Sunday, February 28, 2016

Arsenal Insipid in 3-2 Defeat at Old Trafford

Much has already been written about Arsenal’s failure at Old Trafford today, going down 3-2 to a makeshift Manchester United team full of junior players filling in during the continuing injury crisis. And while it was a valiant effort by the United youngsters, led by 18-year-old Marcus Rashford (who now has four goals and an assist in two appearances), it was equally an epic failure by the Gunners, who look increasingly likely to miss out on the title that looked possible a mere seven days ago.

Arsenal played flat almost from the opening whistle and, after missing out on an early chance when Monreal shot right into a charging De Gea in the 7th minute, looked off their best. With the score at 0-0, though, there was a sense they might just be able to improve in the second half and take all three points. In a three-minute spell that started in the 29th minute, the match changed. First Walcott gave the ball away carelessly in his own half, United sent the ball to the right, after Gabriel failed to clear the cross (possibly affected by a slight touch from Koscielny), Rashford was first to the ball and pounded it in. Before the 32nd minute had passed it was two, as Lingard sent a cross to the head of Rashford, sandwiched between Kos and Gabriel, with the youngster steering the ball across goal and past Cech. Arsenal did wake up a little from their shellshock, with an Ozil cross met by Welbeck for a headed goal at the near post (40’). Right before the halftime whistle, United’s hero Rashford appeared to move his hand to stop a corner from sneaking in at the near post. It could easily have been a penalty and a red card, but instead United took their 2-1 lead into the break.

Arsenal began to grow into the game a little in the second half, without cultivating any clear chances, until the 64th minute, when a Manchester United counter was cutback by Rashford to Herrera. He sent a shot toward the far corner that Cech seemed to have covered, but Koscielny couldn’t get out of the way of the shot and actually chested it into the goal behind his keeper. Suddenly it was 3-1 and the match seemed lost. Five minutes later, Ozil gave the Gunners life with a rebounded shot in to make it 3-2. But from there, United seemed first to every ball, Arsenal lacked the requisite passion or drive to get the equalizer and actually make the Red Devils look like the more talented side in running out the clock. And so another disappointing loss in over a decade of disappointing results that derails their title dreams. Three quick thoughts on the game:

1. Wenger Gets It Wrong Again: it appears increasingly clear as the years past that it is highly unlikely Arsenal will win another title with the Frenchman in charge. They might win another trophy or two, but one wonders if the board is finally growing weary of fourth place finishes and Round of 16 exits in the Champions League. I think I speak for most Gooners when I say I am. The reality is that even if Wenger has become more tactically flexible, his inability to win enough of the big games has marred his career ever since the Invincibles success. That was not true the first eight years of his career with the club, but the same complaints continue to be relevant. Just to run through them again: a) Poor record against rivals (except Tottenham) including United, whomever is in charge, Chelsea (six dropped points and two reds this season even as they still reside in the bottom half), Barcelona (2006, 2010, 2011 and now, with all likelihood 2016), Bayern Munich, etc. b) Not buying the necessary players: everyone argued Arsenal needed two things this year – a striker and a DM. When Coquelin went out, Arsenal suffered and he is just getting back into the team now, and Arsenal has the fewest goals (41) of any team in the Top 4 (and also the worst goal difference). Giroud has gone cold, failing to score in his last 9, and Sanchez is even worse, c) Poor selection and subs: no Gooner can forget pulling Ox a few years back against United while he was playing his best game with the team, but today one wonders if bringing Gabriel back in was really such a great idea, or relying on Walcott up front in one of the coldest scoring runs of his career (forgoing the goal last week), and why Campbell, who was starting to really shine in January, suddenly can’t get any time on the pitch, and d) Strength to Weakness: one thing Wenger has always been hailed for is developing young talent, but looking around Arsenal at the moment, it appears Walcott has moved backwards, Ramsey is a shell of his former self, Bellerin had his worst game in some time and the youngsters like Iwobi don’t have the talent to even be impact subs at the moment.

2. Gunners Poor Across the Board Minus Two: to continue on the development theme, Ramsey has been among the worst performers over the past couple of months, losing the ball with troubling frequency, missing relatively easy passes and failing to convert chances. Walcott has been worse, seemingly far below the player he was before his latest injury (but poor even when playing this season). As mentioned above, it was his error that led to the first goal and Ramsey’s poor play from the back that disabled Arsenal’s once deadly counterattacking. Giroud is also in yet another funk, unable to have any impact in the game upon entering for the invisible Walcott. And Sanchez has been poor for so long, it’s hard to even remember the brief hot streak before he was injured. Really, looking across the pitch, the only credible performances were by Welbeck (taken off for no apparent reason late for the completely inept Iwobi, who lost the ball every time he touched it) and Ozil, who now has 18 assists and a credible 5 league goals (along with the two in the UCL). One wonders if Arsenal should finally part with Wenger and splash that cash sitting in the bank, building the team around Ozil, Sanchez and Koscielny, though the latter had one of his worst days in years.
3. Manchester United Statement Win: It was less than two weeks ago that United lost to minnows no one ever heard of in the Europa League and the calls for Van Gaal’s rather sizable head were rising to Robespierre level. Since then, they have gone on a three-game winning streak, advancing in Europe, in the FA Cup and winning at home against Arsenal for the ninth time in a row at Old Trafford (not counting the FA Cup last season). They now stand three points from fourth place (though City have a game in hand) and one wonders if this could be the year that Arsenal fall all the way out of the top four, handing United a lifeline. While two of the three opponents were several levels below the best of the EPL, today they looked like a different team, with several players covering in positions they are not accustomed to playing in. They pressed high, took their chances and made it extremely difficult for the Gunners to get into any rhythm on the offensive end. The youngsters performed at a peak level and even the maligned Depay had one of his best showings as a United player. With a relatively kind run of fixtures until the Manchester Derby on March 20, United could build some momentum heading into the money end of the season while Arsenal could well spiral out of control yet again.

Next up for the Gunners is a must-win game at the Emirates Wednesday against Swansea, who had a 1-0 lead against Tottenham heading into the final 20 minutes today before the other team from North London finished their comeback, and then a matchup against those same Spurs next Saturday that could well decide the Gunners’ fate. United host Watford, travel to West Brom, head to Anfield for the the first leg of their Europa league tie with Liverpool then return home to play Crystal Palace. It appears Arsenal are fading just as United find a new lifeline.

Friday, February 26, 2016

European Roundup: England Rebound After Rough Start

The knockout stages of Europe’s two biggest competitions started rather poorly for English sides, with Chelsea going down 2-1 at PSG, after a decent effort, Arsenal playing Barcelona tough for 70 minutes while missing good chances to win before ultimately falling 2-0 at home, Liverpool played out a dull 0-0 draw with FC Augsburg in the first leg of their Round of 32 matchup, Tottenham were held to a 1-1 draw at Fiorentina and, most shockingly, Manchester United actually lost to minnows FC Midtjylland. The dread of potentially losing their fourth Champions League place to Italy was moving closer to reality with every poor result. And then England made something of a comeback. Manchester City headed to Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday for a very winnable Round of 16 tie and left the park 3-1 winners, all but ensuring progression to the UCL quarterfinals for the first time in their history. Then all three of the remaining English teams in the Europa league won their return fixtures yesterday to progress. Manchester United crushed a team that has only existed since their treble in 1999 5-1, Tottenham cruised past Fiorentina 3-0 (4-1 on aggregate) and Liverpool scraped out a 1-0 win.

Arsenal are, barring a miracle, heading out in the Round of 16 for the sixth straight year while Chelsea certainly have a chance to turn their tie around in the second leg. Man City looks certain to get through to the Final 8 and could help the EPL out considerably by turning their huge investment over the past few years into a run toward the crown. In the Europa league, at least one English side is guaranteed to head to the final 8, as United and Liverpool square off in the most exciting Europa League match for EPL fans since Chelsea won the crown (I didn’t even watch one of those matches but will try to catch these two). Tottenham have a tough draw themselves, facing off against a Dortmund team that has moved on nicely from Klopp’s departure, currently in second in the Bundesliga, though 8 points back of Bayern Munich. One could certainly see two teams from the EPL getting through, though, and Italy has a solitary representative left in Europa and might well be out of the Champions League in a fortnight. 

Speaking of Munich, they were cruising to a road victory that could have all but settle their tough Round of 16 draw against the Italian leaders Juve. Juve recovered and garnered a valuable 2-2 draw that means a win in Munich could see Guardiola fail to even get to a Champions League final in three tries, though I think Munich are favorites to take care of business at home. Atletico Madrid appeared to have the easiest draw alongside City, but were unable to break through a ten-man PSV that was far below their best. Last week, Wolfsburg had a tougher time of it with KAA Gent than many would have predicted, but were ultimately able to win 3-2 and take three valuable away goals back home to Germany. Real Madrid took care of Roma 2-0 as they seek to win the only truly viable piece of silverware still available to them this season and Benfica beat a flat Zenit 1-0, with the cost of a two-month layoff seemingly affecting the Russian side.

In the Europa League Round of 16, the other matchups include Shakhtar Donetsk against Anderlecht, FC Basel v. Sevilla, Fenerbahce v. Braga, Atletico Bilboa v. Valencia, Sparta Prague v. Lazio and Villareal against Bayer Leverkusen. The good news for England is they could have two teams through to the next round, and are guaranteed at least one, while Italy’s only hope left in the competition is Lazio. In the Champions League, Roma looks set to exit the tournament and Juve are certainly less likely to match their march to the finals last year, though it is certainly still a possibility. That leaves England with a chance, for the first time in several years, to pick up some coefficient points on the Italians and more firmly ensconce their position in the Top three leagues in Europe. The easiest way to do that is to keep winning these ties, and one hopes City, Tottenham and Chelsea can keep a small upward tilt in momentum going their way.

Below are my predictions for the second legs of the UCL and the Round of 16 in the Europa league (I still like the old title “UEFA Cup,” for what it’s worth):

UCL Second Leg

Zenit v. Benfica: I would have chosen Zenit before this tie began, but Benfica is now in the driver’s seat. While Zenit can still certainly win it, any victory by a solitary goal would mean losing out on away goals (except for 1-0) and I thus think the Portuguese side have a great chance to progress. (Benfica 2, 1 Zenit 1 Aggregate)

Chelsea v. PSG: if Chelsea play as they have in the past few weeks, they have every chance of turning this tie around. On the other hand, PSG has already all but wrapped up the French league and their focus is on improving their performance in Europe. I think they have just enough to get past Chelsea. (PSG 4, Chelsea 3 Aggregate)

Wolfsburg v. Gent: Wolfsburg is off their pace of last season, in no small part because their best player is now in Manchester (sitting on the sideline with a major injury, of course). But I still think they have enough to take care of Gent in the second leg. (Wolfsburg 5, Gent 3 Agg)

Barca v. Arsenal: I would like to pick my beloved Gunners to pull off the impossible and win 3-0 at Barca to progress, but I have all but given up on this season in Europe and am more interested in the matchups against United and Tottenham in the league. I think the Gunners might score, but will have a hard time keeping Barca out. (Barca 4, Arsenal 1 Agg)

Bayern Munich v. Juve: this was the pick of the Round and the first leg lived up to the hype. Unfortunately for Juve, Munich are relatively imperious at home and, though they have injury troubles at the back, have shown an ability to get through the tough Italian defense. I see a chippy affair, with Munich prevailing 2-1 (Munich 4, Juve 3 Agg)

Manchester City v. Kiev: City have all but settled this tie and can probably even rest some of their starters in the return leg. Kiev showed some spirit in the second half but are more than a couple of rungs below City. (City 5, Kiev 2 Agg)

Atletico v. PSV: Atletico failed to convert their chances in a poor performance against 10-men PSV. However, Simeone has instilled real belief in his players and has another world-class goalkeeper between the sticks (who knew?). This sets up as a perfect Atletico 1-0 win (Atletico 1, PSV 0 Agg)

Europa League

Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Anderlecht – Shakhtar (3-1 Ag)
FC Basel vs. Sevilla (Sevilla 0-2 Ag)
Villarreal vs. Bayer Leverkusen (Bayer 1-0 Ag)
Athletic Bilbao vs. Valencia (Valencia 3-1 Ag)
Liverpool vs. Manchester United (Liverpool 4-3 Ag)
Sparta Prague vs. Lazio (Lazio 4-0 Ag)
Borussia Dortmund vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Tottenham 2-1 Ag)
Fenerbahce vs. Braga (Braga 4-2 Ag) 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Six at 16: Arsenal Lose to Barcelona 2-0

And the beat goes on. Arsenal go into a Round of 16 Champions League tie with a faint hope, it is quashed by a poor first leg display at home (or occasionally on the road) and there is just enough room to dream of getting through with a better second leg. Last year it was the inexplicably poor 3-1 first leg loss to Monaco in their best chance to get to the quarters since the slump began. They got two goals back in the return fixture, but couldn’t get over the line with a third. The two years before that, there were poor first legs at home against Bayern that ultimately cancelled out better second leg performances. Going four years back, Arsenal somehow lost 4-0 at Milan in the first leg only to draw three back in the second and fall a goal short when RVP missed a sitter. In fact, falling a goal short has become something of a specialty for the Gunners at this stage. Against Barcelona they were through throughout much of the second leg in 2011, only to give up two goals in quick succession in the second half and then watch the self-proclaimed greatest striker who can’t score blow a very good chance to send them through. Of course, late goals and Barcelona rarely go the Gunners way, going all the way back to the heartbreaking 2006 Finals.

Since then, it has been perennial disappointment, somehow justified because we always get to that spot. It is a consistency of mediocrity that would be just reason for dismissal almost anywhere except the surreal fantasy world of Arsenal Football Club. The irony here is that Wenger got his tactics right yesterday, at least in my estimation. It was the players who lost their cool, failed to convert chances, panicked too often on the ball and ultimately made the two mistakes that undermined 70 minutes of fine defensive work. Looking back, however, it will be the display on the offensive end of the pitch that will be most disappointing. Ox had a great chance early, from about 8 yards out, but shot it right at the keeper. In the 35th minute, after some decent half-chances for Barca, Ox found himself free on the left channel and barreled forward, only to lose the ball on an excellent challenge from Mascherano after a heavy touch by the Englishman. This has become a habit for Ox, who has all the talent in the world but an inability to shine on the break, either missing the open man or shooting without accuracy or the requisite power. Walcott came on for him in the 50th minute and one wonders if he should have started in front of a misfiring Ox.

In the second half, Arsenal started to appear in the ascendancy defending strongly at the back and then creating some good chances themselves. Giroud had a header that was a smidgen too soft to get past a diving Ter Stegen in the 60th minutes; the Barca keeper just about to get his mitt on it at the last second. Aaron Ramsey had two excellent chances within eight yards and completely botched both of them, one five minutes after Giroud’s header. Ramsey, in fact, flattered to deceive throughout much of the game, and much of the season in my view, seemingly intent on throwing the tie away himself. I am amazed sometimes when I read the player ratings after a game and find that Ramsey has been given a much higher score (7 in this case) than seems warranted. Sure he put in a decent defensive display, but in games like this, you have to convert your quality chances, and few were more inviting than the one in the 65th minute, when he could have scored left or right from about eight yards out but instead steered it directly into the hands of the thankful Barca keeper. In the 79th minute an excellent soft header from Welbeck left him free a mere two yards out and he still found a way not to score. On top of this was the mere frequency of errant passes by the normally on target Ramsey, undermining one Arsenal attack after another.

Sanchez too was below his best, slaloming forward with intent at times, but unable to provide the necessary service or get off a good shot himself. He has actually been off his best for some time now, unable to find the form of the first half of last season with quite the consistency the side requires. Petr Cech was excellent until the opening goal, but the extra touch by Messi completely destabilized him and he found himself helplessly on the ground as Messi shot above him, the first time the Argentine has beaten the keeper in his career. Here it was slack defending on the blistering counter and Monreal getting drawn toward Neymar before his brilliant cut back pass across goal. On the second, Wenger made what I consider his first bad decision of the game, taking off Coquelin for the erratic Flamini. It took him less than a minute to commit the foul that probably settled the tie. The real blame lies with Mertesacker, though, who could have easily cleared his line but instead, inexplicably, passed weakly toward Flamini. The Frenchman’s lack of composure and lateness to the ball ensured the penalty and another game where he was guilty of overly physical defending. The only good news in regard to his Arsenal career is that it should be over in three short months now.

Ozil appeared to be the man most clearly aggrieved by the performance, even before the first goal was conceded. For him to play at his best, he needs two things – good service from the back and good movement in front of him. While there were patches, particularly for a nice 20-minute patch before the opener, when he got both, the failure to complete those moves ultimately cost Arsenal the game and, with great probability, a sixth exit at the first step of the knockout stage. Ozil was clearly annoyed, swatting at the ball, arguing with the refs (who did seem rather one-sided throughout much of the match, though not decisively) and giving Ramsey an earful after the goal, but even as he has added a few goals to his productivity, one would like to see a bit more of him in matches of this sort. In the end, Wenger did little wrong before the Flamini move, but he can’t finish the chances for his players or get on the pitch to fix their mistakes. On the other hand, one continues to worry that Wenger has lost his ability to get his squad properly motivated for their biggest games, providing the belief that they can win against the odds. As his career at Arsenal nears its inevitable conclusion, this is what might be remembered most, after the early years of success. Arsenal still have a miracle second leg to rescue this tie, still have a strong shot at winning the title and can certainly get a third straight FA Cup. If they fail in all three competitions, one does wonder if it is time to move on.

On the other side of the ball, Barcelona continue to look like the best team in the world. Even when they play below their best, they still find ways to get results and now look all but certain to move on to the final 8 of the UCL, to win La Liga again (they have an eight-point cushion at the top) and, with Real gone, to complete a second treble in succession. Bayern, Juve, PSG, Real and maybe even City still stand in their path, but can one doubt their resolve? Their front line is the most dangerous in all of world football and arguably among the greatest ever assembled. They are solid from front to back and seem able to deconstruct almost any system over time. Arsenal might have provided a blueprint for beating them, though, with more able finishing and a full 90 minutes of disciplined defending. For now, they must be the favorites to repeat as the champions of European club football.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Trump Insanity Rising

The GOP primary is now sizing up as a three horse race, with the Scarecrow (Jeb Bush) gone, the Tin Man (Carly Fiorina) melting before our eyes, the Lion (Chris Christie) stuck on a bridge of his own making, Professor Marvel (Kasich) exposed as a “moderate” fraud and the Wizard (Ben Carson) shown to be little more than a mirage some time ago. That leaves us with Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Trump is still clearly the forerunner with Cruz trying to beat him to the right while Rubio attempts to provide a more moderate road forward.

Both strategies could ultimately work, but it is clear that the unthinkable has become, well, thinkable. A rightwing lunatic unafraid to break all the rules and short on ideas on how to actually solve problems has a strong chance of lining up with a shot at the presidency. It’s extraordinary, really – a joke of a man, famous for parodying himself on a popular TV show, of losing much of and then reaccumulating his fortune, and of making outrageous claims about a sitting president long after everyone else had moved on to other outrageous claims (the “birther” narrative, of course). In just the past few weeks, we have seen what a Trump presidency could look like – vilifying his enemies without compunction, hypermasculine diatribes on America, empty rhetoric about making America great again and barely veiled racist and sexist saber rattling.

To offer just a few examples of his amplifying truculence, Trump said he would like to punch a protester in the face for disrupting his rally yesterday (months after he applauded the beating up of a Black Lives matter protester at another of his rallies), continues to push the narrative that Ted Cruz is not eligible to be president (be was born in Canada) while more recently arguing Marco Rubio might not be eligible either (both he and Trump were born in the U.S. to immigrant parents) and recently claimed he was the the most popular person who ever lived in upstate New York. So it appears a bigoted, sexist, jingoistic, natavist, narcissist, jackass could well be the Republican nomination for President. It almost makes you nostalgic for the days of George W. Bush … almost. Okay, not really. No, strike that, not at all. But who thought things could actually get worse from those awful eight years?