Monday, 7 April 2008

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 1 - Title Race Is Over...

After 60 minutes it seemed to be going so well and to plan. I really thought we might have a chance to take Chelsea's unbeaten record at home away from them. The truth of the matter is that Sagna's goal over papered over the cracks that are growing larger by the match. The title has gone for us now; we have no chance of beating Manchester United the way we are playing and a trophyless season seems far more likely.

Our game has got to change if we ar
e going to have any chance of beating Liverpool over two legs. Right now this team plays the ball nicely at times but looks lacking in attacking threat. It is graceful but very far from clinical. The defence is looking a shambles and the squad is looking depleted at exactly the wrong time.

The football being produced is all very pleasing on the eye but the fact of the matter is that a substantial amount of chances are not being created. It has been coming ever since November but only now has the grit that got us so many victories dried up. Today I only remember two real chances that we created from open play. Even those were tame shots that Cudicini stopped easily.

Just take a look at the two men leading the attacks today. Drogba was a class above Adebayor this afternoon and vastly overshadowed his counterpart. Drogba was strong, tricky, clever and deadly. Adebayor was weak, lacklustre, frustrating and blunt. Where Drogba got into Toure and Gallas, Adebayor seemed to refuse to put Terry and Carvalho under pressure that would cause real problems.

Adebayor has looked out of sorts recently. Whether it is the braids that brought him his goals or not, he needs to look at himself right now. He has had a brilliant season but the best players keep going and show quality till the very end. In the other game today, Cristiano was largely ineffective but still came up with a crucial goal when it mattered. If Adebayor wants to be considered as world class, performances like the one today are not going to cut it.

The one player everyone wanted back asap was Van Persie but I had my mind on another player's return. The problem is I do not know when it will be. We are missing Tomas Rosicky so much. His will to make things happen and drive from midfield is lacking right now. He has the creative mind as well and gives that balance. We need him back soon but I am very worried over his injury troubles.

The squad may well need a real shake up this summer. Eboue is not good enough to start for us. He wastes possession far too often and seems to have no brain. First of all what idiot charges a free kick way before the player has started his run up. He was walking a tight rope for 85 minutes and was lucky to stay on the pitch. He got away with a deliberate handball as the ref had the wrong angle. I am not saying he should go as he is a good utility player for us. We do need a proper winger to stretch teams as Hleb is good when he moves inside but at the end we made the game too narrow to open up Chelsea.

I also believe Wenger has made an incorrect decision at a crucial time. While Toure was away Senderos and Gallas formed a partnership that had balance to it. They had an understanding that combined aerial strength with cover on the ground. The lack of pace from Senderos was not such a problem. As soon as Toure came back it all started to go wrong.

Against Boro we were caught flat by a simple ball over the top. This type of long ball was causing us little problem with Senderos there to dominate the aerial ball. With Senderos benched, we have two defenders that are too similar in their game. They both like to take up similar positions and act as the covering defender. They can both play with Senderos as they are a perfect foil to him.

Today was a classic example of why a Toure-Gallas partnership is not as good as it seems on paper. They both have pace, are strong in the tackle and good at getting back at attackers when they are played in. The problem is that neither of them are prepared to attack the ball, get tight to their man and take charge in the defensive area. When Toure and Gallas play together and are up against a quality striker they are often shown up. The striker is able to get the ball down and make things happen.

Berbatov did the same at the Emirates and today Drogba made them look amateur. Toure was looking good on the cover with some good blocks and last ditch tackles. The problem was the fact he had to do this so often. In the first half Drogba played off Gallas and got some joy but Toure was always there. In the second Toure had the job of marking Drogba and here it fell apart. Toure failed to get tight to him and twice allowed him the space to fire Chelsea into the lead.

Senderos may have struggled against Drogba in the past but today could have been the chance to change it. If Wenger had stuck by him against Villa - he had every reason to - and given him the chance to shine alongside Gallas once again he may well have taken it. He could not have done much more wrong than what Toure and Gallas did when trying to mark Drogba. Both the goals lacked someone like Senderos in their build up:

1-1 - The ball comes over and offside or not (more of that later) Drogba bought it down. The problem was Gallas who lost his head as his desire to get the ball in front of Drogba cost him his position between Drogba and the ball. he lacked power and having missed the ball left Drogba the chance to smash the ball past Almunia.

2-1 - With the defence asleep the ball was swung over and once again Gallas was beaten in the air, this time by Anelka. As the ball came towards Drogba, Toure attempted some sort of kung-fu clearance and got himself in a muddle. This was awful defending and showed once again that the defending lacked conviction.

Another thing that was apparent to me today was the importance of Sagna to the side. Along with Flamini I feel he has been a massive influence on this side and the changes made to our game. Not only did he have the desire to get on the end of the corner but we seemed more solid at the back. As soon as he was forced off we did not have the cover he brings. Eboue was always a suspect defender and did not show us any different in his 20 minutes there. The main thing however was the lack of time we got to settle without him there. It can take time to settle with a change like that, Chelsea did not grant us any.

The injury was followed by another mistake from Wenger, well in my eyes anyway. With the game dragging on and the scores at 1-, it was set up perfectly for a counter attacking set up. He had Eboue at right midfield before he was forced to right back. The obvious change was Walcott. He had the pace to attack Cole and break on the counter. Yet Wenger went with Diaby who is not all that comfortable on the left and was not really going to pose much of a threat. He may have shown some neat passing and skill but we needed penetration.

Once Walcott was readied, it was far too late and he rarely got the ball. It took 10 minutes or so to get him on the ball and whenever he made dangerous runs in behind Cole the opportunity to set him free was passed up too often. Then Bendtner came on but we did not see our forward players working together well enough. It summed up our failures in front of goal.

Do not get me wrong. Te build up play was still there at times. In the first half we kept it well and looked relatively threatening on the ball. We lacked the firepower up front which ultimately cost us there. We were poor at the back and Almunia bailed us out a few times. The midfield however did use the ball well and Hleb nearly got Van Persie in with one very cute pass. We were just as entitled to a lead as Chelsea were but once out defence crumbled we were never going to get anything.

As well as being blunt in the final third recently, we have been dealt some bad refereeing calls. Aliadiere was offside for his goal at the Emirates. I do not care if he is considered inactive, 2nd phase bla bla bollocks. He gained an advantage by being ahead of the play. Today however it was far more clear but. Drogba was on his way back from an offside position but never made it back before the ball was played long towards him. He was offside as the ball came to him and the goal should have been ruled out.

That decision came at the worst time and changed the game firmly in Chelsea's favour. It was their first meaningful shot on target and swung the momentum firmly towards them. As we settled into a new defence the goal rocked us. Had it been ruled out we may have been able to hold out for longer and see it out. How decisions like that can be made baffles me. The linesman are paid to do their job; surely it is not hard to get in line with the back 4 and spot that Drogba was not in line.

The issue of video replays once again comes to the fore. It would not be hard to continue the play until the ball was in the net. After that the Arsenal captain should be able to request a deferral to the fourth official. The ref should also ask to see it again if he is unsure. Therefore the right decision is made and if the play leads to nothing, there is no need to stop play.

All in all it has been a pretty bad day. Liverpool put up a pathetic showing at Old Trafford, something I doubt we will see in Europe. Chelsea knocked us out of the title race as I do not see us winning all 7 remaining games in the League. The Champions League is still a possibility but we must improve in front of goal.

Chelsea vs Arsenal - "Squeaky Bum Time" part 1

Grand Slam Sunday round 2 is nearly upon us. In the blue corner we have the Chelsea and in the red corner we have Arsenal. The referee is in place, the coaches are by the ring with their men and it is just a matter of ringing the bell to start this battle that may well lead to one team being knocked out.

So far this may seem like I am talking about some sort of charity boxing match between volunteers from Arsenal and Chelsea. This Sunday however, we are not watching Sport Relief; we are watching a match that could change the title race in so many different ways. This match will be a battle and Wenger must have his troops ready to fight to the end.

So far this season we have been involved in a few crucial games outside the League and they have gone very differently:

Spurs 5 Arsenal 1
Manchester United 4 Arsenal 0
AC Milan 0 Arsenal 2

All of the games mentioned there were knockout games where one team would be out for the count in said competition. We may have lost two of those games but most importantly the Milan game is a clear sign of what this team can do in the big games. Against Spurs we came up against a full strength home side determined to beat a weakened eleven put out by their main rivals. It had a Tottenham victory written all over it.

Then there was Man Utd in the FA Cup, away at Old Trafford on an awful pitch. We were missing players who had been crucial in our recent form. We lacked our main goal threat of Adebayor and lacked the grit Flamini provides the midfield. Again, it was another game I did not expect to win and United were simply far more up for it and deserved the win.

We then went to the San Siro on the back of these cup performances and many doubted we had a shot. Most people had written off Arsenal after the wasted opportunity to beat the reigning champions at the Emirates. To be honest, this took all the pressure off and gave us the chance to go out and enjoy the night. The players thrived on the big occasion and we came away with a brilliant victory against the odds.

Why does that night in Milan stick out as the most relevant to the game on Sunday? We went to the San Siro looking to be the first English team to win there. This was another reason people saw Milan as favourites but that feat was achieved. We go to Chelsea looking to be the first side to win there in the League for 70 odd games. Both sides held a very good record at home, we have broken one, can we beat the other?

Milan look to play the same way as we have come to expect from Chelsea. They play a very effective and powerful game, mainly on the counter attack. Their defence looks to suck the life out of the opponents attack before their forward players attack at pace. They use Joe Cole very much the same way Milan use Kaka. He is the heartbeat of the team and the creative brain in the side.

In the San Siro we saw these tactics come into play as Milan seemed happy to let us have the ball and try and break with Kaka and Pato. That night it would have been easy to become frustrated and panicky in front of goal. The pleasing thing was how much the team continued to patiently chisel away at the wall in front of them until the goal finally came.

If you cast your minds back to last season's match at Stamford Bridge, the game was similar. Although our very inexperienced defence (Djourou and Senderos) was heavily tested that day and lucky not to concede, the possession football deployed by Arsenal was similar to that in the San Siro. Hleb, Fabregas and Flamini kept the ball for long periods and toiled away until something opened up. Eventually the goal opened up and Flamini took the chance when it came. Only a fantastic strike out of the blue from Essien gave the Chelsea the draw.

There is no doubt that the way we played football that night in the San Siro surpassed anything from that day at Stamford Bridge but if we can produce the same type of performance we may well see a similar result. In both the cup games we lost it happened that we could not string two passes together. If we can get the ball down and prevent Chelsea from overpowering us it will go a long way to getting the 3 points we need.

As well as keeping the ball for substantial periods of the game, Wenger has other things to decide. I am sure he will encourage the defence to try and hit the ball long towards Adebayor. John Terry has often been a dominant force in the air but recently has looked suspect, against Kenwyne Jones and Dimitar Berbatov in particular. He does not seem to attack the ball in quite the same way as he used to. Adebayor is the man to exploit this and Wenger will look for a big game from him.

The other big dilemma for Wenger is his team selection. Each area of the pitch takes careful consideration in the mind of a manager when these games approach. At the back Wenger has reverted back to the partnership of Toure and Gallas. Many wondered why Toure was able to walk straight into the side after such good performances from Senderos. I think Wenger was thinking ahead of the Boro game and already had the Chelsea game in his thinking.

We all know the problems that Drogba has caused for Senderos over the years and Dorgba himself knows he has a hold over Phil. Toure and Gallas may not have the aerial ability Senderos has but they are big game players and will have no doubts in dealing with Drogba. Wenger brought Toure back into the side last weekend so that Toure and Gallas could play together before this game.

Wenger went with 4-5-1 in the San Siro and may well want to do the same against Chelsea's three pronged midfield. The trio of Cesc, Flamini and Hleb worked so well against Milan and I am sure Wenger will want to deploy the same thing again. It will enable us to keep the ball better and try and prise open some space for Adebayor. Having three in midfield will also allow extra space for Fabregas to try and dictate play while leaving Flamini to do a holding job on Lampard.

Out wide Wenger is likely to go with Eboue but I fear his battle with Ashley Cole might become a bit of a joke. Cole likes to get right into his players as we saw on Wednesday and Eboue will look to make the most of any challenges. I also worry that Eboue might go missing under the heat of the contest. Walcott must be ready as an option off the bench. I feel his pace would give Cole a problem, especially if he is on a yellow card as I believe he will be.

On the other side it will probably be Van Persie. He played there at the Bridge last season and will look to get at the Chelsea right back. That position is still their weak link and Van Persie is clever enough to get the better of his man. If Adebayor looks to come out to the left Robin will not hesitate to drift inside and we may well see Van Persie popping up in the box. He is the man to take a chance should it come. His crosses from that side will also provide a good supply for Adebayor to feed off as well as his excellent set pieces.

With Van Persie on the pitch Wenger always has the option to put pressure on Chelsea's defence in a 4-4-2. Tottenham caused them major problems with a great attacking pair; Adebayor and Van Persie can do exactly the same thing. Van Persie has that ability to score out of nothing and may play a big part on Sunday. Hleb can also play out wide and get at the full back also. We may see an interchange between the two on different occasions in the game.

Whatever set up Wenger chooses, I hope we try and attack Chelsea in the same manner as we did Milan. If Adebayor becomes isolated we can always change the way we play and I hope Wenger takes such a gamble before its too late. The width will be there from the full backs so moving Hleb out wide may lose the natural balance from Van Persie on the left but Clichy will look to get into a 2 vs 1 situation on the left.

Eboue===Fabregas===Flamini===Van Persie

Subs: Lehmann, Senderos, Gilberto, Walcott, Bendtner

This game is a must win in my opinion. Even if Liverpool force Man Utd to drop points, the 3 points are a must. If Man Utd lose we go back level on points and take momentum on but with a tough run of games we must be in touching distance. Being behind them with a visit to Old Trafford coming up is a scary place to be in. If Man Utd win against Liverpool, dropping points rules us out of the running for good this season.

All that's left to do now is wait for the two sides to come to blows. Hopefully it is Chelsea that is laid out flat at the end of the bout.