Arsenal shows its campaign still has life yet; Giggs delivers again
Five things we learned in Barclays Premier League and Carling Cup action Sunday:
Arsenal's strategy this season has rested on the three Ps: press, pass and van Persie. But stripped of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Jack Wilshere, Arsène Wenger's has often had to stuff his five-man midfield with slower, older, lighter players, unable to consistently deliver the energy the high-tempo, high pressure system needs.
On Sunday, Arsenal's midfield contained two thirtysomethings, Tomas Rosicky and Yossi Benayoun, and a third, Mikel Arteta, who turns 30 next month. They may not be the personnel to execute the Wenger approach week after week, but on a big occasion and facing disaster they roused into a frenzy of effort.
Arsenal started to pen Tottenham back. Bacary Sagna, making an unexpected appearance in the penalty area, and Robin van Persie, of course, brought the score level at halftime. Harry Redknapp, the Spurs manager panicked. He took off a striker, Louis Saha, and brought on Sandro, a defensive midfielder. The thinking was understandable: Stop Arsenal's midfield. The switch eliminated Spurs as an attacking force, but didn't stem the red tide. Rosicky, showing long concealed attacking energy, burst into the area and was rewarded with a rare goal. Theo Walcott was booed as Arsenal struggled early on. But he is a confidence player and as the tide turned he suddenly looked as if he believed, adding the last two as Arsenal won, 5-2.
It was, in the end, an impressive victory. But Arsenal has done this before. In another grudge London derby at Stamford Bridge at the end of October, Arsenal trailed just before half time and seemed about to be overrun. Instead it rallied to win, 5-3. Arsenal won their next two in the league, but the momentum had evaporated by the end of November.
Arsenal showed on Sunday it can still play very well if it can take control of midfield and shield its defense. The question is whether the Gunners have the stamina to do that consistently.
United rode its luck. Its defense, once again, looked creaky at times, but it managed to stay two points behind City and stretched its lead over third-place Tottenham to eight points.
The Premier League race may have a slightly unfamiliar look with City in first and Chelsea and Arsenal out of contention, but Alex Ferguson and United keep chugging on. And while other, younger, managers, may have trouble coping with the weight of the past and the egos of fading stars, Ferguson is quite happy to trust his veterans because they are, after all, HIS veterans.
One, Paul Scholes, gave United the lead. After Grant Holt leveled for the home team with seven minutes to play, another oldie, Ryan Giggs won the game in the dying seconds. Giggs was playing his 900th game for United. All have come under Ferguson. In April 1993, when Norwich was United's main challenger in the title race, Giggs scored the first goal at Norwich to set up a 3-1 United win and put Ferguson on course for his first English league title. Nineteen years later, Giggs continues to deliver when his manager picks him and doesn't make waves when he's omitted.
"Amazing career and an amazing man," Ferguson told the BBC.
"There have been certain issues," Frank Lampard, one those veterans, said. "Certain players, we don't like not to play."
But, he added, "it's never a case of players throwing their toys out of the pram to the detriment of the club." So, the veterans have been careful to throw only positive and constructive tantrums.
On Saturday, Lampard got his wish.
After a pair of poor cup performances compounded the pressure of Chelsea's disastrous league form, Andre Villas Boas started the midfielder against Bolton. The manager then had to listen to the implicit reproach of the cheer that accompanied every touch by the returning hero. Lampard repaid the faithful with a typically well-taken goal. The fact that it was the third in a 3-0 victory over dire opponents, hardly mattered. The goal represented several landmarks for Lampard. It was his 150th league goal and it meant he has scored at 10 goals in nine straight league seasons, a Premier League record. Like Giggs' 900, these records are rewards for long service. They only emphasize that if Villas Boas thinks that, at 33, Lampard is part of the past, not the future, he's probably right.
The problem is that, for Chelsea's midfield, the future doesn't look very bright. Another club veteran, Michael Essien, was more impressive in the holding role than the two youngsters, John Obi Mikel and Oriol Romeu, who have played there this season. Despite his age, Lampard was more effective against hapless Bolton than either Raul Mereiles or Florent Malouda in the caldron of Naples on Tuesday.
For the present, the young coach may well accept that he should imitate Ferguson and lean on an old player with little future. Otherwise, the Chelsea manager might not have one either.
Another man who has returned from a warm-weather winter break was ushered straight back into the team. When Yaya Touré left for what turned out to be a six-week stint playing for Ivory Coast in the African Nations Cup, City had just beaten Liverpool 3-0 and stood three points clear at the top of the standings. Even without Touré, City's squad is far stronger than almost any other in the Premier League. When he returned, that lead was two points. In the standings at least, he had not been missed. Yet in Touré's absence, City lost in the two English cups. It had also lost much of its swagger.
Against Blackburn's talent-poor midfield, Touré took charge from the first minute. He is as strong as mastiff, as fast as greyhound as persistent as a terrier. He is a dominant defensive player and a dangerous attacking player, surging from defense into attack and then back again as opponents lag in his wake. He is not just a runner but also an excellent passer. On Saturday, almost every dangerous City attack started with Touré. City needs him more than they need Tevez. He gives their midfield teeth.
Indeed, when the League Cup final between Liverpool and Cardiff ended 2-2 after extra time at Wembley on Sunday, the shootout felt somehow like an apt final act.
Cardiff, a Welsh club from the second tier of English soccer, had shown grit, courage and organization against Liverpool. The Bluebirds started the second period of extra time seemingly played for a draw and a ticket in the lottery. But after Dirk Kuyt carved through the tiring defense to put Liverpool ahead, Cardiff roused itself. It won a series of corners. With two minutes left, Ben Turner finally scuffed one over the line. Two exhausted teams were going to a shootout.
Cardiff has not won a trophy since it lifted the FA Cup in 1927. It did reach the final from the second tier in 2008 and lost 1-0 to Portsmouth. The bulk of its team are career lower-division players who may not get another chances to win a major cup medal. That's pressure. Liverpool on the other hand has won more than 40 major trophies, but none since 2006. It's team is full of stars who joined the club to win medals and have not done so. That's even more pressure.
That pressure showed from the first kick.
Steven Gerrard, who has a habit of being either a hero or a villain in cup finals, took the first penalty. It was saved by Tom Heaton. Kenny Miller, who had missed a glorious chance for Cardiff at the end of regulation time, then missed as well. But after Charlie Adam blazed high and Don Cowie then became the first scorer with the fourth penalty, Cardiff had one hand on the cup. In a crisis, the Liverpool nerves settled. Kuyt, Stewart Downing and Glen Johnson all scored. When Steven Gerrard's cousin Anthony, a childhood Liverpool fan, missed with Cardiff's fifth penalty, the organizers could tie red ribbons on the cup.
Steven Gerrard consoled beaten Cardiff (and his crestfallen cousin).
"It's always cruel when it goes to penalties,'' he told the BBC. "They can be proud of their performance."
Malky Mackay, the Cardiff manager, could say that his team had "lost with pride."
The shootout provided a thrilling finale to a taut, tight match and allowed both teams to leave Wembley with their dignity. It works.