Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
Champions League Round of last 16: Arsenal vs. Bayern – 1:3
It’s almost exactly 8 years ago that these two met in this competition at precisely the same stage of 1/8 finals (February 23rd, 2005), with Arsenal ultimately getting knocked out on goal difference due to Bayern’s home win by 3 goals to 1 (Arsenal won the return leg 1-0). The two had locked horns before that in the 2000/2001 tournament, with Bayern also going through on that occasion, on the strength of a home win in Munich (1-0) that the Gunners could not overturn at home (2-2 at Highbury). So the historic odds were not favorable to the Londoners tonight, and given the form of the visitors, there is no huge shame in the evening’s final outcome (and especially considering that 2 of the 3 goals for the visitors were highly scrappy).
Back then in 2005, the result was definitely not a given, as Arsenal was still considered one of the favorites within the English Premier League (EPL), and Wenger & Ferguson formed a formidably intimidating & untouchable duo of senior football aristocrats that would invite much ire from new contenders, and notably a newly competitive Chelsea (under José Mourinho’s direction) and its defenders. So it was that I rejoiced with much glee at Bayern’s win 8 years ago with the following article (in French: http://www.subfoot.com/artman2/publish/2004_2005_39/Le_probl_me_de_la_France_Bayern_Munich_-_Arsenal_3_267.shtml – but don’t bother reading it, it’s mainly rubbish really).
Fast forward 8 years and, at the time of writing, Arsenal are 5th in the EPL and in their 13th consecutive season in the last 16 of Europe’s top clubs, a feat that very few can lay claim to (certainly not Manchester City, nor even great Fergie’s Manchester United, who – it should be reminded – were eliminated at the group stage by ‘lowly’ Basel last season). Yet, if you were to assess the situation only on the basis of UK tabloids’ reports (and around Europe generally, modern day lowest common denominator consensus obliging), you’d be forgiven for thinking that Arsenal are about to be relegated to oblivion to the netherworld i.e. the Championship and/or (shock horror) the Europa League. So it is that Wenger cuts an increasingly lonely and isolated figure each day, deemed to be out of touch with the faithful and generally assessed by the “experts” as being inept and responsible for the “ignominy” of Arsenal not collecting any titles for now eight consecutive seasons. Needless to say, you would not find many takers for a bet in Arsenal’s favour, and certainly not in the British media who were still busy digging their teeth into Wenger & his team for the home defeat in the FA Cup versus Blackburn Rovers on the weekend.
As a self-declared Mourinho die-hard supporter, it would be easy for me to rejoice at this witch-hunt against one of the most disingenuous managers in the history of the EPL (alongside Fergie). However, I’m not one to join with the chorus of the obvious. Not because of any sympathy with Wenger, but rather because the obnoxious sense of entitlement exuded by segments of Arsenal fans and especially a number of UK tabloid hacks (some of them disgruntled Arsenal fans) is simply so base & short-sighted that it is impossible to relate to with any degree of seriousness.
From the standpoint of criteria applying to any other profession, what Wenger has accomplished as general manager since taking over is simply outstanding. Not only is the club financially stable and debt-free, but Arsenal consistently competes at the top level on all four fronts (EPL, CL & the two cups) and furthermore offers a style of play that, while sometimes nerve-wrecking, is nevertheless broadly entertaining and technically laudable. Add to that an increasing propensity for supporting local British talent, and you have a near perfect recipe for an-all time darling for the cause of British football.
That it is not the case today is partly Wenger’s own fault, as his autocratic and generally defensive communication style has over the years alienated many. A lack of good fortune also played its part in near misses that might have allowed for more breathing space, such as the defeat to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final at the end of the 2011 season. Wenger probably has his share of blame in all this, at a technical level (coaching & recruitment skills in recognizing the importance of, and consolidating defensive capabilities) but potentially more so through the subtle but pernicious influence of his obstinate defense of the club’s impressively consistent but unglamorous results. By doggedly defending as a major achievement the club’s track record of finishing in the last 4 (of the EPL) and accomplishing decent runs in the Champions League, he has arguably contributed to lowering ambitions in the dressing room. It is impossible for outsiders such as journalists and fans to assess such things, one can at best speculate.
But fundamentally his low stock of late is less reflective of a real problem of competency than the paradox of modern football fans’ expectations, which were brilliantly illustrated by WSC in a recent issue (as below). At the end of the day, having tasted glory in the modern era, and despite the fact that they should know better than to envy the increasingly ridiculous shenanigans of Abramovitch and his poodles, or the outrageous financial dealings of the Glazers ilk, some segments of Arsenal fans (or is it really only journos, ultimately?) can’t help themselves but yearn for a piece of glory, and as time goes by, are increasingly prepared to throw caution to the wind just in order to have their 5 minutes of indulging greater fantasies of basking in the sunlight of a trophy. For victory is never guaranteed, it must be earned.
Funnily enough, it seems to me as if the real losers who need to prove themselves in all this were not the boys in red & white, but the ones in black. It has now been relegated to the archives, but few care to remember Bayern’s identity-tormenting 2006-2007 season that not only ended without trophies, but saw the club ‘demoted’ to a year in the Europa League, which at the time prompted scathing comments from that most sensuous of goalkeepers, Oliver Kahn. More recently, Bayern qualified for the Champions League final twice in the last 3 years, only to be outplayed both times, by Inter in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012, neither of which were seen as favorites on the day.
Like the German national team, Bayern Munich tend to impress in the early stage of competitions and the first few rounds of “when things get serious”, attracting plaudits from everyone including your mom to that annoying bloke at the office whose understanding of football stems solely from reading tabloid headlines. But they then proceed to fall flat at the critical moment like a deflated soufflé, and with remarkable regularity. Will it be so again this year, or will they finally show the mettle required of winners? If not, perhaps there is a bit of a challenge remaining for Pep Guardiola – the universal darling of all – to bring his managerial skills to bear. It would certainly help to counter what otherwise seems to be an illustration of a penchant for safety in his rather sedate choice to tie the knot with the Bavarian ogre that looks set to win the Bundesliga by a considerable margin. But then again, it will not be the first time that he inherits a well-developed structure & winning team to perform with – a fact that will be conveniently forgotten by all as soon as he wins any trophies. Because as we all know, success washes away all sins.
Russia – Czech Republic, June 8, 2012 – 20h45 kick off; 4-1
After this convincing display, albeit against an opposition that is more intimidating in terms historical achievements than present might on the pitch, Russia will certainly climb up in most specialists’ and especially tourists’ rankings as potential favorites. It’s always so with wins with significant goal margins. But to be fair, they did show good command of the ball and potency in attack, so it is actually not unfair for them to inherit the status of favorites to qualify from this group. A quick review of their essential features as per this tournament’s key assessment criteria.
Hollywood factor: Igor Denisov would be a great Russian baddie sidekick in a James Bond flick, but the problem is that the Russians have slipped down the bad guys’ pecking order.
Old/mean man kudos: With the singular exception of the youthful Dzagoev, the average age of the starting 11 is probably somewhere around 29 if not even 30, so there are many contenders for this role. Defender Aleksandr Anyukov looks the meanest though (see photo below).
French connection: There have not been many Russian players in Ligue 1. This is kind of surprising given the many lavish and luxurious facets of life in France. The low appeal of the hexagon may have to do with the high taxes, the absence of Russian owners, or simply the general lack of all round bling-bling status, though that may be changing rapidly as PSG prepares for another big splash this summer. But honestly, I don’t even feel like googling the players’ names, I am that unconvinced of finding anything (help is welcome as always).
New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: Alan Dzagoev – the very prospect of being able to lean on the simplicity of his first name for buddy-buddy post match interviews (for UK journos) places him above many on the shopping list for an early summer deal, not to mention his two great goals of the evening. If Roman doesn’t bite, don’t put it past Wenger to break the piggy bank (and try to definitely dispose of Arshavin in the process) for another promising quick-footed midfielder.
Hollywood factor: Although already 31, Arsenal’s own Tomáš Rosický conserves a youthful insouciance that is quite endearing (for example his haircut suggests he is no more than 15 years old). If Arnold Schwarzenegger is ever tempted for a reprise in his classic role, for example in Terminator 5, I would recommend Rosický to play alongside the former guvna as an older version of John Connor (that other kid in Terminator 3 was completely out of his depth). But really, let’s face it, it’s all gone terribly wrong since Jan Koller retired from national service. (copyrighted pun by prince O of Subfoot.com fame)
Old/mean man kudos: High of his Champions League performance, it should be Cech but that soft fuzzy helmet is suggestive of a lingering fragility not suited to the big boots that come with this responsibility. Though not exactly old at 26, Petr Jiráček’s has a potential bad boy/rock star look that put him in contention for this role (as well as a move to AS Roma). However, overall the boys in white are light on this key factor especially prized by Roy Keane, so they won’t be his favorites to make it through the next round.
French connection: Bordeaux’s own Jaroslav “mini-Nedved” Plasil, the talented but typically underachieving midfielder (as per the now established tradition of post 1990’s initially promising Czech talent). Seriously, it’s all gone terribly wrong since Jan Koller left Monaco.
New hype kid most touted to join the English Premier League: On a serious note, the young 23-year old Václav Pilař, who impressed with Viktoria Plzen in this year’s Champions League group stages, and elegantly converted the only Czech goal of the evening, could be a good buy for someone with a slightly longer term vision then the average EPL chairman. I bet David Moyes could make him fit in well at Everton.
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Historic moment of the match: The very smooth 2nd goal chip by Roman Shirokov.
Hero of the game: Alan Dzagoev, and notably for his convincing 2nd goal and passionate but classic celebration.
Harry Redknapp’s quip of the game: He’s good that Roman Pavlyuchenko guy, we should try to buy him for next season.