Arsenal v. Barcelona, Arsenal v. West Ham; we’ve seen this road before

The road to the Champions League final has never been easy for Arsenal. Last time, it took a series of clean sheets , a brilliant individual goal from Thierry Henry to get past Real Madrid, and an amazing performance from a teenaged Cesc Fabregas over his idol and mentor Patrick Vieira to get past Juventus in order to get to the promised land. This year, we first face favorites Barcelona and then one of either Inter Milan or CSKA Moscow in the semi-final if we are to get back.

First we have to get past Barcelona, who have the in-form team, the in-form player of the year, and are the team no one wanted to play. It’s been four years almost since the last time Arsenal played Barcelona and some of the names have changed, some have gotten older, and some have come back. It was the game that had everything; a red card for Lehmann, Pires being substituted for Almunia, the 10 men Arsenal going ahead through a Sol Campbell header, Arsenal legend Thierry Henry missing a golden chance, and Barcelona taking the game at the end through two quick goals.

In the end, Arsenal got runner’s up medals and that Arsenal side was slowly dismantled and has taken 4 years to build up to the team we have today. A team that is challenging for the League title and who are 4 matches from reaching the finals again. There will be time for a more in-depth analysis of Barcelona ahead of the match on the 31st but I did want to highlight the history and the oddness of Sol re-signing for Arsenal and possibly getting to play them again (Gallas’ injury is still ongoing). There’s one other fact I’d like to highlight; the first leg is at the Emirates on the 31st and that is followed by a visit of the Wolves on that Saturday. That would make a memorable trip wouldn’t it? Especially since the first leg of that Champions League match will, in all likelihood, decide the tie for Arsenal: a big win in the first leg will give us some confidence going to the Camp Nou.

But that’s weeks away, up next is relegation threatened West Ham and all of Arsenaldom is itching to get some revenge on the Hammers, go back to the top of the table for a day, and solidify our title credentials. West Ham, for their part, aren’t going to lie down and let us beat them like Mick McCarthy’s Wolves did against Man U or like Avram Grant’s Pompey are threatening to do for the rest of the season. Rather, it’s looking like Gianfranco Zola is under the axe with three straight losses and another, even to Arsenal away, could spell the end of his career at West Ham. So, despite their abysmal record of late, I expect a fully committed West Ham to come out and try to get some points.

West Ham are missing several key defensive players but they have Carlton Cole back and he could get the start up front in what some are suspecting will be a Hammer’s 4-5-1. Noble is missing for them in the midfield but talismanic midfielder Scott Parker is expected to get a kick or two in.

Arsenal have Alex Song back from suspension and Cesc back from injury. With William Gallas out one of either Silvestre or Campbell will play. I suspect Campbell will play today and be rested against Birmingham where Silvestre will play so that Sol can play in the first leg against Barcelona. Unless by some miracle William Gallas gets healthy, in which case Gallas is a shoo-in for Barca.

The rest of the team picks itself at the moment and for me the player to watch is Nicklas Bendtner. His scoring record against relegation fodder is quite impressive and he is in a fine vein of form at the moment with 6 goals in his last 5 games and 3 in his last 4 League matches. This isn’t ruling out Arshavin scoring, he’s nabbed two in his last three while setting up 2 against Porto, nor Cesc who has a goal in each of the last three plus 2 assists in the 3-1 win against Stoke’s leg breaking cunts.*

Could West Ham surprise and give up in this match in order to go for points against Wolves next week? Could Arsenal come out and put on a goal-scoring masterclass with all of these in-form players hitting the nets at the moment? I am loath to predict any outcomes but I suspect we might see something special tomorrow, a sort of message to Barcelona that Arsenal are their equals.

The match kicks off at 10:30am local time which is a late start over here owing to the fact that George W. Bush managed to ruin time in America and we are temporarily -7 hours GMT. The game is live on Fox Soccer Channel and I will try to get a liveblog going for you all if I can get Aveline out of the house (she’s 2 now and won’t let me have a moment to myself anymore). If not, well, I don’t know what I’ll do.

See you tomorrow.

*Sorry but with Ryan Shawcross coming out unapologetic and promising to break more legs this week I’m at a loss for words to describe them. “Scum” or “dicks” just doesn’t seem to capture the rage I’m feeling.

Champions League Draw Comment Thread

According to UEFA the Champion’s League draw takes place at 11am GMT which is 3am my time so you’ll pardon me if I won’t get up live to see that.  However, some of my European readers have requested a thread to discuss the draw both as it happens and their after thoughts, who am I to deny my loyal readers their 3am PST discussion threads?

Anyway, here’s a breakdown of the 8 teams in the draw and at least one interesting thing about each team which should get you all talking.

Arsenal: You know how I feel about this team! I love them and think they have something really special going for them this year. Half of me is torn between getting an easier draw and getting a tough opponent out of the way right off rather than waiting until the finals. At home they are very tough to beat as evidenced by their 5-0 dismantling of Porto. Away, they have been defensively lapse at times giving up easy goals to soft competition. Cesc is the heart of the team but they need big games from the others (like Bendtner) and to  stay focused in defense to get through to the next round. Could Sol Campbell help lead Arsenal back to the promised land?

Barcelona: I’d say “you need look no further than Lionel Messi” but then I’d be a moron. By most objective accounts the strongest team in the competition and the one that everyone is looking to avoid on their current form. The reason they are so strong is of course down to Lionel Messi but they also have a very experienced back line anchored by Tarzan Puyols and a solid midfield defensive duo in Grandma Toure and Busquets which leaves room for their more creative players like Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and some old dude named Thierry Henry to work their magic. Teams can get at them and it will be interesting to see how they respond to a foul-a minute team like Inter.

Bayern: Chelsea reportedly have their eye on Frank Ribery to add some youth and flash to their pack of losers, cheats, and despicable people this summer but who they should be looking at is getting back their former winger Arjen Robben. The former Chav has been simply superb in the Bayern attack and could prove to be a giant killer. That’s right, I said it, they are underdogs here, lot’s of teams will be hoping to get them in the next round.

Bordeaux: The team that everyone has taken lightly. They have not only gone undefeated since the opening draw away to Juventus, they have won every match. That’s 7 wins on the trot and only 2 goals conceded. They will be missing their captain and volante, Alou Diarra, for their first game after he picked up a red card for a foolish lunge against Olympiacos but they are a resilient team with several attacking options up front. Look out for reported Arsenal summer target, Marouane Chamakh, he’s a good header of the ball.

CSKA: Uhhh… did Arshavin play for them or something? Who do they have now? A guy named Honda? Ok… Look, I don’t know much about them (obviously) but I do know that they play on plastic and I know that no one, NO ONE wants to travel to Russia.

I’ve seen a bunch of Inter games this year, unfortunately, and they are exactly what you’d expect from a Jose Mourniho led team: disciplined, defensive, defenders of defense. In the last round they literally beat up Chelsea who are known throughout the Premier League as the team which normally does the beating. Personally I’d love it if they could play United and get Fergie apoplectic over the fouls they will dish out to Rooney. They could ruin England’s world cup chances there, I think. Also, remember Samuel Eto’o? They guy who scored on Arsenal for Barca? He plays for them. They can be gotten at, though. Domestically I have seen them beaten more than once with the latest coming at the hands of Catania. A lot of people made a big deal of Snjeider’s performance and he may be pivotal. Will be missing several key defenders through yellow cards for the first leg.

Lyon: opinion is starkly divided on this team and here’s where I fall — they beat Liverpool and £250m Real Madrid to get here, they deserve respect. Not only that but they are part of a pack of 6 teams that are all within 3 points of the Ligue 1 title, so they are not small change domestically either. They have the belief that they can beat anyone and a devil-may-care attacking style which is a dangerous combination. Their goal-keeper, Hugo Lloris, is mooted daily as a fan favorite for Arsene Wenger to buy so he must be good, right?

ManU: we already know everything there is to know about this club, they are in the papers every day with a fresh hagiography on why Wayne Rooney is like 3 Messi’s and a Ronaldo plus Captain America and He-Man all rolled into one! The only consolation in drawing them is that we get a chance to avenge the two defeats this season (the first was luck + a dive) and that they would have to play us, then Chelsea (in the league) and then us again and we could get a real boost domestically from that kind of fixture congestion. That and if we did beat them, and beat them in the same diving, cheating, disgusting fashion that they beat us, then I might start believing that there is a god and that it is a just god.

Right, I’m sure I left off a bunch of stuff or exposed everyone to the fact that I  “KNW NOFINK STIUCK TO GRID IRIN FOTTBAL!” But I don’t care, you wanted a thread, you got one, enjoy. I look forward to your comments.

New Kit, Injury Updates, and Champions League Roundup

Well, St. Pat Rice’s Day went off without a hitch and I managed to stay away from amateur hour at the local pubs last night. This was partially due to the fact that I was sick as a dog yesterday but also because of my absolute devotion to the tenants of St. Pat Rice: thou shalt watch Champions League football and comment on thy blog, thou shalt not drink, thou shalt get rest so that thou canst work in the morrow, and thou shall maketh polenta for dinner. Hmmm… don’t know where that last one came from, maybe from all the Italian-ness of the Champions League clash between Chelsea and Inter?

Anyway, as I posted yesterday there is a rumor going around in the form of a picture from a trusted source that Arsenal are going to put out a retro kit for the 2010/2011 season. The story basically broke back in February over at Arsenal Insider where they mocked up a shirt based on some information they got from a trusted source. Yesterday, both Arseblog and Gunnerblog got an email from another trusted source which leaked what looks a lot like an advertising mock up of a similar concept to the Arsenal Insider shirt of February.

The public response has been overwhelmingly positive, just as it was back in February. There’s definitely a huge demand for Arsenal to return to the red shirt with white sleeves. I like the concept shirts, I mean, I like them enough that I have a Toffs replica of the red and white shirt that grumpy Charlie George is wearing in this photo:

But my question is about squad numbers. What squad numbers are people going to wear? If we’re going retro can we put the number 10 on our number 10? Please?

In injury news, I actually tweeted yesterday that Cesc and Rosicky were back in training and that Song’s suspension was over for Saturday’s clash against the Hammers. Carlos Vela is also available and could be included in the squad, Eduardo DIDN’T pick up another injury, but Gallas’ calf strain is continuing to perplex medical science and Arsene Wenger and he is out for at least two more weeks — missing Wet Hams and Birming Hams. That’s a bit frustrating but with matches coming a week apart right now we should be able to rotate between Campbell, Silvestre, and Song until our next Champions League match which kicks off on the 30th.

Speaking of the Champions League we now know who we could get in the final 8 and will know who we will get around 3am my time tomorrow. I only got to see a small handful of non-Arsenal Champions League games this season and most of those came over the last two days as I was home sick. So, my opinion on who we should or shouldn’t get is, well, you should ignore it! I do know that Barcelona struggled a bit early on but on yesterday’s performance I have to say “wow, Messi is fucking amazing.” You don’t have to take my word for it, see for yourself:

Don’t get me wrong, I think Arsenal can take them because, uhhh, because we have Big Game Bendtner?* Realistically, no one wants to play Barcelona on their current form and just as realistically someone needs to play them so again, I don’t know. I do know that I watch Bordeaux and I have read about their amazing win streak in the Champions  League (7 consecutive wins) and I also know that they should have lost to Olympiacos yesterday.

Bordeaux looked very poor, not creating many chances and very naive on defense and only won the tie because of Chamakh’s brave header at the end. Speaking of Chamakh, he reminded me so much of Bendtner it’s not funny.  He screwed up a one-on-one with the keeper with a heavy touch and I could already see him getting stick  from the Arsenal support, but he’s a legit hold-up man and can play up front by himself. I think the biggest difference between him and Bendtner is that he’s very aggressive in the air, as his header at the end proves.

I don’t know if he’s signing for Arsenal and I don’t know where Wenger will put him since we’ll have van Persie, Bendtner, Walcott, Eduardo, Vela and now Chamakh. Maybe Wenger will realize his dream and play a 2-2-6? Irregardless where he plays it would be a change to have too many options at striker.

I also got to see the Chelsea v. Inter game and I have to wonder if Inter didn’t have their finest match and over-extend themselves a bit? I think Lucio and a couple others (at least two) will miss the next match due to accumulation of yellow cards and that could prove to be a real advantage to whoever plays them. Again we’ll have to see, if anyone knows for sure, please fill us all in in the comments.

The big story from that tie is the fallout. The Chelsea supporters are reportedly saying that the Champions League isn’t important to them, Abramovich has popped down to the training center and called his team out, and ESPNSoccernet is reporting that John Terry is set to recover from breaking a steward’s leg.** Other members of the British press have similarly leaped to the former England captain’s defense: Jaime Redknapp figured there was no intent so Terry should be left alone, Stan Collymore wrote that the steward was just too quick for John Terry and that the Range Rover lunged clumsily, and Tony Cascarino penned a piece saying that it wasn’t even a yellow light much less a hit and run.

Maybe the press can dig into the steward’s life a bit and see if he isn’t a foreigner and has a history of making a meal of getting run down?

Anyway, that’s it for today, match preview tomorrow along with a Champions League preview. Big day that!

*see 7amkickoff v. Tayo
**it’s not broken, it’s just a bruise but for the jokes to work, it has to be broken.