Daily Archives: April 24, 2012

The Intensified Battle for Third Place and a List of Underrated Gunners


In a gruelling campaign that’s reaching its climax, various teams in the Premier League are close to achieving their pre-season targets while others are in great peril. At the tail end of the log table, Wolves’ fate has more or less been sealed but Bolton, Blackburn, Wigan, Queens Park Rangers and probably Aston Villa are in a dogfight to escape the clutches of relegation.

While the owners of newly-promoted Norwich and Swansea can give themselves a pat on the back for a successful campaign, the hierarchy in the Red half of Merseyside will certainly be gnashing their teeth over the wasted investments this year. Despite blowing wads of cash in their bid to be with the elite, Liverpool is languishing in eighth place and things are getting worse for King Kenny and his hordes.

When Arsenal defeated Manchester City, their arch-rivals went eight points clear but a series of disappointing results for the Red Devils have seen the oil moneybags cut the gap to just three points making the upcoming Manchester Derby a mouthwatering contest.

However, there’s a position in the Premier League that’s now a piece of unfinished business. After the blistering run of seven wins in a row coupled with bad results elsewhere, Arsenal was in pole position to end the season as the third best team in the land.

Queens Park Rangers showcased the team’s complacency but the victory of Manchester City turned every frown upside down. Wigan came to down with a game plan that worked superbly for them but the Gunners didn’t give a Manchester City-esque response against a second-tier Chelsea side that had half an eye in today’s semifinal against Barcelona.

Even Bacary Sagna has admitted that the performance wasn’t good enough.

Newcastle’s impressive win over Stoke has seen them emerge as Arsenal’s newest threat for the coveted automatic Champions League slot and if the Magpies win their game in hand, they’ll be level on points with the Gunners. However, Thomas Vermaelen believes that the Gunners can hold the fort to claim third place:

“We didn’t win the last two games, and they were really good chances to put ourselves into third place comfortably. At the moment we still have to fight for third place. It will be a big effort for everybody to get that third place. It is not going to be easy, but that is because you play in England and it is not an easy league. Everybody can beat everybody.”

“There are a lot of teams involved, ourselves, Tottenham, Chelsea and Newcastle. It is going to be tight, but it is going to be interesting. It is going to be hard to keep third place, but I am confident that we will.”  

Arsenal will visit the Britannia Stadium to play that Rugby outfit before hosting Norwich City, then the Gunners will end the campaign away to West Brom. The way Arsenal has played this season has thought me to expect the unexpected from these lads.

This team came back from two goals down to decimate Tottenham’s best team in 50 years and they were also a goal away from turning a four-goal deficit against the defending champions of the Serie A. Unfortunately enough, this is the same team that has lost 10 Premier League games this season and are bracing themselves up for yet another trophy-less campaign.

Despite the major lows of the season, there have been many things to cheer about and one can look no further than the individual performances of some certain players that stepped up the plate this season.

Starting from the top of the pile, Robin van Persie showed the world what he could do if he stayed injury free and his scintillating performances as well as numerous goals earned him the PFA Player of the Year award. The Flying Dutchman has stated that winning the prestigious is a dream come true for him.

Goal.com set up a voting poll for the potential winner of the Premier League Golden Boot. On the Red corner, you’ll find Arsenal’s perpetual goalscoring machine of the first kind, RVP, and one the Blue corner, you’ll find Manchester United’s net-bursting Ogre, Shrek.

Robin van Persie deservedly stole the limelight but there is a list of some Gunners that have been massively underrated for their performances this season. When I took a candid look at the PFA Team of the Year, I was very disappointed not to see the likes of Laurent Koscielny, Alex Song and Theo Walcott in the list.

Koscielny has been a beast this season and is certainly better than Fabrizio Coloccini in my opinion. Vermaelen ran out of superlatives for his defensive partner labelling him as a key ingredient to Arsenal’s success story next season. The Frenchman played a lot of football last season but the way he matured tremendously has been a major jaw dropper.

If Koscielny is not selected for France in the forthcoming European Championships, I’ll go berserk. The likes of Mamadou Sakho and Phillippe Mexes have not been as impressive as the Bosscielny this season.

The central midfield pairing of the season were Yaya Toure and Scotty Parker. Alex Song has been a phenom in this campaign but I don’t want to be biased on this analysis. In as much as I hate everything Tottenham stands for, Parker has had one hell of a season and I have a hunch that he slightly displaced Song to earn himself a place in the Team of the Year.

I believe that Song could be among the nominees for the African Footballer of the Year but he’ll face stiff competition from Yaya Toure (who also displaced him in the Team of the Year) as well as Papiss Cisse, Cheick Tiote and Demba Ba. I haven’t even mentioned other outstanding Africans playing in other leagues.

Theo Walcott missed out on England’s last big tournament but he’s odds on to stake his claim for a starting place in this summer’s Euros. Walcott’s game has improved tremendously but the complacency factor still creeps in from time to time. He’s currently nursing a hamstring injury that has ruled him out for the rest of the season but he’ll be fit enough for the tourney.

Despite the fact that the performances of Laurent Koscielny, Alex Song and Theo Walcott haven’t been given the credit they duly deserve, the fans of Arsenal Football Club will continue to give them their undying support.

Kos is certainly the Boss and it’s not a greyhound, it’s not a cheetah, it’s Theo Walcott.

Finally, there’s only one Song.


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A Tribute to Manuel Rivero Almunia: Loyalty Against All Odds

When he was still our Number 1

After spending eight seasons on a nomadic spree with six different Spanish sides, Manuel Almunia joined Arsenal for £2.6m in 2004. In his early years at Arsenal, he played the role of second fiddle to Mad Jens Lehmann. He was termed as  Arsenal’s “cup” keeper because he got his chances in the Carling and FA Cups.

His only major piece of silverware with the club is currently the last piece of silverware Arsenal has won, the 2005 FA Cup.

His breakthrough season was undoubtedly the 2007/08 campaign were he notched up 38 appearances in all competitions and that was the last campaign Arsenal were serious contenders for Premier League honors.

Arsenal’s Champions League adventure was halted in the hand of a familiar foes, Liverpool. The game will be fondly remembered for Theo Walcott’s 80-yard dash but Kolo Toure’s stupidity late on cost a penalty that was slammed home by Steven Gerrard. Ryan Babel added insult to injury to put the game beyond doubt.

Arsenal was also humiliated in the FA Cup after being on the end of a 4-0 thrashing by Manchester United. Arsene Wenger had set his sights on a crunch encounter with the defending Champions League holders, AC Milan, so he tweaked his squad a bit handing starts to the likes of Justin Hoyte et al.

The way Arsenal surrendered its winning position in the league that season was shameful. At February, Arsene Wenger’s team was five points ahead of Manchester United and eight points clear off Chelsea.

The team capitulated from within with those quick-fire draws against Birmingham, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Wigan coupled with the losses to Manchester United and Chelsea saw the Gunners finish the campaign in third place.

Almunia did really well in that campaign.

Maybe it was the blonde hair.

Mad Jens Lehmann waved his goodbyes and returned to the Bundesliga leaving the Number One spot available for the taking. Knowing fully that his place wasn’t threatened by the then-error prone Lukasz Fabianski, complacency started creeping in to Almunia’s game.

However, he was a vital part of the Arsenal side that had an impregnable home record in the Champions League in the 2008/09 season. Arsenal were paired in a group containing FC Porto, Fenerbahce and Dynamo Kiev. The home ties were 4-0, 0-0 and 1-0 respectively.

Arsenal beat Roma 1-0 at the Emirates and won on penalties in the second leg. Arsenal then drew away in the quarterfinal against Villarreal before thumping them 3-0 at home.

While Mad Jens Lehmann set the pace with a clean sheet record that stood at 10 games, Almunia on the other hand had five consecutive clean sheets at the Emirates before that horrible semifinal clash against Manchester United.

Like Thomas Vermaelen’s infamous slip in the San Siro that allowed Robinho to pull the trigger, Kieran Gibbs slipped at the vital moment to allow Park Ji-Sung put the visitors ahead. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 35-yard free kick still haunts me in my dreams and I was very glad to see the back of him when he secured that big money move to Real Madrid.

I actually hosted a party when Ronaldo was sold to Madrid. Like Thierry Henry before him, CR7 was a tormentor in chief to Arsenal and the rest of the Premier League teams. I was also ecstatic when a Wayne Rooney exit seemed on the cards but the sly fox used his exit claims to get a very fat salary.

The 2009/10 season was an on and off season for Almunia. He was blameless in the Champions League exit in the hands of Barcelona. Lionel Messi was on fire that day and I still have fond memories of his one-two with Mikael Silvestre.

His deputy Fabianski was between the sticks when Arsenal was knocked out of the Carling Cup against Manchester City. Stoke City also drive the nails in the club’s FA Cup coffin.

Arsenal had only the Premier League to fight for and Almunia and Fabianski played their part in yet another trophy-less campaign. The way Tottenham’s Danny Rose’s shot passed through Almunia’s hands was questionable and Fabianski’s inability to deal with a routine corner cost his team the game against Wigan.

That summer, the frustrations of the fans was well known to Arsene Wenger so he made it clear that he needed a new custodian between the sticks for the forthcoming season.

The media Vultures played their part in linking us to keepers from all over the Milky Way. This even caused the official Arsenal site to create a new column called “Transfer Leaked”.

Goalies like Hugo Lloris and Gianluigi Buffon were out of our reach so Wenger set his sights on the only Aussie that has been keeping since the pre-historic era Sir Mark Schwarzer. At 38, he was probably needed for a season or two so Wenger took a stand with his £2m bids. Fulham rejected both offers so we had to stick with what we had.

Almunia was heavily criticized for the cheap goal he conceded against David N’ Gog in the curtain raiser at Anfield. A routine clean sheet against Blackpool followed. He was also relatively untroubled against Champions League newbies Braga. He then put up a brilliant performance away to Blackburn.

When West Brom visited the Emirates last season, everyone expected a routine win. Almunia got injured when he clashed with Odemwingie but he took the wrong decision to stay on the pitch instead of relinquishing his place to Fabianski at half time.

His second half performance cost him his place in the team.

The defense was in shambles when Peter Odemwingie scored West Brom and he was expected to do better from a Gonzalo Jara shot that skipped past him. He was also in No Man’s Land in the buildup to Jerome Thomas’ third goal. Samir Nasri put up a late rally but it wasn’t to be.

Arsenal had dropped more points thanks to more suspect goalkeeping and that was the last straw for Arsene Wenger.

Almunia concedes the penalty

While Fabianski staked his claim as Arsenal’s Number One, Almunia spent a considerable time out injured. Out of the blue, Wojciech Szczesny emerged and his performances earned him a new contract which also indicated that Almunia had dropped two places down the pecking order.

With the January transfer window around the corner, Wenger told all interested parties that Almunia was available for a knockdown price of £1.5m. To be frank at that point, I wanted Almunia to take the offer from Malaga or Galatasaray because he’s approaching the twilight years of his career.

Instead of crying to the media Vultures about how is place had been lost, Almunia spent his time in the physio room regaining his fitness.

Fabianski’s shoulder injury meant that he had climbed one place to number two but when Szczesny got injured against Barcelona, Arsenal referred back to the old hag that was clearly out of shape and favor. The same man that was regarded as an outcast, Manuel Rivero Almunia.

When Dani Alves dislocated Szczesny’s finger with that free kick. I saw a goalie with unshaved beards running into the pitch and wearing his gloves like an upcoming youngster kid that has been dying for his chance.

The first goal was conceded to a player that has his own footballing planet. The second conceded was to a midfield demigod. The third conceded was to that wizard.

He still made a considerable amount of saves and put his body on the line like his life depended on it. Szcsesny was diagnosed to spend 6 weeks out but Almunia’s performances became shaky and confidence bereft till this happened…

That awkward moment

He had caused more damage to himself than his team causing Wenger to bring Lehmann out from retirement to stay between the sticks. Szczesny recovered earlier than expected and the game against West Brom turned out to Manuel Almunia’s last for the club.

In eight seasons at Arsenal, Almunia had notched up 175 games for the Gunners, keeping 53 clean sheets in the process.

Manuel Almunia has revealed that he is ready to leave Arsenal at the end of the season, but insists he wants to remain in England:

“I’m looking for a nice move next season, I want to start a new episode of my life. It’s a very respectful relationship and now I’m free, I can do what I like and he’s happy with my work at Arsenal for ideas.”

“I have got lazy to move too far, because life here in London is fantastic and I hope I can have a club to go to next season so I can stay.”

I wish Manuel Almunia all the best and I’ll certainly miss him because he offered Arsenal the good, the bad and most certainly, the ugly.

Here’s to Manuel Rivero Almunia.

The soft spoken and mature man who remained loyal to Arsenal FC.

Against all odds.


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