Thursday, September 17, 2015

UCL Match Day 1: Arsenal, Man City and United all Lose; Chelsea Cruise

Arsenal started their campaign in the Champions League in rather inauspicious fashion, losing 2-1 to Dinamo Zagreb, who, though on a 41-game undefeated streak, were 0 for their last 15 games in the UCL Group Stage. As has too often been the case in recent games, Arsenal dominated the early going without scoring before giving up a goal against the run of play in the 24th minute (an own goal by Oxlade-Chamberlain) before a second yellow for Giroud meant they would be playing a man down for 65 minutes. The only good news in a depressing game was that after falling behind 2-0, they were able to draw to 2-1 with a late Walcott goal.

Things looked bright for Arsenal in the early going as they dominated possession (63 percent by halftime) and almost scored on a powerful Giroud header saved on the stretch (9’). On 18 minutes, Giroud again got his head to the ball, this time on a fine cut back cross from Ox, seeing his looping header hit the outside of the post. The Frenchman had a good chance to pound in the rebound, but it was bundled away by the Zagreb keeper. On 24 minutes, the profligacy in front of goal again came back to haunt Arsenal, as a Zagreb through ball was saved by Ospina only to hit a charging Ox and carom into the corner of their own net. A minute earlier, Giroud had picked up a completely unnecessary yellow card for protestation, after a foul call went against him. Then on 40 minutes, a poor start turned into a nightmare when a rather minor foul by Giroud earned a second yellow and a dismissal. It was an absurd call but Giroud knew he had to be careful, particularly given that many referees in Europe appear incredibly fast to the pocket and the Gunners are often the victims of that quick-draw-McGraw approach (they have 16 reds in UCL history).

The one-sidedness of the refereeing continued throughout much of the game until a bevy of late yellows for Zagreb players, but Arsenal still should have dispatched the Croatians without much trouble. That they didn’t reinforces a couple of problems that have cropped up in the early part of the season – the inability to finish chances and moments of defensive frailty around a generally tight defense. As many worried, whenever Coquelin is out of the game, the Gunners defense becomes immediately suspect and that trend continued in stretches throughout the game, even after he came on. As is also too often the case, the Gunners attack suddenly became inept after they fell behind, seemingly lacking the will to win necessary for champions. The second half started with two quality chances for Zagreb, one only saved by the post, before Arsenal started to assert themselves, with Koscielny missing a free header in the 48th minute and then Ozil missing a golden opportunity less than a minute later. He did put the ball in the back of the net in the 54th minute, but he was clearly offsides and should have held up his run. Another good chance went wanting in the 56th minute as Ozil tried to chip the keeper from in close on the right side and that profligacy again came back to haunt them as Zagreb made it 2-0 on 57 minutes, with a strong header from a corner by Fernandes. It was terrible marking by the Gunners and really emblematic of the dropped points in the league this season.

Theo Walcott did score a nice goal in the 79th minute, on an excellent through ball from fellow sub Coquelin, tallying his 12th goal in his last 12 games for the club. From there the mistakes started piling up for Arsenal, particularly for Joel Campbell who again failed to impress with his time on the pitch (finally earning a yellow in the 87th minute after a number of poor fouls and deserving a second as extra time ran out). To be fair, Arsenal can feel aggrieved for the second time in the young season. In the home match against Liverpool an early Ramsey goal was incorrectly adjudged offsides in a game that ended scoreless. Tonight, a questionable second yellow card on Giroud cost them dearly as they attempted to draw even and maybe even go on to win the match, though both Ospina and Campbell could have been sent off in the second half. Yet one could also ask why Petr Cech wasn’t in goal, why Coquelin was rested until late and, if you are committed to playing Arteta, why Ramsey did not play beside him to shore up the defense (as a clearly superior choice to Cazorla in that regard). The toothlessness of the Arsenal attack continues to be a problem, with Sanchez having another bad game, Debuchy failing to impress in for Bellerin and Gibbs not doing much better in his first start of the season (probably the most guilty on the second goal). One can understand resting a few players with Chelsea on tap Saturday, but six changes seems a little radical when one wants to get the campaign off to a winning start. And the inability to score clear chances continues to haunt a team that did a much better job in this department last season. Even with all the mistakes, they still could have easily won this one 3-2. The Gunners are probably still the favorites to go through in second place, but will have to avoid any slips at home or a loss at Olympiakos, a team that once cost them first place in the final group stage game in Greece, and hope Zagreb does not pull off any further upsets.

A few quick thoughts on the UCL Match Week 1:

1. England European Woes Continue: Man City had the toughest matchup of Match Week 1 against last year’s finalists and Series A champions Juventus, but found themselves 1-0 up and in a position to snatch all three points at home, before giving up two goals and losing. At the same time, United were pulling off the same feat against PSV on the road, blowing their own lead to lose 2-1. Today Arsenal lost 2-1 as well and only Chelsea were able to snatch all three points with a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Maccabi Tel-Aviv. That’s only three points from four games and further evidence that England are just not up to the task in Europe at the moment, in danger of losing their fourth place position in the qualifying round to Italy. There are all sorts of excuses for the poor performances since 2012, but one of the obvious ones is the defensive lapses, as that is six goals conceded by Man City, Arsenal and United against teams that are clearly inferior – except maybe Juve, though they were winless in their first three league games this season after losing a number of their top players including Pirlo, Vidal and Tevez. English teams better wake up quickly or we will be talking about the race for the “Top 3” going forward and either Arsenal, United or Chelsea playing Thursday night football.

2. Barcelona Held: Defending champion Barcelona got their campaign off to a rocky start, only able to earn a 1-1 draw at Roma, though the equalizer will probably stand as the goal of the Group Stage, as Alessandro Florenzi scored from just over the midfield line (sending the ball looping over ter Stegen) eight minutes after Suarez had opened the scoring with a header into the roof of the net. It was surprising to see Messi go a game without scoring, particularly when his archrival Ronaldo put in three more, after five last weekend. Barcelona will not be too worried though, as a point away from home should be fine and they remain favorites to win the group. A second slip up could be costly though as Roma do appear dangerous.

3. German/Spain Start Strongly: Germany, unlike England, had an impressive start to their campaign, with a 3-0 road win for Bayern (at Olympiakos), a 4-1 home win for Bayern Leverkusen (against BATE Borisov) and a 3-1 win for Wolfsburg over CSKA Moscow. Only Borrusia Monchengladbuch lost, 3-0 to an impressive Sevilla side. Guardiola will be hoping to lead Bayern past the semifinals after two straight years of being crushed at that stage of the competition, while Leverkusen and Wolfsburg both have good chances of advancing. Sevilla was joined by Real (4-0 winners over Shaktar) and Atletico Madrid (2-0 at Galatasaray) garnering three points, while Barcelona grabbed that road point at Roma and only fifth place team Valencia lost (3-2 to Zenit St. Petersburg).

4. Costly Injury Losses: The first game of the Group Stage saw some major injuries and injury scares for some of the best teams in the world. United lost their young right back Luke Shaw to a horrific leg break, right as his form was starting to really improve. Real lost both Ramos and Bale, though neither are expected to be out too long. And a few other concerns exist across the teams in the competition.

5. Should He Go or Should He Go? I cannot speak for all Arsenal fans, and there is clearly still a chance the Gunners could win the league or even the Champions League, but isn’t it time for Wenger to leave (at the end of the season)? He has gotten the team into the UCL for 18 straight years and won two FA Cups in a row, but has gone over a decade without a league title and appears to be making the wrong moves far too often. Reviewing complaints I have made in the past, which still seem relevant, Wenger is suspect tactically, average with his substitution choices (Campbell was terrible, even as Walcott scored), sometimes bizarre in his starting lineup decisions (exhibit A tonight), does not do enough in the transfer window (still talking about the necessary striker and defensive midfielder three years after that conversation started) and does not seem to instill the winning mentality in his team that he once did. I’m so tired of writing the same argument over and over again and just hope Wenger finally calls it quits if he fails to win that league title or at least get the Gunners to the semifinals of the Champions League. Will he? I have my doubts, but a Gooner can dream … can’t he?

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