Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Arsenal can still finish fourth

When titles have become such a luxury, consecutive seasons of Champions League qualification is the sole moment of glory for Arsene Wenger. Nevertheless, another disastrous performance away from home put their hope for top four, so as Wenger's prospect at the club, in serious doubt.

It was their fourth defeat in their last five away games, which they conceded fifteen goals and only scored two. It was also the sixth out of last seven games that they failed to keep a clean sheet. Down this poor stretch, their only victory was the narrow win at White Hart Lane.

The resilience in defence shown against Manchester City was vanished. Everton's attack, fuelled by the speed of fullbacks Seamus Coleman, Leighton Baines and winger Kevin Mirallas, has torn the Gunners' defence apart. Although Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker remained relatively deep, Romelu Lukaku is a beast who requires more attention than Edin Dzeko. While they managed to keep the slower and more compact attack of Manchester City in check, Everton beat them with width and pace.

With a game in hand, mathematically Roberto Martinez's side has the advantage over Arsenal in the race for fourth. However, Gunners' supporters still have solid reasons to believe it will be their 17th season in a row to qualify for the Champions League.

Both Walcott and Ramsey were out injured
February and March have traditionally been the nightmare months for Arsenal, when injuries and fatigues are their biggest enemies. It is the same old story this year. Three of their best players in 2013 could not bring their forms into 2014. Aaron Ramsey went down in Boxing Day and suffered couple of injury setbacks. Olivier Giroud was simply burnt out as Wenger is short of options on the bench. Mehmet Ozil's impressive Premier League debut gradually fades away amidst the congested fixtures and ultimately is sent to the treatment room. What made the situation worse was Theo Walcott's lengthy absence since early January. 

However, don't forget another Gunners' tradition though --- they have the ability to finish the season on a high. The importance of Champions League football is well-understood in the dressing room and Wenger can inspire his side to recover from the poor run mid-season and hold off the challenge, recently by Tottenham, to secure the fourth spot by one point in the past two seasons. The remaining fixtures are as well quite favourable to Arsenal, with the majority of games at home and against teams with limited relegation threat.

On the other hand, the two Manchester giants are yet to line up at Goodison Park and the trips to Southampton and Sunderland are awaiting for the Toffees. The risk of dropping points is apparently higher than Arsenal.

Arsenal is also a far more superior side against weaker teams than top teams. The talent and creativity of their midfield enables them to disjoint opponents backline with the free-flowing attack. Having been able to dominate possession also eases pressure on their defence, who shows solidity but occasionally looks fragile against speedy strikers.

Lukaku is the key to Everton
Everton is at their best when playing counter-attack football. No wonder their records against top teams have been remarkable. On contrast, they sometimes struggle against teams who are determined to earn a draw, in particular when playing away from home. Points have already been dropped at Norwich, Cardiff, Crystal Palace, Stoke City and West Brom. Having Lukaku back healthy is a huge boost, but not known as a natural-attacking team, bagging three points could be a tougher task than imagined.

Everything appears to be flowing in the opposite direction for Arsenal at the moment. However, the talents and experience within the squad, as well as the favourable schedule ahead, they still have a good chance to come on top of Everton to grab the remaining Champions League spot. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Munich got the upperhand with a draw at Old Trafford

It is not too bad a result for David Moyes, considering the superiority of Pep Guardiola's side this season. The away goal, though, puts them in the position having to hunt for a goal at the Allianz Arena next week. A couple of points worth noting from the first leg:

(a) Welbeck's shyness in front of goal
His movement was so delightful, yet his finishing was so awful. After half an hour of tough defensive work, Danny Welbeck ruined a golden chance to give his team a significant morale boost. Captain Nemanja Vidic ultimately netted a well-deserved goal, but doubts remain with Welbeck who shows glimpse of talents but have also been consistently wasteful in front of goals. In the highest level of football, there is little margin for missed opportunities. This is also the key how Welbeck is differentiated from world class strikers.
While Manchester United pray his miss will not come back to haunt them, Moyes' continuous isolation of Javier Hernandez is growingly hard to justify. The Mexican's clinical finishing touch has been invaluable to United and makes him too good as a fourth-choice striker. Giving him this bit-part role only keeps him unsettled and unfit that does no benefit to Moyes at all.

The way to stop Schweinsteiger --- suspension
(b) Pep's suspension worries 
One of the talking points of the night would surely be Bastian Schweinsteiger's red card. Obviously, Wayne Rooney tried his best to make the most out of a routine challenge, a minute after fierce complaint to the referee for an unawarded foul, and only shortly after Antonio Valencia reckless tackle. Schweinsteiger was unlucky to be sent off, although he should be more careful after being booked, considering his significance to the team. With Thiago Alcantara out due to injury and Javi Martinez also being suspended following a cynical foul on Chicharito, Guardiola might be forced to field a more attacking midfield trio, featuring both Kroos and Gotze, and supported by Philipp Lahm.

The last time they played a similar formation in European was against Manchester City, which they lost after leading by 2-0. Bayern doesn't play important games without captain Schweinsteiger often. There will surely be loopholes and it will be up to Moyes to exploit them. One positive note for Pep would be Dante's return from suspension, such that he could still field a reliable back four.

(c) Moyes is more comfortable to defend
When it was quite clear that United, as an underdog entering the match, needed to defend, there was neither confusion nor mysterious selections in Moyes' game plan. The experienced pair Rio Ferdinand and Vidic was accompanied by Phil Jones and Alex Buttner who had orders to be less adventurous. Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini were also allowed to drop so deep to contain Toni Kroos in between the lines, with the willingness of the attacking trio to track back. Eventually, Bayern could only threaten the Red Devils with crosses, which gave little problems to Ferdinand and Vidic, who are still relatively comfortable in aerial battles, especially against Thomas Muller.

Vidic's aerobic header
Nevertheless, only one moment of lapse in Rio's concentration gifted substitute Mario Mandzukic the chance to set up the equaliser. Rio's fitness remains a concern whether he could sustain a high level of performance even for just 90 minutes. After all, Moyes might still go with his experience when playing at Germany next week, especially with Rafael, Johnny Evans and Chris Smalling far from fully fit.

Buttner was also forced off due to injury, but United will have Patrice Evra returning from suspension. Anyhow, the Netherland's left back deserved a huge credit for keeping his companion Robben quiet for most of the night and could be the unsung hero if Manchester United manages to go through to the last four.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Flops of England Referees

In the last 50 years, the men 100m world record has quickened by 0.5 seconds. Improved medical treatment and physiology helps athletes to be stronger and faster. Officials are expected to catch-up with the increased pace of the games. When the limit of human beings is being pushed to the boundary, technology is being called upon.

Various sports have already sought the assistance of technology. American sports have reasonable tolerance for in-game delays to allow for review systems. Even fast-flowing sports like tennis adapts Eagle-eye system and grant players opportunities to challenge questionable calls by umpire. Meanwhile, football has only begun to bring in goal-line technology to reduce controversy in close calls for goals, or even "ghost" goals.
Mr Mariner has been having a tough week
After all, as Mr Blatter insists, officiating is driven by human beings. Video replays still have to be reviewed by the referees. Also, there is certain scope of judgement still determined by referees rather than computers.
Officials in Premier League have been under the limelight lately. Unarguably one of the toughest leagues to officiate, the standard of the referees, though, are dipping worryingly. You can see referees giving out penalty although being 50 yards from the action, but also not giving one being obviously within eyesight distance. You can witness a red card being issued after two minutes of self-thinking. There seems to be no standard code of practice for officials, leading to inconsistency in judging level of punishment for cynical fouls and handling chaotic situation in games. Ultimately, players take advantage by trying to make the most out of the varying personal characters of referees.

When you look at Italy and Spain, the consistency of the standard of referees is outstanding. They may still make the wrong calls, remembering that they are not robots. However, the communication and understanding among the officials are excellent. They excel in establishing authority and controlling players' temper. They have clear criteria for physical contacts and more importantly, stone-hearted that they are not moved by the crowds or tempered players easily.
Chris Foy denied a conversation with Mourinho
It is understandable that referees make mistakes. With more cameras in the field, matches being broadcasted all over the world and local media also imposing pressure , modern officials are having tough time. Take Alberto Mallenco, or better known as the referee for El Clasico, as an example. Having got most of the calls right and done a relatively decent job to keep the intense derby flowing, he was widely criticised by Real Madrid for not having the fear-looking face as Pierlugi Collina and more importantly, wrongly sent off Sergio Ramos and awarding the penalty.

Fairly speaking, Neymar was sneaky to earn the foul. Mallenco could have granted Ramos the benefit of doubt. At least, he was logically correct to give the marching order after his determined penalty decision. Madrid had also benefited from Mallenco's excellence in spotting Dani Alves' clipping Ronaldo and earned a penalty, though the foul was marginally outside the box. Majority of the referees may not award the unobvious foul. Ancelotti's side should also count themselves lucky not down to ten men before half time, if Pepe's head-butting was appropriately penalised.
Howard Webb --- most respectable referee in England now
Premier League adopted a system to conduct post-match officiating correction. The effectiveness of it is in doubt. If Andre Marriner failed to identify Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to be the ball-handler, should Chamberlain be banned while Kieran Gibbs' suspension is lifted? While Alan Pardew was given a seven match-ban for head-butting David Meyler, Joe Hart was only being booked for the same vigorous reaction towards Chris Boyd, with the latter being banned for three matches, having been seen spitting towards Joe Hart in the post-match review. Although the logic that incidents being dealt with within the match will not be overruled in order to maintain the creditability of referees is valid, to some extent it is contradicting, unless red card appeals are also forbidden.

Mr. Blatter is not wrong after all. Officiating is a human being's job. We have already seen how crucial one single referee's decision can impact the outcome of a match, ultimately the title of a league. While FIFA has little intention to introduce more technology into football in the near future, England needs to improve the standard of referees, as well as reviewing the system to prevent it from faltering. Officials should drive the standard of the league forward, but not dragging it from developing further. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Some room to breathe, but still long way to go

To revert the humiliating scoreline at home on Sunday and advance to the last eight of Champions League is exactly the pain relief that David Moyes desperately needs. Another loss would almost mean the exit door is open for the "Chosen One".  It has been long since there was something supporters can cheer at Old Trafford. They will make the most out of it before the tough league fixtures in the week ahead.

Ryan the Saviour
On the scoresheet, it was Robin Van Persie who duly delivered the victory for the Red Devils. In truth, Ryan Giggs was deservedly the man of the match. The legs are well gone, but not the wisdom. Being economical with his touch, he kept United's attack flowing and was often the provider of threatening passes. His pinpointed diagonal overhead passes that led to the first two goals had said it all.
Giggs turned back the clock on Wednesday
At 40 years old, Giggs took advantage of the slower pace of the European football and has been far more productive in continental competitions. Being by far the best player on Wednesday evening, on one hand David Moyes cherishes the presence of the veteran, on the other hand fans would wonder who could they turn to in the more physical Premier League.

Can they go all the way?
Despite coming back from two goals down to win the tie, Manchester United was yet to show their invincibility. Being 3-0 up, Moyes again decided to opt for a conservative approach, rather than attempting to seal the deal. A more friendly deflection for Dominguez's freekick or if not of David De Gea's superb double saves, United would have been eliminated on away goal, let alone Olympiakos had been wasteful for the whole night.

Whether it was Moyes' tactics or the team chemistry not working well, in simple terms they appear to be the weakest among the last eight in the competition. While Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid are obviously more superior, individual flair of PSG and the pace of Dortmund could easily tear them apart. They might have a shot at Chelsea but Jose Mourinho's European experience gives Chelsea the edge. Atletico Madrid is distracted by local title race, but quality of Diego Costa, as well as the characters shown by the whole team under Diego Simeone has been sensational so far.
Maybe slightly over-optimistic
Weaker teams usually ride on strong spirit to spring a surprise. Nevertheless, inconsistency has often halted United's momentum and fails them to enjoy a long spell of victory throughout the season. The dream to qualify for next season Champions League by crowning the current campaign sounds more unrealistic than it used to be, when Sir Alex was still on the bench.

Europa maybe?
It is almost impossible to think about finishing in top four now, being 14 points away from Arsenal and Liverpool. A Europa berth at least limits the damage done this season.  Manchester City's League Cup title means the Europa place is extended to the sixth position, somewhere United would not have imagined they would finish at, not even outside. At the moment, they are three points behind Everton, who sits at sixth place with a game in hand, and are further five points away from Tottenham, a team who has a far more turbulent season than United does.
Mata: Lost
Moyes still struggles to find his best Eleven in Premier League. He could not get his new recruits going. Placing Juan Mata on the right is a strange move that never gets the best out of the Spanish, whereas Fellaini's mobility is well-exposed. Together with the aging defenders, this team is nowhere near promising.  

 Among the three in the race for Europa, Manchester United faces the toughest fixtures, having yet to be played Manchester City, Newcastle and Everton, with the latter two games away from home. The squad have the winning mentality to inspire a strong run to end the season, but from now they must treat every single match as an elimination tie. Victory in the derby next Wednesday could be the perfect catalyst.