Archive for March 9th, 2011

What We Learned From Prem Week 29


A Good Week For Arsenal?

You’d be hard pressed to call a week when you both lose the Not-So-Useless Cup Final and get knocked out of the Big Euro Cup as good even in your most rosey tinted spectacles. But add to that the insipid way in which Arsenal dropped out not once, but twice, with desperately poor defending clearly to the fore and you’re really starting to worry. Because it’s apparent that like The West Wing‘s President Bartlet, Arsenal are bedevilled by two very different personalities. On their day they are the erudite professors, The Presidents, dispensing wisdom and gravitas, defying their enemies and emerging victorious, while off their day they are ‘Mr Fluffy’, vague, incoherent and obsessed with detail rather than results.

It’s clear that at their best Arsenal are, indeed, presidential material, but they’re currently far from their best and look nowhere near the side that took Braga apart in the early stages of the Big Euro Cup or indeed the side who went 4 up in the first 20 minutes against Newcastle. The danger is that for all the talk of mental fortitude, Wenger’s strategy of blooding the youngsters in the Carling Cup each year to give them experience may instead have fostered a disturbing mentality of defeat as their progression is inevitably curtailed when they meet one of the big beasts. The nightmare scenario for Arsenal is that they round off the week by losing to Man U in the FA Cup, thereby leaving themslves with only the Prem to concentrate on, while watching Spurs win their Big Cup game against AC Milan to qualify for the quarter finals, then draw the easy straw of Shaktar Donetsk and proceed comfortably to the semis.

One crumb of hope left is that Man U were beaten by Liverpool Redsox, so making the point Arsenal received against Sunderland a point gained rather than two points lost.

Games

Bash, bash, bash, bash. You keep knocking, but you can’t come in. Arsenal put the nightmare of their Not-So-Useless Cup behind them with a nightmare of an altogether more familiar kind. They battered Sunderland,whose keeper was superb, for much of the match, yet were unable to pose much of a genuine threat. Neither Chamakh nor Bendtner were able to provide a significant threat and without either Fabregas or Van Persil, Arsenal looked very tame. Shots from outside the area and a poorly judged offside decision don’t make up for a complete lack of imagination or guile. Sunderland meanwhile didn’t play nearly as well as they did against Chelski, when they beat them 3 – 0 and (amazingly) still look to be missing Darren Bent.

Liverpool Redsox, through a combination of earnest running and, it has to be said, pretty atrocious fouling, managed to utterly neuter Man U. Three pressure applied goals and the kind of studs up and into the knee tackle that only English defenders (or Prem players) can really pull off properly put paid to Man U and Nani, in that order. Man U may come back, but they appear to have now lost Nani for the rest of the season. Liverpool look to be a different team from the one that Dalglish took over, even if they did manage to capitulate to West Ham only last week. Dirty Suarez especially is looking great, with the energy of Tevez and the footwork of Nasri. Dirk Kuyt’s hattrick was a great reward for a player who epitomises the ‘put the team first’ ethic. You have to feel that the Redsox, closely followed by Tottingham and, bizarrely enough, Wolves and West Ham are the form team of the second half of the season. They might not make it into the Big Cup, but they have every chance of winning the Lesser Europa Cup this season.

The much maligned Race for Fourth is hotting up as Chelski begin to discover their form, by first narrowly beating Man U, then demolishing an admittedly weakened Blackpool. Chelski now look to be on course for third place in the league as Man City falter under Mancini’s defensive ethos and Tottingham struggle with the physical and mental demands of a continued place in the Big Cup. And while it’s clear that none of Chelski’s World Cup players have yet to regain their full prowess, matches against Man City, Stoke, Wigan and West Brom should allow the Blues to roll on comfortably. Blackpool, meanwhile, are definitely down there in the relegation dogfight. Still, that’s where they will have expected to be at the beginning of the season and it’s now when we discover whether Holloway has the skills necessary to survive in this division.

Tottingham once again illustrated the pressure of playing in the Big Cup by drawing with Wolves. Admittedly it was a fantastic game played on the sort of bog-with-fungus pitch that we’d all hoped had been banned from the Prem, yet you can’t help feeling that for Spurs, who led for most of the game, this was two points dropped. Wolves continue their transformation from unattractive hoof n hackers to a genuinely threatening passing team, although one suspects that their point a game average may not be enough to save them. If they do go down it will be interesting to discover whether they blame that on the new fangled passing game they’re trying to play or the ugly Championship gameplan they had in the early stages of the season. And should Spurs come in fifth and not win the Big Cup will they count this a successful, if ephemeral, season or will the failure to maintain a Big Four place be seen as a catastrophe?

Happily for Spurs, Man City are doing their level best to drop out of the top four. Their win over Wigan, which you could say was an even better result for them than Man U’s loss was for Arsenal, was only barely deserved. City seemed lethargic and uncoordinated, displaying little threat and very limited organisation. A better team than Wigan would undoubtedly have made them pay. Even so, City edge closer to the top two, while simultaneously appearing to be the most likely team to be expelled from the top four.

Birmingham displayed all the after effects of their Not-So-Useless Cup victory in a lacklustre home defeat to local rivals West Brom. It’s both a shame and a mystery that their catch up games weren’t played before the final (like Arsenal’s) as they undoubtely benefitted from having had a week off beforehand. You wonder whether they will consider it a good season if they combine their cup victory with relegation and the inevitable financial meltdown. West Brom, who know a thing or two about relegation themselves, could still redeem new manager Uncle Wroy’s reputation by actually staying up this season.

Bolton are fast becoming the Charlton Athletic of the Prem – a team that exceeds expectations until Prem safety is assured, then mysteriously goes on holiday for the rest of the season. They pulled a creditable win out over an improving Villa side, yet you can’t help feeling that they’ve collectively slipped back a gear and are now coasting it to the season’s end. With Birmingham having secured a Lesser Europa Cup berth next season, that means no Europa place for 7th, which would suit Bolton down to the ground. Villa look to be successfully completing a rebuilding season made all the more difficult by O’Neill’s resignation 5 days before the season began. Their youngsters look promising, if not quite good enough to give Man City a game in the FA Cup earlier in the week. They’re safely mid-table.

Fulham and Real Blackburn fought out a tedious top end relegation scrap, with the former taking the points. Fulham are looking better now they actually have some of their attackers back from injury, while Real still seem a bit bewildered following their mid-season purchase by Venky’s.

Perhaps the most significant return from injury has been West Ham‘s Thomas Hitzlsperger, who was intended to be the team’s midfield lynchpin and counterpoint to Scott Parker, but was injured at the start of the season playing for Germany and has only just returned to fitness. He helped West Ham dominate against Stoke and scored a fantastic third goal for them. You can see that had he been available for most of the season West Ham would be fighting it out for a European spot rather than struggling for Prem safety. His return could redeem manager Avram Grant’s reputation. Stoke, on the other hand, are dropping like a stone. Despite having 34 points already they look like being sucked into the relegation pit. And frankly good riddance.

Both Newcastle and Everton appear to be safe-ish, which for Newcastle is job done for the season, while for Everton it seems another season of missed opportunity and comes with a tinge of disappointment. Newcastle are still getting over the loss of Carroll and the fact that their squad is still rather full of Championship rather than Prem quality players. Everton won because they were just a little better in front of goal. I still maintain that they are better and more varied when playing without Cahill, but they still seem incapable of getting a decent run of games together. Their midweek draw with Birmingham didn’t really help either team much.

Rob Green Save Of The Day

Unlike last week there were loads of great keeper errors to consider. Was it Wigan’s Al Habsi’s ‘through the legs’ crouch, which gifted Man City their win? Or Van Der Saar’s timid parry of Dirty Suarez’s freekick which gifted Kuyt his third tap in of the game? Or possibly Gomes’ leap n flap at a Stoke cross, which fortunately for him was deemed a foul on the keeper? Or any number of Ben Foster balls-ups against West Brom? For sheer ineptness and game changing import, it has to be Al Habsi, who this mistake aside has been pretty fabulous for Wigan. This week, however, it’s hang your head in shame time Al.