Liverpool, Spurs, AVB sucker punched
In a wild Prem weekend, two clubs and a manager were blindsided
After the giddy euphoria of last Sunday's 5-2 karmic crushing of Spurs, I fully anticipated a letdown this past weekend. Little did I know that another week of preening, gloating and busting a move in my skintight Gooner underwear awaited me.
The latest heaping of Tottenfreude would normally be enough for any Spurs-loathing Arsenal fan (in other words, all of us) to revel in, but there's also the hilarious implosions of Chelsea's and Liverpool's Champions League dreams -- an embarrassment of riches that has filled me with the kind of sunny optimism I haven't experienced since Patrick Vieira's FA Cup-winning penalty in 2005. Historians will note that was the last time the Gunners needed to exert themselves to lift any silverware.
Admittedly, at this point in the season it would be nice to be talking about winning a title, but such lofty ambitions were lobotomized on that Sunday, bloody Sunday at Old Trafford in August. From that eye-gouging moment on, I downsized my expectations into more realistic and attainable goals, namely, that Arsenal wouldn't get relegated.
But now I'm ready to dream.
Now I can imagine a Gunners side featuring a 30-goal scorer that qualifies for next season's Champions League and gets to look down smugly upon the soccer detritus that is Spurs and Chelsea. (As of right now, I am 3-for-4 on my wish list and still have 11 games to watch Spurs complete its annual collapse).
So here we are, with the two Manchester clubs camped out on the Prem summit with only two points separating them as they look ahead to their dance of death on April 30, a showdown that will end with one of them hurled into the abyss of the also-ran. Third place (and the final automatic Champions League berth) once thought to be on lease-purchase at White Hart Lane is now in danger of foreclosure by the Bank of Arsenal. Will the Gunners make up the four-point gap and catch Spurs?
I wish I knew, because it would save on the elephant tranquilizers. Arsenal is maddening in its inconsistency, but then, what London team isn't?
Well, in a perverse way, the answer is Chelsea. Its entire season seems to have been an ever-increasing downward spiral. The Blues are in the midst of playing out their modern-day version of "Mutiny on the Bounty" with skipper Andre Villas-Boas pushed overboard by a cabal of aging, overprivileged, badge-kissing, chest-thumping megalomaniacs who never bought into the Portuguese's "project" -- or his belted-trench-coat sartorial style.
In turn, Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich, who has invested more than a billion dollars in the club since purchasing it nine years ago, fears nothing more than failing to qualify for the CL (he axed Luiz Felipe Scolari three years ago for that very reason), but his team doesn't appear to possess the same missile-resistant shield as his mega-yacht. Instead, the Blues are perilously close to crashing out of the Russian oligarch's favorite competition (as long as John Terry doesn't miss any penalties) to Napoli this season while also drifting down the Prem table far closer to Newcastle than to the top three.
Although Abramovich could never have foreseen Villas-Boas falling out with his veteran players such as Terry and Frank Lampard when he lured the 34-year-old manager away from Porto for $21 million nine months ago, your head would have to have been buried in caviar not to realize that the two English alpha dogs have been "managing" the team ever since Jose Mourinho left in 2007. Had Chelsea kept winning both in the league and on the continent, Abramovich would no doubt have stayed the course, but once the Good Ship Boas began to list, it was only a matter of time until AVB walked the plank, albeit with a nice, fat life jacket worth an estimated $24 million.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
So shed no tears for the baby-faced Iberian. He's got his hair and his youth and will almost certainly soon bob to the surface at another glamorous club.
In fact, if I were Villas-Boas, I'd be in Paris cracking open the Cristal and clinking glasses with his Chelsea predecessor Carlo Ancelotti, who walked away with $44 million when Abramovich sent him and his backroom staff packing. I've even thought of an appropriate toast. "Here's to the next sucker to be totally humiliated by that crazy Russian, but at least he'll be rich!" Come to think of it, I'm available for the job.
And now can we please turn our attention to more important matters -- like how Arsenal played like crap and still took all three points at Anfield?
The Gunners grow a backbone!
It's a measure of this crazy, barely plausible season that if an alien -- or even Mario Balotelli -- had suddenly beamed into Anfield on Saturday, he might have thought that Liverpool and Arsenal had switched identities. For most of the game, the Reds were the ones executing the pretty tippy-tappy stuff while the Gunners exhibited the kind of mental fortitude that Liverpool copyrighted in Istanbul in 2005.
But amid all the head-scratching confusion, one unassailable truth remained: Arsenal had Robin van Persie, and Liverpool did not.
This is not to say that the Gunners are a one-man team -- no, with Wojciech Szczesny between the sticks, they are a two-man team -- just that without the Dutchman, scorer of 30 goals in 30 games this season, including 10 match winners, Wenger would be busy trying to convince Arsenal supporters that 10th place is the new fourth.
Which is why I will go on record here saying that if the Gunners pull a Samir Nasri over RvP's contract this summer and don't meet his price, however preposterous it may be, I'm mailing my Arsenal bottle opener (the one that plays the famous "It's up for grabs" call from the "Fever Pitch" match whenever you open a fancy beer) to majority shareholder Stan Kroenke so that he can shove it up his Colorado rockies.
And while you're at it, Stan, you better crack open the piggy bank for Szczesny. It's voodoo economics that the 21-year-old is paid less than Manuel "England's No. 1" Almunia, who most recently had a four-game cameo at West Ham.
For the second game in a row, the Gunners generously spotted their opponent a lead before deciding to join the fray. Last week, they clawed back from two down against Spurs, while Sunday, they should have trailed Liverpool by the same score after 23 minutes if not for the Reds evincing the same icy cool from the spot that they did in last Sunday's throat-clutching Carling Cup climax.
As it was, the criminally underpaid Szczesny pulled off a stunning double save of both Dirk Kuyt's penalty kick and his rebound attempt to keep the game scoreless until he was finally beaten by a stylish own goal from Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny. Although the normally cocksure keeper experienced a mild case of the yips in January, Szcz (c'mon, you can't expect me to keep typing all those consonants) was at his fearless best against Liverpool, twice racing out of his area to head away dangerous balls. Had it not been for Woj's heroics and a couple of generous caroms from the woodwork, the Reds could easily have been three or four up by halftime. (To compensate for my anxiety, I downed a pint for every goal they should have scored.)
Consider poor Stewart Downing, who after a man-of-the-match performance against Cardiff in the Carling Cup once again looked like a $5 million winger except that he cost Liverpool $30 million. In the 10th minute, with Szcz down on the ground after a sliding save on Luis Suarez, Downing had an empty net in his crosshairs only to swipe at the ball and hit nothing but air. In his defense, however, he struck the air solidly.
Liverpool's profligacy in front of goal set the table for RvP's equalizer. Bacary Sagna's perfectly floated cross left Jamie Carragher looking as though he'd been studying Per Mertesacker's agility video, and the in-the-form-of-his-life Dutchman nipped in front of him to head past Pepe Reina.
The goal came totally against the run of play, which saw Suarez, in particular, slithering his way through the disheveled Arsenal defense when he wasn't busy doing a passable impression of Gareth Bale diving over Szcz to dupe the referee into awarding a soft penalty.
Late in the first half, Suarez did provide a dazzling reminder why when he's not play-acting, he is still one of the most electric players in the Prem. Collecting the ball 20 yards out from goal, he turned three Arsenal defenders inside out with a corkscrewing run that had he finished off with a goal, he would have had even Patrice Evra applauding.
Thankfully for Arsenal, Woj was able to deny Suarez YouTube immortality by hurling himself across the goalmouth to palm his shot around the far post.
If the Reds were frustrated by their inability to translate their dominance into goals -- they had 12 corner kicks to Arsenal's zero --- they kept attacking as though a breakthrough was imminent. But the only shot that was actually on target was the one Jordan Henderson accidentally laid on Mikel Arteta's skull in the 50th minute, resulting in the Arsenal midfielder being taken off on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over his face. I was genuinely surprised to see Arteta with a head injury, as I had always assumed that his hair protected him like a helmet.
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Although Kenny Dalglish, celebrating his 450th game as an EPL manager, thought about shuffling the deck to inject some aerial power and speed into the Liverpool attack -- he had Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy warming up from the 60th minute -- he didn't pull the trigger until it was too late.
At least the Welshman who replaced Downing in the 88th minute can say that he was on the field when Van Persie conjured up another jaw-dropping goal out of nothing. This one may not have had the explosive propulsion of his epic volley against Everton in December, but it was brilliant nonetheless and was a virtual carbon copy. Alex Song, playing more like an attacking than a deep-lying midfielder in Aaron Ramsey's absence, clipped a majestic pass over the top of the static Liverpool defense. The ball dropped just over RvP's shoulder, and in one seamless and devastating lash of his left foot, the Dutchman hammered it past Reina at the near post. Then he sprinted over to Song, kneeled down and kissed the Cameroonian's right boot.
As for Liverpool, it can kiss the Champions League goodbye for next season. Unless, of course, something crazy happens and the table is turned on its head yet again.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."
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