Ten Thoughts: FA Cup Final - Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea

Photo: The Guardian

Now that there's a moment to reflect after vocal chords have been bruised, jumpy screamy celebrations have been done, champagne has been drunk, friends and strangers have been hugged and that warm, relaxed afterglow feeling that former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton would call "the cool of the evening" has settled in, I can only now begin to process in my mind that our Arsenal battered the ever-loving shit out of this season's rampant and deserved Premier League champions in today's FA Cup Final.

Honestly? The Chavs can bitch about that handball/offside goal all they like, but they're lucky we didn't run out of there 6-1 winners. Also, they can go get fucked. Start with Diego Costa, please.

And that, right there, is the beauty of this competition and why I love it so damn much. Over the entirety of a 38-match season, you get found out if there is any drop in the required levels. But, in a one-off knockout scenario, it turns out that you CAN fight City Hall. That's the secret. That's where the magic lives.

So, the inevitable hot takes you'll see about how this trophy is diminished or whatever-the-fuck about next season's Champions League, it all misses the point. This has not been a wonderful season for a multitude of reasons, but joy doesn't come in jumbo servings anyway. Football exists for moments like today - yellow ribbons worn as samurai headbands or corsages, smiles of childish glee, cares of the world forgotten for little fleeting moments, beer showers, and a 13th FA Cup trophy in the cabinet.

Absolute goddamn bliss.

1. I'll admit it - I was not optimistic before a ball was kicked this afternoon. I had said on the Facebook machine that I hoped that our boys fought hard and didn't embarrass us. While I will never say that you can't understand the game if you've never played it, the one thing that is hard to translate minus that direct experience is how much of the sport is played in the fields between the players' ears. Confidence is fleeting and unpredictable, so imagine the boost it must have been to be up 1-0 before the match was five minutes old.

Second admission - the goal shouldn't have counted. Not only did Alexis Sanchez handle the ball in the build-up, but Aaron Ramsey was indeed offside as far as the letter of the law goes. I've been studying to become a registered referee for those that don't know, and the key here is that while he didn't touch the ball and was not involved in Alexis' shot rifling past Thibaut Courtois' flailing leg, his presence alone is what made him offside. His proximity to the keeper meant that Courtois had to visually account for his presence, and again, as written in the laws, visual interference is still interference.

However, and this is a massive bloody however, I couldn't give half a shit. We have been victimized by preposterous refereeing decisions so much over the years, I can't bring myself to say anything other than "swings and roundabouts". It's about damn time we got the rub of the green for once.

Also: Play to the whistle, nimrods.

2. According to Wikipedia, the Colossus of Rhodes was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, built on the Greek island of Rhodes in 280 BC to celebrate victory in a war against Cyprus.

According to your intrepid reporter, the Colossus of Wembley is an Arsenal defender of German extraction, born in the town of Hannover in 1984 AD and celebrated victory in a football match against odious barbarians from west London.

Our entire defense played like titans today, but Per Mertesacker stood tallest of them all. It defies belief when you consider the scope: Our best center-half suspended for a rash tackle in a meaningless game. Another injured of his own doing in another reckless challenge in the same match. A natural left back performing with aplomb in the center. A kid we bought for like a million pounds playing like a top-class seasoned veteran. A central midfielder with a few games at right wing-back somehow doing a job at left wing-back. The more natural right wing-back recovering from a season-long malaise precisely when his best was needed. The much-maligned cup keeper taking over for the in-form starter and somehow pulling off a worldie save right at the end.

While Chelsea were not at their fluent best, this was still a side that boasted Eden Hazard, Pedro, Diego Costa and (later) Cesc Fabregas. They have made fools out of better defenses - on paper - then ours, but our lads had them in their pocket all day. Timely blocks, key interceptions, perfectly-executed sliding challenges, they provided exactly what was needed time and again to keep the blue hordes at bay.

In the fullness of time, I'll likely forget both of our goals. I'll definitely forget theirs. But, that defensive performance will be etched into my memory for as long as I live. Immense. Massive. Other related synonyms.

3. I find it necessary to spare a few words for David Ospina. Like many, I was apoplectic when news came out that he was taking the gloves from Petr Cech in this, our most important match of the season. Cech has been in stellar form over the last month, and I believe that sentimentality has no place when a trophy is on the line.

No one is saying that Ospina is the man for us over that 38-match slog of a league season. I'd go so far as to say that like Lukasz Fabianski before him, this should be thank you and farewell. I'd go even further to say that he was horrendous on Chelsea's goal, deflection or not, as that was a serious case of papier-mache wrist.

The final reckoning showed far more tick marks in the credit side of the ledger, though. He got down low brilliantly to save Victor Moses' low drive early in the second half. He gave up his body under severe risk of injury to keep out Costa in the first half. Countless times, especially in the last 10-15 minutes when a desperate Chelsea threw everything at us in one last furious outburst, the Colombian stopper was there to claim a cross and settle down the nerves.

Then, of course, there was THAT save. Up 2-1 at the death, nerves fraying, Mertesacker easily brushed aside in front of him, Ospina got down incredibly fast to somehow repel Costa's low rasper. That shot, that open, from that location is a goal damn near every time. Ospina stole that one, and it won us the game.

4. Another point to consider is as well as we played, as wonderful as that effort was, this result also comes down to Chelsea forgetting what got them here. It looked to me like Antonio Conte's version of the team was already sunning themselves in Ibiza or Marbella, and Jose Mourinho's vintage were the ones on the hallowed Wembley pitch. Cynical, divey, plodding, overly-defensive...all the hallmarks were there. Costa managed to con Anthony Taylor a few times, and we got some mystifying yellow cards, but their cynicism ultimately proved to be their undoing.

What Moses was thinking with that clownish dive in our penalty area when he was already on a booking, I'll never know. Sure, most referees wouldn't have the minerals to show the second yellow there, but why take that chance in his shoes?

I don't know if we would have held in those last madcap minutes or not if Chelsea had had their full complement of players, but I do know that Moses' idiocy made our job much easier. Cheers, bud.

5. Halftime fun: I want to be this man when I grow up.

What. A. Legend.

6. Remember when I was talking about the mental battle often proving vital in this game? Chelsea's goal came in the 76th minute. Our winner came in the 79th. That's character. That's not letting your head drop, that's saying "OK, we'll go get that back", and then actually doing it.

It would have been so easy for the guys to fall to pieces, too. I certainly feared the worst, especially because goalkeeping mistakes are often killers to a team's mental well-being. But, one substitution later, Courtois was picking the ball out of his net again. As it turned out, it was a headed goal involving Ramsey and Olivier Giroud, but the mad thing was that it was Ramsey nodding in from the big man's cross. Giroud's first touch was his foray down the right, and I'd pay good money to know whether Conte was more enraged at how Giroud was so open to cross it in, or Ramsey was so open to drill his header home.

That's for all of you who said that Ollie wasn't good enough, by the by.

7. Speaking of Ramsey, he and Granit Xhaka were fantastic in the center of the park (of course, I was screaming in the pub for A-A-Ron to be subbed off nanoseconds before he scored the winner, proving as always that I'm a complete dolt and should not be trusted). There were plenty of redemption stories to be found in red and white today, but both of those lads are right there at the top.

The Welshman has not had an outstanding season by his previous standards, and I suspect he'd be the first to admit that. He does have a knack for scoring goals in FA Cup Finals though, eh? That's the thing with him - he never stops running, never stops fighting, never gives up. It's bloody admirable.

As for Xhaka, I don't know if I've ever seen so many premature "waste of money" hot takes from people who should know better. I've said it before, and I'll say it a million more times - how quickly (or not) a player adjusts to the Premier League differs from player to player, and sometimes it's not until the second season that a guy's true value shines through. This guy can run, pass, tackle, shoot...he can do it all. He's a complete midfielder and you mark my goddamn words, he's going to boss this division next season.

8. Speaking of bossing, this should have been a lot more comfortable, shouldn't it? How many were cleared off the line? How many hit the woodwork? How many did the excellent Courtois keep out? How many fizzed just the wrong side of the post? History is going to show that we scraped this 2-1, and it will show that Mesut Ozil didn't trouble the scoresheet. However, in an alternative timeline, Ozil has a goal and two assists in a 6-1 tonking and a few more zeroes get added to his next contract.

The people who know will tell you. Mesut was brilliant today.

9. Something that wasn't brilliant - four bloody goddamn minutes of injury time at the end. Man, that was torture. It felt like weeks passed in between each second of added time, a wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey phenomenon made worse by the fact that it felt like someone was massaging my nerve endings with extra-strength Brillo pads. Fuck me, that took five years off my life.

It also didn't help that Taylor added 30 seconds on beyond that for our time-wasting substitution, which on one hand is fair play but on the other something that you rarely see happen. Naturally, I'm aware that the number of minutes indicated is the minimum to be added on, but by that point I was a broken man, pleading with whatever deity was chancing to listen for Taylor to blow his whistle and end our suffering.

Then, he did. And with that, dear Chelsea, you can shove your fucking double up your arse.

(Also, shit club no history, etc and so on.)

10. OK, we have to end it by talking about this man:

Look at how happy he is! Isn't it a joy?

Today, I'm not talking about the future that is still to come. I will not talk, any more than necessary, about the recent past that we now cannot change. There's plenty of time for the first, and I'm sick to my damn back teeth of the second.

Today, I'm talking about 7 FA Cups, which is more than most clubs have earned in a century-plus of history. That includes Liverpool AND the nearest and dearest, by the way.

Today, I'm talking about a guy that has taken unbelievable, sickening abuse for the apparently heinous crime of having a bit of an underwhelming season of association football.

Today, I'm talking about a guy who has taken that abuse on the chin, with pride and grace, when realistically a lot of it should have been directed at the absentee landlord that owns this club.

Today, I'm talking about a guy who finished above Jose Mourinho's lot, when by the way they spent the GDP of a small continent to still end up behind us.

Today, I'm talking about the guy that took us out of the dark ages and made us one of the biggest clubs in world football.

Today, I'm talking about the guy that has delivered 3 FA Cups in the last 4 seasons. The nearest and dearest's best season since 1961 yielded one less trophy than our worst one in ages did.

We can talk about all the rest of it on some other day. I'm glad he got to enjoy this. I'm glad he got to smile today.

Thank you, Arsene.
Thank you, David.
Thank you, Nacho.
Thank you, Per.
Thank you, Rob.
Thank you, Alex.
Thank you, Hector.
Thank you, Granit.
Thank you, Aaron.
Thank you, Alexis.
Thank you, Mesut.
Thank you, Danny.
Thank you, Olivier.
Thank you, Francis.
Thank you, Mohamed.

Thank you, Arsenal.

Man of the Match: All of them, duh.  OK, OK, if you have to pick one then it's clearly Per Mertesacker. An absolute career-defining performance, in only his second appearance of the year. Welcome to the Arsenal pantheon, BFG.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Chelsea, FA Cup Final

Wembley Stadium, London
Saturday, May 27
12:30 p.m. EDT, 17:30 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Anthony Taylor
    • Assistants: Gary Beswick and Marc Perry
    • 4th Official: Robert Madley
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 73 Arsenal wins, 62 Chelsea wins, 54 draws
  • All-Time in the FA Cup: 8 Arsenal wins, 5 Chelsea wins, 6 draws
  • Arsenal's Path Here
    • Third Round: Beat Preston North End, 2-1
    • Fourth Round: Beat Southampton, 5-0
    • Fifth Round: Beat Sutton United, 2-0
    • Sixth Round: Beat Lincoln City, 5-0
    • Semi-Final: Beat Manchester City, 2-1 after extra time
  • Chelsea's Path Here
    • Third Round: Beat Peterborough United, 4-1
    • Fourth Round: Beat Brentford, 4-0
    • Fifth Round: Beat Wolverhampton Wanderers, 2-0
    • Sixth Round: Beat Manchester United, 1-0
    • Semi-Final: Beat Tottenham Hotspur, 4-2
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-W-W-W-W-W
  • Chelsea's League Form: L-W-W-W-W-W
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more...

The league season is over now and for the first time in over 20 years, Arsenal have finished outside of the top four. Astonishingly, they finished with more points this year (75) than they had in 10 of the 20 consecutive seasons where they qualified for Champions League football, so figure that one out. Just one of the many weird existential questions we'll have to ask ourselves in this season's postmortem: what the hell actually went wrong here?

There are many who won't give Arsenal a snowball's chance in hell for this game and it's quite easy to see why; it was hard to give Arsenal much of a chance even before all of their defenders got hurt and suspended at the same time.

That being said, anything can happen in a single 90-minute match of football. That's why they don't play matches on paper; they play them inside of television screens on 14th Street.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Gabriel (knee,) Cazorla (Achilles)
Doubts: Mustafi (concussion,) Gibbs (thigh,) Oxlade-Chamberlain (hamstring,) Pérez (fictional)
Suspended: Koscielny (first of three, serious foul play)

Hey, have you ever played the position of central defender? If so, I know a London-based club that could probably use your services!

Arsenal's season started to swing back in the right direction once they started playing three center backs in April, but now, it might be a stretch to even name three available center backs that could start tomorrow. So, let's figure this out.

Here's a list of Arsenal's first team defenders, listed by squad number, listing their level of availability:

Mathieu Debuchy (probably available, but far from ideal)
Kieran Gibbs (doubtful)
Per Mertesacker (available, but not quite ideal)
Gabriel (out)
Laurent Koscielny (out)
Rob Holding (available)
Nacho Monreal (available)
Shkodran Mustafi (doubtful)
Héctor Bellerín (available)
Carl Jenkinson (see Debuchy)

Thank God there are four names available, though you could argue that Mertesacker is not ideal for a match of this magnitude, given how little he has played this season. Like, do we even still have Mathieu Debuchy? There were photographs of him at an end of season event looking glum (or, as they say in France, le gluuuumme), so he does exist. I haven't been bothered to check if Lucas Pérez is in any of those pictures because I'm going to maintain that he's fictional.

My guess is that Mertesacker will anchor a back three including Rob Holding and Héctor Bellerín, Nacho Monreal will start on the left and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, back in full training from his injury suffered at Southampton, will start on the right.

From there, the selection seems easy to me, aside from center forward. Danny Welbeck was a bit wasteful against Everton last weekend but strikes me as a better option than Olivier Giroud at the moment.

Predicted XI: Čech, Bellerín, Mertesacker, Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Özil, Alexis, Welbeck.

Chelsea Squad News

Out: Loftus-Cheek (back)

Thanks to Chelsea's deal with Satan, which was re-upped for another five years last summer, the Blues have no major injury concerns entering the final. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has been out with a nagging back problem; he made only six appearances in the league this season, none of them starts, which has led to swirling transfer speculation around the 21-year-old midfielder.

Chelsea play a 3-4-3 formation, something they switched to after losing to Arsenal in September (covered below), with a back three composed of David Luiz, Gary Cahill, and César Azpilicueta. The midfield four are usually Victor Moses, Marcos Alonso, Nemanja Matić, and either Cesc Fàbregas or N'Golo Kanté.

The attacking trio feels a bit like Murderers' Row, with Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, and Pedro all capable of doing quite a bit of damage against an Arsenal back three-or-four-or-five that is being held together with duct tape and Per Mertesacker's long reach.

Predicted XI: Courtois, Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta, Moses, Alonso, Matić, Fàbregas, Hazard, Pedro, Costa.

Season in Review

Both of these sides switched to a back-three this season following a 3-0 road loss within London. For one, it made them runaway title winners. For the other, it came far too late.

When Arsenal beat Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates in September (covered in more detail below,) they were in the middle of what would go on to be a 19-match unbeaten run across all competitions. The loss, Chelsea's second in a row at that point, dropped the Blues to eighth in the table after six games. A week later, at Hull, they struggled to a 2-0 win. From the BBC recap of that match:
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte promised "a solution" after his side went down with a whimper against Arsenal last weekend and he found his answer in a strategy he used at former club Juventus. The Italian opted for a three-man defence during much of this trophy-filled time in Turin and deployed Gary Cahill, David Luiz and César Azpilicueta at the back as he organised his Chelsea rearguard to match.
The win at Hull was the first of 13 consecutive league wins for the Blues as they catapulted their way to the top of the table. Even after Spurs snapped the winning streak on January 4, Chelsea still went on to win 14 of their final 18 league games, as they won the league by seven points.

Arsenal, of course, stumbled throughout the winter and spring. Two losses in mid-December left Arsenal nine points out of first on Christmas. By the end of the season, that gap doubled.

The warning signs were there in January, when the Gunners spotted Bournemouth a 3-0 lead before having to storm back to draw 3-3. But, they responded by winning their next four across all competitions. The season truly fell apart in the last week of January and first week of February, when Arsenal were blitzed out of the gate at home by Watford, lost 2-1, then lost at Stamford Bridge four days later. Starting with the Watford match, Arsenal lost eight times in a 16-game span across all competitions.

After losing to Tottenham on April 30, Arsenal finished the season by winning five straight, but it was too-little, too-late.

Match Facts

Arsenal and Chelsea split their league meetings this season, with both sides winning at home under very different circumstances.

It feels so long ago that Arsenal ran riot over the Blues at the Emirates (it was September 24, so, eight months ago, I suppose that is a long time...) Arsenal jumped out to a huge lead, with Alexis Sánchez pouncing on a Gary Cahill error in the 11th minute before Theo Walcott doubled the lead three minutes later. Mesut Özil added a third before halftime and Arsenal coasted to a 3-0 win.

At Stamford Bridge in February, Chelsea bludgeoned their way to an early lead, quite literally, as Marcos Alonso used his elbow to beat Hector Bellerín to a header on 13 minutes, forcing the Arsenal right back out of the game with a concussion to boot. Arsenal did well to keep the match close, but Francis Coquelin did not do well to keep Eden Hazard close on 53 minutes and the Belgian scored a wonderful individual goal to double the lead. Cesc Fàbregas made it three from a Petr Čech error on 85 minutes and Olivier Giroud scored a consolation goal in injury time.

Historically speaking, there was a watershed in the course of this rivalry, though it was not a league game or an FA Cup tie, but a Champions League tie in 2004. To remind you that the watershed came during the Invincibles season borders on blasphemy. It was, of course, Wayne Bridge's 87th minute goal at Highbury that saw Chelsea through to the semi-finals 3-2 on aggregate. Since that match, Chelsea and Arsenal have played 31 times across all competitions. Chelsea have won 18 them. Seven have ended drawn. That leaves just six Arsenal wins in 13 years.

Chelsea and Arsenal have met in 13 previous FA Cup ties; Arsenal have won eight and Chelsea have won five. After splitting the first two, with Chelsea winning in 1915 and Arsenal winning in 1930, the Blues won three straight meetings in '31, '39, and '47. Arsenal then won seven consecutive ties between the clubs, in 1950, 1952, 1973, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004. That 2004 win and the two league encounters that season (both Arsenal wins) came before that fateful Champions League tie, of course. The sides last met in 2009, with Chelsea winning 2-1 in the semifinal.

The Referee

The referee is Cheshire-based Anthony Taylor. Taylor has had a colorful history when it comes to Arsenal, including that season-opening loss to Aston Villa almost four years ago as well as Arsène Wenger calling him "dishonest to his federation" when he was the fourth official against Burnley during the winter. Colorful history aside, Arsenal all-time have a record of 12 wins, five draws, and two losses with Taylor in the middle, across all competitions.

Arsenal only had Taylor as a referee twice this season and both instances came after the whole "dishonest to your federation" thing. The first was the FA Cup sixth round tie against Lincoln City, which Arsenal won 5-0. The other was the first match of Arsenal's back-three experiment, the 2-1 win at Middlesbrough on April 17.

All-time, Chelsea have a record of 11 wins, four draws, and four losses with Taylor in the middle. Only one of those losses was a league fixture (1-0 at Stoke in 2015.) Two of the three losses were League Cup losses: 2-0 to Swansea in the first leg of the 2012/13 semifinal (it was the second leg when Eden Hazard kicked a ballboy and was sent off by Chris Foy) and 2-1 after extra time to Sunderland the following season.

Taylor has worked a match between these two clubs at Wembley before; he was in charge of Arsenal's 1-0 win in the 2016 Community Shield, which was Chelsea's fourth loss from the list.

This year, Chelsea won all four games in which they had Taylor as the referee (though, to be fair, they did win 79% of their games this year in total): 2-1 over West Ham in August, 2-0 at Hull in October, 3-1 at Manchester City in December, and 2-1 at Stoke in March.

John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and an intensive pronoun. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat yourself.

Five Thoughts: Arsenal 3-1 Everton

Thank you, random social media intern at UEFA! That's what we needed today, shade thrown at us from some kid making like 12 Euros an hour. Fantastic. Anyway, this is going to be short as there's not much point dissecting this in detail, and I have a weapons-grade hangover anyway.

1. Not that we should have ever needed to rely on them, but I'm going to say it anyway: Middlesbrough, you absolutely useless bastards. Good riddance.

2. Our capacity to make thoroughly average (or worse) goalkeepers continued today, as this oddly enough would have been a cricket score had Joel Robles not put up his best performance of the season. Of course he did, even if he is (in my professional opinion) the literal worst starting keeper in the entire Premier League. Some of it was down to our finishing too, but in fairness to the guy he had a good game.

The goals, though, were quite good. The first almost didn't happen, as Danny Welbeck whiffed in hilarious fashion when Mesut Ozil presented a chance on a plate for him. Miss of the season there, for me. Luckily, Hector Bellerin was on hand to sweep it home.

The second was the platonic ideal of the "always play to the whistle" cliche. A pass deflected off of Leighton Baines into the path of Welbeck, and literally everyone in a blue shirt (yellow, in Robles' case) stopped playing like someone had flicked the off switch. They stood stock still as Welbeck passed it to Alexis, who tapped it in. You won't see a more obvious end-of-season-and-we're-on-the-beach-already bit of defending than that.

The last one came in injury time, as Aaron Ramsey got the ball on the edge of the area and curled an unstoppable beauty around Robles and into the far corner. This season's been a bit shit, obviously, but that was a nice way to end it at least.

3. We are in a bit of a pickle for the cup final though, specifically in central defense. Laurent Koscielny got himself sent off in the 14th minute for a ridiculous, stupid, rash, reckless tackle on Enner Valencia that could well have caused him serious harm. Sorry, but that's a red card all damn day.

Later, Gabriel also flew in recklessly into a tackle, and he managed to seriously injure himself in the process. He was in tears as he was stretchered off, so one would assume he's probably out for the final as well. Either way, hope it's not serious and he's well again soon.

All of this meant that Per Mertesacker made his first appearance in ages, and he looked all right once he came on. Good thing, too, because at this point it looks like he's going to have to play next week.

4. While Koscielny's foul was a clear red, and while I generally think Michael Oliver is a good referee, he was utterly abysmal today. The second half was horrid in particular, as both Ashley Williams and Morgan Schneiderlin arguably should have seen second yellows for fouls that he had booked other players for during the match.

It's all kind of pointless given the fact that Liverpool won and all, but the standard of officiating in this league is becoming worrisome.

5. I'm going to do a longer-form autopsy of the season after the final, but Arsene is probably going to make a lot of hay around the fact that at 75 points, we had four more than last season AND it's the largest total for a 5th-place team in Premier League history.

On the other hand, we dropped five completely preventable points in the first two games of the season...you know, before he bothered to buy any players.

Go out and win that cup, boys. Nothing else matters.

Man of the Match: Mesut Ozil

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Everton

Emirates Stadium, London
Sunday, May 21
10:00 a.m. EDT, 15:00 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Michael Oliver
    • Assistants: Simon Bennett and Adrian Holmes
    • 4th Official: Craig Pawson
  • Reverse Fixture: Everton 2 - 1 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 2 - 1 Everton
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 102 Arsenal wins, 60 Everton wnis, 45 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-L-W-W-W-W
  • Everton's League Form: W-W-D-L-L-W
So, this is it. The last "cup final" before the Cup Final.

Arsenal's odds of finishing in the top four are 18.7%. Arsenal are one point back of Liverpool for fourth and three points back of Manchester City for third. They are two goals behind Liverpool on goal difference and five back of City.

You know the permutations and the likely scenarios. The most likely situation that sees Arsenal in a Champions League place is if the Gunners win and Liverpool fails to win. If Manchester City lose, Arsenal could manage to find themselves in third with the right score lines (imagine!?)

Goals scored between the clubs are nearly identical: Arsenal have 74, the other two clubs have 75. That means there's an outside shot at a one-game playoff being necessary to decide a European place. They're highly unlikely, but would be bonkers:
  • If Arsenal get a score draw (1-1, 2-2, etc.) and Liverpool loses by two, they will need a play-off to decide fourth.
  • If Arsenal win by one and Manchester City loses by four, they will need a play-off, but that play-off could decide either third or fourth, depending on what Liverpool does.
When would that play-off even be? It'd be at a neutral ground, certainly, but with Arsenal in the FA Cup Final, I'm not sure when the fixture would be scheduled to be played. The Guardian piece on the possible match suggests Arsenal fans would want a meeting with Liverpool to be scheduled for May 26, the anniversary of Anfield '89, but I'm not sure it'd be best to play such an important match the day before the FA Cup Final.

Anyway, better take care of business at the Emirates and hope for the best...

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Cazorla (Achilles,) Pérez (fictional)
Doubts: Ramsey (thigh,) Oxlade-Chamberlain (hamstring,) Koscielny (Achilles)

There's currently a lot out there on Laurent Koscielny, after he gave an interview to the Evening Standard stating that he is receiving daily treatment on his Achilles, something that will be required for the remainder of his playing career. Koscielny was diagnosed with chronic tendinitis in 2014, but is still averaging over 40 matches a season over his Arsenal career.

Elsewhere, there remain doubts over Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, as he tries to recover from a hamstring problem to make the FA Cup Final, and Aaron Ramsey, who was removed on 69 minutes Tuesday with a thigh problem. That was also part of a double substitution designed to change the momentum of the game, which it did, as Arsenal finally scored three minutes later.

Meanwhile, I am reasonably certain that Lucas Pérez is not a real person and that we've all collectively imagined him as some part of Mandela Effect thing.

With Champions League football still theoretically on the table and a positive momentum swing to maintain, I would expect Arsène Wenger to name his strongest possible XI here. You've got to roll the dice.

Predicted XI: Čech, Mustafi, Koscielny, Holding, Bellerín, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Özil, Alexis, Giroud.

Everton Squad News

Out: Bolasie (knee,) Coleman (leg,) Funes Mori (knee,) Lennon (personal)
Doubts: Stekelenburg (groin,) McCarthy (hamstring)

Aaron Lennon is likely still out after he was hospitalized on May 2 under the Mental Health Act. It was encouraging for me to hear that the number of players who have sought support from the Professional Football Association's help service has increased continually since the service was introduced in 2012. It can often be hard for fans to remember that, exorbitant wages and all, footballers are still human beings.

Everton have three long-term injuries, as Seamus Coleman is out with the double leg break he suffered on international duty, Yannick Bolasie could miss the rest of the calendar year with a knee injury, and Ramiro Funes Mori is out until next pre-season with a knee injury as well.

Maarten Stekelenburg is a strong doubt with a groin problem, which could see Joel Robles start in goal; Robles played in Everton's 1-0 win over Watford last Friday. James McCarthy has not played since March 5 with a hamstring injury.

Predicted XI: Robles, Holgate, Jagielka, Williams, Baines, Schneiderlein, Davies, Gueye, Barkley, Mirallas, Lukaku.

Current Form

Arsenal have won four straight in the league since their 2-0 loss against Tottenham in mid-April. It's their first four match winning streak in the league since October. In those four matches, Arsenal have outscored their opponents 10-1, with the one coming via Peter Crouch's hand. This, I suppose, was as good a time as any to get back on track.

Everton are locked into seventh place and the third qualifying round Europa League matches that will go along with it at the end of July. Everton had a four match winning streak in the league back in August and September, part of a five-match winning streak across all competitions. Since then, the Toffees have not won more than two in a row across all fixtures. They crashed out of the League Cup at the second hurdle, to lower division Norwich, and out of the FA Cup at the first, to Leicester. That means this will be Everton's 41st and final game of the season. For Arsenal, it will be their 54th.

Match Facts

Everton had won just one of their last 10 back when these sides met at Goodison Park in December. Arsenal, on the other hand, had a league unbeaten streak of 14. That night was, of course, the start of Arsenal's derailment. Alexis Sánchez put Arsenal ahead 1-0 from a free kick on 20 minutes, but Seamus Coleman equalized just before halftime to bring things back level. Everton dominated the proceedings in the second half, with Ashley Williams eventually bundling in a winner in the 86th minute after Arsenal failed to clear a set piece. The Gunners nearly frantically found an equalizer in injury time, but an Alex Iwobi shot was saved off the line and an Alexis penalty shout was denied by Mark Clattenburg.

Arsenal won both fixtures against Everton last season, winning 2-1 at the Emirates in the fall and 2-0 at Goodison Park in the spring. In London, Arsenal took a 2-0 lead against the Toffees in quick succession, as Olivier Giroud scored in the 36th minute and Laurent Koscielny scored in the 38th. It wasn't comfortable, though, as Ross Barkley pulled a goal back in the 44th minute and Arsenal's legs got a bit heavy in the second half, as they had played in Europe midweek.

Everton are winless in their last 22 trips to the Emirates/Highbury, dating back to January 20, 1996. Arsenal also have more wins in league play (93) against Everton than any other club.

The Referee

The referee is Northumberland-based Michael Oliver. Arsenal's record with Oliver, overall, is quite poor. In fact, he's been in the middle for many of Arsenal's damaging road results in the 2017 calendar year: 3-3 at Bournemouth, 0-3 at Crystal Palace, 0-2 at Tottenham. In the league, all-time, Arsenal have a record of three wins, seven draws, and eight losses with Oliver in the middle. That's almost Mike Dean-level bad.

But this match is at the Emirates, where Oliver also presided over Arsenal's 3-0 win over Chelsea back in September. All three of Arsenal's league wins with Oliver have come at home, though they've also lost three and drawn three.

Everton have eight league wins all-time with Oliver, so a bunch better record than Arsenal. This year, they have seen Oliver four times, winning one (1-0 over Stoke,) losing one (3-2 to Spurs,) and drawing two (1-1 against both Manchester clubs, at the Etihad against City and at Goodison against United.)

Around the League

All matches kickoff simultaneously on Sunday:
  • Burnley v. West Ham United; Turf Moor, Burnley
  • Chelsea v. Sunderland; Stamford Bridge, London
  • Hull City v. Tottenham Hotspur; KCOM Stadium, Kingston upon Hull
  • Leicester City v. Bournemouth; King Power Stadium, Leicester
  • Liverpool v. Middlesbrough; Anfield, Liverpool
  • Manchester United v. Crystal Palace; Old Trafford, Manchester
  • Southampton v. Stoke City; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Swansea City v. West Bromwich Albion; Liberty Stadium, Swansea
  • Watford v. Manchester City; Vicarage Road, Watford
John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and an NBC-affiliated television network in the Quad Cities. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat for programming notes.

Five Thoughts: Arsenal 2-0 Sunderland

1. Man, as soon as Man City went up 2-0, this became the most utterly pointless match in the history of association football, huh? Just punching the time clock, folks.

The truth is, most of this was an absolutely unwatchable dirge, even though if you go back and look at it, both sides had more chances than the memory would typically recall. Were there more on the line, we may have looked back on this as a somewhat decent match of association football. As it is, you're a liar if you say you'll remember this tomorrow...or even now, as you read this.

It almost makes you wish that there were some method to just declare on your regular season, much like you can do in your innings in cricket.

2. The story of the match is unquestionably another valiant-in-defeat performance by the young Sunderland keeper, Jordan Pickford. Were it not for him, this surely would have been done and dusted well before we managed to do so. It's not up for debate that he is an interesting talent, and it's probably more likely than not that he will do well in the next stage of his progression (cough cough Everton cough cough).

What you're going to see, on Twitter and elsewhere, is everyone in the world clamoring to sign him. Me? I'm...not so sure. The other old farts reading this will know this name immediately, but by way of an explanation let me introduce you to one Richard Wright.

Given that one of the first photos I saw on GIS is him in goal for a 4-2 loss to Charlton bloody Athletic, I think you can see where this is going.

Wright was one of the gaffer's more head-scratching buys in retrospect, but at the time it seemed to make a lot of sense. David Seaman was reaching the end of the road, and we needed a top keeper to replace him. We didn't have silly money to throw around, and I think the idea of an English player in the position was intriguing to Arsene, both for Champions League registration reasons as well as potentially being more comfortable with the crosses and physicality of the Premier League.

At the time, Ipswich Town had a cup of coffee in the Premier League, and Wright had a fantastic season for them as a 24-year old, In fact, Ipswich managed a heady 5th-place finish that season, absolutely unheard of for a club of their size, even back then. So, we bought him for the then-decent fee of 2M and handed him a 5-year contract.

As it turned out, he made 12 league appearances for us in one season, and he was promptly flogged off to Everton. A cautionary tale, this. Whenever he played, he looked like someone had yanked him off the street and threw a pair of gloves at him. He was lost, he was a poor shot-stopper and most of all he was emphatically not good enough for a club of our stature.

Here's the thing. Goalkeeping performance is not agnostic to outside factors. Right now, Pickford is in a relatively low-pressure scenario where few expected Sunderland to stay up, he only had to beat the bang-average Vito Mannone to win his place, and they give up so many unpreventable goals due to their defending anyway that the odd mistake gets comprehensively lost in the shuffle. To say that wouldn't be the case at Arsenal is an understatement.

Besides that, Roma have been clear at this point that they don't intend to make a play for Wojceich Szczesny on a permanent basis, even though he's been one of the best goalkeepers in Serie A this season. So, we have Petr Cech, who has reminded the haters and dipshits in recent weeks of how valuable he remains. We have Szczesny back on the last year of his contract. We have David Ospina, who presumably will want to find a new club where he can get the first-team football that he arguably deserves (albeit at a lower level). We have Emi Martinez, who is getting beyond the age of "hot prospect" and is hurtling towards the age of "shit or get off the pot".

So, now, your big idea is to bring in this 23-year old kid (almost the same age as Wright!), who has played well enough to start somewhere (and don't think his agent doesn't know this), while we have all of the rest of that shit to figure out in our goalkeeping department? Not to mention, bringing him in from the relatively obscure and safe space of a bad team even by Sunderland standards to the bloody CHAMPIONS LEAGUE, and the ongoing psychodrama that is Arsenal Football Club?

Honestly, do me a favor.

To give you a point of comparison, when Manchester City bought Joe Hart, he was 19 years old and was allowed to go on loan three separate times to develop away from the spotlight.

So, thanks but no thanks...9 saves on 11 shots on target in one meaningless end-of-season match or not.

3. Well, that was more words about one kid barely old enough to drink than I was originally intending to write about the whole sodding match. Funny how that works.

Anyway, the goals when they (finally) came were actually quite good. The first came from a lovely ball over the top by Granit Xhaka, who is now beginning to make serious fools of his critics. Mesut Ozil controlled it well, and sent it over to the back post for Alexis to smash in uncontested. The second was again scored unmarked on the back post, this time after Pickford had clawed away Olivier Giroud's excellent volley.

There were a million other chances besides, but nothing else managed to beat Pickford, or the woodwork.

4. Speaking of fine goalkeeping, how about that Petr Cech, huh? Our criminally-unloved stopper made a few excellent saves himself, doubly so because most came when it was still 0-0. Imagine if we had gone down 1-0 to this lot, huh? There might have been riots among the 14 or so people who bothered to turn up to the Emirates today.

5. I have to say, I don't recommend setting your heart too much on Middlesbrough or Watford doing us any favors. The harsh truth is that, over the entirety of 38 matches, we're just about the fifth-best team in the Premier League this season. We can talk about Arsene's ridiculous dereliction of duty in the transfer market in the season's first few weeks (I will always insist that it is criminal that it took as long as it did to get Shkrodan Mustafi in), and we can speculate on what might have been different if we changed formations earlier.

Neither of those things can be changed now though, and the fact is that the clubs currently in the top four have been simply better than us this season. It sucks and it hurts and it was so FUCKING preventable, but we are where we are.

Now, let's see what this club does about it.

In the meantime though, we have one match of any importance left in this season, and I want to see fight and I want to see a performance. Nothing else is acceptable.

Man of the Match:  Jordan Pickford

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Sunderland

Emirates Stadium, London
Tuesday, May 16
2:45 p.m. EDT, 19:45 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Roger East
    • Assistants: Peter Kirkup and Matthew Wilkes
    • 4th Official: Lee Probert
  • Reverse Fixture: Sunderland 1 - 4 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 3 - 0 Sunderland
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 61 Arsenal wins, 50 Sunderland wins, 41 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-L-W-W-W
  • Sunderland's League Form: L-D-L-L-W-L
Let's take a moment to bask in what Arsenal accomplished on Saturday, winning comfortably at Stoke for the first time basically ever (their only other win at the Britannia since Stoke's 2008 promotion was the Aaron Ramsey game, in which Arsenal scored twice in injury time to win it 3-1.) They overcame Mike Dean and that time Peter Crouch essentially threw the ball into the net, to boot! I exaggerate, of course, but you get the point.

It's important to remember the positives at this stage because West Ham did Arsenal no favors on Sunday. Arsenal need two wins from two and a result for relegated Middlesbrough at Anfield next weekend to pip Liverpool for fourth. It's not out of the question that Boro could get a 0-0 draw; their defense is not the reason the club are going back down and they got that result at the Emirates in the fall. However, they have shipped seven goals in their last three games.

Just remember, the last time Arsenal needed a result from an already relegated North East club in order to achieve their desired position in the table, Newcastle beat Spurs 5-1.

Of course, that's all moot if another already relegated North East club come out of London with a point tonight, so let's take care of first things first.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Oxlade-Chamberlain (hamstring,) Cazorla (Achilles)
Doubts: Alexis (thigh,) Koscielny (calf)

One of the more enjoyable parts of Arsenal's win on Saturday was that a clearly knocked Alexis Sánchez was able to score Arsenal's third goal of the day. Of course, that does not come without consequences; since he did pick up a slight thigh problem, I wouldn't think he'd be risked in this one.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who injured his hamstring against Southampton last midweek, was not risked at the weekend, and Arsène Wenger confirmed he is still out. Laurent Koscielny, who had been a doubt, started at the Potteries, but had a recurrence of his calf problem. Santi Cazorla remains the only long-term absentee.

So the question is, how much rotation? I would think Aaron Ramsey would come back into to the side, but does Francis Coquelin or Granit Xhaka drop for him? Does Nacho Monreal get a rest? How about Laurent Koscielny, who had that calf knock? If both get a rest, then we could see Gabriel as one of the back three with Kieran Gibbs in the left wingback slot.

Or course, rotate too much and you lose all fluidity, especially considering there are still bound to be growing pains with a new formation. So, we shall see.

Predicted XI: Čech, Gabriel, Mustafi, Holding, Gibbs, Bellerín, Coquelin, Ramsey, Özil, Walcott, Welbeck.

Sunderland Squad News

Out: McNair (knee,) Watmore (knee,) Kirchhoff (knee)
Doubts: Oviedo (hamstring,) Cattermole (Achilles,) Pienaar (ankle,) Anichebe (thigh,) Denayer (thigh,) Honeyman (back)

Sunderland are cemented to the bottom of the league table, but they're at the top of the injury table right now. They have a rather large number of players in contention for returns, however.

Lee Cattermole is more likely than unlikely to feature as he comes back from an Achilles problem. Bryan Oviedo is on his way back from a hamstring problem and made the bench at the weekend. George Honeyman and Steven Pienaar are both 50/50 with back and ankle injuries, respectively. Victor Anichebe and Jason Denayer are both strong doubts with thigh problems.

Sunderland's absences include three players who all have knee injuries: Duncan Watmore needed a second surgery on his knee, Paddy McNair's season is also over through a cruciate ligament injury, and Jan Kirchhoff's knee injury was supposed to keep him out for six weeks, though that was eight weeks ago. Sounds like he's on some sort of Arsenal timeline.

Predicted XI: Pickford, Jones, Koné, O'Shea, Manquillo, Ndong, Larsson, Cattermole, Borini, Khazri, Defoe.

Current Form

Arsenal now have six wins from seven matches since switching formations to three at the back on April 17. Of course, after Liverpool took all three points at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday, it's starting to look like it's too little, too late. Arsenal's road wins over Stoke and Southampton in the past week means they will finish the season with 30 points from 19 road games.

Sunderland had been winless in the league on the season when the clubs met back in October. After Sunderland lost to Arsenal, they went on to win four of their next seven before Boxing Day. Since then, they have won twice in 21 fixtures, 19 of them league games. In the FA Cup, they drew Burnley before losing the replay. So, it's no wonder the Black Cats were relegated on April 29. Incidentally, two of their six wins on the season came against Hull City, which, in effect, relegated the Tigers themselves.

Match Facts

Martin Atkinson made things interesting, but Arsenal ended up winning the reverse fixture comfortably in the end, 4-1. Alexis Sánchez put Arsenal up 1-0, but Sunderland were level from the penalty spot on 65 minutes after Petr Čech brought down Duncan Watmore. Arsenal were back in front just six minutes later, however, as the Gunners scored three goals in seven minutes.

Arsenal beat Sunderland at the Emirates twice last season, in the league in December and in the FA Cup a month later. Both matches ended 3-1 in favor of the Gunners. Arsenal's goal scorers were the same on both occasions as well, with Joel Campbell, Olivier Giroud, and Aaron Ramsey all scoring for Arsenal on both days, in that order both times. The only difference was the timing of Sunderland's goal. In December, Sunderland equalized before halftime with an Olivier Giroud own goal from a set piece. In January, Sunderland scored first, through Jeremain Lens, before Arsenal came back to win comfortably.

Sunderland's last league win against Arsenal came in November of 2009; Arsenal had just lost Robin van Persie to injury over the preceding international break and Darren Bent scored in the 71st minute to give Sunderland a 1-0 win.

The Referee

The referee is Wiltshire-based Roger East, which I suppose is funny since Wiltshire is in the South West. Arsenal have seen East five times in the past, winning three and drawing two. Only one of those five games was this season and it was all the way back in September, when Arsenal won 4-1 at Hull City; Arsenal were up 1-0 when East sent off Jake Livermore, but Alexis missed the penalty and, at 2-0, East correctly gave Hull a penalty to put them back in the match. Arsenal restored their two-goal lead just four minutes later before Granit Xhaka's long-range thunderbolt finished the scoring.

Sunderland have not had Roger East at all this season. All-time, they have a record of one win (an FA Cup tie against Kidderminster Harriers,) three draws, and four losses. The last time East worked a Sunderland match, it was April 2 of last year, when the Black Cats played a 0-0 draw at home to West Brom.

Around the League
  • Monday: Chelsea 4 - 3 Watford
  • Tuesday: Manchester City v. West Bromwich Albion; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
  • Wednesday: Southampton v. Manchester United; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Thursday: Leicester City v. Tottenham Hotspur; King Power Stadium, Leicester
John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and a reality television program. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat for non-stop drama.

Ten Thoughts: Stoke City 1-4 Arsenal

Goddamn, fuck Stoke City forever, Just, literally forever, I don't know if there's a club I hate more in all of England, and that waaaaaaaaaay includes the nearest and dearest. I swear to (insert deity here) that I would live in Somalia before I ever ever EVER consented to live in Stoke-on-Trent.

1. Keeping with the Lord of the Rings theme, it felt like a long trek into Mordor just to get to the damn pub to watch the match. Never mind the horrendous rainstorm that is apparently going to last clean through until Sunday afternoon, but there was also an electrical failure at Times Square *just* as I was heading out on the subway. So, a fun 30 minutes at Queensboro Plaza in the gray, damp hell later, I was finally able to catch an N train and only missed about 4 minutes or so of the match. Miracles truly never cease.

2. As I mentioned in the last one of these, we've had a bit of a streak of ending bad runs lately. Be it the general malaise in away matches, or the record against Jose Mourinho, or the hoodoo at St. Mary's, we've made a practice lately of breaking bad streaks. So, why not away at the Potteries, too? The weird thing is, Stoke showed up to this thing with a little bit of their usual petulance, which we'll get to in a bit, but no real serious desire to win this match.

It's funny, in retrospect, how we managed to lose to badly away to West Brom when they were already safe and especially in light of how bad they've been since safety has been assured. This could have been something similar, but Stoke just...I don't know...never turned up. It's so bizarre. Maybe it's because they're slightly different under Mark Hughes than they were when Sauron managed them, but even still it's not what one would normally expect.

3. Let's be real - Arsenal thoroughly dominated the first half. Whether it was a looping header from Shkodran Mustafi that tested Jack Butland in the Stoke goal early, or Nacho Monreal hitting the post after great work from Hector Bellerin down the right, our boys were all over this lot from first minute to last.

I wonder if these early chances were what shook Stoke out of their early torpor enough to start committing the kind of horror fouls that we're used to from them, but either way they didn't seem to care enough to do even that in the first 20 minutes or so.

It was SUCH a bizarre match,

4. Most of the rest of the first half passed without incident, but I can't help but think that in most cases Bellerin could have won a penalty in the 22nd minute if he had just gone down when the contact happened. Of course, in retrospect, Mike Dean was refereeing this thing so he'd have probably be booked for diving anyway. Believe me, we'll get more into Dean in a second.

As it turns out, Arsenal would take the lead just before halftime in the 42nd minute. It feels odd to say, but the early stages of the build-up to the goal happened because of good work in the center of the park by Francis Coquelin, who kinda sorta impersonated a professional footballer today. He played it out right to Bellerin, who made room down the right and then sent a wicked cross back along the six-yard box. Olivier Giroud, making the most of a rare start, ghosted off his markers and popped up on the back post to slam home uncontested.

5. Sidebar: If you contributed in any way to the planes flying over Mordor today with the Wenger stuff? Sod off. Seriously. This just isn't the time and you're all goddamn wankers.

6. I'll be honest with you, I thought it was over when Ozil scored the second. Up until that point, if we're being honest, we were absolutely cruising. In this case, Alexis had dropped deeper, and for once it worked out for us. He got the ball and played a glorious chipped pass through the Stoke defense. Our German wizard ran onto it, dinked it over the advancing Butland, lovely jubbly.

Again, at that point? I thought it was game over.

7. But, enter Mike Dean!

It's amazing...something is honestly rotten in the English refereeing setup when the worst of the worst of the worst seem to always get the big matches, and when they retire they seem to always be put in charge of the refereeing setup. For me, at least as long as I've been paying attention, the lineage seems to go from Mike Riley being the worst referee, to being head of the officiating setup, to Mike Dean being the worst senior official.

Back when I first started to be able to see many games, I always thought Steve Bennett was the best referee...and it seemed like he never worked any match of importance. I mean, when FIFA can sometimes get this right (as in Pierluigi Collina working big matches back in the day, or Cunyet Cakir doing finals or semifinals now), why can't the FA? Where is the disconnect here?

The funny thing is, I have more sympathy for referees than most - I spend my Thursday afternoons refereeing a high school 8-a-side league, and I literally am working towards becoming USSF-certified. But my god, Dean and his ARs absolutely lost the plot in the second half.

The goal that made it 2-1 was, frankly, inexcusable for a professional crew. First of all, Bellerin was fouled bad enough for a yellow card offense to give Stoke the ball in the first place. Second, how the AR missed that Crouch clearly put it in with his hand? I'll never know. I mean, I've refereed like 15 games in my life, and I absolutely believe that I would not have missed that. Seriously.

Even beyond that though, there was the Ryan Shawcross elbow to Giroud's head in the 58th minute, or the elbow from Erik Pieters to Mustafi's head in the 70th. Both blatant, both dangerous, no call. But, when Rob Holding innocuously goes into Marko Arnautovic in the 79th and the Austrian goes down in the dramatic fashion, here comes Mr. Fussy waving the yellow cardboard around. It's astonishing.

Also, speaking of, isn't the hypocrisy of these inbred Stoke supporters AMAZING when they boo our guys for legitimately being injured, and don't pipe up at all when one of theirs fakes one?

If we do one day get hit by the Sweet Meteor of Death, I bloody well hope that Stoke-on-Trent gets hit first. Literally fuck them forever.

8. At the very least, we got two nice goals towards the end to put some gloss on the scoreline and smash our Stoke away curse forever. Alexis, despite having some kind of hamstring trouble a few minutes before, managed to ease the nerves caused by Stoke's fightback once they got to 2-1 with a delicious finish. Holding began the move with an audacious sashay through several Stoke defenders, and he played it up to Bellerin. The Spaniard played in Alexis, who rolled a cool-as-you-like low finish off of Shawcross' leg, off the post, and in.

That was probably the game there, but Giroud added his second goal in the 80th minute. Ozil sent in a magical long ball that left the Potters' back line for dead. The substitute Aaron Ramsey fought off the attentions of Glen Johnson, got to the goal line, and sent a tremendous cutback pass along the area. Ollie popped up to slam it home, and make a fantastic scoreline even better.

Seriously, have some of that you stupid orc bastards.

9. So, at this point, I think it's time to talk about Petr Cech. Again. He made a couple of absolutely unbelievable saves to keep any doubt from creeping into this result.


I swear to fucking all that is holy that there is no more underappreciated player in the league for what he does.

He did just enough on the hour mark to make it difficult for Mame Biram Diouf's header and ensure that it didn't find its way in. A few minutes later, Bruno Martins Indi must have thought he scored off a corner kick before our Czech stopper intervened.

If that wasn't enough, even though it was 4-1 already, Cech made an unbelievable save down low to his right to deny Geoff Cameron what absolutely would be a goal in most cases.

Arsenal Twitter makes me keep saying this, but PETR CECH WAS NEVER THE PROBLEM YOU MUPPETS.

10. Your move, Liverpool. Don't blow it against West Ham!

Man of the Match: Olivier Giroud

Preview by Numbers: Stoke City v. Arsenal

Bet365 Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent
Saturday, May 13
12:30 p.m. EDT, 17:30 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Dean
    • Assistants: Simon Long and Ian Hussin
    • 4th Official: Graham Scott
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 3 - 1 Stoke City
  • This Match, Last Year: Stoke City 0 - 0 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 55 Arsenal wins, 25 Stoke wins, 24 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-W-W-L-W-W
  • Stoke City's League Form: L-L-W-L-D-D
Well, here we are, still in this thing somehow. Arsenal's odds of a top four finish improved from 7% at this time last week to about 24% now. That's not too shabby!

But there's still plenty of work to be done, in the form of three wins and some help. Arsenal can still finish with a maximum of 75 points. Manchester United can only get to 74. Liverpool can get to 76. Manchester City can get to 78. If Arsenal win all three remaining games, they cannot finish worse than fifth, but there's no difference between fifth and sixth in terms of next year's European places. They cannot finish worse than sixth because seventh place Everton can only get to 64 points and Arsenal have 66 now.

Arsenal can't get to fourth place on 75 points alone, they'll need Liverpool or Manchester City to drop points. With City, though, it seems unlikely they'll drop the four points Arsenal will need to pip them, since City have a large advantage in goal difference. It's all about somebody stealing points from Liverpool: they play West Ham at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday and Middlesbrough at Anfield next week. Seems hard to expect the Reds to drop points, but tell that to Tottenham a week ago...

All of that is moot, however, if Arsenal fail to win out. Nine points to go, three at a time. Let's keep this thing going.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Cazorla (Achilles)
Doubts: Oxlade-Chamberlain (hamstring,) Koscielny (knock)

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain left the match against Southampton on Wednesday night on 38 minutes with a hamstring injury. After the match, Arsène Wenger said, "it was not a knife, you know," which I decided to take out of context to make it seem really bizarre. There's no definitive word on if he'll be out yet, which puts him in the "heavy doubts" column, which is really just the "doubts" column.

Laurent Koscielny did not pass fit on Wednesday, so remains in the doubt column here for now. Thankfully, Shkodran Mustafi returned to deputize. Granit Xhaka did pass fit, so he's removed from the injury list entirely.

So, the remaining questions come down to rotation. Arsenal played Sunday and Wednesday and will now play Saturday, Tuesday, and Sunday again. Five must-win games in a 15-day span is ridiculous. Arsenal will obviously look toward Sunderland at home on Tuesday as their best shot at rotating.

Predicted XI: Čech, Holding, Mustafi, Monreal, Gibbs, Bellerín, Ramsey, Xhaka, Özil, Alexis, Giroud.

Stoke City Squad News

Out: Ireland (leg,) Affelay (knee)

Not much to say about the Potters regarding their available player selection. Stephen Ireland suffered a double leg break a year ago this past Wednesday and has missed all year, while Ibrahim Affelay is out after knee surgery.

Stoke have retained the same back line for the last two matches, playing with Bruno Martins Indi along with Ryan Shawcross in the center of defense. This has allowed U.S. international Geoff Cameron, nominally a center back, to play in a more advanced defensive role alongside Glenn Whelan.

The only question is really up top, as to whether it will be Mame Biram Diouf, Saido Berahino, or even Peter Crouch.

Predicted XI: Butland, Johnson, Shawcross, Martins Indi, Muniesa, Cameron, Whelan, Allen, Shaqiri, Arnautović, Diouf.

Current Form

Arsenal have now won four out of five games since switching to three at the back against Middlesbrough, though they did need extra time to beat Manchester City and the one non-win was a pretty embarrassing derby loss to Tottenham. Still, it's something, at a time when Arsenal needs any little something they can get.

Stoke, on the other hand, have one win from nine. They went out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle, losing at home to Wolves. Since that match, they've won four, drawn five, and lost seven.

The Premier League table this season has a lot of distinct zones: there's a top six, there's Everton, there's the five relegation candidates, and then there are eight teams that are just so completely "mid-table" that they could do anything on any given matchweek. Stoke City have 41 points. They are in 13th place. They are four points out of 8th but only seven points clear of relegation. They're safe, but barely. I think what's incredible about the table is that 8th place West Brom have only 45 points.

Match Facts

Arsenal have won 15 straight home games against Stoke across all competitions, but have only one once in the Potteries since Stoke's 2008 promotion. They won the reverse fixture 3-1 in December, just before everything came crashing down (in the form of consecutive losses to Everton and Manchester City.) Stoke scored first from a penalty conceded by Granit Xhaka (of course!) but Theo Walcott replied before halftime, Mesut Özil put Arsenal on top on 49 minutes, and Alex Iwobi made the points safe a quarter of an hour from time. The win put Arsenal on top of the league on goals scored, though Chelsea had a game in hand. Nine days later, Arsenal were nine points out of first.

I've told the story of Arsenal's struggles at Stoke many times before, so here's a condensed version: In November of 2008, Robin van Persie was goaded into a red card, as Stoke won 2-1 (Gaël Clichy added a meaningless goal at the death.) In January of 2010, in the FA Cup, Arsène Wenger started a heavily rotated side, but brought in his super subs at 1-1 in the 67th minute, then lost 3-1 anyway. In February of 2010, Aaron Ramsey broke his leg and Arsenal scored twice in injury time against Stoke's ten men to win 3-1; it's still their only win at Stoke. In May of 2011, Arsenal lost 3-1 there again. In April of 2012, then in August of 2012, Arsenal came out of Stoke with a single point on each occasion, drawing 0-0 and 1-1, respectively.

Three years ago, Arsenal lost 1-0 at Stoke on a controversial penalty. Two years ago, Arsenal spotted Stoke a three-goal lead, nearly stormed back, but saw Calum Chambers sent off by Anthony Taylor as they lost 3-2. Last year, Arsenal and Stoke played to a 0-0 draw.

The Referee

The referee is Wirral-based Mike Dean. Arsenal have only seen Mike Dean once this season, which is for the best; it was a scoreless draw at home to a team that was relegated. When it phrase it that way, it sounds abysmal, and in so many ways, the 0-0 against Middlesbrough in October was. It was a bit of a European hangover match, with Arsenal having thumped Ludogorets earlier in the week. Then again, away to Stoke won't be much different following a Wednesday night in Southampton than the Middlesbrough match was following a Wednesday at home to the Bulgarian champions.

You have to go back to April 11, 2015 for the last time Arsenal won a match with Mike Dean in the middle, a 1-0 win at Turf Moor. Since then, Arsenal drew 1-1 at Old Trafford, lost 2-0 amidst Diego Costa-related circumstances at Stamford Bridge, drew 0-0 at home to Hull in the FA Cup, drew 0-0 at relegation-threatened Sunderland last last year, then drew 0-0 to Boro, as mentioned above. Since 2006/07, Arsenal have won just 27% of their games with Dean as the referee.

Stoke have only five wins from 22 in the league with Dean in the middle themselves. They've lost to Manchester City and Liverpool with Dean in the middle this season, but beat Sunderland 3-1 at the Stadium of Light in January.

I'm quite surprised Dean worked a Liverpool match at all, since he's from Wirral. He worked a Liverpool derby in December, but had never worked a Liverpool match before that in the league and had not done an Everton game since 2006.

Around the League
  • Friday (night): Everton v. Watford; Goodison Park, Liverpool
  • Friday (night): West Bromwich Albion v. Chelsea; The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
  • Saturday (early): Manchester City v. Leicester City; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
  • Saturday: Bournemouth v. Burnley; Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth
  • Saturday: Middlesbrough v. Southampton; Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough
  • Saturday: Sunderland v. Swansea City; Stadium of Light, Sunderland
  • Sunday (very early): Crystal Palace v. Hull City; Selhurst Park, London
  • Sunday (early): West Ham United v. Liverpool; Olympic Stadium, London
  • Sunday (late): Tottenham Hotspur v. Manchester United; White Hart Lane, London
John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and is running out of jokes. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat to remind him of when he's used that line before; he's sure it's been done somewhere.

Five Thoughts: Southampton 0-2 Arsenal

Photo: Getty Images

1. Only 5 thoughts today because I have somewhere to be and there were only a few talking points out of what was frankly a dreadful game of football on the whole.

Of course, the most important thought out of this is that three points are three points, no matter how you get them. Southampton away has been a horror show for us in seasons past, so to go in there and nick the points, no matter how dull the way we went about it (two moments of absolute quality aside), is a massive result and gives us serious momentum into what may be our most unlikely top-four charge yet.

But, let's not be over-harsh here. Other than one brief passage in the first half, there was never a point where it looked like Saints were going to score. Shkrodan Mustafi came back in with Laurent Koscielny injured, and our back three didn't miss a beat.

The problems for us were, as so often this season, going the other way. Southampton aren't Sunderland at the back or anything, but in the absence of Virgil van Dijk and with Fraser Forster enduring an off-season, you'd like for us to put them under more pressure. But, the first half was an unwatchable dirge and much of the second half wasn't better,

2. For me, a large part of that was the presence of Kieran Gibbs at left wingback. I know that sounds odd, but let's think this through for a second. Who are our biggest offensive threats? Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, of course. With Alexis out wide on the left, it stands to reason that there's going to be a large degree of interaction in this system between him and whoever is in that LWB slot. Nacho Monreal is slightly better there but still not a world-beater, and he's needed in the center with our injury situation and Gabriel's talent situation anyway.

Gibbs, though. He's probably going to be OK at Everton or Bournemouth or wherever he goes next, but the dude is just emphatically not good enough for this formation, or even for a club of what should be our standards. He can't cross, he can't unlock defenses with a pass, he can't beat a man. Someone who's only skill is "decent defensively" and a degree of pace that I'd even argue isn't there anymore is not someone who is good enough to play with someone like Alexis.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is almost the same thing in reverse, but his offensive capabilities make him a worthwhile option in the position for all but the biggest games (where his lack of defensive nous kills us dead). So, of course, he does his hamstring and Hector Bellerin had to come in. The Spaniard has been in a revolting run of form lately, but today he did all right, I thought. Nothing too outstanding and nothing too terrible. If we get him back in form though, it could be a net benefit - as a complete wingback, Bellerin does have a higher ceiling than AOC does.

Still, it's weird to say it out loud, but several new wingbacks should be on the shopping list this summer, especially if we stick with this formation.

3. Quick sidebar: That kit that we had to wear today was an atrocity. It looked like our guys should have been repaving a highway or something. Godawful.

OK, OK, that's not a real thought, so how about this? Petr Cech saved our asses today. Again.

I'm going to keep harping on this because, man, it is so satisfying to be this right about something, especially when the whole world is screaming about the opposite.

When it was still 0-0, the home side had two chances in a minute or two where this game could have gotten seriously away for us. A mix-up in our end, a missed tackle by Mustafi, and Manolo Gabbiadini was in alone on Cech. The angle was a little tight, but you still see goals scored from there all the time. Cech came out well to cut the angle further, but the real brilliance in what he did was how he left his trailing leg flat along the ground. Most goals from that situation are scored *through* the keeper, because the nutmeg is the hardest thing for a keeper to defend when their legs are moving, which of course you have to do when you're rushing out. Cech got the leg down though, and the rebound was kind.

Soon after, a careless pass by Monreal gifted possession to Nathan Redmond outside of our penalty area, and given time and space he decided to lump one at goal. It had pace and it swerved wickedly on its way in, but Cech's footwork was excellent and it allowed him to claw it over the bar. That's the kind of save that is easily ten times more difficult than it looked, and our custodian did brilliantly to save that.

Pro tip for next season: If you want to assess a goalkeeper's performance, ask a goalkeeper. I realize that sounds smug but it's such a specialized position, and there's so much misinformation and bullshit out there about it.

4. Now, let's talk about those goals for a second. As I alluded to before, two absolute moments of quality. Alexis' goal kind of reminded me of Ozil's magical strike against Ludogorets earlier this season. Xhaka was in acres in the center of the park, and he sent a quick pass up to Ozil. The German maestro took one touch and shifted it to Alexis, who still had all to do. His turn was out of this world, sending Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida careening the other way like Wile E. Coyote in a roadrunner cartoon. Then, just for fun, he cut it back the way he came, which straight up dropped Yoshida flat on his ass. Highest comedy. From there, it was a simple matter of slotting the ball past Forster, which he did with aplomb.

Safe to say, I enjoyed that one.

The second was a different sort of goal, but beautiful in its simplicity. Alexis lofted a chipped ball over the Saints defense. Aaron Ramsey was there on the back post to head it across the face of goal, where the substitute Olivier Giroud was on hand to smash a header into the net. Yoshida, who had a bit of a mare it must be said, wasn't in the same postal code as our HFB when the header came back across. How you lose the 9 foot tall magazine model standing a foot away from your goalkeeper is one of those outfield player things that I'll never understand.

5. The central theme of the day is a reversal of some recent unfortunate runs. St. Mary's, so long a source of misery for us, has been conquered with all three points coming back with us. The last 6 Premier League away game for us read: W1 L5 GF 5 GA 15. Of course, just this past weekend, the drought against Jose Mourinho was finally ended.

We're going to have to hope that the trend continues, because our annual trip to the Potteries is next. That's right, Stoke away.

There's no reason to believe that we can't do it, though. This Stoke side are nothing special, struggling for goals and any kind of identity or ethos. NLD aside, we're playing well recently. We can do this,

If we do, I'll spend a lot more time talking about the top four chase and whether it can realistically happen. Until then, only Stoke matters. Let's get this done.

Man of the Match: Alexis Sanchez, baby! Alexis Sanchez, woooooah!

Preview by Numbers: Southampton v. Arsenal

St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
Wednesday, May 10
2:45 p.m. EST, 19:45 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Jonathan Moss
    • Assistants: Eddie Smart and Simon Bennett
    • 4th Official: Mike Jones
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 2 - 1 Southampton
  • This Match, Last Year: Southampton 4 - 0 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 47 Arsenal wins, 20 Southampton wins, 25 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-L-W-W-L-W
  • Southampton's League Form: W-W-L-L-D-D
A big win for Arsenal on Sunday basically doubled the Gunners' paltry odds at finishing in the top four, thanks in part to Southampton's 0-0 draw at Anfield. Arsenal's odds of a top four finish jumped from 7.3% to 14.7%, leap-frogging their odds over Manchester United's 9.2%, thanks to their game-in-hand. This, however, is that game-in-hand.

Arsenal have 63 points with four games to play, meaning they can finish with no more than 75 (note: they had 71 last year.) United currently have 65 points with three to play, Manchester City have 69 with three to play, and Liverpool have 70 with two to play. They can fully leap over United with a win tonight and can close the gap on Liverpool to one point by winning both games in hand.

Unfortunately for Arsenal, Liverpool's remaining games are against West Ham and Middlesbrough; Arsenal need Liverpool to drop points in one of those while winning out themselves, or have Manchester City stumble in even worse fashion to finish in the top four. Doable, but a long shot.

A win tonight keeps the dream alive, while also ensuring they can't finish worse than sixth, avoiding the dubious fate of a third qualifying round entry to the Europa League.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Cazorla (Achilles)
Doubts: Xhaka (calf,) Koscielny (knock)

At the moment, Arsenal are not particularly banged up by injuries. The biggest question would surround Granit Xhaka, who was expected to be ruled out against Manchester United after taking a knock in the North London derby, then passed fit anyway, then scored the opening goal, then left the match on 76 minutes. Maybe Arsenal should keep him rested since Jonathan Moss will be the referee...

Shkodran Mustafi has been back in training, so one wonders when he'll be able to crack the XI again, especially since Laurent Koscielny is a slight doubt.  Arsenal could really use some fresh legs in some positions, since they'll be playing again on Saturday. The word is that Lucas Pérez is fit and available again and rumors of a Danny Welbeck knock have been played down, so you know that means we'll get a frustrating 70 minutes from Olivier Giroud or something instead.

Predicted XI: Čech, Koscielny, Mustafi, Holding, Monreal, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey, Coquelin, Özil, Alexis, Giroud.

Southampton Squad News

Out: McCarthy (thigh,) van Dijk (foot)
Doubts: Targett (thigh,) Austin (shoulder)

Southampton have no fresh injury concerns after their 0-0 draw at Liverpool on Sunday. Alex McCarthy remains out with a thigh problem and captain Virgil van Dijk should remain out after foot surgery.

Charlie Austin has been out with a shoulder injury and recently made a return for the Under-23 team, but is expected to still lack match fitness. Matt Targett is on the way back from thigh surgery he had in December and should be near a return.

Fraser Forster made eight saves, including a penalty, against Liverpool at the weekend, so I fully expect him to make 13 saves tonight. You know how that works.

Predicted XI: Forster, Soares, Stephens, Yoshida, Bertrand, Romeu, Davis, Ward-Prowse, Redmond, Gabbiadini, Tadić.

Current Form

Let's talk a little about Arsenal's road form in the league, shall we? I've discussed before that it's all been downhill since Arsenal's win over Stoke in early December. Their form, in the league, away from home since that date is L-L-D-W-L-L-L-L-W-L. Two wins, one draw, seven losses. And even in the draw, they had to come from 3-0 down against Bournemouth. The wins were against relegation fodder, Swansea City and Middlesbrough. So if Arsenal want to finish in the top four, they're going to have to find a way to win on the road immediately, in places they have historically not won (St. Mary's and the Britannia.) Six points from these two fixtures though and they're coming back home with momentum on their side.

Meanwhile, Southampton's form is as mid-table as you can get. After losing the League Cup final to Manchester United, they won at Watford, lost to Spurs, drew Bournemouth, beat Crystal Palace and West Brom (must be nice...), then lost to Manchester City and Chelsea, then drew Hull and Liverpool. Honestly, that is completely all over the place. It leaves Southampton in 10th place on goal difference, three points back of West Brom for 8th, but eight points clear of relegation. So, yeah, sort that out.

Match Facts

Arsenal and Southampton will be meeting for the fourth time this season, having been drawn against each other in both domestic cups. Just think, if that FA Cup tie went to a replay, this would be meeting number five. Then again, Arsenal won that tie comfortably, so it's for the best that did not happen.

In the league meeting in September, Arsenal came back from 1-0 down to win 2-1. The Saints took the lead in the 18th minute, as a Dušan Tadić free kick hit the crossbar, then Petr Čech's back, before rolling into the net for an own goal. Arsenal equalized from a Laurent Koscielny bicycle kick (seriously) 11 minutes later, then Santi Cazorla won it from the penalty spot in injury time.

In the League Cup tie, however, there was no comeback on the cards, as Arsenal made 10 changes to their league squad. Jordy Clasie scored in the 13th minute to give Southampton the lead, then Ryan Bertrand doubled the advantage in the 38th. The match ended 2-0.

In the aforementioned FA Cup tie, Arsenal('s reserves) ran out 5-0 winners over Southampton('s reserves.) Danny Welbeck had a brace and Theo Walcott had a hat trick.

Before the cup win, Arsenal's last win at St. Mary's was on December 29, 2003; Robert Pirès scored the only goal in a 1-0 Gunners' victory. Southampton, of course, were not in the top flight between 2005 and 2012. But Arsenal's struggles at St. Mary's since the Saints' most recent promotion have been well documented: they lost 4-0 there on Boxing Day last year, 2-0 on New Year's Day in 2015, and picked up two draws in other meetings for good measure.

The Referee

The referee is West Yorkshire-based Jonathan Moss, so watch out, Xhaka!

Arsenal have seen Moss twice so far this season and on both occasions Granit Xhaka saw red. That said, Arsenal also won both matches: 3-2 over Swansea in October and 2-1 over Burnley in January. The penalty madness ending of that match, of course, led to Arsène Wenger's touchline ban, when he called Anthony Taylor "dishonest to his federation." Moss has only shown one other red card this season in 34 total matches. It was to Manchester City's Nolito, late in a 4-0 win over Bournemouth in September.

Arsenal's all-time record with Moss is exemplary: 14 wins, one loss, one draw. Those two non-wins came one month apart last season, 1-1 at Carrow Road and, perhaps a bad omen, 4-0 at St. Mary's on Boxing Day.

Southampton also have a great record with Moss in the Premier League: 12 wins, two draws, and two losses in top flight fixtures. This year, he has taken charge of their 3-0 win at West Ham, their 1-0 FA Cup win over Norwich, their 4-3 win at Watford last month, and their 0-0 draw with Bournemouth on April 1.

John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and is ready for summer vacation from all this nonsense. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat to suggest summer holiday destinations.