27 May 2009

Unwritten futures

Okay, okay, so I'd trade them all in for the Champions League trophy - which will be lifted by either Barcelona or defending champions Manchester United tonight - but, as a football club (as opposed to just the men's first XI), it's been a pretty successful season for Arsenal, with five trophies in all to add to an already burgeoning cabinet.

The women have already completed the domestic Treble, courtesy of a do-or-die final day win in the league at Everton.

And, last night, on the 20th anniversary of the club's most famous night at Anfield, Arsenal's youth team - all of them born after that game (God, that makes me feel old!) - travelled to Anfield and finished the job they had started in the home leg of the FA Youth Cup final last Friday, beating Liverpool 2-1 to complete a 6-2 aggregate victory which was, by all accounts, every bit as dominant as the scoreline suggests.

The victory meant Arsenal's kids achieved the League and Cup double, having already sewn up the Premier League title by a whopping 25 points.

While it's gratifying to have such a potent academy, as Arseblog points out this does not guarantee a ready-made production line of first-team players. Of Arsenal's FA Youth Cup-winning eleven from 2001, only Steve Sidwell (a squad player at Aston Villa) and Jeremie Aliadiere (relegated with Middlesbrough last weekend) have played Premier League football this season, and most of the others disappeared quietly into lower division obscurity.

And while the signs are that some, most notably Jack Wilshere, have what it takes to become the next big thing at the Emirates, nothing is guaranteed. Too often in the past we have seen a great prospect stumble due to injury, lack of opportunity, bad luck or simply not being good enough to take the final step up to Premier League football at the very highest level.

Anyhow, the future remains unwritten. What we do know is that Steve Bould's youth side has completed a fantastic season, and contains enormous potential for the future. The story of how that potential rises or falls will form part of the fabric of the continuing story of Arsenal football club.

For now, congratulations should more than suffice: well done, lads!

Is Lance Armstrong really a contender?

The Giro d’Italia resumes today after its final rest day, but with only five days’ racing to the finish in Rome, questions continue to abound. Who will win the slugfest between Denis Menchov and Danilo di Luca for the maglia rosa? (The Russian currently leads by 39 seconds.) Can Carlos Sastre, winner of Monday’s murderous seven-hour mountain stage to Monte Petrano but still over two minutes behind, claw back enough time over the two remaining climbing finishes to mount a late challenge? Did Britian’s Mark Cavendish, winner of three sprint finishes, disrespect the Giro by withdrawing to save himself for the Tour de France?

And, perhaps the trickiest question of all: just what condition is 37-year old Lance Armstrong in?

Certainly, any vaguely romantic notion of Armstrong winning the Giro was quickly dispelled. After a competitive absence of nearly three years and a broken collarbone in March, the Giro was never going to be more than an extremely rigorous three-week tune-up.

Looked at objectively, it’s been a pretty good race so far for the Texan. He lies twelfth overall, albeit over 11 minutes behind Menchov. He looked to be lacking that final one or two per cent to live with the leaders on the tougher climbs in the first week of the race, which wasn’t really a surprise given his disrupted preparations. And a 13th-place finish in last Thursday’s 61km individual time trial seemed to confirm his current level of competitiveness: there or thereabouts, but not a genuine threat.

However, there were signs towards the end of Monday’s stage that he appears to be cycling himself into stronger form with every passing kilometre. After seven hours of near-40 degree heat, it was Armstrong who, unaided, put in a punishing stint to tow his struggling team leader Levi Leipheimer up to the finish, helping him limit his losses, and looking strong in doing so. It was mighty impressive stuff from a man unaccustomed to the role of workhorse.

It’s still difficult to judge Armstrong’s ultimate condition, as the pace he set ultimately brought Leipheimer home nearly three minutes behind Sastre, but equally they didn’t fall back into the clutches of others behind them, so the tempo must have been good. It is, however, now clear that he still has the stamina and strength of character to sustain his form through a three-week race while others fade around him.

The reality is we probably won’t know Armstrong’s true position until the second week of the Tour de France. There we will see which of his Giro rivals have peaked too soon and which have dosed their efforts to hit top form in July. Leipheimer will undoubtedly be stronger, despite his travails on Monday. And then there is the small matter of Astana teammate and 2007 winner Alberto Contador, who is absent from the Giro as he prepares for the Tour, for which he will start as favourite.

July may well reveal that Armstrong is only the third-best cyclist on his own team – which could be good enough for third place overall, and is probably as good a result as he can realistically hope for. But the little voice in my head keeps telling me not to write him off completely. The man has beaten cancer; overcoming the odds stacked against him wearing the maillot jaune in Paris for the eighth time on July 26th must seem simple by comparison.

Regardless of what happens, I’m willing to bet it will be one hell of a ride - simply because Lance Armstrong is one hell of a fighter, no matter what shape he's in.

26 May 2009

Fantasy football

Tonight, Steve Bould's Arsenal side will travel to Liverpool for the second leg of the FA Youth Cup final, carrying a healthy 4-1 advantage from Friday's home leg.

Only sport could throw up the irony of an Arsenal side playing at Anfield twenty years to the day since another Liverpool v Arsenal match-up which was arguably the single most memorable league game ever. (Doubly ironic, as Arsenal's kids will tonight be wearing the yellow away kit designed to commemorate that very season.)

If you're of a certain age, or have any interest in the history of football, the game requires little introduction, but here goes anyway.

Anfield, 26th May 1989

Anfield, on a balmy spring evening. A head-to-head showdown to determine the winner of the League Championship. Just your average Friday, really.

In the red corner: Liverpool, the dominant team in English football. In any other season, the neutrals would have been massed against them, but on this one occasion Liverpool had the collective will of an entire nation behind them, still mourning after the tragic events of Hillsborough. Already FA Cup winners, they are now one match away from achieving the Double.

In the yellow corner: Arsenal. The perennial nearly men. Since winning the FA Cup in 1979, Arsenal had recorded a series of inglorious failures. 1980 had seen the team lose two Cup finals - the FA Cup to West Ham, and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, on penalties, to Valencia. They had briefly bucked the trend by winning the 1987 League Cup against Liverpool, but normal service had been quickly restored as a 2-1 lead late on in the final of the same competition the following year against Luton was casually discarded. And, finally, six top-six League finishes in nine years, but never higher than third. If there was one thing Arsenal were best at, it was being second-best.

1989, however, had been different. Arsenal had played superb football throughout and sat atop the League since January, but a defeat and a draw in the last two matches had tamely handed the initiative back to Liverpool going into this final game.

The task now was a stark one. Win the game, on Liverpool’s home turf, by at least two goals. Anfield had long been a virtually impregnable stronghold; it had been three years since Liverpool had last lost a home league game by the required two-goal margin. And then there was the post-Hillsborough effect, adding public goodwill to the Liverpool balance sheet. Obviously, winning the Double wasn’t going to bring back the dead, but it would nonetheless be a fitting end to a traumatic season. And, come on, did anyone outside of North London really think Arsenal were going to come to Fortress Anfield and snatch the title?

Anyway, the game itself is being broadcast live; still a rare treat in these pre-Sky days. It’s clear from the outset both teams are feeling the pressure. Chances are scarce - Liverpool’s John Aldridge snatches ineffectually at a long-range effort, while Arsenal’s tentative probing doesn’t really trouble a typically well-organised Liverpool defence. At half-time it’s still scoreless. Watching at home, I’m struggling to remain calm. 45 minutes gone, we’ve barely had a decent shot worth the name, and now we’ve got just 45 more minutes to try and win by two goals.

The second half starts much as the first ended. Liverpool aren’t threatening much, but they know they don’t need to force the pace. And then the first part of the miracle happens: Nigel Winterburn swings in a free kick from the right, Alan Smith ghosts in to meet it with a glancing header. 1-0. Game on. Come on you yellows!

The game’s on the proverbial knife-edge now; tension cranked up a notch. Liverpool are edgy, but Arsenal are too; they’re aware they are within touching distance of the seemingly impossible. They only need one goal now, but equally to concede a goal would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

With 10 minutes left, Arsenal engineer a clear opening. Michael Thomas finds himself clean through on the edge of the Liverpool penalty area, one-on-one with Bruce Grobbelaar, but he hesitates and his weak shot is easily saved, belying his nerves. The opportunity is wasted - will there be another one?

All of a sudden, the end is frighteningly near. 85 minutes, 87, 89 … the Anfield crowd feel they can almost touch the Double, it’s that close. Arsenal's Kevin Richardson goes down injured and play is stopped; the clock, however, ticks on remorselessly. The Liverpool players are urging one another on; Steve McMahon, the combative, no-nonsense, run-all-day midfielder, stands in the centre circle, dripping sweat, and relays the message to his team-mates with a raised forefinger. One minute, just one minute more.

For the Arsenal faithful, the dream is fading away. It’s the same old story; I can already taste the bitterness of being second-best yet again. Good, but not quite good enough: they should make it the club motto.

The clock ticks past the 90-minute mark. Now there’s two, at most three, minutes that the referee will add on for stoppages. 91 minutes. The ball’s in the hands of goalkeeper John Lukic, at the wrong end of the pitch. The next few seconds unfold in dreamy slow motion. Lukic bowls the ball out to Lee Dixon. Dixon launches a hopeful long pass up towards Alan Smith. Smith calmly collects, pivots and chips a delicate ball into the path of Michael Thomas’s surging run. A lucky ricochet off Steve Nicol’s back and, as Groucho Marx would have said: it’s déjà vu all over again. Thomas is clean through, Grobbelaar races out to confront him and suddenly there is a hush of anticipation from 42,000 people inside Anfield, and millions more watching at home. 10 months, and the entire season comes down to this one moment. All I can see is Thomas shaping to shoot, and all I can hear is the voice of Brian Moore’s TV commentary - Thomas! It’s up for grabs now! - and before anyone has quite realised what has happened the ball is nestling in the back of the net and Thomas is launching himself into a somersault and a display of demented body-popping as yellow Arsenal shirts engulf him, celebration and relief mixed in equal measure on his face.

There’s a huge roar from the Arsenal fans, a release of 90 minutes and more of stored-up tension and anticipation. And the roar is so loud it feels like it’s coming from my own living room, because it is - I’m jumping up and down and I’m shouting and I’m crying, because never in my life to date have I experienced what it’s like to be able to say, My team are the champions of England!

As a child, no doubt Michael Thomas had some variation on the same dream I and thousands of other kids have had, of scoring the goal that wins the League or maybe even a World Cup final. No doubt he spent many hours recreating that dream in the school playground, as kids do. Real life may have dashed my own fantasy, but nonetheless I feel I understood and in some small way shared in that moment of triumph and elation that Thomas felt as he realised he had fulfilled his - scoring the goal that clinched the League title in the final minute of the final game of the season.

It truly was fantasy football.

The stakes tonight are, of course, nowhere near as high, but in a living room 200 miles away from Anfield I will be raising a glass tonight both to Steve Bould's kids and the heroes of twenty years ago. Football may be only a game, but what a game it was that night!

10 May 2009

Arsenal (Ladies) triumph again

Apparently, the Arsenal men's team played this afternoon. (They lost 4-1 at home to Chelsea, in what was effectively a Champions League third-place playoff, both teams having been defeated in their respective semi-finals midweek.)

However, today's big game was happening about 200 miles north-west of the Emirates Stadium, as Arsenal Ladies travelled to Everton for a head-to-head title showdown. Everton started the day undefeated in the league all season - having ended Arsenal's 108-match unbeaten record with a 3-0 win in the reverse fixture in March - and top of the table by three points. Arsenal, winners of both domestic cup competitions, arrived knowing that only a win would be good enough to retain the title for the sixth successive season - and with the added incentive that this was to be manager Vic Akers' last game in charge of the team he helped set up 22 years ago.

And win they did, with Suzanne Grant's 13th minute volley proving to be the only goal of the game, clinching both the league title and the team's third domestic treble. It is the 32nd trophy Arsenal Ladies have won under Akers' management, in a season in which the team has had to cope with the departure of both leading strikers, Lianne Sanderson and Kelly Smith.

Sadly, Akers was unable to oversee his team's triumph first hand, as his other duties (he is the men's team's kit man) meant he was required at the Emirates. But, for once, I think he can be forgiven if his mind and his heart were elsewhere today.

While the men's team's trophy cabinet has not been added to for four years, the ladies' team's is full to overflowing. It's not the triumph the vast majority of Arsenal fans would have been hoping for this season, but that in no way lessens its significance. Congratulations to Vic and the team.

9 May 2009

Twice is no accident, part 2

What is it with professional cyclists?

Last week, I posted about cyclist Stefan Schumacher's second positive test for the blood-booster Cera. While there is no excuse for even one positive test, in Schumacher's case he had already provided his second sample (at the Beijing Olympics) for the previously undetectable drug before he became aware of his first positive result, which came from tests conducted at the Tour de France mere weeks earlier.

Obviously, ignorance that the authorities have caught up with the cheats is neither defence nor mitigation in Schumacher's case, nor should it ever be. But at least no one can accuse Schumacher of being so stupid that he continued to dope knowing that he had already been caught once.

The case of Tom Boonen, elite sprinter, 2005 World Road Race champion and arguably Belgium's most celebrated current sportsperson, is somewhat different.

In the past couple of hours, it has been confirmed that Boonen has, out-of-competition, tested positive for cocaine - for the second time in less than 12 months. His first positive test, in May of last year, resulted in him missing the Tour de France despite avoiding official sanctions from either cycling's governing body, the UCI, or the World Anti-Doping Authority (as the test was out-of-competition).

To be caught once and escape relatively lightly is one thing. To be caught a second time borders on insane stupidity.

At this stage, it is unclear what, if any, action Boonen's Quick Step team or the UCI will take against him. Certainly ASO, the organisers of the Tour de France, who have been particularly proactive in trying to clean up the event's tarnished image, are likely to take a dim view if Quick Step are seen as taking insufficient measures. They could potentially exclude the team from the 2009 race, as they did to the Astana team of then-defending yellow jersey Alberto Contador last year, meaning Boonen would be excluded for the second year in a row.

If Tom Boonen is banned from the sport's highest profile event - and I would say the probability of this happening is extremely high - it is the least punishment he deserves. He had received a clear warning shot across his bows already; if this second missile holes him below the water-line he has no one else to blame but himself.

EDIT: Quick Step have now announced that they have suspended Boonen from all cycling activities until further notice. (It's difficult to see how they could have done anything else.) The team stood by him after his first offence last year, but you have to assume that, if nothing else, there will be considerable pressure from key sponsors to sack him now. Neither the UCI nor ASO have made any statement yet, but there is also the possibility that criminal charges will be brought against Boonen. No charges were raised after last year's incident, but a second offence will surely be looked upon less leniently.

No matter what, it seems Tom Boonen is in deep trouble, and there will be a lot of people gunning for him. I'm finding it hard to have any sympathy for him.

6 May 2009

No cigar

Arsenal 1 Man Utd 3 (1-4 agg)

Thousands of flags had been distributed around the Emirates Stadium before kickoff, but within 11 minutes they were all flying at half mast as Arsenal’s dream of reaching a second Champions League final in four seasons withered and died.

Costly mistakes by Kieran Gibbs (a slip) and Manuel Almunia (failing to stop Ronaldo's 40-yard free kick) in that opening period effectively ended the tie as a contest. But make no mistake, individual and collective errors notwithstanding, United fully deserved their 4-1 margin of victory. At times it really was men against boys as they outmuscled, outmanoeuvred and outthought Arsene Wenger’s side.

An exchange of second half goals saw Ronaldo cap a sweeping end-to-end United counterattack - a move of which Arsenal themselves would have been proud - and Robin van Persie blast home a consolation penalty. In awarding the penalty, a terrible refereeing error saw Darren Fletcher sent off for what, even at full speed, was clearly a legitimate tackle. He will now miss the final, unless the decision is reversed. Even as an Arsenal fan, I hope it is; it was monumentally wrong.

It’s hard to take positives from such a comprehensive loss, but I’m hoping Wenger will heed the clear evidence of two semi-final defeats this season to add both physical strength and experience to the squad this summer.

Andrey Arshavin being eligible for next season's Champions League campaign will provide additional guile, but it was not a lack of creativity or wasteful finishing which cost Arsenal this tie. Central defence and a tough, no-nonsense midfielder are top priority areas, but in reality there is a need for both quality and depth all over the pitch if Arsenal are to genuinely challenge next season.

I tried to work out who in our starting XI last night would have been earned a place in the United side: an argument could be made for Fabregas, Almunia and van Persie, possibly even Sagna for O'Shea. Other than that, we are significantly weaker at every position. Gibbs remains understudy to Clichy, who is in turn behind Evra in the pecking order for France. Toure and Djourou would not displace Ferdinand and Vidic. Song is developing rapidly but lacks Fletcher and Anderson's physicality. Nasri and Walcott are both promising, but Ronaldo and Rooney are the real deal, and Park is massively underrated. Adebayor wouldn't get a look-in behind Berbatov and Tevez.

(Speaking of Adebayor, after his latest comments, I suspect the likely sale of the Togolese striker this summer will help fund some heavy transfer spending. Shut the door on your way out, please, Emmanuel.)

There are still three league games left, but it’s time to turn the lights out on the 2009 season. Close, but no cigar – and for the fourth season running, sadly no silverware either.

Re-reading the above, it all looks a bit doom and gloom, but a sense of perspective is important here. The side is young and, more importantly, has been riddled by injuries all season. (Last night we were without Gallas, Clichy, Eduardo and Rosicky, among others.) And I can think of 16 other Premier League teams who would kill for a season which has produced a top four league finish, and semi-final appearances in both the Champions League and FA Cup. Yes, it's disappointing to be talking about unfulfilled potential yet again, but has it been a disastrous season? I think not.

For those idiots who are so dissatisfied that they have been calling for Arsene Wenger to be sacked, I have two words: Newcastle United. That's what we could be like with bad leadership, particularly given the ongoing tussle for boardroom control which would have destabilised a lesser club.

As the banners so frequently seen around the Emirates state: in Arsene we trust. That alone is worth celebrating.

5 May 2009

Now all that's left is the treble

While Arsenal's men's team's season effectively finished tonight, with a dispiriting 4-1 aggregate defeat in the Champions League semi-final against Manchester United, the season is far from over for the most successful English football team of recent times.

I'm not talking about Man U. Or Barcelona, or Chelsea, or even AC Milan.

No, the team I'm referring to have won their domestic title five years running (and seven of the last eight), the last four FA Cups, and have already completed the FA and League Cup double this season.

More than that, they are the only English team to have completed a unique quadruple of league, both domestic cups and Europe's premier club competition, which they managed in 2007.

I am, of course, referring to Arsenal Ladies, who yesterday won the FA Cup, defeating Sunderland 2-1 at Derby's Pride Park. This coming Sunday, Arsenal will travel to Everton - the only team to defeat them all season - for a head-to-head title-decider, knowing that a win will clinch the third domestic treble in the team's history.

All this despite a difficult, transitional season in which the team has lost several key players, including both star strikers: Lianne Sanderson during the summer (to Chelsea) and Kelly Smith, mid-season, to the Boston Breakers of America's newly-formed Women's Professional Soccer League. In their (considerable) absence - Sanderson scored 51 goals last season, Smith 31 in just 21 games this campaign - players such as midfielder Kim Little (24 goals), scorer of Arsenal's second, decisive goal yesterday, have stepped up.

Despite the odds being stacked against them on Sunday - Everton have dropped only 2 points all season - only a fool would count Arsenal out. The team has a wealth of experience when it comes to winning trophies - both at home and abroad - over the past few years.

Which, sadly, is more than can be said for their better-known male colleagues.