Premier League 2015-16: Arsenal’s bottling and Leicester’s history

What a fascinating premier league season this has been. Traditional powers have faltered and a team which was almost relegated is on the verge of creating history. Against all the odds stacked up against them of skepticism (myself included up till February saying they will eventually fizzle out), the riches of the Russian and the Arab, the ‘astute’ economics of a professor and the mad should have been genius of a Dutchman. For all the neutrals out there and also for all the supporters of the smaller clubs – Leicester are carving their name deeper into stone and going right up there to remain in the premier league history for generations to come. The fairy tale ending for the club is almost here and what could be more fitting then Claudio (that oh so love able manager) lift the trophy at the very club which parted ways with him at the start of their own success era – Chelsea.

It has of course been frustrating for me as an Arsenal fan. This season should have been made more of especially in the face of Chelsea being a disaster, Liverpool rebuilding itself in the vision of Klopp, United not really going anywhere under LvG and Manchester City simply fizzling out amidst the Pep taking over next season talk. Arsenal had the squad, they had the players, they should have made more of a fight of this. But the failings were the same. Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to reinforce the squad in the summer surely has to be a huge factor in this. Not being able to strengthen in January isn’t much of a concern as genuinely there won’t be much talent on offer during the winter window (exceptions in the past exist but are rare). I take nothing away from Leicester and Tottenham in how they have played all season. They deserve to be where they are. But with all that Arsenal poses in terms of a squad they should have been fighting till the end with them. Mathematically they might have recently gone out of it but honestly Arsenal were out of the fighting back in February. When they lost to United and Swansea and failed to gain ground after winning their second match against Leicester. This was compounded by an exit from the FA Cup to Watford – a cup which has been a silver lining in the last 2 seasons. And yet another round of 16 exit in the Champions League. Its not just a mental thing anymore. They bottled it. They bottled it because some parts are mental. They bottled it because some parts were just plain wasteful and not enough depth in terms of resources. Ozil inspired and arguably had a superb season. He came into his own. He has finally started looking like the Ozil of old who is familiar now with the premier league. The first half of the season he was hailed. The second half perhaps he did find a dip but what hampered Arsenal more was the dip in form of those around him who he was creating the chances for. He can’t help it if his chances created are not being converted. Giroud and Walcott both disappointed. Welbeck was injured for ¾ of the season. Sanchez was out for almost half of it. And it has affected us. We terribly missed Carzola too. The partnership between him and Coquelin had become a driving engine for Arsenal in the midfield. So yes there were injuries as well. There were mental issues and injuries – but then there should have been more. Wenger should have gotten squad depth in the summer. The only glimmer of hope from this season now is the emergence of Iwobi. He has proven himself to be quite capable of being a regular with a good footballing brain. That and the acquisition of Elneny. Two good points. The rest however has been disappointing and that is putting it mildly. Fact remains: Arsenal should have done better this season.

 If Arsenal are to go beyond being a ‘consistent 4th place’ finisher they need some serious strategy overhaul and change. And it is going to be tougher next season with more clubs getting richer with the TV rights deal money pouring into the premier league clubs wallets. So more of the same may very well mean Arsenal don’t even qualify for Champions League next season. More of the same strategy that is. Change is necessary. Change is required. And it has to start with the board. And it has to start with the manager.

Arsene Wenger has given Arsenal 20 years of unparallel service. He will always remain a core part of what Arsenal is today and it’s modern day football successes. He has been invaluable during the club’s time of building a new stadium and the financial constraints that were presented during the time. However that is all done now and there needs to be a decisive way forward where a 4th place finish is not enough. An FA Cup victory is also not enough. There has to be more fight to challenge for the premier league and there has to be better showing in Europe. For this the board’s strategy and vision also needs to change. They are quite comfortable right now because of the astute business deliverables Wenger has been providing them and as long as that remains things will stay the same.

Arsenal need to add depth to their squad. They need to get a 20 goal a season striker. Out and out class of a striker. They need to reinforce their defense as well given Per is getting older and soon Kos will be heading towards the twilight as well. And given the performance this season a clear out of those who have been given a lot of time to establish themselves has to be done. Walcott should be done. Ox should be done. Get them out and get Mahrez if that is even slightly possible. Or someone of the like.

As for managers to be honest right now there are no clear world class options available. So don’t know what can be done in that regard. Certainly don’t want a post Ferguson type of era happening at Arsenal as it has at Manchester United.

Leicester are closer to their title triumph after drawing with Manchester United over the weekend and can very well wrap it if Tottenham fail to beat Chelsea tonight. I am all for them winning the title – they truly deserve the history they are making.

Kudos Leicester, kudos Claudio, kudos Vardy, Mahrez, Morgan, Kante and co. You deserve it.


The Mother of all Rivalries

Sports competitions and battles have long kept us glued to our seats or on the edge of them across the globe since forever. The adrenaline, the competition and the heroism of our warriors on field is something that never fails to attract. And all of this gets ever more exciting when it is between rivals. Whether you are the player or the fan a match or game against a rival is just as important as the entirety of the competition itself. Such rivalries tend to be larger in fact then the competition itself at times. And we have had examples of it across almost all sports since almost forever.

Formula 1 had the Niki Lauda vs James Hunt rivalry in the 76-77, Mikka Hakkinen vs Micheal Schumacher in the late 90’s and Ferrari vs the rest of the constructs since forever to name a couple of them.

Tennis had Jimmy Connors vs John McEnroe, Steffi Graff vs Monica Seles, Andre Aggasi vs Pete Sampras from the yesteryears. And at present who has not heard of Nadal vs Federer.

Football – All club football Derby Matches (Manchester United vs Manchester City, Arsenal vs Tottenham, Chelsea vs Arsenal, Liverpool vs Everton, Athletico Madrid vs Real Madrid, Inter Milan vs AC Milan etc) and then of course El Classico (Barca vs Real) or the United vs Arsenal rivalry in the early 2000’s. Rangers vs Celtic in Scotland. Roy Keane vs Patrick Vierra, Messi vs Ronaldo. There are many. And all of these were/are just that big. They are bigger than the competition.

Cricket – England vs Australia, one of the oldest rivalries of all times further characterized by the Ashes series played between the two sides.

And then there is Pakistan vs India. The mother of all rivalries. A rivalry which is so famous that even people with limited interest in the sport would know about it even if they are from neither India nor Pakistan as long as they are from a cricket playing nation (minnows included). *the above being said more so because of being a Pakistani and a cricket fan

There is never any love lost between the two sides whenever or wherever they meet. Regardless of the competition, regardless of the consequence or inconsequence – your team needs to win. The feeling is mutual on either side of the border. History adds to this rivalry of course. It further fuels it. Even thou there is plenty of on field history and excitement and drama over the decades of cricket – it never really is just about the cricket. This rivalry has always been beyond even the sport itself. It’s just that mammoth.

And it has been mammoth over the decades. Miandad’s last ball six at Sharjah. Prasad’s vital 3 wickets in the 96 quarter final. The sultans of swing Waqar and Wasim. The little master Sachin. Imran Khan. Gavaskar. Saeed Anwer. Anil Kumble. All names that have had their time in this mammoth rivalry.

And on the biggest stage of ODI cricket these two teams will be starting off their respective world cup campaigns against each other come Sunday. They will be resuming their rivalry. Familiar foes meet again. What a way for the 2015 World Cup to start.

As a Pakistani of course my heart is beating and screaming for the boys in green to emerge victors. As I am sure would be my counterparts across the border. Till Sunday the barbs (oh and the Indians have come up with a  good one *reference to the firecracker ad), the conspiracies, the predictions, the experts, the seasonal fans, the specific to Pakistan vs India fans etc etc will all be buzzing, talking and dissecting everything there is to. Come Sunday of course everyone will be glued to their television sets in the anticipation of this every so mammoth clash.

I will again as a Pakistani of course be glued as well and will hope beyond hope that we defeat the Indians (if for nothing else at least so that we can give them a fitting reply to that ridiculously stinging ad). Who unfortunately we don’t have a single win against in World Cup matches. Yep. Even thou we have a superior record against them in overall ODIs – we still haven’t defeated them in World Cup encounters. The first time being in 1992 and the last one being the Semi Final in Mohali in 2011. It’s like a jinx. And they have been a better one day side over the past year or so (albeit more so at home – they have been lousy away from home as well). And they have had more time in Australia thanks to the big three keeping a triangular between themselves (all hail the powers that be at ICC – bravo on ensuring fair play for everyone). And they have a stronger batting side while our bowling is suffering from some major absentees due to injuries and suspensions (ICC please read previous line again… excellent timing on the clampdown btw).  All the logical factors point to another win for the men in blue.

But in comes the heart. This is the first world cup meet between the two sides without Tendulkar. Their perfect record against us cannot go on forever – it has to give sometime. And now seems like as good a time as any. Pakistan won its solitary world cup in Australia when the competition was held here last almost 23 years ago. Pakistan can be unpredictable on their day. And let’s not forget. We have LALA!!! AFRIDI!! (Wishful thinking I know but still you never know).

So the predictions, the logic, the wishful thinking, the heart and all of the above will go on an on till Sunday. But one thing is for sure which I will repeat again. Regardless of the bigger consequence of Sunday’s match on the remaining world cup campaign – it is a match that needs to be won. That feeling is mutual on either side of the border. Pakistan vs India is always bigger than the tournament, the rest of the competition. It’s for glory, for pride. It’s for the green and white of our flag. For Pakistan!


United’s 20

Well one can say whatever they want to. They can say it was a one man show this season for them. They can say that it wasn’t a case of a gulf in the quality of the squads just more occasions of not dropping points. That they were luckier. That they had fewer competitions to focus on for the final third of the season. Blah Blah Blah. Regardless, Manchester United have clinched a 20th league title (now the club with the highest league title wins, 1 ahead of Liverpool). And they have done so sitting quite comfortably.


For United it was a great achievement especially doing with 5 games to spare and redeeming themselves from last season. I mean all the more sweeter when you are reclaiming it from your ‘noisy neighbors’. And let’s be honest. Even the noisy neighbors were more or less out of the race by early March. I mean it didn’t seem like it would be a repeat of last season where United would start dropping points. Rio’s dig at City was all too obvious when he said ‘We did it the right way. On points and not on goal difference’. Last season did hurt the Red Devils and vengeance has been all too sweet.

They have been the more consistent team in the Premier League by far this season. They may not have been a dominant outfit with an outright gulf in class. BUT they have managed to win the title with an extremely comfortable point gap. 13 points between them City (who sit second). They have deserved this and rightly so.


The biggest impact (as also stated by Sir Alex Ferguson himself) has been that of Robin Van Persie. 23-24 goals for United and a hat trick against Villa in the last game to win Premier League. I am an Arsenal fan – and of course as a gunner I am not all that happy about the fact that we didn’t even figure into title fight for a good part of the season. Or the fact that we sold our captain and highest goal scorer to united in the summers. But I am happy for RvP. He needed this. Had been giving a lot at Arsenal and he performed till the very last game. He kept giving 100% but the fact is that he isn’t getting any younger and it is only natural for him to yearn for winners medals to add to his career. That wasn’t seemingly coming through with Arsenal so he made the difficult decision to move on. So again I am happy for him. Kudos Robin, kudos United. Ferguson also commented that Wenger while selling RvP to United quite hesitantly said to him ‘He is far better than you think’. I think the first 6 months of the season more or less proved that. Money well spent.


Another player who should be hailed for this wonderful achievement is Ryan Giggs. I have always admired Giggs. He has been a phenomenal player for United and continues to be one actually. He is 40 and he has managed to play a pivotal role this season to add to his and United’s achievements. I think he has been one of the fantastic greats to have blessed this game and a rare breed of footballers that are few and far in between.

And finally coming to Sir Alex himself. Again a legend for football. For English football. For Manchester United. His feats would be very very difficult for any manager to achieve let alone whoever does take up his role once Fergie decides to call it quits. Amazing, glistening managerial career.


Congratulations United, congratulations Robin van Persie, congratulations Ryan Giggs, congratulations Sir Alex Ferguson.

See you next season

Match Day 38: A befitting end to a brilliant Premier League Season

And so we arrive on the final match day of the 2011-12 Season with lots of drama potentially in the making. There is lots to play for and lots to be decided. What a fitting end to what has been by far one of the best seasons over the last few years. Apart from the relegation of Wolves and Blackburn, the rest will unfold today. We have a title race, champions league spots, Europa spots and the final relegation spot all going down to the wire.


The two Manchester clubs face off for the title with City looking to win it for the first time in 44 years. Also if they win it will be the first time the title has been won by a team other than Man United, Chelsea or Arsenal since Blackburn lifted the crown in 96. In fact City would be the 5th team to win the top flight of England since it was changed to the ‘Premier League’.


United look to add to their tally of league titles to make it 20 and nothing would please Sir Alex more than to steal the show on the last day from the blue half of Manchester. Albeit it is not entirely in United’s hand. Both teams are equal on points but the blue half has a better goal difference. So as Fergie put it himself United are hoping for something ‘stupid’ by the blue half to hand them the title.


Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle are in the battle for Europe’s elite tournament next season. Arsenal play West Brom, Spurs face off Fulham and the Magpies against Everton. Even thou Chelsea are out of this particular battle through the league thanks to their heavy defeat against Liverpool they still have a role to play. In the Champions League final against Bayern Munich this season if they win then they get a chance to play in the Champs League next season. Now this is how it goes: top 3 places in the league get automatic qualification for the Champions League group stages. 4th Place gets a chance to play in the qualification matches for the tournament. 5th place is Europa League. Currently Arsenal are 3rd, Tottenham 4th and Newcastle 5th with a difference of 2 points between them. If Chelsea win the Champions league then the 4th place team goes to Europa and not the Champions League.

For Arsenal it is incredibly important that they secure a place with Europe’s finest next season. They risk losing the services of talismanic skipper Robin Van Persie who has had an outstanding season. 30 League goals, led from the front and right up there with the assists as well. His contributions have made up for almost 40% of Arsenal’s goals this season and the risk of losing him will prove to be extremely costly next year. Besides, Wilshere made a bet with I think Bale or Lennon or one of the Spurs players about Arsenal finishing below spurs. We simply cannot let that happen now can we.


Spurs it would often seem are more inclined to upstage Arsenal then anything else. They have unfortunately been down this road once before when on the final day they lost and surrendered the final place in the champions league. It was a case of some virus then which had half the spurs squad playing below 100% fitness. They would like to ensure that doesn’t happen this time around.

Magpies have the most challenging match of the 3 teams. Their trip to Everton will hardly be easy. Even thou all Everton will be playing for is a chance to finish the season better then their derby rivals (Liverpool), it should be a difficult game for Newcastle. At home only Manchester City have conceded fewer goals then Everton.


Last but not least let’s come to the relegation battle. The face off for survival in England’s top flight. Blackburn and Wolves are already gone. Queens Park Rangers, Bolton and Aston Villa will be looking to avoid the last spot. Villa are more or less safe thou – mathematically speaking they could still go down but realistically it isn’t happening. They are 3 points ahead of Bolton and 1 point ahead of QPR. Their goal difference is –14 to QPR’s –22 and Bolton’s –31. So even if they do lose to Norwich, it will have to be a record breaking goal fest of a defeat for Aston Villa to be in danger. So practically it is a straight shooter between QPR and Bolton for the final survival. QPR face the daunting task of facing City at home and making themselves and Sir Alex the happiest people of the day. I don’t see it happening but then again the pressure of the final day could still get to Mancini’s side and the possibility of twists and turns isn’t that far fetched. Bolton play Stoke at home. If they lose that means they will be out of the Premier League for the first time since 2002. Also it will mean that for the first time since 2002 that all 3 promoted clubs will stay on in the premier league for next season. In that year it was Bolton, Fulham and Blackburn.

So that’s in store for the final match day of the season. What a befitting end it is. 6 important matches. There is bound to be drama. There are bound to be emotions. Tempers will rise. Heated words will be exchanged. The refs will be under the micro-est of microscopes. Plenty of goals or wall defense. I can’t hardly wait. Almost wishing all 6 matches were being broadcast here and I had 6 televisions!

My predictions:

Manchester City vs QPR 2-1

Manchester United vs Sunderland 3-1

Arsenal vs West Brom 1-0

Tottenham vs Fulham 2-0

Newcastle vs Everton 1-1

Bolton vs Stoke 2-2

So yes …. I think and hope that City win the title. A) because I am a gunner and hate United B) Because it will be good for the game to have a new league winner C) because I don’t like United.

Arsenal will be 3rd as per my prediction not only because I am a gunner but also because I do feel they will have more hunger in a game which means nothing to West Brom other then the last day of the season.

A Super Sunday awaits us Open-mouthed smile!


So long Pep, it has been a pleasure…

The last 4 years for Barcelona have undoubtedly been the best in their history. They have won an astounding 13 cups, scored 615 goals, a win % of around 73. They won every single trophy they competed for in the 2008-2009 season (Pep’s first season in charge of Barca). Their team chemistry has been somewhat magical, beyond a dream team. The spine of Barca has played absolutely remarkable football which simply could not be matched. A huge factor for this has been a squad with jaw hanging talent, gifts and experience to compliment it all. Messi, Xavi, Ibrahimovic, Puyol, Iniesta, Pique, David Villa etc. The wealth of gifted individuals has simply been fascinating. And to top it all a manager who could manage that pool and also on occasion get to the special one. The El-Classico encounters over the past 4 years have largely tipped in the favor of Barcelona including one sided wins such as the 5-0 drubbing in 2010 (please correct me if I am wrong about the year) against a Mourinho steered Madrid.


Pep himself was part of a Barca dream team in his playing days under Cryuff. However that dream team and the one he  has managed… have simply been on different levels altogether. I have often discussed the state of Barca with my friends and the era of players that they are enjoying at the moment and all we have come conclude is that it is simply inexplicable for a club to have had so much talent and such amazing chemistry to have achieved what they have. They have simply played at a level no one can come close to. It like an inexplicable vortex in the time space continuum which blessed Barca with a wealth pool that they have had.

So I have talked about how great Barca have been and there is no doubt that this is because of the players they have had or rather the era of players they have had (which I repeat is inexplicable). Then why was it a pleasure by Pep. A headless squad can do nothing well unless the brains running the outfit are good. I am not saying that every achievement in the last 4 years has been entirely to Pep’s credit but he needed to be a damn good manager to have steered a squad overflowing with talent. He managed them damn well. He had his weaknesses and low points as well. But come on.. to have managed a team with those stats in the last 4 years is amazing. He has delivered an era for Barca which can never be forgotten. It is etched in the history books for football fans in general. He has after all steered the ship which delivered 13 titles in the last 4 years to the Nou Camp faithful making him the most successful manager in Barca’s history.


I have been a Gunner for the last 13 years and will continue to be one (despite my objections to the current state of affairs). However I have simply had to write this out of respect for all the sublime, mesmerizing, amazing and fantastic football that Pep’s Barcelona have delivered in the last 4 years. have had to watch in pain as Arsenal were twice simply outclassed by Barcelona in the Champions League. But they were simply not a match. Not even in the same league.

So long Pep, it has been a pleasure and an honor watching your team’s style and philosophy of football.