Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Olympiacos, Champions League Group Matchday 2

Emirates Stadium, London
Wednesday, September 28
2:45 p.m. EDT, 7:45 p.m. BST
  • Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (Spain)
  • Head-to-Head: 1 Arsenal win, 1 Olympiacos win
  • Arsenal's European Form: W-W-L // W-W-D
  • Olympiacos's European Form: L // W-W-W-L // L

Corner turned? Not yet. Let's take it one match at a time,
shall we? Photo: Guardian.
The last time we started to talk about this team "turning the corner," they collapsed and burned at Ewood Park, so I think we've all learned that lesson. It's going to take more than a 3-0 home win against Bolton Wanderers to right this ship. After a draw in what was arguably, on paper, Arsenal's most difficult match of the group stage at Dortmund two weeks ago, Arsenal will today play, on paper, their easiest match of the group stage, at home against Olympiacos, the champions of Greece.

Unfortunately, matches are not played on paper. As far as I can tell, they are played inside of multiple television screens at the Blind Pig. But, I digress...

With the North London derby looming in four days, Arsenal will look to continue their positive momentum going forward. The pain of conceding late at Dortmund will sting much more if Arsenal drops points at home. You simply must win your home games in the round robin stage to ensure qualification from the group. In addition, this team already has a fairly fragile psyche; with Tottenham on the horizon, Arsenal can't afford to be damaged any further. It's three points or bust today. After that, we can start talking about Sunday.

Arsenal Squad News

At least his thumbs are okay, so he can play more FIFA.
Photo: Guardian, via Jack's Twitter.
Out: Gervinho (thigh), Koscielny (ankle), Walcott (knee), Djourou (hamstring), Benayoun (thigh), Wilshere (ankle), Vermaelen (ankle), Diaby (ankle), Squillaci (calf)

Arsenal nearly has enough players out injured to fill out a starting line-up; all four center backs they started the season with are unfit to play today's match. In addition to the already injured Thomas Vermaelen and Sebastien Squillaci, Johan Djourou is still within his "week" out with a hamstring strain and now Laurent Koscielny will miss this match with an ankle problem.

Koscielny is one of three players who picked up an injury against Bolton at the weekend; Gervinho will also miss the match with a mild thigh injury, and Theo Walcott is not fit to return from the knee strain he picked up in added time that forced his removal from the match. All three are expected to be fit for the North London derby on Sunday, which seems to indicate that a lot of this is precautionary. So, that's encouraging. But perhaps I'm just typing that to delude myself into feeling better.

Add to this the fact that the news regarding Jack Wilshere gets more bleak with each passing week, as he is now expected to be out until February, having undergone successful surgery on his ankle last week. After he came out of the match against the Red Bulls in late July, Jack originally said he'd be fit "in a few days." But, by now we all know what a "few days" really means in Arsenal time.

The injury to Koscielny leads to a selection conundrum for Arsene Wenger. With, as mentioned, four center halves out for this match, do you start a fairly untested but natural player in the position (in Ignasi Miquel) or a player with more experience who does not usually play the role (in Alex Song)? I'd personally suspect the latter.

Predicted Makeshift XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Song, Gibbs, Frimpong, Ramsey, Arteta, Rosicky, Arshavin, van Persie.

Olympiacos Squad News

Out: Fetfatzidis (abdominal), Maniatis (groin), Fejsa (groin), Potouridis (groin)

One of Olympiacos's best offensive players, 20-year-old Ioannis Fetfatzidis, has been out since September 12th with an abdominal problem. His speed and skill have earned him the nickname "the Greek Messi." Giannis Maniatis and Ljubomir Fejsa have been out since the 17th.

Giannis Potouridis has returned to individual training since picking up a groin injury on the 16th, but is not expected to feature. Francisco Yeste has not yet played a league match, but could feature today.

Olympiacos has Olof Mellberg on their roster. The center back played 232 matches for Aston Villa from 2001 to 2008 and scored the first competitive goal in Emirates Stadium history.

Current Form

Chamakh's insurance goal ended Olympiacos's run in
2010. Looks like his hair was less spiky then.
Photo: Guardian.
The contrast between Arsenal's home form and away form in the Champions League is night and day. While they have struggled outside of England, the Emirates has been a fortress in European competition. They beat Udinese 1-0 there earlier this year in the qualifier. Last year, Arsenal won their three group stage home matches 6-0, 5-1, and 3-1, before then beating Barcelona 2-1 in the first leg of the Round of 16. The year before, they won 3-1 over Celtic in the qualifier, then won 2-0, 4-1, and 2-0 in group play, then beat Porto 5-0 and drew Barcelona 2-2 in the quarterfinal. Their last home loss in Europe came against Manchester United in 2009, and you'd have to go back to a 3-0 loss to Inter Milan in 2003's group stage for their last home loss against a team from outside of England.

Olympiacos started group play this year with a 1-0 home loss to Marseille. They have two wins from two in their Greek league matches this season, after winning the title last year. In Europe last year, Olympiacos participated in qualifying for the Europa League, where they lost in a play-off against Maccabi Tel-Aviv on away goals. The year prior, they advanced in the Champions League, along with Arsenal, from Group H. In the Round of 16, they were one away goal shy of advancing past Bordeaux, as they trailed in the second leg 2-1 on aggregate, but level in the tie-breaker. Had Olympiacos scored late, they would have been through on away goals, but Bordeaux scored in the 88th minute to seal the tie. That goal scorer? Marouane Chamakh.

Match Facts

Tom Cruise, with his wife, after his only appearance for
Arsenal, against Olympiacos in December 2009.
Wait, something's wrong here... Photo: Guardian.
Arsenal and Olympiacos met in the group stage just two years ago, with both sides splitting the results. On matchday two, the sides met at the Emirates (just as they are this year) with Arsenal winning 2-0. Arsenal controlled the match's possession and tempo, but were stifled for most of the match by the Olympiacos defense. The breakthrough finally came in the 78th minute with a goal from Robin van Persie. Andrei Arshavin added the insurance goal in the 86th.

By the time the sides met in the reverse fixture, it was matchday six, and Arsenal had already won the group. For that reason, Arsene Wenger fielded what was essentially a Carling Cup-type squad, using the opportunity to blood some youngsters while also providing a run-out for more experienced players who needed time on the pitch. It was the youngest squad ever to start a Champions League match. Indeed, the starting XI was an interesting mix, featuring Lukasz Fabianski in goal and a back four of Kerrea Gilbert (now at Yeovil Town), Mikael Silvestre (who wore the captain's armband!), Kyle Bartley, and Thomas Cruise (still a free agent after being released from Arsenal this summer). The other six were Aaron Ramsey, Alex Song, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Carlos Vela, and Fran Merida. Olympiacos won 1-0, thanks to a goal from Leonardo just after the halftime restart. Arsenal used only one substitution in that match, giving a debut to Gilles Sunu in the 76th minute; he was brought on for Wilshere.

Prior to 2009, the last time Arsenal faced a Greek side in Champions League play was the group stage in 2004/05, when they drew Panathinaikos twice. Arsenal are unbeaten at home against Greek competition, winning five and drawing two. Olympiacos have lost all nine matches they've played on English soil, having only scored once, in a 3-1 defeat at Liverpool.

The Referee

The match's crew of officials is from Spain and the referee is Carlos Velasco Carballo. He was at the center of last year's Europa League Final in Dublin, between Porto and Braga. He also took charge of matches involving a number of other English sides in last year's Champions League, including: Chelsea's 2-0 win at Spartak Moscow, Tottenham's 3-3 draw at Twente, Manchester United's 2-1 win over Marseille in the round of 16, and United's 2-0 win over Schalke in the first leg of the semifinal.

He has worked two matches in La Liga this year, including last week's 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Valencia. In those two matches, he has shown eight yellow cards and one red.

Around Europe

Basel had United on the ropes for a while. That was fun.
Photo: Daily Mail.
In a round-up of yesterday's matches, an early match saw Inter Milan blow a 2-0 lead, but go on to beat CSKA Moscow anyway, 3-2. As for the Manchester sides, United blew a 2-0 lead, trailed 3-2, then scored in the 90th to draw 3-3 at Old Trafford, while Manchester City were outclassed by Bayern Munich, 2-0 in Germany. Elsewhere around Europe, Lyon beat Dinamo Zagreb 2-0, Real Madrid easily handled Ajax 3-0, Benfica picked up a 1-0 win in Romania putting them at the top of United's group, Napoli beat Villarreal 2-0, and Lille played to a 1-1 draw in Turkey with Trabzonspor.

Elsewhere today, the other Group F match sees Marseille hosting Dortmund, while Chelsea is at Valencia. Also, Bayer Leverkeusen hosts Genk, Porto travels to Russia to face Zenit, Cypriot side APOEL is at Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine, AC Milan is hosting Plzen, and Barcelona travels to Belarus (glamorous!) to face BATE Borisov.

    Arsenal 3-0 Bolton Wanderers: A Functional, Drama-Free Win

    Given the degree of difficulty that our next several fixtures looks to pose for us (Olympiacos aside - we should batter them if any kind of normal service has truly resumed), a perfunctory win by several clear goals was exactly what this Arsenal team needed in order to come into that run of games with some semblance of momentum. In that respect, job well and truly done.

    Bolton Wanderers are a side who have had struggles of their own this season, much of which is in the same vein as ours - Gary Cahill's ongoing transfer saga, missing key players like Stuart Holden, a dreadful early fixture list leading to several losses on the trot, etc. Holden and Cahill ended up missing this game due to illness, and long-time Arsenal tormentor Kevin Davies started on the bench. It is unfortunate for them, but we'll take any scraps that fortune sends our way just about now, thanks.

    For us, the usual back five started with Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey in front of them. The front midfield three were Gervinho, Mikel Arteta and Theo Walcott, with Robin van Persie leading the line as usual. It looked like a strong enough lineup to get the job done, but how different things could have been were it not for the ongoing heroics of Wojceich Szczesny.

    As early as the second minute, Bolton were presented with a chance from a set piece. It was whipped in towards the completely unmarked Darren Pratley. He connected solidly with his header, and it looked for all the world to be heading for the far corner. Fortunately for us, Szczesny flung himself across the face of goal at full stetch, and just had enough wingspan to claw the shot away. Had we gone down 0-1 in the second minute, it is entirely reasonable to assume that we may have fallen to pieces again.

    Once again, Szczesny has proven to be one of the key pieces of this squad.

    With the customary early jitters out of the way, Arsenal began to seize possession and momentum. Arteta - who is quickly bedding into this squad and this playing style - found Gervinho with a through-ball that eviscerated the Bolton backline. Gervinho was in alone and frankly should have scored. Sadly, his second touch had the grace and delicacy of a ballet-dancing elephant, and it bobbled into the grateful arms of Jussi Jaaskelainen.

    PLEASE NOTE: I had a whole rest of a blog post here, and Blogger ate it. I got a 404 Error when I tried to publish it, and apparently none of the other drafts after this point actually saved. Thank you very much for wasting 40 minutes of my life, Blogger. Much obliged.

    Anyway, since I already wrote this once and kind of don't have the time (I'm at work) or inclination to do so again, bullet points the rest of the way!

    - RVP got two goals, as you know taking him up to 100 with the club. I was actually kind of stunned to read that he's not that away from tying the great Dennis Bergkamp's figure with the club. Wikipedia tells me it's 120, but I always figured it was something around 11,542. Anyway, the first was off of a great pass by Ramsey (who quietly had a storming game). He went wide, and slammed in a low near-post finish. It was a nice shot, but Jaaskelainen had his angle wrong and probably should have done better. The second was much later in the second half, again on a move started by Ramsey. The Welshman found a streaking Theo Walcott on the right wing. Walcott's low cross was deftly flicked in by the Dutch hitman to ease any remaining tension on the day.

    - The erstwhile captain also showed some on-pitch leadership for once, squaring up to Paul Robinson and the rest of the mutants on the Bolton back line when they tried to intimidate him. Good for you, Robin. I just wish it didn't take ages for the rest of your teammates to back you up.

    - Bolton got an extremely harsh red card for a last-man foul on David Wheater. Personally, I thought it was a risible dive from Walcott, but I acknowledge that there's a chance of there being one of those sly shirt-pulls out of the camera's view that center-halves are so proficient at. Either way, Walcott went down very easily.

    - Jaaskelainen made up for the first goal with a string of decent saves, although most of them were of the fairly comfortable variety.

    - Walcott should have made it 3-0 when he was in completely alone. He either could have come in closer and picked his shot, or tried to round Jaaskelainen. Instead, he hit a brain-dead early shot that went right into the body of the Finnish netminder. It may be churlish to say so when we were already winning 2-0 at the time, but it was an appalling effort.

    - That said, I hope his hamstring injury that he picked up right before the final whistle isn't too serious. We need all the squad depth we can get at the moment.

    - We did make it 3-0 shortly before Walcott's injury. Sagna's cross eluded red and white shirts alike, but found its way to Song on the edge of the area. He took one touched and hit an absolutely gorgeous curler into the top corner. No one on Earth was stopping that shot, and it added some much-needed gloss to the scoreline.

    - Arshavin, Rosicky and Chamakh came on as subs, but the game was already in the bag and none made that much of an impact.

    So was nice to entertain a bottom-dwelling club and see them off with a minimum of fuss. More of the same, please!

    The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

    Szczesny 7, Gibbs 7, Mertesacker 7, Koscielny 7, Sagna 7, Gervinho 6 (Arshavin 6), Arteta 7 (Rosicky N/A), Song 7, Ramsey 8, Walcott 7, van Persie 9

    Man of the Match: Robin van Persie

    Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Bolton Wanderers

    Emirates Stadium, London
    Saturday, September 24
    10:00 a.m. EDT, 3:00 p.m. BST
    • Match Officials
      • Referee: Mark Clattenburg
      • Assistants: Simon Beck and Steve Child
      • 4th Official: Anthony D'Urso
    • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 4 - 1 Bolton
    • All-Time in All Competitions: 56 Arsenal wins, 39 Bolton wins, 35 draws
    • Arsenal's League Form: D // D-L-L-W-L
    • Bolton's League Form: L // W-L-L-L-L
    Arsenal Squad News

    Why would Jack Wilshere appear on a
    video game cover next to Grendel, the
    monster from Beowulf? Photo: Wikipedia.
    Out: Vermaelen (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Diaby (ankle), Benayoun (side), Squillaci (calf)

    Yossi Benayoun truly became in Arsenal player this week, as he picked up his first goal as a Gunner in the Carling Cup win over Shrewsbury Town, then proceeded to strain his side, which will force him to miss "a week" of action. So, we are now taking bets on what far in the future date he will be "like a new signing." It's a good thing he signed without a medical...

    There are still the long term injuries we know all too much about. Thomas Vermaelen will be back in training after the October international break. Michael Bolton fan Jack Wilshere will hopefully be back around then too, possibly with injured wrists from playing video games since his copy of FIFA 12 arrived yesterday. Meanwhile, Sebastien Squillaci has fallen into the abyss, possibly along with Abou Diaby, who is still recovering from ankle surgery.

    I have absolutely no idea if Tomas Rosicky is still out with his knee injury. No idea whatsoever. Or Bacary Sagna, who was removed from the match last weekend. Seriously, where was the team news yesterday?

    Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Santos, Song, Ramsey, Arteta, Gervinho, Arshavin, van Persie.

    Bolton Squad News

    Out: Alonso (broken foot), Mears (broken leg), Lee (broken leg), Davis (knee), Ricketts (Achilles)
    Doubts: Holden (knee)
    Suspended: Klasnic (second of three, violent conduct)

    Who has two thumbs, scored in this fixture last year,
    and no longer plays for Bolton?
    Photo: I don't know what this site is called, it's not
    in English
    The Trotters are without striker Ivan Klasnic for the second match in a row, after he was sent off for head-butting Norwich City's Marc Tierney at the end of the first half of their match at the weekend; Klasnic served the first match of the suspension in the Carling Cup on Tuesday, which Bolton won 2-0 over Aston Villa.

    Bolton has a slew of long term injuries with which to contend. Marcos Alonso is set to return in a month from a broken foot, but Tyrone Mears is out until March and Chung-Yong Lee is out until May, both with broken legs. Meanwhile, Sean Davis (knee) and Samuel Ricketts (Achilles) have no return dates set. American international Stuart Holden, who picked up a severe knee injury at Old Trafford last year after a challenge from Jonny Evans, is a doubt to play, despite featuring in the Carling Cup during the week.

    Bolton were very busy in the transfer window, bringing in the likes of Nigel Rio-Coker, Chris Eagles, and David N'Gog on signings, plus adding Tuncay, Dedryck Boyata, and Gael Kakuta on season long loan deals. None of the three players who scored against Arsenal last year (Johan Elmander (pictured above), Daniel Sturridge, and Tamir Cohen) remain on Bolton's squad sheet.

    Also, does it bother anyone else that Bolton are nicknamed both the Wanderers and the Trotters, since they both mean pretty much the same thing?

    Current Form

    That's how I felt too on Saturday. Then I drank a bunch.
    I don't know why I just told you that.
    Photo: Daily Mail.
    Pretty soon, the sample size of Arsenal's season thus far is going to approach some level of statistical significance. Five matches have been played thus far; by the end of this match Saturday, we will be just shy of one-sixth of the season being played. And Arsenal is in 17th place.

    Visit the Web site Sports Club Stats to get a solid breakdown of how dire Arsenal's situation is right now. This site uses the sample of all matches played so far this season and then runs through 10 million simulations of the rest of the season (weighted for home advantages), to determine the distribution of possible season ending point totals. And where it sits right now is worrying. The odds of Arsenal being relegated at the end of this season, based on the numbers we have to work with right now, is a stunning 32.9%.

    It's still only September, so that number doesn't have as much significance as it would in January, when the simulator has more data with which to run and when there are fewer games decided by the computer. But it's still terrifying to see, from an Arsenal supporter's standpoint.

    To throw some more numbers at you, as you know, Arsenal has picked up only four points from their first five league matches. The last time that happened? 1982/83, a year in which they finished tenth and lost two cup semifinals to Manchester United (Arsenal picked up five points from their first five in both 1987/88 and 1994/95.)

    As for Bolton, in the ten league matches since they beat Arsenal in April, the Trotters have won once (against QPR opening day) and lost the remaining nine. Arsenal have played nine in that same period and have won twice, drawn twice, and lost five.

    Match Facts

    Arsenal is shown dejected after somehow conceding from
    a corner kick. When does that ever happen?
    Photo: Guardian.
    Bolton's 2-1 win at the Reebok over Arsenal on Easter Sunday was the Trotters' first win over the Gunners since a 3-1 win on November 25, 2006, where Nicolas Anelka had a brace. After that, they drew 1-1 in the FA Cup that year, Arsenal won the replay, and then Arsenal won the next eight meetings as well.

    In this fixture last year, played in early September, Laurent Koscielny's first Arsenal goal opened the scoring, but a defensive breakdown (what are the odds!) led to a Johan Elmander equalizer just before the half. Arsenal dominated the second, Bolton got frustrated and probably should have had about three players get red cards, and Arsenal got goals from Marouane Chamakh, Alex Song, and Carlos Vela in a 4-1 win. Vela's goal was particularly memorable, in that it came after a string of about 20 consecutive passes.

    But again, in April, Bolton won 2-1 at the Reebok. Daniel Sturridge's opening goal was canceled out by a Robin van Persie equalizer in the 48th minute, shortly after Bolton missed a penalty that could have made it 2-0. Bolton won the match on a 90th minute header from Tamir Cohen, off a poorly defended corner. How shocking.

    The Referee

    Here's Spurs being pissed with Mark Clattenburg,
    something that's absolutely fine with me. Photo: Guardian.
    The referee is Tyne & Wear-based Mark Clattenburg, from the Gosworth section of Newcastle. Arsenal won all four matches in which Clattenburg was in charge last year, and some of them were major victories. Clattenburg was in the middle of Arsenal's 3-0 win over Manchester City at Eastlands where Dedryck Boyata was sent off in the 5th minute, their 4-2 win at Aston Villa in November, the 3-1 day after Boxing Day win over Chelsea at the Emirates, and the 2-1 win over Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup where he gave Arsenal a penalty in the 86th minute. Of all the referees who take charge of big matches in the Premier League, I think I have the least bad to say about Clattenburg. Supporters of Everton and Tottenham would disagree with that.

    As for his record with Bolton last year, Clattenburg took charge of their 1-0 Carling Cup loss at Burnley, a 2-1 home win over Blackburn, and a 2-1 loss at Tottenham.

    He's also a licensed electrician!

    Around the League

    Arsenal fans in the United States have really dodged a bullet that the game is going to be televised live on Fox Soccer Channel, considering the number of big name teams playing simultaneously. That includes Chelsea hosting Swansea at Stamford Bridge (which is on Fox Soccer Plus) and Liverpool hosting Wolves (which gets bumped to tape delay.) Meanwhile, Tottenham is at Wigan and Newcastle hosts Blackburn Rovers. Also at 10:00 a.m., West Brom hosts Fulham in the other match pitting teams in the bottom four against each other (it's appalling of their early season form that Arsenal's match is the other one.)

    In the early Saturday match, Everton heads to Eastlands to face Manchester City and in the late match, Manchester United is on the road to face Stoke at the Britannia. On Sunday, Queens Park Rangers hosts Aston Villa in West London and on Monday, Norwich City hosts Sunderland.

    Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Shrewsbury Town, Carling Cup Third Round

    Emirates Stadium, London
    Tuesday, September 20
    2:45 p.m. EDT, 7:45 p.m. BST
    • Match Officials
      • Referee: Anthony Bates
      • Assistants: Matthew Buonassisi and Andrew Laver
      • 4th Official: Dean Whitestone
    • All-Time in All Competitions: 2 Arsenal wins, 1 draw
    • Arsenal's Premier League Form: D // D-L-L-W-L
    • Shrewsbury's League Two Form: W-W-W-W-L-W
    • Last Year in the Carling Cup
      • Arsenal: Lost Final to Birmingham City, 2-1
      • Shrewsbury Town: Lost 2nd Round to Stoke, 2-1
    Arsenal Squad News

    Injured (excluding obvious first team): Squillaci, Mannone, Afobe, Eastmond

    Ryo Miyaichi will appear at some point,
    though he might not start. Or do this.
    Photo: Emmanuel Frimpong's ridiculous
    Arsene Wenger is expected to mix his young talent with experienced players who might need playing time. Almost certainly, Lukasz Fabianski will start in goal for the first time since January. With Vito Mannone hurt and Manuel Almunia lacking match fitness, Emi Martinez will be the goalkeeper on the bench.

    On the back line, Ignasi Miquel will get a start in the middle, thanks to the ongoing calf injury to Sebastien Squillaci. Wenger has said Carl Jenkinson will start on the right. This means Johan Djourou will look to try to regain his form as the other center back. I assume Kieran Gibbs will start on the left, since Andre Santos played 90 minutes at the weekend. Squillaci's injury means Daniel Boateng makes the bench as will Nicholas Yennaris as cover for Jenkinson. I don't suspect a natural left back will appear on the bench, meaning there'll be some shifting should Gibbs get crocked.

    In the midfield, Emmanuel Frimpong and Francis Coquelin should start to cover the defenders, while on the wings, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will start on the right. I've heard Ryo Miyaichi is not fit to start, but will at least be on the bench. That would give a start to Yossi Benayoun on the left. Marouane Chamakh will supposedly start up front alongside new signing Ju Young Park, as it appears Arsenal will play a 4-4-2.

    The more I look at this line-up, however, the more I realize there isn't an obvious choice for captain anywhere in the XI. Normally a guy like Tomas Rosicky would be good to fill that role, but I believe, though am not certain, that he's still out with injury.

    Predicted Squad: Fabianski, Jenkinson, Djourou, Miquel, Gibbs, Frimpong, Coquelin, Chamberlain, Benayoun, Park, Chamakh. Subs from: Martinez, Boateng, Yennaris, Aneke, Ozyakup, Miyaichi, Watt

    A Little Bit About Shrewsbury Town

    Arsenal's only win in England this year came against a
    team Shrewsbury Town has also beaten. Also, I've used
    this photo before, so clearly I'm running out of ideas, or
    something. Photo: Guardian.
    Shrewsbury is in the West Midlands, in the county of Shropshire. It's about 12 miles from the Welsh border. Shrewsbury Town have never been in the top flight of English football, though they did spend the 1980's in the old Second Division.

    The Shrews have been close to promotion in recent seasons and have lost two promotion finals at Wembley in 2007 and 2009. They are off to a strong start this season and currently sit third in League Two (which would mean automatic promotion to League One.)

    Current Form

    I don't believe I need to go into great detail about Arsenal's form at the moment. You all know how bad it's been.

    So, let's talk about how Shrewsbury Town is faring this season. The Shrews took two points from their first three matches of the season, but since, have won five of six in league play. In that time, they have climbed to third in the table, thanks to a 3-2 win over Port Vale at the weekend.

    Match Facts

    Arsenal hosted Farnborough Town in
    an "away" match in 2003, the last
    time they faced a team below the
    third tier.
    Arsenal and Shrewsbury Town have never met in league competition and their head-to-head history is limited to two FA Cup ties in 1968 and 1991. In the third round of the 1968 FA Cup, Arsenal and Shrewsbury drew 1-1 at Gay Meadow before Arsenal won the replay at Highbury three days later 2-0. Arsenal was knocked out two rounds later in a replay against Birmingham City. In 1991, the sides met in the fifth round and Arsenal won on the road 1-0. They would go on to lose the semifinal to Spurs at Wembley.

    Shrewsbury Town have already beaten a top flight side in this competition, having knocked Swansea City out in the last round. They also beat Championship side Derby County in the first round on the road. Prior to this season, Shrewsbury's last match against a top flight side was against Stoke in the League Cup last year, a 2-1 loss. Before the win against Swansea, Shrewsbury's last win against a top flight side was against Everton in the FA Cup in January of 2003.

    The last time Arsenal faced a team this low in the English football pyramid was their 2003 FA Cup fourth round tie against conference side Farnborough Town (who don't exist in that form anymore, having been liquidated and reformed as Farnborough). Farnborough was drawn at home, but for safety concerns, played the match at Highbury. Arsenal won 5-1. A round earlier, Arsenal played fourth tier Oxford United at Highbury and won 2-0.

    The Referee

    The referee is Staffordshire-based Anthony Bates. He was born in Stoke. Bates, a non-select group official, has split time between the Championship and League One this season. The only Premier League team he worked a match for last year (in the Carling Cup) is no longer even a Premier League team: he took charge of Blackpool's loss at Milton Keynes. Suffice it to say, this might be the biggest appointment of his career.

    Anthony Bates works his first Arsenal match today.
    He's from Stoke. Do with that information what you will...
    (Panic, I don't know?)
    In seven matches this season, Bates has shown 18 yellow cards and no red cards. Bear in mind, cards accumulated in the Carling Cup count against domestic totals. A straight red card picked up in this match would mean suspension against Bolton, Spurs, and Sunderland.

    The Rest of the Third Round

    There's a number of very interesting match-ups among the 16 total in the Carling Cup Third Round. Today, Manchester United faces Leeds United for the first time since Leeds's upset of United in the FA Cup two years ago. Tomorrow sees a West London derby as Chelsea hosts Fulham as well as Championship leaders Brighton & Hove Albion host Liverpool. Title holders Birmingham City travel to Eastlands to play Manchester City.

    Elsewhere today, Aston Villa hosts Bolton, Nottingham Forest hosts Newcastle, Stoke hosts Spurs, Wolves host Millwall, Burnley hosts Milton Keynes Dons, Blackburn hosts Leyton Orient, Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough to South London, and Aldershot Town hosts Rochdale. The other matches tomorrow sees Everton host West Brom, Southampton hosts Preston North End, and Cardiff City hosts Leicester City.

    Blackburn Rovers 4-3 Arsenal: Suicidal Defending Costs Us Again

    In retrospect, it is possible that we as the Arsenal supporter collective overestimated the extent to which our defensive problems were fixed in the wake of the battling performance at the Westfalenstadion in mid-week. Further, we may also have overestimated the extent to which the club itself had recovered from the Curse of the League Cup. At this stage, I don't know if I am now overestimating the true levels of crisis we now find ourselves in.

    It doesn't feel like it, though.

    It's several days on, so you all know the details. Still, I'll recap it to refresh the memory. I missed the first 10 minutes, but I understand that Blackburn immediately took the initiative and looked dangerous in the opening exchanges. Arsenal then came back into the game, and had taken the lead just as Sean was getting me my first Magners.

    The move started when Alex Song played a gorgeous through-ball past the Blackburn defense and onto the run of Gervinho. The Ivorian hit it across the face of goal, and it also took a little nick off of Christopher Samba's leg. I don't think Paul Robinson had much of a chance on it anyway - it was perfectly into the far corner - but the Rovers keeper didn't even dive. What a finish, and obviously the goal lifted Gooner spirits even further.

    Blackburn could easily have folded given their current dire straits and the multitude of knives out towards their embattled manager Steve Kean. Instead, they redoubled their efforts and fought their way back into the game (I wonder what that's like?). The home side signaled their intent 10 minutes later when the completely unmarked Samba headed an effort wide of the post when scoring would have been easier. Up the other end, Robinson made the first of several strong saves when he pushed away an effort from Andrei Arshavin, then later denied Gervinho a second.

    Three minutes later, Blackburn were level. The excellent Junior Hoilett played in Aiyegbeni Yakubu. He very easily could have been offside, but new man Andre Santos was several yards behind the rest of the defensive line. Schoolboy stuff really, but Yakubu still had it all to do. Wojceich Szczesny charged off his line, probably expecting the big man to lumber slowly into the box and lose possession. Instead, Yakubu brilliantly toe-poked an early shot into the far corner, leaving the keeper with no chance.

    Arsenal would re-take the lead, but a more significant event occurred right before that. Scott Dann - once an Arsenal target if the Fleet Street rags were to be believed - scythed down Bacary Sagna with a vicious tackle. Honestly, I have no idea how he wasn't booked for it. Sagna was eventually replaced early in the second half, which had quite the effect on the final outcome.

    Before that though, he started the move that made it 2-1. His pass found Aaron Ramsey, who cut it back for Mikel Arteta on the edge of the area. The Spaniard opened his account for the club by absolutely thundering an unstoppable shot just underneath the crossbar. As well as the Blackburn keeper played on the day, he wouldn't have stopped that with a stepladder and two days' notice.

    Then, from the "what could have been" file, Dann continued to plague us by making an absolutely brilliant sliding block in his own penalty area to deny Gervinho a second. Fair play to him, he had a storming game.

    So, the halftime whistle then, and we were fairly satisfied with the result so far. The goal was kind of a stupid one to concede, but the midfield was looking fantastic and like more goals were coming.

    Then, this happened.

    Inside of five minutes after the interval, Blackburn were on level terms once again in hideously predictable fashion. Once again, Arsenal's baffling inability to deal with basic set pieces led to a completely preventable goal. A free kick from a short distance outside the penalty area was sent in by Mauro Formica, and everybody kind of stood around and watched it. It hit off of the leg of Song, and of course went right into the corner of the net.

    Really, it'd be kind of funny if it weren't happening to us. What wasn't funny was Sagna limping off, to be replaced by Johan Djourou. Yes, you read that right...Djourou, who can't even play his own position these days, was coming in to play right back. I don't know about anyone else, but I saw foreboding clouds on the horizon when that particular personnel change was made.

    Sadly, I was right. Within four minutes, Djourou was booked for cynically pulling down the latest Blackburn player to torch him extra-crispy. Within seven minutes, Blackburn had a lead they wouldn't relinquish. A corner kick was hit to the far post - Steven N'Zonzi hit it back across the face of goal, and the completely unmarked Yakubu was there to tap in his second of the afternoon. Many Gooners are saying that the Blackburn man was fractionally offside, but I personally thought he was level with the last defender. Further, the defending was atrocious and we deserved to concede anyway.

    One would think that suddenly being down to the dead-last side would spark some kind of reaction, but other than one half-chance from a Robin van Persie header, there wasn't much doing on that front. Of course, things got even worse in the 69th minute when yet another comedy own-goal essentially killed off the game. The whole thing could have been prevented if Martin Olsson's run down the sideline was stopped. Instead, it was that man Djourou who comically missed his tackle like it was some kind of Three Stooges skit, and the Swede was off to the races. Seriously, if Djourou were a dog we'd be readying the shotgun behind the barn after this performance. Anyway, Olsson sent it across the face of goal, Szczesny flapped at it and missed (a rare mistake from our young custodian), and I think that surprised Laurent Koscielny. The ball hit off his leg and went into the net. Fuck me running.

    At this stage, Arsenal decided that playing football might be somewhat of a notion. OH, WHAT A CAPITAL IDEA.

    From this point on, Arsenal swarmed the Blackburn net with fury and a renewed sense of purpose. Yet again, I find myself wondering why it takes a two-goal deficit in the 80th minute to get to this point...why can't they play like this at least most of the time?

    Marouane Chamakh again came on as a late-minute sub, coming on for Song. With that, we went to a 4-4-2, and blow me over with a feather, we were far more dangerous. Sure enough, with five minutes to go, the Moroccan slammed an unstoppable header into the net off of a cross from van Persie. At 4-3, with five minutes left, it was within the realm of possibility to get a point. Poor Kean must have been bricking it over on the Blackburn sideline, at least a little bit.

    Unfortunately, Robinson made some solid stops in injury time, and Per Mertesacker whipped a header over the crossbar. In the dying stages of the match (beyond the 4 minutes indicated on the board), Theo Walcott (on as a sub around the 65th or so) was in the penalty area, but had pushed the ball wide. Personally, I thought he was on the verge of losing it, or at the very least there was no immediate scoring threat. Robinson came in late and clipped him, which you can absolutely file under "Seen it Given". However, I thought it wasn't a penalty, and Andre Marriner opted not to give it.

    Either way, we were at the point where we were hoping for a referee to bail us out in a game against the 20th-place side. Oh, and remember what happened the LAST time an Arsenal player took a penalty? Anyway, Blackburn cleared the ball out, and the final whistle went. I think it would trivialize real life to say that it felt like someone had died at the Blind Pig, but it definitely felt like someone had lost their job. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

    Now, we sit in 17th place with four measly points (3 less than QPR, 1 less than Norwich and Swansea) and a -8 goal differential, the worst in the division. We go from a ferociously battling performance away to the German champions, to meekly surrendering two leads against one of the worst teams in our domestic league. It's ugly reading, but that's where we are. If I had to guess, I'd say that once again, we turned up to a winnable game assuming the three points were already in the bank.

    This team is bereft of leadership. We do not have a strong captain, and at this stage, we do not have a strong manager.

    Sure, there is every chance that some of what ails us is the new players needing to bed in somewhat. I don't dispute that. But even when they do, will it change the same old problems that have ruined our seasons for the last 5-6 years? Will it make us be able to defend basic set pieces? Will it make us be able to kill off games like this early on, when we have a multitude of chances to do so? Will it prevent us from playing guys like Djourou when they are in abominable form?

    I don't buy it.

    As proud as I was against Dortmund, I reserve the right to be equally as disgusted with Blackburn. It's been discussed to death, but ever since the League Cup Final from last season, we're in relegation form. Now, we're perilously close to the relegation places. Five games played, SEVENTEENTH place. Turn that over in your mind a bit. This is uncharted territory for us, and while I don't think relegation is a possibility yet, can't you see us finishing, say, 12th or 13th now?

    I hope I'm wrong...but I increasingly doubt it. Things change in football - imagine what you could tell a Liverpool supporter circa 1984, a Spuds supporter circa the late 1960s, etc. Maybe our time is just up. If it is, I am at least comforted by the thought that the same faces will still be at the Pig no matter where we finish.

    Arsenal 'til I die, bitches.

    The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

    Szczesny 6, Santos 5, Mertesacker 7, Koscielny 5, Sagna 7 (Djourou 3), Arshavin 6 (Walcott 6), Arteta 7, Song 6 (Chamakh 7), Ramsey 6, Gervinho 7 (MOTM), van Persie 6

    The Name of the Game is Progress

    Greetings and salutations, Arsenaliastas. I hope you're all keeping well as the weather begins to turn back to the bitter cold and desolation of winter. Just think, 7 short months of that and we'll be back to something resembling sunshine and warmth again! But you've not come here to discuss matters meteorological but footballistic, Arsenalistically to be precise.

    Since last I wrote, we've seen two results, both ostensibly positive. A 1-0 win over Swansea at the Emirates a week ago wasn't the tonic that a thrashing of the newly promoted side might've been, but certainly no reason to throw one's toys out of the pram. Although a number of Arsenal fans who did just that is astounding. Did any of us honestly, objectively think that this team, still wracked with injuries & suspensions, bedding in 5 new players (two starting the match), and reeling from an 8-2 defeat would come in an decimate Swansea? No, they're not title favorites, but they're in the Premier League for a reason.

    The goal we did get was opportunistic on the part of Arshavin, who pounced when the Swansea 'keeper rolled the ball to an unsuspecting defender while well off his line. Andrey pounced on the loose ball and drove it into the net from a tricky angle. Arsenal had threatened several times in the first half, and once or twice in the second, when Swansea, to their credit, pressed us hard and created a few chances. We should have had perhaps three goals, and Szczezzer was called into action to save our bacon a few times. On the whole, 1-0 was a fair result, we got a much needed three points, and it surely wasn't worthy of the scorn poured on it by gooners who seem hell-bent on negativity. It was a move forward, and that surely is no bad thing.

    Tuesday saw us in action again away to Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund, in what was on paper our most difficult group stage match. I'm still scratching my head how the German champions were placed in Pot 4 for Europe, but that's long over and no need to moan about it. What we faced was a disciplined, attacking team much better than the 1-1 result they ended up with, and a most impressive group of home fans who create an intense atmosphere for their club. The fans who pack the Emirates are shamefully quiet in comparison.

    The home side started brightly, making us look fragile at the back as the Koscielny-Mertesacker pairing continued to find its feet. They might've taken a 2-goal advantage in the first 10 minutes were it not for wasteful finishing. Soon enough we began to compose ourselves;the Germans did have more possession and more chances, although the rest of the first half was more even than most have made out. Arsenal did trouble Dortmund a number of times, Gervinho, van Persie both missing out on what looked like good chances. We did take a halftime lead in through qualities that have been sorely missing from Arsenal for quite some time: graft, workrate and opportunism. Van Persie tackled the ball from a defender, and immediately leapt to his feet, sensing a chance. Walcott took the ball and played in RVP with an incisive pass. Van Persie (with his chocolate leg, no less) finished crisply to take the advantage.

    That's his 'Dutch Face.'

    The second half, however, was all Borussia Dortmund. They rededicated themselves to pressing us high up the pitch to win the ball back, and were successful more often than not. We were on the back foot from start to finish; Arsenal put in an extremely resilient defensive performance however, and there were very few clear chances for the German champions. But in the end, the hosts did equalize near the death. A free kick from about 40 yards out was headed clear of the box, but fell to the foot of Dortmund substitute Ivan Perisic, who struck the ball on the volley about as perfectly as one can, and we watched as it sailed past the helpless Szczesny into the top corner. A good bit of skill and a great deal of luck saw the hosts level, and after a small chance by Lewandowski was denied by Szczesny, the final few minutes saw no winner.

    Again, I find it hard to be upset about the result. We walk away with a point from a very tricky away tie in Europe, and despite the lateness of the equalizer and bad feelings that it conjures, if you had offered me a 1-1 result with no further injuries or suspensions before kickoff, I'd have taken it. My guess is that most of you would've done the same.

    All credit to the Dortmund fans, who were very impressive. The former Westfalen Stadium is an absolute fortress, and I do envy that team for playing in front of that crowd. I also envy those fans for getting to watch Jurgen Klopp's charges out there each week. This club is clearly talented, but beyond that they are physically fit and extremely well-drilled. If I could poach any manager in the world to replace Wenger when that day comes, Klopp comes to the top of my list. And it doesn't hurt that he might bring Mario Gotze with him... that boy can fucking play.

    In terms of Arsenal news, chins are wagging that Arsenal tickets are on general sale for a number of home matches, having gone through the various Member groups unsold. It doesn't take a wizard to have foreseen that the corporate types who have been catered to for so long over the average fan would abandon ship at the first sign of trouble. I can't see this as a bad thing, in the end. As my good friend Rich mentioned on Twitter (@Rich_Euphrates) yesterday, "I'd have rather have a few empties than some whining numpty tbh." Amen to that. Additionally, perhaps this will get the club to stop focusing on the more well-heeled patrons at the Emirates and find a way to fill the seats with people who will sing and cheer. I know that financial difficulties play a part in the tickets being unsold, but I feel that many of these fans aren't exactly dyed-in-the-wool Arsenal. Every once in a while, you need to clear out the dead wood. It's happened within the squad of late, perhaps the stands are getting the old spring cleaning.

    The club take on Blackburn tomorrow at BNP Stadium, or Ewood Park. As far as team news, we will finally have Gervinho and Alex Song (who was seriously impressive at Dortmund) back from domestic suspension, and there is a chance that Aaron Ramsey will be fit after missing Tuesday's Euro-action with an ankle injury. Incidentally, I regret writing out Euro-action... it sounds like a phrase used to describe bizarre porn set to crappy techno music. I'd have stricken it from the blog, but I really wanted to get that last bit in there.

    But I digress. Blackburn are at home, they've got nothing to lose being bottom of the table, their manager is about to be sacked by the Chicken People, and their fans are all related to one another. These are generally the trap matches that would ensnare Arsenal in recent years, and brutal ones to boot. Yet with the added maturity to this Arsenal side, I'm actually optimistic we'll kick on and win this match, as we ought. Arsene may feel empathy for the embattled Steve Kean, but that doesn't mean we're going to let his side off the hook. And while our football hasn't exactly been flowing of late, we're still an infinitely more talented side than Blackburn, and deeper even with all of our injury problems. I'm not predicting a massive scoreline; we're still taking our first steps with a very new and still molding side. But we've got the fight and the experience necessary to take all three points from a club in greater disarray than our own.

    Early kickoff of 7:45am for us here in NYC/East Coast, and 4:45 for those on the left side of the map, and an almost certain all-nighter. I expect some bleary eyes to be opened by breakfast beers and the prospect of an Arsenal win. Til tomorrow, me goons.

    Preview by Numbers: Blackburn Rovers v. Arsenal

    Ewood Park, Blackburn
    Saturday, September 17
    7:45 a.m. EDT, 12:45 p.m. BST
    • Match Officials
      • Referee: Andre Marriner
      • Assistants: Gary Beswick and Scott Ledger
      • 4th Official: Michael Oliver
    • This Match, Last Year: Blackburn 1 - 2 Arsenal
    • All-Time in All Competitions: 57 Arsenal wins, 29 Blackburn wins, 31 draws
    • Arsenal's League Form: L-D // D-L-L-W
    • Blackburn's League Form: D-W // L-L-L-D
    Arsenal Squad News

    Trying to find a picture of Jack Wilshere's boot that's
    protecting his ankle, I did a Google search and found
    these jeans. Because, that makes sense.
    Photo: PacSun.
    Out: Vermaelen (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Diaby (ankle), Squillaci (calf)
    Doubts: Ramsey (ankle), Rosicky (knee)

    There's probably more good news than bad this week regarding the squad news that I've heard. Starting with the bad news, Aaron Ramsey faces a fitness test on the ankle injury he picked up last week. He's supposed to train today and has "a little chance" to feature. That phrasing leads me to believe that he's not very likely to start. I also haven't heard much about Tomas Rosicky's knee injury, the knock he picked up on international duty. Let's call him a doubt, too.

    The good news is that a trio of players return from their domestic suspensions. Alex Song, who had a great performance in Germany on Tuesday, returns to the holding role and Gervinho returns to the wing. Carl Jenkinson also returns from his one match ban to provide cover for Bacary Sagna at right back.

    We'll have a better idea about the time table for the returns of Thomas Vermaelen and Jack Wilshere in three or four weeks after the next international break, as that is when Vermaelen can return to training and when Wilshere can take his ankle boot off.

    While I did not get a chance to see the Dortmund game because of work, from everything I've heard, Kieran Gibbs looked suspect on the left (compared to a brilliant defensive performance by everyone else on the back line.) Perhaps this could mean a start for Santos? I really can't tell how he is going to be used yet.

    Injuries to Ramsey and Wilshere meant a start for Yossi Benayoun against Dortmund, but I'd rather see Emmanuel Frimpong play against a side like Blackburn for tactical reasons. There's also a question of who drops to the bench for Gervinho: I personally think Theo Walcott is in worse form but would actually expect Andrei Arshavin to be the one sitting, since Gervinho usually starts on the left flank.

    Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Song, Frimpong, Arteta, Gervinho, Walcott, van Persie.

    Blackburn Squad News

    Doubts: Hoilett (concussion), Samba (back), Dunn (calf), Nelsen (knee), Pedersen (hamstring)

    David Dunn returned from injury to start for Blackburn last weekend, but was subbed off early in the second half and remains "touch and go" according to manager Steve Kean. Add this to two other injuries suffered by Rovers players against Fulham (Chris Samba was removed with a back strain and Junior Hoilett suffered a concussion after a nasty collision with Mark Schwarzer) and Blackburn has a lot of doubts on the injury front.

    Despite all of these doubts (which also includes a knee injury to Ryan Nelsen and a hamstring injury to Morten Gamst Pedersen), not one of the five players listed have yet to be fully declared out for Saturday's match.

    Current Form

    The last time Arsenal won back-to-back league matches,
    Sebastian Squillaci scored the winner, clearly indicating
    that this match must have been a figment of my imagination.
    Photo: Guardian.
    I'm not going to lie; when I started writing Arsenal's league form at the top of this post, I accidentally wrote "D" instead of "W" at the very end, as it has seemed so long since Arsenal had a positive run of form. That, and Arsenal, of course, drew midweek in the Champions League.

    The thing about positive runs of form is that they take a while to get going. The media has been positing the question of whether or not Arsenal has finally turned the corner again. After two matches? A 1-0 win at home against Swansea and a 1-1 draw? Let's be clear, these results are huge for the squad. Three points in the league are three points in the league regardless of how you win them and the performance on Tuesday in Germany was something of which to be proud. But the only way Arsenal's post-Carling Cup Final disaster actually turns the corner is if they go on a significant run of form. No holding back against teams you "should beat;" that just sets you back to square one when you have a disappointing result. Arsenal in recent years have made a habit of dropping points in September against sides they should be beating: West Brom last year and Hull City three years ago, for example. That just flat out can't happen anymore.

    I think this line might be the most important thing to think about: An Arsenal win would give them consecutive victories in the league for the first time since February.

    As for Blackburn, they have to be playing for their Premier League lives right now as they are strong relegation favorites. Rovers sit dead last in the table. They are one of five teams that have yet to win a game this season and they are the only team with just one result, last week's 1-1 draw with Fulham is their only point. They lost to Wolves at home to open the season (in what I thought was, right of the bat, a relegation six-pointer) and also lost Aston Villa and Everton before their draw with Fulham. Their only win this year was a Carling Cup win over Sheffield Wednesday.

    Match Facts

    This was from Arsenal's last loss at Ewood Park.
    Just look at Fabianski's positioning. He has fallen into the
    net with defenders all just kinda standing there watching.
    Photo: Daily Mail.
    Arsenal took four points from their two league meetings with Blackburn last year. This fixture took place in late August, with Arsenal winning 2-1 thanks to goals from Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin. It's the match where Robin van Persie twisted his ankle, then missed about three and a half months. It was also the last time Arsenal saw Thomas Vermaelen until April, as he was sidelined on international duty a week later. At the Emirates in April, Arsenal and Blackburn played to a frustrating 0-0 draw in the midst of the Gunners' post-Carling Cup Final tailspin.

    Arsenal have won six of their last eight meetings with Blackburn Rovers dating back to December of 2007. Among those non-wins were last year's 0-0 draw and Blackburn's 2-1 win at Ewood Park in early May of 2010, where Lukasz Fabianski and the Arsenal back four (of Sagna, Sol Campbell, Mikael Silvestre, and Armand Traore) were found horrendously wanting on set pieces. Arsenal have not won their league meeting at Ewood Park in consecutive seasons since winning 2-0 in March of 2004 and 1-0 in March of 2005. Not a historically easy fixture for Arsenal, by any stretch.

    The Referee

    The referee is West Midlands-based Andre Marriner, working only his second Premier League match of the season, which is now five weeks old. Last week was his first top flight game of the season, as he took charge of Manchester United's win at Bolton. The match week prior (before the international break), he worked in the Championship during Crystal Palace's 1-1 draw with Blackpool.

    Many things baffle Andre Marriner.
    Photo: Total Footblog.
    The last time Arsenal saw Andre Marriner, he was awarding Liverpool a penalty in the eight billionth minute of injury time (I might be exaggerating a little) in what turned out to be a 1-1 draw snatched from the jaws of Arsenal victory. Harsh at the time, I think most of us blame Emmanuel Eboue for that and not the official, even though Marriner might have been looking to give Liverpool a make-up call for Arsenal's soft penalty minutes earlier. There was contact and Liverpool's penalty there is something that's given nine times out of ten. Prior to that match, Marriner worked two other Arsenal matches last year, both large road wins for the Gunners: 4-0 at Newcastle in the Carling Cup in October and 3-0 at Upton Park against West Ham in January. Arsenal are unbeaten in five straight matches with Marriner in the middle, dating back to the 3-0 reverse at the hands of Chelsea in November of 2009 (which ruined my birthday weekend that year!)

    For Blackburn Rovers last season, Andre Marriner took charge of their 4-2 loss at Spurs in November, their 3-1 win over Liverpool at home in January (Roy Hodgson's last match in charge at Anfield), a 1-0 loss at home to Spurs in February, and a 1-0 loss at home to Manchester City in April (one week after the Arsenal v. Liverpool match mentioned above.)

    Around the League

    After Arsenal's match is the early start, there are five matches in Saturday's standard 10:00 a.m. Eastern time slot, no late game Saturday, and four matches slated for Sunday.

    On Saturday, Aston Villa hosts Newcastle at Villa Park, Bolton hosts Norwich at the Reebok, Everton welcomes Wigan Athletic to Merseyside, Swansea welcomes West Bromwich Albion to the Liberty Stadium in Wales, and Wolves hosts Queens Park Rangers at Molineux.

    The weekend's biggest matches are on Sunday, of course. To kick things off at 8:30 a.m. Eastern, Liverpool travels to North London to face Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Two matches get started at 10:00 a.m. as Fulham hosts Manchester City and Sunderland hosts Stoke. Then, in the late game at 11:00 a.m., the weekend's marquee match-up as Manchester United welcomes Chelsea to Old Trafford. Phil Dowd takes charge of that one, so expect a good amount of controversy.

    Borussia Dortmund 1-1 Arsenal: Massive Defensive Performance

    Say what you like about the occasionally frightening midfield dominance of the German champions, the gut punch of the late equalizing goal or the continued struggles of guys like Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott.

    I am something beyond proud of this team today.

    I again missed the first 15 minutes or so in the process of acquiring lunch (the 105-minute one I cheekily took in order to watch this one, that is). The halftime show told me that during that time, each side had chances to get a devastating early goal - Gervinho made a horrific mess out of a glorious chance when in alone on Roman Wiedenfeller, while good work from the wonderful Mario Gotze left Roman Lewandowski in alone on his countryman Wojciech Szczesny. Lewandowski rounded him, but Bacary Sagna was there to clear brilliantly off the line.

    So, a boring start to the match then, eh?

    Despite the somewhat ropey start, the Arsenal backline came into the game after that opening quarter-hour, and were absolutely immense for the rest of the match. Per Mertesacker's size, ability to read the game and first-hand knowledge of these opponents was obviously a big factor. Laurent Koscielny was fantastic yet again in his role of sweeping up ahead of the big German, and made some critical blocks and tackles throughout the match. Sagna helped lock down the right wing, and was once again quietly brilliant.

    Honestly, this was the best Arsenal defensive performance in a long, long time.

    The Bundesliga champions poured through the Westfalonstadion midfield in waves of yellow and black. Arsenal soaked up the pressure in a manner quite like shit northern sides do to us, and slowly began to find counterattacking opportunities. Robin van Persie saw a decent effort beat Weidenfeller's dive only to find the side netting, but his best was yet to come. A few minutes later, Theo Walcott made his one contribution to the match by picking out a lovely through-ball to the Dutch master. Weidenfeller came out, but had no answer for van Persie's ferocious shot (chocolate leg, to boot!). It nestled beautifully into the near corner, 1-0 to the Arsenal.

    In a game I expected us to lose (and possibly lose badly), Arsenal had taken the home side's best shots - in a frighteningly intimidating atmosphere no less - and were ahead at halftime.

    Photo: The Guardian

    It was obvious that Dortmund would redouble their efforts after the interval, and indeed their energy and industry were tinged with a bit more focus in the second half. If they were threatening in the early exchanges, they were like an end-stage video game boss who had taken on their second, more dangerous form over the next 45.

    My god, it was scary to watch at times.

    But still, the Arsenal held. Really, how old-school was this? On and on they attacked, on and on Arsenal repelled them. If the defense failed, the colossal Szczesny was there to sweep up after them.

    As good as Arsenal were on the defensive end of things, they were increasingly out of the running offensively. A bit of panic seemed to set in as Dortmund pressed them incessantly. Walcott offered nothing after his assist, and Gervinho looked off the pace and bereft of ideas (other than dribbling into a cul-de-sac of 3 or 4 defenders on several occasions, that is). In the Ivorian's case though, it's understandable as he hasn't seen much in the way of match action lately.

    That said, I think it was a deliberate game plan for the midfield to stay relatively at home, especially once Dortmund's prowess in the center of the park was established. Once again, Yossi Benayoun put in a Ray Parlour-esque shift defensively. He's one who I'm curious to see what he can offer offensively once he is shorn of some of his winger-harrying responsibilities, but in the meantime he did what was needed and is quickly starting to win me over. As you may recall, I HATED that signing at the time but it increasingly looks like I have to put that in the already-overflowing "I was Talking Bollocks" file. As for Mikel Arteta, he held the ball nicely in the middle at times and also drew some timely fouls (mainly to let the defense breathe a bit and force Dortmund to bring men back somewhat).

    Still, the Germans were bossing the middle to a worrying extent. So, Walcott was withdrawn for Emmanuel Frimpong, and the whole team withdrew to a more narrow formation. It didn't entirely stem the tide, but Frimpong did his bit and life became at least a little more difficult for the waves of yellow attackers. Time ticked on, and some fresh legs were introduced with five minutes in normal time - Marouane Chamakh on for RVP, Andre Santos making his debut in place of Gervinho.

    Just as it looked like the Arsenal would somehow escape with all three points, the home side got an equalizer that they probably deserved...albeit in sickening circumstances.

    Don't let anyone tell you different - it was not bad defending that caused the goal. Honestly, it's just one of those things. Another Dortmund cross was cleared out well by Mertesacker, and the ball came out to substitute Ivan Perisic just outside the penalty area. On the full volley, he got ALL of it and fired an unstoppable shot into the top corner of the net. Poor Szczesny never moved, not that it mattered. No one on earth was saving that, and honestly, that guy can hit that shot 50 times and 49 of them would go over the bar and into low Earth orbit.

    Saturday, the guy misses one he should score 49 times out of 50. I say it a lot, but swings and roundabouts.

    The bottom line is, it's a fucking joke that Borussia Dortmund were a 4-seed. Make no mistake, this is the hardest game on paper in the group stage, and our defense and goalkeeper (along with RVP) earned us a point. We were less than 5 minutes away from getting all three. These guys are no mugs, and the return match at the Emirates is going to be nearly as tough, I promise you that. Still, I think we should be ecstatic at the fight and the determination shown by the Gunners today.

    It was a brilliant point in difficult circumstances. This was a test of the new lads, and of the overall gelling of the squad. As far as I'm concerned, it was a test passed with flying colors.

    The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

    Szczesny 8, Gibbs 6, Mertesacker 7, Koscielny 8 (MOTM), Sagna 7, Gervinho 5 (Santos N/A), Benayoun 7, Song 8, Arteta 7, Walcott 6 (Frimpong 7), van Persie 7 (Chamakh N/A)

    Preview by Numbers: Borussia Dortmund v. Arsenal, Champions League Group Matchday 1

    Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund
    Tuesday, September 13
    2:45 p.m. EDT, 7:45 p.m. BST

    • Match Officials: From Italy
      • Referee: Gianluca Rocchi
      • Assistants: Luca Maggiani and Nicola Nicoletti
      • 4th Official: Daniele Orsato
      • Additional Assistants: Paolo Silvio Mazzoleni and Paolo Valeri
    • All-Time in All Competitions: 1 Arsenal win, 1 Dortmund win
    • Arsenal's European Form: L-W-W-L // W-W
    • Dortmund's European Form: W-L-D-D-W-D
    Arsenal Squad News

    Alex Song, Gervinho, and their respective ridiculous hair-
    styles are both available to play for the first time since the
    second leg at Udinese. Photo: Guardian.
    Out: Vermaelen (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Ramsey (ankle), Rosicky (knee), Diaby (ankle), Squillaci (calf)
    Suspended: Wenger (first of two)

    The team news for Champions League away matches is a little easier to deduce because by the time the post gets published, you know who is on the plane ride and who isn't. All five of the new signings from the end of the transfer window will make the trip to Germany.

    In addition to the injuries we all know about that are long term (Vermaelen, Wilshere, and Diaby), Aaron Ramsey picked up a kick on the ankle against Swansea and will be rested (he was noticeably limping at times). I have heard he trained yesterday before the trip, so he will hopefully be good to go at the weekend. Tomas Rosicky is still not fit, having picked up a knee injury on international duty.

    Yellow card accumulation in the play-off stage is wiped clean going into the group stage, so Theo Walcott is available for the trip. Arsene Wenger, however, will not be on the touchline because UEFA is ridiculous. All player suspensions have been served both domestically and in Europe. All players are available moving forward both in the Champions League and in England. That means we'll see a return to action from Alex Song and Gervinho in this match, for the first time since the second leg against Udinese.

    Predicted Squad: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Song, Frimpong, Arteta, Gervinho, Walcott, van Persie. Subs from: Fabianski, Santos, Djourou, Benayoun, Arshavin, Chamakh, Park.

    Dortmund Squad News

    Manager Jurgen Klopp (right) has assembled a squad
    with an average age young enough for the team
    to be nicknamed the "Young Guns." Sounds familiar, no?
    Photo: Daily Mail.
    Injuries: Barrios (thigh), Bakalorz (Achilles), Owomoyela (hip), Kock (knee)

    Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga last season, but since have sold midfielder Nuri Sahin to Real Madrid and are without striker Lucas Barrios, who was injured in the Copa America. That is, however, not to say this team isn't dangerous anymore, and we all know drawing Dortmund was the worst case scenario from Pot 4 in the drawing.

    Dortmund are led by Mario Götze on the right flank. A rumored Arsenal deadline target, Götze is one of the brightest young talents in German football; he has nine caps for the German national team at age 19 and has scored twice at the international level. Last season was his first year with the first team, gaining the starting spot thanks to a foot injury to Shinji Kagawa, who is now also back in Dortmund's starting midfield.

    This year, Dortmund has taken seven points from five league matches and are coming off a 2-1 home loss to Hertha Berlin at the weekend. The loss snapped Dortmund's 18-match unbeaten run at home across all competitions. Götze did not feature for Dortmund at the weekend; he was suspended.

    European Form

    Arsenal's win at Udinese to clinch their spot in this year's group stage was their first away win in Europe since beating Partizan during Matchday 2 last season. After that, Arsenal suffered successive road defeats to Shakhtar Donetsk, Braga, and Barcelona. The season prior in European away fixtures, Arsenal opened with a win at Standard Liege before conceding late to draw at AZ Alkmaar. They then lost 1-0 at Olympiacos (while fielding a reserve side, having already clinched the group), then lost away to Porto and Barcelona in consecutive knockout rounds. So, as you can tell, away fixtures have not been kind to the Gunners in recent history. Arsenal have won six of their last seven Matchday 1 group fixtures though, the only setback in that span being a 1-1 draw against Dynamo Kiev in 2008.

    Dortmund's home form in their last trip to the Champions League included a win against Arsenal (detailed in "Match Facts" below,) a win over Auxerre, and a draw with PSV, which was enough to earn them qualification to the second group stage (this was 2002/03) where they beat Lokomotiv Moscow but drew Real Madrid and lost to AC Milan. They did not advance to the quarterfinals.

    Match Facts

    Rosicky celebrates beating
    Arsenal. BOOOOOOO!!!
    Photo: BBC.
    The last time Borussia Dortmund qualified for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League, they were drawn in Arsenal's group as well; again, that was in 2002/03. The two sides split their two meetings, with each winning at home. Arsenal won 2-0 at Highbury with goals from Dennis Bergkamp and Freddie Ljungberg and Dortmund won 2-1 in Germany, with both of Dortmund's goals coming courtesy of Tomas Rosicky (one was originally scored a Gilberto Silva own goal), canceling out Thierry Henry's opener. Jens Lehmann was in goal for Dortmund in both matches. Both sides advanced to the second group stage, where both would fall one point short of qualifying for the quarterfinals.

    The last time Arsenal faced German competition was the group stage in 2006/07 when they faced Hamburg. Arsenal won 2-1 in Germany (with goals from Gilberto Silva and Rosicky) and 3-1 at the Emirates (with goals from Robin van Persie, Emmanuel Eboue, and Julio Baptista.) Arsenal won the group and Hamburg finished last. That 2-1 win away is Arsenal's only road win away to German competition in the UEFA Champions League era. They have lost four times on German soil.

    The Referee

    The officiating crew is from Italy; the referee is Gianluca Rocchi from Florence. Rocchi worked through the Europa League knockout stages last year, but did take charge of three Champions League group stage matches: Schalke's 2-0 win over Benfica, Manchester United's 1-0 win over Bursaspor, and Barcelona's 3-0 win over Panathinaikos.

    Rocchi showed 10 red cards last season over 27 matches, though those 10 came during the course of five matches meaning that in four matches last year, Rocchi showed multiple red cards. That included three red cards in Sampdoria's 2-1 win over AS Roma in January.

    On Friday, Rocchi took charge of his first Serie A match of the season, Milan's 2-2 draw with Lazio. He worked Portugal's 4-0 Euro qualifier win over Cyprus the week before that. Cyprus spent the last hour of that match on ten men.

    Around the Champions League

    Some short guy and FC Barcelona take on AC Milan in
    a match-up that's almost as enthralling as the obvious
    glamour fixture in that group: Plzen v. BATE. Photo: TSN.
    Today's biggest match sees Barcelona host AC Milan at the Nou Camp. Meanwhile, Chelsea hosts Bayer Leverkusen at Stamford Bridge. In the other match from Arsenal's group, Olympiacos hosts Marseille. Elsewhere today, Belgium's Genk hosts Valencia, Porto hosts Shakhtar Donetsk, Cyprus's APOEL hosts Zenit St. Petersburg, and Plzen hosts BATE.

    Tomorrow, with regards to England, Manchester United travels to Portugal to face Benfica, while Manchester City hosts Napoli. Also, Bayern Munich travels to Spain to face Villarreal, Lille hosts CSKA Moscow, Inter Milan hosts Trabzonspor, Ajax hosts Lyon, Real Madrid travels to Croatia to face Dinamo Zagreb, and Basel hosts Romanian side Otelul Galati.

    Arsenal 1-0 Swansea City: Recovery, One Step at a Time

    Programming Note: This and all future match reports until the first week of October will be up on Mondays, rather than the usual early-next-morning timeframe. I am without internet/cable at home due to having just moved and Verizon being backed up, so I can only do these at work. FYI.

    It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't easy on the nerves. However, a still-gelling Arsenal squad managed to do just enough to see off the challenge of the newly-promoted Welsh side and grab three desperately-needed points. While it may not have been the demolition job everyone was calling for, it was an instance in which the Arsenal finally got some fortuitous bounces and, even better, took advantage of them. Coming off the heels of THAT game against the Manks, that's probably all that can be asked for.

    As it turns out, I missed the first 15 minutes thanks to the vagaries of New York public transportation and the fact that I'm still getting the timing down of when I have to leave to make it on time. By all accounts, Swansea's Danny Graham had a glorious chance to score inside the 8th minute, but was repelled by a fantastic save from Wojceich Szczesny. What can you say about our young custodian? He defies superlatives at times, and he's only 21. Previous to that, Aaron Ramsey also had a fine chance to score, but couldn't get his effort on target. We'll have to be patient with him, I'm afraid - it's obvious that he's still not at his pre-injury levels yet.

    Theo Walcott also cleared one off the line, as the Swans showed their attacking verve in the early exchanges. Given their own struggles (compounded with ours), it's no surprise that they intended to get on the front foot early and sneak an early goal. How important Szczesny's early save seems now, in retrospect!

    The Gunners got more into the game after the initial quarter-hour, but a breakthrough seemed unlikely. Swansea marries Blackpool's attacking intent with a slightly less suicidal defensive strategy, and Arsenal didn't make things difficult for them either. Once again, the build-up play was fine, but the lack of a final killer ball was telling. Primarily, Kieran Gibbs and Emmanuel Frimpong were careless with their passing and continually lost possession.

    However, the good news is that Per Mertesacker has fit in well on the backline, and we looked far more composed in that department. Laurent Koscielny was also strong on the day, making several key saving tackles in our own area. Mertesacker contributed with one excellent interception that I remember, as well as some blocked shots. With Thomas Vermelaen out with a long-term injury, this developing Mert-ielny partnership is one to keep an eye on.

    As the half wound down, Swansea gifted us a goal in truly bizarre fashion. A Walcott shot from just outside the penalty area deflected off a defender and ballooned way up and to the keeper's right. Swansea netminder Michel Vorm came out and comfortably collected. He held for a second, and then looked to release his right-back Angel Rangel with a rolled pass. However, Rangel was not expecting it, and it hit the back of his legs. It fell to the unmarked Andrei Arshavin out on the wing, and make no mistake, he still had a job to do to finish given the highly acute angle. Thankfully he made no mistake, Vorm's despairing dive nowhere near it. As I said to Brett after the celebrations: "It's about time we got a little good luck, isn't it?"

    It is indeed.

    The funny thing is, Vorm is an excellent goalkeeper. He acquitted himself well for FC Utrecht in the Eredivisie, and has been capped by the Netherlands 5 times. Getting him was something of a coup for a club like Swansea...but it just goes to show that even a solid player can make a horrific mistake in any given game. Again, for Arsenal to get a gift from a keeper of this quality was beyond lucky, but you know what? We deserved it after all of the misfortune that has visited us in the last few seasons.

    It would have been nice to use that momentum to really take it to the visitors after the freak go-ahead goal, but it just didn't come off. It didn't help that Mikel Arteta and Arshavin faded somewhat after strong starts, or that Gibbs and Frimpong continued to struggle. However, special mention has to go to Walcott, who once again offered absolutely nothing in his time on the pitch. I want to see him do well and I still feel like there's a decent footballer somewhere in there. But, if you look at his overall Arsenal career and the skill sets that he's shown, isn't he just an even lighter-weight Shaun Wright-Phillips with slightly better one-v-one finishing ability? He can't take on a man, he hasn't beaten someone with the ball at his feet in living memory, and he's not much of a crosser. A starvation victim could muscle him off the ball, and he doesn't offer much protection for the fullback out on the wing. What does he offer again, short of the occasional nice finish?

    My point is, he's a luxury player on a team chock full of them.

    Anyway, he melted down at referee Stuart Attwell (who had a shocker, in fairness...he has obviously caught a bad case of Phil Dowd Disease, the primary symptoms being losing control of games, showing yellow cards for innocuous challenges and making truly head-scratching decisions at times), and nearly got himself sent off for dissent after taking a yellow card out of frustration. The only reason he wasn't substituted was that too many others tired out early...I can only hope that someone like Yossi Benayoun is out on the right tomorrow against Borussia Dortmund, as Walcott has done little to deserve his ongoing place in the side at present.

    Beyond that, not a whole lot happened. Swansea hit the bar with a free kick, though Szczesny wasn't that far away and probably would have saved it anyway. Arsenal had a few half-chances, but nothing that caused Vorm any undue bother. Another frustration: I know we're not a team that shoots from distance, but when a keeper makes a true howler like Vorm did to give us the goal, why wouldn't you shoot from anywhere and everywhere until you get a real sense of where his head is at?

    At the other end, Szczesny completely dominated his area, and swallowed up any cross or set piece that came his way. Once again, he was fantastic and absolutely got us three points that a Manuel Almunia would not have gotten us.

    Slightly after the hour, Arshavin was withdrawn for Benayoun. The Israeli man didn't change much on offense, but he was full of running and put in a shift defensively. I thought to myself that it was almost Ray Parlour-esque, which is something that this team has been badly missing. Ten minutes later, Frimpong was mercifully removed in favor of Francis Coquelin. Coquelin didn't have that much to do, but didn't take anything off the table either. So, definite improvement there.

    The match wore on, and Attwell booked a few more Gunners for breathing and/or continued cardio-vascular activity. I was honestly stunned that the streak of red cards was finally halted by the end of 90 minutes.

    As the last 10 minutes came up, the anonymous Robin van Persie was taken off in favor of Marouane Chamakh. While the Moroccan didn't score, he at least looked livelier than usual and had a good chance towards the end. Gibbs crossed it in and Chamakh connected well with the header. Unfortunately, Vorm was there and caught it to boot. A wonderful save from the Dutch keeper, but at least it was signs of life from our backup striker.

    Just as it looked like the game would be comfortably seen out, Arsenal had to give us our customary moment of heart failure. Szczesny came for a corner in injury time, and missed it completely. The defense were at sixes and sevens (in this case, I don't blame them - they had to have banked on the Pole claiming it), and Graham had a glorious chance to atone for his missed chance in the early exchanges. Six yards out, the goal gaping...and he Chris Iwulemo'ed it over the crossbar.

    Fuck me, that took at least six months off of my life.

    You know what, though? Once again, it's about time that this kind of thing went our way instead of the other mob's. We were bloody due...end of story. Swings and roundabouts, kids.

    The miss destroyed any resistance the Swans had left, and the final whistle was met with jubilation both at Ashburton Grove and a small little pub in Union Square. We can't make up for the end of last season and the beginning of this one all in one's going to take some time and some doing. This was the first halting baby-step.

    Obviously, Dortmund away is going to be a much different proposition than Swansea at home. But, at least there is some distance now between us and THAT game, so hopefully the team can go in and take advantage of the Germans' own indifferent start to the league campaign.

    Come on, you Gunners!

    The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

    Szczesny 8 (MOTM) - Gibbs 6, Mertesacker 7, Koscielny 7, Sagna 7 - Arshavin 7 (Benayoun 7), Ramsey 6, Frimpong 5 (Coquelin 6), Arteta 6, Walcott 5 - van Persie 6 (Chamakh N/A)