Us Arsenal fans have been approaching the beginning of this new campaign with a sense of dread. On the field, the team fell of a cliff last spring–in quick sucession, they handed the Carling Cup to Birmingham in the waning minutes; got eliminated from the Champions League yet again by nemesis Barcelona, and fell from within striking distance of the top of the Premier League to barely hanging on to a Champions League spot. Then came the usual dreaded drama of off-season transfers. The Cesc-back-to-Barcelona negotiations dragged out all summer, until finally being consummated just yesterday. But worse than that (most Gunners fans had already bid adieu to their displaced Catalan captain), rivals Man City poached experience defender Gaël Clichy, and then came the disconcerting news that rising star Samir Nasri wanted out too. As of now, Nasri is still ostensiby on the squad, but he too might follow in the ignominious footsteps of former Gunners Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Adebayor, and now Clichy, trading in Arsenal’s bright red for City’s sky blue.
On the other hand, Arsene yet again failed to offer the fans some hope with a big move in the transfer market. The only player that he brought in during this transfer window (so far, at least) is yet another Francophone West African, albeit one with a Brazilian-style single moniker: Gervinho, from Ligue 1’s Lyon. Plus many Gunners followers were disappointed that Wenger failed to sell underachievers like Denilson, Andrei Arshavin, or Nicholas Bendtner.
And so it was with some trepidation that we tuned in to Saturday’s season opener at Newcastle upon Tyne–especially since last year’s fixture at Newcastle was among the lowest of many low points last season. And although the result was a rather lackluster scoreless draw, with more attention drawn to red cards given and not, this Arsenal observer was encouraged by the team’s performance. One got the feeling that the players on the pitch had already put the Fabregas and Nasri nonsense aside, and were focused on getting on with things.
We thought there was some good combination play among the front 5 or 6: captain Robin Van Persie up front; Tomáš Rosický in the center of the midfield, filling (for now) the playmaker role Cesc used to boss; Arshavin on one wing again, but Gervinho getting the start on the other; and behind them stalwart Alex Song and the rising Aaron Ramsey in the holding roles (with Jack Wilshere unfortunately injured for now). Predictably the Gunners all too frequently failed to find the final ball for the finish, but the quick attacks off one & two-touch passing was there, with Gervinho in particular providing some aggression and excitement off the wings. Interestingly, he and Arshaving switched sides multiple times in the first half alone, causing both the viewer and the Newcastle defense some confusion.
The good news for Arsenal fans was no news on defense–it was solid, allowing Newcastle few good chances on goal, and not making any glaring errors. The return, finally, of center back Thomas Vermalaen is great news–he, Koscielny and Johann Djourou give the Gunners some solidity in the center of the defense. On the outside defense, we can count on Bacary Sagna, and youngster Kieran Gibbs had a good game stepping into the starting role vacated by Clichy; both of them got forward on occasion, providing extra width in attack.
But alas, it was a couple fracases involving Joey Barton that grabbed the headlines. First an Alex Song stamp on the ankle in the first half that the ref failed to notice, and then Barton grabbing Gervinho by the scruff of his jersey and hauling him up after he’d perceived that the Ivorian had taken a dive in the box (replays show that Cheikh Tiote may have in fact clipped him). The ref missed that initial Barton no-no (understandably, as he was following the play up the field and had his back turned), but didn’t miss Gervinho giving Barton a little tap on the cheek. The arbiter had no choice but to give Gervinho a red card in his Premier League debut.
If you missed the game, here is BBC’s Match of the Day segment–highlights followed by commentary and analysis by host (and former England captain) Gary Lineker, former Newcastle United captain Alan Shearer and Liverpool and Scotland defender Alan Hansen:
That brings us to today–Arsenal’s 2nd game in a very tricky opening stretch is the first leg of a Champions League playoff tie against Italians Udinese. Udinese were a revelation in Serie A last year, climing to 4th place to claim a Champions League spot for the first time since 2005-06, finishing up traditional powers like Lazio, Roma, and Juventus. Here is what SerieAWeekly.com had to say in a column from last May, titled “Why Udinese Finishing Fourth Is Good for Serie A“, a couple weeks before the close of the season:
If this team does qualify for the Champions League, it can only be a positive for Calcio. They are a direct contrast to the stereotype of catenaccio; they won’t bore the opposition to sleep. European teams should fear Udinese, if they don’t, they will learn to quickly.
Unfortunately for Udinese fans, the club cashed in on their breakout star player, Chilean Alexis Sanchez, selling him to Barcelona on a big money transfer. Even worse, it wasn’t only Sanchez that departed. Via a good Guardian preview of today’s match: “Udinese supporters greeted Sánchez’s departure with frustration, as it followed the sale of the influential [Swiss-Turkish] midfielder Gokhan Inler to Napoli for £15.4m and the equally important [Colombian] central defender Cristián Zapata to Villarreal for £6.6m.”
So who does that leave for Udinese to rely upon, on the big stage of a Champions League tie? Well, let’s not forget their 33-year-old captain, Antonio di Natale, the leading scorer in the Serie A for two seasons running. In the Udinese midfield, at the other end of the age spectrum, we’ll be keeping a close eye on 22yo Ghanaian midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah. He’s already made 54 appearance for Udinese since joining them in January 2009. He’s also got 22 caps for the Black Stars of Ghana, including every match in their scintillating run in South Africa last summer. He appears to be Essien’s successor in the Ghana side as a tireless and powerful box-to-box midfielder. It’ll likely be him against Cameroonian Alex Song battling for balls in the midfield.