Monthly Archives: May 2012

West Bromwich Albion 2-3 Arsenal: Over The Finish Line And Into The Champions League

Yesterday’s climax to the season was fitting on so many levels. Manchester City are the champions of England for the first time in 44 years, yet going into the second minute of injury time they were all set to lose the title to Manchester United until they conjured two goals from somewhere. Say what you want about them, and I can say quite a bit, it’s probably the most dramatic title win since Michael Thomas burst through the midfield to give us the trophy at Anfield. Certainly you can say that City’s megabucks diminishes the fairytale ending, but that doesn’t change the incredible circumstances in which they won it.

Elsewhere, Bolton were relegated after receiving a first class shafting from the referee at Stoke. Granted since Owen Coyle took over they’ve been a much more likeable club, but a little part of me still remembers them at the height of their Allardyce inspired bastardry, and has to have a little chuckle at their expense. Still, I’d have preferred to see QPR go due to the fact they have a massive wanker for a manager in the here and now.

And as our fight, the battle for third place and confirmed participation in the Champions League next season, it was up and down and again we saw this Arsenal team show the best and the worst of their attitude. We were made to wait, and to sweat but in the end we got the win that saw us finish the season in third and qualify automatically for next season’s Champions League, an immeasurable benefit when you consider that the club may now proceed unimpeded in the transfer market by doubts over what our resources are going to be or what players we can attract. Spurs on the other hand, face an anxious wait to see if their fourth place finish will be sufficient to qualify after Chelsea play their trump card on saturday in the Champions League Final.

As far as our performance goes, I think it’s fair to say we could have been better. We certainly were fortunate to be graced with the complete ineptitude of Fulop in the West Brom goal that played a part in at least two of our goals, and really he ought to have done better with Santos’ equaliser too. Nonetheless our early lead, achieved through Benayoun after Fulop made a calamitous attempt to usher the ball into his area so he could pick it up rather than booting it up the field, was cancelled out by two West Brom goals that nobody on the coaching staff will be enthralled to see again. The second goal particularly which saw the West Brom bloke score despite the attentions of three defenders was a particular stain on the performance.

Nonetheless, Santos found the goal to get us back on track, and with Tottenham winning it was imperative to get back into the lead. The winning goal of the match and the race for third came, fittingly enough, through Laurent Koscielny, as consistent a performer as Arsenal have had this season. At a corner ball, the hapless Fulop came out and Almunia’d it towards his own goal. The disbelieving Koscielny immediately seized on it and guided it home.

Despite my nervousness that we would struggle to hold on, our goal wasn’t seriously threatened again in the match, though Kieran Gibbs executed a perfect sliding tackle in the box late on to deny a dangerous opportunity for West Brom. It finished 3-2 in the end, making the outcome of the Spurs and Newcastle games irrelevant. At the final whistle there were jubilant scenes, capped by Pat Rice being carried on the shoulders of the team in front of the travelling Arsenal supporters.

It was definitely, after everything this season, a moment to be enjoyed. It looked like this season was going to spell the end of our consistent qualification for the Champions League but we’ve done it and really its never been more crucial when you consider the summer’s business that lies ahead. There is the cold light of day to face in terms of the performances that haven’t been good enough this season, issues that need to be addressed, but there is a whole summer ahead to ponder such things. For now, I’m happy to let the relief guide my reaction.

It’s been a tough season, it was always going to be after the end to last season and the summer that followed it. Mistakes have been made and recoveries have been mounted, and in the end we’ve once again finished in a league position that is the envy of almost the whole of the league. If we want to rise higher then there is much to do, no doubt about it. But for now, let’s just be grateful that we’ve accomplished what we needed to, if not perhaps what we wanted to this year.

That’ll wrap it up from me this morning. Take it easy and I’ll be back soon.

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West Bromwich Albion Vs Arsenal: Endgame, Part Two

A week off with a banjaxed modem has done nothing to diminish my perception of today’s game against West Bromwich Albion as one of the most important of recent reasons. The opposition may not be glamorous, the occasion less than glorious but Arsenal’s future, certainly in terms of next season and perhaps beyond rests on the outcome of this match.

The battle for Champions League qualification has been a tightly fought battle all season. No team has been exempt from poor form or bizarre slip ups and nobody has managed to take a decisive advantage. Spurs at one point looked unassailable only to be caught, and we too seemed to be home and dry before blowing the advantage we had built for ourselves. Newcastle have done very well all through the season, at one point they looked out of contention, and I doubted their ability to stay the course but the fact can’t be doubted today that they have a chance of playing in the Champions League next season.

I find the suggestion that not qualifying for the Champions League for one season may work to our long term advantage a little tough to understand. I see no benefit to it at all because the Champions League is so integral to the club’s operating as it presently does. And perhaps people are so eager for a “shake-up” at the club that they can see a bright side to the club losing a massive source of cash income or the ability to attract top class players to the team. I don’t, and I think the Europa League is a total joke of a competition, I don’t think I could bring myself to watch it even if Arsenal were in it.

Best then, that we beat West Brom today, as that will guarantee our participation in next season’s Champions League. Easier said than done perhaps based on recent form. The team seems to have abandoned the hard work and strong character that saw us rise to third place to begin with, and in the weeks before last week’s calamity against Norwich there was a worrying air of complacency about more or less everyone at the club who spoke publicly about finishing third as if it had already happened. Today we can’t have that attitude in the team, it has to be the never-say-die, hard working, quality Arsenal side that put together seven wins in a row in the league.

What we do not need is the Arsenal team that turns up to play teams further down the table and thinks they’ve won just because they’re there. We’ve seen too much of that team this season and in recent reasons. You know the one I mean, the one that was deservedly beaten 2-1 by Hull City at home a couple of years back, the one that only a couple of weeks ago swaggered onto the pitch and got beaten by Wigan for their arrogance, and indeed the one that lost to a committed West Bromwich Albion team a season or two ago, perhaps a very pertinent example indeed.

The makeup of the team may be different, but the complacency that caused those results is the same in each case. I don’t even know how Arsenal get the idea into their heads now that they can take a Premier League match for granted. We have lost ten games this season – ten. It’s only the fact that other teams around us have been inconsistent as well that means we are even in the frame for a Champions League place this season, and yet the attitude that all we have to do is turn up continues to show itself.

It’s amazing in some ways that this match could provoke such nervousness as it has among Arsenal fans, not because of the opposition because West Brom are a good outfit with an excellent manager, but because the worry of so many fans is about the effort that we’re going to see from the team today – the concentration, the mistakes, energy levels and so on. I know it’s a long season and our players are only human but this game is as important as any that the team put in supreme efforts in to beat earlier in the season, and it needs to be treated that way. One last big effort and then everyone can have a holiday!

Arsene Wenger¬†claims the team haven’t received the credit they deserve for some of the things that have been accomplished this season, and yes, I see his point, winning at Udinese with such a depleted squad as we had was worthy of note, victory over Borussia Dortmund was written off as standard even though they’re a very good team indeed. But this is the wrong time to talk about that I think, today’s game will in many ways be the judge of how this season is looked back on and what credit or demerit is dished out and that’s where the focus has to be.

It’s Pat Rice’s last day in the dugout today, let’s make it a good one for him, and let’s make it the right result for us. Win and qualification is ours, anything less and it could all get very anxious indeed.

That’s all from me then, get behind the team today, and COME ON ARSENAL!

Off The Hook

To be honest, it’s a little bit difficult to pinpoint how I feel about this weekend’s events. On the one hand of course Arsenal failed to get the crucial win over Norwich that they needed, a result which left us open to being overtaken in the race for Champions League qualification, whilst on the other we got out of jail as both Newcastle and more surprisingly Spurs failed to take advantage of the situation.

There seemed to be a feeling of relief among a lot of Arsenal supporters yesterday, and that seems quite understandable. Whereas after the result against Norwich there was understandable frustration and even anger, after yesterday’s results there was euphoria and gleeful mocking of Spurs’ endless ability to blow opportunities to finally finish above us in the table. Though I felt the relief myself I have to say I feel less than cheerful about the weekend’s events.

Maybe I’m being a bit glass-half-empty about this but I was hoping for a strong finish to this season from Arsenal. Instead of that, we are crawling toward the finish line, and in my view it’s still very possible that we may fail to qualify for the Champions League. Our last game certainly can’t be taken for granted as we face West Bromwich Albion, a club quietly enjoying one of the best Premier League seasons they’ve ever had and who will be looking to give manager Roy Hodgson a good send-off as his efficient management of the club has earned him the England manager’s job after the end of the season.

Whether the other teams in the frame for Champions League qualification took advantage of our slips over the last few weeks or not also seems to be somewhat irrelevant in so much as we still blew a commanding position. We still gave our rivals the opportunity to overtake us, and indeed we may yet hand them the prize again. In the past, this has been punished severely when we’ve been going for the title because clubs like Manchester United simply do not let that sort of chance pass them by. Newcastle and Spurs have thus far proved more forgiving, but the fact remains that we once again blew a strong league position and were reduced to nervously looking to a dire Aston Villa side to get a result against Spurs.

The circumstances may be different, but the story is the same as last season, and the season before that and the season before that. We’ve come down to the last few games of a season and either the pressure has told or our concentration has evaporated, and results are familiar. Another May spent lethargically stumbling to the end of the season. And it’s tough to know what the problem is exactly, because fans will always point the finger at individual players or the manager but I don’t think that answers the question. At this point, different Arsenal squads of almost completely different makeups have done this, more or less ever since the move from Highbury (not that I’m suggesting that’s the reason, it’s simply true), so I don’t buy that it’s down to the character of a few players.

As for the manager, well, that’s perhaps more credible because he’s the constant factor but I don’t believe for a second he allows that sort of attitude to breathe on the training pitch. You only need to look at the fact that when Arsenal are playing as they have done over the last few games, nobody hates it more than Arsene Wenger. Nobody goes more mental in the stadium, nobody works harder to turn it around.

Yesterday, Arseblog described our habit of capitulating at the end of the season as “hard-wired” into the club. As depressing as it is, I’m starting to see it that way too. I don’t think it would matter if we replaced the entire squad, the manager and all the support staff. It seems to me that Arsenal as a club are stuck in this rut. Maybe the climate at the club has become such that if the club is qualifying for the Champions League then there’s no pressure from upstairs to do better, but that’s just idle speculation.

Anyway, let’s not make it all doom and gloom this morning. It’s perfectly true that we’ve been handed a reprieve and one more chance to get this job done. Beat West Brom this weekend and it’s a third placed finish for us and automatic Champions League qualification, and perhaps just as importantly a summer to take stock and make much-needed changes. That’s all anyone involved with the club should be thinking of right now, that is the only objective that matters.

On that note, I’m signing off. Enjoy your Monday and I’ll return soon.

Arsenal Vs Norwich City: Endgame, Part One

So, it’s a pretty important day today. Arsenal’s season comes down to these last two games and the equation is pretty simple – win both games and qualify automatically for the Champions League, fail to win both and we don’t qualify, or at least the likelihood is we’d face an anxious wait and it wouldn’t be in our hands.

It’s a time for cool heads and grim determination. Norwich City have had a good season and gotten some great results against top teams, and they will be a challenge today but this will have to be a challenge that we rise to. On too many occasions this season, our team has fallen foul of complacency, underestimating teams that we are expected to beat, and we just can’t afford that today.

The situation in terms of Champions League qualification is that we sit one point ahead of Tottenham and Newcastle. Chelsea are almost completely out of the reckoning following their defeat to Newcastle in midweek, and indeed a victory for us today would confirm our first finish above Chelsea in the league for eight years. On paper our fixture is the easiest compared to Newcastle and Spurs’ games this weekend. They don’t play until tomorrow, with our game being the only Premier League fixture of the day which is a bit bizarre.

What we simply must to is apply the pressure to the other teams in a big way. We all know that third place is the grail here, fourth carries the risk factor with it not only because of the Champions League qualifying round in August but also because if Chelsea were to win the Champions League Final then they will replace the team that finishes fourth in the competition. Newcastle have a hugely difficult game against a Manchester City side on the verge of winning the title (excuse me whilst I throw up a bit), whilst Spurs travel to Aston Villa in a game that I quite honestly expect them to win. Villa are having a dire time of things at the moment, and I don’t see that they’re able to get anything from a focussed Tottenham.

Not that it matters, provided we can win our last two games. There really is no room for error here, we must win these games. Everything else is a side issue at the moment. Robin Van Persie’s contract, soon to be the subject of intense speculation just doesn’t matter today. Who might come or go in the summer is irrelevant. In fact if it’s nothing to do with the result of today’s game then really it’s something we shouldn’t be worrying about just at the moment.

In terms of the team news there’s not much to say, things are pretty much as they were for the Stoke game minus the availability of Abou Diaby which comes as a little of a surprise. I do wonder in the manager might be more inclined to start Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rather than Gervinho today, as the latter has struggled for form since the African Cup of Nations, as have a lot of players who took part in that tournament (so obviously it fills me with rapture that it is being held again next year). There’s the usual choice for the manager between Gibbs and Santos at left back, but I quite like the deployment of Santos further up the pitch that we’ve seen in recent weeks when he’s come on as a sub, we get rather the best of both worlds with Gibbs at the back and Santos with the license to go forward as much as he wants.

It’s a game which for all it’s importance doesn’t bare too much more close scrutiny. We know what to expect from Norwich, in our away game against them we had a really tough afternoon. They’re not only hard to beat but they can play a bit as well and I think we’ll be challenged all over the pitch today. Make no mistake, these last two games are going to be hard for an Arsenal squad feeling the effects of so many important players having played so many games this year.

Before I sign off, I was saying earlier that nothing matters apart from our last two results for the rest of the season but there is one big exception. It is of course Pat Rice’s final home game with the club today. I don’t want to say too much because I have it in mind to do a much larger feature on the man, possibly after the West Brom game but for now let’s simply say this: Arsenal without Pat Rice is borderline unimaginable to me. If you consider Arsenal’s “modern” era to have begun with the 1971 double as I do, Pat Rice has been there as a player or a coach for every single major success. The word legend is used far too easily these days, and I’m not going to use it here not because Pat doesn’t deserve it, but because it seems a poor and inadequate description of his contribution to our football club. Who might take over from him is a discussion for the future, for now let’s focus on a richly deserved send-off for a man as synonymous with Arsenal Football Club as it is possible to be.

Still, before he goes, there’s still a lot of work to be done by him and everyone else. Come on you Gooners!

Fine Margins

First off, an apology for the lack of regular blogging service just lately. I’m now entering exam time at University which is essentially going to mean my world gone mad for a little while as I endeavour to prepare for that ordeal. Still it’s tough to ignore that Arsenal are also coming to the crunch as this season comes to its final, dramatic end.

Our draw with Stoke at the weekend, much like the draw with Chelsea before it was a satisfactory result in terms of the fact that it kept us third and in charge of our own destiny, but the dropping of those two points really means that our room for error is gone. There are two games to go, and though we are third, Tottenham and Newcastle sit only a point behind us meaning that dropped points in our last two games could easily dump us into fifth, never mind automatic Champions League qualification or whether Chelsea win the Champions League. On the bright side, one more win will confirm our first finish above Chelsea in the league since 2004. Not the biggest thing I know, but I’d take a certain satisfaction from it.

Our two remaining games are not easy, and I hope that is being drilled as far as possible into the minds of the players. Norwich have had an excellent season, they’ve enjoyed good results over teams of diverse quality and they are tough to beat. Our away game at Norwich was one that I felt we did very well to take three points from. Their season may be effectively over as they are clear of any threat of relegation and there’s not much prospect of them climbing the table to any considerable extent but they showed recently when they beat Spurs away from home that their enthusiasm for this season is undiminished and from their perspective, there’s no reason for them not to have a real go at it on Saturday lunchtime.

Following that game we wrap up the season away at West Bromwich Albion which is a curious game owing to the recent appointment of Roy Hodgson as manager of England (Incidentally, not that I could care less but I think he’s one of the best appointments England could have made), will they be distracted by the England circus as Spurs seemed to be when Redknapp was in the frame? I’m inclined to think not as West Brom have seemed only too pleased to allow Hodgson to take the job and seem genuinely pleased for him whereas I think Spurs were far more apprehensive of losing Redknapp.

Realistically I think we need six points from these games. I don’t fancy Spurs to lose either of their remaining games, away at Aston Villa and home to Fulham, whilst Newcastle undoubtedly have it toughest as they take on Manchester City at home in what realistically is the last chance for City to be deprived of the title (their last game is QPR at home) before travelling to Everton. But Newcastle have proved that they have the appetite for these sorts of games, and whilst its nothing to do with Arsenal I feel that Cisse’s goal against Chelsea last night bears some sort of mention. He’s a player that could get Newcastle the goal(s) they need against City, it’ll be an interesting fixture no doubt.

Away from all the madness and permutations of the Champions League qualification situation, there has been quite the departure from usual Arsenal transfer policy as the club have confirmed the signing of Lukas Podolski from Cologne. The forward will join us in the summer and will enjoy a full pre-season with the club instead of being chucked in a month into the season and I think that’s really important. His signing has prompted rumours that Arsenal are now moving swiftly to other targets such as Ajax’s Jan Vertonghen but I take that with a pinch of salt.

I think Podolski is going to turn out to be just the right sort of signing. Capable of playing the central role, but just as at home as a supporting or wide striker he’s the perfect player to take some of the pressure off of Robin Van Persie. He can play alongside him and score goals, or if Robin needs a rest, he can take the central role himself. And really, the crucial question to this signing is, is he being brought in to supplement Van Persie or replace him? Personally I think the intention is for it to be very much the former. I don’t think the club have any intention of losing Van Persie this summer, and perhaps one thing the Podolski signing may accomplish is showing Robin that should he stay, he’ll be supported by quality and won’t be expected to do it all himself.

It will be interesting to see if the club really is going to get all its business done very early this summer. Knowing the fans, even if we grant every wish, and ship all the players people want to see gone out and replace them all before the start of Euro 2012, there would still be complaining if we didn’t sign anyone for the rest of the summer despite having a full squad. Anyway, I think those issues are all for the future. For right now we shouldn’t be thinking too far ahead of our last two games of the season which are going to make for the tensest finale to a season I can remember since 2006.

Right then, that’s all for now, take it easy and I’ll return soon.