Sunday, April 23, 2017

Arsenal on to FA Cup Final After 2-1 Victory Over City

A victory at Wembley today does not save the Gunner’s season and the Top 4 still looks a big ask at this point, but coming back from a goal down to win and giving Wenger a shot at a record seventh FA Cup victory will certainly up the mood at the Emirates, while their neighbors to the North now know their manager will end the season without a trophy for the first time in his career. Three thoughts on the two FA Cup semis and the remainder of Arsenal’s season:

1. Wenger Tinkering Paying Dividends
For only the second time since 1997, Arsenal again played three at the back, turning both games into hard-fought 2-1 wins, though the first, over bottom dwelling Middlesboro last Monday was not the best preview for what the Gunners accomplished today. A rather cagey first half saw City dominate possession to the tune of 60 percent and offered them the better chances, with Cech saving well from a Silva header and then his 22nd minute replacement spraying the ball just wide. However, they were unable to break through an Arsenal side sitting back and absorbing pressure more than at any time in recent memory. Holding, in particular, acquitted himself well, with Koscielny and Gabriel putting in good shifts in the back three formation.

Arsenal had few chances going forward in the first half and were lucky to enter the break at parity, particularly as Ox appeared to clip the foot of Aguero in the box, though Arsenal had a couple of decent penalty claims themselves called off across the two halves and extra time. After the break, Wenger appeared to wake up his underperforming squad, as they were soon on the front foot, with Chamberlain providing the impetus and a high press paying dividends. And yet just as they seemed poised to take the lead, Ramsey gave the ball away on the edge of the City box and a beautiful pass set Aguero free on goal. He outpaced Monreal easily and then chipped over a passive Cech. With the way the season has been going, one would not be labeled cynical to assume the Gunners were done.

Arsenal kept the momentum going that they had established for much of the second half and equalized nine minutes later, when a strong run down the right channel by Ox left him free to send in a perfect cross that flew over the head of Giroud but right into the path of the charging Monreal, who right footed his volley below the left foot of Bravo. Arsenal were suddenly in the ascendancy and looked in a position to take the lead, though squandered efforts by Ozil and Giroud made the last few minutes of regulation time nervy, particularly when Toure’s shot was fingertipped to the post by Cech and then Fernandinho headed the ball hard into the post. But City were beginning to tire and Arsenal looked the fresher side in extra time.

Both sides spurned a couple of quality chances before a free kick from Ozil on the right found its way to the head of Koscielny, who cushioned it forward to Welbeck, on for Giroud in the 83rd minute. For not the first time in the game, Welbeck scuffed the effort, but pushed the ball slightly forward to Sanchez, who made no mistake from six yards out. Arsenal finally had their first lead of the match and held on for the victory. Ox was the clear man of the match and Welbeck, while missing three quality chances in his 30 or so minutes on the pitch, brought a renewed energy to the side. One would be remiss not to give Wenger some credit, though, as his 3-4-2-1 formation ultimately played dividends as he is one game from a record seventh FA Cup victory.

2. City Limping Toward Finish Line
One season will not take away the luster surrounding Guardiola as one of the best managers in the world, but questions must start to be asked after he failed to win the Champions League with an excellent Bayern side, twice dumped ignominiously at the semifinal stage by rampant Spanish sides, and now leads City toward nothing more than a Top 4 finish, assuming they retain the spot they now occupy. That is no certainly with the Manchester Derby Thursday and United and Arsenal both potentially breathing down their neck for that final spot.

City dominated the early exchanges and possession throughout the first half, but they lacked fluency for much of the game and one could rightly argue Wenger actually outcoached the Catalunyan for the second time in his career. Aguero did open the scoring and City had plenty of chances to make it two or three, but something seems a little stale with the side at the moment, though losing Silva in the 22nd minute to injury certainly didn’t help things. Aguero can score from anywhere and is arguably the best finisher in the league, but he was largely starved of service throughout the game, with Sane failing to perform at the level we have seen from him in other games. The same can be said of Sterling and a defense that continues to look lost on set pieces and when pressed high up the pitch. Kompany acquitted himself well upon his return, but was surrounded by players that kept leaving Gunners open, with Holding in a great position to give Arsenal the lead even before Sanchez became the hero of the afternoon.

The question for City is where do they go from here. They will need to stay motivated simply to keep that Top 4 place, though they still look a good bet, with Liverpool the most likely to drop out if United or Arsenal can finish strong, but their aging stars need to be replaced if they are to play the game the way Guardiola wants. The first step to patching that up is to replace Bravo, who again looked less than stellar, a few mistakes almost gifting the Gunners a goal. They also need to firm up their back line, with Kompany too often injured, Otamendi never reaching the heights of his time in Spain and fullbacks who all seem a little past their prime. In midfield, De Bruyne still has incredible vision and talent, but has seemed to take a few steps backwards in productivity after a bright start to life in City, while the wingers are up and down, with Navas never really showing himself as a top player in the league.

A final issue might solve itself when the season ends, that of Yaya Toure. While he had some bright moments throughout the match, including a couple of storming runs and the volleyed shot that Cech just touched into the bar, he seemed lost at times, particularly as Arsenal picked up the pace, and was sometimes left standing still or jogging aimlessly as the action pulsated around him. The exciting youngster Jesus will be back in the fold next season and City still have the offensive power to match anyone in the league, but they will have to sort out their midfield and defense if Guardiola is to bring them back to the summit of the league and on to the great heights expected in Europe. For now, Guardiola is finding what many new managers to the league have in the past, that English football’s relative parity takes a toll over the course of a long season.

3. Chelsea Stampede Tottenham Side That Looked Better for Long Stretches
As an Arsenal fan, you will never see me shedding tears when the Spurs lose, but one cannot help but feel a little bad for a side that continues to fall short when the pressure rises. After fading in the title race last season, crushed by a resilient Chelsea side that drew late to seal the miracle championship for Leicester and being dumped out of the Champions League in the Group Stage, thoughts of an FA Cup run must have stirred the hearts of Tottenham fans hungry for silverware – any silverware. Yet even as they close in on Chelsea in the league, an impressive performance came to naught in the end, the 4-2 final scoreline certainly

Tottenham looked the better side for much of the match, but Chelsea took their chances while the Spurs missed far too many. Chelsea started the better side, opening the scoring in the 5th minute with William, preferred to Hazard by Conte, scoring yet another free kick, slotting across the goal past Lloris. Harry Kane equalized on 18 minutes, moments after a corner kept in by the Spurs. Tottenham dominated much of the rest of the first half, but a silly foul by Son Heung-Min of Hazard in the box, going to the ground far too early, allowed Chelsea to jump back ahead right before the halftime whistle. The Spurs looked the brighter side through the early stretches of the second half and finally made it count, equalizing in the 52nd minute, as Della Alli finished a perfect cross from Erickson powerfully across goal from Courtois. Tottenham looked the more likely, before Hazard finished off a Chelsea corner with a cleverly placed ball across goal from about 18 yards out. Five minutes later Matic launched a stunner from outside the box that flew into the left corner with such speed Lloris barely moved.

Spurs sniffed a couple more chances but the match was already lost and, unless Chelsea continue to falter down the stretch, their most likely path to silverware. Pochettino has made this North London outfit one of the best in the entire league and they are young and hungry, but questions loom about keeping their stars for the long term, particularly if the trophy case continues to sit barren of fresh entries. Injuries played their part this season, especially early, but Tottenham can look to a couple of results that might ultimately cost them the title and ask serious questions about their capitulation in the Group Stage of the Champions League. The clock is ticking, but time is still on their side, as much as I hate to admit it.

4. Around the Horn
A costly loss for Liverpool at home to the giant killing Crystal Palace (2-1) has opened up the Top Four race even more, though the loss of both Ibrahimovic and Rojo in their tight quarterfinal Europa League tie might cost United the opportunity to snatch that spot. They did the job today, winning 2-0 over lowly Burnley, but might have lost a third key player in the process, with Pogba limping off late. With the Manchester Derby looming Thursday, the big beneficiary of recent results and injuries could be Arsenal, who might just sneak back into the Top 4 if they can finish strong, though an undefeated final seven league games, including against Everton and United, might be the only path back.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the table, Swansea and Hull both won, along with Bournemouth and Crystal (who are now up to 12th, after victories over Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool in one season for the first time in their history). Sunderland and Middlesbrough both seem done and dusted, particularly after the latter lost Saturday, but one could argue four sides are still in the mix for that final relegation play. Swansea currently occupy that spot, after their resurgence under Clement cooled at the same time Hull were gaining steam, but are only two points behind the Tigers, three behind Burnley and another from last season’s champions (though they have two games in hand on all three). Hull’s last four are at Southampton, home vs. Sunderland, at a hot Crystal Palace and then hosting Tottenham. Swansea arguably have a tougher run-in, visiting United and Sunderland, while hosting Everton and West Brom. And Burnley also face Crystal, on the road, along with a free scoring Bournemouth, while inviting West Brom and West Ham Turf Moor. Looking across those fixtures, it could well be Burnley that fall back into the bottom three, though Swansea have work to do to escape the drop.  

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