Arsenal 3-2 Aston Villa: Back From the Dead

Arsenal's season was clinically dead for about 35 minutes. Hopelessness and dread once again descended onto Ashburton Grove in a sickly gray pall, the reaper closing in with sickle in hand. All seemed lost, that is, until Dr. Richard Dunne resuscitated the patient with one of the stupidest and most needless fouls in recent FA Cup history.

Believe me, I'm not complaining.

Let's start from the beginning, though. Arsene Wenger fielded largely a full-strength lineup, with the main exception being Lukasz Fabianski deputizing for Wojceich Szczesny in goal. This move elicited more than a few groans, but the rest of the lineup seemed strong enough to see off what has been a largely unimpressive Aston Villa side. Another heartening sign was found on the bench, where Mikael Arteta and Bacary Sagna (YAY!) made their returns from injury.

The opening minutes belonged to the Arsenal, the ball pinging around from red shirt to red shirt with only the occasional intervention from someone in white. Aaron Ramsey was the first to test the returning Shay Given in the Villa goal, but his shot was weak and easily handled. A minute later, a free kick was worked out to Thomas Vermaelen, whose shot was anything but weak. He brilliantly found space through Robbie Keane's legs and still managed to get his shot to rise. Given had to be exceptionally sharp to claw it out for a corner.

Villa found their sea legs eventually though, and were assisted in their cause by the now-usual comedy stylings of Fabianski. I've alluded to it before, but it's at a point where keeping him at Arsenal borders on the cruel-and-unusual. He's got some talent but badly needs to play under a far less harsh spotlight than the Premier League - I imagine the Eridivise or something similar would do him good. Anyway, he made a right old hash of a backpass and nearly gifted a goal to Villa. This was followed by Theo Walcott finding plenty of space in the area after a great ball from Tomas Rosicky. Walcott took far too long to shoot though, and fired well wide under pressure.

This was the point where, just a little, doubt crept into the Arsenal side.

A perhaps fortuitous call from referee Michael Jones led to a free kick in prime territory - central and just outside the area. Robin van Persie weakly dinked it into the wall, though. If frustration was growing here, it only grew at the sight of Fabianski charging out and getting nothing but air after a cross rebounded off of Laurent Koscielny. Luckily, Darren Bent wasn't able to capitalize.

Villa, feeling it now, came right back and should have at least tested Fabianski a minute later. Gabriel Agbonlahor roasted Francis Coquelin (who had a torrid time at right back) and had plenty of time to cross to a disgracefully-open Bent. Luckily for us, his cross was poorly over-hit.

The goal was coming though, and sure enough the visitors found it in the 33rd minute. A simple training ground short-corner shredded the Arsenal defense, with just about no one out wide to cut off the delivery into the middle. Keane's cross to the far-post was perfect, but the fact of the matter is that there were three guys in red standing there. Fabianski couldn't come out with the mass of humanity there, but one of them should have dealt with it. Instead, Dunne powerfully rose over a weak jump from Koscielny (a poor effort from the Frenchman there) and hammered a header into the net. The Gunners had lost control of the match, and the Villains got their just rewards there.

We were hoping for a reaction from our guys after the goal was conceded. Oh, we got one, all right. As bad as they were in that stretch leading up to the goal, they were worse afterwards. Passes were misplaced, Coquelin was routinely getting destroyed by Agbonlahor, and even when Carlos Cuellar gifted possession to Ramsey in the penalty area, he couldn't do anything with it.

The excellent Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stung Given's palms from distance as the half wound to a close, but Villa came right back up the other end and seemingly delivered the coup de grace to the remnants of our season. For some reason, Per Mertesacker was all the way up in the Villa penalty area despite it only being 0-1 with halftime approaching. Villa repelled the attack and off they went on the counter, Stephen Ireland playing a gorgeous ball to Bent with Coquelin all at sea once again. His powerful drive was well-saved by Fabianski, but the rebound came back out to Bent. Coquelin still wasn't back, and the guys in the middle were all just kind of standing around. Still, Bent didn't have much to shoot at with the angle so acute, but he somehow slid the ball past Fabianski's dive and into the one angle it could have gone in.

I am not a fan of praising Bent, but that was a hell of a finish.

Needless to say, the atmosphere at halftime was funereal, a stunned silence enveloping the space normally filled with drinking and camaraderie. This was one of those all-too-familiar moments this season where it felt like our next step would send us collectively plunging into the abyss.

We probably will never know what the Boss told his charges in the locker room at halftime. Whatever words were spoken or objects were thrown, it worked. Directly after the second-half whistle, Arsenal played with the verve and purpose that we know they have inside them. It's exactly what I was saying in my piece before this game - the fortitude and ability are there, they just can't seem to harness it at will. Either way, in retrospect, I think that Villa assumed that Arsenal would remain in the fetal position for the second 45, and in many cases they'd have been right to do so. This time, they weren't manning their posts as the rampaging hordes came through, and they paid for it dearly.

A few minutes after the restart, Arsenal so nearly took the lead - from a corner, of all things. The first half saw the usual cavalcade of crap set pieces, many of which failed to beat the first man (Rosicky had a great game as I'll get to in a bit, but he shouldn't be taking corners). This time, RVP's effort looped deliciously into the path of Mertesacker, who nodded it down to the far corner. Sadly, Ireland was there to toe-poke it off the line.

That was just the opening sortie, though. The main phalanx was coming, embodied by Stiliyan Petrov having to make a saving tackle to take the ball off of Walcott in the area, and neat interplay between Ramsey and Theo leading to the former hesitating too long and failing to test Given.

The walls wouldn't hold forever. Three chances in three minutes went unfulfilled, but the fourth would not.

Here's the thing - Richard Dunne is a wonderful defender. You may remember that in our last meeting with Villa in the league, I had said he was the real Man of the Match. He has enough raw ability to play for any side in the world, and is a major reason for Ireland's rebirth as a serious international threat. However, the reason he plies his trade for Villa instead of Manchester United or Chelsea is his capacity for astonishing mental meltdowns. Case in point, Alex Song's through-ball was a little too heavy for Ramsey to get to. Had Dunne done nothing at all, it would have been scooped up by Given or otherwise cleared away. Instead, Dunne came barreling in and took out Ramsey with a sliding challenge. He can complain all he wants, but that's a stonewall penalty on a play where there was literally zero danger for his side.

More importantly, had Dunne not committed the foul, there is certainly a chance that the missed chances would have led to the belief draining out of the side, and they may have seen out the game from there. It took what may have been a brief momentum change and calcified it into something far more permanent. The truth of the matter was that Robin was never going to miss that penalty - we could tell that even with our morale in the gutter from the first half. The spot-kick was summarily dispatched low and in the corner, Given having guessed wrong.

One small complaint, though it ended up not mattering. Riddle me this, Mr. Jones...if the foul was enough for a penalty, how was it not enough for a booking? Dunne was already on a yellow - I'd love to see the explanation for why he stayed on the pitch. It didn't matter, but it was quite vexing at the time.

Anyway, I think we knew at that point that something special was on. Out of the silence came a spark of life, the songs and chants coming at a furious pace. Villa were all over the shop, and two minutes later the match was level.

Walcott, the ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde footballer, showed both sides of his game today. He was perhaps the worst of a bad lot in the first half, as penetrative and effective as a marshmallow spear. After the interval, he charged at the Villa defense with ferocity. He left Stephen Warnock for dead, and came in on Given. The Irish No. 1 blocked his initial effort, but in the confusion of the rebound pinballing around, that hyperactive mutant Alan Hutton could only slice his clearance into the face of Walcott.

The way this season has gone, you'd have expected it to go out to safety or into the path of another Villa player to start a counter-attack. Yeah, well, not today. Instead, it looped off of Walcott's bonce and past a stunned Given. Cue absolute bedlam amongst the Arsenal support, as there was only ever going to be one result in the match from then on.

Sure enough, it only took four more minutes for Arsenal to take the lead. The red-and-white were submerged in the grave in the 53rd minute, resurrected and routing their opponents in the 60th. Beats the hell out of Lazarus, I'll tell you that.

This time, it was Koscielny at the vanguard, haring into the penalty area with the men in white shirts scrambling to cover. Bent mistimed his challenge and could not rightly complain as Jones once again pointed to the spot. RVP once again sent Given the wrong way on the penalty kick, and Villa's implosion was complete.

Arsenal, to their credit, did not attempt to sit on the lead. Walcott so nearly made it four, his long-range drive parried away by Given. There was a momentary wobble where Koscielny lost Petrov in the area, but Mertesacker covered brilliantly. From that point on, they never threatened again.

The already-buoyant mood was further improved when Rosicky was withdrawn for the returning Arteta. We have unquestionably missed his calm assurance in the center of the park, although the Czech man was brilliant in the second half. He not only kept the offense ticking over with some truly exceptional passing, but he tirelessly chased down the ball and gave their central midfield precious little time and space to operate. Despite only playing 70, he was the Man of the Match in my eyes.

At this point, Arsenal called off the dogs a bit and were content to let time tick by. Villa did have one half-chance on a corner, but Ciaran Clark's header was right at Fabianski. In fairness to our man, he did do well to hang onto it, though.

The 88th minute saw our final two subs come on, and thankfully Andrei Arshavin was not among them. Instead, Thierry Henry came on for a cameo in place of Oxlade-Chamberlain, and more importantly Sagna came on in place of Walcott. He looked a bit rusty and made a hash of one clearance, but it mattered little in the end...and the game practice will do him well on his path back to first-team action.

The four minutes of injury time were navigated with little in the way of threat from a hangdog Villa side resigned to defeat. The final whistle went, and there was much rejoicing way down south in the land of Arsenal.

Before the match, the draw for the 5th round was made. Of course, our main rivals all got lower-league sides, while we travel to the winner of Sunderland v. Middlesbrough. The match finished 1-1 today at the Stadium of Light, so they'll do it again at the Riverside. Whoever wins there though, you have to feel like Arsenal should win that match. It's like I said in my piece from the other day - win this one, see who you get. Win that one, and we're in the quarterfinals. Win that one, and we can seriously start dreaming of silverware once again.

Maybe we can't win the league. Maybe Milan will carve us open in Europe. But, we can win this trophy. We HAVE to win this trophy. Roll on the last 16.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Fabianski 7, Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 5, Mertesacker 7, Coquelin 5, Oxlade-Chamberlain 7 (Henry N/A), Song 7, Ramsey 7, Rosicky 8 (Arteta 7), Walcott 7 (Sagna N/A), van Persie 7

Man of the Match: As mentioned, Tomas Rosicky was the engine that made us go in the second half until he was withdrawn.

We Need This One

If there is one game that Arsenal Football Club absolutely must win this season, this is it.

The Manchester United result has been flogged to death, specifically THAT substitution and our captain's reaction to it. I won't revisit it for long, it being eons after the fact. All I'll say is that if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain really was ill and or carrying a knock (though that explanation reeks of Manuel Almunia's "injury" to me), Yossi Benayoun was on the bench. He may not be banging in the goals this season, but he invariably puts in a shift defensively. He'd have been far less likely to give the Manchester United attackers the old bullfighting "ole!" treatment. Right word, wrong context, Andrei.

Oh, while I'm at it, I drunkenly e-mailed myself my ratings of the match - here they are for completion's sake:

Szczesny 7, Vermaelen 6, Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 7, Djourou 4 (Yennaris 6), Oxlade-Chamberlain 7 (Arshavin 5), Song 6, Ramsey 6, Rosicky 6, Walcott 5, van Persie 7

Man of the Match: I may have to destroy all copies of my season preview - Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was awesome against the defending champions.

With that out of the way, allow me to explain why I put so much importance on today's match. While Arsenal supporters are (in a broad sense) sharply and at times angrily divided into "Arsene Still Knows" and "Arsene's Head on a Pike" camps, all can agree that the club is in a right old state this season. Qualification for the Champions' League looks questionable at this stage, which in turn puts serious doubt on Robin van Persie's future. This is well-trod ground, of course.

For me, the one thing that can get us onside again is some beacon of positivity. In short, we need a trophy. There's a reason why last season's League Cup debacle remains so vividly in our nightmares, whereas in seasons past it would have been no more than a minor inconvenience. The mentality of a club is often self-perpetuating. I swear, the only thing that keeps Manchester United ticking is the equivalent of muscle memory. This lot are not exactly their 1999 vintage. But, they know how to close games out, how to win when a match hangs threadbare on the margins.

Then, you have us. Whatever our frustrations can be at times, there are flashes of greatness that appear ever so fleetingly. These are for the most part highly skilled players who at certain times have shown immense will and desire to win. People who rage at the side's apparent lack of mental fortitude - myself included in moments of red mist - miss the point. These are professionals who badly want to reverse their fortunes and start winning games and shiny metal things.

I wonder if they can ever re-learn how, barring major changes.

Losing teams often have personnel that are just as skilled, if not more so, than the ones celebrating at the end. But, put United or increasingly their city rivals in a match like Fulham where the referee's out to get them, and they get at least a point out of it. Put them in a match against a frisky Swansea side, and they still win. Against a United team ravaged by injury and playing poorly for long stretches, City probably wins that game.

It's inertia, borne from a mindset that doesn't begin from a belief that calamity is just around the corner.

Andrei Arshavin, to me, is a perfect example. We all know what the man can do when the stars align - that magical day at Anfield immediately springing to mind (just imagine if we had our current defensive line and keeper for that one - it'd be 4-2 to us at worst). I was just thinking on the train today how, with the passion that this sport elicits, the pelters come at him doused in vitriol, without clear thought as to how things got this bad.

Don't get me wrong - I don't believe that Arshavin should so much as make the bench these days. It's just that I think we lose sight of the fact sometimes that these guys are human beings, and subject to the same twists of fate that real life brings to all of us. Frankly, I think the guy would be a fucking riot to have a vodka with - trust me, you'd probably feel the same if you ever saw the answers to the questions fans send him on his website. He's kind of like football's answer to Ilya Bryzgalov (start from 1:40 or so).

What I'm getting at is that in a vacuum, Andrei Arshavin is a fantastic player. But, I don't think it will ever happen for him again at Arsenal. He is one of a few, along with Marouane Chamakh, Lukasz Fabianski, Johan Djourou, and increasingly Theo Walcott who I think need to move on in order to have the best chance of getting their careers back on track. I honestly don't bear them any ill will, it's just that things have not remotely worked out here at Arsenal, and I fear it not only contributes to a self-perpetuating cycle of doubt and pessimism for themselves, but it seeps into the squad as a whole.

If we are to rescue the development of the shining young talents here like Wojceich Szczesny, the rapidly-developing professionals like Laurent Koscielny and if we are to capture the very best of Robin van Persie's prime, then the winds of change badly need to roll through Ashburton Grove.

That said, the one thing that may salvage not only the season but this version of Arsenal itself would be winning the FA Cup. Sure, it's not the league championship that we so badly desire. But, let's face facts - we lost in the League Cup to the same disinterested Manchester City side that was summarily dispatched by Liverpool this past know, the same Liverpool going through an eerily-similar situation to ours. It wasn't a bad effort by any stretch of the imagination, but it was one of those matches decided on the margins where once again we fell short where others have succeeded.

Then, you have the Champions' League. My hope of course is that we somehow can repeat past glories in the city of Milan and defeat the side currently nipping Juventus' heels at the top of Serie A. My heart believes it is possible, but my head looks at their defensive record and the fact that they're banging in goals for fun domestically, and I just don't know how it'd be done...especially in our state right now.

Should the above all be true, that the league is gone and so is Europe after this round of fixtures, then that leaves the FA Cup. Here, even my Debbie Downer head believes that anything is possible. Manchester City are already out. The conclusion of this round will also guarantee the departure of either Liverpool or a reeling Manchester United (don't believe the hype, their win over us was far more down to our frailties than anything they did). Even if it is United that advances, this last game showed that we can stand against them on something approaching even terms and give them everything they ever wanted barring any more mystifying substitutions.

Aston Villa is a winnable game...they're not that strong. Beat them, and let's see who we get in the fifth round. This is a straight knockout tournament, and goofy stuff happens all the time. Win this one, go one step at a time, and maybe we find our lady Gooners wearing yellow ribbons come August.

Lose this one, though?

It doesn't bear thinking about.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Aston Villa, FA Cup Fourth Round

Emirates Stadium, London
Sunday, January 29
11:00 a.m. EST, 4:00 p.m. GMT
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  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Michael Jones
    • Assistants: David Richardson and Dave Bryan
    • 4th Official: Neil Swarbrick
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 73 Arsenal wins, 65 Aston Villa wins, 44 draws
  • All-Time in the FA Cup: 6 Arsenal wins, 3 Aston Villa wins, 3 draws
  • Arsenal's Path Here: 3rd Round: 1-0 win v. Leeds United
  • Aston Villa's Path Here: 3rd Round: 3-1 win at Bristol Rovers
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-D-W-L-L-L
  • Aston Villa's League Form: L-D-W-L-D-W
"Substitution? Well, I could do a better job than that,"
says a fan in Block 3, Row 15. Sure you could...
Photo: Guardian.
At the end of August, Arsenal were three games into their season and had just one point. They were coming off an embarrassing loss at Old Trafford and things looked grim. They were already six points back of the top four. 16 matches later, as the season reached its halfway point after a New Year's Eve win over Queens Park Rangers, Arsenal were sitting in fourth place with 36 points, two points clear of Chelsea in fifth. Arsenal had made up the six points and gained two more in 16 games. Those 16 matches still included three losses and two draws.

Three games into the second half of the season and Arsenal still have 36 points. They lost at Fulham, they lost at Swansea, and they lost at home to United. They are five points back of the top four. So why now are people talking as if Arsenal has no shot at Champions League football next year? There are 16 matches left. Over the final 16 matches in the first half of the season, Arsenal picked up an eight point swing on Chelsea. Is five completely unmanageable? Arsenal gets to play Chelsea at home within these 16 fixtures. Win that and the point swing is just two.

Everybody relax, it's January. The sky is not falling. Arsenal's world is not ending. But they do have to start beating the teams they're supposed to.

We'll worry about that for Wednesday's game at Bolton, but for now, it's the FA Cup once again. Arsenal will play host to an Aston Villa team that pretty much just has this trophy to play for this season. They're good enough to not have to worry about relegation, but not good enough to be in serious contention for European qualification through their spot in the table. So really, you can bet Alex McLeish will throw everything he has at Arsenal on Sunday, because this is what Villa are playing for. This game has no direct ramifications on Arsenal's top four aspirations, but a win is required to turn the ship around and to, quite honestly, shut the doom-and-gloom fans up.

Onwards and upwards and all that. AND RELAX!

Arsenal Squad News

Look at little Nico Yennaris as the club mascot from this
Arsenal - Coventry game in 2000. Also, I'm freaked out
that Mike Dean was the referee that day and then a
decade later in Yennaris's debut. Photo: Flickr.
Out: Gibbs (groin), Sagna (leg), Jenkinson (back), Wilshere (ankle), Santos (ankle), Diaby (hamstring)
Doubts: Arteta (calf), Henry (calf), Coquelin (hamstring)
Africa Cup: Gervinho, Chamakh

Arsenal play on Sunday and then again on Wednesday in the league, so the question of whether or not there will be squad rotation will obviously come up. Maybe if this cup tie were against lesser competition, there would be some, but this is a must-win game against mid-table Premier League opposition, and it's followed by a must-win league game to halt Arsenal's losing streak in the Prem at three. As a result, I honestly can't see there being that much squad resting in two matches that Arsenal absolutely must win to bounce out of the downward trend in which they are currently engulfed.

The Gunners have sorely missed Mikel Arteta in the midfield over their past two losses; speaking before the Manchester United game, Arsene Wenger said "the earliest for him" in terms of returning from a calf injury "is Aston Villa," so before any official team news comes out, Arteta looks to be on the more positive side of 50/50 for a return. Thierry Henry did not pass fit before the United match, but could return this week from a calf injury of his own. Meanwhile, it's been about three weeks since Francis Coquelin injured his calf, so he could be in line for a return as well.

Most of Arsenal's long term injuries are now "a few weeks away" from their respective returns. Bacary Sagna is back in full training and will return in "2-3 weeks." It's a similar time frame for Kieran Gibbs, while both Carl Jenkinson and Jack Wilshere are back running. They could all be back around the same time, possibly by the fifth round of the FA Cup. An optimistic return for any of them would be the first leg of the Champions League against Milan on February 15.

Lukasz Fabianski has returned from his knee injury to play for the reserves, so he could feature in this cup tie. Andre Santos will miss two more months as of about last week, while there is no longer anything close to a time frame for a return of Abou Diaby.

I won't try to predict an XI for this match, because I could be dead wrong about the rotation thing. My biggest stretches in terms of guesswork would be Fabianski starting in goal (even that could be doubtful) and Nico Yennaris getting the nod at right back. Other than those choices, I think Wenger will pick the strongest squad available for both games this week.

Aston Villa Squad News

Arsenal killer Darren Bent missed December's fixture
through injury, but should start Sunday. Damn it!
Photo: Daily Mirror.
Out: N'Zogbia (heel), Cuellar (hip), Herd (ankle), Lichaj (hip)
Doubts: Ireland (hamstring), Agbonlahor (illness), Heskey (Achilles)

Charles N'Zogbia visited a specialist on Wednesday in an attempt to treat a heel injury which has kept him out of action since January 2. He's missed three straight matches for the Villans and Tim Abraham of the Midlands-based evening newspaper Express & Star has stated that he's "definitely out."
Villa hope to be boosted by three potential returns to their squad. Stephen Ireland and Emile Heskey both missed last week's 3-2 win over Wolves with hamstring and Achilles injuries, respectively. Both returned to training at the end of this week. Meanwhile, Gabriel Agbonlahor was removed from that match at halftime with an illness, but he has recovered, and returned to training.

Carlos Cuellar has been out for the month of January with a hip/thigh injury, while Chris Herd has ligament damage in his ankle that will keep him out until next month, and Eric Lichaj is on the cusp of returning from a hip injury, having returned to training a few weeks ago.

Current Form

Aston Villa have been flipped out of the FA Cup by the
eventual champion for the last two years.
Heh, see what I did there? Photo: Zimbio.
Well, as you may know, Arsenal have lost three straight league matches for the first time since March-April of 2007 (a streak which included West Ham becoming the first opposing team to win at the Emirates.) But you know what?! This isn't a league game, so let's toss all of that negativity aside for a bit. Sure, it's still a late Sunday match, which I first mentioned last week has seen Arsenal fail to win in now 11 tries after the loss to United, losing eight of them. No time like the present to snap that streak, right? Law of averages, etc...

Even though Arsenal struggled in the league earlier this season, their form in other competitions wasn't bad, which means this is the first time all season that Arsenal have lost consecutive matches across all competitions.

The last time Arsenal lost an FA Cup tie on home soil was in Arsene Wenger's first season, 1996/97. On February 4, 1997, they lost in the fourth round to Leeds United, 1-0. In 15 previous seasons under Arsene Wenger in the FA Cup, Arsenal have never lost in the third round and have only been eliminated in the fourth round on four occasions: the aforementioned loss to Leeds, to Leicester on penalties in a replay in 2000, to Bolton in 2006, and to Stoke in 2010. Arsenal have won the FA Cup on the same number of occasions in the Wenger era.

Aston Villa's form has been a bit up and down in the league. After losing to Arsenal just before the festive period, they drew Stoke, but then beat Chelsea at the Bridge, then lost at home to Swansea, drew Everton, and beat ten-man Wolves at Molineux after Emmanuel Frimpong left hurt. You try to make heads or tails of that form. It's all over the place.

Last year in the FA Cup, Aston Villa lost to the eventual champion Manchester City, 3-0. Villa reached the semi-final in 2010, losing 3-0 at Wembley to the eventual double winner, Chelsea. So, basically, if Arsenal wins this match 3-0, recent history suggests that Arsenal will win the FA Cup. In 2009, the Villans were knocked out by Everton, 3-1, in the fifth round. The last time Villa did not progress from the fourth round was 2008, when the draw pit them against Manchester United in the third round. Villa lost at home, 2-0.

Match Facts

Yossi Yossi Yossi! Oi Oi Oi! Photo: Official Site.
Over their last 26 meetings in the league, Arsenal have lost to Aston Villa just twice, though that includes the last time these two sides met at the Emirates, when Darren Bent scored twice in the early going to see off Arsenal 2-1 in the Gunners' final home match of last year. Villa have actually won two of their last three trips to Arsenal. The Villans also won 2-0 in November of 2008, with goals coming from a Gael Clichy own goal and Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Arsenal won the only league meeting between these two sides so far this year, 2-1 at Villa Park, just before Christmas. Robin van Persie opened the scoring from the penalty spot, Villa equalized when Marc Albrighton scored the 20 millionth goal in Premier League history (oh, 20 thousandth,) and Arsenal won when Yossi Benayoun headed in a corner late in regular time.

Arsenal and Villa have met for nine FA Cup ties in their history; this is the first since 1983, when Arsenal won 2-0 in sixth round. Arsenal have won six of those cup ties (1926 in a replay, 1928, 1931 in a replay, 1954, 1956, and 1983,) Villa have won three (1929, 1934, and 1974 in a replay.) In matches played at Arsenal, Villa won once (in 1934) and have earned a draw twice, winning the most recent of those replays.

The Referee

"Relax, I've got this."
The referee is Cheshire-based Mike Jones, working his first Arsenal match of the campaign. He took charge of four Arsenal matches last year: their 6-0 thumping of Blackpool in August, the 1-0 win over West Ham in late October, won late by Alex Song's diving header, the 0-0 draw with Manchester City in early January, and the exasperating 2-1 loss at Bolton in late April. I remember Jones calling a terrible penalty for Bolton in that last game, but then it was missed and Arsenal came back the other way to score the, at that point, equalizer.

This is Jones's first match of the season for Aston Villa as well. Last year, he worked a 1-0 win over Everton, a 2-1 Carling Cup win over Burnley, a 3-1 FA Cup win at Sheffield United, a 2-2 draw at Everton, and a 1-1 draw with Wigan. Despite wins in both of those cup ties, Villa ended each of those matches with ten men following red cards.

Around the Fourth Round

For the second straight round, the Arsenal match will be the final match of the weekend to be played. Thankfully, for the sake of my own ability to get to the pub, it wasn't moved to a Monday this time.

As in the third round, fixtures start on Friday this time around, too. It all starts with those boys from up the road you love to hate; that's right, Watford. Oh, and, I guess Tottenham Hotspur fits that description too. In any case, it's kind of like a North London derby, except that Arsenal's not playing... and Watford is a few miles too far north... yeah... anyway, Everton hosts Fulham as well on Friday.

REMATCH! Photo: Guardian.
12 matches will be held on Saturday, starting off with the two bigger of the glamour ties of this round. The fact that both are rematches of the two big racism incidents of this season proves interesting as well. At 7:00 a.m. Eastern time, QPR hosts Chelsea in a West London derby, while at 7:45, it's Liverpool and Manchester United.

Nine matches will kick-off in the 10:00 a.m. slot, and honestly, I'd be at a loss if I were an executive at Fox to choose which two to air on Fox Soccer and Fox Soccer Plus. So, what did they end up picking? Well, it's Derby County and Stoke City on Fox Soccer and it's Leicester City and Swindon Town on Fox Soccer Plus. Really? Because there were two all-Prem ties that you could've chosen... Anyway, the other seven matches are: Blackpool hosting Sheffield Wednesday, Bolton hosting Swansea, Hull City hosts Crawley Town, Millwall hosts Southampton, Sheffield United hosts Birmingham City, Stevenage hosts Notts County, and West Brom hosts Norwich.

Saturday's late game sees Brighton & Hove Albion host Newcastle at the Amex. Sunday's early match is an enthralling North East derby that has not been contested in a while, as Sunderland hosts Middlesbrough at the Stadium of Light.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Manchester United

Emirates Stadium, London
Sunday, January 22
11:00 a.m. EST, 4:00 p.m. GMT
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  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Dean
    • Assistants: Stuart Burt and Adam Watts
    • 4th Official: Phil Dowd
  • Reverse Fixture: Manchester United 8 - 2 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 1 - 0 Manchester United
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 79 Arsenal wins, 89 United wins, 46 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-W-D-W-L-L
  • United's League Form: W-W-W-L-L-W
No caption required. Photo: Daily Mail.
I was at an open mic comedy night (not performing myself) in Bushwick, a few blocks from my apartment, on Wednesday night and the host, in between performers, went into a joke about watching the Premier League. Basically, he stated the obvious about how the sport makes it more socially acceptable to shout profanities and drink booze in the mornings. He also made some comparisons to watching American football, and commented on the New York Giants' demolition of the Green Bay Packers from last Sunday's NFC Divisional playoff game. He talked about how the Packers were terrible in that game and lost by 17, but they looked great in comparison to Arsenal from earlier that day.

So, that's where we stand right now, after last week's loss to Swansea. Arsenal is a punchline. It's familiar territory after what happened between Arsenal and Manchester United in the reverse of this fixture in August. And from there, Arsenal slowly picked themselves up, went on a nice run of form in October and November, and by New Year's Eve, they were sitting in fourth place.

But, 2012 has brought about some disastrous results, and the Gunners are falling back down the spiral again. The performances have been poor. The dedication doesn't seem to be there from everybody on the pitch, and in other cases, players are trying to do too much and end up failing to succeed at anything. For as much as pundits may call this a one man team, it is not just the Robin van Persie show. There have been solid performances from many others, game in and game out, like Wojciech Szczesny, Alex Song, and Laurent Koscielny. But there have not been enough, and if that trend continues, then Arsenal can kiss Champions League football goodbye.

Lapses in concentration are costly at this level; it is inexcusable to concede a goal just seconds after scoring an equalizer, like Arsenal did for Swansea's winner last week. The confidence is low and results are showing it. This is not the time to dwell on past errors. It's time to turn things around.

And there's no better situation to help turn it around than a good revenge game. The players should not need any extra motivation than what is being presented to them right now. A chance to right the ship and get some level of retribution for August's embarrassing loss at Old Trafford. Both teams are light at the back right now, conceding goals at a higher clip than ever before. Maybe somebody on this Arsenal squad can find their scoring touch again.

It's time to make a statement. It's time to get revenge. It's time to fight back into the battle for fourth.

It's time to stop being a punchline.

Arsenal Squad News
That's a handball, Robin! Photo: Citroen.

Out: Arteta (calf), Gibbs (groin), Coquelin (hamstring), Wilshere (ankle), Sagna (leg), Diaby (hamstring), Jenkinson (back), Santos (ankle)
Doubts: Henry (calf), Vermaelen (calf)

Arsene Wenger's press conference is on Friday, but as you have probably noticed, I like writing these on Thursday and having them posted on Friday mornings, because people are more likely to read them on a work day than early in the morning on a weekend. So, deal with it.

That means, at the time of writing this, there are some doubts over the inclusion in the squad of a few players. Mikel Arteta, out with a calf injury that I heard nothing about until he missed the Swansea game, looks like he won't be featuring. And that's a shame, because I thought the midfield was sorely missing him in Wales last week. The result of Arteta's absence was increased pressure on Aaron Ramsey to do too much, a situation in which the young Welshman did not exactly thrive. The good news regarding this pair of overplayed midfielders is that Jack Wilshere is returning to training next week. Rejoice! It's like a new signing! I wonder who will babysit Archie...

Thierry Henry picked up a calf strain in training and now faces a late fitness test to feature against United. Meanwhile, it'll be another late test to decide if Thomas Vermaelen will pass fit to return from his calf injury. His return for this match would be a huge boost to Arsenal's back line, but the last I heard on him was "doubtful."

So, what back four do you select for a test like United? One hopes Vermaelen can start on the left, otherwise it'll have to be Ignasi Miquel again, no? Nobody can be worse at left back than Armand Traore and his chewing gum were at Old Trafford in August. The other three pick themselves: Johan Djourou, Laurent Koscielny, and Per Mertesacker.

In the midfield, if Arteta's not available, then I would imagine it would be Yossi Benayoun to start again, alongside Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey. Benayoun was a bit invisible against Swansea last week, but experience can't hurt in a match like this. Alternatively, it could be Tomas Rosicky. Up front, the trio will likely again be Andrei Arshavin, Theo Walcott, and Robin van Persie, though I know there are a ton of people that would be thrilled to see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain get a start.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Djourou, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Song, Ramsey, Benayoun, Arshavin, Walcott, van Persie.

Manchester United Squad News

Danny Welbeck drew a penalty last week, which was
eventually saved, then left with a knee injury. He's a
doubt for the trip. Photo: Guardian.
Out: Cleverley (foot), Owen (thigh), Young (ankle), Fletcher (illness), Vidic (knee)
Doubts: Jones (knee), Smalling (thigh), Welbeck (knee), Anderson (knee)

United have been decimated by injuries all season, just as Arsenal have, though with a little more depth in their line-up, they have masked it well. They currently have five players who are certainly out for this match. Nemanja Vidic's season ended the same day as United's Champions League campaign in Basel in December. His knee ligament damage will keep him out until August. Darren Fletcher is still missing for an indeterminate period with illness. Ashley Young, who had a brace in the reverse fixture, is out until next month with an ankle injury. Also out until February are Michael Owen (thigh) and Tom Cleverley (foot.)

A number of players are doubtful for this week's match, as well. Danny Welbeck, who opened the scoring in the 8-2 fiasco, left last week's match with Bolton after hyper-extending his knee. He could possibly return for this encounter. Chris Smalling is doubtful with a thigh injury and fellow defender Phil Jones is a doubt with a knee injury. Last week, United's back four included Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans (himself returning from a calf injury,) and Rafael. It was the Brazilian defender's fourth appearance of the season. His twin brother Fabio returned from a hamstring injury to make the bench last week. Also a doubt is fellow Brazilian Anderson, who returned from a long term knee injury on New Year's Eve in the loss to Blackburn, with a knock as he returns to full fitness.

Current Form

I know how you feel, Arsene. I'm just glad Pat Rice is
wearing pants in this picture. Photo: This is London.
We all know Arsenal's form has tanked a bit since the middle of December, starting with the hard fought loss at Manchester City, and we've obviously touched ad infinitum on the fact that the injuries to the back line are a major contributing factor. As such, I'm going to use this opportunity to point to a particularly disturbing trend involving Arsenal's result in this specific time slot, and what it means about their ability to perform in big games.

4:00 p.m. on Sundays (that's 11:00 a.m. here in New York) is the time slot where Sky Sports usually puts their biggest match of the weekend, on "Super Sunday," with very few exceptions. When Arsenal takes on a big opponent, whether it be United, City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, etc., it's usually played either in this slot or in the early slot on Saturdays (7:45 a.m. in NYC.) Arsenal have a mixed bag of results in those early Saturday matches, but in the later slot on Sundays, the Gunners are now without a win in ten consecutive matches. They've lost seven of them.

The last time Arsenal won in this time slot was October 24, 2010, benefiting from a fifth minute red card to see off Manchester City 3-0 at Eastlands. Since then: they drew Leyton Orient in the FA Cup 1-1 (that wasn't on Sky, but it was still a late Sunday kick-off,) they lost the Carling Cup final, they imploded late to draw Liverpool 1-1 in the eight billionth minute of added time, they lost late to Bolton 2-1, they lost at home to Aston Villa 2-1, drew Fulham in the final game of last season (when every game is in that time slot,) lost that game to Manchester United in August, lost the North London derby at the Lane 2-1 in October, lost to City in December, and lost last week in Swansea.

I'm not really sure what this might tell you specifically, though ten matches is certainly enough of a trend to warrant concern and mention. Not all of these matches were against the top of the table competition, so it's not just that they can't win "big games;" they've been alright playing top competition at earlier times (like the 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge in October.) Maybe it's all just coincidence. It's not like Arsenal was winning much in other time slots at the end of last season anyway. Just something to ponder, considering this and Arsenal's FA Cup tie next week with Aston Villa are at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Sunday.

As for Manchester United's recent form, they had lost two in a row against Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United before rebounding with a win over Manchester City in the FA Cup. They benefited from hosting relegation candidate Bolton Wanderers at home in the last round of fixtures, which they ended up winning comfortably 3-0, despite a shaky start and having a Wayne Rooney penalty saved.

Match Facts

Don't forget. Arsenal won this fixture last year.
Photo: Daily Mail.
In 2006/2007, Arsenal did the league double over Manchester United. They won 1-0 at Old Trafford, thanks to an 86th minute winner from Emmanuel Adebayor. At the Emirates in January of 2007, Arsenal won 2-1, thanks to late goals from Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry to cancel out Wayne Rooney's second half opener.

Since that season, Arsenal have played Manchester United 13 times. The Gunners have won just twice. They've picked up a draw twice. United have beaten Arsenal nine times. The first match of that stretch was one of the two draws: William Gallas had a goal late to cancel out a first half own goal, as the Gunners pulled level to draw 2-2. Later that year, United thumped Arsenal out of the FA Cup 4-0, then won 2-1 at Old Trafford. In 2008/09, Arsenal won the meeting at the Emirates, behind a brace from Samir Nasri. Then, United thrashed Arsenal out of the Champions League before only needing the 0-0 draw at Old Trafford to win the title. In 2009/10, a Rooney penalty and ridiculous Abou Diaby own goal canceled out Andrei Arshavin's opener to give United a 2-1 win, then the Red Devils coasted to a 3-1 win at the Emirates in January. Last year, United won twice at Old Trafford (once in the FA Cup) before Aaron Ramsey gave Arsenal a 1-0 win at the Emirates in May. Then, some embarrassment happened for Arsenal in August.

The Referee

Mike Dean sends off Arsene Wenger on the advice of
fourth official Lee Probert and that guy from "Lost."

 Photo: BBC/Getty.
The referee is Wirral-based Mike Dean, which I consider to be the worst case scenario for Arsenal, due to a trend that, like the one I talked about with losing on Sundays, has been going on for far too long to be coincidence. Arsenal have won once in their last 12 matches with Dean as the referee. This set of games goes back to 2008. After beating Chelsea 2-1 at the Bridge with Mike Dean in the middle, Arsenal's form with the balding man is: 0-0 draw at Spurs, 0-0 draw at Manchester United (where the Red Devils won the title,) 2-1 loss at Manchester United (where Arsene Wenger was sent off,) a 1-1 draw at Burnley (where Cesc Fabregas first had an occurrence of the hamstring injury that plagued the end of his Arsenal career,) a 2-0 loss at Chelsea that was never competitive, a dreadful 0-0 with Manchester City at the Emirates, another 2-0 loss at Chelsea, a 1-0 loss at home to Newcastle, the lone win in the string in an FA Cup replay at Leeds, 3-1, the Carling Cup Final loss to Birmingham, this year's 2-1 loss at Tottenham, and the 1-1 draw at home to Fulham. One win, six losses, and five draws.

Let's look at his form for United, then, shall we? His most recent United match was their shock 3-2 home loss to Blackburn Rovers on New Year's Eve. Before that, his only other United game this year was their 1-0 win at Swansea (still the only league team to win at Swansea.) Last year, he worked the season ending match at Old Trafford as United beat Blackpool 4-2 to send the Tangerines down. Before that, Dean worked their FA Cup loss to City at Wembley in the semi-final. It was a 0-0 draw at Spurs before that (United were reduced to ten men in both that match and the cup loss to City.) Going back further, there was a 2-2 draw at Aston Villa, and a 5-2 win over Scunthorpe United in the Carling Cup. That's not the best run of form either, though it's not as bad as Arsenal's.

I hate Mike Dean.

Around the League

Sad Tottenham. Photo: Inoculated City.
Arsenal v. United, as mentioned at length in the Current Form section, is the final match of the weekend, in the 11:00 a.m. on the East Coast time slot. It's the second of two games on Sunday, just as it was in late August. Just like then, the early match sees another North London vs. Manchester battle, as City hosts Spurs at Eastlands.

That means there's a full slate of eight matches on Saturday, complete with an early game and a late game this week! It's almost like a normal schedule! The early match will see Chelsea visit Carrow Road to face Norwich City. The late game will see another team battling Arsenal for the top four, Liverpool, travel to next-to-last place Bolton Wanderers.

Speaking of last place, that's now Wigan Athletic, who play a relegation six-pointer in one of the six 10:00 a.m. matches. They visit West London to face QPR at Loftus Road, who are now in the drop zone after Blackburn's win last weekend. The Rovers, meanwhile, are at Everton. Elsewhere, Fulham hosts Newcastle at the Cottage, Stoke welcomes West Brom to the Britannia, Sunderland hosts Swansea, and Wolves host Aston Villa in a bit of a local derby at Molineux.

These are the reverse fixtures of those played August 27-28.

Preview by Numbers: Swansea City v. Arsenal

Liberty Stadium, Swansea
Sunday, January 15
11:00 a.m. EST, 4:00 p.m. GMT
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  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Michael Oliver
    • Assistants: Peter Kirkup and Mike Mullarkey
    • 4th Official: Lee Probert
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 1 - 0 Swansea
  • This Match, Last Time: Swansea 1 - 2 Arsenal (November 20, 1982)
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 6 Arsenal wins, 3 Swansea wins, 1 draw
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-L-W-D-W-L
  • Swansea's League Form: W-D-L-D-D-W
What do you think Henry is yelling here? I think it's
something along the lines of AHHHHHHHH I SCORED
AHHHHHHHHHH!!! That's gotta be it. Photo: Guardian.
Did you hear that Thierry Henry scored on Monday!? Yes? Oh. Well, okay then...

We here at The Modern Gooner have already waxed poetic about the Henry goal and the match that saw Arsenal through to the fourth round of the FA Cup, where they will face Aston Villa at the Emirates at the end of this month. It's time to get back to business: the league.

Tottenham played their game in hand on Wednesday and won it, meaning Arsenal sits nine points back of their North London rivals. I, of course, started to get really depressed about how wide that gap looked, then thought, Spurs still have to play Arsenal away home from, which could cut the gap back to six. They also have trips to Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City ahead of them. As our recap writer Sean said to me, "until proven otherwise, they're still Spurs."

Meanwhile, Arsenal's main battle of concern at the moment is for fourth place and the Champions League qualification that comes with it. Let's face it, dropping three points from a winning position at Fulham was not good news in this endeavor. Arsenal are one point back of Chelsea for fourth. They are two points ahead of Liverpool, who are in sixth. Newcastle, in seventh, is fading. There are still 18 matches to play. There's a lot of points still left to be earned, so let's start taking them.

United comes to town next week, but over the next five fixtures, the other four opponents are Swansea, Bolton, Blackburn, and Sunderland. Nice, on paper, though three of those four are away from home. Arsenal have done well to turn around their away form this season and had won four of five league matches away from the Emirates before the set back at the Cottage. Swansea are tough at home, conceding a joint-best four goals at Liberty Stadium.

It boils down to simply this: if you want to finish in the Top 4, you have to win the games you're expected to, plain and simple. Repeat performances such as those against Fulham will not be tolerated. Thankfully, those players who are still fit (unlike the entire defense) should be well rested for this match. Three points. Let's do it.

Arsenal Squad News

Here, Henry shows how he wants to squash Spurs with
his fist. More of this, please. Photo: Guardian.
Out: Vermaelen (calf), Coquelin (hamstring), Gibbs (groin), Sagna (leg), Jenkinson (back), Wilshere (ankle), Santos (ankle), Diaby (hamstring)
Africa Cup of Nations: Gervinho, Chamakh

Wow, look at that list. Francis Coquelin joins the list of the wounded, with a classic hamstring pull he suffered in the first half of Arsenal's 1-0 FA Cup win over Leeds on Monday. As soon as it happened, I said "a month," but it sounds like it's more "2-3 weeks." Of course, when you have eight players injured and six of them are defenders, any amount of time spent out hurt is too much.

Among those hurt, it sounds like Thomas Vermaelen will be back the soonest, possibly as early as next week against Manchester United at the Emirates (one seriously hopes.) Arsene Wenger said on January 6 that the Belgian would be "the first to be back after Swansea." Kieran Gibbs says he could be back in 10 days, which would also put him in contention to play against United. It'll be the end of the month for Coquelin. It should be early next month for Bacary Sagna, maybe the end of this month if we hope really hard, and mid-February for Jack Wilshere. It's still March for the return of Andre Santos.

Abou Diaby remains out with a hamstring injury that has now required the visiting of a specialist in Qatar, according to Mohammed Saadon Al-Kuwari, an Al Jazeera sports reporter working from their headquarters in Doha, the Qatari capital. There's no time table for his return, nor is there a time table for the return of Carl Jenkinson from a stress fracture in his back.

Okay, so, after spending a good 250 words on who is out hurt, it's time to focus on who's available, and that includes THIERRY HENRY. Did you hear he scored a... oh, we've been through this already, haven't we? In any case, it's doubtful he has a full 90 minutes in the tank right now, so I feel like he's still going to be an impact sub rather than a starter right now. A well-rested Robin van Persie will start up front, as will Theo Walcott, but who starts in the place of Gervinho is the question. Seems like it would have to be Andrei Arshavin right now, and as poor as he's been this year, you can't disparage the fact that at least he was trying hard against Leeds.

I would think the midfield trio of Alex Song, Mikel Arteta, and Aaron Ramsey will remain intact.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Djourou, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Miquel, Song, Ramsey, Arteta, Arshavin, Walcott, van Persie.

Swansea Squad News

Out: Tate (bizarre golfing accident), Bodde (knee)

A re-enactment of the scenario which has seen Alan Tate's
season come to a halt. Photo: Some Law Firm.
This section allows us to return to the ridiculous story of Alan Tate, who is just as out injured as he was in September when Swansea first played Arsenal. Basically, Tate was out golfing during the last week of August and was the passenger in a golf cart that crashed. Tate broke his leg.

Meanwhile, Ferrie Bodde is out with a knee injury. Bodde, plagued by injuries throughout his career, has not played a league match since February 27, 2010. His injury woes date back to the fall of 2008, when he suffered ACL damage after a tackle from ex-Gunner Sebastien Larsson, then with Birmingham.

Both of these long term injured players are on the mend, however, and both started a reserves practice match on Wednesday. Tate's return was particularly swift; he was expected to be out six months at the very least, but is now playing again after three. Either of these players could theoretically make the bench on Sunday, though I'd be surprised to see either play.

Swansea has the rest of their side available.

Current Form

Sad Gareth Bale, after Swansea picked up a point from
Spurs at the Liberty Stadium New Year's Eve.
Photo: Guardian.
Since the end of November, Arsenal's form has been very up and down. After qualifying for the Champions League knockout round by beating Dortmund, their form, across all competitions is D-L-W-L-W-L-W-D-W-L-W. Since late November, over the course of 11 matches, Arsenal have not won consecutive games. Four times, they have dropped points somewhere following a win. First, it was the Olympiacos game, a blip on the radar from the second string. Then, it was 1-0 at Manchester City, hard fought and nothing to be ashamed of. But then, it was a 1-1 with Wolves at home. And after bouncing back by beating QPR, it was defeat from the jaws of victory at Fulham. The trend is worrying, so it would be nice to stop it now. Arsenal have lost three of their last four away from home across all competitions, a drop in form after they had won four straight away from the Emirates.

Arsenal's drooping form away from home does not bode well for this match, considering how formidable Swansea have been at home this season. In 10 league matches at Liberty Stadium, the Swans have conceded just four goals. Their only loss was a 1-0 match with Manchester United. They came back to draw Tottenham 1-1. QPR picked up a draw at the Liberty Stadium the day after Boxing Day, 1-1. Blackburn scored a goal at the Liberty but lost 3-1. Swansea have, therefore, picked up six clean sheets on home soil: 2-0 wins over Stoke and Fulham, 3-0 over West Brom, and 0-0 draws with Sunderland, Aston Villa, and Wigan Athletic.

Given Arsenal's defensive frailties, if they want to win on Sunday, they'll either have to become the first team to score more than once at that stadium this season, or they'll have to play for a good ol' fashioned one-nil to the Arsenal, something we've seen a lot in recent weeks.

Match Facts

Arsenal's winner against Swansea in September was from
such an odd spot on the pitch, finding Arshavin in this
photo is a bit like finding Waldo (or, Wally, if you're in the
U.K.) That said, there should be "Where's Arshavin?"
Photo: Daily Mail.
Arsenal's last match on Welsh soil came in the FA Cup in 2009's fourth round, when they played Cardiff City. That match ended 0-0 and Arsenal won in a replay at the Emirates 4-0. After that, the reverse of this fixture was their most recent match against a Welsh side. That was a 1-0 win for Arsenal, their first league win of this season, in the first match played after Arsenal finally decided it was time to buy some players at the end of the summer transfer window. The win was, of course, a bit fluky; this team was not there yet, as evidenced by losing at Blackburn a week later. Andrei Arshavin had the game's lone goal, which came from a poor clearance by Swansea's goalkeeper Michel Vorm, from an impossibly tight angle. It was a bit of a gift, but at that time, and of course, even now, you'd take it. That considered, Danny Graham had the chance to equalize deep into injury time, but fired over the bar.

In previous league meetings all-time, Swansea won both in the 1981/82 season and Arsenal won both in the 1982/83 season, when the Swans were relegated. Swansea won 2-0 at home in October of 1981 (Swansea was top of the league as late in the season as March 20 that year and finished 6th) and lost 2-1 at home in November of 1982 (when they finished 21st and relegated.) In North London, Swansea won 2-0 in February of 1982 and lost 2-1 on New Year's Day 1983.

Swansea's record home attendance at Vetch Field came in a cup tie against Arsenal on February 17, 1968. Arsenal won that FA Cup fourth round tie, 1-0.

The Referee

Who? Me? Photo: Zimbio.
The referee is Northumberland-based Michael Oliver. Oliver has taken charge of only one Arsenal match thus far this season, the comfortable 3-0 win over West Bromwich Albion in early November. He has also taken charge of only one Swansea match this season, a 2-2 draw with Wolves at Molineux.

Oliver appeared out of his depth in the two Arsenal matches he worked last season, both losses for the Gunners. Those were the 3-2 loss to West Brom and the 2-0 loss to Aston Villa; both of those came at the Emirates. For as terrible as Oliver seemed with Arsenal last season, having made numerous dubious decisions, especially in a failure to give a penalty in the loss to Villa, he wasn't very noticeable in Arsenal's win with him in the middle earlier this year, which bodes well.

Oliver took charge of one Swansea match last season in the Championship: a 2-0 win at Millwall.

In 18 games this year, Oliver has shown 49 yellow cards and three red cards; one of those red cards was to a QPR left back you might have heard of named Armand Traore.

Around the League

This sad sack is suspended for what would have been his
return to his old team, removing the only possibly
interesting sub-plot to this weekend's round of fixtures.
Photo: Guardian.
Oddly, no games were moved for television on Saturday this weekend, meaning a whopping seven fixtures will kick-off in the standard 10:00 a.m. Eastern / 3:00 p.m. England time slot. Sky Sports 1 has Heineken Cup rugby on all day. Watford v. Reading occupies the late time slot on Sky Sports 2.

Anyway, those seven matches include: Chelsea hosting Sunderland at the Bridge, Manchester United hosting last place Bolton at Old Trafford, Spurs host Wolves at the Lane, Liverpool welcomes Stoke City to Anfield, Aston Villa plays host to Everton in Birmingham, Steve Kean Out Rovers host Fulham in Blackburn, and Norwich City pays a visit to the Hawthorns to face West Brom. Wow, this isn't really a weekend for big matches, is it? Perhaps that's why Swansea v. Arsenal is in the prime Super Sunday time slot.

Before Arsenal's match kicks off, Sunday's early game will see suspended Joey Barton not back at his old stomping ground, whatever the hell Mike Ashley is calling it these days. Newcastle hosts QPR, is what I'm getting at. On Monday, Manchester City faces Wigan at the DW Stadium.

Seriously, are any of these matches can't miss viewing for a neutral? These are the reverse fixtures of those played on the weekend of September 10-11.

My Thierry Henry Mea Culpa

I sit here in a hotel room in Rocklin, CA - a brown and barren place accurately described by my boss as looking like Tatooine from Star Wars. The journey here sadly coincided with Arsenal's home FA Cup tie against Leeds United, the talking points of which have already been rightly discussed to death in the last few days. Why then do I add my belated voice to the chorus?

A fair question, that.

Here's the thing - it is the realm (and arguably the responsibility) of a blogger to hold strong opinions and express them in an entertaining enough fashion that people want to read it. Sometimes, those opinions will be controversial or unpopular. Other times, it will spring from emotion and a knee-jerk reaction to events in the topic at hand.

Back on December 28th, I wrote a piece entitled "Let the Past Stay in the Past", which I concluded as follows:
This season has felt like it's been one crossroads moment after another, and yet this transfer window may be the most crucial of the lot. Our identity, our place in the hierarchy of the league, our cachet with future transfer targets...all of it is at stake. If the manager's big idea is a left back whose last encounter with us saw him responsible for three goals conceded and a striker who with all due respect is a museum piece at this point, then I fear we may find ourselves bringing a knife to a gunfight as the season approaches the serious bit.
I don't regret writing those words - it was an accurate representation of my thoughts at the time, and my feeling that additional bodies need to come through the Arrivals gate of Heathrow still remains.

However, there is nothing easier for a blogger than to cherry-pick their greatest prognostications and trumpet them to the heavens as evidence of their great genius. It is inversely just as difficult for the same blogger to hold their hands up and admit their moments of failure.

In this case, I was wrong. Dreadfully, horribly wrong.

Don't get any crazy ideas, now - all of our problems are not solved, we're certainly not title-chasers because Thierry Henry scored one goal against second-tier opponents. Wins and results and trophies are all inexorably important, and nothing will change that.

Sometimes you have to take a step back and wonder what you're in this for, though. I don't want to travel the same treacle-thick sentimentality that the better corners of Fleet Street have produced in reaction. You can get diabetes reading some of that. But, at some level, they aren't wrong, either.

The moments that stick with us and have the greatest meaning are rarely unblemished in their perfection. I will take Landon Donovan's game-winner against Algeria at the last World Cup to my grave, but ultimately it was just the prelude to a punchless loss against a Ghana side that they frankly should have beaten. At my own humble 7-a-side level, the championship I'm proudest of had a final that finished 1-1 and went to penalties - their goal is perhaps the single worst I've conceded and I didn't actually save any of the spot-kicks (they hit the bar twice).

This is no movie - we're not going to see Henry parading a shiny metal thing around Ashburton Grove at the end of the season. To that, I would ask why must that be our only focus?

Long-time readers of this blog know that no club inspires visceral hatred in me quite like Barcelona. It's not just their galling conduct in the Cesc Fabregas saga, or their endless supply of cash, or even their rank arrogance in the way they carry themselves. Believe it or not, their off-pitch antics contribute far less to my river of bile than how they play the game on it.

In one sense, what they've contributed to our knowledge of what is possible in team play has been invaluable - like a high-powered telescope probing the edges of the known universe, the Catalans represent our best guess as to the game's ceiling. I just don't know how anyone can watch it. They are soulless and joyless in their perfection. Except for the too-rare wobble, they are metronomic in their predictability. If you were to replay this season 100 times in Football Manager, there would be precious little variation in their results, personnel or the sheer amount of desire I would have to beat Xavi about the head and shoulders with a cricket bat.

In a world embodied by Barcelona, Ivan Drago knocks Rocky out, the high seeds always survive to the Final Four in March Madness, the girl miles out of your league always tells you to sod off.

How crushingly dull.

There are two things that filled me with the most joy when watching the highlight of the goal. First, I imagined what the reaction must have been like at the Blind Pig when Henry's slide-rule shot beat Andrew Lonergan in the Leeds goal. My mind's eye watches with jealousy and longing as I see friends, acquaintances and merely familiar faces jumping in full-throated joy...a wave of sound that wordlessly exclaims "Holy shit, that just happened!" I can't tell you how much I regret not being part of that...I can only wish that this business trip happened at some other time.

Second, it was so deliriously unpredictable. The Premier League annals are filled to the brim with tales of desperate sides turning to faded heroes in order to turn their seasons around. The overwhelming majority of these yarns end not with a Roy of the Rovers flourish, but with the faded thud of inevitable failure.

This one? This one ends with Thierry Henry pounding his chest in adrenalized fury and an FA Cup win that his red-clad compatriots hardly deserved. One last time, Henry single-handedly decided the result of a game of football.

For that alone, this transfer was worth it. We may finish outside the top four, and/or behind our nearest and dearest at season's end. Perhaps AC Milan embarrasses us in the Champions' League, and we tamely go out to the worst Aston Villa side in living memory in the next round of the FA Cup. Unlike the Spanish champions, all things are possible in our world. The flip side of that is that in our world, all things are indeed the second-greatest attacking player in our history (Praise be Bergkamp's Name) coming back and scoring a goal that maybe...just fucking maybe...might be the fillip our season needs.

Early on in the first Henry piece, I wrote: "Necromancy never ends well." Perhaps it doesn't, but this goal reminded me that sometimes Chaos does.

The Return of The King

If someone had told me beforehand how things would have played out in the Arsenal v Leeds FA Cup tie yesterday, I'd have accused them of being overly optimistic, even sentimental. Because that's really only the sort of thing that happens in sports films, right?

The beloved figure, looking past his prime, returning to the club where he made himself a legend? Check. An encounter with an old rival? Check. A must-win scenario, the once-great player called upon to rescue his team one last time? Check. An immaculate goal that sends the crowd and players into euphoric frenzy? You better believe that's a Check. That's a Check like Tom Rosicky is a Czech.

For the match itself, I was surprised to see Arsenal fielding such a strong lineup to start; Gervinho having gone to bless the rains down in Africa, we started Arshavin on the left and The Ox was given a rare start on the right. Theo began on the bench, next to his idol, and Robin van Persie was given a well-deserved night off with Chamakh taking his place. Otherwise, the only other change from the strongest available side was Squillaci for Mertesacker.

As it turned out, we needed a strong side, so difficult to break down were Leeds. Arsenal dominated possession (not exactly shocking), but despite a number of chances in the first half were unable to find the breakthrough. It was dismaying, largely because of the players' unwillingness to shoot when we got the ball in the box. Chamberlain and Ramsey seemed be the only ones unafraid to have a go, while everyone else, once they had the ball in scoring range, seemed to be looking for Robin to pass to. Leeds rarely threatened at all, and the match remained scoreless at the half.

The biggest event of the first half was a negative for Arsenal, when promising young midfielder Francis Coquelin, deputizing at right fullback on the night, pulled up lame with what appeared to be a hamstring injury with just a half hour gone. The even younger (and more untested) Nico Yennaris replaced him, and played fairly well, I thought. Otherwise, while Arsenal were bossing the game, the players were certainly far too casual, sloppy even, in their passing and possession. Arshavin didn't look as lethargic or hopeless as he has otherwise this season, and The Ox was the most direct and exciting player on the pitch in the first half, in my opinion.

However, it felt that in the absence of van Persie, Arsenal had fielded a cigar store indian. Marouane Chamakh's form has completely deserted him, and he is so bereft of confidence that when he gets the ball, his first instinct seems to be to get it away from himself out of fear that he'll botch the job... and one thinks that one will fail, one inevitably does. I don't want to spend any more time than I have to on the state of Chamakh; we know where he stands for us and how poor he's been, and harping on about it solves nothing. We can only hope to find a buyer for him this month and ship him out, for his sake and for Arsenal's.

The second half began much the same way as the first, with Arsenal in control despite carelessness, yet unable to make anything happen in the final third. Arshavin continued to look dangerous, and Chamberlain's slashing runs into the box looked like he just needed a bit more time and a goal would come of it. Sadly for the youngster, that time was fleeting. The crowd roared to life when Arsene Wenger had Arsenal's all-time leading goalscorer, in his first appearance in an Arsenal kit in five years, warm up to come on. In the 68th minute the legend himself, the King of Highbury, Thierry Henry, came on for the struggling Chamakh:

henrycomeson by arsenalist

Seconds earlier, Theo had come on for Chamberlain, which I disagreed with at the time. Surely one of them can play on the left? In any event, we now had a front line of Arshavin, Walcott, and Henry. Arsenal was in a goalless draw with the 8th-placed side in the nPower Championship. If something was going to happen, it had to happen soon.

And then it did:

<a href='' target='_new' title='Thierry Henry makes his mark'>Video: Thierry Henry makes his mark</a>

A vintage goal by Titi. Makes the run in behind the defenders from the left (brilliant pass by Song, btw, who was otherwise not great), takes one touch to settle, another to side-foot it past the 'keeper to score inside the far post. C'est magnifique. If I'm honest, I don't recall the next few minutes after that ball went in, other than screaming and jumping up and down with the rest of the Gooners in the pub. Henry's celebration is what I imagine my own would be like if I were ever to score a goal for Arsenal. There was a sense of delirious happiness that accompanied that goal, and once Henry scored for us again, surreal as the whole thing seems even now, I felt sure the only outcome that day would be an Arsenal win.

As it turned out, there would be only that one goal on the day. Leeds had only one real chance on the night, which Szczesny handled without issue, and while Arsenal continued to press their advantage, a few opportunities went begging. In the end, everyone but the away support got what they wanted: An Henry goal, an Arsenal win, and plenty of shots of David Beckham in the crowd for the ladies at home. Also, I think I saw KD Lang in the stands, although it might have been Samir Nasri... tough to tell.

Henry's postmatch interview when he was named Man of the Match was simply fantastic as a fan, and did nothing to lessen the man-crush I've got on Thierry Henry. He just seems to be a genuine, likeable person, and that he is really an Arsenal Legend who is sincerely an Arsenal fan is evident from his words and his actions. Do give the video a look if you have a few minutes free.

Finally, to those Arsenal fans who seem incapable of enjoying Henry's second and final run with Arsenal because it's only for six weeks, please, please please lighten up. Yes, he will be gone in a month and a half, and no, we haven't signed anyone else yet. Because it's the 10th of January and no one else has either. One of the reasons I believe TH12 (still feels weird to write that) signed was to give us cover while Arsene looks at other options on the market. That's not to say he WILL sign anyone... No one else knows Arsene's mind but Arsene himself. And since it's only six weeks that we'll have him back for, you're really only hurting yourself by not enjoying the time he has with us.

Arsenal have drawn Aston Villa in the next round of the FA Cup, which, oddly, might be an easier match. It seems we have a harder time beating lower league opposition for whatever reason. It's a funny old game, this football. Back in the Premier League, we play away at Swansea on Sunday, so if anyone is attending the match, wear some kind of body armor. Those Welsh fans are not fucking around.

Ciao for now. COME ON YOU REDS!

Player ratings: SZCZ 6, Coquelin 6, Squillaci 6, Koscielny 7, Miquel 6, Song 6.5, Arteta 6.5, Ramsey 7, Arshavin 7, Chamakh 4 (And I do mean 4), Chamberlain 6.5.
Substitutes: Yennaris 6.5, Walcott 6, Henry 7.5
MAN OF THE MATCH: Who else? Thierry Henry.