Bar the English interest, this was the pick of the ties for the second match-day in the Champions League. The UEFA Cup and Super Cup holders face the Spanish Champions, with a plethora of big names on either side. The big news was the absence of Club legend and Champions league record goal-scorer Raul Gonzalez, with Gonzalo Higuain stepping in as he has done recently.
Within the opening 2 minutes, a Ruud Van Nistlerooy cross reached Higuain, whose powerful header was tipped over the bar by Malafeev. It was a sign of things to come in an opening and exciting match. Very soon after this warning, Van Der Vaart slid ball across the box and Hubocan, the Slovakian defender, knocked it in with Van Nistlerooy lurking. Robben then caused danger by playing the ball to the strikers, and it broke loose for Van Nistlerooy, but his shot was blocked by a last ditch lunge.
On 10 minutes, Robben beat two men and reached the by-line. He crossed low across the box, but fortunately for Zenit, the ball was cut out for a corner. The Zenit players didn’t seem to move out of their box quickly or press well, despite their reputation as a well drilled unit. Los Blancos were playing their best football of the season in the opening 15 minutes, with Zenit shell-shocked. Soon after Zenit got back into the game, as the full-back Sirl was on the end of a fine passing move, but his cross was cut out before it reached Pobgrebniak, the Russian striker, who missed out on Euro 2008 due to a knee injury.
Yet there were still glimpses of threat to Zenit, who struggled with Madrid’s mobile play and especially their crosses, with Hubocan once more getting a last ditch touch. Zenit’s full backs began to influence proceedings with Sirl crossing but neither Arshavin nor Pobgrebniak could add the finishing touch. Soon after Zenit broke, as Higuain’s pass was behind Ramos, with two consecutive dummies from Zenit fooling the Real defence, but as was the story of the game, Zenit couldn’t make their domination of the situation tell. Iker Casillas bravely dived on the ball ahead of Pobgrebniak, the keeper taking a kick in the chest for his troubles, but the lead remained intact.
The attacking pressure from the Russians continued as Arshavin shot from edge of box, but it was comfortably into the arms of Casillas. But on 24 minutes, the £24 million pound signing from Dinamo Moscow, Danny, met a Arshavin cross at the far post, with a fine stabbed finish. Ramos failed to pick up Arshavin in his defensive area and it proved costly, while Cannavaro played Arshavin onside before the original move. Van Der Vaart could have restored the lead almost instantaneously but his shot was palmed away by Malafeev.
On the half hour mark, Van Der Vaart shot directed into the path of Ruud Van Nistlerooy, by a flailing Zenit foot, and the prolific striker fired in his 62nd goal in only 87 appearances for the club. Who needs Raul, who was anonymous at Betis on the weekend, when you have this man? Another Dutchman almost helped make it three, with a delightful backheeled flick into the path of Higuain, who lifted his shot over the keeper and the bar under pressure from the last man. As the half drew to a close, the game became stretched as a Denisov cross was palmed out for a corner by Casillas, from which the ball was deflected a number of times and eventually ended up in the arms of a grateful Casillas. The Real Madrid legend threw the ball out to Arjen Robben, who turned his man a number of times, but his ball across the six yard box couldn’t be turned in by Argentine Higuain.
Anyukov drew a corner but the Swiss referee Massimo Busacca blew for the interval, much to the anger of several members of the Russian giants, who felt they could have made the most of the corner. The second half began with Zenit attacking and it almost resulted in a goal. Tomas Hubocan, desperate to atone for his earlier error, went for the header and there were shouts for handball from the Zenit players, but was Hubocan who was surprisingly booked. The game always had an edge and Madrid striker Ruud van Nistelrooy quickly followed the Slovakian into the book for a foul on Andrei Arshavin.
Arshavin played an instinctive reverse pass to Anyukov but move, one of several promising attacks, broke down. Real faced wave after wave of Zenit attacks, with several goalmouth scrambles occurring, while Casillas was performing heroics as usual. The best chance came to Pobgrebniak who spooned his shot over as he fell down close to the goal line. The game was essentially a rematch of the Euro 2008 semi-final between Russia and Spain, but this time the Russians were far more influential in their play, with Arshavin particularly menacing. Real’s defence moved deeper and deeper as they tried to stop the Russians getting in behind, causing their strikers to be isolated up front. But when they did Higuain’s shot was saved.
Fatih Tekke’s effort from Dominguez’s cross was saved at point blank range by Casillas, while at the other end Real’s forwards managed another counter attack, as Robben took on his man but dragged his shot wide. On 78 minutes, Zenit exploited Ramos’ adventurous attacking play, by attacking the space he leaves behind him, with Arshavin hits the post from the resultant cross. In stoppage time, Arshavin cut inside, fooling Van Nistlerooy (yes, Real were being dragged back to such an extent) and Heinze, and setting up Danny, whose effort went over with aid of Pepe. It was unthinkable as to how the home side hadn’t forced home an equaliser. Zenit dominated but didn’t find the cutting edge which any Champions League challenging side needs.
It is quite right to say the Spanish Champions stole all three points, especially based on the second half. Real showed great resilience and clinical finishing and needed a huge amount of luck to escape as they did. Zenit will be wondering how they have zero points after two games in which they should have taken at least two points.
Arsene Wenger spoke of change, but there was little in terms of personnel, but only Samir Nasri came in for a much improved Emmanuel Eboue. While he appealed to the media’s demand for drastic change in his words, the boss knows what he wants and that was focus from his team. Fabregas showed this focus with a sharp tackle to stop any chance of a Porto spell of possession. There were signs of anxiety with the ball being given away twice in quick succession, but both Porto attacks fortunately broke down for the nervous Arsenal defence.
The first Arsenal move saw the ball being switched from left to right, with Adebayor feeding in Walcott, whose near-post shot was saved by Helton for a corner, which as usual was unsuccessful, despite causing some danger. Arsenal were playing at a high tempo and some good possession culminated in a curling Van Persie effort, which was palmed away by Helton, who cut an imposing figure. Porto showed their threat in a counter-attack on ten minutes, with birthday boy Christian Rodriquez finishing a sharp attack, by heading against the bar, with Almunia well beaten.
Patient possession by the home side resulted in Fabregas spotting a Van Persie run and supplying the Dutchman with a lofted ball, which Van Persie drove into the ground and the ball looped over the bar, as the Gunners began to exert their influence on the game. Fabregas was on form, with a one touch pass straight into the path of Walcott whose subsequent cross was blocked for a corner. A well-worked corner by Arsenal happened again, with a short pass to Van Persie was followed by a drop of the shoulder and a swift turn, but his cross was met by a weak Adebayor header.
Once more, William Gallas raided forward, but Nasri was unable to feed him. The Gunners were sold short at the back once more with Almunia forced into a diving save against Lisandro Lopez. The resulting corner highlighted our set-piece difficulties, with Clichy having to clear off the line and Toure forced into a last ditch clearance. The threat was evident and to quell it Arsenal would have to remain concentrated, with Denilson’s pointless flick and loss of possession deviating from the focus the manager called for.
Yet the attackers were focussed and clearly in the picture, unlike on Saturday, as Fabregas fed an onside Adebayor, who paused and waited for the near post run of Robin Van Persie who stabbed the ball home for a 1-0 lead. The strikers combined well, with criticism of their inability to link up in attacking play notable in recent days. The officials were consistent in their ability to give corners on two occasions where the goalkeeper did not get a touch on the ball (first from Walcott’s effort, then from Costa’s shot). Yet from a corner which was rightly given, the other criticised striker in Emmanuel Adebayor headed down into the ground, with the ball bouncing in off the bar. Arsenal finally scored from a set-piece, after being awarded a huge number of corners this season.
Nasri continued to lift the mood on his return from injury, escaping the attentions of two Porto players with a delightful turn and nutmeg. The first half ended with Arsenal leading, but it was not without worrying moments for the Emirates outfit. Porto reacted by bringing on club talisman Lucho Gonzalez, who missed the weekend game through injury. I’ll admit, I was very critical of Robin Van Persie over the weekend, but having taken Walcott’s pass, he ghosted past Bruno Alves and prodded the ball into the far corner. This is the striker we want to see, and even on a bad day, he needs to at least impress through work rate. Soon after, Walcott sprinted down the flank and crossed for Nasri, who was beaten to the ball by the defender. Arsenal toyed with the Portuguese champions, who created havoc in their on box, due to some desire not to clear their lines. Soon after Toure, who stayed up from the resulting corner after a strong period of pressure, fed Walcott, who shot wide, with the whole goal to aim at.
Nasri had a similar attempt, after a remarkable counter attack from a shanked clearance from Toure, which soon ended up at the feet of Walcott. The young winger outpaced his marker with much to spare and cut back, but the ball arrived at an awkward height for Nasri. The Marseille favourite knocked the ball wide with his thigh as he tried to outdo Walcott’s miss, which was considerably worse. Soon after Adebayor volleyed Sagna’s low cross wide. Then both clubs made a number of changes, with Nasri and Van Persie off for Eboue and Bendtner. On the Porto side, Hulk came on for Raul Meireles. Arsenal continued to knock on the Porto door as Helton spilled a Fabregas shot, but the big Brazilian recovered well to block Adebayor’s follow up. The goals continued as Guarin made an impatient hack on Bendtner, with Adebayor sending Helton the wrong way to make it 4-0.
Surely the celebratory jig between Adebayor and Eboue was worth the entrance fee alone. Walcott came off having taken a knock a few minutes earlier and on came the fans’ latest hero, Carlos Vela. The brilliant Mexican dribbled past a number of players in the box and laid it off to Bendtner, who had his initial effort blocked and having fallen off balance, he swung a leg at the ball and his effort went out for a throw in. Even Arsene Wenger could see what there was to laugh about in a comic high point of an assured second half performance. There was even an Adebayor offside and it took 81 minutes!
Bendtner showed direct, aggressive running as he drove into the box and slipped in Adebayor who slid his shot wide. Eboue comfortably added his name into the award for the worst miss of the evening whilst also attempting a trick and forgetting the ball. At least there’s never a dull moment with the Ivorian. The game ended 4-0, but should have been more. The Champions league campaign will rely on the home games and this was a good start and an antidote to THAT game.
It was Arsene Wenger’s twelfth anniversary in charge of the club, Hull City were the opponents. The fans were expectant of a cricket score. Yet as has been seen in a number of games in the past four years, the players became complacent. They did not respect Hull City in this game. They played at a snail’s pace in terms of tempo, didn’t fight for any ball, and were beaten by the better team. The second half, after our goal, was shambolic.
What was ominous about the Hull game was how Fabregas spoke of the Champions League in the build up to the Hull game, a telling sign that the players were supposedly saving themselves for the bigger name. After a week, where the club was in the headlines consistently, with first the side taking the three points for the third game running at the Reebok, and then the youngest ever side thrashing Championship side Sheffield United, the players bought into their own hype, as has happened many times over the past few years.
The excuses have come out, with it being quite ironic for William Gallas to speak of complacency. It seems he has regressed in his defensive capabilities and is infatuated at playing a Beckenbauer role, in setting up attacks from deep, and often finishing. Yes, he has scored three goals, which have led to some key results in the Champions League, but his main occupation is to defend. And it seems that he is slow to pick up his marker, complacent on the ball and poor when attacking an aerial ball. While he may not be one of the most vocal leaders, he has to lead by example in his play. There is no doubt that some smug pundit will mention the incidents at St. Andrews last season, but it isn’t a matter of his speech-making capabilities this time, but simple defending. And it appears he can’t do that either.
Even more surprising was Kolo Toure’s admission that the pressure of the fan’s overwhelming expectation affected him. It is these sorts of situations a Champions League-quality player should thrive on. It is a part of the job a player has in dealing the media attention and if it affected him, he should seriously look at his career prospects. This was Hull City, no disrespect to a Tigers side who fully deserved their victory, not Real Madrid. No doubt this was just another pathetic reason, which the players are forced to come out with upon closer scrutiny by the media in the press conference.
Tonight’s game against Porto is another chance to make this a memorable 12th anniversary for the Arsenal boss. Wenger claimed there were elements of the game which made him physically sick. While he will never admit it in front of the media, there is no other word instead of complacency to describe the Arsenal mentality seen on Saturday. Most fans will be glad to hear that a number of changes will happen but it is very likely that some of the poorest performers will remain. Toure, despite the more consistent central defender should make way for Johan Djourou, who is taller and perhaps more capable with an aerial threat. Gallas’ errors make him the obvious choice to be banished to the bench, but having the armband makes him unsusceptible to demotion. Hopefully this view is proved wrong by the boss, but the idea of making substitutions and team selection based on seniority is a major flaw in Arsene Wenger’s tactical arsenal. If this flaw lives up to its reputation, than we could even see the veteran Mikael Silvestre start.
Samir Nasri is fit and if he starts, he should provide balance and elegance to complement the direct runner on the right flank, be it the improving Eboue or an unpolished diamond in Walcott. The latter showed his indecision in front of goal when given time to make a choice. When only given one option, he has shown the direct attitude, which has suddenly made him a worldwide star. The assisting dribble and pass for our scrappy goal was one of the few instances in which our most dangerous player was able to exert his influence. On a number of other occasions, he flashed in decent crosses, which our non-existent strike-force didn’t bother to attack. Walcott should start but do not be surprised to see Eboue, whose partnership with Sagna makes the full-back much more effective and provides further defensive security.
Unfortunately Alexandre Song is still feeling the effects of a knock from the Carling Cup victory, and despite making the bench on Saturday, will not take any part in a game where his strength and tactical nous would have been vital. His exclusion has opened up a spot on the bench possibly for one of the younger players, such as Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere. What must be done, however, is a change in the striking department. While Robin Van Persie may be technically superior to most footballers, his selfishness is an attribute that is affecting the team negatively. The over-reliance on power, with accuracy sacrificed, when shooting, and some reckless challenges out of frustration are reasons why he should be benched. He has the hallmarks of a certain Arsenal Dutch legend but he must iron out these flaws to reach his pinnacle.
The enigmatic Dutchman is not effective to the side as Adebayor is currently. Both will improve but for tonight Nicklas Bendtner must play some part. One assumes the home encounter will result in a 4-4-2 formation. Yet Wenger has been known to spring some surprises and a 4-5-1 with Nasri in the half striker role is not at all inconceivable. The game is the first Arsenal group stage game on ITV since the 1-0 success against PSV Eindhoven courtesy of an Alex goal in 2004. Let’s hope the terrible football analysis (see: camera shots showing Andy Townsend using a computer to make his point) is overshadowed by a great game of football.
As for the opponents, they have endured a shaky start to the league season. Yet a success against Fenerbache on the opening match-day, which currently has them heading the table, and a narrow victory against Paços de Ferreira, courtesy of a Raul Meireles strike, has turned fortunes around. They have lost the marauding full-back Jose Bosingwa to Chelsea and the man who is eternally in Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow, Ricardo Quaresma has signed for Inter, with his last performance an anonymous 90 minutes in the Milan derby. Lucho Gonzalez, the Argentinean maestro, returns having missed their weekend fixture, while Lisandro Lopez, scorer of 24 goals last season, is also available. The 2004 winners are a much more attacking line up now, yet some argue they lack the cutting edge to pose a huge threat to the English dominance of the competition.
If nothing eventful happens in the game tonight, keep an eye out for the wonderfully named Hulk, a 22 year old Brazilian striker (real name: Givanildo Vieira de Souza). He is likely to start as a substitute to Argentine attacker Farias. Euro 2008 star Raul Meireles will also look to start in Jesualdo Ferreira’s side that Arsenal should approach with respect. Arsenals are at their best when there is no media attention or on the end of a defeat and heavy criticism. There will be a reaction on Tuesday and Porto will prove a huge test. Fabregas talked of its importance, now they have to deliver.
Filed Under (General) by LF on 29-09-2008
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