16 May 2015

Picking over the Man U carcass, or, kicking a club while it's down...

A season that once felt brimming with promise and potential just one week ago now seems to have gone off the rails—and yet we still sit in third place, behind two of the heaviest-spending clubs in Prem and ahead of another. So why the gloom and doom? A week ago, we knew that three wins and a draw would secure second place. Swansea didn’t get the memo. Or maybe they did. At any rate, we now go into the belly of a beast hoping to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.

Somewhere in there is a warning, something about lightning never striking twice in the same spot, but I don’t think it quite applies here. Even if Man U are eager to qualify for a Champions League spot, they’ve looked more than a bit wobbly in their last four or five outings, needing a generous penalty to slink out of Selhurst Park last weekend in order to end a three-game losing streak. Making matters worse for them, Wayne Rooney limped off at halftime and might join Michael Carrick and Rafael on the injured list, as might Shaw, Rojo, and van Persie. The absence of that last one might prove to be a blessing more to Man U than to us as it deprives us of a spite-laden motivational target while liberating Man U’s offense from his fading skills and me-first attitude.  More-pertinent might be the absence of Michael Carrick who, despite his age, has been a crucial if overlooked cog in Man U’s play. Without him, there’s frequently a lack of form or structure to the defense that we might be able to exploit.

The loss to Swansea might have been a kick in the teeth, but it might be also be the kick in the arse we need to go into Old Trafford with intensity rather than complacency. We’d been riding high, and although I’m not a fan of the idea that a team needs to lose in order to refocus, I’d trade a loss to Swansea for a win over Man U nine times out of ten. Our lads have got to be angry at the chance they’ve squandered—finishing second now depends on Man City dropping points—and this bodes well for invading Old Trafford. The last time we were there, of course, we won in stunning fashion to earn a place in the FA Cup semi-final. Winning this time through would confirm third place in the Prem while keeping the heat on Man City as well. They have to visit Swansea and host Southampton, neither one an easy task.

For all of the hand-wringing of the previous week, we could very well emerge feeling quite good. Despite their win last weekend, Man U look vulnerable, and we could deliver a knock-out punch on Sunday. Liverpool's loss to Crystal Palace allows Man U to back their way into that fourth place finish; whether this saps their desire for the third-place fight is another question. Should we win or draw, we'll have thrid place sewn up; even if Man U win, we could still finish above them by taking four points from our remaining two matches—not that I see us needing to. They spent 150m on transfer fees this summer and were unburdened of any continental commitments, yet they'll finish fourth thanks more to the ineptitude of others than to their own efforts. Yes, they'll qualify for Champions League play, but it's hard to feel like this squad will remain intact. If we can nab the win, we can exacerbate the exodus all the more.

LAST 3:
Man U 1-2 Arsenal (09.03.2015)
Arsenal 1-2 Man U (22.11.2014)
Arsenal 0-0 Man U (12.02.2014)

FACTFILE
The two clubs first met on 13 October 1894, a 3-3 draw between Newton Heath and Woolwich Arsenal.
Arsenal have won their last five away-matches in the Prem.
Arsenal haven’t won a Prem match at Old Trafford since 17 September 2006.

INJURIES
Oxlade-Chamberlain, Debuchy, and Arteta have been ruled out, while Welbeck and Ramsey face late fitness tests.

POSSIBLE STARTING XI
Ospina; Monreal, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Bellerin; Coquelin, Cazorla; Alexis, Özil, Walcott; Giroud.

This one has the looks of another barn-burner, but the Gunners should find a way past de Gea in order to steal three points.

PREDICTION Man U 1-2 Arsenal.

This preview first appeared at Goonersphere and reappears by permission.

They're droppin' like flies rather than facing the Arsenal...

In the buildup to the dust-up at Old Trafford, one trend stands out: there's no one worth his salt who really wants to play against Arsenal on Sunday. Between injuries and transfer-rumours, it seems that anyone worth his salt is finding a way to eschew what could be a vital clash between clubs seeking to qualify for a Champions League spot. Man U need a win on Sunday if they expect to stay in the running; a loss or draw would essentially relegate them to fourth place, meaning that they'd have to endure a two-leg qualifier to get in, much as Arsenal have time and time again. With that in mind, one might expect an "all hands on deck" attitude from Van Gaal's outfit. Instead, however, it looks like Wayne Rooney and Luke Shaw will join Michael Carrick and Rafael among the walking wounded, with Robin van Persie and Marcus Rojo coming up lame as well. It's almost as if the entire squad has up and quit on the season. Fine by me.

I know what you're thinking: surely, the absence of Rooney frees up van Persie or Falcao to run amok. After all, they've each had their moments against us, haven't they, and when one of them falters, the other steps up? However, the ugly fact is that neither van Persie nor Falcao has justified his price-tag of late. Falcao hasn't scored in 560 minutes of play, and van Persie hasn't scored against anyone worth scoring against in 931 minutes (with apologies to Burnley, Leicester, and Newcastle, against whom he has scored). The potential absence of Rooney would seem like handing the car keys of a Porsche to a teenager—except van Persie and Falcao are looking more and more geriatric and brittle week by week. There was a time when those names inspired fear, respect, even awe—but those days are long-gone. Of course, there is still a possibility that one or both could deliver a stunning goal, but that's starting to feel like the exception rather than the rule.

The absence of Carrick might matter more than that of Rooney; the cagey 33-year-old has been instrumental to Man U's stability, shielding an oft-shifting backline and shuttling the ball forward to the more-creative types. His absence denies Van Gaal a vital player in the middle of the pitch. Of course, it's not as if Man U are bereft of options. After Rooney and van Persie, there are still threats to consider such as Juan Mata,  Marouane Fellaini, and Angel Di Maria. Then again, that last one hasn't started a match since being sent off against Arsenal in the FA Cup quarter-final and hasn't scored a goal since the first week of January (against Yeovil, for those curious). We'll still have to contend with Fellaini's elbows and Young's dives, but it's starting to feel like this is a Man U that is sinking rather than rising.

Add in the all-but-confirmed rumours of David de Gea's summer-move to Real Madrid, and it does feel like our erstwhile rivals are clutching at straws—if only they had a world-class keeper who could bail them out, again and again and again, and again and again and again...de Gea has almost single-handedly kept his club in contention (by "almost single-handedly", I refer to the fact that the man has frequently used two hands while also being the only one staving off ignominious failure). If it proves true that de Gea does jump ship, we might be witnessing the slow sinking of a once-proud club, one that spent £150m on transfer-fees last summer only to flounder its way to fourth place, thanks in large part to the ineptitude of other clubs (Liverpool and Tottenham, to name two) rather than its own, um "eptitude."

Man U were supposed to ride a perfect storm of circumstances—Van Gaal's hiring, that £150m in transfer-fees, a campaign free of continental commitment—straight towards the top of the Prem. It hasn't quite played out that way, and Arsenal have a chance to take Man U down yet another peg, again at Old Trafford, suggesting if not proving that there's something to be said for a degree of stability and fiscal sanity. If Arsenal can go into Old Trafford and win for the second time in as many tries, we'll have secured a third-place finish, qualifying outright for Champions League play, while Man U will feel lucky indeed to have finished fourth. Who knows how many rats will desert a ship that hasn't quite sunk but that has certainly failed to float?

15 May 2015

Welbz checks in with van Persie ahead of a crucial clash...

OLD TRAFFORD—The mood was tense, despite a recent escape from Selhurst Park. The lads knew that they had been lucky, but ends matter far less than means when trying to end a losing streak. Robin surveyed the locker room and the situation, realising that the club's next match could make or break the season. Champions League qualification hung in the balance. A win or a draw would secure fourth place; a loss kept the door open on slipping to fifth. Shrugging his shoulders indifferently, van Persie whipped out his cellphone and called an old friend—dat guy, Welbz—to see hwo things were going...

13 May 2015

Can Arsenal stay in 3rd, or will we slip to 4th...again?

It’s hard to get motivated this week, to be honest, after we let slip a golden opportunity to put some space between us and Man City. Instead, things feel quite a bit bleaker than they did a few days ago. Chelsea, almost taunting the rest of us, drew with Liverpool. City, of course, obliterated QPR to establish their claim on second place via goal difference, if not yet on points. At our end, of course, we lost a domestic match at home for the first time since October. Man U’s win at Selhurst Park suggests that we might have to worry more about defending a third-place finish than earning a second-place finish. Still, all is not yet lost, so let’s get to it…

12 May 2015

Łukasz Fabiański, we hardly knew ye...

Łukasz, Łukasz, Łukasz. It wasn't supposed to be like this. You helped us win the FA Cup in grand style, shutting down Wigan's penalties to earn us a spot in the final. Little did we know that you would prove just as good at stopping shots from six yards out when they're straight at you as when they're put either side of you. We should've known better. Instead, however, we put almost all of our 23 shots right at you or harmlessly into the side-netting. None of this is to take away from your performance; you dealt well with the pressure we did bring to bear, and we should take a moment to acknowledge that your'e a gamer—you've traded a back-up's spot for a lead-role, and that demands respect.

Arsenal 0-1 Swansea: Finishing School 101

Stop me if you've heard this one before: an Arsenal side, dominating possession and getting forward in relentless fashion, fail to finish, and emerge empty-handed despite facing an overmatched squad. It was all there: the deft flicks, the incisive through-balls, the well-timed runs. However, when we weren't sending shots harmlessly wide, we were putting them straight at Łukasz Fabiański, lionizing him when in reality we were rendering ourselves toothless. By the time Gomis headed home—to the far-post, of course—we had only ourselves to blame for squandering the chance. Still, all is not lost—yet. We still do have a game in hand over Man City...but it might be Man U that we have to pay closer attention to.

11 May 2015

Arsenal 0-1 Swansea: Vote for Player Ratings/MotM

At times, it looked more like we were facing a rugby side than a proper footballing one; when our players weren't being dragged or kicked, they were so preoccupied with anticipating the grapples that they flopped and dived around a bit. Swansea had some of the better chances of the first half, but we went into halftime locked in a scoreless draw. The frustrations continued through the early stages of the second half. Despite keeping close to 70% possession, we struggled to carve out many clear chances or do much with those we did find. Twice in the late stages, Fabiański denied us from close range--Alexis and Cazorla failing to pierce him. Things went from bad to worse moments later when Gomis headed home in the 85th minute. Four minutes of stoppage time were not enough for us to salvage a draw. At home. When a win might have sent us second with a game still in hand over City. We'll have to pick over the ramifications of this one later. For now, give our lads what they deserve in the ratings poll below...

10 May 2015

City thinks it'll come down to goal difference? Sigh. Guess we'll have to take all the points...

In a dazzling, dominant display, Man City absolutely obliterated QPR, scoring six goals against the hapless Hoops, who will now be relegated to the Championship. More relevant to our priorities though is what the result means for the other end of the table—City are now three points clear in second place, and their goal difference has climbed from +35 to +41. It's hard to tell from the result whether this was City ascendant or QPR capitulant (yes, I know it's not a real word. Give it time. For now, bear with me); in either case, our game in hand has become that much more important than it was before.