Key figures played predictable roles in Arsenal-Chelsea stalemate

Leave a comment

There was an aura of inevitability to yesterday’s result, one you could sense after we saw each team’s approach. As Chelsea’s three-man midfield folded into a five-man line in front of the defense, we saw a typical, stubborn José Mourinho persisting with a pragmatism that has kept his wildly inconsistent team within reach of first place. And as Arsenal’s style-defined plan failed to exhibit a new ways to break through the Blues’ defense, visions of the Arsène Wenger teams that have failed to beat Mourinho in 10 tries came to mind. Both managers, both teams were playing their parts.

[MORE: Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea: Stalemate at the Emirates on night of heavy weather, refereeing controversy (video)]

But to complete the predictable drama, the directors needed help. They’d need complicity from the players as well as the head official. Had those factors been unwilling to play their pats, we may have had a goal at the Emirates on Monday.

Instead, we had a number of performances, both good and bad, we could have anticipated at kickoff.

Mesut Özil

The German international has been as advertised since his acquisition from Real Madrid, but within that reputationare qualms about his performance in big games. Though he was admired at the Santiago Bernabeu for his obvious skill, whispers asked why he didn’t have a bigger impact in Clasicos or Real Madrid’s three eliminations in Champions League semifinals.

The “big game” tag can often be a silly one in soccer. They used to apply it to Messi. And Ronaldo, And Ibrahimovic. Often, when all else fails, it’s the go to “he’s not that good” critique. As Özil’s career progresses, he may show middling performances in big games were about sample size or opposition, not some inherent shortcoming. At least, that’s how it usually works out.

On Monday, however Özil wasn’t the player Arsenal needed. Having broken the bank for the first time in club history to bring him in this summer, the Gunners would be right to expect influential performances in the matches that can take them from Champions League qualifier to title-contender. Instead, according to Opta, Özil had one “key pass” (chance created) against Chelsea – the same as Kieran Gibbs. Frank Lampard, Eden Hazard, and Willian all created multiple chances for the Blues.

source: APJohn Terry

The Chelsea captain took home the NBC broadcast’s Man of the Match award, and with good reason. With the Blues playing deep and compact, Terry was at his best, alleviated of the prospect of individual battles while being left to help organize and clear anything cast toward the middle. The times he was asked to make stops (few and far between), he was able to do so without worrying about giving up space behind. Chelsea were already standing with their backs to the wall.

Perhaps that type of performance can be seen as an extension of Terry’s limitations, but now 33 years old, the veteran defender can’t be expected to replicate his former, award-winning self. That he’s still a player that can start in the middle of a defense against Arsenal speaks to a resiliency few want to acknowledge.

While Chelsea’s defending had been a point of uncertainty heading into Monday’s game, the Blues kept a clean sheet on the road against one of the league’s best attacks. And Terry played a huge part.

source: ReutersArsène Wenger

There was a time when the line between tactics and style didn’t exist in how people discussed the Premier League. In those days, Arsène Wenger was considered a tactician. Now, more often than not, he seems like a man who lacks ideas. In big games against teams who are able to adapt their selection and adjust to Arsenal’s approach, the Gunners can often become bogged down.

That’s not always the case. Last year in Munich. This year at Dortmund. At home in Champions League against Napoli. Arsenal are still capable of beating top teams, even if there’s rarely a tactical masterstroke. The consistently of Wenger approach produces a well-drilled team capable of exploiting their opponent’s errors. Even the biggest teams are capable of giving Arsenal an opening.

José Mourinho’s teams, however, are less like to do so than most. We knew Chelsea were likely to play conservatively. We knew Arsenal would have to come up with something special. But Wenger, playing to type, rolled with what carried the Gunners to the top of the Premier League. As a result, they lost their hold on first.

source: APJose Mourinho

Mourinho was as unimaginative as Wenger, but on Monday, his approach worked. Not only did he keep the Gunners from registering a shot on goal for most of the match, his team nearly took the league multiple times. Given the current state of his squad, it was the right plan, even if the lack of execution at one end forced the Blues to content themselves with one point.

The Chelsea boss resorted to his old media tricks post-match, deflecting criticism while providing a distraction. Many of the critiques centered on perceived rough play, but that was only one, small facet of the Blues’ plan. At its core, Chelsea’s set up assumed Arsenal wouldn’t be able to break them down. And they were right.

[MORE: José Mourinho’s ‘like to cry’ gibe strikes a patronizing, xenophobic note]

source: Getty ImagesMike Dean

Every referee has a style, and to his credit, Mike Dean is generally consistent in his approach. Yet when you have styles that deviate so far from normal enforcement of the rules, you end up with officials that can be exploited. On Monday, Chelsea’s willingness to test the edge of the rules was rewarded, something for which José Mourinho may deserve credit.

Arsenal could have responded, but they don’t have a team built to do so. They have Mathieu Flamini in the middle, but they don’t have a core of midfielders that can plow through Chelsea’s block. They don’t have the type of forwards they can target as a means of bypassing the Blues’ minefield. Again, this is an area where Mourinho might deserve credit for recognizing how the game was likely to play out.

But Cesar Azpilicueta deserved a yellow card for his first chop on Aaron Ramsey. John Obi Mikel deserved at least a caution for how he went in on Mikel Arteta. Those were places where Dean’s stylistic preferences subverted the rules, giving Chelsea an edge the Gunners couldn’t similarly exploit. Although Arsenal weren’t without their own forgiven fouls, the early, let-them-play approach played into how Chelsea set up.

While you could argue that teams have to be able to adapt to such scenarios, you can also question why such scenarios are accepted as part of the game. Why aren’t referee with drastically deviating tendencies seen as a bug as opposed to a feature?

Credit Chelsea for their adaptability, but if Mike Dean isn’t refereeing Monday’s match, the game would have played out differently. Would it have played out in Arsenal’s favor? That’s going too far. But the style of the officiating may not have meshed so well with Mourinho’s plan.

[MORE: Referee Mike Dean’s record in Arsenal matches will continue to be scrutinized]

UCL roundup: Real Madrid nearly blow 4-0 lead; PSG roll in Sweden

Luka Modric, Real Madrid CF
Leave a comment

A roundup of all of Wednesday’s action in the UEFA Champions League…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

Juventus 1-0 Manchester CityFULL RECAP

Mario Mandzukic scored the game’s only goal (WATCH HERE), putting Juventus back atop Group D as Man City tumble into second place. With just one game left to play, City sit two points behind last year’s CL runners-up and risk going into the runners-up side of the draw for the knockout stage, which could mean a date with Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid in the round of 16.

Manchester United 0-0 PSV EindhovenFULL RECAP

The red half of Manchester has even more to worry about, however, as Man United failed to qualify for the knockout stage on Wednesday by drawing 0-0 with PSV Eindhoven. With one game left to play, United sit second, just a point ahead of the Dutch side, with a difficult away trip to face Wolfsburg looming in two weeks’ time. PSV, meanwhile, will host CSKA Moscow on Dec. 8.

Shakhtar Donetsk 3-4 Real Madrid

Rafa Bentiez is truly special, isn’t he? From 4-0 up, to holding on for dear life and a 4-3 victory over Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk, Benitez’s position may, somehow, be even more untenable today than it was following Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Barcelona. Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice (WATCH HERE), and Luka Modric and Dani Carvajal provided the other two goal before three goals from minutes 77 to 88 put the final result in serious doubt.

Malmo 0-5 Paris Saint-Germain

Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his triumphant return to his boyhood club and marked the special occasion with — what else? — a goal (WATCH HERE). PSG were up 2-0 after 14 minutes thanks to goals scored by Adrien Rabiot and Angel di Maria, so the result was never really in doubt. Ibrahimovic added the third before Di Maria and Lucas Moura ballooned the lead in the game’s final 25 minutes.

Elsewhere in Champions League action

Group B

CSKA Moscow 0-2 Wolfsburg

Group C

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Galatasaray
FC Astana 2-2 Benfica

Group D

Borussia Monchengladbach 4-2 Sevilla — WATCH FABIAN JOHNSON’S GOAL HERE

Man United 0-0 PSV Eindhoven: UCL hopes hang in the balance

Wayne Rooney, Jorrit Hendrix
Leave a comment

Manchester United drew 0-0 with PSV Eindhoven at Old Trafford on Wednesday as Louis Van Gaal‘s side were frustrated as they missed the chance to qualify for the knockout round and now face a pivotal final Group B game away at Wolfsburg.

[ MORE: Champions League standings

Jesse Lingard, Morgan Schneiderlin and Anthony Martial had the best of the chances for United but PSV threatened in the second half as Phillip Cocu’s side can still qualify for the last 16 heading into their finale against already eliminated CSKA Moscow.

As for United, they know a win in Germany in two weeks time against group leaders Wolfsburg will seal their spot in the last 16 and top spot but anything less and a PSV win would mean an early UCL exit.

United started brightly with Anthony Martial trying to play in Wayne Rooney and then Bastian Schweinsteiger smashed a shot in on goal which was easily saved. As the first half wore on it was one-way traffic with the Red Devils pushing hard. Rooney almost got in at the back post but the ball flashed by, then he set up Jesse Lingard but a poor first touch saw the chance go to waste.  Morgan Schneiderlin came close to scoring as he tried to bundle the ball home at the back post after Daley Blind‘s corner caused havoc but Jeroen Zoet saved bravely.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule

Finally, PSV began to wake up with Luuk De Jong setting up Jorrit Hendrix but David De Gea was equal to his curling effort as the Dutch side flexed their offensive muscles. With half time approaching United pressed hard as Anthony Martial got free on the left side of the box but his shot was saved when he really should’ve scored. The Frenchman went close again before half time but Zoet saved his shot at the near post as United were frustrated by the reigning Dutch champions.

At the start of the second half United began brightly with Lingard flicking a header past the far post and then Memphis wriggled free of his marker but sent a shot straight at Zoet.

With 30 minutes to go United made two changes with Memphis and Schweinsteiger replaced by Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini, however Davy Propper had a decent strike on goal but De Gea saved well after the Dutch midfield juggled his way into a good spot. Young whipped in some delicious crosses after coming on but PSV pressed hard and United looked to have run out of steam.

Propper forced De Gea into a stop after his rasping shot from 35-yards out, and PSV were giving it a right go late on at Old Trafford. That said,  Lingard squandered a gilt-edge chance as Young’s cross deflected right into his path but the local lad couldn’t keep his half volley down and sent the ball over with the goal gaping. Fellaini just failed to get on the end of a cross to the back post with the Red Devils huffing and puffing in the final moments but they couldn’t find a way through as they fired a blank to set up a nervy finale in Germany on Dec. 8.

Juventus 1-0 Man City: Mandzukic puts Juve past City, top of Group D

Mario Mandzukic, Juventus FC
Leave a comment

A first-half goal from Mario Mandzukic resigned Manchester City to UEFA Champions League defeat on Wednesday, taking control of Group D out of their own hands and putting it into those of Juventus, 1-0 winners on the night.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

Juve took the lead through a simple tap-in off the boot of Mario Mandzukic in the 18th minute. Alex Sandro sent a high, looping ball toward the back post where Mandzukic lost his marker, Nicolas Otamendi, when the Argentine tumbled over backwards after a slight touch on the shoulder from Mandzukic.

The Croatian striker nearly doubled Juve’s lead 10 minutes later, but his right-footed side-volley was very well saved by Joe Hart at his left-hand post. Claudio Marchisio sent a long ball to the corner of the six-yard box, where Paulo Dybala laid back a soft, cushioned header to Mandzukic for his low, powerful strike to the near post.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s UCL roundup — Barca, Bayern clinch spots in KO round ]

Sergio Aguero had Man City’s best chance of the first half, just before halftime, when Marchisio played an unthinkable back pass toward Gianluigi Buffon. Aguero was quick to react and suddenly found himself one on one with the legendary Juve and Italy goalkeeper, but his first two touches took him away from goal and Buffon did very well to rush out and close down the angles quickly.

It was Otamendi who went inches from equalizing for City shortly after halftime. Kevin De Bruyne‘s free kick found the Argentine center back at the top of the six-yard box, where he headed the ball for the far post, but the outstretched hand of Buffon tipped the ball onto the inside of the post and back into his hands.

[ MORE: UCL standings | Schedule ]

Juve went straight down to the other end of the field and would have doubled their lead, if not for a pesky post. Alvaro Morata, introduced into the game seconds earlier, got behind the City defense and lifted the ball over Hart toward the far post for Dybala, but the Argentine striker’s deft touch found only the outside of the post, denying the bianconeri a classy goal.

Juve’s victory means the four-time reigning Serie A champions have leapfrogged City for top spot in Group D, two points ahead with one game left to play. City will be home to Borussia Monchengladbach, while Juve will play away to Sevilla on the group stage’s final matchday.

VIDEO: USMNT’s Johnson scores stunning goal in UCL

Leave a comment

U.S. men’s national team star Fabian Johnson put the icing on the cake for Borussia Monchendgladbach against Sevilla on Wednesday.

Johnson, 27, cut inside and hit a dipping, curling shot into the far corner to give Monchengladbach a 2-0 lead late on and give themselves a great chance of finishing third in Group D and qualifying for the Europa League.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]  

The German-American cleared up his differences with USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann after being sent home following the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico in October, and in this type of form he has proven why Klinsmann has recently played him in a left-wing role for the U.S. instead of at full back.

Watch the video below to see Johnson’s superb strike, his second UCL goal in as many games and the second of his career.