Monday 7 August 2023

The long game

Preparations for an unwelcome family reunion messed with my commitment to USA-Sweden in the last 16 yesterday morning, but I was back just in time from that ultimately stress-free event (the individual concerned in the side-show didn’t turn up) for ITVX’s live showing of Arsenal-Manchester City in the Community Shield, which as everyone knows is the traditional eyebrow-raiser to surely not another new season. 

I’d managed the first half from Melbourne and glimpses of the second, in which USA’s dominance had seemed total, and on a day when a player named Vieira earned Arsenal some silverware with a winning penalty in a shoot-out, the highlights showed Sweden beating the champions USA very much in the manner of Arsenal beating the holders Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup Final. 

Arsenal’s Wembley joy was certainly more deserved than at Cardiff on that rainy, joyous day, even if you are of the opinion that a deflected Leandro Trossard goal in the 90th+11th minute proves that the hand of fortune is very much with you. True enough, Arsenal were flat in the second half and didn't look remotely like scoring, resigned it seemed to a “ninth defeat in a row” by the fossil fuel-powered treble winners when sub Cole Palmer bent his shot beyond Ramsdale in the 80th minute; this was followed by Phil Foden, also a sub, drawing a vital save from Ramsdale, who then also denied Rodri. But Arsenal had been in the proverbial ascendency for the majority of the first half, creating two chances at goal for Kai Havertz, and you really have to question the new directive to clampdown on time-wasting or gamesmanship (in itself a welcome move) if the master of it, Rodri, is allowed to make four cynical fouls without even being spoken to, while two Arsenal players are instantly booked for one instance of the same offences, not to mention Mikel Arteta being cautioned for complaining of a second foul by Bernardo Silva that went  unpunished.

Maybe there was justice, though, in a staggering 20 minutes being played after the Cole goal, even if, as Arsenal played the ball around way beyond the original eight minutes of added on time, I grimly awaited the final whistle (if not the deafening sounds of victory from City’s soporific support). I tried to take heart from the 11 year run of Community Shield winners not going on to win the league, and in all honesty allowed my own weariness to handle the full perspective side of things. Then Rodri headed out a Saka corner, the ball was worked to Trossard, who turned inside Juliano Alvarez (I think) and used Akanji as a Ronnie Whelan tribute act, the ball crawling joyously into the net past a wrongfooted Stefan Ortega as a crescendo of jubilation rained down upon the narked little face of the hapless defender. 

I tempered my own celebrations, pinned down by the missus' legs as she snoozed next to me on the sofa, but my now 20-year gripe about penalty shoot-outs in Charity/Community Shield matches was discredited in an instant. That said, I would have been just as delighted if Trossard’s goal had meant we’d got a draw and therefore shared the shield. There was - amazingly - still time for the 12 yard spectacle to be avoided, with De Bruyne’s free kick worryingly arching into Ramsdale's box, but finally the match ended to allow Arsenal the opportunity for a second chance in three years to win the fixture this way.

Maybe there is a note of interest in both goal-scorers being subs (another, De Bruyne, had nudged the ball to Palmer for his goal) but it's not like its 1983 anymore, and my dad pointing out excitedly that John Hewitt's goal for Aberdeen against Real Madrid in the Cup Winners Cup Final was all the more fascinating because he'd been the replacement for the scorer of their first goal, Eric Black. The game is so long now, and full of so many interchangeable faces, that it's difficult to keep track.

In the shoot-out, De Bruyne had found only the crossbar and the six-yard box with his effort by the time the untouchable Rodri stepped up. I didn't much fancy Ramsdale's chances of extending his unremarkable penalty saving record, or more to the point expect a man who would be an assassin if he were not a footballer to complete his mission, but I took great joy in being proved wrong, his scuffed shot kept out by a man who equals Shilton in 12 yard excellence (but is eminently more likeable). Rodri probably later complained that Ramsdale went over too easily. 

Vieira looked cool when he stepped up, looking Ortega in the eye, and though his (sur)namesake didn't kick a ball for Arsenal again after his strike past Roy Carroll in Cardiff, I'm hopeful Fabio will (spot) kick on from here after driving his shot past the second choice (?) City goalie. 

Not so convincing was Linda Hurtig’s shoot-out winner against the Americans earlier in the day, finally watched by me eight hours after I first tuned in, which in the near future will be the regulation injury time for every match. Hurtig’s effort was saved by Alyssa Naeher but was pushed up and ultimately fell millimetres over the goal line, confirmed by a VAR intervention. Sweden didn’t record their first shot on target until the 83rd minute and had goalkeeper Zecira Musovic to thank for two brilliant saves from the 11 she faced. 

While the Swedes now face ‘team of the tournament’ (as said by somebody) Japan, USA go home unable to complete an unprecedented third successive World Cup title. Megan Rapinoe, now 38, had already announced her intended retirement come the end of the tournament - although that’s what Roger Mills said after Italia ‘90. The Americans didn’t seem to be able to get going in Australia, winning one and drawing two in seat-of-your-pants fashion, before, like the equally lethargic Italian men in ‘82, coming good for the knockout stage, except lacking a Paolo Rossi type figure to similarly rise from the ashes. 

Sweden will presumably play the same way against Japan, but maybe that’s how Brazil viewed their meeting with Rossi’s Italy in ‘82. You never know with football. 

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