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Another huge Champions League game this week, as one Italian team welcomes another English team in the first leg of this encounter. Its Napoli v Chelsea today, the Azurri versus the Blues. A ‘Battle of the Blues’ if you will, as the Stadio San Paolo in the city of Naples, Italy hosts another potentially-explosive Champions League Round-of-16 game.
Napoli are currently placed 6th in the Serie A table and and their domestic form has been inconsistent at best. But make no mistake, they are an extremely dangerous side with a potent trio of attacking players up front in Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik. They will be especially dangerous at home, with their spirited crowed oft considered to be their ’12th man’. And lets not forget that Napoli had a major role to play in the elimination of Champions League debutants and ‘World’s Richest Football Club’ Manchester City during this year’s group stages, and it was a comprehensive 2-1 when City visited San Polo, with none other than Edinson Cavani doing most of the damage.
The big man is, once again, confident that his team has what it takes to eliminate another English team from the competition. Safe to say, the Napoli team will be high on confidence after not only making it this far into the UCL, but progressing from what was the ‘Group of Death’ this year. Their coach Walter Mazzarri however thinks that his players are the underdogs here here and Chelsea’s experience in the UCL will have a part in how events unroll tonight and over the course of the two legs.
Napoli usually line up in a 3-4-3 formation. Tactically they are an interesting team to watch – without the ball, their two defensive midfielders drop deep, almost in line with their three defenders to form a back-5. With the ball, the play a 3-4-2-1 (a slightly variated 3-4-3), with Hamsik and/or Lavezzi remaining central and sticking close to the forward up front Edinson Cavani. They stick to their formations very well and in typical Italian style, are very disciplined without the ball, as was seen in the Manchester City game.
Their line up should be as expected – with Captain Paolo Cannavaro at CB and the likes of Gokhan Inler (an excellent buy from Udinese this summer) and Walter Gargano in the heart of their midfield. Up front too should be as expected, with Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel ‘Pocho’ Lavezzi playing just behind Edinson Cavani. All three are extremely agile players, have plenty of pace to burn and are clinical in front of goal.
A defeat will be a huge blow to Chelsea, but an even bigger one for the man at the helm of affairs – Andre Villas-Boas, who has come under increasing scrutiny owing to his team’s bad run of form this season, which has seen them drop out of top-5 in the domestic table and underperform in the domestic competitions.
Make no mistake, this will be a tough game for Chelsea, a true test of their ability, confidence and resilience. Their captain and a central figure in their team (on-field and off) John Terry looks set to miss out today, as reports say he has failed to recover from the knee injury he suffered. Which, in all probability means Gary Cahill will be handed his Champions League debut. He will play alongside David Luiz, who, lets hope for Chelsea’s sake, is not being controlled by a 10-year old on a PlayStation tonight. Luiz has regressed as a player and a CB this season under Villas-Boas , and has a habit of foraying deep inside enemy territory with the ball, leaving space to be exploited behind him, leaving his defense exposed and thus much more prone to a counter attack. His defending basics are weak and he will most certainly be targetted by the Napoli front-three tonight.
Villas-Boas could perhaps look to move Branislav Ivanovic to the center the place of the adventurous-yet-error-prone David Luiz, but that move could potentially backfire, since Ivanovic is at his best at right-back rather than in the centre and moving him to the centre in a game of this magnitude could have catastrophic consequences. In case Ivanovic does play in the center, Napoli will look to test his replacement Jose Bosingwa. Bosingwa’s is an interesting story, he started out really well under Villas-Boas in the domestic league, but after a few games where he really shined has now become a liability, and it is evident why he was a squad player under Carlo Ancelotti. Even is Chelsea have Ivanovic playing RB and Luiz-Cahill in the middle, Bosingwa could be deployed as a makeshift LB, since Ashley Cole is still 50/50 to start today.
In midfield, Villas-Boas should start Juan Mata in the centre (behind the front three), where he is a much better player than when he plays on the wings, as explained by Michael Cox in his piece on The Guardian. Chelsea have options in the centre of the park – Essien, Ramires, Romeu, Mikel and Miereles. Miereles and Ramires will most certainly be dropped in favour of two more defensively-sound players (Essien and Romeu in all probability), which is what is required of Chelsea here. Up front, Didier Drogba should start in place of Fernando Torres, whose poor form continues and has now gone 20 games or nearly 1300 minutes without scoring! Torres himself has acknowledged his poor form in front of goal, and one thinks a loan spell in the lower echelons of English football just might’ve done him and his shattered confidence a world of good.
But more importantly, in case Cole is not fit to start (or even if he is), expect Daniel Sturridge to be dropped in favour of either Salomon Kalou or Florent Malouda, both of whom will provide more defensive cover on the left side of Chelsea’s formation.
THE ITALIAN JOB
It will be an interesting battle tonight. And Chelsea might be taken by surprise since they have not faced a lot of teams playing a 3-4-3 especially in the recent past. The Chelsea team is low on confidence and behind-the-scene problems a plenty at the Bridge – including Villas-Boas having lost the backing of his players, player revolts, players supposedly undermining Villas-Boas, heck even ex-managers undermining Villas-Boas and what not – an attacking Napoli side should come all guns blazing here and will be looking to put this tie to bed in the first 90 minutes of this encounter. It is not mission impossible for Chelsea, they need to be disciplined and resolute. Defensive resolve could earn them a draw, which would be nothing short of a victory for them.
Villas-Boas has appealed for patience and asked for the time that it requires for his ‘project’ to bear fruit. However with the trigger-friendly Roman Abramovic circling the waters, some crucial weeks and games lie ahead for Andre Villas-Boas. Patience is running thin in Roman’s camp as well as with the Chelsea faithful. Being on the losing end of these games could be in the final nail in the coffin for AVB.
UPDATE: John Terry ruled out of the Napoli game, and could remain sidelined for as long as 2 months!
[Follow iSayed on twitter @cheezus50]
Shambolic Defending and Impotent Attack Costs Arsenal .. Yet Again!
It was a dominant performance by Milan, reminiscent of their glory years, and an equally toothless one by Arsenal – just one of the many in the past 4 years.
In my preview I spoke of the narrow formation Milan play and how this could be exploited by Arsenal. Quite the opposite happened last night, as Milan overran the Arsenal midfield and defense by playing through the middle and playing well, where Arsenal were simply outnumbered and ultimately outclassed – despite having more posession (typical Arsenal). Ineffective down the wings, they failed to test Milan’s narrow formation or their fullbacks. And it didn’t help that Arsenal’s defending was typically Sunday-league. Had Milan been a bit more clinical in front of goal, it could’ve been an all-out rout!
As much as I want want to blame the manager for this, it was his players and in particular his senior players who really let him down .. once again. Theo Walcott offered absolutely nothing going forward, and left Sagna exposed far too often. Ramsey has been short of confidence since the start of this season and has probably been overplayed. Another player who has been overplayed is Koscielny, we’ve now lost him to injury for God knows how long, and Arsenal are now one injury or suspension away from the mighty Squillaci. Rosicky, like his right-wing counterpart, contributed exactly nothing to the attack or defense and I wouldn’t blame him because he was being played out of position. He’s been very influential in the middle for Arsenal in the recent weeks, and should’ve started behind the striker. Someone suggested on Twitter last night that he had been deployed on the left to provide more defensive cover to Gibbs. You cannot, CANNOT play players out of position in a game of this magnitude, and the blame for the rests solely on the manager’s shoulders. As does the blame for the fact that Arsenal is currently fielding average or below-average players in their squad and offering contract extensions to such players, Johan Djourou being one. Djourou is slow, and for a big man he’s easily shrugged off the ball. He’s sluggish and clumsy, cannot tackle properly, does nothing to organize the defense, and is, in a nutshell, not fit to play in a team vying for trophies on multiple fronts. Another senior player, Thomas Vermaelen, was below par, kept losing his marker on the crucial of times and once again I would blame the manager for playing him out of position for 3 months and slotting him back to the center in an important game. The simple fact is that Arsene Wenger should’ve signed a left back in the winter window when he had the chance, even a loan deal would’ve done. Especially strange since at one point the manager said that a left-back will be signed in the winter, and then completely backtracked on his own statement!
Alex Song ‘pulled a Nasri’ and chose the perfect night to go missing, as he often does. Arteta was less influential than he usually has been for Arsenal this season. Gibbs was better, considering it was his first game back from injury.
Its also easy to point the finger towards Chezney for the first goal, it was a weak goalkick, unacceptable at this level and such goalkicks have now been a regular feature of his game – something he needs to work on in the training ground. But the fact is not one Arsenal player even went close to challenging the Milan player whom the ball fell to. He played a simple cross to Kevin Boateng who in turn scored an excellent goal, I recommend everyone re-watch Prince’s brilliant skill for the goal, at least once.
Milan kept opening up the Arsenal defense by playing simple passes between the back-four. And once Djourou was introduced, you just knew it would be a rout. He conceded a soft penalty in the second half and is now well on his way to being the next Silvestre/Eboue/Denilson.
Taking nothing away from Milan, it was a dominant performance. Like Zonal Marking noted, they played to their strengths very well. To me, they clearly had a gameplan, both with and without the ball. And they stuck to it quite well. Ibrahimovic and Robinho were in total sync and worked well together, and one could see that this is the perfect partnership up front for Milan, and should keep Pato on the bench for a while. Silva, Mexes and van Bommel worked excellently together as a unit to keep van Persie quiet.
But the fact is Arsenal were toothless, clueless, were devoid of any organisation, and let Milan take them to the dryers here. Arsene Wenger was, as usual, devoid of anything even close to something called a plan-B, got his tactics totally wrong. And sometimes and especially after watching games like this, it looks as if Harry Redknapp of all people has more tactical nous than Wenger! Arsene did nothing to change things at half-time, and its not the first time this has happened. Arsenal were sinking faster than the Titanic at Old Trafford earlier this season and lets not forget than Arsenal continued to ship 8 (eight!) goals and absolutely nothing was done to change this.
Even the most die-hard Arsene Wenger fans are starting to lose the trust and faith in him. And with these sort of results, he’s not doing himself any favors at all. Fact of the matter is that Arsenal are now on the brink of mid-table mediocrity, and right now, it would take nothing short of a miracle for Arsenal to (a) proceed to the next round of the Champions League, and (b) qualify for the competition next season. The team now smacks of mediocrity and its quite telling that long-term Arsenal targets such as Eden Hazard would now prefer a move to Tottenham Hostspur. The bench has below-average players like Chamakh and I think the fact that a 35-year old Henry was preferred last night over Chamakh or Park speaks volumes in itself!
Milan were impressive, but this is without a shadow of a doubt one of the weakest Milan side in years, and everyone was expecting a closely-contested game, if not an evenly-matched one. Not to be, unfortunately. But the performance says a lot about the state of the current Arsenal side and the man it is being managed by. Devoid of ideas, it was a collection of 11 individuals rather than a team playing out there (just like the Old Trafford game). This was Arsenal’s biggest away defeat ever in the Champions League. I really don’t see the point of playing the return leg, Arsene might as well put the reserve team out at the Emirates as they would probably show more heart and fight than what was on display last night!
Would also like to take a moment to speak about the San Siro pitch, which from the looks of it had been relaid especially on both the flanks. Deliberate? Perhaps to nullify the threat posed by Arsenal’s wingers? Conspiracy theories aplenty on the internet.
Arsene’s post-match reaction. We’ll see what he does about it, as another crucial game coming up over the weekend against Sunderland. Actions always speak louder than words!
Arsenal’s defeat could affect Premier League’s standing in Europe. Via The Telegraph.
Adriano Gilliani who says there could’ve been more than 4 for Milan, and I totally agree!
Vermaelen spot on here, and I like the attitude – something that unfortunately cannot be said for everyone in the team.
A feature on Arsenal’s current state of affairs on ESPN.
Ibra: “We showed the right mentality.” Hard to disagree.
Alternatively, this was an interesting perspective on why people need to get behind Arsene and his team.
Will van Persie sign on? Will Walcott and Song sign on? Do Arsenal fans even care if Walcott signs on or goes? Will Arsenal be able to continue to attract top talent? Will Arsenal continue to lose their best players and stick with what are clearly mediocre, mid-table-team players? Will the board and the manager continue to do absolutely nothing about the fact that clearly something is not right with this team and the setup? Will Arsene Wenger continue to mismanage players to the ground, bring the once-Invincibles down to utter mediocrity and in the process permanently stain his reputation?
Shout out to the Arsenal fans in attendance at San Siro who had to sit through this abysmal display of football by Arsenal FC, and probably paid good money to do so.
[Written by a long-time Arsenal fan, and a believer that the club will always be bigger than any player/manager/individual. Gooner, through thick and thin!]
It’s the biggest competition in the footballing world. Its the Champions League. The location is Milan, Italy. It’s a showdown between the giants of Italian football versus the once-invincibles of English Premier League. The stakes are high. The stage is set. The teams play for Munich. The teams play for European Dominance!
The Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, or a place more commonly known in the footballing world as the San Siro, hosts, what on paper, looks like the biggest game of this year’s Champions League Round of 16. Two giants of Europe face-off on Wednesday, February 15th 2012. Two of, undoubtedly, the biggest teams of Europe play in what should be an absolute cracker of a game.
Arsenal travelled to Milan on Monday without Per Mertesacker, who suffered an ankle injury during the weekend League game against Sunderland where he had to be stretchered off. He was immediately ruled out of the Milan game and he’s posted a picture of a nasty bruise on his ankle. He has since travelled to Germany for further scans. A lot has already been said about the appalling turf at the Stadium of Light, and quite honestly I’ve seen League Two teams with better playing surfaces. It means however that Thomas Vermaelen moves to a position he says he prefers playing in – along side Laurent Koscielny in the heart of Arsenal’s defense. Kieren Gibbs is back from injury and was an unused substitute against Sunderland, will slot back into the left wing-back position. Here’s hoping he gets some decent match-time under his belt this time around, instead of his customary 30 minutes every 3 months.
Another interesting aspect would be to see who starts for Arsenal on the left wing. The manager will in all likelihood rest Gervinho, who’s back from his African Cup of Nations duty, and had some good things to say about compatriot Robin van Persie. It will be either Arshavin or The Ox on the left, the latter most likely to start, as has been the case recently. In addition, we could also see the return of Ramsey as the chief playmaker behind the striker, although the boss might also prefer to stick with the in-form and Champions League-experienced Thomas Rosicky.
Other than that, Arsenal should line up as expected:
Ox Rosicky Walcott
Gibbs Vermaelen Koscielny Sagna
Subs: Gervinho, Henry (who spoke of his desire to see Arsenal go through to the quarters), Fabianski, Coquelin, Arshavin, Djourou. Strong line up on paper, but with the Arsenal of late, you just never know do you.
Last year at this time, Milan were knocked out of the Champions League by another North London team, with Aaron Lennon in particular impressing for Tottenham on the flanks, and eventually getting a reward (an assist) for his efforts in the 1-0 win. We could once again see a similar tactical battle on the wings, when Theo Walcott of Arsenal will be deployed on the right to take on Milan’s Gianluca Zambrotta. It is interesting to note that Milan play a very narrow 4-1-2-1-2/4-3-1-2 formation, which means their fullbacks would always be vulnerable to fast, pacy wingers who like to take their man on in one-on-one situations, which also plays to the strengths of Oxlade-Chamberlain.
A.C Milan were once the all-conquering team in the Champion’s League, one of the greats of Europe. They’ve been labelled as Europe’s ‘retirement home’ in recent times, however Milan’s midfield-enforcer Mark van Bommel says that the two games are anything but a matter of “Arsene Wenger’s kids against the Milan old guard”. While only time will tell if that indeed is the case, van Bommel and Robinho are still wary of the threat posed by Arsenal. Kevin Prince Boateng however thinks otherwise, and one cannot help but think that his words do hold a bit of truth to them. Nonetheless, Milan can hardly afford to be complacent here, and Clarence Seedorf believes Arsenal are still ‘one of the teams to beat’ and that Milan need to be wary of Arsenal’s most potent weapon – his Dutch International compatriot and a man in blistering form Robin van Persie.
Milan are fresh off a league away win against Udinese, despite having 10 players out due to injuries and suspensions, including the likes of Gattuso, Nesta, Falmini and most importantly Pato all of whom are still in the battle for fitness for tomorrow’s game. But perhaps Milan’s biggest threat – a certain someone called Zlatan Ibrahimovic – should start. Ibra’s stats this season are excellent – 21 goals and 5 assists in 26 games in all competitions for AC Milan.
Expected line up:
Boateng Ambrosini Emanuelson
Zambrotta Silva Mexes Abate
Will Arsenal’s fragile defense once again prove to be their downfall? Will Milan’s poor form in recent weeks and an injury struck squad give the Gunners an edge? Hopefully, we have another classic on our hands, a 180 minutes of football that will be remembered for some time. Goes without saying, but this is one you certainly wouldn’t want to miss!
As an added bonus, a tune you’ll all soon be hearing as Tuesday’s games kick off in a bit: