The Limey
Friday May 1st, 2009

Two stellar goalkeeping performances shaped the first legs of the Champions League semifinals this week. First, Chelsea visited the Catalan cauldron, the Camp Nou, to face free-scoring Barcelona. The attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o have scored 90 goals between them, six more than the entire Chelsea squad have scored in all competitions. That's not to mention midfielders Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, the creative force behind them, and fullback Dani Alves' penetrating running. The Blues faced a formidable task to get something out of the game, but once again temporary boss Guus Hiddink's tactical mastery proved spot-on.

Former boss José Mourinho would've spat out his Mateus at the site of his old side "parking the bus in front of the goal," as he famously quipped regarding a Tottenham side that thwarted his Chelsea team's attacking force. Barcelona hoarded 70 percent of the possession, as Chelsea defended resolutely for 90 minutes, with Didier Drogba ploughing a lonely furrow in attack. Hiddink played right back José Bosingwa in place of the suspended Ashley Cole at left back, and tasked Portuguese international with man-marking the mercurial Messi. Bosingwa stuck to his task and to Messi, nullifying the threat of the Argentinean.

Chelsea prevented Barcelona from scoring at the Camp Nou for the first time since Manchester United accomplished the feat in the same stage last season. Petr Cech was the man of the match, returning to the form that made him arguably the best keeper in the world after committing some high-profile errors of late. Cech marshalled his defense, and made several notable saves.

Barça was frustrated by the result, and by the performance of the referee who gave yellow cards to Yaya Touré and Carlos Puyol. Midfielder Xavi frankly stated his views: "It's a shame referees do not reward us for playing football or punish those teams that only want to destroy football." Puyol's yellow card will keep him out for the second leg, along with fellow centerback Rafael Márquez, who went off with a knee injury.

This defensive hole, the stress from a crunch La Liga match against Real Madrid this weekend and the fact Chelsea can rest players against Fulham on Saturday -- they're out of the title race -- could hand Chelsea the advantage going into next week's second leg. Surely Hiddink's arms are in knots from the incessant twisting Roman Abramovich must be doing to convince the Dutchman to stay beyond the end of the season.

In the other semifinal, Arsène Wenger displayed similar policy to Hiddink. Wenger played the game defensively, with Samir Nasri and Alexandre Song playing as holding central midfielders and Emmanuel Adebayor isolated in a lone role up front. Adebayor was poor, though in fairness he received very little service from his teammates to do anything with, and Theo Walcott, their main attacking threat, was quiet on the wing.

Conversely, Sir Alex Ferguson's ethos was attack, attack, attack, and the United side did so from the get-go. Arsenal's decision to invite Man. United to attack was a gamble given two of its first-choice defenders (William Gallas and Gaël Clichy) were out injured. United played with a frenetic pace that didn't allow Arsenal the possession it usually uses to frustrate opponents and control games. Ferguson went with a youthful, pacey side, replacing the more pedestrian Dimitar Berbatov and Paul Scholes with the terrier-like Carlos Tévez and Anderson in an effort to counteract the youthful vigour of Wenger's team.

Ferguson's tactics paid off. United dominated the match, creating chance after chance. The Red Devils broke the deadlock in the 18th minute via the unusual route of defender John O'Shea, who found himself alone in the penalty area with no Arsenal defenders in sight. Arsenal is thankful goalkeeper Manuel Almunia kept it in the game. The Spaniard produced a string of wondrous saves that prevented United from scoring three or four more goals.

There's no doubt we will see a different Arsenal at the Emirates next Tuesday. By removing the defensive shackles of his youthful charges, Wenger's side will make more of an attacking spectacle than in the first leg.

Arsenal certainly is still within a shout of getting to the final and winning the Champions League -- through fair means. But this year is the 90th anniversary of a little-known incident when The Gunners achieved success through slightly more dubious means.

Ring the bells, sound the trumpets, print the flyers -- from the battlements of Castle Limey, we are starting a new campaign. Arsenal should be relegated! They should also be stripped of their 13 league titles. Why? Come closer friend and listen.

Those of you with a penchant for Star Trek and spotting trains will be aware that Arsenal has never been relegated since gaining promotion to England's top flight in 1919, and that this is a record. But, are you aware of the murky events that led to that '19 promotion for The Gunners? Avoiding the gun-toting Libyans, meet us at Twin Pine Mall and together we'll head back in time.

Dodging the horse-drawn cabs, Team Limey arrives in 1913 Highbury, where a new $625,000 (big, big money back then) stadium has just been built to house the Arsenal, which had recently, for financial gain, moved north across the river from Woolwich, where it had been originally founded at the works team for the Woolwich Arsenal armaments factory (Hence the nickname, the Gunners).

However, this new ground came at a cost. After amassing $300,000 of debt, the club's finances were under strain. Anticipated revenue streams collapsed when World War I broke out in 1914 and the professional leagues were suspended in 1915, not to recommence until '19.

Arsenal had been relatively successful in that last '14-15 season, finishing in fifth place in the Second Division. But given that only two teams were promoted each season, it's puzzling that, in the first season after the war in '19-20, Arsenal ended up in the First Division.

The Football League, prior to the start of the '19-20 season, decided to expand the First and Second divisions from 20 clubs to 22 each. There appeared to be two logical ways to do this. No. 1: Don't relegate, as usual, the two bottom clubs from the First Division -- Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. Or, No. 2: Have the usual relegation, but in addition to first and second place Derby and Preston, also promote the third and fourth place clubs from Division 2 (Barnsley and Wolverhampton Wanderers). Relegating the bottom club (Tottenham) and promoting the third-place club (Barnsley) was also possible, but seemed less likely.

The precedent for deciding the expansion plan dictated a vote. Arsenal chairman Henry Norris, a knight, Member of Parliament and a rich, well-connected and powerful man, saw his chance to raise the fortunes of his club and to raise much needed revenue to pay the debt: The promoted teams need not be selected purely on finishing place in the League. Behind the scenes, Norris started arranging other chairmen to support his case.

Bar for the start of the Great War, there would have been an investigation into Manchester United and Liverpool conspiring to allow United to win 2-0 to avoid relegation. In exchange for Norris' support that the match-fixing inquiry would not take place, it was Liverpool that argued at the League Management Committee on Arsenal's case for promotion. This was based on accelerating the development of the traditionally northern-dominated Football League in the south of the country through the use of Arsenal's first-rate new stadium.

Norris secured the Manchester United vote through the same method and those of Derby, Preston and Chelsea by offering his powerful support that they too would be elected to the First Division (remember, finishing place didn't guarantee promotion in a moment of expansion). It also seems very likely that backhanders were presented to other clubs, but time has swallowed the full details.

The plan worked. Tottenham was relegated and Derby, Preston and, amazingly, fifth-place Arsenal were promoted. Simon Inglis, in his excellent centenary celebration book League Football and the Men Who Made It, states: "Never has the League been so manipulated as it was in 1919." Later, in 1927, a Football Association committee banned Norris for life from football after finding him guilty of other financial irregularities.

It was the last time a club was elected rather than promoted to England's top flight. And spare a thought for third-place Barnsley. It wasn't until 1997 that it tasted top-flight football again.

Last time around we were musing on why English clubs have been so dominant in the Champions League of late. Alexander Glass puts it down to the good old English climate: "The farther in the competition you go, up to the quarterfinals anyway, the more times you get to go to Italy, Spain, Turkey, Greece, and away from the rain and cold. That's all the motivation you need."

Arnie Glassi of Las Vegas, along with many others, said calling the teams English isn't entirely appropriate: "For all the English teams, though, I only saw a handful of English names." He went on to link this with our underperforming Three Lions side: "The recent top European team World Cup performers (Germany, Italy and France) have fewer foreigners playing in their leagues."

Kristian Dahl claims Champions League experience is what's behind the EPL clubs' success, with a much smaller range of teams qualifying from the EPL (seven in total) compared to any other major European league. "To succeed in the Champions League you need an experienced team, and a good enough coach to deal with the very different style of the other teams," Dahl writes. "In England, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United are all filled with players with extensive Champions League experience." And of course, years of consistent appearances in the Champions League mean consistent receipt of the huge revenue streams the Champions League brings.

Let us know who you think will be off to Rome come the end of May at the usual address: thelimey@hotmail.co.uk.

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