West Bromwich Albion 2-2 Arsenal - Two Precious Points Squandered

Arsenal's title challenge is not dead, but the patient took a turn for the worse yesterday after two more points were frittered away thanks to slack defending, an appalling piece of goalkeeping from Manuel Almunia and the lack of offensive cohesion shown in the first half.

Heading into the kickoff, it looked like an Arsenal lineup that should have had a great chance to gain revenge for the shocking reverse to this lot earlier in the season. Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy manned the fullback positions as usual, with Sebastian Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny in the center of defense (a bit worrying at the time, but they didn't prove to be the problem in fairness). Aaron Ramsey made a welcome return to the team in the middle of the park, with Denilson and Jack Wilshere joining him. Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin were in their customary positions, with Robin van Persie leading the line.

I don't care how many injuries we have - that team should beat West Brom nine times out of ten.

It's almost funny in a way...after the events of the last few weeks, I don't have much anger left. A poster on the Arseblog forums put it brilliantly when she said that she was now at a place of "weary acceptance" with this team...that's about where I'm at too. It's telling how when the Baggies went up 1-0 inside of the first three minutes, it didn't seem like too many people at the Pig were all that surprised. How typical, it was from poor marking of a corner kick. Steven Reid, who got the goal, apparently hadn't scored in five years before he nodded home from close range...how charitable of us.

That said, it wasn't the center halves at fault this time. You can make an argument that Almunia should have come out for it (and he did make an incredible catch on a set piece under heavy pressure later in the match, credit where it's due), but once he didn't, he didn't have much chance of saving it. From that close in, and the point over his shoulder where it went, that's unsaveable...trust me on that. Instead, it was young Ramsey who let Reid get away from him, the rust still showing from his long absence away from the team.

So, one-nil down early in a must-win match...this is where the urgency would REALLY show itself, right?


In the entirety of the first half, there was exactly two serious attempts on the West Brom goal, both on the same play. The excellent Arshavin found RVP, whose header could only find the woodwork. It came out to Ramsey, and honestly it's unfair to the lad with everyone saying he absolutely should have scored there. My predilection is to give Scott Carson the credit for coming off his line, staying big, and not giving Rambo much to shoot at. It was a brilliant save from the West Brom keeper (continuing the trend of marginal keepers having great games against us), end of.

Beyond that, there was no fluidity to Arsenal's play. The book on us is that we spend too much time passing, and that's largely true. But, the Gunners couldn't even do that right yesterday. While no one covered themselves with glory in this respect in the first half, the two biggest offenders were Clichy and Denilson. With Clichy you can sort of understand as many of them were crosses that didn't come off, but if you're curious take a look at the same chart for Sagna. Most of the play did come down that left-hand side, but the quality of that final ball just wasn't there from Gael. As for the absolutely atrocious Denilson, look at how often he loses it in the middle of the park, just as we're getting to the final third. He also took his now-usual stupid yellow card for a lazy defensive play (he could give a clinic on how to leave a trailing leg in for the opposing player to fall over in a way where the ref is most likely to see it).

by Guardian Chalkboards

The above is the chalkboard for the entire team for the first half - take a look at the left side for what I was saying about Clichy. Now, here's Denilson's first half "performance":

by Guardian Chalkboards

His passing percentage of 86% was slightly higher than the team's overall 82%, but the real key is where that final pass is going. Once again, through the center of the park, Arsenal just weren't good enough and Denilson was a huge reason why. To Arsene Wenger's credit, he was immediately hauled off at halftime and replaced with Marouane Chamakh. This gave Arsenal a little more size and presence up front, and it would pay dividends later on in proceedings.

Before that though, Arsenal would gift their opponents the goal that would so crucially batter our title pretensions. Once again, Almunia has shown that as long as he doesn't have to think or is under no pressure, he's fine. Put him in a big game and give him time to make a decision, and he will decide incorrectly almost every time. A nothing long ball came over the top, and Squillaci had everything under control. For some reason, Almunia came tearing off his line, coming out about ten yards outside of his penalty area. He gave Squillaci a two-handed shove to the back trying to get him out of the way, and then failed to clear the ball himself. Peter Odemwingie has decent predatory instincts in any case, but in this scenario couldn't fail to roll the ball into the empty net. This was a goal that was only missing the Yakity Sax soundtrack.

I won't join those who pin the blame on Wenger here, or I should say, blame him specifically for not buying a goalkeeper in the January window. At the time, Wojciech Szezcsny was coming into his own and Vito Mannone was still fit. You just can't legislate for three senior goalkeepers being injured in the same season - if United had to play Ben Amos or Chelsea had to play Rhys Taylor, where do you think they'd be right now?

On the other hand, I do blame Almunia. I mean, what was the thought process there? I can understand if the defense had pushed up to the halfway line and thus he was the only one back there. If he comes out in that case and a speedy forward beats him to the ball, then fine. But this? It's mystifying.

So, 2-0 down and at that point, I absolutely admit that I thought we were done. I didn't see where the goals were going to come from when we weren't unduly troubling Carson's penalty area. However, the boss threw the dice and went more to a 4-3-3, taking off the ineffective Ramsey and replacing him with Nicklas Bendtner. While my old pet peeve returned with Bendtner often playing on the wing, in truth the three forwards switched positions with regularity, stretching the West Brom defense and opening up space for some of our passing to get through. It really changed the game, and having two big strikers gave us much more of a chance against their gigantic mutant defenders. I can't help but wonder how many we might have scored if we had lined up that way from the start, though I freely admit that this is Monday-morning quarterbacking of the worst sort.

Twelve minutes later, Arsenal pulled one back. That man Arshavin was in the center of it again, with the unlikely assist coming from Chamakh. Normally, you'd expect that to be the other way around, eh? Not that we cared, though...once it got to 2-1, West Brom were a bit spooked and 2-2 was infinitely more likely. The finish was absolutely gorgeous as well, as the little Russian took it at the edge of the penalty area and lashed an unstoppable shot across the face of goal. The relief on the team's collective face was palpable, and it gave them the conviction to carry on and get the equalizer.

What a scruffy old thing that equalizer was, too. As the old cliche goes, it wasn't pretty but they all count! Take a wild guess who was in the center of things once again? Arshavin fed a brilliant cross for Bendtner, but the woodwork denied Arsenal for the second time on the day. The deflection of the crossbar was a kind one though, and RVP's scuffed shot eluded the attentions of Abdoulaye Meite and rolled over the line at about 0.000000000000001 MPH. If we end up winning the title by one point or something, remember that goal.

Of course, winning the title is a much harder proposition now than it was before the game kicked off. That's one point out of six won against West Brom this season, when four really should have been the minimum (and six preferable, of course). Even though a lot of this was down to the same old failings - inability to defend against set pieces, Denilson, a touch of arrogance against lesser sides - it still burns at me that had Szezcsny not been injured on a routine catch in a total freak accident, we win this game.

Jens Lehmann HAS to start our next match.

Look, I don't like the idea of relying on a 41-year old recent retiree any more than many of you do...but what other choice do we have? If we lose the title by 2 or 3 points thanks to Almunia's continual inability to do basic shit right (which rather dulls the impact of his decent performances otherwise), aren't you going to remember that on your deathbed? It is obvious to me that Almunia is a pretty good keeper who goes to pieces mentally whenever the spotlight is on him. I sincerely hope that he goes somewhere nice and sunny in the offseason, where he can see out his career with comfortable mid-table football. Arsenal is just not his level, and it never was.

Of course, that falls on the manager. But, I don't want to spend too much time on this because MAN, is it getting virulent out there. Actually, I should say in Facebook comments, which I know are only a half-step up from Youtube comments as the worst of the worst. Either way, I don't want to contribute too much to an increasingly-poisonous atmosphere, so how about I just say that NOTHING has changed for me since November, and leave it at that?

If we're going to win the title though, this international break will be what wins it for us. If Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott and Alex Song come back and manage to stay injury-free for five whole seconds, if we beat Liverpool and United and Spurs, we can do it. This match sucked as a result but if it means we never see Almunia or Denilson in Arsenal shirts again, maybe it was for the best.

I still believe...faintly.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Almunia 3, Clichy 6, Koscielny 7, Squillaci 7, Sagna 7, Denilson 5 (Chamakh 7), Wilshere 7, Ramsey 6 (Bendtner 7), Nasri 7, Arshavin 9 (MOTM), van Persie 8

Keep Calm, Keep the Faith.

I don't suppose it's necessary to yet again re-hash the last two-plus weeks of the season, given that I'm writing as a way to take a break from arguing with fellow Arsenal fans who are convinced that we won't even finish in competition for Europe and that Arsene Wenger is a French Vatican assassin warlock who's been under deep cover only to infiltrate English society and kill the queen. Or something like that. It's been a rough few weeks, to be sure, losing a cup final, being boned by Platini and his referee in Barcelona, and hardly putting in a convincing performance while losing again at Old Trafford. But the reactionary bile being spewed all around the intarwebs has taken it all a bit far. To those who feel that all is lost even today, on the 18th of March, I say to you: Keep calm, and keep the faith.

Our injury list, the old enemy, has decided to rise again at precisely the worst time of the season. Thomas Vermaelen (who I admit I haven't expected to see back at all since December) was just recently ruled out for the season; Johan Djourou, the loss of whom making the United defeat that much harder to bear, is out for 6 weeks (per Arsene), nearly the rest of the season... Although with Arsenal, who knows? He could be back in two weeks or miss the next 7 years. Cesc, Theo, Song, and now Diaby are sidelined at least for the West Brom match, to say nothing of Szczesny and Fabianski of course, who will both miss the rest of the season. Thankfully we didn't sell Almunia, as he's been solid since stepping back between the sticks, but only Arsenal seem to be forced to worry about having a good 3rd string keeper. Right now, the spine of the team, from back to front, is likely Almunia, Squil--please, save your boos for the end, please--laci, Koscielny, Wilshere, Denil--again, please hold your boos--son, Insert Midfielder's Name Here, and Robin van Persie. Yes, it looks pretty fucking dire, I have to admit.

Yet to abandon all hope in the face of this crisis is defeatist and faithless. What's worse is that many of us are using this as an excuse to play the blame game, now your "Le Grove" types feel it's their time to shine. It's time to blame Arsene for not buying 3 new midfielders that they first heard about in the press or in Football Manager and for not selling Denilson, Diaby and Rosicky in the summer. It's time to blame the board for paying down the debt on the stadium, which was the right thing to do until 2 weeks ago, instead of launching ourselves into more massive debt and buying Chiellini and Casillas. It's time to burn Wenger in effigy, sack him, and replace him with... well, they rarely have an answer here outside of Mourinho. Trophies or no, I'd rather have the Jose puppet from Special 1 TV manage Arsenal than that arrogant toerag.

One bad result, a loss at United, and everyone loses their fucking minds. It's as though everyone's brains collectively asked some invisible commanding officer (played by the ghost of Graham Chapman), "Permission to freak out, sir?" and received the same disembodied reply of "Granted!" Issues abound at the club right now, and instead of standing with the club we profess to love in time of need, many of us are either bowing our heads and mourning for a season that's far from over, or talking openly of a Norwich-scarf-wearing protest of sorts, the benefit of which I still fail to see.

All right, stop this at once, you're all being very silly.

I have spent this entire week arguing strongly against such large-scale madness, and been duly shouted down by those who are convinced they are right. I'm not saying I'm right, I'm saying I don't know what is going to happen, and neither do you. I'm selling doubt, humility in the face of the unknown. You don't have to buy into anything either, and it won't leave you feeling disappointed at being wrong when we do win. The fact remains that we are just 3 points off of United in the Premier League with a match in hand, so no, as bad as things seem, we're still very much in for a trophy this season.

I'm not advocating anyone to blindly follow the club, or Arsene. Nothing of the sort. There are obvious flaws within the squad that must be addressed. It's becoming apparent that our possession-based offensives rely far too much on Cesc making a killer final ball, and in his absence we fall flat. The gap in quality, and noticeably in just a visible will to win, from Cesc, Jack or Song to Diaby, Denilson and even Rosicky, is now a chasm, and Arsene's unceasing belief in players like the latter three has backfired consistently; both of these faults can be remedied in the summer by selling on players who do not perform and buying some proven, hungry professionals that will create competition for places and shake up what appears to be complacency, particularly for those just outside of the first XI. This isn't anything I don't know, but as none of it can be addressed until June, it seems foolish to waste my time worrying and moaning about it now.

What might have been along with what, unfortunately, still is.

I may not like it, you may not like it, but the visiting players taking the field this weekend at The Hawthornes will be Arsenal. Our fantastic travelling supporters will assuredly give them all the vocal encouragement they could ask for. I would hope that all of you, whether you're watching at home, at the pub, or even those who will watch the live broadcast from Emirates Stadium, will back the team every time they take the field, despite your reservations about the manager, the board, or some of the players. When they wear the shirt, those players are Arsenal whether the name on the back is Wilshere or Squillaci, Denilson or Nasri. I encourage everyone to be an Arsenal supporter, in deed as well as in name.

Oh yeah, and Mad Jens Lehmann is back, signed on as emergency backup and toe-keeper-on-er to Manuel Almunia. If that doesn't amp you up and scare the bejeezus into the opposition and any of his own underperforming teammates, then you/they are in a coma.

Keep calm, keep the faith. And keep it Goonerish.

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Preview by Numbers: West Bromwich Albion v. Arsenal

I'm pretty sure our dinosaur can kick this bird's ass.
Photo: The Treble.

The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
Saturday, March 19
11:00 a.m. EDT, 3:00 p.m. GMT
Note the different time in the U.S. England has
not yet changed their clocks to daylight time.
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Stuart Attwell
    • Assistants: Peter Kirkup and Martin Yerby
    • 4th Official: Tony Bates
  • This Match, Last Time: West Brom 1 - 3 Arsenal (March 3, 2009)
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 2 - 3 West Brom
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 61 Arsenal wins, 36 West Brom wins, 28 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-D-W-W-D
  • West Brom's League Form: D-L-D-D-D-W
Arsenal Squad News

Jens Lehmann is back? Have I somehow traveled
backwards through time? That's awesome.
Photo: Daily Mail.
Injured: Djourou (shoulder), Diaby (groin), Szczesny (finger), Fabregas (hamstring), Song (knee), Walcott (ankle), Fabianski (shoulder), Vermaelen (Achilles)

So, hey. That's a lot of injuries right there.

When Arsene Wenger spoke of bringing in an emergency goalkeeper after the injuries to Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski, did anyone actually expect it would be Jens Lehmann? Lehmann will add much needed experience to a side that is teetering on the edge a bit, especially mentally, after crashing out of three competitions in two weeks. I'm well aware that bringing in Jens Lehmann to help the team keep its mental composure might be a bit oxymoronic. Manuel Almunia should still start and he has been solid since Szczesny's injury.

In the heart of the defense, it's fairly bad news all around. Yesterday, Wenger announced that Thomas Vermaelen's season is done because the stars didn't align properly for him to heal and there's nothing that supermoon thing can do about it, or something. The news on Johan Djourou's separated shoulder is that he is not done for the season, but rather, just six weeks. Which is almost the rest of the season. So, welcome back to the side, Sebastien Squillaci! Ignasi Miquel might also get more of an opportunity to break into the first team.

Apparently, Abou Diaby is hurt again too and Alex Song is still out with his knee injury, so Jack Wilshere is going to have to drop back into his more standard holding role. I'd like to see Aaron Ramsey get a start, but I'm not sure how much Arsene Wenger will be easing him back into the squad, so we might just as likely see a lot of Denilson passing backwards tomorrow.

Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) and Theo Walcott (ankle) are still out, which will mean a return to the side for either Tomas Rosicky or Nicklas Bendtner. My preference would be to see Samir Nasri in the middle, box-to-box role, but I keep saying that and then it doesn't happen. At least Robin van Persie will start up front.

Predicted starting XI: Almunia - Sagna - Koscielny - Squillaci - Clichy - Denilson - Wilshere - Nasri - Rosicky - Arshavin - van Persie

West Brom Squad News

Injured: Dorrans (ankle), Ibanez (hamstring)

Having crashed out of the FA Cup in the third round, West Bromwich Albion had last weekend off and so by tomorrow, it will have been two weeks since they played. Well rested, the Baggies have few injuries in their squad. However, winger Graham Dorrans, a key component of West Brom's attack, injured his ankle in training last week and cannot put any weight on it. He's unavailable.

Midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu is a doubt with a muscle injury, having just returned to action from a hamstring problem. Pablo Ibanez, struggling for selection since coming to the Hawthorns from Atletico Madrid on a free this summer, is out with a hamstring injury. And unless the ever confusing rules have changed again, I'm certain Carlos Vela is unavailable to play against his parent club.

Current Form

"Wait, this isn't Liverpool..." Photo: Telegraph.
The Gunners are winless in their last three competitive fixtures for only the second time this season (there were also two draws and a loss in early January.) Arsenal have not gone winless in four matches since the end of last season, which included losses at Spurs, Wigan, and Blackburn and a draw against City. Arsenal have also lost two straight to crash out of the Champions League and FA Cup; Arsenal have not lost three straight since... well, those aforementioned losses to Spurs and Wigan were preceded by crashing out of the Champions League at Camp Nou last year. On the plus side, Arsenal are unbeaten in league play since December 13, a run of 11 matches without a loss. They still, however, have not won away from the Emirates in two months (January 18 at Leeds.)

West Brom were flying high when they won at the Emirates in September. That win moved them into fifth place in the league. As recently as December 5th, the Baggies sat in eighth place. Then, they lost five straight in the league and crashed out of the FA Cup before beating Blackpool. After that, they went winless in six more (with four draws) before winning their last match, 3-1 at Birmingham City.

Match Facts

Arsenal had won five straight matches against West Brom before September happened. At the Emirates, Arsenal attempted to sleepwalk their way to three points and the Baggies took advantage. Manuel Almunia conceded but stopped a penalty in the first half and injured his elbow in the process. After a scoreless first half, West Brom struck for a shocking three goals in first half hour after the restart. Samir Nasri got two back, but Tomas Rosicky fired just high late in injury time and Arsenal could not scrape a point.

West Brom spent last season in the Championship, though the two sides met in the third round of the Carling Cup, a 2-0 Arsenal win at the Emirates. Sanchez Watt and Carlos Vela had the goals for the Gunners, the latter of whom is currently on loan at West Brom.

The Baggies' last win over Arsenal at The Hawthorns was on October 15, 2005 by a 2-1 scoreline. Jens Lehmann was in goal for Arsenal.

The Referee

Attwell guesses that a red card might be the correct
decision. Photo: Daily Mail.
It's a young officiating crew for the match this week and you know what that means. Mistakes, probably!

The referee is Warwickshire-based Stuart Attwell, who in 2008 became the youngest referee in Premier League history. He has only taken charge of one Arsenal match in his career: the 4-1 win over Bolton in September, in which he probably could have shown about three red cards but only showed one. Really, Attwell never had control of that match. He missed a number of obvious penalties, booked players at random times, failed to send off players guilty of violent conduct, then did show a red card to Bolton on a harsh call.

He has only taken charge of one West Brom match this season: their 3-2 win over Blackpool in January. Before the start of this month, that was the Baggies' most recent win. He worked two West Brom matches last year in the Championship: a 1-1 draw at Ipswich and a 3-1 loss at QPR.

Around the League

Despite all of the doom and gloom surrounding the last fortnight of Arsenal's season, recall that Arsenal is still only three points out of first place with a game in hand on Manchester United. Stranger things have happened! Optimism! Woo! Speaking of United, they host Bolton Wanderers at the same time as Arsenal's match tomorrow.

Tottenham Hotspur hosts the early match, a London derby against West Ham United, who beat Spurs at Upton Park in the reverse fixture, which helped slightly numb the pain of Arsenal's loss that day. The other 3:00 p.m. English time kick-offs include a West Midlands derby as Aston Villa hosts Wolves, Blackburn hosts Blackpool, Newcastle travels to Stoke, and Birmingham travels to Wigan. In the late match, Fulham heads to Merseyside to play Everton.

On Sunday, Sunderland hosts Liverpool at the Stadium of Light before the weekend's marquee match-up, as Manchester City travels to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea.


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Déjà vu

What a time to be an Arsenal fan.

We've been here before. An all too familiar scenario. Crashing out of 3 competitions in 3 weeks with an injury-stricken side, an echo of the 06-07 season where we were first dumped out of the Carling Cup Final to Chelsea, knocked out by Blackburn in the FA Cup three days later, then one week after that, eliminated from the Champions League at the hands of Alex and PSV.

That season was all over. There was no hope of catching Man United in the league, who eventually finished 21 points ahead of us by the end of it all.

This time things are a little bit different. We are 3 points off United. Yes we may have flown out of all three cup competitions in quick succession again, but most were due to exceptional circumstances, even the match on Saturday. If the oppositions Man of the Match is a goalkeeper, you know your team was the better team on the day.

This teams' maturity has already been tested on numerous occasions already this season, but I have to say I don't think any other side in the league has had to put up with this many disappointments in such a short period of time. It's going to be tough to claw back, but there is a sweet sweet prize at the end of it all if we can overcome the pain.

At the very least, and I'm not being negative and saying we're not going to win the league, but at the very least if we don't win something we have still vastly improved over last season. Look at Chelsea and Liverpool, OK so the former are still in the Champions League but their league performance hasn't been fantastic. And with Liverpool, according to my Facebook events planner I'm attending their relegation party. They've done a great job of bouncing back but everybody knows it's been a tough time for them too, at least at the beginning of the season. The only other team I feel has improved as much as we have is Sp*rs. And I just punched myself in the face for saying that but you can't deny it no matter how much you despise them.

The most likely end-result here is that we finish 2nd in the league, runners up. A step in the right direction I think you'll agree.

But we still have a chance for the title, a mighty fine chance at that. We have two challenges, one is to pick ourselves up mentally and put disappointment behind us, forget about those wrong decisions and cock-ups and do what we've demonstrated already this season, killing off one team at a time and prevailing when pundits have said we'd fail.

Our other challenge of course is to see what kind of winning formula we can craft out of a squad that is now without Djourou as well as Song, Walcott, Fabregas, Vermaelen, Szczesny and Fabianski.

That's like Chelsea being without Ivanovic (Djourou), Essien (Song), Malouda (Walcott), Lampard (Fabregas), Terry (Vermaelen) and Cech (Szczesny). The above comparisons might be slightly questionable, i.e Malouda is far more clinical than Walcott, but you all know what I'm talking about. Half our usual starting lineup is on sick leave. It's not good.

So I think we all agree that some spending needs to be done in the transfer window to create some depth in the team and have more options when the going gets tough. We also need a new physio!

What we DON'T need, despite calls from many 'Arsenal fans' to do so, is to get rid of the boss. All those pro-Wenger people out there will know that he has been a HUGE contribution to the club. The fans may want the trophies, but it looks like the board are less concerned about that at the moment. They are more than happy with the way things are going. Are we losing money? No, the club is making a killing and is completely self-sustainable. Are we falling further and further down the table? No, we're likely climbing or at least keeping it consistent. The only other team that's showed the same level of consistency, season after season, is Man United.

So a manager change is not the answer here. There isn't anybody else out there that can take the reigns and have as much success as Wenger has had. You may not think it, but stature goes a long way in this game. Wenger is the 2nd longest serving current manager in European top-flight football after Fergie. That statement on its own has clout. To start from fresh again would be a ridiculous decision and suicidal.

It doesn't matter what happens, Wenger aint going anywhere. In fact we're probably only about 5 years into a 10 year masterplan in terms of building the perfect team, we already have the perfect stadium (unlike Sp*rs), the perfect financial situation (unlike Barca). Some of you are just going to have to live with AW for another five years or so. By which point Arsenal will be unstoppable and we'll all be kissing his feet.

So instead of being counter-productive, lets be positive. Lets not start questioning the manager and putting him under pressure when we are CLEARLY still in the title race. That's just daft. You're not fit to wear an Arsenal shirt if you're showing negativity towards a team that is only three points off the summit. To do that is to have NO passion for your club.

If you HAVE to moan, at least wait until the season is finished.


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Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal: Never at the Races

Most importantly, I hope Johan Djourou is all right.

Beyond that, there's not a lot to say about this result. Arsenal were well beaten by superior opposition, despite the fact that said opposition had just as many injuries and just as bad of a recent run as us. I have harped on this point several times this season, and I am gutted at how I keep being proven right - winners win, losers make excuses. Teams that have winning in their blood find ways to overcome obstacles, teams that don't bemoan the existence of said obstacles and use them as a crutch.

You will read in the match reports today and tomorrow that Edwin van der Sar was the Man of the Match, and that in some ways he stole this result for United. Every single one of those reports will be wrong. He had a fine game of course, and did everything he was supposed to. Other than one save where he got fingertips to a low shot heading into to the corner (from van Persie, I think?), everything else he faced was the kind of thing a top-level goalkeeper is expected to save. When it comes down to it, Arsenal didn't have that many serious attempts on goal in the game, and much of what they did have was right at the big Dutchman.

Photo: Yahoo!

If you want a MOTM from the United end of things, I think it would have to be that Shrek-looking bastard, Wayne Rooney. He was always a danger to our defense, and hate him or hate him, you have to respect his ability to track back and harry the opposition center-halves when they have the ball.

Anyway, Arsenal lined up with Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna at fullback with Laurent Koscielny and Djourou in central defense, Denilson and Abou Diaby in central defense with Jack Wilshere in the hole behind the striker, Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri on the wings with Robin van Persie up top. Accounting for the injuries that the squad has, you can't fault Arsene Wenger for the team selection - this was pretty much the strongest XI we had short of going to a 4-4-2 (always a danger away at Old Trafford).

For the most part, the Arsenal players each had a decent game individually, two exceptions aside. It strikes me as ironic that Denilson ended up being taken off early in the second half, as I thought this was his best effort in quite a while. He put in a few saving tackles, harried the player on the ball fairly well, and even passed the ball forward once or twice. Arshavin continued to look lively on the wing and more than once had beaten his man but then had to put a weak shot on goal as no one was supporting him (or there were too many men back for United).

Speaking of which, that was the problem once again today. All too often, United had pushed men forward, but then Arsenal dallied on the ball and continued to tippy-tappy it around which allowed United to reset their formation and make defending a much easier proposition for them. Not only that, but the fact that this team is utterly bereft of confidence is painfully apparently for all to see. I've described the team several times this season as being like a metronome that is one beat off, and that was the case again today. United stood off the Arsenal players for the most part until they came into their half, and then would press. When that one last killer ball was required, it inevitably failed to materialize.

More often that not, the particularly dreadful Diaby was at the center of a misplaced pass or turnover. He had one or two moments where he did well to win the ball back and I remember one pretty nice move to get past a defender, but for the most part he was abominable once again and never should have stayed on the pitch for 70 minutes like he did. Personally, I would have withdrawn him at halftime for Aaron Ramsey, who did end up making a long-awaited return to the side at that 70' mark.

Photo: The Guardian

The real goat of the match though, in my mind, was Koscielny. He has very much been a feast-or-famine defender all season, and today was emphatically the latter. For both United goals (neither of which I care to go into great detail describing), he seemed to be at the center of confusion on both occasions. On the first one, he was jogging back towards the man he left wide-open (Fabio Da Silva, I think?), allowing him an easy tap-in after Manuel Almunia had made a brilliant save to keep the first shot out.

Speaking of which, while there are slim pickings for Arsenal MOTM, the much-maligned Spaniard won it at a canter. He had zero chance on either United goal, made some pretty good stops to keep it close, and even had the best individual save of the match when he recovered from being on his back to claw away a ball that was looping over him (that save deserved to win a game, not prevent one from getting to 3-0 late on). Whatever waning chance we have to win the league is going to hinge on him continuing his recent form.

And then, of course, there was the injury to Djourou. It was just one of those things, a scramble after that great save from Almunia resulting in Sagna colliding with his teammate. The Swiss defender now misses the rest of the season with a dislocated shoulder. What can you do? Fate seems to conspire against us this season.

Photo: Yahoo!

So yeah...I'll get slated for this, I'm sure, but I am hard-pressed to see a turn of events that results in us winning the league. We've just handed a massive psychological boost to the pace-setters today, who had been struggling badly in the league. Our best defender is now probably out for the season, to go along with all of the other injuries. The players we have left are wildly out of form and playing with absolute zero confidence.

I'm sorry, my friends. I just don't see it. I desperately hope to be proven wrong, but I have a horrible feeling that my prediction back in November will continue to be correct.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Almunia 8 (MOTM), Gibbs 7, Djourou 6, Koscielny 4, Sagna 7, Denilson 7 (Chamakh 6), Diaby 4 (Ramsey 6), Wilshere 7, Nasri 6, Arshavin 7 (Rosicky 6), van Persie 6

Preview: Manchester United v. Arsenal, FA Cup 6th Round

Arsene Wenger: Bad Ass. Photo: Daily Mail.
Old Trafford, Manchester
Saturday, March 12
12:15 p.m. EST, 5:15 p.m. GMT

  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Chris Foy
    • Assistants: Adam Watts and John Flynn
    • 4th Official: Mark Halsey
  • Prior Meeting This Season: Manchester United 1 - 0 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 78 Arsenal wins, 87 Manchester United wins, 46 draws
  • All-Time in the FA Cup: 5 Arsenal wins, 6 Manchester United wins, 2 draws
  • Arsenal's Form, Across All Competitions: D-W-L-W-D-L
  • United's Form, Across All Competitions: W-W-D-W-L-L
Arsenal Squad News

Apparently, routine saves are very very dangerous.
Photo: Daily Mail.
Injured: Szczesny (finger), Fabregas (hamstring), Song (knee), Walcott (ankle), Fabianski (shoulder), Vermaelen (Achilles)

The Arsenal infirmary is growing yet again, quite possibly at the worst time. The Gunners find themselves now in just two competitions after the loss in Spain on Tuesday, and a poor performance tomorrow would find them still alive in only the league.

Thankfully, the news in certain spots is much better than in others. Up front, Robin van Persie, initially expected to be a doubt, has passed fit to start at Old Trafford. The Dutchman played 55 minutes on his return before being shown a second yellow card for shooting the ball without a recurrence of the injury he suffered in the Carling Cup Final.

Speaking of injury recurrences, there is no good news for Cesc Fabregas. The captain re-aggravated the hamstring injury that has plagued the last year of his career and will now likely miss two weeks. That means this weekend's trip to Manchester and next weekend's trip to West Bromwich. Those two matches are followed by an international break, so Fabregas's return will likely be at the Emirates against Blackburn Rovers on April 2. Tomas Rosicky has seen a lot of playing time with Fabregas out, so I don't see that changing, even though I'd much prefer Samir Nasri to play the central, box-to-box role.

The other bad injury news surrounds Wojciech Szczesny, who dislocated his finger making a routine save on Tuesday. The news is so bad because the young Pole also damaged a tendon in the process, so it is unknown how long he will be out. I have the feeling his season is done, which means Manuel Almunia steps back in as #1, with both Polish keepers out long term. James Shea will be the back-up for the time being; Vito Mannone could be recalled from Hull City, but he has a thigh injury. Arsene Wenger will likely have to file for an emergency transfer, like Manchester City did when Shay Given was injured last April.

Alex Song remains out with a knee problem picked up at Wembley, so Abou Diaby should continue to deputize. The injury news remains unchanged in other positions.

Predicted squad: Almunia - Sagna - Koscielny - Djourou - Clichy - Diaby - Wilshere - Rosicky - Nasri - Arshavin - van Persie

Manchester United Squad News

Based on information I've learned from interviews with Sir
Alex Ferguson this week, Manchester United might just not
even show up tomorrow. Photo: Sky Sports.
Injured: Xxxx (xxx,) Xxxxxxxxx (xxxx,) Xxxxx (xxxx,) Xxxxxxxx (xxxxxx xxx,) Xxxx (xxxxxxxxx,) Xxxxxxxx (xxxx,) Xxxxxxxxxx (xxxxxxxxx)

United's injury situation is almost as bad as Arsenal's, but I don't really know who might be returning for them this weekend since Sir Alex Ferguson took his toys and went home and won't play with the media anymore.

In terms of the players who are closest to coming back, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans are both near returns from calf injuries. Most likely out of the line-up for United are Antonio Valencia (who is close to returning to training after a horror broken leg in September,) Nani (who could be out for a while after Jamie Carragher almost took his leg off,) Ji-Sung Park (the Arsenal killer has a hamstring problem,) Anderson (knee,) and Owen Hargreaves (hamstring.)

Current Form

Across all competitions, Arsenal have dropped points in consecutive matches (Sunderland in the league and Barcelona in Europe) for the first time since early January, when Arsenal drew Manchester City and Leeds United, then lost at Ipswich Town. If you include the neutral site Carling Cup final, Arsenal have not won a match away from home in four tries. Arsenal's last win away from the Emirates was on January 18, in the FA Cup replay at Leeds.

Manchester United are coming off two straight losses themselves, both in the league, for the first time since early April last year, when they lost to Chelsea shortly after dropping the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal at Bayern Munich. Only three teams have been able to salvage a draw at Old Trafford this season: West Brom, Rangers, and Valencia. The last team to win at Old Trafford was Chelsea, in the aforementioned match last April.

Match Facts

Over this season and last, Manchester United have won all three matches with Arsenal. Last year, Arsenal outplayed United at Old Trafford, but a Wayne Rooney penalty and a moment of sheer idiocy from Abou Diaby gave the Red Devils a 2-1 win. At the Emirates, Arsenal never really showed up in a 3-1 loss and in December, Ji-Sung Park's first half header was the difference.

Arsenal's last result against Manchester United was a 0-0 draw, which incidentally was enough to give United the league title that day. Arsenal's last win against United was 2-1 at the Emirates in November 2008, thanks to a Samir Nasri brace. While Arsenal took four points out of six from United in the league two years ago, there was also a two-legged meeting in the Champions League that... went poorly for the Gunners...

Arsenal last met United in the FA Cup in 2008 and lost 4-0. Both sides also met in the 2005 FA Cup final, which Arsenal won on penalties. You might recall that that was the last time Arsenal won a trophy.

The Referee

Patrice Evra argues with Chris Foy about why he's not
helping United more blatantly. Photo: Daily Mail.
The referee is Merseyside-based Chris Foy. When I read that, I was hoping he'd be a Liverpool supporter and therefore try to screw over United, but he's actually an Everton supporter.

Arsenal have won all three matches they have played this season with Foy as the referee, a list which includes the 2-1 win at Blackburn in August, the 2-1 win over Fulham at the Emirates in December, and the 2-0 win over Wolves a month ago. Foy was supposed to take charge of Arsenal's first FA Cup tie this season, against Leeds United, but something (which I never figured out) happened and fourth official Phil Dowd took over. I seriously hope that doesn't happen again, as we all know what happened with Phil Dowd last month; thankfully, he's working the Birmingham v. Bolton match tomorrow.

Foy has worked four Manchester United matches this year, which includes two 0-0 draws (with City and Sunderland) as well as United wins over Newcastle and West Ham.

Around the League

This is the last FA Cup round in which there are no other top flight fixtures scheduled. This means that every Premier League team that has crashed out of the cup has the weekend off. That list is: Aston Villa, Blackburn, Blackpool, Chelsea, Everton, Fulham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sunderland, Spurs, West Brom, Wigan, and Wolves.

Seven Premier League sides have FA Cup ties this weekend, a number which includes Arsenal and United. The lone representative from outside the top flight still alive in the cup is Reading; they play at Manchester City on Sunday. The early match Saturday, before Arsenal's, will be Birmingham City hosting Bolton. The other Sunday match is West Ham at Stoke City.


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Do Match Officials Get Drug-Tested? I Bet Massimo Busacca Doesn't

I'm seething. Again. Time for a bit of a rant. And this is an ugly one at that.

Robin Van Persie's tweet pretty much sums it all up:

"Thanks all AFC fans 4 tonight played vs a great team and a even better ref. He had a absolute shocker tonight think we all agree on this 1"

What's happening to the sanity that is European football? Last night we witnessed yet again the influence that large clubs have over match officials in big games. Why can't we just play football, mano-a-mano? Where have all the proper match officials gone? And what is Massimo Busacca spending his fat pay-off money on right now? More crack I assume, he has to be smoking that shit to make a decision like that.

To give you a bit of background for all those that didn't watch this duel (in which case you're CRAZY), Yesterday our talisman Robin van Persie was sent off for, wait for it, because this is downright despicable...............having a shot at goal. Yes, Robin KICKED the ball at the oppositions net. Who would have seen that coming?! Why did RvP do this? It's madness! Madness I tell you!!! You couldn't write it.

According to referee Massimo Busacca, Arsenal aren't allowed to kick the round spherical object at goal. At least that's what you would have thought as he brandished RvP's second yellow of the match. He certainly wasn't time wasting, he was playing FUCKING FOOTBALL. How do you expect to hear the whistle go in an arena packed with 90,000 screaming glory-supporting stinky Catalans?

It's not as if Robin has eyes in the back of his head (like the mutated, genetically engineered Barca players do) to see the linesman wave his flag either.

One second passed between the ref blowing the whistle and RvP striking the ball. ONE SECOND. That's like getting a ticket from a traffic cop for setting off one second after the traffic light turns green. What a fucking joke. This ref has reached levels of insanity beyond Charlie Sheen himself.

Of course the Red card was shown almost immediately after we had nicked a goal back to restore the advantage. We had momentum. We had belief. We had fighting spirit. Barca would need to score twice more to progress, leaving them vulnerable to the counter-attack. It was game on and I could smell the quarter finals quite clearly.

Once we lost our target man it was really downhill from there. There is only so long you can stand up against a Barcelona side hunting for glory. We were under siege. Our only escape route had been wrongfully taken away from us and it had turned from a matter of 'if' to a matter of 'when'. Make no mistake, if we still had our 11 players we would have definitely kept their 12 at bay.

We put up one hell of a fight though, our back four took fire from all angles, and when they faltered deputy keeper Almunia stood in the way. And what a fine job he did. He's obviously still very keen to fight for his number one spot back.

It was all just a matter of time before Xavi finally found the net and brought the score level. When that happened I knew it was all over. It was inevitable that we wouldn't survive to the 90th minute and THEN another 30 after. Thankfully the final blow happened just moments after Xavi found the net - Koscielny brought down Pedro in the box, Messi stepped up and calmly converted to put the Catalans in complete control of the game.

There was still 20 minutes left but trying to take the ball off of a confident Barca side at the Nou Camp AND with an extra man is like trying to take fresh meat away from a Doberman with rabies - it's not easy. And if you do grab it you're still out of options.

The only real chance we had after that was a Bendtner attempt, but his first touch from a Wilshere feeder was lacking and he couldn't capitalise. But I'll forgive him for that one, it was essentially the only attacking move we had for the whole evening.

The game finished 4-3 to Barca on aggregate, which is really a fairly respectable result no matter who you are. It's just a shame that diabolical decisions had turned what should have been an excellent game to watch (for neutral fans as well) into a circus act.

By the way, who here noticed that despite decisions going against his team, Arsene still talked to the media with a smile on his face and didn't throw his toys out the pram? Take note Fergie.

We have shown our maturity and resilience already this season. We definitely bounced back from the disappointment against Sunderland at the weekend, we just didn't have the end result or the decisions we wanted.

I have singled out a few people to hate on, because that's what I do and it makes me feel a tiny bit better.

Massimo Busacca - What a circus act. You may as well have just sent RvP off for sneezing. It's as if you already knew in the back of your mind before the game had started that you'd be sending an Arsenal player off today. Enjoy your fat paycheck.

Dani Alves - Grow a fucking Penis for crying out loud. If you want to know what real pain feels like, I'll happily punch you in the vagina.

Michel Platini - You're ruining European football. Go on a diet and then jog on back to your hole. You look like a caveman.

And praise for these:

Jack Wilshere - Still showing that he's England's best hope for silverware. I know Arsenal are having a drought, but it's nothing like England. JW19 had another great game against Barca today.

Manuel Almunia - Replaced Wojciech Szczesny early on (disclocated finger, crap) and pulled off an almost infinite number of saves to keep us in the game til a point. Of course most of Barca's goalscoring opportunities came after Van Persie's dismissal.

Robin Van Persie - For telling it how it is to the media. I feel sorry for the guy, I hope somebody delivers Massimo Busacca's head in a box to him so he can hang it up in his living room.

Laurent and Johan - The former may have given away a penalty but it was inevitable. Both had a good defensive game and you can see by this kind of display what we can do for the remainder of the domestic season.

With all that being said, I'm very proud of Arsenal. We put on a brave fight, we've gone out of two competitions in relatively quick succession but both have been due to exceptional circumstances. Lets look forward to a fantastic trip to Old Trafford where we can once again show the world what we're made of.

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Massimo Busacca 3-1 Arsenal: Gutsy Performance in Hopeless Circumstances

Words cannot express how proud I am of the Arsenal on this day. Whatever else you can say about the team's predilection towards arrogance in lesser games, on a day where a lot was at stake and on a day where the circumstances made it a foregone conclusion, this team showed the character of champions today.

Make no mistake - this was never a sporting contest. In no sense of the word did Arsenal have any legitimate chance to win this game on an even playing field.

Photo: Photoshopped, naturally

From the opening whistle on, it was painfully apparent that there were two sets of rules - the home side could get away with impunity on any infraction they made, while Arsenal were cautioned for harmless fouls. Laurent Koscielny and Bacary Sagna were both yellow-carded for absolutely fuck all in the first half hour, with Jack Wilshere soon following in the book. It's bad enough having to defend against this lot in any situation, but having three key players cautioned so soon and for no good reason on top of it was just taking the piss.

And yet...my word, did Arsenal defend brilliantly in the first half. Koscielny had a very good game with some nice saving tackles, but Johan Djourou was just immense. For me, he was the Man of the Match by some distance. When others around him were beaten, Djourou was just about always there to clear our lines. Wilshere threw himself with abandon into every tackle, and gave every ounce of himself to the cause. Samir Nasri tracked back when he had to, and while Abou Diaby was execrable on offense (more on that in a bit), in fairness to him he did break up his share of Barcelona attacks as well.

I have to say it again...I'm so proud of this team right now, I could burst. And, you regular readers know how harsh I've been on them all season.

The first bit of misfortune came right around the 19th minute, when Wojciech Szezcsny made a routine catch on a bouncing ball. He immediately winced in pain, and threw the ball out into touch. You know, it's just one of those things...any goalkeeper makes a catch like that an innumerable amount of times in practice every day, let alone in games. I don't know if he broke his finger (hell, I did that a few months back on a routine dive) or if the rumors about tearing a tendon in his finger are true, but he was substituted immediately (to massive groans from the Blind Pig faithful) for Manuel Almunia.

Since we're on the subject, a word about the Spaniard. I've been the first to harp on him for some of the hideous mistakes he's made along the way...and I still think he's nowhere near a good enough keeper for Arsenal over the long haul. But, today the man was simply magnificent. He did not have a chance on any of the three Barca goals, and he at times single-handedly kept the score close with well-timed runs off of his line to block at a striker's feet. I even said it in the first Leyton Orient game - Almunia's problem is never with quick reactions. It's just on long shots and instances where he has to think where he gets inside his own head and causes himself problems. That's not Barca's style though, so Manuel was more than up to the task of just about everything they threw at him.

That said, Arsenal found themselves down 1-0 (and tied 2-2 on aggregate) thanks to an unforgivably stupid mistake from Cesc Fabregas. Even with that, it's an illustration though of how unfortunate we were as a whole...the half probably would have been over at that point if Szezcsny didn't get injured. Anyway, Fabregas got far too cute with the ball just outside of our own penalty area, attempting to back-heel it to a teammate. Some Barca guy (don't care who, frankly) sent Messi in with a brilliant through-ball, beating the Arsenal center-halves. Almunia was off his line quick enough, but Messi flicked the ball over him and back to himself, leaving him an empty net to lash it into for the goal. Really, all you can do is tip your cap to him for the finish, but what on earth was Fabregas thinking about there?

So, Barca were ahead at halftime on the away-goals rule, but there was everything to play for. Remember, Arsenal were 1-0 down in the home leg of this tie as well. Sure enough, less than 10 minutes had passed in the second half before the men in yellow took the lead on aggregate. Nasri took the ball in his own half and eviscerated several Barca defenders on his way towards winning a corner. The little Frenchman took it himself, and while there weren't any Arsenal players in the immediate vicinity of it, fortune smiled on us for the only time on the day. Makeshift center-half Sergio Busquets, forced out of his customary midfield role due to injuries to others, managed to get a head onto it. Unfortunately for him, it sailed into the bottom corner of the net while Victor Valdes could only stand and watch.

Well, how about that? 3-2 on aggregate, now they have to score two to win.

For the next minute or two, Barcelona did not look like the same team. Gone was the mystique, so briefly gone was the aura of invincibility. Arsenal started to see the ball more often, and it was in an all-too-rare sortie upfield when disaster struck. Before we get to that though, we have to rewind a bit and travel back in time to the first half.

As I mentioned, Barcelona got away with whatever they wanted to in this game. They were able to kick the Arsenal players at will with nothing in the way of admonishment (as it happens, they finished a highly contentious match with exactly 0 yellow cards and only 8 fouls called against, despite the fact that Eric Abidal should have walked when he had his hand around van Persie's throat). Robin van Persie was kicked off the ball in first-half stoppage time, to which he responded by seeking out a Barca player after the goal kick and violently fouling him. Let's be crystal clear about this one - it was an incredibly stupid and indescribably selfish yellow card to take in a game of this magnitude. Away to Stoke in the second game of the Premier League season, then fine...fight back a little. But with a referee clearly favoring the home team in a situation like this, you just let it go. Man up, grit your teeth and deal with it.

Still, that does not excuse referee Massimo Busacca for perhaps the single worst red-card decision I have ever seen in my life (and I don't forget Emmanuel Petit getting sent off for Paul Durkin running into him in that match against Villa back in 1998). van Persie was called for yet another dubious offside, but he followed through and took a shot on goal. Technically, the referee is within his rights to give a yellow card in that case for delaying the game. However, the shot was taken no more than a second or two after the whistle went, and in all likelihood van Persie never heard it go off (never mind the fact that Barcelona did the same thing on at least two occasions later on in the game with not even a talking-to happening for the perpetrators). While Busacca gets off on a technicality because of the letter of the law, no sensible referee EVER shows a red card there. Even if you think it's intentional, a stern talking-to is the preferred course of action in that case. If this happened to me in a rec-league game, I'd be banned for life because quite frankly, I would kick the shit out of the referee right there.

Three minutes after Arsenal took the lead in the tie, Busacca killed the game off by showing van Persie a red card he never deserved. I don't care who you are, you can't have 10 men and hold off this team for any length of time. We were on a hiding to nothing at that point...as bravely as we defended throughout the game, it was only a matter of time before Barcelona got the two goals they needed to win the tie.

What can you say? This game was booked by Vince McMahon.

Photo: The Sun

Arsenal held out for 15 minutes, but sure enough at that point Xavi was in alone and made no mistake with his finish. Even then, it was 20 minutes away from extra time as it was 3-3 on aggregate and 1-1 on away goals. But, Busacca wasn't going to let that happen...of course he wasn't. Two minutes later, some Barcelona jerkoff was theatrically falling over the leg of Koscielny (my god, if he didn't have the devil's own blackest luck, he'd have none at all), and Messi easily tucked away the penalty kick.

Game, set and match. The rest of the 19 minutes were no more than kabuki theater, played out because the laws of the game dictate it had to. Andrei Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner came on, but nothing much changed. Bendtner had one half-chance late on where his first touch betrayed him...but let's be honest. Even if he had scored, Busacca would have found some excuse to send someone off or award another penalty in the 7th minute of injury time.

I don't know if it was sheer incompetence or a FIFA directive bought and paid for, but we were never going to be allowed to win this game. I would never say such a thing lightly, but I absolutely believe that to be the case today.

Because of that, I place far less of the blame for this at the feet of Arsene Wenger than I normally would. But, that doesn't mean I'm going to totally let him off the hook. How you pick Tomas Rosicky to play in this game in the terrible form that he's in is simply insane. You can bag on Arshavin's lack of defensive capability all you want, but it's bad enough that we had to play Diaby in this one (at times, he was Barcelona's best player when we had the ball)...Rosicky was absolute toilet today...yet again. How many times does he have to stink the joint out before something is done?

Not only that, but while you have to expect Barcelona to have most of the ball in the Nou Camp, the truth of the matter is that we did have zero shots on target the entire match and probably only had 30% of the possession. I stop short of saying that Barca absolutely deserved to win anyway because they spurned a lot of their chances (how often is the narrative that we deserved to win when we outshoot someone 20-1 and lose 0-1? Oh, right, FUCKING NEVER), but I can't help but think that Wenger was well-beaten tactically today by his opposite number, Pep Guardiola.

Anyway, I won't waste any further words on this. This was a farce and our fate was predestined in some fucking boardroom somewhere...so I won't dwell on it any further. I congratulate Arsenal Football Club for conducting ourselves impeccably in the face of ridiculous injustice, and hope that this will spur the team on to a glorious League and FA Cup Double in the weeks ahead. Over to you, lads.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szezcsny 6 (Almunia 8), Clichy 7, Koscielny 8, Djourou 9 (MOTM), Sagna 7, Nasri 8, Wilshere 8, Diaby 5, Fabregas 5 (Bendtner 5), Rosicky 3 (Arshavin 7), van Persie 5

Preview by Numbers: Barcelona v. Arsenal, Champions League Round of 16, Second Leg

Andrei Arshavin wears a shirt with himself on it. That's great.
Photo: Daily Mail.
Camp Nou, Barcelona
Tuesday, March 8
2:45 p.m. EST, 7:45 p.m. GMT
Arsenal leads 2-1

  • Referee: Massimo Busacca (Switzerland)
  • All-Time: 1 Arsenal win, 3 Barcelona wins, 2 draws
  • Arsenal's Form, Across All Competitions: W-D-W-L-W-D (first leg in bold)
  • Barcelona's Form, Across All Competitions: D-L-W-W-W-W (first leg in bold)
Arsenal Squad News

Holy crap, it's van Persie! Photo: Guardian.
Injured: Song (knee), Walcott (ankle), Fabianski (shoulder), Vermaelen (Achilles)

We saw, once again, on Saturday how much this team can miss the creativity of Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie when they are missing. The good news is that Fabregas is "90%" likely to return to the side from his injury. The shockingly great news is that van Persie might be available too. Nobody saw that announcement coming, I can be sure of that. Van Persie should only play if he's 100% fit, and if that's the case, then he needs to be starting, so I can't see him being on the bench. If RVP can't start, then it'll be Nicklas Bendtner up top.

Arsenal is expected to play five in the midfield and Jack Wilshere, who has passed fit after an ankle knock, will be able to slip back into his normal position now that Fabregas is returning. However, he will not be slipping even farther back to fill the role of Alex Song, who is still hurt. My personal preference would be for Abou Diaby to start there over Denilson. As for the rest of the midfield, it seems like it has to be Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin.

The back seems simple to pick as well, with Wojciech Szczesny in goal, and a back four of Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Johan Djourou, and Gael Clichy.

So, to recap, depending on the Dutchman's fitness, my guess is: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy, Diaby, Wilshere, Fabregas, Nasri, Arshavin, van Persie or Bendtner.

Barcelona Squad News

Lionel Messi: Good at this sport. Photo: BBC.
Injured: Puyol (knee)
Suspended: Pique

Arsenal got a break in terms of injury news, in that Carles Puyol, despite returning to training recently, will not be fit to play in the second leg. This, combined with Gerard Pique's suspension means Barcelona will have to start a makeshift central defense. Bear in mind that both missed the second leg last year too and it didn't matter much, because Lionel Messi scored 75 goals. Eric Abidal will deputize in the middle and will be joined by Sergio Busquets, who slips back from his holding role. Javier Mascherano will start in Busquets's place.

The Gunners will need to exploit Barcelona's weakened defense because there is nothing wrong with Barcelona offensively. The attacking trio of Lionel Messi, David Villa, and Pedro remain one of the most lethal in the world and with Xavi and Andres Iniesta behind them, they don't get any easier to control.

Current Form

Since the first leg, Barcelona have rattled off four more wins in La Liga. The Catalans have a seven point lead over Real Madrid for first place and a twenty point lead over third place Valencia. They have already qualified for a top three place, and thus, a Champions League group stage place next season.

Arsenal's only losses since mid-December have come in the Carling Cup; the losses to Ipswich Town and Birmingham City are Arsenal's only two in a span of 20 matches that includes 12 wins and six draws.

Match Facts

Arsenal and Barcelona have met six times; the Gunners' first leg win was their first against the Catalans.

These two sides first met in the group stage in 1999/2000. Arsenal salvaged a draw at Camp Nou, but lost in London, in a match that was played at Wembley. We all know what happened in the 2006 final. Last year, both sides drew at the Emirates before Barcelona eliminated Arsenal at Camp Nou.

The last time Arsenal failed to advance past the Round of 16 was 2007, when the Gunners were eliminated by Holland's PSV 2-1 on aggregate. The last time Barcelona failed to reach the quarterfinal was also 2007, when Liverpool beat them on away goals.

The Referee

The referee is Massimo Busacca from Switzerland. Busacca took charge of Arsenal's come from behind 2-2 draw with Barcelona at the Emirates last season. He also took charge of the Gunners' 2-1 loss to Shakhtar Donetsk in November and Barcelona's 2-0 win over Manchester United in the 2009 final.

Busacca also worked one match in this summer's World Cup: Uruguay's 3-0 win over the host South Africa, in which he sent off the host nation's goalkeeper for a professional foul. His hobbies include travelling.


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Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland: Dowdesque officiating strikes again

There isn't a whole lot that needs to be said about this one - a turgid affair low on chances and excitement that was further marred by mystifying decisions from referee Anthony Taylor and linesman Andy Garratt. It's frustrating because this isn't the first time a referee has cost us points this season, but time has proven it to be an OK result in the face of today's events. Arsenal now find themselves 3 points behind United with a game in hand and only trailing in goal difference by 3.

This is still doable, I promise you that.

I can't report on much of the first half as transportation issues (our subways are as useless as Denilson here in NYC on the weekends) caused me to miss the first half-hour. I apparently missed absolutely nothing, to go along with the almost nothing I would have missed in the following 60 minutes. I do recall a cheeky bicycle kick from Nicklas Bendtner that went right into the arms of Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet, who also had one or two more decent saves before halftime. Samir Nasri also had a half-chance somewhere in there when he slalomed around two defenders but found himself on the goal line penned in by two defenders. Other than that, there wasn't much joy for the men in red.

Photo: The Guardian

Honestly, there were two reasons for that. First, Sunderland played very compact with two disciplined banks of four, which is the usual tactics of overmatched visitors to the Grove. It's hard to maintain it for a full 90 minutes, but the Black Cats did it about as well as you can (though they still should have lost 2-0). Second, while there was some good play down the wings from Nasri and from Andrei Arshavin, there was absolutely no creativity or fluidity in the middle of the park for us on the day. Jack Wilshere did not have a great game by any means, but that can absolutely be forgiven in the wake of his recent brilliant performances (and the whole "being a rookie" thing). Less forgivable is the heaping pile of dog crap served up by Denilson and Abou Diaby. The pair of them gave the ball away constantly, conceded needless free kicks, and generally served to break up many of our attacks before they could get started.

As I've said before, the Boss doesn't tend to make early substitutions. But, Denilson was so bad that he found himself parked on the bench where he belongs as early as the 62nd minute. Marouane Chamakh replaced him, and we immediately looked more dangerous. Interestingly, his addition gave us two distinct looks - sometimes the 4-5-1 was maintained with Bendtner drifting wide right (even though HE'S NOT A FUCKING WINGER), and sometimes they paired up top in more of a 4-4-2. It caused the Sunderland defense a few problems in working out which was which at the time, and I think it opened up the game somewhat.

Diaby was withdrawn for Tomas Rosicky, who gave us the square root of fuck all once again. It's maddening at times how there are so many average players in the squad, all seemingly playing in the center of the park. It's not exactly a mystery why we miss Cesc Fabregas so badly when he's out, huh?

Photo: The Sun

A few more shots came at Mignolet, most of which were the type you'd expect your keeper to save comfortably (the furious wanking about his performance from the FSC guys showing once again that pundits know jackshit about goalkeeping, and that it was a such a shite game that they had to get a MOTM from somewhere). As the game crawled to its conclusion though, there were the two incidents that should have given all three points to the Gunners. Bendtner sent Arshavin free with a fantastic through-ball, finished with aplomb by the little Russian. However, up went the flag of that jug-eared wankstain Garratt, wrongfully judging Arshavin to be offside. Look, I get it that these guys have a tough job but that was clear as fucking day, and we seem to get the worst of these decisions more than anyone else. The Russian's frustrations were compounded a few minutes later when he torched Titus Bramble for pace (big shock there), but was taken down from behind with a two-handed shove.

If he dives, he gets a penalty and we in all likelihood win the game. Isn't it funny how the guy doesn't get any plaudits for staying on his feet though?

Photo: The Sun

Of course, we fell asleep and let them in for one chance at the death...but our man Wojciech Szezcsny made fools of the idiots blaming him for the Birmingham disaster (and those wittering on and on about how we need a goalkeeper) by saving our collective bacon once again with a brave block at Danny Welbeck's feet. It was such good goalkeeping too - he came out but instead of diving out horizontally, he stayed upright and took the shot off of his shoulder. Brilliant stuff.

So, 0-0 then and a hideously frustrating one at that. Still, Liverpool did us a huge favor this morning and frankly United look like a team in a bit of a tailspin. If we beat them at the Grove, I think at this stage we're going to win the league. Before the season, I didn't think we had the team to do it...but if they pull it off this'll be one of the sweeter titles for a good long while.


The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szezcsny 7, Clichy 7, Djourou 7, Koscielny 6, Sagna 7, Wilshere 6, Diaby 5 (Rosicky 6), Denilson 5 (Chamakh 6), Arshavin 8 (MOTM), Nasri 7, Bendtner 6

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No More Darren Bent, No More Excuses

Greetings Arsenalistas, from a bright if chilly Decem-- err, is it March already? Doesn't feel like it. That groundhog is full of shit. Anyway, much to discuss that isn't the Carling Cup; It's been said already, Sean had his postmortem done up on Monday, and for me the pain of it is too near. We're a resilient bunch here at the blog, but that one cut me deeply. And I never thought I'd care that much about the sodding League Cup.

In a strange turn of events, the Arsenal second XI that has played much against our lower league cup opposition were the ones to respond strongly, thrashing a resilient and admirable Orient side 5-0, including a Nicklas Bendtner hat trick, a purist's hat trick no less (three consecutive goals with no one else scoring in between, for the uninformed). Yet many of us still won't give the boy his due. Nick doesn't have nearly enough fans given what he does. He consistently scores abour 15 goals per season, has a flair for the dramatic (last-gasp strikes won our Hull away and Wolves home matches just last spring) and he loves the club. Frankly, I don't have as big a problem with his overconfidence, I like it. And to be fair, he did point out that he never said he was the best player in the world, just that he wants to become the best striker in the world. And what's wrong with that, really?

Additionally we saw Marouane Chamakh score for the first time in ages (might have been November, actually), so that should do him some good. I hope it does, since with Robin van Persie out until early- to mid-April, it's up to him and to Bendtner to lead the line in his absence. The fans in attendance were also treated to an occurrence as rare as a white guy who can rap: a Gael Clichy goal. His first and only other one came two seasons ago in a loss at Stoke, and that one ping-ponged around a few times from his strike to its settling in the net. This one was a bit more clinical, and for Clichy it was superhuman. Eboue's cross found its way across the Orient box, and seeing Clichy about to hit it at goal, I thought to myself in that split-second, "Well if it doesn't go in, it'll be good for a laugh." It both went in, miraculously, and was good for a laugh, as Clichy stood still, unable to know what to do until Samir Nasri came over to celebrate with him. He gets a pass though, as it's been over 2 years since he last scored, and in that one we were already 2 goals down with no time to pat himself on the back. Meanwhile, Eboue has 73 dances to choose from the next time he find the net.

I feel I must mention that Abou Diaby absolutely bossed the midfield for 70 minutes with all of his passes being successful, which means he's certainly above League One level. All joking aside he played very well, and it was another nice performance from youngster Ignasi Miquel at CB, as well as a fine debut from young Irish winger Conor Henderson, who although seeming to go missing at times, played well as a deeper winger and fired some lovely crosses in from the left. Finally, all credit to Orient and their support, the 9,000 of whom stayed and sang for the duration. Although it must be said, since Orient only average about 3,000 in attendance, where these "long-suffering" and "dedicated" fans have been? Certainly not to Brisbane Road, it would seem.

All the talk is of Barcelona again, foolishly I would say. We've already dropped points to Sunderland once this season; failure to focus on the Black Cats tomorrow would be an injustice. Injury record remains spotty for Arsenal: RVP, Cesc, Song and Theo will all miss out, as well as Thomas Vermaelen, who will be back in 2-3 weeks, just like it was in August. Perhaps more importantly for Arsenal, Sunderland are without the Gunners' bane, having sold Darren Bent to Villa in January. We're at home against wounded opposition, a bit toothless without any striker but for Asamoah Gyan, and I'm pretty sure he can't score unless the opposing team includes at least one American. Additionally, thanks to Chelsea topping United midweek, we have a chance now to close the gap with United to just one point. Given all these motivating factors, we should win, but a sense of foreboding tells me "We've been here before. Expect a draw."

Dickish subconscious predictions aside, we ought to have enough to take three points tomorrow. We ought to. Arsenal never make it easy though, do they? Oh to be a Gooner. It's going to be a cloudy weekend; let's hope we make it through with three precious points. But it's not all bad news: Koscielny has recovered from his injury (which I can only assume is a euphemism for massive cock-up) to return to the side, and on the bench and perhaps making his Arsenal return from injury is Aaron Ramsey! If that doesn't get you up for this, nothing will. Here's to a glut of early goals for Arsenal, a run-out for Rambo, and three points to the Arsenal!


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