Arsene Wenger can't ignore Arsenal fans, Barca's PK woes, Zlatan's future

And no, not just because after getting knocked out of the FA Cup by Watford, they probably won't win silverware -- their palliative the past two seasons -- this year.


The fact that Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool are all well-behind them and endured more disappointing campaigns doesn't blunt the pain and anger of many fans, even though Arsene Wenger sees it differently.

"You are always in the middle of a drama," he huffed following Sunday's 2-1 home defeat. "It is becoming a farce. We have lost a game. We are sad and we want to focus on the next game. Arsenal has lost games before in history and we will lose again in the future. We will stick together and cope with it."

Sure. You get where he's coming from. Other big clubs are worse off, some far worse off. But he trusts in his way of doing things and so does everybody else at the club (he says) and therefore, let's move on. You can also understand why he might get frustrated at being asked the same questions time and again and being forced to come up with the same answers time and again.

Anybody who has ever undertaken a car journey with small kids will relate.

"Are we there yet?... Are we there yet?... Are we there yet?"

That can drive you mad if it goes on for just 10 minutes. With Wenger, it has been going on for 10 years.
Arsene Wenger has to realize that he can't keep fans happy with the same old excuses. Something real must change.
But the trouble is that the reason he keeps getting the same questions -- about lack of confidence, about being too soft, about being too pretty, about being too stubborn -- for the past decade is that he's been giving the same answers and getting the same results.

The Watford game offered up a microcosm of recent Arsenal performances. Gabriel did something stupid (that two-footed, off the ground tackle on Troy Deeney that ought to have been a straight red) followed by something bad (his defending on Odion Ighalo's goal). Mesut Ozil materialized to do something potentially game-changing (the assist for Danny Welbeck) and then dematerialized. Alexis Sanchez struggled. Theo Walcott came on and did nothing. Welbeck did something good (the goal) and something bad (the miss). Wenger changed his first-choice full-backs for no obvious reason. (Maybe he was saving Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal for the comeback against Barcelona?)

Arsenal had tons of sterile possession against a well-organized opponent and were vulnerable to the counterattack. They woke up late, created enough opportunities to turn it around but squandered them. That's it. It was their third straight home defeat and the game before that was the turgid scoreless draw against Hull City's B-team.

You can see why fans are frustrated. Wenger may think it's farcical that folks treat this as a "drama" but it really isn't. What is farcical is that he doesn't seem to understand the frustration after nearly 20 years in and around Arsenal supporters. And he evidently thinks that saying the same stuff over and over again will placate them.

You can't let this season peter out. Wenger said he wants to make "the impossible possible" against Barcelona and that's great. But you'd assume he has to be prepared for the very likely possibility that all Arsenal will have left come Wednesday night is the Premier League.

An eight-point gap from the top with nine games to go is hefty, but not insurmountable. At the very least, you expect a reaction -- a display of pride, something that shows they're not merely content with finishing above the other A-list underachievers.

If it works out, great. If it doesn't, please don't talk about how it's a "farce" that some fans are unhappy. Pretend at least that you understand where they're coming from. Goodness knows, for the past decade they've shown patience and understood where you're coming from.

All eyes on Zlatan but Blanc is the real hero at PSG
The title came in the most emphatic way. A 9-0 away win against the cellar-dwellers who were reduced to 10 men in the second half. Paris Saint-Germain's victory against Troyes gave the French side their fourth consecutive Ligue 1 crown with eight games to spare. It was perhaps the most foregone conclusion this side of a Harlem Globetrotters game against the Washington Generals.

The focus after the win, obviously, is on the big man. Zlatan Ibrahimovic took his seasonal tally to 35 goals (27 in Le Championnat) and the issue of his contract (he becomes a free agent this summer) continues to dominate.

"As things stand, I won't be here next season," he said. "I don't think [the club] can replace the Eiffel Tower with a statue of me, but if they can do that, I'm staying, I promise!" That last part, presumably, was a joke, though with Zlatan you can never be sure.

I wouldn't read too much into the "I won't be here next season" part. The key bit is "as things stand" -- all it means is that he has not yet signed a new deal and frankly, there's no reason to do it now. Better to listen to what's out there -- from China, from the Premier League, from Major League Soccer -- rather than being in a rush to sign.
The ESPN FC crew discuss who's to blame for Arsenal's shock 2-1 defeat against Watford in the FA Cup quarterfinals.

Ibrahimovic may be PSG's player of the year but the man of the year probably ought to be his coach, Laurent Blanc. It's easy to forget that he only got the gig after Carlo Ancelotti left because half a dozen fancy names turned it down. Put a different way, if PSG was applying to college, Blanc was the classic "safety school."

Yet in that time, he won nine of the 10 domestic trophies PSG contested. Given that they're in the French League Cup final (they play Lille on April 23) and the French Cup semis (where they face Lorient), that batting percentage could yet improve.

The real test may be in Europe, but he's been solid there, too. In his first year, they were unlucky to get knocked out in the quarterfinals by Chelsea on away goals and in Year 2 he also reached the Elite Eight, getting bounced by the Barca juggernaut.

Weirdly, Blanc has been more impressive off the field than on it. He arrived with a reputation as a bit of a pushover, the goofy babysitter who lets you get away with everything, but he was stern with Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi following their South American shenanigans and late return and, ultimately, was vindicated. He sat patiently and waited until last month for the club to give him a new deal. And most of all, he handled the fragile egos and big names in a way that ultimately helped get the best out of his star-studded squad.

There are plenty of challenges ahead: from the domestic cups to making a run at the Champions League to Ibrahimovic's contract to the future of Cavani. But whatever happens, he has taken PSG to exactly where they should be (and perhaps a tiny bit further) when he was given the job. And that alone is far more of an achievement than you might think.

Replays offer little clarity for Bilic, Van Gaal

Slaven Bilic and Louis Van Gaal are both former professional footballers turned managers. Both saw replays of the two contentious incidents from the Manchester United vs. West Ham game: Marcos Rojo's tackle on Dimitri Payet and Bastian Schweinsteiger's collision with Darren Randolph for United's equalizer.

And both, perhaps unsurprisingly, came up with entirely different conclusions.

Bilic said the Payet incident was "definitely not a dive." He added, "Nobody in the world can say there wasn't a touch. Then, if it was a touch, and it is more than a touch, it is a penalty."

Van Gaal maintained "there was little contact, but you can see he dives because you can fall a different way."

Were I to chime in, I could only say it was a very difficult decision. Payet obviously accentuates the contact but the contact is still there, even as Rojo tries to pull out.

Was it a penalty? I still don't know. I do know that any referee calling it would be braver than me because that was a hugely difficult call to make, much like Damien Delaney on Christian Benteke a few weeks ago. Sometimes you just have to accept that even with video evidence, there are decisions that are not clear-cut.
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On Anthony Martial's equalizer, there is no question that Schweinsteiger runs straight into Randolph. "It was hard to see but it was obvious," said Bilic (never mind the contradiction). "[It was] a foul by Schweinsteiger on Randolph."

Van Gaal, not surprisingly, saw it differently: "I think Schweinsteiger got a push off the defender [Michail Antonio] and he did not push the goalkeeper deliberately."

I'm not so sure about that one. Antonio is a young, energetic player but he's not Brock Lesnar and it's not clear how he can shove a stationary Schweinsteiger several feet away. More plausible is that Schweinsteiger felt the push and made no effort to avoid Randolph and, in fact, made sure he put him off.

Either way, it never ceases to amaze how the same incident, even after review, is seen so differently. Akira Kurosawa would be proud.

Should Barca worry about their penalty takers?
There are fewer gimmes in La Liga than some would have you believe, but Barcelona hosting free-falling Getafe (one point in eight games before Saturday) was about as close as you get. Barca won 6-0, Lionel Messi scored in his fifth consecutive game, Neymar bagged two and Luis Suarez got some rest: well-earned in his case given that he had missed just one Liga game and hasn't been substituted at all this season.

The wrinkle is that Messi missed yet another penalty. That makes him 4-for-7 this year (technically, he's 4-for-8 since the "pass" to Suarez against Celta counts as a miss). The funny thing is that his conversion rate is actually higher than Neymar's (4-for-8) and Suarez's (2-for-4).

It's obviously not an issue if they continue banging them in from open play but you do wonder what might happen if they go to penalties in the Champions League or Copa del Rey final.

Despite indiscipline, Chelsea better with Costa

Chelsea's season pretty much ended on Saturday with that 2-0 defeat to Everton in the FA Cup. Arithmetic may yet give them a chance even for the Champions League -- they're 11 points back with nine games to go -- but in truth, the Europa League is the best they can hope for and not only does that not set pulses racing, it's still a big ask.

Diego Costa made headlines again for the wrong reasons for whatever happened between him and Gareth Barry. Both clubs minimized the incident, so it's unlikely he'll get in trouble. And, frankly, it seems the best possible outcome.
ESPN FC's Alejandro Moreno feels very strongly that Dimitri Payet went to ground unprovoked against Manchester United.
TV pictures are what they are, but while it's clear he opened his mouth and put it where it should not be on a football pitch, you don't see him actually biting Barry. And, it's safe to say, a man who gets bitten does not react the way Barry did by letting his opponent hug and pat him on the head. Just ask Branislav Ivanovic or Giorgio Chiellini.

That said, it's another disciplinary incident involving Costa. This nonsense about him "needing" to play like this, on the edge, is just that: nonsense. When he's not on the pitch, Chelsea are a weaker side. Simple as that.

Don't deny the magic of the cup

No matter how much we love underdog stories, we often get extremely cynical when folks trot out old cliches about the "Magic of the Cup." But from time to time, we get reminders that for all the polarization in the game and for all the imbalance of resources, it's still 11 vs. 11. Anything can happen and sometimes, it does.

Ross County is a football club from a place called Dingwall (yes, really), way up in the Scottish Highlands. Dingwall has a population of around 6,000, which is fewer than the 6,941 who fit into Ross County's stadium. And, no, this isn't a suburban team that can draw upon a massive catchment area. Look at the map. There's virtually nobody living anywhere near there except for Inverness, which is half an hour away and has a population of fewer than 50,000 (and, more importantly, its own top-flight club).

On Sunday, they beat Hibernian with a last-minute goal to win the Scottish League Cup. In the grand scheme of things, it may not be relevant. But to the few thousand folks who live in Dingwall, it will live in their community's history for a long, long time.

And, yeah, that's the Magic of the Cup.

Spalletti getting Roma back on track
It's now eight Serie A wins on the spin for Roma, after the 2-1 victory away to Udinese. During that run they also played Real Madrid twice (and lost twice, but both times outplayed the opposition for long stretches). Call it the Luciano Spalletti bump.

The former Zenit boss had been out of the game for a long time but his impact is impossible to ignore. Great managers outperform their predecessors with the same group of players, it's as simple as that. And this is what he's doing. It doesn't necessarily mean he's the right choice for the club in the long term, but they're now five points clear of fourth place -- the Champions' League is critical to their financial well-being -- and it vindicates the decision to part ways with Rudi Garcia.

Real Madrid win, but big flaws remain

Real Madrid's 2-1 win against Las Palmas on Sunday underscored all the difficulties Zinedine Zidane is facing now. It took a late, late goal from Casemiro and a string of superb saves from Keylor Navas to seal the three points against a team in excellent form (they had won three straight and battled gamely against Barcelona) but are still just four points off the drop.
The ESPN FC team debate the effect Diego Costa's latest controversy will have on his future at Stamford Bridge.
Casemiro's presence bulked up the midfield but effectively handed the initiative to the opposition, who were all too glad to take it. The result was that Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo (both of whom started, unlike Karim Benzema who was injured) could manage little at the other end and, crazy as it sounds, it was one-way traffic for much of the second half -- and not in a good way for Madrid.

A bit in like the first half against Roma at the Bernabeu, Madrid were a shambles. In the Champions League, it was the giallorossi's poor finishing that prevented a debacle; here, it was Navas' outstanding form.

Either way, it's not good.

"I'm worried," Zidane said after the game. "If we keep playing this way, we won't get anywhere."

Tension builds between Villa, fans
Tottenham's 2-0 against Aston Villa keeps the heat on Leicester City, who host Newcastle on Monday night. Some people joked about Mauricio Pochettino's decision to rest players against Borussia Dortmund on Thursday but it may have proved prescient. Spurs dominated. They could have scored five in the first half alone and then seemed to wither at the end, conceding many more chances than they would have liked.
The FC crew discuss PSG's chances against the best in the UCL after they captured the Ligue 1 title with eight games to spare.
What caught my eye though was the protest of the home supporters, who displayed banners attacking Tom Fox and Randy Lerner, chief executive and owner of the club. Villa decided to send stewards to forcibly remove them, a decision I frankly don't understand.

I get it; Lerner owns Villa, which means Villa Park is his property, his house. He can do what he likes. But it doesn't mean it's a smart decision. The protests were civil, they weren't a menace to anyone's safety and trying to silence fans simply doesn't work. They're angry, they have a reason to be angry and, most importantly, they have a right to be angry and to voice that anger.

When you own a club, you have to be accountable. Without its fans, Villa is just a few dusty trophies, a club logo and a Wikipedia entry.

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