Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Arsene: No top two finish for us

"Automatic qualification in the top two, certainly not, but qualification is still possible. But it will be hard," said the Arsenal boss.

The possibility of finishing in the top two vanished long ago, once it became clear exactly what kind of side Arsenal was this year, scoring 9 goals away from Highbury. Their loss to Liverpool Tuesday night marked the fourth time Arsenal has lost a game on the road 1-0 in recent weeks, leaving them four points behind Spurs for the fourth place Champions League qualification spot. It is becoming increasingly possible that Emirates Stadium will open without European football.

What can I say? A dreadful start to this match led to an outright dreadful game on Arsenal's part. With the exception of a brilliant performance by Jens Lehmann, watching this match was akin to watching Real Madrid play the MLS All-Stars, albeit w/out the five goals bagged by Los Galacticos in August; the final score should have been 4 or 5 - nil in favor of Liverpool if it where not for the German playing out of his head.

Liverpool pressed from the beginning and played tenacious defense throughout the game. Arsenal, namely its midfield, seemed to play without confidence, choosing to run upfield to defend their goal whenever a Liverpool player touched the ball, instead of closing in on their man, as the Reds did all day. Couple that with the fact that the Gunners did not have a on-target shot on goal until the 32nd minute, it seemed to be only luck (bad for the Reds, good for Arsenal) and Jens Lehmann (denied Gerrard a penalty kick) that could account for the 0 - 0 score heading into halftime. The normally mercurial Thierry Henry was more or less nonexistent 90 minutes (perhaps teams are aware that most the Arsenal highlight reel is composed of TH14 striking at impossible angles from the left side of the box), and Henry's latest strike partner, Emmanuel Adebayor from AS Monaco, could not capitalize on the few chances he had.

It's quite clear, as everyone has been saying and Arsenal fans are wont to believe, that this is the first of some rebuilding years to come. Vieira's departure gutted the Gunners tactically and spiritually, leaving Henry the only true world-class player on the pitch. Pires is aging, Bergkamp is a non-factor, Reyes is a disappointment, and Ljungberg seems to have lost some pace in the last year or so, perhaps due to sporadic injuries. The highlight of this whole campaign seems to be Jens Lehmann's rise to prominence as a world-class keeper. I have to say I like his attitude, even his confrontational attitude, and his willingness to come off his line to play a sweeper role at times. Should Oliver Kahn be worried? I believe so.

But back to the sad state of the Gunners. I know, I know, Arsenal has eight players currently out due to injury, but Arsene has dealt well with these issues in the past, as evidenced by Arsenal's performance in the Premiership since his arrival. The reality is that Wenger's incredible run of 1st and 2nd finishes in the Premiership is done, and nothing will change that, short of picking up another talismanic midfielder like Patrick Vieira. Vieira did amazingly well to replace Tony Adams as a captain, and his form improved exponentially from year to year. I do not want to continue to lament the loss of him as a reason for Arsenal's downfall this season, but except for the waning form of aging superstars, I can think of no other reason.

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