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International Break: Arsenal Players Review

Nicolas Pepe

Speaking of break, apologies for my brief hiatus on the blog for the entirety of March 2022. I was in an offsite location with internet connectivity as good as Alexandre Lacazette’s goal scoring form, so to a certain degree, you could understand my predicament. My last blog post was focused on Arsenal’s Carabao Cup adventure but the Gunners were on fire in the Premier League, grabbing three wins (Watford, Leicester and Aston Villa) from the four the month had to offer. The only defeat came against the juggernauts from Liverpool, but on another day, the result could have been different, especially with the way Gabriel Martinelli made mince meat out of Trent Alexander-Arnold on a consistent basis. 

As expected from a team with players in such great form, with Bukayo Saka nominated for the EPL Player of the Month, as well as Martinelli’s strike at Watford earning him a nomination for the Goal of the Month, several players were called up to represent their respective nations in crucial world cup qualifiers and friendlies. Without further ado, let’s review the performances of the Arsenal players during the international break.

England – With Aaron Ramsdale still nursing a hip injury and Bukayo Saka withdrawing from the England squad after testing positive to COVID, Ben White and Emile Smith-Rowe were the Arsenal contingent that represented the Three Lions in their friendly victories over Switzerland and Ivory Coast. White played the entire match in the victory of the Swiss, and notched up 45 minutes as a right back in the Ivory Coast game. ESR didn’t feature against Switzerland but notched up 30 or so minutes in the win over Ivory Coast. White has grown from strength to strength following his £50m move from Brighton, and he has turned out to be one of the most consistent performers for the Gunners this season. Glad to see him banking those well-deserved minutes for England in the international break.

Portugal – Cedric Soares was an unused substitute in Portugal’s World Cup qualifying matches against Turkey and Macedonia. He would be elated to qualify for the football fiesta in Qatar but with Diogo Dalot and Joao Cancelo playing ahead of him in both games, his place in his nation’s side has to be under some threat.

Scotland – Kieran Tierney played 180 minutes in Scotland friendly draws against Austria and Poland. Playing as a LCB, Tierney got his first Scotland goal after 31 caps with a textbook header from a delicious John McGinn set piece. Tierney and his lads felt hard done by when the ref awarded a penalty in the 93rd minute when Kyzysztof Piatek was scythed to the ground by the veteran goalie, Craig Gordon. The forward picked up himself and sent the goalie the wrong way to salvage a draw for the Poles. Tierney contributed from an attacking standpoint in the draw against Austria with an assist.

Brazil – Gabriel sat at home, while his younger compatriot, Gabriel Martinelli, received his first call up to the Brazil national team. The maverick came off the bench twice in Brazil’s resounding 4-0 victories over Bolivia and Chile. Despite not getting on the score sheet, Martinelli’s confidence continued to soar as he managed to put up some excellent displays on his cameos.

Switzerland – Swiss captain, Granit Xhaka, played in both friendlies against England (which they lost) and Kosovo (where they shared the spoils). As you’d expect from the cultured midfielder, Xhaka was spraying pass after pass for his nation, and will be satisfied with the displays for his nation.

Egypt – Mohamed Elneny and his Egyptian team mates would really hate the sight of the Senegalese national team. It’s bad enough that Senegal captured the African Cup of Nations crown from the hands of Egypt early in the year, but the Senegalese were at it again, eliminating the Egyptians via the lottery of penalty shootouts. Elneny featured in central midfield in both games and sadly, will miss out on the football mundial come November 2022.

Ghana – Thomas Partey turned out to be the national hero of his nation, as his goal in the Jollof Derby against Nigeria turned out to be pivotal, with the Black Stars of Ghana qualifying ahead of their arch-rivals via the away goals rule. The first leg in Kumasi was a goalless stalemate, with both sides having it all to do in the second leg at Abuja, but it was Partey’s goal with Ghana’s first attempt on target that sent his nation into raptures, as they basked in the euphoria of yet another World Cup qualification.

Norway – Martin Odegaard was in very good form for Norway over the international break, as he scored the match clincher in the 2-0 win over Slovakia in the first of two friendlies the Scandinavian side won. The second game was a whitewash as Odegaard bagged two assists in the 9-0 demolition of Armenia. The Gunners will be hopeful he carries this form to the Premier League ahead of a crunch fixture against Crystal Palace on Monday night.

Belgium – Albert Sambi Lokonga was unused substitute in Belgium’s matches against Ireland (draw) and Burkina Faso (win). The young midfielder has been on the periphery in recent months and would probably remain so bar any injuries or suspensions to the core midfield personnel.

Ivory Coast – Nicolas Pepe featured in both friendly defeats for Ivory Coast against France and England. The club’s record signing, received a routine throw-in from Ibrahim Sangare on the right, skipped past the Hernandez brother’s and smacked one in from Hugo Lloris’ near post. We have always know Pepe is capable of coming up with the goods – the challenge has always been his consistency.

The most important bit of news from the international break is that no Arsenal player received any injuries, as Mikel Arteta will have all his guys for the next 10 ‘cup finals’.

Sayonara.

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Granit Xhaka on the Losing Side as C. Ronaldo Blitzes Switzerland

Image result for xhaka switzerland portugal

Source: Getty Images

The end of season paves the way for some international football without disruptions which allows nations to feature their best talent in their respective bids to win the competitions they are registered in. It seems like eons ago, but many were skeptical about the UEFA Nations League tournament but following some brilliant matches as well as some good organization I must say, we are down to the last four of the inaugural tourney as Portugal took on Switzerland in front of a capacity crowd with a chance for another European final.

Just three years ago, they went to France and grabbed home the European Championships, even though the hosts were overwhelming favorites to go home with the trophy. Three years on and Fernando Santos side, led by their inspirational captain, Cristiano Ronaldo, locked horns with a Swiss team led by Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka. The Swiss might not be world beaters but they have held their own well in recent matches, since their Round of 16 exit in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. They left a lot to be desired with their defending when they gave up a shock 3-0 lead against Denmark to draw 3-3, but they were fully aware of the threat Portugal would pose, especially with the likes of Ronaldo in their ranks.

We didn’t wait to long to see the Swiss net bulge as Ronaldo stepped up to dispatch a well taken free kick that left Yann Sommer rooted with no chance in Hell. The usually reliable Manuel Akanji struggled alongside Fabian Schar, as Portugal continued to barrage the Swiss with waves and waves of attack. The Swiss had some good chances of their own with Xherdan Shaqiri clean through on goal but Rui Patricio was on hand to make a point blank save. Haris Seferovic, that plies his trade in Portugal, had a glorious chance as well, but his effort smashed the wrong side of the cross bar and went over.

Our darling VAR wasn’t going to be left out, as it was used to determine a penalty that was awarded to Switzerland when Nelson Semedo was adjudged to have pushed Steven Zubar. Rui Patricio guessed right to dive in the direction of Ricardo Rodriguez’s penalty but he was really disappointed to see the ball creep under him to level the contest for the Swiss. It wasn’t against the run of play as Switzerland had been giving Portugal a run for their money in what I’d regard as a balanced game.

We never want to see any of these professionals suffer any injuries but it wasn’t a pleasurable sight for the experienced Pepe, as injury forced the hand of the gaffer to bring on Jose Fonte. Good job by Ruben Neves holding the fort while Pepe was being treated. For such a technical metronome in midfield, he wasn’t half bad in the few moments he served his nation as a make shift center back.

Image result for xhaka yellow caRD PORTUGAL

Source: Getty Images

For a player that picked up 14 yellow cards across four competitions last season, it was no surprise to see Granit Xhaka in the book again, when he tried to swap jerseys with Bernardo Silva. I guess he couldn’t wait till the end of the game.

With extra time looming, I was wondering whether there was going to be a match winner in regulation time but as the saying goes, ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man‘ and Portugal’s main man, Cristiano Ronaldo, delivered once again, arriving late in the box to fire in a near post piledriver from B. Silva’s cut back. Sommer was nowhere to be found when Ronaldo’s free kick embarrassed him in the first half but conceding that way in his near post was really questionable. Ronaldo certainly wasn’t done with the proceedings as he rolled back the years with some fancy footwork late on before blasting a trademark drive to the bottom corner.

90 minutes played, one chance created, 91% pass accuracy, 29 accurate passes, 49 touches, 10 duels, three attempted dribbles (all successful), five shots and most importantly, three goals scored. If that’s not a Man of the Match performance from Ronaldo, then I certainly don’t know what that is.

Commiserations to Granit Xhaka and his proud nation that reached the semis of the UEFA Nations League, but it was all about Cristiano Ronaldo, that has guided his nation to yet another final.

Sayonara.

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Ighalo: The Man on Fire and German Football on an All Time Löw

Joachim Low.

The thing about international football is that you can choose to really concentrate on watching each game, or you can do something else and just listen to the commentary in the background. I never pass on a chance to play my beloved Football Manager 2018 (can’t wait for FM 19 to come out next month) or more recently, Uncharted: Lost Legacy on my PS4, but I looked at the fixture list and decided to focus on two games – Libya vs my Nigeria and of course, France vs Germany.

With the Libya vs Nigeria game starting by 7.00pm local time and the France vs Germany starting by 7.45pm, I figured I’d combined both games while enjoying some of that FM goodness. Just before I could get settled into the Libya vs Nigeria game, the red hot Odion Ighalo stepped up again with another well taken goal following some good passing interplay from Alex Iwobi and team skipper, Ahmed Musa. That was Ighalo’s sixth goal in his qualifying fixtures – a brace away at Seychelles, a hat-trick at home to Libya and of course, the match opener in Sfax, Tunisia, against the same side.

Ighalo turned from scorer to provider when he teed up Musa at the edge of the area, but the Saudi-based winger still had a lot to do as he danced his way past some Libyan defenders before scoring the most scrappy finish you’d ever see. Knowing fully well that South Africa were playing a Seychelles side they spanked 6-0 over the weekend, Nigeria sure needed every kind of goal they could get. Taking a 2-0 lead into halftime would have been very ideal in the grand scale of things but knowing African football, there were more surprises around the corner, and that happened when Libya pulled two back but Ighalo was on hand to score his sixth goal in three matches to give Nigeria all three points.

Elsewhere, Joachim Low and Germany are still struggling and one must wonder how they can get out of this slump. Following a disastrous World Cup, Germany was still the top seed for the UEFA Nations League and were paired with France and the Netherlands, but it has turned out to be a disaster as Low’s side has lost two games in the group, as well as a poor draw at home to France.

They sure managed to end the rot of not scoring in three games with Toni Kroos penalty but it wasn’t enough as Antoine Griezmann stepped up the plate to put the Germans to the sword.

I hope they can come out of their current predicament as they are still regarded as one of the best footballing nations but things aren’t just working out for them at the mo. Really Sad

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