Arsenal 1-1 Manchester United: Strength of Character

I don't know what it is about April Arsenal that is so consistently better than December-through-March Arsenal. Whatever it is, I wish we could bottle it up and distribute it to the squad earlier in our campaigns...if our boys played like this all season, we would consistently be right up there in the title race.

Olivier Giroud's suspension provided just about the only selection headache for Arsene Wenger heading in - Lukas Podolski was chosen to lead the line. Besides that and Kieran Gibbs being preferred to Nacho Monreal at left back, the rest of the side selected itself.

Whatever the selection has been, much of Arsenal's issues these last few seasons have stemmed from a lack of cohesion and an alarming tendency to sleepwalk through matches until the other mob has gone at least a goal up. The Gunners put paid to both of those today, as they stunned the visitors with a blitzkreig attack inside of the first two minutes.

The fact that it was Judas van Persie who gave the ball away to start the move has a certain life-affirming quality to it. Of course, we've all suffered through some of our beloved players leaving before - but never like this, never to the one side that for me is the worst of the worst (even outranking our near-neighbors at Shite Hart Lane). Gooners of a certain generation may have been hurt worse by Liam Brady's departure to Serie A, but for me there is no greater pantomime villain in our universe now than this Dutch bastard.

Anyway, Judas gave the ball away in the middle of the park, and Arsenal were away in a flash. The ball was played to Tomas Rosicky some distance outside of the Manchester United penalty area. Theo Walcott timed his run to perfection down the right-hand side, and Rosicky's pass was weighted with precision into his path. Theo still had it all to do with a difficult shooting angle to contend with.

Thankfully, David De Gea got his angles badly wrong, and he failed to recognize that Theo's only possible shot was back against the grain. Still, Walcott had a target about the size of the ball to shoot at, but he threaded the needle perfectly. Poor goalkeeping from the United man, but I can't say I mind all that much.

The champions-elect (vomit) were stunned, and Arsenal kept at them. Rosicky sent a tracer just wide, while Santi Cazorla's swerving effort was thwarted by an excellent diving save from De Gea.

Sadly, our guys failed to strike again before United inevitably regained their composure. The one thing I grudgingly admire about the Evil Empire is their collective footballing intelligence - they simply know how to win games and how to recover from precarious positions. Here, they spent much of the first half fouling anything that moved, taking several yellow cards in the process. It wasn't pretty to watch, but it was exactly what they needed to get back into the game. It was instructive to note how, late in the second half, United had a few breaks precisely because our defenders failed to foul at the right times.

We're too damn nice, too damn often. It's a major character flaw in this team.

That's not to say that we didn't continue to have chances though. Arsenal's relentless pressure meant that United had much less of the ball than they are used to, and a little more quality might have put this game away in the first half. Aaron Ramsey - who had another storming game - intercepted a clearance and played in Podolski. The German should have done a lot better, as he tamely hit it straight at the Spanish stopper.

Rosicky was next to miss when in a good shooting position, his shot almost going out for a throw-in. It almost cost us too, as horrendous defending from Bacary Sagna (not for the first or last time) allowed Nani the run of our left wing. His cross curled in perfectly for Judas, who hit a thumping header on goal. Wojceich Szczesny's anticipation was perfect though, and he bravely repelled the shot with his face. I keep mentioning that I'm a goalkeeper myself - let me tell you, I've done that myself and it is NOT fun. That is bravery. That is strength in character.

Unfortunately, the ongoing liability that is Bacary Sagna struck again just before halftime. Longtime readers know that I am continually mystified by many of the manager's decisions, and arguably the top of that list is why Carl Jenkinson isn't playing at RB these days. Sagna can't defend, can't cross and can't take on a defender. He brings absolutely nothing to the table, and against quality opposition like this he actually takes things off of it.

Here, he played a brain-dead backpass to Szczesny that was woefully underhit. Judas latched onto it and was clear on goal. Sagna was forced to gamble with a wild sliding tackle, and at first glance I thought he got the ball (Phil Dowd, the worst referee in the league not named Mark Halsey, doesn't get the benefit of the doubt from me). Replays showed that Dowd got this one right, though. So what, even a blind pig finds an acorn sometimes.

So, yeah. Guess who stepped up to take the penalty? And, guess who thundered an unstoppable one past Szczesny into the top corner?

Goddamnit, I hate that man. Literally hate him. Where his giveaway leading to our goal was life-affirming, him scoring on our ground was both inevitable and soul-destroying. The yin and yang of life, I suppose.

That finished a madcap first half, which was played at breakneck pace with thunderous tackles flying hither and yon. Oddly, the second half could not have been more different - other than a few half-chances (mostly for United), the second 45 was sedate and had all the look of two sides who communally realized that they were both OK with sharing the points.

The goal took a bit of of life out of our game, I think, and the boss made an early change to try and combat it. Rosicky had faded after a bright start, so he was withdrawn for Jack Wilshere. We applauded the change at the time, but The Man Who Should be Captain was never more than a peripheral figure in the game today.

Just before that though, Sagna again mistimed a tackle and was lucky that Dowd had played advantage. Given time to think about it, he may have given the braided one a second yellow card...and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree had that been the decision.

More subs were made to try and shake up our team, but if Gervinho (who came on for Podolski) is the answer, you're asking the wrong question. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also came on for Ramsey, but to no avail. United had settled by this point and once they were content to see out the draw, we found it especially hard going.

That said, it'd be pushing it to say that Lord Ferg had no interest in winning the game - he threw on Ryan Giggs and later Javier Hernandez to see if they could nick the points with a late surge. They almost did it, too...but our defense came through when they were needed. Laurent Koscielny truly stepped up when it counted...he was absolutely awesome today. Arsenal pressed for the winner and worked some space for Cazorla. Our only serious chance of the second half was clawed out well by De Gea, though.

United broke away on the counter soon after though, and really they should have won the game. The otherwise-anonymous Wayne Rooney played a killer long ball over our defense, and Giggs was away. His first touch uncharacteristically let him down though, and that allowed some red shirts to get back. Giggs did get a shot away, but it hit the Ox's thigh and skittered wide.

Injury time came and went without incident, and thus Arsenal came away with a point that may prove to be vital in the chase for a top-four spot.

Look, if we're being honest, I thought we were going to be on the bad end of another hiding today. The sad truth is that top to bottom, they are significantly better than us in every position on the field. There is probably some truth to the idea that they took their foot off the pedal a bit having clinched the title, but let's not take away from our efforts, either. Arsenal were full value for the point, and had we taken advantage of some chances earlier in the match, we could have not only won but done so comprehensively.

Sure, it'd have been a lot better if Judas hadn't scored on his return to the ground. But, if it had to happen, I'd rather it did on a day in which we won a hard-fought point against an excellent side, and did so with both fight and style.

Queens Park Rangers, Wigan Athletic, Newcastle United - that is what is left for us, highly-winnable games all. We get nine points out of that, we get at least 4th place. If we don't, we probably don't deserve to be in the Champions League anyway.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 8, Gibbs 7, Koscielny 8, Mertesacker 7, Sagna 3, Arteta 7, Ramsey 8 (Oxlade-Chamberlain  7), Cazorla 7, Rosicky 7 (Wilshere 6), Walcott 8, Podolski 6 (Gervinho 7)

Man of the Match:  The whole team (sans Sagna) collectively played well, so there are a few candidates to choose from. Theo took his goal well, Szczesny came up with some timely stops and Ramsey was a beast in the center of the park. But, for me the most notable part of the match was just how little of a threat Judas was outside of the penalty. Laurent Koscielny had him in his pocket all day, and is more than deserving of the MotM award.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Manchester United

Emirates Stadium, London
Sunday, April 28
11:00 a.m. EDT, 16:00 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Phil Dowd
    • Assistants: Andy Garratt and Scott Ledger
    • 4th Official: Michael Oliver
  • Reverse Fixture: Manchester United 2 - 1 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 1 - 2 Manchester United
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 79 Arsenal wins, 91 United wins, 46 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-W-W-D-W
  • United's League Form: W-W-L-W-D-W
  • Weather: Partly Cloudy, 15 C / 59 F
As you can see, Arsenal is the best. By the way, this graph
is completely arbitrary.
I have spent much of this week trying to figure out what I should say here about this match, only to decide that I really have nothing else to say anyway. So, I'll focus on what we should care about: odds of finishing in the top four.

Arsenal have 63 points with four games to play. Three wins from four takes them to 72 (which is more points than they had in last year's third place finish.) 72 points, as of right now, gives Arsenal a 96.9% chance of finishing at least fourth. Of the tens of millions of simulations run on Sports Club Stats, the most common result for Arsenal is 70 points (which would be two wins, a draw, and a loss.) Even that gives Arsenal a better than 80% chance of Champions League football next year.

All that said, you can see that numerically, the result in this match does not matter as much as beating the teams Arsenal should beat (QPR, Wigan, and Newcastle) in the remaining fixtures.

But damn, wouldn't it be nice to win this one?

Arsenal Squad News

Handsomest red card ever.
Out: Fabianski (ribs), Diaby (knee)
Doubts: Arteta (ankle)
Suspended: Giroud (first of three)

The suspension of Olivier Giroud opens up some huge questions about who starts up top? Will it be Lukas Podolski, who appears to have been playing limited minutes with an ankle injury for a very long time? Will it be Theo Walcott, who probably does not have the size to deal with United's central defense? Will it be Gervinho, who is Gervinho? There's no easy answer to the question, which goes to show you how startling Arsenal's lack of forward depth is. Maybe they should play Spain's 4-6-0 formation and see what happens.

Mikel Arteta had a slight problem with his ankle, after Steve Sidwell's tackle on him at the weekend that saw the Fulham player sent off. Arsene Wenger said everyone available against Fulham would be available against United (except for the banned Giroud,) so it appears Arteta will be fine to start. I listed him as a doubt just in case.

Lukasz Fabianski remains out with the cracked ribs he suffered against Norwich.

United Squad News

Out: Scholes (knee), Young (ankle), Fletcher (illness)
Doubts: Vidic (knock), Smalling (knock)

In United's injury news, Ashley Young has been ruled out for the rest of the season with an ankle injury, Paul Scholes is out another week or so because his knee is a fossil, and Darren Fletcher is out for the season with chronic colitis.

Center backs Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling are both listed as doubts with minor knocks.

Current Form

We've got a Big Happy German.
By now, I'm sure you've heard that Manchester United have already clinched the league title, so form isn't really worth discussing, is it? I will mention that on five occasions, United have dropped points away from home this year in the league: they lost at Everton, they lost at Norwich, and they drew at Tottenham, Swansea, and most recently West Ham.

Since losing the North London derby, Arsenal are unbeaten in six league matches, their longest such streak of the season. They have picked up 16 of their last 18 possible points and 29 of their last possible 36 dating back to January; just seven points dropped since January 20.

Arsenal have already lost three times at home this season (Chelsea, Manchester City, and Swansea.) The last time Arsenal lost more than three league games at the Emirates was only two years ago, when they lost four at home (Spurs, Newcastle, West Brom, and Aston Villa.)

Match Facts

Aaron Ramsey scores the goal that would go on to kill
Osama Bin Laden.
There's no doubting that Manchester United have had the better of Arsenal in recent meetings. In 2006/07, Arsenal won both league meetings between the sides. Since that year, across all competitions, United have met Arsenal 15 times. Arsenal have won two of those matches, drawn two, and lost 11 (including the last three.)

In the reverse fixture, United dominated after scoring pretty much right away in the most cliched way possible. Vito Mannone kept Arsenal in the match with a string of good saves and Wayne Rooney missed a penalty, but Jack Wilshere was sent off with the match already at 2-0. Santi Cazorla scored a consolation goal with the last kick of the match to make the scoreline look more respectable, but that was just papering over the cracks.

This fixture last year was played in January: United scored just before the stroke of halftime, Arsenal came back to level the score, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was subbed off and everyone went bonkers in confusion, then United scored to win 2-1. Arsenal last beat United on May 1, 2011, with Aaron Ramsey scoring the winner in a 1-0 match.

The Referee

"Hey! Who ate all the pies? Those were MY PIES!"
The referee is Staffordshire-based Phil Dowd, and quite honestly I was expecting Mike Dean. The fact that Phil Dowd could come as a relief to me is an absurdity. Arsenal have seen Dowd twice this season, once in October and once in November. In October, Arsenal won 3-1 at West Ham; in that match, Dowd booked Mohamed Diame for his post-goal celebration, then failed to show Diame a second yellow for what was a much more egregious foul a few minutes later. Those kinds of things happen early in matches, though, especially when the first yellow is fairly soft; Dowd is not the only referee who has done that sort of thing, as it happened to Neil Swarbrick during Arsenal's match with Everton earlier this month when he failed to send off Darron Gibson. But, I digress. Dowd's other Arsenal match this year was the 3-3 with Fulham in which he gave Arsenal a late penalty which Mikel Arteta failed to convert. Dowd was not the reason Arsenal dropped points that day.

Arsenal's record with Dowd since the infamous 4-4 at Newcastle is three wins, two draws, and one loss, which was the 1-0 at Manchester City in December of 2011 that felt like a moral victory at the time. Not too shabby, all things considered.

As for United's record this season with Phil Dowd in the middle: this is his first league match for them this year. In two FA Cup ties, United beat West Ham in a replay 1-0 and later lost to Chelsea 1-0. West Ham were incensed that Dowd gave United a soft penalty in the second half of that match, but Wayne Rooney missed the spot kick anyway, and that's always hilarious.

Around the League
  • Saturday (early): Manchester City v. West Ham United; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
  • Saturday: Everton v. Fulham; Goodison Park, Liverpool
  • Saturday: Southampton v. West Bromwich Albion; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Saturday: Stoke City v. Norwich City; Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent
  • Saturday: Wigan Athletic v. Tottenham Hotspur; DW Stadium, Wigan
  • Saturday (late): Newcastle United v. Liverpool; St. James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • Sunday (early): Reading v. Queens Park Rangers; Madejski Stadium, Reading
  • Sunday: Chelsea v. Swansea City; Stamford Bridge, London
  • Monday (night): Aston Villa v. Sunderland; Villa Park, Birmingham

Fulham 0-1 Arsenal: A Huge Let-Off

The Everton match was a textbook example of a match where our guys suffered a result that probably was a bit unfair given the solidity of their performance. This one, on the other hand, was a perfect example of the result being probably more than we deserved on a day where almost nothing seemed to come off for us offensively.

Needless to say, I couldn't care less if it was unfair for Fulham. Three points is three points, and right now we'd all steal them from a defenseless child if that's what it took.

That said, it's odd - I never saw this as of much of a trap game as many other Gooners did. Fulham have been poor defensively this season, though I admit that I didn't account for the fact that teams tend to get up for playing us. It's amazing how a side like Fulham will roll over and die for Chelsea or United, but we come to town and all of a sudden it's their World Cup Final.

Frankly, I think it's because we're just good enough to be seen as around that level, but just vulnerable enough where they think they have a chance. Man, that's a crappy place to be.

The boss made two changes to the side that fought so well against the Toffees - Nacho Monreal and Tomas Rosicky came on for the struggling Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere. On paper, this was a starting eleven that should have been able to tear through the Cottagers' defense like tissue paper.

Instead, we got a disjointed start to the match where both sides could have opened the scoring early. Fulham tore us apart in the first few minutes but couldn't convert the chance, while Theo Walcott had a goal rightly pulled back for offside.

The match was just settling into something resembling a normal rhythm when a moment of madness saw the hosts go down to 10 men.  Mikel Arteta had the ball in midfield, but in nothing close to a dangerous situation. Steve Sidwell, however, decided to go in with a reckless two-footed challenge on the Spaniard. That was a clear red card, and also the last call that Andre Marriner would get right all day.

However, the red card may have been a net negative for the Gunners. Previously, Fulham were likely to have tried and played football with us, which would leave space that guys like Walcott could eventually exploit on the counter. Sidwell's dismissal meant that the Cottagers played in two banks of four, a setup which Arsenal have always struggled to break down in recent times.

We all know the story from there in cases like this - the Gunners dominate possession, calmly passing along the perimeter of the penalty area without ever seriously threatening the opposing goalkeeper. Meanwhile, the defending team proves dangerous on the counter, and ends up with more chances overall.

Seriously, you can set your watch to it by now.

Right on schedule, it was Fulham who could have taken the lead a few minutes after Sidwell walked. A quick counterattack saw Bryan Ruiz play in Dimitar Berbatov on the right-hand side of the area. The Bulgarian hit it well, but it was right at Wojceich Szczesny and proved to be a comfortable save in the end for the Pole. The resulting corner was less so, but Szczesny was able to punch away confidently. It looks like his spell on the bench has screwed his head back on straight, which could be critical given that he is unquestionably the most talented keeper on our books.

Arsenal were able to stop the bleeding after that, but they couldn't fashion any chances. It would be overly harsh to say that all of our midfielders were poor, but with the exception of Santi Cazorla they were collectively less than their best. Cazorla was able to split the Fulham defense to give Olivier Giroud an open shot, which was hit well and in the right area. Mark Schwarzer was well beaten, but it hit the foot of the post and went out to safety.

Up the other end, a poor giveaway from Nacho Monreal allowed Urby Emanuelson to get a free shot on net, but thankfully it was the finish of a left back and Szczesny was able to get down well to parry it away.

Had they scored there, the final may have been 1-0 in the other direction. Instead, Arsenal flipped the usual script, as this time we were the beneficiaries of a set-piece goal against the run of play. A free kick outside the penalty area was curled in to the back post, where Laurent Kosicelny headed it back across the face of goal. Philippe Senderos allowed Per Mertesacker to get by him, leaving the BFG with an easy tap-in header.

The second half continued in the same vein as the first, Arsenal's lack of fluency in midfield giving Fulham an easy job of defending. Aaron Ramsey and Arteta were especially poor, while Walcott was largely invisible. Substitutions were badly needed, but the hour mark came and went with no movement from the Arsenal bench.

Instead, it was Berbatov who had the best chance to score in this period of play. His half-shot half-chip in the 70th minute caught Szczesny out of position. Woj's footwork was excellent though, and he was able to scramble back in time to tip it over the crossbar.

Belatedly, the ineffectual Walcott and the knackered Rosicky were taken off for Lukas Podolski and Jack Wilshere. Still, Arsenal were disjointed and toothless. Again, Fulham were the more dangerous and this time they managed to put the ball in the net. A poor foul from Ramsey gave the home side a free kick, which Ruiz put on frame. Szczesny parried it out, but Stanislav Manolev was there to tuck home the rebound. Replays showed that he was offside though, and sure enough the linesman on that side, Sian Massey, spotted the infraction and flagged it down.

A quick aside about Massey, since I'm on the subject. Naturally, we're all big fans this week since she negated Fulham's equalizing goal. It should be said though that she is legitimately the best in the Premier League at her position, and it's not a matter of gender. We shouldn't look at her as "the female linesman", we should be looking at her as "the best linesman in the league". Full stop.

The remaining twenty minutes passed by mostly without incident, though Fulham did have the better of the play despite the man disadvantage. Just as the match was heading to injury time though, Marriner broke out the big, floppy clown shoes in issuing his second red card of the match.

A perfectly harmless play in midfield saw Giroud win the ball from the Fulham player without so much as grazing him. In fact, the Frenchman tripped over the ball and fell over himself, but somewhere in this Marriner saw a straight-red infraction. Oddly, this didn't give the hosts any further momentum, as they never threatened our net again. Ramsey had one shot go wide of the post in injury time, but otherwise Arsenal closed it out fairly easily from there.

There will be no shortage of criticism directed towards the Gunners in the next day or two, and much of it will be warranted. Let's not mince words - Arsenal were dreadful today and cannot reasonably say that the points were deserved. However, this is not a game that is often fair, and we all know how often the reverse has happened to us.

The important thing is that despite playing poorly, three more points have gone up on the board for us. The nearest and dearest play Manchester City today, and assuming they lose it they'll be five points behind us with one game in hand. We have our toughest remaining game next week against United, but the sides chasing us have tough games ahead as well. It should put some of the hysteria around our draw last week in perspective - a top-four place is still very much in our hands, and chances are that it's exactly what we'll earn by the end of the season.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Monreal 6, Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 8, Sagna 6, Arteta 5, Ramsey 5, Cazorla 7 (Vermaelen N/A), Rosicky 6 (Wilshere 6), Walcott 6 (Podolski 6), Giroud 6.

Man of the Match: Not much to choose from this week, but I'll go with the BFG, Per Mertesacker for the goal and an assured defensive display.

Preview by Numbers: Fulham v. Arsenal

Craven Cottage, London
Saturday, April 20
10:00 a.m. EDT, 15:00 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Andre Marriner
    • Assistants: Mark Scholes and Sian Massey
    • 4th Official: Jonathan Moss
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 3 - 3 Fulham
  • This Match, Last Year: Fulham 2 - 1 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 34 Arsenal wins, 8 Fulham wins, 10 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-W-W-W-W-D
  • Fulham's League Form: D-W-W-L-D-L
  • Weather: Sunny, 11 C / 52 F
Five games to go: Fulham away, United at home, QPR away, Wigan at home, Newcastle away. It sounds so very doable on paper, but from these five fixtures last year, Arsenal lost four of them and drew 0-0 in the other. Two of those losses (QPR away and Wigan at home) came down the stretch under similar circumstances to the situation at present. It just goes to show you how inconsistent this team can be.

But for now, Arsenal can only focus on Fulham Football Club. The legs may be a bit tired for Arsenal, having played grueling matches on Saturday and Tuesday, but that's no excuse, as Fulham played Saturday and Wednesday. The Cottagers always seem to make things difficult for the Arsenal. Three points are critical after dropping two midweek.

Every game from here on out is massive. All points are vital.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Fabianski (ribs), Diaby (knee)
Doubts: Cazorla (knock), Wilshere (knock), Oxlade-Chamberlain (knock), Rosicky (hamstring)

There's very little concrete in the team news as of right now (provided you're reading this before Arsene's Friday press conference, which you're probably not.) Lukasz Fabianski remains out after taking a kick to the ribs against Norwich. Abou Diaby remains Diabied.

Much of the midfield will face late fitness tests, coming through Tuesday's game a bit banged up. That includes Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Tomas Rosicky could be good to return again from his hamstring knock that has kept him out since his brace at West Brom. So basically, it's a little too early to tell what the front six will look like.

As for the back four, I've heard Nacho Monreal may return at left back, but the other three (Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny) should remain the same.

Fulham Squad News

Out: Duff (abductor), Dejagah (ankle), Diarra (knee)

Fulham will likely still be without Damien Duff, who left Saturday's match against Aston Villa with an abductor muscle strain (not to be confused with an abdominal strain,) though his recovery is going better than expected. His injury means Fulham have recalled Alex Kacaniklic from Burnley; he was on loan to the Clarets. Kacaniklic scored against Arsenal in the reverse fixture.

Ashkan Dejagah and Mahamadou Diarra are out for the season with ankle and knee injuries, respectively.

Current Form

Since losing consecutive league games to Manchester City and Chelsea in mid-January, Arsenal have lost just once in their last 11 league fixtures, drawing twice and winning eight. That's 26 points out of their last 33 available; not too shabby. Arsenal have climbed out of the... how shall I put this?... gap, and are well positioned for a run at a top four finish, just as long as they don't drop any points stupidly from here on out.

As for Fulham, they have been consistently mid-table since November. The Cottagers went unbeaten in five between February and early April, but are now winless in three, having lost to Newcastle and Chelsea and drawing Aston Villa. With 40 points, Fulham are currently in tenth, just one point back of Swansea in ninth, and four points back of West Brom in eighth. West Ham (39 points) and Southampton (38 points,) however, are breathing down their necks. They are nine points clear of relegation and all but mathematically safe.

Match Facts

It might come as some surprise, but Fulham are unbeaten in their last four against Arsenal, with three draws and a victory in this fixture last year. Arsenal scored first in that match, last January 2, via Laurent Koscielny in the 21st minute. Everything was cruising along just fine until Johan Djourou was sent off for a second yellow card. With the back four decimated by injuries at the time, Sebastien Squillaci came in, Fulham scored twice, and the Cottagers won 2-1.

Earlier this year, Arsenal and Fulham played a bonkers 3-3 draw at the Emirates. Arsenal went up 2-0 through goals from Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski, but Fulham struck back to equalize through Dimitar Berbatov and Alex Kacaniklic. Fulham went ahead 3-2 from the penalty spot, but Giroud leveled for Arsenal just two minutes later. At the death, Arsenal were awarded a penalty, but Mikel Arteta's spot kick was saved by Mark Schwarzer and both sides split the points.

Arsenal have won once in their last four visits to Craven Cottage, a 1-0 victory on September 26, 2009 which included a man of the match performance from Vito Mannone. As mentioned above, Arsenal lost at the Cottage last year. In the final match of 2010/11, the sides played a 2-2 draw there and in early 2008/09, Fulham came away with a surprise 1-0 win.

So, tricky fixture, this.

The Referee

The referee is West Midlands-based Andre Marriner, who this week was appointed referee for the FA Cup Final. It's a well-deserved appointment for Marriner, but he came under considerable criticism last season (and was dropped from top flight football for a long while) for a blunder that cost Wigan a match, allowing Blackburn to score from an illegal corner kick.

As for the teams involved here, surprisingly, Arsenal have only seen Andre Marriner in the middle once this season, in late January, for their 5-1 win over West Ham at the Emirates. That was the match in which Arsenal scored four goals in about 10 minutes. Arsenal matches with Marriner have been high scoring in recent memory, including the aforementioned 5-1, the 5-3 at Stamford Bridge last year, the 7-1 over Blackburn last year, and even a 4-3 loss to Blackburn last September as well.

Fulham have had Marriner twice this year: they lost at home to Swansea 2-1 on December 29 and beat Blackpool in extra time 2-1 in an FA Cup replay at Bloomfield Road on January 15.

Around the League
  • Saturday: Norwich City v. Reading; Carrow Road, Norwich
  • Saturday: Queens Park Rangers v. Stoke City; Loftus Road, London
  • Saturday: Sunderland v. Everton; Stadium of Light, Sunderland
  • Saturday: Swansea City v. Southampton; Liberty Stadium, Swansea
  • Saturday: West Bromwich Albion v. Newcastle United; The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
  • Saturday: West Ham United v. Wigan Athletic; Boleyn Ground, London
  • Sunday: Tottenham Hotspur v. Manchester City; White Hart Lane, London
  • Sunday: Liverpool v. Chelsea; Anfield, Liverpool
  • Monday: Manchester United v. Aston Villa; Old Trafford, Manchester

Arsenal 0-0 Everton: Reader's Digest Version

Admittedly, this match didn't have my entire attention - I was working from home today, so watched it off-and-on around conference calls and so on. What I did see though was a hard-fought match where neither side managed to carve out enough serious chances to lay a serious claim to all three points.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. This was always the second-trickiest fixture that we had left on paper, and I have a hard time believing that a point and a clean sheet is a bad return considering the circumstances.

Arsene played largely the same team as in the Norwich match, except with Per Mertesacker and Wojceich Szczesny returning from suspension and poor-form purgatory respectively. Much like the tilt against the Canaries, the Gunners were slow coming out of the blocks. Unlike that match, they were facing a determined opponent in decent form.

Everton's physicality seemed to shock our guys, and that lack of rhythm showed. Kevin Mirallas had an early chance go begging with a poor touch, and Steven Pienaar blazed over the bar when it was probably easier to score. The one man in blue who caught the eye though was young Ross Barkley, who was in the lineup due to an injury to Leon Osman. If today's game was any evidence, Osman may have a fight on his hands for his place.

Arsenal recovered from that early surge to contest the rest of the half on more even terms, though the midfield struggled to fashion chances. Gibbs was the closest to scoring, but let's just say Tim Howard wasn't overly threatened in the Everton goal.

How differently would this match have ended though if referee Neil Swarbick didn't completely bottle a clear second-yellow call towards the end of the first half? Darron Gibson had been booked earlier on, and his cynical, professional foul on Theo Walcott was a red card all day. Disgraceful officiating.

The visitors had arguably their best chance soon after. A glorious through-ball from Barkley played in Victor Anichebe, but a brilliant recovering tackle from Kieran Gibbs caused the ball to bobble off of Mertesacker, off of Szczesny, and from there was corralled by the Polish stopper. That so easily could have bounced back to the striker on another day, though I chalk that up to instant karma for the non-call on Gibson.

Arsenal would have the last word in the half though, though unfortunately that word would be "DAMMIT, Giroud!". No question about it, Olivier Giroud is in woeful form at the moment. The excellent Aaron Ramsey tore down the right and crossed it in. Howard was nowhere, but Giroud failed to simply toe-poke it in, instead directing it well wide. That should have been 1-0 to the Arsenal.

Seconds later, Cazorla was in alone after a devastating feint around several blue-clad defenders. Phil Jagielka bravely slid in to block, though.

Everton's impetus had bled away by that point, and the second half was largely dominated by the Arsenal. Cazorla had an early effort swatted away by Howard, and later Giroud almost got on the end of a low cross. Barkley again refused to be outshone though, and his fantastic curling effort flashed just wide of Szczesny's post.

That was enough for Arsene, who dipped into his subs bench immediately afterwards. Jack Wilshere and Walcott made way for Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The subs had an immediate impact, as we looked far more dangerous after the changes for the second match running.

Oxlade-Chamberlain didn't take too long to make his presence known, as he burst into the area thanks to a killer ball from Cazorla. He had a clear shot on goal, but maddeningly he opted for the pass to Giroud. The Everton defense easily cleared it, leaving us to wonder what would have happened if the Ox had tested a goalkeeper who hadn't seen that much action.

The visitors were reeling a bit now, and Giroud again could have made them pay a minute later. He was in alone on Howard, and while the angle was a little tough, he could have done a lot better than skying one miles over the bar.

Everton managed to get their bearings back though, and broke up our momentum with substitutions and some timely defensive interventions. Despite five minutes of injury time, Arsenal couldn't come up with one last chance to make Howard work in the opposing goal.

I think we can all agree that this is somewhat of an opportunity lost, considering the poor finishing on display. However, there are positives here - the defense looked sharp, Szczesny looked OK in goal despite not being tested that often, and we fashioned chances against a very good side who had everything to play for.  If we keep playing like this, the points will come. I promise.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Gibbs 7 (Monreal N/A), Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 7, Sagna 7, Arteta 7, Wilshere 7 (Podolski 7), Ramsey 8, Cazorla 8, Walcott 7 (Oxlade-Chamberlain 7), Giroud 5

 Man of the Match: While Ross Barkley was arguably the best player on the pitch, I'm sure as hell not giving the award to the enemy. Among the good guys, Aaron Ramsey had a great game but was slightly eclipsed by another virtuoso Santi Cazorla performance.

Arsenal 3-1 Norwich City: Never in Doubt

This match was a textbook example of how a scoreline doesn't always reflect how well or poorly a given team is playing. While luck almost always normalizes over a course of a full season, it doesn't always do so over the course of 90 minutes. Thankfully, that did happen here just in time to give Arsenal an unspeakably precious three points.

The boss made three changes from the last few weeks, two of them enforced. Thomas Vermaelen was in for the suspended Per Mertesacker, the returning Jack Wilshere in for the injured Tomas Rosicky, and Nacho Monreal was stood down in favor of Kieran Gibbs.

While Norwich aren't quite in the relegation dogfight yet, they aren't miles away either. That may have allowed a certain nervousness to creep into their play, as they erred too far on the side of defensiveness when they may have had more joy testing the BFG-less Arsenal backline.

Meanwhile, Arsenal controlled the play without seriously threatening Mark Bunn in the Norwich goal. You will hear a lot of talk about how poorly the Gunners played, but I think that misses the mark. The passing and movement were largely on point, it was often one final ball that just missed, or one player would make a poor decision (Gervinho, I'm looking at you) that would result in a turnover. It is fairly easy to tell when a team is legitimately playing poorly, and Arsenal were not exhibiting those signs.

The first legitimate scoring chance didn't come until the match was 22 minutes old, Olivier Giroud missing just over the bar from Bacary Sagna's cross. A word about the right back, while we're on the subject - he's had a run of poor form lately, but today he was excellent. His crossing was much improved and he effectively locked down his side of the pitch defensively.

Shortly after, the heavens opened up and in turn the playing conditions suffered. Perhaps that is why a glorious chance went begging when Gervinho was played in past the Canaries' backline. His first touch was poor, and took him out wide. He still managed to round Bunn, but he didn't cleanly strike the ball. It still was wide open on the back post, but Giroud was a bit lazy and hadn't followed through with his run. That should have been 1-0 to the Arsenal several times over.

There were some grumblings in the pub around this time, to which I reassured those around me that we would win. It's true - I never for one second thought that we would lose or even draw this match.

Halftime didn't change much, as Norwich continued to defend well with plenty of yellow shirts behind the ball. Arsenal continued to press but could not find the last link in the chain to fashion any chances. Still, it looked like Norwich was never going to score from open play. Sadly, our customary disorganization from set pieces did us in once again.

An innocuous Norwich attack led to them winning a set piece thanks to a needless foul from Gibbs (as bad as referee Mike Jones was - and make no mistake, he had a shocker - that was a foul all day). The resulting free kick was whipped into the area by Robert Snodgrass. Typically, our center-halves have often been at fault for goals we've conceded in these situations. That wasn't the case this time. The Norwich forwards did a great job of drawing them out to the sides, leaving the center of the penalty area open. Our midfielders didn't know who was marking who, allowing Michael Turner to nod an unmarked header past Lukasz Fabianski and in.

Even still, I felt like our goals were a matter of when, not if. The visitors had gotten a sucker-punch in, but they still had barely any of the ball and Arsenal still looked like they were just a slight alteration away from clicking offensively. To his credit, Arsene Wenger found that alteration with two immediate subs after the goal - the abysmal Gervinho and the knackered Wilshere were taken off for Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott.

Immediately, Arsenal had the threat down the flanks that had been missing. Although Podolski had some dreadful touches that ended a few attacking moves, his presence alone was enough to unsettle Norwich somewhat. Walcott was even more influential, as he wasted no time making rampaging runs down the right.

The visitors continued to hold their line though, and caused a scare themselves when Russell Martin found himself in alone on Fabianski. Thankfully, it was truly the finish of a fullback, thumped right into the Pole's breadbasket.

Inevitability hung in the air like a cloud though, and the Gunners came close when Podolski lashed a shot against the crossbar with Bunn beaten all ends-up. It only took a few further minutes for the equalizer to come, though.

A scramble in the penalty area looked to have been cleared by the Canaries, and Jones had not called anything. The linesman on that side flagged it down, as he had correctly spotted an egregious shirt-pull by Kei Kamara on Giroud. It was brave of the linesman to call it, but the real question is how did the better-placed Jones not spot it? Anyway, Mikel Arteta took the penalty, and in truth it wasn't a great one. Much like Fabianski last week, once Bunn had dived the right way he probably should have saved it. Thankfully it went in off of Bunn's glove, and Arsenal were level.

The tide was starting to roll in on Norwich, and the Gunners seized their first lead just a minute later. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had come on just before the first goal in place of Sagna, and the visitors had no answer for the influx of attacking players. Once the penalty went in, their defense went to pieces and Arsenal ripped them to shreds. The Ox tore down the wing and cut it back for Giroud to tap into the empty net.

Like I said, a matter of time.

However, it all could have been thrown away just a few seconds later. Few of the match reports will mention this as a major moment in the match, but Fabianski had to come up with a big save to deny Jonny Howson. Arsenal had switched off for a second, and the Norwich man took the opportunity to steal in and fire a hard, low shot. Fabianski did fantastically well to block with his feet, and luckily the rebound went out to safety.

That was clearly Norwich's last throw of the dice. But, there was still time for some wonderful irony, as Norwich's endless time-wasting in the second half resulted in six minutes of added time. All that bleeding of the clock managed to accomplish was to give Arsenal time to score a third. Theo was the provider, as he ran down the right and cut it back for Podolski. The German, who for some reason is rumored to be on his way out (let me state on record that it would be a mistake - and if he goes and Gervinho stays, I will absolutely lose my mind), collected the ball and hammered a low shot past the diving Bunn and in.

The win not only put us up into third place, but it knocked our nearest and dearest out of the top four. Does it get any sweeter than that?

There's still a long way to go, and a lot of business to be taken care of in the meantime. Things are looking pretty good at this stage of the season, though. Arsenal are finding ways to get it done even when things are not going well, while our rivals are stumbling. We're not there yet, but we damn sure can see it on the horizon.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Fabianski 8, Gibbs 6, Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 7, Sagna 8 (Oxlade-Chamberlain 7), Arteta 7, Wilshere 7 (Walcott 8), Gervinho 5 (Podolski 7), Cazorla 7, Ramsey 7, Giroud 8

Man of the Match:  I thought about this one for a while. Giroud had a storming game, especially in the second half. Sagna did very well, and Arteta did step up when it mattered (though I thought he was average besides). At the end of the day though, the Norwich defense looked comfortable up until the exact moment that Theo Walcott stepped onto the pitch. His first touch of the ball was a surging run down the right that visibly unsettled our opponents, and that is when we started seeing space open for our other players as well.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Norwich City / Arsenal v. Everton

Emirates Stadium, London
Saturday, April 13
10:00 a.m. EDT, 15:00 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Jones
    • Assistants: Peter Kirkup and Richard West
    • 4th Official: Fred Graham
  • Reverse Fixture: Norwich 1 - 0 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 3 - 3 Norwich
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 23 Arsenal wins, 11 Norwich wins, 18 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-L-W-W-W
  • Norwich's League Form: W-L-D-D-L-D
  • Weather: Mostly Cloudy, 13 C / 56 F

Emirates Stadium, London
Tuesday, April 16
2:45 p.m. EDT, 19:45 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Neil Swarbrick
    • Assistants: Gary Beswick and Lee Betts
    • 4th Official: Kevin Friend
  • Reverse Fixture: Everton 1 - 1 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 1 - 0 Everton
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 98 Arsenal wins, 58 Everton wins, 42 draws
  • Everton's League Form: L-L-W-W-W-D
  • Weather: Partly Cloudy, Low of 6 C / 43 F
Two previews in one this week, because I'll be on vacation in Montreal from this morning through Wednesday and Arsenal will play twice while I'm there.

As for matters on the pitch, Arsenal have seven games remaining, and they'll play two of them in a span of four days. The good news is, both are at the Emirates. There's not much else to say that hasn't been said already; Arsenal have to keep the good form going as they challenge for a spot in the top four. There's plenty of time to make a move, but there's also plenty of time to slip up. Two wins in these two matches would be huge to kick off the final five game push.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Diaby (knee)
Doubts: Rosicky (hamstring), Walcott (pelvis), Wilshere (ankle)
Suspended: Mertesacker (one match)

Theo Walcott has declared himself fit and ready for selection, which begs the question: does he return to the starting XI straight away? I feel like the prevailing answer among the fan base right now is no. You will recall that Walcott was out-of-form before his injury and has not scored a goal since the end of January. With Gervinho finding the slightest bit of form, I think it makes the most sense for Theo to return from the bench.

Tomas Rosicky, man of the match against West Brom, is a huge doubt with a hamstring problem, so Jack Wilshere (who is now back in training) could return to the XI. Meanwhile, Per Mertesacker serves a one match ban for his professional foul red card, meaning Thomas Vermaelen must return to the side.

Predicted XI v. Norwich: Fabianski, Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Monreal, Arteta, Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla, Gervinho, Giroud.

Norwich Squad News

Out: Bunn (groin), Surman (knee)
Doubts: Ruddy (thigh), Pilkington (hamstring)

Norwich have had issues with their goalkeepers as of late. John Ruddy has not played since November with a thigh injury, in which the muscle was ripped from the bone. He is back in training (and played for the reserves on Monday) and his back-up, Mark Bunn, left last week's match against Swansea with a groin injury. It sounds like this would be too quick for a return for Ruddy, so if Bunn is unavailable, Lee Camp will have to start.

Andrew Surman has missed most of the season with a knee injury he suffered in training; he returned for Norwich's FA Cup loss to Luton Town, but was subbed off after 72 minutes and has not featured since.

Anthony Pilkington is a doubt; he has not played due to a hamstring injury since March 9.

Everton Squad News

Out: Hibbert (calf)

Everton, at least at the moment leading into their weekend match with QPR, have only one injury: club legend Tony Hibbert has been out since December with a calf injury.

That's it. I have nothing else to say about Everton right now.

Current Form

Arsenal's win over West Brom marked their fourth straight victory across all competitions. It might come as a bit of a surprise, but this is the first time all season Arsenal have done that. In addition, the loss to Tottenham is the only blemish on Arsenal's league record since their draw with Liverpool in late January. 15 points from their last six games means they are the joint-top in form side in the league, thanks to United's loss to City on Monday.

As for Norwich, well, they have one win from their last 15 in the league. Then again, Arsenal gave them their first win of the season in October. That kicked off a run where the Canaries were unbeaten in 10, which included a 1-0 win over Manchester United. Since then, one win from 15. Norwich went from 19th to 7th, then back as low as 14th, and now sit in 13th, just four points above the relegation line.

Everton are coming on strong and are unbeaten in four (incidentally, their last loss was Norwich.) They have beaten Reading, City (while on ten men,) and Stoke, then blew a lead late to draw Tottenham. The Toffees sit four points back of fifth place Arsenal. Everton's 13 draws on the season is the most among teams in the top half of the table.

Match Facts

Arsenal have struggled with the Canaries since their promotion to the top flight, winning once, losing once, and drawing once. The loss came earlier this year in the reverse fixture, as Vito Mannone parried a shot weakly into the path of Grant Holt, who buried the rebound into the net in the 19th minute. Arsenal had 62% of the possession, but could not find the net.

This match last year all but killed Arsenal's hopes for third place (until Tottenham dropped points themselves the next day.) Arsenal led early thanks to a Yossi Benayoun goal, but Wes Hoolahan equalized ten minutes later and Grant Holt put the Canaries ahead in the 27th. A certain former captain scored twice for Arsenal in the 72nd and 80th minutes to regain the lead, but Norwich were level again five minutes later through Steve Morison. Anthony Taylor failed to give Arsenal a penalty in added time when that same former captain was shoved in the box by Kyle Naughton.

As for Arsenal and Everton, the sides played a 1-1 draw at Goodison Park in late November: Theo Walcott scored 51 seconds into the match, but Marouane Fellaini drew the Toffees level on 28 minutes. Everton had the slight advantage over much of the proceedings, to the tune of 53% possession, but the Gunners escaped Liverpool with a point. Arsenal won this fixture last year 1-0, thanks to a superb volley from aforementioned former captain. Arsenal are unbeaten in their last 11 against Everton, whose last win over the Gunners was on March 18, 2007 by a 1-0 scoreline.

The Referees

The referee for the Norwich match on Saturday is Chester-based Mike Jones. Arsenal have seen Jones twice this season; both matches were at the Emirates and both were Arsenal wins. They include the 6-1 win over Coventry City in the League Cup and the 2-0 win over West Brom which included two penalties, including the first from a controversial Santi Cazorla tumble. Norwich have seen Jones three times and have not won. They lost 5-2 to Liverpool at Carrow Road, drew 1-1 against Everton at Goodison Park, and lost 4-3 to ten man Manchester City (after Samir Nasri was sent off.)

The referee for the Everton match on Tuesday is Lancashire-based Neil Swarbrick. Arsenal have not seen Swarbrick this year; Everton have seen him twice and drawn both (2-2 at Fulham and 0-0 at Southampton.) Arsenal had Swarbrick twice last year and won both (2-1 at Sunderland (thank you, Thierry Henry) and 3-0 at Wolves.)

Around the League
  • Saturday: Aston Villa v. Fulham; Villa Park, Birmingham
  • Saturday: Everton v. Queens Park Rangers; Goodison Park, Liverpool
  • Saturday: Reading v. Liverpool; Madejski Stadium, Reading
  • Saturday: Southampton v. West Ham United; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Saturday (FA Cup): Millwall v. Wigan Athletic; Wembley Stadium, London
  • Sunday: Newcastle United v. Sunderland; St. James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • Sunday: Stoke City v. Manchester United; Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent
  • Sunday (FA Cup): Chelsea v. Manchester City; Wembley Stadium, London
  • Wednesday: Manchester City v. Wigan Athletic; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
  • Wednesday: West Ham United v. Manchester United; Boleyn Ground, London
  • Wednesday: Fulham v. Chelsea; Craven Cottage, London

West Bromwich Albion 1-2 Arsenal: Nerve-Wracking

Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnd, exhale.

This was undoubtedly a match that Arsenal could not lose in the race for fourth place. Two well-taken goals and a staunch late-game defensive stand ensured that all three points came back with us from the Hawthorns, continuing a solid run of good form in the league. 

 Arsene Wenger continued with the same 11 that saw off Reading last week, while surprisingly Steve Clarke left Romelu Lukaku on the bench. Albion are a decent side even in his absence though, and controlled much of the early exchanges. While the Baggies couldn't find an early goal, they did expose a few cracks in what had been a solid back five in recent matches.

Laurent Koscielny, who has been excellent lately, was a bit lucky to head over the bar with Lukasz Fabianski much better placed to catch it. The keeper gave him an earful afterwards, and rightfully so. Soon after, Claudio Yacob's unmarked header from a corner kick was on the frame, but Tomas Rosicky was there to head it off the line.

Specific mention has to go to Bacary Sagna though, who was absolutely putrid on both sides of the ball. His crossing was horrendous, he looked miles off the pace and (as usual for our fullbacks) he often drifted too far inside. Count me in among those who think the boss needs to seriously consider starting Carl Jenkinson next week. Sagna's been a solid hand these last few years, but he has all the look of someone who knows he's off in the summer and has subsequently lost his motivation.

Our opponents didn't have it all their own way though, and for all their decent play they found themselves down a goal at the 20' mark. Would you believe that Gervinho was the architect once again? He collected the ball on the left wing and went for a nice, mazy dribble into the penalty area. The Brom defenders stood off of him, seemingly trying to goad him into a bad pass. Instead, a quick feint gave him space to send in what looked like a shot. The home defenders were horribly static, ball-watching when they should have been limiting Gervinho's options. Rosicky read it perfectly, and timed his run to perfection. His header was against the grain, wrong-footing Ben Foster in the Albion goal.

That excellent team effort had given us the lead, but that only made Brom redouble their efforts. They won a free kick outside the penalty area, and for me Fabianski set up his wall poorly with only three men, and Santi Cazorla being the right-most one (the problem here is that you have your smallest man defending the area you're going for if you're shooting for the near top corner). Chris Brunt took it, and outsmarted the wall by shooting low as they jumped. Fabianski was going the other way, but did fantastically well to get back across and hold on to the shot. Brilliant keeping from the Pole, there.

Actually, the keepers had a bit of a duel going in the first half - Foster doing well to block a Gervinho shot with his legs, Fabianski countering with a nice catch from a deflected Graham Dorrans cross. Again, early wobbles on high balls aside, he put in a confident display between the sticks.

Aaron Ramsey was another that played well, as he showed a much-improved range of passing and intelligence of movement. That said, he managed a quite astonishing miss late in the first half that luckily did not prove as costly as it could have. Cazorla played Rosicky into acres of space in the middle (Brom's defensive spacing was a bit muddled all day), and he played it up to Giroud. The big Frenchman chested it down to Santi, whose pass back was perfect.  Giroud back-heeled it into the center of the area, onto Ramsey's left foot. Had he took it first time, the Welshman would have scored - Foster had lost his footing and was out of the play. Instead, he shifted to his right, which allowed Billy Jones time to get back and challenge him from behind. Ramsey had to rush the shot, and he toe-poked it wide of the post.

To their credit, the Gunners rebounded from that disappointment and took control early in the second half. A one-two between Sagna and Gervinho saw the former with a decent shot on goal from a tough angle, but Foster had come out well to cut off the angle. He was down for a while after making the save though, and I believe that ended up as a massive turning point in the match. 

A few minutes later, Brunt turned the ball over in our half, and Arsenal countered at pace. Two quick passes gave Ramsey the run of the right wing. Rosicky once again destroyed his marker with a well-timed run, opening space in the penalty area. His first shot was right at Foster, but he could only awkwardly bat it away. He was then very slow getting to the rebound - Rosicky beat him to it and put away his own rebound. It was horrific defending from Brom, but even worse keeping. It made me think Foster was still feeling the effects of that knock - but given how huge this goal was for our ambitions, I can't say I'm overwhelmed with sympathy.

The home side kept fighting though, and might have clawed one back when Long found James Morrison in the penalty area. Per Mertesacker fell as he tried to follow him, but still somehow managed to scramble it away.

Evil portents were in the air though, as the Baggies began to put Arsenal under sustained pressure. A long ball to Brunt left our high backline for dead, with Mertesacker especially slow to get back. Brunt's bad-angle shot was awkward to deal with, but Fabianski dealt with it well in saving with his legs. It also bears mentioning that Sagna was absolutely nowhere at that point, far behind the play and not exactly busting a lung to try and get there.

Disaster may have been averted there, but it came calling again a few minutes later. Another long ball resulted in our defenders being caught up too high again. Mertesacker was again slow to get back, and this time Long was going to be in alone on Fabianski. The BFG had to go for the slide tackle, but didn't time it right and out came the red card (Quick aside: Not to be contrarian, but Howard Webb had an exceptional game. Sorry, but it's true). Morrison took the penalty, and in truth it was a ghastly one. Fabianski had dived the right way, but he actually got too high into the air and only grazed the shot with his leg on its way in. As good as a game as he had overall, he had to save that one - on a penalty kick, you have to concede that any good high shot is going in. All you can do is pick a side and take away the low shot in that direction.

Since I'm on that subject, a quick observation - Fabianski has improved tremendously and has done so at the right time for us. But, long-term, I insist that he is not the answer in goal for us. The ideal strategy for me would be to get a solid age 34-to-36 keeper to be the No. 1 for one season or at most two, with Wojceich Szczesny playing in the cups and learning from the older guy.

Anyway, needless to say, Arsenal were well under the cosh after going down to 10 men. The Baggies had their tails up, and were looking to take advantage of Thomas Vermaelen coming into the game. Gervinho was sacrificed, the intention clearly being to bunker at that point. At the time, I felt it was far too early to do so, and frankly only some woeful finishing from the home side allowed us to get away with it.

Lukaku in particular tormented us after the red, having come on earlier for Dorrans. Sagna was nothing resembling a match for him, and he often had the time and space to do exactly as he wished. Koscielny also continued his up-and-down play. He made some timely blocks and interceptions along the way, but was badly out-jumped on a corner kick in the 80th minute by Gareth McCauley. Thankfully, he lashed a towering header wide of the post.

Arsene continued to shore up the defense, with Rosicky coming off for Kieran Gibbs. Ten minutes is a long time to bunker, but at least he went all-in with his chosen strategy. 

The Baggies should have equalized four minutes later, though. Nacho Monreal allowed Billy Jones to get his cross into the box, but our center-halves did well to close down Morrison. The ball took an unusual deflection out to Lukaku on the left, who was completely unmarked? Why, you ask? Well, that would be because Sagna decided to drift inside (where two men were already all over Morrison) instead of marking the back post (which was, you know, his job and stuff). Lady Luck was adorned in red and white again though, as Lukaku's composure failed him. NORAD is now tracking the shot, as it reached low Earth orbit.

Speaking of launching satellites, it was Long's turn soon after. The Baggies were really turning the screw now, and it was Lukaku at the heart of it again. He took advantage of his now customary time and space and combined with Liam Ridgewell to find Long open in the penalty area. Long could only do his Lukaku impersonation though, another chance frittered away.

It wasn't all Brom failing, though. Jones (who was easily their best player on the day) played in the substitute Markus Rosenberg. Fabianski was super sharp to come off his line and timed his dive at the Swede's feet to perfection.

All hands were now emphatically to the pumps, and additional help came as Francis Coquelin was thrown on in place of Cazorla. The Arsenal defense held though, even when temporarily down to 9 men when Giroud limped off. What felt like eons passed, but finally Webb blew his whistle and the day was ours.

We are now one point behind the now Bale-less nearest and dearest, having played the same amount of games. Chelsea is a point behind, and they play their game in hand today against Sunderland. Whisper it, but Manchester City are only six points ahead, and their game in hand is the derby against United (which I predict that they will lose).

There's still a long way to go, and many points that need to be earned. So far, so good though.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Fabianski 7, Monreal 7, Koscielny 6, Mertesacker 5, Sagna 3, Arteta 7, Ramsey 7, Gervinho 8 (Vermaelen 7), Rosicky 8 (Gibbs 7), Cazorla 8 (Coquelin N/A), Giroud 7

Man of the Match:  There have been quite a few Gooners who have been clamoring for Tomas Rosicky to play more all season long. Those Gooners are extremely smart individuals.

Preview by Numbers: West Bromwich Albion v. Arsenal

The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
Saturday, April 6
10:00 a.m. EDT, 15:00 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Howard Webb
    • Assistants: Darren Cann and Adrian Holmes
    • 4th Official: Lee Probert
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 2 - 0 West Brom
  • This Match, Last Year: West Brom 2 - 3 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 64 Arsenal wins, 36 West Brom wins, 29 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-W-L-W-W
  • West Brom's League Form: W-W-L-W-D-L
  • Weather: Mostly Sunny, 7 C / 44 F
59.9%. Arsenal's odds of finishing Top Four are now just a hair below 60%. Of course, those odds are a little longer than Chelsea's (70.2%) or Tottenham's (61.8%). But, the odds are better than 50/50 with eight games to play.

Four of those eight games are on the road, and of them, West Brom has the best home record, with 29 points (Newcastle has 25, Fulham has 24, QPR has 13). That means three points tomorrow would be a significant hurdle moving forward. Arsenal still needs help from the Chelsea and/or Spurs to drop points, so the Gunners can't take their foot off the gas pedal now.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Diaby (knee)
Doubts: Walcott (pelvis), Wilshere (ankle)

This Nacho doesn't even have knees!
There appears to be not much difference in terms of who was available last week and who is available this week. There is "an outside" chance Theo Walcott and/or Jack Wilshere could return, but I would not expect it. Both returned to light training this week.

Nacho Monreal left last week's game with a knee injury, but he has been declared fit for tomorrow. As a result, I see almost no reason to tinker with the starting XI, even if it does mean more of the "which Gervinho are we going to get?" game. Unless Monreal drops for Kieran Gibbs, which is equally plausible.

Wow, this section looks empty when there aren't a ton of players hurt; I suppose that's a good thing.

Predicted XI: Fabianski, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal, Arteta, Ramsey, Rosicky, Cazorla, Gervinho, Giroud.

West Brom Squad News

Out: Thorne (knee), Gera (knee)
Doubts: Morrison (hamstring)
Suspended: Mulumbu (first of three)

Oh, not this James Morrison...
Team news is light for West Brom as well, which is making for very quick writing of this preview, I must say. The only doubt is Scottish midfielder James Morrison, who has not played since picking up a hamstring injury against Stoke just before the international break.

The Baggies have two long-term injuries, as both George Thorne and Zoltan Gera are out for the season with ACL injuries. Youssouf Mulumbu starts serving a three match ban for the red card he picked up last week against West Ham.

Since this section is so empty, the following is some things I learned about the city of West Bromwich: The Latin motto on the town coat of arms translates to "Work Conquers All," but we all know that all work and no play makes West Brom something something, the town was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Bromwic, or "broom village", and it's the largest town in the U.K. without its own Royal Mail postcode.

Current Form

Not only was Mulumbu's sent off last week, but West Brom
somehow allowed Andy Carroll to score twice...
Since that week in February where Arsenal decided to crash out of two competitions by losing at home to Blackburn and Bayern, and aside from that couple of minutes in Tottenham in early March, things are clicking along pretty nicely for Arsenal. They have won six of their last eight in the league and remain in some measure of striking distance for the Top Four Trophy. But, you probably know that story already.

As for West Brom, you may recall that they had a high flying start to the season (they were in third at one point in late November!) Since then, they have tumbled as far as ninth, after a stretch through the beginning of February that including one draw and no wins in six matches. They righted the ship a bit to win three of four after that, but since then have drawn Stoke and last week lost to West Ham 3-1 at Upton Park. The Baggies are now 8th in the table with 44 points. They look to be coasting to a comfortable mid-table finish.

Match Facts

Saint Marton of Fulop eased Arsenal's passage to third place.
After two Almunia-related debacles in 2010/11, Arsenal have won three straight against the Baggies. Last year, Arsenal won comfortably 3-0 at the Emirates and 3-2 at the Hawthorns, a bonkers final day of the season match in which, as you may recall, Marton Fulop was the hero for Arsenal. Also, that Kieran Gibbs slide tackle. Also, Santos scored.

Arsenal won 2-0 in the reverse fixture at the Emirates in December, a match played after losing to Swansea but before losing to Bradford City. The Gunners scored both goals from the penalty spot on that day, with Arteta converting in the 26th and 64th minutes. There was quite a bit of controversy regarding whether Santi Cazorla dove to draw the first penalty, but you should also remember that Arsenal dominated the entirety of the match and West Brom never really threatened to score.

Arsenal had won five straight against West Brom prior to 2010/11; they have now won eight of their last ten against the Baggies. West Brom's last win over Arsenal at the Hawthorns was in 2005.

The Referee

Howard Webb duck face.
The referee is South Yorkshire-based Howard Webb. You might have heard of him.

Arsenal have seen Webb three times this season, winning twice and drawing once. They won 2-0 at Liverpool with Webb in the middle in early September, beat Tottenham 5-2 in November, thanks to Emmanuel Adebayor's red card, and drew Swansea 2-2 in the FA Cup at the Liberty Stadium in January. Arsenal are unbeaten in their last four matches with Webb in the middle.

Oddly, this is the first time Howard Webb will work a West Brom match in over two years. I'm not really even sure how something like that happens. The last time Webb was in the middle for the Baggies, they lost 2-0 at Bolton on Boxing Day in 2010.

Around the League

I think we all know what the biggest game in this list is... that's right, Stoke and Villa... 
  • Saturday (early): Reading v. Southampton; Madejski Stadium, Reading
  • Saturday: Norwich City v. Swansea City; Carrow Road, Norwich
  • Saturday: Stoke City v. Aston Villa; Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent
  • Sunday (early): Liverpool v. West Ham United; Anfield, Liverpool
  • Sunday: Tottenham Hotspur v. Everton; White Hart Lane, London
  • Sunday: Chelsea v. Sunderland; Stamford Bridge, London
  • Sunday: Newcastle United v. Fulham; St. James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • Sunday (late): Queens Park Rangers v. Wigan Athletic; Loftus Road, London
  • Monday (night): Manchester United v. Manchester City; Old Trafford, Manchester