Chelsea vs. City -- battle at the Bridge
I don't know about you, but my face is still burning from that slap Andre Villas-Boas delivered this past week to Chelsea's critics in the media who fail to give the Blues the respect that Roman Abramovich's billions deserve.
But it turns out that I -- and the rest of the print and digital media -- got off easily compared to the tirade AVB (All-Volume Blasts) leveled at certain on-air commentators who had the temerity to criticize Chelsea. Take the case of a certain easy-to-loathe United defender who has recently transformed himself into a refreshingly forthright and -- dare I say -- intelligent TV analyst. At least now Gary Neville knows what it's like to be on the other end of a late and reckless challenge -- sadly, it was only a verbal assault. AVB lit into the former England captain for his disparaging comments about Chelsea defender David Luiz and ruminations about dissension in the Blues dressing room.
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Now a couple of media meltdowns don't necessarily mean the Chelsea manager is wilting under the anvil-like weight of Abramovich's grandiose expectations. Nor does his decision to ban the reserves from first-team training to eliminate distractions suggest a siege mentality run amok. Still, if I could give AVB one word of advice ahead of Monday's Clasico Lite at the Bridge, it's this: decaf.
After all, having watched their carefully laid (and ridiculously expensive) plans for world domination suffer a de Jong-esque kick to the chest at midweek, Manchester City figures to be in a frighteningly pissed-off mood. Villarreal's capitulation to Napoli unceremoniously dumped City out of the Champions League and into the newly formed Manchester Europa League. Beating Bayern Munich may have lent their CL exit a slightly dignified note, but it doesn't change the fact that the Sky Blues will be playing their European soccer on Thursday nights in relative obscurity. Suck on that, Samir.
But even after his bad week, you don't see Roberto Mancini foaming at the mouth like the hypersensitive AVB. And there is certainly as much pressure on the Italian now that United's impressive 4-1 dismantling of soon-to-be-in-the-next-division-down Wolves narrows City's lead at the top to a measly two points, with the Red Devils having played one more game.
Mancini has said all along that he fully expects his team to lose a league game sooner or later, and he's well aware that the match against Chelsea has all the portents to potentially make his self-fulfilling prophecy come good -- especially as his prize head case, Mario Balotelli, broke team curfew Saturday night and will invariably occupy the Carlos Tevez memorial seat on the bench.
Even so, it is doubtful that Mancini will resemble a human jack-in-the-box on the sidelines, where AVB will be manically working on his squat thrusts and semaphore-like signals to his team. His histrionics notwithstanding, AVB seems to have finally developed an understanding of his squad and his players' best roles within it. Like another Portuguese manager with whom he has been tediously compared, Villas-Boas arrived at Chelsea with a clear and well-honed strategy, and knew that it would take time for his players to learn and successfully implement his approach.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
The AVB way now finds Fernando Torres rooted to the bench, Nicolas Anelka out the door, Alex soon to follow and Frank Lampard no longer assured a place in the first XI. With those moves alone, AVB has put his imprimatur on the team and showed that he may be finally channeling his inner Portuguese man-of-war. At the same time, he's tweaked his master plan into more of an evolution than a revolution. It's taken him almost half the season to meld his attacking philosophy with the bedrock qualities of defensive strength and resilience that are embedded in the Blues' DNA just as much as the way they swarm and harass refs after a call goes against them. AVB has afforded his more technical players like Juan Mata, Ramires and Daniel Sturridge the freedom to take creative risks, while making sure they are buttressed by a well-organized and formidable rearguard. To see John Terry, Petr Cech and Didier Drogba reach back across the years against Valencia to rediscover their ruthless Mourinho-era form makes me think that the Chelsea Revival Show may still batter its way back into the title conversation.
But first it needs to prove itself against a "big club," and the Blues have lost to United, Arsenal and Liverpool this season. City is better than any of those three. David Silva reminded us again in Munich that he is the most preternaturally gifted player in the Prem. Having controlled Edin Dzeko's lay off with his chest, he dribbled across the edge of the box until he glimpsed the tiniest of openings, from which he lashed the ball with his left foot into the bottom right corner while falling backward. It was a goal of breathtaking quickness and anticipation by a man who makes it look routine.
It remains to be seen whether AVB's impassioned diatribes can fire his aging squad past Silva and the EPL's only unbeaten side, but the odds are against it. Far more likely is a win that will take City a "Read it and weep, Roman" 13 points clear of the darker blues. Should that happen, AVB will be able to go in front of his friends in the media and put a new spin on Mancini's post-Bayern maxim: "We can now concentrate on the Champions League."
Coming soon to the Emirates: a Robin van Persie statue
I once asked Thierry Henry if there was anything better than an Arsenal victory. "Yes," said the impish Frenchman, "an Arsenal victory and a Spurs defeat."
Laissez les bon temps rouler! Henry could hardly have had a more enjoyable weekend, what with the Gunners beating Everton 1-0 on the back of Robin van Persie's outrageous volley and Spurs having their 11-game unbeaten streak derailed 2-1 on a perfectly nice Sunday afternoon at Stoke.
There was also the little matter of Henry being bronzed for immortality outside the Emirates. Say this for the Arsenal board of directors: They may show in every transfer window that they're cheap, but at least they have a sense of humor. Instead of depicting Henry in full supersonic flight or conjuring any one of his wondrous 226 goals, they erected a statue of the Arsenal legend in an altogether different kind of iconic pose -- basically taunting Spurs for the rest of eternity. There he is, sliding on his knees after scoring against Tottenham at Highbury in November 2002.
The club chose to unveil the statue Friday as part of Arsenal's 125-year anniversary celebration. Henry took one look at it and nearly burst into tears. Why do I think he'll be slightly more composed when the Red Bulls finally get around to honoring him?
"Once a Gooner, always a Gooner," Henry is fond of saying. And he actually means it. On Saturday during the Everton game, the cameras kept panning to him in the director's box, but like his fellow Gunners on the field, he showed few signs of life other than to burrow increasingly deeper into his red-and-white scarf to ward off the London chill. Then, in the 70th minute, both the Gunners and their greatest player sprang to life.
The moment van Persie's thunderbolt flew into the far corner, Henry was out of his seat, applauding the Dutchman's inspirational piece of striking genius. The two forwards had overlapped at the Arsenal during Henry's last three years at the club, when the Frenchman ran the team as his own personal fiefdom and had little time for van Persie's ego and off-the-field troubles. But if there's one thing Henry values almost as much as loyalty, it's talent. And it didn't take him long to realize that RvP had bags of it.
So even though van Persie's brilliant volley moved him to within one goal of Henry's single-year record, Henry -- along with everyone else at the Emirates -- knew they had witnessed a strike for the Arsenal ages.
Ironically, up to that moment, van Persie had looked nothing like a man who was in the form of his life. The couple of chances he had went begging as he generally drifted in and out of the game. (Gunners fans call that the "Full Arshavin.") But with 20 minutes to go, Alex Song -- who is rapidly developing into one of the classiest defensive midfielders in Europe -- spotted van Persie in space at the edge of the box.
Clipping rather than driving his pass over the top of the Everton defense so as to take the pace off it, Song made sure the ball would fall ever-so-gently onto van Persie's left foot. In an eye-blink, RvP adjusted his body to the flight of the pass, and in one fluid motion swung his left leg with such ferocious torque that both feet were off the ground at the moment of impact and the ball actually changed its trajectory at the last instant, swerving just inside the far post before Tim Howard could move a muscle.
It was the 33rd Prem goal in 2011 for van Persie, and maybe his most jaw-dropping to date. If there is a better goal scorer in Europe right now -- and don't dare say Lionel Messi, C-Ron or Sergio Aguero -- I would still not trade him for RvP.
Naturally, there will be eye-watering offers as both Real Madrid and Manchester City vow to back up the Brink's truck to the Emirates and spirit the Dutchman away.
But this time Arsene Wenger will throw his body in front of that truck even as he insists that van Persie isn't a one-man team. Of course, he used to say the same thing about Henry, but given the Frenchman's supporting cast -- Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, etc. -- you could at least see his reasoning. Now look at the players who surround RvP -- Gervinho, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey -- and you realize how much more of a burden van Persie has had this season in hauling the Gunners from the relegation zone to the top four, where they resided Saturday after their seventh win in their past eight league games.
Certainly the Arsenal faithful realize just how much RvP means to the team's success. As the clock ticked down on the Everton victory, the Emirates erupted in a joyful new song:
"When the red 'n'white Robin comes bob-bob-bobbin along The Spurs will be sobbin' when he gets the ball from Alex Song."
The sculptors are no doubt already hard at work on the statue.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."