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Merci Arsène

August 15, 2004. A public holiday in India on lieu of the country’s 67th Independence Day, and the first time I watched an Arsenal game. Let’s be honest, I was a glory hunter, wasn’t I? Looking back to the time, I was in school, 9th grade to be precise, pretty impressionable and knew there were only two proper football teams in England – Arsenal and Manchester United, going by what the rest of the kids watched anyway. I had a soft spot for the French, given they had won the 1998 World Cup, and growing in a football-mad nation like Oman where French jerseys of Trezeguet and Zidane were the rage of the day, the choice for me was on the platter.

And Arsenal did not disappoint that day. They trounced Everton 4-1 at Goodison. I barely knew any of the players wearing red and white that evening, but Thierry Henry was running the show. And, so began my tryst with the club. It’s been nearly 14 years since that day and I’ve watched up over ~500 Arsenal games. All of them managed by one man, Arsene Wenger.

October 24, 2004. I developed a deep hatred for all things Manchester United, something I retain to this day. We lost both our league games to them that season, including the infamous Pizzagate, in what was to be the 50th game of our unbeaten run. I can still vividly remember the day, in the lead-up to the game, Arsenal had racked up some easy wins, 3-1 against Villa at home, 4-0 against Charlton with the Henry backheel and easy-peasy wins at Norwich and Fulham. For the first time, I could feel butterflies in my stomach over a game of football. We lost that night, 2-0 in a game where United kicked Jose Antonio Reyes out of the park even as a gutless Mike Riley ensured decision after decision went against us.

These are games I remembered watching. My life had slowly started revolving around the club, and I wasn’t even consciously realising it. I begged my sister to get me an Arsenal shirt, which she duly did, a blue one (a fake, but nonetheless). My desktop wallpaper was the Arsenal squad and the glistening Premier League trophy sitting in front of a wide-smiled Arsene Wenger. I would tune in to watch late night games, much to the vexation of my mother who couldn’t, or rather refused to understand my new-found obsession. I was still trying to figure out the different competitions Arsenal were competing in – the Champions League, the FA Cup and all of these were resulting in more couching in front of the idiot box. But, by then, I was hooked. I knew this was the team I wanted to support. I was born for this, perhaps? To support the mighty Arsenal.

May 21, 2005. We marched into the FA Cup final, by easily brushing aside Blackburn, courtesy two van Persie strikes. I can remember my first Cup Final day. It might not sound as authentic and mystical as stories of actual stadium-goers, but there I was, glued to my little BPL TV as we were taken apart by Manchester United over the course of 90 minutes. Several times, we were just hanging by a loose thread. Fredrik Ljungberg, on one occasion made a goal-line clearance from a van Nistelrooy header and barely knew about it. We held on with our depleted team and I screamed when Jens Lehmann stopped the penalty from Paul Scholes. Patrick Vieira plonked home the winner, and looking back who knew that this would be the start of a long barren run?

The following season, Thierry Henry was running riot, scoring 33 goals in all competitions, including 27 in the league. There were magical nights in Europe – 1-0 away win at Real Madrid with that scintillating Henry goal and the 0-0 home draw that followed where Lehmann was outstanding; 2-0 home win against Juventus when Cesc Fabregas stole the show with Patrick Vieira in the opposition, 0-0 away at Delle Alpi; the final European and floodlit game at Highbury where Kolo Toure of all poked home the winner against Villarreal, and the nerve wracking away leg at El Madrigal where a last minute Riquelme penalty was saved by Lehmann. And, at the end that outpouring of emotion when Pat Rice hugged Wenger. These are memories that just last!

Alas, we wouldn’t walk into our shiny new home as European champions as rain and tears poured on an emotional night in Paris when Barcelona required 77 minutes and some Henrik Larsson brilliance to break the deadlock against our 10 men.

By then, the footballing landscape was starting to change. Arsenal had finished second to Chelsea, who now under Jose Mourinho, were the glamour boys of the Premier League with their lineup of stars. Arsenal, on the other hand had to quickly decimate the Invincibles, as the implications of the £390 million move from our spiritual home to our shiny new stadium loomed large. After Vieira’s departure in 2005, 2006 saw the departures of Robert Pires to Villarreal, Sol Campbell and Lauren to Portsmouth, Ashley Cole to Chelsea, Jose Antonio Reyes to Real Madrid while Dennis Bergkamp called it a day on his career.

We had a new young squad, and while hugely talented, it was inevitable that they would struggle in new environs at such a precocious age. Youngsters like Gael Clichy, Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott, Denilson and the diamond of Arsene’s eye, Cesc Fabregas were all blooded in the first team. We won only half our league games that season, and yet finished 4th and Thierry Henry, the most magnificent Invincible who had extended his contract at the start of the season and Fredrik Ljungberg would leave in 2007. Within 3 years, Arsenal’s best squad in 119 years of existence was reduced to Jens Lehmann, Kolo Toure and Gilberto Silva, as Manchester United won their first title in 4 seasons, after 2 consecutive Chelsea wins.

Wenger, according to reports, had multiple offers on his table from the biggest clubs in the world, but he stuck to Arsenal, helping them rebuild in financially difficult years. With no sugar daddy and a huge stadium debt to take care of, Arsenal began the 2007-2008 season at a canter, playing some beautiful football orchestrated by a young Fabregas, supported ably by Flamini. By February, the club was in pole position, 5 points clear at the top with 12 games remaining, and had just drawn star-studded AC Milan 0-0 in the first leg of their Champions League knock-out. Then, disaster struck as Eduardo had his leg snapped in two by Martin Taylor on a gloomy afternoon in Birmingham. William Gallas staged a centre circle cryout, and t all went downhill from there. Arsenal never recovered, and the league challenge came crumbling down, ending with a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford to eventual champions Manchester United, who by then had successfully rebuilt their squad. A 2-0 win on a famous night in Milan bore no fruit, as we succumbed to a calamitous quarter-final 4-2 loss in Liverpool.

To be honest, these were hard times. Jens Lehmann, who barely played that season and Gilberto, both left Arsenal and Kolo Toure would leave next season, officially ending the Invincibles era. It was too soon and too quick for our liking. The next two seasons saw us finished 4th and 3rd respectively, even as we recouped £53 million from the sales of Alexander Hleb to Barcelona and Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure to Manchester City.

A clear marker of how much the Gunners had fallen was on display in the Champions League semi-final, as Cristiano Ronaldo starred in a 3-1 defeat at the Emirates Stadium to send United into their second successive Champions League final in 2009, 4-1 on aggregate, where they would lose to Barcelona. They had, however, won a hat-trick of league titles by then. The very weird 2009-2010 season saw a young Aaron Ramsey see his leg snapped in two at Stoke, as Arsenal title challenge again crumpled in the business end of the season with defeats to Spurs and Wigan. The Champions League saw a chastening 4-1 loss to a Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona.

The fan base had slowly started to crack, and it seems like the manager had lost his golden touch. Murmurs of discontent were wafting around the Emirates. Since David Dein’s departure in 2007 when he sold his majority stake to Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov, Arsene Wenger’s negotiating stock in Europe had fallen. Wenger was shackled in terms of finances, given the club’s position and by 2011, American billionaire Stan Kroenke, notorious for moving the NFL side St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles was the majority shareholder.

He was, for his part, the polar opposite of the other billionaire owners of mega-rich Premier League clubs Chelsea and Manchester City, owned by Roman Abrahamovic and an Emirati conglomerate led by Khaldoon el Mubarak respectively. Aloof from most of the club’s day-to-day functioning, he kept himself away from games, while spending his days in his luxury ranch in Texas, occasionally showing up for shareholders meetings, while the dignified Arsene Wenger was made to walk the plank and answer the toughest questions in front of a packed house and media.

The 2010-2011 season ended in an anti-climax. A mid-season slump saw Arsenal’s title chances fade away. The club had reached it’s first final in 5 years, as they marched into Wembley against Birmingham City with a strong starting 11. Tragedy struck in the 89th minute when miscommunication between Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny allowed Obafemi Martins to plod home the winner as Arsenal’s players slumped to the turf. 10 days later, an ominous harsh red card to Robin van Persie at the Camp Nou signalled a 4-3 aggregate loss. To Barcelona, again.

The 2011 transfer window was dramatic in the least. Cesc Fabregas had become one of the world’s most desired midfielders with his work ethic, and eye for a killer pass, and had captained the Gunners for 4 full seasons now. But, his Barcelona DNA came to bite and he departed for £35 million. That must’ve felt like a dagger through Arsene’s heart. Towards the close of the transfer window, Samir Nasri threw a hissy fit and forced his way to a £25 million move to Manchester City, by then in the midst of building their own team of superstars.

August 28, 2011. 6 months on from a famous European night when Arsenal beat Barcelona at their own brand of football in a pulsating 2-1 win, the Gunners were destroyed 8-2 at Old Trafford of all places. We could have conceded 15 goals that evening, we were that atrocious, as Wayne Rooney and co. tore our young side with multiple players in their debut season apart. It was just a horrible sinking feeling watching the game, compounded by the fact I watched it 4 United fans. I even had nightmares of us getting relegated. That called for a last minute trolley dash as the manager bought in experienced players like Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker and Yossi Benayoun to steady a rocking ship.

Project Youth had failed, and the club’s fanbase by now, had divided itself. The Football Financial Fairplay, bought in by Michel Platini, by then had failed spectacularly, as clubs with the most money bags were wielding their power in the transfer market. Arsene Wenger, on the other hand had to keep his hands tied and manage finances astutely. This required him to sell off a few stars every summer, while bringing in cheaper alternatives or promoting younger players, which led to the common narrative of a mentally weak Arsenal.

It seemed like the same script was repeating itself every season. The Gunners’ would begin every season strongly, and come November would slowly start to crumble, get knocked out of Europe by a top side, and then rally to finish 4th. Words like ‘trophyless’ and a ‘lack of mental strength’ became synonymous with the club, even as the manager tried to reassure it’s fans that every bunch of players he worked with was mentally stronger than the list.

Thierry Henry returned to the club in a chequered 2011-2012 season for a short stint, even as Robin van Persie finally had an injury-free season scoring 37 goals in the process. He went on to win the PFA Player of the Year award, and deservedly so. A 3rd place finish followed thanks to a 3-2 win at West Brom on final day again, despite the disastrous start to the season. A defining image of the season was Wenger hugging Pat Rice in anguish as Kieran Gibbs made a last-ditch tackle in the dying minutes of the season, as it seemed West Brom were bound to score.

In a literal submission of sorts, Arsenal sold their star player van Persie to Manchester United for what most fans considered a paltry sum of £24 million. He would go on to win the league next season, scoring 26 goals in the league, as Arsene Wenger’s arch nemesis at the turn of the millenium, Sir Alex Ferguson called it a day on his managerial career.

The two men were at loggerheads right since 1996, when Arsene Wenger first arrived on English shores. As Arsene Wenger built 3 title-winning teams to counter Alex Ferguson’s all conquering Red Devils, the two men enjoyed some famous battles, which included flying tackles, two club captains who equally hated each other, famous goals, fistfights, tunnel spats and even flying slices of mozarella laden pizza. By 2009, when Ferguson realised Arsenal weren’t a threat anymore, given their financial status, the relationship between the two became friendly and amicable.

The sale of Robin van Persie caused a huge uproar amongst the Arsenal faithful, including me. It was unbelievable that we had sold someone who was literally our best player the previous season to United of all clubs, a club I had grown to hate given the fierce rivalry in the noughties. Calls to sack the manager were ringing out loud by then. To be bloody honest, I thought it was time for the great man to call it quits. The signings of Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla should have ushered a new era as Wenger again got down to the task of rebuilding the squad.

It was another strange season though. We had been knocked out of the FA Cup by Blackburn Rovers at home, they were eventually relegated. We played an incredible game of football at The Madejski stadium, when we went 4-0 down to Reading, before mounting the most incredible of comebacks to win 7-5 in extra time in the League Cup. And then, we suffered a humiliating exit on a cold December night to League 2 strugglers Bradford City, despite the manager sporting a strong squad. The Gunners limped to 4th, following a narrow 1-0 final day win at St. James Park and despite a famous 2-0 away win at Bayern Munich, the Gunners were dumped out on away goals. By then, the club had finished 8 seasons without a trophy. The club, it’s fans and the manager were on tenterhooks.

2013 was a big year for me, personally. I was not only moving away from my hometown to pursue my Masters, I had also met the love of my life. On the Arsenal front, there were big changes too. That summer, we were nearing the end of their current kit sponsorship with Nike, and had signed a much more improved deal with Puma. The undervalued sponsorship deal with Emirates too was re-negotiated and for a while it seemed like the shackles had been broken. New revenue streams were pouring in and Arsenal had also signed their first superstars in years, when in the wee hours (for me), we put to paper a £42.5 million deal for Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid.

There was some renewed optimism. Could this have been a sign of changing times, and much more freedom in the transfer market for the manager? The league season was the same-old, same-old with the club securing another 4th placed finish they were so synonymous with, and ridiculed for, for liking it to a trophy. There were the fair share of thrashings too, 6-3 at the Etihad, 5-1 at Anfield and a shameful 6-0 at Stamford Bridge on the occasion of the managers 1000th game in charge.

What kept the fans going was the run in the FA Cup. The Gunners were lucky enough to have gotten to play all their games at home, but they also had to knock out Tottenham, who were slowly rebuilding into a formidable outfit and Liverpool. A close shave against Wigan in the semi-final when Mertesacker popped up with the equaliser helped us to take the game to penalties, as Lukasz Fabianski ensured we returned to Wembley for the club’s first FA Cup final against Hull City in 9 years.

May 17, 2014. I still remember the day vividly. I was a bag of nerves, as I watched the game in a pub packed with hopeful Gooners in Delhi, 6693kms from where the action was. The tension was palpable, as Hull took the lead and then doubled it. It was all turning into yet another anti-climax as Hull almost made it 3-0, but for a goal-line clearance from that man Gibbs again. That would have been game over. Santi made it 2-1 on the stroke of half-time and the place was buzzing when Laurent Koscielny bundled home the equaliser. The place went beserk when Aaron Ramsey netted home the winner in extra time. The place was full of grown men and women, literally in tears. The first year of my relationship couldn’t have ended in a better fashion.

It had been a long and arduous wait for everyone involved, the players, the fans and surely, Arsene Wenger who had been waiting for this moment probably more than anyone else. It was a magnificent evening for everyone involved with the club, and majority of the fanbase felt this was the right time for the manager to call it quits, and pave the way for someone else to rebuild the club. Arsene stood by his stance that he was the best man for the job, and we were back in the market spending a whopping £83 million on transfers for players such as Danny Welbeck, Callum Chambers, David Ospina, Mathieu Debuchy, Gabriel Paulista, and obviously, Alexis Sanchez. Another 3rd place finish followed, as Alexis made his mark on the Premier League, scoring 25 goals in his debut season. A flourish of wins between February and March helped the Gunners to this league position, while the cup run kept going strong.

March 9, 2015. I still remember the date, my first day in India’s financial capital, Mumbai. I was starting a new life in a big-ass, busy, brutal city. However, all I was bothered about was whether I will be able to catch the big game that night between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford in the 4th Round of the FA Cup. I managed to get an internet dongle in the evening, and had it activated in time for the match. Arsenal did not disappoint as Angel di Maria was sent off for pushing the ref and Danny Welbeck scored and celebrated the winning goal. Arsenal kept the cup at the Emirates for a second season running, with a 4-0 thrashing of Aston Villa, when Sanchez bust the net with his powerful strike. Good times rolling back, perhaps?

The 2015-2016 season was another strange strange season. Leicester City smashed all odds and won the Premier League, and showed that moneybags isn’t the only route to winning titles. This was a great chance to strengthen the squad, but the only incoming player was goalkeeper Petr Cech from Chelsea. Arsenal, for their part finished in their best position (2nd) in over 10 years, when it seemed highly likely that Tottenham would finally pip the Gunners. Their 5-1 trouncing by Newcastle ensured a 21st consecutive St. Totteringham’s day, 20th under Arsene Wenger. It was a case of what-if’s. Even as the usual contenders like Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea faded away, Arsenal just failed to get grips of their season.

A late Welbeck header ensured the Gunners inflicted Leicester’s second and last defeat of the season. Consecutive losses to Manchester United, when Marcus Rashford marked his league debut with a brace and a haunting 2-1 loss at home to Swansea, before a 2-2 reverse at White Hart Lane meant that the Gunners had thrown away another chance. To Leicester City of all teams. By then, it was heavily mooted that the manager would call it quits after his final season as per his contract ended in 2017.

Things did not change much in 2016-2017. The league form was wayward, as Arsenal finished 5th after nearly 21 years in the top 4. £82 million was spent in Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez, but none convinced. Tottenham finished above Arsenal, for the first time in so long, and that too by a margin of 11 points. To make matters worse, Arsenal were humiliated on the European stage by Bayern Munich. Drawing 1-1 at half-time in the first leg of the Round of 16 tie at the Allianz Arena, a second half flourish saw Bayern win 5-1. The return leg was supposed to be a dead rubber, and a chance to regain some pride. And, we were. Going into half-time leading 1-0 thanks to a 20th minute goal from Theo Walcott, Arsenal were sent to the cleaners with 5 goals. A shocking 10-2 scoreline was too much for fans to take.

Protest marches against the manager and the way the board were handling the affairs of the club became commonplace. There was demand for more transparency in the inner workings of the finances of the club. Ivan Gazidis who had promised that the Gunners would be competing at the level of Bayern, was made to bite his own words as the season seemed to be heading towards disaster. Luckily for the manager, Arsenal put together another run in the cup, beating lower league opposition like Preston North End, Sutton United and Lincoln City. The toughest test was yet to come in the form of Manchester City, and in a thrilling contest, Arsenal spirited their way back from 1-0 down to win 2-1 thanks to an extra-time winner by Alexis.

27th May, 2017. I have a superstition, and it was vindicated on this date. Having watched all of our last 3 FA Cup finals in 3 different cities, I decided to watch the 2017 FA Cup final in Navi Mumbai, technically a different district. Arsenal had an early controversial lead, thanks to that man Sanchez again. Diego Costa, who has been a thorn in Arsenal’s flesh for so long, much like his predecessor Didier Drogba, made it 1-1, 3 minutes before Aaron Ramsey bought the roof and the electricity down. As I celebrated in darkness, Arsenal had won their 3rd FA Cup in 4 years.

That said, the truth was there for everyone to see. The club just weren’t performing well on a regular basis, and their form in the league and in Europe had much to be desired. The manager came out with a statement that he was renewing his contract for a further 2 seasons, and this was met with a mixed response from the Arsenal faithful. WOB’s or the Wenger Out Brigade had seen enough, and threatened to bring banners to every game and boycott home games en masse, while AKB’s rallied behind the manager.

Another fantastic opportunity to strengthen the squad with some defensive reinforcements was lost, as the only signings were Alexandre Lacazette for £46 million from Lyon, and left-back Sead Kolasinac from Schalke on a Bosman. Alexis Sanchez, by now, like Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie, all those years back, was yearning for a move away from the club, knowing well that he was to play in Europe’s second tier, a no-no for a top player. Late bids from Manchester City failed, and even Chelsea were in the market for the Chilean. In the meanwhile, the club were failing to negotiate contracts for Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere whilst heading into the season with liabilities like Per Mertesacker and Santi Cazorla.

The start of the season was a disaster. Despite a narrow 4-3 win over Leicester at home, the Gunners lost 1-0 away to Stoke and then were played out of the park by Liverpool in a 4-0 loss, thanks to inspiring performances from their newly formed attacking trio of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. The failed English project was there for everyone to see. Carl Jenkinson was sent out on loan again, this time to Birmingham, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kieran Gibbs would depart for a combined £47 million to Liverpool and West Brom respectively, while Theo Walcott, the perennial underachiever left to Everton for £20 million in January. That month also saw a mass exodus as Francis Coquelin and Olivier Giroud departed for a combined £30 million, while Mathieu Debuchy was let go on a free.

The most shocking deal happened on 22nd January when Manchester City pulled the plug on their pursuit of Sanchez, and Manchester United offered beleaguered Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan as a swap. The club accepted, and the best performer from the past 3 season was again sold to United, of all clubs. Sanchez had a mixed season till that point, but was obviously in two minds over his transfer. We did bring in Pierre Emerick Aubameyang though, from Borussia Dortmund for £60 million. This season so far has been far from good. We’ve been shocking away from home, were trounced in the league cup final by City 3-0 and knocked out of the FA Cup by Nottingham Forest 4-2.

The only saving light was the run in the Europa League. When Arsene Wenger announced that he would be calling it a day at the club, after 22 long years, Arsenal were already in the semi-final against Atletico Madrid, having knocked out Ostersunds, AC Milan and CSKA Moscow. There couldn’t have been a more fitting departure for the manager, than with a Europa League win. Unfortunately, a timid Arsenal performance saw them being knocked out by a Diego Costa goal. There, indeed is little place for emotion in football. Wenger called it a ‘sad, sad, sad night’, and it really was.

6 May, 2018. Arsene Wenger’s final home game against nearest rival, ‘Burnley’. The team produced a 5 star performance, that has been so lacking this season. There were flashes of brilliance, Wengerball they call it, as some slick football confirmed 6th spot and qualification for next season’s Europa League. It was followed by a, lets be honest, emotional farewell. The greatest achievement of the club, the gold Invincibles trophy was awarded to the man who won it. I would be lying if I said I did not shed a tear.

I’ve experienced some of my worst and best days with him at the helm. 8-2 at Old Trafford, 6-0 at Stamford Bridge, 5-1 losses to Bayern, the 2-1 loss to Birmingham in the cup final, 3-1 at Camp Nou right onto 1-0 at the Bernabeu, 2-0 against Juventus in 2005 and Bayern in 2015 stand out as do the 3 cup wins, each of them special and emotional in their own way.

From a nobody to one of the most influential persons in the game we all love, he has been a fantastic servant to the club, and one we should always be thankful for. His initial methods, fitness regimes were heavily questioned but he extended the careers of several stalwarts at the club, winning titles in 1998 and 2002. He bought in some of our favourite players – Marc Overmars, Nicolas Anelka, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg, Cesc Fabregas – the lot.

He’s left an indelible mark on the club, there’s absolutely no second thought about it. There are few managers these days who have a profound impact on the club, beyond trophies. Right from overhauling the club’s training ground to building and strategising the stadium move, ensuring a smooth transition whilst on limited financial resources, building the scouting and recruitment network of the club, to bringing continental flair into the English game.

Arsene Wenger’s story will be remembered in two parts unfortunately. The first part of the story was a fairytale. Beautiful, swashbuckling football with some of the most talented players on the planet, and laden with trophies too. The second part of the story has been a struggle. Injuries, bad luck, younger players failing to make the mark, buckling under pressure; albeit 3 FA Cups.

What did not change is the managers belief in his own players to go out there, express themselves and do their jobs. His values, his belief in his system and his style remained the same. He carried himself with dignity, and at times too much class. As John Cross described during the farewell speech as a representative of the media ‘There is no escaping there has been some criticism along the way but the fact you never hold a grudge or never dodge a question and are always respectful shows what a class act you are as both a human being and a football manager.’

Arsene Wenger has been an enigma, during his entire 22 year tenure and there has been no one more influential on the club. We haven’t met ever, and may never even do so. I may even never get to see him in person, yet there is a lot of emotion there. In his own words ‘It is sad, but all the love stories come to an end. They do not always finish well. Most of the time they don’t finish well. I feel sad because I love this club and what the club represents. 22 years of your life and to walk away is not easy.’

I have supported the Gunners for 14 seasons now (that’s half my life), watched countless games at odd hours with red eyes, celebrated every goal like it was the first, have had nightmares of us losing games, sunk my head into my palms every time we conceded, seen players right from Pascal Cygan to Thierry Henry to Manuel Almunia to Mesut Ozil, grown from a gawky kid to a man, completed my graduation, and post-graduation, gotten engaged and a few months away from marriage, changed jobs and yet amongst all these constant changes, Arsene Wenger has been the one constant. It’s going to be very strange on the first day of the new season when a new manager sits in the Arsenal dugout.

Thanks for everything, thanks for bringing Arsenal into my life and thanks for all the memories, the good, the bad and the ugly! Merci Arsène, merci indeed.

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Posted by on May 13, 2018 in General, Personal

 

The season is upon us!

I won’t be lying. It’s been hard, the last 3 months. While personally, I was switching jobs; the lack of club football made me jittery. Yes, there were the Euro’s to keep us going, and then there was the Indian indoor league, Premier Futsal, and the Olympics. But, nothing matches the Premier League. Period.

To add to it, being an Arsenal fan during the off season is an even more torturous position to endure. This time, it was no different. While you have to deal with the incessant bullshit of the English press and their linking us to every professional footballer walking on the planet, there was also the frustration of the club missing out on signing real prospects, due to underbidding.

While the news of Arsenal looking to sign Jamie Vardy sounded ridiculous, when it emerged it was actually true, you would expect a club of Arsenal’s stature to go ahead and complete the signing. No, there was a saga of dilly-dallying between the two clubs; Leicester looking to hold on to their top scorer and Arsenal not budging above their bid of £20 million (which was the initial release clause of the player anyway). The player in question was in France, with the national team, and decided to take a decision only once the tournament was done. England being England, were knocked out after the group stages itself; and as expected, Vardy turned down Arsenal’s offer, opting to stay with Leicester.

Arsenal have been perennially linked to Gonzalo Higuain, and when the transfer window opened, the Argentine was inevitably drawn into the tornado of Arsenal rumors. We know, how it all went, Italian champions snapping up the striker for £75 million. And more recently, the Gunners have been linked to France and Lyon striker Alexandre Lacazette. To be honest, I haven’t seen much of this guy, but hey, we need a striker better than some of the ones we have. And surely, anyone would be an upgrade to Sanogo and Walcott. Arsenal’s bid of £29.3 million was rejected by Lyon, and now Lyon have quoted £60 million. Definitely, out of the question.

It wasn’t all gloomy of course. We completed the signing of Swiss defensive midfielder Granit Xhaka, from Borussia Moenchengladbach (I hope I’ve spelt that one right!) for £35 million. He put on some tidy performances at the Euro’s, and seems like a guy who will add some much needed bite to our midfield. Relying on Francis Coquelin being fit throughout a gruelling English season is too much to ask for. The departures of Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini meant we needed some freshness in midfield as well.

Apart from that, we only managed to sign an unheralded centre-back from Bolton Wanderers, a club that got relegated to League One. Rob Holding comes in at a reported fee of £2 million, and the young English defender made 26 appearances last season. He is still raw, and along with Callum Chambers could be the future of Arsenal’s defence. With Per Mertesacker suffering an injury in pre-season, it looked like a good signing. But then, Gabriel too suffered an injury in the pre-season win over Manchester City. This means that the possibility of Holding and Chambers starting against Liverpool tomorrow looks real. As we speak, Arsenal are apparently scampering for the signature of Valencia’s German defender Shkodran Mustafi, once an Everton reject.

There was also the Riyad Mahrez saga, with Arsenal apparently hot on the heels of the Algerian winger, also the current PFA Player of the Year. With Leicester keen to hold on to their star man, and Claudio Ranieri adamant about not letting him go, it all seems to have quietened down a bit. According to me, he would have been a terrific addition to the squad, on the right; where players such as Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have miserably failed. Last season, the manager played Aaron Ramsey, Alex Iwobi and Joel Campbell all on the right, and none of them seemed to have sufficiently impressed the manager. A attacking midfield of Ozil, Sanchez and Mahrez would have been mouth watering. But, Alas.

I don’t mean to sound all negative, but it seems like we have again been left behind in the transfer market. With Arsene Wenger saying the same things about signing only ‘top, top’ players and then underbidding for those very players, it all seems like a vicious circle. Ivan Gazidis’ recent statement about not really having to spend to stay competitive, and that the club not being able to afford costly mistakes just adds fuel to the fire.

Looking over our shoulder, most other clubs have done the business they wanted to do. Sp*rs started with the low key signing of Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama for £11 million from Southampton. Leicester’s trio of Vardy, Mahrez and Kante were always going to be in the spotlight; and Chelsea, under new Italian manager Antonio Conte did well to prise away N’Golo Kante, the unsung hero of Leicester’s season for £32 million. They also landed young Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi from Marseille for £33 million. Liverpool quietly got about their business, just the way Jurgen Kloop operates. Saido Mane arrived from Southampton for £34 million, and Giorgio Wijnaldum from Newcastle for £25 million. They also signed two goalkeepers, Loris Karius from Mainz and Alex Manninger (remember him?).

The biggest stories of the transfer revolved around the Manchester clubs. Pep Guardiola was announced as Manchester City’s manager, as early as January. Manchester United had to do something about it, and retaining Louis van Gaal was definitely not an option. Hours after winning the FA Cup, the Dutch manager was shown the pink slip, with the arrogant twat Jose Mourinho, linked to the job at Manchester United for so many seasons, being appointed as the new gaffer. Guardiola signed Ilkay Gundogan from Borussia Dortmund for £20 million, Spain winger Nolito from Celta Vigo for £13.4 million, German winger Leroy Sane from Schalke for £37 million, Brazilian striker Gabriel Jesus from Palmeiras for £27 million and Everton defender John Stones for a whopping £47.5 million.

Staying with inflated markets, Manchester United paid a whopping £89 million for a player whom they had sold just 3 years earlier for a paltry £1.5 million. The much heralded transfer of French midfielder Paul Pogba, also coincided with the signing of super Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Armenian winger Henrikh Mkhitariyan from Dortmund for what can be defined as a meagre £26 million and Ivorian defender Eric Bailly for £30 million from Villarreal. Manchester United moved from being a 5th placed team to genuine title contenders within the space of 3 months.

It seems like other clubs have managed to get the business they wanted done, while we have clearly struggled with that. Identifying players is one thing, but actually going all out to sign those players, who can fill holes in your squad, is another. With the season a day way, you can’t help but think we are going to start with two makeshift central defenders, a rag-tag midfield and Theo Walcott up front. Yeah, not a pretty picture.

But, this post is not about negativity. However bad our prospects look, it is the start of the season. And starts should always be positive. To be honest, our squad looks really good on paper, and it is all about translating that into results on the pitch. Last season was a real downer, considering we were top till one point, had a bad patch, seemed like we would come back, but then our title challenge completely fizzled out. Sp*rs did provide some comedy relief on the final day, but honestly, it was a chance thrown away. With the traditional top guns failing to show up, and Leicester leading the way, we really should have mounted a proper title challenge.

Nonetheless, a midfield of Xhaka, Coquelin, Elneny, Cazorla, Ramsey, Campbell, Ozil, Sanchez, Wilshere, Iwobi, Chamberlain looks formidable. Defensively, we will miss Mertesacker for the rest of the year and Gabriel for about 2 months. If Spaniards Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin can keep up their high standards from last season, we can expect a solid season defensively. Laurent Koscielny is about a week away from returning to first team action, due to his exertions in Europe. On the flanks, we have Debuchy and Gibbs as cover, while Jenkinson nurses his injury. Chambers and Holding look like they’ll pair up for a few League Cup games.

Our problems, however lie up front. Olivier Giroud is a 20 goals a season striker, but across all competitions. His 24 goal tally last season was good, but he fizzled out in an extremely important period of the season, which also coincided with our slump. Theo Walcott has never convinced me, or Arsenal fans, or anyone for that matter that he can lead the line for a top club. His consistent inconsistency has often drawn calls from Gooners to sell him while we can actually get some money for him. It looks like he will lead the line till Giroud is declared match fit. Danny Welbeck showed glimpses of what he can do last season, before joining the long list of injuries. Apart from that, we have Chuba Akpom and Yaya Sanogo as our only fit strikers.

I have stood by Arsene Wenger through the barren years between 2005 and 2014 and will continue to do so. I have admired his views on football, pragmatism, his transfer dealings and in general the way he goes about his work; and will probably sing his praises decades from now. With him entering his final year on his current contract, it seems highly unlikely that he will be renewing it, whether or not we add something to the honours board. If that is the case, we’re probably looking at the 21st and final season of the long-serving Frenchman. 21 years of hard work, dedication towards a club, day in and day out.

In his own words, he says he is addicted to the club, and admits he is scared of ‘leaving’ something that has been part of his fabric for over two decades. For him, I hope the players deliver on the pitch and repay the manager’s faith.

The season promises to be yet another roller coaster ride, with teams signing exciting new managers and players. It looks it could be one of the closely contested seasons in recent times. Arsenal under Wenger, Chelsea under Conte, defending champions Leicester under Ranieri, Liverpool under Klopp, Manchester City under Guardiola, Manchester United under Mourinho, Sp*rs under Pochettino and West Ham under Bilic. Have you seen a better managerial line up than this? Let the ride begin!

Jai Arsenal 🙂

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Things have been pretty quiet on the blog lately. In fact, very quiet. Last season, I barely struggled to put any timely articles up, and I will sincerely attempt to update more often.

While you are about it, follow Blazing Cannons on twitter. @blazingcannons

And do like, the Facebook page as well.

Go ahead you lazy bum, that’s all I ask of you!

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2016 in General

 

Germany 1 Argentina 0 – Die Mannschaft end La Albiceleste’s Dreams!

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Germany 1 (Gotze 113) – 0 Argentina

Germany won the World Cuo for the 4th time at the expense of Lionel Messi and Argentina, with a late heartbreaking goal from Bayern Munich’s Mario Gotze.

In a match billed as the best attacking force of the tournament in Germany against the best defensive unit in Argentina, the match panned out to be a 120 minute battle of guts, passion and industry under balmy conditions at the iconic Maracana stadium. It will be a momentous occasion for a German side, that has come so close in recent international tournaments.

Germany were dealt an early blow as Sami Khedira was ruled out due to a knock he took during warm up, which meant a first start for Borussia Moenchengladback midfielder Christoph Kramer. Argentina had no concerns with their selection process, apart from the injury to Real Madrid star Angel di Maria, which ruled him out from the semi-final win over Netherlands as well.

The first chance of the match fell to the Argentine’s, when Gonzalo Higuain almost capitalized on a wayward header by Toni Kroos. With only Neuer to beat, the Napoli forward’s effort was poor, and he dragged his effort wide, under pressure from Mats Hummels. Higuain, however thought he had redeemed himself after putting the ball in the back of the net, after a right wing cross from PSG winger Ezequiel Lavezzi. He was called back for offside, even though he had already wheeled off in celebration.

Germany enjoyed majority of the possession, but it was Argentina who seemed to be creating the better chances. The immense Jerome Boateng had to make a vital clearance, after the pacy Messi almost set up one of his teammates for a shot on target. Germany were dealt a blow when Christoph Kramer, in for Sami Khedira on the night, took a knock, and had to be replaced. Surprisingly, Joachim Low decided to replace him with a forward, in Chelsea’s Andre Schurrle.

The Blues forward almost stamped his arrival in the game with a goal, a sharp effort which required in-form Argentina keeper Sergio Romero to make a vital save, with Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil blocking his line of view. The last chance of the first half was when Schalke 04 left-back Benedikt Howedes’ header off a Kroos corner struck the woodwork, leaving Romero with no chance.

Lionel Messi could have scored what would have been the winner in the second half, but his effort on his normally dangerous left foot, was a tame one. In a match riddled with physical challenges, Manuel Neuer almost did a Harald Schumacher on Gonzalo Higuain, with a dangerous jump to punch away the ball, in the 56th minute.

Mesut Ozil then set up an onrushing Toni Kroos with an effort to put the ball behind the net, but the Bayern man’s effort was wide. Higuain was replaced by Inter’s Rodrigo Palacio in the 78th minute, and he had a chance to put his side ahead in extra time, but his first touch was poor, and Germany managed to avert the danger.

The sucker punch came in the 113th minute, as Andre Schurrle made his way past Argentine pressure to deliver a perfect cross to Mario Gotze, who chested the ball with perfection, and put it in the back of the net, leaving Romero with no chance. As the German’s wheeled away in delight, Argentina’s players collapsed all around them. It was too little, too late.

Germany secured their 4th World Cup win, to put a 18 year old wait for an international trophy to an end. With German chancellor Angela Merkel, football legends Pele, Michel Platini and Lothar Mathaus (you may have noticed I didn’t mention David Beckham. It’s intentional) and dignitaries such as Vladimir Putin present, it was a star-studded end to a fantastic tournament.

Manuel Neuer picked up the Golden Glove and a crestfallen Lionel Messi the Golden Ball, before the moment Germany have been waiting for so long arrived, as Philip Lahm lifted the World Cup trophy in front of a packed Maracana. The party continued into the night for the German fans, who stayed till late to enjoy the celebrations, but for the Argentine faithful, it was a painful trip back home, having come so far.

This win also ended Europe’s jinx in World Cups held in South America, and also marked the succesful completion of an overhaul of the German youth system, since the Euro 2004 debacle, which saw them crashing out in the Group stages.

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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in General, World Cup 2014

 

Brazil 0 Netherlands 3 – Selecao humbled, Again!

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Brazil 0 – 3 Netherlands (van Persie 3 (pen), Blind 16, Wijnaldum 91)

Brazil crashed to another painful defeat in front of their home fans in the space of a week, as Netherlands secured 3rd place at the Estadio Nacional, Brasilia.

Despite the 7-1 thrashing meted out to them by Germany, interest hadn’t wavered, and there were hordes of fans all over the country lining up at fan miles to watch the games. In Brasilia, the team was cheered as they trained before the match, while the loudest cheer was reserved for Barcelona star Neymar. There, however were loud boos when the names of Luiz Felipe Scolari and striker Fred were blurted out as the teams were being announced.

Thiago Silva returned to the squad after completing his suspension, while a 3rd PSG defender in left-back Maxwell also got a start ahead of Real Madrid’s Marcelo. Luiz Gustavo was preferred to Fernandinho to play alongside Paulinho in the centre of midfield, while Atletico Mineiro forward Jo, formerly of Manchester City; Willian and Ramires of Chelsea, too were handed starts in a series of changes made by Luis Felipe Scolari. van Gaal started with Feyenoord midfielder Jordy Claise instead of the injured AC Milan hardman Nigel de Jong and Swansea’s Jonathan de Guzman.

After a national anthem delivered with passion, Brazil were quickly undone as captain Thiago Silva pulled Robben, and the referee had no option but to award the Dutch a free kick. Robin van Persie made no mistake from the spot, to score his first goal since the group stages. The mood at the stadium changed suddenly, fearing a repeat of the previous game.

Their fears started getting stronger, as Netherlands raced to a 2-0 lead, just 13 minutes later, as David Luiz’s clearance fell straight to enterprising midfielder Daley Blind’s feet. The Ajax man made no mistake as his shot hit the roof of the net.

There was however little response from the home side as the well drilled Dutch made life tough. Despite some reasonably good attacking moves, Brazil failed to create a single chance of substance in the first half and were booed as they trudged their way back to the dressing rooms.

Both teams looked content at playing out the second half, with a largely irritant crowd booing whenever Scolari’s face appeared on the big screen. There were few sparks though, as Ramires’ shot flew wide, before Oscar was booked for diving, a decision that could have gone either ways.

Netherlands, however completed the rout in injury time, as PSV’s attacking midfielder Giorginio Wijnaldum completed the rout. It was a happy ending for a Netherlands side that promised so much at the start of the tournament, but were undone by Argentina’s solidity, but for Brazil, it will be another painful defeat in a harrowing defeat for their players and fans alike.

To make matters worse, they will have to endure watching their fierce rivals Argentina face off their tormentors Germany at the iconic Maracana.
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Posted by on July 13, 2014 in General, World Cup 2014

 

Netherlands 0 (2) Argentina 0 (4) – Messi and Co. progress to Final!

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Netherlands 0-0 Argentina

Penalties-

Vlaar – Saved 0-0

Messi – Scored 0-1 Argentina

Robben – Scored 1-1

Garay – Scored 2-1 Argentina

Sneijder – Saved 2-2 Argentina

Aguero – Scored 1-3 Argentina

Kuyt – Scored 2-3 Argentina

Mazi Rodriguez – Scored 2-4 Argentina

Argentina win 4-2 on penalties

Argentina set up a World Cup final date with Germany, after a penalty shootout win against Netherlands in Sao Paolo. Goalkeepers were again at the centre of attention after a rather monotonous 120 minutes of football.

Robin van Persie passed a late fitness test, but Sergio Aguero wasn’t fit enough to start. PSG’s Ezequiel Lavezzi kept his place in the Argentine frontline. Argentina’s big miss was Real Madrid’s Angel di Maria, and Benfica’s Enzo Perez replaced him.

Argentina have relied on a solid defence and some rare moments of magic from Messi to reach the semi-final, and that set the tone of the game. Netherlands looked stifled all over, as the trio of Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben failed to deliver the magic that made them the toast of the earlier stages of the tournament.

Despite Argentina’s fine defensive play, just like the Dutch, they failed to offer anything tangible upfront. Aston Villa centre back Ron Vlaar was impressive throughout. Louis van Gaal employed AC Milan midfield hardman Nigel de Jong to mark Lionel Messi, and that tactic was clear from the start as the Barcelona man failed to make any inroads into the Dutch defence.

Messi did provide the only highlight of the first half, when his freekick was comfortably saved by Cilessen, after Vlaar had fouled Perez. Argentina’s defensive solidity can be highlighted by the fact that Arjen Robben got a touch of the ball only 4 times in the opening 45 minutes. As rain poured down heavily, chances were few and far between.

Gonzalo Higuain missed a chance to put the Argentinians ahead, as he could only side net a cross from Enzo Perez. Alejandro Sabella sent on Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero and Inter forward Rodrigo Palacio in place of Gonzalo Higuain and Enzo Perez, with 10 minutes left, but Argentina still lacked the cutting edge.

van Gaal replaced the toothless van Persie with Schalke forward Klaas Jan Huntelaar in an attempt to reshuffle the forward line. Netherlands produced their first shot on target on 99 minutes, when Arjen Robben tested Sergio Romero, who rather made an easy save.

Cillessen made some quickfire saves from Palacio and Maxi Rodriguez before the game finally descended into penalties. Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder missed their penalties, while Argentina were bang on target with theirs.

The Netherlands campaign, which started with a 5-1 win over reigning champions Spain, ended on a rather dull note against a resurgent Argentina side. Argentina, now will face Germany in the final.

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Posted by on July 13, 2014 in General, World Cup 2014

 

Brazil 1 Germany 7 – Mann -Slaughtered!

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Brazil 1 (Oscar 90) – 7 Germany (Muller 11, Klose 23, Kroos 24, 26, Khedira 29, Schurrle 69, 79)

It was a day of destruction and humiliation in Belo Horizonte as Brazil were crushed to pieces by a ruthless German side 7-1 in front of their own supporters. On a night that was supposed to be a clash between a formidable European footballing power and South America’s traditional best, Brazil and their fans were left in tatters, a shocking result which will take some recovery from.

With star striker Neymar injured, and facing a long injury layoff, and captain Thiago Silva suspended, Brazil turned to Bayern Munich centre back Dante and Shakhtar Donetsk’s attacking midfielder Bernard as replacements. Miroslav Klose started for Germany, and he needed just one goal to become the all time leading scorer in World Cup history, breaking Brazilian Ronaldo’s record of 15.

Germany were ahead after 11 minutes, through Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller as he tapped in from a corner, with Brazil’s defenders offering little obstacle. After 12 minutes of holding out, Brazil crumpled in the space of 6 minutes, as the Germans parked their artilerry in Brazil’s half and pounded them all over.

Mirolsav Klose was the beneficiary of a fine passing move, and he scored in his second attempt, after Julio Cesar had saved his first effort. Toni Kroos scored less than a minute later, with a fine left footed drive that beat QPR goalkeeper Julio Cesar completely. Sami Khedira then played his part in the 4th goal by setting up Kroos again. David Luiz was constantly being booed by the home fans as he wandered forward, far too often, shunning his defensive responsibilities.

Khedira got his goal, 3 minutes later, with a goal that seemed so easy. He linked up with Mesut Ozil, and the two rarely looked troubled. Brazil were completely demolished with only 29 minutes gone. The mood at the stadium had turned into one of complete shock and disgust, as players started to break down on the field. Half time bought a bit of respite and a chorus of boos.

Striker Fred was subjected to special vicious treatment for his own fans. Brazil started the second half well, forcing Neuer into a couple of saves, before Germany continued with their steamrollering effort, as Chelsea forward Andre Schurrle finished off a simple passing move. 10 minutes later, Germany had reached seventh heaven, with a sweet left footed strike from Schurrle again. The fans around the stadium now were cheering every German goal, a real low point for Brazilian football.

Brazil did manage a goal late on, with Oscar scoring, but it was nothing but consolation. Brazil’s World Cup dream had ended in complete and utter disarray. This equalled their worst defeat, a 6-0 loss to Uruguay in 1920, and this defeat will definitely rank as one of the darkest days of Brazilian football, after the 1950 World Cup Final loss to Uruguay.

Germany recorded the biggest margin win in semi-finals, after West Germany’s thrashing of Austria, 6-1 in the 1954 World Cup. This also marked the first time when more than 8 goals were scored in a World Cup game, 12 years after Germany had beaten Saudi Arabia 8-0.

While Germany can now prepare for a final with Argentina, Brazil hope to achieve some respect as they face off Netherlands in the 3rd place playoff.
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Posted by on July 12, 2014 in General, World Cup 2014

 

Netherlands 0 (4) Costa Rica 0 (3) – Krul Exit for Navas & Co.

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Netherlands 0-0 Costa Rica

Penalties-

Borges – Scored 0-1 Costa Rica

van Persie – Scored 1-1

Ruiz – Saved 1-1

Robben – Scored 2-1 Netherlands

Gonzalez – Scored 2-2

Sneijder – Scored 3-2 Netherlands

Bolanos – Scored 3-3

Kuyt – Scored 4-3 Netherlands

Umana – Saved 4-3 Netherlands

Netherlands win 4-3 on penalties

Netherlands progressed to the semi-finals the hard way, after beating heroic Costa Rica on penalties in the final quarter final game in Salvador.

Nigel de Jong was ruled out due to injury and was replaced by PSV Eindhoven midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum. Costa Rica named the same squad that knocked out Greece on penalties in the previous round.

Costa Rica, spearheaded by Arsenal’s Joel Campbell and Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz have boasted a strong defensive record in the World Cup, and it took a Netherlands team, consisting of van Persie, Robben, Sneijder and Kuyt 21 minutes to have their first attempt on goal. A cross from Kuyt landed at the feet of Memphis Depay who set up Manchester United striker van Persie, but it was saved by the brilliant Keylor Navas. The rebound from Sneijder too was saved by the Costa Rican goalkeeper.

Navas thwarted another effort from Depay, after he was released by van Persie. Costa Rica were stifled by a technically superior Netherlands side. They had to rely on long shots and freekicks. Christian Bolanos, the deadball specialist set up two chances, the first too high for Celso Borges to connect with and the second one he connected and sent it across goal, but Johnny Acosta failed to give it the finishing touch.

Navas came to Costa Rica’s resuce again when he prevented a Wesley Sneijder free kick from creeping into the top corner. Another free kick was headed over by Giancarlo Gonzalez, under pressure from Aston Villa’s Ron Vlaar. Vlaar then skied his own effort off a Sneijder freekick.

Navas was proving to be a menace to the Dutch, and the rare times he failed to make a save, the post came to Netherlands’ rescue, as Sneijder’s freekick struck the woodwork. Moments later, van Persie’s shot from a Sneijder pass was turned away by Navas. Another effort from van Persie was deflected on to the post by defender Yeltsin Tejeda.

In extra time, a Vlaar header was thwarted away by Navas. Costa Rica found some energy in the dying moments, and almost won a penalty appeal after Marcos Urena was bought down by Vlaar. Urena then tested Ajax keeper Jasper Cillessen with a stinging shot.

Louis van Gaal played a late masterstroke, bringing Newcastle keeper Tim Krul on instead of Jasper Cillessen, as the match was destined to go to penalties. Borges scored his, before Bryan Ruiz and Umana had theirs saved. The Dutch were prolific with their penalties, van Persie, Robben, Sneijder and Kuyt all scoring.

It was a sad end for the brave Costa Ricans, but Netherlands will be more than pleased to have made it to the semi-finals against Lionel Messi’s Argentina.

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Posted by on July 7, 2014 in General, World Cup 2014

 
 
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