Preview by Numbers: Newcastle United v. Arsenal

St. James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne
Sunday, December 29
8:30 a.m. EST, 13:30 GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Lee Probert
    • Assistants: Ian Hussin and Mark Scholes
    • 4th Official: Andre Marriner
  • This Match, Last Year: Newcastle 0 - 1 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 68 Arsenal wins, 66 Newcastle wins, 38 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-D-L-D-W
  • Newcastle's League Form: W-L-W-D-W-W
  • Weather: Clear, 5 C / 41 F
Conveniently, Theo Walcott is back and scoring, now that
Olivier Giroud has forgotten how to strike again.
Apologies for the lack of Boxing Day match preview, though I will point out that Arsenal now have a record of "1 win" in matches where I have not written a preview. The reason was that this holiday has been busier than normal for me; I hope you and yours have had a lovely holiday period so far. The glut of fixtures continues, as it does every holiday; Arsenal play three times in the next seven days before eight days off.

If you've read Tim Stillman's column on Arseblog this week, I strongly agree with his assessment that titles are won through damage limitation; you can't avoid the blip for an entire season, it's a matter of making sure that blip doesn't turn into a tailspin. Arsenal found themselves on the brink of that tailspin when down 1-0 at Upton Park on Thursday, having already gone three winless in the League. When Aaron Ramsey left through injury things looked dire, but substitute Lukas Podolski, in his first appearance since August, stole the show. Arsenal were arguably on the edge of the cliff when the substitution was made. Now, they're top of the league again and a win today against Newcastle means Arsenal will continue to be at the summit as the season reaches its halfway point.

It's a big match against an in-form side in Newcastle and Arsenal will do well to get their title run re-started with three points today.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Ramsey (thigh,) Sanogo (back,) Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee,) Diaby (knee)
Doubts: Koscielny (gash)

Jack Wilshere prepares to attack from the
The damage from Thursday is that Aaron Ramsey will be out for the remainder of the Christmas period with a thigh injury, the extent of which is not certain yet, though I've heard it could be up to a month. Conveniently, the center of midfield is where Arsenal actually does have strength in numbers; there are plenty of men that are ready to step in. Jack Wilshere returns from his two match ban and might step straight back into the line-up with Ramsey now sidelined.

Arsene Wenger will have to keep rotation in mind as well, considering they have played twice in the past week and have three more matches in the coming week. There's a question of whether Laurent Koscielny will return; it would be certainly useful to have fresh, if a bit gashed, legs in the center of defense against a team like Newcastle that likes to get forward. The Frenchman did appear on numerous training photographs on the Arsenal Web site yesterday, indicating that he is likely available for selection.

It's "as you were" with the rest of the side; I'd be more likely to start the usual bench players on Wednesday against Cardiff than against a more threatening Newcastle side. Wenger will have to choose between Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, and Jack Wilshere in the deep-lying midfield roles and between Lukas Podolski, Tomas Rosicky, and Santi Cazorla on the left wing. Not bad questions to have, even without the Welshman. Alternatively, he could give Olivier Giroud a rest and start Podolski centrally with Cazorla wide. I would suspect Giroud to be rested at some point, though more likely against Cardiff for reasons I outlined above.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Arteta, Wilshere, Podolski, Walcott, Ozil, Giroud.

Newcastle Squad News

Out: Taylor (knee)
Doubts: Gutierrez (calf)

I don't think Gene Hackman will start
for Pardew's side.
Holding midfielder Cheick Tiote returns from a one-match ban for accumulation for Alan Pardew's side, though they hardly needed him to control a Stoke side that imploded with two red cards. Newcastle have no new injury concerns after that match: Jonas Gutierrez faces a late fitness test as he returns from a calf problem, while Ryan Taylor is out long term with a knee injury.

Arsenal will have to be wary of Newcastle's French connection up top, with Loic Remy playing ahead of Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa, and Yoan Gouffran. With Mathieu Debuchy at right back and Moussa Sissoko in one of the holding roles along with Tiote, Newcastle will likely have six French starters in their XI. Arsenal, meanwhile, only have six French players in their entire first team, and that includes the injured Yaya Sanogo and Abou Diaby. By further comparison, Paris St. Germain had only two French players in their starting XI against Lille in their last match.

Predicted XI: Krul, Debuchy, Williamson, Coloccini, Santon, Sissoko, Tiote, Ben Arfa, Gouffran, Cabaye, Remy.

Current Form

Newcastle ran rampant over an imploding Stoke City on
Boxing Day.
As mentioned earlier, Arsenal's comeback in East London prevented their blip from reaching a full-on tailspin; the Gunners had gone winless in their last four matches across all competitions for the first time since November-December of 2012, a string which also included two losses (Swansea and Olympiacos) and two draws (Aston Villa and Everton.) This was also the first time Arsenal had gone three league matches without a win since January. Arsenal have had a habit of struggling in January over the last two seasons, winning only once in eight league matches in the calendar's first month in 2012 and 2013. Of course, it's still December right now, so forget I said that and I'll just bring it up again on Wednesday in the Cardiff preview.

Newcastle are in quite the purple patch of their own, however. Since a week which saw them lose the Tyne-Wear derby to last place Sunderland, then crash out of the League Cup to Manchester City days later, the Magpies have lost just once, 3-0 to Swansea on December 4 in a midweek fixture. They have won seven and drawn one in that nine match span. They have scalped wins from the likes of Chelsea (2-0,) Tottenham Hotspur (1-0,) and Manchester United (1-0.) The in-form streak has helped Newcastle climb from 11th to 6th in the table. They spent Boxing Day trouncing nine-man Stoke, 5-1.

Match Facts

Laurent Koscielny celebrates his goal at Newcastle last
year, which sealed Champions League football for the boys
in red and white.
Arsenal opened the 2011/12 season on Tyneside against Newcastle in a game that ended 0-0, from which Joey Barton was able to finagle two Arsenal players, Gervinho and Alex Song, into three match bans. That Arsenal squad, two weeks prior to the debacle at Old Trafford, was so different from the one they would evolve into even later in that season that it's hard to even remember what else happened in that game, aside from Barton's antics. Even still, seven of Arsenal's starters that day remain with the club (Szczesny, Gibbs, Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Rosicky, and Ramsey.)

Since that match, which was the first meeting between the sides after the unpleasantness, Arsenal have won all three meetings with Newcastle. Later in the 2011/12, Arsenal won 2-1 at the Emirates after a 95th minute winner from Vermaelen, a goal which came so late due to Tim Krul's time wasting throughout the match.

On this very day last year, December 29, Arsenal hit seven past Newcastle, including a Theo Walcott hat trick and an Olivier Giroud brace from the bench. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski had the other goals for Arsenal; Demba Ba had a brace and Sylvain Marveaux scored the other for Newcastle in a match that ended 7-3. Their last meeting on Tyneside came in the final day of last season, as Laurent Koscielny gave Arsenal a 1-0 win, clinching fourth place ahead of Tottenham Hotspur. I suppose I can make one last "1-1 at Newcastle" joke here.

Newcastle have not beaten Arsenal since Andy Carroll headed in a winner from a first half set piece in a 1-0 win at the Emirates on November 7, 2010.

The Referee

Lee Probert hugs a camouflaged Clint Dempsey. God, I
forgot how bad those Fulham kits were.
The referee is Wiltshire-based Lee Probert. Arsenal have had Probert once this season, for their 4-1 win over Norwich City. Prior to that match, Arsenal had been winless in their last five with Probert, including a 1-1 draw at Southampton on New Year's Day 2013, a 1-0 loss at Norwich last October, a 2-1 loss at Fulham on January 2, 2012 (there's something about Lee Probert and Arsenal this close to New Year's,) a League Cup loss to Manchester City, and a 2-2 draw at Wigan three years ago today (again, there's something about New Year's.)

Newcastle have also seen Probert once this year and lost in the Tyne-Wear derby, 2-1 to Sunderland. The Toon had a record of one win (over QPR last May,) one draw (with Aston Villa last September,) and one loss (to Brighton in the FA Cup) with Probert last season.

Around the League
  • Saturday (early): West Ham United 3 - 3 West Bromwich Albion
  • Saturday: Aston Villa 1 - 1 Swansea City
  • Saturday: Hull City 6 - 0 Fulham
  • Saturday: Manchester City 1 - 0 Crystal Palace
  • Saturday: Norwich City 0 - 1 Manchester United
  • Saturday (late): Cardiff City 2 - 2 Sunderland
  • Sunday (early): Everton v. Southampton; Goodison Park, Liverpool
  • Sunday (late): Tottenham Hotspur v. Stoke City; White Hart Lane, London
  • Sunday (late): Chelsea v. Liverpool; Stamford Bridge, London

West Ham United 1-3 Arsenal: A Fortuitous Substitution

Sometimes, those "substitution" things can change a result for the about that?

We get ahead of ourselves, though.

Coming off a string of poor results capped by a dispiriting draw against a beatable Chelsea side, this felt like a must-win fixture for the Gunners. Factor in today's weak opponents, and there is an argument that defeat was not an option for a side with title aspirations.

Admittedly, I was surprised to see that only one change was made from the eleven that played all 90 minutes against the Chavs three short days ago - Santi Cazorla came in for Tomas Rosicky. Given that teamsheet, I wasn't shocked that the same almost-eleven spent the first half sleepwalking through one of the more jaded displays I've seen in quite some time.

Don't get me wrong...I'm not having a go at the players. These guys have all played a ton of minutes this season, and were only a few days removed from one of the more physically and mentally-draining fixtures we'll play this season. Still, West Ham have not turned into a decent side overnight - the gaps were there but the Arsenal simply didn't have the verve or the spirit to take advantage.

It's a shame, too, as the Hammers' backline were in utter disarray. James Collins was off-kilter to begin with before withdrawing due to injury, and Joey O'Brien was booked early after being torched for pace by the excellent Kieran Gibbs. This was a defense begging to be torn open. I can't help feeling like a different team selection may have had the matter settled by halftime.

As it was, the first stanza sprung to life just as time was winding down - Mikel Arteta flashed an effort just the wrong side of the post, while Kevin Nolan might have done better with his chance right at the death. Thankfully for us, Wojciech Szczesny darted off his line and put him off just enough.

We Gooners could be forgiven for assuming that our boys would kick on and take it to the home side after the interval. Instead, a horrendous error from Szczesny gifted them the lead before the pond life at the Boleyn Ground could return to their seats. Arsenal were in disarray to begin with when Szczesny spilled a tame shot from Mark Noble. Carlton Cole - who had a pretty good game for them if we're being fair - was there to bundle home the rebound.

I will be honest with you, reader. I thought we were toast at that point. I figured that the team would be too dispirited, that Wenger would wait until it was far too late to make substitutions (if at all), that a suddenly-enervated West Ham side would spur themselves on for three desperately-needed points...much like Sunderland and Crystal Palace did in their games today.

It almost happened, too. The Hammers had a few chances to put us away right after they scored - thankfully, O'Brien just missed with a thumping header and Cole diverted wide when it may have been easier to score.

That was their chance, and they blew it. Our reply came when an unfortunate injury to Aaron Ramsey forced Arsene's hand into bringing on Lukas Podolski. Ramsey had, for the third or fourth game running, offered little going forward against a packed enemy defense. Much of his success this season has been on the counter with the opposition stretched, not when they are massed in two banks of four. So, while I hope he's OK and available for selection again soon, it also was in one sense the best thing that could have happened to us on the day.

A quick aside regarding the esteemed Mr. Podolski, if I may. It drove me utterly insane that he never came on against Chelsea, and it would have done had he not come on today. At times, Poldi can be a luxury player - he drifts through matches on occasion and he's hardly diligent in defense. But, what he is more than anything else is a pit fighter. He has little use when our elegant, flowing football is on point...but when we need someone to get into the dirty areas and hit them with a sledgehammer when graceful ripostes aren't working, he's our man. End of.

He didn't stand on ceremony, either. He came onto the field in the 64th minute, tested Adrian in the West Ham goal in the 65th, we equalized in the 67th, and took the lead in the 70th. All he did was come into the game and shift it entirely off its axis.

We do have to spare a kind word for Adrian as well, though. Clearly, both keepers were in the Christmas gift-giving spirit as the Spaniard's howler was every inch as bad as Szczesny's. Theo Walcott, who had been something beyond useless up until that point, found some room between West Ham's lines and scuffed a shot on net. It looked like Adrian lost sight of it briefly, as it somehow went right through him and in. I don't exaggerate when I say that had he stopped that, we may have lost the game.

He didn't though, and it clearly wilted his teammates' self-belief while simultaneously spurring us on. No prizes for guessing who the architect of the second was, Podolski's direct running and fabulous cross gifting Walcott his second goal on a plate. Six minutes later, Poldi got the goal he richly deserved with an unstoppable low drive into the far corner.

Let's all resolve to remember this match and how important these three points were if we do go on to challenge for the title, shall we?

Obviously, the result was a massive one and we should revel in our festive good cheer. However, we have a tricky visit to St. James' Park on Sunday, followed almost immediately by a home match with Cardiff on New Year's Day. As we head into those matches, there are some negatives to go along with today's good works.

For one thing, Olivier Giroud was dreadful once again. He was again guilty of spurning a few half-chances badly, failing to so much as get anything on net. He more than anyone else in the side looks jaded and exhausted, and I am officially going on record to say that I'd start Nicklas Bendtner against Newcastle if it were up to me. The Danish Samurai looked lively in his sub appearance today, and Giroud could do with the reminder that no one's place in the team is secure.

The other side of the coin though is that Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker look to be on the same page and in good form. We knew about the BFG of course, and he was excellent once again for us in defense. I was more worried about his partner, but TV5 has shaken off some early yips to look fairly solid alongside Mert. I don't know exactly how long Laurent Koscielny is going to be out, but we are going to depend on the Belgian to see us through until that day. 

Also, Santi Cazorla looked far better than he has in recent matches, and is another who can say that a short spell on the sidelines did him the world of good. He wasn't entirely his old magical self on the day, but the green shoots were there. He did well to retain possession on more than one occasion, and he was one of the few whose passes had any conviction behind them in the early going. Mesut Ozil is going to have to sit for one of these upcoming games, you feel...a fit and firing Cazorla will be vital to provide us with that little bit extra to unlock determined defenses.

All of that is a worry for another day, though. I sincerely hope that you had a fantastic Christmas (or whatever else you may celebrate), and I hope you enjoyed today's three points. I know I did.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 5, Gibbs 8, Vermaelen 7, Mertesacker 8, Sagna 7, Arteta 7, Ramsey 6 (Podolski 9), Cazorla 7, Ozil 7 (Flamini 7), Walcott 8, Giroud 6 (Bendtner 7)

Man of the Match: Our smiling pit fighter, Lukas Podolski.

Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea: Styles Make Fights

I legitimately do not know what to think about this result. On one hand, we have faced down an enemy that has taken points from us again and again in recent memory...on the other hand, we were playing a version of said enemy that was waiting to be beaten, and we ended up watching our manager make zero substitutions on our way towards a dull nil-nil draw.

On one hand, I get Arsene's natural inclination towards a safety-first attitude - with his record against Jose Mourinho and the importance of this fixture, a draw looks fantastic in a vacuum. Of course, a loss would hurt us a hundred times more than a draw ever possibly could. Still, this was not your older brother's Chelsea. Mourinho has always set up his teams to defend to the death and wait for an opportunity on the counter-attack for us to make our customary defensive mistakes. But, our increased solidity in the back plus the absence of Didier Drogba meant that the door has never been more open for us to have beaten these guys.

There's been a lot of talk that the City result was weighing heavily on Arsene's mind, though, and it's probably not far off the mark. It does seem odd in retrospect - we went full-throttle for the win away to City, and played for the draw at home to Chelsea. Reversing that may have resulted in four points instead of one.

It seemed to have made the players skittish as well. Both Gibbs and Vermaelen gifted Chelsea corners from atrocious backpasses, and it seemed that no one could find a teammate with a pass or even control the ball when it came to them. The monsoon conditions surely played a part, but given our improved play in the second half, nerves were absolutely part of the equation as well.

The visitors were better able to play to those conditions though, as they massed two lines of defenders in their own half and dared Arsenal to play their way through them. Credit where it's due - they picked their spots perfectly to counter, and were a bit unlucky to see Frank Lampard's howitzer hit the underside of the bar and bounce away to safety. The Gunners' defense was slashed to ribbons by Eden Hazard's through-ball on that occasion, but otherwise were fairly solid themselves. Chelsea had a few pot-shots at goal but Wojciech Szczesny did well to catch and hold them, despite the pouring rain.

Beyond that, the men in blue offered little than kicking anything that moved. We knew what we were going to get from referee Mike Dean, and the little shit failed to disappoint. While I think he actually got the Theo Walcott penalty decision right (our man went down a little too easily for my liking), his failure to show John Obi Mikel so much as a yellow for his studs-up challenge on Mikel Arteta was astonishing...even by his remarkably low standards.

Our guys were better in the second half, as passes started to find teammates and the pre-match jitters began to dissipate. Sadly, Chelsea continued to defend resolutely, breaking up moves at the last or blocking shots when we made it into the penalty area. As the match went on, they showed less and less of an inclination to attack, but Arsenal just could not break them down.

I do think part of that though is our lack of a killer instinct in matches like this. There was a perfect example of it on a play where Ramires went down injured. I guarantee you, 100 times out of 100 Chelsea or City or United would keep playing in that situation. Instead, Aaron Ramsey played it out into touch. So frustrating.

We did have a chance to steal it at the end, however. Unfortunately, Olivier Giroud looked absolutely knackered by then and could not get a solid connection on the ball when played in by Ramsey. Minutes later he was in again, this time from a Gibbs pass. But, our old friend John Terry was there to deal with it. Bastard.

So, nil-nil in the end and we have to come back to why there were no substitutions on our end. Wenger has said in the post-match interviews that he didn't want to disrupt our defensive flow. Umm, OK, but let's remember that Chelsea had no interest in playing football in the second half. They set themselves up to not lose, and at best maybe have one or two more chances on the counter. I'd argue that when they did counter, it did not matter who was in our midfield, they'd be far up the pitch anyway and it would be up to the defense and Szczesny to deal with it. That's exactly what happened anyway.

I get it, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla do not enjoy their defensive responsibilities. But, had they come on they just might have won us the game. Rosicky and Ramsey offered virtually nothing for the entire match, and Theo was no great shakes either. Also, where the hell was Mathieu Flamini? He lives for games like this, and if we're that worried about defense why did we not have our best midfield destroyer in there?

There's so many questions, and not nearly enough answers.

Still, a draw is not a catastrophic result. We now have a long series of very winnable matches...and this result just means that we have less margin for error in them.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Gibbs 7, Vermaelen 7, Mertesacker 7, Sagna 8, Arteta 8, Ramsey 5, Rosicky 6, Ozil 7, Walcott 6, Giroud 5

Man of the Match:  It was hard to decide between Arteta and Sagna. While Sagna gave us an all-action performance down the right flank and made one glorious tackle to boot, I have to give it to the Spaniard for his yeoman work protecting the back four. This was a game where losing was not an option, and Arteta's defensive performance and efficient use of the ball (especially in the second half) went a long way towards earning us that point.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Chelsea

Emirates Stadium, London
Monday, December 23
3:00 p.m. EST, 20:00 GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Dean
    • Assistants: Jake Collin and John Brooks
    • 4th Official: Jonathan Moss
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 1 - 2 Chelsea
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 71 Arsenal wins, 57 Chelsea wins, 52 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-W-W-W-D-L
  • Chelsea's League Form: D-W-W-W-L-W
  • Weather: Rain and Wind, 11 C / 51 F
Presented without comment.
This is the biggest game of the season.

This is a potential turning point. A statement game. An Arsenal win moves them back into first place and once and for all answers the questions of whether they can beat anyone big this year (as wins against Napoli, Liverpool, and Dortmund have apparently not been enough.) A loss, however, drops the Gunners into fourth place and would be the fourth straight match across all competitions that Arsenal would have failed to win. So, this is the crux, the fork in the road, you can use any other cliche you like.

Arsenal have had eight days off since picking the ball out of their net six times in Manchester. The legs should be fresh again. They need to be fresh again; Arsenal will play five games in the next 13 days. The mentality of the next few days, weeks, and even months could be defined here.

It's time to make the most of it.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Koscielny (gash,) Sanogo (back,) Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee,) Diaby (knee)
Suspended: Wilshere (first of two)

I suspect Poldi will start the match from the bench, likely
smiling like this the whole time.
The bad news first, as Laurent Koscielny is expected to miss out, having picked up a deep laceration on his leg during the loss to Manchester City. Of course, when he first went down, I feared it was a broken bone, then feared it was ligament damage, so all things considered it could have been worse. It's unfortunate luck that Arsenal's shut-down center back pairing of Koscielny and Per Mertesacker could not complete 90 minutes together against the likes of City, Manchester United, and now Chelsea this season. This is a big moment for Thomas Vermaelen's career and it's a good thing he has had so many days to prepare himself for it.

Much of City's attacking prowess last weekend came from exploiting wide play; I suspect Kieran Gibbs will be back at left back while Bacary Sagna should be fully recovered from the hamstring problem that likely hindered him a bit last time out. Speaking of the right side, Theo Walcott should retain his place on the wing; he's scored in more matches against Chelsea (five) than any other club. His brace in Manchester was one of the few bright spots.

Jack Wilshere will serve the first of a two match retroactive ban for flipping the bird at the City fans. Arsenal fans are aggrieved that Luis Suarez got only one match for this last year, but if this is the new call going forward, I'm fine with that; he should know better. Of course, if the next time this happens the player gets only one game, I'll be pretty furious. The absence of Wilshere means Arsene Wenger will have to chose four for the midfield from Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, and Mathieu Flamini. I've left out Lukas Podolski from that list, even though he should be named in the squad; I just can't see him starting yet.

And, let's all hope that some days to rest will help Olivier Giroud get his head back in the game; he and Arteta have looked the most jaded in the past few weeks.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Arteta, Ramsey, Ozil, Cazorla, Walcott, Giroud.

Chelsea Squad News

Out: Bertrand (knock,) van Ginkel (knee)
Suspended: Essien (one match, accumulation)

How does one team have so many attacking options?
... and they don't even have Lukaku right now!
Not much in the way of injury news for Chelsea: Marco van Ginkel is out for the season with a knee injury and Ryan Bertrand will likely miss out with a knock. Michael Essien is banned one match for accumulating five yellow cards in just six matches this year. None of this really effects their expected XI, however.

It is expected that Cesar Azpilicueta will start at left back, despite being subbed off after 70 minutes against Sunderland in the League Cup last midweek. Out of favor Ashley Cole (not just with Gooners,) will either be on the bench or may not make the squad at all, according to Jose Mourinho.

Both John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard played 120 minutes in that League Cup loss to the Black Cats; I'd suspect the former to start alongside Ramires in the holding roles. Aside from that, Mourinho has a ton of options in the attacking roles, so my guesswork is as good as yours. Juan Mata? Willian? Andre Schurrle? Demba Ba? Kevin de Bruyne? Samuel Eto'o? They have so many players...

Predicted XI: Cech, Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry, Azpilicueta, Mikel, Ramires, Oscar, Hazard, Mata, Torres.

Current Form

Well, it's starting to look like it's more than just a little hiccup for Arsenal; they've lost two straight across all competitions for the first time since March and have gone three straight without a win for the first time since January. Arsenal have not lost three straight matches across all competitions since April of 2010. Ultimately, you have to win your home games, and largely Arsenal have done that this year, aside from the aberration against Aston Villa, late goals from Everton and Dortmund, and a League Cup tie.

Chelsea have had a bit of Jekyll and Hyde about them this season. They've won some games convincingly (4-1 over Cardiff, 3-0 over West Ham, 3-1 over Southampton despite trailing in 14 seconds) and they've won some unconvincingly (4-3 at Sunderland, 2-1 over City thanks to Joe Hart, and they left it a bit late to win at Norwich as well.) They've also dropped some road games, away to Everton, Newcastle, and Stoke. If Arsenal are going to make a statement against Chelsea this season, it has to come here, at the Emirates.

Match Facts

Arsene Wenger is still looking for his first win against the
man on the right, and also his tie is really short for some
reason in this picture. And his coat doesn't look puffy
After the Alex Manninger League Cup tie in November of 1998, Arsenal went on a run of 16 consecutive matches against Chelsea without a loss, winning 11 and drawing five. The sides then met in the 2003/04 Champions League quarter-final, with a first leg that ended 1-1 at Stamford Bridge. At Highbury in the second leg, Arsenal led at halftime through Jose Antonio Reyes, but Frank Lampard equalized in the 51st and Wayne Bridge won it for Chelsea in the 87th.

Since that quarter-final, Arsenal and Chelsea have played 22 times; Arsenal have won only four of them: 1-0 in December 2007, 2-1 in November 2008, 3-1 in December 2010, and 5-3 in October 2011. Chelsea have won 13 of the 22 games; five have ended drawn. It is also well established that Arsene Wenger has never beaten Jose Mourinho, drawing four and losing five of the nine meetings between the two.

Chelsea have already visited the Emirates once this year, but it was a League Cup encounter in October, so that doesn't tell us much; as you likely know, Chelsea won 2-0. The Blues won both matches with Arsenal last season, both by 2-1 scorelines. At the Emirates last September, Chelsea scored twice from set pieces as Laurent Koscielny, out of form at the time, had a nightmare at the back; Gervinho had Arsenal's goal, which had made it 1-1 at the interval. At Stamford Bridge in January, Chelsea scored twice early in the snow to take a commanding lead in the match, but Arsenal showed resolve and finally showed up in the second half. Theo Walcott scored in the 56th minute to make the match interesting, but Arsenal never found an equalizer.

The Referee

The second yellow to Torres was harsh, but he should've
seen red earlier.
The referee is Wirral-based Mike Dean. I'll let you panic about that in a couple of seconds, of course, but before you do that, let me remind you that Arsenal currently have a two game winning streak with Dean as the referee. Those wins were last year's 4-1 win over Wigan and this year's 3-1 win over Stoke City. Then again, before those two games, Arsenal had a record of two wins from 21 games, including both horrendous cup losses (to Bradford City and Blackburn Rovers) last season. The less said about that span of games for Arsenal with Mike Dean, the better.

Chelsea have seen Dean once this year, for the 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane. You may recall that Fernando Torres was shown a ridiculous second yellow for equally colliding with Jan Vertonghen on a 50/50 ball. Earlier in the match, however, Torres was not sent off despite slapping Vertonghen across the face. Chelsea won four and drew one with Dean last season; they have not lost with Dean in the middle since March 21, 2012 at Manchester City.

Around the League
  • Saturday: Liverpool 3 - 1 Cardiff City
  • Saturday: Crystal Palace 0 - 3 Newcastle United
  • Saturday: Fulham 2 - 4 Manchester City
  • Saturday: Manchester United 3 - 1 West Ham United
  • Saturday: Stoke City 2 - 1 Aston Villa
  • Saturday: Sunderland 0 - 0 Norwich City
  • Saturday: West Bromwich Albion 1 - 1 Hull City
  • Sunday: Southampton 2 - 3 Tottenham Hotspur
  • Sunday: Swansea City 1 - 2 Everton

Napoli 2-0 Arsenal and Manchester City 6-3 Arsenal: Worrying Times Ahead

What worries me about these two results is how quickly we've reverted to Bad Old Arsenal once the first series of important matches came up. Every bad trait that I thought had been eradicated from the squad - poor turnovers in midfield, shockingly-bad fullback defense, inability to defend set pieces, listless attacking play, a total lack of killer instinct - have returned in spades, like an unwanted party guest who we thought we showed the door to hours ago.

There's a long way to go in this season and it is definitely no time for panic. But, the Arsenal needs to sort this out, sharpish.

Perhaps there is some explanation for the reverse in Naples, with qualification all but assured. Still, it's just like Bad Old Arsenal to respond to "Don't lose by three goals" with "Cool, we'll lose by two." No killer instinct, no ambition, no realization that it's easy to fall into bad habits. The shambling mess that was the first half (offensively, at least) looked remarkably similar to the first 20-30 minutes of the City game. The very best teams ease off on the throttle only when victory is guaranteed. Note how Barcelona massacred Celtic to win points they didn't need to qualify, and compare that to our willingness to only lose by just enough against Napoli.

Another aspect that I noticed was how, whenever we ship tons of goals, poor fullback defense is usually the root cause. The City match was uncomfortably similar to the first leg against Bayern Munich last season. Despite the strength and ability of the opponent, the result was far more about our inability to defend than anything they did. Actually, I'll prove it - almost all of the goals against this week were due to breakdowns on our end.

Napoli 1-0:  This one was the outlier. Higuain's turn and shot with Per Mertesacker draped all over him was sheer class on the Argentinian's part.

Napoli 2-0:  In fairness, it didn't help that we were down to 10 men thanks to one of the most ridiculous second-yellow card decisions I've seen in my life. Callejon dived risibly on what was barely a foul, if that. Viktor Kassai is a joke of a ref, and always has been.

That said, this was a classic example of a poor giveaway leading to a break up the other end. Ramsey gave away possession cheaply deep in Napoli territory, and you can see the red shirts jogging listlessly back as the home side break. Jenkinson is miles off of Insigne, giving him time and space to pick his pass. Mertesacker and Koscielny are static as Callejon runs onto the pass that Insigne looped over them. Kos does get back in time, but his attempt at a clearance goes over Szczesny and in. Had he just cut off that side of the net, he gives his goalkeeper a chance to make a save.

City 1-0:  This was always coming, given their dominance in the middle of the park and Arsenal's ridiculous inability to string three passes together. Arsene blamed tired legs and the referee after the match, but I think Arsenal's nerve failed them in a big game yet again. Anyway, this one was down to poor set-piece marking. Nasri sends in the corner, Demechelis beats Nacho Monreal to the first header, and who knows what Koscielny was thinking on the follow-up. He allows Aguero to blow right by him to volley it in. Disgraceful.

City 2-1: Our boys managed to last a whole three minutes after the equalizer before shipping another ridiculous goal. City have an innocuous throw-in. They pass it around a bit, and then send it long down the flank for Zabaleta, who is in acres. Why is that? Because Monreal is in the center of the penalty area, leaving that wing completely open. Wilshere tries to assist, but has to cover too much ground. Koscielny is asleep at the switch, lets Negredo get goalside on him, and that's that.

City 3-1: Goals at the very beginning or the very end of a half are killers, and this is arguably where the Gunners let the match get away from them. Frustratingly, we could not have gift-wrapped this any better, either. We have a throw deep in our end - Ozil to Sagna back to Ozil, and so far we're fine. The German plays an atrociously loose pass in front of Flamini, in a central location. The Frenchman can't get to it, taking himself out of the play in the process. All of a sudden, Fernandinho has all the time and space he could ever ask for to place his shot around the stranded Szczesny.

I mean, would not expect this from a Sunday league team.

City 4-2: If the one before wasn't the dagger, this one was. Again, Arsenal could not last more than a few minutes after scoring before conceding themselves. It's frustrating and deflating, especially when it's completely preventable.

Monreal was once again too far off his man, allowing him to settle on the ball and decide what he wanted to do. Navas' low center was a good one, but Monreal still should have prevented it. He didn't, and Silva was left with an easy tap-in thanks to Thomas Vermaelen's poor positioning and awareness. Horrendous defending all around. 

City 5-2: Jack Wilshere gives the ball away cheaply on the halfway line. Bacary Sagna is glacially slow getting back, allowing Nasri the run of the wing, Mertesacker has to cover, but Vermaelen again shows his astonishing lack of awareness by also coming over. That leaves Fernandinho alone, as Monreal was left with two men to mark.

City 6-3: Not that it mattered in the end, but note again how Arsenal concede so soon after scoring themselves - it belies an utter lack of concentration and discipline. Gnabry was the catalyst, his sloppy pass to nowhere sending Fernandinho away. Sagna is again astonishingly lazy getting back, giving Milner free reign in the penalty area. Szczesny has to try and play sweeper-keeper again (having already done so twice well outside his area, his defense doing nothing to shield him) and clips the Englishman on the way. The ref has no choice but to award a penalty, which Yaya Toure easily dispatches.

The worst part about it, for me, is how winnable this game actually was. City have been iffy defensively themselves this season, and their bizarre insistence on playing their second-best goalkeeper is baffling (stop by O'Hanlon's sometime if you ever want the full rant on how England will never produce another world-class goalkeeper again as long as they keep witch-hunting their own). The momentum was there for the taking after Ramsey's quick thinking started the break for our equalizer - and man, was that ever crappy keeping from Pantilimion on that one (you'll note that the same hacks who are after Hart with torches and pitchforks won't say much here, I guarantee it).

Even after we went down 3-1, the contest still was very much there to be won if we wanted it - especially after Ramsey's gorgeously-weighted dink pass to Walcott ended with a perfect finish over the diving Pantilimion. Down only one goal, dominating possession, thirty minutes to was right there. Right bloody there.

It doesn't help, of course, that Olivier Giroud had an absolute shocker. You only get so many chances against a side of this quality, and a player of the HFB's quality has to put them away in a match of this magnitude. He hasn't turned into a poor player overnight, but it's obvious that he needs a rest. Whisper it, but Nicklas Bendtner looked pretty good when he came on, and perhaps has earned a start.

So, we come to the end of a tough week with no wins out of three. As mentioned, there have been mitigating circumstances along the way - Everton played a brilliant away match, Napoli was largely a dead rubber and City is a frightening place to play in any event, let alone after a midweek trip to Italy. However, we have another huge match coming up next weekend, and there are no excuses this time. There will be a full week of rest, and this Chelsea side are not overly impressive. If we are the title-threatening team that we believe ourselves to be, that is the kind of match we have to win. End of story.

Personally, I think we're going to. I just hope my optimism is not unfounded. 

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings (vs. Napoli):

Szczesny 7, Gibbs 7, Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 7, Jenkinson 7, Arteta 6, Flamini 7, Rosicky 6 (Monreal 7), Ozil 6, Cazorla 6 (Ramsey 7), Giroud 6

Man of the Match: Higuain, for the goal. 

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings (vs. Manchester City):

Szczesny 7, Monreal 3, Koscielny 5 (Vermaelen 3), Mertesacker 7, Sagna 5, Flamini 7 (Gnabry 7), Wilshere 4, Ramsey 8, Ozil 6, Walcott 8, Giroud 4 (Bendtner 7)

Man of the Match: The only Arsenal players that would even be in the conversation are Walcott and Ramsey, both of whom had legitimately excellent all-around performances. However, Fernandinho was a monster in the center of the park for City, and capped off his day with two astonishing goals. Sadly, it can't be anyone but. 

Preview by Numbers: Manchester City v. Arsenal

Etihad Stadium, Manchester
Saturday, December 14
7:45 a.m. EST, 12:45 GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Martin Atkinson
    • Assistants: Stuart Burt and Harry Lennard
    • 4th Official: Robert Madley
  • This Match, Last Year: Manchester City 1 - 1 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 93 Arsenal wins, 48 Manchester City wins, 41 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-L-W-W-W-D
  • Manchester City's League Form: W-L-W-W-W-D
  • Weather: Scattered Light Rain, 9 C / 48 F
Alright, getting sick of all the sad Arsenal photos again...
The Internet is a weird place.

If you try to find the current opinion of the average Arsenal supporter, you probably can't do it, because so many fans are all over the place. There are many who are excited for the challenges ahead, not just including this match but the Champions League draw that awaits on Monday. There are those that feel like the trap door is starting to open as well. So, there are many on both extremes of opinion, with a wide spectrum of options in between.

The spectrum of opinion will, of course, narrow after a match like this. It has to. This is the kind of match that can define your season, and it comes at a time when Arsenal are starting to wobble a little bit. In one respect, this is the perfect chance to right the ship. In another, it could create a tailspin.

The storylines will write themselves after this match. As for opinions now on what to expect, well, you could pretty much go with anything.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Sanogo (back,) Podolski (hamstring,) Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee,) Diaby (knee)
Doubts: Sagna (hamstring)

Carl Jenkinson might get a fourth straight start at right
back, if Sagna remains out.
The big question, of course, is Bacary Sagna: will he be fit or will he miss his fourth straight game? Because, I'm not going to lie, and I love Carl Jenkinson's desire and work ethic, but I would much rather have Sagna's presence and experience at right back in this match, and I don't think you'd disagree. suggests he'll be out, but they ran that entirely fabricated exclusive about a Mathieu Flamini injury last week, so you'll excuse me if I take them with more than a few grains of salt.

In the midfield, Arsene Wenger was able to rest a few weary legs on Saturday: Aaron Ramsey played only about 25 minutes, Mikel Arteta got an unintentional rest of a quarter of an hour, and Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott were not used at all. I would think that, especially with defense being so important against a team like City, Arteta and Flamini would continue in the holding roles, while Ramsey will come in for Tomas Rosicky. Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud will start because they have to. I'd consider resting Santi Cazorla for Wilshere, but that's just me. Santi's just looked a bit out of form lately.

Theoretically, I could probably be moving Lukas Podolski from "out" to "doubts" soon. I'm just not sure when yet, without hearing anything from Wenger.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Jenkinson (I'm pessimistic,) Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Arteta, Flamini, Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, Giroud.

Manchester City Squad News

Out: Jovetic (calf,) Nastasic (leg)
Doubts: Richards (hamstring,) Clichy (foot)

I hate this guy.
City have two confirmed injuries, as Stevan Jovetic and Matija Nastasic are both out until at least next week. Micah Richards is a doubt with a hamstring injury (he left City's game midweek on 16 minutes,) as is Gael Clichy with a foot injury. Those last three means City's back four have been a bit shaken up, though they have lately been boosted by the return of Vincent Kompany at center back. With Nastasic out, Martin Dimichelis has been starting regularly since the end of October.

Speaking of those returning from injury, City were also boosted midweek by the return of David Silva to the line-up; he had missed six straight games with a calf injury. Silva returns to a club who are by no means bereft of attacking options. He started City's comeback with their first goal on Tuesday, but was subbed off in the 73rd minute.

Predicted XI: Pantilimon, Zabaleta, Demichelis, Kompany, Kolarov, Fernandinho, Toure, Navas, Nasri, Aguero, Negredo.

Current Form

"I've forgotten how to score..."
For the first time this season, Arsenal have gone two straight matches without a victory, which means we're about one loss away from The Sun breaking their cracked cannon "club in crisis" logos out again, right? Losing to Napoli on Wednesday night has turned the conversation on the Internetosphere from cautious optimism to indescribable panic.

The reason is that Manchester City, on average, wins their home games by a scoreline of 100 billion to nil. Okay, so they're actually averaging 4.14 goals per league home game (29 over seven games) and have conceded just twice in the league at home this year. So, that's an average scoreline of 4.14 to 0.29. Astonishing, really. On the other hand, Arsenal rarely fail to score at all; Wednesday's 2-0 loss was only the third time this year the Gunners have been kept from scoring.

While City's home form is the best in the Premier League, Arsenal's away form is also the best in that category, but the Gunners have yet to play a road game against a team placed higher than 9th in the table, and they lost that 1-0.

Match Facts

Arsenal's last win away to Manchester City was aided by
the red card drawn here by Marouane Chamakh. That tells
you how long ago it was.
In 2007/08, Arsenal took all six points from a Manchester City side that finished 9th in the table. Since then, the two clubs have met 12 times across all competitions; City have won six of those meetings (four of those were league wins, the two others were in the League Cup,) Arsenal have won three, and three ended level.

Last season, in late September 2012, Arsenal came from behind to draw this fixture 1-1, a result that felt like one point earned instead of two points dropped. Arsenal had the better of play over 90 minutes, but conceded just before the stroke of halftime because zonal marking. Laurent Koscielny equalized in the 82nd minute after a half-cleared corner. Speaking of Koscielny, his 9th minute red card in the return fixture at the Emirates set the mood of the day, even if the resulting penalty was not converted. James Milner and Edin Dzeko scored in the 21st and 32nd minutes, respectively, and City walked away comfortable 2-0 winners.

Arsenal's last win at Eastlands came, like City's win at the Emirates last year, through an early red card. On October 24, 2010, Dedryck Boyata was sent off in the 5th minute, and Arsenal went on to win 3-0. Lukasz Fabianski and Bacary Sagna are the only two Arsenal players who remain with the squad from that starting XI (the other nine were Clichy, Squillaci, Djourou, Song, Denilson, Nasri, Fabregas, Arshavin, and Chamakh.)

The Referee

Martin Atkinson argues with Paolo di Canio, the latter of
whom invited the former to send him off in the process.
The referee is West Yorkshire-based Martin Atkinson. Arsenal have won both of their previous matches with Atkinson in the middle this season, 3-1 over Sunderland (in which he blew up play for a free kick instead of playing advantage on a potential Sunderland equalizer,) and 2-0 over Liverpool at the Emirates. Manchester City, on the other hand, have not seen Atkinson yet this year.

Last year with Atkinson, Arsenal had a record of one win (over Aston Villa) and two losses (both to Chelsea.) City had a record of two wins (over Swansea and Reading) and two losses (to Manchester United and Southampton.)

Atkinson was in the middle of this fixture at the Emirates in April of 2012, when Mikel Arteta scored a late winner to give Arsenal a 1-0 victory. Atkinson (finally) sent off Mario Balotelli in the 90th minute of that match. Since then, Atkinson has shown only one red card, to Cheick Tiote in a Tyne-Wear derby, over 56 matches across all competitions.

Around the League
  • Saturday: Cardiff City v. West Bromwich Albion; Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff
  • Saturday: Chelsea v. Crystal Palace; Stamford Bridge, London
  • Saturday: Everton v. Fulham; Goodison Park, Liverpool
  • Saturday: Newcastle United v. Southampton; St. James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • Saturday: West Ham United v. Sunderland; Boleyn Ground, London
  • Saturday (late): Hull City v. Stoke City; KC Stadium, Kingston upon Hull
  • Sunday (early): Aston Villa v. Manchester United; Villa Park, Birmingham
  • Sunday (early): Norwich City v. Swansea City; Carrow Road, Norwich
  • Sunday (late): Tottenham Hotspur v. Liverpool; White Hart Lane, London

Preview by Numbers: Napoli v. Arsenal, Champions League Group Matchday 6

Stadio San Paolo, Naples
Wednesday, December 11
2:45 p.m. EST, 19:45 GMT

  • Match Officials from Hungary
    • Referee: Viktor Kassai
    • Assistants: Gyorgy Ring and Vencel Toth
    • 4th Official: Robert Kispal
    • Additional Assistants: Tamas Bognar and Sandor Szabo
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 2 - 0 Napoli
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 1 Arsenal win
  • Arsenal's European Form: W-W-W-L-W-W
  • Napoli's European Form: L // W-L-W-W-L
  • Weather: Clear, 9 C / 49 F
Usually we've had three or four of these pictures by this
point in the season.
As Sean's Everton recap stated, opinion is divided about 60-40 regarding the outcome of that match, with the larger portion thinking it was better than nothing against a good side and the smaller portion feeling it was an opportunity wasted. It's always hard to lose points, especially from a winning position, but the difference is five points clear in the league instead of seven. If, back in August, we were told Arsenal would be five points clear at this juncture, I think we'd all be a little skeptical of the validity of such information.

Anyway, the Champions League gives us a chance to switch gears a little bit, with a trip to Manchester looming at the weekend. Here's how the qualification picture looks:

If Arsenal wins: Arsenal win the group with 15 points. Dortmund finish second regardless of their result in Marseille, as they have the tie-breaker over Napoli.

If Napoli wins: Both Arsenal and Napoli would have 12 points. Dortmund would finish on 12 points as well, if they beat Marseille. The three-way tie-breaker is head-to-head results in matches played between the three sides. Arsenal will qualify for the knockout phase as long as they hold the goal difference tie-breaker over Napoli. Napoli must win by three clear goals to advance via the tie-breaker; Arsenal have not lost a match by a scoreline that heavy over their last 92 matches.

If the match is drawn: Arsenal win the group with 13 points. Napoli will finish with 10 points and only advance if Dortmund loses to Marseille, because again, Dortmund have the tie-breaker over Napoli.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Sagna (hamstring,) Sanogo (back,) Podolski (hamstring,) Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee,) Diaby (knee)

Poldi's not available yet, but he has been around to
smile and give thumbs up during training.
Not pictured: Smile or thumbs up.
It's "as you were" again in terms of available players. Bacary Sagna is still missing with a tight hamstring, Lukas Podolski is back in full training but short of fitness, and the rest are still out.

As a result, yet again, the discussion comes down to rotation. I'd consider giving Aaron Ramsey a rest, maybe even Mesut Ozil or Santi Cazorla as well. Then again, what the hell do I know? In a road game where the opposition will be gunning to score and score many from the opening whistle, I'd set up the midfield to both absorb some pressure (that means I'd like Mathieu Flamini to start) and be capable of counter-attacking if Napoli leave themselves exposed at the back (that means I'd like Theo Walcott and his pace to start, provided he's fit to do so.)

Whoever comes out at that point is a bit of a guessing game, when you consider the options available for the midfield: Mikel Arteta, Flamini, Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky, Ozil, Cazorla, and Walcott are eight names for five positions.

On the other hand, Arsene Wenger said "we can't afford to rest players," adding that "we have no major sign of fatigue, medically." So, that's good, right?

Napoli Squad News

Out: Hamsik (foot,) Zuniga (knee,) Mesto (knee)

So, it has come to this...
Three of the 11 players who started for Napoli at the Emirates on Matchday 2 are unavailable through injury for tonight's encounter: Juan Zuniga has not played since that match with a knee injury, Giandomenico Mesto has been out since early November with a knee injury of his own, and it appears Marek Hamsik will not be able to return from a foot injury he picked up against Parma on November 23.

One player who was unavailable on Matchday 2 but should be available tonight, however, is former Arsenal transfer target Gonzalo Higuain, who has 10 goals and 6 assists on the season, between Serie A and the Champions League. On December 2 against Lazio, Higuain scored twice; they were his first goals from open play since September 22.

With Napoli expected to be chasing goals, Arsenal will have to watch for their attacking quartet, including Higuain up top, Goran Pandev just behind him, with Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens or Lorenzo Insigne on the wings.

Current Form

Arsenal led once and ended level at the weekend, but
Napoli led twice and ended with two points dropped too.
With some big fixtures up ahead, Arsenal will hope that their 1-1 draw with Everton at the weekend is merely a hiccup on their way to bigger and better results. The draw snapped a four match winning streak across all competitions, which was, astonishingly, only their second streak of such length this season. Still, Arsenal have yet to go two matches without a win all season and they have not done so since cup losses to Blackburn Rovers and Bayern Munich last February.

Napoli, on the other hand, have just one win in their last five. Just before the November international break, Napoli lost to now-Serie A leading Juventus 3-0. They then lost 1-0 to Parma and 3-1 to Dortmund before bouncing back with a 4-2 win over 12th place Lazio. At the weekend, Napoli drew 14th place Udinese 3-3 at home, surrendering the lead on two separate occasions. Currently third in Serie A, Napoli plays fourth place Inter Milan at home on Sunday.

Napoli would need a three goal victory for Arsenal to miss qualification; the home side have won by that scoreline twice so far this season, though both were against Serie A sides currently facing relegation: 19th place Bologna and 18th place Livorno.

Match Facts

Ozil's goal against Napoli opened his Arsenal account.
These two sides met in this summer's Emirates Cup, with Napoli's early two goal lead wiped out by Arsenal in the second half; the match ended drawn 2-2. Matchday 2 saw the first competitive meeting between the two clubs. Arsenal struck twice within the first quarter of an hour, with Mesut Ozil scoring in the 8th minute and Olivier Giroud scoring in the 15th; the Gunners put it on cruise control from there and won 2-0.

In 13 previous matches on Italian soil, Arsenal have won five times, lost four times, and drawn four times. Arsenal's last trip to Italy went poorly, as they lost to AC Milan 4-0 in the first leg of the 2012 Round of 16 (more on that in the referee section below.) Earlier in that season, Arsenal won 2-1 in Udine to beat Udinese 3-1 on aggregate in the qualifier play-off. Prior to that, Arsenal's last trip to Italy was in 2009, when they lost 1-0 to Roma, forcing the tie to a penalty shootout, which the Gunners won 7-6.

Napoli are unbeaten at home in three previous matches against English sides. In the 2010 Europa League group stage, they drew Liverpool 0-0 (they later lost 3-1 at Anfield.) In the 2011 Champions League group stage, they defeated Manchester City 2-1. Later in that year's competition, in the Round of 16, they defeated Chelsea in the first leg 3-1. Chelsea went on to win the tie in extra time at Stamford Bridge, then went on to win the tournament.

The Referee

Kassai's crew erroneously disallowed this goal. I don't
remember the build-up, but look how far out of the net
Joe Hart is!
The match officials are from Hungary; the referee is Viktor Kassai. Arsenal have never won a match with Kassai as the referee, losing 2-0 at Braga in the 2010 group stage and losing 4-0 in Milan in the 2012 Round of 16. Kassai made some brutal calls against Arsenal in both of those matches. So, you know on average, that's a 3-0 Arsenal loss which would likely see them out of the competition... On the other hand, the only Napoli match he's worked in his career was a 2-0 loss for the Italian side against Viktoria Plzen in the Europa League in February. Given this track record, everyone will lose tonight. Of course, it doesn't work that way.

Kassai, despite what Arsenal have seen from him, is one of Europe's top referees and has worked a large number of big matches in his career, including the 2008 Olympic gold medal game (where Argentina beat Nigeria,) a 2010 World Cup semi-final (where Spain beat Germany,) and the 2011 Champions League Final (where Barcelona beat Manchester United.)

In the 2012 Euro tournament, he worked a controversial match between England and Ukraine, where a lack of goal-line technology meant John Terry's goal line clearance was ruled no goal when one should have counted. Ukraine was also offside in the build-up, which just makes the whole controversy even more ridiculous. On both missed calls, however, it was Kassai's crew that failed him (the linseman on the offside and the additional assistant on the goal line play.)

Around Europe
  • Tuesday: Manchester United 1 - 0 Shakhtar Donetsk
  • Tuesday: Real Sociedad 0 - 1 Bayer Leverkusen
  • Tuesday: Copenhagen 0 - 2 Real Madrid
  • Tuesday: Galatasaray v. Juventus abandoned due to weather
  • Tuesday: Benfica 2 - 1 Paris St. Germain
  • Tuesday: Olympiacos 3 - 1 Anderlecht
  • Tuesday: Bayern Munich 2 - 3 Manchester City
  • Tuesday: Viktoria Plzen 2 - 1 CSKA Moscow
  • Wednesday: Chelsea v. Steaua Bucuresti; Stamford Bridge, London
  • Wednesday: Schalke 04 v. Basel; Veltins-Arena, Gelsenkirchen
  • Wednesday: Marseille v. Borussia Dortmund; Stade Velodrome, Marseille
  • Wednesday: Atletico Madrid v. Porto; Vicente Calderon Stadium, Madrid
  • Wednesday: Austria Wien v. Zenit St. Petersburg; Ernst-Happel-Stadion, Vienna
  • Wednesday: AC Milan v. Ajax; San Siro, Milan
  • Wednesday: Barcelona v. Celtic; Camp Nou, Barcelona

Arsenal 1-1 Everton: Heavyweight Contenders Clash

I apologize for the lateness of the report - last Sunday was one of the rare times that I did not have a match of my own on the day (floodlight failure the cause - insert Malaysian betting syndicate jokes here), so I decided to hang out and imbibe past the point of lucidity. Hey, it happens.

Moving away from The Adventures of 35 and Should Know Better, I won't go over the match itself too much because you've probably read all about it by now. I did want to share some thoughts I had on the contest and the games ahead, though.

Opinion seems to be about 60-40 between "Hey, that wasn't bad, that's the best team we've played all season" and "Those are the kinds of matches title-winning sides have to win". I do think there is a grain of truth to the latter, but you can mark me down as firmly in the camp of the former. A tip of the cap is in order for Roberto Martinez, though. He had Everton fully prepared and ready to play, as evidenced by a first half that they largely dominated.

As I told my roommate later that day, it's like Everton and Manchester United have switched places - mentally, I treated this season's United loss as if we had gotten unlucky against a small team and dropped points that we shouldn't have. Meanwhile, I came into this one a bit more nervous than usual, in the knowledge that they have quietly put together a squad of talent, strength and fortitude.

I've now seen Romelu Lukaku play for Belgium in person, and come away with much more appreciation at just how great Laurent Koscielny is to have kept him in his pocket for almost the whole 90 minutes. His partner Per Mertesacker was excellent as well, but the Frenchman stood out with several timely interceptions and one brilliant sliding tackle that I remember. I think a word also must be spared for Carl Jenkinson, who acquitted himself well on the right and put in a few well-placed crosses, and also the excellent hold-up play of Olivier Giroud. Once Everton punched themselves out a bit after the half-hour mark, the HFB did an excellent job of bringing his teammates into the play and relieving the pressure some.

Our problem though was that the Toffees dominated the center of the park. Ross Barkley (who I bigged up in these virtual pages last season, as you may recall) is a special talent and showed it again - his runs, his usage of space, his precise passing - he's got it all. Contrast that our situation, where Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere looked exhausted and hardly put a foot right the whole time they were out there. Bad passes and bad decisions abounded, but they were bailed out by the excellence of our defenders time and again. Mikel Arteta also worked hard and broke up several attacks in the nick of time.

We also missed some creativity from Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla. I believe the German is still finding his footing and acclimatizing to the pace of this league, but I'm a little concerned about Santi's form. He has definitely not turned into an average player overnight, but he is looking knackered and perhaps a bit jaded on top. Whisper it, but I don't think a game or two on the bench would go amiss in his case...both for the rest and for the reminder that nobody's place in the XI is set in stone. What I love about this season's team is it is a true meritocracy - just ask poor old Thomas Vermaelen.

I will say though that this was a match that was SCREAMING out for Mathieu Flamini to start. Perhaps he was being rested for bigger challenges ahead (the fact that there are better sides than Everton looming is a scary one, but true), but we could have done with his energy and bite in the middle of the park. He was OK when he came on, but I don't know if he was as into the rhythm of the game as he would have been if he were on from the beginning - it's telling that he could have prevented their goal if he had tactically fouled Barkley early on in the build-up. He'd normally do that without a second thought, but he failed to on this occasion.

That said, when Flam came on, it was part of a three-man substitution. I have had a go at Arsene many times in this space for how he handles this responsibility, but we all agreed with the changes on this occasion. The three men who came off (Wilshere, Ramsey and Cazorla) were by far our most ineffective players, and the ones who came on (Flamini, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott) were exactly what was needed. It is no coincidence that we scored scant minutes after they came on, Ozil firing home into the top corner after a goalmouth scramble.

Normally, you'd expect us to hold on when we need to defend for just ten minutes. But, the visitors were able to bring on yet another special talent in Gerard Deulofeu, who needed only five to make his mark. I've seen one or two people blame Wojciech Szczesny for the goal, but they honestly need to go sit in the corner with the dunce cap on. Kieran Gibbs had something of a shocker all game (it's Monday morning quarterbacking, but there is an argument that Nacho Monreal should have replaced him instead of Rosicky coming on), and for me was not tight enough to the Spaniard when he got his shot away. Still, let's not take away from the brilliance of the goal - he had little time and almost no space, and he managed to place his shot in the one place where Szczesny had no chance. Again, you can only tip your cap, really.

So, we miss out on a chance to put serious distance between ourselves and the rest of the pack, but I don't think it's that big of a deal. There is no team in this league that is much beyond us in skill or talent, and I'd argue that so far no one has displayed anything like our togetherness and fighting spirit. Napoli also has problems of their own, such as defending, defending and also defending. We'll be fine. This was a cracking match played between two fantastic footballing sides, and ultimately it was played out to a fair result (which we may have even nicked if Tim Howard hadn't had an outstanding outing). I look forward to our visit to their gaff, that's for sure.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 8, Gibbs 5, Mertesacker 8, Koscielny 9, Jenkinson 7, Arteta 7, Wilshere 5 (Flamini 7), Cazorla 6 (Rosicky 7), Ramsey 6 (Walcott 7), Ozil 7, Giroud 7

Man of the Match:  Barkley has a serious argument, as do both goalkeepers. However, given how much trouble players like Lukaku have given us in the past, I have to give this to Laurent Koscielny for the defensive masterclass in silencing a beast of a center-forward. 

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Everton

Emirates Stadium, London
Sunday, December 8
11:00 a.m. EST, 16:00 GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Howard Webb
    • Assistants: Mike Mullarkey and Darren Cann
    • 4th Official: Anthony Taylor
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 0 - 0 Everton
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 98 Arsenal wins, 58 Everton wins, 43 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-L-W-W-W
  • Everton's League Form: W-D-D-D-W-W
  • Weather: Partly Cloudy, 9 C / 48 F
Who the hell is this guy?!
Well, this is a big game, innit?

Arsenal remain four points clear at the top of the table after their 2-0 win over Hull City on Wednesday night, but everyone else in the top five won as well; that includes Sunday's opponent, Everton, who won at Old Trafford for the first time in eighty billion years. Speaking of United, they're 12 points off the pace and in ninth place now. I thought you should know that.

Perhaps the biggest aspect of Arsenal's 2-0 win midweek was the fact that there was so much rotation in the side. I mean, Nicklas Bendtner scored the opener from a Carl Jenkinson cross. That's excellent! It's good to be able to win games while resting your top choices every once in a while, because things are about to get really difficult, really fast. Arsenal's next four games are against fifth place Everton, Napoli in Italy in the Champions League, third place Manchester City in a stadium where they outscore the visitors 100-0 on average, then second place Chelsea at the Emirates after a week-plus off.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Sanogo (back,) Podolski (hamstring,) Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee,) Diaby (knee)
Doubts: Sagna (hamstring,) Flamini (groin)

Sagna was the catalyst for two long injury delays in the
first half at Cardiff (to other players,) yet he was the one
who missed Wednesday.
Considering Arsenal just played, there isn't much in the way of updated squad news. Lukas Podolski is back in full training, but we knew that was going to be the case before the Hull game. One of the only real questions will be the availability of Bacary Sagna after he was unavailable Wednesday because of a tight hamstring. I'm going to flip a coin and guess he'll be ready.

Because the posting of this preview has come before Arsene Wenger's presser, I've really got nothing else in terms of news. There are rumors Mathieu Flamini has a groin injury and faces a test; I don't see them confirmed anywhere aside from a "exclusive," so I was reluctant to even mention it. I didn't have Flamini in my predicted XI anyway, but the in-form Frenchman would be nice as an option from the bench. I could've waited a day to post this preview, but in my years of writing these, I learned that nobody reads them on Saturdays.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Arteta, Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla, Ozil, Giroud.

Everton Squad News

Out: Baines (ankle,) Kone (knee,) Gibson (knee)

In the absence of Leighton Baines, Everton's deputizing
left back just went and beat United. Simple, really.
There are three big injuries in Everton's ranks, as Leighton Baines is out for the rest of this month with an ankle injury, and both Arouna Kone and Darron Gibson are out long term with knee injuries.

Of course, Leighton Baines's back-up at left back is Bryan Oviedo, whose goal gave Everton their 1-0 win at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. He's playing with an Everton back-line we've seen before, with Tim Howard between the poles, Seamus Coleman at right back, and Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin in the middle.

Gareth Barry, on loan from Manchester City, and James McCarthy, whom Roberto Martinez brought along with him from Wigan, play the holding roles behind a variety of potential attacking midfielders, including Ross Barkley, Steven Pienaar, Kevin Mirallas, Leon Osman, and Gerard Deulofeu, on loan from Barcelona. Speaking of loans, Romelu Lukaku, on loan from Chelsea, starts up top, as you probably know. He's hit the net 10 times this year.

I don't expect Martinez to shake up the midfield too much, given what worked on Wednesday; Everton don't have a midweek European match to worry about. That would mean Osman and Deulofeu start on the bench.

Predicted XI: Howard, Coleman, Jagielka, Distin, Oviedo, McCarthy, Barry, Pienaar, Barkley, Mirallas, Lukaku.

Current Form

In 28 combined games between these two teams this season, Arsenal and Everton have lost just three times. Arsenal have 11 wins, one draw, and two losses this season, while Everton have seven wins, six draws, and just one loss, to Manchester City at the Etihad. The Toffees are unbeaten in seven in the league, while Arsenal have won six straight league games at home.

Everton have kept eight clean sheets in 14 games this year, that's tops in the league; Arsenal have kept a clean sheet in five of their last six league matches and their 10 goals conceded on the season is now good for best defensive record in the league. Number two is Everton, with 13 allowed.

Arsenal won 3-0 last Saturday; Everton won 4-0. Everton won 1-0 on Wednesday; Arsenal won 2-0. Really, this is just "in form" v. "in form." It's the formiest match to ever form. FOOOOOOOOOOOOORM!!!!

Match Facts

It looks like someone just told Santi that Santa's not real.
Arsenal are unbeaten in their last 12 against Everton, whose last win over the Gunners was on March 18, 2007 by a 1-0 scoreline. This fixture, however, has always been close over the past handful of seasons. Everton are winless in their last 17 trips to the Emirates/Highbury, dating back to January 20, 1996, though they have drawn four of the last seven meetings in North London after Arsenal had won this fixture 10 straight times between 1996/97 and 2005/06.

This corresponding fixture last season, rife with mid-April Champions League qualification importance, ended in a 0-0 draw, as Arsenal had 57% of the possession but were extremely wasteful in front of goal. The match was a bit cagey, as the referee, Neil Swarbrick, lost control of things pretty early on. Everton went into that match trying to be physical and had the better of play in the first half, but Arsenal's effort improved dramatically in the second stanza, though they could not find a winner.

The Referee

Howard Webb duck face.
The referee is South Yorkshire-based Howard Webb. Arsenal have seen Webb once so far this year, winning 3-1 at Fulham during the second week of the season. Everton have also seen Webb only once, for their impressive 1-0 win over Chelsea on September 14.

Arsenal won all four league matches in which they had Webb last season, 2-0 at Anfield, 5-2 over Spurs, 2-1 at West Brom (despite Per Mertesacker's red card,) and 1-0 (and not 1-1) at Newcastle. They also drew once, against Swansea in the FA Cup, 2-2. Arsenal have not lost a league game with Howard Webb in the middle since the 8-2 at Old Trafford. In 15 home games with Webb as referee, Arsenal have never lost, winning 10 and drawing four.

Around the League
  • Saturday (early): Manchester United v. Newcastle United; Old Trafford, Manchester
  • Saturday: Crystal Palace v. Cardiff City; Selhurst Park, London
  • Saturday: Liverpool v. West Ham United; Anfield, Liverpool
  • Saturday: Southampton v. Manchester City; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Saturday: Stoke City v. Chelsea; Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent
  • Saturday: West Bromwich Albion v. Norwich City; The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
  • Saturday (late): Sunderland v. Tottenham Hotspur; Stadium of Light, Sunderland
  • Sunday (early): Fulham v. Aston Villa; Craven Cottage, London
  • Monday (night): Swansea City v. Hull City; Liberty Stadium, Swansea