Monday, December 14, 2009

Lee Dixon's analysis of Arsenal's win at Liverpool

In the six years I played under Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger I only once saw him lose his rag in the dressing room.

Just like Sunday's game we were 1-0 down to Liverpool at half-time. Wenger came in, threw a cup on the floor and started ranting and raving.

The players were all wondering what was going on but the funny thing was he threw the cup and got a reaction, but then, being the nice bloke he is, bent down and picked it up because he had missed the bin.

In tidying up after himself he lost a bit of the effect but as players we went out there and got a result.

Wenger does not do telling off very well, it is just not a natural thing for him - so when he does, it has more of an effect.

The Frenchman expects players to know what is going wrong when they are not performing to the required level and to take responsibility to sort it out themselves.

He talks about intelligence, knowing the game, understanding when things are going right or wrong and being able to fix it on the pitch.
When that does not happen he will let rip and it is not a pretty sight.

He admits he is a sore loser but even when we got beaten he would very rarely lose his temper with us after the game, preferring to leave it until the Monday morning and come in with a clear head after he had watched the video a few times on Sunday.

In fact, his assistant Pat Rice would more often than not come in after the game and he was a much more vocal character. But even then Wenger would tell Pat to be quiet and not lose his rag.

That was difficult for Pat but it is the way Wenger runs his dressing room. Players are angry after losing games as well and that is why you get flare-ups like we have seen at Stoke and QPR recently.

I cannot ever imagine seeing that in a Wenger dressing room. You can voice your opinion to him but I never saw anyone have a go at Wenger - players have too much respect for him for it to get to that stage.

Game of two Arsenals

After Arsenal had come from behind to beat Liverpool 2-1 on Sunday, some of Wenger's players said it was very unlike him to lay into them, but their performance warranted it.

He would have asked where their hunger and drive was and called for them to get further up the pitch when they got ball.

When you play with two up front then one attacker often comes short to look for the ball and the other forward will offer something else.

With Andrey Arshavin on his own up front it put more emphasis on the two wingers to provide those options.

Arsenal play that short passing game that can be extremely effective, but sometimes away from home you have to have the option to hit the long ball when teams are closing you down in
midfield.On Sunday their wingers failed to use the space behind the opposition defence; every time they came short Liverpool went with them and it led to a congested midfield.

Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri did not try to spin into more dangerous areas and look to stretch Liverpool's defence in the corners of the pitch.

It played into Liverpool's hands as it meant their defenders could mark the visitors' forwards tightly. Then when Arsenal's passing game broke down they lost the ball too easily.

This also increased the pressure on Arsenal's defence as they were constantly on the back foot and chasing back as Liverpool counter-attacked.

Someone should have said something on the pitch because it was pretty obvious when they kept losing the ball.

But it was not until the third minute of first-half injury time that Walcott managed to get the ball deep down Liverpool's right-hand side.

In the second half Arsenal got men forward and put Liverpool under pressure on the edge of their own box.

They challenged on the edge of Liverpool's box, and gave some support to Arshavin.

Straight away they were a different side, Nasri set up the equaliser and Walcott was more of a factor and involved in both goals.

Arsenal's title chances

The thing with Arsenal is they generally have to play well to win. Sometimes they play well and lose, like at Manchester United, but when they play badly they invariably come unstuck.

Against Liverpool they showed they can grind out a result like Chelsea and Manchester United do.

Arsenal lack a Fernando Torres or Didier Drogba so Arshavin has proven he is invaluable to a side without that focal point up front.

The Gunners can score from anywhere and are brilliant at times, but sometimes when things are not going well they need someone like Arshavin to produce something out of nothing.

This little guy has that bit of genius in him where he can score from anywhere at any time.

At the other end of the field Alex Song showed what a key player he is in the second half, sweeping up in front of the back four and stifling Liverpool's attacks.
I was not that big a fan of Song at first but he has grown on me and there is definitely more to come.

I am not totally convinced they have everything in the mix to win the league, but we have seen at the weekend that Chelsea and Manchester are dropping points.

Arsenal can win the title but I am far from 100% certain that they will.

I love Eduardo but all of their strikers play the same way and they are such a small side. Wenger definitely needs to bring in a more physical forward in January but there are not many Drogbas around.

But Sunday's game was a must win for both sides and Arsenal have given themselves a chance of a title challenge.

Wenger wins in madcap weekend

Arsene Wenger's decoration of Arsenal's Anfield dressing room with verbal invective was long forgotten as he celebrated edging out Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill as the big winner of the Premier League's madcap, coupon-busting weekend.

In two remarkable days, Wenger shouting "you're not fit to wear the shirt" at the Arsenal players he usually defends with such fervour, and occasionally against all logic, was perhaps the most remarkable incident of them all.

Wenger delighted in an ability to still surprise his Arsenal charges after 13 years with a blast of vocal caustic soda in response to a miserable first 45 minutes at Liverpool - but not as much as he revelled in an eventual win that he declared puts them back in this maverick Premier League title race, both "mathematically and mentally."

For Liverpool counterpart Rafael Benitez this was meant to be another fresh start after the conclusion of a wretched Champions League campaign. Instead, to misquote The Who's Pete Townshend, this was a case of "meet the new season - same as the old season."
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Wenger wins in madcap weekend

Post categories: Premier League

Phil McNulty | 08:20 UK time, Monday, 14 December 2009

Arsene Wenger's decoration of Arsenal's Anfield dressing room with verbal invective was long forgotten as he celebrated edging out Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill as the big winner of the Premier League's madcap, coupon-busting weekend.

In two remarkable days, Wenger shouting "you're not fit to wear the shirt" at the Arsenal players he usually defends with such fervour, and occasionally against all logic, was perhaps the most remarkable incident of them all.

Wenger delighted in an ability to still surprise his Arsenal charges after 13 years with a blast of vocal caustic soda in response to a miserable first 45 minutes at Liverpool - but not as much as he revelled in an eventual win that he declared puts them back in this maverick Premier League title race, both "mathematically and mentally."

For Liverpool counterpart Rafael Benitez this was meant to be another fresh start after the conclusion of a wretched Champions League campaign. Instead, to misquote The Who's Pete Townshend, this was a case of "meet the new season - same as the old season."

Liverpool manager Rafa BenitezLiverpool boss Benitez has plenty to think about ahead of the festive programme

For those who fancied a little spice with their Premier League season after growing accustomed to the same old taste in recent campaigns, this weekend provided enough ingredients to whet the appetite for the months ahead.

Aston Villa went to Manchester United and won for the first time in 26 years, confirming that the champions are giving renewed hope to opponents and missing, understandably, the magic Cristiano Ronaldo used to provide with regularity.

Chelsea, who looked like the title was theirs for the losing after sweeping Arsenal aside at the Emirates last month, saw sudden defensive vulnerability, in particular the flaws of fading keeper Petr Cech, further exposed at Stamford Bridge in a draw against a wonderfully gallant Everton decimated by serious injuries.

Wolves went to White Hart Lane and scratched some of the sheen off Spurs' top four pretensions with the sort of victory that could keep the great old club in the Premier League.

And Bolton, almost holed below the waterline recently and with manager Gary Megson's popularity dipping even further, played out a six-goal extravaganza with Manchester City, who saw flowing attack undermined by a leaking defence.

Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal think they can win the title. Aston Villa, Spurs and Manchester City believe they can get that fourth spot - and Liverpool hope they will.

So that is at least the top seven places up for grabs even before we get to the relegation struggle. Interesting enough for you?

Liverpool and Arsenal concluded events - with Benitez hoping his side would back his bold public claim that they would definitely finish in the top four and Wenger wanting proof that his insistence that the Gunners are right in the title race would not end up resembling a desperate exercise in straw-clutching.

For Benitez, all that was left at the end was a grim finale to a game that started with promise and brought a deserved half-time lead courtesy of Dirk Kuyt.

In the end his cast-iron guarantee of Champions League football sounded as convincing as the assertion from Anfield's tannoy announcer that Frankie Goes To Hollywood's witless savaging of one of popular music's most majestic moments, Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run", was indeed "the best version." It sounds like the pressure is affecting everyone's judgement at Anfield.

Arsenal did not leave the stamp of potential champions behind them at Anfield, despite the win. For 45 minutes they were, to put it at its most charitable, abysmal - poor in possession, lacking in conviction and a perfectly suitable case for the half-time mauling Wenger delivered.

Wenger's words of fury were given flesh and bones by Glen Johnson's own goal and what is becoming a regular piece of Anfield artistry from Andrey Arshavin. The Russian swooped on a moment of miscontrol from Johnson before lashing a finish high past the startled Pepe Reina.

At that precise second, Arshavin had the perfect strike rate of five shots and five goals at Anfield following on from his quartet in the 4-4 draw last season. It should be reported as a matter of fact that it all went downhill from there - one shot saved by Reina and another off target hitting his previously perfect average. Get your act together Andrey!enger's clenched fist salute at the final whistle, and his jaunty demeanour later, illustrated the importance of this victory, especially after the opportunity presented to Arsenal by the failure of their close rivals.

It must not blind Wenger to the fact that Arsenal were unremarkable for large portions of a low-quality game, especially when Javier Mascherano was dogging Cesc Fabregas' every move.

To come to Anfield and win, even with Liverpool in their current parlous state, is not to be sniffed at, but this current Anfield model is prone to implosion when the slightest pressure is applied and this proved their undoing once more.

Arsenal would do well not to get carried away. The need for a powerful additional midfield presence remains and Arsenal's striking resources look wafer-thin, but this was three priceless points.

The result enabled Wenger to remind those who questioned Arsenal after their sobering brush with Chelsea that he had forecast, to a measure of mockery, that Carlo Ancelotti's side would drop points.

He did. And they have. Arsenal, however, will need to show more than they did here if Wenger is to have the last word.

For Liverpool, this season of unremitting misery continues - and it was all watched, with cruel irony, by the player whose absence has been touted as a major factor in their demise.

Xabi Alonso, who was spotted stifling yawns during the first half, was watching from the stands as Liverpool cried out for some of his class and creativity in central midfield. Alonso's stature has grown with every game he hasn't played for Liverpool - sometimes out of proportion with what he actually achieved at Anfield.

As he left one young fan pleaded for him to return, a ploy as hopeless and misguided as the succession of long, aimless balls Liverpool banged towards a tiring Fernando Torres in the closing stages - a failing Alonso would have at least tried to remedy.

When questioned on Liverpool's continuing slide, Benitez - who must be running out of brave faces now - said: "It is a question of confidence not quality." If only this was true, because Liverpool's response to going behind lacked both confidence and quality.

Even The Kop looked and sounded like it had given up long before the end. No late Liverpool surge, no glimmer of hope, not even in another brief run-out for Alberto Aquilani.

Liverpool can point, with some justifcation, to Howard Webb's mystifying refusal to award a penalty when Steven Gerrard was fouled by William Gallas, but there has been enough papering over of the cracks recently and this would have been another example.

The next new start comes against Wigan at Anfield on Wednesday, but there have been so many at Liverpool this season that Benitez should keep a pair of jump leads handy in the dug-out.

So Wenger was in sprightly form as he leaped aboard the Arsenal coach for the journey back to the capital after a weekend in which almost all the cards fell nicely in his favour.

Arsenal were unconvincing, even in victory, but the joy for Wenger comes in the knowledge his team still had enough about them to get three points - which is more than can be said for Chelsea and Manchester United.

Wenger insisted on Friday that the bar had been lowered on what will be needed to win the title. This weekend proved him right.

Germany's Michael Ballack plays down World Cup chances

Germany captain Michael Ballack says his side are not among the favourites to win next year's World Cup.

Their group also includes Australia, Serbia and Ghana and the 33-year-old Chelsea star believes getting through that will be a challenge in itself.

"We do not have the consistency or strength in depth in the squad," Ballack told Kicker magazine.

"We have been too weak, particularly in friendlies, to be able to say that we have the class to beat everybody else."

That said, Germany have a well-deserved reputation as high achievers at the World Cup, whether they have the best players or not.

West Germany won the trophy in 1954, 1974 and 1990, while the unified country were runners-up in 2002 and third on home soil in 2006 when many pointed to a lack of high-quality players.

They have qualified for every one of the 16 World Cups they have entered and reached the last eight or better every time since 1938.
But Ballack added: "You can forget about us having had the luck of the draw - we have a tough group and all three opponents are uncomfortable and physically very strong.

"We are going to have to put our foot down from the very beginning. Focusing on big games has always been one of the strengths of German teams."

Germany, coached by Joachim Low, are likely to rely heavily on Ballack, along with the likes of fellow midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and strikers Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose.

Germany's next game before the World Cup is a friendly against Argentina in Munich on 3 March.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Liverpool triumph relieves pressure on Benitez

LIVERPOOL (AFP) - Liverpool bounced back from their premature Champions League exit to beat neighbours Everton 2-0 on Sunday, a result which relieved some of the pressure that has been building on manager Rafa Benitez.

Javier Mascherano's long range 12th minute effort, which took a heavy deflection off defender Joseph Yobo, set Liverpool on their way before Dirk Kuyt sealed victory 11 minutes from time.

It was enough to put a smile back on the face of Benitez, who has come under pressure since the five-times European champions were eliminated from the group stages of the Champions League in midweek.

The win lifted Liverpool into the top five while problems continue to mount for Everton, who were the better side for long periods.

Having won just once in 11 games, David Moyes's strugglers are three points above the relegation zone.

Benitez had demanded an aggressive, high-tempo start from his players and he got one as his side took control inside the opening quarter-of-an-hour - thanks to a huge slice of fortune.

Liverpool have found themselves out of luck on the injury front this term while they were undone at Sunderland last month by a beachball, Darren Bent's effort deceiving keeper Jose Reina after hitting an inflatable object as Benitez's side lost 1-0 on Wearside.

But this time Liverpool profited from a stroke of good fortune in the 12th minute as Mascherano, one goal in his previous 71 Premier League outings for the club, attempted to find the target from 25-yards.

The south American is not renowned for his accuracy from distance and his shot was drifting well wide before taking a heavy deflection off Yobo and finding the net with Tim Howard rooted to his line.

Mascherano celebrated as though he had scored the winning goal for Argentina in the World Cup final yet the Premier League's dubious goals panel is almost certain to award to as an own goal.

It was just the start Everton, their confidence fragile following a run of one win in 10 outings, did not want.

History was against Moyes, who had tasted success just twice over Benitez on the Premier League stage in five years.

Yet despite missing key players Phil Jagielka, Phil Neville and Mikel Arteta due to long-term injuries, and Louis Saha, scorer of 10 goals this season, unable to start because he is not fully fit, Everton refused to feel sorry for themselves.

They went on to carve out a string of chances without managing to hurt Liverpool before half time.

Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, playing in his first Merseyside derby, spurned the best chance, the Russian screwing a shot horribly wide from the edge of the six-yard area after the Liverpool defence fell asleep.

Jo, spearheading the attack on his own in place of Saha, twice had the ball in the back of the net but both efforts were ruled out for offside.

Liverpool, again missing the razor sharp reactions of Fernando Torres in attack, seemed content to soak up spells of Everton pressure in an error-strewn match which summed up why both teams are not firing on all cylinders.

Yet it required a superbly saved by Howard to ensure Liverpool did not double their lead in the closing moments of the half.

Johnson was once again as impressive going forward as he was in defence, and it was the England full-back's pinpoint cross into the area which allowed Emiliano Insua to power a header towards goal which Howard did well to claw away.

The second half saw Everton continue to press, the impressive Steven Pienaar coming close to embarrassing Jose Reina with a long range effort which the Liverpool keeper failed to hold in the driving rain.

But Reina quickly redeemed himself with a double save to deny Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini 20 minutes from time.

Having kept out Cahill's close range header, the Spanish international quickly picked himself up to block Fellaini's effort from point-blank range.

But Liverpool sealed victory in the 79th minute through Kuyt, the Holland international scoring from close range after Howard had pushed an effort by substitute Albert Riera into his path.

Watford first up for FA Cup holders Chelsea

LONDON (AFP) - Holders Chelsea set out on the first steps towards a defence of their FA Cup crown with a home tie against Championship side Watford, finalists in 1984, in the third round draw made on Sunday.

West Ham will host London rivals Arsenal, who last lifted the trophy in 2005 and have not picked up any silverware since, in one of three all Premier League fixtures.

The other two top-flight affairs see Aston Villa host Blackburn and Hull travel to Wigan.

Everton, the side Chelsea beat under then interim coach Guus Hiddink in last season's final, welcome League One side Carlisle to Goodison Park.

The Toffees' Merseyside rivals, seven-time winners Liverpool, were drawn against second-tier Reading.

Non-league Kettering could be set for a dream trip to Old Trafford to face 11 time winners Manchester United should they manage to negotiate their second round replay with Leeds.

Either Oxford or Barrow will definitely get the chance to claim a Premier League scalp, with the winner of their replay set for a trip to Sunderland's Stadium of Light, while York, from the semi-professional ranks of the Blue Square Premier league (the fifth division) travel to Stoke.

Another non-league side, Staines Town, who forced a replay with 2004 finalists Millwall at Wheatsheaf Park, have the incentive of a home tie with Derby.

The 2008 winners Portsmouth have been drawn at home against Coventry.

Of the remaining Premier League clubs Manchester City will return to Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium, Tottenham host Peterborough, Bolton are at home to Lincoln, Fulham face Swindon, Wolves will meet either Tranmere or Aldershot and Birmingham are away to Nottingham Forest.

Blatter breaks silence to reveal Henry support

PARIS (AFP) - FIFA president Sepp Blatter has revealed that he telephoned France captain Thierry Henry to offer him support over his controversial handball in the World Cup play-off win over Ireland.

"I called Thierry, because he tried to get in touch with me," Blatter said, as reported in Sunday's edition of the L'Equipe sport newspaper.

"He was honest by admitting that he did use his hand, but it wasn't his responsibility to tell the referee.

"When I was a centre forward in my junior team, I definitely gained an advantage by pulling a defender's jersey in order to score a goal. And I didn't go and see the referee to tell him about it."

The FIFA chief had previously refused to comment on the incident, prompting criticism from Football Association of Ireland (FAI) chief executive John Delaney.

Blatter added: "In the specific case of the Henry handball, the referee (Martin Hansson) should have taken the time to reflect rather than immediately awarding the goal."

France's play-off with Ireland was poised at 1-1 on aggregate in the second leg in Paris when Henry controlled the ball with his hand before teeing up William Gallas for the decisive goal, sparking furious protests from the Irish players that were taken up by the Irish government.

Henry's international colleague Karim Benzema also spoke out in defence of his under-fire team-mate.

"I don't think he's a cheat. We mustn't forget everything that he's done for the France team," Benzema said on the TF1 football programme Telefoot broadcast on Sunday morning.

Asked if he realised that Henry had handled the ball in the build-up to Gallas's goal, the Real Madrid striker replied: "No, I didn't know."

"You know, you don't know (how you would react in that situation), it happens quickly," he added.

Henry and Benzema will be on opposing sides in the first 'El Clasico' of the Spanish season on Sunday evening, when Benzema travels to face Barcelona with Real Madrid.