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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Manchester United vs Arsenal: Advantage United

I remember eating my words when Arsenal dominated United at the Emirates. With basically no strikers available except Bendtner, who clearly isn't a good enough player for Arsenal, I had predicted United to win comfortably at the Emirates, only to be shot down by a Nasri brace and a masterclass Arsenal performance. This time, however, it is different, as not everyone expects Arsenal to lose. Arsenal's rejuvenation in the league has been remarkable and I don't think there will be any underestimating of Arsenal in Sir Alex Ferguson's side.

United have a full squad to choose from, with the exception of recently injured Gary Neville and the always injured Hargreaves. Which means Wes Brown, Rafael, and O'Shea are back for this match. This is an added bonus for United, as the Right Back position has been a weakness in the defensive 4 this whole season. Nasri totally owned Gary Neville with his tricks and pace, which was part of the reason why Arsenal had a field day at the Emirates. With no-nonsense Wes Brown, pacey Rafael or clumsy-but-effective O'Shea, United have enough reinforcements at the Right Back area.

Arsenal, however, have a lot of players missing for this match. Arshavin has been a great player since signing for Arsenal and they will miss his creativity and dribbling ability against United. Gallas and Clichy are still out injured for the Arsenal defence, and they also have chronically ill Robin van Persie and Rosicky out. That list is essentially a list of 5 first team players, so Arsenal are considerably weakened. Add to the fact that Gibbs and Silvestre are doubts (but I reckon they'll play in the end), Arsenal have an immense weakness in their defence, and United will look to profit there.

Line-up Predictions:
I fancy United to line up with a 4-5-1, and Arsenal might do the same. United have been using the 4-5-1 consistently in the Champions League and the usefulness of the extra midfield cover for the defense shows in the stats - United have kept the most clean sheets in the competition, a grand total of 7, and boast the best defensive record having conceded only 5 goals. I think Arsenal will do likewise, line up with a 4-5-1 and look to counter-attack with pace as it is at Old Trafford, much like how they played against Liverpool at Anfield.

United: Van der Sar - O'Shea - Ferdinand - Vidic - Evra - Carrick - Ronaldo - Giggs - Fletcher - Rooney - Berbatov

Arsenal: Almunia - Sagna - Djourou - Toure - Gibbs - Song - Walcott - Fabregas - Denilson - Nasri - Adebayor

Little or none seperates both goalkeepers. Both have excellent shot stopping abilities and good reflexes. Van der Sar has recovered from his lack of confidence that has plagued him for the past 2 seasons. Now he's claiming crosses well again and showing everyone why he used to be considered a world class goalkeeper. He will be crucial for United to read the game and act as a sweeper, as will Almunia's shot stopping be for Arsenal. Van der Sar definitely has more experience than Almunia and that will play a part in the pressure-cooker environment of the Semis.

Sagna, Djourou, Toure, Gibbs. They aren't exactly the best defenders. Gibbs is young and inexperienced and it showed when he played against Liverpool. Dirk Kuyt and Arbeloa combined well on the right flank and peppered the Arsenal penalty box with crosses. A rash clearance while under pressure led to Liverpool going 2-1 up. While pacey, Gibbs will have a tough time against Ronaldo and the overlapping O'Shea, unless he turns out to be the second coming of Santon. Sagna is a solid player going forward, but he isn't as good defensively. He relies more on his pace to get back rather than defensive reading of the game, and does occasionally get caught out while being high up the pitch. Djourou and Toure are average and not world class. In a nutshell, the Arsenal defence is very shaky at the moment and United will look to exploit that.

United, on the other hand, have the meanest defence in the competition, if not the world. Aside from the problematic right back spot, which O'Shea has filled in decently, the rest of the defence is just filled with awesome. Vidic and Ferdinand have formed a partnership that have can thwart any attacking lineup, while Evra has been solid this entire season (other than against Aaron Lennon). Add to the fact that United can bring on Rafael, who has looked like a great prospect, or Wes Brown, who was alongside Fletcher as my MOM in the match against Barca last season, or Jonny Evans as defensive cover. United definitely have the edge in terms of quality of defenders.

Central Midfield:
Denilson, Song and Fabregas does not ooze class and confidence. Denilson is far from the finished product and for all his combativeness, he is not an accomplished passer of the ball, or a great tackler. Song is prone to his moments of ball-watching and laziness. Fabregas will be Arsenal's main threat from the midfield, and his great passing ability can unlock any defence. United will have to watch out for him as he has been employed in a more advanced role, like the Gerrard role for Liverpool, and he scored a brace through that over the weekend.

United, on the other hand, will probably play Fletcher, Carrick and Giggs. Perhaps Scholes in place of Carrick. Or maybe Anderson instead of Fletcher. Whatever the permutation, there is class in the midfield for United. Fletcher has featured steadily for the first team and he has put in some great performances in the heart of midfield. He has great energy and is decent going forward as well, not to mention that he is THE big game player. Carrick has grown well into his defensive midfielder role and provides great defensive cover, along with great through balls from midfield. As for the PFA player of the year, well, he single handedly destroyed the Chelsea midfield the famous 3-0 win this season. His ability to beat a man and then pick a pass will definitely be crucial to unlocking the Arsenal defence, as Arsenal will try to crowd out the middle of the park to prevent United from passing the ball to the front trio. One thing that might undo United would be their lack of pace in midfield, and that should be Arsenal's main focal point should both Scholes and Giggs start. I still give the edge to United and think that United have the better midfield and should be able to boss the match.

Nasri and Walcott both possess an abundance of pace and great dribbling ability. Nasri is able to wriggle out of tight spots well, while Walcott has blistering pace and can go past defenders with ease. They will definitely be key men for Arsenal. However, Nasri is not an old-school touchline hugging winger, and I doubt he will torment O'Shea much. He sometimes has a tendency to cut in and, against United, will be moving into a very crowded midfield. I don't fancy Nasri to have much of an impact against United. Walcott is THE man to watch. Aaron Lennon skinned Evra many times and the right side was a hugely profitable area for Spurs. For Arsenal to get something out of the match, Walcott must have a great game.

Ronaldo and Rooney should occupy both Right and Left wing spots. Ronaldo to terrorise Gibbs, and Rooney to provide some defensive cover for Evra. As seen from the match against Spurs, Rooney and Evra together were able to totally stifle Aaron Lennon in the second half. Rooney also has the ability to cut in and shoot, or put in a cross from the left, or exchange positions with Giggs midway through the attack, or swap play with his brilliant cross field passing. Rooney is a dangerous player to have anywhere on the pitch and he is on a confident streak right now after his virtuoso display against Spurs. Ronaldo, against Gibbs, is a total mismatch. Frankly, I don't rate Gibbs and I think Ronaldo will have a field day. I do expect Nasri to track back often to crowd Ronaldo out, which is why I think Nasri will have 0 impact on the game. I do expect Gibbs to get caught out 1 on 1 against Ronaldo a few times during the match, and that is where United will look to score from.

Adebayor has not hit his heights from the previous seasons. Previously, his work ethic and determination endeared him to Arsenal fans. Now, he looks much lazier and less motivated to play for Arsenal, probably because of the contract saga. He can be a handful for defenders to handle, but I think Vidic will be competent in handling him, as Adebayor does not possess much trickery. What he relies on are strength, jumping ability and pace, all of which the United duo of Vidic and Ferdinand have too.

Berbatov is a different type of player from Adebayor. He is a link man between midfield and attack and likes dropping deep to set up play. He is the league's assist leader and has gotten 9 goals for United, so whoever doubts his quality can kiss my ass. He was instrumental against Spurs in the build up play with his first touch and close control and was involved in both the second and third goals. He is a player who can win a match through a moment of brilliance, and will be the perfect forward to unlock a stubborn Arsenal defence.

The United team are definitely more experienced than Arsenal. Without a doubt, experience plays a key factor in this match as knock-out competitions call for a level head and patience, and you only get that through experience. Against a full house crowd at Old Trafford, playing in the Semi Finals of the most prestigious European cup tournament, I fancy some of the Arsenal players to let their nerves get to them and make mistakes. United, after all, are playing on home soil and have felt it all before, and the home crowd will definitely spur them on. My prediction is that Arsenal will not be able to get much accurate passing going together and there will be long spells of United possession.

Strength of bench:
Arsenal have no game changers in their substitutes. Fabianski, Bendtner, Eboue and Diaby are the closest to being first teamers and they have not done enough to prove their quality. Whether they are game changers is an entirely different matter. Would you send on Vela if you knew you needed a goal? His quality is undoubted, but I have doubts about his composure in front of goal. Look at how Bojan missed a golden opportunity in the dying seconds of the match against Chelsea.

United have quality in abundance on their bench. Tevez can be brought on to change a match completely, as we witnessed in the game against Spurs over the weekend. Scholes can be brought on to unlock the meanest of defences, while Anderson and Park can be brought on to provide energy in the midfield area. Evans and Brown and Rafael are great defensive options to have. United definitely have more strength in depth and definitely have the advantage here.

I certainly believe that United are the better team overall. Especially when Arsenal are missing match winners like van Persie, who can be very lethal from set pieces. The United defence is huge and should be able to cope aerially against Arsenal from set pieces, and I think Ronaldo's presence in the air might be very effective against Arsenal's defenders. I think that the match will be a tight affair and very cagey in the first half, but we'll see a very open second half. Almunia will probably be the busier of both keepers and I think United will head to the Emirates with a 1-0 lead after a moment of brilliance from one of United's many matchwinners.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Why It Will Be an All-English Final In The Champions League Again

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3 of the remaining 4 teams left in the UEFA Champions League hail from the English Premier League. One finals spot is guaranteed to be filled by an English team, as Arsenal take on the holders, Manchester United.

Chelsea vs Barcelona is the tie that will decide if an all-English final repeats itself this time around. Although most people on the streets believe that Barcelona will dump Chelsea in the semi-finals en route to the final, my opinion is that Chelsea are the stronger team, and will progress. Here's why:


A no-contest here. Let's just put it this way. Petr Cech is a world-class goalkeeper who was going through a crisis of confidence. One fantastic penalty save from Mark Noble at the weekend would have done wonders for his confidence, and that is bad news for Barcelona.

Victor Valdes. He has to be the worst goalkeeper playing for a top 5 side in Europe, ever. He is unreliable, not particularly agile, and his distribution isn't exactly great either. He actually had the cheek to ask for his wages to be similar to that of the other superstars in Barcelona. If I were Guardiola, I'd insist Victor Valdes be put on a pay-as-you-play deal, and I mean Valdes has to pay Barcelona to play, not the other way round. THAT, is how low I rate him.


Barcelona's defence is far from water-tight. Their best defender, Carles Puyol is an overrated player who runs around like a headless chicken. Daniel Alves has fantastic ability with the ball, but is not the best defensively. Eric Abidal is average at best. I think Kalou and Malouda will relish the space offered to them by the full-backs, who will undoubtedly push up in support of the attack. Also, Didier Drogba is in good form, and I do not see how Barcelona's centre-backs can handle him.

Chelsea's defence, on the other hand, is made of sterner stuff. Do not be fooled by the 4-4 draw with Liverpool. That was a game against a team that had no choice but to attack from the off. The absence of Ashley Cole is over-emphasised, I feel. With Messi on the right wing, a right-footed defender is better in one-on-ones with Messi, as the brilliant Argentine has a fondness for cutting in repeatedly. The problem with Chelsea's defence is that John Terry and Alex are not the quickest on earth, something that Eto'o and Henry will look to profit from.


Xavi is a fantastic midfield playmaker, and I think he is one of, if not the best in that position currently. He is joined by Iniesta and Toure/Keita, which is a very good midfield. Toure/Keita are not brilliant, but they just provide the extra body back in defence, and when dealing with counter-attacks.

Chelsea have a brilliant answer to that in midfield though, and it is ME. No, not myself, but Michael Essien. Essien was brilliant in nullifying Gerrard in the previous round, and he will look to repeat his performance against Xavi. Essien is joined by Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack in midfield. Lampard will be pulling the strings from midfield, and I think he will have an easy time against Yaya Toure, who really isn't that good. Michael Ballack clearly does not bring his German international form to Chelsea, but he will be useful in the set-pieces, as Chelsea will look to profit from those, considering Barcelona do not really have an aerial presence, and Chelsea have it in abundance.


Messi, Eto'o, Henry. The trio are magical when on song, and I don't mean Rigobert Song. Everyone's magical when playing against Rigobert Song. Back to the topic though, Chelsea might have a problem dealing with the pace of the three musketeers, and their chances lie in stopping the supply from midfield, further highlighting what a key role Essien will play in this game.

Didier Drogba. Frankly, there is no way to stop him. Even if Barcelona cut off the supply on the ground, there is no way they can stop a long ball punted towards him, and there is even less they can do to prevent Chelsea taking advantage of set pieces. Besides, they do have ex-Real Madrid man Nicolas Anelka to bring on, should they require more firepower.


Guus Hiddink. He has a good record in knock-out competitions, and is very good with tactics. The 3-1 win at Anfield was a superb achievement, for which he must take some credit.

Pep Guardiola is inexperienced, and with him, you get the feeling that the team is making his job easier. He hasn't actually made any radical tactical changes to the side he inherited, and it is yet to be seen if he can respond in-game to different situations.

To sum this up, I think Chelsea's hopes lie with Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, and Michael Ballack winning the midfield battle. Barcelona are not capable of playing direct football, as their forward line is not equipped to do that, so stopping Xavi and Iniesta will be the way to go for Chelsea. I think this is exactly what will happen over two legs, and Chelsea will progress.

Eddy's prediction: $10 on Chelsea to progress @ 2.30 = $23.00, from bet365