Monday, 27 December 2010

Breakthrough Against The Blues

It's about time. Arsenal finally lay their big-club, big-game ghosts to rest, beating Chelsea 3-1 at the Emirates tonight. The Gunners outplayed, outhustled, and outlasted their London rivals in a thriller of a game, and Wenger's men deserved all three points. That's some late Christmas present!

In what was billed as a make or break game for my boys, Arsenal delivered and in some style too. I have no idea what the commentators were smoking in the first half, who seemed to think the Gunners were feeling their way into the game, as it was Arsenal who in fact dominated from the beginning. Apart from a Drogba snapshot in something like the 7th minute, Chelsea hardly had a sniff. Arsenal were controlling the game quite nicely but still had some trouble breaking down that stubborn Chelsea back line. Nasri's delightful chip nearly caught Petr Cech off his line but the keeper was too alert to the ambitious attempt. It was just before half time that Arsenal made the crucial breakthrough, when Alex Song latched onto the ball in the box and slid it just beyond Cech's reach to make it 1-0. When Fabregas was tripped in the box, I thought for sure we'd have a penalty, but before I knew what had really happened Song had picked up the ball and scored. A perfect time to score.

Arsenal didn't waste time trying to put the game to bed, as they soon doubled their lead after half time. The pressure from our midfield was terrific all game and it paid off in the 51st minute when van Persie managed to win the ball, which Essien accidentally played into Walcott's path, who bore down on goal before playing the ball into Cesc's path who had the easy job of tapping into an empty net. Just like that it was 2-0 but things got even better for the Gunners. Two minutes later, more pressure in the midfield brought us a reward. Fabregas, who had a game reminiscent of his finest days (not quite 100%, but he's getting there), dinked the ball through the panicked Chelsea defence into Walcott, who dispatched the ball past Cech with sublime skill to make it 3-0 and game over. It was a brilliant finish from Theo, who made a rare start and rewarded the manager's faith with a fantastic performance. Nearly every Gunner on the pitch played a blinder, but praise must be given to Djourou, Wilshere, Cesc and Theo in particular.

Chelsea tried to stop the game becoming a rout when Ivanovic headed home from a set piece but it was enough not enough to force the Blues back into the game, as they ultimately sunk to defeat. This victory should provide Wenger and his team with immense confidence, as they finally break that horrible 'Arsenal can't beat the big teams' hoodoo, and pile on the pain for Ancelotti's Chelsea. The Gunners now need to press on from this outstanding result and ride the momentum onto bigger and better things... like a league title.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Utah "Too Jazzy" For Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers fell to defeat last night against the Utah Jazz. The Cavs tried to keep it close, but the quality of Utah's squad ultimately prevailed, as the Jazz left Cleveland 101-90 winners. If you're an Inbetweeners fan, you'll get the joke in the title.

After beating the Knicks a couple of nights ago, confidence and momentum was high heading into last night's contest against the Jazz. And the Cavs certainly started brightly too, with Antawn Jamison catching fire early in the first quarter, nailing some big shots. Daniel Gibson, gifted a start by Byron Scott, also began the game brightly. Initially I was impressed by the hustle of the Cavs on defense, as the Jazz struggled to get into their rhythm and were turning the ball over. However, once the Jazz settled down, it spelt the end for the Cavaliers.

Utah's ability to get offensive rebounds was what eventually cost Cleveland the game. The Jazz were pulling down offensive rebounds whenever they wanted, as the Cavs just couldn't regain the ball. The opportunity for second chance points helped the Jazz enormously, but Cleveland still kept it close. The introduction of J.J Hickson brought an improvement in rebounding, and he eventually finished the night with a team-high 9 rebounds. Late in the second quarter, Mo Williams found his groove. His jumpshot was falling nicely, and a nice stop-and-pop 3 pointer took the Cavs back into the game. Mo was also passing the ball extremely well, racking up a lot of assists in the first half, as he moved the ball brilliantly. Cleveland's 3 point shooting was outstanding in the second quarter, with Mo, Gibson and Anthony Parker all hitting massive shots from beyond the arc. But the Cavs just couldn't get out to a big enough lead, as the Jazz were also having a terrific night shooting the ball. At half time I began to realise what a good team Utah are, in respect to the pieces they've got on their team. Jefferson, Deron Williams, Miles, Millsap, Bell, the list goes on. A defense's nightmare...

At the start of the third quarter, the Jazz were still making their shots in spite of the Cavs' best efforts. It felt like Raja Bell didn't miss all night, as he consistently converted on open shots. The rebounding difficulties for the Cavs weren't disappearing either, as Utah kept regaining possession and making it count with second chance points. It was frustrating to watch, as the Cavs were trying their best to box out, but the ball just didn't fall the home side's way. The Jazz were trying to put the game beyond doubt in the third quarter, but Gibson was keeping Cleveland in it, hitting back-to-back 3 pointers and carrying the team on his back. Boobie was thriving in his role last night, and he was growing in confidence with the increased minutes he received. Gibson is playing so well this season, with consistency that I've never seen from him before in his career. Despite Boobie's best efforts, the Jazz began to pull away late in the third. Deron Williams took control of the game, and was deceptively amazing without me really noticing. I suppose that's what makes D-Will one of the top point guards in the game, that he is a true team player. Williams was racking up the assists and moving the ball so well, giving the Cavs' defense some major problems. By the end of the third, the Jazz had opened up a decent lead, as the Cavs' offense was stuttering - I think they fell in love with the 3 point shot a bit too much, and overall just made some bad shot selections.

Cleveland needed to start the fourth quarter brightly to claw themselves back into the contest, but Byron Scott's men came out sloppy and the Jazz quickly scored 4 points to increase the gap to 16 points. From then on, the result was beyond doubt and the game started to look like a blowout. Gibson, C.J Miles and Raja Bell were intent on having their own 3 point contest in the fourth quarter, as I don't remember seeing either man miss a shot from behind the arc. However, in spite of Gibson's best efforts, the Jazz were cruising and ultimately ran out 101-90 winners. Boobie had a career night with 29 points, and he only missed one 3 point attempt all night, a fantastic performance.

Cleveland's next game isn't any easier, as they travel to Atlanta on Wednesday to take on the Hawks. I will be watching, as I recently purchased a month's subscription to NBA League Pass (an early Christmas present to myself). So expects more Cavs-related posts over the next 4 weeks! Hurray!

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

A Partizan In A Pear Tree

Arsenal dispatched Partizan Belgrade at the Emirates last night, beating the Serbian team 3-1 to progress into the next round of the Champions League. It was not a typically fluid Arsenal performance by any means, but Wenger's boys got the job done in the end, and I suppose that's all we could ask for.

On a night when the Gunners needed a win at all costs, they certainly didn't look as if they were trying to get it, at least not early on. The eleven guys on the pitch didn't seem to be clicking at all; the passing was messy, we gave the ball away too often, and we just didn't look very dangerous overall. As an Arsenal fan, we are treated to the sublime more often than not and I think we are probably spoiled to an extent, because after watching last night's sloppy first half, you'd think it was Stoke or Blackburn out there, not Arsenal. But after half an hour gone, captain van Persie was tripped in the box and the referee obliged with a penalty. It did look a bit soft, and Robin definitely did his best to win it, but there was contact and the Partizan defender did leave his foot stuck in, so there should be no real complaints. Robin took the responsibility to give us the lead and confidently put the ball in the back of the net to make it 1-0. I was pretty glad to see van Persie get his first goal of the season, even if it was a penalty; they all count. However, his celebration terrified me to my bones (look at the picture below), and I would like it if Robin refrained from such daring moves in the future. I don't want him to break again.

Instead of the goal spurring us on, Arsenal slipped back into their mundane ways, and held on until half time. Fabianski had nothing to do for the first 45 minutes as Belgrade rarely looked like threatening, but the Polish keeper was powerless to prevent Belgrade's equaliser. Seven minutes into the second half, with their first shot on target all night, Partizan equalised with a deflected goal off of Squillaci. Again our defensive frailties were exposed, an all too familiar occurrence this season that has to be remedied at some stage. I don't know what the problem is, as I don't profess to be a defensive expert. I rate Koscielny and Squillaci quite highly, I believe they are excellent defenders on their day, but something is wrong there. Maybe it's the fact that Song is not protecting the back four as much he could be, but there's probably more to it. It's something for Wenger to worry about, especially when we come up against better teams in the competition.

Thankfully, the scary thought of elimination from the Champions League seemed to wake us up. The rather useless Arshavin (who never got going all evening, despite a great game against Fulham at the weekend) was replaced by Theo Walcott, who stamped his impression on the game immediately. The speedy Englishman pounced on Partizan's inability to clear the ball, and Theo volleyed home from a tight angle to make it 2-1. It was a good finish, and I gave a huge sigh of relief when the ball hit the net. Walcott was brought on to give the team some urgency, and he delivered perfectly. The second goal seemed to provide the team with some momentum, and the on-form Samir Nasri quickly put the game beyond doubt, making it 3-1 with a cool finish. After some fabulous passing between Song and Bendtner, Nasri controlled the ball with immense skill before firing in low for our third goal, and his 12th of the season. The guy is unstoppable right now. It was game over from then on, but there was still time for Sagna to collect a straight red card late on. I was pretty annoyed at the time, but it was just my biased nature refusing to believe what had happened. He'll miss the first leg of whoever we have to play in the new year.

So with Arsenal securing a place in the last 16, the focus now turns to who we will face. Unfortunately the Gunners finished second in the group, after Shakthar defeated Braga, which means we'll be playing either Schalke, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, or (gulp) Barcelona. In typical Arsenal fashion, we had to go and make life more difficult for ourselves. I will gladly take either of the German teams, but I dread the idea of facing Barca or Madrid at this stage; Our leaky defence will be torn to shreds surely. Wenger says that we won't fear Barcelona, but it would undoubtedly be the worst draw to get from the available teams.

Our attention now turns to the trip to Old Trafford on Monday night. I'm hoping to be in the pub for that one, so if I get to watch it, expect something on Tuesday. Depends how much uni work I still have to fit in before Christmas!

Thanks for reading

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

We're Gunner Beat Belgrade

Arsenal play Partizan Belgrade at the Emirates tonight in the final game of the Champions League group stage. It is a must win game for the Gunners, and anything other than victory would be a major embarrassment for everybody connected with the club. The thought of missing out on the Champions League knock-out rounds is unthinkable.

After a shaky win against Fulham at the weekend, Arsene Wenger's men should come into tonight's match with some confidence. Arsenal have had a tremendous record at the Emirates on European nights, and if I'm not mistaken they have been pretty damn good this year as well. After spanking Braga 6-0, the Gunners dominated Shakthar 5-1, so it bodes well for us that the weakest side in the group is the last team we must face. That's 11 goals scored at home this season in the competition, with an Eduardo consolation being the only blemish on an exemplary home record. Belgrade are rooted to the bottom of the group with 0 points, so Arsenal should be overwhelming favourites ahead of tonight's contest.

However, we all know that football is a funny old game, and everybody loves an upset, so long as its not against your team. Arsenal should not underestimate this Partizan team, but they should expect to beat them, and in a comprehensive fashion. I expect nothing less, but on a crucial night like this evening I just want a win. Despite missing our captain, we have the most in-form player in the country in Samir Nasri. The Frenchman has been terrific this season and has flourished into an important member of the squad, plus he is on fire right now. He is undoubtedly one of the first guys on Wenger's team sheet these days, and providing he is 100% fit he should start tonight. But our crafty manager likes to shuffle his cards from time to time, so I wouldn't be surprised to see some important players rested ahead of the Manchester United game next week. I'd like to see Theo in the starting lineup, as well as van Persie who should be close to full fitness by now. Koscielny has recovered from his unfortunate head injury, so he will take his place in the centre of defence alongside Squillaci, and just in time too as it seems Djourou has picked up a knock on his thigh. Whatever side Wenger puts out, they should be good enough to do the job tonight and secure our place in the next stage of the Champions League. I will be down the pub in just over an hour to get a good seat for the match, praying for an early Arsenal goal to settle the nerves. If we get the required result, expect a post about it tomorrow. If we lose... well we won't think about that, ok?

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Forest City Favourites - Robin van Persie

Because I didn't get to watch the Cavs game last night, and due to their humbling loss I probably wouldn't be writing about them anyway, I thought I'd do something different for a change. My posts in the near-future will now include some player profiles on my favourite athletes, from the past and the present. Basically, when I'm bored and can't think of anything to write, I'll do a piece on one of my favourite players. I have already dabbled in this a bit, with my post on Asdrubal Cabrera, my favourite current Cleveland Indians player a few months ago. Today's edition will focus on the Arsenal and Netherlands' striker, Mr Robin van Persie.

Without sounding like I have a huge man-crush on the guy (debatable...), I've been a massive fan of van Persie for years now. I think I really began to admire our Robin towards the end of his first season with the Gunners, especially after he coolly slotted away his penalty in the shoot-out against Man United in the 2005 FA Cup Final. He started off the next season in blistering form, earning the Player of the Month award in November 2005, and he scored some beautiful goals that year (the free kick against Wigan stands out, and that beauty against Blackburn). In 2006/07 he got even better. In what was to be Thierry Henry's final season with Arsenal, van Persie really stepped up his game and, despite missing big chunks of the campaign through injury, finished as the club's top scorer with 13 goals in all competitions. In true van Persie fashion, he scored some magnificent goals that year, but will be remembered best for his stunner of a volley against Charlton. A sublime finish. With Henry's departure, Robin became the club's top striker for the 2007/08 season, and started cementing his place as my favourite Gooner. Again he started the year on fire (including an amazing free kick against Sunderland), but injuries took their toll again on the Dutch striker, and he frustratingly missed large parts of the season for another year running. He bounced back in 2008/09, recording his finest season in an Arsenal shirt to date. Robin finished the year with 20 goals in all competitions for the club, plus plenty of important assists, and was voted Arsenal's Player of the Season as a result. Naturally, van Persie scored some real peaches that season; a brace at Stamford Bridge gave Arsenal a comeback win against Chelsea in late Novemeber 2008, and his goal against Liverpool is right up there as one of his best efforts. In 2009/10 van Persie was ruled out for most of the campaign with a nasty ankle injury, but still managed to record 10 goals in all competitions.

Unfortunately, injuries have haunted Robin's Arsenal career, and have overshadowed his achievements on the pitch. Despite being one of our most-technically gifted players, and a proven striker, I think a lot of fans have lost patience with van Persie and his never ending battle for fitness. When he's healthy, Robin is one of the best guys in the squad but the problem is, the man is made of glass. However, you have to give him some credit, as every time he has returned from injury, van Persie has regained his old form and become a key contributor to the team again.

As you might expect, van Persie has again missed a lot of time this year through injury. Robin hurt his ankle against Blackburn in August, which sidelined him until very recently. In the past couple of weeks he has made his return to the first team and is slowly regaining his form, evident with some magic moments on Tuesday in the Carling Cup victory over Wigan. I just hope he can remain unharmed for the rest of the year, because when he's firing on all cylinders, Robin van Persie is one of the finest strikers in the Premier League, and possesses the deadliest left foot in the country. He offers the club something different up front, and is a valuable asset to Wenger's side. I reckon he could create a devastating partnership with Chamakh, but alas, it remains to be seen. The way van Persie plays the game, his mastery over the ball, and his ability to strike the ball with devastating power has made him not just my favourite Arsenal player of the current crop, but probably one of my favourite Gunners of all time.

Arsenal face Fulham tomorrow at the Emirates, another important game for us. I will of course miss the game, as I'll be stuck selling books to the merciless Christmas-present-hunting masses, 9 til 5. It gets worse, because my brother, his son, and my Dad will be there in North London, watching it live. If I dwell on this any longer I might cry. At least I'm getting a programme out of it. Until next time peeps!

Thanks for reading.