Preview by Numbers: Queens Park Rangers v. Arsenal

Loftus Road, London
Saturday, March 31
10:00 a.m. EDT, 3:00 p.m. BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Dean
    • Assistants: Simon Burt and Adam Watts
    • 4th Official: Lee Probert
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 1 - 0 QPR
  • This Match, Last Time: QPR 1 - 1 Arsenal (March 2, 1996)
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 21 Arsenal wins, 14 QPR wins, 14 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-W-W-W-W
  • QPR's League Form: L-L-D-L-W-L
We don't have a chant for Kieran Gibbs. WHY DON'T WE
Photo: Guardian.
I'm not going to lie; this game worries me a bit for a few reasons: it's away from home against a team fighting for its Premier League life, who are managed by Mark Hughes and captained by Joey Barton. And we'll have Mike Dean as the referee. It's like the perfect storm.

Arsenal won comfortably last week at home against Aston Villa, while QPR had their backs pushed farther against the wall as they lost to Sunderland and finished on ten men. The R's are one point and one place from safety at the moment, but 17th place Bolton has a game in hand.

Arsenal have won seven straight league games and can make it eight for the first time in eight years with a win tomorrow. But, it won't be that easy. Road games against sides battling relegation are always going to be tricky, and Arsenal will have to do that twice in the next three games (they have Wolves at Molineux April 11,) with a visit to the Emirates from Manchester City in between. This fixture is not as easy as it looks on paper, even if a month ago I called it one that Arsenal for sure had to win to finish in the Champions League places.

And, let's face it. Arsenal do have to win here. There's no reason to put the handbrake back on. Why would you try to coast down the highway with the handbrake on?

Three more points, please.

Arsenal Squad News

Expert Twitter user Jack Wilshere shows us a photo of him,
Kieran Gibbs, and Benik Afobe at a concert to see
"drizzzzzzzy," which has seven Z's. Photo: Twitter.
Out: Coquelin (hamstring), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (ankle)
Doubts: Koscielny (knee)

The major question mark of the week surrounds the knee of Laurent Koscielny, who pulled out of the squad at the last minute with tendinitis last Saturday. From everything I've read, the problem does not look to be serious, and the Frenchman himself is confident he'll play tomorrow.

With no reserve matches scheduled until next month, Arsenal surreptitiously scheduled a match against a Reading XI played behind closed doors in order to get a few fringe first teamers some playing time. The match saw the likes of Marouane Chamakh, Park Chu-Young, Carl Jenkinson, Sebastien Squillaci, Ignasi Miquel, Andre Santos, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Yossi Benayoun, and Abou Diaby play. It ended 1-1; Arsenal's goal game from Park. Since it was behind closed doors, we can really only rely on bits and pieces of information, but it does worry me that Arsenal's B-team can only draw what was presumably Reading's B-team. But, these are guys that are short of match sharpness, so how much can you really read into a result like this? It's not like the scoreline really matters. Still, PANIC!

As for Arsenal's wounded, here's the round-up: Francis Coquelin's timetable as of two weeks ago should put him back in training around now, but he'll still be well short of match fitness for a week or two. Per Mertesacker did some light running, about 20 minutes or so, on Tuesday. Emmanuel Frimpong is still DENCH and still out until autumn, leave it.

Now we come to Jack Wilshere. As of last week, Jack was "back with the ball," according to Arsene Wenger. That put him, best case scenario, three weeks away from a return to full training and from there, it's another two weeks until match fitness. So, that's five weeks, at best, as of a week ago. Four weeks at best, now. This would put Wilshere in line for a return on April 28th at Stoke. I think the most likely scenario is that he makes the bench for the final game of the season at West Brom and comes on for a cameo appearance if Arsenal's ahead comfortably in the final ten minutes. That's what happened when Johan Djourou did his knee on international duty two years ago.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Gibbs, Song, Arteta, Rosicky, Gervinho, Walcott, van Persie.

QPR Squad News

Out: Traore (hamstring), Faurlin (knee), Dyer (ankle)
Doubts: Campbell (hamstring), Helguson (groin)
Suspended: Cisse (first of four)

Is it fair to call Joey Barton a hipster?
He'd fit in nicely in Williamsburg. Photo: Guardian.
Damn it! No Armand Traore! The ex-Arsenal left back is out until at least next week with a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, on loan Federico Macheda has been sent back to Manchester United for treatment on his ankle injury, meaning his season is likely over. Other injuries include season long ligament injuries to Kieron Dyer (ankle) and Alejandro Faurlin (knee,) neither of whom are any longer in QPR's 25-man roster.

Djibril Cisse picked up a straight red card in QPR's 3-1 loss to Sunderland last week, meaning he'll now have a total of seven matches missed through suspension by the end of this ban, to go along with his five matches played with the club.

Poet laureate Joey Barton is likely to return to the side after getting booed off the pitch at Loftus Road during QPR's match with Liverpool, then being left on the bench against Sunderland last week. He's been talking lately about how the relegation battle means all of the players' careers are on the line. Dramatic, much? Specifically, he said, "But there are livelihoods on the line here. People's careers are on the line. I'm not sure that's the case at Arsenal, to be honest.''

QPR look to be boosted by the return to training of two of their forwards who have been out for two months each with their respective injuries: leading scorer Heidar Helguson from a groin injury and DJ Campbell from a hamstring injury.

Current Form

The last Arsenal side to win eight straight league matches
were the Invincibles, who went on to win nine before the
streak was snapped with a draw. Funny how there's a 9
just floating around in the air behind Thierry Henry in this
picture. That's really quite amazing. Did anybody else see
that? Photo: Zonal Marking.
Well, a lot of the talk about Arsenal's form is about winning streaks and the like. So, as you prepare to read this section, to avoid jinxing anything, I want you to knock on as much wood as possible. I certainly am. Of course, I can't just avoid telling you the statistics out of fear of jinxing things; then I wouldn't be doing what I'm here for. So, knock on some wood and do whatever superstitious things you do and I'll wait...


Ready? Okay, good.

Arsenal have currently won seven straight games in the league for the first time since 2007. The last time the Gunners won eight straight in the league, it was part of a streak that eventually reached nine. This was in 2004 and it was part of the Invincibles run. When that streak started, the Invincibles were second place in the table behind Manchester United, who had lost a few games but had fewer draws and more wins, hence more points. After the nine match winning streak snapped with a 1-1 draw with United at Highbury, Arsenal were seven points clear of Chelsea at the summit and 12 points clear of United in third. Incidentally, that 1-1 draw was came eight years ago this week (on March 28, 2004.) Arsenal's last winning streak of about this length, six games, in 2010, was snapped on March 27. Thankfully, this match is already after those evil, evil dates!

Extending the streak to eight wins would tie this for the eighth longest league winning streak in club history. The record is 14 (which spanned two seasons in the calendar year 2002.) The longest winning streak contained in a single season is 13 (the first 13 wins of that 14 match run I just mentioned.) You'll recall they won the Double that year.

Tomorrow's game at Loftus Road will not be televised in England. The Gunners are now unbeaten in 29 straight games not shown on TV, dating back to the 3-2 loss to West Brom in September of 2010. Arsenal have eight wins from eight games played at 3:00 p.m. English time on Saturday, which is when they'll be playing tomorrow. They have conceded only one goal in those eight games total, at Sunderland last month. And that was the pitch's fault!

Arsenal's winning streak across all competitions currently stands at six (dating back to the FA Cup loss at the Stadium of Light) which matches their longest winning streak from last season. That streak was snapped in the Carling Cup Final. Arsenal's road winning streak across all competitions stands at just two, though it is three straight in the league.

As for QPR, they have been as high as 9th in the table this season, but were 17th on the day Neil Warnock was sacked, January 8. In ten league games since that date, QPR have won twice, drawn twice, and lost six. They have only one win from their last eight league games: last midweek's stunning come from behind 3-2 win over Liverpool. They have gotten wins from Liverpool and Chelsea at home this season, and deserved at least a point for their performance against Manchester City, though they lost 3-2.

Match Facts

Guess who had the winner against QPR in December?
His name rhymes with Bobbin' Dan Murphy. Which is...
...just weird. Photo: Guardian.
This is QPR's first season in the top flight since 1995/96. In the reverse fixture on New Year's Eve, it was Robin van Persie's goal on the hour mark that gave the Gunners a classic "One-Nil to the Arsenal" victory. The last time Arsenal played a league match at Loftus Road, it was a 1-1 draw in 1996. A 49th minute goal from Dennis Bergkamp earned Arsenal a point, canceling out Kevin Gallen's first half opener.

Arsenal's last match overall at Loftus Road was in an FA Cup tie in 2001, which the Gunners won 6-0. Chris Plummer opened the scoring for Arsenal that day, which was kind of him, seeing as he played for QPR. QPR had another own goal in the mix, Sylvain Wiltord had a brace, and the scoring was capped by Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp.

Arsenal's last league win at Loftus Road was in 1990, by a 3-1 scoreline. Four of the five since then have been draws, with QPR winning the other 3-1 in April of 1995.

The Referee

I did a Google search for "Mike Dean" and "horrible" and
this photo of an exasperated Hope Solo came up first.
That makes sense, right? Photo: HSPN.
The referee is Wirral-based unmitigated disaster Mike Dean. Arsenal finally broke their winless streak against top flight sides with Dean in the middle on February 26, in the 5-2 North London derby win over Spurs. While Dean did send off Scott Parker, the game was already decided by that point, and the decisions that came beforehand rarely went Arsenal's way. You'll of course recall Gareth Bale's tumble and the ensuing penalty that made it 2-0 in the first place. Prior to the derby win, Arsenal's form with Dean in the middle was: D-D-L-D-L-D-L-L-W-L-L-D-L. That one win in the middle was the FA Cup replay at Elland Road against Leeds last January. Arsenal's last win before Tottenham in a Mike Dean match against a top flight opponent was at Stamford Bridge in November of 2008. This year, the previous matches with Dean were the 2-1 loss at White Hart Lane, the 1-1 draw with Fulham, and the 2-1 loss to United at the Emirates.

As for Queens Park Rangers, Mike Dean has only worked two of their matches this season and they came two weeks apart. Dean was in the middle for the West London derby FA Cup tie that saw QPR bow out to Chelsea 1-0 on a Juan Mata penalty. Two weeks later, QPR lost again with Dean in the middle, this time in a relegation six-pointer at Ewood Park, to Blackburn Rovers, 3-2.

Since working the North London derby, Dean worked the Tyne & Wear derby that ended 1-1 between Newcastle and Sunderland with two red cards. Dean was dropped to the Championship the next week, then dropped to League Two a week after that before working the Manchester City v. Chelsea game on March 21.

Around the League

Villa took all three points from Stamford Bridge in the
reverse fixture. Too much to ask for this time?
Photo: BBC.
Seven weekends and eight rounds of fixtures remain in the 2011/12 season and the picture is becoming clearer regarding what teams are fighting for what spots. City and United are the only conversation for the title. The relegation fight still includes five sides: Blackburn, Bolton, QPR, Wigan, and Wolves. The battle for European places is splitting a bit and Liverpool is spiraling out of the picture. Bear in mind, Liverpool have earned a spot in at least the Europa League qualifiers, as Carling Cup winners.

There are no early or late matches this Saturday, which is weird. Sky Sports 2 has Sheffield Wednesday and Preston North End in their early game slot. Okay...

There will be seven matches played at 10:00 a.m. Eastern, 3:00 p.m. in England. Chelsea enters the weekend five points out of a Champions League place and level with Newcastle for a Europa League spot. The Blues are on the road this week, facing an Aston Villa side that, you'll recall, did not come to play at the Emirates last week, but did win the reverse fixture in West London. Elsewhere, Manchester City will look to keep pace with United and bounce back from their draw last week, as they host Sunderland at Eastlands. It's a relegation six-pointer at Molineux as a quickly unraveling Wolves side will host Bolton Wanderers. Wigan, fresh off their win at Anfield will look to pick up three more points as they host Stoke at the DW. Meanwhile, two mid-table clashes take place as Everton hosts West Brom at Goodison Park and Fulham hosts Norwich at Craven Cottage.

Two matches take place on Sunday. The early game will see Newcastle host Liverpool. The Magpies (oh right, I was calling them the Seahorses now, wasn't I?) enter the weekend eight points clear of seventh place Liverpool. The Reds desperately need this win to keep from going further down the rabbit hole. In the late game, Tottenham Hotspur, who enter the weekend three points back of the Gunners, will host Swansea City at the Lane. Spurs are now five league matches without a win.

The last game of the weekend takes place on Monday, as Blackburn Rovers host Manchester United. Recall, on New Year's Eve, Blackburn pulled off a shocking win at Old Trafford.

These are the reverse fixtures of those played on December 30-January 1.

Arsenal 3-0 Aston Villa: Easy Peasy

That was about as easy a game as you could hope for at this stage of the season, wasn't it?

In the absence of Darren Bent, I had figured pre-match that this would be a fairly comfortable win, but I was not anticipating that Aston Villa would not seriously threaten Wojceich Szczesny's net once at any point in the contest. Our boys did, to their credit, defend decently enough on the few occasions when it was required, but for the most part this was a training session that had three points associated with it.

The one downer though was the injury to Laurent Koscielny in the pre-match warmup. Hopefully it won't be long-term and it won't affect any games where he's needed. However, Johan Djourou did a fine job in his stead on the shortest possible notice.

Speaking of the Swiss man, the first significant action of the match saw him contest a header with shambling automaton Emile Heskey (yes, he's STILL in the league). Heskey carelessly left an elbow out, and ended up smashing Djourou in the face with it. It wasn't malicious and 99 times out of 100 it results in no damage either way. This time, Djourou was down for a few minutes but thankfully was able to shake it off and return to the game. With precious little defensive cover on the bench, it was a huge break for the home side to have Djourou pull through and play.

The Gunners held the ball nicely in the early going, but had only a half-chance from Robin van Persie to show for it. Villa were engaged in a rearguard action for the most part, but did fashion one chance on the counter after a horrible giveaway by Alex Song. Unfortunately for them, Marc Albrighton's shot is still being tracked by NORAD.

It's possible that the Villains may have played themselves into the match eventually had they stayed on level terms. It wasn't to be though, as the normally solid Shay Given conceded an awful goal to not only hand Arsenal the lead, but completely deflate the rest of his side as well. Kieran Gibbs brought the ball down the left-hand side and looked to be at an awful shooting angle. He decided to have a go anyway, and the result served as further proof of the truth behind the maxim of "shoot, you never know what'll happen". His low shot was decently-placed, but at that angle Given should save it all day. Instead, it hit the heel of his hand, dribbled under his body, and went over the line.

Trust me, that is the sort of goal that just destroys your self-belief.

Ten minutes later, Arsenal doubled their lead and effectively killed this off as a sporting competition. Villa were on their heels for virtually the entirety of that time, and had already been stretched once by a looping ball behind the backline by Song. This time, the Cameroonian destroyer did it again, his arcing pass connecting brilliantly on to the overlapping Theo Walcott. Walcott's first touch was immaculate, allowing him to settle the ball and slot it past Given at his near post.

Seriously, Villa were just playing out time at this point. If you had offered them the chance to just walk off the field with the 2-0 loss, I think they may have done it. I mean, I keep harping on how little fight they had, but then again when you hire the guy who relegated your cross-town rivals, you kind of get what you deserve, right?

Hell, it could have been 3-0 just two minutes later. The ball was worked out to Mikel Arteta, who had a pop from distance (this was the anti-Bad Old Arsenal performance, it has to be said). Given, somewhat making up for his horror-show on the first goal, did extremely well to vault upwards and tip it over the bar.

You know, in these kinds of games, our lot's real problem has been calling off the dogs a little too early. I'm happy to report that no such thing happened here, as the Gunners continued to press defensively and continually tried to put their opponents to the sword. Although van Persie looked a bit out of sorts and did not end up on the scoresheet, only a ridiculously lucky/great diving header by Stephen Warnock prevented the captain from netting after the Villa defense were all over the shop once again.

That brought us to halftime, and honestly, there isn't much to talk about in the second half. Arsenal wisely played within themselves a bit and didn't give Villa much opportunity to play off the counter. This time, all of our possession now had a purpose, that being bleeding minutes and seconds off the clock. The rejuvenated Tomas Rosicky had one attempt parried out by Given, but other than that there was a severe dearth of chances for both sides.

Arsene Wenger made changes far earlier than usual, which makes sense given the complete lack of threat from our opponents. The anonymous Gervinho was replaced with Aaron Ramsey, while Kieran Gibbs was withdrawn to give the returning Andre Santos some game action. After some more time passed, Theo Walcott was taken off for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. And thus, the procession went on.

It looked like 2-0 would be the final, but as Villa continued to endlessly foul our guys, eventually a chance would prevent itself to grab a third. As it turned out, Villa conceded a needless free kick on the edge of their area in injury time. Up stepped Arteta, who had taken one set piece earlier in the match that did not get past the wall. That was clearly a range-finder, as this time he absolutely thumped one over the defenders and past the despairing dive of Given.

Pick THAT one out.

Elsewhere, results continued to go Arsenal's way - Tottenham and Chelsea played out an insipid 1-1 draw, while Liverpool somehow contrived to lose 2-1 at home to Wigan Athletic. That leaves us three points ahead of our nearest and dearest, and a shocking 8 ahead of Chelsea.

It's not over...not by any means. But we are back from the brink and in pole position to finish in third provided the team does not have any further serious dips in form. After the way this season started and then that dreadful patch in the middle, I'll bite your hand off for third.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Gibbs 8 (Santos 6), Vermaelen 7, Djourou 7, Sagna 7, Gervinho 6 (Ramsey 7), Song 8, Arteta 7, Rosicky 7, Walcott 8 (Oxlade-Chamberlain 7), van Persie 7

Man of the Match: Djourou did well in tough circumstances, and all of our goal-scorers deserve mention. Still, my vote goes to the tenacious Alex Song, who once again combined his solid defense with some gorgeous passes - the best of the lot being the high ball over the Villa defense that Walcott ran on to for the second goal.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Aston Villa

Emirates Stadium, London
Saturday, March 24
11:00 a.m. EDT, 3:00 p.m. GMT
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  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Phil Dowd
    • Assistants: Stuart Burt and Adam Watts
    • 4th Official: Darren Deadman
  • Reverse Fixture: Aston Villa 1 - 2 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 1 - 2 Aston Villa
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 74 Arsenal wins, 65 Aston Villa, 44 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-W-W-W-W
  • Aston Villa's League Form: D-L-L-D-D-W
Karma 1 - 0 These Guys.
Hey, look down for a second. You see what that is, beneath us? It's Tottenham Hotspur.

Arsenal sit above their nearest and dearest for the first time this season, though now is not the time to start gloating. Bad things happen if you start making shirts that say "mind the gap." Karma is pissing all over Spurs at the moment.

So, let's stay humble and realize that the job is not done yet. We want to be in third place after May 13. Where you are on March 23 means nothing in the grand scheme of things. There are still nine games to play.

After Arsenal beat Spurs, I wrote a piece analyzing what Arsenal had to do to secure a top four finish. I mentioned that Arsenal had to win about nine of their final 12 games, then pointed to six specific matches that had to be wins. Well, they've won three already and still have not played any of those six "should win" matches. This is the first of the six, which includes home games against Villa, Norwich, and Wigan and road trips to QPR, Wolves, and West Brom.

Of their five remaining games at the Emirates, this visit of Aston Villa is in the middle of the road in terms of difficulty. It's probably on par with the visit of Norwich in May, it's certainly trickier than Wigan's visit in April, but it's not quite the task of facing Chelsea or Manchester City.

All that said, let's look at this one game at a time, and let's go for a magnificent seven league wins in a row.

Arsenal Squad News

Tom Vermaelen waves to his adoring fans, acknowledging
that yes, he is a bad ass. Photo: Daily Mail.
Out: Coquelin (hamstring), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (ankle)
Doubts: Diaby (hamstring)

Arsenal went from nine days in between matches to now playing two in the smallest interval of time you can have from midweek to weekend. A Wednesday night game followed by a Saturday afternoon game is just about as bad as it gets. It was a similar scenario when Arsenal last had a league winning streak of similar length back in November, when a tired Arsenal side could only manage a point against Fulham. Hopefully, the long layoff before the win at Everton on Wednesday means the legs will still be somewhat fresh for the Gunners as they take on Villa this week, though Villa themselves have not played a game in two weeks.

There's been no team news quite yet, so I don't think there are any new injuries from the Everton game. Elsewhere, Abou Diaby could be back in contention for a spot on the bench after completing an hour for the reserves on Tuesday. Sebastien Squillaci is back in full training, but hopefully far away from a spot in the named squad. Francis Coquelin is about a week or two away from returning from a hamstring injury. Jack Wilshere is still anybody's guess, while Per Mertesacker and Emmanuel Frimpong remain sidelined long term.

Aston Villa Squad News

Richard Dunne has been sent to Cleveland for treatment,
where he'll also play quarterback. Photo: Birm. Mail.
Out: Bent (ankle), Delph (ankle), Clark (knee), Dunne (collar)

There will be no Darren Bent for Arsenal to worry about tomorrow; the England forward will be out for a long while, after rupturing ligaments in his ankle. He's a serious doubt to make the England squad for the Euro tournament this summer. Of the four goals Aston Villa has scored at the Emirates over the past two seasons (last year in the league and earlier this year in the FA Cup,) Bent has three of them.

Villa are without two of their center backs until next month; Richard Dunne has a broken collarbone and Ciaran Clark is out with a knee injury. Dunne has been receiving treatment in Cleveland for his broken bone,. No, seriously, Cleveland. They sent him to the U.S. because American football doctors are more accustomed to dealing with this type of injury. Aston Villa and the Cleveland Browns are both owned by Randy Lerner.

Fabian Delph returned from his loan spell at Leeds, as he is out for the season with an ankle injury.

Current Form

Photo: Motifake.
If you want the Cliff's notes version of this section: Arsenal's form is great, Aston Villa's form is not that great, but they haven't played in two weeks.

Arsenal have now won six straight league fixtures for the first time in two years, when they beat Liverpool, Sunderland, Stoke, Burnley, Hull, and West Ham before drawing Birmingham. Arsenal's last seven game winning streak in the league, which they can match tomorrow, was August 25 to October 20 of 2007. The most stunning part of this six-match winning streak is that Wednesday's win was the first clean sheet of the bunch.

Overall, Arsenal have won five straight across all competitions, which matches their total longest winning streak of the year. The first two league wins of the current league streak were followed by the dreadful performances in Milan and Sunderland. At the Emirates, Arsenal have won five straight since losing to Manchester United in January. Arsenal's longest home winning streak of the season is seven.

Aston Villa have not played since beating Fulham in Birmingham on March 10. Villa were off last week, as Arsenal was, because the opponent they would have played that weekend were still playing in the FA Cup. But, in the wake of what happened to Fabrice Muamba, Villa's match with Bolton has been postponed even further. That match against Fulham was Villa's first league win since January 21. After they lost to Arsenal in the FA Cup, Villa drew QPR, lost to Newcastle, lost to United, then drew relegation candidates Wigan and Blackburn before triumphing over the Cottagers. Villa are still basically a mid-table side, but they're no longer in the hunt for a top-half finish.

Match Facts

I like pictures like this because they remind me of how
short Arshavin is. Photo: Arsenal.
Thanks to their domestic cup tie, Aston Villa will be one of four teams that Arsenal will face a total of three times this year. Arsenal have won the other two meetings. Arsenal had won their two league meetings with Sunderland before crashing out of the FA Cup at the Stadium of Light. They won their two meetings with Bolton before drawing at the Reebok on February 1. They have lost their two meetings with Manchester City so far, with their final league date on April 8.

Arsenal won the league encounter at Villa Park on December 21. Yossi Benayoun headed in the winner from a corner three minutes from time. Robin van Persie had opened the scoring from the penalty spot before Marc Albrighton equalized early in the second half. In the FA Cup on January 29, Aston Villa took a 2-0 in at halftime before Arsenal stormed back, scoring three in a span of eight minutes, to win 3-2.

Arsenal have lost just twice in their last 26 league meetings with Aston Villa, though one of those losses came in this fixture last year, 2-1, which came during Arsenal's end of season complacency clusterfuck.

The Referee

"I can't see out of these!" Photo: Bleacher Report.
The referee is Staffordshire-based Phil Dowd, a man I have not thought very highly of since that debacle at Newcastle last season. That 4-4 draw snapped a six-game winning streak across all competitions, which was Arsenal's longest streak of last season. Arsenal's winning streak right now across all competitions, as mentioned above, is at five.

Arsenal had no wins from five matches Dowd worked in the 2010/11 season and he also took charge of Arsenal's 1-0 league loss at Manchester City, a match that snapped Arsenal's league unbeaten run at eight. He did, however, take charge of an Arsenal win during that unbeaten run, the 2-1 win at Norwich, in which he correctly ignored Grant Holt's 86th minute dive for a penalty, which earned the forward a yellow card for simulation.

As for Villa, Dowd was in the middle for their 2-1 loss to West Brom (in which Chris Herd was sent off in the 35th minute) and their 2-1 win at Bolton.

Around the League

Harry Redknapp seems to be attempting to reverse the bad
hex on his squad by doing some voodoo of his own.
Photo: Daily Mail.
The biggest match of this weekend of fixtures will already be complete by the time Arsenal and Aston Villa take the pitch tomorrow. The early morning game (at 8:45 this week, since England still does not change their clocks until Saturday night/Sunday morning) will see Chelsea host Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge. For Arsenal, clearly the best possible result here would be a draw. Such a result would mean an Arsenal win moves them three points clear of Spurs and eight clear of Chelsea. But really, as long as Arsenal wins on Saturday, any result in this game gives Arsenal more breathing room against at least one of their foes.

There are six games being played in England's non-televised time slot of 3 p.m. (11:00 a.m. Eastern this week) including Arsenal v. Villa on Fox Soccer. Fox Soccer Plus will air Liverpool v. Wigan at Anfield. The Reds are now farther adrift from the top spot than they are from last place. Wigan are goal difference ahead of Wolves for that last spot. Speaking of last place Wolves, they'll be at Norwich in this time slot. The Canaries currently sit 14th. Elsewhere, Bolton Wanderers will return to the pitch for the first time since the Fabrice Muamba incident, as they will host Blackburn at the Reebok in a relegation six-pointer. Blackburn are now five points clear of the drop zone; Bolton have a game in hand. QPR used their comeback over Liverpool to climb out of the drop zone (though Bolton have that game in hand on them too;) they'll travel to the Stadium of Light to face 9th place Sunderland. The sixth and final 11:00 a.m. game sees Swansea host Everton in a battle of top-half mid-table sides.

Saturday's late game sees Stoke City, fresh off nicking a point from Spurs, host Manchester City at the Britannia. City are still one point behind United for top spot with nine matches play. United doesn't play until Monday, as they'll host Fulham at Old Trafford. There's only one match on Sunday; as West Brom hosts Newcastle at the Hawthorns.

These are the reverse fixtures of those played December 20-22, the midweek before Boxing Day.

Preview by Numbers: Everton v. Arsenal

Goodison Park, Liverpool
Wednesday, March 21
4:00 p.m. EDT, 8:00 p.m. GMT
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  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Lee Mason
    • Assistants: John Flynn and Mick McDonough
    • 4th Official: Jonathan Moss
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 1 - 0 Everton
  • This Match, Last Year: Everton 1 - 2 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 97 Arsenal wins, 58 Everton wins, 41 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: D-W-W-W-W-W
  • Everton's League Form: W-D-W-D-W-L
At the height of the fighting, nobody notices Szczesny
stealing the ball. Photo: Twitter/@PascalZidane.
Obviously, let me start off by saying our thoughts and prayers are with Fabrice Muamba, as he recovers from a horrific cardiac arrest on the pitch in the FA Cup on Saturday. It's wonderful to hear that he is showing signs of recovery, breathing on his own, talking, and recognizing family members. Get well soon.

On to the matter at hand, it's been a while since Arsenal's latest last gasp winner. Last Monday, it was Tom Vermaelen with the goal, coming after 94 minutes had already been played. Boy, it's a good thing Tim Krul wasted all that time during the match, otherwise Arsenal would not have had the time for that goal! It's five straight wins in the league, four straight from behind, and three out of four with winners coming in second half injury time. How about a comfortable win, for once?

Arsenal have a string of positive results at Goodison Park; three wins and a draw from their last four trips to Everton. A win today would mean more positive momentum for this team going forward. It would be Arsenal's first six match winning streak in the league since two years ago yesterday. Everton are by no means an easy side to face when they're home; they've beaten the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, and Tottenham at Goodison Park, all over the past two months.

With ten matches to play, obviously every game is crucial. With the ball rolling so well as of late, it feels even more crucial to keep that going.

Arsenal Squad News

Even Gingerbread Man Diaby has a cast.
And a frown. And nobody wanted to eat him.
Photo: My girlfriend.
Out: Diaby (hamstring), Coquelin (hamstring), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (ankle)

Since it has been nine days since the last time Arsenal have played a game, it's safe to say this side is probably not going to have too many tired legs. As such, it's hard to imagine Arsene Wenger making any changes to the side that beat Newcastle last Monday. Rest is a wonderful thing at this stage in the season; the only fear is that you can't talk much about form when you haven't played in so long.

The injury list has not changed much either. Abou Diaby played an hour for the reserves yesterday and scored a goal, but also went down injured in the process. He played another ten minutes after the goal/injury to his ankle and seemed to shake it off just fine. We know that Per Mertesacker's Arsenal season is over. He would, at best, just be returning to training by season's end, but would not be match fit in time. The timeline on Jack Wilshere is still anybody's guess; you would think, by now, the team would still be erring on the side of caution with him. Sebastien Squillaci is back in full training (oh, good.) Francis Coquelin was "two weeks away" as of March 15, so next weekend's QPR game may still come too early for him.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Song, Arteta, Rosicky, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, van Persie.

Everton Squad News

Out: Gibson (knee)
Doubts: Rodwell (hamstring), Coleman (groin)

Everton attacks more down their left hand side than their
right. For Arsenal, it's the other way around, making
the match-up of Baines/Pienaar vs. Sagna/Walcott the one
to watch in this match. Photo: Everton's official site.
Everton have only three injury concerns. Darron Gibson, who came to the Toffees from Manchester United in the January transfer window, remains out at least until this weekend with a knee injury. Seamus Coleman left Everton's FA Cup draw with Sunderland with a groin twinge. Jack Rodwell is a doubt with a hamstring injury recurrence.

Fixture congestion has led to David Moyes's use of rotation in the squad as of late. Prioritizing the FA Cup and a shot at silverware, Moyes rotated the squad for their Merseyside derby with Liverpool, and the Toffees lost 3-0. With an FA Cup replay coming up next week and a match, of course, at the weekend, you would suspect that if Everton were going to rotate again any time soon, it would be against Swansea on Saturday, and not today. The only change I can see Moyes making from the squad that played Sunderland in the FA Cup this past weekend is the addition of Steven Pienaar, who was cup-tied and unavailable.

There was a great piece you might have heard about on Zonal Marking this week, which has been reproduced on the Guardian, and analyzed in a more Arsenal-centric way by Gingers for Limpar, regarding teams' tendencies to attack more on one side of the pitch than the other. The take-away is that Arsenal attack more from the right and Everton attack more from the left. Suffice it to say that means the biggest match-up to watch in this game is how Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott combine against Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar.

Predicted XI: Howard, Neville, Heitinga, Distin, Baines, Fellaini, Osman, Cahill, Drenthe, Pienaar, Jelavic.

Current Form

U-S-A. Not today. Photo: Daily Mail.
It's really hard to talk about form when it's been nine days since Arsenal have played a game. The Gunners are currently in what can best be described as their second positive run of form of the season. The first came from October to late November. This run started after the consecutive demoralizing setbacks against Milan and Sunderland. I've already mentioned some of the key stats earlier in the post: five straight wins in the league, a record four straight come from behind victories, with three out of the last four league wins seeing the winning goal scored after the 90th minute. While there has been plenty of resurgence in Arsenal's play as of late, only the win against Liverpool came away from home. Arsenal have lost six of their last 10 road games across all competitions, winning just three (Aston Villa, Sunderland, and Liverpool.)

Everton are in the middle of a minor hiccup. Since beating Tottenham on March 10, the Toffees have lost their local derby in miserable fashion, 3-0 to Liverpool, then failed to get anything going in a 1-1 FA Cup draw with Sunderland that will take them to a replay. Before the loss to Liverpool, Everton were unbeaten in seven in the league. That list of results gets really confusing when you break it down, though. It includes three wins over Manchester City, Chelsea, and Tottenham Hotspur, and four draws against Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic, and Queens Park Rangers.

The take-away from that statistic is how Everton handles their opponent by type. The Toffees struggle more against sides that sit back and maintain their shape, as you can see from the 1-1 draw with Sunderland, the teams they've drawn recently, and losses earlier this year against the likes of Stoke. They're a lot like Arsenal notoriously has been, in that respect.

Match Facts

Arsenal are unbeaten in nine against the
Toffees. Everton's last win came in 2007,
courtesy a late goal from Andrew Johnson.
This is not that Andrew Johnson.
Photo: Wikipedia.

Arsenal are unbeaten in nine matches against Everton and have won three straight. In the reverse fixture, Everton tried to play a high line and burn Arsenal on the counter, but ultimately sat back too much, played for a draw, got burned by a perfect Alex Song through ball and a perfect Robin van Persie volley, and Arsenal won 1-0 to celebrate their 125th birthday.

Last year, Arsenal won both contests by 2-1 scorelines. At Goodison Park in November of 2010, Arsenal led 2-0 through Sagna and Cesc Fabregas goals, then they sat back on their lead, conceded a late goal to Tim Cahill, and hung on to the win for dear life. In February of 2011, Arsenal won 2-1 at the Emirates. Andrei Arshavin and Laurent Koscielny goals canceled out Louis Saha's controversial, possibly offside opening goal that was allowed by Lee Mason, who also happens to be the referee today.

Arsenal have handed Everton some of their heaviest defeats under David Moyes including a 7-0 victory and a 6-1 win at Goodison Park in the season opening game in August of 2009. Five different Arsenal players scored that day, but of them, only Vermaelen remains with the squad. Fabregas had a brace, with other goals coming from Denilson, William Gallas, and Eduardo.

Everton's last win over Arsenal was on March 18, 2007 by a 1-0 scoreline. Andrew Johnson (and not the pictured 17th President of the United States, apparently) had the only goal in injury time.

The Referee

The referee is Lancashire-based Lee Mason. Mason has made a lot of strange calls against Arsenal in the past, including Saha's controversial goal mentioned above. The controversy about that involved the fact that Saha was standing in an offside position when the ball was played, but received it during what was considered a second "phase" of play, solely because Laurent Koscielny attempted (and failed) to block the through ball. Mason's only Arsenal match this season was the win over Stoke at the Emirates in October, though our recap man Sean will tell you (or, I should say, did at the time) that he had a shockingly bad game.

Mason has worked three Everton matches this year: a 1-0 win at Blackburn, which was won on an injury time penalty (by Mikel Arteta,) a 2-1 extra time loss to Chelsea in the Carling Cup (which saw a red card to both sides,) and a 1-0 loss to Stoke at home in December. Those two red cards in the Carling Cup match are the only two reds he has shown this season, in 24 matches.

Around the League

Get well soon, Fabrice Muamba.
Photo: Just Arsenal Fans.
This midweek completes a round of fixtures interrupted by the FA Cup quarterfinals. Fixtures between sides that were both out of the competition were held over the weekend, the rest are being played this midweek.

On Saturday, Swansea beat Fulham 3-0 at the Cottage, while Wigan and West Brom played out a 1-1 draw at the DW. On Sunday, Manchester United hit five past ten-man Wolves at Molineux, and Newcastle beat Norwich 1-0. Yesterday, Blackburn beat Sunderland 2-0 at Ewood Park.

Bolton's match with Aston Villa has been postponed, due to Fabrice Muamba's illness. This means Villa will not have played for exactly two weeks when they visit the Emirates on Saturday.

The big games of the round are today, as Manchester City hosts Chelsea in a huge match at Eastlands, Spurs host Stoke at the Lane, and QPR hosts Liverpool in West London.

These are the reverse of the fixtures played the weekend of December 10-11.

Arsenal 2-1 Newcastle United: Comeuppance

Maybe you should have started time-wasting from the 10th minute instead of the 20th, huh lads?

I mean, seriously, there are few things in this sport more satisfying than having your opponents waste endless amounts of time, only for your boys to respond with a late winner that makes all of their cheating efforts in vain. I am forever indebted to the ESPN producer who got the shot of the dejected Newcastle defense after the goal went in. I would love to get a picture of that framed and sent to Alan Pardew.

Let's start from the beginning, though. A best-available Arsenal side was selected, as Mikael Arteta returned from his concussion. Also, Aaron Ramsey made a welcome return to contention on the bench after his most recent injury.

The two ongoing themes of the match were established early - Arsenal began an endless series of looping passes in to the penalty area that Fabriccio Coloccini and Mike Williamson easily cleared away, and Howard Webb stood there and did nothing as Arsenal players got fouled by Chieck Tiote. Both got old, real quick.

Newcastle had set out their stall to defend, which seemed a tad bit conservative from Pardew. The Magpies have played some decent stuff at points this season, and they are coming off of a string of good results against us. They did not have a single attack of note in the first quarter of an hour.

So, of course they scored first.

In the end, three of our lot were badly culpable for the goal. Thomas Vermaelen horribly gave the ball away right down the middle of the field. Tiote took the ball and passed it to Gabriel Obertan. His lay-off connected with the overlapping run of Hatem Ben Arfa, who was given all the time and space in the world with Kieran Gibbs nowhere to be found. He cut in and caught Wojceich Szczesny anticipating a shot across the face of goal. Instead, Ben Arfa went near post, and the wrong-footed Szczesny couldn't get over in time. It was an awful goal to concede, and we Gooners could be forgiven for thinking it would be another of THOSE games against the Geordies.

Happily, it would not be as bad as all that. The amazing Robin van Persie had scored the equalizer before the Newcastle supporters had so much as sat back down in their seats. It was an instant reply from Arsenal, who really have looked like a different team entirely in the last few weeks. If we'd had this Arsenal all season, we'd be coasting to the title by now.

A great run from Theo Walcott down the right-hand side left their various barcoded drones in the dust, and he crossed it in to RVP. The Dutch wizard eviscerated Williamson with a deft flick, leaving the Newcastle man on his ass. With him out of the picture, there was just the onrushing Tim Krul to beat. Krul may have had a chance if he went into the challenge with conviction. Thankfully for us, he pulled out of it and left our man with an easy finish into the near corner.

Besides evening the score, the goal also prevented any foreboding feeling from infiltrating into our mindset. This was a game that other Arsenal sides would have lost and lost badly - quite simply, the captain refused to let that happen.

The intervening 74 minutes were low on gilt-edged chances but high on energy and application. At 90+3 minutes or so, I had an outline for this report in my head where I would have mentioned that the result was unfortunate, but the drive and determination of the team were encouraging for the fixtures ahead. Our guys routinely gave that little bit of extra effort to win tackles, maintain possession after a poor first touch, or close down opponents in the rare time they had the ball.

Nobody exhibited this more than Tomas Rosicky. It would have arguably been a Man of the Match performance if he had stayed on for the full 90, but even still it is heartening to see Tommy continue his run of good form. His tackling and passing were first-rate today, though he did visibly tire a bit after the hour mark - in retrospect I think that was a perfect substitution from Arsene Wenger.

Meanwhile, Newcastle contributed almost nothing to the game besides their one goal. In fact, I don't remember Szczesny making any significant saves from the time it got to 1-1 until the end of the game. What they did do was waste time - endlessly so at that. You could read half of Shakespeare's works in the time it took Krul to take goal kicks. In fact, our wonderful captain began a war of words with him over it, taking the law into his hands when Webb refused to do so.

Honestly, I love it. I have long said that Arsenal need to get that edge back into their game if we're ever going to win anything again. You may note that we've won the square root of fuck all in the time that we've been the kinder, gentler Arsenal. Personally, I would love to go back to the days of pizza throwing, tunnel fracases, a good old scream at a time-wasting prick in the opponents' goal. If Robin stays, with Szczesny in the fold, maybe one or two other strong personalities coming in this gets a guy to dreaming.

Anyway, we weren't setting the world on fire, either. As mentioned, we largely sent aimless high balls into the Newcastle area, which were meat and drink for their center-halves. The approach work was good though and both Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were making good runs down the wings. Still, I would be lying if I said that I felt like a goal was coming. Other than two half-chances that RVP had which were turned aside by his ongoing nemesis Krul, there wasn't much end product from our guys.

Rosicky was eventually withdrawn in favor of the returning Ramsey, and the rust was obvious at times from the young Welshman. He had a few heavy touches and misplayed passes, but it'll be great to have him back as an option in the middle of the park as he works himself back into game shape.

A few minutes earlier, Gervinho had come on for Oxlade-Chamberlain, who also was visibly tiring and had a bit of an off game. However, his replacement would be responsible for the worst miss of the game, in a growing collection of them from the Ivorian. A free kick from RVP bounced across the face of goal and out to the completely unmarked winger. The ball got crossed up in his feet, and he was only able to deflect it wide. He hasn't shown a wide range of finishing ability in his time with us so far, and this was the latest example of why The Ox is starting in his place these days.

Time was ticking away, and it looked like a draw was imminent. There was one last good chance in normal time though, as a fantastic cross from Alex Song was met with a thumping header by Vermaelen. Krul did very well to tip it over the bar one-handed.

There were five minutes of added time given, and Newcastle looked to have survived them with their desperate time-wasting tactics. Walcott wasn't having it though, and he rampaged down the right-hand side once again. His cross looked like it was intended for RVP, but the captain didn't connect. No worries though, as Vermaelen made up for his part in the Newcastle goal by tapping in at the back post.

Needless to say, we went bloody mental. In fact, I got injured in the celebrations when I jumped up and came back down chest-first onto the back of a chair. Absolutely worth it, though.

There was still some more to go though, as it took a minute or two to separate Krul and van Persie, the latter having indulged in some post-goal verbals regarding the rampant time-wasting his opposite number had done. That's exactly the sort of thing I was talking about before - maybe to a neutral it will seem like a dick move, but personally I thought Krul had it coming and I'm glad RVP did it.

Both guys got booked in the ensuing handbags, and then Webb added on another few minutes on top of it. Arsenal rode them out capably though, with three very important points in the bag.

You guys all know the drill. One point behind the Scum, 10 games to go. That is what we have to play for now, so come on you Gunners and get the job done!

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 5, Gibbs 6, Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 8, Sagna 7, Oxlade-Chamberlain 6 (Gervinho 6), Song 7, Arteta 7, Rosicky 8 (Ramsey 6), Walcott 8, van Persie 8

Man of the Match: Like I said, it might have been Rosicky if he had stayed on. More likely though, I would have still picked the man who I give it to now - the incredible, the fantastic, the amazing Robin van Persie.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Newcastle United

Emirates Stadium, London
Monday, March 12
4:00 p.m. EDT, 8:00 p.m. GMT
[Note the time change due to Daylight Saving Time]
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  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Howard Webb
    • Assistants: Peter Kirkup and Simon Long
    • 4th Official: Mike Jones
  • Reverse Fixture: Newcastle 0 - 0 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 0 - 1 Newcastle
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 65 Arsenal wins, 66 Newcastle wins, 38 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-D-W-W-W-W
  • Newcastle's League Form: L-W-W-L-D-D
Laurent Koscielny gave Arsenal a key early goal against
Milan on Tuesday. Photo: Guardian.
Well, Arsenal officially crashed out of Europe on Tuesday, though they went out in a God damned blaze of glory, didn't they? Ultimately, the Gunners didn't have a fourth goal in them, but what a wild ride that first half was. It made me immensely proud to be a Gooner. Well done, boys.

The distractions are gone now. It's just the league to play. Arsenal has sole possession of fourth after Chelsea's loss last week. 11 games to go. In terms of prognostications, it looks like Arsenal still needs about eight wins from them to clinch top four; though, that's really an average. If they beat Chelsea on April 21, it's more like seven wins (since a Chelsea loss affects the gap between the two equally to an Arsenal win.) If they lose to Chelsea, then they could have to win eight or nine of the remaining 10.

Last week, Arsenal did a fantastic job of putting some breathing room between themselves and Liverpool. This week, it's time to do that to Newcastle.

Three points at a time, Arsenal! Slow and steady wins the race! Other random cliché!

Arsenal Squad News

Who is... oh right, Diaby. I forgot what
he looked like. And will apparently
forget again. Photo: Daily Mail.
Out: Diaby (hamstring), Squillaci (groin), Coquelin (hamstring), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (ankle)
Doubts: Gibbs (groin)

There's a lot to talk about here, so let's do this in terms of positions:

On the defensive line, all of the news comes from the left side. Kieran Gibbs is a slight doubt with a minor recurrence of a groin injury. He's probably a little more than 50/50. Meanwhile, Andre Santos has been training lightly for about six weeks now and is, apparently, available for selection. Santos will only play if Gibbs doesn't pass fit, since the Brazilian hasn't played in three months and I think that's still up in the air.

In the midfield, we all know by know that Abou Diaby has had another setback and will miss a few more weeks. Francis Coquelin's hamstring injury will apparently keep him out another three weeks. Yossi Benayoun could be short for Monday, as he just returned to training yesterday, but he's likely to be named on the bench. There's a lot of good news in the midfield, though, as Mikel Arteta (concussion) and Aaron Ramsey (ankle) should both be available for selection.

Up from, Theo Walcott took a kick to the hip against Milan but is likely to return, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was suffering from illness, but he's available, too.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Song, Rosicky, Arteta, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, van Persie.

Newcastle Squad News

Out: Lovenkrands (thigh), Best (knee), Marveaux (groin), Sammy Ameobi (knee), Steven Taylor (Achilles)

It'll always be St. James' Park to them. Seahorses forever...
Photo: Daily Mail.
You know what? Newcastle United has too many nicknames. The team itself is nicknamed the Magpies because of the black and white color scheme. But they're also the Toon, which comes from the Geordies' local pronunciation of the word town. And speaking of Geordies, that's another nickname. But you know what I see when I look at their crest? Seahorses. What the hell is that?

I'm calling them the Seahorses from now on.

The big injury news this week from the Seahorses is that Denmark international Peter Lovenkrands has suffered serious damage to his thigh and is likely to miss the rest of the season. With his contract due to expire, it's likely he has played his final game in black and white.

That's their only new injury, as he joins the list of long-term injuries for the Toon. Leon Best and Sammy Ameobi are both out with knee injuries. Best could be back late this month or next, but Ameobi's season is likely over. Steven Taylor is out for the year with a ruptured Achilles. Sylvain Marveaux is out until the beginning of next month with a groin injury.

Not mentioned in the above list is Nile Ranger, who has been missing with an ankle injury. Ranger has not played for Newcastle this season, and had his loan time at Barnsley cut short through injury. He was also recently fined for homophobic tweets, then had to appear in court to deny an assault charge. So, not a good season so far for him. He'll face trial in June.

Damn Seahorses...

Current Form

Alan Pardew looks like he wants to punch Martin O'Neill
in the face. Honestly, I don't blame him. Photo: Daily Mail.
Ignoring that one terrible week where Arsenal lost 4-0 at Milan and 2-0 at Sunderland, the Gunners are on a brilliant run of form. They have won four straight in the league for the second time this season. They've also won four straight at home. Both of those streaks go back to January 22, when Arsenal lost 2-1 to Manchester United. This is Arsenal's longest winning streak at home since September through early November and their longest league winning streak since October through later in November.

Newcastle are coming off a hard fought Tyne & Wear derby with Sunderland that saw both squads charged with failing to control their players. The Seahorses got a late goal against ten man Sunderland from Shola Ameobi to secure a 1-1 draw after Nicklas Bendtner had put Sunderland up from the penalty spot and Demba Ba had a penalty saved in the 82nd. Newcastle are currently five points back of Arsenal and sit sixth in the table.

Prior to the derby draw, the Seahorses drew Wolves at home 2-2, after blowing a 2-0 lead. Before that, they were demolished 5-0 by Tottenham at White Hart Lane, a match that was uncompetitive from the start. Newcastle have not won an away match in the league since Boxing Day, when they beat Bolton at the Reebok 2-0.

Match Facts

Dear Joey Barton, I hate you. Sincerely, Gervinho.
Photo: Guardian.
There are only three teams in the Premier League that have more wins than losses against Arsenal, all-time. Newcastle is one of those three teams, but their advantage is just one (66-65.) An Arsenal win on Monday and they are level again. The only other two teams that have more wins than losses against the Gunners are Liverpool (a gap which Arsenal cut to 8 by winning last week) and United (where the gap is 12.)

Since regaining promotion to the Premier League for last season, the Seahorses have not lost a match to Arsenal in three tries in the league. Newcastle took a 1-0 win from the Emirates last season as Andy Carroll headed in the only goal just before halftime, thanks to Arsenal's inability to defend set pieces. At St. James' Park last February, Arsenal took a 4-0 lead and then disastrous things happened. Earlier this year, Arsenal and Newcastle played out a 0-0 draw to open the season, which saw Gervinho sent off thanks to Joey Barton. Then Alex Song was retroactively given a three match ban thanks to Joey Barton. Hey, at least he's not at Newcastle anymore.

Arsenal did beat the Seahorses 4-0 in the Carling Cup last season in their first meeting after Newcastle's promotion. That win predated the aforementioned three results for Newcastle and was the end of a streak where Arsenal had won five straight against the Seahorses across all competitions.

The Referee

Rather than show a scary picture of Howard Webb
yelling at something, here's a chart of Arsenal's
home results with Webb in charge.
This is what eight wins and four draws look like.
The referee is South Yorkshire-based Howard Webb, so thank God it's not being played at Old Trafford for some reason. I've mentioned Arsenal's positive record with Howard Webb in matches that aren't United away plenty of times before, but their unbeaten run of ten games in such matches was snapped by Sunderland in the FA Cup.

So, let's take a look at how Arsenal fares with him just at the Emirates instead. Arsenal have won both matches he worked in North London this year, over Sunderland and Everton. Last year, Webb only worked two Arsenal games and both were on the road. In 2009/10, Webb's one match at the Emirates was a 1-0 win over Liverpool (he ignored a legitimate Liverpool shout for a penalty at the death in that one, when Cesc Fabregas, standing in the wall, cheekily handled a free kick.) The year before that, he worked a 1-0 win over West Brom, a 2-1 win over United, and a 1-1 draw with Liverpool in which he sent off Emmanuel Adebayor. In 2007/08, he worked two at the Emirates: a 2-0 win over Newcastle and a 2-2 draw with United. In 2006/07, two more: a 3-0 win over Watford and a 6-2 win over Blackburn.

Before that point, Arsenal played at Highbury. Ten matches at the Emirates with Webb in the middle, Eight Arsenal wins and two draws. The streak extends two more draws at Highbury, but ultimately, Arsenal have never lost a home game with Howard Webb as the referee.

This year, with Howard Webb in the middle, Arsenal lost at Old Trafford by a certain disastrous scoreline that shall go nameless, a 2-1 win over Sunderland at the Emirates, a 1-0 win over Everton at the Emirates, and the FA Cup loss three weeks ago.

Around the League

Tottenham's home match against Everton wasn't played
until January, because this happened in August.
Photo: Guardian.

Playing on Monday has its advantages sometimes; as the last match of this round of fixtures, Arsenal will already know how the closest teams around them in the table (Spurs and Chelsea) have fared in this weekend's matches by the time they play.

Six matches start the weekend on Saturday. Sky Sports has gone with a relegation six-pointer to kick things off, as Bolton Wanderers host QPR at the Reebok. Bolton won the reverse fixture 4-0 at Loftus Road. Four matches take place in the standard 10 a.m. Eastern time slot. It's a battle of mid-table bookends as 15th place Aston Villa host 8th place Fulham at Villa Park, Chelsea hosts Stoke at the Bridge (Stoke held the Blues to a draw at the Britannia in the reverse,) Liverpool travels to the Stadium of Light for a tricky road fixture at Sunderland, and in another relegation six-pointer, Wolves host Blackburn at Molineux. They're both level on points, but Blackburn are ahead, and thus out of the drop zone, by four on goal difference right now. Saturday's late game is a tricky road fixture for Tottenham Hotspur as they face Everton at Goodison Park.

The Manchester sides continue their battle for first place on Sunday (necessitated by their Europa League commitments.) Both of those matches kick-off at 10:00 a.m. on the East Coast (note the time change, those would have been at 9:00 last week.) United will be at Old Trafford hosting West Bromwich Albion and City will be in Wales facing Swansea. That's another tricky road fixture for a top team this week. City currently hold a two point lead for top spot over United.

Sunday's late game, at noon, will see Sky Sports air Norwich hosting Wigan at Carrow Road. Why they picked that one, I have no idea.

These are the reverse fixtures of those played on the weekend of August 13-14, which was the first weekend of the season.

Arsenal 3-0 AC Milan: So Very, Very Close

There are times that I thank fate, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or whatever for the fact that I have a nice, stable corporate job. Then, there are times where Arsenal almost pull off the greatest comeback in European football history, and I suddenly wish I were unemployed.

I followed the Guardian's minute-by-minute in the midst of frantically trying to finish something I had due for my boss today...and now, I'm watching the highlights on 101 Great Goals. I'll touch on the major events of the game in due course, but first I wanted to mention how impressed I am with this Arsenal team today.

Today, they gave us a battling performance worthy of the cannons on their shirts. For the very small minority who I have seen say this wasn't good enough, I tell you with all due respect to get stuffed. You can't say on one hand that all you ask is that the team care and that they give their best effort (a common trope stated during losing streaks, including by yours truly in fairness), and then on the other bitch and moan about how our guys tired a bit and couldn't find the fourth goal. Yes, we bloody know that there isn't enough depth in the squad. Yes, we bloody know that we're over-reliant on Robin van Persie. Yes, we bloody know that the first leg in Milan was a disaster, a shitshow of epic proportions.

If you can't enjoy the fact that our guys showed guts, heart and determination and essentially recreated the end of Rocky ("Arsenal doesn't think this is a damn show...they think it's a damn fight!"), then what on earth do you follow this stuff for? I'm not going to be one of those tossers that resorts to "Go and support S***s!" the second someone disagrees with me, but I think that sometimes there's a lot to be said for losing with honor and with fighting spirit. The true window into a person's or a team's character is what they do (not say, do) in the face of adversity.

Arsenal triumphed in that respect, even if they didn't win.

For their part, AC Milan gambled a bit with their tactics. Massimiliano Allegri attempted to fight fire with fire, countering Arsene Wenger's highly attacking lineup (RVP, Theo Walcott, Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all started) with a front three of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Stephan El Shaarawy. If I were in Allegri's shoes, I'd take into account the S***s and Liverpool results and figure that Arsenal would come out guns ablaze for 15-20 minutes, set up my stall to catenaccio the threat away, and then release the hounds as they tired.

Instead, Laurent Koscielny took advantage of decidedly non-Italian defending to give us the lead inside of 8 minutes. Off of a corner kick, the big Frenchman was left disgracefully unmarked by Ignazio Abate on the near post. Koscielny didn't get the cleanest contact possible on the ball, but it was more than enough to guide it into the net.

Had Milan gone out today, Abate would probably have been strangled to death by goalkeeper Cristian Abbiati in the locker room after the game. Further, no sane jury would have convicted him.

From what I read, Arsenal tore into them from there, as a bit of panic surely set in for Milan.

Now, I may get slated for comparing my own humble 7-a-side experiences to a major European tie, but fuck it, I'm going to do it anyway. If you've ever played a team sport at any level, I sincerely hope this hasn't happened to you. But, sometimes you get out to a big lead and a potent combination of over-excitement, arrogance and a tinge of fear seeps into your play. On one hand, everything is going great and victory is in your grasp, but all it takes is one little pinprick and the bubble spectacularly bursts. Two seasons ago, my Sunday league team was in the hunt for the title yet again (we are infamously the close-but-no-cigar team in the league) and we were playing our bogey team - the one that gets one jammy, shitty goal and then catenaccios us to death the rest of the way. Well, this time we were up 3-0 inside of five or six minutes. All it took was one crappy deflected own-goal though, and the wheels came off. Panic set in, defensive posts were abandoned in a suicidally-high line, and all of a sudden we were down 4-3 at halftime...which is how it finished. Again, death by catenaccio.

The point is, I can almost sympathize with Milan here.

Once I saw Koscielny scored, I thought to myself "one more goal here and this may get interesting." Sure enough, Goal Machine Tomas Rosicky doubled our lead and tightened sphincters all up and down Europe's Boot.

A Milan team in control of themselves would never have conceded it, though. A simple cutback across the face of goal was intercepted by Thiago Silva. He could have put it anywhere else on the pitch and the danger would have passed - instead, he under-hit a lazy clearance straight down the middle of the area to Rosicky. That was bad enough, but the Czech man didn't have a defender anywhere near him, leaving him with the time and space to fire past the helpless Abbiati and in.

Say what you want about our defense, and most of it will be true. But, that may be the worst goal I've seen conceded this season, and I saw the 5-2 evisceration of our nearest and dearest. By the way, the color commentator made a big deal about the Milan keeper being beat at his near post. The color commentator is also an idiot - if any keeper expected his teammate to give away the ball that badly that close to goal, then that's not good anticipation, that's PTSD.

Clearly, this was a side that would have benefited from an ice hockey-style timeout. Had Allegri had the chance to remind them that they were still well ahead and that one patient counter-attack would kill off the tie for good, they may have recovered mentally enough to continue. The great thing about this sport is that such a thing isn't an option, allowing for a story like this to continue.

Arsenal pressed on, and their hard work was rewarded when Milan's defense creaked again in the 41st minute. Oxlade-Chamberlain didn't have much in the way of support as he made his run, so the direct route was the only option. He fearlessly charged into the Milan area, and was sandwiched by Djamel Nesbah and Antonio Nascerino on his way to goal. Again, a Rossoneri side in normal circumstances calmly shepherds The Ox away from danger or nicks the ball off of him. Instead, in a panic, they concede a mindless penalty which RVP duly dispatched into the top corner as cool as you bloody like.

If Milan were panicking before, they were shitting themselves now. To put this in perspective, if Abbiati hadn't made the single greatest save I've seen in Europe this season in the first leg, we'd have been winning at this point on away goals.

Arsenal apparently flagged a bit in the second half, the pace of the game and the gravity of the occasion wearing on what was already a bedraggled squad. How different things could have been though with a little bit of luck in the 58th minute. Rosicky won the ball in midfield, and sent a through-ball in to a wide-open Gervinho. Had it not been fractionally behind him, the Ivorian was in alone on Abbiati. Even still, he got a shot away that deflected off of the defender. If only that butterfly in the Amazon Basin flapped its wings a little faster, it's an own-goal and Milan have well and truly thrown it all away. Abbiati brilliantly repelled it with his legs, but the rebound came out to an unmarked RVP on the back post.

I would have bet my mother's life that the Dutchman would have buried it. Thankfully for me, her and my family, that option was not available to me.

Instead, his tame effort was hoovered up by the grateful Abbiati. Had that gone in, there's no doubt in my mind that the fifth would have come - the Italians would have absolutely went to pieces. It was not to be, though. That's how fickle momentum can be in this game - all it takes is one goal to make a huge lead seem vulnerable, and yet all it takes is one stroke of luck to remember that you can play this game after all...and to make it seem like that great comeback is destined to fall just a little bit short.

Milan started to haul themselves back in it, and forced Wojceich Szczesny into some decent saves. Nocerino then had a glorious chance to apply the coup de grace, but fluffed his lines in much the same manner as RVP had some minutes before. It didn't matter, though. There wasn't enough gas left in the tank to seriously test Abbiati from that point on, and throwing on Marouane Chamakh and Ju-Young Park wasn't going to change anything.

Arsenal were out, but only on the judges' scorecards.

There's no ratings or MOTM today, as I didn't see the whole thing. All I know is that I'm proud to be a Gooner today...and I'd much rather be in our shoes than Zenit St. Peterburg's, that's for sure.

The hell with it, let's go Geordie hunting on Monday.

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

Emirates Stadium, London
Tuesday, March 6
2:45 p.m. EST, 7:45 p.m. GMT
  • Match Officials: from Slovenia
    • Referee: Damir Skomina
    • Assistants: Primoz Arhar and Marko Stancin
    • 4th Official: Mitja Zganec
    • Additional Assistants: Matej Jug and Slavko Vincic
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 1 Arsenal win, 2 Milan wins, 2 draws
  • Arsenal's Premier League Form: L-D-W-W-W-W
  • Milan's Serie A Form: L-D-W-W-D-W
There's not too much to say about this one. Arsenal have already dug the hole insanely deep, so deep that it does not look very plausible to dig out of it. So, what can you hope for in a match like this? Pride, for one. Any form of victory would be enough to keep the positive league vibes going, even if it meant crashing out of Europe. As far as many are concerned, the crash part has already happened. A 2-1 win, for example, will not nearly be enough to see Arsenal through, but it will be enough to keep the momentum going.

After this match, it'll be another six days before Arsenal face Newcastle at the Emirates as they try to keep their league winning streak going, so there will be a little time to rest the regulars between today and then. There'll also be plenty of time for Arsenal's wounded to recover a bit.

So today, let's go for a win and hold our heads up high.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Diaby (hamstring), Arteta (concussion), Benayoun (hamstring), Djourou (groin), Squillaci (groin), Ramsey (ankle), Coquelin (hamstring), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Santos (ankle), Wilshere (ankle)
Doubts: Gibbs (knock), Rosicky (groin)

"Get up, you ****"
It'd be nice to rotate the squad just a little bit, but oh man, look at that injury list. Arsenal lost three more players on Saturday, with two more picking up minor knocks. There are 11 players out for sure with injury and two on the doubtful list.

In terms of new injury news, Mikel Arteta will be rested after his concussion; he should be back for Newcastle. Abou Diaby returned for the first time since November, made it 20 minutes, then got hurt again; could be 2-3 more weeks for him. Yossi Benayoun is out with an illness (or a hamstring injury, depending on what source you read.) Kieran Gibbs and Tomas Rosicky are both 50/50 with their respective knocks.

On the back line, Johan Djourou is still out. So is Sebastien Squillaci. So is Francis Coquelin (he's got at least three weeks to go.) Per Mertesacker's season is still likely done. Andre Santos will likely be back this month.

In the midfield, Aaron Ramsey is still a week away. Jack Wilshere is anybody's guess, but Arsenal are optimistic of a return this year. Emmanuel Frimpong's season is over.

With seven midfielders out (eight if Rosicky misses,) there are major question marks in the middle. Alex Song will start of course, but with all of the injuries, I think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will have to start there too, with Gervinho and Theo Walcott on the wings and Robin van Persie up front. That still leaves you one midfielder short, which will be Rosicky if he's fit or a reserve, by necessity, if he's not.

Then again, Arsene Wenger said in his press conference yesterday that the number of injuries might force him to change formations entirely. So, let's see a 3-1-6 formation!

Okay, maybe not.

Milan Squad News

Out: Lopez (calf), Pato (thigh), Nesta (thigh), Seedorf (thigh), Boateng (thigh), Strasser (ankle), Merkel (knee), Gattuso (cranial nerve), Flamini (knee), Cassano (heart)
Suspended: Ambrosini (one match)

Milan still have five of the same long term injuries they had for the first leg, including Alexander Merkel's knee injury, Rodney Strasser following ankle surgery, Gennaro Gattuso's career threatening eye nerve injury, Mathieu Flamini's knee ligament damage, and Antonio Cassano's heart condition.

In terms of recent injuries, Clarence Seedorf and Kevin-Prince Boateng have each not played since picking up thigh injuries in the first leg. Maxi Lopez had missed Milan's last two games with a calf injury. Alexandre Pato is out with a thigh injury, as is Alessandro Nesta. He was on the bench in the first leg despite his injury, but he has not made the trip to London.

Massimo Ambrosini will serve a one match ban.

Current Form

Updated graph of Arsenal's odds of finishing top four.
Click to enlarge. The red line was last week's odds, the
purple line is current. Chelsea's loss means Arsenal's odds
are improved.
Arsenal have won four straight in the league and are unbeaten in five, truly bolstering their chances at fourth place. Advancing to the quarterfinals looks out of reach for the Gunners, but a victory on home soil would provide a morale boost moving forward, with 11 games to play in the Premier League season. I wrote last week that Arsenal would probably have to win about nine of its last 12 games to take fourth. Chelsea's loss to West Brom makes the task a little easier (the three points dropped by the Blues is nearly equivalent to another Arsenal win, mathematically speaking.) Now, as shown in the graph (the red line is as of last week, the purple line as of today,) Arsenal look like they will need closer to just seven more wins than eight to get the job done.

At the Emirates, Arsenal's last three matches across all competitions have seen them outscore their opponents 15-5. That means they would be on pace to win this game 5 to 1 and two thirds... which would not be enough to advance, even if you round down to 5-1. Damn away goals. Since losing to Manchester United in January, Arsenal have beaten Aston Villa in the FA Cup 3-2, Blackburn Rovers 7-1, and Tottenham 5-2. The first and last of those matches saw Arsenal come from behind to score all of their goals unanswered after going down 2-0.

As for Milan, they are still riding high. They are unbeaten in five in the league after a 4-0 win away to Palermo at the weekend. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a hat trick. Milan have not lost a game by more than two goals across all competitions this season.

Match Facts

Deportivo overcame a three goal deficit against Milan
in 2004. Can Arsenal overcome four?
Photo: Magic Spongers.
Rather than re-hash Arsenal's history with Milan in this space, since it's not much different than it was before the first leg (to recap: Arsenal beat them in 2008, Milan beat Arsenal in the 1994 Super Cup,) let's instead talk about the odds of overturning large deficits in the Champions League.

Arsenal have never scored a goal at home against AC Milan, so that's the first thing going against the Gunners in this tie. Only three teams in the history of UEFA competition have overturned a four-goal deficit to win a tie. All three predate the Champions League era. Borussia Monchengladbach is the most recent to do it; they beat Real Madrid 4-0 after losing the first leg 5-1 in the 1986 UEFA Cup. A year before that, FK Partizan overturned a 6-2 deficit with a 4-0 victory over Queens Park Rangers. And, the first occurrence, the 1962 Cup Winners' Cup saw another 6-2 deficit overturned with a 5-0 victory. That time, it was Portuguese side Leixoes who came back against La Chaux-de-Fonds.

AC Milan themselves have the distinction of having the largest first leg lead overturned in the Champions League era; that was three goals in 2004. They had won the first leg against Deportivo de La Coruña 4-1 before losing the second leg 4-0.

In all of these instances, the team overturning the deficit had at least scored a goal in the first leg; Arsenal cannot say they did that this time around.

The Referee

Damir Skomina's cold death stare.
The referee is Damir Skomina from Slovenia. Earlier this year, Skomina took charge of Arsenal's 1-0 win at Marseille, when Aaron Ramsey had the injury time winner. Prior to that match, the only English side to win a match with Skomina as the referee was Fulham, who beat Wolfsburg in the Europa League in 2010. Manchester United (a draw and a loss,) Manchester City (a loss,) Liverpool (a loss,) and Tottenham Hotspur (a loss and a draw) have all had setbacks with Skomina in the middle, while the English national team has three draws and a loss with the Slovenian in charge.

Skomina has worked only one AC Milan match in his career, a 2-0 win over Auxerre in 2010. Some of those aforementioned English setbacks with Skomina have been Champions League wins for Italian sides: Liverpool's loss was to Fiorentina, Tottenham's loss was to Inter, City's loss was to Napoli earlier this year. The only Italian Champions League setback with Skomina as the referee was Inter's quarterfinal loss to Schalke last year.

Around Europe

Arsenal are not the only side that is currently, to quote the UEFA Web site, staring down the barrel of a gun right now. Benfica trails Zenit St. Petersburg 3-2 heading home today. Howard Webb is the referee for that game. But, that UEFA quote was referring to Bayer Leverkusen, who are down 3-1 to Barcelona and playing at Camp Nou tomorrow. The fourth and final match this week is in Cyprus, as APOEL hosts Lyon, trailing 1-0.

Next week, the remaining four ties see their completion. Bayern Munich trails Basel 1-0 heading home to the Allianz Arena. Inter is also heading home trailing 1-0; they'll host Marseille at the San Siro. Both of those matches are next Tuesday. Next Wednesday, the round ends, as Chelsea will try to overcome a 3-1 deficit to Napoli at Stamford Bridge and Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow will try to break a 1-1 stalemate at the Bernabeu.