11 games to go, where can Arsenal pick up points?

First off, I’d like to thank guest columnists Chary and Grimbo for their columns this weekend, it was a welcome break for me from the blog to have others writing and I know that a lot of you enjoyed both articles immensely as well. It’s just one week and three days before I’ll be over in London myself and I owe both lads a pint.

I had a look around this morning and apart from the hilariously myopic Graham Poll hatchet job where he actually asks why Wenger doesn’t complain about the referee giving Arsenal a soft penalty and a spate of stories about why Pompey aren’t going out of business, there isn’t much going on today. So, I had a look at the last 11 League games for Arsenal, Chelsea, and Man U and came up with a little bit of a prognostication of how the run-in will go.

But first, let’s tackle Graham Poll. Seriously, Arseblog suggests we tackle him and I think a two-footed Lorik Cana lunge from behind should do nicely. Poll’s column today is one of the strangest pieces of fiction I’ve seen in a while and it has the tone of someone who has been schooled by the master and instead of addressing the issues in a debate, shifts the terms a bit. It’s the adult equivalent of being shut down over the Hansson issue and saying “yeah??? well, what about the fact that Bendtner was OFFSIDE against Sunderland??? HUH?? What about THAT???”

That’s right, folks, Graham Poll claimed that Bendtner was offside for the goal on Saturday. You can watch for yourself, both Bent and Ferdinand are guarding Eboue and both players play Bendtner onside.  It’s an astonishing claim, but not surprising since Poll makes a living now off of people clicking his column and nothing gets more clicks than making up stupid shiat about Arsenal.

I also want to mention the Ashley Cole saga is getting a bit strange. The latest  reported affair took place with some councilman’s aide here in Seattle when Chelsea were on their American tour. I don’t really care who he sleeps with or who she sleeps with I just think the whole thing is funny. First, the Independent looks into the girl’s past and notes that she went to “the prestigious Western Washington University” and that nearly made me spit out my coffee. I don’t know if I’d call Western “prestigious.” It’s a University, that you can get in to, if you’re a High School graduate, and you apply.

Maybe there’s a different standard for higher ed in England, but over here, if you graduate from High School and are willing to take on $50,000 in debt you can get a Bachelor’s degree from somewhere. That somewhere is a place like Western, or if you can’t get in there, try Central, or Eastern, or if your grades are really bad you can always get into Wazzu (WSU). In fact, I think the only test that WSU requires is at least a 1.2 on your BAC (blood alcohol content).

So, anyway, Ashley Cole is a slut, but then Arsenal supporters already knew this. After all, he whored himself out to Chelsea.

Right, enough laughing at the tabloids, there’s serious Arsenal talk to be, uhhh talked about. Arsenal, Chelsea, and Man U all have just 11 games left in the season and supposedly Arsenal have the easiest run in. Much of the supposition about the ease of our run-in comes from the fact that our two biggest games in the last 11 are Tottenham and Manciti while Man U and Chelsea have to play each other, Liverpool, City, and Tottenham.

So, I had a look at the table and made the following assumptions:

  1. The top three will remain the top three because the gap is 9 points with 11 games to go. They will try to win every game because they all believe that they can win the title.
  2. The next 5 teams (down to Everton) are going to play balls out the rest of the season because they all see themselves as Champions League material or they are Everton and Moyes’ team never surrenders. They will try to win every game.
  3. The next 4 teams (Fulham, Birmingham, Stoke, and Blackburn) are in that happy zone now. Relegation doesn’t look at all likely because they are at least 7 points clear of that. Those teams are ripe for the plucking.
  4. The last 7 teams are in the fight of their Premiership lives. Just 4 points separates 7 teams from relegation. They will not go into any battle against any team lightly. They are the spoilers.
  5. Pompey’s job is not to get liquidated and thus fuck up the entire league table.

So, there are 11 games left, 33 points up for grabs and a 6 point gap to overhaul against Chelsea how do we do it? Well, like I wrote a while ago it’s all about wins.

If you look at the table, the difference between 3rd and 2nd place is that Man U converted one draw into a win. So, what we need from Chelsea is actually a bunch of draws. We don’t need them to lose, we just need teams like Man City, Stoke, Tottenham, Villa, Man U, West Ham, Blackburn, Liverpool, and Bolton to fight hard for the draw.  If they draw 5 of their last 11 we could even lose a game and overhaul them.

Chelsea drawing 5 of their last 11 is a tall order right? Hmmm… Man City, Man U, Tottenham, Villa and Liverpool will all be fighting to the last so I don’t think it’s impossible.

Man U has a bit of a favorable schedule, mostly playing their games at Old Trafford but they are also the most vulnerable since their squad relies so heavily on one player (Looney). Moreover, at the back they looked very weak on Saturday and I fully expect that they will finish 3rd this year.

I have maintained all season that Arsenal will push Chelsea for the title this year (though not ruling out Man U) and these last eleven games are the point where they live up to my prediction. The Boss says the atitude is right, the injuries are healing, and the squad looks strong going forward and combined with the easier schedule there’s a real chance here.

Arsenal can get to within 3 on Saturday when they host Manciti and we play Long Throw at the Britannia.

Bruce’s charges niggle in vain

Following a mildly disappointing reverse at the Estadio do Dragoa on Wednesday we faced a Sunderland side that were shorn of key players and in a very average run of form, however crossing the North Bridge and walking along the circumference of the stadium near the railway line I heard a roar from the stadium – I couldn’t have missed an early goal surely? It was actually the reaction to the Toffees scoring their third goal against the indebted ones who inhabit Old Toilet, in Salford, Lancashire (my dislike for the club is such I can barely bring myself to use anything even close to their proper name) so the omens were good. We could make ground on at least one of the two teams above us.

Ashburton Grove on a Saturday afternoon has a different quality to a weekday evening especially in the family enclosure, which is were I was today, at the South end near the corner flag on the same side as the managers dug-outs. The screams and shouts were at a higher pitch than the anywhere else in the stadium – the mascot for the day even sat down two rows in front of me and further lowered the average age in my block.

To be fair to the opposition the Sunderland supporters (a.k.a the Mackems) pretty much filled their allocation and were vocal in spells although when the chant of “Stand up if you hate…. (insert name of local bitter rivals)” that every football crowd has started the “up” would sound like “oop” as one would expect from our northern opponents; we don’t call teams of their ilk “northern monkeys” for no reason!

As is customary we attacked the goal at my end in the first half and early on we had a taster of who would be the man of the match – Eboue, a surging run, followed by a teasing of the full back with dummying and weaving followed by a whipped in dangerous cross. It’s staggering that a player who was disliked by a significant minority of the fans last year has now turned out to be such a potent, attacking threat down the right, even when playing as a full back.

Repeatedly he skinned the Sunderland left back in a way we were hoping Theo would. It would be fair to say Theo is no longer the firm fans favourite he used to be, partly because of his indifferent form this season (however his fitness problems would account for some of this) but also due to him having been with us for four years but not improved to the extent we hoped he would.

We saw today he still had the pace to get past the full back; where Theo used his speed Eboue used trickery and changes of direction to cut through the defence.

From the beginning we exploited the wide positions on both sides, Nasri constantly turning his marker inside out with his wriggling, feigning and serving so that chances were being created aplenty, but of course with no genuine striker on the pitch it took till nearly half an hour was up before yet another scoring chance was finally converted. Watching Eboue run up to my corner I could see the full effect of his jinking run on the defence and as one defender moved to the goal and another away to close down Eboue a line of sight to goal opened up – “Go on, put your cross in thought that gap” I thought – and he did; Bendtner merely had to finish his run into the box for the tap in. The goal was all down to the Ivorian, as shown by how the rest of the forward players piled forward over to the corner flag in front of me to congratulate him. The red and white striped hordes opposite me were motionless, a few crossed arms were scattered across the away section, largely despondent by then.

Before the Bendtner goal the Mackems seemed content to contain our forward play but the undercurrent of niggly tackles surfaced a bit more as certain Arsenal players were singled out for special attention. Again Cesc took a battering and I saw Theo hauled down off the ball to prevent him running onto passes, Richardson and Cana both guilty of late tackles, the latter given only a yellow when his two footed lunge on our right back was worthy of a red. Clearly Sunderland’s lack of possession was frustrating them into snide, dirty tackling which the referee seemed quite happy to allow, perhaps the rotund and shell-suited Bruce’s who had become more animated as his side went behind used some hand signals to suggest “leave your foot in late, let them know your there” as their play descended into a scrappy, ugly style of play.

In the second half the previously blue sky and sunshine gave way to a gun metal grey cloud covering and the temperature dipped as the game continued as it had been for the first forty five minutes – all attacking threat from us with lack of finishing leading to missed opportunities to extend our lead.

After the hour Mark Bennet the referee decided to give Sunderland a number of undeserved free kicks. One was when Vermaelen and Jones both went for a high clearance from the Sunderland keeper into our box and as the ballooned away from both of them the Verminator tripped over and caught Kenwynne Jones ankle and brought him down – but well after the ball had gone. Before that Silvestre (affectionately called “Fish-head” by some) used his strength to hold off Bent and was penalised for a “shoulder-to-shoulder” coming together. Now I’ve never been a fan of Fish head but being completely objective about his performance today I have to say I only counted two misplaced passes – otherwise he contained the Bent/Jones forward line well.

With us being only one goal in front I feared one of the many incorrectly awarded free kicks that were being given against us would result in an equalizer for Sunderland and during the last ten minutes of the game the tension around the ground was palpable. Up till then Sunderland only managed two definite chances, a shot scuffed wide by Jones and a later chance where a cross only needed a prod from Bent to score when he actually just brushed the ball with the outside of his foot – how we laughed at him, and he knew it!

Ramsey had a good game too (one bit of ball retention while he’d been upended drew sustained applause and appreciation from us) yet he gave away the ball in two just as critical positions and while he got a little bit of negative feedback from the crowd for this, this was nothing compared to the flak Bendtner got for his attempt to win a penalty, Talking to someone who was in the north end of the stadium it was clear our Dane won few friends with his feeble dive.

As a few flakes of sleet fell on me, being only eight rows back and uncovered by the roof I began to curse the late spell of referee-assisted Sunderland pressure on our goal. Almunia also got some studs in his face from further dirty play by Sunderland.

Perhaps Bennet realised he was overly favouring Sunderland and that may be why we were finally awarded a penalty – a true collectors item post Eduardo-gate. From my end of the ground I couldn’t tell what had been awarded initially, no such doubt when Cesc netted the penalty and the tension lifted.

After celebrating the first goal

Eboue-Bendtner in the corner

Cesc and Nasri prepare for a corner

So we gain three points on the unmentionables, to cut the deficit to two, but the team led by the all-round despicable captain stay six clear of us. A satisfying return to winning ways but another stiff test awaits us next Saturday at Stoke.

Hey, how about practising defending long throws this week Arsene?

Arsenal v. Sunderland; they are all must-win from here on in

Arsene Wenger is being both maligned and hailed for his criticism of referee Martin Hansson’s insane decision to give Porto a quick free kick against Arsenal. Yes, hailed but mostly maligned.

Wenger claims that there were no less than 5 technical mistakes in the award of the free kick and reading Walter Broeckx’ piece over at Untold Arsenal describing the technical mistakes he saw as a referee himself does tend to shed some light on exactly what went wrong. Walter’s a referee and Wenger’s a footballing genius while their critics tend to be, well, to be fair, at best “pundits” and at worst “shit stirring press corpse click whores” so while I might have an opinion about the decision I’m going to defer to the experts.

Funnily enough, Graham Poll, the Daily Fail’s supposed expert in all things refereeing, tries to back up Hansson but doesn’t offer a shred of evidence to do so. In fact, the photos on the site back up Walter and Wenger’s claims that the referee failed to signal, took control of the ball, and obstructed Sol from getting into the play. I reproduce them here so that you don’t need to click on that rag:

Of course the press are portraying the Arsenal manager’s comments in his presser as an attack or as if he was over-the-top in tone or content, he wasn’t. Arsene was calm and collected, rational and thoughtful and simply stated that he suspects, given the evidence, that Hansson is an incompetent referee. As you read this statement in full read it in a calm voice, that’s how Wenger delivered his judgment:

The rule is quite clear. I don’t want to go too much into details but he made at least five technical mistakes.

You cannot give a quick free-kick when the referee is in the middle of the action. When people play quick free-kicks, the referee whistles but he is far from the ball, the guy puts the ball down and plays quickly. If he is there in the middle, where the free-kick is, he cannot give a free-kick anymore. He has to make sure the opponent is at nine meters distance and, in that case, the opponent had to be on the goal-line. And, apart from all that, where he gave free-kick in the wrong place.

For example, he missed 100% a penalty on Rosicky. That is a judgment in a second that I can accept but once it gets to a technicality and he has made a decision. For me the back pass of Sol Campbell was accidental but he has judged it. OK we have a difference there. OK that I can accept. But, technically, so many mistakes. Where he stands is completely wrong at the moment he gives a free-kick.

I believe he is incompetent or dishonest, so I prefer to believe he is not competent.

Usually, I trust the referee, I never have any bad intention but when I speak with referees, I just wanted to understand why he made so many technical mistakes.

Wenger goes on to say that he doesn’t like to look at who is going to referee before the game and I actually think this might be a bit of a failing on his part because I always look at who is going to referee the game and I’m usually right about what type of game they are going to have.

For example, Steve Bennett is in charge of the Sunderland game and I’ve already noticed a pattern from him: utter shite. More specifically, he refereed both this year’s Hull game and the 2008 Wigan game; both wins for Arsenal and both marred by unruly play set off by Bennett calling fouls differently for the less technical team than he did for the Arsenal.

This would normally benefit a team like Sunderland who in Steed Malbranque, Lee Cattermole, Lorik Cana, and Kenwynne Jones have a side that enjoys kicking teams off the pitch and putting themselves about physically. With Cattermole out due to suspension and Malbranque a question mark, some of the edge to their game will certainly be lost and thus some of Bennett’s ability to ruin Arsenal’s day will be diminished. I’m not saying that Cana and Jones won’t cause trouble, they certainly will be hard opponents, rather that some of the edge will be taken off.

Probably the person we most need to worry about is Darren Bent who has scored 4 times in 6 matches against top 4 opponents. He’s also getting serious and has decided to put down the Twitter and pick up a football for Sunderland’s run-in. It’s just symbolic, but sometimes that kind of thing can help give your team a little push.

Symbolically, Arsenal’s captain took a moment on the plane home after the Porto loss to apologize to the traveling fans and frankly, I put that much higher than simply giving up Twitter. There’s no question that Cesc loves Arsenal and that he wants desperately to win something for the fans. If you think losses like the one against Porto are hard for you to take, you can multiply that over and over again for the way that Arsene and Cesc feel after a loss.

If Arsenal can control the midfield and stay on the attack, Bent will cut a lonely figure up front for Sunderland. Moreover Bent is not nearly the threat on the counter that other teams like Man U and Chelsea have so this could play into the hands of Arsenal’s attacking style. Moreover, Arsenal will be hungry to get back on track and pay Sunderland back for the 1-0 loss that followed Nationalism break earlier this year.

The good news for the team is that Manuel Almunia is passed fit in today’s practice and is an option for keeper. How many of us thought we’d get so desperate at keeper that we’d be excited about the prospect of getting Manuel Almunia back?

Speaking of season surprises, how many of you at the start of the season would have been happy to hear this news — Alex Song is healthy for tomorrow? Certainly with Diaby on his bi-weekly injury Song is absolutely needed to help balance out the attacking edge of Arsenal and push Bent and Jones around, at least a little.

At the back, there’s no news on Sol Campbell other than Wenger’s statement that he was a bit tired after Porto. Gallas is out for at least two weeks now, and if Sol’s not able to go, Silvestre will be given the nod. Fingers crossed that Sol is ready, even at 63 years old he’s still got a ton of class and defensive ability. Plus he’s the best header in the side and Arsenal will need to be very careful on set plays against the Sunderland giants.

Sadly, the game is on Setanta here in the US and Doyle’s won’t be opening until 8am and is delaying the game until 10am. I’ll be there, if you’re in town stop by and watch the game with me. I won’t be making a blog tomorrow but 7amkickoff’s Man at the Match, Chary, has promised us a match report after. So, please feel free to use this as a comment thread, until that report comes out.

See you later and remember… it’s goo goo goo to be a GOONAH!