Benzema gains some much needed confidence

Taken from our discussion on the Perpetual Post.

Champions League Matchday 6

By Mike Cummings, Kiyan Sobhani and Howard Megdal

MIKE CUMMINGS: Play it again, Sam. And, aww, what the heck — while we’re at it, here’s looking at you, Arsenal.

With his goal for Arsenal in the 77th minute Wednesday against Partizan, Samir Nasri did a couple of things that could each qualify as A Big Damn Deal. First, he further established himself as the Gunners’ most consistent contributor and — more and more these days, with the disappearance of the artist formerly known as Cesc Fabregas — the team’s best overall player. Second, he made Arsenal the English Team To Watch in the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Whew. Who knew an insurance goal in a middling group-stage win could be so important? For the reasons why, follow me down the logical trail.

With that middling group-stage win, Arsenal at last qualified as the runner-up in Group H, a group the Gunners were expected to dominate. But after road losses to Shakhtar Donetsk and Braga, Arsenal was in real danger of finishing third as Matchday 6 began. Those fears were compounded when Cleo canceled out Robin van Persie’s opener and tied the score at 1-1 in the second half. Enter Theo Walcott, who scored what turned out to be the winner four minutes before Nasri.

But while Walcott’s goal was the game-winner, Nasri’s was the nail in the coffin, the ticket to the knockout stages, the soothing tonic for Arsenal’s cocktail of mixed performances over the past month.

And more than anything, it was all of those things, all over again.  In other words, this is not the first time Ol’ Sam (think he’s ever been called that?) has bailed Arsenal out this year. One of the best examples came over the weekend when he scored twice and pretty much ran the whole game in Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Fulham.

But that’s not the only example. Dating back to the start of Arsenal’s recent slump — a 2-1 loss at Shakhtar Donetsk on November 3 — Nasri has scored five goals in seven starts and has been his team’s best player. And that’s been a welcome development for an Arsenal team that’s been dealing with Cesc Fabregas’ injury and uninspired form.

So why is Arsenal The English Team To Watch? Because while Nasri has played well consistently, as a whole Arsenal has not. It’s nothing new to report that Arsenal has talent to win it all but also the inconsistencies to lose at any time. That’s the way it’s been for years under Arsene Wenger, especially since the Gunners won their last trophy in 2005.

This year is no different. At times Arsenal has looked great, but at times they’ve also looked very bad. As Wednesday showed, Wenger’s men obviously have to defend better if they want to win any trophies. Cleo had way too much time for his goal, and Arsenal’s defense seemed content to let him shoot unpressured.

But with that said, Arsenal is at the top of the Premier League, in the knockout stages of the Champions League, and still kicking in both the FA Cup and Carling Cup.

Simply put, anything can happen. And as Arsenal has repeatedly shown, it probably will.

So is this the season Arsenal finally puts it all together and wins a major trophy for the first time since 2005? At the moment the Gunners are at the top of the Premier League table, and despite showing inconsistent form during large parts of the season, they look as good a bet for the title as the rest of the Big (Shambolic) Four would. For now Arsenal is playing with lots of confidence after, apparently, having put their annual November-December hiccups behind them.

More than anyone else, the Gunners have good ‘ol Sam to thank for that.

HOWARD MEGDAL: To paraphrase another Casablanca quote, Mike, how extravagant you are, throwing away Spurs like that. Someday, English clubs may become scarce.

Or put another way, Arsenal qualified- but Tottenham Hotspur won their group, besting a strong group including Twente, Werder Bremen and some team that plays at San Siro- and they did it without a defense.

Well, they had people back there, sure. But the depth was nil. And Younes Kaboul missed the Twente game, while Michael Dawson hasn’t played in a Champions League match all season. Tom Huddlestone’s absence for ankle surgery doesn’t help matters, either, and he wasn’t 100 percent long before he took his leave.

As Harry Redknapp put it, You can’t say, ‘Well they’ve conceded goals’ as we’ve scored more goals than anybody.” What could lift Spurs to another level- and perhaps this is a greedy fan talking- is if they’d simply stop conceding so many goals.

Meanwhile, I think it is worth pointing out that the following Champions League teams in the Round of 16 will be unseeded: AC Milan, Lyon, Inter Milan and Arsenal. In other words, four of the group winners will receive these opponents- as a reward.

By the time it happens it will be February- giving Spurs the chance to both get healthy and add in the January transfer window. Clearly, they don’t need any more goals. But that defense should look very different in a few months. And astoundingly, that could mean Spurs makes a run in this tournanent.

KIYAN SOBHANI: While others were busy watching more important clashes such as Arsenal taking on Belgrade, I decided to tune into the demolition at the Bernabeu, where Real Madrid’s B team (minus Cristiano, who apparently plays – every – single – game) thrashed poor Auxerre 4-0. It was an insignificant result, as this group has been long decided – much like most groups.

But, this was a morale booster. For a second, let’s forget the fact that Auxerre was among the worst teams in the Champions League this year. What’s substantial here is that Karim Benzema had his best game in a Real Madrid shirt, scoring a hat-trick – including an alluring lob for his 3rd goal. It was a huge morale boosting game for Karim, who has no excuses now that Higuain is out for at least a month or so. Naturally, Benzema has no strikers standing in his way – and Madrid will need Benzema’s confidence to be sky-high if they are to go deep in all competitions.

So what’s next for Madrid? It’s intriguing to look at the potential teams that Madrid could face in the knockout round. Three of them – Lyon, Arsenal, Roma – are teams that have knocked out Madrid in the round of 16 in the past 6 years; while another fun team to draw would be Inter Milan, where Madrid would want to take revenge on Benitez who out-coached Bernd Schuster as Liverpool knocked out Real 5-0 on aggregate 2 seasons ago. Madrid would also rendezvous with former allies Sneijder, Samuel, and Cambiasso; while Inter gets a chance to prove to their former coach that they are indeed contenders without ‘the special one’.

The two remaining teams that Madrid could conceivably draw are Marseille and Copenhagen – both of whom would undoubtedly be Madrid’s easiest possible draw. Maybe that’s just what they need, because many Merengue fans feel that all they need to do is break the curse and advance past this deplorable round of 16 phase on their quest to ‘La Decima’ – their 10th European crown.

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