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Eduardo provides the perfect end to Arsenal’s near-perfect evening

Arsenal 5 Shakhtar Donetsk 1

Song 19, Nasri 42, Fàbregas 60 pen, Wilshere 66, Chamakh 69; Eduardo 82

Arsenal maintained their 100% record in Champions League Group H with one of the most comfortable European nights they have ever enjoyed, as Shakhtar Donetsk were brushed aside with dismissive ease.

Arsenal made two changes from the team who beat Birmingham on Saturday, with captain Cesc Fàbregas returning to midfield in place of Abou Diaby, and Tomáš Rosický stepping in for Andrey Arshavin, who had looked lethargic at the weekend after returning from international duty.

Shakhtar, winners of the Ukrainian league in four of the last six seasons, started six of the team who won the old UEFA Cup in 2009, with former Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva starting on the bench. The visitors set out their stall early on to deny Arsenal space in the final third, as the hosts prodded and probed in their customary fashion. Their containment tactic worked for the best part of 20 minutes as Arsenal enjoyed the majority of possession without creating a single clear-cut chance.

Alex Song opened the scoring for Arsenal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

But Arsenal, particularly at the Emirates, will always create opportunities, and in the 19th minute they breached the Ukrainians’ defence with their first shot. Shakhtar goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov dropped a Samir Nasri corner, Johan Djourou nicked the ball away with his toe and Alex Song scrambled it in with his heel for only his second ever Champions League goal. It was the first goal conceded by Shakhtar in this year’s competition.

With the comfort of the opening goal Arsenal, without ever getting out of second gear, continued to move the ball around efficiently without carving out many openings. Marouane Chamakh nodded the ball down for Nasri to hit a fierce drive from just inside the box, but straight at a grateful Pyatov. At the other end, Łukasz Fabiański was a virtual spectator, with one authoritative punch from a corner the only time he was called into action throughout the first 45 minutes.

Samir Nasri scored his sixth goal of the season (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

1-0 at half-time would have been eminently satisfactory. But three minutes before half-time Song sent in a cross from the right which was deflected into the path of Nasri, who controlled the ball around Darijo Srna with his right foot before rifling home with his left. Three chances, two goals – and the game as good as over already. Arsenal had been merely competent; in truth, Shakhtar had been so poor they had needed to be no better than that.

With the game in hand and half an eye on Sunday’s massive game at Manchester City, the second half was always going to be an exercise in avoiding complacency. Any danger of that was quickly shaken out of the home players within a minute of the restart, as Mkhitaryan stole the ball from Song and sent Luiz Adriano through on goal. But Fabiański was alert to the danger, advancing quickly off his line to block the shot well with his chest.

Cesc Fàbregas celebrated his return with a penalty (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Any thoughts Shakhtar might have had of launching a comeback were quickly crushed. With the interchanging movement of Fàbregas, Wilshere and Song proving too much for them, the Arsenal captain earned a free kick, Fabiano hauled Johan Djourou to the floor and Fàbregas sent the resultant penalty into the top corner.

With the game in the bag, the third goal was the cue for the first round of substitutions. Not wanting to tempt injury, Fàbregas gave way to Denilson, while Eduardo replaced Adriano to a warming welcome from the home crowd.

Arsenal, however, weren’t finished yet.

With his back to goal, Chamakh cleverly turned the ball round the corner for Wilshere. The England midfielder played a quick one-two with Rosický and calmly clipped the ball over Pyatov as the keeper dived at his feet. The youngster continues to impress with every passing game, his finish ice-cool, belying the fact this was only his second senior goal.

More agony quickly followed for the visitors. Nasri lofted a delicate sand wedge of a through-ball for Chamakh, and the Moroccan striker had time to look across at the linesman to check he was onside before coolly scoring, extending his consecutive goal-scoring streak in the Champions League to six games.

Arshavin and Theo Walcott, the latter on his return from injury, arrived as reinforcements to give Nasri and Chamakh a well-deserved rest, before Eduardo rounded off the night with a beautifully struck half-volley from 12 yards. The goal was greeted with a standing ovation by the Arsenal fans. (Fact fans: Eduardo has now scored for two different clubs against Arsenal, having scored the first competitive goal at the Emirates Stadium for Dinamo Zagreb in a Champions League qualifier in 2006.)

Arsène Wenger was pleased with the team’s overall performance:

I believe we made it easy because we had a good team performance. The goals came naturally through the game through great technical quality and overall I believe as well that our technical quality slowly got them tired. I felt they had given a lot in the first half to chase and be focused to defend well, and we took advantage of that in the second half.

Although it came against overmatched opponents, he was also happy with the way the Fàbregas/Wilshere partnership is developing:

I am convinced it works well together. Cesc just came back tonight but Jack has a good maturity level, you never think he’s 18 years of age when he plays. They combine very well. The midfield worked very well tonight.

[Wilshere] didn’t hide from challenges tonight. Sometimes when you get such a storm you want to go the other way and what was important tonight was that he just played football. He just went for the game like a real player. He has a good technical level but also does not hide from the challenges. That is a tremendous strength that you do not want to lose at that level.

Finally, he acknolwedged Eduardo’s goal and the home crowd’s positive reception of him:

If you wanted someone to score a goal for Shakhtar Donetsk it was Eduardo because everybody has many good feelings for him. Everybody knows what a player he was when he arrived and what he went through, and his attitude has always been great. We are all happy for him.

Overall, it was exactly the sort of game Wenger would have hoped for: a straightforward win in which his returning captain was able to ease his way back into the team, and in which his entire side was able to conserve energy for what promises to be a battle royal on Sunday in Manchester. The performance was as good as it needed to be – no more, no less – with enough flashes of brilliance to remind people just how good this team can be when they step it up. Maybe, just maybe, this team is maturing.

And Eduardo’s consolation strike was just the cherry on top of the icing on the cake. To see the Emirates crowd stand and applaud their former player had the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. Yes, it’s easy to be charitable when you’re 5-1 up, but it was a classy gesture nonetheless.

In fact, in so many ways Eduardo’s goal was the perfect end to an almost perfect evening. With a maximum nine points from three games, Arsenal march on.

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Climber-friendly 2011 Tour de France route also mixes up sprinters’ competition

The route for the 2011 edition of the Tour de France was announced this morning, with a spectacular, climactic showdown in the Alps likely to decide the yellow jersey. Meanwhile, the points competition has also been shaken up with greater focus being placed on intermediate sprints in addition to the traditional finishing bunch sprints.

2010 winner TBC? (image courtesy of Ned Boulting)

While many of the great and the good from the sport were in attendance at today’s presentation, two absentees were particularly notable. Neither Alberto Contador, this year’s ‘winner’, nor Alessandro Petacchi, the green jersey, were present (or, indeed, invited to attend).

Contador is currently provisionally suspended by the UCI pending the outcome of a decision following his positive clenbuterol test, while Petacchi is also the subject of an investigation which could result in a second doping ban that would effectively end the 36-year old’s career. As the photo (right) of the carpet at today’s venue illustrates, the official, final result of the 2010 Tour remains very much in doubt.

The 2011 route

There is no easy start for the riders in next year’s race. Instead of the customary short prologue, the race starts on Saturday July 2nd with a difficult 191km stage which is likely to feature peloton-splitting crosswinds, and finishing with the climb of the 232m Mont des Alouettes, in the Vendée.

This is immediately followed by the return of the visually spectacular team time trial (TTT), a 23km blast which will not disadvantage riders with relatively weak teams as much as the longer TTTs previously seen have done.

Stage four breaks up the traditionally sprint-dominated nature of the opening week with a final ascent of  the Mûr-de-Bretagne – dubbed ‘the Alpe-d’Huez of Brittany’ – a two-kilometre climb with an average gradient of 6.9% and ramps of up to 15%. This should lead to a spectacular finish, following on from the success of introducing short, sharp climbs at the end of some of this year’s stages, most notably the back-to-back stages to Mende and Revel.

At the end of the first week (and preceding the first rest day) stages eight and nine on the Saturday and Sunday see the race in the medium mountains of the Massif Central. The riders do not reach the Pyrenees until the second Thursday, with summit finishes at Luz-Ardiden (site of Lance Armstrong‘s famous 2003 crash and win) and Plateau de Beille sandwiching a stage to Lourdes.

The final week opens up with four straight climbing days into the Alps, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary at the Tour de France next year. A finish in Gap precedes a brief border crossing into Italy at Pinerolo before the monstrous Col du Galibier (2,645m) is tackled twice on consecutive days, with a finish at its summit on stage 18, before featuring en route to another summit finish at Alpe d’Huez the following day.

Mark Cavendish wins in Paris in 2009

If, as this year, the yellow jersey has not been decided by the final mountain stage, it certainly will on the following day’s penultimate stage, the race’s only individual time trial on a 41km course around Grenoble. (2011 continues the trend shifting the balance of power away from time-trial specialists to climbers – there were 116km and 117km of individual time trials respectively in the 2006 and 2007 races, compared with 59km and 41km in 2010 and 2011.)

The closing stage, of course, is the traditional procession and bunch sprint on the Champs-Élysées, where HTC-Columbia‘s Mark Cavendish will be seeking his third consecutive Paris win.

A whole new ball game for the sprinters?

Despite the mountain-heavy nature of next year’s route and the reintroduction of the team time trial, there is plenty of incentive for the sprinters with, at first glance, eight possible opportunities for a bunch sprint.

Furthermore, the race organisers have really shaken up the points competition by reducing the number of intermediate sprints to one per stage, but increasing the number of points on offer for them so that these will become significant rather than incidental in the race for the green jersey. There appears to be some confusion over exactly what the new system will be, with some outlets reporting that the hot-spot sprints will carry half the number of points of a stage finish and others saying there will be 20 points on offer for the intermediate winner (compared with 35 currently for the winner of a flat stage).

Regardless of the exact scoring calculation this will clearly change the race tactics on flat stages, effectively creating more race-within-a-race situations which are likely to encourage sprinters to get into breaks more often and affecting the whole dynamic of how their teams have to race – the traditionally simple break-chase-sprint rhythm of a long flat stage will take on a different and more complex strategic dimension, and will probably require many sprinters to prioritise either stage wins or the overall points competition.

Overall, the parcours clearly favours the climbers among the GC contenders. Whether Alberto Contador will be there to defend his title – or, indeed, whether he will be recognised as the 2010 winner – remains to be seen.

Regardless, the 2011 Tour de France starts in 257 days’ time. I can’t wait!

2011 Tour de France stages

Stage 1: July 2, Passage du Gois – Mont des Alouettes 191km

Stage 2: July 3, Les Essarts – Les Essarts 23km TTT

Stage 3: July 4, Olonne-sur-Mer – Redon 198km

Stage 4: July 5, Lorient – Mur-de-Bretagne 172km

Stage 5: July 6, Carhaix – Cap Fréhel 158km

Stage 6: July 7, Dinan – Lisieaux 226km

Stage 7: July 8, Le Mans – Chåteauroux 215km

Stage 8: July 9, Aigurande – Super-Besse Sancy 190km

Stage 9: July 10, Issoire – Saint-Flour 208km

Rest day: July 11

Stage 10: July 12, Aurillac – Carmaux 161km

Stage 11: July 13, Blaye-les-Mines – Lavaur 168km

Stage 12: July 14, Cugnaux – Luz-Ardiden 209km

Stage 13: July 15, Pau – Lourdes 156km

Stage 14: July 16, Saint-Gaudens – Plateau de Beille 168km

Stage 15: July 17, Limoux – Montpellier 187km

Resy day: July 18

Stage 16: July 19, Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux – Gap 163km

Stage 17: July 20, Gap – Pinerolo 179km

Stage 18: July 21, Pinerolo – Galibier Serre Chevalier 189km

Stage 19: July 22, Mondane – Alpe d’Huez 109km

Stage 20: July 23, Grenoble – Grenoble 41km ITT

Stage 21: July 24, Créteil – Paris Champs Élysées 160km

Links:

Official Tour de France website – 2011 route details

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