Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Arsenal and Spurs show their mettle

The Champions League roared back into action this week, as Tottenham and Arsenal produced performances of the very highest quality to deservedly claim the scalps of two of European football's giants. 

In doing so, they delivered the most emphatic riposte possible to those who like to claim that the steady migration of top talent to Spain in recent seasons has eroded the Premier League's status as the strongest in the world.

For while there may be an argument that Chelsea and even Manchester United have been weakened slightly in that period, there are currently more teams in this country capable of challenging Europe's elite than perhaps at any point in the history of the Premier League - a fact made evident by the fact that two of our top flight's chasing pack have just beaten the champions-elect of La Liga and Serie A.

Perhaps inevitably given the pedigree of their opposition, both Spurs and Arsenal went into their European ties widely regarded as underdogs. 

After all, Harry Redknapp's side were charged with taking on an AC Milan side staring down the barrel of their first Scudetto since 2004 in one of the most intimidating stadiums in world football - and without either Gareth "Scourge of Maicon" Bale or a fully fit Luka Modric.

Arsene Wenger, for his part, could be forgiven for having limited sympathy with his North London rivals, having drawn Barcelona - last season's conquerors, the La Liga champions and a team of such exceptional quality that their fiercest competition appears to be coming from the footballing annals of history rather than the pitches of the present.

But rather than wilt in the face of the challenge, both English sides arguably produced their most mature displays of the season.

Much of Spurs' success this term has been built on their ability to overwhelm their opposition in the final third, utilising the pace and direct running of Bale and Lennon on the flanks, the creativity of Modric and Van der Vaart in the middle, and the physicality of Crouch up front. 

Their expansive approach has made Harry Redknapp's side compulsive viewing in Europe this season, but it has often left them defensively vulnerable - never more so than on their last visit to the San Siro to face Inter, when a brilliant second half hat-trick from Gareth Bale papered over the cracks of a torrid first half defensive display.

And so, with Redknapp still perhaps sensitive to the sting of that particular defeat, Spurs this time set out to defend deep from start to finish, allowing Milan to have possession in safe areas and looking to use the pace of Lennon to land a sucker punch on the counter-attack.

The Italian giants were too slow and laboured on the ball to break down the organised Spurs defence, marshalled by a superb Michael Dawson, and the glamorous duo of Robinho and Ibrahimovic were never more than peripheral figures. Even on the rare occasion the Spurs defence was breached, the hosts found themselves confronted by Heurelho Gomes in world-class form.

When all attempts at incision failed, Milan resorted to blatant provocation of their opponents - led by Mathieu Flamini, who should have been sent off for a horrible two-footed lunge on Vedran Corluka, and captain Gennaro Gattuso, who could feasibly have acquired more cards than Clintons' in the 90 minutes he astoundingly remained on the pitch.

Spurs' level-headed response was to regard the Italians' anger as a compliment to the success of their approach rather than an invitation to retaliate, and their patience was rewarded with a superb goal ten minutes from time: Aaron Lennon showing blistering pace to leave several Milan defenders in his wake, and then remarkable poise to pick out Peter Crouch, who must have been delighted that the most important goal of his career was also one of the simplest.

In defeating Milan on their home turf, Spurs have shocked the footballing world for the second time. The first - the destruction of Inter at White Hart Lane in November - was impressive because it proved Harry Redknapp's team possess the talent to compete with Europe's best. The second is equally significant because it confirms they also possess the determination to do so. 

But of course, Tottenham weren't the only ones to shock the footballing world this week. In fact, they weren't even the only ones in North London.

In a match almost the entire footballing planet was watching, Arsenal produced a stirring second half comeback against Barcelona to save themselves from Champions League oblivion and even give their fans hope of pulling off an unthinkable upset over Pep Guardiola's "Dream Team".

Even more surprising than the result was the method by which it was achieved. Barcelona are universally acknowledged to be the best footballing team in the world, and consequently it was believed that any team foolish enough to attempt to outplay them would be doomed to failure. 

It is a theory which has been widely accepted in the wake of Barca's beautiful destructions of Arsenal in last season's Champions League and of Real Madrid in last November's Clasico. But it is false.

Of course, no one in their right mind would claim that Arsenal played Barcelona off the pitch on Wednesday evening. But they stayed true to their attacking philosophy - Arsene Wenger is too much the footballing purist to ever attempt the perceived "anti-football" employed by Mourinho's Inter at the Nou Camp last year, for better or worse - and it was these attacking instincts which underpinned the Gunners' remarkable comeback.

In order to stay true to their identity, the Arsenal players knew they would have to absorb considerable punishment against the possession kings of world football. They remained dogged in the face of prolonged periods chasing shadows, and even sucked up the body blow dealt by David Villa's opener - a work of surgical precision as much as beauty.

They also rode their luck at times, on several occasions relying heavily on Lionel Messi's uncharacteristic profligacy in front of goal to remain in contention. But in coming back from a goal down against such exceptional opposition, Arsenal managed to ally sheer determination and mental toughness with the technical excellence more regularly associated with their game.

This attitude was epitomised by Jack Wilshere who, at 19 years of age, more than held his own against perhaps the greatest midfield in history, and seemed completely unfazed by the occasion. 

It is an understatement of monumental proportions to herald him simply an exceptional young prospect. By demonstrating such poise and ability at the highest level and at such a young age, Wilshere has shown he has the potential to become the greatest midfielder England has ever produced.

Of course, Barcelona had a hand in their own downfall. They were guilty of not finishing off the game despite creating more than enough chances - a criticism with which Arsene Wenger will certainly empathise. The decision to bring on Seydou Keita for the dangerous David Villa also surrendered the initiative precisely at the moment when Pep Guardiola's side needed to keep control.

However, while the Spanish giants may have left the door ajar for Arsenal, the Gunners still deserve all the credit they have received for being able to walk through it - not only did they drive their illustrious visitors back through sheer force of will, but Robin Van Persie and Andrey Arshavin took their chances brilliantly.

Ultimately when all is said and done, what do these results actually mean for two of the Premier League's finest?   

Harry Redknapp will certainly be mindful of the fact that a team of Milan's quality can never be counted out. The Italians are unlikely to play so poorly again, and the mercurial duo of Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are more than capable of ending Tottenham's European adventure if afforded time and space. 

That said, Spurs now carry a priceless lead into the home leg in three weeks' time, where they will hopefully have Bale, Modric, and what will undoubtedly be an electric White Hart Lane atmosphere to spur them on to victory. They are now firm favourites.

For Arsenal, much, much work remains. Arsene Wenger will remember all too well what Barcelona are capable of at the Nou Camp, and that David Villa away goal remains a significant cause for concern. Then there is also the fact that Lionel Messi does not have too many bad days, and may have used up his quota at the Emirates.

But unlike last year, Arsenal have a lead - albeit slender - to protect, coupled with the belief that they can beat the Champions League favourites. Key to their gameplan in the Catalan capital will undoubtedly be the searing pace of Theo Walcott, who ran Maxwell ragged in last season's fixture. Gunners fans will hope his contribution will be even more decisive this time around.

Whatever the future holds, keep the evenings of the 8th and 9th of March free in your social calendar. If the contests at White Hart Lane and the Nou Camp yield anywhere near the amount of drama and quality this week has delivered, we are in for quite a treat.


  1. Wilshere...'best midfielder England has ever produced"?... except that he was produced by Arsenal: would he have been as good if he hadn't been picked up by Arsenal at a young age and instead have had to go through the ridiculous youth set-up that exists in England? I doubt it...

    And why have all English newspapers forgotten to mention the fact that Joe Jordan was looking for a fight? Not condoning what Gattuso did, but for a coach to even try to provoke a player during a match is inexcusable. I'd understand it if a Tottenham player had tried to wind up Gattuso, but there's no reason for a coach to do so.


  2. The comment about Wilshere was not intended to imply that he was a product of some sort of FA-run coaching system.

    On the contrary, Wilshere is special because he possesses the kind of technical qualities and footballing awareness not normally associated with English midfielders. It was simply meant to reflect my belief that he can become the best English midfielder in history.

    I have similarly high hopes for Josh McEachran of Chelsea, although of course he has further to go - and he is the product of a youth system run by a Dutchman and financed by a Russian.

    You also have my agreement on the Gattuso-Jordan spat - there are of course two culprits in this, and it is not fair that the Spurs assistant should avoid criticism.

    That said, the Milan captain was out of control both during and after the match, and it cannot be denied that he was lucky to avoid a being sent off.