Weekend Preview: Porto Postmortem, The Mess Between The Sticks

Firstly, apologies for the long layoff between posts. I've been tremendously busy of late and just haven't had the time or energy to put together anything worth posting. I try to make these as frequent as possible, but the real world has a habit of interrupting my Arsenal addiction.

Since last I wrote, we recovered from a double swoon against United and then Chelsea by knocking off Liverpool with a scrappy, if unspectacular performance, the points secured by a second-half Diaby header. Stephen Gerrard got the English press all in a bustle by bleating about a penalty that wasn't given at the death. Yes, the ball on the free kick struck Cesc's arm. He was well outside the box, however, so the most that could have been given was another free kick. And considering that Stevie G won that free kick with a dive (his second of the match) to begin with, his protestations ring more than a little hollow. He comes off a bit like the old woman with a ham under one arm, crying because she's got no bread. I think he's just upset because he hadn't nicked a wallet or punched a deejay for a whole day.

So with that ground-out performance under our belts, we had the weekend off, since we'd already been bounced out of the FA Cup by Stoke. Due to Manuel Almunia's finger injury, the same keeper from the Stoke contest, Lukasz Fabianski, would be in goal for the away leg this past Wednesday of our Champions League tie with FC Porto. With the vast majority of Arsenal fans dreading each appearance in goal by the hapless Almunia, Arsene had talked up the young Pole in the days leading up to the match, comparing him to a young David Seaman and stating that all the young man was missing was experience. Lukasz certainly gained experience in this match, but it's certain to be one that he, and all of us, would much rather forget.

Porto had the better of the opening minutes, pressing our defenders and creating chances early. They did not have to wait long to see the deadlock broken, and in a most unusual way. Ten minutes in, Varela put a cross in from the left side of our box, the ball headed for no one in particular it seems but close to goal. Fabianski had what I can only describe as some sort of nervous fit, flapping about and managing to take what should have been a relatively easy stop and knock the ball into his own net. It was a freakish, costly, and completely stunning misplay, and Porto had an early lead.

It has to be said that Arsenal did respond well, keeping possession and pressing their advantage. Just a few minutes later, having won a corner, a bit of header pinball saw Vermaelen head to the back post to Rosicky, whose header into the box was in turn headed in by Sol Campbell for the equalizer. Nearly four years had elapsed since his last Champions League goal against Barca in the 2006 final. We were back level and had a crucial away goal in this competition. Arsenal continued to press forward, with Bendtner and Rosicky denied, it has to be said, by outstanding keeping from Porto's number 1. We were level at the break and, it cannot be stressed enough, had ourselves a massive away goal.

After the restart, we continued to attack Porto and really did have the better of them. One of many mistakes made by referee Martin Hannson, and one that could certainly come back to haunt us, was his waving on a rather obvious penalty on Rosicky. It was as clear a penalty as you'll see, and we've yet again been disappointed. I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it certainly seems we're being intentionally ignored when fouled in the box since the Eduardo incident at Celtic. In the Champions League qualifying round. In August. We've have one, count 'em, ONE penalty awarded since then, at home against Stoke in December, which was promptly missed by Cesc. I mean, jumped-up-Jeebus-in-a-sidecar, what happened? One diving incident, cetainly not the worst in the world, by a player who has done pretty much fuck-all since, and we're all branded as divers? And don't think other managers and players haven't noticed. Defenders know they have carte-blanche to hack away at our players in the box, because nothing will be called. It's sickening.

And then, disaster struck again, once again in the form of a Polish goalkeeper and a Swedish Ref. Sol Campbell involuntarily but obviously tapped the ball while shielding it away from an attacker, and as it rolled toward Fabianski, he picked it up. I'll repeat this for effect: He. Picked. Up. A. Back. Pass. This is Goalkeeping 101, it's not as though this is a foreign rule, you just don't do it. Then, to compound things, while Sol covered his head in exasperation, Fabianski handed the ball right back to Hannson before any Arsenal players could get back in position to defend. Hannson immediately put the ball down, seemed to shield Campbell from being able to get himself in, and Porto had an easy tap in off the first pass to lead 2-1.

I couldn't believe what had happened, and then was absolutely furious at the way the whole thing was handled by Hannson. While there's no rule against doing what the referee did (to my knowledge), it seems common practice to allow the other team to defend the kick, seeing as it's directly in front of goal and in this case, easier than a penalty. Wenger was spitting mad about the decision to allow the goal after the match, but there's not much he could do about it. Another howler of an error by Fabianski had cost us dearly, and as it turned out, the match. Porto spent the rest of the match laying back defensively and waiting to counter, but as all of our players seemed completely deflated, they didn't have very hard to work.

The score remained 2-1 at the final whistle. We'd been victimized by goalkeeping mistakes so ridiculous that they're positively comical to everyone but Arsenal, and by some plain awful officiating. Porto midfielder Fernando Belluschi had come out in the press before the match and made it clear that they were going to target Cesc, and they certainly did, by fouling the crap out of him at every possible opportunity. Hannson made no attempt to stop the practice, and Porto made certain that it was never the same player to foul, so as to avoid cards... not that any were forthcoming.

"I believe that he is incompetent or dishonest. I prefer that he is incompetent." - Wenger on Referee Martin Hannson.

I can bitch all I like about Hannson and Fabianski, but while they cost us the match, very few players really stood out in a positive way for us. Campbell had a lovely goal and made some fantastic, goal-saving tackles, but on a few occasions it was poor marking or positioning that necessitated them in the first place. Diaby was solid if unspectacular, drove forward a few times but just couldn't make that last bit happen. And Cesc was on his ass too often to make himself much of an overwhelming factor. If he were to actually start thinking of moving on (and I don't think he will, not now), knowing that none of his teammates responded with equal roughness toward Porto in his defense, I'd be inclined to agree from a purely rational standpoint. In spite of all this, while we made a rather pedestrian Porto side look very good, we're still only down 2-1, and have a home leg against a team that simply aren't very good on the road. We can, and should, win by a convincing enough margin to advance when we host the Portuguese in two weeks.

The captain was rightly upset afterward, referring to both of Porto's scores as "schoolboy goals," and it's hard to argue that. Fabianski did more for Almunia in one match than Almunia has done all season. He may be as talented as the manager keeps pointing out, but I've yet to see it. When I think Fabianski, I tend to think of all the costly errors he's made in the short time he's had in goal for us, and his skittish, nervous demeanor. He's not exactly confidence-inspiring for a defender or a fan, it has to be said, and you have to wonder how long Arsene can ignore the rather obvious ways in which he's become a liability for us. But then Arsene has always been myopic when it comes to his players' failings, so who knows.

I know that other blogs have been less than complimentary about the performances of Vito Mannone, particularly his showing at Upton park against West Ham, but I've never been in agreement. He cost us two points against the Hammers, but we still got the draw, and he most certainly earned us all three points with his magnificent display in a 1-0 win at Craven Cottage. In all, he allowed 6 goals in his 8-match run this season, and we didn't lose once with him between the posts. Where exactly is the major failing that everyone's banging on about? I'd be shocked if Fabianski were in goal for us against Sunderland on Saturday (despite Arsene doing his best to back the lad), but meanwhile we're rushing back the train-wreck that has been Almunia this season instead of giving Don Vito another shot. I just don't understand it.

As a quick point, the FA has been discussing allowing near-bankrupt Pompey to sell players outside of the transfer window in order to rescue themselves. If this were to occur, Arsene had better be the first one in line and willing to spend the most cash on David James. He's not the greatest in the world, but he's an established international number one, experienced, and at 39 years old, he'll hardly "kill" any of our young keepers (Wojciech Szczesny, having a dynamite loan spell at Brentford, is 19, Fabianski is 24). I can't say I'd be surprised if Arsene decided to stick with what he has, but I'd be more than displeased. Apoplectically angry is probably more fitting. Anyway, since none of this is a real possibility just yet it's no big deal, but still an interesting talking point. What do you all think?

We host Sunderland at the Home of Football on Saturday (10am EST kickoff). The Black Cats beat us at the Stadium of Light in November, but have been in a long tailspin after a bright start to the season. They've had nearly as bad luck with injuries as we have and have been playing midfielders at the back for weeks. While we have plenty of injuries and have been less than stellar of late, we most certainly should be able to win the match. To fail in this task with our rather slim hopes of a league title would be devastating.

We should see Alex Song back, always a welcome sight, although Abou Diaby is out with a knee injury. Shocking, I know. It will be quite interesting to see who Arsene selects to put in goal. Perhaps we'll just pull the keeper like a trailing hockey team and hope for the best. It wouldn't be so much worse than having Wednesday's Fabianski in there, would it?

Sigh. In any event, hopefully you'll all be able to catch the match, be it at the Grove, at Nevadas or wherever you're watching from. And wherever that is, just remember to stay classy, mon Arsamis.