Arsene Wenger gets plenty of ridicule for it, but 16 straight seasons with Champions League football is an achievement. We can all point out how the Gunners could and should have been better the past few seasons. But the fact that they've avoided even a single year of catastrophic failure for so long is not something to be glossed over. -- Here's to the sore winners -- Atletico will support Falcao decision -- " target="_blank">Milan dramatically seals Champions spot Indeed, from owner Stan Kroenke's perspective, you'd probably rather have consistent Champions League appearances year after year than a season in which you win the title (or come close) followed by a fifth- or sixth-place finish.
Managers get sacked for different reasons. We're told results are all that matter, but that's a rather short-sighted perspective. Take Jurgen Klopp. He's one of the hottest bosses in the game, one of the few who can write his own ticket. Yet had Felipe Santana been (correctly) flagged offside against Malaga, to those who only pay attention to results he'd be little more than the eccentric Borussia Dortmund coach with the hair transplant who got knocked out of the Champions League by an insolvent club and who finished 20-odd points behind Bayern in the Bundesliga.
Juventus clinched their second straight Serie A title Sunday. You knew it was coming, and the Champions League elimination at the hands of Bayern Munich took off some of the gloss in the eyes of some. But, really, it shouldn't have. Beyond winning things, what you look for year after year is forward progress. You can't always measure it with numbers (though this season, to some degree, you can: Juve will likely finish with more points and more goals scored than they recorded last season). It's more a question of the "eye test.
Arsenal looked rather tame Sunday against a Manchester United side which, understandably, displayed a post-title (and perhaps post-title celebration) sluggishness. Yet even with the visitors taking some time to find their feet and conceding an early (offside) goal, the Gunners failed to capitalize. With neither team sparkling, it was United that arguably carved out the better chances in the 1-1 draw. Yet here's the thing. We can all note United's superiority to Arsenal this season. And we can all identify the Gunners' evident weaknesses this season.
What's done is done. We could be talking about Rafa Benitez's return to Anfield, a dramatic last-minute equalizer, two potential red cards that went unseen (Fernando Torres' elbow and Daniel Sturridge's high boot), Chelsea's hunt for a Champions League spot amid fixture congestion, plus Liverpool's long, slow rebuilding job and how much better they are (or -- depending on your view -- are not) compared to this time last year under Kenny Dalglish. Instead, one thread dominates: Luis Suarez biting Branislav Ivanovic and its inevitable repercussions.
Funny how a season can go. Not that long ago, many were calling for manager Arsene Wenger's head. Heck, many still are. And yet, with a game in hand and a relatively straightforward run-in -- Manchester United aside -- there's a very good chance Arsenal could finish third, just like last season, and with roughly the same points, if not more. Which, on paper, is pretty good when you consider what the Gunners have had to overcome. In no particular order: • Robin Van Persie, their best striker since Thierry Henry, leaves in the summer, as does Alex Song, a fixture in the middle of the park.
Too often we assume that turmoil means you can't produce anything good, and Chelsea's travails this year are well-documented. A manager whom most of the fans -- and some of the players -- don't like. A club captain forever in controversy and whose future at the club in uncertain, plus a legendary longtime midfielder whose contract is winding down with no sign of an extension. A trigger-happy owner who seems to change his mind on a whim. An expensive center forward who, by all accounts, has been one of the biggest duds relative to transfer fee in recent history.
It wasn't too long ago that folks thought Rio Ferdinand's England career was over. Over the past six months he has shown that he can still contribute for his country, especially given the fact that the Three Lions aren't exactly six-deep at centre half. That's why Roy Hodgson called him up to face San Marino and Montenegro. But then, as Hodgson himself explained, Ferdinand pulled out of the squad due to the "detailed pre-planned training and medical programme he must follow." Fine. Makes sense. Ferdinand is 34, needing to take care of his body, and maybe England don't need him against San Marino and Montenegro.
Barring some kind of divine intervention, the title race is over in the Premier League. Indeed, some bookmakers have already started paying out. The gap is 15 points, with nine games to go. But given Manchester United's sizeable edge in terms of goal difference (plus-38 to plus-25), it's basically a 16-point margin. What this means is that, realistically, to defend their title, City would have to win at Old Trafford AND somehow make up 13 points in the other eight games. Draw away to United and you're looking at 16 points in eight matches, which is basically a purely theoretical chance and nothing more.
Sometimes, you get things wrong. Badly wrong. Sir Alex Ferguson was given a pass following last week's Champions League elimination at the hands of Real Madrid and you can see why: until Nani's red card, his plan worked. You can debate the failure to adjust afterward but you can give him the benefit of the doubt. However, Sunday was a different story. United were gifted two goals at home by the soft center of a Chelsea defense devoid of John Terry (coach's decision equals ask Rafa). Two up at home means the sound of the doors being bolted shut at Old Trafford.
Both Manchester United and Real Madrid recorded wins heading into Tuesday night's cosmic clash at Old Trafford, albeit in different circumstances. Sir Alex Ferguson chose an XI that, apart from a couple of likely changes, looked a lot like the one we might see at Old Trafford. Maybe they were thinking ahead in the first 45 minutes; whatever the case, it took United the best part of the first half to get going, not least because Norwich defended very well. Once they did, as so often happens, they were devastating, with Shinji Kagawa netting a hat-trick and Wayne Rooney conjuring up an absolute pearl of a goal late in the game.
Sunday night's Milan derby left two enduring impressions. The rossoneri are still growing but there's a long way to go, especially in certain areas of the pitch. And if you're an Inter fan, you shudder to think where the team would be this year without the signing of Samir Handanovic. Milan dominated the first half and could easily have scored three or four, if not for Handanovic's heroics. Inter simply had no answer, particularly down Milan's left, where Mattia De Sciglio and Stephan El Shaarawy ran rampant.