Barca in top spot

You would not have wanted to be Andreas Christensen last Wednesday morning.

The Chelsea centre-back, so solid for much of this term that last season’s star, David Luiz, is now relegated to be a substitute, misplaced a pass in the match against Barcelona, allowing the Catalan visitors to score with one of their few chances in the match.

In a game where the visitors stifled possession, controlling over three quarters of the game, Chelsea scored from one of their few attempts at goal. The energetic Willian, secondary to the big names of Hazard and Morata, had two attempts hit the post before scoring. It would have been a game that would have had the London club in the spotlight had the scoreline remained. You could have seen headlines such as “Catalan Crumbling” and read about how the dominance of Messi and Suarez, the MS of MSN (minus Neymar) were reduced to a postscript.

Then came the misplaced pass and how the world turned.

The Catalan club take away an important away goal. With the score tied 1-1, Chelsea must now be on the offensive as away goals count for double in the event of a tie. And you know what Barcelona do to teams who try to play open football on their turf.

Barcelona will be content to sit back and try to get Chelsea on the counter. When they don’t have the ball, then they would employ their stifling brand of football to win possession, and then keep it.

A 1-0 lead would be better one to bring to the Nou Camp, but perhaps Antonio Conte will be playing videos of the previous Chelsea win at Barcelona, where they won 2-0.

In another group match, Bayern Munich hammered Besiktas 5-0 on their own turf, and will take that aggregate lead back to the Allianz Arena. Should Besiktas field a weak team? Or should they play their strongest and try to get a 0-0 draw? The best thing to do is perhaps the latter. One should only look back at the 10-2 aggregate humiliation inflicted on Arsenal to realise that Bayern never offer any mercy. And at home, they definitely won’t.

And neither will Barca.

Sharpening their Spurs in Europe

It’s not been a bad week for Tottenham Hotspur, has it? Even though the North London derby win brought them up to third in the table, before wins by Chelsea and Liverpool brought them sliding down to fifth again – out of the Champions League spots, they showed their mettle in the current Champions League campaign with a 2-2 away draw at Juventus.

The away side were slow to settle and gave away a 2-0 lead inside of ten minutes. You could have said that Juve deliberately targeted the Spurs backline, with youth in its side, and Gonzalo Higuain was on his way to a hat trick before he had even warmed up sufficiently. But Spurs showed their mettle and fought back slowly, first with Harry Kane slipping past Gigi Buffon to slot it, and then Christian Eriksen rounding a free kick past the wall to earn the Spurs an important advantage in the competition.

The 2-2 away draw means that Juventus are on the back foot on away goals – remember that after 90 minutes away goals count as double. The away goals rule was implemented to stop sides playing defensive football and hoping to make it through on penalties. It has been one of the more positive changes to the game to make it more exciting. Another has been the back pass rule – remember when a goalkeeper could pick up the ball from his own players and defences just kept rolling the ball back to the goalie? (You’d have to be a certain age to recall that, actually.) A change still not quite well-implemented yet is VAR.

Coming back to the game, the 2-2 draw in Turin at the Allianz Stadium means that Juventus have to go on the offensive. Spurs only need a 1-1 draw or better to progress. But it would be a mistake to simply expect to sit back and defend. Juventus with their front line of Higuain and Mandzukic et al are very good at scoring, and if you were behind that’s when their defence clamps down on you.

That was not necessarily the case yesterday, but should make for good football in the return leg. Spurs are definitely the better team to watch in North London; have been for the last few years – if you haven’t already realised that!

Alexis brings Arsenal poison to Manchester

Man. Man. Man.

Second-placed Manchester United recorded a shock loss to Newcastle this afternoon. The Magpies, many many places below, somehow managed to conjure a 1-0 win against the cash-rich Reds with Pogba, Lukaku, and Sanchez, all in the team.

It just goes to show spending money doesn’t necessarily transfer to winning.

You could say the same thing again.

Arsenal have splurged millions on Mkitharyan and Aubameyang and the summer signing Lacazette is now the third choice striker! Like United, they have splurged millions on the front line, also tying Ozil down to a new contract.

Strengthen the defence! Strengthen the defence! Strengthen the defence! If you are a seasoned Arsenal fan, you would have known that is where the problem lies.

Actually, it seems the problem lies with the gaffer.

Tottenham showed Arsenal who currently rules the roost in the North London derby and are the best-placed London team now in third.

How have they done it? With a solid backline to complement a good front line.

It’s not rocket science – as Newcastle showed. Defend well, and catch the offensive team when they are tired or mentally unprepared.

The best teams always play a solid back four.

Transfer Scraps and news around the league

So how do you think Riyad Mahrez’s first day back at Leicester went? Awkward…?

The 2016 PFA player of the year rejoined training after handing in a transfer notice after interest from Manchester City during the January window. It is easy to see how both would have liked the other. Mahrez plays with amazing pace on the wing, and would have completed the speed of Sane – the two might have been the Mancunian equivalent of Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, and in Manchester City, Mahrez would have had a club that offered the kind of football he wanted, instead of languishing in mid-table after the surprise win of the Premier League title. Unfortunately it was not to be though. There are official rules about players speaking with other clubs but instead it would be easier if clubs made their approaches officially instead of through agents – who then leak their comments to the press. If Manchester City had gone direct to Leicester, they would have immediately known that the transfer would not have gone through, instead of leaving the Algerian disaffected. Is it fair that Leicester suffer for the stirring?

Mahrez joins a list of players to never have made it across to the other team, but at least it is better than Peter Odemwingie’s attempt to force a move – driving and plonking himself at the doorstep of the club in an attempt to force a move. Wonder what he thought on the drive back?

Leicester are a team that found it hard repeating as champions and Chelsea, last season’s champions are finding just exactly the same thing. It is one thing to be out of Europe, to have few matches to play, and then win the league on the back of a strong team with few matches to play. But when the next season rolls in, the extra games to play can really take its toll on the squad and then fatigue and negative attitudes set in – precisely the slump that Antonio Conte is experiencing now.

Will City, the Manchester boys in blue, suffer next season under the expectation of having to work to defend their title while being involved in a heavy European season. God forbid what would happen if they win four titles – having to defend four would decimate not just the squad, but the wallets of the owners!

The transfer window is closed and still Alexis Sanchez is making headlines for Manchester Red, this time joining a list of players who have received suspended sentences for tax fraud. Will Sue Barker be using it as one of the questions on A Question of Sport in years to come?

And what would one make of Jay Rodriguez? The West Brom and England player is facing a charge of racism for something that was said between him and Gaetan Bong. He is protesting his innocence, but when you pinch your nose and say something that makes someone else take offence, it doesn’t look good …

Arsene Wenger suggests that English players are good at diving. I suggested yesterday that perhaps they go to ju-jitsu classes. Perhaps next on the agenda should be ventriloquism lessons, so they can grit their teeth and utter what they want without being caught by the cameras. Or VAR!

Managers out of control

Is Arsene Wenger off his rocket again? The Frenchman has recently made the headlines again for his claim that “English players are the best at diving”. We can be absolutely certain that he is not referring to Tom Daley. Hot off the game of Liverpool and Tottenham, where Harry Kane, using his clout as one of England’s top players, went over in injury time, expecting that referees were not going to flag him up for diving and won his team a penalty which was later saved, Wenger offered his comments about how the art of diving is being refined by English players.

First of all, that is an unequivocally silly statement to make. Wenger himself has English players within his Arsenal team, so it would be an awkwardly embarassing insinuation that the ones in his team are learning how to go over, how to initiate contact and how to fall properly. Has the Premier League become so competitive that teams are sending players to ju-jitsu lessons to learn how to land on the floor without injuring themselves, then looking for contact in the game?

This is not the first time Arsene has opened his mouth and said something he shouldn’t have. Referring to his team’s defeat by Manchester City in November, he accused Raheem Sterling of diving then. Wenger seems “locked in” in his ideas that the manager should take the heat off his team, and seems to be saying something controversial to avoid any discussion of his team’s form in the league, or to take away the media attention on his defence – or lack of defence, not that the courting of Jonny Evans has failed. But the problem is that each time Wenger thinks he is deflecting attention away from his players, he really – by attracting media attention – is drawing attention to it. Yesterday, the media would have been happy focussing on Antonio Conte’s poor form at Chelsea, and how Chelsea managers don’t last very long in the owner versus manager battle. That story still had long to run. The only thing is now Mr Wenger has accused English players of diving, after the Tottenham game, ahead of the North London derby where Harry Kane will be in attendance.

Is it a clever move to say things that will ignite your opponents? Wenger probably hopes that his comments may influence the game such that if a Tottenham player like Kane goes down again, the referee will be less inclined to blow his whistle. But he is out of touch to think that. If anything, the subtle attempt to influence the officiating is such a distasteful act that any referee would probably blow the whistle just to annoy Wenger.

And if one of his English players go do down under a Tottenham challenge, don’t expect Wenger to eat his words.

The point is – if you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it!

Arsenal players probably play best when the focus of expectation is not on them. But Wenger’s recent talk is probably going to just put them under the media glare again. So despite the new improved attack, don’t expect them to emerge winners at White Hart Lane this Saturday.

And Antonio Conte? The longer his war of words with the team continues, the less it does for him.

As a supporter voiced on BBC Radio 5 Live, the fans just want to see the old Conte from last year back again, they don’t want to see him whinging about things, especially considering how much he is being paid. They just wish he would get on with the job.

And Wenger? Arsenal fans probably wish he would step away from it now.

Chelsea in Crisis

With reference to the last post, could Olivier Giroud have made a winning debut at Chelsea.

Not a chance.

Giroud joins former team mate Theo Walcott (now Everton) in the “thumped on their new debuts” list.

Is the clock ticking for Antonio Conte? You might think at Chelsea they don’t use clocks, they use hourglasses.

All about Liverpool – well, not all …

Umm, wasn’t Virgil van Dijk brought in with the intention of shoring up the Liverpool backline? The criticism of Liverpool all season is that while they had a good strike force of Coutinho, Mane, Salah and Firminho, and while the fab four are now the terrific three, and still scoring goals, everyone is still talking about the leaky backline.

Liverpool’s only win in their last four matches have come against Huddersfield Town. They lost 1-0 to Swansea (Swansea!), 2-3 to West Bromwich Albion and then now managed a 2-2 draw with Tottenham. On the basis of all those performances, you would be slightly pressed to see the impact of Van Dijk. That’s two losses, a draw and a win in four games – not exactly what you might call plugging the hole.

Jurgen Klopp might have some grievance with the way Tottenham earned the draw though. Having charged down the sideline after an injury-time penalty made it 2-1 in LIverpool’s favour, in the same style as Jose Mourinho ran the Old Trafford line with Porto, the fist pumping and head banging all came to a quick end when a Tottenham player ran over van Dijk’s outstretched leg. It’s like a heavy metal concert coming to an end after a power cut. Harry Kane, having been denied by Lloris Karius, this time managed to squeeze one away for a draw.

There’s no denying Liverpool are associated with a leaky defence. They are like the Arsenal of the north. Old boy Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain must be wondering what he has gotten into. Having secured a move away from Highbury with the intention of playing more in central midfield and in a team that can make it into the top four, he is still on a team with a dodgy defence. A big expenditure on a big player who has yet to make an impact on the team.

Is Virgil van Dijk twinned with Alexandre Lacazette? The latter must be the world’s most expensive bookmark, not played much in the season (such as being left out against Liverpool) and now behind Aubameyang and Mkitharyan.

The penalty against Livepool was awarded after the referee Jon Moss and assistant referee had a long chat to determine if a penalty should have been awarded or not.

Aubameyang should have had his debut goal against Everton cancelled out for offside. His goal made it 4-0 for the Gunners before halftime. But why was there no video replay? Again, this brings into question the necessity of VAR and how it should be used. Rather than make it the referee’s prerogative, give managers a challenge in each half and let them use it when they want to. They can only have one in each half, or two over the game, so there is more impetus to save it for more important challenges at the end of the game – and it keeps the game moving.

Can Arsenal maintain their momentum? So far their January signings have done good, just like Batshuayi’s debut for Dortmund. Everton’s former Arsenal signing, Theo Walcott? On the end of a 5-1 drubbing. Can Olivier Giroud match a good transfer for Chelsea too?

Strike Farce

The Premier League transfer window has closed and some crazy deals were done, and some crazy deals were not done. But thankfully, no one should be talking about Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil leaving Arsenal ever – it is time for the press to find a new angle!

Speaking of Arsenal, who was the biggest winner in the Arsenal – Chelsea – Dortmund strike triangle? Aubameyang’s release from Dortmund could only take place if they got Batshuayi, and Michy Batshuayi went to Dortmund on condition that Chelsea could sign Giroud. How complicated! It’s like being in a chain! Did the teams – specifically Arsenal not learn already from their transfer story in the summer, when A.S. was supposed to go to Manchester City on condition that Arsenal secured the services of Thomas Lemar? It is complicated when the deal involves two, but when it involves three … well, let’s just say luckily for Arsenal they managed to pull it off. If Giroud had missed going to Chelsea, you would have yet another striker going on strike. Like Riyadh Mahrez at Leicester.

Giroud’s aim to get regular football was with a view to getting selected for the World Cup. He had not been playing regularly for Arsenal and was worried he might be overlooked for selection. At 31, this would probably be his last World Cup, unless he does a Miroslav Klose and manages to keep up his intensity for another four years. His reluctance to leave London was because he had recently become a father for the third time, and the support network of friends and family are really based in London, where he has been since joining Arsenal in 2012. Arsenal’s deal with Chelsea with Giroud will be for an eighteen month loan, which suits Giroud because he gets to play first team football for World Cup selection, Arsenal get their new front three some regular time to play together, and then Giroud comes back to join them – possibly – or secures a permanent deal.

Chelsea have got an experienced Premier League striker to back up Morata. Win win for both.

And Batshuayi? I can’t say I know what Dortmund would make of him in the long term, but then again he has not really played much apart from the lead in to the transfer window when Conte gave him chance to peddle his skills as advertisement. He may have scored two in his debut against Koln, but remember that this is the initial rush of showing a new team what you can do – the difference is how he can keep it up in the long term, which of you’ve not played regularly for months, means you are going to struggle.

Don’t forget that the Bat man scored two in a game against the Bundesliga’s bottom club. Of course he would do well. It would be like Henrikh Mkitharyan debuting against Swansea.

Hang on. He did.

Where will Arsene Wenger play his new three? Make no mistake, he is probably reserving them for use in the Europa League. He has realised he is not going to get back in the top four, and is doing a Mourinho to get Champions League football by the back passage. And with three superstars ahead of him to take the flak for poor performances, at least Mesut Ozil can play creatively without worrying. And watch for Wenger to blood his new buys into the team with games against Ludogrets and Sevilla. And Alex Iwobi and Chuba Akpom to lead the line in Premier League games.

What a thought!

Still can’t quite play in tune

New look Manchester United complete with piano-playing new forward Alexis Sanchez visited Tottenham last night, but the Chilean, the first to play for the big club Manchester United, could not quite inspire his team mates to the same result as they did over Yeovil United. He may have made his debut to a winning one, but as Sanchez discovered, playing against a Premier League side is still as tough as it gets.

Manchester United were down to a goal within eleven seconds, just one of the ten-second goal held jointly by Ledley King and Alan Shearer. After that Tottenham defended well and continued to dominate the match, with bad luck also affecting United, their substitute Marouane Fellaini having injured himself within seven minutes of coming on.

What is the shortest stay a substitute has had on the pitch before leaving? One of the shortest that comes to mind must be Steven Gerrard’s, he who was sent off within minutes of the restart after coming on as a second half substitute.

Sanchez played the whole game yesterday but must have been tormented by the White Hart Lane fans who continued to remind him he may have switched shirts but is still unable to beat them.

His fellow striker Olivier Giroud has joined Chelsea, so that makes it two strikers who have left Arsenal and leapt straight into Champions League teams. In their place Arsenal now have Mkitharyan and Aubameyang, two individuals who bring threat of pace, but difficulties for singing fans in having to think of new songs.

Lacazette, Mkitharyan, Aubameyang. Maybe Arsene Wenger is clearing out the whole front line, combining with Ozil who recently signed a new contract until 2021, and then his defence consists of the back three and Kolasinac and Bellerin. The combination would be good to watch were it not for the fact that Arsenal team still leaks in goals.

Next year is probably Arsene Wenger’s last year, if not this one. If he doesn’t succeed next year, then he has really no excuses left.