It was a big weekend for the football and the rugby, this weekend. In the rugger it was the last round of group games in the Heineken Cup – who would qualify for the quarter finals? In the footie, Sky had lined up two big Manchester v North London games, four of the top five.
Things started with Quins away to Connacht in the west of Ireland. Galway, a wonderful part of the world. But Quins needed to win, if only to qualify for the quarter finals as a best placed runner up. Toulouse were in pole position in the group. Away to Gloucester in the last game. We assumed Quins and Toulouse would win and it would then be down to how the other second placed teams would do. Wrong! Toulouse lost and there were still five minutes of the Quins game to go, in which they were losing 8-9. To Connacht, the weakest team in the group. I didn’t see see the game. I had to work late, had it recorded to enjoy the victory. Wrong! Not sure what went wrong. Wet and windy wouldn’t have helped the running game, but the Quins should still have been strong enough. Didn’t happen, and that was that. Just one of those days. I didn’t bother watching it.
So we came second and drop into the Amlin Cup. That at least keeps some interest going. And we are the holders, so we can say we now need to defend the cup. That’s something. Quarter final away to Toulon in the south of France. April. Very tempting….
I watched one game live over the weekend. Northampton vs Munster. What a game! The intensity was something else. The collisions frightening. The running play exhilarating. The kicking by both fly halves – Ronan O’Gara (Munster) and Ryan Lamb (Northants) outstanding. For the first two thirds of the game it was evenly matched. Northampton’s forwards were dominant at the scrum and won two penalty tries. But everywhere else Munster were calling the shots. It worked and in the end they pulled away, scored some great tries and won 51-36. Just one of the best games.
The Irish – Leinster, Munster, Ulster – look supreme at the moment. The best players in Ireland are concentrated in a few teams and are leavened by a few southern hemisphere stars. The club game in England doesn’t allow the same concentration, and in the Heineken, we are beginning to suffer. Saracens are the only team through to the quarters, though Quins should have made it two. That wasn’t structural, it was just a cock-up.
Today was a “Super Sunday” in the football. First up, Man City vs Tottenham, then Arsenal vs Man Utd.
I got a few chores out of the way and settled down for the second half of the City game. 0-0, so I hadn’t missed too much. Perfect timing, because it all went crazy in the second half. City went 2-0 up, then Spurs got it back to 2-2. Silva was brilliant, as ever, for City, slicing the ball through the Spurs defence to set Nasri up for the first City goal. One to stick in the Tottenham craw, with Nasri being ex-Arsenal. But even better than Silva was Gareth Bale, for Tottenham. Not only did he score a with a superb, instinctive strike from just outside the box, but he terrorised Micah Richards down the left flank, and put over a series of crosses which were just asking to be tapped in. Right at the end Defoe, just failed to get on the end of one of them. A sitter, really. Can’t feel too sorry for Defoe – to me the traitor Defoe, the man who once put in a transfer request the day West Ham got relegated. Bitter, bitter!
And as happens in football, Tottenham having failed to get the winner, City went up the other end and got a penalty. Balotelli, brought down by Ledley King. Fair enough, definitely a pen. But Balotelli shouldn’t have been on the pitch, having stamped on Scott Parker’s head, after a collision. He was lucky it wasn’t some fancy dan who would have done a roll across the pitch, holding his head in agony. Scotty P would never do that – hard man, team player, the man who single-handedly almost kept West Ham up last season. And won the journalists’ player of the year award. Lucky Balotelli. He took the penalty, casual, precise, scored. 3-2 City. Injustice.
And then Arsenal, nervous, fraught Arsenal. Fifth and looking like they might miss the Champions League next year. Doing well in the CL this year, though. Maybe best to concentrate on the here and now? Not possible in today’s media/ social networking world. Everything is hyped, and so Arsenal are in crisis mode. Can they continue with the existing model, bringing through youth, only to find now that other clubs will snap up the very best players – Fabregas, Nasri, and whoever is next?
Today they had their moments, but Utd exposed their frailties and sneaked it 2-1. As ever, it was the defence, and the midfield guard in front of them, that was most defective. But nothing really worked well. The short passing was there, but it was too slow, never really putting Utd under pressure. Oh Cesc, where are you?!
The best player on the Arsenal team was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, 18 years old, built like a brick wall, and skilful and fast with it. He was involved in all of Arsenal’s best moves. Wenger took him off with 15 minutes to go and put on Arshevin. The boos from the crowd were extraordinary. The TV pictures showed Robin van Persie shouting “No!”. Has there ever been such an insurrection in Wenger’s time? Whatever happened to Arsene knows? And Utd’s second goal came from Valencia striding past Arshavin, just to make matters worse.
So I think there is now an existential crisis at Arsenal. (In football terms – it’s not life and death). The whole footballing and business model is under stress. The fans are turning against Wenger. It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy – Othello, King Lear, Hamlet. You know it’s going to go belly up. The protagonist is resisting fate, but you know it is futile. There is dark comedy in the meantime – Arsenal’s defence, anyone? – and you just wait for the denouement.
It is going to happen. Arsene will leave. One of the greatest managers. Creator of the best football ever seen in this country. Entirely a force for good. Hounded out by the impatient and the ignorant – and the nostalgic. I’d have him as England manager any day. Working with top class players. Playing the game as it should be played. We could win something.
And as a postscript, we are Top League! West Ham scratched another victory, 2-1 against struggling Nottingham Forest, and went top of the Championship as Southampton aren’t playing until Monday. They are playing Leicester – a tough game. If they draw or lose, we stay top. Looking at all the tweets on Twitter, the hard core fans aren’t happy with the style. But we are top. Same as Quins. Stay there boys!