Stoke City 1-1 Arsenal: A Potentially Vital Point

This was one of those matches that may not have been a roller-coaster of emotion and momentum swings (a section of us chanted "we're watching the wrong match", in reference to the mental 4-4 draw between Swansea City and Wolves), but the point gained on what has been a miserable hunting ground for us is the most important takeaway from the afternoon.

With all of our various injuries, the starting lineup essentially picked itself - the lone exception being Gervinho preferred in place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. For the record, I believe that to have been the right move given Stoke's physicality...though as we'll discuss later, he also should have had some part to play later on in the second half.

As an aside, since we've had so many Stoke trolls here in the past taking umbrage with us pointing out what a bunch of psychotic violent orcs their side are, maybe one of you lot can make yourselves useful and explain the constant inability to pick a goalkeeper this season? It's Asmir Begovic, then Thomas Sorensen, then Begovic and back again. What's the deal? They're basically the same guy, it's Guy A or Guy B. Bloody pick one already.

Anyway, Arsenal started brightly and arguably should have taken the lead in the 6th minute. Yossi Benayoun, who had a storming first half, nicked the ball off one of the striped-shirt troglodytes and sped down the wing. He played a brilliant one-two with Robin van Persie, and the Israeli was in space in the penalty area. It was an acute angle to shoot from, but if he had any pace on the shot at all, it was probably in. Instead, a dribbler of a shot was collected well by Begovic.

Begovic again came to Stoke's rescue a few minutes later. More good work down the left wing gave Tomas Rosicky space to curl in a purposeful cross to the far post. The Dutch master was there and volleyed superbly, but the Bosnian stopper made a fabulous save at his near post to keep it out. I know you hear bollocks all the time about how everything at the near post should be stopped always and forever regardless of circumstances, but trust a goalkeeper - that was an astonishing save.

It looked to have been a costly one for us as well, as the Uruk-Hai army advanced and struck blood shortly afterwards. A rare foray upfield from the home side saw Peter Crouch hold the ball up in a central area. The Arsenal defense all swarmed towards him, allowing him to play it out to Matthew Etherington. He crossed it back in for Crouch, who out-jumped Thomas Vermaelen and planted a header just inside of the post. There wasn't much Wojceich Szczesny could have done about it, and Lenny and Friends had the lead.

Heads could have very easily dropped after once again trailing at the Britannia Stadium. But, something was off with the Stoke defense today and they did look vulnerable. Remember, this easily could have been 2-0 to us inside of six minutes. Six was the number of the moment, as that's how many minutes it took for the captain to score the equalizer.

Once again, Tommy was in the thick of it. He and Benayoun were dynamic in the first half, running their balls off and harassing anyone in possession. Their aggressive pressing was definitely not what Stoke was expecting, and consequently they lost the ball to them often. On this occasion, Rosicky won the ball and hared down the left. Two shambling automatons in candy-cane shirts were in attendance, but they bizarrely stood well off of the Czech man. With time and space, Tommy dutifully sent in another inch-perfect cross to van Persie. It was met with another well-struck volley, and this time Begovic couldn't get anything behind it. A simply magical goal, and the light side of the Force was level.

The rest of the first half played out much the same as what came before it, with Arsenal pressing and keeping Stoke on the back foot. However, the Potters' defense stiffened after the goal, and there were to be no further chances.

As for the second half, Arsenal tired and slowly their pressing became less urgent...then disappeared entirely. Stoke, with nothing to play for, seemed content to play time out and rarely found their way into the Gunners' half.

There were only two incidents of any note in the second stanza. Robin had a free header in the area but could only direct it right at Begovic, and we had a stonewall penalty shout turned down by Chris Foy. That's literally it...the whole second half in one paragraph.

Then again, it wouldn't be one of my match reports without complaining about the substitutions. Once again, I feel like Arsene Wenger got it wrong. For one thing, again we didn't see changes until after the 70th minute. Aaron Ramsey was anonymous (though one can forgive it considering he was playing against the psychopath who injured him, on the ground where it happened), so I'm cool with him coming off. But, Abou Diaby again? Why oh why do we persist with having him take up space out on the pitch?

Even worse, Gervinho was taken off (having accomplished a few nice passes and fuck all otherwise) and replaced with...wait for it...Marouane Chamakh! I suppose the idea is to have an aerial presence in the penalty area. But, first off, it's not like we're going to out-Stoke Stoke. Second, such a strategy would require the target man to have the determination and heart to actually contest anything that comes to him. Chamakh is a man who has no confidence and no place out on a Premier League field at this time.

Oh, and the third sub was Andre Santos out on the wing again. I know Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain didn't have the best of outings last time, but we really could have used his energy in the latter stages of that game when Stoke were there to be taken. Instead, we got a lethargic Santos to lose the ball and otherwise stand around looking miffed at having to be there.

Still, it'd be churlish to complain over-much at the team coming out of Mordor with a point. With Newcastle getting massacred 4-0 by Wigan Athletic, we stand four points above them (though they have a game in hand). Spurs and Chelsea are 7 and 8 points back respectively, though each has two games in hand. But, with this being arguably our most difficult fixture remaining, with Norwich getting eviscerated at home to Liverpool today and West Brom having absolutely nothing to play for, this is a result that leaves us in good stead to finish in third place and not have to worry about the lads from the bus stop in Fulham fluking the Champions League and consigning us to the UEFA Cup.

Could be a lot worse.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Gibbs 7, Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 7, Sagna 7, Benayoun 7 (Santos N/A), Song 7, Rosicky 8, Ramsey 6 (Diaby 6), Gervinho 6 (Chamakh 6), van Persie 8

Man of the Match:

There's a strong argument for Robin van Persie considering his sweet volley to score his 28th Premier League goal. But, I have to stump for Tomas Rosicky, who provided the cross for the goal and would have had a second assist if Begovic had not come up so big. His pressing in the middle of the park neutralized many Stoke threats before they could materialize, and once again he was the engine that made us go.

Preview by Numbers: Stoke City v. Arsenal

Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent
Saturday, April 28
10:00 a.m. EDT, 3:00 p.m. BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Chris Foy
    • Assistants: Stuart Burt and Andy Garratt
    • 4th Official: Andre Marriner
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 3 - 1 Stoke City
  • This Match, Last Year: Stoke City 3 - 1 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 50 Arsenal wins, 23 Stoke wins, 21 draws
  • Arsenal's Recent Form: W-L-W-W-L-D
  • Stoke's Recent Form: D-D-L-W-D-L
We all know there's history here.
Photo: Backpage Football.
Chelsea's position in May 19th's Champions League final has really dropped the gauntlet for Arsenal. If the Gunners don't finish third, they might not be playing in the Champions League next year. The good news is, third place is still in Arsenal's control. Win their last three games and they'll be third (unless Newcastle wins their last four by a million goals, but that's not likely.) It's hard to feel aggrieved that a Chelsea win in Munich could rip the rug out from under Arsenal, because if they find themselves in that situation, then really, it's Arsenal's own fault for not taking care of their own business. If anything, this should give Arsenal even stronger motivation to finish third, and that's not a bad thing. So, congratulations to Chelsea on that performance, and also, thank you for shutting Barcelona up.

If that motivation isn't enough, then how about this? Arsenal travels to Staffordshire this week to face Stoke City, a team that has a bit of a recent history with Arsenal. This blog has written at length about their tactics, and Stoke fans have written at length in our comment section about how we're whining, and blah blah blah blah blah. You know all of that already; I don't need to rant about it any further.

The fact of the matter is, there is absolutely no reason why this team should not be vehemently gung-ho (is that redundant?) about picking up three points tomorrow at the Britannia.

Frankly, I wouldn't accept anything less.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Walcott (hamstring), Arteta (ankle), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (ankle)

Theo Walcott is out with a hamstring injury,
which looks like a red splotch drawn in
MS Paint. Photo: Sports Injury Info.
Well, the news on Theo Walcott's hamstring is good news for England (he'll be ready for the Euros) and bad news for Arsenal (he'll be out three weeks.) We're at that stage now where most injuries are season ending, because there's only 270 minutes of football left to be played. Theo gets added to the list of Arsenal players who won't be making an appearance during those 270 minutes, which also includes Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, Jack Wilshere, and Emmanuel Frimpong.

Speaking of Frimpong, do you think Wolves would have performed so poorly over the past couple of months if they still had the Ghanaian DENCHfielder? They likely still would have been in the relegation conversation this entire time, but they could not have been as bad as they were down the stretch, right?

Theo's injury opens up some question marks up front, though Arsenal will have Yossi Benayoun available again, after missing out against Chelsea due to the terms of his loan deal. Alternatively, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could stay in the XI with Gervinho also getting a start. Or, I actually much enjoyed the use of Andre Santos as a winger in front of Kieran Gibbs.

The only league match Walcott missed this year was the 1-1 draw with Wolves, which he missed through illness. Benayoun and Gervinho started on the wings.

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

Stoke Squad News

Out: Wilkinson (hamstring), Diao (knee), Sidibe (knee)
Doubts: Pennant (flu)

Here's the Porsche with the CUSTOMIZED PLATES
Jermaine Pennant forgot he owned for five months.
Stoke's newest injury blow sees defender Andy Wilkinson facing a scan on his hamstring. Wilkinson had a scan this week and could possibly miss the Potters' final four games of the season. Former Arsenal man who managed to forget he owned a Porsche Jermaine Pennant missed Stoke's 3-0 loss to Newcastle last week with the flu, but is in contention for a return, having returned to training. Tony Pulis has said that Pennant "lacks match sharpness," so Pennant could still plausibly miss out.

Stoke's long term injuries include midfielder Salif Diao and forward Mamady Sidibe, both out with knee injuries.

I've checked the weather forecast to see how it might affect Rory Delap's rocket arms. The weather calls for periods of clouds and sun with a passing shower. I don't think it will rain during the match, but it's almost 50/50. It'll be low 50's Fahrenheit with winds a little over 10 miles per hour.

Current Form

Stoke slumped to a 3-0 defeat on Tyneside last week.
Photo: Sport 360.
It's rare that Arsenal come into a match having just dropped points in consecutive matches at home. The last time Arsenal dropped points in two straight home games in the league, if spanning two seasons counts, was last May against Aston Villa and August against Liverpool. If spanning two seasons doesn't count in your mind, it was three straight draws in March and April of last season. If you want the two matches to be consecutively played, as Wigan and Chelsea were, you have to go back to draws against Sunderland and Fulham in 2009.

None of that really matters in this fixture, however, because it's not being played at the Emirates. And while we'll touch on the fact that Arsenal struggles mightily at the Britannia in the next section, here, we'll talk about their road form in general. If you look at just league play, Arsenal have won four of their last five road fixtures (Sunderland, Liverpool, Everton, and Wolves with a loss at QPR in between.) Sure, losses to Milan and Sunderland in the cup were in the middle there, too, so it's not really as good of a run of form as that four in five stat sounds. When you're talking about form, you can always come up with stipulations and mess around with wording enough to make things sound amazing (did you know it's been 4,506 days since Arsenal last lost on Boxing Day?!?)

As for Stoke, they have held some tough competition at home this year. They got a point from Manchester United, a point from Manchester City, a point from Chelsea, three points from Tottenham Hotspur, three points from Liverpool. That list goes on, of course, as you read farther down the table. Only four teams have won at the Britannia this year: Newcastle, West Brom, Sunderland, and QPR. Three of those teams are in the bottom half of the table. Among those in the top half, they are still yet to host Arsenal and Everton. Stoke are unbeaten in their last four at home; their last home loss was to Sunderland on February 4. Overall, however, Stoke have just one win in their last seven and that was against Wolves. Last week, Stoke were hit for three by an in-form Newcastle side in the North-East.

Match Facts

Gervinho had a goal and two assists in the reverse fixture.
Photo: The Offside.
Since Stoke City earned promotion to the Premier League, they have beaten Arsenal in three out of four meetings at the Britannia. On the other hand, they've never won at the Emirates. Unfortunately, that's not part of the discussion right now, so let's take a painful walk down memory lane and look at why this is one of my most hated fixtures of the year:

In their first meeting on November 1, 2008, Robin van Persie was goaded into headbutting Stoke keeper Thomas Sorensen and was sent off. This came with the Gunners already down 2-0 in the 76th. Gael Clichy pulled one back late, but Arsenal lost 2-1. A year later, in January 2010, Arsenal fell in the FA Cup at the Britannia 3-1. A month after that, Arsenal picked up their only win at that stadium, but it came with the price of losing Aaron Ramsey to his horror injury, and required a Fabregas penalty in the 90th to do it. Vermaelen added another late to make that 3-1. Last year, it was another 3-1 loss, though it came during the end of season run when Arsenal had clearly and unfortunately totally stopped trying. Stoke also won the last three league meetings at Victoria Ground against Arsenal before their relegation in the 1980's.

Earlier this year, Arsenal won the reverse fixture at the Emirates by a 3-1 scoreline. Robin van Persie was left on the bench to rest and Marouane Chamakh started up front. Gervinho gave Arsenal a 1-0 lead in the 27th minute. Peter Crouch, the giraffe on ice skates himself, scored from close range following, surprise surprise, a set piece in the 33rd. Robin van Persie came off the bench in the 66th minute to rescue three points, picking up a brace in his cameo appearance with goals, both from Gervinho assists, in the 73rd and 82nd minutes.

The Referee

Do not direct your abuse at this man.
The referee is not Scottish track cyclist Chris Hoy. It is Merseyside-based Chris Foy. I wish I got to use that joke more this year, after the hilarity of Spurs fans berating the former on Twitter instead of the latter in December, but this is only Foy's second Arsenal match of the year. The one previous was February 1st's 0-0 draw at Bolton. In that match, Foy denied Bolton a penalty shout in the 87th minute.

Perhaps it's not a good sign that the officiating performance for which Spurs fans were so angry with Foy was against Stoke at the Britannia. Spurs felt Foy missed two handballs, wrongly disallowed a goal, and harshly awarded Younes Kaboul a second yellow card. Stoke won the match, 2-1. Foy worked one other Stoke game this year, a 2-1 loss at Fulham in February.

In the reverse of this round of fixtures earlier this season, Foy was the referee to reduce Chelsea to nine men at Loftus Road. QPR won 1-0 on a 10th minute penalty. Those were two of the four red cards he has shown in Premier League play this year. The third was the aforementioned second yellow to Kaboul, and the fourth was a second yellow to Joe Allen of Swansea.

Around the League

Suddenly, Newcastle is the team to worry about again.
There are no early games this week because being played in that time slot are all 12 games in the Championship. It's the final day of the second tier's regular season. Play-off ties will be held with semi-final first legs on Thursday and Friday, the 3rd and 4th of May and second legs on Monday and Tuesday, the 7th and 8th. The final at Wembley is Saturday, May 19. As it stands, Reading has secured promotion, Southampton promotes with a win, and all three teams relegated from the Premier League last year are in playoff positions, plus Cardiff in sixth.

That leaves six matches to take place in the standard 3:00 p.m. in England / 10:00 a.m. on the East Coast time slot, including Stoke v. Arsenal. Of most interest to Arsenal will be Newcastle United, who are on the road against Wigan Athletic. The Gunners' other European placement rivals all play on Sunday. The other four matches in this time slot are: Everton v. Fulham at Goodison Park, Sunderland v. Bolton at the Stadium of Light, Swansea v. relegated Wolves in Wales, and West Brom v. Aston Villa in a West Midlands derby at the Hawthorns. Saturday's late game sees Norwich City host Liverpool at Carrow Road, which is, of course, a mid-table battle.

As mentioned above, Sunday's games will bear great importance to Arsenal, as their London rivals take the pitch. The early match sees Chelsea host QPR in a West London derby at Stamford Bridge. The late game sees Tottenham host Blackburn at the Lane.

Monday will clear up the title challenge picture. Manchester City, three points behind with three games to play, host Manchester United at Eastlands. A City win and the two are all square with two games left. A United win and they're six points clear. A draw and it's still a three point gap. Huge match.

These are the reverse fixtures of those played the weekend of October 22-23.

In addition, games in hand for teams that were playing in the FA Cup semi-finals take place this midweek: Liverpool v. Fulham and Stoke City v. Everton on Tuesday, Chelsea v. Newcastle and Bolton v. Tottenham on Wednesday.

Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea: Could've Been Worse

Somewhere, there is a person alive who decided this morning: "Hey, I'll give this football thing a shot. It's Arsenal, it's Chelsea...I keep hearing how big these teams are, I bet this'll be a great game!"

Somewhere, there is a person alive who will never, ever watch football again.

In a sense, this was a predictable result (in fact, I got the scoreline exactly right in predicting this on a message forum a few days back). My thinking was that the Arsenal defense would be much improved from the Wigan game with Laurent Koscielny back, whereas Chelsea would play their reserves and not exactly be themselves with one eye on next week's return leg vs. Barcelona. In the end, that was exactly what happened.

As expected, Chelsea rung in the changes, with only Petr Cech, John Terry and Gary Cahill keeping their places from the first Barca game. For us, Aaron Ramsey took over for the injured Mikel Arteta, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was preferred on the left to Gervinho. The rest of the team picked itself.

Right from the beginning, the visitors sat back with the intention of soaking up pressure and playing on the counter. What they perhaps didn't legislate for was an Arsenal side bereft of ideas or passion, listlessly shambling along in the midfield as if they were running in a tar pit. With nothing to counter, Chelsea opted to not take the initiative themselves for whatever reason. I get that they didn't want to overexert themselves with a bigger match coming, but given their precarious position in the league, it seems strange to me that they didn't make a conscious effort to jump on an Arsenal team that looked to be there for the taking.

The home side did have more of the ball, but the passing was atrocious and Ramsey in particular had yet another godawful game. He was caught in possession on several occasions (more than once by the otherwise anonymous Fernando Torres) and offered nothing going forward. The absence of Arteta will be keenly felt on this evidence,

Still, the Gunners had the closest approximation to actual chances in the early going. Tomas Rosicky was unsuccessful on a long drive, while a gorgeous set piece from Theo Walcott was not quite met by Robin van Persie on the far post. The men in blue did manage a few efforts though, Wojceich Szczesny easily saving from Boswinga before needing a better one to keep out Florent Malouda.

A few minutes later, a wild foray out of his area from Szczesny was avoided by Salomon Kalou, but the Arsenal defenders prevented him from making anything of the chance.

The best chance of the game fell to Laurent Koscielny, though. Right before the stroke of halftime, a long free kick from RVP was met well by the completely unmarked Frechman, the Chelsea defense in complete tatters for the only time on the day. Cech was helplessly beaten, but the ball solidly struck the crossbar and skittered out to safety.

Yes, kids...with 42 minutes gone, our only chance to win the game came and went. The above accounts for just about the sum total of interesting incidents in the first half, and it still easily outshines what was to come.

Have I mentioned that this was an absolutely putrid match of football?

The second half amounted to this, really:

  • Half the world got yellow-carded, often for innocuous challenges. Well done, Mike Dean!
  • Theo Walcott went off injured, and his season is done.
  • RVP, under pressure, could only shovel a weak shot into Cech's body.
  • Arsene Wenger made yet more baffling substitutions, with the excellent Rosicky taken off for Abou Diaby and the Ox was withdrawn so that Andre Santos could play left wing. Meanwhile, Ramsey played all 90. Again.
  • Diaby somehow managed to go all 30 minutes or so without re-injuring himself. Miracles do happen!

That seriously was it. The resistable force met the moveable object, and the result was a 0-0 where they could have played until the sun went nova and came up with the same scoreline.

On the bright side, this means that it would take a historic collapse for Chelsea to overtake us for 3rd, while our nearest and dearest matched our result at Queens Park Rangers. The downer was that Newcastle won, but all in all this could have been a lot worse for our Champions League ambitions.

Still, this is yet more evidence that we need serious strengthening in the off-season. I just that the manager finally agrees.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

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

Man of the Match:  He nearly got the winner, and while I failed to mention it above, he made one absolute world-class tackle on Daniel Sturridge to prevent a scoring chance. It's among the easiest selections I've had all season - Laurent Koscielny takes it for me.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Chelsea

Emirates Stadium, London
Saturday, April 21
7:45 a.m. EDT, 12:45 p.m. BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Dean
    • Assistants: Stuart Burt and Adam Watts
    • 4th Official: Neil Swarbrick
  • Reverse Fixture: Chelsea 3 - 5 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 3 - 1 Chelsea
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 71 Arsenal wins, 54 Chelsea wins, 51 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-L-W-W-L
  • Chelsea's League Form: W-L-D-W-W-D
I'm not going to say much more than needs to be said. I'm not going to rant about the inexcusable performance against Wigan on Monday. I'm not going to talk about Arsenal's tenuous hold on third place.

All I'm going to say is that this is the most important game of the season. The most "must win" of all of the must win games they've already played. These three points matter more than any other three points they have picked up so far. Lose, and there might not be enough time left in the season to right the ship yet again.

Win. Damn it.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Benayoun (loan terms), Arteta (ankle), Diaby (hamstring), Coquelin (hamstring), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (ankle)
Doubts: Gibbs (fatigue)

Before the match, I think Gunnersaurus
should just eat John Terry.
Photo: Eurosport.
Well, the bad news is Mikel Arteta's season is over. There is some good news in that his ankle is not broken, but there is ligament damage. The situation could be either about three months, like it was with Andre Santos earlier this year, or it could be longer, like it has been with Robin van Persie in the past.

There will, of course, be talk of Arsenal's record without Arteta in the line-up, and let's face it, it's pretty bad in the league (it's one draw and four straight losses.) Don't forget, though, there were other circumstances plaguing Arsenal at those times: their general state of disaster before Arteta was purchased in August and their lack of a recognized fit fullback for the two losses in January.

The question of who starts in place of Arteta is complicated by the fact that Yossi Benayoun is unavailable, unable to play against his parent club due to the terms of loan deals. Meanwhile, playing Abou Diaby would be a tremendous risk (and absurd, to boot,) even if he's been able to put in 45 minutes at the reserve level lately.

That means you're left with selecting either the young and out-of-position Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or the out-of-form and out-of-confidence Aaron Ramsey. And, to be honest, while the Ox had a great game in the middle against Milan, Arsenal had nothing to lose in that game, already down 4-0 in the tie. They had no choice but to go forward and attack. The pressure in this game is a totally different scenario, one for which I'm not yet convinced the Ox would be ready. You can't take a gamble like that in a game of this magnitude. I'd start the Ox on the left wing and play Ramsey back farther than he usually plays, with Tomas Rosicky playing in the distributor role. Of course, given the fact that Arsene Wenger has held off on using the Ox lately, likely in fear of overplaying him as was the case with Jack Wilshere, I wouldn't be shocked to see Gervinho start.

At the back, Laurent Koscielny returns from his two match ban and Andre Santos will hope to keep his spot in the line-up after Kieran Gibbs returned to the bench on Monday.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Santos, Song, Ramsey, Rosicky, Gervinho, Walcott, van Persie.

Chelsea Squad News

David Luiz is expected to miss
out with a hamstring injury.
Out: Luiz (hamstring)
Doubts: Bertrand (calf), Romeu (illness)
Suspended: Ivanovic (second of three)

Arsenal's main hope is that Chelsea will be a bit knackered due to fixture congestion, as they played on Wednesday night after playing on Sunday night. The bad news for Arsenal, though, is both were huge spirit-lifting wins for Chelsea.

The Blues have two problems in their back four, as clown college graduate David Luiz is out with a hamstring problem and Branislav Ivanovic serves the second of a three match ban. John Terry, meanwhile, has cracked ribs, but has been playing anyway.

Ryan Bertrand (calf) and Oriol Romeu (illness) could possibly return.

Current Form

How long does it take for Barcelona to get their first
penalty in the second leg at Camp Nou? I say 15
minutes. Photo: Daily Mail.
Arsenal have had another hiccup in form after losing to Wigan. This time, their league winning streak was only two before the loss, but Wigan was also the first side to win at the Emirates since Manchester United did in January. Across all competitions, Arsenal had won seven straight games at home. Arsenal have not lost two straight home games in the league since last November (Newcastle and Tottenham.) This November, they went two home matches without a win after a draw with Fulham and a Carling Cup loss to Manchester City. Prior to that, the last time Arsenal went more than one match without a win at home, they drew three straight last March/April.

Chelsea, on the other hand, are flying high, though they have played a lot of games lately, so Gunners fans will be hoping that the fixture congestion catches up to them right about now. Andre Villas-Boas was sacked on March 4, after a loss at West Bromwich Albion. Since that date, Chelsea have won 10 matches, drawn two, and lost just once across all competitions. Their lone loss came at Manchester City on March 21. The draws came against Spurs and Fulham.

Arsenal have been lucky to face Chelsea when they have been down on form in their last two meetings. That is not the case now.

Match Facts

Arsenal have won their last two matches against Chelsea, which is a welcome change of the pace for the Gunners, who had lost five straight against the Blues before that. Arsenal won the reverse fixture 5-3 at Stamford Bridge the Saturday before Halloween. Robin van Persie had a hat trick, scoring the winner when John Terry fell to the ground in the 85th minute. Arsenal also had goals from Theo Walcott and Andre Santos. Chelsea had led 1-0 and 2-1 before Arsenal went ahead, then Juan Mata had leveled the score at 3-3 in the 80th before Terry's tumble. It's important to note that Didier Drogba was suspended for that match.

Last year, Arsenal won this fixture 3-1 the day after Boxing Day. Arsenal took a three goal lead with goals from Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, and Theo Walcott. Branislav Ivanovic pulled a goal back four minutes after Arsenal went up three to make things close again, but Chelsea could not come back any farther. Chelsea had won their previous two matches at the Emirates by astonishing three goal margins.

Prior to these two Arsenal wins, Chelsea had won five straight over Arsenal, outscoring the Gunners 13-2 in that stretch. The last three matches of that run were clean sheet wins for the Blues in which Drogba had five goals. Drogba has 13 goals in his last 12 competitive matches against Arsenal, though he was held off the score sheet in this fixture last year.

The Referee

Three Arsenal players point out that the linesman is trying
to tell Mike Dean that it was not a penalty for Spurs.
Photo: Untold Arsenal.
Seriously? It's Mike Dean again? You have got to be kidding me.

The last time Arsenal saw Mike Dean, they had their seven match winning streak snapped at Loftus Road. Dean has been the referee for the two matches in which Arsenal have had their two longest winning streaks of the season snapped (at QPR and the draw against Fulham in November that snapped a five game winning run.)

Prior to the QPR loss, Dean was in the middle for Arsenal's North London derby win over Tottenham in February, so hopefully that is more indicative of the luck Arsenal will have on Saturday. Then again, he did give Spurs a dubious penalty in that match. 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, and that win was against Leeds.

As for Chelsea's record with Mike Dean this year, he worked their 4-1 win over Swansea (in which Fernando Torres saw red,) the 1-0 win at Blackburn, the 3-0 win at Newcastle, the 1-0 FA Cup win at QPR, and most recently, the 2-1 loss at Manchester City.

Around the League

Arsenal v. Chelsea is the opening match of the weekend. After Arsenal played this past Monday, Spurs, Newcastle, and Chelsea all have a league game in hand, which will be made up on May 2. Spurs' game in hand is at Bolton; Newcastle's and Chelsea's match is against each other, at the Bridge.

Speaking of Spurs, they play in the late game on Saturday, at Loftus Road against Queens Park Rangers, where Arsenal and Chelsea have already lost this season. Five matches will be played in the standard time slot. They are: Aston Villa v. Sunderland in Birmingham, Blackburn v. Norwich at Ewood Park, Bolton v. Swansea at the Reebok, Fulham v. Wigan at the Cottage, and Newcastle v. Stoke on Tyneside.

Terry Connor screams to drown out the sound of
those who say Wolves are certain of relegation.
Sunday's early game is at Old Trafford, as Manchester United hosts Everton. There are two late games, as Liverpool hosts West Brom at Anfield, and Wolves host Manchester City at Molineux. Wolves beat City at Molineux last year, but lost 5-2 to City in the Carling Cup at home in October.

These are the reverse fixtures of those played the weekend of October 29-31.

As for how the table looks right now, Manchester United holds a five point lead on Manchester City, with their final meeting of the season coming at Eastlands next Monday. Arsenal has a five point lead on Tottenham and Newcastle for third, but as stated before, have played one game extra. Chelsea has a game in hand as well, but they sit seven points out.

There's a distinct set of teams now that we can call mid-table, in order: Everton, Liverpool, Sunderland, Fulham, Norwich, Swansea, West Brom, and Stoke. All eight are mathematically safe from the drop.

Aston Villa has tumbled their way into the talk at the bottom, they are now only six points clear of the relegation zone, with 35 points. Wigan have risen their way to five points clear; they have 34. QPR are two points clear with 31. The bottom three are Bolton (29), Blackburn (29), and Wolves (23), but Bolton have two extra games to play.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Wigan Athletic

Emirates Stadium, London
Monday, April 16
3:00 p.m. EDT, 8:00 p.m. BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Andre Marriner
    • Assistants: Gary Beswick and Scott Ledger
    • 4th Official: Kevin Friend
  • Reverse Fixture: Wigan 0 - 4 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 3 - 0 Wigan
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 13 Arsenal wins, 2 Wigan wins, 2 draws
  • Arsenal's Current Form: W-W-W-L-W-W
  • Wigan's Current Form: D-D-W-W-L-W
YAYYYYYY!!!! Photo: Daily Mail.
There is a lot I can say about Arsenal's current standing, now five points clear of Tottenham and Newcastle and seven points clear of Chelsea. I could talk about the ways Arsenal can pick up a certain number of points from their remaining five matches to clinch third place (it's ten, provided they win the goal difference tie breaker.)

But, I won't go into detail about that, because Arsenal can't pick up ten points against Wigan on Monday, so let's just focus on picking up three.

Wigan have been on an inspired run of form lately, beating Manchester United in midweek. A week ago, they were hard done in a losing effort against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. They won at Anfield a few weeks ago. They have 16 points from their last 10 games (by comparison, Arsenal have 27, Tottenham have 10.) Wigan have been catching teams by surprise. Arsenal are not in a position where they can afford to be complacent again. Having been burned by QPR two weeks ago, I can't see Arsenal really underestimating this Wigan side like so many other teams have recently.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Diaby (hamstring), Coquelin (hamstring), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (ankle)
Doubts: Gibbs (fatigue)
Suspended: Koscielny (second of two, accumulation)

Benayoun has been in fine form since the start of Passover.
I'd make a joke about him passing over others for the
starting spot, but that joke would be horrible.
Photo: Daily Mail.
Sure, it's only Friday now and it has still been only about 40 hours or so since the end of the match against Wolves, but by kick-off Monday, Arsenal will have had four full days off between that match and the Wigan fixture. Playing your weekend fixture on a Monday night after a midweek match really does wonders to rest the legs. That means I would not expect any rotation in the squad. We should still see most of the same regulars in the line-up. Compare this schedule to that of Chelsea, who play Sunday in the FA Cup, then Wednesday against Barcelona, then Saturday at the Emirates, and I'm not envious at all.

Laurent Koscielny will serve the second match of his two match ban for accumulating ten yellow cards. He will be available to return against Chelsea next weekend. Kieran Gibbs is still 50/50 in returning from his fatigue, so while we will certainly see Johan Djourou in the middle, we could still see a start from Andre Santos on the left.

Gervinho is expected to return to the squad, having recovered from an ankle problem. No idea if he'll be re-inserted into the starting XI; with the way Yossi's been playing, Benayoun deserves to retain his place. Elsewhere, I'd start Tomas Rosicky again in the middle after his day off and drop Aaron Ramsey to the bench, but we'll see what the boss ends up doing.

Abou Diaby and Francis Coquelin will return to training next week, both from hamstring problems. The next two weeks in Jack Wilshere's progress will be "decisive," according to Arsene Wenger, regarding whether he'll return for Arsenal this season.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Vermaelen, Djourou, Santos, Song, Arteta, Rosicky, Benayoun, Walcott, van Persie.

Wigan Squad News

I find it hard to believe that this guy
ate all the pies.
Photo: Manchester Evening News.
Out: None
Doubts: Rodallega (knee), Jones (knee)

Another match where the opponent does not have much in terms of injury news. That's great for me, it means less research. Wigan have an injury concern over Hugo Rodallega, who has been out for a month with a knee injury. He was too short to come back midweek against United, but stands a chance to be fit for this one. Fellow forward Victor Moses had picked up a knock against Chelsea last weekend, but was fit to play midweek and played 90 minutes. Midfielder David Jones is on the way back from a knee injury himself and could be ready by Monday.

This section looks a bit too short again, but I can't just fill it with facts about wolves again, now can I? So, here are some things you may not have known about the city of Wigan!
  • Wigan is the home to the annual World Pie Eating Championship.
That's all I have for you.

Current Form

Wigan shocked United on Wednesday, and have now won
three of four. Photo: Daily Mail.
Arsenal's last home loss came on January 22 against Manchester United. Since then, at the Emirates, they came from behind to beat Aston Villa in the FA Cup, hit seven past ten-man Blackburn, stunned Tottenham with five unanswered goals, put three past Milan (though it wasn't enough to overturn their deficit,) got a late winner against Newcastle, coasted against Aston Villa in the league, then got a late winner against Manchester City. Arsenal have won seven straight games at home, across all competitions. That matches their longest home run of the season; the previous seven game streak was snapped with a 0-0 draw to Marseille. Arsenal have won nine of their last ten league games, picking up 27 of a possible 30 points since the 0-0 draw at Bolton that saw them sitting in seventh.

Since the start of February, Wigan have won four league games, drawn four, and lost only two, for a total of 16 points out of 30. They have three wins from their last four, beating Liverpool at Anfield 2-1, Stoke at the DW 2-0, losing to Chelsea 2-1 at the Bridge (though they deserved something from that game,) then beating Manchester United at the DW on Wednesday 1-0. You would have to go back to December 2008 - January 2009 to find the last time Wigan picked up this many points over a four match span. That four game winning streak, tied for second longest in their top flight history, included wins over Blackburn, Newcastle, Bolton, and Tottenham.

Match Facts

"Throw me your hats, for I have scored a hat trick!"
Photo: Daily Mail.

Wigan Athletic have never picked up a point at the Emirates Stadium and Arsenal have kept six consecutive home clean sheets against the Latics, across all competitions. The only result they've gotten away at Arsenal was in the 2006 Carling Cup semi-final second leg (which was at Highbury) where, despite losing the match 2-1, they advanced on away goals. Damn you, Jason Roberts! That was actually the last time Wigan scored a goal at Arsenal. The results in this fixture since have been 2-0, 3-0, 1-0, 4-0, 2-0, and 3-0. The second and fifth matches in that list were Carling Cup ties.

Wigan have four results all-time in 17 matches against Arsenal and all four have come with Wigan at home. They picked up a draw at the DW last year (damn you, Sebastien Squillaci!) and a win at the DW the year before that (damn you, Lukasz Fabianski!) The other draw came in 2008; the other win came in the first leg of that Carling Cup semi-final in 2006.

In the reverse fixture this year, Arsenal coasted to a 4-0 victory. Mikel Arteta and Thomas Vermaelen each scored a minute apart to give Arsenal a 2-0 lead just before the half hour mark. Gervinho added the third just after the hour mark, and Robin van Persie got his name on the score sheet on 78 minutes. Speaking of van Persie, he had a hat trick in this fixture last year, scoring in the 21st, 58th, and 85th minutes. He also put a penalty into Row Z of the stands around the 71st.

The Referee

Andre Marriner thinks that playing for Spurs is a
bookable offense. Photo: Zimbio.
There have been five Arsenal matches where at least seven combined goals have been scored. Aside from the disaster at Old Trafford and the brilliance of beating Spurs at the Emirates, the other three have had the same referee, West Midlands-based Andre Marriner, who will take charge of this one as well.

Those three matches have seen two Arsenal wins and a loss: the 4-3 setback at Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers in September, the 5-3 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in October, and the 7-1 win over Blackburn Rovers at the Emirates in February. That 7-1 win started Arsenal's positive league run of form, but came at a time when they were seventh in the table. I said in that match preview, "given these trends, you'd expect seven or eight goals to be scored in this match, but I'm not sure if Arsenal knows how to do that anymore." It's a good thing they could.

Marriner was in the middle of a controversy in a Wigan 3-3 draw with Blackburn in November. Marriner was highly criticized for allowing a Blackburn goal from a corner that was not taken legally, then awarded Rovers a late penalty to get a draw deep into injury time. He did not work another Premier League game for a month after that.

Wigan's other match with Marriner in the middle was a 2-0 loss to Swansea. In both of those matches, Wigan failed to win despite having an opposing player sent off.

Around the League

Four teams will be watching this weekend's action from
their couches. Probably not like this. Photo: Flickr.
The league's fixture list is a bit interrupted by the FA Cup Semi-Finals, which take place this weekend. At Wembley Stadium, there will be two derbies on display, as Liverpool and Everton meet on Saturday, while Tottenham faces Chelsea on Sunday. This means that the teams they would normally have played in the league schedule will have the weekend off. Enjoy your couches this weekend, Newcastle, Bolton, Fulham, and Stoke! These matches will be made up on May 1 and 2.

That means that aside from Arsenal v. Wigan, there will only be five other league matches this weekend. Four of them take place on Saturday, as the early match sees Manchester City travel to Carrow Road to face Norwich City. City have now closed the gap to five points at the top; Norwich are currently 10th. Later, Sunderland hosts winless-in-seven Wolves, Swansea hosts Blackburn, and West Brom hosts QPR. On Sunday, Manchester United hosts Aston Villa at Old Trafford.

These are the reverse fixtures of those played the weekend of December 3-4.

Preview by Numbers: Wolverhampton Wanderers v. Arsenal

Molineux, Wolverhampton
Wednesday, April 11
2:45 p.m. EDT, 7:45 p.m. GMT
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  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Neil Swarbrick
    • Assistants: Andy Garratt and Mike Mullarkey
    • 4th Official: Mike Jones
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 1 -1 Wolves
  • This Match, Last Year: Wolves 0 - 2 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 56 Arsenal wins, 28 Wolves wins, 26 draws
  • Wolves' Recent Form: L-L-L-L-L-L
  • Arsenal's Recent Form: W-W-W-W-L-W
I loved the Arsenal supporters doing the Poznan after
Arteta's goal. Loved it. Photo: Guardian.
Midweek posts always have to be shorter than normal (apologies!) since I have less time to write them. But, it's so much easier to write when you're basking in the glow of a nice victory. Combine that with Tottenham's loss and Chelsea's draw on Monday and you have a pretty nice situation right now.

But, don't get too comfortable. Every game is three points, regardless of the opponent. Three points against Wolves today will count just the same as the three points against City at the weekend. We've already seen at Loftus Road what happens if a team goes out on the pitch and plays to the level of their opponent, thinking it'll be a cakewalk. Arsenal have already been burned by complacency in the past fortnight; now is not the time to let that happen again.

Wolves are in a tailspin, no doubt about it, and are deservedly in last place. They have not won a match since they sacked Mick McCarthy. Now is not the time to let them get back into the fight to avoid relegation just because you're looking past them.

Arsenal could go five points clear of Tottenham with a win today; that would be nice, considering Spurs' next three matches are against relegation candidates (QPR, Blackburn, and Bolton) and then the fourth is against pseudo-relegation candidate Aston Villa. So, going five points clear into third place is paramount. Hey, if Arsenal win and City lose, the Gunners will be just as far behind City as Chelsea would be behind them.

You can't drop points in a game like this and expect to finish third.

Arsenal Squad News

Laurent Koscielny will miss this match
and Monday's visit of Wigan.
Photo: Wikipedia.
Out: Gervinho (ankle), Gibbs (groin), Diaby (hamstring), Coquelin (hamstring), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (ankle)
Suspended: Koscielny (first of two, accumulation)

I'm just going to say straight away that I will be very upset if there's a lot of squad rotation for this game. There will, of course, be mandatory rotation at center back, as Laurent Koscielny serves the first of a two match ban for accumulating yellow cards. He would have had the slate wiped clean if he avoided a booking on Sunday, but fully deserved to go in the book on the challenge that saw him cautioned. Koscielny will miss this match and Wigan's visit to the Emirates on Monday, but will be available for Chelsea on the 21st. This means Johan Djourou will likely get two starts.

Speaking of center backs, there are reports that Per Mertesacker is way ahead of schedule and will be returning to full first team training next week. There may still be a game or two for him in an Arsenal uniform yet this year, though I would advise against breaking up the Vermaelen/Koscielny pairing when both are available for selection.

Gervinho was not on the bench on Sunday; he's nursing an ankle injury and he'll be short for this one, as well.  Kieran Gibbs was subbed off after 56 minutes and will be rested today. Koscielny's suspension means Sebastien Squillaci could be on the bench. Gibbs's rest means Andre Santos will start.

Abou Diaby and Francis Coquelin may return to training this week; both are out with hamstring injuries. Emmanuel Frimpong is still off somewhere talking about DENCH. Jack Wilshere is progressing "normally but slowly." Remember, if Wilshere doesn't play in the Euro tournament, then he's likely going to have to play in the Olympics, which would be worse from an Arsenal standpoint in terms of training for next season.

As I said at the top, I'm worried with this match coming three days after such a hard fought game on Sunday, that there might be players rested. With Spurs and Chelsea dropping points on Monday, now is not the time to relax, lest we have a repeat of what happened at Loftus Road. I want our best available XI playing. They won't have to play again until Monday.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Vermaelen, Djourou, Santos, Song, Arteta, Rosicky, Ramsey, Walcott, van Persie. Subs from: Fabianski, Jenkinson, Squillaci, Benayoun, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Park, Chamakh.

Wolves Squad News

This wolf is out with a thigh strain. Photo: Wikipedia.
Out: Hunt (groin), Craddock (hamstring), O'Hara (groin)

Wolves have three injuries to contend with in their squad. Stephen Hunt underwent surgery on his groin injury as on April 5 and is expected to return by the end of the month. Joey Craddock and Jamie O'Hara have both undergone minor surgery on their hamstring and groin injuries, respectively, and could possibly miss the rest of the season.

I have nothing else to say about the team, and this section looks a little thin, so here's some scientific information about actual wolves that I got from Wikipedia:
  • Wolves' heads are large and heavy, with wide foreheads, strong jaws and long, blunt muzzles.
  • Gray wolves have very dense and fluffy winter fur, with short underfur and long, coarse guard hairs.
  • Wolves' coat color ranges from almost pure white through various shades of blond, cream, and ochre to grays, browns, and blacks.
  • Wolves howl to assemble the pack, to pass on an alarm, to locate each other during a storm or unfamiliar territory, and to communicate across great distances.
  • Dances with Wolves was first released on Laserdisc on November 15, 1991.
I hope you learned something.

Current Form

Wolves have not won at Molineux since Martin O'Neill's
first match as Sunderland manager. Photo: Guardian.
Arsenal got the bounce back from their lackluster performance at Loftus Road with Sunday's 1-0 home win over Manchester City, in which they were dominant for much of the 90 minutes. But now, we take a look at Arsenal's road form, which obviously, is not as good as their overall run of eight league wins from nine games. Arsenal have won seven straight at home across all competitions, but on their travels, they have two wins from their last five and four wins and a draw from their last 12. That streak started with a Champions League loss for the B-team at Olympiacos, which was then followed by the league loss to City. That was followed by a win at Aston Villa before consecutive losses to Fulham and Swansea, the 0-0 draw with Bolton, the 2-1 win at Sunderland, then consecutive losses to Milan and Sunderland in the FA Cup. Then, they won two league games on Merseyside before the loss at QPR. All four of their wins in this stretch came by one goal margins, three of them being 2-1. The winner in all three of those games came in the 87th minute or later.

If the word of Arsenal's tricky travels worries you, take solace in the fact that Wolves, on the other hand, can't seem to win anywhere lately. Manager Mick McCarthy was sacked after Wolves' 5-1 home loss to West Brom on February 12. They then had a week off, since they were out of the FA Cup. Their next match was a 2-2 draw with Newcastle. From there, they've lost 5-0 at Fulham, 2-0 to Blackburn, 5-0 to Manchester United, 2-1 at Norwich, 3-2 to Bolton, and 2-1 at Stoke. In each of their last three matches, Wolves actually scored first. It took Norwich only a minute to pull level, it took Bolton 10 minutes to pull level, and it took Stoke 11 minutes to pull level. Wolves have not won since they beat QPR at Loftus Road on February 4. They are winless in eight.

In addition, Wolves have not won a league game at home since December 4 and have lost seven straight games at Molineux in the Premier League. Throw in an FA Cup replay loss to Championship side Birmingham, and Wolves have lost eight straight at Molineux in all competitions.

Match Facts

If this fixture from last year is any indication, I expect big
things from this Chamakh guy. Photo: Guardian.
Wolves took a shock point at the Emirates in the reverse fixture the day after Boxing Day. Gervinho opened the scoring in the eighth minute, but Steven Fletcher pulled Wolves level in the 38th, then Wayne Hennessey slammed the door shut as Arsenal threw everything including the kitchen sink at them in the second half. Arsenal had 73% of the possession and 27 goal attempts, 11 of them on target. Wolves had just one effort on target, and it went in. The match was marred by some terrible officiating from Stuart Attwell, who has since been demoted from the Select Group of officials.

Last year, Arsenal beat Wolves twice by 2-0 margins, with two different Arsenal players picking up braces. At Molineux in November of 2010, it was Marouane Chamakh with both goals, scoring in the first minute and in the last minute to give Arsenal the win. Through the entire middle of that game, Wolves were the side on the attack, and Lukasz Fabianski had a man of the match performance to keep the door shut. At the Emirates in February of 2011, it was a comfortable win for Arsenal, one week after their capitulation at Newcastle and days before their Champions League win over Barcelona. Robin van Persie had the brace.

The day after Boxing Day draw at the Emirates was Wolves' first result against Arsenal since 1982. The Gunners had won 12 straight, dating back to a 1-1 draw at Molineux on April 3, 1982. Wolves' last win over Arsenal came at Highbury, 3-2, on September 29, 1979.

The Referee

Neil Swarbrick points out the man he believes
ate all the pies. Photo: Yorkshire Evening Post.
The referee is Lancashire-based Neil Swarbrick. This is his second Arsenal match of the season and the second Arsenal match of his career. The first was Arsenal's 2-1 win at Sunderland in February; the one where Thierry Henry scored in injury time. In the first half of the match, he denied Sunderland a penalty when Per Mertsacker handled in the area, though did so under no pressure while losing his balance. With clearly no intent in the handball, Swarbrick said play on. Swarbrick was also the fourth official for two Arsenal matches against Aston Villa this year (the win in Birmingham before Christmas and the FA Cup win at the Emirates in January.)

For Wolves, Swarbrick has worked only one match this year, and it was the match that saw them crash out of the Carling Cup to Manchester City, 5-2 at Molineux. He also worked a Premier League match at Molineux last year; a 4-0 Wolves win over Blackpool in which he sent off DJ Campbell.

Around the League

Let's all laugh at Tottenham. Photo: Guardian.
With a bank holiday in England this week, this round of fixtures began on Monday and concludes today.

And wasn't Monday a lovely day for the Arsenal? Still basking in the glow of Mikel Arteta's goal against Manchester City, we got to watch Tottenham lose at home to Norwich City, 2-1, then later in the day, saw Clint Dempsey's 82nd minute goal snatch a point from Chelsea for Fulham in a 1-1 draw at Craven Cottage. Elsewhere Monday, Everton thumped Sunderland 4-0 at Goodison Park, Hatem Ben Arfa apparently scored the greatest goal in history that I thought was nothing special as Newcastle beat Bolton 2-0, and Aston Villa and Stoke played a 1-1 draw.

Yesterday, Liverpool finally broke their winless streak at Ewood Park in a wild 3-2 win over Blackburn Rovers. Andy Carroll truly earned his contract with an injury time goal that has now assured the Reds will not be relegated this year. Earlier in the match, back-up goalkeeper Doni was sent off, meaning third string Brad Jones came in, then saved a Yakubu penalty. With Pepe Reina still banned for his red card against Newcastle, Jones will have to start the Merseyside derby on Saturday at Wembley in an FA Cup Semi-Final. No pressure.

Elsewhere today, Manchester City could fall as many as 11 points back of the top spot. Manchester United are at the DW Stadium to face a Wigan side that has twice as many points over the last eight league games as Tottenham has. City, meanwhile, host West Brom at Eastlands. The other match today sees QPR host Swansea, and somehow that's the game on Sky Sports 1 in England.

Arsenal 1-0 Manchester City: Arteta Capitalizes on Typical Mancini Cowardice

I believe the song sung during the post-match celebrations at the Blind Pig sums up the afternoon's football beautifully:

You lost the league, in North London!
You lost the league in North London!
You lost the league, at the Emirates!
You lost the league in North London!

I mean, seriously? THAT is what the GDP of Spain gets you?

Sorry, I got rather ahead of myself there. Let's wheel this back to the beginning and talk about the starting lineup. Most of the usual suspects were there, but oddly there was a start for Yossi Benayoun out on the left. In retrospect, Arsene Wenger must have deployed him specifically to counter some assumed threat from the right wing. What Le Boss couldn't possibly have known, however, is that Roberto Mancini would bring his troops to the Emirates for the second year running with the intention of coming away with a 0-0 draw (you can refresh your memory of the January 2010 "contest" here - I still am proud of that Photoshop, for what it's worth).

How exactly that was going to help with their cross-town rivals having won earlier in the afternoon to increase the gap to 8 points, I have no idea. But, then again, I don't get paid a squijillion petro-dollars every season to try and corral a rogue's gallery of mercenary personalities into one semi-cohesive team somehow.

Oh, and while I'm on the subject, what kind of massive brass ones do you have to have to bleat to the press that you need 2-3 more players when you've already spent more money than any 7 Football Manager transfer budgets combined (perhaps more than I've ever spent in total in playing the game for 6-7 years) on your mercenary pack ever since you joined the club? Tell your story walking, boyo.

Right then, on to the match itself. City set out their stall to defend straightaway, and never wavered from it. The men in light blue barely touched the ball in the first ten minutes, but defended comfortably enough. However, misfortune struck for them when Yaya Toure came away second best from a collision with Alex Song. David Pizzaro - a player I admit to knowing the square root of fuck all about - came on in his place. Meanwhile, Robin van Persie went down in the penalty area from a Vincent Kompany challenge. It wasn't an absolute stonewall penalty, but I can imagine it being given if our opponents were, say, Wigan Athletic.

A few minutes later, Arsenal had their first preposterous miss of the afternoon. Mikel Arteta's gorgeous cross into the corridor of uncertainty was met by van Persie - only for the captain to watch it deflect off of Thomas Vermaelen's head and away to safety. There wasn't much the Verminator could do - it was just one of those things - but it was indicative of our struggles on the day.

Speaking of struggles, referee Martin Atkinson did not cover himself in glory with his performance in the middle. While Mario Balotelli finally did walk for a second yellow-card offense late in the match (foreshadowing!), he should have received a straight red for a reckless and vicious karate kick above the knee to Alex Song. We can only be thankful that Song didn't have his leg shattered, and in fact was able to play the rest of the way. Still, it was a horrific challenge and how he didn't even get a yellow for it, I'll never know. It's not like Atkinson was far away from it, and where was the linesman?

Even worse, he did it again a few minutes later to Bacary Sagna, who also was lucky to be able to keep playing. We're now on two deserved red cards for the mercurial Italian and counting...and still without so much as a yellow. Well done, Martin! Well done!

It would have been even more galling if Balotelli had been a little quicker and gotten on the end of the long through-pass sent through the Arsenal defense by Pizzaro. Luckily, Wojceich Szczesny alertly came out well beyond the penalty area to hack the ball clear. That was great goalkeeping.

Arsenal lost a bit of attacking verve in the last few minutes of the half, probably because Balotelli was waging a one-man Battle of Thermopylae out there. Given how incredibly lucky he was to still be on the pitch, and further given that Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko were on the bench, I have no earthly idea how Balotelli wasn't subbed off at halftime.

There were indeed no changes though, and oddly enough it was the visitors that had the first significant chance of the second half. The fact that it ended up being their only significant chance of the match says much about their manager's ambition on the day. Our good friend Samir Nasri sent a cross into the area, with Arsenal's defense in disarray for the only time in the match. Sergio Aguero got a head to it, and it looked like it may have been arcing just below the crossbar and in. But, that man Szczesny was there to save the day again, timing his jump to perfection and getting just enough fingertip on it to direct it over the crossbar.

While that was the last time City would threaten, the Gunners were busy preparing for Heartbreaking Miss # 2. Again, the captain was at the center of it, having received the ball in the area from one of Song's patented chip passes (20% of the time, it works every time). He connected with a solid header, and Joe Hart was beaten. Sadly, the woodwork was not, as it hit the foot of the post and went out.

It did seem like another frustrating 0-0 was on the cards, that's for sure. The effect was multiplied by Heartbreaking Incident # 3 (yes, I keep changing the label...because shut up, that's why). That man RVP was unsurprisingly at the epicenter once again, as he received another long pass and coolly finished past a stranded Hart. Sadly, he was flagged for offside. Fair play to the linesman, by the way...the replay showed that he got it 100% right. RVP was offside by a whisker.

The home side had their tails up now, and swarmed their opponents with much of the same drive and purpose shown in the first half. Astonishing Miss # 4 was unquestionably the most frustrating of the lot. A low drive from Theo Walcott (his only contribution on the day) was brilliantly saved by Hart. The rebound came out to Vermaelen with nothing but empty net to stare at. Somehow, he sliced his shot so badly that it came out to a stunned Benayoun on the back post. He too could have tapped it home, but he got himself crossed up and could only shovel it against the woodwork.

I would have bet all four of my limbs on a 0-0 at this point.

This was the part of the match where I had my now-customary internal rage session directed towards Wenger's substitutions. With the offense unable to find that final coup de grace and with an opponent unwilling to fight back, why it took until the 80th minute to make our second sub (Andre Santos had come on for the injured Kieran Gibbs earlier in the second half) is a mystery to me. Even worse, why it was Aaron Ramsey shunted off to the wing, I'll never know.

Meanwhile, Brave Sir Mancini hauled off the anonymous Nasri and put on...not Tevez, not Dzeko...Aleksandr Kolorov. A fullback. You coward. As the final five minutes loomed, both managers made changes that should have been made 15 or 20 minutes previously - Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for Walcott, and Tevez finally made it on in place of Aguero.

You know, it's funny. I mentioned to my roommate upon coming home that it was 85 minutes of Bad Old Arsenal - over-elaboration in the area, shocking misses when it was easier to score, over-ambitious passes that went nowhere, on and on and on. How great is it that our goal came from a midfielder pressing his man, winning the ball, and then having a go from distance?

That really was all there was to it. James Milner got caught in possession by Arteta, who then rampaged straight ahead. Despite the fact that City had 372 men in light blue shirts in attendance, no one thought to close the Spaniard down. Joleon Lescott was the worst offender, being close enough to the play to pressure the shot. Instead, he stood and watched as Arteta curled a beauty of a long-range shot past the despairing dive of Hart and into the near corner.

Get in, as the kids would say.

It was over as a contest from there, but that doesn't man the match was without further incident. Professional Chucklehead extraordinaire Balotelli managed to get himself sent off in the 90th for yet another tackle that perhaps could have been red on its own (it'd be harsh, but it wasn't miles away, either).

City did win a free kick in a decent position in the last minute of injury time...but tellingly, it was Arsenal who should have scored off of it. Kolorov bashed a witless shot into the wall, and the Gunners countered at pace like the great teams of recent memory used to. Ramsey surged down the left in acres of space and had damn near every single member of the team with him in the penalty area. It's not that he was completely wrong for shooting - he was in a decent spot himself - but his shot was so poor as to defy belief. I said to the guy in front of me that he had too much time to think about it. Had a defender been in attendance, it may have gone in after all.

Anyway, we've essentially handed the title to Manchester United...and given the choices available, I'm comfortable with that. Whatever I think about them in general, they at least have found success without spending ridiculous amounts of money in comparison to everyone else in the league. I may wish a P38 W0 L38 season on Alex Ferguson, but if we're being fair he's arguably the best club manager of all time and the fact that he got this shower of a United team past the finishing line is perhaps one of his greatest-ever achievements. I hate United with a passion, but I find them less odious than their nouveau riche neighbors. Now, hopefully we kick on from here, buy some talent in the off-season and take it away from them next term.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Gibbs 7 (Santos 7), Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 7, Sagna 7, Benayoun 7 (Ramsey N/A), Song 7, Arteta 7, Rosicky 7, Walcott 6 (Oxlade-Chamberlain N/A), van Persie 7

Man of the Match: Who else? He's the best-looking Spaniard I know: Mikel Arteta.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Manchester City

Emirates Stadium, London
Sunday, April 8
11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Martin Atkinson
    • Assistants: Peter Kirkup and Darren Cann
    • 4th Official: Mike Jones
  • Reverse Fixture: Manchester City 1 - 0 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 0 - 0 Manchester City
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 92 Arsenal wins, 47 Manchester City wins, 40 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-W-W-W-L
  • Manchester City's League Form: W-W-L-W-D-D
Their Moroccan appears to be better than our Moroccan.
Photo: Telegraph.
Well, all good things must come to an end, and last week, a complacent Arsenal side let their seven game winning streak get snapped by a Queens Park Rangers side that wanted the three points more. The infuriating thing about that is that there is no reason any side should so obviously want to win more than Arsenal, especially when every point is so precious in the race for Champions League football.

As it stands now, Arsenal is still in third, but only by goal difference, ahead of Tottenham Hotspur, while Chelsea and Newcastle both sit five points behind.

The good news is that if Arsenal is going to continue playing to the level of their opponents, in this match, that's a good thing. There is absolutely no reason why Arsenal should not be able to get their heads into a match like this. There is no way for them to underestimate Manchester City, even if City have stumbled a bit lately. There is a lot of pride on the line, in addition to three crucial points in the race for Europe. City could enter the match eight points behind United in the battle for the title if United win Sunday, so there is everything to play for, on both sides.

It's a huge match. Please leave your complacency at the door.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Coquelin (hamstring), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (ankle)
Doubts: Diaby (hamstring)

Bored Diaby is bored. Photo: Soccer Fan Base.
As far as I can tell, absolutely nothing has changed in terms of the team's injury news this week. Which, I guess, is largely a good thing.

Is Francis Coquelin training again? He should be coming back the fastest, but I have not heard a thing about his hamstring injury in two-and-a-half weeks. As for Per Mertesacker and Emmanuel Frimpong, we know they're out for the rest of the season. Abou Diaby had a little pain in training before last week's game and is still likely not going to be risked, but what else is new?

So now, we come to the Jack Wilshere situation. According to Arseblog, he was going to play in a training friendly against Birmingham City behind closed doors. Then, the game happened, and Wilshere didn't play at all, because he still wasn't ready, it seems. There were appearances from the B-team, just as there were against the Reading XI last week. The list of those that did play: Lukasz Fabianski, Sebastien Squillaci, Carl Jenkinson, Johan Djourou, Andre Santos, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Yossi Benayoun, Park Chu-Young (who scored again), Marouane Chamakh, Gervinho, and Oguzhan Ozyakup. The match ended 1-1.

Given that list of players, who all played about a half of football, I would not be surprised to see no changes to the XI that lost at QPR, even though I don't like Aaron Ramsey playing left wing over Gervinho or the Ox.

Manchester City Squad News

Out: None
Doubts: Aguero (foot), Lescott (groin), Richards (head)

Aguero deals with the evil magic spray.
Photo: Guardian.
Well, file this under the "just Arsenal's luck" category. Sergio Aguero says he's ready to return to the starting line-up after missing two weeks with what amounted to a very bizarre injury. Against Chelsea last month, Aguero took a knock on the ankle. When the trainer was assessing the injury, he sprayed a topical anesthetic on the injury, which then managed to burn the top part of Aguero's foot.

Aguero's potential return means that there are no Manchester City players 100% ruled out through injury.

There are rumors that Carlos Tevez could make his first start since September in this match. Some bench warmer named Samir Nasri returns to City having missed last week's match due to, according to Roberto Mancini, a family issue, though other web sites and his own Twitter have said it was a niggling injury. Joleon Lescott is expected to return from a groin injury that has kept him out for five games. Micah Richards left last week's game after a clash of heads, though I have not seem him ruled out for this match.

Current Form

Nick "I don't leave the house" Bendtner scored in
Sunderland's draw at Eastlands last week.
Photo: Daily Mail.
After last week's talk of jinxes and Arsenal having their seven game league winning streak snapped, I've decided I'm just not going to talk about Arsenal's form this week. You probably already have a good idea about what it is. Their current streak is "one loss," and that's about all you need to know.

Instead, let's talk about crumbling City! They've drawn two straight in the league and have just one win from their last four Premier League fixtures (that was, however, against Chelsea.) Since beating the Blues 2-1 on March 21, City needed to come from behind to pull out draws from two matches. On March 24 at the Britannia, City fell behind Stoke 1-0 thanks to a wonder goal from Peter Crouch (God, it sucks just to write that sentence.) They equalized on a goal from Yaya Toure, which took a huge deflection off Ryan Shawcross. Last week, City trailed 3-1 to Sunderland at Eastlands before getting the goals back in the 85th and 86th minutes to draw. City's first goal in the game came from a dubious Phil Dowd penalty.

Match Facts

This fixture ended 0-0 last year. Arsenal hit the post three
times. Photo: Daily Mail.

Arsenal have already lost twice to Manchester City this season and both results came by 1-0 scorelines. The first meeting came in the quarterfinals of the Carling Cup in late November. Arsenal's B-team put in a valiant effort, but Sergio Aguero's 83rd minute goal put City into the semifinals, where they would lose to eventual champion Liverpool. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the sides met in the league at Eastlands where City again won on a second half goal. This one came in the 53rd minute from David Silva. In both matches, Arsenal were commended for their performance against the league's top team at the time, despite not coming away with anything from either game. This time around, I don't think it's the same feeling. Some points are necessary.

Arsenal and Manchester City's last two league meetings at the Emirates have been 0-0 draws. Arsenal had the better of the attacks in the opening ten minutes of last year's match, hit the woodwork on three occasions, but could not find the goal, and after that, City parked the bus. The year prior, neither side was really up for it, and the game was abysmal. City's last league win at Arsenal in North London was on October 4, 1975, by a 3-2 margin.

This will be Arsenal's fifth ever game played on Easter Sunday, and the second consecutive year they will play on that holiday. They have one win, one draw, and have lost two straight on Easter, though this year will be the first Easter match they play at home. Arsenal's first Easter match was a 3-2 win at Watford in 2000. The Invincibles played on Easter Sunday in 2004 and drew 0-0 at Newcastle. In 2008, Easter was early (March 23,) and Arsenal lost at Stamford Bridge, 2-1. Last year, they lost by that same scoreline on Easter, at the Reebok against Bolton Wanderers.

The Referee

Laurent Koscielny is sent off by Martin
Atkinson in his Arsenal debut.
Photo: Zimbio.
The referee is West Yorkshire-based Martin Atkinson, working his third Arsenal match of the season. Both others were at the Emirates. They were the 2-0 loss to Liverpool in August and the 1-0 win over QPR on New Year's Eve.

Atkinson has a history of showing Arsenal players red cards. He sent off Emmanuel Frimpong in that Liverpool game. He sent of Jack Wilshere for an admittedly reckless tackle against Birmingham City last October. He sent off Laurent Koscielny for two yellows in quick succession at Anfield in last season's opener. The year before that, his last man foul red card to Thomas Vermaelen against West Ham was the only red card Arsenal received in 2009/10.

As for Manchester City, Atkinson has taken charge of their 3-0 win over Wigan in September, their 3-2 win at QPR in November, the 1-1 draw at Liverpool in late November (in which Mario Balotelli was sent off,) and the 1-0 win at Wigan in January.

Atkinson has shown ten red cards this season across all matches and competitions. Of the Select Group referees, only Jonathan Moss has shown more.

Around the League

Pepe Reina was sent off by Martin Atkinson last week.
Can you even name Liverpool's back-up goalkeeper?
Photo: IB Times.
Arsenal and City is the final match of the weekend, as a new round of fixtures begins on Monday. Seven matches are on Saturday's docket, two are on Sunday, and one will be played today.

You don't see many Friday matches in the Premier League, but today, Swansea City hosts Newcastle in Wales. Newcastle sit level with Chelsea for fifth with 53 points, though they are 13 back on goal difference.

Saturday's early match sees Spurs look to take third place over again for at least a little while; they'll face a tricky ninth place Sunderland side at the Stadium of Light. Five matches kick-off in the usual 3:00 p.m. England time slot: Chelsea hosts Wigan at the Bridge, Liverpool, in dire need of a win and without the banned Pepe Reina for three matches (after he was sent off by the aforementioned red card machine Atkinson,) hosts a struggling Aston Villa at Anfield, Bolton hosts Fulham at the Reebok, West Brom hosts Blackburn at the Hawthorns, and Norwich hosts Everton at Carrow Road. The late game sees Stoke host Wolves at the Britannia.

Sunday's early match has Manchester United host QPR at Old Trafford. United can open up an eight point gap on City at the top of the table before the match at the Emirates kicks off.

These are the reverse of fixtures played the weekend of December 17-18. Winners in that round were Stoke City, Fulham, West Brom, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester City. Everton v. Norwich, Newcastle v. Swansea, and Wigan v. Chelsea were draws.