Kicking Off 2012-13: What To Watch This Weekend

August 17, 2012 — by Suman


Another season of European club football is upon us, and so we here at CultFootball are back from a couple-month hiatus. Over at PoliticalFootballs, John Lally has a Premier League preview which runs to a few thousand words. And here on CultFootball, Rob Kirby devotes almost as many words to just Arsenal’s chances this season.

Without further preamble, here are our picks for opening weekend in the EPL–plus one match from the opening weekend in La Liga:

As usual all times ET, and all listing from (and links to) the very useful
Saturday, August 18:
Sunday, August 19:


(*) Note that the US TV right to La Liga (and Serie A, which kicks off next weekend) have been snapped away from GolTV by the new “beIN” network–a venture of Al-Jazeera Sports. Check your local listings to see if you can get it on your cable lineup.


Arsenal to Consolidate Third?

March 23, 2012 — by Rob Kirby1


On Wednesday against Everton, Arsenal entered the last quarter of the season. The victory and results elsewhere meant that after the first game of the final fourth of the season, we occupy third place, six points separating us from the mega-rich but fifth-placed Blues and one point ahead of the Lilywhites. And with Tottenham and Chelsea to play in the early match Saturday, if we can get three points against Aston Villa, we have a chance to consolidate or extend that lead. (Obviously, we could also blow it, but let’s not go there right now.)

Things are looking pretty decent for the Arsenal, you’d have to say. That statement would have seemed patently absurd in August and the 8-2 at Old Trafford (or the September 4-3 loss to Blackburn, where we scored five of the goals). It might have sounded slightly more reasonable in later fall after a good run of form. Then absurd again after the debacles of January, the FA Cup exit and the annihilation at the San Siro. Now eminently reasonable again. It has been a crazy, roller-coastery season, with Robin van Persie almost singlehandedly pulling the whole team along. When we had an all-centerback back 4, fourth seemed a pipe dream. And now to be in third? What’s a level up from a pipe dream? An industrial-strength morphine-drip dream?

Aside from the recent (awesome) habit of coming from behind to snatch crucial victories, one of the most encouraging pieces of data is in the area of Arsenal’s former shame—goal difference. It took a while to shake off the -6 from Old Trafford, added to other negative takes from Liverpool and other early-season opposition. Still miles behind the Manchester clubs (United, 46; City, 50), Arsenal at 19 leads Tottenham (18) and Chelsea (15). This is good. Robin still scores nearly all the goals, but the defense has stanched the flow of goals against us.

Yet there are still 9 games to go and 27 points to play for. Everything may yet change. To not expect some wrench in the works after the wrenchliness of this season would be naive. Spurs may no longer seem a lock for 3rd, but they can still pull it together to retake 3rd or fight for 4th. Likewise, Arsenal are not a lock for a Champions League spot, but in light of Wednesday’s results, top 4 is now looking more realistic than not.

Arsenal host Villa on Saturday at 11am EST, directly after Chelsea and Spurs face off at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal now have their fate in their own hands. They can focus on their own matches. Win matches, take points and 3rd or 4th is theirs. They don’t need anyone to drop points other than the immediate opponents on the pitch on any given day. Of course, if Chelsea and Spurs can both see fit to drop points and Arsenal can grab another three points tomorrow against the Villans, it may be possible to begin breathing full breaths again. Right now, it’s still too close. Heart in throat is still the order of the day.

Perhaps Liverpool or Newcastle will go on a tear, but at the moment, it seems like the trio of Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea are the contenders for the two non-Manchester Champions League spots. And while any of the three teams would gladly take 4th, nabbing the automatic CL group-stage position (3rd) could be huge. Arsenal very nearly could have missed out on the CL this year, rubber-duckily squeaking past Udinese when our squad was in major transition mode. Loss to the Italian side would almost certainly have meant one or more of the deadline-day incoming players would have stayed put at their former clubs. (Think: no Arteta, no Mertesacker. And say what you want, Benayoun and Santos have put in good shifts on their days. Park…I wish I could include you here. I’ve honestly barely seen you play. Sorry that you got bamboozled, but congratulations on your military service reprieve!)

Of the top ten teams, Arsenal have only City (4/8) and Chelsea (4/21) ahead, both at home. The Chelsea match in particular could prove very important in the fight for fourth. A tricky tie away at Stoke (4/28) could also prove a clutch match, with the bad blood of recent times (and the fact that Stoke can pull out some good results).

So, do we hope Chelsea takes all 3 points against Spurs, to better our chances for third, or hope for the draw that sends both a little further back if Arsenal takes the full three? A Chelsea win would make things too congested. The prime directive for Arsenal is to keep going forward and to keep ahead of 5th place at all costs. Spurs may be the more traditional enemy, but Chelsea is further back and finishing in the top four is crucial. Third is nice but not essential. Fourth is essential. And knocking a mega-rich club out of the top four is preferable to my eyes than the Spurs bragging rights. Spurs is a good team, and they have imploded just as the Gunners would have wanted, which was really quite neighborly of them. If we take fourth, no more, personally I’d prefer we kept Chelsea out. Roman may lose interest, send the club spiraling into administration and we’d finally have one fewer superpower in the Premier League.

It’s too early to call corners turned, bends bended or anything remotely inside of any bag. But for those wondering, “what changed?” here are some partial comments, if not an all-encompassing Unified Theory.

RVP—He never stopped performing, but fortunately he maintained his incredible shotmaking with such consistency that when the rest of the team got it together it all went firing ahead together. He has led as a captain throughout, added hat-tricks to his personal arsenal and drove Tim Krul to frothy near-fisticuffs with a simple phrase to the extent of, “Not so eager to time-waste now, are you?” Twenty pages could be written about van Persie, and in fact they have already been written elsewhere. He’s broken the calendar-year scoring record for the club, second behind Shearer for league record. Single season records await. Will he stay with the team? More than at other point this season, it seems possible. If we make the top four, and especially if it’s third of four with talk of incoming big names, it may just happen.

Thierry Henry—Some have said that Henry’s return and goal against Leeds in the FA Cup showed the players first-hand the kind of adulation a club legend gets. Henry’s return did that, and in addition to the Leeds winner he scored another crucial late goal against Sunderland that won us the match. He was there for the drubbing at Milan, though, and a bit of a low period to boot, so the turnaround is not due to the Thierry Henry Show alone. But it was great having Titi back in the fold, and as mentioned two of his three goals proved the matchwinners.

Theo Walcott—The current day 14 has been a target of the boo-boys all season. He’s got pace, which works wonders when the opposition gives him space. Except they know this as well, so they’ve stopped giving him space. One could have played a game of Most Unpopular Player a while back and it would have been between Theo and Andrey Arshavin. Now Arshavin’s off to Russia with Zenit and Walcott is playing well. He played out of his skin against Spurs and has been putting in good shifts of late. Whether it’s inspired by Ox envy or whatever, who cares. Theo is playing well. And if we don’t tie him down to a contract there now really are many who would. (And not just Liverpool, who love blowing wads of cash on iffy English lads.)

Wojciech Szczesny—Another for the “good all season” files, the ‘keeper kept the goals-conceded tally as low as he could in the early season and of late has been adding more clean sheets to the mix. The Everton game was won by a team-wide defense. Time was, Szczesny would have had to repel wave after wave of attacks, but in the second half, he was essentially coasting, because the rest of the team didn’t let the threats get close to him. (That said, bad luck to Drenthe for the disallowed goal in the first half.)

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—What a breakout season for the teen winger (and occasional attacking midfielder). The “Theo with brains” is also the Theo with brawn. He’s tough, quick, humble and badass. Perhaps he’s really the un-Theo. The substitution of Arshavin for him against Man United in January provoked a response so unbelievably poisonous and vitriolic, it seemed that Wenger’s time at the club had to be over. And yet here we are, with supporters mumbling apologies to the Professor and one of the brightest talents in soccer happily bedded into the team. And of course, since he’s British, he’s got all that slobber to deal with, too. Good on you, Ox. (And good luck to you re: the UK media hype machine.) Looking forward to seeing you and Theo weave side to side with the quickness that causes defensive heads to explode. For years to come.

Tomas Rosicky—Tomas already had a contract extension in the works, but the timing of his revival coincided almost perfectly with its announcement. No goals in two years, and suddenly he’s scoring, assisting and showing the young’uns how it’s done. Perhaps he and Robin used the time spent on adjoining injury tables to mastermind this stage of the proceedings.

Thomas Vermaelen—After a long, long spell on the sidelines, Vermaelen returned and provided some more solidity to the central pairing, except that he got conscripted to left back during the fullback crisis. He did well enough, but it’s clearly not his best position. In a CultFootball dispute a while back in the Fall, it was mooted, “How many Arsenal players could get into the Spurs starting XI?” The questioner thought “maybe Sagna, maybe van Persie in his current run of form.” The maybes were of course absurd, but a main source of contention arrived in the topic of Vermaelen. To me, Vermaelen is a better defender than any Spurs centerback. And he scores! Vermaelen has scored 5 this season, despite all the months on the sidelines. Vermaelen rules.

Alex Song—Going back to the T-ham argument, Scott Parker was deemed better than Song. I still don’t believe it. When I remember some of the perfect passes to van Persie, his versatility on the park, switching to centerback, if needed, there’s no comparison. Parker was a coup of a buy for Spurs—inexpensive, experienced, talented—but he does not measure up to Song who, like van Persie, maintained his form throughout the season and was similarly waiting for the rest of the team to play out of their funk.

Fullbacks—For a long stretch of time, all the fullbacks were out and an unusual Arsenal surplus of centerbacks (and Coquelin) filled in. Djourou flailed, Miquel and Vermaelen did better but not remarkably, Coquelin did well. But now with Bacary Sagna and Kieren Gibbs back in the midst, we have the old system of marauding, overlapping full backs with pace and wingerish attack-mindedness to go with their core defensive work. If any one thing is the “reason” for the comeback, I’d say it’s the return of the specialized fullbacks. Why so far down the list? Fair question. Allow me to attempt to remedy by singling out how awesomely Sagna played against Everton on Wednesday. He won nearly every header and asserted his command in every way possible. Theo is a better Theo when Sagna has his back. With Djourou, not so much.

Centerbacks—After all the hullaballoo about needing quality central defenders in the past few years, this time we had surplus to requirements at the exact right time to plug the fullback holes. Per Mertesacker was a great signing. Some will say he’s too slow. They can say it as much as it pleases them. I don’t think he’s good because of speed, I think he’s good because of the way he reads players and positions himself. Laurent Koscielny has asserted himself as the main man in Vermaelen’s absence and the main main to pair Vermaelen when he’s fit. Excellent season for the French Pole. And Vermaelen…oh right, already waxed present-tense nostalgic about the Belgian.

Midfield—This year was to be Wilshere’s year, until it wasn’t. Fortunately, Ramsey has put leg-break fears behind him and formed a good partnership with Arteta and Song. Arteta has provided goals and a cool head–he probably deserves his own standalone entry, in fact. One wonders how things could have been different if Arteta had played alongside Fabregas for the latter’s final seasons in the red and white. Although Frimpong and Coquelin did not really play a part in the “turnaround,” per se, they most definitely broke out this season and helped maintain focus during the dark months, helping hugely in the resurgence of the fall. Without those points then, there wouldn’t be the points total of now.

Final thoughts:

Think about this team, plus players like Podolski, Vertoengen, a creative midfielder/playmaker and no exits aside from those we want (Bendtner, Denilson, Almunia, possibly Vela and Djourou). Wilshere returns eventually. Santos re-enters the matrix soon. Jenkinson looked promising until his injury troubles. Presumably Diaby has a role to play yet. Coquelin, Frimpong, Yennaris and Miquel all made the most of their first-team shots and should be seeing plenty more playing time in the season ahead. (Get well soon, Frimpster and Le Coq.)

The final 9 games will decide much with regard to our pulling power with newcomers and our retention rate with the best performers we have currently.

May all the games that remain be filled with Arsenalian brilliance. And good day to you.


League games that remain this season:

Mar 24    Arsenal v Aston Villa

Mar 31    Queens Park Rangers v Arsenal

Apr 8    Arsenal v Manchester City

Apr 11    Wolverhampton Wanderers v Arsenal

Apr 16    Arsenal v Wigan Athletic

Apr 21    Arsenal v Chelsea

Apr 28    Stoke City v Arsenal

May 5    Arsenal v Norwich City

May 13    West Bromwich Albion v Arsenal

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American Midfielders Starring in England: Dempsey, Spector, Holden

January 24, 2011 — by Suman

Stuart Holden...American idol?

American midfielders have been getting their shine on in England.  Clint Dempsey has been leading Fulham, Stuart Holden has been a mainstay for Bolton, and Jonathan Spector has been a surprise performer for West Ham.  Moreover, Jermaine Jones recently debuted for Blackburn on loan from Bundesliga club Schalke 04–and we may soon see Michael Bradley also make the move to the Premier League from the Bundesliga (where he plays for Borussia Moenchengladbach).  According to a Fox Soccer report, Sunderland is lining up a bid for Bradley (apparently spending some portion of that staggering £24m they got in return for letting striker Darren Bent go to Aston Villa).

We’ll get a chance to see Holden play this afternoon, as Bolton host Chelsea (3pm ET, ESPND &  Meanwhile, both Dempsey and Spector scored over the weekend for their sides.  In fact, Dempsey scored two for Fulham yesterday, giving him eight for the season (which makes him the 5th highest scoring midfielder in the league, behind Kevin Nolan, Tim Cahill, Samir Nasri and Rafael van der Vaart, and just outside the Top 10 scorers overall):

Video: PL Highlights: Fulham/Stoke

Meanwhile, Jonathan Spector scored for West Ham over the weekend against Everton (scoring on American goalkeeper Tim Howard); it was Spector’s first-ever Premier League goal–although he did cause quite a stir a couple months ago when he scored twice against Manchester United in a 4-0 Carling Cup victory for West Ham.

Video: PL Highlights: Everton/West Ham


Matches to Watch – Special Holiday Midweek Edition

December 28, 2010 — by Suman

The Premier League certainly doesn’t give its players any rest over the holidays. After a full slate of fixtures on Boxing Day (plus yesterday’s Arsenal-Chelsea clash), there is another round of fixtures spread over today and tomorrow!

For those of you home for the holidays (or trapped at home due to the Snowtorious B.I.G.), here are the matches being televised in the US today; as usual, all times ET:

Tuesday, Dec 28

Manchester City-Aston Villa, 10am FSC & Fox Deportes

Tottenham-Newcastle, 10am FSP

West Brom-Blackburn, 12pm FSP

West Ham-Everton, 12:30pm FSP (tape delay)

Arsenal-Chelsea, 1pm ESPND (rebroadcast of yesterday’s match)

Birmingham City-Manchester United, 3pm ESPN2, ESPND &

Stoke City-Fulham, 5pm FSC & Fox Deportes (tape delay)

(Note that is streaming the following games live, all 10am ET starts: Tottenham-Newcastle, West Brom-Blackburn, Stoke City-Fulham, and Sunderland-Blackpool.)

And a special one-time only foray into the “other” kind of football…

Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles, 8pm NBC: We venture outside of our usual purview of global football to American football, only because, even more than Real Madrid vs Barcelona, causes a schism in the CultFootball partnership.  You see, one of us was born and raised in the Twin Cities, and hence grew up a fan of the Purple People Eaters; the other, in the greater (if one can really apply that adjective in this instance) Philadelphia area, and hence is a fan of the Eagles.  Tonight, in the first Tuesday night NFL game since 1946, they square off in the City of Brotherly Love.


Arsenal v Chelsea Today!

December 27, 2010 — by Suman

The one match of the day is the match of the week–Chelsea goes crosstown to take on Arsenal at the Emirates. Kickoff is at 8pm in London (3pm ET; watch it on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, or in the US).

Here are a handful of links to get you ready for the big match:

–We find it’s very useful to have the Current Squad lists in front of us, for #s, nationalities, and links to individual player bios: Chelsea & Arsenal.

–Prior to the Chelsea-Arsenal match in early October, we posted a look at the players of African origin on each squad.

–Here is’s match preview, which also has links to lineups and match stats (updated once the match is underway).

–Here is ESPNSoccerNet’s match preview, which predictably lists Samir Nasri and Didier Drogba as the players to watch (Nasri perhaps having replaced the too-oft-injured Fabregas as Arsenal’s talisman), and lists the following as the key match-up:

Key Battle: Bacary SagnaAshley Cole. One of the Premier League’s finest right-backs, Sagna’s strength and pace create an excellent outlet and his defensive nous is of great importance given the sometimes shaky nature of the Arsenal defence. On the right side, he bombs forward and possesses a decent final delivery, but he will be required to track back to counter the threat of Cole. The former Arsenal left-back certainly knows a thing or two about his old team, but Sagna poses a different challenge, having joined the club a year after Cole left for Chelsea. Both are full of running and attacking ambition, but it will be how they deal with their defensive duties that settles this battle.


What To Watch – Boxing Day Edition

December 26, 2010 — by Suman2

Watch some Prem League heavyweights slug it out on Boxing Day

We’re a bit tardy getting up our weekend viewing guide–but there were no games in Europe yesterday because of Christmas.

There is, however, a full slate of Premier League fixtures today–plus a very big match tomorrow, with Chelsea going crosstown to play Arsenal. Not only that, there are more games in England on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Here are our picks for how to spend the next few days of your winter holidays (as usual, all times ET):

Sunday, Dec 26

Via Guardian Football’s Boxing Day clockwatch: “A very happy Boxing Day to everyone. Feeling a little drained? Eaten so much pudding that you can no longer fit into that T-shirt Father Christmas brought you? Remembering why you’ll be avoiding your relatives for the next 12 months? Then sneak off to the back room, pour yourself something warming and get set for an afternoon of festive footballing fun.”

Manchester United-Sunderland, 10am ESPND, FSC & Fox Deportes: Table-toppers Man U–remarkably still unbeaten in the Premier League–host up and coming Sunderland (now tied with Spurs for 5th!).  We’ve noted one player to watch–Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan, who grew up as a Man U fan in Ghana.

Aston Villa-Tottenham Hotspur, 12:30pm FSC & Fox Deportes: As noted above, Spurs are in a bit of a precarious position–tied for 5th in the table, 7 points behind Man U.  So they’ll need to keep winning to stay in contention…

There is also the big game Monday…more on that tomorrow!

Monday, Dec 27

Arsenal-Chelsea, 3pm ESPN2 &


Looking at the Premier League Title Race

December 3, 2010 — by Larry1

Who Will Win the Race in England?

The Premier League has nearly reached its halfway point, and the title race has narrowed to five, as there is no reason to supsect any team from Bolton on down to make a serious run to the summit.

The current leaders Manchester United stand two points clear and have yet to lose, but have not impressed, relying on late comebacks from both ahead and behind to draw too many matches.  They have good depth and teamwork under the rule of Sir Alex, but individually there is little magic to be had.  Then again, maybe Berbatov has found some, but the laconic Bulgarian is not known for his consistency.  They benefit from little World Cup fatigue as only Park and Chicharito had substantial roles in South Africa.  They have survived, despite the only occasional presence of Rooney, mostly due to the stability along their back line, especially in the middle.  Van Der Sar has been solid in goal, yet he has no depth behind him.  If Rooney, Chicharito, and Rafael can find a consistent high level, they can even improve, though they must consider investing in Carlton Cole to hedge. 

Players I would pay to see: Rooney, Nani, Berbatov.

Players who must play well for them to win: Ferdinand and Vidic, Nani, Berbatov, Evra, Rooney. 

Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Any GK not named Van Der Sar, O’Shea, Evans.

Chelsea were seemingly running away from the pack until their recent stretch which even saw them struggle in the Champions League with MSK Zilina at Stamford Bridge.  32 shots at Birmingham produced only nine on target and zero goals.  Obviously, missing both Lampard and Essien at times has hurt them significantly, as they no longer can just plug in other near-world-class players like Ballack or Deco.  They have shown themselves too susceptible through the middle, as Terry and Alex also have struggled with injuries.  Cech has returned to a decent form, but they are another top club with nobody behind their number one.

Players I would pay to see: Drogba, Malouda, Essien.

Players who must play well for them to win: Drogba, Malouda, Essien, Terry and Alex, Lampard.

Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Any GK not named Cech, any player with a squad number higher than 40, Ramires, Ferreira, Kalou.

Arsenal have only one player remaining from “The Invincibles”, and the six years have shown a consistent problem converting chances into goals.  When combined with their penchant to become unsteady late in matches, their challenge consistently suffers from dropped points in winnable matches.  Of course, the additions of regular time for Song and now Chamakh has somewhat increased their ability to deal with the physicality of the daily grind.  Naturally, they possess a great depth of some interchangeable parts, and the players all believe in what they are doing under Wenger.  Oh, but their woeful goalkeeping must improve.

Players I would pay to see: Song, Fabregas, Van Persie, Arshavin, Nasri, Rosicky, Sagna.

Players who must play well for them to win: Fabregas, Song, Van Persie, Chamakh, Sagna.

Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Bendtner, Wilshere, Denilson.

Ah the riches of the Middle East have been showered upon Manchester City, yet instant success has not arrived upon a horse-drawn sleigh.  World class players all over the pitch and in the stands watching have done little to implement a plan to harness this advantage.  At times, they appear forlorn to have to play, especially at some of the lower-ranked outposts around the country.  They must solve their owners versus manager versus players versus fan expectations dilemma.  Mancini should start by breaking up his DeJong, Yaya Toure, and Barry central midfield, and move decisively toward pairing somebody with Tevez up front.  They can, at least, be assured of the best goalkeeping in this group, with an established backup to Hart.

Players I would pay to see: Tevez, Silva, A Johnson, Balotelli, Yaya.

Players who must play well for them to win: Tevez, Kompany, Silva, A Johnson, Tevez.

Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Yaya&Barry&DeJong, Vieira.

Tottenham live on the edge each match and sit fifth in this race, yet from owner to substitute, they possess the most belief in themselves.  Only their supporters continue to doubt, as they have been conditioned to do.  Clearly, they remain unafraid of the big matches, but they must increase their readiness against the “lesser” teams.  Having earlier dismissed Bolton, Tottenham actually possess a lower goals differential, as leaving every victory to late will bite them before long.  Solving their center and right of their backline would contribute mightily, as would finding a regular defensive midfielder.  Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to move to a 4-5-1 to provide their width without having to force Hutton and Assou-Ekotto.  Gomes has come around to being perfectly adequate, and might become good if he sheds his habit of making the worst possible mistake at the worst possible time.  At least they have good depth behind him.  Ouch, not only is Van der Vaart out for a month, its for the most possible matches in a month as well.

Players I would pay to see: Van der Vaart, Bale, Modric, Assou-Ekotto.

Players who must play well for them to win: Van der Vaart, Bale, Modric, Defoe, Assou-Ekotto, Huddlestone or Palacios.

Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Crouch, Jenas, Bentley, the crappy version of Lennon.

Now some of these players deemed useless may prove needed if the spate of freezing weather continues.  The snowy, uncertain pitches will bring out the necessity of direct targeting from open play, which will highlight the necessity of an aerial presence.  Lots to play for, and, if the pressures don’t overwhelm them, many great matches to see.