Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal: There's Only One Team in London

"You are very adamant that your lot are winning this week," my roommate said to me yesterday. He's right - I was (and you can look at the comments of the post before this if you need proof). I suppose part of it was the recent winning streak, the form of Robin van Persie, the excellence of our young goalkeeper. Sure, all of those things came into it. But, at the end of the day, I know a sick wildebeest when I see one, and Chelsea look like they're on the bad end of the nature documentary.

Anyway, I think this sums up how we feel right now:

More importantly, I feel like Arsenal won back a large part of its soul on this day. Call it hyperbole if you wish, but this club was peering into the heart of darkness not that long ago - 17th place, losing to Blackburn, no end in sight. This team was one or two more bad results away from the precipice. Will history remember that? Time will tell, but thankfully the Gunners have pulled themselves away, stopped the bleeding, and now have begun the recovery in earnest with a curbstomping of a side that has gotten the better of us over and over again in recent seasons.

Make no mistake - were it not for some early shocking misses, we could have done to Chelsea what Manchester United did to us...on their own patch, to boot!

The big news pre-match was that Arsene Wenger had opted to be cautious with Thomas Vermaelen, not wanting to risk a relapse of his injury. So, Laurent Koscielny played his normal center-half role partnering Per Mertesacker, flanked by Andre Santos and Johan Djourou. The midfield picked itself, with the usual combination of Aaron Ramsey and Alex Song in the middle, with Gervinho, Mikel Arteta and Theo Walcott as the front three. As usual, van Persie led the line up top.

One would have imagined a cagey start to the first few minutes, with both sides unwilling to give the other the first opening. Instead, we were treated (if by "treated" you mean "taking 5 years off your life") to a madcap, helter-skelter defensive shitshow from both sides. Chelsea could have taken the lead within 2 minutes, were it not the abysmal Fernando Torres at the end of the chance. Meanwhile, the Gunners steamed forward straightaway, but there was no late help to collect van Persie's cutback.

The home side saw much more of the ball in these exchanges, and how on earth they didn't take the lead when presented with a 2-on-1 opportunity, I'll never know. Torres was all alone in the middle, but the execrable Daniel Sturridge's weak pass across was easily cut out by Wojceich Szczesny.

Arsenal survived the first ten minutes though, and soon afterwards could have been 2-0 up themselves. First, Walcott eviscerated Ashley Cole down the right hand side, and teed up Gervinho in the penalty area. That has to be a goal every single time, but the Ivorian got his feet crossed up like someone at their first salsa lesson, and the chance went begging. Right after, Walcott again abused Cole, and again the target was in acres in the penalty area. This time, van Persie blazed his volley over the crossbar. That one was a more difficult chance, but at the time it was beyond frustrating.

So, of course Chelsea scored a minute later. Oh, are such a CARD.

Given how close (allegedly) Arsenal were to signing him, it's not shocking that Juan Manuel Mata was Chelsea's best player today by miles. He gave our backline a torrid afternoon, and his cross led to the first goal. Frank Lampard snuck in through the static Arsenal defense and guided an unstoppable header into the corner of the net. All credit to him - it was a good goal but why was he so open?

Not for the first time on the day, Arsenal could have pulled the all-too-common collapsing act. Not for the first time today, they didn't.

I don't want to give the wrong idea, though. Chelsea were still on top after the goal, and in particular they tormented poor old Santos down the right flank. He was hopeless in the first half, and luckily the center-halves (Koscielny in particular, who had a storming game overall) were able to cut out the crosses that came in.

Arsenal were still in it though, and had some half-chances of their own. Nothing was quite coming off, but to be honest with you, I wasn't worried. Sure enough, that man van Persie popped up once again to score a huge goal. He started the move in the middle of the park, dispossessing some mong in blue and laying off to Ramsey. The Welshman can be up-and-down with his passing, but this one was brilliant to Gervinho, leaving the Chelsea center-halves for dead. Petr Cech rushed out to block, but RVP had hustled forward to provide a late option, and was left with the easiest of tap-ins. A brilliant goal all around, and the first indication from the men in red that they would be no pushovers today.

Neither were Chelsea though, and Sturridge's offside goal was a statement of intent if nothing else (and again, Santos was torched leading up to it). That intent showed through right before halftime, as Racism's John Terry gave his side the lead. It was off a corner kick - quelle surprise - and Terry flambeed Mertesacker for pace in the center of the penalty area. He was left with the easiest of headers, and once again Arsenal trailed.

Those goals scored at the beginning or end of a half are absolute killers...even playing at my own humble level, I can tell you that they're a real gut punch to the whole team. Again, Arsenal could have folded. Again, they didn't. Whatever the boss said at halftime worked, as the Gunners looked like a much more dangerous and complete team after the interval.

Specifically, Santos atoned for his galling performance in the first 45 with a goal just three minutes after the restart. Arsenal won the ball on the right flank, and it came to Song in the middle. For some reason, Bosingwa had cut well inside from the right flank, giving Santos the run of Stamford Bridge. He hared towards goal and fired a low shot through Cech's legs and in. The Czech stopper definitely wants that one back - and it wasn't the only bad one he'd give up, either. Truth be told, he had a right old mare on the day.

How easily we could have had this one stolen from us, though. Szczesny had another rush of blood, coming way out of his area and clipping Cole along the way. There was no need for it, especially with referee Andre Marriner seemingly giving the home side the benefit of the doubt on every close decision. Marriner reached towards his shorts pocket, and my heart leapt into my throat - that's usually where the red one lives. Thankfully, the cardboard square was a different color. Even more thankfully, Lampard's vicious free kick was palmed away to safety by the young Pole.

Among other things, one of the great beauties of this game is the symmetry it often provides. The first half saw us miss two glorious chances, only for Chelsea to score right after. The second half saw Szczesny both give and take away a chance just as glorious, only for Arsenal to take the lead within minutes. What a goal it was, too.

Walcott - who played with far more purpose and vitality than he has in the recent past - once again had time and space down the right flank. He actually fell, but had time to get back up, take a step to the right (oddly, making his shooting angle even more acute) and absolutely lashing a thunderbolt past Cech and in. It was a hell of a strike, but it was at Cech's near post and frankly at a comfortable height to save. I'm not complaining, but that was the keeper's second gift to us on the day.

With that, the match settled down for a bit (by its standards, anyway) with only the odd half-chance for either side. Chelsea didn't look all that threatening though, and my halftime prediction (ask Kurtis and Brett if you don't believe me) of 3-2 Arsenal was looking like a fairly good shout. Andre Villas-Boas withdrew Sturridge for Florent Malouda and Ramires for Romelu Lukaku, but they still couldn't find any rhythm to their attacks.

That's the thing with Chelsea, you know? Look at them - I mean, really look at them. What is their identity? How do they play? You knew what the Mourinho sides would do - defend to the death, then quickly counter-attack with pace down the wings and the physicality of Drogba. This lot? You start to feel like the core - Terry, Lampard, Cech, etc) are either at their sell-by date or getting close to it. The new recruits don't look like they fit in. If Villas-Boas has 3 or 4 seasons to remake the side, they may continue to be a threat to the top positions. But, will their lunatic owner give him that much time? Hey, listen, I would be perfectly comfortable if these guys got relegated three times in a row...but as far as the balance of the league goes, it's a point of interest to me.

Anyway, more changes were afoot: Villas-Boas' last throw of the dice was putting Raul Meireles on for John Obi Mikel as they went into all-attack mode, while Carl Jenkinson came on for the floundering Djourou (who fell over badly at one point in the first half, and whose last contribution was a hideous under-hit backpass that Szczesny had to be alert to clear away). I was fine with that one, but mystified at Walcott coming off for Tomas Rosicky. Maybe he had lost a step or something, but I didn't see that from my end. I was afraid that withdrawing Walcott would cede momentum back to Chelsea.

After a fashion, it did...Chelsea were level two minutes later. But, the assist really has to go to Marriner on that one. He was abysmal all day, but how he didn't call Lukaku for a blocking foul in the run-up to the goal, I'll never know. Look at it again, it looks like a moving pick in basketball. It took Santos out of the play, leaving Mata all the time and space he needed to hammer a ridiculous 30-yard effort into the far corner, past the despairing dive of Szczesny. Fuck's sake, Marriner.

The funny thing, though? I STILL wasn't worried. I still honestly believed we'd win the, Mr. Pessimism!

Santos at least got his back a minute later, blocking away Lukaku from a ball and getting away with it. Swings and roundabouts, you fucker.

Then, the magic happened.

There will be those who say that Arsenal's fourth goal was just one of those things...a crazy, fluky mistake from the defender that could happen to anyone. Indeed, it was a harmless backpass towards Terry, where the racist twat inexplicably and under no pressure whatsoever fell over and let RVP in alone. Cech came way too far out, taking away the dive at the shooter's foot from himself. The Dutchman, cool as you like, simply went around him and slotted the ball into the vacated net. It was pandemonium in the Blind Pig - a jumpy, beery, huggy, cathartic celebration.

So yeah, many will say it was just bad luck for Terry. Personally, I think Karma swept the leg like Johnny Lawrence from The Karate Kid. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

Smartly, Wenger shored up the defense after the goal by taking off Gervinho for Vermaelen. Chelsea had a few attacking waves, but they were fairly easily repelled by the men in red. More and more Chelsea players had to commit to the attack, and soon enough the opportunity for a counter arose. It came out to van Persie on the left, in alone on Cech. His shot wickedly swerved past the flat-footed keeper (I won't go so far as to blame him for the goal, but he wasn't great on it either) and into the net.


After about 17 minutes of injury time, Marriner blew the final whistle. Would you believe it...Chelsea 3, Arsenal 5. Say it does roll off the tongue so nicely - Chelsea 3, Arsenal 5.

There are so many heroes today, but let's start with Koscielny. The defense as a whole didn't cover itself with glory on the day (though the second half was much better and we did preserve a lead this time), but he was immense. He made quite a few saving tackles and blocks, and in general would have had a great shout for Man of the Match on any other day.

Walcott is another who is unlucky not to be MotM. His pace and directness were exactly what we needed today. He rarely has had a problem getting up for these big games, and it showed again in this one. If only he could come up with some consistency to go along with his potential, he'd be quite the handful for opposing sides.

Santos rebounded from an appropriate-for-the-holiday first half to give us a serious threat down the left-hand side in the second. Oddly, I don't think we could have done it without him.

Ramsey wasn't flashy today, but his passing was sharp and incisive, and he did his bit off the ball as well.

As for the captain, what can you say? A hat trick in Stamford Bridge, accomplished after his miss in the first half. The best part about it is that we didn't entirely depend on him - Walcott and Gervinho had fantastic assists to set him up, and hey, so did Terry. He is such a deadly finisher that if you give him these opportunities, he's going to bury it 9 times out of 10. What a player.

Enjoy this, friends. Tonight, we feast in Valhalla.

LATE EDIT: One thing I forgot. You know who I'm really chuffed for, most of all? The Arsenal traveling support. If anyone truly deserved this, after spending ridiculous sums on the United game and the Blackburn game and so on, for the wonderful support they've given in some awful recent times, it's them. They, along with those of us who turn up at the pub no matter the opponent or place in the standings are the true heart and soul of this club, and they (we) are the ones who I feel happiest for in all of this. Oh, and Arsene, too. I've had my disagreements with the decisions he's made (and still do, I won't lie), but he has to have had such an awful few months personally, seeing his smile after the fifth went in genuinely warmed my heart. Good for you, Boss.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Santos 7, Mertesacker 6, Koscielny 8, Djourou 6 (Jenkinson 7), Gervinho 6 (Vermaelen N/A), Song 7, Ramsey 7, Arteta 6, Walcott 9 (Rosicky 7), van Persie 10

Man of the Match: Robin van Persie

You Know Where You Can Stick Your Celery...

Greetings to my fellow Arsenalistas from bright and sunny Manhattan this morning. There's a bit to talk about ahead of our away match at the crumbling ruin that is Stamford Bridge, and as it's not as though there's a dialogue here... it's pretty much me talking to you all... Suffice it to say that I'm glad you're here and glad you took the time to learn to read. Anyway, I won't waste time with further pleasantries, so let's get into it.

We start with the Carling Cup match at home to Bolton on Tuesday, where a heavily rotated Arsenal side took the pitch against what was by and large Bolton's best XI (the Carling Cup being their best opportunity in any competition). Arsenal started Park Chu Young (still not certain how his name is spelled or even the order of the words) at forward for only the second match since his arrival at the club 2 months ago, and Andrey Arshavin played in the number 10 role, where he seemed rather more at home. Additionally, Squillaci made his debut this season (the crowd roared with indifference), The O-C got another start as did the midfield duo of Frimpong and Coquelin, the debut of Nico Yennaris at right fullback, and there were other changes from the weekend as well. Most significantly, we saw the return of Thomas Vermaelen from his long injury absence.

I won't speak much on the first half, as I missed the majority of it; I nipped out of work a bit early to catch the 5pm replay of the match at The Blind Pig and didn't get down there until about the 35th minute. What I did notice was Arsenal controlling most of the ball up until halftime. As the match was being replayed on Arsenal Player, there was about 30 seconds of halftime, and 2 minutes after the restart former Arsenal reserve Fabrice Muamba fired the visitors into the lead after his interception led to some good interplay with Darren Pratley on the edge of the Arsenal box.

It wasn't long before Arsenal responded. An moment of inspiration from Arshavin saw the Russian dance into the right side of the Bolton area. Three Bolton defenders all held back in fear of Andrey skipping past them, but they also created just enough space for a shot, and our comrade did not disappoint, striking a worm-burner inside the far post to equalize.

Just two minutes later, Arshavin again was driving forward from the center circle, three defenders again focusing on him as Park had wandered offside. Arshavin held the ball and kept moving forward, allowing Park to drop back onside and sidle off to the left, where a brilliant ball from the Russian put Park free into the left side of the Bolton box. Park hit a one-time curler past Jaaskelainen inside the far post. It was a sumptuous finish from Park, and, as many have already said, reminiscent of Thierry Henry... High praise for the Korea captain, a great way to open his Arsenal account, and certain to make the voices calling for him to see more action in the league to grow that much louder.

There were no other goals in this one, though there were chances for both sides. Fabianski got a rare start in goal for Arsenal, and produced a few fine saves, yet also nearly knocked a pretty simple shot into his own net. All in all a pretty typical Fabianski performance. By and large I felt the makeshift back line acquitted themselves well. Ignasi Miquel was impressive again, this time at right fullback, Squillaci was steady, the debutant Yennaris didn't make many glaring errors, and Thomas Vermalen showed no ill-effects from his injury. He did go off with 5 minutes remaining with a pull in his calf, but it seems this was more precautionary than anything, and he seems fit for Saturday at Chelsea.

Ah, the Chelsea match... what to say? Despite our positive run of form the past few weeks and in spite of Chelsea's loss to QPR at Loftus Road on the weekend, Arsenal go into this match the clear underdog. Chelsea will be without Didier Drogba, who picked up a red card at QPR; given his proclivity for scoring against Arsenal, that's certainly one in our favor. But it's not as though Chelsea are a one-man team. They have a very deep squad, and even without Drogba will still boast Anelka, Daniel Sturridge, and Romelu Lukaku as forwards. They also will likely start Juan Mata, who so nearly was an Arsenal player this summer, but didn't end up signing for us because Chelsea caught wind of our interest and stepped in at the last minute, telling him how much higher his salary would be at CFC. Not the first time we've been gazzumped by clubs with deeper pockets, and won't be the last. But it still stings seeing that player succeed at the club that stole him from under our noses.

I expect Arsenal to line up as follows:

Koscielny - Mertesacker - Vermaelen - Santos
Song - Arteta
Walcott - Ramsey - Gervinho
Van Persie

With Vermaelen back and healthy, it makes sense to slide Koscielny out to fullback in place of the slower Djourou, who I picture having a very hard time marking Mata. Otherwise the Arsenal starting XI pretty much picks itself. It will be interesting to see who makes the bench, however. Arshavin is a certainty of course, but I would also be surprised if Park was excluded. Chamakh will probably find himself there as well, although Chamberlain's lackluster performance, coupled with Wenger's aversion to exposing the youngster to too much too soon, dictates he'll be left out, likewise Ryo who made only a brief substitute appearance on Tuesday. Djourou will be included one way or another (if he's not starting, he's on the bench), Frimpong and Coquelin, and likely Squillaci as well. If I'm not mistaken, Benayoun's loan terms prohibit him from playing against Chelsea, so he'll sit this one out. That being the case, we're slightly bereft of attacking options, so we'll have to hope Arsenal don't fall behind, especially early on. But as with all things Arsenal, anything can and usually does happen. Be prepared.

Finally, the AGM occurred yesterday. Press in England jumped all over the discontent shown by some of the attending shareholders, and I've seen video of two who were disappointed in the way Peter Hill-Wood handled himself and regarded his audience, but being upset with PH-Dubs for being a bit prickish is like being upset at a tiger for eating your friend. We should know what to expect by now. Stan Kroenke's opening remarks as shown on Arsenal Player were so banal and unrevealing that he must've been told to just go up and talk 2 minutes before without any topics in mind. Arsene Wenger also spoke regarding the need for all of us to be united behind the team if we are to succeed, while recognizing that he himself is not above questioning. Fair play to him on that, and there's nothing I can disagree with in his time on the mic. Arseblog has more on the AGM in today's Arsecast, featuring the prolific Tim Stillman.

That's all for now, dear readers. Get your rest tonight; it's going to be an eventful day tomorrow. COME ON YOU REDS.

Preview by Numbers: Chelsea v. Arsenal

Stamford Bridge, London
Saturday, October 29
7:45 a.m. EDT, 12:45 p.m. BST
RSVP on Facebook

  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Andre Marriner
    • Assistants: Scott Ledger and Adam Watts
    • 4th Official: Howard Webb
  • This Match, Last Year: Chelsea 2 - 0 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 70 Arsenal wins, 54 Chelsea wins, 51 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-L-W-L-W-W
  • Chelsea's League Form: W-L-W-W-W-L
Ju Young Park's first Arsenal goal put the Gunners into
the last eight of the Carling Cup, but it was Arshavin's
performance that helped Arsenal through. Photo: BBC.
Seven wins from their last eight. Four wins in a row. A climb up to seventh in the league table. Top spot in the Champions League group. Quarterfinal reached in the Carling Cup. Given the precarious situation this club found itself in about a month ago, things certainly are looking up, aren't they?

Yes, in this stretch, Arsenal have proven that they can beat the likes of Sunderland, Stoke City, Shrewsbury Town, Olympiacos, and Bolton (twice!) at the Emirates. Very little about this run of form has told us about how Arsenal can play on the road against top class competition. They couldn't win at White Hart Lane, but they did snatch a win late in France. It's still way too soon to talk about turning the corner.

But, that can start entering the discussion of turning the corner with three points tomorrow at Stamford Bridge. A loss here, and this team is no closer to Champions League football next season than they were during their dreadful August campaign. But a win will do wonders for this team's confidence moving forward. Three big points on the table in this one. It's time to really see what this team is made of.
Arsenal Squad News

Out: Benayoun (loan terms), Jenkinson (knee), Gibbs (stomach), Sagna (broken leg), Wilshere (ankle), Diaby (ankle)

Everyone RELAX! It's just a cramp! Photo: Daily Mail.
Arsenal were boosted on Tuesday by the return of Thomas Vermaelen at center back, then momentarily terrified again when he limped off before the match ended with a tight calf. But, good news everyone, it was just a cramp, he reported for full training on Wednesday, and is expected to be fit for tomorrow. He also spoke about how he doesn't understand why people say players need to get back into the groove of playing when they return from injuries, further proving my theory that Tom Vermaelen is a robot. An... easily breakable robot, but a robot nonetheless!

Should Vermaelen start at center half with Per Mertesacker beside him, the common thought is that Laurent Koscielny will be one shifted to right back. I'd rather have the in-form French defender dealing with Juan Mata than the up-and-down Johan Djourou.

Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, and Abou Diaby are all still short of fitness to return for this match and Yossi Benayoun cannot play against the club from whom he is on loan. This leaves Bacary Sagna and X-Factor fan Jack Wilshere as the long term injuries.

Chelsea plays more of a pressing style this season under Andre Villas-Boas, so the onus will be on the Arsenal midfield to respond to that pressure and provide the through balls to the likes of Gervinho, Theo Walcott, and Robin van Persie, in the hopes that their pace can catch Chelsea on the break. It'll be a big match for Aaron Ramsey, Alex Song, and Mikel Arteta.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos, Song, Ramsey, Arteta, Gervinho, Walcott, van Persie.

Chelsea Squad News

Out: Ramires (knee), Hilario (back), Essien (knee)
Suspended: Drogba (second of three), Turnbull (one match)

Chris Foy shows a red card to a giant invisible man that
is about to help Didier Drogba get back to his feet. At
least that's my interpretation of what's going on here.
Photo: Eurosport.
Noted Arsenal-beater Didier Drogba serves the second match of his three match ban for the straight red card he received on Sunday in Chelsea's 1-0 loss at Queens Park Rangers. Chelsea were lucky that Jose Bosingwa (for a last man foul) and Ashley Cole (for accumulation of yellow cards) were able to serve one match bans through Chelsea's Carling Cup extra time win at Everton.

Chelsea have three long term injuries to contend with. Back-up goalkeeper Hilario is out until the beginning of November with a back injury (that, via various Internet research I've done, no Chelsea fan remembers him suffering,) Ramires is out until the end of November with a knee injury suffered against Everton in league play two weeks ago, and Michael Essien is out after surgery to repair knee ligament and meniscus damage until February.

Ross Turnbull has been serving as back-up goalkeeper, but he was sent off for a last man foul in the Carling Cup, so he has to serve a one match ban in this match. Petr Cech, of course, starts in goal, but his back-up will have to be reserve goalkeeper Rhys Taylor, since Hilario is listed as out with a back injury.

Current Form

The last time Arsenal won a league game on the road,
this guy played. That is bad form. FIX IT! Photo: Guardian.
Sure, Arsenal have won seven of their last eight matches, but six of them have come within the confines of Emirates Stadium. Arsenal's road form this season is as follows: a win at Udinese, a catastrophe in Manchester, a hard earned point in Dortmund, a catastrophe at Blackburn, a disappointing effort at Tottenham (you could call losing the North London derby a catastrophe, too,) and a last minute win against a Marseille side that was playing for a 0-0 draw by the end. This away form doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. Arsenal still have not won a league fixture on the road since beating Blackpool on April 10. The last time they won two straight road games across all competitions was January (West Ham in the league and Leeds in an FA Cup replay.) Arsenal's 1-0 win over Marseille was their first clean sheet on the road since the season opening 0-0 at Newcastle.

Meanwhile, Chelsea have picked up the same number of points as Arsenal (12) over their last six league fixtures, but they have yet to drop points at home this season. If you want to get technical, Fulham held them to a draw in the Carling Cup, but then Chelsea won on penalties. Newcastle's 2-2 draw at the Bridge in Chelsea's final home game last year was the last time Chelsea did not win at home. The Blues last league loss at home? That was to Liverpool, on February 6. Two months later, they also lost at home to Manchester United, in the Champions League. Sunderland and Liverpool were the only teams to come out of a league match at Stamford Bridge with a win last season. The year before that, only Manchester City came out of the Bridge with three points.

Match Facts

Alex Song opened the scoring in Arsenal's last match
against Chelsea, at a time when he was still a bit of a
"rogue striker." Photo: Guardian.
Arsenal and Chelsea split their matches last season, with both sides winning at home. At the Bridge in October, Didier Drogba opened the scoring just before halftime, and a thunderous free kick from Alex closed the scoring late as Chelsea won 2-0. The day after Boxing Day at the Emirates, Arsenal turned in one of their best performances of the season in a 3-1 win, during which Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, and Theo Walcott scored. Before that match, Chelsea had kept three straight clean sheets against Arsenal (Drogba had five goals in those three games) and had won five in a row (outscoring Arsenal 13-2.) Drogba has scored 13 goals in his last 12 competitive fixtures against Arsenal, but he won't be scoring tomorrow.

Arsenal's last win at Stamford Bridge came on November 30, 2008. Chelsea opened the scoring via a Johan Djourou own goal in the first half, but a brace from Robin van Persie in the 59th and 62nd minutes gave Arsenal a 2-1 win. Before that, Arsenal's last win at the Bridge was during the Invincibles season.

The Referee

Andre Marriner gives someone the crazy eyes in an
Arsenal-Chelsea fixture from 2009. Photo: Sky Sports.
The referee is West Midlands-based Andre Marriner. You may recall Marriner from Arsenal's 1-1 home draw with Liverpool last year, which involved both sides scoring penalty kicks during an absurd 12 minutes of added time. As I've mentioned on this blog before, in retrospect, I think most of us blame Emmanuel Eboue for conceding the penalty and not Marriner for calling it. What we do blame Marriner for is why the match went more than two minutes beyond the eight announced minutes before the second penalty was ever called. Robin van Persie's prior penalty did not take that long.

Earlier this year, Marriner was in charge of Arsenal's 4-3 loss at Blackburn, but I think we can all agree that Arsenal flat out lost that game and Marriner was fine. This is Andre Marriner's first Chelsea match this season. In five games this year, he has shown 16 yellow cards and no reds.

Around the League

Mikel Arteta bends time and space to knock Patrice Evra
onto his ass in this fixture last year. I can see why
Arsenal signed him. Photo: Guardian.
Starting even earlier than this match, Everton v. Manchester United will kick off from Goodison Park at 7:00 a.m. on the East Coast, which is before the sun will even rise over New York City (that's at 7:22.) Five matches will kick off in the standard 10:00 a.m. time slot: Manchester City hosts Wolves at Eastlands, after winning 5-2 at Molineux in the Carling Cup this week. Norwich, fresh off a draw at Anfield, will host bottom of the table Blackburn Rovers at Carrow Road. Sunderland welcomes Aston Villa to the Stadium of Light, while Bolton travels to Wales to face Swansea, and Wigan hosts Fulham at the DW Stadium. Saturday's late match sees Liverpool travel to The Hawthorns to face West Bromwich Albion.

So, that's a whopping eight matches on Saturday, leaving only one on Sunday and one on Monday. Sunday's match sees Tottenham Hotspur host Queens Park Rangers in a London derby, while on Monday, Stoke City hosts Newcastle. These matches will start an hour later than they normally would, as we see them in the U.S. because England changes their clocks this weekend.

Please keep in mind that we here in New York change our clocks on the morning of Sunday, November 6. That means Arsenal's match against West Brom at the Emirates next Saturday kicks off at 11:00 a.m. and not 10:00.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Bolton Wanderers, Carling Cup Fourth Round

Emirates Stadium, London
Tuesday, October 25
2:45 p.m. EDT, 7:45 p.m. BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Anthony Taylor
    • Assistants: Ron Ganfield and Glenn Turner
    • 4th Official: Phil Dowd
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 57 Arsenal wins, 39 Bolton wins, 35 draws
  • Previous Meeting This Year: Arsenal 3 - 0 Bolton
  • Arsenal's Path Here
    • Round 3: 3-1 win over Shrewsbury Town
  • Bolton's Path Here
    • Round 2: 2-1 win over Macclesfield Town
    • Round 3: 2-0 win over Aston Villa
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-L-W-L-W-W
  • Bolton's League Form: L-L-L-L-W-L
Quick preview this time around, with very little time between this weekend's win over Stoke and this Carling Cup tie leaving me almost no time to write a lot / think of sarcastic jokes. Arsenal have climbed up to 7th in the table, having been as far down as 17th place at one point. That point was right before playing this very fixture, at home against Bolton Wanderers, on September 24, just after the fourth round drawing took place.

Normally, I'd talk a bit about form right here, and what Arsenal needs to focus on in this game to move forward, but in the early rounds of the Carling Cup, a lot of that goes out the window. It's all about having a mix of youth and experience, blooding the youngsters, and all that. You know the drill.

Arsenal Squad News

Vermaelen could return, since he's sick of practicing
against wire players without arms. Photo: Daily Mail.
With a match played just two days ago and Chelsea looming on the horizon this weekend, the timing of this Carling Cup tie is clearly not the best. Seems to me that there'll need to be more squad rotation that Arsene Wenger might have wanted. So, let's take a look at who might be playing, shall we?

There are some near definites. Lukasz Fabianski will start in goal. With time to rest for Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, this should be the first appearance of Sebastien Squillaci this year (oh boy!) It's been said Thomas Vermaelen will be handed a start at center back. If he's not actually ready, I'd expect Ignasi Miquel there.

With so many injuries to the full backs, in order to have any squad rotation and rest for the usuals, some reserves will need to start. This means Miquel will start no matter what Vermaelen's fitness level, as he can take over at one of the full back roles, with Nico Yennaris starting on the other side.

Ju Young Park should start up front, with Robin van Persie rested and Marouane Chamakh coming off a start. Yossi Benayoun will start since he needs minutes and can't play Saturday against Chelsea. I could see someone like Arshavin getting a start too on the wing, as he played limited minutes on Sunday, but I could be way off the mark there. He has been named in the 18-man list, though. Starts are almost guaranteed for Francis Coquelin, Emmanuel Frimpong, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Predicted XI: Fabianski, Yennaris, Squillaci, Vermaelen, Miquel, Coquelin, Frimpong, Benayoun, Arshavin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Park. Subs from: Mannone, Boateng, Aneke, Miyaichi, Meade, Ozyakup, Watt.

Bolton Squad News

On-loan defender Dedryck Boyata limped off against Sunderland at the weekend, but is cup tied anyway. Fellow left back Marcos Alonso is also unavailable with a broke foot.

Bolton has a long list of long term injuries as well, with Stuart Holden (knee), Chung-Yong Lee (leg), Tyrone Mears (leg), Sean Davis (knee), and Sam Ricketts (calf) all out.

Bolton will likely hand their usual subs a start in this match, meaning we could see players like Adam Bogdan in goal, plus Zat Knight, Gretar Steinsson, Fabrice Muamba, Ivan Klasnic and Tuncay on the pitch.

Current Form

Bolton is even letting Bendtner score goals.
Photo: Guardian.
Given the way this season has started for Arsenal, most would be wary to say this team has "turned the corner" yet, especially given that the last time we all thought they were close to that, they imploded to allow two own goals and gave bottom of the table Blackburn their only win of the season thus far. But, since that game, Arsenal have lost only once (though, bitterly, it was the derby at White Hart Lane.) Still, it's six wins from seven for Arsenal, and they're currently on a three match winning streak and have also won six straight at home. A win today would make it four across all competitions for the first time since a six match winning streak that was halted at Newcastle in February. Still can't wipe that one from my mind.

As for Bolton, they enter this match in much more dire straits. After an opening day thumping of QPR, Bolton have only won once in the eight following league games, a 3-1 win over Wigan. That form is good for 18th in the table and serious relegation discussion. At the weekend, they fell 2-0 at home to Sunderland. To get to this point in the Carling Cup, they beat League Two Macclesfield Town before, more impressively, knocking off Aston Villa at Villa Park.

Match Facts

Before Bolton's 2-1 win over Arsenal at the Reebok on Easter Sunday, the Gunners had won nine straight matches against the Trotters across all competitions. Arsenal has attempted to start that streak anew, winning 3-0 against Bolton last month at the Emirates. Robin van Persie scored twice (I like how often that's been happening this year; that was the first of now three braces for the Dutchman) and Alex Song added more insurance just before added time as the Gunners beat 10-man Bolton to start climbing in the table.

This is the first time Arsenal have played Bolton in the League Cup. They've met 10 times in the FA Cup, with Arsenal winning six and Bolton winning four ties. Four required replays, three of which were won by Arsenal. Bolton has only won eight matches ever against Arsenal in North London. The last time the Trotters came away with a win on the road against the Gunners was in the FA Cup on February 9, 1994 (which required extra time.) Before that, their last win at Highbury was on January 13, 1962.

The Referee

To be honest, sending off Lee Cattermole
is rarely a difficult decision.
Photo: Daily Mail.
The referee is Manchester-based Anthony Taylor, who has worked only one Arsenal match before in his career, March's 0-0 draw with Sunderland. You may recall that in the final ten minutes of that match, the Gunners were denied a penalty shout and had a winning goal disallowed when Andrei Arshavin was incorrectly flagged offside. Arsene Wenger said of the decision at the time that he was "too disgusted" to talk about it. So, no, Arsenal does not have a good, if small, history with Taylor.

He has also taken charge of only one Bolton match; he worked their 3-0 loss to Fulham at Craven Cottage in April.

Elsewhere in the Carling Cup

Aldershot Town, the lowest ranked team remaining in the competition, gets the challenge of hosting Manchester United at home in the EBB Stadium today. The stadium has a capacity of 7,100. Elsewhere, two all Championship ties happen tonight as Cardiff City hosts Burnley in Wales, and Crystal Palace hosts Southampton at Selhurst Park.

Tomorrow sees four all-Premier League ties. Stoke City, who beat Spurs on penalties, hosts Liverpool at the Britannia, Wolves welcomes this weekend's big winners, Manchester City, to Molineux, Blackburn Rovers will play host to Newcastle United, who haven't lost a match yet this year, and Everton hosts Chelsea at Goodison Park. Everton knocked Chelsea out of the FA Cup last year on penalties.

Robin van Persie and The Forehead of Doom

Having spent the bulk of Saturday (coincidentally Arsene Wenger's 62nd birthday) in Brooklyn for the NYC Arsenal Supporters event at Three Kings Tattoo, and getting some Arsenal ink done myself, I woke Sunday full of hope. Sure, Arsenal have had a good home record against Tony Pubis and his pack of mental defectives in recent years, and yes we've put together a decent string of results of late, but I've learned that nothing can be taken for granted with Arsenal, so hope hasn't always been the emotion of the day.

Stoke usually prove a tricky opponent for Arsenal, as their specialty is, was, and may well be for the foreseeable future, our Achilles' heel: set pieces. They've also exploited us with Rory Delap's long throws into the box (and inherent time wasting with shirts, towels, oilcloths, shammies, etc.) and Route 1 brand of football in the past. But coming off of the late winner grabbed by Aaron Ramsey in Marseille, confidence was high among supporters and, one would imagine, the players as well.

I will admit I wasn't terribly comfortable seeing Chamakh's name on the team sheet as a starter. I think we can all agree that Robin van Persie is overdue for a day off, but Arsenal have relied so heavily on his offensive contributions that it's hard to see where our goals would come from when he's not playing, and the Moroccan's inability to find the back of the net with anything approaching regularity in about a year is worrisome indeed. Still, the fans were once again behind the team, a welcome change this season that I do hope will continue, and we got underway.

The first half wasn't full of as much flare, panache, and end-to-end action that a match with Stoke generally promises. The angry dwarf managing the Potters employed what I like to call the Ashley Cole strategy: ten men behind at all times. This proved effective at clogging passing lanes and denying Arsenal space to do anything with the ball when they had it. Neither did Stoke look very dangerous at the other end, despite dominating possession in the opening minutes. The breakthrough came when the hero of Marseille, Aaron Ramsey, clipped a ball over the defense for Gervinho to slot past Begovic, giving Arsenal the 1-0 advantage. Ramsey and Gervinho nearly scored (and clearly handled the ball) on very similar lob from Ramsey earlier in the match, so it was interesting to see Stoke succumb to it twice, and well done to Rambo for sticking one right over MasterBlaster to set up the Ivorian.

It didn't take long for the good vibes and endorphins from the Arsenal goal to be washed away in negativity. Referee Lee Mason, who really had a shockingly bad game, allowed a Stoke free kick outside the Arsenal area. The resulting kick was pinged around the Gunners' box without clearance until the giraffe on ice skates stuck it in the back of the net. That it came off a terrible officiating decision is a sore point, but the way we defended it wasn't good enough, and we deserved to concede, even to Peter Crouch. That we were denied a pretty good shout for a penalty when Chamakh was hauled down in the box by Wilkinson stung a bit worse, but I think we'd resigned ourselved to Another One of Those Days with Mason at that point. An Arteta cross was narrowly headed away from Chamakh in front of goal by Upson; a few minutes more passed before halftime finally arrived.

We did look a bit more competent and threatening in the second half, and seemed a bit more assured on the ball, but couldn't penetrate the Stoke back line of 10 men. Around the hour mark, the Dutchman's day off was ended early as he came on for Chamakh, and immediately made an impact. On the ensuing short corner, Robin nearly picked out Koscielny at the far post. Moments later, Gervinho took a ball on the right wing down to the end line and cut it back for van Persie, who snuck it past Begovic at the near post to give the advantage back to Arsenal. not long after, Arshavin (on for Walcott) put Gervinho through into the box on the left. The Human Easter Island Statue bore down on goal before picking out van Persie, who put enough force on his shot to get it through Begovic and into the goal. The Dutch Master had scored 2 goals in 9 minutes, and Gervinho had a goal and 2 assists for Arsenal in a 3-1 win. There would be no further goals from either side, and the remaining 20 minutes were dominated by Arsenal, who refused to allow Stoke back into the match.

Apparently this was the first time in 11 months that Arsenal have won in the Premier League following a Champions League match, so I think we'll all be relieved to see the end of that particular streak. I'd love to comment on Citeh's thrashing of United, but I find it difficult to appreciate since City is simply following the Chelsea model of "THROW MONEY AT IT! BUY EVERYONE! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!" I love watching United lose, but I take no joy in the successes of a team whose business model sounds the death knell of every team not wholly owned by wealthy oil barons.

What is advantageous to Arsenal is that Chelsea not only lost to QPR, but saw Jose Bosingwa and famed Arsenal-killer Didier Drogba sent off, incurring 3-match bans for both. Being that there didn't appear to be any grounds for appealing either sending off, that's two of the Chavs' first XI who won't be in their lineup when we play Chelsea next Saturday, which is certainly good new from an AFC perspective. I'm looking forward to that one, albeit warily.

Lastly, cheers to everyone who attended the Arsenal tattoo event at Three Kings Tattoo on Saturday. over 140 Arsenal tattoos were done, and for many it was their first tattoo altogether. Whatever happens on the pitch, I'm proud that we have such a great fanbase here in NYC, and I'm prouder still to be a part of it. Big thanks to Alex McWatt and everyone down at Three Kings for making this happen, and I'm sure with the fantastic work that was done, plenty of those 140 will be coming back soon.

Til next time, Arsenalistas.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Stoke City

Emirates Stadium, London
Sunday, October 23
8:30 a.m. EDT, 1:30 p.m. BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Lee Mason
    • Assistants: Adam Watts and John Flynn
    • 4th Official: Jonathan Moss 
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 1 - 0 Stoke City
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 49 Arsenal, 23 Stoke wins, 21 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-W-L-W-L-W
  • Stoke's League Form: W-W-L-D-L-W
Aaron Ramsey practices... FOR VENGEANCE.
Photo: Guardian.
Well, Arsenal's now progressing along quite nicely in Europe, aren't they? It's funny what one shot on goal in the 92nd minute can do to lift your spirits. Before that, Arsenal and Marseille were playing a boring 0-0 draw, which, to be honest, was okay from an Arsenal perspective. But you have to think, Marseille should never have been playing for a draw at home in the Champions League, and they got punished for it. Now, Arsenal's sitting with a chance to secure qualification with a win in two weeks. Good times on that front.

But Arsenal is not out of the woods yet when it comes to league form. They've been winning at home, which is nice, but 10th place is still a precarious location to be in the table at the end of October. A worrying stat I'll touch on later shows that all four of Arsenal's losses this season have come in league matches played after Champions League matches. Arsenal have yet to win a league match that directly followed an European game. This has killed every possible "run of form" Arsenal has started to build since the start of September. That hast to stop now.

And what better occasion to get a big confidence building win than a home match against Stoke City, a team with a history against Arsenal. Given everything that has happened between these two teams over the past three years, there should be no reason why Arsenal can't get psyched up for this match. A result on Sunday is paramount moving forward for this team. These false starts of form are getting tiring. Three points in this one and maybe the Gunners are a little closer to finding their way out of the woods. Time will tell. But, they've got to put all on the line. Not just for the cannon on the badge, but for Aaron Ramsey as well.

Come on, you Gunners!

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Jenkinson (knee), Gibbs (stomach), Sagna (broken leg), Vermaelen (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Diaby (ankle)

Really? This is the new medical center? It looks to small
to fit all 623 injured players on the roster.
Photo: Arsenal Pics.
On Monday, Arsenal announced that they opened a new state-of-the-art medical center on the training ground. I just hope it's big enough to handle the stockpile of injured players Arsenal seems to be keeping.

Add to the list Mr. Carl Jenkinson, preparing for the first real run of starts in his Arsenal career, who hyper-extended his knee against Marseille midweek and is now set to miss at least two matches (this one and the Carling Cup on Tuesday) and he could still be short for Chelsea next weekend. Also out listed as out for "two weeks" are Kieran Gibbs, Thomas Vermaelen, and Abou Diaby, the latter two of whom have been out seemingly forever. Though, at least we have seen Vermaelen this year. Jack Wilshere and Bacary Sagna are still the long-term injuries.

The injury to Jenkinson leads to an all new selection problem, as Arsenal now has zero first team right backs (God is clearly upset with the club for selling Eboue.) This means either Johan Djourou or Laurent Koscielny will start on the right. I suspect it'll be the former, given Koscielny's strong form at center back as of late. He was fantastic in Marseille. Tomas Rosicky is also probably in the best form we've seen in a long time, so I can't really tell what Arsene Wenger will do with selecting him vs. Aaron Ramsey now that the latter is back from a hamstring strain.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Santos, Song, Ramsey, Arteta, Gervinho, Walcott, van Persie.

Stoke Squad News

Pennant's fitness test and ex-Arsenal status has led to way
too many puns asking if he's Gunner be fit. I'm sorry for
even referencing that. Photo: Daily Mail.
Out: Fuller (Achilles)
Doubts: Pennant (hamstring), Higginbotham (knee)

On the injury front, Stoke has a number of players returning from injury, so their news is much more positive on that front than Arsenal's. However, ex-Arsenal Jermaine Pennant faces a late fitness test on an injured hamstring and Danny Higginbotham (out since April with a knee injury) is doubtful, having just returned to play for the reserves.

Stoke will definitely be without Ricardo Fuller; he's out until November with an Achilles injury. Asmir Begovic will likely start between the sticks in goal, returning after Thomas Sorensen started Thursday's Europe League 3-0 win over Maccabi Tel Aviv

Current Form

Swansea locally billed their match with Stoke as
Beauty v. The Beast. Tony Pulis said of Swansea, "they
move the ball around nicely." Note that he'll never say
the same about Arsenal. Photo: Guardian.
I'm not sure how many times I can repeat similar things in this section, but generally speaking, here is how Arsenal's form has been for the past month and a half: Home form good, road form bad. Quite honestly, I'd love to just be able to change the last word of that sentence to "good" and then have the opportunity to just say that in this section every single week. But, what would this feature be without more detailed analysis than that? It'd be just a bunch of pictures with sarcastic captions, that's what.

Arsenal have now won five straight matches on home soil across all competitions. Since the close of the transfer windows, Arsenal have won matches at home against Swansea, Shrewsbury Town, Bolton, Olympiacos, and Sunderland. And while Stoke is probably a better opponent than all five of those teams, keep in mind that Stoke sit 7th in the table thanks largely to home form.

The bad news, concerning form, is that all four of Arsenal's losses this season have come in the days following Champions League matches in the midweek. Losses to Liverpool and Manchester United followed the play-off wins over Udinese. The loss to Blackburn followed the draw at Dortmund. The loss at Spurs followed the win over Olympiacos. That's a worrying trend for the Gunners. Then again, both of Stoke's losses this year, referenced later, came after Europe League matches. So, if those trends will continue, both teams will lose... or, something...

Anyway, Stoke's league form away from home this season is nothing to write home about. They have one win in four matches (1-0 at West Brom), they have a draw at Norwich (1-1) and they were outscored 6-0 in their two losses (2-0 at Swansea and 4-0 at Sunderland). And you'll notice that those are two of the five sides I just said are probably lesser opponents than Stoke in the above paragraph. Their best road result might honestly be the 1-1 draw they picked up at Dinamo Kiev in the Europa League.

Stoke can hang with the best of them at the Britannia (just ask Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United who have drawn, lost, and drawn there, respectively.) But this match is not there.

Match Facts

Did you know that Sebastien Squillaci scored two goals
last year? Photo: Daily Mail.
The last time Stoke City won a match at Arsenal, the U.S. Billboard #1 hit was "Endless Love" by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie. The day after, the U.K. #1 hit was "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell. The date was August 29, 1981, and since then, Arsenal have won all nine meetings with Stoke at home. Six of those have been league meetings, with three victories in cup ties coming during the time when Stoke was not top flight.

Since Stoke's return to the top flight, they have lost three matches at the Emirates. Last year, it came by a 1-0 scoreline, thanks to a Sebastien Squillaci 8th minute goal. Remember? That actually happened. The year before, it was a 2-0 win, and Aaron Ramsey had the second goal. Three years ago, it was a 4-1 Arsenal win, which included a Robin van Persie brace. Ricardo Fuller's penalty in that match is Stoke's only league goal at the Emirates since promotion.

Arsenal does not have the same run of form when playing Stoke away, which includes last year's dreadful 3-1 loss in the last meeting between the sides, an FA Cup crash, the Ryan Shawcross incident, and a straight red card to Robin van Persie the year prior. But, while Arsenal had struggled at the Britannia in the past, they don't have to worry about that until the end of April this year, barring a cup tie.

The Referee

Lee Mason might not be the best at positioning himself.
Photo: The Sun.
The referee is Lancashire-based Lee Mason. Mason was at the center of a number of critical judgment calls involving Arsenal last season, at least one arguably incorrect and against the Gunners, and at least one arguably correct and technically beneficial, though also partially against the Gunners. So, let me explain:

Mason was supposed to take charge of this fixture as it was originally scheduled last season, but a snowstorm on December 18 forced Mason to call off the match, and it was rescheduled for February. (There were ramifications of having to play Stoke midweek before the Carling Cup final, but that's a separate issue.) Mason's first match in the middle involving Arsenal last year was against Everton at the Emirates, when he awarded a goal to Louis Saha that invoked a confusing gray area in the offside rule interpretation. Basically, Saha was standing offside when the ball was played to him, but Laurent Koscielny attempted to intercept the pass and only deflected it to Saha, which then made him onside because it was another phase of play. The call, as I alluded to above, was "arguably incorrect," but the law actually gives the referee enough leeway to use his own discretion. Arsenal ended up winning 2-1 thanks to Andrei Arshavin's 70th minute equalizer and Koscielny's 75th minute winner.

After working Arsenal's 5-0 win over Leyton Orient in an FA Cup replay, Mason's final outing involving Arsenal was the 3-1 win at Blackpool. In that match, Jens Lehmann was Arsenal's only available goalkeeper and he was very nearly sent off in the build-up to Blackpool's goal. Lehmann clipped DJ Campbell in the penalty area and was the last man, but the ball bounced to Gary Taylor-Fletcher. Mason played advantage and Blackpool scored, but had Mason blown the whistle, it's a straight red card to Lehmann, a penalty to Blackpool, and Robin van Persie in as the back-up goalkeeper.

Lee Mason took charge of three Stoke matches last season: a 1-1 draw with West Ham last September, a 4-0 win over Newcastle in March, and a 3-0 win over Wolves in April. He is one of only six Select Group officials not to show any red cards this season, though he averages over four yellow cards per match.

Around the League

When was the last time Wolves v.
Swansea was moved for television?
Photo: BBC.
Odd weekend for the schedule, as the matches are split evenly, with five being played on Saturday and five being played on Sunday. Much of this has to do with the fact that the Premier League has three teams playing in the Europa League on Thursdays. Stoke's involvement in said tournament is the reason why this match was moved from Saturday to Sunday. It's why Fulham hosts Everton tomorrow and why Spurs are at Blackburn tomorrow. QPR and Chelsea closes the weekend in a West London derby, the first since the Carling Cup two years ago, but the weekend's truly huge game is tomorrow's Manchester derby at Old Trafford. City is top of the table, two points clear of United, but City has not won at Old Trafford since February of 2008.

Saturday's slate of games seems boring by comparison. So much so that Sky Sports's weekend opening match is Swansea's visit to Molineux to face Wolves. Liverpool hosts Norwich City at Anfield in today's late game, leaving only three matches in the normal time slot: Aston Villa hosting West Brom (that's kind of a derby...), Bolton hosting Sunderland, and Newcastle hosting Wigan.

Preview by Numbers: Marseille v. Arsenal, Champions League Matchday 3

Stade VĂ©lodrome, Marseille
Wednesday, October 19
2:45 p.m. EDT, 7:45 p.m. BST
  •  Match Officials: From Slovenia
    • Referee: Damir Skomina
    • Assistants: Primoz Arhar, Marko Stancin
    • 4th Official: Matej Jug
    • Additional Assistants: Dragoslav Peric, Roberton Ponis
  • All-Time in All Competitions: First competitive meeting
  • Arsenal's European Form: W-L // W-W-D-W
  • Marseille's European Form: W-W-D-L // W-W
They should score in 29 seconds in every game!
Photo: Daily Mail.
After three points against Sunderland on Sunday, it's back to Europe for Arsenal, in a pivotal third game of the group stage against Marseille. Most agreed that one point was solid at Borussia Dortmund in the opening fixture and that picking up all nine points from the home games is necessary.

So, where does that leave this match? Is a draw really enough in this one to still feel comfortable? Maybe comfortable in qualification, but probably not in winning the group.

As it stands right now, Marseille has six points and Arsenal has four. From the way things look, a loss makes winning the group a stretch for Arsenal, they'd be down in the group 9-4, five points adrift of Marseille with only nine left to pick up. An Arsenal win (do I really need to explicitly tell you this is the best case scenario? I hope not) puts them on top of Group F by a 7-6 margin.

But is a draw enough? They'll be behind Marseille 7-5, with Dortmund likely right behind. Coming out of Marseille with a draw means they can still gain the upper hand in the group with a win at the Emirates on Matchday 4 against the same opponent. But there's more pressure on later games, even with them being played at home.

Simply put: Arsenal can still win the group with a draw in Marseille today, but the path is more difficult (that might make me captain obvious.) And that's not even discussing the psychological effect of having to win at home against teams you couldn't beat before...

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Gibbs (stomach), Sagna (broken leg), Vermaelen (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Diaby (ankle)

It's like a new signing! Photo: Guardian.
The best news of the week so far has come in the form of Thomas Vermaelen signing a new long-term deal with the club. The negative news to balance that out comes in the form of Kieran Gibbs's stomach injury, which will cause him to miss about two weeks. While Vermaelen might be back in time to face Chelsea on the 29th, Kieran Gibbs may not. Best of luck settling in, Andre Santos.

With all of these injuries, Arsenal are currently without three of their top choice defenders, though they will be able to use the same back four that played the final 45 minutes against Sunderland at the weekend. It's yet another big test for Carl Jenkinson, and that test is really just getting started with Bacary Sagna out for so long.

Aaron Ramsey is fit to return to the line-up, after being rested at the weekend with a hamstring problem. There's no other injuries in the side, other than the long-time injured. We're still at least a week away from a potential return of Abou Diaby, who might get a run out in the Carling Cup next Tuesday if he's fit enough. But, if he's not, I can't see him featuring before the next international break.

Arsenal has no European suspensions; Arsene Wenger returns to the touchline after his absurd two match ban.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Santos, Song, Rosicky, Arteta, Gervinho, Walcott, van Persie.

Marseille Squad News

Marseille has more wins in Europe this year than in
French domestic play. Photo: UEFA.
Out: Mbia (foot), Traore (foot)
Suspended: Fanni (second of two), J. Ayew (one match)

Marseille picked up a big home result on Matchday 2, beating Borussia Dortmund 3-0, moving them clear to the top of Group F. Andre Ayew picked up a brace while Loic Remy scored the other. They will once again power Marseille's line-up as they attempt to make it three straight to open group play. They have yet to concede in the Champions League this year, having won their other match 1-0 at Olympiacos.

There are only two injury concerns for Marseille, as Stephane Mbia has been out since August with a broken metatarsal in his foot. Djimi Traore has also missed the last four matches with a foot injury. Marseille will also be without two players due to suspension: Rod Fanni completes a two match ban for being sent off at Olympiacos while Jordan Ayew serves a one match ban for picking up two yellow cards against Dortmund on Matchday 2.

Current Form

Arshavin and Wilshere celebrate a win in Belgrade last
September. It was Arsenal's only road win in Europe last
season. Photo: Daily Mail.
Arsenal's league form and European form away from home both leave plenty to be desired. In the past two seasons, Arsenal has won twice away from home in Europe: at Partizan last year and at Udinese in the qualifying playoff. Last year, they lost at Shakhtar, Braga, and Barcelona while this year they've already drawn in Dortmund. Two years ago, Arsenal won their first two road matches, against Celtic and Standard Liege, before drawing at AZ Alkmaar, and losing at Olympiacos, Porto, and Barcelona. 12 road matches over this year and the previous two in Europe: Four wins, two draws, and six losses. Those two draws both saw Arsenal concede in the final minutes from a winning position (It was the 93rd minute for AZ Alkmaar in 2009 and the 88th for Dortmund last month.)

Marseille has two wins from two matches in the Champions League this year, but have only picked up one win from ten domestic fixtures. They've beaten Olympiacos and Borussia Dortmund without conceding a goal, but their only win in Ligue 1 came against newly promoted Evian, 2-0. At home in Europe last year, Marseille lost their opening match against Spartak Moscow, then beat MSK Zilina and Chelsea before drawing against Manchester United in the Round of 16. The year before, Marseille lost twice at home in the group stage, against powerhouse sides AC Milan and Real Madrid.

Match Facts

William Gallas had a winner for Marseille at home against
Manchester United in 1999. Photo: Daily Mail.
This is the first meeting between Arsenal and Marseille, though Arsenal have never lost in France against French competition. The last time Arsenal faced a French side in France, they beat Auxerre 1-0 in 2002 (Auxerre, however, won the reverse fixture in London.) In eight total trips to France, Arsenal have won four of them and drawn three. The one loss was not to a French side; it was to Barcelona in the 2006 final in Paris. Against French competition all time, Arsenal have won seven of 14 matches, drawing five, and losing just two.

Marseille are no stranger to English competition, even though they've never faced the Gunners. Last year, Marseille and Chelsea played in the same group. On Matchday 2, Marseille lost 2-0 at Stamford Bridge, but on Matchday 6, they won 1-0 at home. In the round of 16, they faced Manchester United, drew 0-0 at home in the first leg, then lost 2-1 at Old Trafford to crash out of the tournament. At home, all-time, Marseille have seven wins in ten matches against English competition. The only English side to win in Marseille is Liverpool, who did it in the group stages in 2007 and 2008.

The Referee

Damir Skomina sends off Robert Green in 2009. Skomina
had moments earlier attempted to send off Rio Ferdinand,
but he was corrected by the fourth official.
Photo: Daily Mail.
The referee is Damir Skomina of Slovenia. He's never worked an Arsenal match before, but he has been the referee for two prior Marseille matches: a 2-0 loss to PSV in 2008 and a 1-0 win over Zurich in 2009. He turned 35 in August and this is his 12th career Champions League match.

This year, Skomina was the man in the middle for Manchester United's 1-1 draw at Benfica. Last season, he was the referee for the Inter Milan - Tottenham game where he sent off Heurelho Gomes after 8 minutes, Inter built up a 4-0 lead and started coasting, then Gareth Bale picked up a hat trick, which apparently made him the greatest player of all time in the eyes of the media even though his team lost. He was also in charge of England's 2-2 draw with Switzerland at Wembley in June.

Fulham is the only English side to win a match involving Skomina as the referee; that came in the Europa League in 2010, a 2-1 win over Wolfsburg. The English national team has drawn three times and lost once with Skomina in the middle. Liverpool lost their lone match with Skomina as referee, 2-1 at Anfield to Fiorentina in 2009. In addition to Spurs' loss at the San Siro last year, they also drew Anderlecht in the UEFA Cup, 1-1, in 2007. The aforementioned 1-1 United draw at Benfica earlier this season closes the list of Skomina matches involving English sides.

Around the Champions League

Nemanja Vidic sees red. Photo: Daily Mail.
In Tuesday's results, both Manchester sides won their matches; City left it late but picked up a Sergio Aguero goal to beat Villarreal 2-1 at Eastlands, essentially saving their Champions League campaign for the time being. United needed two Wayne Rooney penalties to win in Bucharest, 2-0 over Otelul Galati. Nemanja Vidic was shown a harsh straight red card.

Elsewhere, CSKA Moscow beat Trabzonspor in the early match 3-0, Real Madrid coasted to a 4-0 win over Lyon in Spain, Ajax won 2-0 in Croatia against Dinamo Zagreb, Benfica won 2-0 on the road as well, against Basel. Inter Milan also kept a clean sheet on the road; they won 1-0 in Lille. Finally, Napoli picked up a 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich at home

In today's other Group F match, Olympiacos hosts Borussia Dortmund. Meanwhile, Chelsea hosting Genk, Zenit St. Petersburg heads to the Ukraine to face Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen faces Valencia in Germany, Porto hosts APOEL, Milan welcomes BATE Borisov to the San Siro, and Barcelona hosts Plzen at Camp Nou.

Arsenal 2-1 Sunderland: A Tale of Two Heroes

When you're not playing well as a team and are struggling to find form, oftentimes the only way you're going to get a result is if your best players perform better than the other lot's best. Today, Arsenal got twin Man of the Match performances from Robin van Persie and Wojciech Szczesny to ensure a vital three points.

Normally, when I come in 10 minutes late because of trains or laziness or whatever, I end up missing very little. Today, I could have knocked off the second digit of that number and I still would have missed the first goal. Tomas Rosicky started the move, finding Gervinho with a pass. The Sunderland defense gave him too much time and room, and he was able to play a simple ball across to van Persie, who made no mistake. I wish I had been there to see it, but did at least see a replay at halftime. Just 27 seconds in, it was 1-0 to the Arsenal.

But, things never can be easy, can they? It also is worth bearing in mind that Sunderland are under quite a bit of pressure themselves, and they had to fancy their chances of getting back in the game due to our recent defensive record. It was never going to be a cakewalk from here.

Still, van Persie also had a gorgeous chip just miss off the outside of the post (according to the Guardian, anyway...I still hadn't made it in yet). A shame, that...another goal so soon and perhaps we may have had the aforementioned cakewalk after all.

Unfortunately, Arsenal largely reverted back to form with the casualness of their attack, despite the massive possession advantage we enjoyed. There were a few instances in which Sunderland were there to be carved open, but the final ball was found wanting. It almost cost us in the 27th minute when they in turn could not take advantage of a moment of madness from Szczesny. Stephane Sessegnon broke the Arsenal offside trap and broke down the left-hand side. The young Pole came haring out of his goal box and was a good 5 yards outside when Sessegnon got around him. Thankfully, we had enough bodies back where he didn't have a clear sight of goal, and Alex Song was able to clear the danger.

Fuck me, that had my heart in my throat for a moment there. I love you Wojceich, but don't ever do that again.

You got the sense the goal was coming though, and sure enough, Sunderland were level four minutes later. An innocuous high ball was handled just outside the area by Mikel Arteta, giving the Black Cats a free kick in Sebastien Larsson territory. It was all so bloody predictable, wasn't it? Larsson, to his credit, hit an absolutely gorgeous shot that made it over the head of the jumping Per Mertesacker (no small feat), but still was able to dip it down underneath the crossbar, just inside the post. Poor Szczesny had a snowball's chance of getting there, and you could feel the mood deflate at the Emirates as well as on 14th Street.

So, 1-1 then and a response was needed. A response was indeed produced, but not from the home side. Sunderland turned it on, smelling blood with the Gunners in disarray once again. In the 34th minute, the visitors would have been a goal to the good in just about any case. A horrible error by Carl Jenkinson gave Sessegnon the run of the left side again, and his back-post cross was inch-perfect. Lee Cattermole beat Mertesacker for pace, and had as open a header as you'll ever see at any level, let alone the professional game.

Honestly? If that went in, I am beyond sure that we would have gone on to lose the game. To concede there would have been a real sickener, and further, to lose to reeling Sunderland at home for our 5th loss before November...well, it just doesn't bear thinking about.

They didn't score though, did they? Szczesny came across the face of his goal in a flash, flinging his body far enough to just get a hand to Cattermole's header. Wojceich Szczesny refused to let us lose today...end of story. We would truly be adrift without him this season, that's for sure. At the end of the campaign, we may be calling this one The Save that Saved the Season.

But, we weren't adrift. We were level, and honestly, the Gunners weren't that bad in the first half. Sure, Jenkinson had that one terrible mistake, but he was pretty good going forward. Rosicky looked infinitely better than he has in eons, and the center-halves had things largely in control. Conversely, Gervinho and Theo Walcott were on the periphery of the match, as Arsenal just couldn't use the flanks effectively. Song was fine when defending, but he continues to show the passing range of Helen Keller with motor-neurone disease.

While Arsenal didn't exactly come out firing after the interval, at the very least they managed to wrest control back of the match. In fact, this is about where Sunderland switched tactics from "soak up pressure and get one piece of ridiculous skill" to "Gears of War 3". Honestly, it was like the Battle of the Somme out there for a while, though at least referee Howard Webb booked the worst offenders (despite the baying for his blood from the regulars today, I thought he had a decent game).

Kieran Gibbs - who had been in better form than recent weeks - came off injured for Andre Santos. The Brazilian didn't affect proceedings much, but at least he didn't cost us at any point either.

A few minutes later, we had a penalty shout that was rightfully turned down in my estimation. Rosicky hit a beautiful long cross-field pass to Walcott, who found some room for a cross on the right-hand side. I didn't catch who it hit, but it was clearly a case where the guy had his arms at his sides in a natural position, and would had to have been Neo from the Matrix in order to get out of the way. Remember, friends...the rule is Intentional Handling. There was no intent in my mind, and thus no penalty.

Interestingly, Steve Bruce opted to switch from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2 at this point, withdrawing the excellent Larsson in favor of Ji-Dong Won. Now, I get it with the formation switch, but taking off their biggest set piece threat was questionable at best. Personally, I would have taken off Ahmed El-Mohamady, who while normally excellent was nowhere to be seen today.

In turn, Arsene Wenger removed Gervinho and put on Andrei Arshavin. While the Russian didn't manage to find the scoresheet, he looked far more motivated and put in a hell of a performance in his 25-minute cameo. If he can kick on from here and stay in form, it'll be an immeasurable boost for us.

Almost immediately, he made his presence felt down the left side. I didn't catch who played him in, but he took on three defenders and frankly clowned them all with a mazy run. He didn't have a lot of room to shoot though, the only opening being through the legs of the last defender. His shot still had Simon Mignolet beaten all ends-up, but sadly it skittered just wide of the post. Still, it was a brilliant individual effort and I definitely believe it gave the side some self-belief back.

Arsenal kept the attack up, even despite the somewhat puzzling substitution of Yossi Benayoun on for the excellent Rosicky. It felt like another chance would come, and sure enough, it arrived in the 82nd minute. Song and Benayoun combined to play in van Persie, who won a free kick from Wes Brown (who should have been on at least a yellow for a horror tackle earlier on, and had a brutally-bad game for them). I didn't think much of it at the time, as Arteta, RVP and Walcott had contrived to make a pig's ear out of several free kicks before that.

Not this time.

van Persie took the kick, and curled an unstoppable left-footed shot around the wall and into the top corner past the despairing dive of Mignolet. The relief was palpable on the faces of van Persie, the rest of the Gunners, the crowd at the Grove and inside our own humble abode. There was still a job to be done though, given our penchant for blowing leads.

Speaking of which, Sunderland had the ball in the net two minutes later. In real time, it looked like we had Arsenaled another advantage away, with Ji-Dong Won in acres of space to toe-poke past the advancing Szczesny. However, the replay showed that the linesman got it completely spot-on with his raised flag. It was a real let-off, and thankfully would be the last serious attempt that the Mackems would muster on the day.

Sure, there were a mystifying five minutes of injury time, and there were one or two high-balls that looked like they might have been dangerous. But, credit to our backline, they were all dealt with. Eventually, we got hold of the ball and managed to bleed away the rest of the time added on.

Hopefully, this will be the start of a good run of form as opposed to yet another false start. The win moves us to 10th in the table, 8 points behind the Scum in 4th place (assuming they don't cock it up in the last 5 minutes against Newcastle, though here's hoping). With a fixture list of Marseille (away), Stoke (home) and Chelsea (away) looming, we're going to need that form to see us through.

In the short-term though, let's enjoy this one. GET IN ROBIN!

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

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

Men of the Match: Robin van Persie and Wojciech Szczesny