Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Crystal Palace

Emirates Stadium, London
Sunday, February 2
11:00 a.m. EST, 16:00 GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Jonathan Moss
    • Assistants: Peter Kirkup and Marc Perry
    • 4th Official: Roger East
  • Reverse Fixture: Crystal Palace 0 - 2 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Time: Arsenal 5 - 1 Crystal Palace (February 14, 2005)
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 21 Arsenal wins, 3 Crystal Palace wins, 10 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-W-W-W-D
  • Crystal Palace's League Form: W-L-D-L-W-W
  • Weather: Partly Cloudy, 7 C / 45 F
Something about transfers.
Arsenal put up a bit of a clunker on Tuesday and drew 2-2 at mid-table Southampton and then the Internet freaked the hell out. It was as if picking up one point instead of three at St. Mary's means the club is now ineligible to win the Premier League title (which, if true, means I also have some bad news for Manchester City fans...)

The moral of the story is, while it would be nice to pick up maximum points from most games, Arsenal are still going to have to put up results in the bigger games: City at the Emirates, Chelsea at the Bridge, etc. If they don't win those, it doesn't really even matter what happened Tuesday at St. Mary's.

Turning our attention to the next points available, Arsenal have Crystal Palace at the Emirates this weekend; if Arsenal don't pick up three points in this one, I will join in the Internet in freaking the hell out. In addition, since today is Transfer Deadline Mania 2014 Part I, the whole story line of this match could be entirely different in a few hours. So, that's fun...

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Wilshere (ankle,) Ramsey (thigh,) Walcott (knee,) Sanogo (back,) Diaby (knee)
Doubts: Rosicky (nose)
Suspended: Flamini (first of three, violent conduct)

I heard a rumor that Flamini might be suspended for
637 games. Is that true?
It's not the number of injuries and absences Arsenal have right now that's the problem; it's the position that all of those players play. Arsenal are lacking in central midfield options now that Mathieu Flamini has earned a suspension and Aaron Ramsey has had a setback with his thigh injury (which, according to some sources is a calf injury, but all this time I've had it as his thigh and Arsene Wenger specifically said Tuesday night that the setback was with "the same muscle.")

Arsene Wenger did clear up some Internet confusion yesterday, confirming that Flamini's ban is three matches and not four; he does not get the additional match ban because his previous suspension was for yellow card accumulation, not a red card. It is still not ideal that Flamini will miss league games against Liverpool and United, but he will be available for the fifth round FA Cup tie.

More rumors have circled that Aaron Ramsey's setback will have hit out for four to six weeks, but Wenger has only called it "some." The timing is poor, as Jack Wilshere is out until next week with an ankle problem picked up against Coventry and Tomas Rosicky remains a doubt with a broken nose. Aside from this, these are Arsenal's only new problems; it's just a shame they all play approximately the same position.

Also, what the hell does Lukas Podolski have to do to get a start?!

Predicted XI: Not Podolski, Not Podolski, Not Podolski, Not Podolski, Not Podolski, Not Podolski, Not Podolski, Possibly Podolski, Not Podolski, Not Podolski, Not Podolski.

Crystal Palace Squad News

His hair always reminded me of a Pokemon...
Out: Dikgacoi (calf,) Murray (knee,) Thomas (groin)
Doubts: Parr (neck/concussion,) Gabbidon (knock)

So, for the first time this season, Arsenal get to face Tony Pulis. Pulis has Palace playing a 4-4-2. Pulis has a question mark at left back, as to whether Jonathan Parr will be fit to start; he left last weekend's FA Cup tie after a collision with Wigan's Callum McManaman. Danny Gabbidon could be missing from the center of defense as well, leaving this midweek's match with a knock. Kagisho Dikgacoi is out with a calf problem as well.

In terms of Palace's attack, ex-Arsenal man Marouane Chamakh will start up top along with Cameron Jerome; Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie are the wingers. 

Current Form

"Your analysis of Descartes is entirely wrong!"
While Arsenal might have had their winning streak across all competitions snapped at seven matches on Tuesday night, they are still unbeaten in their last nine; that remains their second longest unbeaten streak of the season, eclipsed only by the 12 match run in September and October that ended against Borussia Dortmund. It bears noting that Arsenal have not lost a home game since October, winning eight and drawing two since going out of the League Cup to Chelsea 2-0 at the Emirates.

Crystal Palace are coming off a midweek 1-0 win over Hull City, meaning the Eagles took the full six points from their fellow promoted club this season and nine of nine so far against the other two promoted clubs (as they beat Cardiff, too.) Palace have won two straight Premier League matches, having also beaten Stoke 1-0 on January 18; it's the second time this year Palace have won consecutive league matches, but sandwiched in between was a cup exit to Championship side Wigan Athletic.

Palace have won away from home only three times this season, across all competitions; they've drawn none and lost 11 away from Selhurst Park. They won 1-0 at Hull on November 23, 1-0 at Aston Villa on Boxing Day, and 2-0 at West Brom in the third round of the FA Cup on January 4. All that aside, thanks to the logjam at the bottom of the table, Palace are in 14th place, four points clear of relegation.

Match Facts

Arteta's red card made the reverse fixture a bit trickier
than it should have been.
In the reverse fixture, Arsenal won a difficult match 2-0. After it was 0-0 at the halftime break, Arsenal won a penalty early in the second half, which Mikel Arteta converted. Arteta, however, was later sent off for a controversial last man foul on Marouane Chamakh; at the time, I agreed with the call, as that type of foul always produces a straight red, but since the letter of the law is "denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity" and the foul took place approximately 10 million miles from the goal, you could certainly make an argument against it. It didn't matter in the end, despite making the closing minutes a little too nervy; Arteta's one-match ban was for a League Cup tie he likely would not have played in anyway and Olivier Giroud scored late to seal the three points.

Crystal Palace have beaten Arsenal only three times in 34 all-time meetings, but two of their three wins came at Highbury, one in 1970 in the League Cup and the other in 1994. In their last meeting in North London, in 2004/05, Arsenal won 5-1 on Valentine's Day, with two goals from Thierry Henry and others from Dennis Bergkamp, Jose Antonio Reyes, and Patrick Vieira.

The Referee

"This is for your hair!"
The referee is West Yorkshire-based Jonathan Moss. This is the second time Arsenal will have Moss this season and the second time in the month of January as well; Moss was in the middle for the Gunners' late 2-0 win over Cardiff City on New Year's Day. Arsenal all-time have five wins from five matches with Moss in the middle, including three road victories last year, at Wigan, Swansea, and QPR, and a win at Aston Villa the season before last.

Crystal Palace have had Moss only once this season, but it was not without controversy; Moss was in the middle for Palace's 2-0 loss at Old Trafford on September 14, in which Moss sent off Kagisho Dikgacoi after just 44 minutes, conceding a penalty from which United opened the scoring. Dikgacoi was involved with two incidents with Ashley Young in the match. In the first, Young was booked for diving; in the second, Dikgacoi was shown his marching orders. Incidentally, because it was the second time Young tumbled theatrically in the match, Moss had to send someone off for the foul, either Dikgacoi for denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity, or Young for a second simulation yellow card; ultimately, it was the visitor.

Around the League

  • Saturday (early): Newcastle United v. Sunderland; St. James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne
    • Reverse Fixture: Sunderland 2 - 1 Newcastle United
  • Saturday (early): West Ham United v. Swansea City; Boleyn Ground, London
    • Reverse Fixture: Swansea City 0 - 0 West Ham United
  • Saturday: Cardiff City v. Norwich City; Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff
    • Reverse Fixture: Norwich City 0 - 0 Cardiff City
  • Saturday: Everton v. Aston Villa; Goodison Park, Liverpool
    • Reverse Fixture: Aston Villa 0 - 2 Everton
  • Saturday: Fulham v. Southampton; Craven Cottage, London
    • Reverse Fixture: Southampton 2 - 0 Fulham
  • Saturday: Hull City v. Tottenham Hotspur; KC Stadium, Kingston upon Hull
    • Reverse Fixture: Tottenham Hotspur 1 - 0 Hull City
  • Saturday: Stoke City v. Manchester United; Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent
    • Reverse Fixture: Manchester United 3 - 2 Stoke City
  • Sunday (early): West Bromwich Albion v. Liverpool; The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
    • Reverse Fixture: Liverpool 4 - 1 West Bromwich Albion
  • Monday (night): Manchester City v. Chelsea; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
    • Reverse Fixture: Chelsea 2 - 1 Manchester City

Preview by Numbers: Southampton v. Arsenal

St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
Tuesday, January 28
2:45 p.m. EST, 19:45 GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Lee Mason
    • Assistants: Jake Collin and Simon Long
    • 4th Official: Iain Williamson
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 2 - 0 Southampton
  • This Match, Last Year: Southampton 1 - 1 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 44 Arsenal wins, 16 Southampton wins, 23 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: D-W-W-W-W-W
  • Southampton's League Form: L-W-L-L-W-D
  • Weather: Scattered Light Rain, 6 C / 43 F
Lukas Podolski has now scored 834 goals per start in
his Arsenal career, or something.
I've gone ahead and ranked Arsenal's 16 remaining league matches in order of difficulty and this one comes in 8th, meaning it is certainly among the more difficult half of the remaining games. If you're curious, the seven that beat it, in order, are: Chelsea (away,) City (home,) Liverpool (away,) Spurs (away,) Everton (away,) United (home,) and Stoke (away.)

In my preview for the Fulham match, I mentioned that Arsenal have to take maximum points from any game against a team in 8th place or worse to be in with a solid shout for the title; this match is one of those. Road games are always technically trickier, but Arsenal will be boosted for this midweek fixture by the extra day's rest (thank you, Friday night match!)

After this, it's Palace at home on Sunday (which is 16th on the list of 16, FYI,) then Hell Month I (Liverpool twice, United at home, and Bayern Munich in Europe,) a brief lull (though it includes Stoke away,) then Hell Month II: Electric Boogaloo (Arsenal play Spurs, Chelsea, City, and Everton consecutively in the league.)

Very much of that above was looking way too far ahead, in my opinion; I largely included it for completeness. Arsenal can't pick up 16 wins tonight, but they can pick up another vital three points as City and Chelsea (who play Spurs and West Ham, respectively) continue to breathe down their necks.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Wilshere (ankle,) Walcott (knee,) Sanogo (back,) Diaby (knee)
Doubts: Arteta, Ramsey, Vermaelen (all match fitness)

The bad news from the Coventry match is that Jack Wilshere is likely out with an ankle injury; Wilshere played on after picking up the injury in the first half of Friday night's match, but it is worrying that it's the same ankle which kept Jack out for 17 months earlier in his career. On the plus side, Arsenal are boosted by the returns of Mikel Arteta, Thomas Vermaelen, and Aaron Ramsey to the squad.

Ramsey has been out since Boxing Day, while Arteta and Vermaelen have been out since the FA Cup tie against Spurs three weeks ago. Expecting them to swoop straight back into the side after just returning to full training would be a bit much, and with Wilshere out, that leaves Arsenal bereft of defensive midfielders. If you don't have Wilshere, Arteta, or Ramsey, who plays along with Mathieu Flamini in the holding role? Tomas Rosicky? He might still be considered a doubt. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? He started there Friday, but might not have regained the match fitness to play twice in quick succession. I've written my prediction below with Rosicky because I don't expect Arsene Wenger would radically alter the formation from a 4-2-3-1.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Flamini, Rosicky, Cazorla, Gnabry, Ozil, Giroud.

Southampton Squad News

Out: Ramirez (ankle,) Lovren (ankle)
Doubts: Wanyama (calf)
Suspended: Osvaldo (two weeks, imposed by club)

Don't you just love when injured teammates pose for
injury treatment photos and remind the fan base that
they are injured?
Southampton's injury crisis, much like Arsenal's, has been improving as of late. Defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama, out since December 4 with a calf injury, faces a fitness test; he likely lacks a bit of match fitness to return to the starting XI, much like Arteta and Ramsey for Arsenal in the same position. The Saints did lose midfielder Gaston Ramirez and center back Dejan Lovren to ankle ligament damage in their last league match, a 2-2 draw at Sunderland a week and a half ago.

Off the pitch, Southampton have had a brutal week. Striker Dani Osvaldo was suspended two week by the club for a training ground bust-up with Jose Fonte that left "blood everywhere" and the center back with a badly broken nose. Osvaldo, Southampton's record signing, is likely to be transferred elsewhere before the end of this transfer window.

"Club captain" Kelvin Davis said "our dressing room is as solid as it has ever been, and it will continue to be so," in response to the incident, then later in the interview managed to get in a shot at Arsenal's title hopes, saying the Gunners "certainly won’t be getting any favours from us." He added, "I remember playing at Arsenal a couple of seasons ago and we got turned over six," and by a couple of seasons ago, he really means last year. Davis, it should be noted, is Southampton's third string goalkeeper and Adam Lallana usually wears the armband.

In addition, on January 15, club executive chairman Nicola Cortese announced his resignation, citing an "irreconcilable rift" with the club's owner, Katharina Liebherr.

Current Form

In their last league match, Southampton blew a 2-0 lead
to draw Sunderland 2-2. They've been drawn against each
other in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Arsenal's winning run has now been stretched to seven matches, after the 4-0 defeat of Coventry in the FA Cup on Friday night; two of the seven wins have come in the FA Cup, while the remaining five have been in the league: West Ham, Newcastle, Cardiff, Aston Villa, and Fulham. In the seven wins, they have conceded just twice, and after Aston Villa snapped a 390 minute clean sheet streak, Arsenal have responded by going another 194 minutes without conceding since Christian Benteke's goal.

When Southampton visited the Emirates in November, the Saints were third in the table and had gone unbeaten in eight league games. That 2-0 loss was the first of six losses over an 11 match span, during which they have won just twice (over Cardiff and West Brom) and drawn three (against Sunderland, Newcastle, and, well, Manchester City, to be fair.) Injuries have left a devastating toll on a squad that was likely punching above its weight for a while; in the process, the Saints have fallen from third to ninth. They are 20 points off the top, but 13 clear of relegation. While the top six to eight have been consolidated, as has the bottom 11, Southampton sits alone in the center of both groups; they've five points back of the place ahead of them, but seven points clear of the place behind.

Match Facts

In case you've forgotten already...
Arsenal won the reverse fixture 2-0 at the Emirates on November 23, behind an unorthodox brace from Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman opened the scoring after stealing the ball from Southampton goalkeeper Artur Boruc, who was caught out in possession. Giroud completed the scoring in the second half from the penalty spot, from a foul drawn by Per Mertesacker on a set piece.

This corresponding fixture last year was played on New Year's Day 2013 and ended level at 1-1; in a truly dour encounter, Gaston Ramirez opened the scoring in the 35th minute before Arsenal equalized from an own goal after a Theo Walcott free kick. Arsenal had just one shot on target in the match.

Arsenal's last win at St. Mary's was on December 29, 2003; Robert Pires scored the only goal in a 1-0 Gunners' victory. Just seven months earlier, Arsenal had also beaten Southampton 1-0 via a Robert Pires goal in the FA Cup Final. All of that considered, Southampton have not defeated Arsenal since November 23, 2002; Southampton came back from 2-1 down to win 3-2 after Sol Campbell was sent off.

The Referee

The referee is Lancashire-based Lee Mason. Arsenal have seen Mason twice this year, both in road fixtures. The Gunners picked up a 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion and a 3-0 win at Cardiff City with Mason in the middle. You'd never realize it unless you go back and read my Cardiff preview from November, but Arsenal are unbeaten in their last nine matches with Mason, dating back to Lukasz Fabianski's 3-2 loss to Wigan in April of 2010.

Southampton have seen Mason twice this year as well, though both matches were against Sunderland. On the opening day of the year, Mason refereed the Saints' 1-1 draw with the Black Cats. In the League Cup, Mason was in the middle for now-finalist Sunderland's 2-1 fourth round win. Southampton are winless in seven all-time matches with Mason as referee.

Around the League
  • Tuesday: Manchester United v. Cardiff City; Old Trafford, Manchester
    • Reverse Fixture: Cardiff City 2 - 2 Manchester United
  • Tuesday: Norwich City v. Newcastle United; Carrow Road, Norwich
    • Reverse Fixture: Newcastle United 2 - 1 Norwich City
  • Tuesday: Swansea City v. Fulham; Liberty Stadium, Swansea
    • Reverse Fixture: Fulham 1 - 2 Swansea City
  • Tuesday: Crystal Palace v. Hull City; Selhurst Park, London
    • Reverse Fixture: Hull City 0 - 1 Crystal Palace
  • Tuesday: Liverpool v. Everton; Anfield, Liverpool
    • Reverse Fixture: Everton 3 - 3 Liverpool
  • Wednesday: Aston Villa v. West Bromwich Albion; Villa Park, Birmingham
    • Reverse Fixture: West Bromwich Albion 2 - 2 Aston Villa
  • Wednesday: Chelsea v. West Ham United; Stamford Bridge, London
    • Reverse Fixture: West Ham United 0 - 3 Chelsea
  • Wednesday: Sunderland v. Stoke City; Stadium of Light, Sunderland
    • Reverse Fixture: Stoke City 2 - 0 Sunderland
  • Wednesday: Tottenham Hotspur v. Manchester City; White Hart Lane, London
    • Reverse Fixture: Manchester City 6 - 0 Tottenham Hotspur

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Coventry City, FA Cup Fourth Round

Emirates Stadium, London
Friday, January 24
2:45 p.m. EST, 19:45 GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Robert Madley
    • Assistants: Mike Mullarkey and Scott Ledger
    • Fourth Official: Gavin Ward
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 42 Arsenal wins, 14 Coventry wins, 19 draws
  • All-Time in the FA Cup: 2 Arsenal wins, 1 draw
  • Arsenal's Path Here
    • Third Round: Beat Tottenham Hotspur, 2-0
  • Coventry's Path Here
    • First Round: Beat AFC Wimbledon, 3-1
    • Second Round: Drew Hartlepool United, 1-1; Won Replay, 2-1
      Third Round: Beat Barnsley, 2-1
  • Arsenal's Premier League Form: D-W-W-W-W-W
  • Coventry's League One Form: L-W-D-W-D-D
  • Weather: Light Rain, 6 C / 43 F
Tonight, our attention turns back to the FA Cup (with Budweiser!) and the magic BT Sport has given us a Friday night fixture. People have complained about football on a Friday being some sort of sacrilege, but Anfield '89 was a Friday. So, yeah.

The Magic of the Cup (TM) and The Magic of the Budweiser and The Magic of the Random Ping Pong Ball Drawing means Arsenal face League One Coventry City tonight, a club currently 11th in the third tier of English football (thanks to a points deduction; they'd be tied for 6th otherwise.)

So, get out your yellow ribbons and your magic hats 'cause we're the famous Arsenal and we're going to Wemberley, henceforth spelled correctly.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Arteta (calf,) Vermaelen (knee,) Ramsey (thigh,) Walcott (knee,) Sanogo (back,) Diaby (knee)

Poldi wants to start...
I'd normally spend this section talking about the youth, considering this is a fourth round FA Cup tie against a League One opponent, but Arsene Wenger has said that after last year's debacle with Blackburn, he's much less likely to field a weak squad. Sure, there are guaranteed to be some changes, but that most likely means Lukasz Fabianski in goal and, for the love of God I hope, Lukas Podolski starting. If your name is some variety of Lucas and your last name ends in -ski, you should get a start for this match, in my opinion. Actually, I have an 11-year-old cousin that fits that description. That'd be risky...

Nicklas Bendtner has been back in training since Monday and is "available if selected." Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may or may not be handed a start; he played 62 minutes for the Under-21 squad on Monday, in their 4-2 loss to Liverpool. Carl Jenkinson played 90 in that match, as did fringe first-teamers Emmanuel Frimpong and Gedion Zelalem. If the latter is going to get his first Arsenal start this season, it'll come in this one.

Kieran Gibbs might get a start; he hasn't started since the Newcastle match. As for everything else, it's Wenger's judgment call, so I'm not about to try to predict it.

Coventry Squad News

Wantaway Leon Clarke something something Wolves.
The Sky Blues are led up top by Leon Clarke, who has scored 18 goals across all competitions this season. There have also been reports that he's handed in a transfer request to join Wolves. While Clarke is expected to start tonight, fellow forward Callum Wilson, who has 15 goals this season, remains out with a dislocated shoulder.

In Wilson's absence, Belgian Franck Moussa has been starting alongside Clarke up top; Moussa has 12 goals on the year and has scored in four of his last six matches. Moussa and Clarke each scored in Coventry's third round 2-1 win over Barnsley. 22-year-old John Fleck starts at the crux of the midfield and will be in charge of getting the ball forward to the strikers.

New manager Steven Pressley has paid strict attention to fitness, as he has the Sky Blues playing a pressing style. Coventry will likely try to crowd the ball in midfield, rather than park the bus at the back.

Current Form

Presented without comment.
Arsenal have righted the ship, winning six on the bounce since going four winless in December. You know this, I know this, so let's talk about Coventry, since you might not have any idea what their season has been like.

First of all, they're not even playing in Coventry anymore. With the club in administration and after a long dispute with Ricoh Arena over rent and matchday revenue, the club moved all staff out of the stadium. Currently, the club are playing their home games at Sixfields Stadium, the home of Northampton Town, which is 35 miles from Coventry; it's a tactic of playing hardball from the club's owner against the Coventry City Council, who own Ricoh Arena, who have arguably been screwing the club financially for years. Even fans debate who is really to blame in this quagmire.

As for on the pitch, Coventry began the year with a 10 point deduction for being in administration. Despite the deduction, they are currently in 11th place in League One, just 10 points shy of the final playoff spot. They are unbeaten in their last five leagues game and have lost one of their last 11 across all competitions. They crashed out of their other two domestic cups, the League Cup and the League Trophy, after one round, both to League One leader Leyton Orient. They beat League Two's AFC Wimbledon and Hartlepool United, the latter in a replay, to get to the third round, where they beat Championship cellar dwelling Barnsley to reach this cup tie.

Match Facts

Giroud opens his Arsenal account with this handsome,
handsome.... what were we talking about?
Arsenal and Coventry met last season in the third round of the League Cup at the Emirates; Arsenal led just 1-0 at halftime through Olivier Giroud's first goal with the club, though the handsome French bloke also missed a penalty. The Gunners went on to win 6-1, with two goals from Theo Walcott and others from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Andrei Arshavin, and Ignasi Miquel. Callum Ball had Coventry's goal.

Prior to last year's League Cup tie, Arsenal had not played Coventry City since the Sky Blues' last season in the top flight: 2000/01. In that season, Arsenal won 2-1 at Highbury and won 1-0 in Coventry. Coventry's last win against Arsenal was on December 26, 1999, a Boxing Day fixture (obviously.) It is worth mentioning that that remains the last time the Gunners were beaten on Boxing Day. This remains true, even though I copied and pasted that from the preview I wrote last September. Coventry's last win at Arsenal was in 1993; Arsenal are unbeaten in their last nine home meetings with the Sky Blues.

Arsenal have met Coventry twice in the FA Cup and advanced on both occasions. Both previous meetings also came in the fourth round, oddly enough. In January of 1975, Coventry and Arsenal played a 1-1 draw in Coventry; Arsenal won the replay at Highbury four days later, 3-0. In 1977, Arsenal won 3-1 at Highbury.

The Referee

Referee pictures are always so similar...
The referee is West Yorkshire-based Robert Madley. This is Madley's first season in the Select Group of match officials and this will be Madley's second career Arsenal match, both cup ties. Arsenal saw Madley in October for their penalty shootout win over West Bromwich Albion in the League Cup.

This will also be Madley's second Coventry match of the season; he took charge of their 4-4 draw with Preston North End on August 25. Last year, Madley was in the middle for Coventry's 3-2 win over Preston in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Northern area semi-final; Coventry went on to lose to eventual champion Crewe Alexandra in the Northern final. Madley also worked Coventry's 1-1 draw with Milton Keynes Dons earlier in the year last year and a 2-2 draw at Cardiff in the Championship on March 21, 2012.

Around the Fourth Round
  • Friday (night): Nottingham Forest v. Preston North End; City Ground, Nottingham
  • Saturday (early): AFC Bournemouth v. Liverpool; Dean Court, Bournemouth
  • Saturday: Birmingham City v. Swansea City; St. Andrew's, Birmingham
  • Saturday: Bolton Wanderers v. Cardiff City; Reebok Stadium, Bolton
  • Saturday: Huddersfield Town v. Charlton Athletic; John Smith's Stadium, Huddersfield
  • Saturday: Manchester City v. Watford; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
  • Saturday: Port Vale v. Brighton & Hove Albion; Vale Park, Stoke-on-Trent
  • Saturday: Rochdale v. Sheffield Wednesday; Spotland Stadium, Rochdale
  • Saturday: Southampton v. Yeovil Town; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Saturday: Southend United v. Hull City; Roots Hall, Southend-on-Sea
  • Saturday: Sunderland v. Kidderminster Harriers; Stadium of Light, Sunderland
  • Saturday: Wigan Athletic v. Crystal Palace; DW Stadium, Wigan
  • Saturday (late): Stevenage v. Everton; Lamex Stadium, Stevenage
  • Sunday (early): Sheffield United v. Fulham; Bramall Lane, Sheffield
  • Sunday (late): Chelsea v. Stoke City; Stamford Bridge, London

Arsenal 2-0 Fulham: That's the Cazorla We Know

 Photo: Getty Images

This season has had an inordinate amount of games that you can file under Matches We Would Have Lost or Drawn Last Season. This season, Arsenal have won damn near all of them.

It did not look like it would be our day for much of the first half though, with the visitors often looking the side more likely to score. However, we could have put them on the back foot much earlier. A superb flowing move saw Mesut Ozil with room to strike the ball in the penalty area. He had the right idea, going back across the body of keeper Maarten Stekelenburg. Sadly, he scuffed his shot badly enough to allow Brede Hangeland to clear.

Despite that, I would like to state for the record that whenever I see someone on message boards or social media who slags off Ozil, I immediately write them off as someone whose opinion is not worth noting. He has done well despite the expectation that comes with his price tag, not to mention the significant differences between La Liga and the Premier League. Please believe that we haven't seen the best of our Really Expensive German yet.

That aside, Fulham pulled themselves back into the match and even bossed possession from time to time. Rather than opt for quick counters though, they seemed content to hold the ball and give their defense a breather whenever possible. It wasn't a bad gameplan, especially given how poorly Arsenal's passing and touch were as the half wore on. Clearly, they were banking on chances coming their way off of a broken play or an error from the Arsenal backline.

They weren't able to fashion a large number of them, but Steve Sidwell could have scored in the 26th minute. Bacary Sagna's clearing header from a corner kick went only as far as the former Arsenal youngster on the edge of the area. His volley was sweetly struck, but it was a comfortable height for Wojceich Szczesny in the Arsenal goal. The Pole's rebound control was excellent though as he parried it well out to safety.

Speaking of Sagna, there was one moment in the first half that exhibited one of the last remaining flaws in the makeup of this Arsenal team. Ashkan Dejagah's run down the wing was checked by a brilliant sliding tackle from the braided one. The Iranian winger went down claiming an injury, clearly trying to buy a free kick from the referee. Sagna, in turn, played it right out into touch.

Thought exercise: Would any other big club do so in that situation? Sometimes, we are too damned nice and too damned honorable. I don't know if that lack of killer instinct will come back to bite us against better opposition. It would be nice if we could win things playing so honorably, but usually winners will step on your throat if they have to. 

Anyway, Dejagah was in the thick of it again a few minutes later. The excellent Sascha Reither beat Nacho Monreal and played in a fabulous through-ball. Szczesny was alert to the danger though, and smothered at his feet. Great keeping. 

That kicked off a bit of a keeper duel, as Szczesny again has to quickly smother a chance when Dimitar Berbatov played in Alexander Kacaniklic. Stekelenburg, not to be outdone, brilliantly stopped Sagna on the back post off a free kick scramble. Later, he almost pulled an Artur Boruc with Olivier Giroud in attendance, but his Cryuff turn was better executed and he managed to clear the danger. Serge Gnabry was the next to try, cutting in from the right and getting a hard shot away. The Dutch stopper did well to parry, though.

Arsenal's tails were up now, though, and there was an air of inevitability around the eventual result. The Gunners won a free kick, taken by Cazorla. It was curled beautifully to the back post, Sagna again there to receive. Stekelenburg brilliantly got a piece, and the rebound was cleared out by Premier League debutant Dan Burn. Gnabry's follow-up was also blocked.

Some of our teams in years past may have succumbed to frustration at this point. This lot, though, put their heads down and continued to press. That hard work was rewarded just one minute later.

Monreal began the move, sending Cazorla cantering down the left. Santi cut in, and passed to Giroud. The HFB one-touched it out left to Jack Wilshere. The Fulham defense tried to swarm Jack, but Wilshere was able to cut it back to the center despite a 1-on-4 disadvantage. That left Cazorla with ages to receive the ball and curl it around Stekelenburg's dive.

Once the Gunners got the first one, there was not an iota of doubt about the result from that point on.

Along with the increased defensive resilience and improved mental stability, another theme of the season has been our offense scoring goals in bunches. It must be daunting for opposing defenses to have to play against our attackers when they're in the mood, especially right after conceding one.

Arsenal poured forward after the first, Monreal again starting the play. His cross was cleared out by Hangeland, but only as far as Cazorla at the edge of the area. Santi took a touch and then hit a low screamer through the forest of bodies in the penalty area. Stekelenburg, unsighted until it was too late, had no prayer of saving it.

The job mostly done, the Gunners then went largely into lead-protection mode, keeping Fulham at bay with a minimum of fuss. That's not to say that there weren't a few more chances, though. Lukas Podolski came on for Gnabry and almost immediately tested Stekelenburg with a left-footed rasper. The keeper did fantastically well to touch it onto the post. Up the other end, the substitute Darren Bent almost scored his 12 millionth goal against us, but Szczesny did just enough to put him off.

Speaking of: For me, there is a serious argument that Wojceich Szczeny has been the best goalkeeper in the division this season.

The match mostly petered out after that, but Cazorla still had time to almost add an assist to his haul for the day. His run and cross from the left side were perfect, but the returning Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could only head over the bar.

No matter, though. No matter how many matches our rivals win, we continue to set the pace in the Premier League at the moment. There will come a day where we'll have to dig deep and finally give a good account of ourselves against a side like Chelsea or United or City - but until then, as long as we keep getting results against the midtable teams I'll feel confident about that happening.

Onwards and upwards.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings

 Szczesny 8, Monreal 7, Koscielny 8, Mertesacker 7, Sagna 8, Flamini 7, Wilshere 7, Cazorla 9, Ozil 7 (Oxlade-Chamberlain N/A), Gnabry 7 (Podolski 7), Giroud 7

Man of the Match: There really is only one choice, is there? Despite a barnstorming performance from Sagna, another boss-like defensive effort from Laurent Koscielny and the brilliant keeping from Szczesny, Santi Cazorla is the runaway winner.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Fulham

Emirates Stadium, London
Saturday, January 18
10:00 a.m. EST, 15:00 GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Lee Probert
    • Assistants: Simon Beck and Adrian Holmes
    • 4th Official: Lee Mason
  • Reverse Fixture: Fulham 1 - 3 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 3 - 3 Fulham
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 36 Arsenal wins, 8 Fulham wins, 10 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-D-W-W-W-W
  • Fulham's League Form: L-L-W-L-W-L
  • Weather: Partly Cloudy, 8 C / 47 F
"A" is for Arsenal. Oh, and I guess his son Archie, too.
One of the most daunting facts about Arsenal's title challenge is that of five teams behind them, in second through sixth place in the current table, Arsenal have to play four of them on the road: Liverpool in early February, Spurs and Chelsea in quick succession in March, and Everton in April. Of the other two teams in the top seven, the Manchester clubs, those are both home games (United just days after the aforementioned Liverpool match and City the last weekend in March.)

In addition, many of these top teams have rounded into pretty scary form in the league; they are no longer dropping stupid points: City have won nine of their last ten, drawing at Southampton in the process. Chelsea have won eight of their last ten, losing at Stoke and drawing at the Emirates. Liverpool have won six of their last eight, losing only to City and Chelsea in that span. Everton have only lost twice all year, but they've drawn eight. Spurs are unbeaten in five. United have won five of six. Arsenal, meanwhile, had their December blip, went three winless, and have now won four on the bounce.

Points are vital; a title winning club needs to take points like candy from a mid-table club (or something.) Arsenal will play 11 more matches this season against clubs in eighth place of worse; if Arsenal are serious about winning the league this year, I think they must truly consider having to win all of them: Southampton, Hull, Stoke, and Norwich away and Newcastle, Swansea, West Brom, Fulham, West Ham, Sunderland, and Palace at home.

33 points from those 11 games would give Arsenal 81 for the season. Win any three of the other six, and that's 90. With so many matches left to play, even that doesn't lock things up 100%; 90 points gives Arsenal a 98.8% chance of winning the title, but who knows how many points City or Chelsea may (or may not) drop in the spring. With that in mind, you see how crucial matches like these are. These are points you cannot even consider letting go to waste.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Arteta (calf,) Vermaelen (knee,) Ramsey (thigh,) Walcott (knee,) Bendtner (ankle,) Sanogo (back,) Diaby (knee)
Doubts: Monreal (leg,) Rosicky (nose)

If Rosicky plays, he'll have to wear a mask,
which will be very cool.
Nacho Monreal is listed as "a big doubt" for Saturday, though that's considerably better news than the rumor that he had a broken metatarsal. Arsene Wenger has said that there does not appear to be a broken bone, but rather a ligament twist, which sounds just dreadful. In terms of other casualties from Monday, Tomas Rosicky required surgery to reset his broken nose and could be available if the squad's depth is truly dire.

Arsenal's other injuries, both short-term and long-term, remain out: Mikel Arteta (calf,) Thomas Vermaelen (knee,) and Aaron Ramsey (thigh, though everyone is suddenly calling it his calf now) are all out for this weekend and likely the FA Cup tie with Coventry City next week as well. Nicklas Bendtner's return is probably "soon-ish." The same goes for Yaya Sanogo. Abou Diaby is back in March, though of what year remains to be seen. As we all know, Theo Walcott's season is over.

As for the line-up, Arsenal's back line picks itself, though with Monreal and Vermaelen out, there is very little defensive depth on the bench. In a pinch, only Carl Jenkinson is available to come in. With Arteta out, the holding duo will remain Mathieu Flamini and Jack Wilshere, the latter of whom really relished the spot on Monday. Arsenal do have an interesting number of wide options to play outside of Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil in the middle, even without Theo Walcott. Santi Cazorla or Lukas Podolski could play out left; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Serge Gnabry could play out right. I'd really like to see Poldi get a start; he scored twice against Fulham in August.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Flamini, Wilshere, Podolski, Ozil, Gnabry, Giroud.

Fulham Squad News

Out: Briggs (hernia)

Hangeland's return is great news for the Cottagers.
Fulham have been buoyed by some good news at the back on the injury front: goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg returned Tuesday from an injury that had kept him out since December 21 and defender Brede Hangeland returned in the same match for his first game since October 21. Fulham's only long term injury now is Matthew Briggs, who has not played since August.

Aside from Stekelenburg and Hangeland, the rest of Fulham's starting XI will likely be unchanged from the squad that faced Sunderland a week ago. Hangeland will play in the center of defense along with either ex-Arsenal Philippe Senderos or Fernando Amorebieta (it's really a question of which one Hangeland will replace.) Sascha Reither and John Arne Riise are the fullbacks.

Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell play the holding roles in Fulham's 4-2-3-1, with Damien Duff, Adel Taarabt (on loan from QPR,) and Clint Dempsey (on loan from Seattle) in the attacking midfield roles behind Dimitar Berbatov up front.

Current Form

Even Sunderland put four past Fulham last weekend.
Since the December swoon, or blip, or whatever I'm still calling it these days, Arsenal have won five straight across all competitions, four of them in the league. Christian Benteke's goal on Monday that made everything all nervy for 20 minutes was the first conceded by Arsenal since Carlton Cole put West Ham ahead on Boxing Day; that's 390 minutes of football (not counting injury time) between goals. Let's try to do that again, shall we?

Fulham, this season, have not beaten anyone in the top ten and they haven't won a road match against anyone better than 15th place Norwich. With 19 points, the 16th place Cottagers are just one point clear of relegation, and their goal difference, at -24, is worst in the top flight. Their 4-1 home loss to fellow relegation candidate Sunderland on Saturday was certainly a low spot, but they rebounded in the FA Cup to win a replay over Norwich 3-0 on Tuesday to advance to the fourth round, where they will face League One's Sheffield United.

Match Facts

Medium Sized German jumps on Big Fucking German.
After a miserable opening day loss to Aston Villa, Arsenal rebounded in the league by winning 3-1 at Craven Cottage in week two. Olivier Giroud opened the scoring and Lukas Podolski added a brace in the pouring rain, as Arsenal coasted to victory. Darren Bent had a consolation goal for Fulham, because Darren Bent always scores against Arsenal.

This match last season was bonkers. Arsenal went ahead 2-0 through goals from Giroud and Podolski, then Fulham hit back for three, including two from Dimitar Berbatov. Giroud's second of the match equalized in the 69th minute before a frenetic finish. At 3-3, Phil Dowd pointed to the penalty spot in the closing seconds; Mikel Arteta's shot was saved by Mark Schwarzer. The year before that, these sides played a 1-1 draw at the Emirates, when Thomas Vermaelen scored in both nets.

All eight Fulham wins against Arsenal have come with the Cottagers at home. Fulham have visited Highbury/Emirates Stadium 26 times and have come away with a total of five points from five draws, but have drawn at the Emirates in each of the last two seasons. Arsenal have won 21 home meetings with the Cottagers, but have not done so since a 2-1 win on December 4, 2010. Before this season, that match marked the last time Arsenal ever sat top of the league (and it was because United had a game in hand.)

The Referee

"Look at your nose!"
The referee is Wiltshire-based Lee Probert; honestly, we just had him three weeks (and four matches) ago against Newcastle. It is very surprising that he's been handed another Arsenal match in such a short amount of time. Fulham will be happy; one of their eight wins against Arsenal came with Probert in the referee, on January 2, 2012. Probert harshly sent off Johan Djourou via two yellow cards, Sebastian Squillaci came on to replace him in the back four, and Fulham proceeded to score twice in the dying minutes to win 2-1.

Prior to this season, Arsenal were winless in five matches with Probert in the middle, though they have two wins from two with him this year (4-1 over Norwich and 1-0 at Newcastle.) Fulham have had Probert twice, drawing 1-1 with West Brom and losing 3-1 to Manchester United. In the latter of those matches, Probert missed Sascha Riether's stamp on Adnan Januzaj, from which video evidence brought a retroactive ban.

Around the League
  • Saturday (early): Sunderland v. Southampton; Stadium of Light, Sunderland
    • Reverse Fixture: Southampton 1 - 1 Sunderland
  • Saturday: Crystal Palace v. Stoke City; Selhurst Park, London
    • Reverse Fixture: Stoke City 2 - 1 Crystal Palace
  • Saturday: Manchester City v. Cardiff City; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
    • Reverse Fixture: Cardiff City 3 - 2 Manchester City
  • Saturday: Norwich City v. Hull City; Carrow Road, Norwich
    • Reverse Fixture: Hull City 1 - 0 Norwich City
  • Saturday: West Ham United v. Newcastle United; Boleyn Ground, London
    • Reverse Fixture: Newcastle United 0 - 0 West Ham United
  • Saturday (late): Liverpool v. Aston Villa; Anfield, Liverpool
    • Reverse Fixture: Aston Villa 0 - 1 Liverpool
  • Sunday (early): Swansea City v. Tottenham Hotspur; Liberty Stadium, Swansea
    • Reverse Fixture: Tottenham Hotspur 1 - 0 Swansea City
  • Sunday (late): Chelsea v. Manchester United; Stamford Bridge, London
    • Reverse Fixture: Manchester United 0 - 0 Chelsea
  • Monday (night): West Bromwich Albion v. Everton; The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
    • Reverse Fixture: Everton 0 - 0 West Bromwich Albion

Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal: Ugly But Vital

It wasn't pretty, it wasn't easy, but Arsenal went into Birmingham and gutted out a massive win to find themselves back on top of the table on a weekend where every major rival also took maximum points. In doing so, we also put right the ridiculous aberration that was Villa's 3-1 win at the Emirates to open the season.

Villa obviously set out their stall to defend in the early going, with three center-halves officially - though one could argue that they effectively went with a 10-0-0 formation. Even Christian Benteke was back in his own half putting in a shift, as the home side frustrated Arsenal in the early going. The men in yellow enjoyed the lion's share of possession, but were unable to break down a determined Villa side.

An unfortunate injury forced the Villains' manager Paul Lambert into a tactical reshuffle, though. Nathan Baker bravely charged down a ferocious shot off the foot of Serge Gnabry, and took the full force of it directly to the face. He had to be stretchered off after a long delay, and we can only hope that he's all right - if he only got a concussion, he will have gotten off lightly.

Lambert was forced into a 4-4-2 at that point, Leandro Bacuna the replacement. But, they were still fairly comfortable in defense, with Arsenal ineffectual at best in the final third. Every so often, Villa would attempt to counter, but their passing was dreadful and their target men were unable to hold up the play. The one time they threatened to break, Nacho Monreal smartly took the booking to break it up. I also recall Fabian Delph badly missing when left completely open at the top of the box.

Three minutes after Monreal took the yellow, Arsenal were two goals to the good. It was just as awesome in its ruthlessness as it was in its efficiency.

The Arsenal probed down the right wing, but Villa repelled the attack. So, the visitors calmly played it back to the defense, and then tried the left. Mesut Ozil - who once again was mostly iffy but provided that one moment of absolute quality - shredded the defense with a wonderful pass to the overlapping Monreal. The Spaniard cut it back, into the path of the onrushing Jack Wilshere. Young Jack had suffered a bit previous to this moment, giving the ball away on more than a few occasions. Here, however, he was absolute aces. He had the time and space to take a touch and then stroke a low shot past the diving Brad Guzan.

Villa were a bit stunned by the goal, having been in so little danger previously. Seconds later, the Gunners doubled their lead. Delph, the same man who could have turned this game on his head had he not missed so badly earlier, was guilty of an atrocious giveaway in midfield. Wilshere stole it from him and played a wonderful ball over the top to Olivier Giroud. The HFB beautifully controlled the ball with a high boot, and charged into the penalty area. The two defenders in attendance should have done a lot better on the play, but in fairness a weird and lucky deflection off of Giroud's knee fell perfectly onto his shooting foot. He made no mistake, going across the keeper and into the far corner.

Perhaps it was to be expected that Arsenal would go off the boil some after scoring two so quickly. What was more worrying was that we went off the boil for the rest of the match, and could so easily have dropped points against better opposition. First we started getting too cute in possession, attempting silly backheels and party pieces when we should have been going after a decisive third goal. As the game drifted into the second half, we withdrew more and more into a defensive shell as Villa got themselves back off the canvas.

Benteke became more of a factor as Villa rose into the ascendancy, and thankfully Laurent Koscielny was not called for a penalty kick when he may have had a handful of the big striker's shirt in the penalty area. Thankfully, Neil Swarbick had a pretty good game - far better than that idiot Anthony Taylor that we had in the season opener.

Monreal suffered an injury, meaning a return for Kieran Gibbs. He came in and did well, his blistering pace evidence on one run later in the half. Before that though, Arsenal gifted their opponents a goal that almost ended up costing us two vital points.

Santi Cazorla was the man at fault, the one blight on an otherwise-solid performance. His absolutely ridiculous giveaway on the sideline allowed Matthew Lowton to send in a hard, low cross. Per Mertesacker was a bit out of position, allowing Benteke a free header at the back post.

Villa's tails were up at this point and they in turn threw everything they had at us in the last ten minutes. Thankfully, they didn't quite have the quality to unduly trouble us too much. That, and as they have on several occasions already this season, the Gunners stiffened in defense and held when it truly mattered. Mertesacker made several key clearances to atone for his poor positioning on the goal. Tomas Rosicky, himself on as a sub, had to come off with an injury. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made a welcome return in his place.

Despite all this, Villa probably should have got the equalizer that they'll feel they deserved. However, Benteke, when presented with a free header in the area, could only tamely under-hit it directly at Wojceich Szczesny. That was their chance. The final whistle blew a little bit later, sealing the win for the Arsenal.

Look, this isn't a match that any of us will want to remember five minutes from now. But, this is the kind of game that champions win. No matter what kind of talent you have on display, it won't always click the way it should, especially when faced with a team fighting for their lives like Aston Villa. At the end of the day though, we are still top of the league...and it is a damn good feeling.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Monreal 7 (Gibbs 7), Koscielny 8, Mertesacker 8, Sagna 7, Flamini 7, Wilshere 8, Ozil 7, Cazorla 7, Gnabry 7 (Rosicky N/A [Oxlade-Chamberlain N/A]), Giroud 7.

Man of the Match: Wilshere has a serious argument, but I have to go with the immense (no pun intended ) Big Fucking German, Per Mertesacker.

Preview by Numbers: Aston Villa v. Arsenal

Villa Park, Birmingham
Monday, January 13
3:00 p.m. EST, 20:00 GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Neil Swarbrick
    • Assistants: Scott Ledger and Andy Halliday
    • 4th Official: Martin Atkinson
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 1 - 3 Aston Villa
  • This Match, Last Year: Aston Villa 0 - 0 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 76 Arsenal wins, 66 Aston Villa wins, 45 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: D-L-D-W-W-W
  • Aston Villa's League Form: L-L-L-L-D-W
  • Weather: Partly Cloudy, 5 C / 41 F
I love this celebration shot of Santi.
After casting Spurs aside in expert fashion in the FA Cup, it's time to get back to the league, where Arsenal still sit on top with 18 matches to play. Arsenal are still in a run of very winnable matches: their next four are against 11th place Aston Villa, 16th place Fulham, 9th place Southampton (who have tumbled from 3rd in two months,) and 18th place Crystal Palace. After that, Arsenal face Liverpool and Manchester United with a Champions League match against Bayern Munich in there for good measure, so it'll be best to go into that swing on a run of good form.

This Aston Villa match, however, presents a bit of a mental challenge. We all remember what happened in the reverse fixture on opening day. Thankfully, that match turned out to be an aberration, but at the time things looked pretty damn dire. Villa's squad is designed to counter-attack, with some dangerous options up top in Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor. The onus is on Arsenal to do the most with their possession, which Villa will let them have, and make sure the holding midfielders and back line can get back to defend when Villa sense an opportunity.

A deceptively huge three points up for grabs.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Walcott (knee,) Bendtner (ankle,) Sanogo (back,) Diaby (knee)
Doubts: Vermaelen (knee,) Ramsey (thigh,) Gibbs (hamstring)

Get well soon, Theo.
Well, as we all know at this point, the news on Theo "2-0" Walcott is bad; there's ligament damage in his knee and his season is over. I know I'm very often quick to get aggravated by Theo Walcott at times, often exaggerated for comic effect, but you cannot deny that this is a huge and disappointing loss for Arsenal Football Club as they challenge for the title this year. I wish him a very speedy recovery.

In good news up front, Olivier Giroud should be recovered from the illness that kept him so sick in bed that he Instagrammed a photograph of himself still looking immaculate to make us all feel bad about how normal we look compared to him. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is back in training and could be in contention to play against Coventry in the FA Cup next Friday; I think this would be a bit soon for the Ox to return to game action. On Wednesday, Nicklas Bendtner's return was labeled as "10 days" away; yesterday, Arsene Wenger said "three weeks." Yaya Sanogo is also back soon. Remember him? The French kid they got on a free this summer?

Kieran Gibbs and Aaron Ramsey are closer to returns than expected, which is very good news. Thomas Vermaelen, who left at halftime of the FA Cup tie after picking up a knee injury, looks to be too short as well.

And, as for Abou Diaby, his return has been pushed forward to March, because of course it has.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Monreal, Arteta, Wilshere, Podolski, Cazorla, Ozil, Giroud. 

Aston Villa Squad News

Out: N'Zogbia (calf,) Kozak (leg,) Okore (knee)
Doubts: Baker (hamstring,) Vlaar (calf,) Herd (hamstring,) Bennett (back)

Villa's loss to Sheffield United appears to be the 3rd
round's largest giant-killing.
The Villans have been recently buoyed by the return of Christian Benteke from a knee problem which kept him out through many of the holiday fixtures. Libor Kozak had been playing up top with Benteke out, but he suffered a broken leg in training last week and is out for the season. Villa will also be without Charles N'Zogbia (calf) and Jores Okore (knee.)

Benteke will play up top with Gabriel Agbonlahor, who has scored in each of the last two matches he's played. Villa play with three in the front; they may start Andreas Weimann or Marc Albrighton, who has returned from a loan spell at Wigan.

Aston Villa's formation is best described as a 4-3-3; behind their aforementioned forwards, they'll likely play Ashley Westwood, Fabian Delph, and Leandro Bacuna in midfield. Captain Ron Vlaar is a doubt at center back with a calf problem, though they have been rushing him back from injury. I suspect he'll start, paired with Ciaran Clark in the center of defense. Antonio Luna and Matthew Lowton are the fullbacks and American Brad Guzan starts between the sticks.

Predicted XI: Guzan, Lowton, Vlaar, Clark, Luna, Delph, Bacuna, Westwood, Weimann, Agbonlahor, Benteke.

Current Form

The more I get to talk in this section about how Arsenal have rebounded nicely from their December troubles, the better. After going four without a win going into Boxing Day, the Gunners have now won four on the bounce across all competitions; it's the third such streak of that length this season for Arsenal. Their previous four match winning streak was snapped by that aforementioned December blip. Earlier in the year, after losing to Aston Villa in the opener, Arsenal won 10 straight, though really it was seven wins, then a draw that was won on penalties, then two more wins. Still, it is very encouraging to see that Arsenal have put their December misery behind them. Now if they could only just stay healthy...

As for Aston Villa, they're all over the place. As of the beginning of December, Villa had gone five unbeaten in the league; they proceeded to lose four straight to Fulham, Manchester United, Stoke City, and Crystal Palace. They've rebounded with a draw with Swansea and a win over lowly Sunderland since then, but then lost at home in the FA Cup at the weekend to Sheffield United, a side battling relegation from League One, 2-1.

Match Facts

Don't remind me...
The less that's said about the reverse fixture on opening day, the better; however, this would be the spot where we have to discuss that unpleasantness, so let's just dive right in, shall we? Arsenal were counter-attacked to death by an ambitious Villa side that rebounded despite trailing on six minutes from Olivier Giroud's opener. A makeshift Arsenal back four, hampered by an early injury to Kieran Gibbs, struggled with the pace of Christian Benteke, Andreas Weimann, and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Villa were level at halftime from the rebound of a saved penalty, then went ahead through another, more dubious penalty in the second half. Quickly after being booked for conceding the penalty, Laurent Koscielny picked up an even more dubious second yellow, and the Villans scored a third on another counter-attack while Arsenal pressed for the equalizer. 3-1 to Villa, and it looked like Arsenal were well and truly fucked. But then, that's not what happened!

This fixture last year was played at the end of November in a heavy rainstorm. Arsenal got nothing going offensively all game and settled for a 0-0 draw. By the late stages, Arsenal had already settled for the single point, substituting Olivier Giroud for Francis Coquelin in a move that I said at the time "would haunt my dreams." It truly was a dire match, but on the plus side, it still means Arsenal have not lost at Villa Park in their last 14 matches, winning seven and drawing seven. Villa's last win over Arsenal at home came in 1998; Arsenal led that match 2-0 at halftime and lost 3-2.

The Referee

Not shown: Neil Swarbrick's control over Arsenal v.
Everton last season, as he had none. This image is from
a melee at halftime.
The referee is Lancashire-based Neil Swarbrick. Arsenal have not yet seen Swarbrick this season; Aston Villa have seen him once, for a 0-0 draw at home to Sunderland on November 30.

Arsenal had Swarbrick only once last year, for their 0-0 draw against Everton on April 16. Swarbrick lost control of that match early. Arsenal had two wins from two matches with Swarbrick the season prior, at Sunderland 2-1 and at Wolves 3-0, where Arsenal were the beneficiary of a very early penalty and red card to a Wolves defender.

Aston Villa had a mixed bag of results with Swarbrick last year: they beat Liverpool 3-1 at Anfield, but also lost 2-0 to Spurs at the Lane, drew 2-2 at Wigan on the final day of the season (meaningless at that point,) and crashed out of the FA Cup 2-1 to Millwall.

Around the League
  • Saturday (early): Hull City v. Chelsea; KC Stadium, Kingston upon Hull
    • Reverse Fixture: Chelsea 2 - 0 Hull City
  • Saturday: Cardiff City v. West Ham United; Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff
    • Reverse Fixture: West Ham United 2 - 0 Cardiff City
  • Saturday: Everton v. Norwich City; Goodison Park, Liverpool
    • Reverse Fixture: Norwich City 2 - 2 Everton
  • Saturday: Fulham v. Sunderland; Craven Cottage, London
    • Reverse Fixture: Sunderland 0 - 1 Fulham
  • Saturday: Southampton v. West Bromwich Albion; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
    • Reverse Fixture: West Bromwich Albion 0 - 1 Southampton
  • Saturday: Tottenham Hotspur v. Crystal Palace; White Hart Lane, London
    • Reverse Fixture: Crystal Palace 0 - 1 Tottenham Hotspur
  • Saturday (late): Manchester United v. Swansea City; Old Trafford, Manchester
    • Reverse Fixture: Swansea City 1 - 4 Manchester United
  • Sunday (early): Newcastle United v. Manchester City; St. James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne
    • Reverse Fixture: Manchester City 4 - 0 Newcastle United
  • Sunday (late): Stoke City v. Liverpool; Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent
    • Reverse Fixture: Liverpool 1 - 0 Stoke City

They Don't Represent Us

I have long referred to Twitter as “The Realm of the Damned”, and I’ve seen little in my infrequent trips there that gives me pause to change my mind. I have a theory that the 140-character limit tends to distill stupid down to its essence (though in fairness it can also do the same for brilliance in the right hands), and there has been no shortage of that going around today. I won’t glorify the troglodyte in question by posting his Twitter handle or showing a screenshot of the tweets, but the upshot is that some Gooners have responded to Spurs supporters trolling about Theo Walcott’s injury with some truly vile anti-Semitic keyboard vomit.

Let’s be crystal clear about this – these people are about as representative of Gooner fandom as a cancerous tumor is of an entire body.

One thing that has never failed to astonish me about this club is how multi-cultural it is and always has been. Here in New York, when you step into the Blind Pig or O’Hanlon’s, you will see a tremendous range of people united in a common cause. The first time I went to Highbury, I had long conversations about our club and football in general with people from as far away as Senegal. When I go into the Admin section of the NYC Arsenal Supporters Facebook page, I see that our average user is an 18-25 year old from Bangkok, Thailand (no, really…that’s true). Every week when I write a match report (well, not every week based on my performance this season, but you know what I mean), I love to scroll through the people who click “Like” and see how many different countries they represent. I mean, I come home from the pub half in the bag and type some bollocks about a match you’ve all already seen, and people thousands of miles away take time out of their day to read it, in a language that often isn’t their first.

If that doesn’t say it all about the values of what this club actually represents, I don’t know what else to tell you.

That’s why it gets to me more than it probably should when I see some dipshit on Twitter saying stuff like this. It especially enrages me when “LOL #BANTZ” is the catch-all excuse for everything, no matter how disgusting and anti-social it may be. Banter is one thing – you only sing when you’re winning, Soldado is shit and he knows he is, 61 and never again, Tottenham Hotspur it’s happened again – but I’d like to think that there is a line that most right-thinking people can agree on somewhere to the nearest decimal point.

As far as I’m concerned, anything that happened in 1942 is well beyond that point, unless it happens to be how Arsenal won the special wartime London League that season (even back then, they were still forever in our shadow).

Hearteningly, the person in question got his and then some by Gooners angered at what they were saying in our collective name. Good. It would be even better if the club itself would go onto Twitter in times like this with a simple “People who discriminate on race, creed, sexual orientation, etc are not welcome in our club. Go support someone else”, so that thousands of retweets later the message would be louder and clearer than it is now.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not trying to hold us up as the only club whose supporters largely consist of good people. There are plenty of Tottenham fans out there who are fine human beings, albeit ones who made an unfortunate mistake in rooting interest somewhere along the way. That goes for damn near every other club as well – I know plenty of Liverpool and Chelsea and Manchester United and Manchester City supporters who I am proud to call my friends. Our club support is absolutely a part of who we are, but it is not and never should be ALL of who we are. The line should end at real life.

So, by all means, give it large to your Spurs-supporting mates this week. Remind your United friends just how hilariously poor their side were in the FA Cup against Swansea this weekend past. Jab away at Liverpool peeps because, well, Luis Suarez exists. But, let’s leave the racist shit in the bin where it belongs. 

We're better than that. We are the Arsenal. 

Arsenal 2-0 Tottenham Hotspur: Tell 'Em the Score, Theo!

It may not have had the same spark that many other editions of this fixture have had, but it turned out to be enjoyable all the same as a rampant Arsenal overwhelmed their oddly-sedate counterparts to progress to the 4th round of the FA Cup.

Many of us (myself included, I won't lie) would not have been so sanguine before the match given the team sheet that Arsene Wenger put out. Theo Walcott was on his own up top, Per Mertesacker was rested, and there were starts for young Serge Gnabry and Lukasz Fabianski in goal. Meanwhile, our nearest and dearest fielded a full-strength lineup.

That said, caretaker manager Tim Sherwood deployed them in a straight 4-4-2 formation, guaranteeing that their central pair would get overwhelmed by a wave of red shirts. With Walcott playing more as a false nine than an out-and-out striker, that left them often having to defend two-on-four in the middle. Needless to say, they struggled to keep hold of the ball and left their front two largely starved of service.

Maybe there really is something to this "Sherwood is a Gooner" lark, after all. 

That's not to say that they didn't have their chances, though. Arsenal's makeshift defense did fall asleep at times, the dreaded Thomas Vermaelen - Laurent Koscielny pairing once again showing that it is less than ideal. Ten minutes in, Christian Eriksen zipped past the dozing Gunners' backline and came in alone on Fabianski.

Remember this moment when we talk about the heroes of the game. We'll get to Tomas Rosicky, and Santi Cazorla, and Gnabry, and Mertesacker. But, if Eriksen scores there, I insist that this is a vastly different match - one we may not have gone on to win. Fabianski - rightly so, in many cases - has gotten a ton of stick from Arsenal supporters in the past. He's gone on to become a solid backup though, and he went a long way towards winning us the points here by staying composed (and more importantly, upright) as Eriksen walked in. The Dane tried to go near post, and was denied by the keeper's trailing leg.

It was a massive save, and the home side kicked on from there. Walcott tested Hugo Lloris with a low rasper, and Gnabry blazed one over the bar soon after. Arsenal became more comfortable and more threatening, while Spurs lost much of their attacking impetus. The one time they did reach our area, Vermaelen came up with a brilliant saving tackle to clear the danger.

We should have been 1-0 up immediately after, as the fantastic Rosicky shredded the visitors' defense with a long diagonal ball. Walcott ran onto it, and had Nacho Monreal all alone on the back post (this was a constant theme - Kyle Walker had a mare at RB for them, as we'll see on our first goal). Instead of squaring it out to him though, he hit a tame shot directly at Lloris.

Spurs ignored the warning signs though, and a mirror image of that play resulted in the game's opening goal. This time, it was Gnabry who played the pass into the path of the wide-open Cazorla. Once again, Walker had gone walkabout, leaving the Spaniard with acres to operate in. The shot was still on a tough angle though, but Cazorla threaded the needle into the far post perfectly. Lloris might be a bit disappointed though - he cheated to the near post and was already falling over to that side as Santi was taking the shot. I remind you again of Fabianski's composure under fire when Eriksen was in alone.

Unlike so many other NLDs, one side scoring did not spark the other into life. Spurs looked to be going through the motions, bereft of ideas as to what to do the rare times they did have the ball. Rosicky put in a performance that Ray Parlour would be proud of, harrying and chasing with boundless energy. Gnabry was excellent on the ball, helping us keep possession. Monreal arguably had his best match in our colors, with no evidence of his former positional issues seeping into his play.

Our nearest and dearest did wake up a bit after the restart, but Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor displayed varying levels of uselessness. The latter's fresh-air swipe at a loose ball was an appreciated moment of high comedy. Have some of that, you bastard.

Walcott's finishing wasn't much better, but thankfully we would not rely on him for goals. Danny Rose, who you may remember from one ridiculous wonder-goal against us (and absolutely nothing else) had the ball in a harmless area of midfield. He badly dawdled on it though, allowing Rosicky to storm in and win it off of him. That left him in alone on Lloris, who again committed a bit early. Tommy read that perfectly, and chipped it over the onrushing keeper.

Mertesacker had replaced Vermaelen at halftime, and later Flamini came on for Wilshere to shore things up. Soon after, Mesut Ozil came on for Mikel Arteta, surely in an attempt to generate a threat on the break. Unfortunately for us, Walcott went down injured with ten minutes to go. That left us down a man, and gave Spurs an avenue back into the match.

Well, it would have, if they weren't 100 million Euros of shit in a 50-million Euro bag.

That's the thing. They offered less than nothing going forward in that situation. It was not that long ago where we very easily could have shipped two or even three in that scenario. I mean, how psyched would the guy who went to Real Madrid have been to run at 10 men there? That guy is long gone though, and the Arsenal saw things through with a minimum of fuss.

So, as ever, mind the gap while in forever in our shadow, Tottenham. We'll send you a postcard from the 4th round, preferably with a picture of Theo's gesture from the stretcher on the front of it (why are we even surprised that their troglodyte supporters threw coins at him, by the way? Classless act from classless people).

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Fabianski 7, Monreal 8, Koscielny 7, Vermaelen 7 (Mertesacker 7), Sagna 7, Wilshere 6 (Flamini 7), Arteta 7 (Ozil 7), Gnabry 8, Cazorla 8, Rosicky 9, Walcott 6.

Man of the Match: Our all-action Czech, Tomas Rosicky