Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham City: Same Old Arsenal, Always Choking

Congratulations to Birmingham City, who ended a 48-year trophy drought and quite frankly deserved every bit of it. When you think about the worst game that Arsenal have played this season, West Brom and Newcastle immediately come to mind, with the second Braga game in close proximity. As we go along, ask yourself where on that scale this one places - I say it's either at or near the top (or bottom, as it were). On many other days, this would at least have gone to extra time. A large amount of credit has to go to our opponents for defending well and taking their chances when they came.

The thing is, games that truly matter - where there is a tangible chance of winning things - play differently than normal ones do. A normal regular-season or early-round Cup game is has recognizable patterns and rhythms, and even a horrible loss is only one small part of a much greater whole. A game like this, on the other hand, is magnified to a ridiculously intense degree. One lapse of concentration, one bad bounce of the ball, and a season's worth of work is undone in an instant.

It takes a certain kind of character to win these games, and much of this team just doesn't have it.

I may well take some stick for saying that, but keep in mind that by all rights Birmingham should have been 1-0 up against 10 men (9, when you consider Manuel Almunia would have been in goal) inside of the first two minutes. Arsenal were all over the shop right from the opening whistle, and only a wrongful flag for offside prevented Wojciech Szezcsny from conceding a penalty and seeing a straight red card for taking down that odious cunt Lee Bowyer down in the area. It was a remarkably lucky escape, and sadly a portent of things to come. At the end of the day, a favorite to win a game that has any kind of composure and self-belief doesn't have this happen before most people watching in the pub have ordered their first pint.

Eventually, proceedings settled down to the usual domination of possession for the Gunners. The most joy seemed to come down the flanks, as both Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna had very good games. They overlapped well with the wide two of the forward line, and managed to create some space as the game went along. The attack would have been far more potent though if those two - Andrei Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky - were on good form. Arshavin had some nice touches and his passing was OK, although there wasn't as much end product as you'd have liked. Rosicky, on the other hand, was fucking useless once again.

As a matter of fact, Rosicky to me personifies many of the less desirable traits of this club. He's technically a brilliant football player - his touch, ball control and passing are all remarkably good at times, much better than the average Joe. What prevents him from making an impression on games is his lack of self-belief and his inability to decisively make that one final move or pass (or SHOT!!!) that would cause havoc in the opposing defense. And yet, he played all 90 minutes despite contributing the square root of fuck all to the overall cause. Arsene Wenger's substitution patterns mystify me at the best of times, but this season especially has ranged from neutral to mind-boggling.

Anyway, the ball barely left the Birmingham half for about 15 solid minutes, so OF COURSE they would be the ones to take the lead. How fucking typical. A corner from Sebastian Larsson should have been cleared easily, but Laurent Koscielny lost his header to Roger Johnson. The ball came out to Nikola Zigic, who was unmarked. YES, THE SIX-FOOT-FUCKING-EIGHT GUY WAS LEFT COMPLETELY FUCKING UNGUARDED. As it turns out, Johan Djourou (who had a bit of a shocker today, it has to be said) abandoned him to try and double-team Johnson. Oh, and in all of this, Szezcsny made a rare mistake and was caught flapping at absolutely nothing, leaving the big Croat with the easiest of headers to give Birmingham the lead.

Photo: The Guardian

What a fucking shambles. Quelle surprise.

You can castigate me if you wish for not being a True Believer, but it was about this point where I felt we were on a hiding to nothing. As a matter of fact, if Zigic didn't have the ball control of a newborn foal, it would have been 2-0 to the other mob just seconds later. Once again, the backline couldn't deal with a simple long ball, and in the confusion it came to Zigic. Once again, Zigic was clear through on goal without a red shirt anywhere within 38 astronomical units of him. The ball bobbled a bit through, and the big doofus couldn't corral it in time. Szezcsny read the situation very well and came out to bravely block at the big man's feet, temporarily preventing catastrophe.

Let's sum up. At this point, the men in blue could very easily have been up 3-0 and facing 10 men for 56 more minutes. Can anyone honestly dispute that this lot deserved to beat us?

For all that, Arsenal were level around ten minutes later. Jack Wilshere first hit the bar with long-range drive, but the ball came out to Arshavin. The little Russian sent it back into the area, where Robin van Persie crisply volleyed low into the corner of the net. Ben Foster had no chance whatsoever, and the scores were level. The pub erupted, but even then, something seemed off. It wasn't the eruption of "YEEEEAAAH! Now we're going to go on and win it!" was more of an expression of relief for a temporary reprieve.

Photo: The Guardian

Halftime came and went, and the second stanza began much as the first ended with chances being traded on both sides. Nasri sent a rasping shot inches wide, while Birmingam took advantage of a Djourou giveaway with a Keith Fahey effort that cracked off the inside of the post and out. In retrospect, I almost wish that one had went in - there would have been 32 more minutes to make up the difference and perhaps some more urgency would have been shown by the men in red.

As it stood, an even half continued until the 70th minute, when van Persie's number came up on the board to be replaced by Nicklas Bendtner. I didn't see RVP get injured at any point, but that would be the only possible logical reason for that change. If that were the case, fine, I wouldn't risk the Dutchman the rest of the way in a 1-1 game either. If it were tactical though, then I just have no explanation, no reasonable guess as to the thought process behind it. Again, Rosicky was beyond horrendous on the day, and I again point out that he played all 90. I just don't get it.

The Gunners did come to life a bit after that though, and Foster had to make two decent saves and one brilliant one in quick succession (the one with his feet was brilliant - the one where he dived to his left was one that any professional keeper should make). A fourth one followed, where he palmed away a deflected shot, then gathered it into his body in mid-air. Hiding. To. Nothing.

Photo: The Guardian

Somewhere in all of this, Arshavin came off for the completely anonymous Marouane Chamakh. Seriously, does anyone ever remember him touching the ball? A much more fateful substitution came on the Birmingham end, as Obafemi Martins came into the fray. Still, there was one moment in the 88th where I thought Arsenal should have gone on to win it. It was Rosicky of all people who made an amazing, darting run into the penalty area. It was so direct that the Birmingham defense were at sixes and sevens, nowhere fucking near him. It wasn't the greatest of angles, but he had a clear line on goal and should have taken the shot.

Of course, he hit a dreadful pass to Chamakh that was cleared out. The chance came and went. So fucking typical.

Then, of course, the disaster. Another simple long ball caused confusion in the Arsenal area. It looked to me like Szezcsny called for it, but either way, that was always his ball. Koscielny instead tried to hook it away - it hit Szezcsny, and came out right into the path of Martins for the easiest tap-in goal he'll ever score. Fuck me running.

Photo: The Guardian

Despite my angry Facebook status from after the game wishing Koscielny a happy trip back to Lorient, the truth is that he has been a solid defender most of this season. He's had his dodgy moments and his brilliant ones - and this is a mistake that could happen to anyone, could happen in any game. We see mistakes like this made six, seven, maybe eight times a season, minimum. But, you know what? This is the kind of thing that a panicking team does in a big situation. That is the kind of goal I would expect West Ham to concede in a relegation six-pointer. That is the kind of goal I would expect Tiny La Liga Team # 1261A to concede when Barcelona is cutting them to ribbons.

That is the kind of goal that, if we're being honest with ourselves, we always have to expect that Arsenal are capable of conceding at any time.

You can call it luck if you wish. You can say "It's just the League Cup" if it helps you sleep better at night. But the fact of the fucking matter is that winners win, and losers don't. There have been some nice moments this season, just like you can pick out nice moments from the previous five. There's been the beautiful passing moves, the goals you normally couldn't replicate even on the XBox, the days where we put 7 past someone like Everton in a game that means fuck all in the end.

In the end, it doesn't matter.

Get me?





The saying goes that "banners last forever", and whoever coined it wasn't wrong. When Mike Dean blew his whistle three times, Arsenal had one beautiful world-class goal, Birmingham had two ugly ones...and a trophy.

There isn't much else to say. You can trot out all of the usual criticisms, because they all apply. Mental fragility, shoddy defense, silly mistakes, lack of finishing when it was all there in ample supply today. So, while it was fantastic to beat Barcelona when the pressure was off and there was nothing to lose, I would have traded it in an instant for a win today.

I've said before that I don't think this team will ever win a trophy again under the current management. It doesn't give me anything other than misery to say it, but objectively it looks like that may be the case after all. I fervently hope that in the end, this is just another experience and another building block on the path to me being hilariously wrong. We'll see.

One final thought - how fucking Arsenal is Jack Wilshere? He was the only one of that lot with the proper reaction to losing a Cup final (other than Koscielny, who rightly looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him up). I have great hope that this will stick in his mind for the rest of his life, and give him the kind of burning determination that winners have to never, ever let it happen again.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szezcsny 7, Clichy 7, Djourou 5, Koscielny 3, Sagna 7, Rosicky 4, Song 6, Wilshere 7, Nasri 6, Arshavin 6 (Chamakh N/A), van Persie 8 (MOTM) (Bendtner 5)

Good Morning Wembley

Never underestimate your opponent. We've learnt that the hard way on numerous occasions already this season. You should be especially wary of any cup finalist - they may sit two points above the relegation zone but Birmingham City have still found their way past a vigilant West Ham side to reach the finals. Make no mistake, this will be anything but a walk in the park. Unfortunately for them, the Brummies find themselves facing an Arsenal side that are unbeaten in 11 games and have failed to falter so far in a do-or-die fixture this season.

We will however need to find inspiration without Fabregas' killer pass or Theo's electric pace, and I think the center of attention is going to be young Jack the Lad. He may only be 6 years old but JW19 is already cup-winning material. This kid knows what it's like to lift some silverware, albeit it was the FA Youth Cup 2 seasons back but he still played a big part in those two ties against Liverpool, grabbing a goal and creating chances left right and center in the process.

I bet he'll make his mark again today. With Cesc out and Nasri likely to fill the spot left by Theo, Wilshere will be given the opportunity to roam much more freely in the final third. If anybody can replace the inspiration of Fab, Jack's the man for the job.

What I don't really want to see is Diaby or Denilson involved in the game at all. I think it's time to ship them both out. Diaby is too reckless and doesn't want to EVER pass the ball, which is OK if you're Lionel Messi or Cristianio Ronaldo, but your not. Your Abou Diaby, you have about as much skill on the ball as a dog has balance on ice. Nada. Denilson on the other hand DOES want to pass the ball, he just can't. He's a bit lazy, far too hot and cold for my liking. So I'm hoping to see Song in the anchor spot in front of the back four, with Rosicky and Wilshere playing the creative roles. Diaby and Denilson can cut the oranges at half time.

With the midfield out of the way I'd hope to see Wenger field an entirely Bendtner-less front three. I'm going to apologize in advance here, but I just can't stand this guy's ego. I'm a huge Arsenal fan, the biggest I'd like to say, but I have no problem in moaning about players that don't deserve to wear the cannon - NB52 is a complete fucking nob and I can't wait to see the back of him, and I know I sound terrible as a gooner for saying that, but it's true. If he wasn't so cocky it'd be OK, but everybody knows that he thinks he's the best thing to happen in football since Pele. Yes, he's scored some important goals for us, and I'm thankful for that, but he just doesn't cut the mustard as a Gooner, he just loves himself far too much. If he does play today, I'd love to eat my words, but I don't see it happening somehow.

I think RvP HAS to start today, he's the only center forward we have that can deliver true fear to an oppositions defense. As mentioned above, defenders just laugh in NB's face, and Chamakh had a great start to the season but hasn't managed to find much inspiration. I don't think it's entirely the Moroccan's fault though, I think the final delivery has to be spot on for him to take advantage, which is no bad thing. If you give him a clear goalscoring opportunity he's going to find the net 9 out of 10 times. With Robin, you can send him a ball in the air covered with glue, treacle, anthrax, duck feathers and Skunk piss and he'll still turn it into a net-bound rocket, from anywhere in the park.

I think the wingers are an obvious choice, Arshavin and Nasri. They both have bucket loads of ability and the little Russian is finally starting to win back his follower's hearts. He's won back mine that's for sure.

In terms of the back four, I'm actually quite open to this bearing in mind that we do need to rest some players. If Clichy doesn't play for example, I'm quite happy to see Gibbs step in instead, which I actually think will be the more likely choice anyway. On the other side, if Sagna doesn't play I'd have no problem with Eboue stepping up instead, he had a great game against Barca. Another player that's bounced back from a bad spell. If only he'd stop rolling around the floor like he's on fire. In terms of CB, I'd like to see Kos and Djourou but I have a feeling one of them may be rested for fixture congestion in place of Squillaci, who hasn't been terribly convincing but he's still miles better then both Senderos and Cygan put together.

So with all that being said I think our lineup will look like this:

Sagna - Squillaci - Koscielny - Gibbs
Wilshere - Rosicky
Nasri - Van Perse - Arshavin

And the score? If we can grab one early I'm going to predict a 4-0 romp. But if it goes the distance I'll say a good one-nil to the Arsenal. Regardless of scoreline, I see this as a definite win, there's so much belief with this squad at the moment. If we field a starting XI much like my prediction above I think there's only going to be one outcome.

Oh, and I'm already predicting the man of the match to be Jack Wilshere. But we'll see later this afternoon. Come On You Gunners!!!!!!!

If you don't already, you can click here to subscribe to the RSS feed of this blog. You can also click here to follow us on Twitter, and click here to follow us on Facebook. This way you'll always be alerted when a new post is up.

Win It For Cesc, For Theo, and for Arsenal F.C.

On the 21st of September, Arsenal walked out onto the pitch at White Hart Lane, and walked out 120 minutes later 4-1 winners.

On the 27th of October, Arsenal strode into St. James Park and walked out 4-0 winners over Newcastle United.

On the 30th of November, Arsenal hosted Wigan Athletic at Emirates Stadium, dispatching the visitors 2-0.

On the 12th of January, Arsenal visited Suffolk to take on Ipswich Town at Portman Road, losing 1-0 to the lower-league home side. 13 days later, on my birthday, Arsenal avenged this defeat in the second leg, winning 3-0 at home over the Tractorboys.

This is the road Arsenal have had to tread leading up to Sunday's League Cup Final at Wembley Stadium against Birmingham City. We have seen our Gunners walk into tough away fixtures and dominate decent opposition. We have also seen them lose focus and stumble, and then right themselves again in an effort to win a first trophy since 2005's FA Cup success. We've seen goals from our big names like Robin van Persie, and goals from youngsters like Henri Lansbury. We've seen Arsenal overcome adversity time and again to reach this final, and they will need to deal with more than our share again on Sunday. For the Achilles Heel for Arsenal, injuries, has once again reared its ugly head at the most inopportune moment for Arsene Wenger's men.

A midweek league match just before a cup final is never ideal, but when your opponents are Stoke City, there is good reason to worry. Not so much about the result that day, but about who in your squad will be withdrawn due to injury. It's not an if against a team of Neanderthals like Stoke, it's a when. Sure enough, Cesc's balky hamstring betrayed him in the opening minutes (to be fair, not caused by a Potters player), and he was today ruled out for the final. Later in the match, Theo Walcott was bundled over while driving toward goal, injuring his ankle and being stretchered off. Theo will miss Sunday, as well as the clash with Barca at Camp Nou, and possibly more.

One cannot help but be distraught for these players, but particularly for Cesc Fabregas. He is Arsenal's captain, talisman and star. He is the player through whom all of our attacks seem to come, the Gunner with the greatest vision and ability to thread a pass through the eye of a needle. When our team is down, he picks them up, and he can change the game with a flick of his foot.

Losing him for this match is devastating for Arsenal, but even more so for Cesc himself. He has given his all for the club down the years, and has been a worthy leader. To be stricken down so close to his first chance to captain his club to a trophy can only mean bitterness for Cesc. However, his injury is less serious than originally thought, and while he will miss Sunday's cup final, it appears he will have a shot at our away clash with Barcelona in the Champions League. Not so for Theo, whose ankle problems this season are well-documented, having already missed significant time out due to similar injuries. We will certainly be the poorer for their presence.

Birmingham will not be grieving our losses for this match. They are currently 14th in the league, so a Carling Cup triumph for them would certainly make their season, being as it would mark only the 2nd major trophy in the club's history. Their only injury concern is a fitness test for former Arsenal man Alex Hleb, who famously earned the club 11.5 million theoretical pounds from Barcelona (in that they have yet to pay for him) to serve as a seat warmer. Luckily for Arsenal, we will have back Robin van Persie, Laurent Koscielny, who had missed Stoke due to injury, and Abou Diaby, who was serving suspension due to his red-card outburst at Newcastle.

Whether or not Hleb plays, Birmingham are certain to field their best starting XI, sure to include muggers, buggerers, shitkickers and Methodists.

We know what to expect from Birmingham. We were there when Martin Taylor destroyed Eduardo's leg and derailed his career, and they've not exactly cleaned up their act, with Lee Bowyer getting away with two unprovoked stamps on Bacary Sagna on New Years Day in addition to other unsavory acts. Not to say that we're angels of course; Jack Wilshere's awful tackle on Nicola Zigic at the Emirates earlier this season was certainly the worst by an Arsenal player this season, and deserved its sending off. But compared to Birmingham, it's hard to give as good as you get without going down to 10 or 9 men.

Sunday we play for the past 6 barren seasons, for the players who have suffered for the Arsenal shirt without anything to celebrate for it, and for Eduardo, who suffered worse than most. We play for this Arsenal team, who have stuck together through it all, playing for each other and for the fans in an effort to finally bring home some silverware. And we play for the future, so that this Arsenal team, knowing they are capable of greatness, will go from strength to strength and achieve everything we believe they can, because they believe in themselves. We play to win for all of these reasons.

Let's win this for Cesc. Let's win this for Theo. Let's win this for all those who have doubted us.

Let's win this for the Arsenal.

Roll on Sunday. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

If you don't already, you can click here to subscribe to the RSS feed of this blog. You can also click here to follow us on Twitter, and click here to follow us on Facebook. This way you'll always be alerted when a new post is up.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Birmingham City, Carling Cup Final

Arsenal's last League Cup final saw Abou Diaby knock out John Terry.
Always a plus. Despite the result.
Photo: Daily Mail.

Wembley Stadium, London
Sunday, February 27
11:00 a.m. EST, 4:00 p.m. GMT

  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Dean
    • Assistants: Ron Ganfield, Mike Mullarkey
    • 4th Official: Kevin Friend
  • Other Meetings This Year
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 59 Arsenal wins, 38 Birmingham City wins, 35 draws
  • All-Time in the League Cup: 1 Arsenal win
    • Arsenal's Form, Across All Competitions: W-D-W-W-D-W
    • Birmingham's Form, Across All Competitions: W-D-W-W-L-W
    Predicted Arsenal Squad
    Sagna - Koscielny - Djourou - Clichy
    Song - Wilshere
    Nasri - Rosicky - Arshavin
    van Persie

    We've not got Cesc Fabregas on Sunday. Photo: ESPN
    Arsenal Squad News

    Injured: Fabregas (hamstring), Walcott (ankle), Fabianski (shoulder), Vermaelen (Achilles)

    I can't imagine it was Arsenal that asked for their match against Stoke to be rescheduled for days before a cup final, but that's what the league decided, and as such, injury news is the topic du jour.

    Unfortunately, the news about Cesc Fabregas's hamstring is not good; he will not be fit for Sunday. From there, Arsene Wenger won't say, though it seems to not be "three week" serious. Theo Walcott's ankle sprain, however, could see him out for a week or two. He misses the cup final as well. Selections for the side are a bit of a question with two parts of the attacking midfield out. Andrei Arshavin will start on the left, for sure, but how the middle works is anyone's guess. Either Tomas Rosicky starts in the middle, pushing Samir Nasri to the wing, or Nasri starts in the middle and Nicklas Bendtner starts on the wing. Pick your poison?

    Arsenal does have a trio of players returning from injuries as well. Robin van Persie (hamstring) and Laurent Koscielny (back) were kept out of the Stoke match as a precaution and will slip right back into the starting XI. In addition, Abou Diaby returns from both a calf injury and suspension.

    Lukasz Fabianski and Thomas Vermaelen remain long term injuries with the former done for the season and Vermaelen maybe coming back when the stars align properly, or something.

    Birmingham City Squad News

    Injured: Dann (hamstring), Valles (ankle), McFadden (knee)
    Doubtful: Hleb (knee), Jerome (ankle), Jiranek (thigh), Ridgewell (calf)
    Cup Tied: Bentley, Davies, Doyle

    The Blues are battling for only their second top flight trophy in club history (the first being the League Cup in 1963) and the automatic European qualification with which it comes. Birmingham City lost this cup final to Liverpool on penalties in 2001.

    Former Gunner Alexander Hleb is facing a late fitness test after picking up a knock to his knee in the FA Cup last weekend. Also slightly doubtful, but likely to return from their injuries are Cameron Jerome, Liam Ridgewell, and Martin Jiranek. James McFadden has missed six months with a knee injury, but is about to return to training. Scott Dann is out for the season with a hamstring tear and Enric Valles is out with a foot injury, though he's a youth player.

    Current Form

    Arsenal are currently unbeaten in 11 competitive fixtures; their last loss came in the first leg of the semi-final of this competition. The Gunners have outscored their opposition 13-2 in the Carling Cup this season, having kept three clean sheets in five matches.

    Birmingham City have had a strong season in both domestic cups, but are still just keeping their head above water in the league; they currently sit in 14th. In 26 league matches, Birmingham have won six. In nine cup ties, they have won seven and won the drawn Carling Cup tie on penalties.

    Match Facts

    Jack Wilshere was sent off against Birmingham in October.
    Photo: BBC
    Since the Eduardo incident, there has been quite a bit of bad blood between Arsenal and Birmingham City. Lee Bowyer escaped punishment, at the time, for at least two stamps on Bacary Sagna when the sides met at St. Andrew's on New Year's Day; Jack Wilshere was not so lucky for a wild tackle on Nicola Zigic at the Emirates in October.

    Arsenal won both league meetings against Birmingham this season. At the Emirates, Zigic grabbed the lead for Birmingham before Nasri leveled from the penalty spot and the quick footwork of Marouane Chamakh won it just after the restart. Arsenal was able to coast at St. Andrew's; Robin van Persie scored on a deflected free kick in the 13th minute, Samir Nasri added some comfort around the hour mark, and an own goal closed the scoring in Arsenal's 3-0 win. Overall, Arsenal are unbeaten in eight against Birmingham City.

    This is Arsenal's seventh League Cup final; they have won two and lost four. Their last League Cup win came in 1993 over Sheffield Wednesday. Birmingham has won one League Cup final and lost the other, both mentioned above.

    The Referee

    The referee, unfortunately, is Wirral-based Mike Dean. Arsenal have, as you probably noticed, not performed well with Dean in charge lately, though they did win their last match in which he was involved (the FA Cup replay at Leeds.) Before Nasri's early goal in that match, Arsenal had not scored a goal with Mike Dean as referee since Cesc Fabregas scored in the 7th minute at Burnley in December of 2009. Their opposition in Mike Dean matches kept four clean sheets in a row against the Gunners over that time period. Before the Leeds win, Arsenal had gone winless in all six fixtures involving Mike Dean in the middle through this season and last, a stretch that started with an infamous 2-1 loss at Old Trafford that saw six Arsenal players booked.

    Dean has only taken charge of one Birmingham City match this year, their 3-2 win over Coventry City in the FA Cup. That was the first match this season in which Dean did not book anyone.

    Around the League

    Had Arsenal not qualified for the final, this weekend would have been the North London derby at White Hart Lane. As such, Tottenham Hotspur does not play this weekend. Neither does Chelsea, as they would have been playing Birmingham City.

    This means Manchester United will quickly make up the game in hand they hold after Arsenal beat Stoke yesterday; they play their first in a string of three road fixtures in the league on Saturday at Wigan Athletic. The following two trips will see United visit Stamford Bridge and Anfield. It's a crucial time period in the title race.

    Meanwhile, Manchester City sit seven points back of Arsenal in third place, with both even on 27 matches played. They'll host Fulham on Sunday. Liverpool, back in the hunt for European football, travel to West Ham United on Sunday. On Saturday, Aston Villa hosts Blackburn, Everton hosts Sunderland, Bolton visits Newcastle, and Blackpool, fresh off an awesome win over Spurs, will travel to Molineux to take on Wolves. On Monday, Stoke hosts West Brom to finish off the weekend.

    Come on you Gunners!

    If you don't already, you can click here to subscribe to the RSS feed of this blog. You can also click here to follow us on Twitter, and click here to follow us on Facebook. This way you'll always be alerted when a new post is up.

    Arsenal 1-0 Stoke City: Victory with a Price

    While I normally cannot watch mid-week fixtures due to pesky "work" considerations, this time at the cost of skipping my lunch entirely I was able to bust out of my cubicle world an hour early and head over to the Pig to catch this one. Of course, I got there at the 14' mark, meaning I had already missed every moment of excitement that would occur in the match. That said, I haven't been happier to be bored in quite some time.

    As I made the short subway journey from work, Theo Walcott had hit the post early and there were apparently one or two other half-chances besides. The big news though was that once again, an Arsenal defender came up with a big goal in a key situation - they're making a bit of a habit of that this season, aren't they? It was off a Jack Wilshere corner, which that big dummy Ryan Shawcross was unable to clear (despite this being one of the few attributes in his game). It came out to Nicklas Bendtner on the edge of the area, and he cushioned a header back into the danger area. Sebastien Squillaci was there to nod home from point-blank range, and Arsenal had the only goal it would need. You won't see a more anti-Arsenal one all season, but on the other hand, there's some poetic justice in having beaten this lot at their own game.

    I don't want to sound churlish, but I'm not going to lie either. This one was bloody turgid at times, much like the Leyton Orient match with the minor exception that we fielded a goalkeeper this time around. Actually, I should say that the similarity was in Stoke's dogged defensive play. What Orient didn't do though was foul us all over the pitch (but hey, Gael Clichy made one bad tackle, so we're just as bad...AMIRITE?). As it stands, I've managed to acquire an exclusive picture of Stoke City training for this one:

    Photo: Magners League official website

    One aspect that was lacking in the post-match articles I've seen was that while Arsenal's attacks kept dying at the same stage that they have been lately (such as in the Orient match), the boys tried a much wider array of means to break down the opposition defense. Some of the more frustrating Arsenal performances of the last season or two have seen them bang their heads against the wall (or banks of four, as the case may be) over and over again with an endless array of short passes around the perimeter of the the penalty area before someone tries an over-ambitious through ball that doesn't come off. Don't get me wrong, there was quite a bit of that here, as well. But, other options were tried - some shots from distance, a few attempted chips over the center-halves, a few crosses from the wings. To me, it almost doesn't even matter that they didn't really work on this one occasion. If they stick with adding some variety in, against teams with less capability in defense, they WILL work. That's the key.

    I feel that special praise has to go to Johan Djourou once again. Stoke largely stayed true to form, relying on a series of long balls to target man John Carew allied with Rory Delap's javelin-hurls into the area. The entire back four dealt with it well when required, but Djourou seemed to be the leader back there. When a ball absolutely had to be cleared out, chances were it was the tall Swiss guy clearing it away. All of us here at TMG keep going on about it, but his calmness and composure are spreading throughout the rest of the team defensively, and it's no small reason why we're still competing for honors this heavily at this stage of the season.

    Besides him, you also have to give a lot of credit to our mad keeper, Wojciech Szezscny. When the situation warranted it, he was decisive on his line and punched effectively when he had to. There was one instance where he came out for one he was never going to get to and left his net unguarded, but thankfully Robert Huth failed to take advantage and skied his header into low Earth orbit. He more than made up for it though by plunging spectacularly to his right to palm out Stoke's one good chance, a volley from the aforementioned Carew (by the way, just getting to it wasn't the spectacular bit - you'd expect most professional keepers to get there based on placement alone - the spectacular bit was how despite the pace on it he still controlled the rebound so that it went out to safety rather than back into the danger area). Yet another good game from the Pole, and yet another reason why he BETTER be in between the sticks for the Cup Final on Sunday.

    There isn't much to tell, other than the two elephants in the room. Two more Arsenal players went off injured, but for once, it wasn't due to Neanderthal tactics from our esteemed opponents. In fact, I thought that by their standards it was as clean of a match as you can expect from them. Of course, that's somewhat tantamount to congratulating a serial killer for restricting himself to assault for a week, but I try not to look gift horses in the mouth whenever possible.

    Picture: The Guardian

    Cesc Fabregas trudged off the field right before I got to the pub with a recurrence of his ongoing hamstring problems, while Walcott got tangled up with one of their sub-human mutants (not that it was the mutant's fault, as mentioned) and sprained his ankle. Both will miss the League Cup Final, which is a devastating blow both for them and for us. Still, one would hope that more than enough firepower remains to see off a hopeless band of triers like Birmingham City in a neutral venue.

    If you don't already, you can click here to subscribe to the RSS feed of this blog. You can also click here to follow us on Twitter, and click here to follow us on Facebook. This way you'll always be alerted when a new post is up.

    The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

    Szezscny 7, Clichy 7, Squillaci 7, Djourou 8 (MOTM), Sagna 7, Wilshere 7, Song 7, Fabregas N/A (Arshavin 6), Nasri 6, Walcott 6 (Denilson 6), Bendtner 7 (Chamakh N/A)

    London N5 Calling...Behind Enemy Lines

    Greetings one and all fellow Gooners, it’s been a while since we last spoke. Much has gone on in recent months with the club on and off the field and it’s been an interesting few months this side of the Atlantic in N5.

    The pain of Sp**s at home was washed away with 12 hours in the pub and a drunken bet being made by me revolving around The Arsenal. I quit my job the day of the Wigan Carling Cup game and celebrated embarking on being paid to sit at home through December by getting monumentally drunk post-game with the usual match day suspects here.

    I missed Chelsea at home but did make it back into London post-Christmas (despite 3 flakes of snow shutting the whole country) the day before Wigan away. This was with grand plans to meet TMG’s own Brett Chase for his first away trip which leads us onto the whole subject of what can it be like on the road with The Arsenal...

    Wigan away – DW Stadium – Dec 29th 2010

    There’s not a lot to say...4400 Gooners travelled, Brett didn’t make it (but TMG’s Kurtis Powers did) due to the weather unfortunately, nearly the whole team changed and I drove a grand total of 450 miles round trip, or about 8.5 hours, to miss both of our

    I was in the bar under the stand in our end of the ground...
    The real piece de resistance, I WASN’T EVEN DRINKING AS I WAS DRIVING!!! *sighs*...

    Some days just don’t go your way...I am going back to Wigan to see a win as I was there for last years 2 nil up to 3-2 down shambles as well.

    Birmingham away – St Andrews – Jan 1st 2011

    This was more like it. Despite the monstrous new years hangover, from drinking far too much on the River Thames leading up to midnight, Brett and I travelled to England’s second city with it all going our way in the end thankfully. Plus, we made it out alive despite the locals penchant for invading their own pitch, tearing bits of it off and throwing it at away fans which was nice. The riot police vans outside the away end were slightly worrying though!

    Brett has covered this game already but I think both of us will remember one brave teenage girl swearing at us in the away end while we were 3-0 up only for about 2000 traveling Gooners (including Brett and I) to mercilessly hit back with (to the tune of “are you Tottenham in disguise?”) “Does your mother know you’re here? Doooooes your mother know you’re here?”’s good to win away and there really is nothing else like singing Sami’s song whilst going absolutely mad in another club's stadium.

    Ipswich away – Portman Road – Jan 12th 2011

    This was painful, this was back to no fun at all and feeling distinctly in the minority fan group in a ground. During my month out of work I’d somehow convinced a friend it would be a good idea to make a trip to Ipswich on a random Wednesday night. At the back of a garden shed acting as a football stand we watched as the game unfolded. The fact that we had been chanting “You sleep with your sister” at the home fans to the tune of Eboue’s song no doubt bought footballing karma down on us...but when you’re in the countryside you have to wind up the locals somehow.

    Leeds away – Elland Road – Jan 19th 2011

    One word to describe this...Police!

    There were police out in force at the station platform after our Arsenal-organised train ride up from London arrived. There were police trying to usher us onto buses to the stadium, there were police everywhere. This is what can change so much depending where you go for away games (and will be contrasted with the next away game) and you have to watch out for.

    The North / South divide in the UK is massive, and in Leeds for some locals it means a lot. There was the normal vitriol inside the ground but afterwards I have never been in such an intimidating atmosphere. The bus back to the train station was protected by two police riot vans, on arriving at the station those fans emptied all officers on board for form a corridor into the station. Inside the station we were all penned into a corner while home fans were pushed away from us.

    Our train home eventually had to be brought into the platform in front of us as we could see Leeds fans waiting for us on the bridge over the platforms we would have to walk over. Then walking down the platform the police control was evident as Leeds fans tried to charge through the ticket barriers and the police to reach us. We made it onto the train but I didn’t realise that football could be so potentially damaging to your health.

    Away games can be unpredictable and that leads us to....

    Newcastle away - St James Park - Feb 5th 2011

    This was a personal best. Never had Andy (my mate coming to the game with me) or I been further for a competitive game. The day in front of us was an 8.30am train from London to Newcastle, arrive 11.45am, meet a friend on his stag/bachelor weekend then game and home after...with a lot of pub in between then back to London for 10pm making 7 hours of train rides in one day.

    Now, what happened at the game has been documented on this blog already. I can’t begin to describe the ridiculous highs of the first half (I texted Brett 9 mins in to check we were really 3 nil up as we were so high in the stands) and then the lows of seeing it fall apart in the second half.

    This game was all about faith. Faith in your team that whatever could happen on the day. Faith that a favourable result was possible for your team. If you can ever make an away game make Newcastle your first target. You will never meet a more welcoming group of true football fans. After the issues in Leeds this was welcoming place with a group of fans who were just happy to talk football and minimal the locals don’t like Sp**s fans either.

    This was epitomised by two guys, father and son, who we met in the pub pre-game. Both born and bred Geordies, take a look at their shirts below. The son still lived in the city but his father travelled 140 miles south from Scotland for every game. They had seen their team get beat numerous times, they had seen their team get relegated from the Premiership but they were still proud to say they were supporters of the’ Toon’. We shared a good few beers with them, talked about each others teams and the game in general.

    I think this is what we have a problem with at home days, a certain malaise sets expectation from some fans that they can turn up, be entertained with winning football and not have to do anything to help the team in return. When you go away you have to be heard, you have to stand up and be counted. It brings out the true supporter in you.

    I was lucky enough to be at the Barca home match last week, the atmosphere was electric as all the fans knew we had to be heard to make things happen. Yet I sit here finishing this blog after Stoke when the same old flat atmosphere prevailed. For those that have not made an away game yet I implore you...go.

    Arsenal fans travel in large numbers...over 4000 at Wigan, just under 4000 at Birmingham, 4500 at Ipswich too. You’re part of a strong collective who want to be heard, who want to show their colours and want to support their team vocally.

    My next game will not be a home game, or an away’s off to a neutral ground called Wembley....hopefully a very special blog entry to follow.

    If you don't already, you can click here to subscribe to the RSS feed of this blog. You can also click here to follow us on Twitter, and click here to follow us on Facebook. This way you'll always be alerted when a new post is up.

    Keep the Faith Gooners, Arsene always knows.

    Arsenal v Baseball Caps, Leg-Breaking Mutants and Towels

    I wasn't sure I was going to post today, but such is my absolute disdain for Stoke City, their manager, their time-wasting throws, their bumpkin fans, and that knuckle-dragging mutant named Shawcross that I was compelled to write. And I'm passing this savings on to you, my fellow Gooners (and assorted non-Arsenal football fans).

    Stoke City are everything that is wrong with English football. They have absolutely no style, and their idea of flare is spending a minute toweling off the ball every time it's put out into touch. They epitomize the Route 1 philosophy espoused by the worst types of dullards. Their manager wears a baseball cap so often that I'm not convinced that it wasn't stitched into his scalp, and his views on football in general are so archaic that when when one of his players sawed Aaron Ramsey (his countryman and one of Wales' best) in half last season, Pubis led the "He's Not That Type Of Player" (HNTTOP) brigade, and has since come out against anyone who rightly demonizes wild tackling. He's got as much class as a school in July, and his team reflects his personality defects.

    Stoke don't so much play football as stand around kicking at anything moving and hope it's the ball. They're dirty, dangerous (physically), and shamelessly cynical from a football standpoint. As a matter of fact, if I were given the choice of any team to relegate without any hope of ever returning to the top-flight, I would choose Stoke. After sp*rs, of course.

    Their Neanderthal attitude doesn't end with the team itself, either. A section of their fans shouted abuse and sickening chants at the stricken Ramsey as he was stretchered off at the Brittania a year ago, and that much is unacceptable. Your coach may be a complete cunt and your players may be a pack of slack-jawed beast-men, but there is no excuse for fans to behave like that. And while it certainly wasn't all of them, there were enough of them that everyone noticed. Their jeers belied the crocodile tears shed by Shawcross after his scything "tackle" broke Aaron Ramsey's leg in two, as did his almost immediate declaration that he wouldn't change how he played because of the incident. He hasn't. Why would he? Every manager he's ever had has defended his dangerous play, from the time he took out a fellow professional while on-loan in Belgium, to when he similarly injured Francis Jeffers, to a two-footed lunge from behind (and while beyond the touchline) on Adebayor, to his coup de grace on Ramsey (which didn't prevent his subsequent England call-up). He's never been disciplined for it, but in the face of all the evidence, Shawcross IS that type of player.

    Arseblogger famously dubbed Shawcross "Lenny" (from "Of Mice and Men"), and it's fitting; he's a big idiot who listens to everything George (Pulis) tells him. When a manager gets his team riled up, while encouraging his charges to be "physical" with opponents, people get hurt. Great big morons like Lenny go out there and throw their bodies around because they've been taught to do so. What other outcome can there be? With Pulis and his Napoleon complex controlling the gigantic, brainless Shawcross, what you end up with is Master-Blaster. Which is okay if you live in a post-apocalyptic Australia where pig feces is worth its weight in gold and Tina Turner rules with an iron fist, but is otherwise not so good.

    Stoke get a pass from most of the English press because the English press are almost exclusively made up of dinosaurs, who bemoan foreign players and foreign influence and long for the black and white days of 22 men hacking each other to bits in the mud while the sodden leather ball is swatted around. With these people influencing the opinions of the sporting public and football officials, it's no wonder the English national team is in such a sorry state.

    At the Grove tonight, the home support have a common enemy in the odious Pulis and his charges, but while the crowd will have a big part to play, it's the reaction of Arsenal on the pitch that matters. We are without Van Persie and Koscielny tonight, which means Bendtner/Chamakh and Squillaci will come into the side, so we' be a bit bigger up front and FUCKING TERRIFYING at the back. Otherwise we have a full squad; I'm just really hoping that we come through unscathed tonight. Pulis is exactly the type of vindictive prick to tell a player or two to go in extra hard and try to injure one of ours, so let's hope everyone in an Arsenal kit has his head on a swivel watching for bad challenges.

    There's not much more to say. We should have more than enough to take three points tonight, and I'm hoping the crowd give it to Stoke, to Shawcross and to Pulis for the duration, as well as supporting the Arsenal; if you're there, bring your voice, regardless of any prawn-sandwich munchers in your section.

    Let's do this for Aaron.

    If you don't already, you can click here to subscribe to the RSS feed of this blog. You can also click here to follow us on Twitter, and click here to follow us on Facebook. This way you'll always be alerted when a new post is up.

    Leyton Orient 1-1 Arsenal: The Manuel Almunia Experience

    Much of the inquest surrounding this result has focused on second-guessing Arsene Wenger's team selection for the match. While I have been known to do the same from time to time, I find myself failing to agree with them on this occasion. For me, with more pressing responsibilities in the Premier League and Champions' League upcoming (and the trifling matter of our first cup final since the Pleistocene Era coming up this Sunday), the team selection was fine. This was also borne out by the first 88 minutes - while it was unfortunate that the team were only 1-0 up at the time, the game was well and truly under control. At no point did I ever see the home side scoring or even threatening to do so.

    Sadly for us, in the 88th minute, the Manuel Almunia Experience struck again.

    We'll get to him in a moment, though. Let's talk about the team selection that caused so many talking points immediately upon the third blast from referee Kevin Friend's whistle. Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna manned the fullback positions, bookending a worrisome central defense of Sebastien Squillaci and 18-year old debutant Ignasi Miquel. Alex Song and Denilson were the holding midfielders, with Tomas Rosicky in the hole ahead of them. Nicklas Bendtner and Andrei Arshavin were on the wings, with Marouane Chamakh leading the line up top.

    On paper, that is a side that should annihilate a third-tier side. Then again, our previous encounters with Leeds, Huddersfield and Ipswich this season should have put paid to the idea that we just needed to show up in order to win. In fairness though, I thought the team worked a lot harder this time around and on most days, would have done enough to get the win.

    We didn't know it at the time, but a foreboding omen came just minutes into the game. Stephen Dawson took a long shot from distance - it had a little steam on it but nothing a professional goalkeeper should have trouble with. Almunia fumbled it, and had to scramble to scoop it up at the second attempt. Up the other end, a mirror image of the play happened when Chamakh's header was spilled by Jamie Jones, who also collected on the second attempt. Then again, one is a 22-year old kid in his first season as a starter, and one is 33-year old with over a century of Premier League appearances.

    The game quickly settled into a rhythm after that, with Arsenal unsurprisingly having most of the ball. To their credit, Orient defended well as a team and closed down spaces quickly. Their efforts were undeniably helped though by the compound efforts of Chamakh's shaken confidence and Bendtner's indifferent form (and the fact that HE'S NOT A FUCKING WINGER). I think we at times forget that this is Chamakh's first season in the Premier League, and opposing defenses have now had the time to look at tape of his torrid early-season performances and make adjustments. It's now on the Moroccan (with the help of the coaching staff) to make the necessary counter-adjustments, but I absolutely believe he'll get there. Mark my words, he'll have a part to play between now and the end of the season.

    Bendtner, though, is a different situation entirely. I know he's not the favorite player of many Gooners, and I admit my frustration with him at times as well. However, I also have a large degree of sympathy with him given the manner in which he's being used (though in turn I have sympathy for Wenger's selection headaches given the brilliant form of Robin van Persie). So yeah, it's a complicated state of affairs. Here's the thing, as far as I can see: Bendtner is a guy who enjoys the big occasion, and has the mindset of a big-game player. When I think of the Dane, I immediately recall the thumping header that completed an Arsenal win over our nearest and dearest a while back. Further, as I keep saying, HE'S NOT A FUCKING WINGER. I believe we're the only side on the entire planet who would employ a big, gangling target man as a guy to drill in crosses to a 5'5" midget Russian (says the 5'5" midget American). He has decent enough ball skills, but not to the extent that most of his teammates have...and he's not a guy who will weave through two or three defenders to make space for a cutback to the top of the penalty area.

    It's real simple: You take a guy like Nicky and shunt him off to the wing in a low-key affair against a lower-league side, and you're going to get a lackluster performance. Yes, he's a prima donna for being this way. But, his mental makeup is not a fucking mystery at this point. Again, I don't blame Wenger for not playing Bendtner in bigger games this season given the way that RVP is torching everyone, but I do blame him for effectively shutting down the production of one of our wings by using the guy there. The way I see it, an effective Arsenal team can have Bendtner or Chamakh in it, but not both.

    As for the Moroccan, he had some half-chances as the first half went on, but nothing came off for him. Other than that though, the game continued on its turgid path to the interval. I wasn't sure where our goal would be coming from, but that question was answered early in the second half.

    It turns out that the answer was "a Tomas Rosicky header"...which before the match would have been only slightly less believable than "a double-back-hoof shot from a unicorn". Despite my rantings above, Super Winger Nicklas Bendtner was the man who supplied the cross. Rosicky beat his marker and connected on a fantastic glancing header (placement rather than power) to guide the ball into the net. Jones had no chance, and Tommy had his first goal in over a year. I'm not banking on it, but if he can get going and chip in with some goals, we'll be much the better for it.

    Photo: The Guardian

    With that one moment of Premier League quality, Arsenal had the lead and were quite content to let the game settle back into its previous pattern. As I mentioned before, the proceedings were largely under control and I would have bet a fair amount of money on a 1-0 win at the time. Even in retrospect, I can't argue with the tactics - if it did finish that way, we'd be applauding the team for getting a result with the minimum required effort given the big games we have coming up.

    I did overhear one topic come up a few times from in the in-game discussions among the audience at the Blind Pig - why weren't there any substitutions? Wenger has never been one to panic and throw guys on early when the situation doesn't warrant it, but usually he gets one or two pairs of fresh legs on once it gets to the last quarter of an hour. Here, the XI that started the game finished it, and that may have had something to do with the result. It was a strong bench (Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Laurent Koscielny, Emmanuel Eboue), but I don't see why some two of Wilshere, Nasri and Eboue couldn't have come on to ensure that we kept possession in the last stage of the game as well as we had done up to that point.

    A warning shot came from Orient in the 82nd minute, when Jonathan Tehoue crossed well into the area for Alex Revell. The Orient striker connected with a volley that was going to give Almunia all sorts of bother if it were on goal, but it was blocked by Squillaci. Immediately, the Orient players pleaded with Friend for a penalty kick, claiming that the Frenchman had handballed. The replays showed that not to be the case - Squillaci ended up taking the shot full-force to the noggin. I've had that happen to me before in my park-league goalkeeping adventures, and I can assure you it's not fun. All credit to the guy for sacrificing himself to the cause.

    For all that though, the scores were leveled six minutes later. That man Tehoue was in the center of it again, picking the ball up just outside the area and making fools of Squillaci and Miquel with a simple feint. I can forgive that from the 18-year old rookie, but for a guy with Squillaci's experience to get destroyed so badly by a third-tier striker is fucking unforgivable, and must be added to the ever-growing list of times where he's cost us this season.

    That said, the reason you have a goalkeeper is to be the last line of defense when the center-halves are beaten. No team goes 90 minutes (unless it's against Wolves at home) where that doesn't happen, so you have to be able to depend on him in those cases. Now, I said, I'm a keeper myself and I'm the first to defend my spiritual brothers when it's warranted. Most pundits don't know the first thing about keeping...for example, the people calling Slovenia stopper Samir Handinovic a coward for ducking out of the way of Landon Donovan's point-blank shot at the World Cup. Let me stand about 6 feet in front of you and fire a large object at your head...we'll see how fucking brave you are, you stupid fucks. Digressions aside, if the center-halves get beat but the resulting shot is stoppable, then as far as I'm concerned, all blame or credit then goes to the goalkeeper in that situation.

    Tehoue's shot was eminently stoppable, and Almunia fucked it up. AGAIN.

    Photo: The Guardian

    Another common misconception about goalkeeping is that a keeper should never be nutmegged. Of course, that's horseshit. If a guy is coming in one-on-one and makes a move that forces the keeper to open up and go side-to-side, there's not much you can do if the striker nutmegs you...that's just physiology at work. But when a shot comes in from even a medium distance that you see the whole way, letting it slip through you is inexcusable at the highest level of the game. Let me reiterate - a professional goalkeeper should save that 99.999999999999% of the time.

    Think back to all of Almunia's high-profile errors over the last few seasons though. There's the odd one here and there that came from goalmouth scrambles or corners, but aren't the vast majority shots from distance? It's funny how he's perfectly OK as long as he only has to react rather than think, isn't it? Well, not funny in the ha-ha sense, but it is telling. Manuel Almunia is a man whose confidence has long deserted him, and whose thoughts are already on wherever his next opportunity lies.

    In a way, I don't blame him. He has been a No. 2 for much of his career, and was all of a sudden handed a shock transfer to one of the world's biggest clubs. When his chief competitor was sent off in the Champions' League final, he was all of a sudden thrust into a spotlight far brighter and far harsher than I'm sure he could have possibly imagined. We all know he bottled it badly on that day (the second goal conceded being particularly dreadful), but he got his chance again when Jens Lehmann was relegated to the bench. For a while, he did OK and seemed to be growing into the role. But, once the setbacks started coming again, his spirit broke and there just wasn't any mental reserves there for him to draw on. The fact is that he is not a goalkeeper equipped to handle life at the highest levels of the game. He just fucking isn't.

    Don't get me wrong though - I'm not blaming Wenger for playing him in this game. With Lukasz Fabianski injured and Vito Mannone on loan to Hull, I think he had to know what the guy had left coming off of his shoulder injury and re-demotion to the bench. While it's unfortunate for us and for Almunia himself that the answer was "not bloody much", the fact is that we've learned that information at the cost of only a replay as opposed to the fate of, say, Chelsea (speaking of which: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH! Fuck off and die, Cashley).

    In the end, it was a frustrating result and a replay that we didn't need, but it's not the end of the world. We're still alive and kicking, still in all four competitions. I still have hope that next Monday's match report will have a picture of a shiny silver thing as opposed to a string of 3,792,719 f-bombs.

    The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

    Almunia 4, Gibbs 6, Squillaci 6, Miquel 6, Sagna 7, Arshavin 7, Song 6, Denilson 6, Rosicky 7.5 (MOTM), Bendtner 5, Chamakh 5

    Arsenal Play Jenga with Spanish Giants

    Fabregas... to Nasri... Can he go all the way here...? Still Nasri, looks for


    Martin Tyler's call on Arsenal's second goal has taken its place alongside the call for Michael Thomas' Anfield winner for me. I still get chills hearing it two days after the fact, and I imagine I will feel the same way many years from now. Wednesday night was one of the most amazing of all of Arsenal's many European nights, the first truly great one in the Emirates. Barcelona, largely considered the best footballing side in the world (some positing that they are the greatest in history, to which I say, Take it easy, killer), walked into Emirates Stadium expected by everyone but Arsenal to take us apart for 90 minutes and go home to await a formality at Camp Nou. What they got was a rather more spirited performance than what they have become accustomed to in the Sunny SPL. Arsenal played their football and did what no one believed was possible.

    The match started brightly enough, Arsenal pressing well and retaining possession for much of he opening minutes, even creating a good Van Persie chance that was parried away by Valdes. However, as the match progressed, Barca began to test the Arsenal midfield and defense, soon seeing Messi go through on goal, only to miss his chance, thwarted in part by the positioning and body-shape of the unflappable Szczesny. We were playing a rather high line, attempting to catch them with the offside trap, but it seems that while the rest of the back line were watching tape on the 1989 side for pointers, Gael Clichy was watching re-runs of Designing Women. After Fabregas nearly missed Robin's head at the far post, Barca countered quickly. Within a matter of seconds, Clichy managed to play Villa onside for Messi's ball, alone in front of keeper. There was little that Szczesny could do; Villa's finish was perfect.

    I don't think I'm alone in saying that my heart sank a bit when the ball went in. It's difficult enough to try and topple Barca, made more so when you've given them an away goal. To their credit though, Arsenal didn't let their heads go down, they continued to harry Barca and try to create chances, although for a long stretch of several minutes, Barca's possession game looked unstoppable. Arsenal were chasing shadows for a time, my personal nadir in this match. Down a goal to the best side in the world and we can't even get the ball.

    Whatever Arsene said or did at halftime seemed to work wonders, as Arsenal came back out for the restart by far the more robust side. Jack Wilshere's work in midfield typified the spirit on the night: never, under any circumstances did he give up on a ball or fail to harry the opponent's possession, nor would he let Barca take the ball off him easily, or thwart his passes. We had the better of the match as the second half went on, and despite Barca seeking a second goal, there were few points when they legitimately threatened. I did feel a bit nervous when Pedro flopped in the box off of (the very impressive) Koscielny's hip, as with the ref in charge I expected a penalty to be given, but we dodged that bullet and continued to put Barca under pressure.

    The substitutions were where the game seemed to change most in Arsenal's favor. Barca brought off Villa for holding midfielder Keita, which was questionable, but one can't completely fault Guardiola for thinking his side could hold a 1-0 advantage for 20 minutes given the possession they'd had. However, the loss of Villa's threat, coupled with the increased attacking focus of Arshavin on for Song, allowed Arsenal to press further and test the Barcelona goal without Villa's attacking threat at the other end. The Russian made his presence felt early, creating space on the left flank and troubling the defense. This allowed him to pass back to Clichy, who used his right foot (which is usually only ever good for standing on) to clip a ball over the top to find Robin. The Dutch Master's drive from the end line miraculously found the daylight between the post and Valdes, settling in the opposite side-netting for an equalizing goal. Enough pundits have questioned whether it was a shot or a mis-hit cross; to be frank, it doesn't really matter. It was a sublime finish, and in addition to knotting the score, it seemed to breathe fresh life into Arsenal and take a bit out of Barcelona. Bendtner came on for a flagging Theo and Arsenal renewed attack.

    If the first was pure happiness, the second was ecstasy, and it summed up much of what makes this Arsenal team what it is. The power of Bendtner held the ball from the pressing defender and he got it to Jack. Wilshere's swift turn and pass got the ball to Cesc, whose vision and touch found Nasri sprinting up the right. Samir's patience and skill on the ball saw him get into the area and find the late-arriving Arshavin with an inch-perfect pass, which our in-form little Russian buried it with one touch, sending Valdes to his back and Arsenal fans everywhere into nirvana. It wasn't a Barcelona goal, it wasn't an Invincibles goal, it was just an Arsenal goal, and an outstanding one.

    Yet for all of our great play, we nearly coughed it up late on. Arshavin, defending a ball into our box, intended to head the ball to Szczesny but just nodded it off his arm and into the path of Dani Alves. Szczesny's presence and a scrambled Djourou clearance denied the visitors a last real chance, and the final whistle let us all know that we'd toppled the giants.

    Yes, it's only halftime in the scheme of things, but that doesn't matter now. What matters is that we seem to have turned a corner. We've seen this team put in big performances in big games, putting Chelsea to the sword in late December, topping Barcelona Wednesday, and going without a loss in between (or indeed since the Man U debacle on Dec. 13). Arsene Wenger has urged patience with this team for years now as they mature together into a truly top squad, and finally it appears that his vision is coming to fruition at long last.

    While we can celebrate on for a while, it's back to work for Arsenal this weekend as we clash with Leyton Orient in League One on Sunday in the FA Cup. It's the third consecutive round in which we've faced a lower league opponent; even so we'll need a performance in order to prevent the same difficulties that Leeds and Huddersfield put us through. I would expect what Arsene would refer to as a "heavily rotated" side, meaning the likes of Cesc, Nasri, Van Persie, and Theo (and Djourou) will sit, while some among Chamakh, Bendtner, Rosicky, and Denilson (and Squillaci) will come in. Expect Sagna to start, and perhaps Kieran Gibbs in for Clichy. Heck, even Almunia might get a game. Anyway, if we don't have the quality in our bench to beat a League One opponent, we don't deserve to advance. Apparently Orient are on a bit of a run, scoring 10 in their last 3 matches and having gone 11 matches without a defeat. I do have a bad feeling that we might see the Arsenal that just think they have to turn up to win, which would be a great mistake. I want to think this team have learned that you have to treat every match seriously, that you're bound to lose the matches in which you don't absolutely apply yourself. Let's hope we don't get burned.

    In any event, I'm going to enjoy the next few days. Arsenal have lifted me up on this wave, and I intend to ride it out until I'm placed down upon the shore again. I suggest you all ride it out as well.

    Oh, and in case I don't speak to you before next Wednesday, Ryan Shawcross can eat a dick.

    Barca And Those Orange Bits That Look Like Carrot

    Vomit-inducing. A term used to describe the way I feel about this week's upcoming meeting with Lionel Meh-er...Barcelona. In fact, I would have used the same term for all previous fixtures against the Catalan giants. Don't get me wrong, facing United or AC Milan at their respective homes definitely sets the stomach to its sea-sickness setting, but Barca are the only team I can think of where I truly need to stop myself from hurling my guts up all over the pub/living room floor.

    Even so, I should learn to relax. After all, we are considerably stronger than we were going into the same tie last season, with the return of an in-form RvP and (forgetting the final 22 minutes at St James' Park) a pretty sturdy CB pairing in the shape of Djourou and Koscielny. In fact I think we're almost at our very best. With the exception of our keeper and Gael Clichy (as per usual), every one of our regular starters has got a goal or two this season. More importantly, our not-so-young-anymore boys have managed to do what they couldn't last season too, they've comfortably beaten Chelsea at home and Man Shitty away but more importantly they've grinded out results against the physical teams and succeeded where the only option was to win - Partizan, Leeds away, Ipswich at home etc. That shows maturity - We've come a LONG way since April '10 and despite our 4 home losses this season (I include City in there even though nobody had a sniff at goal), we are perfectly capable of scoring a salvo of goals against any team, at any time and by any player.....again with the exception of Gael Clichy, who can't score, defend, pass or cross.

    Barcelona of course are having another one of those (almost) faultless La Liga seasons which will of course raise the puke-o-meter to deadly levels. To give you an idea, and apologies for digging into the stats box here, in 26 games each in the EPL this season, Arsenal and Manure have scored 56 and 57 goals respectively. Barca on the other hand have found the net 71 times in La Liga, whilst playing 3 fewer games. And they've let in 12 goals compared to our 27. I'm gonna hurl!!!

    So, in order to give my stomach a rest I've written a letter to our faithful leader asking if he'd be happy to take a few tips from yours truly:

    Dear Mr. Wenger,

    You may or may not be aware that your boys have an important business meeting this Wednesday evening with Barcelona aka Spain aka Lionel Messi. In order to cement a decent win, here are a few things that I think we need to avoid:

    - Shooting for goal ONLY when there has been a minimum of 26 consecutive passes beforehand, by every single player including the goalkeeper and the ref if he's playing for us.

    - Alex Song turning your formation into a 4-2-4 rather than a 4-3-3. Tell him to stay the fuck where he is. May I suggest you instill some discipline by threatening to give his hair coloring kit back to Manuel Almunia (who I hear is losing all of his)

    - Walcott shitting himself every time there is an OBVIOUS goalscoring opportunity.

    - Ditto JW19. Although even if he doesn't score he's still a joy to watch. Well done with that one Mr. Wenger.

    - Passing the ball to Gael Clichy. Don't worry I'm sure he won't mind. I hear he doesn't like football anyway.

    - Letting Denilson anywhere near the stadium. He's pants. In fact, I'd rather have Cygan at Centre Back than Denilson in Midfield. When we're 4-0 up against Barca you can stick him up front in lieu of Robin.

    - Insulting Lionel Messi's mother in the tunnel before the game. Please feel free to insult Pep Guardiola. You can even spit on him or stand on his head if you like. Just don't get caught.

    And here are a few ways to increase our chances of winning:

    - Start Nasri in favor of either Arshavin or Walcott (preferably the latter in my opinion, Ruskie's had plenty of assists).

    - Better yet, see if you can sneak Nasri onto the pitch without having to replace ANYBODY. Most of the officials in the modern game are completely blind and haven't read the official rule book anyway (because they're blind, and it hasn't been translated to braille yet, because it's far too complicated). I'm sure they wouldn't notice until well after the game has finished anyway, in which case it will be too late.

    - Take a leaf out of your mate Fergie's book. Bribe the ref. Nicklas Bendtner's ex-girlfriend (a Dutch Baroness no less) is free apparently. Why don't you offer her? And she's worth half a billion I hear. I'm sure you could find a way to make it work.

    - Spike the Barcelona players' matchday-morning porridge with Dulcolax, as you did to Spurs back in 2006 to prevent them from getting into Europe. That was a great idea by the way Mr Wenger, hats off to you. I bet Alex or Jose would never have thought of that!

    - You should address the home crowd before the match starts and ask everybody to "sing like fucking crazy". Those EXACT words. It works you know.

    If you stick to those clear and concise points, I don't think you'll just be emulating Barcelona's playing style as pundits have rightly said you do, I think you'll be emulating their success as well. Or it could all go completely tits up and you'll get sent to the stands. But I think you should give it a go.

    Best Regards

    Peter "Andersinho" Anderson
    Former 5-aside captain and Championship Manager 2002 legend.

    Anyway, back to reality.

    I've been surprised on countless occasions this season where I thought we would falter, and also where I thought we would prevail. For example, as already mentioned we have beaten Man City in their stomping ground (albeit against 10 men), we've comfortably seen a full-strength Chelsea side off at home, we have been resilient (Wenger's favorite adjective) at times when it mattered most, and we've actually got a bloody good keeper in the form of Wojciech Whatshisface, who represented his country last week. He's only bloody 20! At the same time, I though we would beat WBA, Newcastle, Tottenscum, Leeds, Ipswich but we didn't (ahem, we lost). I also thought that, being their 2nd match in La Liga for FIFTEEN years, Hércules CF would have been obliterated when they visited the Nou Camp fortress back in September. But of course they only went and bloody won it didn't they? By two goals. And they had a clean sheet. AND Messi was playing...

    I'm sure there are more than a few surprises left this season. Barcelona could eat it. Hell Clichy might even score a goal, or deliver a decent cross! The improbable could in fact become the probable! There is one thing that is quite inevitable though. There's going to be stomach lining and bile all over my living room floor on Wednesday afternoon. Lets hope it's worth it!


    P.S as a side note, remember we beat AC Milan at their stomping ground first. AND we scored two goals, which were both awesome. Just thought I'd say that.

    Arsenal 2-0 Wolverhampton Wanderers

    How badly did Arsenal need a performance like this? Coming off the horrid capitulation to Newcastle was bad enough, but the morning's early game saw Manchester United get back to winning ways thanks to what admittedly was a fantastic wonderstrike from Wayne Rooney against their cross-town rivals Manchester City. Three points were now a prerequisite to a continued interest in the title race, and three points were delivered in perhaps the season's most imperious and complete performance.

    Seriously? I think this was my favorite Arsenal win in a very long time.

    That may seem like hyperbole when you take into accounts other results in the last few years, but it wasn't just the hatful of chances created that leads me to say that. Take that plethora of chances, and marry it to perhaps the single best defensive performance Arsenal have come up with since the 0-0 with Real Madrid a few years back. Sure, the level of opposition was far inferior on this occasion, but keep in mind that this Wolves team have given the giants of English football fits all season.

    They've beaten the Mancs. They've beaten the other Mancs. They've beaten Chelsea. If you want to expand the criteria for giants a little bit, they've beaten Liverpool.

    With this win, Arsenal have a neat little pair of 2-0 bookends against this squad of Davids.

    I'm harsh on the team when they don't do well, but I like to think that I point it out when they're undeniably brilliant. The mark of just how brilliant they were could be explained by Wojciech Szezcsny's workload. I remember him punching well to clear the danger on a corner, but he could have been reading the Guardian on a lawn chair otherwise. The returns of Johan Djourou and Alex Song to the side played no small part in that, I can assure you. Djourou especially radiates calm into the rest of the back four - I know Arseblog mentioned that on Sunday, but I've been saying it all season.

    When those two are in the team, I back the Arsenal to have a great chance to beat just about anyone (downgrading to "puncher's chance" only against Barcelona). This post is mainly going to be a love-in, but I would be remiss if I didn't say that it's worrying that we depend so heavily on two guys who don't have adequate replacements in case of calamity. No Djourou, no Song, no trophies. They must remain fit if we are to challenge for anything, and I include the Carling Cup in that. I wouldn't trust Sebastien Squillaci to defend a parking spot.

    OK, moderate dooming out of the way, the team attacked just as well as they defended on Saturday. Wolves didn't have much of the ball, but whenever they did the Gunners countered ruthlessly. The midfield ticked along metronomically thanks to Cesc Fabregas and a fabulous performance from Jack Wilshere. Andrei Arshavin worked much harder than he has in the past, and contributed with some nice passes. If he's playing himself into form, that's all the better for us. On the other flank, Theo Walcott caused an endless array of problems for George Elokobi, Wolves' left back.

    For a last-placed side, Wolves are really not that bad and are renowned for working hard and making opponents fight for time and space. But, they came to the Emirates and found themselves standing on the tracks when the train was coming through.

    As good as the defense and the midfield were, special mention has to be given to the tip of the attacking spear, Robin van Persie. He has never failed to show promise in an Arsenal shirt, but his career has often been derailed by injuries as untimely as they must have been frustrating to the Dutchman. His 16th-minute goal was majestic, a sweeping volley that left Wolves keeper Wayne Hennessey with no chance.

    Photo: Getty Images

    Speaking of, Hennessey was lights-out and was on several occasions the only thing standing between his team and a much less flattering scoreline. I can see why he's taken the No. 1 shirt from Marcus Hahnemann, and there must be a section of the Wolves support that wants to know why he hasn't been playing all season.

    The second goal was a bit more perfunctory, with most of the hard work done by Fabregas (who also assisted on the first goal). Robin got into a great position to the right of the last defender though, and did well to stay onside when the square ball came across. He still had Hennessey to beat, which was no small matter on the day. Still, his low shot nestled perfectly in the corner, effectively ending the contest with half an hour to go.

    Unlike last week, the Gunners saw out the game with no problem whatsoever. They held the ball, making Wolves chase and demoralizing them further. The defense dealt with set pieces very well, and at no point did I think the men in yellow were ever going to score. It was a fantastic performance to head into what is unquestionably the most daunting challenge of the season.

    Ahh, yes. Barcelona. They come into Wednesday's clash having been especially lucky to get a 1-1 draw with Sporting Gijon, so they aren't invincible. But, if you look objectively, they are better than us at almost every position. I don't particularly rate Victor Valdes in goal, but he does have an experience edge over Szezcsny (though the young Pole's confidence is such where this probably shouldn't be a big deal). Fabregas is an even match for Xavi or Andres Iniesta. Outside of that though, we trail them in a like-for-like comparison.

    Photo: Unknown
    That's not to denigrate our guys...not by any means. I think Alex Song is a fine holding midfielder...but Sergio Busquets is better. Johan Djourou is now our most important defender and has been brilliant this season, but he's not Gerard Pique. And, of course, the elephant in the room - what the fuck are we going to do about Leo Messi?

    Even beyond last year's powerbombing at their hands, I can't get the 2006 Champions' League final out of my mind. To this day, I think "Terje Hauge" is Norwegian for "Phil Dowd".

    Still, I'll leave the Barcelona preview in the capable hands of Brett. Just know that I'm about 100% less optimistic about this tie than he'll be!

    Despite that, I hope fervently to be proven wrong. COME ON, YOU GUNNERS!