This Week In: English Football – Arsenal Retain North London Dominance

Giroud gets the ball past Lloris and Dawson for the only goal of the North London derby
Giroud gets the ball past Lloris and Dawson for the only goal of the North London derby

Prior to the North London derby two weeks ago, there was a general consensus in the media that the game would represent a shift in power in the rivalry between Tottenham and Arsenal.  Spurs had spent around £110m over the summer on new recruits to strengthen their squad, while the Gunners had only made two free signings and were looking depleted in terms of depth.  Arsene Wenger was supposedly facing a crisis, after watching his team lose their first game of the season against Aston Villa (ignoring the fact they then beat Fulham and comfortably secured their passage to the group stages of the Champions League) and his unwillingness to spend was causing frustration to fans at the Emirates.  A defeat against Tottenham would have been seen as evidence that Wenger was losing his touch and some people actually seemed to believe it might happen.  But of course it did not; an early strike from Olivier Giroud – who converted a Theo Walcott pass after the England winger was afforded far too much space on the right, just like he was in the previous two seasons at the Emirates when Arsenal prevailed 5-2 twice – was enough for the home side to claim all three points and saw them leapfrog their rivals in the early Premiership table.  This really should not have been a surprise to Tottenham supporters – it certainly was not to me – as thus far, the Waffles have failed to score from open play in the league; Spurs have won only once in their last 22 away trips to Arsenal in all competitions; and while we did have expensive new signings in the lineup, we were without Gareth Bale, who was our best player last season.  The fact is that Tottenham have had more false dawns than Truman Burbank and until we actually finish above Arsenal in the league – which I hate to labor the point, but that has not happened since 1994/5 – I refuse to be drawn into claims that this will be the season.

A couple of hours after the loss to their rivals, Tottenham announced that they had concluded the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid – something that I covered more extensively here – while Arsenal made the biggest move on the final day of the transfer window, as they brought in the excellent German creative midfielder, Mesut Özil from Real Madrid for £42.5m.  With the Bale sale and the other business they did in the summer, Tottenham’s net spend was just £3m, the fourth lowest in the division behind only Newcastle, whose only recruit was Loic Remy on loan, despite big boasts of his own brilliance from their new sporting director, Joe Kinnear; Everton, who sold Marouane Fellaini to Manchester United for £27.5m; and Sunderland, who sent out £2m more than they got back in across 28 deals.  Although Arsenal may lack some depth – they have named a senior squad of just 21 players out of a possible 25, with only five being home-grown, the joint fewest in the Premiership along with Chelsea – the signing of Özil, who is a world-class midfielder, gives them a first XI that are potential contenders for not just the league, but also the Champions League.  Further north in London, Tottenham will be spending the year trying to get their new recruits to play well together and, much as I think when they click this will be a good side, I think expecting to usurp any of the top four will have to wait for at least one more year.  Again.

Liverpool actually have the smallest senior squad in the division, as they have named just 19 players over the age of 21, but they are yet to be troubled by that as they sit on top of the league having won all of their games 1-0, with Daniel Sturridge netting all three of the goals.  In their most recent Premiership encounter, it was Manchester United that Brendan Rodgers’ men beat – extending the run of new manager David Moyes of never having won an away league match at Anfield, Stamford Bridge, the Emirates/Highbury, or Old Trafford (from his time with Everton).  The performance from United was lackluster and they fully deserved to lose to Liverpool, but the transfer deadline day addition of Fellaini should help them strengthen their midfield and provide more openings for Robin Van Persie up front.  The one place where the Red Devils do look vulnerable is on the wings – Antonio Valencia is a solid performer, but beyond him they have an aging Ryan Giggs, an inconsistent Nani, and Ashley Young, who seems unable to reproduce the good form he showed when he first joined the club.  It seems time for Moyes to use the exciting young Wilfred Zaha, who performed so well for Crystal Palace in the Championship last season and who was bought by Ferguson prior to his departure.  As for Liverpool, they are the only team with a 100% record and thus they sit in first place, achieving this excellent start to the season without their best player, Luis Suarez, who still has two games to serve of his ten match suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic last season.

Elsewhere in the most recent round of Premiership action, Manchester City got back to winning ways with a 2-0 victory over Hull, though they could well have been behind after half an hour as Steve Bruce’s men had enjoyed the better chances; Newcastle beat Fulham thanks to a late wonder strike by Ben Arfa; 19-year-old Nathan Redmond scored the only goal of the game for Norwich against Southampton; Everton have now drawn all three of their opening fixtures following a 0-0 stalemate away at Cardiff; West Ham lost 1-0 at home to Stoke with Jermaine Pennant hitting the target directly from a free-kick; while both Crystal Palace and Swansea got their first points of the year, defeating Sunderland 3-1 and West Brom 2-0 respectively.  Chelsea have not played a Premiership match for the best part of three weeks now, as they had the European Super Cup in Prague on August 30th against Bayern München, a trophy they were moments away from winning in extra-time, before Javi Martinez equalized for the Germans, forcing penalties.   In the battle of the old rivals from El Classico, it was former Barça boss Pep Guardiola who came out on top once again, as one time Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho’s side lost when Romelu Lukaku – who has been since sent out on loan once again, this time to Everton – missed the crucial spot-kick.

Landon Donovan scores on his return to the USA lineup
Landon Donovan scores on his return to the USA lineup

All of that action took place two weeks ago as the league action stopped for a break while international fixtures took over, with qualifying for the 2014 World Cup coming close to its conclusion.  In the CONCACAF region, the United States secured their passage to Brazil with a 2-0 win over Mexico in Columbus, the third consecutive time they have won by that margin in that stadium over their old rivals.  Costa Rica, who beat the USA 3-1 last Friday, have also qualified and the last automatic spot is currently filled by Honduras, who sit three points above Panama and Mexico with two games to play.  The Hondurans take on Costa Rica, who have nothing to play for, and bottom-placed Jamaica in their remaining fixtures, so for Mexico to avoid missing the World Cup for the first time since 1990, it appears like they will have to finish above Panama, who sit in fourth on goal difference at the moment, with the two teams meeting at the Azteca on October 11th, then defeat New Zealand in a playoff.

One of the best stories of the qualification process for the 2014 World Cup was the progress of Cape Verde Islands in the African region, as they defeated Tunisia 2-0 in Tunis to top their group and be part of the final ten teams that would take part in a two-leg playoff to determine the five countries that will make it to Brazil.  However, Cape Verde – which ranks as only the 163rd largest nation and is smaller in area than Puerto Rico – were sanctioned by FIFA for fielding an ineligible player in that match (Fernando Valera, who had not served all four games of a suspension following a red card last March) and Tunisia were awarded a 3-0 victory, meaning they progressed to the next stage instead.  The other nine countries who will be in the playoffs (the draw for which is held next Monday) are Ethiopia, who knocked out South Africa, the hosts of the last tournament; Côte D’Ivoire; Ghana; Burkina Faso; Nigeria; Egypt, managed by former USA boss, Bob Bradley; Algeria; Cameroon and Senegal.

In the European section, the nine group winners qualify automatically and eight runners-up will be in a playoff to determine the last four teams to head to Brazil (the second placed team with the worst record – results against the bottom team discounted for all groups except I, which has one less country in it).  This is how things stand in each group:

A – Belgium top, five points above Croatia with two games to play and the teams meet in Zagreb on October 11th.  No other countries can qualify from the group and Croatia will need to beat Scotland to ensure a playoff spot and not be the 2nd placed team to miss out.

B – Italy have qualified as winners after their 2-1 victory over Czech Republic on Tuesday.  Bulgaria currently sit in second but can still be caught by Denmark, the Czech Republic or even Armenia, though this group is currently the one most likely to have the country who misses out on the play-offs.

C – Germany sit five points above Sweden and will guarantee their place in Brazil with a victory over Ireland or draw away against the Swedes.  Although they are not technically sure of a playoff place yet, a victory over Austria in Stockholm on October 11th will ensure they cannot be caught.  Giovanni Trapattoni left his job as Ireland manager following their defeats to Sweden and Austria, which left them on the brink of elimination.

D – Finalists in the 2010 World Cup, the Netherlands ensured they will compete again in 2014 with a 2-0 win over minnows Andorra.  Second place is between Hungary, Turkey and Romania, with Turkey appearing to have the advantage as their final two fixtures are against Estonia and the already-qualified Dutch, while the other two face each other on October 15th.

E – If Switzerland can gain just two points from their remaining matches with Slovenia and Albania, they will make it to Brazil 2014.  Behind them in Group E, Iceland currently sit 2nd, a point ahead of Slovenia, but both Norway and Albania could also still make the playoffs.

F – Despite a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick giving them a 4-2 win in Northern Ireland last Friday, Portugal still require Russia to slip up if they are to progress as group winners.  That looks unlikely, however, as Fabio Cappello’s men will be favorites to get maximum points from their trips to Azerbaijan and Luxembourg; while at least a draw at home to Israel in their next match will ensure Portugal cannot be caught in second and will be a country nobody wants to face in the playoffs.

G – Both Greece and Bosnia & Herzegovina are tied on 19 points, with the latter having a far superior goal difference.  The two each have an easy home game with Liechtenstein, so Bosnia can secure top spot with a victory away at Lithuania, while the Greeks will need to defeat Slovakia in Athens to keep the pressure up.

England manager Roy Hodgson
England manager Roy Hodgson (right) and coach Gary Neville 

H – Nations that England have beaten in Group H: Moldova (Ranked 129th in the FIFA World Rankings); and San Marino (207th/last).  Despite this fact, Roy Hodgson’s side are favorites to top the group following a (much-maligned by the press) 0-0 draw in the Ukraine, as they now sit in first with home matches against Poland and Montenegro remaining.  Both of those countries will be fighting for a playoff spot with Ukraine although, if Montenegro can avoid defeat at Wembley on October 11th, it could open the group up once again.

I – Spain and France are tied on 14 points and both are assured of at least a playoff spot, although France had to work hard to beat Belarus 4-2 on Tuesday having been behind twice.  Reigning World and European champions Spain will finish top if they get four points from their two remaining fixtures, at home to Georgia and Belarus; while France have just one match left, against Finland in Paris.

Finally, in the South American section, Argentina have booked their place in Brazil 2014 and Colombia are all but sure of joining them.  The other two automatic spots are currently filled by Ecuador and Chile, though the former are only ahead of Uruguay on goal difference and the two nations meet in Quito in their next fixture.  Whoever finishes fifth will face Jordan in the Intercontinental playoff, while the four countries that have already qualified from the Asian region are Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia (yes, Australia progressed from the Asian region…don’t ask).

Back to the Premiership, the early game on Saturday will see Manchester United return to winning ways with a victory over Crystal Palace at Old Trafford (sorry, spoiler alert!); Özil’s first match for Arsenal will be at the Stadium of Light against Sunderland; Brendan Rodgers returns to his old club, Swansea, on Monday night with league-leading Liverpool; and Chelsea face a trip to draw-specialists Everton.  Tottenham will attempt to do something they’ve failed to achieve in the last two seasons – even when we had Gareth Bale – and beat Norwich at White Hart Lane; West Brom, yet to score this season, have an away game at Fulham; Stoke host Manchester City; Aston Villa entertain Newcastle; two newly-promoted, re-branded sides meet at the KC Stadium as the Hull City Amur Tigers take on the Red-Shirted Cardiff City Dragons; and Sunday’s fixture is between Southampton and West Ham.

Predictions

Last time, 5-4; Season 17-13

Home team listed first

Manchester United vs Crystal Palace – Home win

Aston Villa vs Newcastle – Home win

Fulham vs West Brom – Draw

Hull City Tiger Stripes vs Cardiff City – Away win

Stoke vs Manchester City – Draw

Sunderland vs Arsenal – Away win

Tottenham Hotspur Waffles vs Norwich City – Home win

Everton vs Chelsea – Away win

Southampton vs West Ham – Home win

Swansea vs Liverpool – Draw

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