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Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011

PREMIER REPORT

Arsenal's win impressive, but work remains


LONDON — One of the beauties of football is that at times you simply cannot explain how something happens.

Christopher Davies

Arsenal fans are still scratching their collective heads wondering how their team came from behind to defeat Barcelona 2-1 in a pulsating Champions league game at Emirates Stadium.

Baffled, yes. Bothered, no.

To have beaten the side many observers, including yours truly, considers the best of all-time is an achievement worthy of back-slapping and celebration.

Forget for now that when the Gunners go to Nou Camp for the return leg they will probably be eliminated. Even the greatest slip up occasionally and Arsenal travels to the Catalan capital with at least a fighting chance.

Barcelona had more possession and completed a staggering 92 percent of its 739 passes, which means only 59 errant passes in 90 minutes.

Out-passed and outclassed, perhaps, but never out-fought. Spirit is a wonderful skill.

At times Barca's passing and movement was such that the impression was the TV broadcast had been sped up, but the visitors failed to capitalize on their domination, especially in the first-half, and were undone by superb strikes by Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin.

It is no secret that Barca would love to re-sign Cesc Fabregas, but Pep Guardiola could not have failed to be impressed by a majestic display by Jack Wilshere, who came of age against World Cup winners Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta.

Arsene Wenger called the performance of the 19-year-old "outstanding," but perhaps the most fitting compliment is that he would not look out of place in a Barcelona shirt.

Wilshere's distribution, running off the ball and tackling were breathtaking, and if Xavi was the best player on the night, the England international was only a shade behind the midfielder of whom Sir Alex Ferguson said: "He's never given the ball away in his life."

Arsenal knows it has to do it all over again and more at Nou Camp. There is hope — Carles Puyol is struggling with an injury and Gerard Pique is suspended. Even the best side in the world would miss its first-choice central defenders.

But the Premier League flag can rightly be waved in Europe as Arsenal's victory came 24 hours after an equally unlikely 1-0 win for Spurs over AC Milan.

Harry Redknapp is known as a wheeler and dealer — a phrase he hates — but tactically he was spot on in San Siro where Spurs showed the best form of defense can be attack.

The smart money would be on Spurs progressing and Arsenal exiting as glorious losers. Let's just hope the second legs are as exciting and dramatic as this week's terrific theater.

North London may yet become the football capital of Europe.

* * * * *

DAVID MOYES has long been regarded by many as the successor to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. During his nine years in charge at Everton, it has remained a contender for a European place, finishing sixth, fifth, fifth and eighth in the last four years.

Under Moyes, Everton has consistently punched above its weight, overachieving on a transfer budget that the Premier League financial heavyweights such as Chelsea and Manchester City would regard as loose change.

Last August, Ferguson even tipped Everton to challenge for a Champions League place. Instead, Everton is three points above the relegation zone, survival its main ambition.

While Moyes is still highly regarded as a manager, Everton's slump put down to its lack of investment finally catching up, will not help the likable Glaswegian's case to follow the maestro at Old Trafford.

Can a man who has never won anything as a manager succeed Ferguson, who has won 46 trophies with Aberdeen and United?

Ferguson said he will stay on while he is fit to do so, but at 69 a further year or two seems a realistic limit.

A manager's credibility can change quickly. Win something and you are flavor of the month. Struggle, even temporarily, and questions are asked.

Moyes has taken Everton as far as he can and further than it expected. It cannot challenge United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Spurs or even Liverpool because it is a pauper in comparison.

Its record transfer fee paid is £15 million for Marouane Fellini from Standard Liege three years ago.

If he remains at Goodison Park, Moyes faces a struggle to keep Everton in the top half of the table.

Would United go for a manager whose club have been on the wane for two or three years?

As one of the best managers in English football Moyes will no doubt receive a tempting offer to move on in the next year. A long shot is to Spurs if Harry Redknapp takes over from Fabio Capello after Euro 2012, but I wonder how Moyes will be perceived next year if Everton's downward slide continues.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.


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