After a full midweek’s worth of Champions and Europa League action, we should have plenty to talk about. Unfortunately, most matches involving English sides went… pretty much as planned. Still, I’ve drawn a couple of conclusions from this little lot of results, do let me know what you think…
1. Russia are going to have a cracking World Cup.
We all remember just how well Russia played at Euro 2008. I watched an awful lot of that tournament when I wasn’t moping around and wishing England were there, and the Russians were brilliant. Not only were they technically good, but they just seemed to run and run and run and then, for a change, run some more. They work incredibly hard, have great discipline and are a very effective team. Plus, they were managed by Mr. Magic himself, Guus Hiddink.
However, it has to be said that much of the credit for that performance went to Andrei Arshavin, who at that point was starring for Zenit St. Petersburg, but did eventually make his big money move to Arsenal, where he has pretty much continued where he left off. While a touch too injury-prone, there’s no denying that when Arshavin is fit, he’s one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League. His pace and trickery are extremely formidable and he’s got great imagination and that all important ability to create something out of nothing.
Last night though, another Russian stepped up to the plate. Everton’s new signing Diniyar Bilyaletdinov (yep, I can pronounce it) made his first start for the Toffees in their Europa League clash with AEK Athens and set about stealing the show. Providing a couple of wicked corners to serve up goals for Jo Yobo and Sylvain Distin on a plate, before searching out Steven Pienaar with a pinpoint cross field pass, allowing the South African to smash the ball home from 30 yards.
From what I’ve seen of the game (which, unfortunately isn’t much – if anyone’s got coverage that I can download, drop me a line) our little Russian winger, affectionately known by fans and teammates alike as Bily, was full of running, cunning and trickey and immediately established a great combination with Leighton Baines down the left hand side. In fact, if he lives up to his early promise, then Arshavin could well have a contender for the title of Premier League’s best Russian.
A midfield containing Arshavin and Bilyaletdinov then, is a formidable thing indeed. Combine that with a backline including one of the world’s best young keepers (Igor Akinfeev of CSKA Moscow) and Chelsea’s main summer signing Yuri Zhirkov (who could make it a three way race when he gets back from injury) and a forward line that consists of Pavel Pogrebnyak and uh… Roman Pavlyuchenko, who is (honestly) much better for Russia than for Spurs.
Amazingly though, much of the rest of Russia’s squad are still based in Russia, largely for Zenit St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow. Indeed, apart from Arshavin, Pavlyuchenko, Bilyaletdinov, Pogrebnyak and Zhirkov, all other current members of their squad are based domestically in Russia. However, if the quality of the few exports so far is anything to go by, Russia will have just as strong a World Cup as they did at Euro 2008, there could be a whole host of scouts knocking on Russian doors towards the end of next Summer.
2. Arsenal are “gonna’ score one more than you“… they hope.
Arsenal showed a great deal of character to come back from a couple of goals down to beat Standard Liege 3-2 in the opening fixture of the Champions League group stage, but Arsene Wenger has got to be getting concerned about his side’s defensive frailties. They conceded four goals against Manchester City at the weekend despite pretty much dominating the ‘new Chelsea’ for most of the ninety minutes.
At times, they pretty much just went to sleep, with Emmanuel Adebayor’s header a classic example of poor defending and a lack of organisation at the back. I have to say, had Kolo Toure still ben wearing the red and white of Arsenal instead of City’s sky blue, Arsenal may have come away with at least a point. And when they went two goals down inside the first ten minutes against Liege on Wednesday, Wenger must have been wishing he’d reinvested some of the cash he wrangled of Mark Hughes.
It seemed to me that once Wenger failed in his attempt to lure Felipe Melo to Arsenal over the summer he pretty much just gave up in his hunt for a defensive minded and tough tackling midfielder, which given that it’s been blindingly obvious for over a year now that they are crying out for such a player, was a big mistake. Of course, Melo must have been his preferred option but having missed out on his first choice, surely he could have found an equally adept option, even Patrick Vieira would have done the job!
Essentially then, Arsenal’s gameplan at least until January when Wenger will surely bring in some defensive reinforcements, looks quite likely to be to outscore the opposition. Their defence seems to be liable to crumble under pressure when faced with an attack of any real quality, and that fragility is matched only by the devastating power of their attack when in full flow. Wenger will have to hope that they can successfully overload teams enough to keep them on the back foot, else they could struggle this season, despite the fine form they find themselves in at present.
3. Everton thrive on adversity.
To say that Everton’s start to the 09/10 Premier League campaign has been poor would be an understatement. Apart from an injury time win against Wigan, we’ve been beaten three times and haven’t produced anywhere near our best football. However, against AEK Athens last night, the Toffees were on fire, playing the sort of short, sharp and pacy football that brought them such success last season. So what’s changed?
Well, I think that Everton’s squad thrives on pressure. Despite the additions brought in over the Summer, Moyes is already facing something of an injury crisis; with Arteta, Jagielka and Anichebe still recovering from long term injuries, the last thing he needed was to see club captain and utility man Phil Neville ruled out until the end of the year with ligament damage sustained in the defeat against Fulham.
What’s more, with Tony Hibbert facing a one match European ban after being dismissed in the last match against Sigma Olomouc and new boy Jonny Heitinga ineligible to play in Europe having featured for Atletico Madrid already this campaign, Everton were left without a recognised right-back for the visit of the Greek side. Indeed, that’s just the sort of problem Moyes faced for much of last season when he couldn’t field a proper striker and so called on Tim Cahill and Mauro Fellaini to fill in, and they did a magnificent job, as the team went from strength to strength.
It was the same story last night, with another of Everton’s exceptional youngsters (and last season’s FA Cup hero) stepping up to the plate when he was needed. Dan Gosling, naturally a right or central midfielder had played at right-back a few times for former club Plymouth but admitted before the game that it wasn’t his most comfortable position, however he insisted that he’d play wherever he was needed for the club.
And the other ten guys on the pitch rallied around him, putting in easily our best performance of the season so far and playing a very good Athens side of the pitch with ease. It’s frustrating really, because all we ask for every Summer is to add depth to a very good but very small squad, and yet we seem to perform best when we are stretched to the very limits. Still, let’s hope this marks a turning point in Everton’s season and that we can really get our Premier League season underway with a win over Blackburn this weekend.
What did you make of this week’s European games? Any thing I’ve missed? Please leave a comment with all your thoughts on the action below…