Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Friday February 27 2009
It feels as though I have been saying this every single week since around October, but in a nutshell, the season really does begin here. I`ve pored over our own weaknesses in lugubrious detail here in recent weeks, but the manager and the players should now be casting an ebullient eye on the weaknesses that their rivals are displaying. The appointment of Hiidink, in the short term, means Chelsea are not really catchable for us now nor should we trouble ourselves too much looking at their results. The long term may be a different picture; "long term" certainly is not a phrase that appears to enter the vocabulary of Roman Abramovic ("eh Roman, what is the Russian for durability?"). Hiidink`s installation at Stamford Bridge means that the world`s three finest football coaches are all plying a trade in England`s top flight now in my humble opinion. He will give Chelsea more than enough short term boon to surpass ourselves, Villa and probably Liverpool. However, the last couple of weeks have seen Aston Villa lift their stockings to reveal a scab. We must pick on it until it bleeds.
In the last fortnight, Villa have all but surrendered two cup competitions so much is the battle for 4th playing on their minds. That betrays any confidence that O`Neill might affirm he has in his squad, Arsenal meanwhile pledge to carry the fight on three fronts; the race for fourth, the F.A. Cup and the Champions League. Wenger can demonstrably point to the fact that he ahs more faith in his squad than O`Neill has in his, despite Arsene being shorn of several key players. Arsenal players should, firstly, draw a huge amount of belief from that. Many of us believe Wenger`s faith might well have been misplaced in certain places, but you can`t argue with the man`s conviction in the regularly lampooned Song, Bendtner and Eboue. O`Neill`s team selection last night in Moscow revealed that he is terrified of the prospect of injury to one of his key players and that he does not feel he could trust his squad if he had the sort of fitness quandary that Wenger has had. The second thing the players need to do is repay that faith, they owe it to their manager. Perhaps the likes of Eboue and Diaby have made a rod for their own backs with their performances on Tuesday night, but they have shown us they were capable. Many of us, myself very much included, had forgotten that the aforementioned even had the ability. Both showed that when they play with a little more urgency and conviction that they are infinitely more capable than they have been showing us in this campaign. It is up to them and others to call on that ability more often now. No more cheating themselves, the supporters or their manager.
O`Neill`s surrender in cup competitions in recent weeks shows that Champions League qualification is playing on his mind, by letting go against Everton and particularly CSKA, that doubt might just transmit itself. Villa have put all of their eggs in one lucrative basket now and their season will be looked upon as such a failure if they do not finish 4th. Unthinkable really as the bouquets have rightly been lavished on O`Neill and his team who have been outstanding to this point, but O`Neill has shown that he has considered failure, the thought has entered his mind and sometimes that is enough. Wenger meanwhile, no matter how myopic and shrouded in bias it appears from the outside, the Arsenal manager shows no such doubt. Not outwardly anyway. He is "convinced" we will qualify for the Champions League, he "doesn`t worry about it" he is "certain." If psychological factors have any small and piffling part to play in who grabs the 4th spot, you have to say Arsene is gearing his charges up better than O`Neill. The Villa manager made a crucial mistake in selecting a shadow side in Moscow, it is a decision he has admitted he has doubts about.
"I made the decisions at the time and I have to stick by it.
'Three games in six days does take its toll and it's important to look at the bigger picture.
'The owner has entrusted me to make these decisions and for better or worse I have done so.'
As well as showing the tiniest chinks of doubt in otherwise impressive armour, O`Neill has skewed his objectives in sacrificing the UEFA Cup at the altar of Champions League qualification. He has surrendered European competition this season in the interests of securing qualification for European competition? There is the argument that winning breeds winning and confidence and momentum being big factors, but Villa have shown a lack of appetite for Europe because they do not believe they can handle it, you have to ask what kind of message that transmits to the players. I really fail to understand why teams bust an absolute gut qualifying for Europe, only to whine about what a terrible distraction it all is once they get there. Villa entered the Intertoto Cup last summer in order to gain entry to the UEFA Cup, beginning their long season back in July and now they are discarding its importance.
Arsenal is a side that belongs in the Champions League, more so than it does in the Premiership in fact. Whilst the blistering, pyrotechnic football of the Invincibles blew the Premiership apart, Europe`s more considered sides negated it quite easily. I sometimes wonder if the current Arsenal side has been deliberately built for Champions League success in the light of Chelsea`s billions. The slow, slow, quick, quick, slow style of the current side is more suited to the continent. It is interesting that Fabregas rules the roost in European midfields more than Vieira ever did whilst Gallas` command over his back four looks more imperious than the immense Sol Campbell`s ever was. Whilst domestically most fixtures fill me with fraught anxiety nowadays, I am always confident with Arsenal in Europe and always consider us a very good bet to win the competition in September. This represents a 100% inversion on the state of play five years ago.
Wenger always physically conditions his sides to be strong in the spring and with Villa having started their season six weeks earlier than us, we really have to make at looking this count. In fairness, the Villains have shown little proclivity towards fatigue thus far this season, but we are at the business end of matters now. Fatigue is as much mental as it is physical and when the manager begins to talk about "resting" players ad nauseam, he plants a seed in their minds. Arsenal on the other hand, all things being equal should be able to call upon a fresh and fit again Theo Walcott who, though still raw and inconsistent, can provide moments of magic. Eduardo has not forgotten how to finish and he could be an equally invaluable weapon from the substitutes bench, the more we play Nasri centrally the better he looks and I think this has to become a regular feature until the injury blemishes clear up. Bendtner may not be everybody`s favourite but he has shown he knows where the goal is, Villa`s equivalent squad player is Marlon Harewood. Villa have been outstanding all season and thoroughly deserve to be where they are and have outstripped Arsenal in pretty much every department this season so far. But "so far" is a revealing caveat, MON is an excellent manager but he has shown the very slightest glimpses of weakness in recent weeks. Aston Villa have been a worthy and commendable adversary thus far, but self doubt has crept in, we must now show the self belief to capitalise. Starting tomorrow. If we do not win against Fulham tomorrow, I am afraid we are officially boned.LD.
Date:Friday February 27 2009
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