The North London Derby is upon us. In the Cult Football camp, this match – more than any other – sees us set against each other. The fires were stoked with this initial lob: Bale isn't even better than Walcott.
For more from Rushdie on the game, and on his history as a Spurs supporter, read this New Yorker essay from 1999: “The People’s Game.”
Part II (“First Love”) of the piece begins:
I came to London in January 1961, as a boy of thirteen and a half, on my way to boarding school, and accompanied by my father. It was a cold month, with blue skies by day and green fogs by night. We stayed at the Cumberland, at Marble Arch, and after we settled in, my father asked if I would like to see a professional soccer game. (In Bombay, where I had grown up, there was no soccer to speak of; the local sports were cricket and field hockey.)
The first game my father took me to see was what I would later learn was a “friendly” (because the result doesn’t count toward anything) between a North London team called the Arsenal and the champions of Spain, Real Madrid. I did not know that the visitors were rated as perhaps the greatest team ever. Or that they had just won the European Cup five years running. Or that among their players were two of the game’s all-time immortals, both foreigners: a Hungarian named Ferenc Puskas, “the little general,” and an Argentine, Alfredo di Stefano.
This is the way I remember the game: in the first half, Real Madrid tore the Arsenal apart.
Take the time to read the whole essay (although doing so online does require a New Yorker subscription).
(I’ve thought at times of doing a “CultFootball LongReads” series of posts–links to longer essays on the game. Rushdie’s New Yorker essay, along with some of The Blizzard pieces, are what got me thinking about doing such a thing. So consider this the first in a series–more will appear here if/when we get around to posting any more.)
Three matches to watch out of the plethora:
Yep, this one is all about pressure. Newcastle have poured in on Spurs with their win over Swansea on Good Friday, now Spurs can slather it over Arsenal with a win at the Stadium of Light.
That’s far from a given, though. Sunderland have lost on home soil only once since November, should’ve completed a double over Manchester City last weekend, and are playing with the verve and swagger of brash young pop stars. You know, REO Speedwagon, Norman Greenbaum and the rest of the popular beat combos the kids are listening to today.
Lazio vs Napoli (3pmET): A proverbial six-pointer in the competition for 3rd place in Serie A (and hence a spot in next season’s Champions League). Lazio currently hold that 3rd position with 51 points, but Napoli (and Udinese) are close behind with 48 (and Roma are a single point behind them).
These teams are from the same country and tonight they seek the same prize – but that’s about all they have in common. On one hand we have Porto, long one of the top clubs in Europe, a side who have just finished their domestic league unbeaten and 21 points clear of their nearest pursuers, and who have a fearsome forward line in the form of Falcao and Hulk as well as the most acclaimed young manager in the continent, 33-year-old André Villa Boas. And on the other hand we have Braga, a humble club whose only major is the 1966 Portuguese Cup (what it about 1966 and minnows winning cups?), who finished fourth in their domestic league this season, and in the process suffered two defeats by Porto. Indeed, that tends to be how their meetings go: Porto have won 92 of the 131 previous encounters between these clubs, Braga have triumphed in just 17. It would be a minor revolution if the underdogs were to prevail tonight.
Well, some things have changed at Porto over the summer. AVB of course left for the big time, as did Falcao (who’s continued to bang in the goals for Atlético Madrid, in La Liga and again in Europa–most recently on two days ago).
See also here for our preview of that Europa League final last spring, including a Google Map showing how Braga and Porto are a mere 50km apart in the north of Portugal.
Among Mr. Souto de Moura’s major works is a soccer stadium set into a mountain in Braga, Portugal, which was completed in 2004.
It is in a former granite quarry, and more granite was blasted away and crushed to make concrete for the structure. The stadium has two long sides, with the jagged face of the mountain forming a third side and the fourth open to a view of the city.
Saturday Feb 25
Italy, AC Milan vs. Juventus, 2:30pmET (FSC, ESPN3.com): Could be the match that decides the Scudetto. These two are the top of the Serie A table, separated by just a point (although Juve has a game in hand). Can La Vecchia Signora go into San Siro and beat the defending champions? A prominent subplot: this is aging midfielder Andrea Pirlo‘s return to Milan, to play against the club where he spent a decade as the premier deep-lying playmaker in Serie A (and perhaps in the world).
Spain, Espanyol vs. Levante 4pmET (ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com): Yet another match pivotal in the bunched-up race for 4th place in La Liga. Espanyol is tied for 4th with Athletic Bilbao (33 points), while Levante (and Atletico Madrid) are just a point behind them. We wrote last weekend about Espanyol’s youthful talent.
Sunday Feb 26
England, Arsenal vs. Spurs 8:30amET (FSC): The North London Derby–and for the first time in many years, Spurs are widely acknowledged to have the superior squad, and are favored to win on Arsenal’s home ground. But Spurs supporter PoliticalFootballs isn’t buying it. An excerpt from his match preview:
I am not so optimistic about Tottenham’s chances, neither for this weekend or the following week’s match against United. For too long, Spurs have looked good and then collapsed – it seems inevitable that it will happen again this year. With their 10 point advantage over Arsenal, they have a great opportunity to finish above them for the first time since the 1994/5 season, having never done so since Arsene Wenger became the Gunners’ manager. Tottenham have also not done the double (beat them home and away) over their neighbours since 1992/3 – and even then, the match at Highbury was against a makeshift team, as the home side were looking ahead to the FA Cup final the following week.
Netherlands, PSV Eindhoven vs. Feyenoord 8:30amET (ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com): #1 in the Eredivisie table vs #5, separated by only 4 points (with AZ Alkmaar, Heerenveen and Twente in between, and Ajax in 6th a point behind Feyenoord). Also a chance to see some young Dutch internationals that are still playing in the home country: from PSV defender Erik Pieters and midfielders Georginio Wijnaldum and Kevin Strootman are in the Dutch squad that will be playing England on Wednesday, as is Feyenoord central defender Ron Vlaar. The one to watch is deep-lying midfielder Strootman, who has been called the future of the Dutch midfield.
Germany, Bayern Munich vs. Schalke 9:30amET (ESPN3.com): #3 hosts #4 in the Bundesliga table. Bayern is in somewhat of a crisis, after slipping behind both Borussias in the table, and then losing at Basel in the Champions League last Wednesday. They’ll need to win at home to avoid falling further into crisis–and to avoid falling further behind the Borussias.
Spain, Rayo Vallecano vs. Real Madrid 10amET (ESPN3.com, tape at 5 p.m. on ESPN Deportes): A Madrid derby of sorts–Rayo Vallecano is located in the Vallecas neighborhood of Madrid, where they play at the 15,500-capacity Campo de Futbol de Vallecas. Rayo Vallecano just got back to the first division this season, after spending most of the past decade in Segunda Division and Segunda Division B. But they’re currently just two points off that all-important 4th place, and Sid Lowe cited them as a team that’s worth watching in a recent column:
Look at La Liga now and few teams are exciting; few look genuinely good; fewer still have achieved any sort of consistency. Rayo Vallecano are one (five wins in seven and great to watch), Athletic Bilbao another (they lost three of their first four but just three in 19 since), improving Atlético Madrid perhaps a third. A case can be made for Espanyol. And then?
England Carling Cup, Liverpool vs. Cardiff City 11amET (FSC): Liverpool’s first time back at Wembley since the 1996 FA Cup final (a match that’s remembered more for the Spice Boys’ pre-match white Armani suits than for the match itself).
Italy, Napoli vs. Inter Milan 2:30pmET FSC, ESPN3.com: Another chance to watch perhaps the most exciting and dynamic attack in Europe–Napoli’s front line of Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik, supported by Inler and Gargano in the center of the midfield, Zuniga and Maggio on the wings. (Note that Maggio is the only Italian among those, and note the strong South American contingent: Cavani and Gargano are Uruguayan, while Lavezzi is Argentine.)
Spain, Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona 3:30pmET (GolTV): Might Barca drop yet more points at the Estadio Vicente Calderón? Atletico certainly has more to play for, as they’ve climbed back into contention for that last Champions League spot, while Barcelona has practically given up any chance of catching Real Madrid for the La Liga title–due to struggles on the road–and has consequently shifted their focus and energies on the Champions League campaign. We looked at Atletico’s squad–and their recently installed manager, former Atletico player (and Argentine international) Diego Simeone–in this post a month ago.
For those who don’t support Tottenham, the frequently heard refrain of, “we’ve got such and such points, and when we win our game in hand…” got old a long time ago. At long last the fixture lost to the months-ago unpleasantness in London (August riots) will be resolved on Wednesday, and none too soon.
Should Tottenham really be expecting a pushover Everton side, though? Not in my opinion. Landon Donovan is back on loan after a successful stint at Merseyside in 2010. Having started in both the loss to Bolton last week and the FA Cup win over Tamworth on Saturday, Donovan should be re-bedded into the team and adds the pace and goal-scoring threat they’ve needed all season.
Marouane Fellaini has moments of brilliance in him. Leighton Baines, as well. And Tim Cahill is long overdue for a goal. And now that Tim Howard’s scoring long-distance goals, they’re a teamwide goal threat. (Against Bolton, Howard became the fourth goalkeeper to score end-to-end in Premier League history. Oddly enough, Spurs goalie and fellow American Brad Freidel did the game goal-scoring number in 2004.)
On the other side, Tottenham are sweating over the fitness to Ledley King (hamstring). William Gallas and Sandro have both suffered calf tears. Add to the list Scott Parker. But every team has injuries. Everton have lost Phil Jagielka for the time being. Ultimately, Tottenham has to be the better team on the day.
So, win and Spurs go level on points with Manchester United. Lose and they’ll have egg on their face after months of just assuming the game in hand was a 3-points gimme.
Personally, I quite like the egg-on-the-face outcome.
(All that said, Spurs are massively huge favorites to win and, no, Everton is not actually a teamwide goal threat. Gareth Bale will likely give them night terrors for weeks to come, and Adebayor as well. There, I said it.)
With two weeks until the final matches of the Europa League group stages, 14 clubs have clinched spots in the knockout rounds of the cup with a game to spare. With the eight teams that finish third in their UEFA Champions League groups transferring over to Europe’s second-tier competition, that leaves 10 spots.
Anderlecht, who alone won all 5 of the first 5 group matches, FC Twente and Sporting Lisbon had already qualified even before Thursday’s matches kicked off, as had PSV Eindhoven and Legia Warsaw before Wednesday’s matches.
Meanwhile, former frontrunner Tottenham’s loss to 10-man PAOK Thessaloniki at White Hart Lane puts makes them unlikely to join the last 32. As punishment, perhaps Jermaine Defoe should write “Panthessaloníkios Athlitikós Ómilos Konstantinoupolitón” 100 times on the blackboard.
FC Twente (Netherlands)
Sporting Lisbon (Portugal)
Atlético Madrid (Spain)
Hannover 96 (Germany)
FC Metalist Kharkiv (Ukraine)
PAOK Thessaloniki (Greece)
Standard Liège (Belgium)
Lokomotiv Moscow (Russia)
Legia Warsaw (Poland)
Schalke 04 (Germany)
PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)
At the beginning of November, Tottenham had been tipped to take home the silverware, but their loss to PAOK on Wednesday made it such that while it’s still mathematically possible if they go on a goal spree against Shamrock Rovers and Rubin Kazan loses, it’s unlikely. For one, Redknapp may not even truly wish to progress. One school of thought says exiting the competition would help them finish in the top 3 or 4 in the Premier League, not playing weekend matches on the heels of Thursday nights in Europe and avoiding overall fixture congestion with all the two-leg showdowns to come.
Currently, odds are on Atlético Madrid to hoist the trophy on May 9 in Bucharest. Other frontrunners include Schalke 04, PSV Eindhoven, Paris Saint-Germain and Athletic Bilbao, despite the latter two having not yet qualified.
If you write an optimistic match preview and it just doesn’t pan out, it’s never fun writing the post-match report. Such are the perils of wishful thinking. You have to walk back to the discussion with tail firmly between legs, no one’s fault but your own.
Put simply, Tottenham earned the 2-1 win today, not only because Arsenal’s defense was again found lacking but because the attack didn’t have nearly enough attack in it. Van Persie didn’t get adequate service, Walcott, Gervinho and Arshavin were flat, and the midfield opposition repeatedly outmatched Arteta and Ramsey.
That said, as much as it’ll make a bad week for any interactions with Tottenham supporters, it was no mauling. At 1-1, losing was not a foregone conclusion. Tottenham were the better team on the day, but one would hardly herald them as the new Barcelona. As for individual or collective errors, none came close to catastrophic shake-one’s-head moments on the order of calamities past.
On the positive side, Song, Szczesny and Coquelin all acquitted themselves well. Before a month ago, few Gunners would even have recognized the last name in that trio, but the Academy product never looked inexperienced or out of his depth. In Song, Frimpong and Coquelin, we have three solid defensive midfielders, all brought through the ranks of the youth system. And during a time when we only have one fit central defender, Song slotted in seamlessly and didn’t look like a man played out of position.
Ramsey did not quite resemble the crafty creative midfielder who captains Wales, but he scored well, although Song deserves the majority of the credit for a point-perfect cross.
Arteta’s pace underwhelmed and he stayed pretty anonymous, but I chalk it up to an off day. I saw nothing that for me spelled doom, in his performance or anyone else’s. If one compares today’s match to those against Manchester United, Blackburn or Newcastle, one has to admit improvement, even if the failings are all too familiar and continue to rankle.
Going forward, I would really like to see van Persie partnered up front in a 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1, however you choose to call it). Not saying forever ditch the 4-3-3, but switch it up more.
I understand Wenger’s decision not to play Oxlade-Chamberlain or Miyaichi in a contentious away match like the North London derby, but I’d like to see more of them, and Park as well. When Walcott, Gervinho and Arshavin look flat on the day, bring out youth wingers with speed.
Overall, losing (particularly to Tottenham) is a total drag, and not at all what the team needed, but compared to some of the disappointments of the recent past, it’s not the end of the world. Seeing Sagna stretchered off the pitch, to me, was far and away the true casualty of the day. Arsenal can bounce back. Arsenal will bounce back. (Delusions sometimes never die.)
And Adebayor didn’t score, so prediction wrong on that count. Plus, he comported himself well. All things considered, this is an incarnation of the lanky one I can deal with.
So, up next, the North London derby Sunday at White Hart Lane. The most honorable Arsenal travel down the road to duke it out with Tottenham’s lily-livered lily whites, new and improved with former Gunner Adebayor. Yes, everyone’s favorite Togolese traitorous mercenary who, when he’s not enjoying long walks with sharp spikes over former teammate’s faces and ankles, enjoys long runs to rub salt in the wounds of the away support.
And the sad fact is Adebayor will almost certainly score in the match tomorrow. First, he is still an amazingly fast and effective goalscorer when motivated, and vocal ex-supporters baying for his blood by name is nothing if not motivational. He’s in form having scored three goals in three games since arriving on loan from Manchester City. And most importantly, he’s playing against the Arsenal. Even David Bentley scores if it’s against his old club.
And then there is the little matter of the defense: Mertesacker stands alone as the one fit center half, with Alex Song filling in for Vermaelen/Koscielny/Djourou, while Frimpong/Coquelin fill in for him. When they’re not filling in for Wilshere/Diaby, of course. Space requirements prevent any semblance of a detailed list of recent defensive atrocities. Let’s just say it’s been bad. And that dastardly entity Own Goal refuses to stop billowing the back of the Arsenal net outward.
However, despite the fact that Tottenham go into this match with a very dangerous squad and all the talking heads tip them to win, this current Arsenal team can still win big matches, even in its beleaguered and injured state. It’s hard to be supremely confident, certainly. Arsenal on any given day can be great or they can be awful. Even within a given day, they can be both (Blackburn) and frequently are. But when Oxlade-Chamberlain or Walcott get into Speedy Gonzalez mode, or when Gervinho’s not dribbling the ball directly into another player, or when van Persie’s fit and firing, Arsenal are still capable of giant slaying, let alone competing with a fellow team who similarly sees 4th as the highest they can realistically go in the league.
Against Olympiakos, Arsenal finally got their passing game back, thanks to Arteta. Arteta now looks fully bedded into the system and to my mind, his poise and playmaking were excellent. Arsenal still managed to make the Greeks look better than they are, but holding on in an admittedly nervy second half showed some of the grit and tenacity that has often been found lacking in recent sides, even if the team should have killed it off far earlier.
Anyway, I believe Arsenal will win. (Don’t look at me like that.) Would I be shocked if they found some ingenious new way to implode, however? No. I’ve seen too many recent Carling Cup finals, Blackburn own goals and Newcastle 4-4s for that. Oh yeah, and a certain nightmare 4-4 with Tottenham in October 2008, conceding the last gasp final two in seemingly as many minutes, in the 89th minute and injury time.
The Arsenal defense is in tatters, but for all the goalfest against Liverpool, the Tottenham goal difference is at a decidedly “meh” 0, and in the “demolition” of Liverpool, the Merseyside outfit was down to 9 men. Admittedly, an Arsenal supporter walks on shaky ground talking about goal difference, but no one minds using it as a stick to beat Arsenal, so if it’s relevant on the one hand, it’s relevant on the other.
Tottenham have conceded 9 goals in 5 league games (granted, 8 of which came from both Manchesters, rather than just the one…). One can hardly adjudge Tottenham to have a rock-solid defense, especially with Gallas out. Experts deem Arsenal unlikely to leave the pitch with a clean sheet, but then I don’t expect Tottenham do so either. I expect more than a few goals this time around—it’s the derby way. I just hope the bigger number on the scoreboard ends up next to the name of the visitors.
Yes, Tottenham has displayed far more bite and consistency this season, and Van der Vaart, Bale, Modric and Adebayor may very possibly slice Arsenal’s “defense” to shreds. But I hardly think it’s a done deal. Van Persie, Gervinho, and even Walcott and Arshavin are more than capable of doing the same. Walcott and Gervinho face late fitness tests, and are both desperately needed, even if simply as impact subs (Walcott apparently the more likely of the two to pass fit). Benayoun may also re-enter the matrix, having returned to training after his muscular strain.
In an analysis of Szczęsny versus Friedel, there is no comparison. At the moment, Szczęsny could be considered the best ‘keeper in the Premier League. He could also be considered to be single-handedly manning all the defensive duties on the team. Without the incredible saves he’s pulled off in recent matches, Arsenal would have found themselves in even more dire straits. He gets more shot-stopping practice than his opposite numbers perhaps, but if the defense manages to finally pull it together, stand up and be counted—and derby day is when such things happen—the Red and Whites can definitely punish the lot with the cocks on their shirts.
So much rides on this game. A draw or a victory could see Arsenal’s confidence continue to grow, correct the team’s inconsistent take on consistency and secure much-needed points at the expense of rivals for 4th. A loss would strongly suggest the balance of power has indeed shifted in North London, and no one sane wants that to happen. One wishes Vermaelen and Wilshere could start, representing the team at its first-pick best, but going down that road, it would be great to still have Fàbregas and Nasri, and Bergkamp, Pires and Henry in their prime.
The Gunners we have are the Gunners who will or won’t carry it across the line. Here’s to an exciting match. May the Gunners come out victorious on their own merit, not by fluke but by proving their mettle against another very good team.
But if we have to win ugly or win lucky, I’m good with that…
I would expect the Arsenal lineup to look something like the following:
Sagna – Mertesacker – Song – Gibbs
Arteta – Frimpong – Ramsey
Walcott – van Persie – Arshavin
Subs: (Santos, Benayoun, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rosický/Gervinho, Jenkinson, Fabiański)