Sunday, April 13, 2014

Nine Hours of Sports Intensity: 2 Out of 3 Ain't Bad

April 12, 2014 will go down as one of the most tense days of sports I've ever had.

It could have been considerably more tense than it was.

Here was the schedule:

* 12:00 (well, 12:07, a tribute to the Hillsborough Disaster): Arsenal vs. Wigan Athletic, FA Cup Semifinal at Wembley Stadium. Arsenal needed to defeat the Cup holders (defending champions) to advance to the Final, vs. the winner of tomorrow's match between Hull City and Sheffield United, in order to break their drought of not having won a trophy in 9 years. (It's not like North American sports, where only one team wins it all: There's several trophies available, depending on your level, and Arsenal were up for 4 of them in January, 3 of them in February, and 2 of them in March, but now, the Cup is it.)

* 1:00: Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. THE rivalry in North American sports.

* 7:00: New York Red Bulls vs. D.C. United, at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington. The Atlantic Cup, for fans of each side their biggest rivalry, even though most New York Tri-State Area teams' biggest rival is either a New England team, a Philadelphia team, or another Tri-State Area team.

The Yankees and the Red Bulls are both early in their seasons, and have time to make up for mistakes at this point. The Arsenal are close to the end, and need that trophy very badly. As much as I dislike DCU, and as much as I hate the Red Sox, I would have gladly sacrificed wins in both of those games to get Arsenal the win this afternoon.

*

Wigan won the FA Cup last year, shocking Manchester City in the Final on a late goal in a 1-0 win. This was shocking not just because Man City were the defending Premier League Champions, and won the Cup the season before, and had a shot of winning both trophies again; but because Wigan were on the verge of "relegation." This is something unknown in North American sports: If you finish in the last 3 places in the Premier League (or "the Premiership"), you get bumped down to the second division, known as the Championship. And if you finish 1st or 2nd in the championship, and win the playoffs for teams 3rd through 6th, you get promoted to the Premiership.

Wigan did, indeed get relegated -- although they are probably going to reach the promotion playoffs this time. And they got into this year's Semifinal by once again beating Man City, this time in Manchester. (Man City are, however, the team most likely to win the Premiership.)

Arsenal reached this point by beating North London arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur, then 3rd-division Coventry City, then Liverpool, then the other Liverpool team, Everton, in the Quarterfinal. So while their Semifinal and, if successful, Final opponents wouldn't have been among the elite, they had a tough hill to climb to get there (Coventry notwithstanding).

But since the new Wembley opened in 2007, Arsenal hadn't won there, losing a 2009 FA Cup Semifinal to Chelsea and the 2011 League Cup Final in stunning fashion to Birmingham City. They hadn't won at the site since 1999, taking the Charity Shield at the old Wembley, which opened in April 1923, the same month as the original Yankee Stadium, and closed in 2000, demolished to make way for a much-needed new national stadium for England. (Arsenal had won FA Cup Finals at the interim site, the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, in 2002, '03 and '05.)

Arsenal led the League for most of the season, but injuries to 5 key players -- centreback Laurent Koscielny, winger Theo Walcott, and midfielders Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere -- have seen them tumble from 1st to, for the moment, 5th place, with 4th place being necessary to secure a place in next season's UEFA Champions League. (Their chances of finishing 4th, if you follow the advice of Woody Paige of the Denver Post and ESPN, and "Look at the sched-u-le," are actually better than that of the team that has passed them for the moment, Everton.)

Without those 4 midfielders (Walcott counts), the slumping Santi Cazorla, the suddenly old Mikel Arteta, and the awful Mathieu Flamini have had to play, and have not been up to the task. And Tomas Rosicky, once great but now quite slow (if still great in the attitude and workrate departments), is also now injured.

As a result, forward Olivier Giroud has gone from being one of the best strikers in the world in the first half of the season to a struggling player in the second half. He has borne some vicious attacks from Arsenal fans in social media, and so has manager Arsene Wenger for not buying a new striker in the summer and January transfer windows. Which is stupid: Fellow London powers Chelsea, with all the money at their disposal, also need another striker, and they didn't buy one, proving that, if one good enough for Chelsea's name and money wasn't available, then one good enough for Arsenal's name (better than Chelsea's) and money (not) wasn't available, either.

Fortunately, Ramsey is back. And Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, hurt earlier in the season, stepped into the Walcott role. Between them, they made a huge difference today. And while he's still quite raw, rookie Yaya Sanogo started in place of Giroud, and played with a considerable amount of poise for a 21-year-old who's never played at the top level in a major European country before this season.

Still, Arsenal blew a lot of chances in the first half. In the second half, in the 63rd minute, Per Mertesacker -- the 6-foot-6 centreback affectionately known to Arsenal fans as "the Big Fucking German" -- made a critical mistake, tripping Wigan's Callum McManaman in the penalty area, and Wigan were rightly granted a penalty shot, which Jordi Gomez converted.

Wigan led 1-0, and on Twitter, the invective against Wenger by those who want him out was matched by the sadness of those who want him to stay, but figure now, with another trophyless year, he'll want to leave, so as not to have to put up with that kind of crap anymore.

The Wenger Outers act as those some other manager brought the Double in 1998, a UEFA Cup Final in 2000, another Double in 2002, an FA Cup and nearly another Double in 2003, the unbeaten "Invincibles" League title in 2004, another FA Cup in 2005, the Champions League Final in 2006, and the new Emirates Stadium whose 60,000 seats allows Arsenal to compete much better than beloved old Highbury with its 38,000 seats; and that, after the '06 Final, this wonderful manager left, and then this cheap, stubborn old Frenchman came in and brought Arsenal to "mediocrity." (Finishing no worse than 4th for 8 straight seasons, reaching a Champions League Semifinal and 2 other Quarterfinals, and reaching 2 League Cup Finals is hardly "mediocrity," or even "decline.")

They also fail to take into account all the injuries, bad officiating decisions, and disloyalty shown to him by certain players (especially Ashley Cole in 2006, Emmanuel Adebayor in 2009, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri in 2011, Robin van Persie in 2012).

And they think that spending truckloads of money is the answer. Well, Tottenham spent £110 million in the summer transfer window, on 7 players, including £26 million on striker Roberto Soldado, who has scored exactly two goals from open play in League games this season. Clearly, simply spending a lot of money on hyped players is not the answer.

Anyway, Wenger took the trying but ineffective Lukas Podolski off, for Giroud, and there was a significant amount of booing from the 50,000 or so Arsenal fans in the crowd of 82,185. This was disgraceful, since it's hardly been Giroud's fault that he's gotten so few good passes since the New Year, and Giroud has hardly been the player most at fault for Arsenal's tumble from the top of the table and their exit from this season's Champions League. Wenger also replaced injured left back Nacho Monreal (normally the backup) with Kieran Gibbs (normally the starter but deemed not sufficiently recovered from his most recent injury to start).

Having 82,000 fans means that there were about 8,000 empty seats, which was also disgraceful, considering, A, how many Arsenal fans wanted to go; and B, how rarely Wigan has played at Wembley. You don't let such an opportunity go to waste.

But in the 82nd minute, Oxlade-Chamberlain fired a shot, and Wigan goalkeeper Scott Carson, who'd been playing very well, could only deflect it, and Mertesacker redeemed himself by heading in a tying goal. Sorry, forgot to "speak English" there: An equaliser. (Not "equalizer." Not in Britain, anyway.)

Suddenly, all the despairing Arsenal fans seemed to believe again. The Wenger Outers, however, remained unconvinced. Reminders of the 2011 League Cup Final, when Koscielny and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny collided and allowed Birmingham's Obafemi Martens to score a last-minute winner, abounded.

Despite 5 minutes of 2nd-half stoppage time, such a late winner did not come for either side.

Up until 1993 -- when Arsenal beat Sheffield Wednesday at old Wembley in a Thursday night replay after a draw in the Final the previous Saturday afternoon -- there wouldn't have been extra time (which is what overtime is called in this sport). The game would have gone to a replay, just as it would now if it was in an earlier round (albeit at another neutral site, as opposed to earlier rounds, which would be at one team's home ground, and then, if a replay were necessary, at the other team's ground).

And, through the pair of 15-minute halves of extra time -- which included Wenger taking off Ramsey, still not ready to play a full 120 minutes, for Kim Kallstrom -- neither side seriously threatened to score. Both teams played with a lot of guts -- and when a team with more talent that guts doesn't get the job done, a team with more guts than talent, like Wigan, can surprise.

So 120 minutes gone -- 128 minutes, if you count stoppage time -- and no winner could be found.

Penalty kicks. Every fan's least favorite way of settling a soccer game -- unless you're playing the national team of either England or the Netherlands, both notorious for missing penalties in knockout games. Packed to the gills at the Blind Pig in New York, I yelled, "Gentlemen, start your coronaries!"

Lukasz Fabianski, a much-maglined backup these last few years, first to Manuel Almunia, and now to fellow Pole Szczesny, has started every FA Cup game for Arsenal this season. Arsenal's chances rested not just on the feet of up to 5 attackers, but in the hands of a keeper most Arsenal fans (including yours truly, myself of Polish descent) would, not that long ago, not have trusted at all.

Wigan won the toss, and elected to kick first. Gary Caldwell fired... and Fabianski stopped it! Arsenal fans were elated, thinking that, now, they had a chance... if no Arsenal players missed.

Arteta, whose only saving grace this season has been being Arsenal's penalty taker, stepped up, and sent it home. "One-Nil to The Arsenal!"

Jack Collison stepped up for Wigan... and Fabianski stopped him, too! Kallstrom, the only signing Wenger made in the January transfer window (and that, a loan), who'd barely played since the transfer was made, stepped up... and hit it! It doesn't count as "his first goal for Arsenal," but it put the Gunners a step closer to winning the game.

Jean Beausejour was next for Wigan, and he converted. 2-1 Arsenal. And Giroud, the much-despised, made it 3-1 Arsenal.

If Fabianski could stop James McArthur, it would all be over. But he couldn't. 3-2 Arsenal.

It was now all up to Cazorla, who'd been so good last season, his first for Arsenal, but weak this season...

He made it! 4-2 Arsenal, and the game! Arsenal were through to the Final on May 17 at Wembley!

For millions of Arsenal fans all over the world, jubilation. For many, myself included, more like relief.

All the trauma of the last few weeks faded away. All those calling for Wenger to be fired, for Giroud to be sold, shut up for the rest of the day.

One more game, and we've got that trophy.

Whereas, if we'd lost, it would have made the rest of the Arsenal season that much more tense (with only 4th place left to play for), and the rest of the day (I would've really, really needed a Yankee win) considerably more tense... maybe even nasty.

*

At one point during the game, I saw the ESPN crawl say that the Yankees were leading the Red Sox, 4-2. As I said, I would have sacrificed a win against The Scum (a nickname inspired by English soccer fans, who usually call their team's arch-rivals that, including Arsenal on Tottenham and vice versa) to win the Arsenal match.

As it turned out, I didn't have to. Hiroki Kuroda wasn't great, but the bullpen got the job done, including Matt Thornton. Just last September, seeing a lefty pitcher in Pinstripes, wearing Number 48, with 2 men on base, and David Ortiz at the plate, in the top of the 7th inning, with less than 2 out, would have sent me to my knees in prayer: "Please, God, don't let Boone Logan blow another one!"

But Logan is gone, to the Colorado Rockies. This was Matt Thornton, and he blew a called strike three past the big fat lying cheating bastard. And, as usually happens when Ortiz doesn't get his way, he argued with plate umpire John Tumpane, to no avail. Thornton then allowed a hit that let 2 runners score (put on base by a tiring Kuroda), but that was as close as the Sox got.

Carlos Beltran hit a 2-run home run (his 2nd of the season) in the 1st inning. In the 3rd, back-to-back homers were hit by Brian McCann (his 1st as a Yankee) and Alfonso Soriano (his 3rd of the season). McCann homered again in the 6th. Kelly Johnson homered in the 8th (his 3rd of the season, surprisingly sharing the team lead with Soriano).

Yankees 7, Red Sox 4. WP: Kuroda (2-1). SV: Shawn Kelley (2). LP: John Lackey (2-1).

7-4! We beat The Scum, 7-4! We beat The Scum, 7-4! We beat The Scum, 7-4!

These 3 games have been played in an average of 3 hours exactly. These are the Yankees and the Red Sox? Well, it's at Yankee Stadium II, not at Fenway Park.

The Yankees have now taken 2 of the first 3 games in the series. It concludes tomorrow, the Sunday night ESPN game, 8:05 PM, Ivan Nova vs. Felix Doubront.

*

I was already physically and emotionally drained. Good thing there was a 3-hour gap between the end of the Yanks-Sox game and the RBNY-DCU game at RFK. (That's a lot of initials.)

I would have settled for an Arsenal win, but now I had that and a Yankee win over the Red Sox. Could "Metro" make it 3-for-3, against their (or, at least, their fans') most hated rivals?

No. David Arnaud scored in the 4th minute, and Metro's best chances came with a pair of near own goals by D.C., one in each half. Despite 57 percent possession and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry leading the line, they couldn't break through, and it ended 1-0 to their enemy.

Attendance: 12,364. On December 22, 2006, I saw the Devils play the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center. These are two teams that, historically, have had attendance problems, and are not each other's first, second, or even third rivals... and the attendance was 13,744, nearly 1,400 more than tonight's DC-NY game. (The Devils won, 4-1: Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta and Zach Parise scored; Martin Brodeur stopped 35 out of 36 shots, with Chris Clark -- not Alex Ovechkin -- scoring the Washington goal.) 

Arsenal won, Yankees won, Red Bulls lost.  Hey, 2 out of 3, in this context, is pretty damn good.

However, the Red Bulls have now played 6 matches in the young MLS season, lost 4, drawn 2, and won exactly none.

This is not good.

Their next game is on Wednesday night, at home, to the Philadelphia Union, who aren't doing a whole lot better. A win is a must.

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