Monday, February 26, 2007

Snapshots from England and Spain

Chelsea lift the trophy but Arsene and his boys win the hearts; seeing the teams line-up for this morning’s Carling Cup final, one could not help but be struck by the gulf in experience. The Blues put out a unit featuring no less than Cech, Carvalho, Terry, Bridge, Makelele, Essien, Lampard, Ballack, Shevchenko and Drogba. Only right back Diarra was anything near an ‘unknown’. Contrast this with an Arsenal 4-4-2 which shaped up as such; Almunia; Hoyte, Toure, Senderos, Traore; Walcott, Denilson, Fabregas, Diaby; Baptista, Aliadiere. It featured two 17 year olds (Walcott and Traore) and an engine room of two 19 year olds in Fabregas and Denilson. The only ones closely resembling first team regulars were Toure, Senderos and Fabregas. Surely they’d be on a hiding to nothing in such company, on such an occasion? Instead, it was Arsene’s young guns that lit up the Millennium, getting control early through Fabregas’s wonderful football brain. Despite often being outnumbered in midfield (Chelsea has a narrow formation where they overload central midfield through Makelele, Lampard, Ballack and Essien), Fabregas and Denilson were able to dictate the flow, prompting their wide men Walcott and Diaby and linking well with the front duo of Baptista and Aliadiere. A characteristic of Wenger sides, all 10 outfield players showed remarkable comfort on the ball and an amazing appreciation for what to do with it. The fascination was that this was a final, with the world watching, yet all were performing. Even when Chelsea found a chink in the Arsenal armour (Traore out at left back) Wenger stuck by his man, and he improved. A manager solely focused on results may have hooked him early (or not even started him, but Wenger, ever the developer, played the 17 year old for over an hour. Arsenal had dominated the opening quarter of the game, pinning Chelsea back, rarely allowing them a touch on the ball. Walcott’s goal was exquisite, retrieving a Chelsea clearance and turning in the one motion before playing it into the feet of Diaby, who, Vieraesque, caressed the ball with his first touch and then slid it into Walcott’s path. One touch and bang, shaped around Cech with the air of Thierry Henry. In truth, had it not been for some superb work from Cech and Carvalho, the Gunners could have extended their lead. As it was, Chelsea, with almost their first attack, equalised when Ballack (yes, he did do something!) clipped one in behind Arsenal’s left back for the ever-willing Drogba to pounce. It looked offside. The temptation was to think that Arsenal would crumble, especially with Chelsea targeting the Senderos-Traore side, but they came back, keeping the ball and countering with pace. Walcott in particular was all over Bridge. But Chelsea were at least in a contest, and with Carvalho growing with the game, soon Arsenal’s front two were under control. With Robben introduced at the break for Makelele (Mourinho had to react), suddenly Chelsea had some width in attack. Ultimately it was his cross to Drogba, ruthlessly getting to the ball ahead of Senderos, which decided proceedings. There was time for a bit of headline grabbing handbags, but let it not detract from a classic contest. Arsenal may not have lifted the trophy, but boy (literally) did they win the hearts.

Man U demonstrate everything needed to win the title; still in England and watching Man U at Craven Cottage on Saturday night (Sydney time) finally convinced me that Sir Alex’s men appear destined to win the title. Perhaps I’ve gone a little early on that, but there was evidence in this match that Man U have that one ingredient so many championship sides possess – that element of luck. So far this season little of their success has been built around luck, but in this game, there is little doubt they were second best, continually on the back foot against an upbeat Fulham who did everything but kill the game off. Ultimately the hosts were undone by a late late Ronaldo winner, emphasising that old adage that if you don’t take you chances when you are dominating, you get sunk. Nine points ahead, 10 games remaining, and it’s hard to see Man U slip up from here.

Ball to feet Barca; watching Barcelona of late, as I have done a fair bit in both La Liga and the Champs League loss to Liverpool last week, the thing that has stuck me most is how many of the players want the ball to feet and how the team has been crying out for some drive off the ball, from anyone. Since losing Messi and Eto’o, but especially the latter, Barca has looked decidedly one-dimensional. The likes of Ronaldinho, Deco, Xavi, Iniesta, Saviola and Gudjohnsen are all wonderfully gifted footballers, but very similar in that they invariably want the ball before coming up with a play. Eto’o, while brilliant on the ball, is one Barca player always willing to make that driving run off it, dragging a defender with him, opening up space for a team. He is also the one player looking to make the near post run rather than wait for the ball to hit him. The other is Frenchman Giuly, always a willing driver either down the right or through the middle. Which makes Frank Rijkaard’s recent use of Iniesta on the right wing all the more puzzling. As he showed this morning, in Barca’s 3-0 over Athletic Bilbao, Iniesta is far better as one of the two Barca midfield influencers, able to prompt the likes of Eto’o and Giuly from a central position. Problem for Rijkaard is he has three similar players (Deco, Xavi and Iniesta) for two positions, so for a while he tried to solve it by playing all three, with Iniesta on the right wing. While Barca still played some neat stuff, they had little penetration. That is what Eto’o and Giuly offer, as was highlighted by the first goal this morning, where Giuly went around Bilbao, got to the byline and knocked in a ball to the near post. Eto’o's mere presence forced a Bilbao error. Alternatively, you could simply play the ball to Ronaldinho and ask him to strut his stuff. Sublime.

Far from a Real match; still in Spain, yet another insipid display from the Fabio Capello led Real Madrid, this time in the derby against Atletico on Sunday morning our time. In the end they got away with a draw, but what a lucky point it was. Atletico were far the better side, Fernando Torres finally scoring against Real as the likes of Maniche dominated the midfield. But in the end Real new boy Higuain grabbed a point, but it will hardly appease Madrid fans baying for Capello's blood. When he came on board at the start of the season, it appeared the most unlikely match. The fact is Capello's pragmatic style was never likely to go down well at a club with a history for winning pretty.


Anonymous sir alex said...

off course we'll win it.
watch out liverpool this week.

Wed. Feb. 28, 12:21:00 pm AEDT  

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