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Bayern Munich vs Arsenal: Last hope or no hope?

Following last week’s eliminations of Manchester United and Celtic, Arsenal are now Great Britain’s last remaining representatives in the Champions League. Fans not susceptive to tribalism may, for one night only, cheer on a club simply for being close to home. But should they bother?

Gunners fans will point to the absence of Franck Ribery through injury and Bastian Schweinsteiger and Jerome Boateng through suspension as causes for optimism. Add to that the potential absence of Arjen Robben due to a calf problem and Bayern are without some key ingredients in what has been an outstanding season to date.
But with the German side already holding a 3-1 advantage, with three away goals to boot, everything points to an Arsenal exit.

Theo Walcott

The current Bundesliga leaders have lost only one league game and one European game all season. In short, the team who were once called “the invincibles” are facing their (almost) modern day equivalent. And in order to overcome them, Arsenal require three goals without reply. This against a team that has conceded only nine home league goals all season, and only one away!

With statistics like that, it is no wonder football observers are wondering what will happen when Pep Guardiola takes charge next season. It is a scary prospect when they are already near-perfect without him.

Arsenal’s last outing was their 2-1 league defeat against Tottenham Hotspur, and Arsene Wenger will be hoping for the perfect response from his team. The only downside is that the perfect response may still not be good enough against a side that almost invariably score. Should they do so, the pressure on Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla will be huge.

Bayern Munich celebrate

Their only hope is to score first, keep it tight at the back, and play the game on their own terms. The speed of Theo Walcott on the counter-attack could be crucial, but against a side that don’t need to leave gaps, it may be in a set-piece – at least for the opening goal – that Arsenal’s best hope lies.

With Jack Wilshere ruled out for three weeks and Lukas Podolski also missing, Arsenal will hope the players they can call on will prevent it being a hat-trick of last-16 eliminations. But with Manuel Neuer in goal, the likes of Philipp Lahm and Javi Martinez in front of him, and Thomas Muller and Mario Mandzukic a constant threat up front, it will take an almighty performance from the London side.

Anything is possible in football, but some things are more possible than others.

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Jack Wilshere: A victim of Arsenal mismanagement or just bad luck?

Jack Wilshere is injured again. And with that news, Arsenal fans everywhere hold their breath. Because hindsight says that a Wilshere injury is rarely as simple as the headline diagnosis. Arsene Wenger says “inflamed ankle”. He mentions three or four weeks. But with each fresh setback, and each extended absence, fans of both the Gunners and the England national team must start to wonder if we will ever see a fully-fit, consistently-played Jack Wilshere.

This isn’t an article intended to rile, or a headline eying a thousand clicks. It is one person wondering out loud what goes through the head of many when we hear “Wilshere” and “injured” in the same sentence.

Jack Wilshere

Arsenal fans may tell me I am overreacting. They may say I know nothing about the game or the boy who is now a man. But I do know he is exceptionally talented. He shows it in every game he plays, from being the only player who refused to give up against Bradford City in this season’s League Cup, to his man-of-the-match performance against Brazil in February. And perhaps most notably as a 19-year-old against Barcelona, his stats only bettered by Xavi and Iniesta, his performance on a par with those talked of as the very best.

His showings this season have suggested he is making up for lost time. After 14 months out with a persistent ankle and latterly knee problem, he was the player to pin hopes on, whether your allegiance was red or white. And if it was neither, you probably wondered what all the fuss was about…until you watched him play.

To blame mismanagement for an injury would be wrong. An injury is a chance occurrence. And yet, Wilshere could have been managed better. There is no doubt of that.

He could have been part of a team rather than its fulcrum. This season especially, after so long out, he could have played less. He wouldn’t have liked it. But his body may have said otherwise.

Having made 49 appearances in his breakthrough season there is a call, however easily dismissed, that he has played too much too young. As combative as he is, as box-to-box, with such a style comes risk.

The best managers, those hailed as knowing how to handle youth – they rarely throw a teenager in at the deep-end; not for the whole race. They give them experience, they manage them, and with it comes years of rewards.

Jack Wilshere has everything to be a true great. Perhaps most importantly, he has time.

In a sport where the here-and-now is crucial, where the next result is more important than the next five years, it is no surprise that Wilshere is overplayed.

But he is only 21. And his body is telling him something. Surely it is better to listen now, if we want any chance of replacing something that happened nearly 50 years ago with something that happens in our lifetime.

Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham: have a look at Crystal Palace’s Glenn Murray

Hands up if you know who is the top scorer in English league football? Not in the Premier League – Luis Suarez falls seven goals short. We are talking about the top scorer across all four divisions.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if you haven’t heard of him. He isn’t even the most talked about player at his club. But it is something of a shock that more people aren’t singing his praises. His exploits certainly deserve it.

Crystal Palace striker Glenn Murray already has 29 league goals this season. And yet it is his precocious teammate Wilfried Zaha who hogs the headlines. And when observers talk of other Palace players, they mention Yannick Bolasie or Jonny Williams.

Glenn Murray

Somehow, the player who scores all the goals has missed all the headlines.

But after years as what we will somewhat lazily term a journeyman, Murray is having the season of his life. And with his Palace side sitting third in the table, one point from automatic promotion, it could get even better.

To say that Murray has arrived out of nowhere would be doing him a disservice. Now 29, he has been scoring goals at various levels since his debut for non-league Workington Reds in 2002. After a spell in America, he returned to score nine goals in nine games for Barrow, before winning consecutive promotions with Carlisle United, although this was also his most barren scoring period.

A goal every other game for Rochdale and almost the same in three years at Brighton show a man who has been doing what he does for a long time. Only now he is doing it one step away, one place away in fact, from the Premier League.

Currently the second highest goal scorer in Europe – or more specifically across the top two divisions in the five leading European leagues – only Lionel Messi has found the net more often than Murray this season.

It is a statistic that has reportedly piqued the interest of England manager Roy Hodgson; and one that has no doubt been noticed by a Premier League club or two.

His current team will hope he continues to excel under the radar and that the likes of Charlie Austin and Matej Vydra carry on being thrown into the annual rumour mill ahead of him.

Many players in the past have had that one great season. Maybe this is Murray’s. Or maybe next year the Eagles will show that you don’t need wonder-kids to have a shot in the Premier League. Sometimes you just need a bloke who knows where the goal is.

Manchester United’s wingers must show they are up to the job

This was going to be a piece about the worrying decline of Antonio Valencia, whose abject display against Chelsea on Sunday was that of a man who has forgotten what he is good at. But the truth is none of Manchester United’s first-team wingers have had a season to write home about. In fact you would be hard-pressed to recall the last great performance from any of Valencia, Nani or Ashley Young.

When Valencia moved to Old Trafford in 2009, he was talked of as one of the league’s best wide-men, and as he began beating fullbacks and supplying inch-perfect crosses, it was clear why Sir Alex Ferguson parted with £12million for his services. The Ecuadorian made wing-play look easy.  He broke it down to its simplest form – knock it and run. And his speed meant he won the race more often than not.

Antonio Valencia

When Wayne Rooney enjoyed arguably his best season to date, when everyone started referring to his head as a goal-scoring threat as deadly as his feet – that was down to Valencia. There were no tricks in his armoury, no step-overs or showboating. He ran. He crossed. And United invariably scored.
So who was the player wearing number 7 on Sunday? The player who beat himself more often than his opponent? It certainly wasn’t the man who was voted both fans’ and players’ Player of the Year last season, nor the man who came back from a horrific ankle break to become one of his team’s most consistent performers.

It would be easy to say the pressure of the number on his back has got the better of him. But do players really notice what is behind them when they are so focused on what is ahead? Can a number so significantly alter a mind-set?

With the impending arrival of Wilfried Zaha, many expected Nani to make way. But in United’s last two games it was the Portuguese player’s departure (for two very different reasons) that had a detrimental effect on the team. So perhaps Zaha will be taking the place of Valencia next season, a man who has forgotten that in football, if you can win the race, the goal is all but scored.

Nani

And yet two brief cameos and being championed in his absence should not disguise the fact that Nani has been equally erratic this season. Unquestionably talented, there came a time – back in 2010 – when it all made sense. Outstanding displays against Manchester City and Arsenal showed a winger of terrifying ability, clinical, incisive, a man very much in tune with his talent.

It seemed that finally the penny had dropped. But three years later, it is clear that Nani is a man for whom the penny drops often, only to be forgotten again shortly after. Both United fans and the wider football world must sometimes wonder what he could achieve with consistency. But perhaps that is a trait to be born with or learnt as much as any other in football.

The last of United’s three wide-men, Ashley Young, is the least so in the traditional sense. A right-footed player on the left, it is his natural and often effective inclination to cut inside and cross. He doesn’t beat a man, he stands up to them and relies on his foot to find the box regardless. It was a skill that led his former manager at Aston Villa, Martin O’Neill, to call him “world class”. And it was a skill that has resulted in some truly outstanding goals for his current club, most notably an unstoppable double in the 8-2 win over Arsenal in 2011.

Ashley Young

And yet the truth is United lack pace; which is something of an indictment on the three men employed to supply it. It is no coincidence that Ferguson did all he could to secure Lucas Moura in the summer. In his short time at PSG he has shown just what all the fuss was about.

Perhaps on his arrival, Zaha will share the fearlessness of the likes of Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, adding directness to his new team and shaking up the old guard.

But whatever happens, if United’s current wingers wish to remain, they need to find the form that some have displayed for seasons and others only for games.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham: Each club’s perfect summer signing

With 10 games still to go in this season’s Premier League, some may argue it is too early for us to be commenting on future arrivals.  But this is football – half of what is written is hypothesis.

The truth is, every manager already has their summer wishlist, so here is a look at the one player each of the current top four should be seriously considering if they want to improve next season.

Manchester United – Mats Hummels

For years, fans and pundits alike have been calling for Sir Alex Ferguson to buy a creative midfielder.  But creativity and link-up play don’t seem to be a problem anymore. Not with the emergence of Shinji Kagawa, whose first season has been stop-start but who, at just 23, has all the attributes to be a silent superstar; and not with Nick Powell and Wilfried Zaha waiting in the wings.

Instead United should be looking for a long-term successor to Rio Ferdinand. And in Borussia Dortmund centre-back Mats Hummels, they would be signing one of the best young defenders in Europe.

Mats Hummels

The 24-year-old has already made over 150 appearances for the reigning Bundesliga champions and is regularly linked with moves away from the club he is contracted to until 2017.

The fact is that when Ferdinand and latterly Nemanja Vidic leave Old Trafford, there are three ready-made replacements in Johnny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. And yet Hummels’ pace, strength and ability to read the game would seal a hole that has too often been gaping this season, and at its best has been temporarily boarded-up.

With Hummels forming a regular partnership with one of the above, that hole wouldn’t be big enough to get a ball through without a whole lot of effort. But it will take a big bid to get him.

Manchester City – James Rodriguez

The 20-year-old Columbian winger has been regularly linked with United, but it is City who are in most need of him. Currently at FC Porto, he would bring a new dimension to Roberto Mancini’s team, who too often this season have been lackadaisical and missing the energy and thrust of an out-and-out winger.

James Rodriguez

While unquestionably talented, the Blues’ forward line has lost some of its mojo since outscoring their city rivals last year, and for every intricate David Silva pass or surging run from Carlos Tevez, the addition of lightening pace would make them a terrifying prospect, not least because their defence has now been further fortified by the ever-improving Matija Nastasic.

A consistent goal-threat himself, Rodriguez also has an impressive assist-record and will be a defining capture for whoever ultimately signs him. As with so many players these days, there is talk of an over-inflated release clause (in this case more than £36 million). But as with so many over-inflated release causes, a bid £10 million shy of that could tempt the Portuguese club’s hand and pass the advantage back to City next season.

Tottenham Hotspur – Robert Lewandowksi

The Polish striker is the one player on this list certain to be pulling on a new shirt next season. With only a year left on his contract at Borussia Dortmund, there seems little chance of him signing a new one. And while his current club have produced their best poker face in declaring he will remain should an acceptable offer not arrive, that won’t happen. Reasonable bids will come, as top clubs both in England and abroad compete to sign a man who, quite simply, knows where the goal is.

Robert Lewandowski

With his only criteria likely to be regular football and another crack at the Champions League, a Daniel Levy bid is surely being readied. In fact the addition of Lewandowski could turn Tottenham into viable title challengers.

With new signings Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen and Mousa Dembele excelling this season – and Gareth Bale coming of age – the one thing Spurs fans bemoan is the lack of a consistent goal threat. And while Leandro Damiao will again be linked this summer, Levy should put all his efforts into signing a player who will turn an impressive squad into true contenders, both in England and in Europe.

Chelsea – Romelu Lukaku

When Chelsea paid close to £20 million for the Belgian forward in the summer of 2011, he called the Blues his dream club. But since then he has hardly kicked a ball for them. Instead it is West Bromwich Albion reaping the benefits of a loan deal Lukaku has talked about extending. Quite simply, Chelsea can’t let that happen.

When your best striker is excelling for another club something is wrong. And while he may only be 19, he has shown in a series of outstanding displays for the Baggies that he is ready to be playing first-team football back in London.

Romelu Lukaku

With arguably the most creative midfield in the Premier League, Chelsea’s one problem is their lack of forward options. Fernando Torres was last seen circa 2010, and he is not coming back; while Demba Ba is still dining out on his outstanding debut season for Newcastle.

Whoever is in charge at Stamford Bridge next season, he will be looking for a player who is on the same creative wavelength as Juan Mata and Eden Hazard, a player who scores, creates and can put finishing touches to the patterns his midfield will only get better at creating.

Lukaku is already better than the two men Chelsea currently rely on for goals. If they haven’t yet realised that, they may lose him altogether.

Wigan Athletic and the possibility of last-day roulette

Last season, with just nine games left in their Premier League campaign, Wigan looked doomed to relegation. And then something amazing happened. Winning seven of their last nine matches, the Latics turned the formbook on its head.

A run that included wins over Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle meant Roberto Martinez had yet again worked miracles, maintaining his side’s place in the top flight for an eighth-successive season.

It is for reasons such as this that when you look at Wigan’s current lowly position you still assume they will get out of it. You assume another seemingly impossible run will be masterminded. And you already picture owner Dave Whelan’s euphoric grin on the final day.

James McArthur celebrates for Wigan

But this time it could be different. Because this time the team – arguably the strongest Martinez has had in his time there – are only showing glimpses of what is needed to survive. And that is despite the fact that they are currently clear of the relegation zone, if only on goal-difference.

Where last season they were unified and steadfast, particularly in those final few games, this year they are yet to keep a clean sheet at home.

And while it is wrong to paint a mere tiff as anything more than that, Saturday’s altercation between Emerson Boyce and James McArthur would have been a worrying sight for Martinez, even if publicly he said otherwise.

The disagreement came about following one too many misplaced passes. But that in itself is a concern, as Martinez’s Wigan have always tried to play football the right way. It is an ethos that should have seen them finish higher in the past, but one that may see them relying on the failure of others to survive this season.

With such a small squad, Martinez has successfully utilised tactics and formations that have reaped rich rewards, most notably last year when Shaun Maloney excelled as a playmaker and Franco Di Santo began to understand what he could do.

Yet despite the introduction of Arouna Kone – their most consistent goal-threat since Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts – they could fall short if plucky late comebacks and last-minute equalisers are not turned into wins.

Of their remaining 10 league games, seven are winnable. And the Wigan who ended last season would achieve that with ease.

But it is their next four that are crucial, as an away match at QPR is sandwiched between home games against Norwich, Newcastle and Swansea. It is a run they are more than capable of navigating, and if they are at least nine points better off afterwards, this article is all but redundant.

Then again, it could all come down to Wigan against Aston Villa on the final day; and what better time than that to keep their first home clean sheet of the season.

Shinji Kagawa and a glimpse of things to come for Manchester United fans

When Shinji Kagawa joined Manchester United for an initial fee of £12million in the summer, many football observers were calling it a masterstroke.

After all, this was the player who ended his last season at Borussia Dortmund with 17 goals, 10 assists and both a Bundesliga and German Cup winner’s medal.

His partnership with Robert Lewandowski had helped turn Dortmund into the top team in German football, while his ball-control, vision and goal-scoring ability pointed to a 23-year-old who was exactly the kind of playmaker United were crying out for.

Fans frustrated at losing out on Eden Hazard and Lucas Moura could calm themselves in the knowledge that a quieter but no less impressive player was heading their way. And yet this season, the Japanese midfielder-cum-forward has shown only flickers of his undoubted ability.

Shinji Kagawa

That was until Saturday, when his hat-trick against Norwich City ended any doubts that he was cut out for the Premier League, or suited to any position besides that of a second striker.

While his first goal could be argued as a lucky one, his positioning was key, as was the confidence to take it on the outside of his right foot. But it was his second and third that should excite United fans the most.

The nonchalant side-foot finish for his second was that of a player whose thoughts are somehow quicker than the game he is caught up in. While his third saw his first touch dissect the Norwich defence and his second touch delicately chip the onrushing ‘keeper.

After each goal he celebrated only with a smile, as if he was used to it, or at least had been, and he was simply relieved it was happening once more.

One game does not make a player. Just ask Andrei Arshavin. But on Saturday, Kagawa showed what he is capable of. And the fans who have seen glimpses of his passing ability and ball-retention over the last six months, have now seen what he can do when he is fit and a little more used to his surroundings.

Ultimately, his best performances may come at Old Trafford, when opponents tire and the attacking intent of his teammates leads to holes for him to exploit. And certainly away against the top sides both domestically and in Europe his ability to keep the ball may prove more important than where he can put it. But for fans crying out for a creative, goal-scoring midfielder, Saturday may have seen him stake his first claim for the job.

The rumours continue that Kagawa’s former teammate Lewandowksi will be joining him at Old Trafford next season. Whether they need him is another matter. But with or without him, Kagawa has found his feet.

They are very special feet indeed. And by next season, they could have the beating of most.

The Chelsea Conundrum: Ifs, buts and maybes

For a team who – for a few more months at least – can call themselves champions of Europe, Chelsea are in something of a mess. Only, the word mess doesn’t quite cover it.

Current interim manager Rafael Benitez’s recent comments only add to the pile of inauspicious headlines that are growing almost as quickly as the interest on Roman Abramovich’s finances.

And yet, the club are just one good decision away from recreating the sustained success they enjoyed under Jose Mourinho.

The problem is…they haven’t made a good decision for a very long time.

Rafael Benitez

Of their poor decisions – which could be argued stretch back some seven years – the most recent has something to do with Benitez. Although whether it was appointing him in the first place or branding him a stop-gap is open to discussion.

Quite simply the Spaniard’s appointment hasn’t worked. And as much as hindsight makes experts of us all, it was never going to. Not just because of his time as Liverpool manager, and the ill-feeling that followed controversial results and heat-of-the-moment comments. But because he was replacing the one man who had succeeded where all else had failed – Roberto Di Matteo.

The Italian left with Chelsea just four points off top-spot in the Premier League. Today, they are 19 points adrift.

He left with a win percentage of 61.9%. Benitez’s is currently 10% less.

And most importantly he left with the Champions League trophy and FA Cup residing at Stamford Bridge.

There is no way of knowing where the club would be if Di Matteo was still in charge. But they would be unified; just as they were when they overcame Barcelona and Bayern Munich to secure their owner’s Holy Grail.

Instead there are rumours of disagreements between captain and manager; the same manager who – bold as he was in condemning his job title – made the cardinal sin of attacking the fans. If you really can’t hold your tongue, some things are best saved for the exit speech.

Analysing the Chelsea of today is in part an act of hypothesis. If Di Matteo was still in charge the fans would probably be happy, as would the players. But then you could say the same thing regarding Guus Hiddink – another Abramovich mistake not in the appointment, but in its branding as “temporary”.

The truth is Abramovich dismisses successes and disappointments with equal ruthlessness.  And it is the same for the ones who lay somewhere in between, like Andre Villas-Boas, who is showing at Tottenham what patience can do for a football club.

Perhaps Benitez truly thought he could win over the fans and ultimately cross out the “interim” on his job description. But having realised he was doomed in both endeavours, Wednesday’s words point to a man who may be pondering a few ifs, buts and maybes of his own.

Reports this week suggest Jose Mourinho could return to the chair so abruptly pulled from under him in 2007; although he gives the impression of being smarter than that.

But the simple fact, for Chelsea fans and staff alike, is this:

If their owner appoints the right man but gives him time (measured in seasons not games), then maybe Chelsea will challenge consistently again.

Bayern Munich: The German giant rising from its slumber

On Wednesday evening, a team who have been all-but-invincible since August won arguably their biggest game of the season.

Despite being 17 points clear in the Bundesliga, qualifying from their Champions League group at a canter and already with one foot in the quarter-finals, it was a German Cup match against Borussia Dortmund that ended any doubt that Bayern Munich are, once again, back to their best.

The 1-0 win, courtesy of a first-half strike by Arjen Robben, finally ended Bayern’s three-year wait for a victory against the side who, in recent times, have replaced them as the top team in German football.

Arjen Robben celebrates against Borussia Dortmund

While Dortmund ended last season with a second successive league title, Bayern suffered a hat-trick of near-misses, finishing runners-up in the league, losing to Chelsea in Europe and being humiliated 5-2 by Dortmund in the German Cup final.

So to heal old wounds, it was the perfect competition to finally seal the win that ends an unwanted statistic and sees them one step closer to a potential double of their own.

Much has been said about Pep Guardiola’s imminent arrival at the Allianz Arena.  Hyperbole has it that he will single-handedly transform the Bundesliga into football’s hottest destination, and his new team into Barcelona Mark II.  But the truth is Bayern do not require transformation.

Under current manager Jupp Heynckes, they are on course for their most successful season in years. And there should be no doubt that the frustration of ending last year trophyless, particularly in the Champions League, makes them a very dangerous proposition.

In fact, events at Camp Nou pending, the Germans could go into the quarter-finals clear of two of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United.
Come next season, Guardiola could be asked to continue, rather than reintroduce, success; because there is a very real chance that his new team could be the first German side to win the perfect treble, ending their three-year wait for a trophy in some style.

Having finally ended the hoodoo of Dortmund’s domestic and personal dominance, their fans may just see the club’s outstanding success of the mid-70s as a benchmark if not to be matched then certainly attempted.

Can Wayne Rooney ever be called “world-class”?

Watching Wayne Rooney’s performance against Real Madrid this week, one word sprang to mind – selfless.

It is a word that describes many of his performances in the Champions League, certainly in recent years, as he regularly sacrifices his attacking intent for the good of the team.  But it is also a trait that may prevent him from ever breaking into that elite group that some argue contains only two.

One school of thought is that ‘world-class’ equals ‘showman’.  While the other claims it is more akin to ‘catalyst’.  The very best – in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – are both.

Wayne Rooney

And yet, in Europe at least, Rooney is neither of those.  He works tirelessly, carrying out his manager’s orders with a tenacious energy and unquestionable will to win.  But on nights like Wednesday, few would call him world-class.

Is it the case that Ronaldo and Messi are at the peak of their sport because they are allowed to be, because they are rarely given other jobs to do?  Similarly with the likes of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, who make the game adapt to them rather than the other way round?

Rooney is an outstanding footballer.  Of that there is no question.  And he has evolved perhaps more than anyone else currently in the Premier League, from a fearless teenage striker to a deep-lying forward who sprays passes, creates for others and still finds time to score plenty himself.

But he is too good at too many things to ever be allowed to do just one.

This is a man who as a boy tore league and international defences apart, who scored a hat-trick on his debut for Manchester United and didn’t look surprised.  And so the footballing world may always wonder what would have happened if he had remained that player – if that were even possible.

In a game that evolves, players who do the same should be championed, and 155 goals in 336 appearances are proof enough that Rooney was and remains an outstanding talent.  You just wonder, although United would be weaker without everything he brings to every area of the pitch, what would have happened if he had focused on just one.  Perhaps then we would be talking of three not two.

For United fans, he will go down as a legend.  While for English football, he will be remembered as possibly the best of his generation.  And of course at only 27, there is plenty yet to come.

But he has evolved in such a way as to prevent the possibility of joining those termed world-class, not when it is defined as one man standing out from ten more.

Instead he does what is asked of him.  And with every win he contributes to, he will be happy, even if the world doesn’t always notice.

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