Allez Thierry! Allez!

Ibrahim Ba joined A.C. Milan in in 1997. He, like Gianluigi Lentini before him, was a bust at San Siro. Lentini joined Milan from Torino for the then massive fee of £13m. He never justified the fee. Ba would run tirelessly up and down the wing for the entire 90 minutes but provided very few positive moments for the Rossoneri. He would play a total of 56 matches for Milan, scoring just a single goal.

When I first saw Thierry Henry play for France, I thought I was watching another Ibrahim Ba. He was a pacy player stationed on the right side of midfield. Henry however was skillful but also raw and he too provided very few moments to convince me that he could bring much to the cause.

Fast forward to October 19, 2005 – by then, Thierry Had become Arsenal’s all-time leading goal scorer. No small feat. Mind, there’d been a potentially confidence shattering stop at Juventus on his way to North London. That Henry never received the World Player of the Year award is not a big deal to me. I watched him every week and have always known that he truly was the best player on the planet. And when you finish 2nd for that award in consecutive years, that kind of consistency says more about you than how much better the players who won it really were.

His move to Arsenal was instrumental in transforming the speedy winger without much end product into the world’s best player. Later today, Thierry Henry will attempt to capture the elusive Champions League medal that is one of the very, very few prizes missing from his collection. One that he couldn’t bring to North London. One whose absence from his C.V. that tools like Tommy Smyth have used to label the player as “not a big game player”. It will be well deserved and fitting climax to a wonderful season for the Blaugrana. It will be a fine resurgence to what seemed a waning though prolific career.

I have no dog in the fight when Manchester United face Barcelona in Rome but there will be players lining up whom I like and one or two I actually covet. Little Iniesta reminds me of Alain Giresse – the perfect foil – and Messi is a player who any neutral would pay to see. Rooney is not just the English bulldog but he can mix it with any of the super technical players who will grace the Stadio Olimpico. It is Thierry Henry however who will be my player to watch. It is Thierry Henry who will be most joyful when Barcelona defeat the current holders. It is Thierry who will send millions of Gooners into rapture when he lifts that trophy and the Red Scum watch in defeat.

As I have said previously, it is good vs. evil.

Allez Thierry! Allez!


The CL and What Really Matters

The UEFA Champions League tomorrow is between the two best teams in arguably the two best leagues in the world. That has not happened since 1994 when AC Milan dismantled Barcelona. It is a match that is laced with interesting storylines. It is a Final that one cannot miss as a football fan.

And it absolutely pains me that Arsenal are not in it. I cannot effectively argue that we deserve to be in it, playing in what would be known as the purist final.

So, for that reason, I’ll approach the final in an extremely objective manner. My hatred for Manchester United runs as deep as other great men, but I will ignore that to deliver a more level-headed analysis. It’s just one person’s opinion, of course, and I would be genuinely excited for it if my memories of United beating us at the Emirates had dulled (they haven’t).

Each team will be missing key personnel. 75% of Barcelona’s back four will be missing. Of those players, Dani Alves is the player who will be missed the most. Quite simply, in a match where I expect United to be cautious and play counter-attack football, he is another weapon to stretch the United defense. Neither Iniesta nor Henry are fully fit either, although they’ll be no way they’ll miss the final. You never know what that extra 15% might cost you in the long run, but the season will be over for both of them after today, so they will play.

For United, Rio Ferdinand is in the same condition that Henry and Iniesta are. In effect, I’ve read that Rio will never be the same again, because it is a back injury. In this game, Rio Ferdinand is by far the more important central defender for Manchester United. Vidic is a fairly good defender, but his power/stopper game suits the English Premier League more than any other league. He’d still be very good, but he wouldn’t shine nearly as much. Barcelona have made him their number one target, and he’d do them a world of good, but he won’t have as much impact as they think he will. The key to this pairing is due to the fact that Vidic is a left sided/left footed defender that matches up perfectly with Rio’s strengths. But leave Vidic on his own, and he can be beaten. Nasri and Theo once hoodwinked him, and so has Fernando Torres. He’s a very good defender, but not an elite one. Rio, with his anticipation skills and speed, will be more adept at cutting out the probing passes put forth by Xavi and Iniesta. His injury could create the fraction of a second they need to score a goal. Darren Fletcher has been praised to no end by Sir Alex Ferguson. He called him an honest player. In Carrick and Fletcher, he believes that he’s found his replacement for Roy Keane (it’s too bad they’re two men, instead of one like Keane was). The truth is, Fletcher is not a great player, but he does do the dirty work for United, and he does it with far more precision than Anderson does. In a game where constricting the midfield will be of primary importance, this is a problem for United.

I expect Manchester United to play a counter-attacking game. They will be cautious, and they will take their chances when they can. This is how they play in finals. Ronaldo has even told the press that they have been practicing penalties extensively, which tells you where their thinking is. Barcelona will attempt to pass their way through the United side, but that will prove to be difficult when Ferguson deploys five men across the midfield.

This match also features the two players that most consider to be the best offensive players in the world, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. This will not be the pivotal battle of the night, but one of the players will be a pivotal player in the match. That player will not be Lionel Messi. Theo Walcott was hounded to death by Evra and Rooney on every minute during the two legs against United. Wayne Rooney is such a gifted player, but he’s willing to do all the donkey work to help his team win. He has such bags of stamina that he can track back to defend and join in on a counter-attack. Obviously, Messi is ten times the player that Walcott is, but there is an area where even Theo is better than Messi. Arsene Wenger once commented that Messi does not appear to make good runs. He always receives the ball, sort of like Bo Jackson in Super Tecmo Bowl, and he proceeds to destroy opponents with it. Blessed with the best first touch in the world, he makes it look like the ball is glued to his foot. But, he rarely receives a key pass in a dangerous, final position. He roams for space so he can receive, then attack. Messi will be marked out of the game by the two United players, while Ronaldo, one can never predict what he does. In my eyes, once you remove the antics of Cristiano Ronaldo (something that is incredibly hard to do), you’ll see the best player in the world. Here’s things he can do that Messi cannot. He can score free kicks, he can defend corners, he can use both feet, he can score headers, he can make decisive runs, and he can hold off players using his strength. He’s a prat, simple enough. You could even call him a cheat, but Messi has scored goals with his hand and taken human growth hormones to further his footballing career, so neither is he a complete saint. He’s just a more likable guy, by a huge margin. But Ronaldo is the best player to ever have played for Manchester United. He is the important cog in their challenge next year to win four straight Premier League titles. He leaves for Madrid, you can kiss that goodbye. That’s a guarantee. He is the head, not Ferguson, of this United side, and Sir Alex knows it. The reason why that’s true is because if any other player had done the things he had done this year, Ferguson would have destroyed him. Ronaldo was never reprimanded for any bad actions this year. Never. And there have been great players in the past who Ferguson has gone out of his way to humiliate.

Messi has never impressed in the most important occasions, neither for Barcelona nor Argentina. Cristiano Ronaldo has unfinished business with Portugal, to be sure

Last year, Manchester United accomplished a historic double in the 50th anniversary of Munich. This year, they can achieve a historic defense of the Champions League since the new format premiered on Matt Busby’s 100th birthday. Sir Alex Ferguson is a man who thrives off achieving history. He has almost done it by tying Liverpool in League Titles.

The key players for Barcelona tomorrow will be Xavi, Iniesta, and Thierry Henry. The fact that Barcelona have two players of Xavi and Iniesta’s quality is devastating. Cesc couldn’t walk into this team. The luxury of having two players like that is that if space is restricted, you can always reset and re-position to open up new opportunities. You shut one player down, and the other one will take the mantle. Iniesta, although not fully fit, is more likely to score of the two, because he knows how to pop up in the right position and he’s also possesses a shooting foot. Dani Alves would have been another huge weapon, because he could have made it harder for United to mark Messi out of the game. He has guile and the skill to make things happen, but he will not play tomorrow.

For Thierry Henry, redemption could possibly await. Henry has played well against Manchester United in the past. We all remember his stunning goals against them. He genuinely dislikes them, because he’s a great man. But, Henry is also keenly aware that he blew an opportunity to hand us our first European triumph. That must eat away at him at night. He must be thinking about it right now. For Henry, if he’s to win it, his time is now. But a part of me feels as though that ever since he changed his white Nike boots for black Reebok boots, he became human. He was a legend in his prime, but he’s still very good now. Which will be key, because John O’Shea will be playing right back. And if there’s a player to target in the United defense, it’ll be him. No matter where he is, I’ll always root for Thierry.

Arsene Wenger said the other day that Barcelona would not win the English Premier League. When he says that, I know exactly what he means. Of course, if Barcelona were in the Premier League, they would have to build their squad differently. But Messi has never scored against an English club, doing so tomorrow will help immensely. Manchester United have the ability to suffocate the match in midfield, leaving the Barcelona three of Eto’o, Henry, and Messi without supply. It is a tactic that has already worked, albeit in a horrendous manner, last year.

One could write even more about this Final. It is simply that good of a matchup, but I’ll wrap it up here with a prediction, which I’ll make because there’s nothing really on the line and Arsenal are not involved.

Manchester United will win it 2-1. The first goal will come from a set-piece and Ronaldo will have some role on it. In the second half, United will score a counter-attack goal and go up 2-0. Barcelona will score in the final ten minutes, but it will not be enough.

Writing all these positive words about United is making me sick. I want to vomit. I hate this team with a passion, but I see United winning definitively. Or perhaps, I have just put a jinx on the entire team and city of Manchester.

And with that, I’ll post a picture of something I care about more than anything else at the moment:

The first FA Youth Cup in eight years. Effectively, the first with Wenger’s influence in full. The Future is not far away at all for players like Jack Wilshere, Kyle Bartley, Francis Coquelin, and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas.

I love The Arsenal.