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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Wenger deserves better than to see Flamini AND Hleb depart

This week I felt for Arsene Wenger with talk that Alex Hleb may be tempted out of Arsenal at the same time as Mathieu Flamini looks to be also heading for the exit.

I thought back to December 2005 when Arsenal lost 2-1 at home to Chelsea to make it three league defeats in a row and people were heavily criticising this was not the Arsene Wenger Arsenal that we had become used too. I remember that day Wenger played three in central midfield that looking very young, inexperienced and relatively lightweight against the power of Makalele, Essien and Lampard.

The Arsenal central midfield that day was Fabregas, Flamini and Hleb.

Just over two years later this young midfield was running the show in the famous home of the reigning Champions League winners AC Milan and had taken Arsenal to a five point Premier League lead with a third of the season left.

Wenger's superbly patient approach of putting his faith in young players moulded in his style of football was proving his doubters wrong. Fabregas, Flamini and Hleb had been coached and trained and developed to the point where they were now real contenders. This season it was not meant to be - but there would be every prospect that this young trio would continue to get better and better together season in season out.

So with what I have described as the Wenger MasterPlan reaching a boiling point it is disappointing that two of this midfield trio that Wenger has placed faith in look like they could be on their way out just as Wenger's long game is promising to come to real fruition.

Flamini was disillusioned last season and was on the verge of walking out before deciding to stay and playing at a superb level. He is available on a free and with a history of apparently falling out with Wenger it will not be too big a surprise if he wants to earn bigger money elsewhere.

On the other hand, Alex Hleb has not shown dissent in his time at Arsenal and looks to have fuly bought into the philosophy that Wenger has for football. To see him leave would be more disappointing to witness - he is a pure Wenger footballer and it would be a slight slap in the face for Wenger if the Belarussian was to choose that his footballing future should lie elsewhere.

Wenger has placed and expressed maximum faith in this young and fast-developing squad - privately and publicly - in the face of critics from some Arsenal supporters and the loud-mouthed footballing media who are impatient for success NOW. With next season promising to be one where Arsenal will push on again - (with RVP and Rosicky hopefully not out for five months, Theo now motoring and Vela slotting in, plus one or two 'real, real quality' signings to bolster things) it would be proper for at least Hleb if not Flamini as well to now repay the massive commitment shown by Wenger in these guys and stay with this team.

If this is not the case they can be replaced. I just think that Wenger deserves better than to have to see them both go just as this ambitiously and uniquely developed third-generation squad are ready to truly fight for both the Premier League and Champions League in the next few seasons.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

United Must Atone for Tactical Blunders Next Week

Manchester United's tactics were all wrong last night. It is clear to everyone that Barcelona have been patchy at best this season. Although there is unquestionably a pool of exceptional talent at Frank Riikard's disposal, confidence has been low and players nad management have been divided.

It was in my mind therefore crucial for United to gain the upper hand in the first leg. United's game plan should have been to douse any inspiration for Barcelona and subdue any hint of a Barca revival in spirit and in form. To do this United needed to score an away goal and/or retain possession. United did not achieve either.

United should have played a 4-5-1 formation with Rooney up-front and Giggs and Ronaldo on the wings with Scholes, Anderson and Hargreaves in the middle. O'Shea or even Neville could have filled in at right back. As it was United's 4-4-1-1 formation with Park and Rooney wide and Tevez in "the hole" was completely ineffective at ball retention and, despite his physical attributes and scoring record, Ronaldo is not a striker. Sir Alex effectively played with a midfielder up-front and with forwards in midfield!

Despite this, Sir Alex could have been let off the hook if Ronaldo had put away the early penalty, but he missed and the rest is history. United handed the iniative to Barca and let them build confidence which they were short of going into the game. The one saving grace is that Barca had no cutting edge whatsoever and did not create any chances.

However, I do fancy Barca to score at OT - so that means United will have to score 2 goals at least. To do that, United will have to attack the vulnerable Barca defence and make sure they get the right shape and personnel in to the team. Here is my team for next Tuesday:

Van der Sar

Vidic (assuming he will be fit)


(both dropping into midfield to make a 5 when necessary)


How do you think United should line up?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Celtic 2-1 Rangers tells the Nakamura tale

Yesterday evening borne the Old Firm derby between Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers. Didn't know that? Well, it did, at Parkhead and with Celtic four points behind Rangers and having played two games more, this was a crucial home victory to keep within distance of the title.

And with big games one hopes to see big goals. England had two Grand Slam weekends already with Liverpool and Man Utd matching up and Chelsea and Arsenal doing the same afterwards on the same afternoon. By some coincidence the first weekend brought a single goal in both matches and then three goals in both matches in the second weekend! So there were big goals there.

Last night there was one in the Old Firm derby, the opening one and it was something of a screamer of a shot that had it been in the Premier League, it would not cease being repeated. I'm glad to have glimpsed it from two angles. Celtic's Shunsuke Nakamura has a superb touch and shot with his left foot. Video clips of his efforts are publicly available for viewing to verify that fact. He reminds me of having the touch of someone like Wayne Rooney and the application of former Everton specialist Kevin Sheedy, who had for me one of the sweetest left foot deliveries in the game.

Gary Caldwell found Nakamura in central midfield with twenty minutes gone and the Japanese international let fly a shot from some 25-30 yards that from a side angle looked stunning and then from the angle of view seen by his keeper Artur Boruc, the shot was practically identical to that by Roberto Carlos in Le Tournoi, Lyon, June 1997 against France. The ball curved towards the right and then equally turned to the left over Rangers keeper Allan McGregor that just left McGregor with no chance, I kid you not:

Courtesy of 'shosoin'

Rangers replied ten minutes after the interlude through Nacho Novo with a sharp ball across keeper into the far corner but fifteen minutes later Carlos Cuellar was straight red-carded for handling what was another superb Nakamura left foot strike from an angle that again beat McGregor with a dip and would have gone in but for Cuellar's hand. The resulting Scott McDonald penalty was saved by McGregor but Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink stole the points in injury time with a close range nod after McDonald headed back across into the box.

That goal gives Celtic some hope of catching Rangers with a gap of now one point. The other Celtic goal is my contender for Goal Of The Season. You won't, I hardly doubt in the Premier League, see a goal like that again. Then again, perhaps that was also said after Carlos' goal!!


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Liverpool turn on style for third Champions League semi-final in four years again with Chelsea

For the neutrals, the game had goals and controversy regarding a penalty claim yet again between these two sides. The Arsenal - Liverpool trilogy at an end, fixtures that set an enthralling anticipation at who will be the victor in all three games, with Premier League points and Champions League progression at stake. Fundamentally, the underdogs in all three games, practically in most fixtures between the two, in Liverpool would have to thoroughly impress to maybe match, if not overawe, the stern Gunners team.

Arsenal were the better side in the 1st leg, and last night they carried a quicker start and stronger fight for the first 25mins, culminating in Abou Diaby's goal early on. As much as Arsenal are known for not giving up, coming back from being behind, sometimes quickly, Liverpool are less know for that and to do so within 17mins of Diaby's goal was crucial, Phillippe Senderos outwitted by Sami Hyypia for the Finn's placed header off the post.

Liverpool scored a crucial second goal via Peter Crouch's flick-on for who else but Fernando Torres to chest control, turn and fire past Manuel Alminua. A fiercely taken goal from the Spaniard. Arsene Wenger made prominent changes in bringing on Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie for Emmanuel Eboue and Diaby some 20mins from full time, while Liverpool made their first in Ryan Babel for Crouch, both proving pivotal. A mis-kick by Steven Gerrard found Walcott with a run that bounced off Liverpool players and a pass that just escaped Martin Skrtel to find Emanuel Adebayor for Arsenal's equaliser. Arsenal were then six minutes from the semi-final and Liverpool looked to face what they had to in the 2007 final, the need to find a goal in mere minutes before the whistle.

And they did, from their first attack thereafter. The apparent adage is you are more vulnerable after you score, and here that adage is debatable. Babel went between two players and emerged into the box, only to stumble down. Kolo Toure was the nearest at the time and he was judged to have impeded the Dutchman, was booked and a penalty given. I felt it was genuine enough, less genuine than Alexander Hleb's in the first leg, and the captain stepped up, in front of the Kop, to score. Very very important.

Arsenal had to push for an equaliser again and having all gone up to leave Fabregas alone in their half to deliver a free-kick, the ball was cleared out superbly by Dirk Kuyt towards Babel, and with Fabregas failing to thwart him even with a pull of the shirt, Babel remained strong and determined to deposit Liverpool's 4th goal in late injury time. Having faced Juventus and Chelsea, Barcelona and Chelsea and now Arsenal, Liverpool have emerged from some of the best in Europe to face another in Chelsea, again, one step away from the final. It's a good feeling.

Arsenal look to pick up their season quickly to focus on a travel to Old Trafford at the weekend, another crucial game. Utd face Roma in their 2nd leg tonight.

Chelsea booked their semi-final place with a 2-0 win over Fenerbahce. With the aggregate at 2-1 to the Turkish side, there was a small element of concern Fenerbahce would be as difficult at The Bridge as they made it at Sevilla, but with an early header by Michael Ballack Chelsea held the advantage and had to soak up a number of Fenerbahce pressure which stand-in keeper Hilario, in for hamstring victim Carlo Cudicini, did great to thwart and keep confidence in the side. Late towards the end Michael Essien remained rugged to deny challenges by the touchline to thread a pass into the box, Frank Lampard touching in from yards.


Sunday, April 06, 2008

Rest in peace, Hrvoje Custic

It's a needless and senseless tragedy.

Last Saturday, Hrvoje Custic, a 24 year old winger for Croatian first division side, NK Zadar, is running by the touchline and after losing balance following a challenge his momentum takes him off the pitch and into a sickening head-on collision with a concrete wall criminally situated just two metres off the touchline.

Custic immediately had a seizure on the pitch and after five days in a coma died of serious brain injury on Thursday.

The circumstances of Custic's passing are shocking. I can't believe the gross recklessness of having a concrete wall just yards from the touchline. It was inviting a tragedy and now one has taken place. It is clear that the Croatian football authorities must take immediate action to ensure any such repeats of this tragedy are removed.

The Prva Liga fixtures have been postponed this weekend in tribute to Hrvoje Custic.


We at EFT wish to pass on our condolences to the family and friends of Hrvoje Custic. May he rest in peace.


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