It should be all about the game … but it’s not
Remember how you felt that day? Remember how your blood boiled as you watched Eduardo on the ground, writhing in pain. Remember how you wondered if he would ever play football again. It was a terrible feeling and terrible moment in football. But a funny thing happened almost immediately after the match. Everyone came to Martin Taylor’s defense. Journalists and players and managers were lining up to tell anyone who would listen what a great and honest person Taylor was and how he should be instantly forgiven for a momentary lapse. It was astonishing really. There was Eduardo, fighting for his career and even his life, while the media worked overtime to defend the player who placed him in jeopardy.
The penalty for a straight red card is a three match ban. Taylor served his ban and was welcomed back to the pitch with open arms. Can you imagine the furore that would have erupted if the FA had decided to retroactively issue a 6-month ban due to the severity of the injury. The rules clearly provide for a three match ban, so the FA would be abusing their authority to deliver any further punishment. And how could you possibly punish such an honest, good, kind young man like Martin Taylor? You couldn’t. It just wouldn’t be right. Just like it wouldn’t be right to punish Steven Gerrard for diving, or Wayne Rooney for diving.
Face facts, European football is rife with racism and xenophobia. And nowhere is xenophobia more evident than in British football specifically. Just think back to last season and Phil Brown’s slanderous accusations following our FA cup triumph over Hull City. Despite any evidence to support Brown’s claims that Cesc spat, the British media were quick to brand him as despicable and even went so far as to say that spitting is worse than being punched in the face. I would gladly deliver a punch to the face of any moron who believes such a thing. Xenophobia reared its ugly head on that occasion, and the journalists who condemned Cesc for his supposed spitting, never felt any obligation to retract their comments after he was vindicated. It’s just easier to defame a foreigner without a second thought about the truth or the ramifications. And that is precisely what is happening to Eduardo.
Eduardo dived. His dive resulted in a penalty kick being awared. The resulting goal was important to the tie, but not dispositive. There are reasons why Eduardo did what he did, but none of us and no journalist will ever know them. Only Eduardo knows if he was being deceptive, protecting his body, expected contact, or was actually touched in some way. What we do know is that the penalty for “simulation” is an immediate yellow card. Now, it seems that the penalty for diving is quite different when the Scottish FA and british media decide to make Eduardo’s actions an issue of international importance. You can get a yellow card for diving. If you’re the proper nationality, you can even escape scott-free for diving. But if you’re Eduardo, somehow this yellow card offense rises to a two match ban. It’s senseless and beyond illogical but that’s the state of European football today.
Just imagine if you were caught speeding in a car. The penalty for speeding in this example is a monetary fine. The same fine has been issues for years and rarely receives attention. But you happen to be foreign, and your speeding attracts the attention of the media who sensationalise your violation. Now the courts decide that you will receive three years in prison for showing contempt for the law. It would be a violation of your civil rights and an outrageous display of institutional bigotry. And it would be no different than what is happening to Eduardo. Whether his dive mattered to the tie or not, whether it was blatant or not, whether it was intended to deceive the referees or not is irrelevant. Dives go unpunished in almost every match, every weekend. The proper punishment for a perceived dive is a yellow card. Any additional punishment, ex post facto, is tainted by the presumption of bias and ulterior motives. Arsene Wenger called it a “witch-hunt,” but what Eduardo is experiencing is actually xenophobia, just like what Cesc experienced last season, and it’s disgusting.
The saddest part of the Eduardo saga is that it’s managing to overshadow the first really big match of the young Premier League season. While it’s just another three points on offer, this game will certainly serve as a barometer for Arsenal. No matter how spectacular our start to the season appears, a poor performance at Old Trafford will lead some to believe that it has been down to inferior opposition. That’s an absurd conclusion. Just look at Manchester United’s result at Burnley, or Liverpool’s result against Aston Villa at Anfield. At this level, winning any game is an achievement. Winning games by three and four goal margins is exemplary. But you can’t change perception and the perception of Arsenal if we look bad today will be that we’re not as good as our first few games suggested.
Now, just in case you’re having trouble getting excited for this match. In case the Champions League draw, and the transfer rumors, and the Eduardo uproar have you distracted, allow me to get you properly focused. Here’s a nice, shiny new quote from that dirty little prick Patrice Evra regarding his last match against us:
“What Arsenal did that day was shameful. I was asked if it felt like there was a contract out on me and I had to say ‘yes, yes, yes’. It’s not at all the way in which Arsenal normally handle matches because they usually play really good football and are not overly aggressive – it was a big change. That’s why I have to thank the referee. He came up to me and said ‘Look I don’t know what’s going on but since half-time all the Arsenal players seem to be out to injure you. Don’t get involved’. I particularly didn’t like the reaction Fabregas showed in that game when he knew full well we had a Champions League final to play that month. We’ll meet again one day, hopefully off the pitch, and I’ll be able to let my personality tell him what I think.”
What a stupid, self-centered, lying, miserable sack of crap. First of all, I have a hard time seeing a referee approaching a player during a game and saying “wow, they’re really trying to injure you out there. I’ll do my best to protect you, but after the match we should go to my flat and make love.” But apparently that’s how Evra remembers it. He’s obviously a deluded little punk and this quote should be plastered all over the Arsenal dressing room today. It should also serve to get your blood properly boiling.
Now that we’ve got the focus back on the game and what a miserable lot United are, there’s a real question about whether we can triumph today. It’s the big games that demand big players. Last season, we faced United in the Champions League without key personnel and the gulf in class was obvious. This season United look undeniably weaker without that Portuguese guy who used to dive a lot, and that Argentine guy who can’t get in the starting lineup for any Manchester side. They also come into this game without recently wrongfully-crowned European ‘keeper of the year, Edwin van der Saar, or their defensive anchor and captain Rio Ferdinand. So there’s reason for optimism when looking at United’s squad.
But we head to Old Trafford hampered by key injuries. Nasri was a huge figure in our first meeting with United last season and he continues to recover from a broken leg. Rosicky is back in training but can’t possibly be ready to contribute. And Theo is out with a bad back. But as much as we will miss all of those players, it’s the loss of our captain, talisman, and midfield maestro that could spell trouble. Just ask yourself this; Is a Diaby-Song-Denilson midfield, even in their current form, good enough to control the match at Old Trafford? I’d like to say yes, but my gut tells me that it’s not enough quality. The next time we play United we could be fielding a Nasri-Song-Cesc midfield, or even a Rosicky-Nasri-Cesc midfield. Exciting prospects indeed. But today’s game will be a different story.
I suppose it’s possible that Eboue will get another chance to start after an inspired performance against Celtic in midweek. Perhaps he will take Diaby’s place in midfield. But debating whether Diaby or Eboue is the better choice to play in a three-man midfield isn’t really the dream scenario heading into a big game. Without Cesc’s creativity, the forwards will have to do more to create their own chances. So far this season, even with our sterling performances, that hasn’t really happened. The 4-3-3 requires possession and high pressure to be successful and it leaves us somewhat exposed to counter attacks, particularly if we give the ball away cheaply in midfield. With our available lineup, it’s not overly pessimistic to think that United will get their chances to test our defense. We’re going to need goals tomorrow and it’s time for the forwards to show that they have it in them.
Arsene Wenger has been known to rest important players for key games. Maybe it’s a ready made excuse for failure. His ill-conceived benching of Arshavin for last season’s FA Cup semi-final comes to mind as a particularly vivid example. But with our perfect start to the season at stake today, and United just a little bit vulnerable, I think Arsene will really want to get a result. It’s a chance to gain a measure of revenge for the Champions League last season, and would go a long long way to proving our doubters wrong. So I expect to see our strongest possible lineup today although it’s unclear who that lineup should include.
The defense certainly picks itself. Clichy, Vermaelen, Gallas and Sagna have been in top form so far this season and they will be counted on to keep us steady at the back. Neither Berbatov, nor Owen really scare me very much, but Rooney is a real terror and he’ll be the first major challenge for Vermaelen since his arrival. Who knows whether we’ll see Park, or Giggs, or Scholes, or Nani, or Anderson, or Fletcher in the midfield, but we know we won’t see Tevez or Ronaldo and that’s just fine with me.
Robin Van Persie should start atop the formation with Arshavin on his left. The real question is who will be standing to Robin’s right when the game begins. For my money, Bendtner hasn’t been fantastic this season. I don’t blame him for struggling in a position that’s probably not natural for him, but his lacklustre performances might see Eboue sneak into the starting lineup. In that case, either Diaby or Eboue could start at forward with the other staying in midfield. But the right forward position is still more likely Bendtner’s than anyone else’s at the moment so I’m guessing that he’ll start. I would’ve loved to see Theo terrorising Evra with his pace for 90 minutes, but we’ll have to wait at least a while longer for that.
You can look at this game two ways really. You can take the cowards way out and say that it means very little. It’s early in the season, there’s still a ton of points on offer, we’re missing key personnel and we’re coming off a busy start to the season. With all that considered, the result isn’t crucial. That’s the easy way out.
But I don’t subscribe to that theory. This is Manchester United. If we played them in Fiji on a dirt pitch with reserve players, it would be a big game. They are the champions and it’s their title that we want. They have been our biggest rival for silverware over the years and were our European tormentors last season. This is our chance to put down a marker and show the league that we mean business. And more than anything else, it’s a chance for our young team to grow in belief. These players need to believe that they can go to a place like Old Trafford and come away with a victory. Doing that requires commitment, focus and courage. Those are qualities that were in short supply last season and it would be good for everyone associated with the club to see them on display today.
So here’s the question: can we do it? It’s a lot to ask without our best players. Song and Denilson will have to show that they’ve made a leap and not just a step. Vermaelen and Gallas will have to show that their brilliant play has not been enhanced by weak competition. If those things happen, then we can prevail. And I think we will prevail today.
We have already played in big games this season and faced reasonably competant opponents. United have played relatively meaningless encounters with some of the league’s lesser lights. This will be their first tense occassion and they face our new formation without the anchor of their defense and with uncertain goal-keeping. If we can keep Rooney from tormenting us, we should be able to handle the other United attackers. Our counter attack again looks like one of the most dangerous in Europe and with Arshavin opening his account on Wednesday, he could be poised for a glut of goals. Van Persie and Bendtner aren’t going to go through an entire season without scoring and the odds suggest that they are due to find the back of the net. If our midfield can just take that giant step forward, like they have so far this season, then I think three points are there for the taking. More than anything, I think it will be a highly-entertaining, energetic affair with plenty of goal scoring opportunities. Here’s hoping we’re able to find that little extra quality when it counts. For the first time in a few seasons, I think we have the talent to best United, even without some key players.
At some point, this team’s ability to achieve all of it’s goals is going to require that we are able to field our best starting eleven with regularity. If we can’t do that, then the challenges that lie ahead will most-likely prove too daunting for the understudies that have been thrust to centre-stage. But for one day at least, players like Denilson, Song, Diaby and Bendtner, who have been written off by the media and even Arsenal supporters, have a chance to prove everyone wrong. It’s big motivation for these players and I believe that we’ll see them answer the call. For the supporters, a win would be the perfect way to start the interminable international break.
Enjoy the game. I’m really excited to see what we can do and I’m sure that you are as well. Based on what I’ve seen so far this season, I think we have what it takes to win. And why not? After all, we’re only playing the second-best team in Manchester.
COME ON YOU GUNNERS!