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Worthy SPotY shortlist has one notable omission

Earlier this evening, the BBC announced its final shortlist of ten candidates for the 2010 Sports Personality of the Year (SPotY) awards, which will take place on December 19th at the LG Arena in Birmingham. While each of the ten nominees – determined by the votes of a panel of 30 sports journalists – is merit-worthy in their own right, there was one notable absentee from the list: triple world gymnastics champion Beth Tweddle.

When I previewed the likely top ten four weeks ago, based on the odds quoted by Ladbrokes at that time, the bookmaker had correctly predicted eight of the shortlist of ten. In alphabetical order, here is the final confirmed list, along with my thoughts as to their chances of winning:

Image courtesy of Graham Watson

Mark Cavendish (cycling)

Winner of five stages at July’s Tour de France, and a further three stages and the green jersey in his debut at the Vuelta a España in September. Unquestionably the world’s best sprinter for the third year in a row – and this in a year where he has at times struggled for peak form. In four years as a pro, the rider from the Isle of Man has already won an astonishing 23 stages in the three Grand Tours – including 15 at the Tour de France – not to mention the 2009 Milan-San Remo, one of the most prestigious one-day classics on the cycling calendar. ‘Cav’ is quite simply the best in the world at what he does.

SPotY prospects: None. Road cycling is a minority and poorly understood sport in the UK, and one which the ordinary sports fan most readily relates with doping scandals. There will be a big voting campaign among cycling fans. It will make no difference whatsoever – Cavendish will probably finish tenth.

Previous cycling SPotY winners: 2 – Tom Simpson (1965), Chris Hoy (2008).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Tom Daley (diving)

Still only 16, Daley bagged double Commonwealth Games gold in the 10m platform individual and synchronised diving competitions, after injury denied him the chance to defend his European title.

SPotY prospects: Minimal. Daley competes in a niche event, and will never make the top three in a non-Olympics year.

Previous swimming/diving SPotY winners: 2 – Ian Black (1958), Anita Lonsbrough (1962).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Jessica Ennis (athletics)

Followed up last year’s World Athletics Championships heptathlon victory with gold medals in both the World Indoor Championships pentathlon and the European Championships heptathlon. She remains the world’s number one-ranked heptathlete.

SPotY prospects: Top three. The current golden girl of British athletics, and the country’s only number-one ranked athlete in either male or female events.

Previous athletics SPotY winners: 17 – most recently Kelly Holmes (2004) and Paula Radcliffe (2002).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

David Haye (boxing)

Haye became only the fifth British boxer to hold a world heavyweight belt after beating the giant Nikolay Valuev twelve months ago. Since then the 30-year old has made two successful defences of his WBA heavyweight title, defeating the credible challenge of John Ruiz in April and then the somewhat less credible Audley Harrison a fortnight ago.

SPotY prospects: An outside bet for the top three. Boxing currently lacks the high profile and strength in depth of the Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield eras, but Haye’s win over Harrison is timely in terms of the public vote.

Previous boxing SPotY winners: 5 – most recently Joe Calzaghe (2007) and Lennox Lewis (1999).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

A P McCoy (horse racing)

Tony McCoy has been the dominant force in National Hunt racing for the past 15 years, and the best jump jockey in the business finally won the Grand National in 2010, at his 15th attempt, piloting Don’t Push It to a five-length victory.

SPotY prospects: Favourite to win. McCoy is a dominant, likeable figure, and his maiden Grand National win should ensure a further triumph in the SPotY arena.

Previous horse racing SPotY winners: 0, but two third places – one of them McCoy himself in 2002.

Image courtesy of belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Graeme McDowell (golf)

The 31-year old from Northern Ireland finished second overall on the European Tour money list, won his first major, the US Open, and held his nerve to win the critical final singles match in the Ryder Cup, securing the trophy for Europe by the narrowest of margins, 14½-13½.

SPotY prospects: Possible top three. McDowell has had a fairy-tale year, and the likelihood of the European Ryder Cup squad winning the Team of the Year award may attract floating public voters on the night. Lee Westwood‘s presence in the top ten may take vital votes away, however.

Previous golf SPotY winners: 2 – Dai Rees (1957), Nick Faldo (1989).

Graeme Swann (cricket)

53 wickets in 11 Tests this calendar year, including five five-fors, cementing his position as England’s primary bowling threat. Also named the ECB Cricketer of the Year, and nominated as one of Wisden‘s five Cricketers of the Year.

SPotY prospects: An outside bet for the top three. Swann is England’s main bowling weapon, and strong performances in the second and third Tests could propel him to the sharp end of the public vote.

Previous cricket SPotY winners: 4 – Jim Laker (1956), David Steele (1975), Ian Botham (1981), Andrew Flintoff (2005).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Phil Taylor (darts)

The undisputed king of the oche for the best part of two decades, Taylor won his 15th World Championship and 11th World Matchplay title in 2010, among others. Incredibly, he has only been nominated for the main SPotY award once before (2006).

SPotY prospects: Minimal. Despite his incredible dominance of the sport, too many viewers will never vote for a darts player. It will be a miracle if Taylor gets anywhere near the top three, and he is more likely to be joining Cavendish at the bottom of the public vote.

Previous darts SPotY winners: 0 (and no top three placings either).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Lee Westwood (golf)

The new world number one was runner-up in both the US Masters and The Open, and contributed 2½ points from his four matches as Europe regained the Ryder Cup.

SPotY prospects: An outside bet for the top three. A failure to win a major and the presence of McDowell in the field means Westwood is unlikely to manage better than a top five placing.

Previous golf SPotY winners: 2 – Dai Rees (1957), Nick Faldo (1989).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Amy Williams (skeleton bobsleigh)

Gold medalist in the skeleton bobsleigh at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, going one place better than Shelley Rudman had four years previously in Turin.

SPotY prospects: None. The Winter Olympics stand several rungs down from its summer counterpart, and are already a distant and fading memory. Many viewers will have already forgotten her name, let alone be willing to cast a vote for her.

Previous Winter Olympics SPotY winners: 3 (all skaters) – John Curry (1976), Robin Cousins (1980), Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean (1984).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Finally, do spare a thought for the unfortunate Beth Tweddle, who won her third gold medal at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Rotterdam in October with a flawless performance on the uneven bars, having triumphed in the same event in 2006 and on the floor last year. She also repeated her double gold performance at the European Championships in Birmingham earlier in the year, duplicating her 2009 wins in the uneven bars and the floor.

The 25-year old previously placed third in the SPotY voting in 2006 behind winner Zara Phillips and Darren Clarke. She is Britain’s only ever gymnastics world champion. Her exclusion from the shortlist is, to me, incomprehensible. It’s a real shame, because none of the final ten, for all their achievements, have been quite the trailblazer that Tweddle has been in her sport.

I fully expect McCoy to canter to victory on December 19th, to be followed home by Ennis and McDowell. But in Tweddle’s absence, I will be casting my vote – albeit largely a protest one – for Mark Cavendish. So there.

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The week in numbers: w/e 28/11/10

Martin Kaymer

25 – Age of Germany’s Martin Kaymer, who became the youngest golfer to finish as the number-one ranked player on the European Tour since Ronan Rafferty in 1989.

0 – Number of tournaments (out of 14) won by Tiger Woods in 2010, the first time in his professional career he has gone an entire year without a victory.

24Mirco Bergamasco kicked all 24 of Italy’s points as they overcame Fiji 24-16 to end their autumn international series with a win.

5Roger Federer defeated Rafael Nadal 6-3 3-6 6-1 to win the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals for the fifth time. It was the first time in 24 years the world’s number one and two-ranked players have met in the final.

27Carl Froch improved his career record to 27-1 in regaining the WBC middleweight title with an overwhelming unanimous points decision over Arthur Abraham. Froch had lost the belt to Mikkel Kessler in April.

0Manchester United are yet to concede a goal in 450 mins of Champions League football this season.

The Ashes in numbers

Mike Hussey (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

5Peter Siddle celebrated his 26th birthday by recording a hat-trick on the opening day of the first Ashes Test in Brisbane. He is the fifth Australian to register a hat-trick against England.

307 – Sixth-wicket stand by Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin in Australia’s first innings, a record for any wicket at the Gabba – and 47 more than England’s first innings score of 260.

29 – Hussey’s century was the first time he had passed 100 in the first innings of a Test match in his last 29 attempts.

6 – 21-year old Steven Finn led England’s bowling attack in Australia’s first innings with six-for-125 on his Ashes debut.

Alastair Cook recorded the highest score ever at the Gabba (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

2 – England’s openers both hit centuries in a Test innings for just the second time since 1990. Andrew Strauss scored 110, Alastair Cook finished on 235 not out.

235 – Cook’s massive innings surpassed the great Don Bradman for the highest Test score ever at the Gabba.

329 – Cook and Jonathan Trott‘s unbeaten second-wicket stand, a record England stand on Australia soil, and surpassing Hussey and Haddin’s record-breaking stand (see above) from two days earlier. Trott finished unbeaten on 135.

1 – England declared on 517/1. It is the first time they have ever passed 500 runs for the loss of just one wicket.

2 – It is only the second time that England’s top three batsmen have scored centuries in the same innings.

33 – Boundaries struck by Cook in the match – six in his first innings score of 67, and a further 27 in the second innings.

2 – Total number of wickets to fall in the final two days of play.

The Premier League week in numbers

20 – Number of teams who scored this weekend, the first time every team has scored in a full round of games since the Premier League was formed in 1992.

41 – Number of goals scored this weekend, the joint-highest total in a round since the division was reduced to 20 clubs in 1995.

Dimitar Berbatov

49 – With his 49th shot, Victor Obinna finally scored his first Premier League goal in West Ham‘s 3-1 win over Wigan.

5 – In Manchester United‘s 7-1 victory over Blackburn, Dimitar Berbatov became the fourth player in Premier League history to score five goals in one game, after Alan Shearer, Andy Cole and Jermain Defoe. He is also only the sixth player to score four or more on two occasions.

538 – Berbatov’s opening goal ended a scoring drought two minutes short of nine hours (538 minutes).

11 – Every member of the Manchester United team touched the ball in the build-up to their sixth goal.

Jack Wilshere (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

90 – There has been a goal scored in the 90th minute or later of four of the last six league meetings between Arsenal and Aston Villa. Jack Wilshere scored the final goal in Arsenal’s 4-2 win in the 93rd minute.

5West Bromwich Albion‘s Paul Scharner scored his fifth career goal against Everton in the Baggies’ 4-1 win. He has never scored more than once against any other Premier League team.

5 – Jermain Defoe’s missed spot kick against Liverpool means he has now failed with five of his last six penalties in all competitions. Nonetheless, Tottenham recovered from conceding the opening goal to win 2-1.

0 – Number of Premier League managers who have been sacked so far this season. The last time we have gone this long without a sacking was the 1995/96 season. I’m just saying …

The NFL week in numbers

7 – The Detroit Lions, who traditionally host a home game on Thanksgiving Day, have now lost seven consecutive Thanksgiving games, by an average of 23 points. New England rallied from 14-3 down in the second quarter to run out 45-24 winners.

158.3 – New England quarterback Tom Brady‘s passer rating against the Lions – the maximum possible. Brady completed 21 of 27 passes for four touchdowns without an interception. It is the first ‘perfect’ passer rating achieved this season, and the second of Brady’s career.

Troy Polamalu

4 – Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu recorded his fourth interception of the season as the Steelers beat Buffalo 19-16 in overtime. The Steelers are 4-0 this season (and 20-3 overall) in games where Polamalu has an interception.

0 – The Houston Texans shut out the Tennessee Titans 20-0, having conceded 24 or more points in each of the previous ten games this season. Only the 1951 Green Bay Packers had a longer streak (12 games) of allowing 24-plus points to start a season.

8 – Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson now has 65 receptions this season, making him the first receiver in NFL history with at least 60 receptions in each of his first eight seasons.

8 – The Minnesota Vikings won 17-13 in Washington, snapping an eight-game road losing streak in the debut of interim coach Leslie Frazier.

18Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler passed for four touchdowns in a 31-26 win over Philadelphia and recorded a career-best 146.2 passer rating. He is now 18-0 in his career when he has a 100-plus passer rating.

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, The Times, @StatManJon, and NFL.com.)

Bears 31, Eagles 26

Arsenal heroics defeat Villans, avoid sense of déjà vu

Aston Villa 2 Arsenal 4

Clark 52, 70; Arshavin 39, Nasri 45, Chamakh 56, Wilshere 90

For the second Saturday in succession, Arsenal kicked off at lunchtime with the chance of going top of the Premier League, took a 2-0 half-time lead and conceded an early second half goal. But unlike last week’s North London derby, which ended in a humiliating defeat, the Gunners sidestepped a feeling of déjà vu and recovered to hold off a spirited fight-back from a youthful Aston Villa side bolstered by the experience of 37-year old former Arsenal legend Robert Pires. Victory put them top of the league for a couple of hours, until Manchester United‘s thumping 7-1 win over Blackburn.

Andrey Arshavin celebrates the opening goal at Villa Park (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With the exception of Jack Wilshere and Tomáš Rosický – replacing Denilson and the injured Cesc Fàbregas in the midfield engine room – Arsène Wenger selected the same starting XI who had folded so dramatically last weekend as the visitors took the field with the following line-up:

Fabiański

Sagna – Squillaci – Koscielny – Clichy

Rosický – Song – Wilshere

Nasri – Chamakh – Arshavin

As against Tottenham, Arsenal flew out of the traps. Although it took them 39 minutes to find the net, the visitors exerted near complete dominance in the first half, slicing through Villa’s midfield time and time again. The opening 20 minutes were played almost entirely in the home team’s half, as Arsenal created and then squandered several presentable chances with the kind of hesitant finishing characteristic of a team whose confidence has been severely dented over the past week.

Arshavin scored his first league goal since netting the winner at Blackburn in August (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Marouane Chamakh – inside the first 20 seconds – Rosický, Andrey Arshavin and Samir Nasri were all denied in that opening spell by a combination of Brad Friedel and scuffed or inaccurate shots. But when the breakthrough finally came, it owed much to a mix-up between Villa defenders Luke Young and James Collins. The pair got in each other’s way as they both came for a ball on the halfway line. There was still a lot to do as Arshavin picked up the ball near the touchline, but he advanced purposefully infield before driving his shot across Friedel, the keeper’s hand unable to keep the ball out.

The floodgates threatened to open. Villa gave the ball away straight from the kickoff and Arshavin’s defence-splitting pass allowed Nasri to round Friedel on his weaker left foot, only to find the side netting from a less difficult angle than he scored from last week.

Arsenal would not be denied, though. In the final minute of the half, Bacary Sagna‘s excellent first-time cross was powered goalwards by Chamakh’s head, only for Friedel to save brilliantly at full length. Arshavin floated the corner across to Nasri on the edge of area, and his sweetly struck volley took a deflection on its way in.

2-0 at half-time was, if anything, flattering to Villa. They had offered little threat during the first half, with Lukasz Fabiański called into action so rarely it was surprising he hadn’t developed frostbite. Ashley Young had their only real chance, scooping over from an angle at the back post, while a cross appeared to catch Wilshere’s raised arm shortly before the opening goal.

It was no surprise when Gerard Houllier made a change for the second half, opting for the youthful energy of Nathan Delfouneso over the veteran craft of Pires. With little to lose, Villa pressed forward and it took them just six minutes to find a reward, although it was not without some controversy.

There was nothing wrong with Ciaran Clark‘s deft chest down and volley from 20 yards out – his first senior goal – which flew like a rocket into the top corner. But John Carew, who had gone down hurt earlier in the move, was standing in an offside position directly between Clark and Fabiański. Replays clearly showed the Polish keeper having to lean to his left to get a sight of the ball as Clark dispatched it to his right. Even with an unobstructed view he might not have prevented the goal, but that’s not the point. Was Carew interfering with play? Absolutely.

Chamakh took his Premier League tally to seven with a neat toe-poke (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

However, unlike last weekend, Arsenal responded quickly to the setback and restored their two-goal advantage within four minutes. Arshavin freed Rosický to run at the heart of the Villa defence, and the Czech international’s slide-rule pass was met by Chamakh, who coolly toe-poked the ball underneath Friedel’s body.

With the cushion restored, Arsenal took the sting out of the game for the next 15 minutes, enjoying long spells of possession and creating more and better opportunities than the hosts. However, the soft centre at the heart of their defence is never far from the surface, and with Ashley Young moving inside as Carew was hauled off, both his and Delfouneso’s pace ensured the visitors never truly looked comfortable.

With 20 minutes left, Arsenal’s defence was breached by the simplest of set-pieces. Young swept a corner to the edge of the box for Richard Dunne to nod back in and Clark, unchallenged, flicked a backwards header off the under-side of the bar to set up a grandstand finish which never quite materialised.

Wilshere scored his first Premier League goal with a late header (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

While never looking entirely secure, Arsenal were able to keep Villa at arm’s length, with the home side producing little other than a couple of tame efforts from Dunne. But it was not until the third of four minutes of injury time that the visitors finally made the three points secure. Arsenal broke forward, and Chamakh calmly chipped the ball across the face of goal for the unmarked Wilshere to score with a stooping header. It was the fourth time in the last six league meetings between these teams that there has been a goal in the 90th minute or later.

Wenger will have been pleased with his team’s fourth consecutive Premier League away win. Arsenal have the best away record in the division, with 17 of their 29 points coming away from the Emirates Stadium. However, their home form and the brittleness which has seen them concede seven times in the second half of their three games over the past week remains a concern.

However, he was justifiably pleased that a disappointing week had finished on a positive note:

We played well. Villa had a good response in the second half but we managed to find the resources to win the game. At 2-0 at half time you feel among the players that what happened last week had an impact in their head. When it came back to 2-1, it was an interesting test for my team. We could crumble or we could score again – and we scored again. Villa are a good side with good strikers and a solid defence but overall I think we dominated the game.

Arshavin’s often indifferent performances have been a major source of fan frustration this season, but Wenger was delighted with the Russian’s productivity here:

He has been very sharp today, I feel. I felt he was always dangerous. A good test is when you like a player to have the ball and you always like him to have the ball because you feet he could make the difference.

The platform for Arsenal’s victory was the midfield trio of Rosický, Wilshere and Alex Song, with the Czech player’s intelligent distribution and off-the-ball running setting the tempo for the rest of the team. Between them, they blunted Villa’s central players, cutting off the source of supply both to Carew and wingers Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. Indeed, the England pair were eclipsed on the flanks by the perception and creativity of Arshavin and Nasri who, aside from their goals, provided a constant threat both out wide and cutting inside. With Chamakh’s movement fully occupying Dunne and Collins, the home side spent the majority of the match on the back foot. For Arsenal, attack is the best form of defence indeed.

And when Villa did get the ball forward, Sébastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny generally dealt with Carew’s aerial power well, while Sagna and Gaël Clichy struck the right balance between defence and attack, giving Downing and Young few chances to run free at pace. Clark’s goal – the Carew offside notwithstanding – was just one of those things, and my only real criticism of the defensive performance was the ease with which first Dunne and then Clark were able to get their heads to the ball for the second goal. But overall, this was a much more solid showing than we saw in the Spurs and Braga games.

Arsenal now face a Carling Cup quarter-final tie at home to Wigan on Tuesday evening before the visit of Fulham – those most homesick of travellers – offers the best possible opportunity to put their home troubles to rest next Saturday. At the end of a week which has seen the label ‘crisis club’ prematurely attached to them, Arsenal fans should be pleased with both the result and the performance here today.

Fantasy football round 15: Scraping the bottom of the barrel

It seems counter-intuitive, but a vital ingredient of many successful Fantasy Premier League teams is the presence of one or more players from teams in the lower reaches of the table. It is by no means essential, but you should not discount out of hand the merits of players from teams in, say, the bottom five – which at the time of writing means West Ham, Wolves, Wigan, Fulham and West Bromwich Albion.

Don’t believe me? Well, if you look at the 15-man squads of the top ten teams in the entire game, you will find that seven of them contain at least one player from a bottom-five club – and three have two each. Selecting relegation fodder has done these teams no harm at all.

Indeed, the benefits of getting such a selection right are obvious and not inconsiderable. Good players at poor clubs are frequently under-valued, freeing up cash to spend elsewhere. And, as less obvious choices, they will set your team apart from the crowd, with the potential upside of grabbing a bargain before less observant fantasy managers jump on the bandwagon.

Charles N'Zogbia

Of course, the trick is to choose your players judiciously. As a rule, this generally means looking for a poor team’s top goalscorer or most creative player rather than a defender – teams at the bottom of the table tend to be synonymous with leaking goals.

Some names are obvious and well-known to many football fans. Wigan’s Charles N’Zogbia, for instance, features in 10% of fantasy teams. And no wonder, as he is the tenth-highest scoring midfielder overall, and no other player in the top ten in this position is cheaper than him. Why wouldn’t you pick him, even if his side are currently in the relegation zone?

Frederic Piquionne

Others are less well-known. West Ham’s Frederic Piquionne – who played under manager Avram Grant at Portsmouth last season – has been selected by just 2.4% of managers, but only eight strikers have scored more points, and only one of the top ten forwards (Blackpool‘s Luke Varney) is cheaper.

Below you will find a quick overview of potential bargains to be found among the current bottom five clubs. Here I have listed the highest points scorer at each position, and then indicated players from each team who register among the top 10 goalkeepers, top 25 defenders/midfielders or top 15 forwards. (These cut-off points aren’t random – they are proportional to the 2-5-5-3 make-up of your 15-man squad.)

Analysis © Tim Liew, from Fantasy Premier League data. Any errors are my own

(Note that the Wigan pair of Antolin Alcaraz and Hugo Rodallega are currently serving one and three-game suspensions respectively, having been sent off last weekend.)

Obviously, there is no obligation to pick such lowly ranked players – there are plenty of cheap high-scorers out there from higher-ranked teams such as Newcastle and Blackpool – but it is worth bearing in mind that those representing teams near the bottom of the table are only ever likely to appreciate in value, so if you are motivated by increasing the value of your team as well as accumulating points, this may factor into your team selection.

There is certainly a lot of rubbish at the bottom of the Premier League barrel – I wouldn’t be in a rush to put in any defenders from Wolves, for instance, as the only team yet to record a clean sheet – but in among all the detritus are some real gems. You just need to be willing to look.

Previous posts in the Fantasy Football series:

Ten tips to boost your score

Don’t panic!

Improving your squad

The importance of formations

A question of rotation

Following and bucking trends

The top 20 forwards

In-form midfielders

Defenders’ goals are vanity, clean sheets are sanity

Goalkeepers make saves – and savings?

Following the form book

Looking ahead

Arsenal their own worst enemies yet again

Braga 2 Arsenal 0

Matheus 83, 90

An under-strength Arsenal huffed and puffed against a mediocre SC Braga side before two sucker punches from the Brazilian forward Matheus late on consigned them to defeat. They now need to win their final fixture to ensure qualification from Champions League group H.

Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin did not make the trip to Portugal, as Arsène Wenger made seven changes from the team which capitulated so dramatically in the second half of the North London derby. Only Lukasz Fabiański, Sébastien Squillaci, Cesc Fàbregas and Denilson were retained from Saturday’s starting line-up:

Fabiański

Eboué – Squillaci – Djourou – Gibbs

Fàbregas – Wilshere – Denilson

Walcott – Bendtner – Rosický

Although the visitors started brightly, with both Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott finding space early on behind Braga’s back line, it prefaced a dull opening period. The home team, keen to avoid a repeat of the 6-0 rout at the Emirates, pressed high up the pitch making it difficult for Arsenal to establish their usual high-tempo passing game. Time and again Arsenal passed the ball neatly through midfield, only to lack a telling final ball.

Not until a 19th-minute effort from Fàbregas, a half-chance blazed harmlessly over the bar, did they register their first shot. The Arsenal captain then managed his side’s first attempt on target, a gentle sand iron of a free kick which Braga goalkeeper Luiz Felipe easily pushed away.

Gradually, though, the English side started to convert their possession into tangible threat, with Walcott the focal point. First he raced on to Fàbregas’s defence-splitting pass, but Felipe was off his line quickly to smother the ball. Then a cute chip from Nicklas Bendtner gave him another opening, but the England international dragged his effort wide from an angle. Meanwhile Braga, despite repeatedly winning free kicks for relatively soft fouls, were largely reduced to speculative efforts from distance.

Fàbregas left the game with a hamstring injury (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal continued to make most of the running as the second half started, but without fashioning significant chances in open play. As they toiled, Braga inched their way back into the game, with Luis Aguiar shooting wide from the edge of the box when he had time and space to do better.

Desperate to shake up his team’s stuttering performance, Wenger made three rapid changes. The first – Samir Nasri for Fàbregas – was enforced – with the captain forced to depart with a hamstring injury; the others straight one-for-one swaps, with the ineffective Bendtner giving way to Marouane Chamakh and Carlos Vela replacing Walcott.

Vela should have been awarded a penalty within seconds of coming on (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Within 90 seconds of coming on, Vela was felled in the area by the sliding Alberto Rodríguez. It was a stonewall penalty; instead the Mexican forward was booked for diving.

If that was bad, Arsenal’s evening was about to get much worse. First Emmanuel Eboué was stretchered off injured, reducing them to ten men. And then a simple ball over the top left Matheus free to run through on goal – Denilson, filling in in the back line, offered precious little resistance – and slot the ball over the advancing Fabiański to give Braga a shock 83rd-minute lead. The goal meant Arsenal have now failed to keep a clean sheet in their last 15 Champions League away games, a sorry statistic for the club which also holds the competition record for the most consecutive clean sheets.

There was worse still to come, though. As Arsenal threw caution to the wind deep into injury time, Matheus again broke free, running with the ball and escaping the attention of three defenders before unleashing an unstoppable left-foot rocket into the top corner.

2-0 was a travesty of a scoreline on the balance of play, particularly given the referee’s failure to award a clear penalty. And yet Arsenal, for all their possession, managed just a single shot on target in 90 minutes. Injustice or not, Arsenal simply did not do enough to force the result they needed, and have only themselves to blame.

Some will no doubt question Wenger’s decision to rest key players such as Chamakh, Nasri and Arshavin, but Arsenal have endured a demanding schedule over the past two months, and the eleven which was sent out tonight should have been good enough and experienced enough to deal with opponents who were more effective than they were incisive.

Speaking to Sky Sports after the game, a visibly disappointed Wenger said:

It’s a disappointing result because we played against a team that played in its own half, and as long as you don’t score a goal … I think as well we are going through a period where we have bad luck because we were punished when Eboué has been kicked off the park without any punishment and [the referee] turned down a penalty.

He questioned the value of the two additional assistant referees when what appeared to be a clear penalty was missed:

I would like to see what the fifth official is doing, and we have proof again tonight that it’s absolutely useless, this system.

But he did admit that basic defensive errors had, once again, been Arsenal’s downfall:

It was a difficult game against a team who used all the tricks to slow the game down, and it was [up to us] not to make a mistake. Unfortunately when we were down 10 against 11, we were open at the back and we made a mistake where they took advantage of it. It was a lack, certainly, of communication because we opened the centre and that’s where we were punished.

Finally, when asked whether making so many changes for this game sent a message to his players about the relative priority of this match, he simply replied:

We play so many games that we have to rotate.

What should have been a stroll after wins in their opening three group games is now a life-or-death struggle with no margin for error. A win at home to Partizan Belgrade in a fortnight’s time will still guarantee qualification. In all honesty, if Arsenal cannot achieve that in what is effectively a dead rubber for the Serbian champions, who have no points and will finish bottom of group H no matter what, then they can have no complaints about their resultant exit through the trap-door to the Europa League.

In the meantime, there is little time for Wenger’s men to wallow and lick their wounds. Both Fàbregas and Eboué are likely to be out for at least three weeks, and they face a difficult trip to the Midlands to face Aston Villa on Saturday lunchtime. If Arsenal were to lose what would be their third game in a row, then what started as a mere slide against Spurs could turn into an avalanche very quickly.

But it is not their opponents that present the greatest threat to Arsenal. Right now, their biggest enemy appears to be themselves.

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