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Five Things We Learned From Manchester United vs. Arsenal

1. Defense is the best form of attack – Three defenders in a four man midfield? Such a team sheet reeks of negativity, but not in Manchester United’s case. Fergie proved once again he still knows best as John O’Shea had an effective performance alongside Darron Gibson while Fabio and Rafael Da Silva were dangerous all game long and at times uncontainable. With speed on the flanks and Rooney dropping deep, United were given the perfect platform to counter attack and continuously stretch Arsenal’s defense.

2. United have depth – Any honest United fan will tell you they probably cringed when they read the team sheets prior to kick-off. News circulated that Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher had joined Anderson on the injury list while Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs could only make the bench. United demonstrated the depth of their squad today as truth be told, that was probably Ferguson’s third choice midfield. You wouldn’t know it though.

3. Arsenal needs Fabregas and Song – You would know that Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas were absent, however. With Denilson having a quiet game in midfield and Diaby failing to make an impact, Wenger must have been cursing his luck to not have been able to call on his favored midfield pair. Song was missed in helping the Gunners close down United’s midfield and win back possession while the Arsenal captain could have made a difference in helping Arsenal maintain possession and use it effectively.

4. Van der Sar irreplaceable, Almunia capable – The most disappointing aspect of United’s win was that it was another reminder of how much they will miss the big Dutchman next season. An absolutely superb performance saw Van der Sar deny Arsenal time and time again, including a clutch save from Koscielny moments before Rooney doubled United’s advantage. The next United ‘keeper has some big, big shoes to fill. As for Arsenal, Almunia took another huge step in rebuilding his reputation with another assured performance in place of Fabianski and Scensny. Kept the score down with several vital saves.

5. The FA Cup still has its magic – Following Bolton’s dramatic last-gasp win earlier in the day, United and Arsenal didn’t fail to disappoint as both sides played their part in a highly entertaining match that sees United make the FA Cup semi-finals for the 10th time under Ferguson’s reign. With so much to lose after a dreadful week for both clubs, credit to Ferguson and Wenger for fielding their strongest teams possible and ensuring their players attacked rather than throw caution to the wind.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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History Could Repeat Itself Between Manchester United and Arsenal

Consecutive defeats to rivals Chelsea and Liverpool in the space of a week has diminished Manchester United’s lead at the top of the table to three points and suddenly thrown the title race wide open. Arsenal suffered an equally miserable week, drawing at home to Sunderland before a morale crushing defeat to Barcelona in midweek left the Gunners with only the League and FA Cup to play for. With United’s lead narrowed and Arsenal possessing a game in hand, Arsene Wenger and his players will still be confident of capturing their first piece of silverware in six years.  

After a winless week for both clubs, it goes without saying the next match will make or break both team’s seasons. Coincidentally, the table toppers go head-to-head on Saturday in a titanic FA Cup clash at Old Trafford, a match that brings back memories of an unforgettable and extraordinary semi-final replay between both clubs almost 11 years ago during United’s treble winning season. A certain Ryan Giggs was the hero (or one of several) that day, scoring one of the most incredible goals ever seen in extra time as United eliminated Arsenal and set themselves on the road to further glory before the season’s end.

When the draw for the quarter-finals was made on February 20th it was that remarkable game at Villa Park that emerged in my mind. But as Arsenal continued to edge closer to United in the standings, it was no longer the epic replay in 1999 that came to mind. Well aware that a win could give either side the boost required to go on a winning run and simultaneously derail the other’s title challenge, all I could think about was another historic but more recent match between both clubs in February 2008.

With United chasing league leaders Arsenal, a Darren Fletcher inspired Manchester United sent out a huge statement of intent to the North Londoners and the rest of the league. Playing as a lone striker, Wayne Rooney was in fine form and opened the scoring before two headers by Fletcher sandwiched a delightful finish by Nani to give United a monumental 4-0 win. Arsenal were crushed. United’s win was more than just a sharp riposte for those who doubted their title credentials, but was the fuel they needed to overtake Arsenal in the standings and end the season in a flourish. After a failed attempt to blame the pitch, Wenger painfully admitted United were the superior side, by far. The ‘Professor’ particularly singled out Rooney for praise.

“Against us I thought Rooney was fantastic. He was sharp, mobile, quick, aggressive, even good in the air. He did everything.”

What United supporters would give for a similar performance on Saturday from their number 10. And oh how Manchester United would give anything to have history repeat itself. Following the win, Rooney and co. went on to win seven out of their next eight league games and would eventually clinch back-to-back Premier League titles.

Speaking on the performance against Arsenal, which came just a week after an agonizing home defeat to Manchester City, Sir Alex Ferguson said: “They (his players) have made amends for that (City defeat) with a marvelous performance.”

Strange that United find themselves in the exact same predicament. Another marvelous performance by United on Saturday will go a long way in helping United overcome its disappointing loss to Liverpool last weekend and spur them on for the remainder of the season. The Red Devils may have exited the FA Cup the following round after beating Arsenal in 2008, but United gained the ultimate prize by advancing all the way to the final of the Champions League and beating Chelsea in penalties. Prior the cup win over Arsenal, United had drawn Tottenham before suffering the painful defeat at home to Manchester City on the day marking the 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster. With United in a dip of form and losing ground in the title race, it’s amazing what a big win over your title challengers can do.

And in Arsenal’s case, it is incredible how a monumental loss can completely derail your season. After being outplayed and humiliated at Old Trafford, Arsenal failed to record a win in their next five league matches. Wenger’s side would only win two out of their next 10 games, including a 2-1 loss to United in April which effectively ended their chances of winning the title. Favorites for the title in February and trophyless in May, Arsenal’s season fell apart after their FA Cup humiliation, paving the way for a miserable end to the season.

Fast forward three years later and although Arsenal are not necessarily favorites for the title, they are certainly in the running, and according to Samir Nasiri have ‘one hand on the trophy’. If history should repeat itself on Saturday and Arsenal suffer another defeat against Manchester United, Arsenal may slowly drift further and further away from the title while United storm forward in pursuit of their record 19th league title. And as every supporter is most likely well aware of, the two clubs will go head-to-head again in a potential title decider on May 1st at the Emirates.

If ever history needed a platform to repeat itself, this is it. Will Arsenal allow themselves to suffer the same fate as 2008 while United claim an unprecedented and highly sought 19th league title? Saturday could tell us just that…

Written by: Jeff Harbert

United 4-0 Arsenal highlights (2008)

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After Barcelona Devastation, Arsenal Need Change in Philosophy

The mere fact that Barcelona attempted more shots on their own goal than Arsenal managed themselves (0) over the entire 90 minutes on Tuesday tells you about all you need to know. Yet in a sense, it really doesn’t. Arsene Wenger’s men were outplayed by an irresistible Barcelona side at the Nou Camp for the second straight year. Last campaign it was the magic of Messi – scorer of all four goals in a 4-1 win – that ended Arsenal’s search for a first Champions League triumph while this year saw an incredible combination of precision passing, off the ball movement and inexorable individual skill send the Gunners packing once again.

 After pulling off an improbable yet stunning comeback in the first leg, Wenger claimed the win was also a victory for Arsenal’s philosophy. If that was the case, Tuesday night was a major defeat. No one can question the North Londoner’s attractive style of football, but Pep Guardiola’s team put forth a masterclass in attacking football that completely overshadowed any claim to an effective passing game, known as  ‘liquid football’ by Arsenal. It may have only been 3-1 (4-3 on aggregate), but Arsenal have the Catalonians to thank for being wasteful, as well as substitute goalkeeper Manuel Almunia for pulling off a string of fine saves. 

The truth is we’ve seen it all before. All too often Arsenal has prioritized playing the pure, flowing football that has the football purists reveling in every pass, awing at every attacking move, and praising the club for reminding us why it is called the ‘beautiful game’. Unfortunately for Arsenal, this has not won them any trophies. The last piece of silverware to make its way into Arsenal’s trophy cabinet was the 2005 FA Cup. And who was it who lifted that trophy that day? None other than Patrick Vieira, the epitome of everything Arsenal stood for during its most successful periods since the beginning of the Premier League: A strong, physical, dominating force.

 Arsenal’s title winning sides of 1998, 2002, and 2004 were full of players just like Vieira; players not afraid to get ‘stuck in’ and allow their physical attributes and sheer determination and passion for the game outweigh their ability to play patient, attacking football. The likes of Tony Adams, Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, and Lee Dixon were all dependable and resolute players, capable of intimidating any opposition they faced. Am I saying Arsenal’s current squad is not determined and passionate? Absolutely not, but it has to be said they lack the same key ingredients the club’s title winning sides possessed. 

On a day night when Arsenal needed to do nothing more than contain Barcelona’s midfield, they were run ragged and ripped to shreds. Disrupting Barcelona’s fluid passing game is no easy task, but it isn’t impossible. And preventing the free-scoring La Liga champions from picking and choosing what type of goals they feel like scoring that day is no easy feat either, as every club in Spain can attest to, including Real Madrid. Once again though, it’s not impossible. 

The clubs who have all experienced success against Barcelona in Europe have focused on completely disrupting their midfield, even if it meant compromising its attacking tendencies in order to disallow Andres Iniesta and Xavi any room to weave their magic. Jose Mourinho’s Inter demonstrated the perfect example of ‘parking the bus’ at the Nou Camp last season and it resulted in them progressing to the semi-finals and eventually winning the final. Two years earlier Manchester United utilized the work rates of Park Ji Sung and Darren Fletcher to leave Barcelona’s defense without any breathing space. The plan paid off as Barcelona failed to score in both legs and United ended up lifting the trophy several weeks later.

 To be fair, Barcelona have progressed immensely under the guidance of Guardiola, as United would discover in the final the following season. But against Arsenal, Iniesta and Messi were untouchable at times. Iniesta excelled in his freedom and all too often sprayed passes across the ptich or skipped by defenders with ease. The Gunners made just two touches inside Barcelona’s penalty area, while the home side had a total of 47, demonstrating the ease in which Barcelona moved forward. It shouldn’t come as a surprise at how much Barcelona dictated play and retained possession, but is a surprise at which ease they did so. 

Arsenal’s greatest criticism is they are too soft, a word probably never once used to describe Wenger’s title winning sides. Although they boasted plenty of attacking options in Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal’s main identity was being able to run the midfield and give any opposition striker nightmares. Where are those same qualities? 

Arsenal currently boast plenty of attacking flair, but the ingredients of the most successful Arsenal teams in the Premier League’s history have long been transformed. If the Gunners really wanted to offset Barcelona and give themselves a chance of progressing, they needed to harass Iniesta and Xavi off the park and give Messi a taste of what it is like to play in the Premier League against teams like Stoke or Bolton. Instead, Arsenal allowed Barcelona to play its game and it resulted in the loss of yet another trophy opportunity and the rise of more question marks over their ability to win when it counts. 

To rub salt in Arsenal’s wounds, Xavi has claimed the Gunners ‘made no intent to play football’. The statistics certainly back the Spaniard’s assertions, but so does the manner in which Arsenal allowed Barcelona to play their style of football. The absence of Alex Song hurt Arsenal, as it was evident they had no one up to the task of offsetting Barcelona’s rhythm. With the home side fielding two makeshift central defenders, the opportunity was there for Arsenal to take advantage. Instead, Barcelona were allowed to dominate once more, providing every reason to question Wenger’s failed philosophy once more. Fortunately for Arsenal, they could still resurrect their season on Saturday against Manchester United in the FA Cup sixth round. If that is to happen, however, a change in philosophy similar to the days of Vieira is a must.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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EPL: Shaping Lives Everywhere

Deep in the heart of poverty-stricken countries in Africa, the crest of some of England’s biggest clubs can be seen on worn, tattered and faded t-shirts and jerseys. For some, the shirt on their back is worth more to them than any amount of money they could earn by selling their shirt in the second-hand market.

Even in places where people would do almost anything to earn enough money to be able to afford one meal a day, the crest of clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea are valued as much as the food necessary for survival.

The crest of clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea represent a hope and optimism that nothing else can even come close to matching. It goes to show just how much the English Premier League has grown and the impact it has had and continues to have in our world.

In war torn countries such as the Ivory Coast, seeing their countryman Didier Drogba playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs in some of the world’s most prestigious competitions provides people with a renewed hope and inspiration needed to continue with their lives.

Thousands gather every week around a small television in a bar or house to catch a glimpse of their favorite heroes. Players like Didier Drogba, Obafemi Martins, and Yakabu Ayegbeni are what keep the dream alive in their countries. Little kids with absolutely nothing for footwear run around the dusty streets of town kicking a football ball made out of plastic bags, hoping they can one day follow in their hero’s footsteps.

And for people like this, it is their idols in the world’s biggest league that keep their dream alive. Without players like Kolo Toure, Didier Drogba, or Michael Essien flourishing in the English Premier League, some people would have nothing to cling on to in life.

It’s a sad truth, but a large portion of the continent of Africa is overwhelmed with poverty. After being born and living in Kenya for fourteen out of the first eighteen years of my life, I have witnessed such poverty first hand.

I can still recall walking through the streets of the town I lived in and hearing homeless people yell at me, “Man United!” Being one of the few white people in my town in a large town in Kenya, I was known by most people for two things: Being white and being a Manchester United supporter.

Even when I wasn’t sporting a Manchester United jersey or shirt, people who knew I was a United fan would still shout things at me about the club. Sometimes their remarks were affirmative and sometimes they were negative, but no matter what they were always said in a friendly manner.

And whenever I was seen donning a United jersey I would lose track of the vast amount of comments I received from people, most of who I didn’t even know. Even homeless kids on the side of the street without a shirt of their own chimed in with their own comments at times. My little brother, a die-hard Chelsea supporter, experienced much of the same whenever he wore his Chelsea jersey in public.

I learned that, even in the midst of despair and hopelessness, people were still able to find hope in the English Premier League. It may be hard to grasp if you haven’t actually experienced it first hand, but England’s biggest clubs have, in a sense, become a shining light in a dark world.

People’s hopes stretch far beyond their own countries’ football stars in England, but even in some of the big club’s star players in England’s top flight.

Wayne Rooney, John Terry, Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas are some of the most popular players in Africa, and they too are able to inspire anyone, from the poor man who struggles to earn enough money to be able to go to a bar and watch his favorite team to the rich business man who sits comfortably in the luxury of his home as he cheers on his beloved club.

Football and specifically the English Premier League give a lot of people something to live for. After all, when your job generates less than a dollar a day and you live in a hut made out of mud, sometimes the only happiness you get is from watching your favorite football club win.

The English Premier League is the world’s biggest and most popular league but its thriving popularity is seen in many places besides Africa. But after living in Africa for 14 years, I have discovered first hand just how big of an influence the English Premier League has across the world.

Whether it’s in the heart of big cities or the fringes of mid-size towns, the English Premier League is undoubtedly making a difference. And whether it’s in the center of small villages or the borders of the poorest of slums, England’s top flight is clearly having an influence.

The most important part of all is the fact that this influence is a positive one and one that will continue to shape and inspire our world in a beneficial way.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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