals themselves, but for the profligacy of Giroud and those around him. Now a near miracle is the only way they can move on. Man City are still relatively new to European competition, but they too will be disappointed to be knocked out by Barca again after putting up a rather feckless performance at home, on the back of a truly terribly start to the group stage they only salvaged in match day six. Liverpool were just back to the competition themselves, far removed from the Istanbul glory of 2005, and can be forgiven for failing to get out of their group with the loss of Suarez, absence of Sturridge and faltering Balotelli. Chelsea, on the other hand, will see this as a missed opportunity, up a man after 30 minutes and only needing a scoreless draw to progress.

The Chelsea loss Wednesday seems to be symptomatic of the decline of the EPL in Europe in recent years, only plugged by their own unlikely victory in the final against Bayern three years ago (where their negative tactics allowed them to beat Barcelona down a man and then rescue the final over the Bavarians). The Blues played languidly throughout their match, more passionate in their physical play and pleas to the official than in pursuing the attacking verve that defined the first half of their campaign. Surrounding the referee to facilitate the red card that sent hapless Ibrahimovic to the showers early was both disgraceful and a dramatic overreaction to a player clearly attempting to pull up his challenge when he saw Oscar charging recklessly toward the loose ball himself. But mistakes are made in almost every football game played and while this one arguably contained five missed calls, Chelsea were certainly in a position to take advantage of the first. Instead they let a PSG team still searching for their first European title to dominate large stretches of the game and comeback not once but twice. That it was 50 million pound outcast David Luiz that struck the first of the two blows must add to their melancholia, even as Hazard’s penalty early in the first period of extra time seemed to offer almost instantaneous reprieve. It was not to be as PSG’s other CB provided the header of the decade, floating over the outstretched arms of the 6’6” Courtois. Mourinho teams used to be good at scoring and then preserving their lead, but this was the 11th time this year that Chelsea have given that lead back. Are his more defensive tactics then to blame or was it the brilliant attacking philosophy of the opposing coach that should be hailed?

In general, it appears English teams are suffering from losing the tactical battles to the other giants, and sometimes minnows, of European football. It was quite clear that Laurent Blanc outcoached Mourinho, particularly after the send off, when he decided to rely on his hyperactive midfielders and leave a hole down the right side. It worked wonders and allowed for the game to end with an almost 50-50 split of possession, with Pastore’s clever passes accenting the speed of Lavezzi and runs of Cavani (though he should have given them the 1-0 lead when he rounded Courtois). When he needed a goal, he took off the blazing speed and industry of Matuidi (who was charged with moving from the middle to the left whenever necessary) to bring on the young Rabiot and to liven things up on the offensive end. Each move, including the inclusion of the more defensively suspect Marquinos at right back, seemed to pay off and it is hard to argue he didn’t win both the strategic and tactical battles of the game. The same can be said of Barcelona, overrunning the City defense on several occasions, and Monaco, a team that was stout defensively throughout the group stage but had trouble scoring. They played on the counter, recognizing the decline in form of Mertesacker and the tendency of Gibbs to wander too far forward too often. And Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers was arguably outcoached in each of his games, though that could be debated.

Ultimately, coaching alone doesn’t win or lose games. Is it that the English teams don’t have the talent to compete in Europe? That seems to be a questionable argument, particularly given Liverpool’s losses and Arsenal about to be sent out by a rather average Monaco that sent away their best offensive player last summer. Is it then an inferior skills set? That argument has been made in the past, but seems less relevant today with the stars of the Top Four on par with all but Bayern, Barca and Real Madrid? Is it the absence of a winter break and the greater parity among the teams? There must be some truth here, though some recent upsets in Spain, Germany and even France make that argument more circumspect. Could it then just be hunger and belief? Again, this is hard to measure, but the performances by Chelsea and Arsenal certainly are open to questioning, with both seemingly off their best and dead legged near the end. Could it be a combination of all of these, or just a shift in the scales of luck away from them? There are no easy answers, but schedulers in the FA might want to consider how their heavy holiday fixture list affects their teams as they attempt to return to the summit of European football.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Can American Soccer Catch up with the Europeans?

Can America catch up to Europe in soccer? This question was posed to me on the website I write for, Sidelines. Responding to that question in the simplest form, I think the answer is maybe in the long run and probably not in the short run. Starting with the short run, there are several disadvantages that hurt American soccer: 1. In Europe and South America, most kids play soccer and this is particularly true of poor kids. In the U.S., formal soccer tends to organize more around the middle class and wealthy, with poor kids more likely to play pick up games or any of the other four major sports. This is a huge disadvantage, as it undermines the hungriest players and those most likely to make it to the top level. The U.S. needs to support these youth if they are to take the next step. 2. MLS versus other domestic leagues: while the MLS has made strides in recent years, capturing quality players near the twilight of their careers, the next step involves providing the money and prestige to entice younger players to make the switch to America. The quality of the domestic leagues appears to play a huge role in the overall success of the national team, or the ability of players from countries like Holland to allow their best players to play across the leagues of Europe. Few Americans have successfully made the move overseas and that has arguably cost us over the years. Howard has been successful at Everton for a long time and there are a few other sporadic examples, but the recent return of Josy Altidore and Dempsey to MLS shows that there is a long way to go on that front. 3. MLS Schedule: the MLS schedule doesn’t do America any favors either and it is time to seriously consider putting that schedule in line with leagues around the world. Sure it affects some of the colder stadiums, but modern technology should be able to address this issue (if global warming doesn’t do it instead). 4. Youth Development: the U.S. soccer federation is starting to invest more heavily in developing youth from a young age, but they are still way behind Spain, Germany and even England. A stronger effort must be made to start the development process at a young age if kids are to gain the technical, physical and tactical skills necessary to compete at the highest level. Given the club structure of European teams versus the MLS, I’m not sure how much money would be necessary to establish a quality program, but this is a prerequisite to reaching the next level. In the meantime, it might be sensible to send more youth to Europe, as happened with Landon Donovan, among a host of others. 5. Play in Europe: building on the aforementioned four points, I do think it is essential that more American players attempt to get into the European or South American leagues. This is easier said than done, but I believe Donovan will look back on his career and wish he had pushed harder to leave the Galaxy after the 2010 World Cup, when he was a hot commodity. He was excellent in a short loan spell with Everton and should have jumped to the next level. The recent return of Altidore, Dempsey and Bradley, among others, is bad news for American soccer and something that must be addressed by the players and coaches, ensuring that they are competing against the best in the world as often as possible.

On the positive side, MLS is growing in revenue and stature and we can certainly build on the recent World Cup success to attempt to keep U.S. Soccer in the news. Millions of Americans, including me, following England or some other European league and this could be the springboard to more interest in the MLS (I did go to a Galaxy playoff game last year). Beyond this, the success in the WC last year shows that America is moving in the right direction, with a number of young players shining. Their further development over the next three and a half years (and replacement of the aging stars) will be key to the U.S. doing as well or even better the next time around. Another positive to consider is the increase in the number of youth playing soccer in the country and the reality that we have over 300 million people here and thus a much larger pool of talent than any European country alone. Cultivating that talent from a young age is the key to capitalize on our superior resources. Finally, the MLS is capturing more players just past their prime but has to find a way to take the next step and make sure those players stay and that they start to pick up a few middling stars in their prime.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Arsenal Finally Beat United at Old Trafford (FA Cup)

It was a decade in the making, yet another chance to wash away memories of all the could and should have beens. In the pregame, as if taunting us, they kept showing the famous 1999 Ryan Giggs run and blazing shot to claim an unlikely FA Cup Semifinal win after being down to 10 men and having a Dennis Bergkamp penalty miss the target as regulation time ranout. That game was the foundation for the treble United would win that year and Wenger admits he still thinks about that game 16 years later. Maybe this one can supplant that memory going forward. It was not a vintage Arsenal display, but even a weakened United team has been having their way with the Gunners the last three times they played.

Not today, though it certainly didn’t look like it early on. United started brightly and were getting the ball forward regularly, while Arsenal were having trouble stringing together more than a few passes at a time, with Welbeck in particular fueling the flame of those who believe he just doesn’t score enough or have the quality first touch necessary to warrant being the center of the offense. The game started to flow back and forth as the first half went on and, after a couple of half chances for United, Oxlade Chamberlain used some fancy footwork only moments after an attempted chip over De Gea failed to set Monreal in on goal. The Spaniard showed incredible poise in waiting for his compatriot to react before lifting the ball past him sharply into the near corner (25’). Arsenal were up 1-0 and the fans were going wild.

But that joy was, not surprisingly, short lived. Di Maria, the most expensive player in the history of the league, has been getting bad press lately, struggling to replicate the form he showed early in the campaign. He was sending balls into Fellaini, who is one of the best holdup players I’ve ever seen, but beyond a layoff to Ashley Young, not much was coming of any of them. Then Arsenal allowed him a little too much room on the right wing, he sent in a pitch perfect cross to Rooney who made no mistake from close range, only four minutes after Monreal’s heroics. The mistake, it appears, was made by our current backup keeper, Szczesny, who may well have played his last game for the Gunners. He stood pat as the ball flew toward the middle when he should have come out, and then simply watched as it flew past him, putting up a lame hand only after it had passed him as if swatting at an invisible fly. The game was square and Arsenal fans who know the long history of heartache in this rivalry felt their hearts sink into despair (at least mine did). After a Rooney pass to Di Maria that nightmare almost came true, though the Argentinian shot lamely with a strong chance to take the lead. And so the teams headed to the locker room at 1-1.

The second half saw United looking more threatening, with Herrera and Shaw replaced by Carrick and Jones. Fellaini, in particular, was causing problems with his impressive hold up play and runs through the middle while the Gunners struggled to contain Di Maria’s pace, even as his finishing again left something to be desired. And then a gift emerged, as if Valencia saw his old teammate Welbeck and suffered a momentary lapse of reason. What he was actually doing is something United have been guilty of far too often in recent weeks, passing the ball backwards to their excellent keeper. There wasn’t enough pace on that pass and Welbeck got a touch on it just in time before rounding De Gea and passing the ball into the gaping net. He considered holding back his celebration, for but a moment, before realizing he had just put a stake into the hearts of his old team.

The Gunners were up 2-1, but any fan of the club knows that they have been blowing leads and conceding late goals all season. United were pushing forward for the equalizer, though not with the resolve or industry of those Ferguson teams of the past. Cazorla almost put the game away but for a fine palmed save from De Gea and United players started diving to the ground like soldiers under siege, trying to elicit free kicks and penalties. Oliver would have none of it and in an argument with Di Maria after one of those attempts, sent the Argentine packing in the 77th minute. Even down a man, United still had the lion’s share of possession, though they weren’t doing much with it. The clock struck 90 minutes, but as Wenger looked to his left, he must have been frustrated to see five more to play. Arsenal held firm and left Old Trafford with that rarest of prizes in the past decade, a win. Some thoughts on the game:

1. Manchester United Woes Worsen: Louis Van Gaal is clearly a great coach who has succeeded everywhere he has worked and this will actually be the first time he won’t win a trophy in his first year with a club. He was impressive with Holland over the past few years as well and their third place at the World Cup seemed like just reward for a quality tournament. But one thing I noticed about that team after they blew out Spain in the opening group game was a more measured style of play that was not always pleasing on the eye (forgoing the magic and pace of Robbin running down the right channel over and over again). Questions have been asked of LVG since his arrival, first of their summer business then of their early defensive shakiness and, once he addressed that, of their unappealing, non-United style of play. Today they did attack more often, but it felt as if the team still lacks the style of the past, where slick passing, streaking runs and late goals meant no game was beyond their reach. He has put them back in fourth place for the moment, but one wonders if they might fall out, particularly with Liverpool breathing down their neck as the in form team in the entire league over the past three months.

2. Sayonara Szczesny: I have intermittently been a fan of our Polish goalkeeper, who looked, at least for a short time, like he was moving toward world class. But I’ve never fully forgiven him for the mistake that cost us that Capital One Cup Final back in 2011. That started a bad streak that saw us lose our first leg lead to Barcelona in the UCL, bow out of the FA Cup to United and topple, for a short time, below Tottenham in the table. In any case, he started to play with more resolve and settled into marshaling a defense that was arguably the best in the league for a time (though it was a calendar year, not the more important season variety). The failure to react to the dipping cross that Rooney finished powerfully past him should be the last straw for Wenger. It is almost impossible to win trophies with a keeper who makes as many mistakes as Sz and Ospina appears to me to be a quality replacement, at least until the summer.

3. Welbeck’s Moment: Danny Welbeck was having, at least in my humble opinion, a rather bad night of it before he became an instant Arsenal hero. His first touch was below par, his passing average and he wasn’t moving through the channels with the effectiveness Giroud has shown in recent weeks. That all changed with a gift from his old teammate Valencia. But he still had to collect that ball, round the keeper and finish the chance. And he did just that. Arsenal now have a strong chance of getting back to the final and repeating their feat from last year (though it will probably require beating Liverpool this time around). Hopefully this will increase Welbeck’s confidence and we can begin to see his boundless talent translate to more regular scoring.

4. The Start of Something Big: Arsenal had a tough start to the season, all but falling out of the title race far too early. But since the turn of the year and a disappointing loss to Southampton, the Gunners have been on the up and are starting to play with a resolve that reminds of the first eight years of Wenger’s reign. The Monaco performance was disappointing, but the win today affirms the sense this team has turned a corner. They still need to finish out the year strongly, hopefully win two more games to give them their 12th FA Cup, and bring in reinforcements at DM, GK and CB. Yet the future is looking brighter than it has in a long time and they have a strong foundation to challenge for the title next year. Wenger has built a strong core and it is time for that core to rise again to the summit of the premier league.

Arsenal host West Ham this weekend before the return leg against Monaco, a big ask but not beyond them if they happen to get an early goal. Then they head to Newcastle before a key matchup with the in form team in the league (Liverpool) at the Emirates. United head into the a tougher patch, playing Tottenham at home, Liverpool at Anfield, Aston Villa back at Old Trafford and then consecutive games against City (H) and Chelsea (A). They have been finding ways to win in recent months, but will have to improve dramatically if they are to maintain that lucrative fourth place finish. If they falter, one wonders if a second coach in two years is looking for a new job.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Three Things: QPR 1 Arsenal 2

Arsenal came out sluggish to start their game against QPR at Loftus Road today. But for a couple of fine saves from Ospina and a just wide shot from Charlie Austin a few minutes before halftime, they could well have paid the price. Instead the half ended nil-nil and the Gunners started the second half more brightly. They were unlucky not to gain a penalty and a red card (or second yellow) as QPR defender * pulled back Ozil when he was moments from probably finishing a nice cut back after a slick drive down the right from Rosicky. Sanchez had a chance a few minutes later after a lovely flick by Giroud, but he took too long to settle and the ball was cleared. In the 59th minute, Phillips came close on a shot from range, just missing the far corner past a diving Ospina.

Arsenal were controlling the ball, but the chances were few and far between as the final 30 minutes of the game commenced. In the 63rd minute, Sanchez showed his quality with a beautiful cut back to Gibbs, whose shot was blocked right into the path of a charging Giroud. The Frenchman made no mistakes finished smoothly from close range. It was his fifth in the last five league games and continues his recovery from the awful game against Monaco. Two minutes later, Sanchez got past his defender again and hit a strong shot toward the corner, well saved by Green then found himself one-on-one with the QPR GK, only to wait too long and allow the ex-England International to save well. In the 69th, he finally took his chance with an incredible goal from an insanely acute angle making it 2-0. Arsenal almost made it three in the 75th minute after Bellerin cut in down the right and slotted back to Rosicky, whose shot was blocked before Ozil almost sent in the rebound (but for another intervention from Green and the post).

Arsenal were cruising until the 82nd minute when Charlie Austin was given too much room by Koscielny and Gibbs and scored to make it 2-1. It was another switch off by the Gunners defense that has been playing well in general, but prone to the errors that plagued them in past seasons, and yet another fine finish from Austin. Wenger brought on Ramsey for Rosicky in the 86th minute attempting to shore up the lead and three points. But some sloppy passing saw them giving the ball away on more than one occasion as the clock neared the full 90 minutes. Four additional minutes showing up on the clock added some stress to Wenger’s face, as QPR continued to attempt to send balls into the box. With a minute left in extra time, Welbeck came on for Ozil and Arsenal were able to hold on again.

1. Referee Malaise Continues: the calls for some sort of video-based officiating review system must be gaining momentum as EPL officials continue to miss call after call. It was quite clear that Ozil was pulled back right as he was about to finish a strong chance from three feet and it should have been a penalty and sending off. Instead Arsenal had to wait until over 60 minutes had passed to score. Luckily it didn’t affect the game, but was yet another example of referees failing to call clear penalties. And West Ham had a decent penalty claim themselves in a 1-0 loss to Chelsea, as Cahill handled the ball in the box (though from a close range shot).

2. Sanchez Dip Over? Alexis Sanchez was arguably the hottest player in the EPL heading into the new year, but a minor injury that kept him out for a couple of games appears to have affected him, as he wasn’t scoring goals, creating chances or even getting past defenders with the same acuity. Then the second half started today and Sanchez came back to life, first contributing the pass that led to the opening goal and then giving the Gunners some breathing room with his lovely finish on the second. The Gunners will need him back at his best if they are to ensure champions league football for next year and have any chance to turn the tie against Monaco around and this was a good start.

3. Coquelin Castle/Giroud Magic: the most impressive thing about the Gunners in the recent run (forgoing the Monaco and Tottenham debacles) has been their pressing style and stout defending, giving up few goals with some great goalkeeping by Ospina. The most obvious target for praise, however, is Coquelin, a player many thought would never wear an Arsenal uniform again. He has been a rock at the heart of the defense and has dramatically improved his poise and passing as well. The Gunners need to keep him healthy and then sign a second DM this summer (unless Bielik lives up to the hype and can make the move up in August) if they want to take the next step. Another player worthy of comment is the surprising Bellerin who has surpassed Chambers as the right back, at least until Debuchy returns. His pace and crossing ability are impressive, but he is also a quality defender that often steals or blocks balls coming from his wing.

Arsenal needed the win today to keep the gap to City at a reasonable level (they beat Leicester 2-0) and their advantage over Liverpool (2-0 winners over Burnley), United (late 1-0 winners over Newcastle) and Tottenham (3-2 over Swansea) intact. Next up for the Gunners is an FA Cup date at Manchester United on the 9th, a home game against West Ham on the 14th and then the away leg against Monaco the following Tuesday. QPR, on the other hand, see themselves dug deeper into a relegation battle with an important match at Crystal Palace sandwiched between home games against Tottenham and Everton (who lost again today 2-0 at Stoke). The season is shaping up as a great battle for the 2nd through 4th spots and at the bottom, though Chelsea will have to slip up to lose a title that seems more likely with each passing game (they won 1-0 at West Ham).

Arsenal Rebound to Beat Everton 2-0

Ten months ago, reeling after blowing a title challenge in a series of blowout losses, Arsenal headed to Goodison Park to play Everton hoping to sew up a consolation Champions League birth. Instead they left the park 3-0 losers, unsure whether this would be the year that they finally fell out of the Top Four. Everton, of course, faded and Arsenal went on a late tear to take that fourth spot by five points, and then end the trophy drought with the FA Cup victory in Wembley. Since then, the Gunners have been up and down while Martinez’s Toffees have floundered toward the cusp of a relegation battle. But Arsenal were only a few days removed from yet another disappointing Round of 16 first leg, all but ensuring their departure from the event at this stage for the fifth year running, even as their league form improved.

Given the divergent paths of the two teams, it was little surprise that the Gunners took the lead in the 39th minute, when Giroud deftly placed a corner kick past Howard. It was slightly ironic, given the four chances he blew four days earlier, but Giroud has been in fine form in non-European games since returning from injury. As with recent games, Everton dominated possession at times, but did little with that possession and created few chances as the Gunners again settled into the more defensive formation that helped them surprise Man City back in January. Everton did sniff out a few chances, but interventions from Ospina on two occasions and then Gabriel kept those chances from being converted. Right before halftime, Cazorla sent in a dipping shot that was tipped over by Howard.

The second half saw Everton come close on a few occasions, but Ospina was again up to the task and Arsenal could have sealed it earlier but for two excellent interventions from Jagielka. In the 89th minute, Rosicky clinched the game with a deflected shot that caught Howard going the other way and Arsenal went on to win 2-0. While not the most impressive performance of the season, the Gunners are starting to show the ability to win tough games even when below their best. It is too bad that drive to win was not in evidence last Wednesday, but sitting in third with a game at QPR tomorrow, they are well poised to again take their place in the UCL. Everton must be wondering how to stop the bleeding and restore some order to a season that is quickly falling apart, even as they were the only English team to advance to the next round of the Europa League. They head to Stoke tomorrow in a game they will hope to take at least a point from.