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Friday, February 24, 2006

Crunch time for West Brom and Birmingham

Assuming that two of the three relegation places will be filled by Sunderland and Portsmouth, the favourites to take the unwanted final relegation position are currently Birmingham and West Brom. These two teams face each other at St Andrews in a fortnight, and require a good momentum going into what promises to be a massively significant match.

18th placed Birmingham are six points behind West Brom with a game in hand. Steve Bruce's team has been decimated by injuries, and it is clear that confidence within the club has been shaken by a sense of being in real relegation trouble.

The purchase of the vastly experienced Chris Sutton in the January transfer window is a good one. His partnership with Heskey promises a lot of strength and aerial power, and they are good targets for the wing-play of Pennant. Jarosik also has a big physical presence and is unafraid to effectively support the strikers and get shots in on goal.

With players of this calibre, plus the likes of Melchiot, Upson, Forssell, Dunn, and Butt, there is definite scope for Birmingham to pull out of the relegation zone. But they are leaving it late, and need results now to prevent being stranded. Playing Sunderland at home tomorrow is a MUST WIN game, and with Heskey back after suspension I like their chances to get the win they need to boost their confidence for the upcoming West Brom match.

West Brom are in 17th position. They pulled off a great escape to secure Premiership status on the final day of last season after being bottom for much of the season, so they do have valuable experience of knowing what it takes to beat the drop. Bryan Robson has assembled a hard-working team capable of great results, but they are really inconsistent. I watched them beat Wigan at the JJB and was impressed by their determination and spirit. The next Premiership game, however, they lost at home to bottom-placed Sunderland.

They are at home to momentum-gathering Middlesborough on Sunday, knowing that a win will not only help massively in their cause to hold off Birmigham, but will also see them leap-frog Steve McClaren's team.

In West Brom's favour is they have had a two week break to rest and regroup for a crucial period of the season, while Boro have fitted in three extra matches in the same period. The fatigue factor must be exploited by Robson's side who will have Kanu and Kamara back to boost their goal-scoring potential. West Brom are generally a difficult propostion at home - which as a Gunner I can personally testify too - and I see a positive win for them as Robson will drill into his refreshed side the importance of maintaining their current points advantage over Birmingham.

Weekend score predictions:
Birmingham 2 - 0 Sunderland
West Brom 2 - 1 Middlesborough

P.S. Thanks to the anon commentator who pointed out the error to my previous post!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Chelsea & Liverpool to fight; Bolton & Boro play tonight

It has been an entertaining 48hrs of Champions League football, today is the turn of the UEFA Cup sides. More on that later.

Tuesday brought a first win of any English side at Real Madrid's Bernabeu stadium. Arsenal achieved the unexpected and a well earned win that not only gives them advantage on aggregate and an away goal, it gives them the urgently needed confidence that they can play well and win and aid their fight for position in the Premiership. They were excellent against a well filled Madrid side and can use the home advantage in the 2nd leg to perform just as heroically, only two domestic teams have beaten the Gunners at home so far.

Liverpool conceded within the last six minutes of normal time to a set piece they had studied before on re-runs and so Rafael Benitez is displeased with that. It was said that at half time the half in which Benfica would be doing their attacking was watered while the other half of the pitch was not, which would mean Benfica would attack on a surface that would make the ball slip faster and further. Nonetheless it is a single goal difference, we should have scored as Liverpool had played the better, and for 84mins they had held the Portuguese side in their own ground. I wouldn't be happy with a single goal from home if it were Liverpool so it is very much to play for indeed, and at Anfield we can get the encouragement and push needed to be victorious. But our strikers need to show more hunger for goals. I also hope for a speedy full recovery for Mohamed Sissoko.

Rangers were not expected to even be this far into the competition and including their name here shows their great commitment. It is a first too for Villarreal to be in the last 16 and to my knowledge they haven't lost a game yet in the competition. Last night Dado Prso inexplicably handballed for Villarreal's penalty but Peter Lovrenkrands snatched the opportunity to produce an excellent finish that was textbook, over and too high for the keeper Sebastian Viera but low enough to go under the bar. An influence for the Spanish side was the return of Argentinian Juan Roman Riquelme, depositing the penalty and making his usual tidy and creative role in midfield. But the Scottish side showed they can match their opponents and came forward with the confidence that they could even win the game, so in the return at the El Madrigal they can play with that same strong determination to go further into the quarter-finals, albeit without the now suspended Prso.

The big hype, the managers, the past history, the pitch. Again, little on the contest on the pitch and more on the rumours off it. When it finally came to head, both teams looked focused and eager to do battle where it matters, watered or not. Barcelona made the pressure on Chelsea up until Asier Del Horno's dismissal, after which the home side brought on emergency full-back Geremi for Joe Cole and came back. Barca poorly defended Frank Lampard's freekick and ironically it was Terry's determination to do so to Ronaldinho's that conceded Barca's equaliser. For a second consecutive season, Chelsea have emerged from a 1st leg against Barcelona in the Champions League 2-1 down, gone ahead first and had a man sent off. If this is down to deja vu, then the Nou Camp could set the scene for an even better contest, presumably with a fit William Gallas.

Tonight sees Middlesbrough host the 2nd leg vs. VfB Stuttgart in the UEFA Cup, Boro holding a 2-1 advantage. Boro defended well against Chelsea after conceding four without reply to Aston Villa at home, so it is expected they will actually keep Stuttgart on the back foot and disallow them possession to make any progress. With Aiyegbeni Yakubu and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink they have two strong and quick forwards that can be creative and dangerous upfront, a midfield leader in George Boateng alongside Gaizka Mendieta and Stewart Downing, and Gareth Southgate marshalling the backline with Franck Queudrue and Stuart Parnaby.

Bolton go away to the Velodrome stadium to thwart Marseille, after a close game at home where they had legally scored but were denied by a linesman's flag and had a good penalty appeal waived when Frederic Dehu handled in the box. Ricardo Vaz Te can add some flair if he starts, he has been quite impressive, with El Hadji Diouf out. Henrik Pedersen usually scores the goals that seem to win matches on their own and he is available. Kevin Davies continues to be very influential upfront or playing wide and Stelios Giannakopoulous is tenacious and tricky, so Bolton can overawe Marseille, at a stadium where the French side have failed to score in three games.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Wenger got it right on the night!

Last night, Arsene Wenger reminded everyone why he has led Arsenal to eight consecutive top two Premiership finishes and a record-smashing 49 match unbeaten league run. Sure some of his selections this season have been questionable but on the biggest stage in world football before a global audience he got it absolutely right. The watching audience saw the return of the real Wenger Arsenal.

The Bernabeu has a massive playing surface that suits a 4-5-1 because it gives the midfield players room to breathe and express themselves. And with Gilberto at the anchor, the rest of Arsenal's midfield plus Henry played the attacking-pass-and-move football for the full 90 that until recently has been the Wenger trademark.

In fact, yesterday was the first time in a long time when every Arsenal player looked totally comfortable with the role assigned to them and totally confident in the tactics chosen for the match. This is down to Wenger, and a one nil win is good reward for our fantastic manager.

The innovation was Freddie Ljungberg playing on the left of a central midfield three. It's the first time he has played this Frank Lampard position, but he played it like a veteran. He gave great defensive support either side of Gilberto and Reyes, and his link up and forward support play down the centre of the pitch with Thierry was very good and always threatening.

Last week I paraphrased Benitez when saying that sometimes a small change can bring big results. The decision to shift Ljungberg from the confines of the right wing where he has been badly struggling underlines the truth of that good Benitez saying.

Every Arsenal player deserves a mention for yesterday's win, so here goes:

Jens: Brilliant overall handling and great anticipation to race off his line to twice prevent Beckham. Our young defence is reassured by having his experienced and his (amusingly over) confident presence.

Eboue: A true star in the making. He looks like he has been playing in the first team for five years such is his composure and reading of the game. Matching up well to the combo of Robinho, Roberto Carlos and Zinedine Zidane speaks volumes for young Emmanuel. Also is not afraid to launch driving attacks down the right. A Wenger gem!

Flamini: Big credit must go to Mathieu for giving massive effort at LB against Beckham and Cichino. A bit reckless in his decision-making but I really like his (literally) roll-up-the-sleeves determined attitude that he brings to the team.

Toure: Was not phased by the responsibility of being Arsenal's defensive leader, and now equal with TH as the first name of the team-sheet. His heart is massive and I'm proud that he is a Gunner!

Senderos: His fundamental attributes are excellent, and after a few shaky moments in the first-half -which luckily weren't capitalised upon - he regained his nerve to put in a solid second-half CB display.

Gilberto: The weekend rest did our Brazilian world cup winner good, and he made use of the additional CM player to concentrate his efforts on protecting the back four. Did this job superbly.

Fabregas: Only 18 years old but turned in the performance of a seasoned midfielder. Put in a textbook performance of defensive and attacking awareness, accurate passing, and overall fantastic composure on the ball that underlines his massive potential.

Ljungberg: A revelation in his new left CM position. Great to see signs that the old Freddie is not dead.

Hleb: Played on the right wing, and the wide expanse of the Bernabeu suited his equally expansive game. Tenaciously supported Eboue in defensive areas, and contributed well to the midfield pass and move strategy. There is much more to come from the Belarussian.

Reyes: Luckily he was fit because he was crucial to the Arsenal tactics. With only TH up front, it was chiefly Reyes (along with Freddie) who had the significant duty to drive forward to support our captain. And he carried out this responsibility magnificently. Every time he got the ball he looked a big threat, and there was one outstanding run late in the second half when he ran fifty yards beating about three players that was simply fantastic.

Henry: Like Gilberto, the weekend's rest did TH good as he looked sharp from the very first minute. The only goal (and it was important to get an away goal!) was a solo Henry masterpiece - though somewhat helped by dodgy defending - and overall it’s the best I've seen him play in the one-man-up-front role. This is mainly because the support he got from the midfield was excellent. Also, great post-match comments from the Captain calling for level-head's with a tough second leg still to play.

The players put in really good performances, but I’ll repeat the biggest credit should go to Wenger for getting the tactics and team-selection absolutely right. From the first minute it looked right, and the players obviously felt the same way because they played with an individual and collective confidence that has not been seen since the time of the 49ers. Last week I talked about Arsenal needing a big boost to restore confidence and get back on the right track. And thankfully it came last night.

P.S. Credit to regular EFT contributor GunnerPete for informing us last week that his sixty plus years of Arsenal-supporting-senses were telling him that something good was going to happen very soon… you were right! And thanks to SKG who earlier today on EFT posted good compliments on the Arsenal performance… nice one mate!

The return of the invincibles!

I am a Liverpool fan and should be writing about my team, however only one team deserves mentioning today and that is Arsenal. Last night's performance against Real Madrid was quite simply brilliant. They outplayed the mighty Madrid all over the pitch for the entire 90 minutes, such was their performance, they could have won by 3 or 4 goals. Indeed last night's victory served as a warning to all non-gunners out there that Arsenal are still very much, on their day, a force to be reckoned with.

My hats off to you.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Liverpool Cup celebrations dampened by Smith injury

It was billed as the biggest tie of the 5th round, revenge for the last minute defeat at Old Trafford. Much more than that, for Gary Neville's shirt-yanking celebrations in the direction of the Liverpool fans. Much more was made of the potential clashes between both sets of players and the reception from the home side for Neville and former Merseyside blue Wayne Rooney. Hardly anything was made on the history between the two in the cup, the ties played at Anfield previously, what happened in 1921, and much more, as if the main focus was to stir up tension.

It started ordinarily for me, without Rio Ferdinand after a hamstring injury that wouldn't let up in the warm-up, I think Utd missed his height and presence. They hadn't played up to their usual tempo with Christiano Ronaldo on one side, Kieron Richardson on the other, and Liverpool went at a leisurely pace, keeping possession well, engineering openings on the flanks. Utd were allowed near our goal for a shot by Ruud Van Nistelrooy where he was offside, and Rooney practically bustling himself through the Liverpool defence, who were poorly attempting to clear the ball. A Steven Gerrard freekick from the left found Harry Kewell unchallenged and his header pulled a great save from Edwin Van Der Sar. From the resulting corner, Gerrard played short to Steve Finnan, back to Gerrard, back to Finnan, then Finnan crossed, Peter Crouch got away from Wes Brown (I understand the Utd fans call him 'Duracell') and headed free to pull yet another save from Van Der Sar, the ball bouncing off one post, then the other and bouncing up over the line.

Kewell was bundled down from behind by Ryan Giggs, which occurred in the penalty box so it seems Howard Webb seek to avoid controversy by simply awarding a freekick outside it, from which Gerrard crossed, nobody got to and it reached Finnan near the far post, where he hit the side netting from absolute yards, unmarked, unchallenged. Should have got it blatantly on goal. The half belonged to Liverpool.

Utd came out in the 2nd half with more bite in them but were practically subdued by Liverpool, who looked to be everywhere when a Utd player had possession and closed that player down quickly. Instrumental was the middle, Mohamed Sissoko and Dietmar Hamann dug in and held well to gain possession and release the ball safely and quickly. Early in this half, Brown had to clear in the area with John Arne Riise crossing for Crouch. Neville got down the right and crossed, the ball going over Louis Saha and Jamie Carragher, Finnan being in the right spot to stop the ball reaching Van Nistelrooy, Pepe Reina clearing away. From a corner, the ball reached past all and bounced to Kewell, who had time to chest and set it up only to scuff the shot horribly wide, deflecting off Nemanja Vidic for Giggs to clear.

But with Alan Smith coming on for Darren Fletcher on 76mins, some 10mins later he went to lunge in a block to Riise following up a Hamann freekick in the Utd half and his weight came down on his left foot, dislocating the ankle and braking his leg. I despise it when such injuries occur in the game, regardless of who it is. But Smith wasn't writhing about, he summoned for attention and waited as the Utd medical team was aided by Liverpool's doctor Mark Waller, an airbag pumped around his shattered lower leg to keep it secured, one Liverpool player, Brown and Rooney giving Smith some comforting support before he was stretchered off, Neville giving him a kiss on the head as he went, just about taking oxygen, both sets of fans applauding him off and it was touching.. Was about as brave as they come, probably braver than most. Broken bones have hit some players quite hard, Smith took it quite well in his stride, in comparison. I don't care who the player is, I'm behind any player who suffers such an injury, and I wish for a safe and full recovery for the man real soon.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Clash of methods as Allardyce meets Pardew

In-form West Ham visit high-on-confidence Bolton in a significant and intriguing FA Cup fifth round tie this afternoon. Both teams are flying high in the Premiership and should be highly determined to capitalise on their excellent play this season by making a serious bid to win the FA cup.

There is no doubt that West Ham have been a revelation. Not only do they hold a high Premiership position, but they have achieved their position by playing a fantastic style of attacking passing football. I reckon it's great for the Premiership to have a new team committed to this culture of play.

Alan Pardew has assembled a side with perfect balance: Konchesky and Etherington raids down the left while Benayoun provides good trickery and innovation down the right. I have also been really impressed with the emergence of young captain Reo Coker, who makes superb attacking driving runs that Fabregas of Arsenal would do well to add to his game.

Pardew is getting the best out of Harewood and Zamora, who are forwards with good natural potential and athleticism. And his decision to draft in Gabbidon to partner Ferdinand is reaping solid defensive rewards.

Add the factor that his side is built on a deep base of English players, and I am seriously beginning to think that Pardew could be the leading candidate to be England manager in a few years time. FA cup success this season will be a phenomenal way to underline his future case for the role.

Sam Allardyce has far more managerial experience at the top level compared to Pardew, and this is a main reason why he is a leading candidate to take over the England job this year. He has magnificently drilled the 4-5-1 system into his side and has maximised the talents of players like Nolan, Davies, Ben Haim, and Gardner. But to fully persuade me of his case to be the next England manager it would be great if he can achieve this season one thing that he lacks: cup glory.

I will be very impressed by Pardew if he can lead his West Ham team to success at the Reebok this afternoon playing the attractive football that is becoming their trademark. My prediction, however, is that home advantage combined with the Allardyce method of disrupting the flow of the game with well-directed high balls and long-throws will swing the balance Bolton's way, and produce a result that will strengthen Allardyce's case for the England job.

Score prediction: 2-1 Bolton win.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Low on confidence Arsenal need Cole/Clichy return boost

When I saw the line-up yesterday I was happy. Wenger was sticking to positive 4-4-2, and as such had decided that we were not going to concede any initiative to Liverpool.

However, despite the positive set-up, Arsenal played on the back-foot throughout the match. The reason for this, as I see it, is that Arsenal have lost a lot of belief in their ability to win. The confidence to attack Liverpool and impose their will on them was not there. It was so palpable that the confidence quickly sapped from me as I watched the match.

The main causes for a low-on-confidence Arsenal is the negative accumulation of defeats and injuries, the loss of form of established players, and the (often-enforced) instability of team selection. And I reckon that the belief is now so low that it needs something great to happen soon for Arsenal to get them back on the right path of confident, consistent, winning football.

At this bad time for Arsenal I recall the saying used by Benitez when he first arrived at Liverpool: sometimes a small change can bring big results.

I agreed with this when I heard Benitez say it, and I think- maybe optimistically- that it can be applied to Arsenal right now.

For me, the small change required for Arsenal in the short-term is the return of Cole and Clichy at left back. Firstly, it will end the huge weakness of having non-specialist (and aside from Cygan) highly inexperienced youngsters occupying the left hand side of our defence. Greater confidence in the defence will be a good foundation for regaining a winning belief.

But much more than that, everyone who has watched Arsenal over the past five years know that Arsenal's main avenue of attack has been to utilise the highly skilled and fluent combo of Cole or Clichy/Pires or Reyes/Henry down the left hand side. In the absence of Cole/Clichy, this very reliable and big strength of the Arsenal game has been in total shut-down. And it's been a hard four months watching Arsenal play effectively without one limb.

Apparently Cole and Clichy have both returned to training this week. Their return can only bring positives to the all-round aspects of the Arsenal game, and help restore the confidence required to produce consistenly good results.

In the medium term, Wenger needs to bring in some experienced players to provide support to the young players making their way and the older players who have fallen off their form this season. I liked Zakora's attitude and competitiveness in the Ivorian central midfield at the ACN, and see him as a must-buy in the summer to add some bite and tenacity that the fatigued Gilberto does not have in his game.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Is the call needed ever more so for video replays??

During the Arsenal v Bolton game, Jose Antonio Reyes went down in the box after Tal Ben Haim came in with a tackle. A penalty appeal was denied, replays showed Reyes had dived or made more of the tackle than it actually was. Replays also showed Ben Haim hadn't touched Reyes. The official didn't book Reyes.

Abdoulaye Faye came in later on with an unbelievably reckless two-footed lunge on Reyes, catching the ball and then the Spaniard, presumably on the foot. Reyes is suspected of having a broken leg but nothing has yet been confirmed, I suspect it could be a stress fracture, a broken metatarsal or severe bruising needing maybe a fortnight's rest. After that, Mathieu Flamini lost control of the ball and then ran on to desperately make amends for it, lunging in with a two-footed tackle that was worse than Faye's, but not much. Faye was booked for his, Flamini, for some bewildering reason, escaped any caution.

Jens Lehmann came out of goal to deal with the ball and then noticed Kevin Davies closing him down, waited for the tackle to come in, jumped in the air and came down rolling over as if hurt by the tackle, only to took up at the referee, seeing that the decision had gone against Arsenal and then recovered instantly to run back towards his goal. This was picked up on replay.

In the Middlesbrough v Chelsea game, when Fabio Rochemback challenged Michael Essien from behind, Rochemback got a touch on the ball, Essien had gone down and rolled as if hit badly by Rochemback, looked up to see play continuing and then got up quickly, but by then Rochemback went on to score.

It's obviously not exclusive to these teams, certainly prevalent throughout the league. The issue of players potentially feigning the impact of a tackle or contact put on them by another has arisen again from the Arjen Robben - Pepe Reina incident last week. Condemnation of players feigning such contact has been made, calls said for the FA to add on it but I sense this issue will fizzle away without so much as a grunt from the FA in response. We all agree it should not be happening in the game, and can only account for our own league, so saying it is OK beyond the realms of the Premiership and the respective football associations haven't done anything about it is not relevant. When a player gains an advantage through feigning, that's unfair. The competitiveness of the game ensures that effort and guile makes more for a team than dishonour.

Rafael Benitez is stated in the Mail on Sunday "Every team decides how they want to win. I like to win playing well and within the rules. Some teams like to win at any cost. I have told my players to stay on their feet. I don't like to see them diving."

Then there is the current offside rule. It isn't an offence to be in an offside position, where an attacking player is between the last defending outfield player nearest the defending goal and the keeper in that goal. We know an attacking player needs to be level with that last defending outfield player, in that outfield player's half, when the ball is passed, to avoid violating the law. Even then, that attacking player has to be, at the time the ball is played, otherwise involved actively by either interfering with play, an opponent or gaining an advantage from an offside position. Yet the linesmen flag instantly when a ball is played and a player moves. Having not interfered with play nor an opponent, the attacking player is therefore gaining an advantage, which I disagree with since he has not attained the ball.

If the attacking player stays in an offside position, the ball is played to him and passes him, the defending players decide not to react as he cannot touch the ball, and the attacking player's team-mate run up unnoticed and collect the goal towards goal, then the first attacking player in that offside position has gained an advantage. Do we then need to establish whether that advantage has to be for the attacking player or for another? I would say no, its irrelevant, any advantage gained is for the team, and that makes for an offside decision.

Interfering with an opponent, obviously a defending one in the circumstance, is one situation that either belongs with interfering with play or gaining an advantage. Being in an offside position, the attacking player could then outmuscle a defending opponent (therefore potentially interfering with play) for his advantage or the advantage of another (gaining an advantage).

There had been a few offside decisions over the weekend in the Premiership that were found to be incorrect, upon reflection of the law. Linesmen flag before the ball is being touched, the ball going away from an offside player and instead being controlled by another who is onside. Today in the Sunderland v Spurs match in the 2nd half, Kevin Kyle was in an offside position and the pass went over him, the ball touched by no one other than Julio Arca, yet offside was given. In the West Ham v Sunderland game, Marlon Harewood was on the right and was onside when passed to, replays showed it clear enough to be picked up at pitchside, yet he was given offside. Despite the change in the law, officials are not getting their decisions as accurately as they should do.

Pulling of shirts in the box during corners, freekicks, handball offences said to occur when the ball travels to hand, regardless of the lack of intention, when in fact the law should distinguish between deliberate handball and ball-to-hand, and maybe introduce a strict liability element where a defending player drops down doing a tackle, misses the ball and then the flailing arm comes across as if a natural response of the body going down. Given the above circumstances in the game, while I am not an avid fan of the idea, video replays instantly reviewed after an incident could help clear up any doubt as to fouls, handballs, shirt pulling, offsides or any other dubious decisions that the main official is in doubt about. It is not a favourable call for such incidents to continue and the FA should step in as administrative authority to put measures in place to reduce such incidents occurring without adjudication at the time.


Liverpool end defeat run; Chelsea stunned; Arsenal fightback; Man Utd do the Ronaldo

Wigan 0 Liverpool 1

This win ends the run of defeats and Liverpool need to build on this, because it was not convincing but it gained the needed three points. Again, it will be said it came against a weakened Wigan side minus their strong strikers Henri Camara and Jason Roberts. Liverpool hadn't planned on Camara not returning in time from the Cup of Nations and Roberts being suspended and we had faced the two strikers at Anfield. The first half was good for the Reds but Wigan came back better in the second and were very threatening. Jamie Carragher hooked the ball over his head that found Sami Hyypia loitering when Wigan came out, and being onside he aimed an effort that just eluded Mike Pollitt as it bounced in.

Liverpool cannot allow for missed chances and failing efforts, they should now make the most of their opportunities and bring back that hunger to score. Harry Kewell gives an alternating choice as a winger or as support for a lone striker. Fernando Morientes and Djibril Cisse should take this time to impress if they warrant their inclusion in the side, with Robbie Fowler starting.

Arsenal 1 Bolton 1

Bolton are taken as Arsenal's bogey team of late and it was the visitors who held the superiority in the first half, captain Kevin Nolan making runs from centre midfield to promising effect, hooking a mid-aerial ball with great coolness over Jens Lehmann. Jose Antonio Reyes could have won a penalty early on but was denied, replays showing he more or less dived. Abdoulaye Faye launched into a misnomer of a tackle on Jose Antonio Reyes, two-footed and studs showing, touched part of the ball and Reyes' left foot in the process. Dangerous isn't the word, reckless is a nearer adjective, the Spaniard suspected of a leg brake, Reyes adding to an already overbooked injury roster. Robert Pires came on to replace. Howard Webb booked Faye and then astonishingly waived booking Mathieu Flamini for an identical tackle that was worse, for his two-footed lunge missed the ball and almost caught Ricardo Gardner, leaving Bolton fans crying out in anger about double standards.

Yet come the second half Arsenal changed their tune and had their players dancing much more around Bolton. Freddie Ljungberg's introduction aided Arsenal's pace in attack and they went very close to equalising, until the last minute where Cesc Fabregas ran down the Arsenal right to cross and Gilberto Silva timed his move to strike in front of Tal Ben Haim to score. Having won last week at St Andrews', to come back against Bolton was a strong gain for the Gunners.

Aston Villa 1 Newcastle 2

It could be a coincidence, Newcastle winning since Graeme Souness' departure, but no doubt someone will point out their wins have come against lower positioned oppositions too. Nonetheless, they are games that one must win, and the Magpies are doing just that. Perhaps it is too soon to mention yet it's as if the team have a different leash of life. Emre is back, Charles N'Zogbia is impressing, Alan Shearer leads the charge and others are following suit. Nolberto Solano returned to his former club amid boos from the home fans but was influential in both goals. I'm not sure Celestine Babayaro deserved to go, perhaps a booking at the most but Milan Baros' penalty was poor, not taking away from Shay Given's stop which was his repartee during the match. Even Jean Alain-Boumsong had a good chance of a header from a corner go over, so the team have taken the reins to the pleasure of the fans.

They face Championship Southampton at home in the FA Cup, the South Coast side not favourable with fortune at present, and again, while it could be premature to speak, I get a sense that the two wins could herald another big chance for Shearer to end his playing career with a trophy win. Newcastle have played more away than home games, and have won 6, lost twice and drawn three times at St James'. The return from injury of players within the next fortnight could make a big difference, even if Owen is likely to emerge in March.

Middlesbrough 3 Chelsea 0

Again, previous comments spoke of lucky runs of wins against lower positioned teams, as if one is suppose to win those games. When Chelsea went to Goodison Park, he said not to look at Everton's position, and Chelsea were held then by a side 2nd from bottom at the time. Coming to the Riverside, with one defeat all season and having seen off both Merseyside teams, Chelsea faced a Boro side rumbled and humbled by Aston Villa. Yet, not due to a lack of effort as Chelsea came forward as expected, this was a different winning Boro. Chelsea had to shuffle slightly when William Gallas went off injured, Michael Essien coming into defence.

Fabio Rochemback got to the ball as Essien took too long with it, Aiyegbeni Yakubu took it on and returned it to Rochemback, the Brazilian then turned away from Terry and shot at Petr Cech, who should have stopped it but allowed it to go under him. Stewart Downing picked up the ball outside the box and aimed his shot, which was going wide but for a deflection off John Terry's left heel, for Boro's 2nd, and in the 2nd half Yakubu came down the left, cut inside Terry and went on unchallenged to slot in no.3.

With Downing back and attacking on the left, George Boateng coming in after two months out, the strength and shooting of Yakubu and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and a best display from Rochemback, it was a tonic after last week's sicknote. For Chelsea, their heaviest defeat all time under Jose Mourinho, much less this season, it was a clear off-day.

Portsmouth 1 Man Utd 3

Man Utd are doing that which they can only do in the circumstance, that is to win as they maintain 2nd place. With Chelsea losing they closed the gap to 12pts with as many games to go. Mainly there is an improvement in Christiano Ronaldo, as if he has been training extra. His shooting has earned him four in the past two, and in both matches we have seen strikes from outside the box that should grace Goal of the Month. Ryan Giggs ran on past Dean Kiely to aim an effort high off the crossbar that came to Ruud Van Nistelrooy to head in. Ronaldo was some 30-35 yards from goal and then unleashed another shot that sailed in over Kiely, and Wayne Rooney ran into the box to set up Ronaldo's 2nd. There is little to criticise the Red Devils on, albeit Matt Taylor gained a consolation as he deflected Wayne Routledge's shot with his head, and they will come to Anfield next week in the Cup with extra confidence.

Fulham 6 West Brom 1

Heidur Helguson is making a difference for the West London team, six goals in the last nine games since he first scored and partnering with Brian McBride, with Luis Boa Morte in support, has found Fulham in 4 wins, 4 loses. They ran riot and cut short West Brom's voyage to Premiership assured survival, Helguson showing excellent ability for headers and finishing. And where he left off, substituted for Collins John, John took over. Tomaz Radzinski netted his first league goal to obvious delight.

Everton 1 Blackburn 0

Everton have won six and drawn once in the last seven games, reverting to a style that brings back the single goal wins, with the exception of the win against Charlton. Now talk focuses on European places than maintaining their Premiership one. James Beattie has scored his third since their unbeaten run started, his seventh all season so far. Blackburn did put some pressure on the hosts and may have had something when Iain Turner instinctively bent down to handle the ball outside the area. Although Alan Stubbs should have dealt with the ball much better, the rule states "A player is sent off....if he prevents a goal or obvious goal-scoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball. The punishment in Law arises not from the act of the player handling the ball but from the unacceptable and unfair intervention which prevented a goal being scored." It's arguable that had Turner not handled, he could have turned to kick the ball or Stubbs could have gotten between Craig Bellamy and goal, so for me it was not an obvious goal-scoring opportunity and at most a caution.

David Moyes was pleased with his side's performance at the end with 10 men, while Turner's suspension could mean 4th choice keeper John Ruddy staying between the sticks, but Everton play next in a fortnight at St James's Park, by when either Richard Wright or Nigel Martyn may have recovered.

Sunderland 1 Spurs 1

This game started with both sides coming out at each other but failing to make any domination inside their opponent's half count for goals. Jermaine Defoe and Robbie Keane started as Ahmed Mido was placed on the bench after the Cup of Nations, and Spurs hadn't shown much domination as expected against the bottom side. The deadlock broke when Michael Carrick sent a sweet left foot ball over the defence to find Defoe on the right, he then curled a low cross that eluded Gary Breen and Kelvin Davies for Keane to tap in. Sunderland refused to lie down, as they have done so much this season, only their spirit is not being matched by their efforts on goal. They came closer in the 2nd half when Kevin Kyle could have ran on towards goal but was caught up by Ledley King, and when Jon Stead went down the left and sent a sharp low cross that went completely across goal where one touch should have seen it go in.

Yet in continuing to come at Spurs, their perseverance paid off, when near to the end of normal time substitute Daryl Murphy ran down the left, outmuscled Paul Stalteri and finished low under Paul Robinson into the far corner. The Spurs fans had chanted "Are you watching, Arsenal?" at one point, but now had to settle for exactly that, particularly when in the dying injury time Jermaine Jenas controlled in the box and shot over from yards.

Manchester City 3 Charlton 2

More talk about both managers being touted for England, Stuart Pearce now saying he would engage in talks to see what the FA would say to him were he to be approached. Alan Curbishley focused on ensuring a non-repeat of the home defeat. With Jonatan Johansson at Norwich and Danny Murphy at Spurs, the season starting formation of 4-5-1 now tunes into a 4-4-2 with Darren and Marcus Bent upfront, dangerously equipped with pace and a sharp eye for goal. The first half only came alive when Joey Barton's cross was headed out for Richard Dunne to return back with a half volley that shot past Thomas Myhre for City's lead.

The 2nd half found more pace and entertainment as Talal El Karkouri sent in a delightful ball over the defence for Darren Bent to equalise, about six minutes into the re-start. Not to be outdone, Barton came up again with another superb cross from the right to find Georgios Samaras in the box, the Greece international sending a downward header past Myhre for his first in a City shirt. Then to cap off a great show, Barton picked up the ball from outside the box, drifted to his right and sent a fierce drive that Myhre did well to get a hand to but couldn't keep out. Charlton replied with a Radostin Kishishev cross from the right that was headed in by Marcus Bent and Curbishley went for the equaliser by bringing on Jason Euell, Jay Bothroyd and Darren Ambrose.

***The current fight for 4th place occurring betweening the North London rivals. The previously three games have found that when one lost, so did the other; then one won, so did the other; now this weekend Arsenal drew, and Spurs eventually drew as well.


Friday, February 10, 2006

Who should be in the front six at Highbury tomorrow?

Attacking away-day AFC 4-4-2 made a long-awaited return at St Andrews last week, and combined with a total resolve among the selected players produced a much-needed win.

After one goal in nine games for the AFC 4-5-1, we got two goals in one game playing the system that suits each one of Arsenal's players best: particularly the double centurion, Thierry Henry.

The combination of a flying Reyes on the left to give the chief support to Henry and Adebayor, along with the inclusion of Fabregas on the right to come inside and support Diaby and Gilberto, gave the Arsenal front-six perfect balance. In fact, aside from the inclusion of Adebayor (I thought Dennis should start), this was the selection I wanted to play at Birmingham, exactly for the reason that it gave us an excellently balanced front-six necessary for away-matches.

Now, Arsenal are back at home tomorrow, and will face the bogeymen from Bolton. I must give credit to Bolton for their recent record against us. I sense they have the psychological upper-hand over Arsenal, and relish roughing us up. Their style of play is the antithesis of ours- and they love to prove that their style is the more effective.

It would be great for AFC to give Bolton a footballing lesson! And with our defence again likely to feature the young Swiss guard with Flamini and Larsson as supporting FB's, the onus is again on the front six to win their battles.

Diaby is a must in the centre of the pitch alongside Gilberto. This is AFC's best CM combo at present: giving us good size, presence and tackling ability in the centre of the park.

Reyes is a must on the left wing. He is an ever-present threat, gets into the box, and has the pace to put the opposition on the back foot.

Henry is Henry… so that leaves the right midfield and second striker positions up for grabs.

Apparently VP is unavailable so its between Dennis and Adebayor. The Bolton CB's are powerful, so it may be best playing a big man like Adebayor for nuisance-value effect, allowing Thierry, Reyes etc to take advantage of the defenders being preoccupied by the Togolese international. On the other hand, I'm a big believer in the Reyes/Bergkamp/Henry partnership, with Dennis' guile maximising the attacking threat of his attacking partners.

It's a tough call, and I see big benefits in either option. My instinct right now is to start with the fresh Adebayor option.

On the right I see the choice being between Ljungberg and Fabregas. Again it's a tough call. Young Francesc was part of a winning team last week, has had the much-needed refreshment of a three match suspension, and I like the fact that he can come inside to support Diaby and Gilberto.

That said, I prefer at home to have someone of more attacking impetus on the right, so would start with Freddie. He has seriously struggled for form and fitness this season, and has accumulated a lot of doubters. Yet there were signs of improvement against West Ham, and I reckon that he is hugely determined to resurrect the old Freddie of past seasons. He should also be the better option to keep the raiding Gardner occupied in his own half.

So my team to go out all guns against Bolton tomorrow is:


Thursday, February 09, 2006

What on earth is happening at Liverpool?

Can someone please shed some light on how Liverpool have managed to lose 3 out of their last 4 games? This is the team that won 10 games in a row; kept 10 clean sheets in a row; were touted chelsea's closest challengers and are the current Eurpean Champions. Ok I can accept the defeats at Utd and Chelsea but to lose to Charlton and draw against Birmingham?

This run has the distinct smell of when Gerard Houllier was in charge, when Liverpool had a superb start to the season leading the table by 7 points and then fell to pieces. They never recovered and Houllier was sacked. Lightening surely cannot strike twice, can it?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Tottenham Striker Mido's Punishment Is No More Than He Deserves

Ahmed Mido was this morning thrown out of the Egypt Squad in the African Cup of Nations and given a suspension of 6 months by the authorities for his one man tyrade against coach Hassan Shehata yesterday. Mido had to be seperated from Shehata by team-mates after he took offence at being substituted during the semi-final win over Senegal.

Its agreed by almost everyone that Mido was having a poor game yesterday and Shetata had made the correct decision in bringing him off. His decision was further vindicated by the fact that Amr Zaki scored with a brilliant bullet header with his first touch after replacing Mido.

Regardless of this, even if the substitution had backfired on Shehata, Mido's reaction was disgraceful. Mido's talent has never been in doubt, but if he is not willing to change his attitude, he will never fulfil his potential to be a major player in world football. His punishment will hopefully make him wake up to this fact. His time at Ajax was characterised by similar run-ins with Ronald Koeman and so, despite his impressive performances, he was forced out of the Ajax side. After largely unsuccessful stints at Marseilles and Roma, it appeared that he was finally maturing at White Hart Lane with Spurs and his all round game was benefitting as a result. Spurs fans must be hoping that Mido doesn't have any toys left to throw out of the pram once he gets back to North London.

I've really enjoyed watching the tournament generally and there have been some great goals. The tournament has also emphasised the changing footballing landscape in Africa first highlighted by the World Cup Qualifiers. The old guard of Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon are no longer the dominant forces they once were.

Looking ahead to the final, Egypt appear to have more flair and guile whereas Ivory Coast are a solid outfit with the ability to wear teams down and hit them with a sucker punch. The two styles should make for an interesting match. Playing at home should make Egypt favourites - but I thought the same with Portugal against Greece in 2004.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Arsenal find form; Man Utd keep pressure; Blues humble Reds


Birmingham seemed set to give a good rumble on Arsenal following from the week's headlines after the West Ham game but the Blues here couldn't make their good start count. They succumbed to a move down their left started by Abou Diaby's run and shot across goal, Martin Latka came across and the ball ricocheted off him and Maik Taylor into the air for Emmanuel Adebayor to head his first for the club. For their second, Cesc Fabregas sent a sweet through ball for the lurking Thierry Henry, and once he is not marked tightly, with room to run into, then the outcome can be inevitable, Henry slotting past Taylor. Birmingham had a number of attacks from which they could have done better from, Jermaine Pennant providing most of the attackable balls into the box. Emile Heskey felt hard done by when booked for his studs onto Phillippe Senderos, which at the most looked reckless and not intentional, and the same could be said for his challenge onto Mathieu Flamini for his second.

Blackburn appear to have a balance of form, where they play very well then follow that with a mediocre performance. Having claimed victory in the week against Man Utd, they were much less of the same side yesterday. Kevin Campbell wasn't marked properly and he collected the ball in to touch it past Brad Friedel. Jonathan Greening was allowed to juggle the ball and strike a volley that spun past Friedel for West Brom's second.

With the departure of Graeme Souness, Newcastle took centre stage in the afternoon to see the response, and they dominated the game. Charles N'Zogbia is a very decent purchase, he has a tricky left foot, attacks with pace on the wing and comes in behind the defence well, and was therefore well positioned to touch the first goal in. Not only did this match herald a well desired victory for Newcastle but it brought, at St James' Park, the goal that broke Jackie Milburn's record, Alan Shearer scoring his 201st after being put through by Shola Ameobi's back heel and creating the opening to slot past impressive Dean Kiely.

The fortunes of the Premiership's North East sides has been more or less in the bottom half of the league. Sunderland, Newcastle were faltering under Souness, rightly or wrongly, and Steve McClaren is facing furore because his indifferent side fail to capitalise on any glimpse of a winning run. I remember when Villa ran riot with a 2-5 win at The Riverside, and this time they were allowed much more of the freedom to roam. To sum up the goals, Middlesbrough's defending was poor and Luke Moore, with the aid of Kevin Phillips, was on hand to mop up any spillage in the box. Lee Cattermole overcame with frustration when he and a Villa player had a little set-to and then emotion as skipper Gareth Southgate had a quick heart-to-heart that appeased ref Lee Mason.

Such emotion wasn't pleasing enough for one Boro fan who amazingly came from the stands to reach as far as the coaches' technical area to remonstrate in the direction of the Middlesbrough bench. The stewards then realised they were employed and eventually carted the supporter away, before he embarrassed them further. Boro risk being dragged into relegation, 5pts from the zone, if they won't shore up their defence.

Sunderland are very plucky but they could have fared better with Stephen Wright remaining on the pitch for much longer than 23mins. He impeded Nigel Reo-Coker for his first booking and then Matthew Etherington practically in the same position for his second, Rob Styles having no doubt. But the Black Cats held West Ham for almost an hour until Marlon Harewood made an appearance. He was very wrongly found offside when he first scored after Kelvin Davies parried Dean Ashton's shot, but with 10mins remaining he fired one himself which Davis parried, this time for Ashton to pounce on and score for his first. Paul Konchesky, strong, tenacious candidate for me to join the England squad for Germany, fired a fierce drive that went under Davis' body for no.2.

Everton have formed a good run of form from the last six games, including yesterday's, better than Chelsea's. Since their last defeat to Liverpool at home, they have had 16 out of 18pts and held off a troubling Man City who trounced Newcastle in the week. David Weir may not have known much about his goal but the ball fortuitously came off his right leg to roll in for the winner. Despite numerous attempts at the Everton goal, Kiki Musampa, Georgios Samaras, Joey Barton and Darius Vassell couldn't break through, while Everton held very strong in the first half and had to hold off City in the second. Stephen Jordan was booked for bringing down Mikel Arteta and then dived in on Tony Hibbert for his second.

Honours were even at The Reebok where Sam Allardyce keeps hold of a successive unbeaten run. Both sides missing key players, it otherwise looked on paper to be a strong home win and could have resulted as such with the pressure Bolton laid on the visitors. Bruno N'Gotty delivered the freekick past the hour mark for Stelios Giannakopoulos to pounce on for Bolton's lead. Yet Wigan have a sturdy spirit going forward, and forced Bolton to concede a freekick, from which Reto Ziegler snapped a shot that Jussi Jaaskelainen managed to parry in the direction of Andreas Johansson to put in. I felt Wigan did very well against the home side's pressure, and missing Jason Roberts means they need to find another avenue to score goals through as well as Neil Mellor, stranded on his own.

Man Utd held their home form to deny Fulham any room for an upset. Park Ji-Sung dazzled and danced down the right for them and he scored the opener when Gary Neville passed across and Park's shot deflected to wrong foot Antii Niemi. Niemi was deceived once again when Christiano Ronaldo sent a diveting freekick over and in which the Finn had no chance of seeing, much less saving. Fulham came back when full back Leroy Rosenior ran down the right to cross for Brian McBride to head past Edwin Van Der Sar. Ruud Van Nistelrooy was then in an offside position with absolute clarity yet was allowed to continue, his shot parried by Niemi for Louis Saha to score and continue his good form of late. Chris Coleman was rightly fuming and was told to sit in the stands. 3-1 down, Fulham pressed on, Wayne Bridge fighting with Neville to get down Utd's left and cross, another impressive figure in Heidar Helguson outjumped all to head another past Van Der Sar. Five goals in the first half provided superb entertainment, but the next one would be crucial, and it went to Utd. Van Nistelrooy turned left and right to hit a low shot that came off Niemi's excellent save to loop up for Ronaldo, who chested and shot a low half-volley for Utd's killer goal.


The penultimate game in the Premiership found Spurs at home against Charlton. Previously on the travels Charlton held out Chelsea and Spurs hadn't beaten Charlton at all at White Hart Lane in their history. Add to this that since Ahmed Mido left for the ACN tournament in Egypt, Spurs haven't scored, losing twice and drawing the once, and it was Mido who scored one of their last goals beforehand. Jermaine Defoe partnered Robbie Keane to the possible reluctance of Martin Jol and with Arsenal winning, Spurs needed to win to maintain 4th place. Still, things can change. Charlton were not active enough in the first half, and this led to Spurs carrying most of the fight, through the two Jermaines'. Defoe twisted and turned to hit an effort that deflected past Thomas Myhre for the opener, and Jenas was found by Keane on the run towards goal, shaking off Chris Powell and slotting past the keeper.

In the second half Defoe added a second within a minute of the start, Tom Huddlestone finding him with a nice pass for the striker to score no.3. Charlton brought Jerome Thomas and for some time his skill and trickery with pace wasn't being utilised enough until the 70th minute when he went on a run, shrugging off Paul Stalteri to hit a low shot that Paul Robinson saw at the last moment and got a hand to, to no avail. Herman Hreidarsson came in with a superb tackle to thwart an otherwise scoring Keane and Spurs held on for the win.

Liverpool are finding their form erratic at present. A big game, we wanted to win it to finally beat Chelsea in the league, to catch up on Utd as well and to find some good form to take us further. Rafael Benitez spoke of a concern over our barren scoring and while we enjoyed a good 30mins, with Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia and Peter Crouch creating chances, Steven Gerrard's effort after Steve Finnan did well against John Terry, and Arjen Robben hitting wide after evading Stephen Warnock and Xabi Alonso, we failed to make them count. If you don't, Chelsea will. When the ball was delivered 10mins from time, Ricardo Carvalho headed down for William Gallas to swivel and score. John Terry headed down well with Pepe Reina failing to keep hold of the ball and as Hernan Crespo pounced to score, he was ruled offside.

Second half, Liverpool needed to come out eager to get an equaliser and we made a number of chances to do so, while Chelsea made theirs to almost extend their lead but again we contributed to our downfall when Warnock played Crespo onside, and that can be as potentially damaging as if it were Henry. Asier Del Horno chipped the ball over the defence and Crespo slotted it in first time for no.2. Eidur Gudjohnsen chased a bouncing ball that Reina chested away but the danger was not over, the keeper then having to follow Gudjohnsen to the touchline and tackling him from behind. The situation was allowed by Alan Wiley to become tense and instead of immediately calling over Reina or segregating him from all, Wiley looked to consult the linesman, as Robben said something to Reina that provoked the keeper to push Robben on the neck, from which the Dutchman suddenly went down. Players then jostled around Reina and he was eventually red-carded. Duncan Ferguson was red-carded for a similar offence and Reina had to go, despite any alleged theatrics. A moment of lost coolness.

That set the return of Jerzy Dudek, who did well to deny a fierce drive from a Frank Lampard freekick. Robben went on a run that left Warnock and Hyypia in its wake only for Gerrard to come over and superbly tackle him away from danger in the box. It could have been a promising match of better proportions for Liverpool, but Chelsea remain formidable in all departments as we still lack mostly in our scoring section. When you have players who can play that well, their touch finds another, players use agility, speed and skill very well to advance and create chances, you deserve to win. But we remain in a good position and need to address our failures of late to bolster our progress, which I'm positive we can do.


Friday, February 03, 2006

Will Wenger decide that the best form of defence is attack?

Its official: the AFC defence is decimated! The whole first choice back four of Lauren/Toure/Campbell/Cole is out for various reasons; and there is confirmation today that Lauren is out for the rest of the season after having surgery on his knee (EFT wishes him well in his recovery!).

The excellent Gael Clichy has been out since the end of October, Emmanuel Eboue is in Egypt, and now 'the fighter' Kerrea Gilbert is out for the Birmingham game. With these seven defenders unavailable I've even got a touch nostalgic for Pascal Cygan… yep, its crazy times to be an AFC fan!

For someone who has just turned 19 years old, I have been very impressed with the concentration and composure of young Johan Djoruou. With Phillipe Senderos back in his specialist LCB position - Arsenal's very own Swiss guard will look to stand firm tomorrow against the power forward game of Sutton and Heskey.

The makeshift full back combination of Flamini and Larsson finished the game on Wednesday. And with no other full backs available I sense they will start in defence at St Andrews.

With such an inexperienced and makeshift defence, I hope Wenger doesn't place more pressure on them by adopting a defensive attitude tomorrow. In other words, I hope Wenger doesn't pick the - in theory - damage-limitation 4-5-1. In practice this system has, ironically, inflicted massive damage on Arsenal's results.

One goal in nine games with the AFC 4-5-1 says it all.

There is a lot of legitimacy in the saying that the best form of defence is attack. So I hope Wenger adopts the strategy that is undoubtedly our best: an attacking game in the 4-4-2 system.

I'd pick Bergkamp up front because his link-up play with Thierry is unmatched, and have Reyes raiding down the left and into the box. On the right of midfield I'd play Fabregas which is where he played a lot of good games at the end of last season, and he can come inside to support Diaby and Gilberto. The fantastic Van Persie would be my proven super-sub option.

4-5-1 has failed the team. It is a huge reason why our away record is so uncharacteristically terrible. Lets get back to playing 4-4-2 again and start creating more chances and scoring goals, which in turn will leave us less susceptible to receiving another away defeat.

Despite this crazy period in the history of the club the spirit and effort has definitely been evident in the last three games. Add the right strategy and system of play and I hope we can get a turnaround in luck and results. Here's hoping...!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Who can be Newcastle's version of Mourinho, Wenger, Benitez??

So the three nil defeat at Man City last night was the final straw for Freddie Shepherd. This morning, Graeme Souness has been fired as manager of Newcastle.

Souness was dignified in interview last night. But there was a sense of resignation in his tone, and comments he made last week about his family being his priority seemed to me to indicate that he knew the writing was on the wall.

It seems like the majority of Newcastle fans have been unimpressed with Souness for the last few months. Now with him gone, it would be good to know from them who they would like to bring in as the new manager?

I see the Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce, as a potentially excellent manager for Newcastle. Martin O'Neill would also be fantastic for the Toon. Eriksson would be a gamble but he has the status to bring in the top players from around the world. The former Lyon coach, Paul le Guen, is an outsider who has all the pedigree to be a great manager.

It is immensely important that Shepherd gets this one right. Forget players, the acquisition of a new manager is the NUMBER ONE most important decision a club can make for its future well-being. Just ask Arsenal, Liverpool, Bolton, Chelsea, Man Utd fans, etc.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Time for total focus and total effort at Arsenal

Arsenal definitely visited sucker-punch city last week and it was quite a humbling experience. They beat Wigan in a game of great spirit and effort, but lost. And then our under 23s went up to Bolton and were looking the more likely team to score before Sol Campbell (slightly over 23- how did he get into the team!?!) failed to push up and played Stelios onside for a text-book headed finish.

But if there is such a thing as affordable losses in football they are in domestic cup competitions. And this is especially the case for Arsenal in a season of many injuries and patchy Premiership form that has made Champs League qualification look uncertain.

Now there are no more games where Arsenal can afford a loss. Every game demands a total focus, total effort, and the best possible result. It’s the Premiership and Champs League from now on… and no other distractions to take AFC off the eye of doing our best in either of these competitions.

Lauren is the latest injury victim for AFC but the fantastic Kerrea Gilbert will not let anyone down as his replacement. Cole is not going to be back until next week at the earliest, but when he does return we will have a far better balance and stability to our defence. The Thruam-like Kolo Toure plays Cameroon and Samuel Eto'o at the weekend- which opens up the prospect that he could be back sometime next week along with Eboue. The return of Cole and Toure to our defence will be massive boosts for AFC.

Up front, Adebayor will be available for selection very soon, as will Theo Walcott. With Van Persie and Dennis Bergkamp also back to fitness- AFC's sheer variety of attacking options in the next few weeks promises to be at its greatest for quite some time. It may hopefully also see Wenger decide to abandon his - one goal in nine matches - 4-5-1 experiment.

The addition of Diaby is significant! He has the presence in midfield that AFC were crying out for, and has all the asset's to develop into a magnificent squad member. I have also been impressed with Flamini in recent games, who is developing quickly into a promising midfield organiser. I'm hoping Fabregas will also flourish with the pressure now taken off him to play every game.

So in every department there is promise for improvement very soon. This is what gives me grounds for optimism that AFC can fight back over the important next few weeks and months. A good result against West Ham tonight will be a fantastic way to start things off.


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