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Chamakh’s dubious dive and dancing dribble down dour Brum

Arsenal 2 Birmingam 1

Nasri 41 pen, Chamakh 47; Zigic 33

Goals by Samir Nasri and Marouane Chamakh secured an important, momentum-restoring win for Arsenal as the Premier League returned following the international break. Having secured just one point from the last nine – including dispiriting defeats to West Brom and Chelsea – a positive result was essential to prevent the Gunners from slipping further adrift in the title race.

With Bacary Sagna (thigh) and Laurent Koscielny (back) joining Thomas Vermaelen on the injured list during the international break, Arsène Wenger was forced to field a patched-up back four against Birmingham, with Emmanuel Eboué and Johan Djourou lining up alongside Sébastien Squillaci and Gaël Clichy in defence. Jack Wilshere continued in the centre of midfield, with captain Cesc Fàbregas still missing but apparently close to a first team return. However, there was also good news with Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs and Nicklas Bendtner all making welcome returns from injury and featuring on the subs’ bench.

Arsenal started brightly, with Abou Diaby warming Ben Foster‘s hands early on, and Chamakh failing to finish after some sparkling interplay with Wilshere. Squillaci also had a headed goal disallowed for what looked to be a debatable offside.

However, as is so often the case, after half an hour of apparently comfortable dominance, Arsenal fell behind to their opponent’s first meaningful attack. Serbia’s Nikola Žigić found a yard of space between Djourou and Clichy and used his six-foot-seven frame to send a looping header across and beyond Lukasz Fabianksi‘s reach for his first Premier League goal.

Samir Nasri scored coolly from the spot (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The visitors’ lead lasted just eight minutes, however. Arsenal pressed forward in search of an equaliser, and Chamakh earned his fifth penalty of the season as he beat Scott Dann to a loose ball in the Birmingham area and promptly went to ground as the defender stretched a leg out. Replays suggested there was, at best, minimal contact, with Chamakh clearly seeking and anticipating contact, but referee Martin Atkinson did not hesitate to point to the spot. Nasri sent Foster the wrong way, stroking a confident penalty to the keeper’s right, his fifth goal in his last five games.

If tongues were wagging during half-time over Chamakh’s role in the equaliser, there was no question about his winner in the early moments of the second half. A back-heel from Alex Song and a delicate dab forward from Wilshere sent Chamakh racing into the box. A spin and a skip from the quick-footed Moroccan took him away from two tackles, and he made no mistake sliding a left-footed finish beyond Foster.

Marouane Chamakh scored his third league goal, and his fifth in all competitions (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Despite not adding to the tally – the home side falling back into their bad habit of over-elaborating in possession without any real purpose – the result rarely looked in doubt thereafter. Wenger sent on Tomáš Rosický for the subdued Andrey Arshavin (who was having one of those games) and then replaced Chamakh with Bendtner for his first first-team action of the season. Rosický immediately impressed with his directness and work-rate – it would be little surprise to see him replace the Russian from the start in subsequent games – and Bendtner nearly scored with his very first touch after narrowly failing to connect with the Czech midfielder’s cross.

In injury time, Wilshere blotted an otherwise exemplary performance with a reckless challenge on Žigić – the striker was fortunate not to suffer injury – for which Atkinson rightly produced a straight red. The England youngster will now serve a three-match ban, meaning he will miss the forthcoming league games against Manchester City and West Ham, as well as the Carling Cup trip to Newcastle, in which he would almost certainly not have played anyway.

Despite their numerical disadvantage, Arsenal were able to see out the ensuing bombardment without too much difficulty, with Fabianski’s handling reassuringly secure. The Pole enjoyed another solid game, but in truth had little to do as Birmingham struggled to offer any consistent menace.

Wenger did not dispute the sending off after the game, although he claimed Wilshere’s tackle was mistimed rather than malicious:

He mistimed his tackle and he got the red card he deserved. You have to acknowledge that he got a red card and he deserved it but he didn’t spend the whole game kicking people. He played football and was one of the best players on the football pitch. He didn’t want to harm [Žigić] – he mistimed his tackle. We do not complain about his red card but you cannot say he had a dirty game.

Encouragingly, Wilshere himself was quick to acknowledge he had been at fault, a refreshing attitude when some of his professional peers (ahem, Karl Henry) have been slow to accept any blame for similarly rash challenges:

I mistimed the challenge on Zigic and accept that I deserved to be sent off. I have no complaints about getting the red card and I will learn from this. I’m missing three matches now which I’m really disappointed about, but I just want to say that I deserved the red card.

Wenger also admitted the team’s sometimes hesitant performance was influenced by the importance of ensuring a win:

[Securing three points] was imperative and I believe we played with nerves. It was nervy for us because you could see our fluency was a bit affected by the fact that we had not won for two games. We played a little bit with the handbrake in the final third, especially when we were 2-1 up, and it was never comfortable today. You could see that and feel that in the way we played.

For us we were backs to the wall considering the championship [situation] and as well in a position where we had absolutely to win and we were 1-0 down. So it was even more difficult. But I cannot fault anybody too much on the goal we conceded because it was a wonderful header like we used to see in England 30 or 40 years ago. There’s not a lot you can do about it. But I must say overall that Fabianski had a good game.

The win had not come without its controversial moments, with the dubious penalty, Wilshere’s red card and a similarly robust challenge from Eboué for which the Ivorian defender was fortunate to only see yellow for. However, in terms of both possession and chances created, Arsenal were good value for all three points on a day when the result – particularly in the light of Manchester United and Chelsea’s draws – was much more important than a performance which veered between dynamic and sluggish. Too often the ball was passed from one side of the pitch to the other without offering any real threat. As has been the case too frequently this season, Clichy was out of position on both the goal – although it is hard to see how he could have done much against Žigić in the air without the aid of a step-ladder – and then again moments later when another mental error could have resulted in the concession of a second. And the right balance in central midfield remains elusive, with Diaby in particular continuing to frustrate as often as he delights. It will be interesting to see who else forms the regular central trio once Fàbergas returns. My money is on Wilshere and Song, with the latter reverting to his more familiar anchor role.

There is much that is still not quite right about this patched-up side, but equally there is much still to come, and it would be churlish not to congratulate them on their hard-fought win.

Next up is the first of back-to-back Champions League games against Shakhtar Donetsk, with Eduardo making a return to the Emirates after his departure in the summer. Both teams are tied at the top of group H on maximum points after two games, and a win on Tuesday night will all but secure qualification for the knockout stages.

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Who was greedier: Hicks and Gillett, or Liverpool fans?

The saga, it appears, is finally over. Having taken out a temporary restraining order in a last-ditch attempt to stall the £300m sale of Liverpool FC to New England Sports Ventures (NESV), owner of the Boston Red Sox, Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr backed down yesterday morning and allowed the transaction to proceed, although they are still rumoured to be considering filing a £1 billion damages claim in the English courts.

Liverpool fans can once again breathe easy, it seems, safe from a week with wrestling with the convolutions of the legal system. Its now former American owners, who had arrived amid a fanfare of optimism declaring their desire to build a profitable and successful future, are gone. In their place comes a new set of American owners, fronted by the cigar-toting John W Henry, who have arrived amid a fanfare of optimism declaring their desire to build a, er, profitable and successful future.

As a forty-year old Arsenal fan who grew up as part of a generation in which Liverpool were the dominant force in both English and European club football, a significant number of my friends are devoted fans of the Anfield club. Many of them are sober and intelligent people, other than that one obvious aberration, and all of them are considerably more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of both this week’s court proceedings and the tumultuous 44-month reign of Hicks and Gillett than I am. I won’t comment further on these particulars; they are comprehensively covered elsewhere on the web and in the mainstream media.

However, I would like to pose one question – okay, three – if I may. Has Hicks and Gillett’s behaviour been any worse than that displayed by (some) Liverpool fans over these past few years? Have they really been the only party guilty of the deadly sin of greed? And is the situation really as straightforward as the old spaghetti Western staple of the bad guy in the black hat versus the good guy in the white one?

Defending the indefensible

Watching from a safe distance, I have been surprised by the media-fuelled reaction to the former owners’ various legal attempts to prevent the deal with NESV from going through over the past week. After all, the sale was negotiated and agreed by the rest of Liverpool’s five-man board without their knowledge or consent as owners – and it is a deal which stands to see them lose around £140m in the process. If you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you be a bit peeved, and do everything in your legal power to prevent someone from burning a very large hole in your children’s inheritance? Or, to put it another way, if you fell behind on your repayments and someone was sent to repossess your car, would you hand them the keys with a smile and offer them a cup of tea first?

Some of Hicks and Gillett’s claims in court were patently weak, and the injunction they took out in a Texas county court was clearly little more than one final attempt to buy some time to explore every last avenue open to them, but it is all too easy to swallow the line about their actions being spiteful or lacking class. They were merely the acts of two desperate men whose biggest mistake was to make a business investment which they hoped to profit from, only to see it go horribly, horribly wrong. Were they greedy? Yes, but no more so than you or I when we buy a lottery ticket. (Remember, folks, the value of your investments can go down as well as up, and history is no guarantee of future performance. Here ends this public service announcement.)

Attacking the ‘innocent’ fans

So what about Liverpool’s fans, or at least the subset of them whose eyes lit up those 44 months ago when they naively thought their new American owners were Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour and Bill Shankly all rolled into one? Were they in some way culpable? Are they now?

It’s difficult to say. Certainly in some quarters expectations were raised unreasonably high. Former manager Rafael Benítez was given plenty of scope to play the transfer market initially, although not to the same extent that Chelsea and Manchester United, and more recently Manchester City, have been able to. It didn’t take long before the mutterings started from both Benítez and some supporters about needing more money to compete at the highest level. Hicks and Gillett – who never claimed to be fans before being businessmen – refused, and so the downward spiral began, culminating in this week’s acrimonious events.

But were those complaining Liverpool fans being reasonable in demanding the owners increase their investment and jeopardise their by then already constrained opportunity to turn a profit? Of course, fans want the best for their club, but were those expectations – fuelled by a long, proud and successful history, and with pride wounded by the inexorable rise of the hated Man U over the past two decades – an expression of passion, frustration or simple greed? As an individual, if you put money into an investment and it starts to turn sour, the last thing you are going to do is throw even more money at it. Hicks and Gillett were not being stingy, they were acting just as any other sensible investor would do. In some ways, their biggest crime was merely that they just weren’t big enough fans of the club they owned.

With the former owners now dismissed, how will Liverpool fans now perceive NESV? They turned around the Red Sox – like Liverpool, a proud club with a great history but little recent success – through a sensible, measured business plan rather than by injecting the kind of immediate and massive investment which took place in the case of both Chelsea and City, for instance. Will that be enough for the fans? Or will they grow quickly impatient if a return to trophy-winning success is not immediately forthcoming?

Are (some) Liverpool fans greedy? In truth, only time will tell. But before the Anfield masses start to fidget impatiently in their seats in the Kop, they would do well to remember the salutary lesson of the last four years, set aside their emotions for the club and look at the situation through rational eyes. Where does passion end and greed begin?

I know, I know, it is easier said than done, and football – like all sports – appeals to the passion in people rather than their rational nature. But it is an interesting conundrum nonetheless, and it brings into question whether it is fair to paint Hicks and Gillett as ‘the bad guys’ with such unseemly haste. If Liverpool fans look at themselves in the mirror for a minute, they might not like what they see.

Don’t get me wrong. Even as a fan of an opposing team, I am glad to see Hicks and Gillett gone from the exclusive club of Premier League owners. I’m just not at all convinced they were the be-all and end-all of the problem. Whether the fans like it or not, it is a long road back to success for Liverpool FC, and one fraught with many potential pitfalls in the months and years to come.

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