Sunday, 17 March 2013

A vintage display this wasn't, but full points were taken...Yoda might say of Arsenal's 2-0 victory away at Swansea City.

The Swans
It is a testament to how far Swansea City have come since their return to the Premiership a mere season ago that Arsenal cannot take victory for granted when faced with this side from South Wales.
Their newfound reputation has come from some eye-catching displays and from a disciplined approach to the game—a discipline that has seen their effort crowned with a trophy already, securing a berth for them in Europe next year while fetching them some solid scalps from the first half of the season.
Top sides such as Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea—both Arsenal's competition for the top-four spots in the Premiership—are yet to play Swansea City in the run-in to the end of the season and cannot be guaranteed automatic victory against the Swans, something that should hearten Arsenal fans.

The Match
Perhaps it was the pedigree of their opposition that made Arsenal start tentatively, as has become their wont this season. Or maybe it was just this habit of starting slowly and digging themselves into a hole. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a good start for the Gunners.

The First Half
From a tactical point of view, the balance was all wrong in the midfield.
Abou Diaby had returned to the midfield to partner stand-in captain Mikel Arteta. Santi Cazorla reverted to the middle as the arrowhead there while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain took Cazorla's place on the left flank, mirrored by Theo Walcott on the other flank, with Olivier Giroud in the striking position.
Lukasz Fabianski retained his place in goal and Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny partnered in central defense, with Nacho Monreal and Carl Jenkinson flanking them to form the back-four.
Arsenalvsswansea_original Lineup courtesy of Soccerway
With Abou Diaby and Mikel Arteta sitting rather deep and close to the back-four, a space opened up in midfield that allowed the Swans to grab control of the game. Although barring some close calls on a couple of occasions (answered by AOC striking the bar twice), it can be argued that this control was pretty toothless.
Nevertheless, for a side that went into this match needing a win, it didn't seem a particularly good strategy to cede such a control of midfield as they did in the first half of the match. The fact that Cazorla tended to roam the midfield added to the lack of control therein.
This fact contributed to the reason why Arsenal were unable to fashion out real goalscoring opportunities in the first half.

The Second Half
Balance in the midfield was found in the second half by pushing Abou Diaby in front of Mikel Arteta to act as the bridge therein.
This stopped the Swans' activity there and allowed Diaby to make some decent bursting runs with the ball, which, except for lack of final passes, would have yielded dividends for Arsenal.
Hi-res-162435296_crop_exact Michael Regan/Getty Images
Later on, much emboldened to play a higher line, greater control came to the team with the introduction of Aaron Ramsey in place of Abou Diaby. The higher and staggered line allowed this better control.
The much more courageous approach was also the reason why Arsenal were able to score their two goals. In fact, at this point, it appeared as though the Swans were tiring out, whereas Arsenal seemed to grow in stature.
Hi-res-163801698_crop_exact Jan Kruger/Getty Images

A Few Thoughts
  • It is a good thing that Arsene Wenger has summoned some resolve to drop under-achieving players. I like Thomas Vermaelen, but I do think dropping him to the bench will allow him to catch some breath and regain his confidence. The same is true of Wojciech Szczęsny. I was happy to see Lukasz Fabianski carry on in place of Szczęsny.
  • Olivier Giroud's confidence seems to have gone down a notch from what we had begun to see when he seemed to flower into form. Still, we should bear in mind that this is only his first season, and by that standard, he has done well. It appears that his presence as distraction to defenders could be reason enough to continue to play him. Otherwise I'd like to see more of Gervinho and even Lukas Podolski in the central position.
  • Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is beginning to look like the player we saw last season. His tenacity won Arsenal the corner that led to the second goal at Bayern Munich in mid-week. Here, his drive nearly bore fruit for Arsenal. I'd like to see more of this from him.
  • I thought it was a wise substitution to bring on Kieran Gibbs in place of Theo Walcott to beef up Arsenal's defense when they needed to protect their goal advantage.
  • If Arsenal are to finish their season strongly, they should try to shed their tentativeness at the beginning of matches. I needed to see the same drive that yielded an early goal at Bayern, alas, this was wanting for most of the first half. To wait until the second half to get serious only invites trouble. Hopefully, Wenger and his assistants can continue to work on this problem with a view to eliminating it.

The script was written for Manchester United's Wayne Rooney to score again against Reading, but that doesn't mean he played well.
Indeed, some of the things we learned were not conducive to United walking away with the Premier League title.
Nevertheless, they say that great teams win ugly, and that is what United did. Reading were workmanlike, but frankly on this form they are already "dead and buried" in the Premier League. So sacking January's Manager of the Month, Brian McDermott, seems to have been pointless.
And that's how the "Royals" left Old Trafford. But luckily for United, Manchester City left Goodison Park in the same condition, so their title challenge seems to be equally doomed.
But it's not all over "till the fat lady sings..."


Anderson of Manchester United
Anderson of Manchester United
Michael Regan/Getty Images

United Will Still Sruggle to Nail the Title If They Play Like This

Following several of his players apparently being "knackered" (according to Sir Alex Ferguson's programme notes and, it seems, every interview he's given in the last week), he decided to ring the changes.
It is a mark of his dedication that he sat in sub-zero temperatures to watch United's Under 21s on Monday night when he could have been at home watching MUTV. It also seems likely that he asked coach Warren Joyce to include Chris Smalling, Alexander Buttner, Anderson and Nick Powell.
He must have liked what he saw, because the first three played on Saturday night and Powell was on the bench.
On Monday Anderson was pretty ineffectual in the first half. He improved and made the roster for the match against Reading. He was better than he has been lately, but he still can't last 90 minutes.
Together with his colleagues they put in a largely unimpressive performance. Were the players "knackered" or simply lacking in inspiration? They certainly weren't convincing.
They must have watched City fail to turn up against Everton a few hours earlier, offering the chance for United to snatch a 15-point lead, which would surely prove unassailable.
Luckily it was manager-less Reading they were playing, not soon-to-be-managerless Chelsea, or possibly-soon-to-be-managerless City. If they had played like this against their two major rivals, they would have been also-rans.
United have just nine games left. Or, more to the point, City do, in which to win all nine and hope that their runaway rivals lose at least five.
It's not going to happen. Or it shouldn't. But while the upcoming fixtures against Chelsea, Arsenal and City probably look the most dangerous, relegation fighters Aston Villa, Stoke and Sunderland could still provide as stern a test.
However, the likeliest scenario is that United will be home and dry before the end of the season and able to give more chances to the likes of Powell and Buttner.

Rooney and Alexander Buttner
Rooney and Alexander Buttner
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Alexander Buttner Is Ready to Step Up

And probably so is Fabio da Silva, judging by his recent performances for QPR.
Buttner doesn't yet quite have the attacking edge that Patrice Evra has, despite having graduated from wing forward to wing back before he came to United. However, he is a more than competent footballer and he is better at tackling.
Some people don't seem to get Ashley Young, but they probably overlook the fact that his defensive skills are often needed when he is double-ganged with Evra down the left flank.
There is far less need with Buttner. He is fearless, heads the ball well, has good pace, is two-footed and can harry and tackle.
So that means less of a defensive worry down United's left if Nani or Zaha are playing in the future.
Buttner was one of the Under 21s' most effective players, being responsible for generating most of United's attacks against Wolves, despite patrolling the entire left flank on his own.
Today he was hardly under pressure and was able to display his attacking heritage.
That's one less signing United will need to make in the summer; especially with Fabio coming back from loan.

Nemanja Vidic Leaps High vs. Real Madrid
Nemanja Vidic Leaps High vs. Real Madrid
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Nemanja Vidic Is Still World Class

Club captain Nemanja Vidic was outstanding against Real Madrid and did not deserve to be on the losing side.
Against Reading he was simply world class and, by a country mile, Man of the Match.
His heading was utterly fearless and he had Noel Hunt in his pocket for much of the match. But he knows when to do the simple thing, like shuffling the ball out for a throw to buy time for United to reorganise. Some of his colleagues would do well to note that rather than try the clever thing.
He didn't have much chance to head the goalkeeper's fists, but he is the main reason why United are once again keeping clean sheets.
The Red Devils have now conceded only three goals in their last 10 Premier League matches; Vidic has played in nine of those. Statistics don't lie.
He seems back to his fittest best, but we won't necessarily know until the City crunch match.
If he plays every match until United have an unassailable lead, there is no chance of them slipping up this season.

Rio Ferdinand
Rio Ferdinand
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Rio Ferdinand Deserves His England Chance

Frankly, Rio Ferdinand has been treated outrageously by England.
He should never have had the captaincy taken off him and given to John Terry. Fabio Capello has a lot to account for. For Roy Hodgson to leave him out "for footballing reasons" was a nonsense. Did he really make that decision, or was there influence from the FA?
Having sorted out his back problems, he has been close to his best form this season.
Today he showed us why he could have been a world-class sweeper and should far more often have the courage to bring the ball out from the back.
Twice in the first half he showed attacking brilliance. He brought the ball out and hit a 50-yard diagonal pass that landed plum in front of Ashley Young to create a clear-cut goal-scoring opportunity.
Then he repeated the dose, but kept his run going before slipping Wayne Rooney a pass at the last minute from which the striker scored the winning goal.
Sir Alex has given his permission and, with Rio surely being a certainty for at least one of England's World Cup qualifiers, they will qualify easily.

Robin van Persie
Robin van Persie
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Some Players Clearly Need a Break

But not Wayne Rooney.
Robin van Persie looked jaded on Saturday night. He has now failed to score in his last seven matches for United. Let's hope it has nothing to do with age. He carried the team with his goals earlier in the season.
Those who don't think he has done enough to win the PFA Player of the Year award should look at the shift he puts in for the defence. Today, for example, he threw himself into a points-saving block in his own penalty area.
But while he is not the only player looking tired, rotation doesn't necessarily always work.
As we said earlier, Vidic is playing almost every EPL match now and the defence is rock-solid. Meanwhile, Evans and Ferdinand are rotated, which works.
But while Anderson is finally finding some fitness, he frankly isn't in the same league as Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley or even Ryan Giggs.
He still gives the ball away too much, although he is showing signs of his former creative brilliance.
Sir Alex made eight changes to the team that played Chelsea only six days ago and it showed. It looked like once again they had to introduce themselves to each other.
Some of the passing and interplay was sterile and lacking in imagination or penetration. Some of the rotated players still have a lot to do to justify their place.
Danny Welbeck, for example, was excellent in the two Real Madrid ties. But he was ordinary today, which is a pity for Chicharito. 

Michael Carrick Against Chelsea
Michael Carrick Against Chelsea
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Michael Carrick Must Surely Be United's Player of the Year

Michael Carrick is one of seven United players picked by Roy Hodgson for England's next two World Cup qualifiers.
Like Ferdinand, it is in some senses an insult that he hasn't had more caps for England in recent years. While Frank Lampard is a regular, Carrick couldn't even make the squad for the European Championships.
However, at last Hodgson may have realised what the Stretford End has been celebrating for weeks.
Carrick is a class act.
He was on the bench today, but that was because he was one of the players who was clearly "knackered" last Sunday. He will also surely play in both of England's upcoming matches.
But today, in a 25-minute cameo, he showed his value to United. They were wobbling with just a 1-0 lead. Anderson needed substituting. Carrick came on and immediately brought a calmness to the proceedings.
He misplaced a couple of passes, but he settled things in front of defence, snuffed out Reading's attempts and was still able to motor forward to feed United's attacks.
He has played in all but one of United's Premier League matches this season and, together with Van Persie, is one of the main reasons why they are 15 points ahead in the run for the title.
He has had his detractors in the past. But at last people have realised how pivotal he is to United's success this season.

Italian side Inter have reached an agreement with Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez, according to reports.
Gazzetta dello Sport have claimed that Andrea Stramaccioni's side have spoken with the Chile international, and have a verbal agreement for his signing in the summer.
“Negotiations between Alexis and Inter are well advanced” the paper reported this morning, with Corriere dello Sport also publishing news of the supposed deal.
Sanchez has been in poor form this season for the Blaugrana, scoring just two League goals.

Barcelona are ready to make a €25m move for Roma defender Marquinhos, according to reports this afternoon. believe that the Blaugrana will try to sign the 18-year-old in the summer, after being impressed on a number of occasions this season.
The Brazilian has been a revelation for the Giallorossi this term, playing in 21 League games.


Arsenal continued climbing toward one of the top-four spots with an impressive 2-0 win in Wales against Swansea City. 
Both teams are known for their attractive style of play, and each was trying to dominate possession of the ball. In the first 45 minutes, Swansea's passing was more successful, but Arsenal had the best opportunities on goal.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain caused problems down the right flank for the Swans, and the young winger was unfortunate enough to see two of his attempts ring off the crossbar.
Arsenal clearly had the momentum in the second half and continued to poke and prod at the Swansea defense. In the 74th minute, the ball bounced dangerously around the penalty area, and Nacho Monreal smashed it into the far corner of the net.
With a 1-0 lead, the Swans had no choice but to push forward, and the Gunners punished their gamble with another goal in the 90th minute. After giving away possession, Aaron Ramsey put Gervinho through on goal, and the winger calmly put the chance away.
Arsenal needed a victory in this match, and the players delivered.

Santi Cazorla, Arsenal: B
The midfield maestro was back attacking down the center after spending several recent matches on the left wing. He did not appear to be as comfortable orchestrating the attack as he has been earlier this season.
He was still active and moving intelligently, and he was able to create occasional opportunities. But this was ultimately a forgettable match for Cazorla.

Michu, Swansea: C+
Unsurprisingly, Michu had Swansea's best chance of the first half, and the supporters in Wales were shocked to see him do so little with a ball played to his feet inside the penalty area.
The Spaniard has been one of the most lethal goal-scorers in England this year, but this was not apparent today. Michu will also be glad to put this match in the past.
Hi-res-163797610_crop_exact Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal: B+
Arsene Wenger trusted the winger with a start, and he repaid his manager with a fine performance. He created more danger in the attack than any other Arsenal player and was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet.
He put an impressive amount of pressure on the Swansea defense, and deserves credit for an excellent outing.

Ashley Williams, Swansea: B
Williams has been one of the more impressive centre-backs in the Premier League this season, and he did nothing to damage his reputation in this match. However, he did not have a spectacular day.
He once again was disciplined in his positioning and distributed out of the back extremely well, but his effort was not enough to help his team keep a clean sheet.

Nacho Monreal, Arsenal: A-
Monreal was not having his finest match, but he was the one to grab the match's only goal. Matches like this can be extremely frustrating, and he deserves a high grade for keeping his composure and knocking in the Gunner's first goal.
It was not the prettiest strike, and it came after a scramble in the the penalty area, but it was ultimately worth a massively important three points for Arsenal.

What's Next
After a week off, both teams will return to Premier League action on March 30.
Swansea will have to try and get a better result against another North London side as they take on Tottenham, and Arsenal will expect to earn another three points when they on Reading.
Morgan Schneiderlin opens the scoring for Southampton against Liverpool.
Morgan Schneiderlin opens the scoring for Southampton .

Southampton eased their relegation fears with a 3-1 win over Liverpool at St. Mary's Stadium.
Southampton took the lead in the sixth minute through Morgan Schneiderlin. After good buildup play by Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana, GaRamirez's cross was nodded down by Jay Rodriguez before Schneiderlin got in ahead of Daniel Agger to score.
Moments later, Lambert beat the offside trap, and Liverpool were grateful to goalkeeper Brad Jones' swift reactions to come out and block the chance.
Southampton were in control of the first half, especially after Lambert added a second goal in the 33rd minute when his curling free kick deflected off Daniel Sturridge and beyond Jones.
Liverpool regained a foothold on the game when Coutinho was swift to pounce on the rebound after Sturridge's shot was blocked by Jose Fonte in injury time.
With 10 minutes left in the match, Rodriguez found himself with little support in the opposition half, but he ran straight at the Liverpool defence. When his shot rebounded off Jones back into his path, the Saints midfielder ensured the win.

Nacho Monreal celebrates his opening goal for Arsenal in the 2-0 win at Swansea City.
Nacho Monreal celebrates his opening goal for Arsenal in the 2-0 
win at Swansea City. 

Arsenal continued their good week with a 2-0 win over Swansea City, courtesy of goals from two unlikely heroes.

After their midweek heroics in the win at Bayern Munich, Arsenal were handed an early warning by Swansea when Angel Rangel and Michu both went close for the Welsh team.
However, the Gunners were not without their chances in the opening half, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain twice struck the woodwork for Arsene Wenger's side.
It was Arsenal who opened the scoring in the 74th minute through an unlikely source. Full-back Nacho Monreal had not scored since joining the club from Malaga in January, but his scuffed strike managed to evade Swansea goalkeeper Michel Vorm and give the Gunners the lead.
And much-maligned Gervinho, who had replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 71st minute, wrapped up the win in the final minute when he ran one-on-one with Vorm and slotted the ball past the Swansea goalkeeper.
Rio Ferdinand's marauding run set up Wayne Rooney to open the scoring for Manchester United against Reading.

Wayne Rooney scored the only goal of the game as Manchester United claimed victory over Reading at Old Trafford. Rio Ferdinand marked his return to the England squad with a marauding run from defence before laying the ball off to international teammate Rooney to open the scoring in the 21st minute.

But there was little else to entertain the Old Trafford crowd in a disappointing first period that produced only long-range efforts from Rooney and Robin van Persie to lift the home supporters.
Reading striker Hal Robson-Kanu also came close in the 32nd minute with a 25-yard drive which went just wide of David De Gea's goal.
This was a relatively unimpressive display by the league leaders, especially in the final third of the field.
Rooney's attempted chip over Reading goalkeeper Stuart Taylor which sailed high over the crossbar midway through the second period was testament to that.
Taylor then made a fine save from Ryan Giggs when the veteran's cross-cum-shot was deflected toward goal, but the Royals goalkeeper turned it around the post.
A comparatively unimpressive United held on to extend their lead at the top of the table.


Real Madrid came out flat against a Mallorca club looking to fight its way out of the bottom three in La Liga. The heavily favored host stormed back with a second-half flurry, though, as the Vikings cruised to a 5-2 victory.Even with Real Madrid dominating possession in the first 45 minutes, there was no denying the Vermilions' heart. 23-year-old winger Emilio Nsue got Mallorca on the board early, heading home a spectacular goal in the sixth minute.

After Gonzalo Higuain responded for the home team, forward Alejandro Alfaro brilliantly redirected a corner kick setup from Giovani Dos Santos with his head to put Mallorca back on top.
A 2-1 halftime deficit wasn't enough to keep Real down, though.
After a close call in front of their own net, Cristiano Ronaldo swung the momentum in his club's favor in the 52nd minute. The star rose to the occasion on a corner kick by Mesut Ozil, placing a perfect header into the far corner to knot the score at two.
Infostrada Sports indicated the milestone Ronaldo achieved by once again finding the net:
Just moments later at 54', midfielder Luka Modric blasted an unstoppable strike that suddenly had the Vermilions trailing 3-2. Higuain then broke the spirits of the upstart Mallorca squad by notching his second goal of the match in the 57th minute.
As might be expected, Mallorca never recovered from the overwhelming barrage. It was inspiring play for the first half, but ultimately not enough to pull the massive upset, as the Vermilions fell victim to three incredible goals in a six-minute span.
Karim Benzema scored in the match's closing moments, which only put salt in the wound for Mallorca.
Here is a look at some grades for the marquee players in what turned out to be a captivating comeback by Real Madrid.

Player Grades

Gonzalo Higuain, Real Madrid: A+

Hi-res-162996168_crop_exact Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
The Vikings forward has to be considered the man of the match. Real was in real danger of blowing an easy home game, but Higuain was a big reason it didn't happen. His response to Mallorca drawing first blood was key, and his last goal gave his club necessary insurance.

Giovani Dos Santos, Mallorca: A
Hi-res-163806049_crop_exact Mallorca would not have had much to celebrate if not for Dos Santos.
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Coach Gregorio Manzano recently said that Dos Santos was Mallorca's version of Ronaldo, and Dos Santos certainly played like a star. Both goals Mallorca scored were set up by Dos Santos, and without his brilliance, the Vermilions would have never had even a hope of stealing a win on the road.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid: A-
Hi-res-163806395_crop_exact Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

An unstoppable header sparked the big run that allowed the Vikings to coast to victory. It was business as usual for Ronaldo, who was the catalyst for the Real rally. Once again, he justified why he is heralded as one of the elite scorers in the world.