Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Manchester City, Carling Cup Fifth Round

Emirates Stadium, London
Tuesday, November 29
3:00 p.m. EST, 8:00 p.m. GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Lee Probert
    • Assistants: Scott Ledger and Stuart Burt
    • 4th Official: Stuart Atwell
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 92 Arsenal wins, 45 Manchester City wins, 40 draws
  • Arsenal's Path Here
    • Third Round: 3-1 win over Shrewsbury Town
    • Fourth Round: 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers
  • Manchester City's Path Here
    • Third Round: 2-0 win over Birmingham City
    • Fourth Round: 5-2 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-W-W-W-D
  • Manchester City's League Form: W-W-W-W-W-D
Story time. On December 2 of 2009, Arsenal met Manchester City in this very round of the Carling Cup, at Eastlands. Arsenal was reeling. Robin van Persie had been injured on international duty in mid-November, and Arsenal followed with league losses to Sunderland and Chelsea. In their only win over a two week span, they beat Standard Liege in Europe, but lost Kieran Gibbs to injury (joining an already injured Gael Clichy on the sidelines.) Things were not going Arsenal's way.

Carlos Tevez opened the scoring in City's 3-0 Carling Cup
win over Arsenal in 2009. Where is he now? Photo: BBC.
As per Arsene Wenger's Carling Cup ideals, Arsenal fielded a largely reserve side. Lukasz Fabianski was in goal, Alex Song was in central defense (with Silvestre,) Armand Traore was the new starter at left back. Arsenal's midfield consisted of the likes of Craig Eastmond, Fran Merida, and not-quite-where-they-are-now Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey. Carlos Vela started up front. Manchester City, meanwhile, fielded their standard starting line-up; they were in the hunt for silverware: Given; Richards, Toure, Lescott, Bridge; Wright-Phillips; Ireland, Barry, Bellamy; Tevez, Adebayor. That was pretty much their XI that year.

Seeing those line-ups, you can imagine what the result was. Arsenal managed to hold on to keep things 0-0 by the half, but Carlos Tevez scored in the 50th, Shaun Wright-Phillips scored in the 70th, and substitute Vladimir Weiss made it 3-0 when the result was academic. To quote the Guardian MBM at matches end: "[Manchester City's] expensively assembled first team has quashed Arsenal's reserves, who, though tidy in patches, looked like they could have benefited from having a couple more seasoned warriors alongside them."

A lot has changed in two years. City's team is now even more expensively assembled, but that means they're trying to run away with the league title rather than struggle for fourth. Arsene Wenger has eased up a little bit on the Carling Cup youth policy and now we tend to see an Arsenal XI with a healthier mix of reserves and experienced players who need games. Does that mean the result will be changed? Let's hope so.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Miyaichi (ankle), Gibbs (hernia), Sagna (broken leg), Jenkinson (back), Wilshere (ankle)
Doubts: Diaby (muscular), Rosicky (thigh)
Rested: van Persie, Walcott, Ramsey

I'll bet this is annoying...
Source: Photobucket.
Arsene Wenger has been speaking a lot lately of playing being in the "red zone" or on "red alert" in terms of them being fatigued to the point where they are close to injury. Laurent Koscielny, for example, was subbed off against Dortmund due to fatigue, then did not play on Saturday against Fulham. Now, he's talking about the likes of Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, and, most notably, Robin van Persie. Since this is the Carling Cup, one should not expect to see any of them feature at all.

There are a number of players whom you should expect to feature, and in some instances, start. You can bet Lukasz Fabianski will be the goalkeeper. Ju Young Park should be up front, maybe even with Marouane Chamakh in a 4-4-2. Yossi Benayoun should start. You're likely to see Emmanuel Frimpong, Francis Coquelin, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Abou Diaby would've started, but surprise! He's got a minor injury! He picked up a small muscular problem against Fulham and faces a fitness test. But, honestly, Diaby should probably face a fitness test before every game. Also, Tomas Rosicky is still being assessed on a game-by-game basis and could use a run-out if he's fit.

The back four poses a few interesting questions as well. How much youth do you field against a team with the firepower that even Manchester City's bench threatens? How much experience can you even try to field when most of the fullbacks are hurt? Andre Santos needs a rest and the usual right back cover will probably play in the center. Big tests for Nico Yennaris and Ignasi Miquel, methinks. Though, I'm a little fearful of seeing Sebastien Squillaci in the XI. Perhaps a start is in order for Koscielny after he was rested at the weekend? Or Mertesacker? Both possible, but Johan Djourou might be more likely there.

Manchester City Squad News

Out: None
Suspended: Balotelli (one match, two yellow cards), Barry (one match, accumulation)

Balotelli is upset that he now can't feature in the
Carling Cup. Photo: ESPN.
For a team that's so expensively assembled, like Manchester City, you would think they'd have a little bad luck at some point when it comes to their side, right? City currently has zero players injured on their squad. Seriously, not a single one of them is hurt. When exactly did they make this deal with Satan? Owen Hargreaves was recently out with a calf/hamstring problem, but he is now fit again, and could play in this one. They'll likely play most of their bench in this match, a squad which will still have cost them a bajillion dollars.

The only two exclusions from City's potential roster come from suspension: Mario Balotelli, for his red card cameo appearance against Liverpool on Sunday and Gareth Barry, due to yellow card accumulation.

Current Form

The last time City went two matches without a win, they
drew 0-0 at Aris Salonika. Remember that?
Photo: Guardian.
Arsenal's 1-1 draw with Fulham at the weekend might have ended their five game winning streak in the league, but it did extend their unbeaten streak overall, which now has reached double figures and hit 10 games across all competitions, dating back to the loss at Spurs in early October. A win today would match Arsenal's longest unbeaten run from last season, which was 11. Technically, if the match were to go to penalties, no matter how it ends, it would historically be considered a draw, so while it would not feel like it, Arsenal would extend their unbeaten run to 11 even if they lost on penalties. At home, Arsenal have not lost since falling 2-0 to Liverpool during the second week of the season. They have won nine and drawn two at the Emirates since that day.

Manchester City's 1-1 draw with Liverpool at the weekend means that both of these sides have, over the last six games in the league, the exact same run of form. Manchester City, however, are still unbeaten. Arsenal will get the chance to defend their Invincibles record at Eastlands on December 18, though before that, City has to visit Stamford Bridge. In league play this year, City has 11 wins and two draws. They've only lost three competitive fixtures overall (one of which was the Community Shield to Manchester United;) the other two losses were in Europe and on the road. Across all competitions, though, City have gone two matches without a win for the first time since February, when they lost to Manchester United at Old Trafford, then drew at Aris Salonika in the Europa League knockouts.

Match Facts

Look at Joe Hart just smirking while City parks the bus
for a point at the Emirates in January. Doesn't that just
piss you off? Photo: Guardian.
This is the seventh time Arsenal have met Manchester City in the League Cup. Before City's 3-0 win in 2009, Arsenal had won the prior five meetings, though the 1978 fifth round tie required a replay. Their third round meeting in October of 1986 was the only time before this year that the draw saw the tie start in North London. If you know your Arsenal history, you'll recall that in 86/87, Arsenal won the League Cup Final over Liverpool, after defeating Tottenham Hotspur in a semi-final replay.

Arsenal took four of a possible six points from Manchester City last season, while the year before, City took something out of all three meetings. These sides have played 0-0 draws at the Emirates in each of the last two seasons, while the three meetings at Eastlands in that time have all been decided by either two or three goals.

Arsenal won the opening match between the sides last October, winning 3-0 at Eastlands, thanks to Dedryck Boyata's fifth minute red card for a last defender foul on Marouane Chamakh. Samir Nasri, Alex Song, and Nick Bendtner scored Arsenal's goals. In January at the Emirates, City parked the bus to earn a point and got it. Arsenal had a number of chances in a wild opening ten minutes before City's defense took over, making the final 80 minutes boring as all hell.

Two years ago, Emmanuel Adebayor was reckless as City won 4-2 at Eastlands in September of 2009. Then, City won in the Carling Cup 3-0, in the story told earlier in this blog post. Arsenal and City played a dreadful 0-0 draw at the Emirates that year, too.

You have to go back to October 4, 1975 to find the last time Manchester City beat Arsenal in North London. They won that day, 3-2.

The Referee

Lee Probert gets poked in the face by Jamie Carragher.
The referee is Gloucestershire-based Lee Probert. This is his first Arsenal and first Manchester City match of this season. Probert worked two Arsenal matches last season. The first was the 4-1 extra time win at Tottenham Hotspur in the Carling Cup third round, in which he awarded two penalties to the Gunners in the opening half of extra time. The second was the 2-2 draw at Wigan in December when Squillaci's 81st minute own goal gave Wigan a point. Last year for City, he worked 2-0 wins at Wigan and West Brom, a 1-0 win over Reading in the FA Cup, and the 3-0 win over Stoke that followed the FA Cup Final between the same two sides.

Probert has worked a number of big matches already this season, including United's 3-0 win over Tottenham at Old Trafford and Liverpool's 2-1 win at Chelsea. He's also taken charge of one Euro 2012 qualifier and two Europa League group stage matches (those two matches include the only red cards he has shown this year.) He also showed 10 yellow cards in one match in September, a Championship 3-3 draw between Leeds and Brighton.

Elsewhere in the Carling Cup

It's the final eight in the Carling Cup, which means there are three other quarterfinal ties taking place this week. Three matches take place today with one more tomorrow. Today, Chelsea welcomes Liverpool to Stamford Bridge; Liverpool won this league fixture 2-1 on November 20. Elsewhere, Championship side Cardiff City hosts Blackburn Rovers, who will probably be a Championship side next season. Tomorrow, Manchester United hosts the lowest ranking team remaining in the cup (of course), as they welcome South London's Crystal Palace to Old Trafford.

Arsenal 1-1 Fulham: Could Be Worse

It is indeed true that Arsenal dropped what is on paper two extremely winnable points. Sure, there is some level of inherent frustration there, doubly so on a day where our nearest and dearest kept up their winning ways. And yet, I find myself palpably less frustrated than most of my Gooner brethren. I keep coming back to the fact that Fulham played a fantastic road match, took advantage of the one mistake Arsenal's defense made all day (look on the bright side - how often is it only one?) and most importantly that the team came back from a losing position once again.

This was a match largely without incident, so this shouldn't take long. Oddly, Fulham dominated possession in spells as the first half wore on, looking almost like the bad version of Arsenal as they probed around the midfield without much purpose or end product. There were a few instances for either side early on though where the lead could have been established.

Andrei Arshavin - starting in place of the recently ineffective Gervinho - was in alone on Mark Schwarzer and finished well into the low corner. Sadly, he was correctly flagged for offside. A few minutes later, Fulham came up the other end and fashioned an all-CONCACAF chance of their own. Costa Rica's own Bryan Ruiz sent in a cutback for Clint Dempsey (AMERICA, FUCK YEAH!) in a dangerous area. Johan Djourou was able to hurtle over from the right-back position and block superbly with a sliding tackle, though.

A few ticks on the clock after that, Arsenal probably should have had the lead. It was almost a mirror image of Fulham's chance, with Robin van Persie playing provider for Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman attempted a chip over Schwarzer, but the big Aussie was able to backpedal and claw it away to safety. A decent effort and a great save, but you can't help wondering if a more emphatic shot would have found its way in.

This is around where Fulham seized the momentum, often aided and abetted by the wayward passing of young Ramsey. As seen here in this fancy chart, while his overall completion rate was not bad, his unsuccessful passes tended to happen in promising attacking areas:

by Guardian Chalkboards

Ramsey's tough day at the office continued in the 24th minute, when he was teed up in the middle of the penalty area after great work by Theo Walcott down the right. Everyone in the pub tensed in anticipation of a sure goal, but instead the shot was fired well over the crossbar. From what I could see, it may have been a combination of a sliding Fulham defender and the fact that he rushed his shot, but it still surely must be filed in the bin marked "Terrible Misses".

Unsurprisingly, Walcott opted to shoot himself after fashioning a similar chance a moment or two later, but Schwarzer was able to awkwardly parry the effort away. Down the other end, Fulham got the last chance of the half when Moussa Dembele's long-range shot was much less-awkwardly parried away by Wojceich Szczesny.

The second half opened in somewhat of a fugue state, with little in the way of effective attacking play. Still, a positive from Arsenal's point of view is that the midfield and fullbacks were all effective in quickly winning the ball back after possession was lost. I distinctly remember Djourou, Andre Santos and Alex Song all making key interventions to prevent Fulham from getting anything going. Djourou in particular was fantastic on the day, showing the kind of confidence he had previous to last season's epic collapse.

Speaking of confidence, RVP was inches away from opening the scoring on the hour mark. He slalomed through the Fulham backline and sweetly struck a low shot. Schwarzer was beaten so comprehensively that he was rooted to the spot, but Chris Baird managed to block on the line and disentangle the ball from his feet before anyone could pressure him.

So, of course Fulham got their goal right afterwards.

The move started when Danny Murphy sent a long diagonal ball to John Arne Riise (who I honestly thought had retired two or three seasons ago). I had just gotten finished thinking to myself "Hey, Mike Dean hasn't had a bad game!", when he missed Riise's obvious handball as he tried to chest the ball down. Despite that, much like Dortmund's goal in midweek, there were several breakdowns on the play. Song was far too casual in his closing down of Murphy, giving him plenty of time and space to make the cross. Djourou was caught ball-watching in the middle of the area, and ended up taking himself out of the play. Thomas Vermaelen got beaten in the air by Riise, and then for an encore hooked the ball past a surprised Szczesny and into his own net.

Bloody hell, guys. At least Bobby Zamora was offside when he beat Szczesny a minute later - that would have been the ballgame right there, new Arsenal (now with 33% more mental strength!) or not.

The Boss responded by making two changes - Ramsey and Per Mertesacker off, Gervinho and Abou Diaby on. Both were good changes, as Wenger correctly surmised that Fulham wouldn't be that bothered with the whole attacking thing from this point on, and the extra help in the midfield helped swing momentum back to the Gunners. Diaby showed his rust a bit and had a few iffy touches, but he was energetic and direct, and I thought had a decent outing considering his long layoff. He'd really give this midfield something different and positive if he could ever stay fit.

In fact, it was Diaby's run and cross that was met by Djourou in the 73rd minute, forcing Schwarzer into another solid save (albeit at a comfortable height for him). There was a little tension as time went on with no equalizer in sight. I don't believe I was the only one who felt it coming, though - you didn't have much of the crazed howling at the screen that you see towards the end of matches that Arsenal is destined to lose.

Sure enough, int he 82nd, Vermaelen had his redemption - and his second goal of the afternoon. Walcott provided the cross after yet another excellent run down the right, and the Verminator was inexplicably left in acres by the Cottagers' defense. TV5 made no mistake, planting a perfect downwards header into the bottom corner. Once again, Schwarzer was rooted to the spot, and Arsenal were back on level terms.

Fulham continued to pack the bus in front of their net, despite the one breach of their defenses. To their credit, Arsenal were unable to fashion any further serious chances despite pressing hard for the winning goal. The men in white repelled them resolutely, and Dean's final whistle left Arsenal with what you can consider either two points dropped or one point thankfully salvaged.

Again, I can't claim to be too upset. We got out of jail a little this time, and at least a lackluster performance was met with one point instead of zero. Hey, we could have lost to Queens Park Rangers like some OTHER London side, you know? Everyone's going to drop points along the way - the key will be consistency from here on out. This is not the end of the world, lads and lasses.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Santos 7, Mertesacker 7 (Gervinho 7), Vermaelen 7, Djourou 8, Song 7, Ramsey 5 (Diaby 7), Arshavin 6 (Chamakh N/A), Arteta 7, Walcott 8, van Persie 7

Man of the Match: I didn't think I'd write this sentence this season, but Johan Djourou for me was the clear MOTM with his rock-solid defending. It could just as easily have been Walcott for his continued brilliance in attack, though.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Fulham

Emirates Stadium, London
Saturday, November 26
12:30 p.m. EST, 5:30 p.m. GMT
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  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Dean
    • Assistants: William Smallwood and Simon Long
    • 4th Official: Roger East
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 2 - 1 Fulham
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 34 Arsenal wins, 7 Fulham wins, 8 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-W-W-W-W-W
  • Fulham's League Form: W-L-L-W-L-D
Robin van Persie is "on fire," according to Mikel Arteta.
I don't see any flames in this picture, but he is kind of
floating majestically. Photo: Guardian.
Wednesday's 2-1 win over Borussia Dortmund saw Arsenal accomplish something they did not do last year: they won their Champions League group. Thank you to Olympiacos, whose 1-0 win over Marseille ensured Arsenal would win the group. Olympiacos will now get the benefit of facing a rotated Arsenal squad on Matchday 6 in December, which could aid them in qualifying for the knockout phase. It worked two years ago.

The good news is that Arsenal will have the chance to rotate their players in that game and give the regulars some rest. Matchday 6 will be Arsenal's sixth game out of seven in a 22 day span that started with the win in Norwich last weekend. After this match with Fulham on Saturday, Arsenal plays on Tuesday, then Saturday, then Tuesday again, then Saturday again. That's a lot. Then they get a midweek off, then they play Manchester City at We've Got Tons of Oil Money Stadium, or whatever they're calling Eastlands these days.

That being said, it's time to focus on the league again. Before that trip to Manchester, two of Arsenal's three league games are at home and the other is a trip to Wigan (which, really, has been a house of horrors for the Gunners over the last two seasons.) Arsenal's home form has been quite strong and Fulham have always struggled in North London. So, let's put the Champions League aside again, worry about that in the new year, and get back to climbing up the league table.

Arsenal Squad News

The diminutive Russian is now on Twitter,
which means we'll get gems of photos
like this one, which he used to
threaten Jack Wilshere.
Out: Gibbs (hernia), Sagna (broken leg), Jenkinson (back), Wilshere (ankle)
Doubts: Rosicky (thigh)

Having to write this on Thursday morning, pre-Thanksgiving festivities here in the U.S. means that I don't have a lot of accurate team news at this time. Yes, we know who is still out long-term, and that's not going to change any time soon. But, the question of who could have picked up a knock in the Dortmund game or in training hasn't really been answered yet.

There was a scary moment when Robin van Persie took some studs to the back of his calf, but he stayed on the pitch. There was also a scary moment when Mikel Arteta got up limping and had to receive a bit of treatment on the touchline, but he came back on. As of the time I write this, I have no idea if there are any new injuries at all. Unfortunately, that might no longer be true at the time this post goes onto the interwebs. So, my apologies if much of this section gets rendered moot by some news that got posted last night.

So, the long term things we already know about remain the same. Three full backs will be out until around Christmas or early January: Kieran Gibbs after hernia surgery, Bacary Sagna with the leg he had broken by White Hart Lane, and Carl Jenkinson with a stress fracture in his back. Jack Wilshere may be ahead of schedule, but will still return in the new year.

I don't suspect there will be that much squad rotation; maybe one or two players here and there because it would be odd to have the same starting XI for three games in eight days. I'm going to predict that same XI anyway, because hey, I've been right the first two times and don't want anything to change. Also, there's a Carling Cup tie on Tuesday, where rotation could occur.

Lastly, big news, Andrei Arshavin is on Twitter now. Hilarity will ensue.

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

Fulham Squad News

The voices inside Philippe Senderos's head won't stop.
Also, there are like no images of him in a Fulham jersey
because he's always hurt. But not now! Photo: Guardian.

Out: Sa (hamstring), Grygera (knee)
Doubts: Davies (knee), Sidwell (hernia), Kelly (groin)

Fulham have five injury concerns at the moment, though there are a number of players who could potentially make returns. Welsh midfielder Simon Davies could return from a knee injury. Steve Sidwell had minor hernia surgery and will face a fitness test. Stephen Kelly is close to a return from a groin injury.

There are two longer term injuries for Fulham: striker Orlando Sa is out with a hamstring problem and Zdenek Grygera is out until May after knee surgery.

Current Form

Fulham have struggled on their travels this year,
but at home they did beat the crap out of QPR, 6-0.
Are you not entertained? Photo: BBC.
With the win over Dortmund on Wednesday, Arsenal are now unbeaten in nine across all competitions; they have won eight of those nine matches dating back to the derby loss on October 2. The one blemish was the 0-0 draw with Marseille on November 1. The loss to Tottenham is Arsenal's only loss in their last 13 games, dating back to the Blackburn fiasco. Arsenal have won 9 of their last 10 home games since losing to Liverpool in August, again, the Marseille draw being the only blemish on that record.

Arsenal have also won five straight in the league for the first time since a six match run of victories in February to March of 2010, a string that at the time started after consecutive losses to Manchester United and Chelsea put Arsenal's title hopes up against the wall. That winning string ended in Birmingham with a 1-1 draw; by that point, even if Arsenal had won their remaining games, they would not have caught Chelsea's eventual point total. Last season, Arsenal's longest winning streak in the league was three. Their longest unbeaten run was 11; that ended at Wembley.

As for Fulham, they find themselves in the precarious position of 16th in the table, just two points ahead of the drop zone, which is currently occupied by Bolton, Blackburn, and Wigan. They are level on points with Wolves who are in 17th thanks to goal difference. Then again, they are just four points back of 8th place Aston Villa. The middle of the table is quite crowded, indeed. Fulham have won only once on their domestic travels this year; that was a 2-0 win at Wigan. They were knocked out of the Carling Cup at Stamford Bridge on penalties. They have also drawn at West Brom and Sunderland, but lost their other three road matches (Wolves, Newcastle and Stoke.)

Fulham are playing in the Europa League thanks to their fair play record last season. They are currently second in Group K (really, there are 12 groups in the Europa League? You have enough to get to K and L? That's absurd.) Ahead of them, Dutch side FC Twente have already qualified for the Round of 32, with 10 points. Fulham have seven, and can qualify with a win in Twente or a draw in both of their remaining two games.

Match Facts

In this fixture last year, Sebastien Squillaci mistakes
Laurent Koscielny's head for the ball. Photo: Metro.
After this match last year, Arsenal went top of the table, because Manchester United's match at Blackpool was postponed. They have not been top of the league since. Arsenal won that day 2-1, behind a brace from Samir Nasri. It took Arsenal 75 minutes to break the deadlock that had been created just before halftime; Fulham scored their equalizer after Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci collided with each other in an utterly farcical moment. It was a close match for Arsenal; after watching it on television, my father commented to me the next day about how often British commentators use the word "nervy" when describing Arsenal performances. I couldn't disagree.

Fulham have played Arsenal 49 times all-time and have won only seven of them; all seven of those wins came with Fulham as the home side, which they are not in this match. Fulham have visited Highbury/Emirates Stadium 24 times and have come away with a total of three points from three draws. Arsenal have won 21 home meetings with the Cottagers. Fulham most recently beat Arsenal in 2008 at Craven Cottage. The reverse of this fixture last year, which ended the season, was a 2-2 draw, when Arsenal really just couldn't be bothered anymore to try.

The Referee

Mike Dean shows Richard Dunne an invisible card,
because he left his yellow card inside. Photo: Telegraph.
The referee is Wirral-based Mike Dean, who has by no means been kind to Arsenal in recent memory.

Arsenal last saw Dean in their only loss over their last 12 matches across all competitions. I won't nitpick over the fact that he could have shown Rafael van der Vaart a second yellow card for his goal celebration because I think that rule is enforced too strongly most of the time, but not calling his handball in the buildup to the goal was inexcusable. That's all he really did wrong in the game, but there's just enough there to feel slighted. I'll now sit back and wait for some Spurs fan to troll this post and call me a wanker for complaining, or something.

Arsenal have won just one of their last 11 matches with Mike Dean as the referee. One in 11. Let's do these chronologically, shall we? They played a 0-0 draw at Spurs; Emmanuel Eboue was sent off on two yellow cards in like five seconds. Then, a 0-0 draw at Manchester United, which saw United win the league. The following season, a 2-1 loss at Manchester United, where Arsene Wenger was sent off for kicking a water bottle and I think everyone on Arsenal got a yellow card. Then, a 1-1 draw at eventually relegated Burnley, when Cesc Fabregas first hurt his hamstring. Then, a 2-0 loss at Chelsea and a 0-0 draw to Manchester City at the Emirates. Then, last season, another 2-0 loss at Chelsea, a 1-0 loss at home to Newcastle, a win (!) in an FA Cup replay at Leeds by a 3-1 score, then a certain game at Wembley against Birmingham City. Then, this year, the loss at White Hart Lane. One win from 11. Six losses and four draws.

For Fulham, he has also taken charge of only one of their matches this year, and the Cottagers lost theirs too. That was a 2-0 loss at Molineux against Wolves on August 21. He took charge of two Fulham London derbies last year: a 0-0 draw with Chelsea and a 2-1 loss to Tottenham.

Around the League

In their infinite wisdom, Sky Sports picked Stoke v.
Blackburn for their televised lunch-time match. Someone
at Sky must not know anything about this league.
Photo: Guardian.
Arsenal gets to play in Saturday's late game for the first time in what feels like forever (read: it was the season opener at Newcastle,) which means those of us in New York get a chance to sleep in a little bit and miss most of the earlier games. Unless you really want to wake up early and watch this weekends opening match, as Stoke City hosts Blackburn Rovers at the Britannia, a match-up so poor that ESPN2, which normally airs the 7:45 a.m. game, chose to drop this one and pick up a 10:00 a.m. game instead. That means the American masses will get to watch Manchester United on ESPN2 as they host no-longer-unbeaten Newcastle. There are five other matches at 10:00, as Chelsea hosts Wolves at the Bridge, Bolton hosts Everton at the Reebok, Norwich hosts QPR in a battle of newly promoted sides hanging around mid-table, Sunderland welcomes bottom of the table Wigan to the Stadium of Light, and West Brom hosts Spurs at The Hawthorns.

Two matches close the weekend on Sunday. The early match sees Swansea host Aston Villa in Wales, and in the big game of the weekend at 11:00, Liverpool hosts still unbeaten Manchester City at Anfield. Liverpool have yet to lose at home this year, but have drawn four of their six matches there.

Arsenal 2-1 Borussia Dortmund: Group Stage Mission Accomplished

This one is a bit difficult for me to write, as the memory of the match has gone a bit hazy. I'm in the midst of a period in which I slept for 13 hours, rolled out of bed to go to the Blind Pig, then bolted awake at 4 AM this morning with no sleep forthcoming. Mainly, I remember showing up 15 minutes late, the three goals, and a lovely chicken parm with pasta that the Pig served up.

Admittedly, that doesn't tell you very much, so let's try again.

As mentioned, I missed the first quarter of an hour as going out to watch it was very much a last-second decision (no Fox Soccer Plus at home). I was informed that Dortmund had the better of the early going, willed on by their legions of yellow-clad supporters (this isn't really the time or the place, but at some point I'll rant about the home support). Wojceich Szczesny was called into early action apparently, but nothing too life-threatening.

Arsenal recovered from the early onslaught and made some sallies upfield of their own. Unfortunately for the visitors, there was a freak 10-minute passage of play in which Sven Bender and Mario Gotze both had to be substituted due to injury after fairly innocuous challenges. Given the intensity of their pressing game, Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp was left with the choice of either abandoning that gameplan to keep his guys as fresh as possible for the latter stages, or keep going with it and hope they got the lead before they tired.

They stayed with it, but without their main playmaker and their holding midfielder, they were on a hiding to nothing from that point. That, more than anything Arsenal did, changed the complexion of the match as the second half began.

As for the rest of the first half, there isn't much to tell. Robin van Persie, his threat always simmering just below the surface of the match, was victimized several times by the Dortmund offside trap. Gervinho, full of inventiveness early in a move, continued his putrid form when it came to the decisive moment. Seriously, the man's first touch makes Nicklas Bendtner look like Leo Messi. On the other wing, Theo Walcott kept his opposing winger and fullback honest without ever threatening the Dortmund goal.

In fact, Schwarzgelben (yes, I got that from Wikipedia...shut up) keeper Roman Weidenfeller barely had a thing to do in the first half. You may consider it foreshadowing when I say that I can sympathize from personal experience with going a half and change with nothing to do, then having to deal with a good shot out of nowhere.

That was yet to come though, as the first half saw the two sides largely cancel each other out. Dortmund had a 6-1 shot advantage at the time, but none of theirs came close to beating our wonder Pole in Goal. The game wasn't really that one-sided, and I felt fairly confident going into the second half.

It turns out that confidence was well-founded - four minutes into the second half, Arsenal had the lead.

The move started with Alex Song in midfield. I don't remember how he got it, but given his general excellence in breaking up Dortmund moves throughout the match, it stands to reason that he probably won the ball from one of their lot. Uncharacteristically, he cut outside to the wing, beating one defender. Reaching the outside of the penalty area by the end-line, he was closed down by Sebastian Kehl and Lukasz Piszczek. Beyond uncharacteristically, Song shredded both defenders with an impossibly-deft dribble involving at least three feints before plowing right through the middle - almost like an NFL running back hammering his way through the defensive line. His cross was a little high for van Persie, but the Dutch maestro arched his head back enough to get under the ball, sending his header downward.

Honestly, a solid keeper like Weidenfeller probably should have saved it. But, remember what I was saying before about a cold goalie all of a sudden having to make a big save? As it happened, he got down to get a hand on it, but could only help it into the net. Arsenal now had the momentum, and the visitors were left with tiring legs and one substitution remaining.

The lead could have been doubled a few minutes later as RVP's brilliant defense-splitting pass was run onto by Gervinho. He was in alone with just Weidenfeller to beat, but he took too many touches and allowed the defense to come back in to break it up.

I wonder why it is that we have so many attacking players completely bereft of confidence - Gervinho, Chamakh, Arshavin - when ostensibly the pressure should be off with RVP scoring for fun. Answers on a postcard, please (or in the comments below - we do encourage that sort of thing, you know).

Speaking of which, Gervinho had an almost instant replay of that chance in the 60th minute, and again his indecision allowed a defender to recover enough to tackle it away. Sort it out, mate.

On the other hand, Walcott quietly had a good game, showing some more life in the second half than he had in the first. He copped a booking from referee Frank De Bleeckere (who had a strange performance in his last-ever European fixture) for some verbals with one of their guys, but it was nice to see him stand up for himself.

The half wore on, and as time started to trickle down, Arsene Wenger made two substitutions. One - Yossi Benayoun for Gervinho - was an act of mercy. The other was downright baffling, as the solid Laurent Koscielny was replaced with Johan Djourou. Maybe the thinking was to have more height to defend any set pieces that may come along, but given the Swiss man's recent struggles it's not a move I would have made.

Yep, that's foreshadowing again.

The last substitution was made with five minutes left, and hang onto your hats because apparently Abou Diaby is still alive! Somehow, he made it out onto the pitch without shattering a bone or tearing a hamstring. Well done, Abou! Well done!

Perhaps he was a good luck charm though, as RVP struck again the minute after. It was a bog-standard corner kick, the sort that normally we shouldn't even bother taking. Thomas Vermaelen was on the near post to receive, and his backwards-flicked header came to the Dutchman on the far post. For some reason, the Dortmund defenders on that side all kind of flowed into the middle, leaving van Persie all the time and space in the world to tap it in past Weidenfeller. They must have been reading "Defending Set Pieces - The Arsenal Way" with their halftime tea.

As this was happening, news filtered around that Olympiacos had taken a 1-0 lead on Olympique Marseille, meaning we would win the group if results held (or even if Marseille equalized).

It should have been Easy Street from there, but the Gunners still had to fulfill their Stupid Goal Conceded quota before De Bleeckere blew the final whistle. Incidentally, this happened during the "Arsene Wenger's Red and White Army" song - in the past I had given our own Brett some stick for how he bristled at us singing it too soon. I admit defeat there now, sir...the evidence is overwhelming.

An unassuming Dortmund attack in our half was broken up, but trouble started when Song tried to play his way out of trouble. He took it to the touchline and looked like he'd lose the ball, albeit in a fairly non-threatening position. Djourou, who was standing around like a mong instead of coming to support his teammate, was in the path of the play as it came to him. With one toe-poke, he deftly set up the Dortmund player next to him, who tore into the penalty area. This left Per Mertesacker with two men to guard (look at it again, Shagari - he had the man coming into the area as well as the trailer coming in late). The pass came in to the guy on the touchline, who outmuscled Vermaelen off the ball embarrassingly easily. He laid it back for the late-coming Shinji Kagawa, who deftly rolled the ball into the corner past the advancing Szczesny.

Despite the result, that's the frustration - that was a goal that would likely not have been conceded if Song, Djourou and Vermaelen hadn't all switched off at the same time.

Dortmund may have pushed on from there, but time ran out on them and the final whistle went. While I bitch and moan about the goal, it was still a fairly good performance against a side who just beat Bayern Munich at the Allianz-Arena this weekend past. Paired with Olympiacos holding out and winning 1-0, Arsenal have won the group and can play the kids on Matchday 6 when we travel to Greece.

So, the run continues. Up next is Fulham on Saturday afternoon at the Grove. They aren't a bad side but hopefully the Gunners can keep the momentum going and come away with three more critical points. See you then, and for those of you here in the States, Happy Thanksgiving!

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Santos 7, Mertesacker 7, Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 7 (Djourou 5), Ramsey 7, Arteta 7, Song 8, Gervinho 5 (Benayoun 6), Walcott 7 (Diaby N/A), van Persie 8

Man of the Match: It has to be Alex Song - not only for the Fred Astaire routine to set up the opening goal, but for his stellar work as the midfield destroyer as well.

(OK, OK...if it's killing you that badly, "Schwarzgelben" means "The Black Yellows". Rather does what it says on the tin with this lot, eh?)

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Borussia Dortmund, Champions League Matchday 5

Emirates Stadium, London
Wednesday, November 23
2:45 p.m. EST, 7:45 p.m. GMT
RSVP on Facebook
  • Match Officials from Belgium
    • Referee: Frank De Bleeckere
    • Assistants: Peter Hermans, Walter Vromans
    • 4th Official: Sebastien Delferiere
    • Additional Assistants: Luc Wouters, Alexandre Boucaut
  • Reverse Fixture: Dortmund 1 - 1 Arsenal (Matchday 1)
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 1 Arsenal win, 1 Dortmund win, 1 draw
  • Arsenal's Group Form: D-W-W-D
  • Dortmund's Group Form: D-L-L-W
Instead of taking a commanding six point group lead
last year, Arsenal rotated their squad on Matchday 4, then
things like this happened. At no point did Arsenal have
a comfortable position in any table afterward.
Photo: Guardian.
In November of 2010, I wrote on my old blog that Matchday 4, a road trip to Shakhtar Donetsk, was not the time to start rotating the squad. Three points there would have given Arsenal a stranglehold on their group with two matches to play; they would have been six points clear. With a tough month of fixtures ahead, it would have been better to take care of business then, and rotate the squad comfortably later, thanks to the breathing room created. Then, Arsene Wenger made seven changes to the side that had beaten West Ham at the weekend, and Arsenal lost 2-1. The rotation would have been debatably fine if Arsenal resumed winning in the league, but then they lost 1-0 at home to Newcastle, and things started to unravel. By the end of November, they had lost on Matchday 5 too, and they desperately had to been Partizan Belgrade just to assure Champions League football in the new year. And we all know what happened there; they finished second in the group and drew Barcelona in the Round of 16.

This year, Arsenal's November form is a bit better (they've had the benefit of an international break during which they could not lose a game.) But now, before Matchday 5, at home against Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal have the chance to take a stranglehold again. Their lead is just a point, but they can end the day today winners of Group F if things go their way. Here's the breakdown:

If Arsenal wins, they qualify for the knockout phase, for sure. They'll win the group outright if Marseille drops points at home to Olympiacos. A draw for Arsenal is enough to qualify for the Round of 16 as well, as long as Marseille doesn't lose (because then neither Dortmund nor Olympiacos could catch Arsenal.) Arsenal are assured to still be playing in Europe in the new year if Olympiacos drops points, regardless of their own result.

In any case, let's not get bogged down by the complicated scenarios that spring up if Arsenal don't win. They advance with three points and that's all they can control right now. As a result, you would hope Arsene Wenger has learned a lesson from the trip to Donetsk a year ago. Taking care of business now means you can rotate your squad later. Don't rotate now and make things harder for yourself. This is Arsenal's second game in a 22 day period where they play seven times. They've won the first one. Winning this second one would help make the sixth (the trip to Olympiacos) moot. Wouldn't you much rather rotate the squad there with the group already won?

It's a good sign to hear Arsene Wenger talk about how Robin van Persie is expected to start this one. He knows this is not the time to start messing with the line-up, with so much on the line.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Rosicky (thigh), Gibbs (hernia), Sagna (broken leg), Jenkinson (back), Wilshere (ankle)

How old do you think this picture is?
Photo: ESPN Soccernet.
The biggest team news for this match surrounds the return of Abou Diaby to the side. He returned to full training last week, and slips back into the first team thanks to a minor thigh strain to ex-Dortmund midfielder Tomas Rosicky. Just in case Diaby plays, I want to remind everyone of what the main Diaby chant is. Basically, one group of people yells "Diaby!" and then after that, the other remaining group of people also yells "Diaby!" It's to the same tune as the Red Army chant. We've been out of practice with this one for a while, so I suspect it might take a few tries to get it down again. It is pretty tricky.

As mentioned above, Arsene Wenger has stated that Robin van Persie will start, so those fears of too much squad rotation for a match of this magnitude have been assuaged a bit. Sure, there could be some rotation. Maybe a start for Andrei Arshavin, or Johan Djourou, or someone else on the fringes? I don't feel like predicting that, though, because I'd like to think there won't be that many changes.

Aside from Rosicky, all of the other injuries are known at this point: Kieran Gibbs had hernia surgery and will be out until around Christmas, the same goes for Bacary Sagna and his broken leg and Carl Jenkinson's stress fracture in his back. It still looks like some point in January for Jack Wilshere and his ankle. Jack Wilshere made some waves on Monday by offering to pay £3,000 to charity if Spurs finish above Arsenal in May. Tottenham fans went ballistic on Twitter, as you could probably have predicted, many stating that that's not enough to wager. One also said, "learn how to grow a beard properly." Good one...

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

Dortmund Squad News

Neven Subotic needed surgery after this elbow to the face.
That sounds really painful. Photo: Guardian.
Out: Subotic (face), Koch (knee)

In terms of Dortmund's injuries, Neven Subotic will be out until the new year, having undergone surgery to repair a face injury he suffered against Wolfsburg. Julian Koch has been out since February with knee ligament damage and is not in Dortmund's named Champions League squad.

Mohamed Zidan has been out for Dortmund since matchday one with a thigh injury, but he started for Egypt in a friendly during the last international break. Patrick Owomoyela has been out since October, when he scored a goal in his only appearance this season, but has since returned to be an unused substitute. Marcel Schmelzer missed Germany's recent friendlies with a calf strain, but he returned at the weekend. He is one yellow card away from picking up an accumulation ban.

Current Form

Both sides are in strong domestic form; Dortmund won 1-0
at the Allianz Arena to beat Bayern Munich at the
weekend. Photo:
On Saturday, September 17, Arsenal lost 4-3 at Blackburn Rovers, in a match where they conceded two own goals in the second half. On Sunday, September 18, Dortmund lost 2-1 at Hannover. Since that weekend (which incidentally followed their Matchday 1 draw in Dortmund,) the two sides have combined to lose three games over a total of 23 matches between them. Both of Dortmund's losses, however, came in this competition.

Dortmund have now won six of their last seven league fixtures and this weekend beat Bayern Munich, in Munich, 1-0 with a 65th minute goal from Mario Goetze. In that time period they also beat second tier side Dynamo Dresden to advance to the third round of Germany's top cup competition. However, they have lost twice, and both were in the Champions League, falling 3-0 to Marseille in France and 3-1 to Olympiacos in Greece. They've rebounded with a home win over Olympiacos, but their travels in Europe have not been kind to them so far this season.

Arsenal's 0-0 draw with Marseille is their only blip on the radar since falling 2-1 at Tottenham on October 2. It was also the first time they dropped points at home since losing to Liverpool in August. Still, the last time Arsenal lost a European match at home to a side that wasn't English was the group stage in 2003, but they got pretty good revenge for that loss in the reverse fixture.

Match Facts

Here's David Beckham not scoring against Dortmund in
1997. This isn't from one of Dortmund's two wins on
English soil, this was in Germany. Do you know how hard
it is to find pictures from 14 years ago on the Internet?
Photo: Telegraph.
This is the fourth meeting all-time between Arsenal and Dortmund. The German side dominated much of the reverse fixture in Matchday 1, but the Gunners led most of the way through a Robin van Persie goal just before halftime. Dortmund deserved a point, and earned it through Ivan Perisic's 88th minute equalizer.

Both sides met in the group stage in 2002/03. Arsenal won 2-0 at Highbury (Dennis Bergkamp and Freddie Ljungberg had the goals) but Dortmund won 2-1 in Germany (Tomas Rosicky had both goals for the German side canceling out Thierry Henry's opener.) Jens Lehmann was in goal for Dortmund for both matches.

Arsenal have won eight out of 10 home matches against German sides in European competitions. They've drawn one (2-2 with Bayern Munich in the second group stage in 2000/01.) The loss was in the UEFA Cup in September of 1996, 3-2 to Borussia Monchengladbach. Dortmund have won twice and lost three on English soil. The wins came in 1966 at Upton Park against West Ham United in the Cup Winners' Cup semifinal (they beat Liverpool in the final) and 1997 at Old Trafford against Manchester United in the semifinal of the Champions League (they beat Juventus in the final.)

The Referee

Sergio Busquets hurt his face, oh no! The referee whom
Busquets tricked on this occasion was Frank De
Bleeckere, who sent off Thiago Motta in the 28th minute.
Photo: Hooligans United.
The referee is Frank De Bleeckere, from Belgium, working his final international match (he turned 45 years old this year, which is the FIFA maximum age.)

Arsenal have three wins from three matches with De Bleeckere in charge, most recently, their 5-0 second leg win over Porto to advance to the quarterfinal in 2010. You may recall that Nicklas Bendtner had a hat trick in that game. He was also at the center of Arsenal's 3-0 win over Sparta Prague in the 2007 qualification play-off (where Arsenal sealed a 5-0 aggregate win) and a win at Auxerre in the 2002 group stage, where Gilberto Silva's 47th minute goal gave Arsenal a 1-0 victory.

This is only his second Dortmund game, previously working a 3-0 second group stage win for Dortmund over Lokomotiv Moscow in March of 2003.

De Bleeckere was recently in London; he worked England's 1-0 friendly win over Spain on the 12th of this month at Wembley.

Around Europe

Napoli scores against AC Milan Manchester City.
Photo: Daily Mail.
In yesterday's results, Manchester City find themselves facing an exit door from the Champions League marked "BAYERN MUNICH." Bayern won 3-1 over Villarreal, but City lost 2-1 at Napoli. Napoli are now one point ahead of City for second place and just have to match City's result against Bayern Munich at Eastlands on Matchday 6 to send the Petro-Dollar All-Stars to the Europa League. Meanwhile, Manchester United are not looking great either. They drew 2-2 with Benfica. On Matchday 6, they will travel to Switzerland to face Basel. If they lose, it's the Europa League for them too. Basel beat Otelul Galati 3-2. Elsewhere, Lille won 2-0 at CSKA Moscow, Inter Milan (who have qualified) drew 1-1 at Trabzonspor, Real Madrid thrashed Dinamo Zagreb 6-2 and Lyon and Ajax played a 0-0 draw.

Elsewhere today, the other Group F match sees Marseille hosting Olympiacos in France. As for the English sides, Chelsea is on the road when Arsenal is at home in the group stage; they are in Germany to face Bayer Leverkusen today. The other group match in Chelsea's group, E, sees Valencia host Genk. Meanwhile, AC Milan welcomes Barcelona to the San Siro (I suppose that's a big match, or something,) BATE Borisov hosts Plzen in Belarus, Shakhtar Donetsk hosts Porto in the Ukraine, and Zenit St Petersburg hosts surprise table topping Cypriot side APOEL in the earliest match.

Norwich City 1-2 Arsenal: The Run Continues

On a day in which rumors out of France indicate that this season may be le grande finale for M. Wenger, Arsenal have notched their sixth straight league victory since the debacle at Shite Hart Lane. In all likelihood, the Premiership is out of reach once again this season - but on this evidence, isn't it within the realm of possibility that we can send the Boss into the sunset with the FA and/or League Cups?

That is rather getting ahead of ourselves, though. This was a matter of navigating a tricky league fixture that - before the season started - may have been seen as three points already in the bag. To give credit where its due though, Paul Lambert has the Canaries playing some good football and proving to be a tough out for the big sides. Chelski were damn lucky to see them off at Stamford Bridge, that's for sure.

As for us, the lineup was largely what you'd expect, with the exception of Laurent Koscielny preferred at the problematic right back position to Johan Djourou. "Arsenal right back" is quickly becoming like "Spinal Tap drummer" with Bacary Sagna's broken leg and Carl Jenkinson's back strain. This meant that Per Mertesacker would partner Thomas Vermaelen in central defense, giving us what I still consider to be our strongest back line in Sagna's absence (today's events aside).

Recent matches have seen Arsenal slowly begin to abandon the third-rate tiki-taka approach for something more of a hybrid approach - Wengerball with a splash of blunt directness. The trend continued today, as Arsenal could have been 1-0 up inside of the first minute. Theo Walcott has been almost unrecognizable from what he was earlier in the season (I can't imagine Fabio Capello cracking a smile, but if anything can manage it, it's Feo's recent form), and his run down the right-hand side left the Norwich left back for dead. He sent a good ball into the middle, but it got caught up in Robin van Persie's feet. The shot went wide, but the first warning shot was fired.

A minute later, the Gunners were threatening again - this time down the other flank. Gervinho started the move, and his cut-back came to Walcott. The shot went wide, but this was all good, positive stuff from the men in red.

The home side, having weathered those early shots across the bow, got back into the game and started looking for opening themselves. Still, the next chance was also Arsenal's, as RVP's long-range effort was just the wrong side of the post. A few minutes later, Russell Martin somehow managed to deflect Walcott's goal-bound effort with a ridiculous Bruce Lee flying karate kick of a clearance. The frustration is that 9 times out of 10, a defender doing that will only help the ball into the net - this time, it was well over the crossbar. Bloody hell.

So, of course Norwich opened the scoring right after.

A long ball over the top of the Arsenal defense seemed to be no trouble for Per Mertesacker. The big German easily got position on Steve Morison, and should have been able to shepherd the ball away with a minimum of fuss. However, it seems that Mertesacker isn't quite used to English center-forwards yet: I doubt there is anywhere on Earth that preaches mindless exertion towards lost causes than in England, and this was one of those rare cases where it reaps the benefits. Morison closed in, muscled Mertesacker off the ball entirely too easily, and was left with a simple low finish past the advancing Wojceich Szczesny. Carrow Road went mental, and the Canaries had an unlikely 1-0 lead.

The good news though is that, like the last few times we've conceded a sickening early goal, the side did not hang their heads and they didn't collapse. Instead, they got right back to the business of getting back to level terms as quickly as possible. RVP had a good chance go begging less than 60 seconds later with a shot into the side netting, and the excellent Andre Santos saw a long shot go into the hands of John Ruddy.

Neither of those chances were as good as the next one, in which Martin was the villain for Arsenal again. Santos' cross was headed on goal by RVP, and Ruddy was beaten. However, Martin was perfectly positioned to clear off the line, giving him his second vital block of the game. Not one minute later, he popped up again to deny the Gunners once again. Gervinho found room down the left and cut in to take a shot. Ruddy got down well to get a leg on it, but it looped up and back towards the net. Somehow, Martin came out of nowhere to hack it clear from the line.

Seriously, this man was royally getting on my tits at this point.

In the 26th minute though, Martin ran out of tricks and Arsenal were level. Once again, that man Walcott destroyed the fullback and drew Ruddy out as he cut inside. His low cross to RVP met with no resistance this time, and the Dutch wizard was able to sidefoot home from a few yards out. Now it was the Blind Pig's turn to go mental, and honestly at this point I felt like there would only ever be one winner.

That's right - me, Mr. Pessimism, is starting to believe in the side in these situations again.

With that, the half finally settled down enough for everyone to catch their breath. It was quite the entertaining 45 minutes, and the second half was probably never going to quite provide the same amount of thrills and spills. Needless to say, I didn't mind quite so much as the second half would prove to be more under control for the visitors.

That said, Norwich had the first decent chance of the second stanza. A foul by Laurent Koscielny gave the Canaries a free kick on the left side of the area. It was hammered into the six-yard box by Anthony Pilkington, but Szczesny was well-positioned and managed to hang on at the first attempt. By the way, that is one of those saves that doesn't look all that difficult, as he was standing mostly still and made what looked like a simple catch. But, that shot was well-hit and to catch and hold it straightaway was quite impressive from the young Pole.

A few minutes later, Arsenal should have been ahead. RVP's through-ball eviscerated the static Norwich backline, and Gervinho was in alone on Ruddy. He rounded the keeper and had the entire net at his mercy. Sadly, the Ivorian was far too casual with his finish, allowing Ruddy to recover and make a fabulous save to block at his feet. You have to applaud the keeper there, but likewise you have to be somewhat disappointed with Gervinho.

Not to worry though, Gooners. That was but a momentary setback, as the Arsenal were ahead to stay four minutes later. The move began when Martin, who had advanced a bit ahead of the rest of the defense to play the ball - turned it over under pressure from Song. The Cameroonian's diagonal pass found the run of RVP, who somehow found the millimeter of space available over the advancing Ruddy to hook it over him and into the net. That was a finish that defies superlatives - the captain just gets better and better.

At this point, Arsenal were content to keep the ball as much as possible. Finally, it seems like this side is learning how to approach these difficult away matches with a late lead. In turn, Norwich turned up the aggression and started to see some yellow cards (a quick aside - the normally execrable Phil Dowd actually had a pretty good game today - I know, I'm scared too). The see-you-next-Tuesday factor increased tenfold as the strangely anonymous Wes Hoolahan was withdrawn in favor of Professional Asshole Grant Holt.

For his first trick, he slyly fouled Mertesacker when the German was in possession. It was a damn good thing that Dowd spotted it and called it correctly, as otherwise the little prick was in alone on Szczesny. Next, he hurled himself backwards into Mertesacker in the penalty area, and theatrically flung himself backwards. Again, Dowd didn't buy it for a second. Seriously, mate - please find a high building to jump off of, preferably aiming for an extremely sharp object. The pit stage of Mortal Kombat springs to mind.

Beyond Holt's ongoing impersonation of Kevin Davies, Arsenal controlled much of the ball and managed to play out time. In fact, Walcott almost got the goal he deserved in the last minute of regular time as well. He received a pass from Aaron Ramsey and, from the corner of the penalty area, took a few steps in and hammered one towards the top corner of the near post. Ruddy was comprehensively beaten, but had positioned himself well and left Walcott precious little to shoot at. Sadly, the shot hit the top of the crossbar and went out of play. It was a hell of an effort though - more of this please, Feo!

Injury time was mostly played out with little incident, but there was still time for Holt to make his mark. He went down easier than Jenna Jameson to the challenge of Santos, and this time Dowd did incorrectly call the foul. One last set piece then, the bane of Arsenal's existence. I admit to a brief moment of worry, but Bradley Johnson's effort was calmly taken by Szczesny, and that was that.

Three huge points then, and now (at least at the time I write this), Arsenal are level with the both London-based rivals in a tie for sixth place. Who could have foreseen this when we were in the mire in 15th place, huh? Six wins from seven in the league, and a good chance to keep the run going with Fulham, Wigan and Everton upcoming. Before that though, there's the small matter of Borussia Dortmund in the Champions' League, and the Arabian Petro-Money All-Stars in the League Cup.

You know what, though? I'm actually kind of hopeful at this point. Perhaps this team will, once again, take the football away at the last second like a Charlie Brown comic. Then again, maybe they won't. Come on, Arsenal...let's really kick on from here and salvage something from the shit-show that was the first two months of the season.

SIDE-NOTE: There was a brilliant rendition of "Hava Negila" upon Benayoun's introduction to the match by one of the faithful at the Blind Pig. Sure, if you didn't come out because of the early start time, you are much more well-rested than I am. But, you also miss cool shit like that!

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Santos 7, Vermaelen 8, Mertesacker 5, Koscielny 7, Gervinho 6 (Benayoun 6), Arteta 7, Song 7, Ramsey 7, Walcott 9 (Djourou N/A), van Persie 9

Man of the Match: I wavered back and forth for a while on this - any other day and it would have been Walcott. I had to give it to Robin van Persie, though.

Preview by Numbers: Norwich City v. Arsenal

Carrow Road, Norwich
Saturday, November 19
7:45 a.m. EST, 12:45 p.m. GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Phil Dowd
    • Assistants: Andy Garratt and David Richardson
    • 4th Official: Michael Oliver
  • This Match, Last Time: Norwich 1 - 4 Arsenal (August 28, 2004)
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 22 Arsenal wins, 10 Norwich wins, 17 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-L-W-W-W-W
  • Norwich's League Form: W-L-W-D-D-L
Thomas Vermaelen questions the referees judgment...
What? This is just a robot? No, no, I'm pretty sure it's
Vermaelen... Photo: Guardian.
The last time Arsenal came back from an international break it was the middle of October. Arsenal was coming off a 2-1 loss against Tottenham and were sitting 15th in the table, eight points short of fourth place Newcastle. In this opening section of the Preview by Numbers post, I quoted Alex Song, who said they needed to come back and win the next five matches. My reaction was, of course, "whoa, whoa, whoa, one at a time."

Since then, it was three points against Sunderland, three against Stoke, a huge win at Chelsea, and three points against West Brom. So far, so good, right, Alex?

This is actually a much bigger match than you might think it is. Arsenal was in great form before the international break, for the first time in what felt like ages. It's hard to maintain that form when you've spent two weeks away from club football. So, it's crucial for Arsenal to hit the ground running again. They play seven games in the next three weeks, so getting back into the groove of good form right away is paramount. It's not something Arsenal does very well, though. From a feature on the Arsenal Web site on Wednesday, they stated Arsenal's record in the first game back from an international break dating back to 2004/05. When that game is played away from home, Arsenal wins less than half the time (7 wins, 8 losses, 2 draws.)

Sure, you may say, Norwich is the kind of team that Arsenal should beat. But, given all this team has been through in the past calendar year, how trustworthy are you of Arsenal in games they should win. Norwich has been pesky this season. It's November, so if a newly promoted side is still 9th in the table, they've got to be doing something right.

Again, crucial match, this.

Arsenal Squad News

Is this Gibbs or Diaby? Photo: Strihs.
Out: Jenkinson (back), Gibbs (hernia), Sagna (broken leg), Wilshere (ankle)

Fingers crossed, as of the time I'm writing this, it sounds like most have come back from the international break in one piece. Robin van Persie was even allowed to return early, which is just incredibly good news that I almost didn't believe when I heard it last Friday.

So, that means the bad news (because there's always some bad news, right?) surrounds already existing injuries. Kieran Gibbs underwent surgery for a hernia and will be out until around Christmas time, as Andre Santos will continue to deputize.

Word also broke yesterday that Carl Jenkinson will miss the match with a stress fracture in his back (well, he does have bad posture, but I'm not one to talk on that subject.) He'll miss a few weeks. So, who starts at right back? Do you start Laurent Koscielny there and bring Per Mertesacker back into the line-up or do you keep the in-form Koscielny in the middle and start Johan Djourou on the right? I'd feel more comfortable with the former option, but would not be surprised by the latter taking place.

Marouane Chamakh and  Abou Diaby have returned to full training, but will both be short of match fitness for a bit, especially Diaby. Other than that, you probably know the other injuries by heart now. Bacary Sagna's return from his broken leg should be in December, Jack Wilshere's return from his ankle surgery should be in the new year (he's now walking without crutches and apparently ahead of schedule.)

Ryo Miyaichi is also hurt with an ankle injury he picked up in the reserves, just so you know. He'll be out 4-6 weeks, so there'll be no Carling Cup match for him later this month.

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

Norwich Squad News

James Vaughan is as perma-hurt as some Arsenal players.
Here is he ripping his own teeth out, or something.
Photo: Football 365.
Out: Vaughan (knee), Whitbread (knee), Ward (knee)
Doubts: Ayala (knee)

Norwich has three injury concerns with one other player on the way back from the sidelines. James Vaughan, who has always been plagued by injury, suffered a knee injury in late September and is expected to miss "three to four months." American defender Zak Whitbread is out with a hamstring injury he suffered against Chelsea. Elliott Ward is still out with a knee injury he picked up during Norwich's pre-season tour of Germany. Daniel Ayala is close to returning from a nasty knee injury he suffered in the second round of the Carling Cup. This list of injuries leaves Norwich with very few center backs, a problem Arsenal has been all too familiar with in recent years. It's also something Robin van Persie and the rest will love to exploit.

Anthony Pilkington is tied for 12th in the league in scoring with four goals. Grant Holt is third in the league in fouls conceded with 23, two behind Kevin Davies's league leading 25.

Match Facts

Jose Antonio Reyes had the opening goal in Arsenal's
last match at Carrow Road, a 4-1 win.
Photo: Sporting Life.
This is Norwich City's first season in the top flight since they were relegated in 2004/05. Arsenal won both league matches that year by 4-1 scores. The last time this fixture was played, it was August of 2004 (Arsenal was still on their invincibles unbeaten run; this was number 44 of that 49 match streak.) Arsenal took a 3-0 lead by halftime with goals from Jose Antonio Reyes, Thierry Henry, and Robert Pires. Darren Huckerby pulled one back from the penalty spot in the 50th, before Dennis Bergkamp made it 4-1 to the good at the end. Norwich was incensed in that match that Lauren was not sent off for a potential last man foul on Huckerby in the first half, but after discussing with the fourth official, Graham Poll showed a yellow card instead of red. Arsenal's three other Premier League matches at Carrow Road ended in draws.

In the reverse fixture at Highbury in April of 2005, the most recent meeting between these two sides, Arsenal also won 4-1. Thierry Henry had a hat trick with Freddie Ljungberg supplying the other. Again, Darren Huckerby had Norwich's consolation goal. This time, that had been scored with the match at 2-0 and it was scored at the half hour mark, so Arsenal's half-time lead was only 2-1 before Ljungberg's 50th minute strike. Henry completed the hat trick in the 66th. That win brought Arsenal back up to second in the league table at the time, which is where they would finish the season.

Those are the only two matches Arsenal and Norwich have played against each other over the last 16 years or so. Their last cup tie was in the 1993/94 League Cup, where Arsenal won 3-0 in a replay at Carrow Road. In three all-time FA Cup ties (two in the '50s and one in the '70s,) Arsenal have won two and Norwich one, with neither side winning a home tie.

Current Form

Arsenal's form before the international break was good.
I hope it stays good. That'd be good. Photo: Guardian.
As the match facts section is fairly irrelevant because these two teams haven't played each other in so long, the current form section is also fairly irrelevant because this is the first game back from an international break, and after two weeks away, form and momentum pretty much goes out the window.

Arsenal's form between this international break and the one before that was fantastic. Eight matches, seven wins, and a 0-0 draw in the Champions League. Arsenal have won four straight league games. They didn't do that at all last year. You'd have to go back to a six match streak in February-March of 2010 for the last time they did that. That run ended with a draw at Birmingham, when the Blues scored in injury time because Manuel Almunia did his Almunia thing in goal.

I've spoken a lot about Arsenal's struggles away from home in this section... basically, whenever Arsenal plays away from home. During this eight match unbeaten run, Arsenal won both of their road matches with a late winner in Marseille and... well, I don't think I need to tell you what happened at Stamford Bridge.

As for Norwich, they are 9th in the table and have only lost once at home this year (1-0 to West Brom.) They also haven't played any of the eight teams ahead of them in the table at Carrow Road yet. They have also won twice (Swansea and Sunderland) and drawn twice (Stoke and Blackburn) at home. They've lost to Chelsea and United away from home (both my two goal margins.) They picked up a 1-1 draw at Anfield, but since them, drew Blackburn at home, and lost 3-2 at Aston Villa.

The Referee

"Phil Dowd is a Wanker" is the first thing that comes
up when you do a Google image search for Phil Dowd.
They pretend they sell this on a T-shirt.
The referee is Staffordshire-based Phil Dowd. Okay, now, everybody panic!

Phil Dowd took charge of five Arsenal matches last year. I could live with forgetting a lot of them. Last September, he was in the middle for Sunderland's last gasp equalizer in a 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light, which saw him show Alex Song red on the hour mark. He did award Arsenal a penalty that day; Tomas Rosicky missed it.

The next time Arsenal saw Dowd, they blew a 2-0 halftime lead at home. To Tottenham. And lost. Then, he took charge of Arsenal's third round FA Cup tie with Leeds and actually handed Arsenal a lifeline, an injury time penalty when trailing. He actually wasn't supposed to be the referee that day (he was listed as the 4th official,) but took over at the last minute. I remember that that happened, but I don't remember why.

In February, something happened in Newcastle. Then, in April, he was at the center of a dreadful 0-0 between Arsenal and Blackburn.

Dowd has not taken charge of a Norwich match since February 20, 2007, as the Canaries lost 2-1 at Preston North End. Dowd's last match at Carrow Road was a 1-0 Norwich win over QPR on December 30, 2006.

Meanwhile, linesman Andy Garratt is the one who incorrectly flagged Andrei Arshavin offside, negating what could have then been a 1-0 Arsenal win. Instead, it remained 0-0, and Arsenal's post-Carling Cup final downward spiral really started. In May, he was on the line when Arsenal hosted Manchester United. Arsenal won that day, but Garratt was standing directly in front of Nemanja Vidic's handball that should have brought about a penalty and didn't flag for it.

Around the League

City v. Newcastle last year saw Hatem Ben Arfa get
de Jong'd. Photo: Guardian.
Arsenal play in the early match for the fourth time already this season, out of 12 league matches. Afterward, there are six matches being played at 10:00 a.m. which includes a battle of the unbeatens and two relegation six-pointers. The battle of the unbeatens sees Manchester City hosts Newcastle United. Newcastle have Man U. and Chelsea ahead of them on the fixture list, so one wonders how long they'll stay in third. Meanwhile, Everton hosts Wolves and Goodison Park, Stoke welcomes Joey Barton and QPR to the Britannia (I predict bloodshed,) Sunderland hosts Fulham in the Northeast, West Brom hosts Bolton in a bottom of the table clash at the Hawthorns, and Wigan hosts Blackburn in another bottom of the table clash at the DW. In the late game, Manchester United heads to Wales to face Swansea.

Sunday holds a huge match at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea faces Liverpool. How many goals will Fernando Torres score against his former club? I'll mark him down for an own goal or two.

On Monday, Tottenham hosts Aston Villa at White Hart Lane. I had to look at the table to see how Aston Villa is doing this year. They're apparently 8th. How about that.