Sport360° view: Blame Wenger's defensive blindspot for Arsenal's lack of resilience

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Problems in Europe: Arsene Wenger.

Arsene Wenger was honest in his appraisal of Arsenal’s extraordinary capitulation against Anderlecht, but contrition will not appease the growing sense of unrest at the Emirates.

When Mikel Arteta stroked his side in front from 12 yards there was a brief rendition of an old classic as ‘one-nil to the Arsenal’ reverberated around the stands.

But unlike their miserly forefathers this team cannot be relied upon to hold onto such leads.

Having played nine homes games in all competitions this season, the Gunners have kept just two clean sheets and shipped 12 goals in the process.

On Tuesday night their fragility was on display long before Anthony Vanden Borre poked home, and the panic that ensued has robbed them of any chance of topping Group D.

With just one point needed from their remaining two games, against Borussia Dortmund and Galatasaray, to secure second, there is little doubt they will join the Germans in the last 16.

However, there is now an increased probability that once there, they will face one of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain or Atletico Madrid.

Arsenal would not start as favourites to beat any of that quartet over two legs, ensuring that a sense of foreboding has accompanied Aleksander Mitrovic’s late headed leveller.

How Wenger must wish he could turn back his clock to mid-May. Aaron Ramsey’s 109th-minute winner in the FA Cup final gave the Frenchman a platform, but his own negligence has prohibited the club building on it.

His priority over the summer – especially with the departures of Bacary Sagna and Thomas Vermaelen long forecast – should have been to significantly strengthen in defence and sign a holding midfield player.

Admittedly Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers were both astute additions, but it is almost criminal to start a gruelling nine-month season with only six senior defenders.

Moreover, Wenger has admitted he knew Vermaelen was leaving, and as such his inability to bring in a frontline replacement is reckless at the very least.

Imagine the reaction had a less experienced manager splashed the cash on a World Cup star such as Alexis Sanchez, when he barely had enough defenders to fill a substitutes’ bench.

It is not Nacho Monreal’s fault, of course, that he has been forced to play out of position for the past few weeks, and it is not only the job of the back four to defend.

The team’s frailty runs far deeper than that. On Tuesday night there was a naivety to Arsenal’s play as Ramsey and co refused to curb their attacking instincts even when Anderlecht began their comeback.

At other times this season, such as in the draw with Man City, the team has been gripped with anxiety. Neither Arteta nor Mathieu Flamini give the side the requisite stability at the base of midfield, and thus the Gunners have very little resilience when pressure is applied. 

Fans were calling for an upgrade on the pair long before the end of last season, and many were baffled when Wenger instead decided to put his faith in Abou Diaby. The injury-prone midfielder has played just once this season.

By contrast two former Arsenal midfielders have shone in the Premier League, since both returning from a spell in Spain with Barcelona. But while many Gunners fans may dream of seeing Cesc Fabregas back at the Emirates, it is his former Barca and Arsenal team-mate, Alex Song, who really could have made a difference.

Song has been a revelation at West Ham, and his energetic display against City last month was key as the Hammers won 2-1.
It was a performance that suggested he still had a future at the highest level, and with Arsenal crying out for some steel in the middle of the pitch it is a wonder why he wasn’t coaxed back to north, instead of east, London. 

It impossible to overstate Wenger’s importance not just in Arsenal’s development, but also that of the Premier League. However, he possesses a defensive blind spot that is preventing the club moving forward again.

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UCL round-up: History maker Messi the difference for Barca, nine-man City crash

Andy West 6/11/2014
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Can’t get near him: Lionel Messi dribbles away from Ajax’s Nicolai Boilesen and Thulani Serero.

Lionel Messi joined Raul as the all-time leading scorer in the Champi­ons League with both goals in Bar­celona’s victory over Ajax.

The Argentine’s finishing proved the difference in an otherwise closely contested encounter, send­ing Barca into the knockout stage and preventing the hosts from pro­gressing.

But it might have been very different because Ajax were the superior team in the opening half hour and could easily have taken the lead.

After soaking up early pressure, Barca finally managed their first shot when the otherwise anony­mous Luis Suarez had a long-range strike deflected wide, before a defence-splitting pass from Messi released the onrushing Jordi Alba whose shot was well saved by Jas­per Cillessen’s right foot.

The attack ended with a free-kick which Messi whipped goalwards and Cillessen parried, but the ball was never fully cleared.

When it eventually came back into the box, Cillessen lost a chase against Marc Bartra and the defender’s hook back across goal allowed Messi to nod into the unguarded net.

Barca completed their scoring with fourteen minutes remaining as Messi ran on to a superb pass from Pedro to stab home the ball from close range. 

Messi will now have a chance to overtake Raul as the all-time top goalscorer in the competition when Barca travel to APOEL on November 25 – a day before Ronaldo’s Real Madrid take on Basel. 

 Fernandinho and Yaya Toure were sent off as Manchester City crashed to a damaging 2-1 loss to CSKA in the Champions League.

The pair were both dismissed in the second half as City struggled to get back into last night’s Group E contest they were anxious to win to revive their campaign.

Seydou Doumbia was again City’s nemesis, following up his influen­tial role in last month’s 2-2 draw in Moscow with both CSKA goals.

His Ivory Coast team-mate Toure had cancelled out his first with a superb free-kick – but City again lacked spark in Europe’s elite competition.

The result left them with just two points from four games and bottom of the group.

City could have had two penal­ties in the dying minutes but Ser­gio Aguero, denied two spot-kicks in Sunday’s Manchester derby, was twice refused again.

Aguero was twice denied by Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. But soon the visitors were back in front. City were caught out again when Clichy gave the ball away and Natcho teed up Doumbia again after 34 minutes. Again his finish was clinical as he clipped the ball inside Joe Hart’s near post.

City’s night went from bad to worse as Fernandinho walked just 24 minutes after com­ing on. The Brazilian, booked min­utes earlier for a foul on Dzagoev, was penalised again for blocking Musa on the edge of the area.

Toure soon followed him. His run was blocked by Roman Eremenko but the City man raised his hands to shove him away. He had been booked but the referee showed a straight red.

Frank Ribery and Mario Gotze were on target as Bayern Munich beat Roma 2-0 to clinch top spot in Group E and a place in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Elsewhere, Chelsea must wait to confirm their spot after Eden Hazard missed a late penalty in their 1-1 draw with Maribor. Nemanja Matic cancelled out Agim Ibraimi’s opener before Hazard was thwarted by keeper Jasmin Handanovic.

Sporting Lisbon ensured it remained a three-way fight behind Chelsea with a 4-2 win over Shalke.

In Group H, Jackson Martinez and Yacine Brahimi scored as Porto clinched their last-16 berth with a 2-0 win at Athletic Bilbao. Shakhtar are favourites to join them after Luiz Adriano scored three in their 5-0 win over BATE. 

Edison Cavani hit the only goal as PSG beat APOEL 1-0. 

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UCL Preview: City looking to bounce back, Guardiola fears Roma backlash

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Believe: Manchester City manager thinks his team can have Champions League glory

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini believes his team can still win the Champions League this season.

The Premier League champions have again made an underwhelming start to the competition, collecting just two points from their opening three games in Group E.

They are already seven points behind group leaders Bayern Munich and can ill afford to drop more as they host CSKA Moscow at the Etihad Stadium tonight.

But while there is a danger City could fail to get out of the group for a third time in four seasons, Pellegrini is not entertaining negative thoughts and has even not ruled out a shot at glory.

The Chilean said: “Of course our target is always to try to win the Champions League.

"We must put in our mind that we are able to do it, that we have a good squad.

“Maybe there are five or six squads better than our squad or at the same level as our squad that also want to do it, but with a winning mentality and an ambitious mind, you must always think you can do it. I think we have time to prove it.”

City will at least be aiming to improve on last season’s effort when they reached the last 16 for the first time after two previous failures to get out of the group.

Pellegrini said: “This team are doing very well here in domestic games because in the last three years we won two Premier Leagues and one runner-up and won two cups also.

"So, you must add international games with the Champions League.

“Last year we did one stage more than the other years. I hope that this year we are going to continue improving.”

City need to beat Russian champions CSKA at home to breathe some life into their campaign.

Anything less than victory would further complicate matters, and take City’s destiny out their hands, but Bayern’s dominance of the group thus far does suggest the battle for second spot will be close.

Wary Guardiola fears a backlash from a wounded Roma side

Pep Guardiola insists Bayern Munich’s record 7-1 away victory over Roma a fortnight ago is more of a hindrance than a help ahead of tonight’s return tie.

A fourth consecutive group-phase victory at the Allianz Arena will put Bayern into the last 16 with two matches to spare and see them qualify for the Champions League knockout phase for the seventh successive year.

The German champions trounced Rudi Garcia’s side at the Olympic Stadium last month.

Dutch winger Arjen Robben scored twice to keep Bayern in firm control of Group E and five points ahead of nearest rivals Roma.

Guardiola says the result, the club’s record away win in Europe, now offers them little help in their quest for a place in the Champions League final in Berlin on June 6.

“Unfortunately, we won 7-1 and that will make our task harder,” said Guardiola. “Roma have their pride and won’t want to experience something like that again.

“They have a very good, youth­ful side and can impose their game on you if you give them too much room. It’s a different game. We’re focused on the massive chance we have to progress to the next round.”

Roma are determined to avoid a repeat of the thrashing at the Sta­dio Olimpico, and reaffirm their status as one of the continent’s best up-and-coming teams.

Midfielder Miralem Pjanic said: “Bayern play good football and have a top coach, but as I said we’re intent on making sure this game is different. We’re confident in our ability and we’re set on showing that tomorrow against one of the best teams in Europe.

“It is a rematch but it won’t be a repeat of what happened in Rome. We want to prove the difference isn’t so great”

Suarez will try not celebrate

Luis Suarez says he will attempt not to celebrate if he registers his first goal for Barcelona in tonight’s must-win Champions League trip to former club Ajax.

The controversial Uruguayan star has endured an indifferent start to his Barca career, suffering two defeats and failing to score in his first two games for the club.

And although he is desperate to make his mark in a game which the Catalan team need to win to main­tain realistic hopes of topping the group, Suarez is also keen to avoid upsetting supporters of the club where he established his reputa­tion in Europe with a successful spell between 2007 and 2011.

Suarez, who scored 111 goals in 159 games for the Dutch giants, said: “I would love to celebrate if I score but out of respect for Ajax, I probably won’t do it. But we’ll have to see what happens according to the moment.

“Everyone knows how much affection I have for Ajax and the city after the way I was treated here.”

If selected, Suarez will be making his first Champions League appear­ance since 2010 after three seasons of absence at Liverpool.

Suarez, who has five goals in 11 Champions League games, added: “It’s a joy to return to the Cham­pions League and I will enjoy the game to the full, defending the col­ours of Barcelona – the club where I have always wanted to be.”

Thiago Silva aims for the summit

Knowing victory against APOEL will put them in good shape to win Group E is all the motivation Paris Saint-Germain need for tonight’s clash, according to Thiago Silva.

PSG lead the way after a draw against Ajax was followed up by a 3-2 win over Barcelona and a 1-0 triumph over the Cypriot side.

“We are very motivated because if we win, we get a chance to fin­ish first in the group,” Silva said. “APOEL are a very difficult team to play against, very aggressive. They play very defensively and it’s not easy finding space.”

Meanwhile, Ernesto Valverde believes the pressure to win will prove to be a positive as Athletic Bilbao look to keep alive their cam­paign with victory over Porto.

The Basque outfit have picked up only one point from their first three Group H matches and Valverde acknowledges that a third defeat today would be unthinkable.

He said: “When you have a points advantage you can try to calculate things, but (our situation) simpli­fies everything down and means we do not look at anything else – our only choice is to win all three.”

Elsewhere, BATE Borisov mid­fielder Yevgeniy Yablonskiy admits his team-mates are ready for a fight as they look to avenge last month’s humiliating home 7-0 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk when the sides meet again in Lviv.

“We’re in a good mood, I would even say a fighting one,” he said. “Everyone is looking forward to the game. There is no fear as we believe the match in Lviv will be different.”

In Group G, unbeaten Schalke host Sporting at the Veltins Arena.

Jose Mourinho reluctant to play Oscar over fears of burnout

Jose Mourinho faces a selection quandary ahead of Chelsea’s Group G clash at Maribor.

Mourinho is determined to avoid complacency against a side beaten 6-0 at Stamford Bridge two weeks ago, with the assumption being that those with a point to prove may be given the chance.

Yet the Blues boss may be reluc­tant to turn to his fringe stars after being critical of their performance at Shrewsbury in the League Cup.

Oscar played at Manchester United, Shrewsbury and against QPR and could be rewarded with a rest ahead of Saturday’s Pre­mier League clash at Liverpool, yet Mourinho may not feel he can be without the Brazilian.

Mourinho said: “Does he need a rest? Maybe yes after last week. But is it the right decision to leave him out? I don’t know.

“You can imagine it’s not easy to make a decision to rest a player who, in this moment, is my best player.”

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