Friday, April 25, 2008

First round of semis are done.....and almost everything is left to do

So both the Champions League and UEFA Cup have had their first round of semi final games, the results...rather bland -

Champions League:
Liverpool 1 - Chelsea 1
Barca 0 - Manchester United 0

UEFA Cup:
Rangers 0 - Fiorentina 0
Bayern Munich 1 - Zenit 1

4 whole goals in 4 matches...two of which were dreadful own goals. While these games were by no means offensive showcases, although Liverpool could have scored 1 or 2 more goals had Cech not made some sensational saves. A couple of thoughts on the return legs for all the matches, we will start with the UEFA Cup first:

Zenit vs Bayern - The Russian side has shown in this tournament that it does not fear having to do all the work on the return leg, see what they did to Marseilles after going down 3-1 away to OM. However the Bayern team will be heading to Russia with the confidence that they can score goals. The game in Germany was offensively dominated by the Bavarian giants. Ribery was once again a spark plug and was all over the pitch. Not sure how the St Petersburgh club will find a way to slow him down. Even with Zenit with a crucial away goal, I think they will be under a lot of pressure from Bayern. With players such as Arshavin missing due to cards, Zenit will be hard pressed to find the solution to the Bayern system. The Germans have too much for Zenit to handle: Bayern 3-Zenit 1

Fiorentina v Rangers- This was an interesting match, with Rangers depleted by injury and suspension fighting off the inform UEFA cup club of Fiorentina. With a 0-0 draw, all Ranger need to do is win or draw and they will find themselves into the finals. However I think that heading back to Florence the Viola will overcome their Scottish opponents. The man to watch for Fiorentina will bu Mutu. I think the Romanian is going to be huge in the return leg (he is a player to watch this summer as well in the Euros). His pace and offensive talents will be too much to handle for the full 90 by Rangers. I also think the Viola defense and Frey in particular are playing at a high level, and this will be difficult for Rangers to unlock: Fiorentina 2 - Rangers 0

Chelsea v Liverpool - This was an interesting battle between two evenly matched teams on paper, but clearly mismatched in the management ranks. Liverpool were unlucky to have given up an own goal so late and not to have scored 1 or 2 more goals themselves. But the reality is they are heading to London needing to score since Chelsea have the away goal in hand. The other advantage that Liverpool have, is that Chelsea is playing a huge game this weekend against Manchester United that will determine the Premiership. Might this be a distraction for the Blues? I think this all comes down to Grant vs Benitez, I realize this is simplistic but the talent on the field is very evenly drawn. Liverpool will most likely come out with a similar line up, relying in Torres up front and Gerrard right behind him. Benitez will most likely look for his midfield to push further up the pitch look to pressure the Chelsea back line and allow Gerrard to free lance. This will put tremendous pressure on Mascherano to hold the midfield and destroy any Chelsea attacks before they reach the Red's back line. On the flip side I wonder if Grant will not look to kill the game by once again playing a 5 player midfield and allow Drogba to try and crack Liverpool on his own. It will be interesting to see who he put out this weekend, will he rest Makelele? Sit Drogba in favor of Anelka? I think Grant will feel comfortable sitting on the lead, and after, what might be, a tough tie against Manchester United this weekend, will look to sit back and absorb the Liverpool attack. Ballack and Lampard will be tasked to try and spring Drogba on the counter or test Reina from distance. Maybe play a combination of Makelele, Essein and Mikel in midfield in front of the back 4 to clog up the middle, allow Ballack and Lampard to run the offense. Maybe slot Joe Cole as the third offensive minded player, but in a deep midfield role, with three in the midfield supporting the lone striker, or even play Essein in that role linking up the defense and offense. The question becomes can Liverpool find the offensive fire power to break the midfield strangle hold? The wild card for Liverpool will be which striker, not named Torres, will make their presence felt. Will Kuyt keep up his European form? Or will Couch be a late substitute that changes the dynamics? In the end I think that Chelsea will find a way to clog the middle, stifle Liverpool and with the fear of Drogba or a late Anelka substitution force Liverpool to hold back on wholehearted attack: good ole boring 0-0 draw.

Manchester United v Barcelona: Listening to World Soccer Daily today you would think that Manchester United are playing the over 40 soccer team from Barca....the pundits stating a 2-0 or 3-0 victory for the Red Devils. I am not sure about this. Watching the game at Camp Nou I was impressed with Barca and in particular Messi. The young Argentine regularly carved up the Manchester United defense. His pace and guile were things that clearly had Manchester United back on their heels. Not sure if in a week Manchester United will figure out how to handle him. Now maybe SAF puts Hargraeves in the middle of the park and orders him to track the Argentine high up the pitch with support from the back 4, in particular Evra and Brown on the wings (assuming Vidic is healthy and can slot in the middle with Ferdinand). With the two central defenders handling Eto'o or Henry. However, I think the real danger will be in how early does Bojan find his way into the game? I might even start Henry up front, let him roam in from the left with Messi and Bojan wide, Xavi and Deco feeding and Yaya once again playing midfield destroyer, something he did very well at the Camp Nou. On the other side I think SAF will rue the fact Ronaldo missed that PK...who wouldn't....the question becomes will Rooney be 100% after picking up a knock in the Chelsea game? Not that Man U is short of attacking options, but Rooney will be key. With Rooney I would expect to see a similar line up with Rooney and Tevez up front, Ronaldo on one wing and most likely Giggs or Nani on the other. I think Hargraeves, assuming Vidic is back, will slot back to the middle and will be responsible as a first line of defense against Messi. Lots of fire power on both sides as well as injury and suspension issues. I do not believe playing at Old Trafford will intimidate Barca, lets face it, playing at Real Madrid every year is not walk in the park. I think that pressure of being caught late in the Prem will take its toll on Manchester United, and I think that Messi will prove too much: Barca 2- ManU 1

So based on my track record we will have a
Rangers vs Zenit UEFA cup final
Liverpool vs Manchester United Champions League finals!

Regardless should be some exciting ties.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Ding dong Arsenal is done

Ahhhh it has been a sad few weeks for me - Arsenal once again will go a season without any hardware and PSG...well PSG might find itself in Ligue 2 next season. I will not even touch PSG because there is not enough "ink" to do it justice. So let me take a first pass at the Arsenal season and why once again the Gunners will not be adding any silverware to their trophy case:

Early success led to irrational exuberance: At the beginning of the season it appeared that Wenger had once again caught lightning in a bottle, in particular the emergence of Adebayor as a #1 striker. The Togolese striker was unstoppable early on, nothing exemplified this more than his second half against Tottenham where he was a complete terror, scoring a brace with an absolute smashing strike from outside the 18 yard box. In addition, Fabergas was playing at another level - adding to the score sheet for his club and running the midfield with such grace. Arsenal found ways of beating their rivals - a 1-0 victory against Chelsea due to a Cech mistake and coming back to draw with Manchester United. Arsenal also cruised through their group stage games in the Champions League....This early success gave fans a false sense of destiny for silverware.

However the depth and lack of spending soon reared its ugly head: The early success masked a number of problems that the team did not address in the transfer market. It would become painfully apparent that they were thin in many areas on the pitch and lacked the depth of a Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool. This was particularly painful when Wenger did little spending in the summer transfer window. He did add Sagna and Eduardo. While Sagna was a success from day 1, it took Eduardo a time to find his game...only to see that painfully squashed when he suffered his horrific leg injury. However he did not grab a midfield dynamo...like Ribery. Maybe some depth on the back line, especially in the center back role. How can you compete in the modern day football when you do not have depth? In particular when your rivals have an abundance of depth - Manchester United can call upon Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo and Saha up front or Chelsea can juggle Lampard, Malouda, Essein, Makelele, Ballack, Wright-Phillips, Mikel, Cole, and Sidwell in the midfield? Wenger also did not pull the trigger to add any depth during the winter transfer window....as opposed to Chelsea who went out and purchased Anelka.

And lack of mental toughness did them in: To me it is no surprise that Arsenal have not won anything since Vieira left. Granted I am a huge Pat fan, but it cannot be denied that with players like Vieira, Arsenal had a level of toughness and attitude that is sorely lacking right now. Since Wenger sold Pat to Italy, he has not found a player to assume that mantle of captain, enforcer, and midfield general. Since folks like Parlour, Keown, and Vieira graced the North London pitch Arsenal have not had much bite. Without this toughness a team cannot hope to navigate the difficulties of a long premiership season coupled with 3 cup competitions (Carling, FA and Champions League). Beautiful football can win you many games, but you need internal toughness during the difficult games playing on less than good pitches in the middle of England when you need to scrap and fight for goals and wins.

So what does this mean for Arsenal?

Three things that Wenger will have to do this off season -

  1. This is no surprise, add some depth...SPEND MONEY. Arsenal must find another striker, a central defender, a few midfielders, and maybe a goalkeeper (not sure Almunia is your long term answer). More importantly this depth must come in the form of veteran players. Wenger has always done a fabulous job finding young diamonds in the rough and sticking with them to see them develop. Experience, however, is what is needed in combination with the existing youth to allow this team to truly challenge for silverware. Rumors are flying that Wenger will look at David Villa or at Palacio from Boca Juniors. It is also expected that Arsenal will add the French midfielder Ben Arfa from Lyon. What I fear is that these are rumors and when push comes to shove Wenger will not be willing to add the necessary bounty to land these players...much like the apparent bid for Ribery last year. The main issue is that while Wenger adds complimentary pieces the other clubs are adding the big elephants - last year Liverpool were adding Torres and Babel, Manchester United Hargreaves and Tevez.....Wenger needs to add depth and veteran talent.
  2. Find your soul. Again I am harping on this, but since Vieira left Arsenal has not won any silverware and have demonstrated a knack of fading down the stretch. Part of this malaise comes from the lack of depth, but another part lacks the internal soul and fortitude you need to navigate a long season. I am not sure where the team's character comes from now. When Vieira left, Henry took the mantle for a while, he was able to bring some determination to the squad but the team still lacked the soul it had when it had more "toughness." Without both Frenchmen, Arsenal have no natural leader or "character" player. I think Gallas and Toure are great central defenders, but neither can carry a team. Fabergas with all his talent is not the player I see as being the spiritual leader, maybe later on he will grow into this role, but not today. Silva had a glimmer in the spot light, but Flamini was determined to be the better holding midfielder which pushed that plan to the back burner. Speaking of Flamini, he has filled some of the void left by Vieira from a footballing perspective but Flamini cannot be expected to fill the leadership role that Vieira brought to the table. This summer Wenger must find or determine what the soul of his team is, and who will be the flag bearer. I believe some of that soul will be in the form of toughness which is sorely lacking.
  3. Take every competition seriously. This might seem simplistic, but Arsenal needs to start thinking along the lines of adding silverware to its coffers....if that is a Carling Cup great, an FA Cup better, Champions League or Premiership the best. Wenger needs to realize that when he has a chance to win a trophy he needs to be willing to put the right players on the pitch - Carling Cup finals last season, Carling Cup semis this season, and FA Cup this season were all examples of Wenger stubbornly sticking with his model of the kids playing rather than adapting depending on the situation. While I do not believe he should push his veterans for an early round Carling Cup game, when it comes to actually winning a trophy....play the games like they count. Now it might be argued that this would be an example of lack of depth...so add depth and talent and play for the silverware! Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and even Tottenham......have added silverware more recently than Arsenal!!!!!
I am not worried that Arsenal will follow the path of PSG...that is a whole other story. Yet Arsenal and Wenger needs to do a hard look at their off season and determine how they can compete with Manchester United and Chelsea for England? And how can they compete with the European giants?

Arsene has proven to be a genius in the recruitment game, but this summer he will need to fill some serious holes for his starting line up and bench, find a soul for his team and take the quest for silverware seriously.
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