3-1 First Defeat of the Season to Sevilla CF- A good lesson learnt

Champions League football is on after the dramatic Euro 2008 qualifiers a week ago.

With the Arsenal already certain of a spot in the 2nd knockout round of the competition, it’s quite acceptable that the team be rotated a little to accommodate the strains of the next few games.

So, Arsene Wenger chose to start with this squad against Sevilla CF:-

                                                                                     24. Manuel Almunia

                                    31. Justin Hoyte         5. Kolo Touré        6. Phillipe Senderos        30. Armand Traoré

                                                                                    19. Gilberto Silva

                                   27. Emmanuel Eboué     4. Francesc Fabregas         15. Denilson     9. Eduardo da Silva

                                                                                    26. Nicklas Bendtner

Subs:

7. Tomáš Rosický  (for Francesc Fabregas)
3. Bacary Sagna  (for Justin Hoyte)
32. Theo Walcott  (for Emmanuel Eboué)

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I think that not much comment is needed today – the defense wasn’t one of the best and the usual tactic of fast-running players making deep cuts into enemy territory to pick out any free teammate in the penalty box with a cross worked (at least at first) but soon sagged and atrophied without a trace.

While it’s easy to point fingers at the young players in Hoyte and his shameful counterpart at left, the problem runs deeper than just the wingbacks. The defensive midfielder, Gilberto Silva played some of his old classic examples during his first year at the club and Phillipe Senderos was just not imposing himself at centreback. The usually dependable rock in Kolo Abib Touré also did not live up to expectations – he and Sagna crashed into Fredi Kanouté very late in the game to earn Sevilla CF a penalty; but this was when Almunia would be vulnerable anyway.

When the team scored the first goal, I think that very few watching the match would bet against Sevilla threading a comeback. However, one team is still not yet certain of qualification and the other is bent on using this match as testing grounds for prototypes of youthful experiments. The experiment wasn’t really a revelation – Hoyte gifting Sevilla some useful possession for large patches of the game; Senderos and Gilberto too flat-footed for a splendid Sevilla player Seydou Keita. I’m not hoping for the team to score that early superb goal by Eduardo then set up camp for the remaining 80 minutes or so of the match – that’s inviting a severe siege by the home team well-known for their attacking efficiency. Perhaps some individuals weren’t up to the challenge of conceding an equalising goal; perhaps they went down with their heads when Sevilla scored their second goal through Keita. All in all – a good wake-up call.
 
Wenger had also counted on this match to boost the fringe-players’ spirit in cementing their chances of a first-team spot. I don’t suppose that this applies to the two wingbacks who are way off the pecking order at their respective positions anyway but Gilberto Silva, Phillipe Senderos, and probably Denilson was handed such a lifeline but I don’t agree that Wenger would reflect on their performance tonight with the same pride he accorded to plumping Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini. Only now do I see how effective Flamini really is in midfield – I’ve thought that he’s a fairly decent player with some skill but Denilson is way off that standard yet. But Gilberto Silva – disappointing. If this is his way of fighting his way back to the first-team for an extended run-out, I figured  that he should really be packing his bags and moving to Turin and play for Serie A giants Juventus, of which he is severally linked to a move come the January transfer hubbub. I’d add that his match fitness may be below par but Wenger may be starting to praise his own judgment of benching him in favour of fellow countryman Flamini if Bert doesn’t deliver positive results soon.

Clearly, ‘Les Boss’ feels that he didn’t entirely trusted his quasi-first team to perform to that standard and this precaution was probably somewhat justified when he rested key striker Emmanuel Adebayor and William Gallas for the next difficult game away at Aston Villa but included the ineffectual Fabregas and a half switched-off Eduardo da Silva who needed more service to be of any usefulness in the final 3rd.

I can guess that many flak would be out on the team as a result of this first defeat of the season since April (apparently according to people at itv)- some saying that the team would now face a difficult challenge to come to terms with their first defeat of the season; some saying that the team is actually not as good as it was made out to be; and that the team is now in freefall descendency. I’d offer; you don’t expect the Arsenal players looking in horror at the apparent debacle at the Spanish city and going all down and out about it; or some players worrying about the league position when they have not lost at the homeland this season even when the biggest teams of Europe were playing against them. Just a loss to unsettle the team? Simply unthinkable in Wenger’s eyes.

I’d say that if you hear any of this knee-jerking shite from those righteous footie experts, consider them extreme bullshit. If nothing else, this defeat at the Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium would splash some icy water to some of the players’ faces who thought that taking the foot of the gas would also guarantee some degree of favourable results to the Arsenal. In any case, it was the same doggedness and the same willingness to prove detractors wrong that has made the team what it is today – at the peak of the English Premier League and in a position even the most astute of pundits would laugh off in favour of Chelski, Man Ure and Liverpool FC. I can hazard a guess that the odd black sheep or 2 of the team who underperformed today would be anxiously casting a furtive glance behind their shoulders but this should jolt the team up nicely at the important match at Villa Park. Of course, the usual foul-mouthed Arsehole Ferguson would not pass up the irresistible chance to aim a snipe or two at the team with the focus to unsettle the young Gunners.

Take into consideration that the classy Gael Clichy didn’t play today; Fabregas wasn’t at his peak either; William Gallas wasn’t due to play any part at all; ditto for Adebayor; and Robin van Persie wasn’t available at all. The squad today faced Sevilla’s finest off the bench – the likes of Daniel Alves; Luis Fabiano; Jesus Navas; Christian Poulsen (who is the one often arguing with officials over petty stuff); Seydou Keita; and of course the giant striker, Frédéric Kanouté. And the victorious team is playing at home. I’m not saying that a loss is ok – it’s just that losing today would ensure that the thin line of disappointment at the end of the season could be crossed with right dose of effort and more hard work or even the right personnel in January 2008.

One final word – take Manuel Almunia off for the last time of his career at the Arsenal. It’s not that he did not apply himself well in the match; he’s made important saves but his presence in goal looked shaky throughout and hardly instilled confidence in his younger defence. This is possibly the second redeeming chance Wenger has granted to the Spanish custodian. Who knows what changes might happen? Fabianski in goal?

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From the strategic point of view, I’ve read the forums of the Arsenal and some were of the opinion that a second-placed finish in Group H would be good for the Gunners.

The second-placed team in any of the qualifying knockout groups would face the winners of these groups in a two-legged playoff. The good news is that no English team would be paired with another from the same federation (national FA) at least not until the quarterfinals. This means that the Gunners could probably face the likes of Internazionale Milan; FC Barcelona (delicious prospect for Thierry Henry to justify his transfer there); FC Porto; AC Milan and Real Madrid in the difficult second round.

It’s better that the Arsenal are touted as the underdogs going into any crucial match. Remember their famous final appearance in Paris 2 seasons ago when they faced a mighty Real Madrid. The Gunners went into the match with little to lose but everything to gain for and they made the most of the opportunity.

Having expressed that, it’s not to say that matches at the San Siro (Inter Milan and AC Milan); Nou Camp (Barca); or even Estádio do Dragão (FC Porto) would be the arena to express Wengerball freely and in the manner the team would be always associated with. But taken into perspective, Sevilla CF now face the prospect of daunting visits to far-flung arenas of Ukraine (Shakhtar Donetsk); Norway (Rosenborg BK); Olimpico (SS Lazio and AS Roma) and even the likes of potentially difficult trips to Turkey or Holland if either Fenerbahçe or PSV Eindhoven do qualify.

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So, the defeated team picks up the pieces and moves on. That’s just a grim reminder of how cruel Champions League football can be and that’s only the beginning.

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