Sportsthoughts (99) – The rise of Liverpool; the fall of Arsenal

And so the Premier League reaches a climax. The big showdown yesterday between Liverpool and Manchester City ended 3-2 to Liverpool. A superb game of football, with Liverpool going 2-0 up, City clawing their way back to 2-2 and looking strong, then Kompany skewing a clearance straight into the path of Coutinho who finished with aplomb to win the game for Liverpool.

Liverpool now two points clear at the top: 77 v Chelsea’s 75 and City on 70 with two games in hand, which, if won, would take them to 76. No other team in it now, with Arsenal having fallen away. Liverpool play Chelsea in two weeks time. The next big decider. Both teams can now win the league if they win all their games.

But how did this happen? How did Liverpool race to the top and Arsenal fall away so badly? On 1 January this year, the top five, all played 19 games, was Arsenal 42 points, City 41, Chelsea 40, Everton 37, Liverpool 36. So Liverpool, having been six points behind Arsenal at the start of the year, are now 13 points ahead. Where did it all go right and wrong?

The symbolic moment is clear. 8 February, Saturday lunchtime, Liverpool 5 Arsenal 1. Liverpool came flying out of the traps and turned Arsenal into nervous wrecks in that first half. 4-0 at half time. Two of the goals were scored by centre back Skrtel, but it was the rampant forward play by Suarez, Sterling and Sturridge and Coutinho, fed by the precision passing of Steven Gerrard, that discombobulated Arsenal. An Arsenal team that arrived at Anfield still top of the League.

Arsenal have never recovered from the shock and Liverpool haven’t looked back.

At the beginning of the season I predicted that the winner of the Premier League would be Chelsea or Man City, with my usual dream that Arsenal might somehow pull it off. (When it comes to winning the League I don’t even think about West Ham doing it.) I could still be right. City and Chelsea are still in there. If Jose Mourinho hatches a successful plan to clip Liverpool’s wings, it could be the Londoners that squeeze ahead on the finishing line. If it’s a draw at Anfield, City could sneak through by winning the rest of their games. And, as ever, at this time of the season, there could be some weird results, with lower teams fighting for their Premier League lives, or, if safe, relaxing and turning on a top performance.

So it’s not clear cut at all, but Liverpool are in pole position – and I never contemplated that. Who did?

There has been a transformation over the season. From a solid team with good prospects, Liverpool have blossomed into the most exciting attacking force seen in the Premier League for a long time. Luis Suarez has been amazing – after missing the first six games of the season through his ban for biting.  Daniel Sturridge has fulfilled his potential – a speedy, slinky, ruthless striker, working perfectly with Suarez. Raheem Sterling has just got better and better, either on the right wing or lurking just behind the strikers. Awesome pace and trickery. Philippe Coutinho has roamed everywhere, probing, clinical. And Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard have patrolled the nether regions of midfield, allowing the four man attack to thrive and putting through any number of killer passes. Gerrard has reinvented himself in the deep-lying “quarterback” role, while Henderson has overcome early doubts  after his transfer from Sunderland to lay claim to be the most dynamic English midfielder in the league.

It has been a steady build over the season. A slow accumulation of good results which allowed manager Brendan Rodgers to take more attacking risks – playing Sterling and Coutinho at the same time, for example, sacrificing defensive solidity. It has paid off. In a few games the defence has been shaky, but the attack has always made up for it. The 6-3 away win at Cardiff is a classic example.

I now hope Liverpool win the title. It will be a victory for football played the right way. And under a young British manager.

I still have a suspicion that Chelsea will work Liverpool out, especially with Henderson suspended after his horrendous red card tackle on Nasri yesterday and with Sturridge doubtful. The Liverpool squad isn’t as deep as Chelsea’s or City’s. We shall see.

As for Arsenal….

Aaaah. It looked to be going so well. After that first home defeat to Villa, the team could do no wrong, emboldened by the purchase of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid.  Aaron Ramsey was looking like the best midfielder in the Premier League for a while. The defence, with Mertesacker and Koscielny at the core, was looking the most watertight for years.

But the doubts started to creep in when the team lost 6-3 to Man City in December, shortly after losing 2-0 to Napoli in the Champions league and relinquishing top spot in the qualifying group. Not what you want against one of your title rivals. At that point all the key players were still around, but the injuries then started to kick in. Ramsey, thigh, late December. Walcott, knee, early January, out for the rest of the season. Wilshere, in and out, then foot, March. Ozil, losing a bit of his early season spark, hamstring, March. Others too, but we are talking about ALL the first choice midfielders and the paciest, best forward, out by March. The rot set in before all the injuries, but recovery from the setbacks was made all the harder by losing most of the best players.

Yes, all teams have injuries, but Arenal’s were devastating. They ripped the heart out of the team, the fluid midfield five who swirled around front man Giroud, pulling opposition defences apart. Slowly, the precision, the pace, disappeared. Giroud lost his goal-scoring touch too and started to sulk. And those doubts crept back into the defence. The old Arsenal of the last few years returned. Brilliant on their day, usually against lesser teams; brittle when challenged by better sides. They did OK in the Champions league, going out after a spirited fight against Bayern Munich (their punishment for coming second in the group stage); but the 5-1 defeat to Liverpool was followed by a 6-0 reverse against Chelsea and a 3-0 to Everton. Suddenly the fight is to stay in the Top Four, after still being top in February.

What I am seeing now is a team that loses heart too easily, that lacks the power, pace and precision that it had early season and which Liverpool so clearly has now. The confidence is drained and Arsene Wenger seems to have run out of ideas about what to do. And the players to do it. But they just got past Wigan in the FA Cup semi final, so there is still something to look forward to this season. Surely they will beat Hull in the final.

And maybe that win in adversity – getting through on penalties, but very good penalties – will provide a spark for the rest of the season and secure that 4th place, ahead of Everton.

Next up, later today (as I finish this) a home game against West Ham. My No1 team (West Ham) against my second. The current Arsenal might struggle against West Ham’s physicality. But I expect their superior skills will shine through in the end.  If West Ham do sneak a win – and it has happened before at Arsenal – it’s Europa League for the Gunners. And yet more questions about Wenger’s future.

Nervous times for Arsenal. Exciting times for Liverpool.

They could be playing each other in the Community Shield this August. Or it could be Chelsea v Hull….

 

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lovelondonscenes – 53

Beautiful spring morning this Wednesday just gone. St James’s Park was at its best.

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The Pelican posse was out in force.

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One lone groover…

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Scenes from Berlin – 16

The Ost-West cafe on Bernauer Strasse. Love that car!

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The People’s Police!

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A great read: “The Sleepwalkers” by Christopher Clark

In this year, 2014, the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War, we are not short of commemorative books and films, with much more to come, I’m sure.

The BBC had a brilliant three part drama, “37 Days” a few weeks ago, telling the story from the British political perspective, from the moment Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by Bosnian Serb nationalists. It’s not on the iPlayer at the moment, but hopefully it will be repeated. I strongly recommend it.

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But what I want to write about here is “The Sleepwalkers”, by Christopher Clark, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. The subtitle is “How Europe went to war in 1914″. Not “why”, but “how”. This is an important distinction. The book details the events, the history, the diplomacy, the motives, the personalities and how all of this interacted and led to war. It doesn’t posit that country X or Y was to blame, or that it was caused by the industrial-military complex, or whatever. Everyone and no-one is to blame.  Or put another way, here are the facts, this was the trail of events, make your own mind up if you think there was a main culprit.

This might be why the German translation of the book has been a big seller in Germany apparently. Because it doesn’t just resort to pinning the blame on an aggressive, militaristic Germany. Even if Germany was aggressive and militaristic – and it wasn’t alone in that. In fact, there is a lot of evidence to show that Germany was actually quite hesitant. Committed to supporting Austria-Hungary, very wary of the Russian threat, untrusting of the French, but not desirous of war and keen to stay friendly with Britain in particular.

The book is beautifully written, witty at times and insightful about the political personalities, the monarchs, the military men. Even though I felt I was reasonably well informed about the history, I learned so much reading this book. It’s quite long – the main text is 560 pages long – but it is engrossing throughout, and there is a genuine sense of foreboding at the end as Europe lurched, almost involuntarily, into war. Locked into position through alliances, and historical ambitions and resentments.

Britain plays a very ambiguous role. There was no appetite for war amongst the public, or in much of the Liberal Cabinet. The Foreign Secretary, Grey, was anti-German (but not vehemently so), and wasn’t exactly pro-France or Russia, even though they were our allies at the time. Could Britain have done more to prevent war? It feels like the answer is yes, but to do so it would have had to be much more engaged in the European interplay. Instead it sat on the sidelines, more interested in its colonial interests, and the Irish problem. Sounds familiar?

In the end, you can’t help but feel that if the Sarajevo assassination hadn’t have happened, something else would, which would have dragged the European powers into war. There were so many competing interests, and the political and military leaders were still playing 19th century diplomatic games. America wasn’t yet influential enough to sort them out. And they hadn’t quite twigged (or maybe accepted) that they all now possessed weapons that made short, decisive wars much more unlikely. And made mass destruction, of people and property, horribly inevitable. Notwithstanding the experience of the American Civil War only forty odd years previously.

A colossal tragedy which was maybe avoidable in the short term, but perhaps not avoidable in the medium term. And tragic not only because of the loss of life, but because of what it led to in Europe afterwards. Now maybe that was avoidable…

Anyway, I’m now starting to theorise. What I really want to say, is that that if you are interested in what led to the First World War and feel you don’t know enough, “The Sleepwalkers” is a brilliant place to start. Not happy reading, but intriguing and educative.

 

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Scenes from Berlin – 15

The Stasi Museum had a really good photo section. I liked the series of photos from the years just before the Wall came down. Showed that the youth were breaking down the Stalinist ways. Punk prevailed!

This is what the authorities didn’t like (translated version). Sorry for missing off a bit of the right hand side. But I think you can get the drift.

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So they would have hated this.

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The photo above was taken in a building in Rosenthaler Strasse, which is now part of the rejuvenated Mitte district, where we stayed. An extraordinary transformation.

Some more of those punks…

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Being a punk in East Berlin in the 80s must have been far more dangerous than posing on the Kings Road in 1977.

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These dudes would have been punks in their early days if they could have, I’m sure.

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Have You Heard? – (50) “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead

Well, after my daffodils in Kew Gardens, I owe it to the Big D to go metal. And, just realised it’s the 50th “Have You Heard?” So what better than the full-on assault of Lemmy and the boys with their greatest track? This YouTube video has had nearly 8 1/2 million views! Awesome.

One of the great metal songs. If song is the right word…

Bring the noise!

 

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lovelondonscenes -52

One for the Big D!

Daffodils and emerging azelias at Kew Gardens today. The next couple of months are when Kew really goes into full bloom. It is the loveliest and most serene park in London.

After this I’ll have to do a blog on Motorhead…

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The vertical/portrait photos are a bit large at the moment as WordPress seems to have removed the ability to shrink them to 70 or 80%, which is what I usually do. It’s medium or large or full size only and the last two are the same. Maybe it wants me to change theme.

That sounds like a lot of effort!

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