Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Celtic v Arsenal

I don't follow English football as closely as most, mainly because I have no emotional attachment. A brief childhood passion for Manchester United fizzled out in the early days of Alex Ferguson's stewardship. Now though I follow the results and highlights as much as I can, it's rare I go out of my way to watch a match. That said, I'm happy to accept the claims of it being the best league in the world, though I think La Liga, after a few years on the blink, is back on the ascendancy. And, in my own dispassionate way, I can observe and wish well or ill, as I like. I wouldn't mind seeing Liverpool regain the title, which is ironic as I beheld the end of their glory days in the early 90s with the same vague pleasure. Arsenal are also a side I admire, in spite of everything. A truly repulsive outfit in the George Graham era the club now has an admirable core of fine players, and a manager committed to intelligent, beautiful football. But they remain Arsenal nonetheless, a long-standing underachieving club, with colourless supporters, and a stadium so bereft of atmosphere and beholden to the new corporate order of football, that Tottenham fans rightly - if hypocritically - call it the 'library'. A friend of mine who is a longtime Spurs supporter says the fact that Arsenal play nice football these days really sticks in the craw - things were a great deal simpler in the days of 'Boring Boring Arsenal'.

The Arse' got the season off to a good start at the weekend, hammering a wretched Everton side 6-1 at Goodison. For us Celtic fans facing them tonight at Parkhead, this might be alarming, but you would also expect them not to be able to reproduce such freak form immediately afterwards. Arsenal are certainly the favourites for the tie but it's not unwinnable for the Bhoys either. Unfortunately the only way Celtic are likely to progress is via a titanic struggle, like when we beat Barcelona in the UEFA Cup six seasons ago. A slim 1-0 home win followed by a draw at the Camp Nou did the job. If we progress this time it will take a similar effort, and I can't see us taking a two-goal lead to the Emirates. Of course, Celtic have a good home record against English sides and English hubris often tends to backfire when teams travel north of the border. But Arsenal, with their dearth of English personnel and the presence of former Celtic manager Liam Brady on the backroom staff, probably won't be afflicted by this. And the Gunners have a strong record of over-performing when written off - think of their away victory against Real Madrid in 2006, and their hammerings of Fenerbahçe and Inter away from home.

Celtic have themselves got off to a decent start, the jitters in the home game against Dynamo Moscow aside. The performance in Russia was robust and professional as well as containing some attractive football. Nobody's going to read too much into the easy 3-1 win at Pittodrie last Saturday but the break with the pragmatism of the O'Neill and Strachan years is noticeable. Celtic fans are often derided for wanting to see football played the 'Celtic way' but the track record of teams that played that way in the past 20 years hasn't been great (one need only think of the fine football and lack of trophies of the Brady and Tommy Burns years). You might even say that Celtic playing an open game will favour the visitors tonight. On paper it should be a fine game but I think it might be too early in the season to expect that.


A comfortable enough 2-0 win for Arsenal, who deserved the victory even if they were gifted with two lucky deflected goals, and rarely otherwise troubled Artur Boruc. Celtic played some nice football (it's refreshing to see that some of the players who couldn't execute a ten-yard pass under Strachan now don't seem to have any problems) but they were largely ineffective, producing very few openings for their 60% second-half possession, giving rise to the worries I expressed above about attractive football yielding poor dividends. Turning the tie around looks an impossibility at this point and we should humbly accept the Europa League is more our measure for this season at least. A long run there wouldn't be out of the question.


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