Can Arsenal Knock Barcelona Out Of The Champions League?

The first knockout round of the Champions League begins this week and without much argument, the biggest tie of the round is Arsenal vs Barcelona. The two sides met last season at the quarter final stage of the competition, with Barcelona eventually winning comfortably 6-3 on aggregate.

Once again, the first leg is at the Emirates Stadium and Arsenal fans will be hoping that their side start off better than they did last year. Barcelona played some fantastic football in the first fifteen minutes of the game and very few would argue that those wearing Arsenal shirts were fortunate not to concede a few goals early on.

Barcelona are currently the favourites to win the Champions League this year and they have been on excellent form all season. The majority of people have written off Arsenal’s chances of beating Barcelona over two legs, but do Arsenal have a realistic chance of pulling off an upset?

Usually at this point of the season, Arsenal have several key players out injured which upsets the balance of the side and causes huge problems when the team faces a great side like Barcelona. This time around, however, the Gunners only have Thomas Vermaelen and Lukasz Fabianski out as long-term injuries. Samir Nasri is doubtful, but he should certainly be back in time for the second leg.

For the majority of the season, Arsenal have only been playing with one man up front. They started the season by using Marouane Chamakh in this role because Robin van Persie was out injured, but now that the Dutch striker is back and in form, he will certainly start the game.

It would be anticipated that Arsenal will line up with five in midfield, with Alex Song and Jack Wilshere both playing in a deeper role, but supporting Cesc Fabregas in the middle of the park when they can. Theo Walcott has been playing well in recent weeks and should start out in the right, with Andrei Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky most likely battling it out for the wide left position.

Arsenal’s defence should lineup with Gael Clichy at left back, Bacary Sagna at right back and Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou as the centre halves. In goal, Arsenal may decide to use Manuel Almunia due to his experience rather than Wojciech Szczesny, who has been playing for the club regularly in the league.

With this type of set up, Arsenal will need to keep the ball for extended periods of time, which is not an easy task against Barcelona. As Barcelona proved against Real Madrid in December, they are not just a team who work hard when they have the ball, they can also press extremely well and cause the opposing team to make several mistakes.

Arsenal will have to be at the top of their game and take any chance that is give to them. They should be looking to use Walcott’s pace against either Abidal or Maxwell down the right hand side and produce good deliveries to van Persie, who has been on good goal scoring form for the past couple of months. The absence of Carlos Puyol for Barcelona will be a major positive for the Gunners. Arsenal’s defence would be the main worry, especially in the central areas. The team do not look as solid without Vermaelen and coming up against players like Pedro, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and David Villa may prove very difficult for them.

A lot of pressure is off Arsenal because they are definitely the underdogs going into this match, which should help to ease their nerves. If they are to win this tie, you would have to say that they need to win the match on Wednesday night because the game at the Nou Camp will be their toughest of the season so far. Arsenal were destroyed at the Nou Camp last season and many would argue that Barcelona are a better side this season. Arsenal, however, also seem to be on better form this season, so it should be a fantastic match.

Written by Eddie Smith, a sports writer who likes to talk about new football shirts.

Carroll proves worthy of number nine shirt

The atmosphere at St James’ Park ahead of Newcastle’s clash with Liverpool was one of bemusement, anger and frustration.

After all, the Geordie faithful had ensured another drama-filled week courtesy of chairman Mike Ashley.

The controversial United owner sacked popular manager Chris Hughton on Monday – despite the club being safely in mid-table – and replaced him with Alan Pardew, who allegedly knew Ashley through a shared love of a London casino.

The supporters, understandably angry at what was needless meddling in what had been up to now a steady season, made their feelings known before the game, with chants and banners in support of Hughton and vilifying Ashley.

When in the ground though they did what they do best, providing a rocking atmosphere for the two set of players.

And on the pitch, Newcastle demonstrated why Hughton was so popular with the fans.

The team he moulded was full of heart, passion, desire and skill and came away with a deserved win over Roy Hodgson’s men that lifted them up to eighth in the league.

And in Andy Carroll they have a young forward worthy of carrying that famous number nine shirt on his back and, as the football betting indicates, capable of netting plenty of goals.

A menace throughout, he gave Liverpool Centre backs Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Martin Skirtel a torrid time with an old-school centre forwards performance harking back to the days of fellow Geordie number nines Jackie Milburn and Alan Shearer.

In the wake of Hughton’s sacking speculation grew that Carroll would be sold in the January transfer window in order to raise funds for Pardew to spend elsewhere.

However, the 21-year-old responded by reaffirming his commitment to the Toon Army and showed it by lashing home a magnificent third in stoppage time to seal the 3-1 win and the Premier League betting offers suggest he should bag plenty more this season.

Getting the fans onside and earning the players trust were two of the priorities on Alan Pardew’s list when he took charge this week. After Saturday’s performance maintaining the form of Andy Carroll is another.

Will Mike Ashley ever be satisfied?

If you were to go ahead and ask Roman Abramovich what would satisfy him in football terms, he would say the Champions League trophy. Similarly, if you asked the Glazer family what they would need to be satisfied in club football, they would probably admit that they would like to see the club help them to amass an even greater profit capable of wiping out their personal debts and adding to their private fortunes. This is perhaps not as laudable as Abramovich’s aim but is nevertheless understandable.

Compare these two to Mike Ashley and it appears that nothing could possibly satisfy a man who seems to want everything, but has no idea he is going to get it, leading him to be inevitably and perpetually unsatisfied with any manager whom he chooses to appoint on an apparent whim. The football rumors suggest Alan Pardew will be next, and you have to wonder how long he will last.

Although this might be acceptable if his lack of satisfaction didn’t affect the very hopes and dreams of thousands of passionate fans, his actions have also massively held the club back from achieving its full potential, which has almost certainly only served to increase his sense of frustration at the lack of success he has seen at the club since he took over trouver pilule viagra.

Should Ashley ever wish to enjoy success at Newcastle United, then perhaps he should take a page out of the Arsenal board’s book and stand back and put full faith in a manager, even when things are not going to plan, rather than follow the Real Madrid model of constant interference, which has more than often failed to produce the trophies that have been so badly desired. They’ll be a few Premier League bets placed on Newcastle going down this season.

However, with Ashley still appearing to lack the good grace to step back from the club and let the professionals run it properly, the next Newcastle manager may already be doomed before they have even started.

FIFA reform? You’re ‘aving a laugh

Imagine holding a position that allows you to decide the future of the most popular game in the world, albeit one that you are really not too bothered about if you’re being honest, as long as it still brings in the cash and the punters. Add to this the fact that you’re able to be wined and dined by the world’s most powerful people and yes, you’ve guessed it, you are living the life of a FIFA executive member. Whilst this is clearly an overly simplified description of the role and attitude of FIFA executive members, it does hopefully portray a sense of just how much the odds are stacked against FIFA reform.

With England the favorites for a long time on odds comparison sites to win their bid, the FA were clearly enraged that they were bitten after deciding that they wanted to jump into a pool of sharks when they chose to bid for the right to host the 2018 World Cup and have now launched a staunch attack on the organisation that they have attempted to woo in recent times.

However, with the FA forced to admit that they cannot leave FIFA, they have already withdrawn their only negotiating weapon in the battle to force through reform, with any threat not to bid again for the right to host the World Cup likely to be laughed off by FIFA.

Despite all this, the fact remains that FIFA know they have seen their reputation severely damaged by the bidding process and the media reports that have surrounded it, something that they know has impacted upon their credibility across the globe. If they are to attempt to recover this credibility, they may have to start thinking about possibly reforming, or at least altering, their cherished positions as kingmakers, which begs the question as to whether they actually care about their reputation.

Unhappy Anfield return for Houiller

The fans were chanting the name of Gerard Houiller long into a cold winter’s night at Anfield, but the fact it was the Liverpool supporters rather than the Villa faithful speaks volumes about the visiting side’s performance.

Liverpool, without key trio Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Fernando Torres, strolled a 3-0 win that lifted them back into the top half of the table and left Villa floundering in 16th place.

It was an unhappy return to Anfield for Houllier, who managed the club for six years between 1998 and 2004 and remains popular with the reds support.

It wasn’t just the defeat but the manner of it that will worry the Frenchman though. A weakened Liverpool side barely had to break a sweat from the moment they took the lead in the 14th minute. Villa’s lack of fight was alarming to say the least.

This was the Midlands club’s fourth defeat in a row, and with only one win in their last ten league games they are now just two points off the drop zone and the Premier League tips even hint they could be relegated.

After several seasons sat comfortably in the top six Villa fans had hope this would be the year they finally put up a sustained challenge for the champions league places. But Martin O’Neill’s shock resignation a week before the new season left their plans in disarray and Houiller’s arrival has signalled a period of transition, even if the Premier League betting predictions suggested they’d do well.

Just four wins all year though is not the return chairman Randy Lerner will have wanted when he brought the former Lyon boss to the club in September and if they are not careful they could be sucked into a relegation battle.

A look at Stephen Ireland’s Villa career so far

Roberto Mancini has received a barrage of criticism in recent months for several choices he has made as Manchester City manager, but his decision to offload Stephen Ireland to Aston Villa looks to be a masterstroke.

The Irishman signed a four-year contract with the Midlands club after he was sold in a part-exchange deal that saw James Milner move to Eastlands.

Ireland had spent large spells on the substitutes bench in the second half of the season after excelling himself in the previous campaign, while Mancini had openly questioned his temperament.

The move to Villa looked to be a fresh start for the midfielder as he would be playing under Martin O’Neill, who may have been able to nurture Ireland’s undoubted talent.

However, O’Neill left the club just before the start of the season and since then, things have gone from bad to worse for Ireland.

His first appearance came as Villa slipped to a 6-0 thumping at Newcastle and although midfielders Stiliyan Petrov, Steve Sidwell, Nigel Reo-Coker and Marc Albrighton have been missing in the Villa midfield in recent weeks, Ireland can not claim a regular starting berth.

In twelve appearances for Villa – five from the substitutes bench – Ireland has been well below his best, has yet to register a goal and has already been linked with a move away from Villa Park – just under four months since his arrival. Those who brought football shirts with his name on it when he made the move certainly won’t be happy with this news.

O’Neill’s replacement, Gerard Houllier, is prepared to adopt a patient approach and give Ireland a chance to “settle in” at the club but, like Mancini, the Frenchman has admitted that he needs to show a better attitude.

So, on his showing so far, would it be fair to say that Mancini has been vindicated with his decision to sell the former Republic of Ireland international?

It would be foolish to write off the Villa midfielder as, at 24, the best years of his career should be ahead of him.

Ireland, it should not be forgotten, is a tremendous player on his day and his award as Manchester City’s Senior Player of the Year and his nomination for the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Young Player of the Year in the 2008/09 season is testament to that.

His replacement at Manchester City – Milner, who went one better than Ireland by winning the PFA Young Player of the Year last season – is also struggling to find his feet at Eastlands, although the Leeds-born £24 million signing is making regular starts under Mancini.

However, Ireland is seen as a disruptive influence on the dressing room and he may have clashed with one of the more high-profile players at City.

Swapping him with the much more sedate Milner will reap rewards on the pitch eventually – the England international’s class will shine through.

Ireland could have given Mancini one more headache that he did not need this season – his departure was a good thing for the Italian and for the Blues.

Fergie’s youngsters fail to flourish

Manchester United have previously proved to even their harshest critics in the Premier League that they know precisely how best to develop youth, with the club in the past producing the likes of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, and Gary Neville. However, it is undeniable that, more recently, Fergie has failed miserably to find his magic touch when it comes to developing precocious young talent.

This became no more evident than last night at Upton Park, when United fans were forced to sit back and watch as a side composed of a mixture of youth and experience was ripped apart in a 4-0 defeat at the hands of struggling West Ham United. This was clearly a sign for all to see that perhaps the future does not look bright for United’s youngsters.

Despite Javier Hernandez already showing a few magic touches this season since his arrival at the club, and Rafael successfully replacing Gary Neville as the club’s best right back, Fergie has repeatedly failed to develop a new spine capable of replacing adequately his aging Manchester United side. Anyone looking to bet on Premier League winner should remember this.

With the Glazers’ debt still limiting the amount of money the club has to spend on bringing new talent in to the squad, the onus has fallen firmly on Sir Alex to develop, rather than purchase, a side that is capable of continuing to challenge those at the top of the English Premier League and in European competition.

Should Fergie fail to show that he is capable of following in the footsteps of Arsene Wenger and bring through a batch of youngsters who are capable of replacing his star players, then United could be set to endure a barren patch similar to that which Arsenal are still hoping to emerge from. The Premier League weekend predictions suggest United will get back to winning ways again Blackpool, but will they really hold out for the rest of the season?

After previously suggesting that United fans are only happy when trophies are coming to Old Trafford, the pressure is only likely to increase on Fergie to show he can still find the diamonds in the rough.

Do Liverpool really want to be in the Europa League?

A distraction from an increasingly frustrating Premier League campaign appears to be the only benefit of Liverpool’s Europa League run this season.

After becoming used to the glamour and riches of Champions League football it has been something of a humiliation for Liverpool to drop down into Europe’s secondary competition this year.

More games, more live scores coming in and less money means it is not high on Liverpool’s priorities as they look to make it back into Europe’s elite competition in 2011.

Despite that they still sit top of Group K with two wins and two draws from their opening four games. Last time out a dramatic 14 minute Steven Gerrard hat-trick saw them come from behind at Anfield to beat Italian side Napoli.

That put them three points clear at the top and just one win away from winning the group.

But, as Hodgson prepares to take a weakened side to Romania to face Steaua Bucharest on Thursday you have to wonder how much Liverpool want to be in the competition.

After all the under pressure Hodgson has already conceded he sees next Monday’s trip to Aston Villa as his priority. Their need to pick up Premier League points is becoming critical after defeat to Tottenham last Sunday left them floundering in 10th place, 12 points off leaders Man United and seven points from the final Champions League place.

With the influential Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher out injured the strain on the squad – and Hodgson – is starting to show.

Those regularly looking at Football live scores note that a win in Romania and qualification may boost the side’s morale ahead of tougher challenges ahead. But if you offered Hodgson the option three points in the league instead, I know what he would choose.

Spurs and Liverpool hit by injuries to key players

Spurs and Liverpool suffered mixed fortunes at the weekend in terms of results, with the former coming from behind to nick all three points. However, although Spurs fans may have been the happier immediately after the final whistle, it seems likely that both sets of fans will be moaning into their pints for some time to come and looking back on the fixture as one which didn’t hand either side’s hopes of making an impact in the league this season any sort of boost.

The reason for this is, of course, relatively severe injuries to two key players, Rafael van der Vaart for Spurs and Jamie Carragher for Liverpool. Both players are instrumental to their sides’ chances, with Van der Vaart one of the Premier League’s most productive players since his move to North London from Real Madrid, and Carragher an influential figure both on and off the pitch at Anfield and this is shown in the football betting.

It is perhaps Van der Vaart’s injury that will prove to be most troubling, despite the fact that Carragher’s may be more severe in nature. Van der Vaart has developed an effective relationship with Gareth Bale in the Tottenham side and the pair have been behind many of the headline results secured so far this campaign by the team. He has introduced a touch of world-class quality to an already impressive squad and will be sorely missed by Harry Redknapp and the Spurs faithful and the Champions League betting will reflect this.

What’s more, his injury is the latest in a long line of little niggles that have hampered him to some extent since his transfer. Redknapp must be wondering when these injuries will come to an end so he can have a fully fit and firing player at his disposal.

Redknapp has previously raised doubts about Van der Vaart’s fitness levels because the player didn’t experiencing an adequate pre-season in Spain, so the Spurs boss will just have to hope that the player’s fitness problems don’t end up making him more and more of a sidelined asset as the physically exhausting Premier League season progresses.

Barcelona prove their worth

Inter Milan may be the champions of Europe. The men in Chelsea Shirts may be champions of England and all the talk in Spain might be about the Jose Mourinho revolution at Real Madrid; but last night Barcelona proved that they are by far and away the best team in world by thrashing Real Madrid 5-0 in the El Classico.

As well as being the best team, the age old debate of the greatest player in the world was also answered last night; with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo playing against each other for the first time in La Liga. Ronaldo could only look on as Messi stole the show in the Nou Camp, leaving the capacity crowd drooling at the display they had just witnessed.

Those over at note that this defeat was Real’s first of the season and the first under new manager Mourinho. But it wasn’t just the score line that raised eyebrows; it was the manner in which this defeat was inflicted by Barca. With Messi at the center of all their attacking play, they looked unstoppable; with their crisp passing, non stop movement and penetrative running causing Real all sorts of problems throughout the 90 minutes.

Unsurprisingly it was Messi who was the star of the show for the home side. He had already hit the post in the first half, before he really turned on the magic. Despite numerous attempts by Madrid players to stop him by any means necessary Messi continued to terrorise. With one glitsy run and one defence splitting pass setting up David Villa and Xavi respectively, Barca nearly extended their lead; but neither could find the end product that Messi’s skill deserved.

However it wasn’t long until two pieces of Messi magic were turned into goals. Another sublime pass set up Villa, who turned and fired past Iker Cassilas and 2 minutes later Messi jinked past 2 Real defenders before picking out Villa for his second of the game and Barcelona’s fourth.

It wasn’t until stoppage time that Real finally found a way to stop Messi; even then it wasn’t by playing fairly. Sergio Ramos scythed down the tricky Argentinean to earn himself his second red card in a week and with it ending a torrid game for Real Madrid.

After the result of this game and the performance of Barcelona; surely they will once again become champions of Spain and elude Mourinho of the success he so desperately craves at Madrid. Maybe it’s about time that Mourinho gave up the title of ‘The Special One’ as there is only room for one in world football; and that is Lionel Messi.

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