21st December: Premier League Preview – Depleted Arsenal v Replenished City

Temperatures may have taken a tumble around London today, but Arsenal have a chance to turn up the heat on all their title rivals when they host Manchester City in a couple of hours’ time.

The big team news ahead of the match involves arguably each team’s best attacker. City are expected to welcome back Sergio Aguero to their starting line-up, with the Argentine reportedly scheduled to play for an hour as he eases his way back from a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, our very own south American dynamo, Alexis Sanchez, is of course also returning after a hamstring complaint. The Chilean’s expected to play some part in the game as a substitute but is unlikely to be ready to start the game.

Bar their captain Vincent Kompany, City look set to name what is probably their best XI, with the likes of Joe Hart, Yaya Toure, David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne all available. In stark contrast, we’ll be without several key players, with Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin, Jack Wilshere, and Danny Welbeck all missing.

I’m highlighting the varying fitness fortunes of the two sides not as some kind of early excuse-making exercise, but because I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that we have a new-look engine room in Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini, which is still bedding in and we’re facing what I think is the best squad in the the league outside of London Colney. So if we win, the three points will be all the sweeter, but if we get beaten, a little perspective should be applied. Can you tell I’m nervous?

In terms of form, we’re unbeaten in our last four meetings with Manuel Pellegrini’s men, having won two and drawn two since that infamous 6-3 defeat at Etihad stadium two years ago. This fixture ended 2-2 last year, with Wilshere and Sanchez putting us 2-1 up after Aguero had given them the lead, only for us to concede a soft headed equaliser by Martin Demichelis with less than ten minutes remaining.

Speaking at his pre-match press conference last Thursday, Arsene Wenger discussed the importance of keeping our “good run” going, as well as what sort of game he expects this evening, saying:

It looks to be very tight. We have played 16 games and the top team is on 35 points, so it means that the Premier League could be decided at around 80 points. If you look at the results it looks as though the consistency will be the main priority in this league because every week you are surprised by the results. We have really established a good run so for us it’s important to continue that. It is a massive game [on Monday]. When we play at home you want to win because we are ambitious and we feel we have the chance to come out in a strong position after Christmas. It will be a very tight game because if you look at the numbers since the start of the season, offensively and defensively the numbers are very close. Manchester City has huge individual potential with David Silva and Sergio Aguero coming back and so we will need a top, top-level team performance.

And talking to Arsenal Player, Arsene built up the game as a “significant moment” in Arsenal’s season and suggested his side would be well-prepared going into the game, having had over a week to train and fine-tune tactics since our win at Aston Villa:

It is a significant moment. It is a big game that you play at home. We have beaten them last season and it’s an opportunity that you want to catch. Over this Christmas period, we play three times at home, so it’s very important that our home strength comes out over this period. The [eight-day] break was welcome because it gave us a little opportunity to have a recovery period first and then prepare precisely for the game on Monday. I would say we’ve had enough time to prepare well for the game. We had a very demanding week last week, with two away games that were tricky. Olympiacos was a long trip and Aston Villa were physical as well. We needed to rest first. The team performance has to be spot-on [against City]. Tactically, you have to be right. Overall, you have to find a good balance between defending and attacking. The collective process has absolutely got to be right. You have individual quality on both sides as well. They can make the difference and on the day they need to have their special day to make the difference for you.

As I mentioned yesterday, a draw or a defeat this evening is in no way defining for our title hopes, yet just as a win over City in January this calendar year seemed to springboard us into winning consistency over the proceeding 11 months, let’s hope a win for Arsenal this evening will be a similar watershed moment, and we kick on and finally end our long wait for the Premier League crown.

See you on Tuesday.

COYG !!!!

20th December 2015: Welbeck set-back + Wenger praises Cech ‘aura’

Evening all. Another day, another surprising Premier League score-line as Liverpool lost 3-0 at Watford to leave themselves languishing in ninth place in the table.

With 24 points from 17 games, they’re comfortably closer to Swansea’s 15 points in the relegation zone, than they are to Leicester City on 38 at the top of the tree, with just shy of half the season played. Amazing.

Anyway, onto Arsenal matters and worryingly, Arsene Wenger has revealed, rather vaguely, that Danny Welbeck has suffered another setback on his road to recovery from a knee injury sustained in April. The last official update was that the striker would be ready to return around Christmas, but the boss now says:

Unfortunately he was injured at the end of April and we are now at the end of December and he is still not available because of a bone bruising. That deteriorated and it is a big blow to us. Especially now we cannot rotate.

Having initially been expected to return in early September, the club announced the striker needed surgery to correct the problem a few days after the summer transfer window closed at the end of August. That obviously caused fans and pundits to wonder why the club hadn’t made more of an effort to bring in a new striker over the summer, and the boss was even forced to deny lying about the expected time-frame for Welbeck’s recovery.

To be honest, this latest update doesn’t come as a complete surprise to me. Firstly, because I did think it was odd Arsene hadn’t mentioned Welbeck when discussing the return dates for other long-termers like Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky recently, but also because Football Insider reported as long ago as the end of October that Welbeck’s injury was not responding to treatment and he could even remain side-lined for the rest of the season!

Whatever your views on FI as a source, they’ve been proven accurate with their reporting of Welbeck’s injury and have been the first to reveal it from what I can see. In fact, they repeated their story from October just a few days ago, again, ahead of everybody else.

Hopefully, they’ll be proven wrong in terms of Welbeck’s season being over, but whoever FI’s source is, they seem as clueless about when he might be back as anybody else, which is a big concern as it suggests the medical staff at the club are stumped and can’t figure out how to remedy his issue.

The news must surely mean we’ll be looking for a striker as well as a new midfielder in the January window, because to risk the rest of season on the hope Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud remain fit and firing would be stupid. Time will tell but I wouldn’t mind Alexandre Pato if the Duck is definitely over his own injury concerns, which blighted the early portion of his career. Let’s wait and see …

Elsewhere, Arsene has been showering Petr Cech with praise, lauding the goalkeeper’s ‘aura and charisma’, saying:

He has brought his experience, his calmness and his leadership as well. He has been good and highly focused. I don’t want to be detrimental to David Ospina because he was exceptional last year, but Petr Cech has done it all, so he is someone who gives you an aura, a charisma that is always important in the big games for the players. I met him before I signed him and we had a long discussion about the game and the job and his position, and I was deeply impressed by his knowledge, by his professionalism, by his detailed knowledge. So since I have not been surprised, because I got the whole package in one go. You always look around you in the dressing room before a big game and you think, ‘Are we strong enough?’ And these kind of faces help you to believe it. Also in the big games, the number of shots on target shrinks. But then the one save can be the difference in the end result. There is no history of teams winning things without having a great goalkeeper. I’m now 30 years in the job and as I said the other day you learn over the years that the goalkeeper is the most underrated position in football – and maybe the most vital one for winning things. For example when Spain won the 2010 World Cup, in every game [Iker] Casillas saved a one-on-one when it was 0-0 or 1-0, or saved a decisive ball. Even in the final against Arjen Robben – and instead of being 1-0 down you are 0-0. And that at the end of the day makes the difference.

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt have  gleaned that I think Arsene’s a truly amazing manager and we’re beyond lucky to call him our own. That said, nobody’s perfect and I wish he’d have felt the same way about the importance of having a ‘great goalkeeper’ when he was subjecting us to the Manuel Almunia years …

Still, at least he’s finally cottoned onto the merits of having a top class keeper, so if he’s still in charge when Cech eventually calls it a day, I’m expecting us to go out and get the best goalie money can buy, and not try to develop unproven talent in the hope they’ll turn into great shot-stoppers over time.

Back tomorrow with a preview ahead of the big game against Manchester City.

Until then.

19th December 2015: This crazy campaign continues …

Welcome back. So we witnessed another interesting set of Premier League results today to say the least, as this crazy 2015-16 campaign continues to amaze and amuse in equal measure.

Leicester City maintained their scarcely believable form this season by winning 3-2 at Everton, to extend their lead at the top of the table to five points. Manchester United lost 2-1 at home to Norwich, and Chelsea’s players, having finally rid themselves of Jose Mourinho’s ghastly leadership, returned to winning ways by beating Sunderland 3-1 at Stamford Bridge.

First, a word on the Foxes and that word is ‘when’. When are they going to stop playing like champions-elect and more like the mid-table/bottom half side they should be? It’s getting silly now. They’re clear at the top and will now definitely be top on Christmas Day, which is often used as some kind of symbolic yardstick as to whether they’ll emerge champions come May.

I still think they’ll drop off because they’re Leicester ffs their squad isn’t good enough to compensate for any absences for the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy for instance, but the longer they continue their run, the more you’re forced to wonder whether we’re witnessing what would be one of the biggest sporting shocks of all time.

I mean, it’s Leicester! They don’t have a super-wealthy benefactor who bought a star-studded squad last summer. They have Robert Huth, who makes Per Mertesacker seem like Usain Bolt, at centre half, and with one game shy of half the season played, they’re top with a five point cushion.

Meanwhile, let’s spare a thought for Untied, who are now nine points off top spot. In fact, not a thought, a good old LOL. All that money wasted away on players like the past-it Bastian Schweinsteiger, the bang-average trio of Marouane Fellaini, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay, and in terms of wages, on the scandalously over-paid, over-rated and over-fed Wayne Rooney.

Thank God Arsenal have a manager who’s not just a brilliant, trophy-winning, player-developing, talent-spotting master, but also a supreme economist. Louis van Gaal’s days appear to be numbered, I just hope Bobby Charlton’s stance remains steadfast when it comes to the possibility of hiring Mourinho and they don’t offer the Sacked One a quick return to the Premier League.

And so onto to Chelsea who raced into a two-nil lead against the Black Cats today and reportedly played like reigning champions are expected to, not the disinterested, impotent, porous shambles they’ve been so far this season. No surprise there really, given Mourinho’s long gone and they can now start trying to win games again.

But even after his departure, the ruinous after-effects of the Portuguese’s tenure were evident at the game today. Large sections of their support sang Mourinho’s name, but booed the names of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa as they were announced before kick-off. And there was even at least one placard on show in the stands labeling Fabregas, Costa and Eden Hazard as ‘rats’. In truth, the biggest rodent at the club was removed last Thursday. Time will help them see that, no doubt.

Oh, and Chelsea’s fans also serenaded their players with a chorus of ‘where were you when we were shit?’ after they raced into an early 2-0 lead. Hilarious. Although the players may well throw that question right back at their ‘supporters’, given the lack of atmosphere at Stamford Bridge so far this season, which, ironically, was something Mourinho himself complained about during his latest spell at the club. Long may the civil war continue, not that they’re a threat for the title this term anyway.

What today’s results mean for us though, is that a win over City on Monday would close the gap to Leicester to two points, stretch our lead over City to four, and leave us seven clear of fourth spot. A draw or even a defeat would be far from disastrous but what a boost three points would bring, both psychologically over our likeliest competitors for the crown in City, as well as for the rest of the festive fixtures and the season beyond.

Til tomorrow.

18th December 2015: Wenger on Leicester and Barcelona

Happy Friday. We have an Arsenal-free weekend to ‘look forward’ to given we don’t play until Monday night when we entertain Manchester City, and I for one, find that pretty annoying.

To make matters worse, there’s no early kick-off tomorrow, the late one’s Newcastle v Aston Villa and the Sunday games live on TV are Watford v Liverpool and Swansea v West Ham. Exciting stuff. It’s like having three starters of freshly-projected sick, before the mouth-watering main of Arsenal v City on Monday. Still, given the feast of football on the horizon over the next festive fortnight or so, it would be churlish to complain. So I won’t.

Back to Arsene Wenger’s press conference from yesterday and the boss was asked for his opinion on Leicester City’s quite remarkable achievement of leading the Premier League with 16 games played, and said:

Not only (is Leicester’s league position good) for English football, it’s good for everybody in football all over the world to see that teams who are not on the biggest budget at the start can compete as well. There’s always a way to be successful when you’re intelligent and competent. Of course that’s very positive and they’ve shown another fantastic performance on Monday night [against Chelsea]. I always took them seriously but when we won 5-2 over there, nobody took our performance seriously. They just thought it was normal that we won at Leicester, but ever since you have been able to see that it was a great result and a great performance on the day.

There isn’t much to add about the Foxes’ form this season other than to say it was completely unexpected, but has been very refreshing for a league usually as predictable in terms of which teams finish in the top positions, as any other around Europe.

Sure, isolated results often surprise in the Premier League from week to week but by and large, the top two or three positioned teams are usually pretty easy to guess, or at least can be narrowed down to a handful of candidates, before the season starts. So to see a team who battled against relegation last year, fight for the title this, is amazing really.

And let’s not forget the opposite is also true this term. The reigning champions are so fearful of being relegated as we near the half-way mark of the season, they’ve just fired their manager. Anyway , as far as Leicester are concerned, I hope they continue their fine form because they’ll be worthy runners-up when we collect the Premier League trophy in May …

Moving on and Arsene was also asked about last Monday’s Champions League draw which of course paired us with the reigning European champions Barcelona. Here’s what he said:

We are more mature (than we were when we played the Catalans the last couple of times). We played against Barcelona with top teams, but very inexperienced and very young. Barcelona were in full power but we still managed to beat them and it was always very tight. We have never been beaten [comprehensively] and we were sometimes unlucky as well. That is in our minds. That is deep in my body as well. I do not forget that. We have a chance, an opportunity to put things right, and we’ll focus on that. We are playing against a team that have the trophy and are the best team in Europe and I think we have a good chance to go through. It is a difficult challenge but an exciting one as well.

To be fair, I’d say when they beat us 4-1 at Camp Nou in April 2010, with Lionel Messi scoring all four, it was a pretty comprehensive. But then, we did have Mikael Silvestre and Thomas Vermaelen at centre-half, Manuel Almunia in goal and Nicklas Bendtner up front, so we were kind of asking to get battered really.

I remember Arsene being asked if he thought Messi was the best player in the world in his post-match interview that night and he said simply, “by a distance”. ‘Take that, Ronaldo’, I thought at the time, agreeing completely with the boss’ sentiments. I mean, Cristiano’s a great player, but Messi, as Thierry Henry put it this week, ‘is a freak’.

Right, I’m waffling now. Time to leave it there.

Back tomorrow.

17th December 2015: Mourinho won’t be missed + Bruno Peres if Debuchy leaves

Well, well, well. Jose Mourinho has failed to last more than a few seasons in charge of the same club. Who’d have thunk it?

It’s not like he has previous for taking over a team, splashing big in the transfer market and working his psychological magic to motivate his troops to a few trophies, before his squad grow tired of his childish, egotistical, hypocritical ways and his soul-destroying footballing ‘philosophy’ and can’t wait to get rid of the c*nt. Oh wait …

Good riddance I say, and no, English football won’t miss his ‘character’ at all. Not one little bit. So I hope Manchester United, or any other top-flight club thinking of giving him a call think again. He may bring you silverware in the short-term but he’ll stink the place out eventually. He always does. The bad news as an Arsenal fan is that Chelsea will now start to win games more regularly and won’t get relegated, but I suppose we can’t have it all.

But from Mourinho, to the manager he fragrantly wishes he was more like, and who’s respect and one-club longevity he craves, Arsene Wenger, and the boss held his pre-Manchester City press conference this morning, revealing the latest team news and discussing much more besides.

Pointing out the fact the City game was still a few days away yet, Arsene explained Alexis Sanchez has a glimmer of hope of being ready to return from his hamstring injury and there are no fresh concerns otherwise. He said:

We are quite far from the game but at the moment, everybody who played against Aston Villa is available for Monday night and there are one or two possible comebacks. Maybe there is a slight chance for Alexis to be in the squad again but it is too early to be sure about it. He (Sanchez) is running but not participating in full training.

Given how well I thought Theo Walcott performed in Sanchez’s left-sided position at Villa Park last time, plus Joel Campbell’s industrious contribution on the right, I wouldn’t take any risks at all with our Chilean, despite the opposition being City, who remain the team I think are our biggest rivals in the chase for this season’s title.

We have a busy period after the City game and the last thing we need is for Sanchez to return too soon, suffer a relapse and be ruled out of the festive fixtures. I’m sure Arsene will make the right call and when asked if it would be him who made the call and not the player, he said with a smile:

Yes, because he (Sanchez) says he’s always ready.

Meanwhile, he was also asked about his transfer plans for the upcoming January transfer window and offered:

We are open-minded. We are not the only ones who can decide about the speed of the transfers because we have to adapt to the availabilities and the speed of negotiations and the willingness of clubs to sell. We are open to do something because we are short.

Amidst all the talk of a new defensive midfielder and perhaps even a new forward, it’s easy to overlook the fact we also have a bit of an issue at right-back. Clearly Hector Bellerin is first-choice, as he would be in any team in the world, but his back-up, Mathieu Debuchy, went on record recently as saying he wants talks with Arsene over his playing time.

Which is understandable, as he obviously needs to play regular first-team football to stand a chance of forcing his way into the France squad for the Euros in his home country next summer. So if the boss decides to grant Debuchy a move away, we’ll need a new right-back. Off the top of my head, my choice would be Bruno Peres from Torino.

He’s a lightening-fast, attacking full-back who’s very comfortable in possession and crucially, also a very good defender. Here’s a video showcasing both his defending and attacking, including a quite astonishing goal against Juventus at the end …

Back with more from the boss’ presser on Friday.

See you then.

16th December 2015: Cech on clean-sheet record + Wilshere on Ozil

Welcome back. A very brief one today because I’m as short on time as Jose Mourinho is on dressing-room support at Chelsea, plus there’s not a lot going on seeing as we don’t play until Monday night.

Petr Cech, who’s enjoying an impressive, and hugely influential, first season with Arsenal, has been speaking to Arsenal Player about equaling David James’ record of 169 Premier League clean sheets. He said:

I’m not really into the records and the individual trophies. But some achievements you cannot ignore and to be in a position where I can break the all-time clean sheet record is something that I never thought I would be able to do. When I came over, people started talking about the clean sheets and the records, and I thought 169 was impossible. I would have to be here a long time, play every game and you don’t get a clean sheet in every game. The fact that I managed to come to that point is a great achievement. I’m glad that people are noticing what I try to achieve,” he added. “As a player you try to achieve something that people remember you for. Not only that you score one goal or make one good save, you want to set the example that this is not the one-season or one-game wonder. You want to make sure you compete and perform every single game, that you prepare and show the example that you can stay consistent and at the top level as long as possible. I’m really happy that these things I’ve achieved, people realise that I’ve worked to achieve it, so the recognition is great.

After a nightmare start on the opening-day of our Premier League campaign, when he was at fault for at least one of the two goals we conceded in losing 2-0  at home to West Ham, Cech has been sensational for us in my opinion. Crucial saves, a calming influence, a reassuring presence behind the defence – and that’s just when he playing. His off-pitch input at training and in the dressing has reportedly been just as important.

When he eventually hangs up his gloves, which will be a good number of years away yet hopefully, he may well be remembered as the finest keeper to ever play on these shores, particularly if he wins a title or two with us.

Meanwhile, Jack Wilshere has been speaking about Mesut Ozil’s arrival at Arsenal and called the German’s capture as being ‘massive’ for the club. Jack told Arsenal Player:

I think we knew what sort of player Mesut was. His history as a player and the clubs he has played for… to bring him in to play with us was massive. I remember watching [the TV on] transfer deadline day and seeing that Arsenal were interested in Mesut Ozil, and you almost didn’t believe it. When he arrived the players were buzzing and the fans were buzzing and I think that gave us all a massive lift. I watched him for a few years, he was another player who started off young and went to a big club like Real Madrid. I remember watching him a few times and thinking that this player really understands football. You can tell he really understands football and to play alongside him is something special.

I’m not sure precisely how many times Wilshere’s started a game alongside Ozil, but I can tell you it’s not nearly enough and that’s mainly down to Jack being injured for the vast majority of the German’s time at the club. Hopefully when our no 10 eventually returns we’ll get to see the two left-footers form an immediate understanding and who knows, with the likes of Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin injured, we might even see a central trio of Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey with Ozil just ahead of them.

I’m dubious whether that would work given all three are primarily attack-minded midfielders but if the two Brits in that trio could share the defensive duties, acting like pistons in alternating between dropping deep and holding a position in front of the defence, and breaking forward to join the attack, it could actually work magnificently. Between the three of them, we’d have legs, lungs, distribution, creativity, assists and a goal-threat …

Anyway, something to ponder and argue about.

See you on Thursday.

15th December 2015: Welbeck worry, Cazorla on comeback and Ox on versatility

Evening all. Some worrying news to begin with today after reports this morning suggested Danny Welbeck has suffered a setback in his rehabilitation from knee surgery, and may now be out until February, having previously been expected to return shortly after the new year.

There’s no official word from the club as yet and we won’t know for sure until Arsene Wenger speaks to the official site on Thursday, or at his pre-Manchester City press conference on Friday, but either way, it’s bad news if accurate, particularly for a squad as stretched as ours is at the moment.

Meanwhile, another long-term absentee, Santi Cazorla, has been discussing his own knee injury, revealing he had no idea how serious it was initially. The Spaniard also said he hopes to be back in March, but the club think it may be longer:

I am trying to take it well. These are the things that happen in football and I am trying to recover as soon as possible. I have to be ready mentally to work and hopefully I can shorten the recovery time as much as possible. I do not want to set a time but I want to play in three months. I do not want to extend it more if it is possible. Arsenal have told me it will be between three and four months, which may be closer to four. I have already said that I will work hard, I want to make everything I can to play in March but we will see how it goes. We are not going to force it if is going to be bad. But my priority is to play in March. The club have told me to be calm and that when I return we will be in the finals (laughs). I hope so. The important thing is that the team do well and I recover as soon as possible.

Aaron Ramsey has obviously taken over the central midfield mantle in Cazorla’s absence, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been telling the Arsenal Weekly podcast that he too can play in the middle if asked. He said:

Versatility is an extra string to a player’s bow. In the long run it’s probably better to tie yourself down to one position and really become established in one area to be as good as you can in that position. However, you look at the likes of Philipp Lahm who is one of the best right backs in the world, but he can also go into midfield and play as if he’s one of the best midfielders in the world. Throughout your career you will always be asked to play slightly different positions here and there, and obviously the needs of the team comes first so if you need to fill in at a different position, you’ll be expected to do that. It’s important for any player to be versatile enough to be able to play in different positions. I’m quite lucky because I enjoy playing on the wing and in midfield as well. I’ve become more used to playing on the wing because I’ve played there more than I have in the middle. Growing up, I played more centrally which is why whenever I do get asked to play there, I’m more than happy to do that. There are times in the game as well when, because of the way the team plays, I might be on the wing but for a 10-minute period I might end up playing in midfield and I feel at home doing that. Sometimes it’s nicer to play in midfield because you get more of the ball whereas when you’re out wide you rely on people to get you the ball, but then when you are on the wing you have then license to attack a bit more and run at people which is a strong part of my game. I’m happy to play in both positions.

That certainly sounds as though the Ox wouldn’t mind playing through the middle but personally my thoughts on whether he’s best positioned more centrally or out wide are mixed. He’s been guilty of giving the ball away too often when deployed in the middle in the past and I think that’s a big reason Arsene Wenger is perhaps reluctant to pay him there more often.

That said, some of the Ox’s best performances in an Arsenal shirt have come when he’s played centrally. I’m thinking AC Milan and Crystal Palace at home and I think, if memory serves, Galatasaray away in last season’s Champions League.

A bit like with Ramsey, I think he can certainly be a good player in the middle, provided we have the right player(s) partnering him. For now though, given his, lets say, below-par form when he has played so far this season, the Ox just needs to work hard in training, find some confidence in his game, and force his way into the starting selection, wherever the boss decides to position him.

Until tomorrow.

14th December 2015: Barcelona drawn, Giroud 50-up and Ramsey on being top

So the draw for the last 16 of this season’s Champions League was made this morning and we’ve been paired with reigning champions Barcelona. Splendid.

Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar and co will strut their stuff in north London on Tuesday, Febraury 23rd, before we head to Camp Nou for the return leg on Wednesday, March 16th. It’s obviously the most difficult draw we could possibly have gotten and the Catalans will be huge favourites, but as we proved in the home leg of our tie in 2011, with a little luck, we can beat Barca.

Whether we can go to their ground and get a result is another matter, but we do have a far better team, in my opinion at least, than we did for the last couple of ties between the sides. That said, you could argue with the likes of Neymar and Suarez replacing David Villa and Pedro, they’re improved too. Individually at least, if not, necessarily, collectively.

By the end of February, we should have the likes of Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck available too, perhaps one or both of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, and maybe even a shiny new recruit or two from the winter window, so who knows what our side will look like when we play the Catalans.

Anyway, regardless of what happens, it’s always exciting to see how we fare against the very best the club game has to offer, and Barcelona are still some distance better than the next-best in Europe in my opinion – Bayern Munich. After that though, I’d put us at least on par with the rest of the continent’s finest when we’re fully fit, so if we can somehow conjure an aggregate win over Barcelona, who knows …

Back to  reality, and yesterday’s game for now though, and a couple of our players have been to the official club site. First up, it’s Olivier Giroud, who after opening the scoring with his 50th Premier League goal for the club from the penalty spot at Villa Park, told Arsenal Player:

I’m pleased with that (50 league goals for Arsenal) and I don’t want to stop here. I tried to do a good job for my team-mates today and I did well with the penalty. I was the one who had to take it. We were very good on the counter-attack with Theo and Mesut and (got) another clean sheet, so it was a really good day. It is a fantastic week. We did a great job in the Champions League and we really wanted to finish the week with a win and to be top of league before Leicester’s game against Chelsea. It is nice and hopefully we can have a great game against Manchester City on Monday. I’m very pleased with the performance today and we are in a great position and even if everything was not perfect, we had a lot of chances today which is good for me and the team.

For a little context, Giroud became the third-fastest Arsenal player to reach half a century of Premier League goals for the club behind only Thierry Henry and Ian Wright, having achieved the feat in one game fewer than Dennis Bergkamp managed to:

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So the Frenchman’s in pretty good company (except for the turncoat at the bottom there), even if he took considerably more games to get to the 50-mark than messrs Wright and Henry.

Meanwhile, Aaron Ramsey, who sourced and scored our second against against Villa on Sunday, has been discussing being top of the table, and his return to his favoured central midfield position, telling Arsenal Player:

It was nice to be top of the league – maybe for a short period of time – it puts a bit of pressure on other teams. But it’s a busy period and we have to remain consistent through that and see where we are in the new year. I believe there are a lot more teams now capable of taking points off each other. We’ve been shown that this season with some of the results. But it’s important for us to look after ourselves and get through this busy period and see where we are in January. I’m really enjoying it (playing centrally). That’s where I feel I play my best football and can have an effect on the game. I’ve scored a couple and had a couple of assists as well in the three games I’ve played there. So I’m delighted with the way things are going in there, hopefully I can continue to do well there.

It’s hard to argue that Ramsey is at his best in the middle but whether Arsenal are at their best as a team with him there is another matter. Whilst it’s great to have the Welshman’s energy and goal-threat in the middle, we undoubtedly have less control and poorer ball-circulation compared to when Cazorla plays there. and against the better teams, my fear is that we’ll rue not having our little Spaniard fit and available.

A specialist defensive midfielder who can also distribute the ball like Santi would be the ideal type to partner Aaron, but who that player is and whether we can find and sign him in the January market is fanciful, if he even exists. We need a Sergio Busquets with pace, a Mikel Arteta who can run, an Andrea Pirlo who can defend. Suggestions on a postcard addressed to Highbury House or London Colney …

And that’s that for another day. See you tomorrow.

13th December 2015: Giroud and Ramsey send Arsenal top

Evening all. So goals by Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey secured Arsenal a 2-0 win over Aston Villa today, to send us top of the league and set us up very nicely indeed for the busy festive period to come.

The win at Villa Park capped a brilliant week or so for the club, in which we’ve managed three wins from three games, scored eight goals and conceded none. Not bad for a team missing several key players through injury. Not bad at all. And the cherry on our pre-Christmas schedule cake comes in the form of defeat for Manchester United yesterday and Tottenham today, plus dropped points for Liverpool too.

As expected, Arsene Wenger kept an unchanged starting line-up from last Wednesday’s win at Olympiacos but this time Theo Walcott started, and stayed, playing from the left flank with Joel Campbell on the other side. And after an opening period in which the hosts looked full of zest without creating anything of note, Mathieu Flamini clipped a delightful ball over their rampaging, and constantly-remonstrating, right-back Alan Hutton for Theo to latch onto.

Usually in a position like that, Theo tends to shy away from physical contact but not today. He showed great strength in a shoulder-to-shoulder with Hutton, bullied his way past his marker and intelligently cut across him only for the Scot to pull at Theo’s arm and concede as clear a penalty as you’ll ever see.

For a couple of moments it seemed, quite incredibly, that the referee would wave play on, but thankfully either his brain caught up with his eyes, or he received a little tip off via his headphones because he pointed to the spot. Giroud stepped up and confidently sent the keeper the wrong way to put us one-nil up with just eight minutes on the clock.

Half an hour later we doubled our lead in a move started and finished by Ramsey. Having won the ball in midfield with a well-timed tackle, the Welshman found Walcott who took his time and with team-mates pouring forward ahead of him, threaded the ball carefully through to Mesut Ozil. The German bamboozled Joleon Lescott with a classy body swerve, drew the keeper out towards him, before squaring the ball left to Ramsey who gleefully stroked it into an empty net.

The second half was fairly uneventful and I thought we looked a little jaded physically, which was far from surprising given we traveled to Greece during the week. The boss clearly saw the drop off in intensity too and reacted by making a double substitution, replacing Walcott and Campbell with Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain just after the hour mark. He then gave Ozil a little breather with five minutes to go, sending on Calum Chambers in his place to add a little more ballast to central midfield.

After the game, Arsene gave his take on proceedings to Arsenal Player, saying:

I’m very proud and happy of the spirit we show. That’s what people want to see. There’s a strength and togetherness coming out of the team that people feel and that’s the biggest satisfaction. It’s the best basis to make results. It was a convincing performance overall. In the first half we dominated the situation very well and got two goals. In the second half it was a bit more difficult physically because we gave a lot on Wednesday night and you could see that the legs were a bit tired. But overall we have shown maturity, didn’t give a goal away and came home with what I believe was a convincing win. It’s a great week – Sunderland, Olympiacos and today. We’ve scored eight goals and I think it was a fantastic week. I would like to give credit to the team for their mental approach to the games. It’s absolutely fantastic.

So we sit merrily top of the table at least until after tomorrow evening’s game between Leicester and Chelsea, and we can now look ahead to City’s visit to Emirates stadium a week tomorrow off the back of another win, another clean sheet and with the possibility, however slight at this stage, that our mercurial Chilean Alexis Sanchez might be back from his hamstring injury to face Manuel Pellegrini’s side.

Til tomorrow, league-leaders.

12th December 2015: Premier League Preview – Remi reunion awaits at Villa Park

Welcome back. Signed on the same day as Patrick Vieira back in 1996, Remi Garde is famously one of Arsene Wenger’s first two signings for the club, but tomorrow at Villa Park, old allegiances will be forgotten as he faces us as a manager for the first time.

Garde enjoyed a fairly unremarkable three-year stay with the Gunners after signing from Strasbourg, but did win the Double with us in 1998, though as a bit-part player. He made 31 appearances in the red and white of Arsenal before injury forced him to retire in 1999. Anyway, tomorrow he’s no different to any other opposition manager, in the sense that I want us to give his team a good spanking.

In terms of how we’ll line-up, we should have the same squad that traveled to Greece for Wednesday night’s win over Olympiacos and as such, I’m expecting an unchanged starting line-up. If, for instance, Olivier Giroud’s ankle isn’t feeling 100 percent after he seemed to strain it early in the second half in Athens, we do of course have the option of bringing in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, moving Theo Walcott up front and giving the Frenchman a breather.

As for the importance of the game, with Leicester City not playing until they host relegation-haunted Chelsea on Monday night, we can go top with a win, displacing Manchester City, who climbed above the Foxes thanks to a jammy last-minute winner against Swansea this afternoon. Seeing as Manchester United lost today, we can also open up a four-point gap to fourth-place.

But the boss thinks only after the festive period will the table start to indicate which teams are likeliest to last the pace in the title race. He said:

I think you always see the real trend after Christmas. Of course every year you have a surprising team who is in the top four. Last year it was West Ham, this year it is Leicester. The question is always can they maintain their run. It looks like Leicester are producing the consistency and quality. The number of goals they score indicates to you, yes, they will remain up there and you have to consider them now as fighting for the Premier League.

And on tomorrow’s opponents Aston Villa, as well as the need for ‘focus’ from his own side, Arsene told Arsenal Player:

They have  Sinclair, they have Jordan Ayew, who can score goals like Gestede. They are a complete team. Vertout plays quite well, Gueye plays. They have young prospects like Grealish. I think there is a good basis for Remi Garde to work on and to stabilise the team. For us, after Wednesday night, it’s important that we straight away have a focus. I’m highly focused on the Premier League and I want us to manage to go from one competition to the other. That’s a sign of maturity as well.

Last season we beat Villa 3-0 away, then 5-0 at home before our 4-0 win in May’s FA Cup Final at Wembley, but this is a much-changed side we’ll face. They have a horde of new players, a new manager and despite being bottom of the league following a disastrous first few months of the season, they did manage a 1-1 draw at Southampton last time out, with many observers reporting they looked much improved. So tomorrow may not be as straightforward for us as it would appear looking at the standings.

That said,  I’m expecting nothing less than three points, Arsenal topping the table for at least 24 hours and then a full week to rest and recuperate before we welcome City to Emirates Stadium a week on Monday. Make it happen lads …

Back post-match.