Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Spartan Gunners!! (Sparta Prague 0 - 2 Arsenal)

Ask me what movie first comes to mind when someone mentions Sparta Prague and I'll instantly shout out 300! The movie not only portrays the incredible story of the valiant and fearless Spartans, but does so in a unique (and mostly exaggerative) way that truly captures the imagination. However, if anyone was worthy of being compared to those historic warriors tonight, it sure wasn't the Czech team.

Many have laid the blame of Arsenal's recent failures mostly on the age and overall physique of the squad, and they weren't far off. Although other factors did come into play, it was blatantly obvious from some of last season's performances that our team was being bullied off the pitch more often than not. The game away to Sheffield United comes to mind, and for anyone who can't remember, we were beaten 1-0 by a team who were eventually relegated. It's not so much the scoreline that was significant, it was the manner in which we were literally muscled out of the match. We seriously couldn't match our opponents for strength, and for anyone who isn't convinced strength is that important in today's modern game, take a look at Blackburn's Christopher Samba and try to imagine how far you'd fly if he shoulder-charges you while running at full pace! Well anyway, back to the present, and what is evident from tonight's game is that any concerns regarding Arsenal's physical presence is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Sparta went for the physical approach and after some tough tackles, it almost boiled over when Hleb stood nose to nose with Tomas Repka (ex-West Ham). Now normally that'd have been enough to intimidate our guys and disrupt our game, but who stepped in to show Sparta we're in for the fight? Yep, thats right, Fabregas came up with that crunching challenge that eventually forced Repka out of the game! Now don't get me wrong, I don't condone violence in any way, but if ever you needed a way to show your opponents who's boss, injuring their captain is a good way to start. The match ended with a bunch of yellow cards being handed out and our boys really showed they weren't intimidated in any way. It is this aggressiveness, coupled with the spirit the team showed tonight and on Sunday against Fulham, that will hopefully ensure that we be taken as serious title contenders this season.

The game itself surely wasn't a spectacle by any means. The physical factor and the referee's insistence on blowing his whistle at every opportunity dismissed any hope of seeing Arsenal's free-flowing football. Still, a lot more positives can be picked out when it comes to individual performances. Sagna looked sharp again and the way he has quickly adapted to the team's style of play is something to behold. Lehmann certainly made up for Sunday's howler with some brilliant saves that guaranteed he'd walk out with a cleansheet tonight, and he even had a big hand in the second goal with that quick pass out to Sagna! I'm still not convinced with Eboue's role out wide as it simply comes down to the guy's lack of creativity. His fitness, speed and tactical awareness is obviously what opted Arsene to try him in that position, but at the end of the day you always count on your wingers to come up with that bit of flair to either get past a few defenders or pick out a gem of a pass and I honestly don't see him doing that. It's good to see Hleb on the scoresheet again - he's already one goal away from matching last season's tally and just needs two more to get his highest ever return in Arsenal colors! Fabregas has made it something of a habit to score in these qualifiers - he scored twice last season away to Dinamo Zagreb - but perhaps more alarmingly is the fact that he next scored for Arsenal 8 months later in April! Let's hope that doesn't happen as plenty of goals from midfield is what separates champions from also-rans. Honorable mentions for Clichy and his amazing run to create the first goal, as well as Flamini for his never-say-die attitude (although I personally rate Gilberto, Diaby and Denilson higher). As I mentioned on Monday's post, expect a lot more goals being scored in the last ten minutes or so and we saw that again tonight, just shows what those few extra minutes of fitness can do to change the outcomes of our matches.

Back in England, it was nice to see Chelsea and Man U struggle again tonight, and although the former managed to win, it was evident that neither team is head and shoulders above the rest and if there ever was going to be an unpredictable season, I expect this to be it. If we manage to avoid a lengthy injury list, I'm sure the doubters will be eating their words come May.