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Mar 18, 2006

Curbs your enthusiasm for England

Arsenal 3 - 0 Charlton Athletic

It is on days like this that Charlton boss Alan Curbishley gets the chance make a statement as he vies for attention in the race to become the next England manager.

A shock win at Highbury would have done his reputation no harm at all, yet not even the ever cheerful Curbs could cover up a Charlton performance that damaged the reputations of all involved in it.

There is no point is disguising the fact that this was a pathetic and embarrassing performance from Charlton. Lacking any kind of spirit or direction, they looked like a lower league side enjoying their day out at Highbury rather than one genuinely coming here expecting to get something from the day and their manager cannot be absolved from blame when it comes to assessing what went wrong.

Giving Arsenal far too much respect from the first minute to the last, their inability to offer any form of physical threat was nothing sort of a disgrace and Curbishley was forced to admits as much as he faced the media pack he clearly needs to impress in the battle for hearts and minds.

'I expect a lot more from my team than that, but you have to give Arsenal credit because they are playing some great stuff at the moment,' was Curbishley's view as he spoke with thoughtful composure in front of a packed media room at Highbury.

'At 2-0, I feared we could be on the end of a hammering because this Arsenal team are frightening when they get you in that position. We worked so hard all week to try and get something out of this game, but our performance wasn't good enough. I don't like to play the top four sides and turn in a performance like that, but we were not good enough today, simple as that.

'We made it too easy for them and when this Arsenal side click into gear, it's very hard to stop them. We did well to keep the score down.'

Those final words say it all. Against an Arsenal team who are slowly beginning to awaken from slumber, this was the ultimate test of Curbishley's tactical nous and his decision to start with Darren Bent as the lone front runner was predictable.

Indeed, his opposite number, Arsene Wenger, suggested his opposite number would do as much in his programme notes, so no one was surprised to see Bent handed the thankless task of chasing shadows on his own.

A returning Dennis Rommedahl was the most advanced of Charlton's five-man midfield, with Jason Euell playing in a central role behind Bent, yet the idea of launching long balls to the isolated England hit-man was never likely to be a successful formula. Philippe Senderos may have his faults, but his aerial ability can never be doubted and as the big Swiss defender became Bent's constant companion for the afternoon, the England man must have feared he had a long day ahead of him.

This developing Arsenal side is beginning to purr just now and the last thing Curbishley needed was a faltering performance from his defenders. So as Jonathan Spector stumbled and gave Emmanuel Adebayor the chance to race clear on goal after just five minutes, all his pre-match planning looked set to be thrown out in double quick time.

Adebayor wasted that chance, but the visitors didn't have to wait long to have his ambitions torn apart. After a sweeping move featuring Alex Hleb concluded with a magical burst of pace from Thierry Henry and a simple 13th minute finish from Robert Pires, it was time for Curbs to revert to Plan B.

However, there was no back up to the original and doomed formation and Charlton's blatant failure to get in the face of Arsenal and cut down the space they thrive on was a flaw that must have infuriated the Charlton manager. Standing back and looking on in awe as Arsenal grew in confidence, the Addicks did not look like a side who believed they could pull off a shock result and Curbishley can take some of the blame for that mental frailty.

The likes of Martin O'Neill, Sam Allardyce and Stuart Pearce are famed for sending out sides whose in-built belief compensates for their failings, but that quality was not in evidence from Charlton at Highbury.

So when another woeful defensive mistake, this time from Hernan Hreidarsson, gave Adebayor another chance in front of goal, it was no surprise to see him make up for his earlier error and double Arsenal's lead after 32 minutes.

A manager likes to see a reaction from his players when they go a goal behind, but this listless performance from Charlton left you believing all involved were here merely on a highly unambitious damage limitation exercise. Those who view Sven Goran Eriksson as a cautious coach would not have been warmed by this Addicks display, that's for sure.

At 2-0, I feared we could be on the end of a hammering because this Arsenal team are frightening when they get you in that position.
Alan Curbishley
Curbishley made a change at the break as he threw Shaun Bartlett on to support Bent, but within four minutes of the re-start, Arsenal had scored again. Why nobody bothered to challenge Alex Hleb as he burst towards the box is open to question, yet the failure to react as Adebayor had two shots was alarming, with Hleb eventually putting Charlton out of their misery by lashing home when the ball fell back to him.

There can be little doubt that Charlton are inferior to a revived Arsenal, but the manner in which they surrendered was painful to watch and on this evidence, they are fortunate not to find themselves entrenched in the relegation mix. While Darren Bent should have scored from close range seconds after that Hleb goal, the rest of this game was to be an exhibition of Arsenal's arrogant football and Charlton looked uninterested in trying to avoid the humiliation being inflicted on them.

Skipping over his own side's failings, Curbishley opted to use his press briefing to pour praise on his opponents. 'I fancy Arsenal to win the Champions League this season,' he said. 'They are in the midst of a transitional season, but it is all coming together at the right time for them and I think they will go very close in Europe.

'When they have been going for three or four trophies at this stage of the season in the past, the Champions League has generally been the one that slips through the net, but that is not a problem this time around.'

The Insider is very much in the 'anyone but Big Sam' camp when it comes to the next England manager, but if this is the best Curbishley can come up with when faced with the challenge of taking on a quality side, the omens would not be good should he be the man who lands the top job in the land.


MAN OF THE MATCH: Thierry Henry

He turned creator in chief in this game and was once again head and shoulders above everyone on the field.

FOOD WATCH: The mix of chicken wings and hot meat pies created the now familiar press-room scrum at half-time.

HENRY UPDATE: The Arsenal captain used his programme notes to answer speculation suggesting he has already agreed to join Barcelona this summer. Insisting the stories are groundless as they do not include quotes from any of the parties involved, Henry's refusal to sign the contract Arsenal have offered him speaks louder than any words.

CURBS VERDICT: A polished display in the press conference was just about the only classy aspect of Curbishley's afternoon. His team were dreadful and whatever his tactics were, they failed to produce any kind of performance from an under-motivated team.


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