19th March 2016: Fluent first-half enough to see off Everton as Iwobi impresses

Saturday greetings. Whenever he decides to hang up his stop-watch, if there’s one thing I’ll miss about Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, it’s that unique excitement and feeling of pride that’s generated by the flourishing of a new young talent.

Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka, Cesc Fabregas – the list goes on – and now, Alex Iwobi. Of course, we already knew quite a bit about the Nigerian teenager heading into today’s game against Everton at Goodison Park, given he’s enjoyed a fair bit of first-team football in what has been his break-through campaign, not least his surprise start against Barcelona in midweek, but his performance today felt like a coming of age game. Like Anelka against Manchester United in that 3-2 win at Highbury during our 1997-98 title-winning season, or Fabregas against Juventus in 2006.

With much older and experienced team-mates like Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud and, to a lesser extent, Joel Campbell, left on the bench in favour of Iwobi today, the youngster showed just why his manager has no qualms about starting him in crucial games by producing a brilliant team-minded display and rounding it off by scoring his first goal in professional football to put us two-nil up after 42 minutes.

Having played an important part in helping to win back possession a few yards outside our own box, Iwobi sprinted into space on the right and was found with a great ball over the top by Hector Bellerin. Despite having support to his left, Iwobi showed confidence and composure in abundance by closing in on goal and slipping his shot through the keeper’s legs.

Moments later he combined brilliantly with Danny Welbeck, as the two forwards exchanged intricate back-flicks to bamboozle Everton, but on this occasion Iwobi took the wrong option, choosing to go alone and skewing his shot just wide of the near post when he should have played it back to Welbeck to his left.

Iwobi appears to have developed a promising relationship with Welbeck, and it was the latter who had put us ahead in the seventh minute when he provided a clinical finale to an exquisite team goal. An initial attacking move created a chance for Iwobi following an Ozil cross from the right but the youngster was forced to turn away from goal and restart the move by laying the ball off to Nacho Monreal near the left by-line.

We then worked it across to the opposite side of the pitch and Alexis Sanchez played a sharp one-two with Ozil before the Chilean produced an inch perfect through ball for Welbeck, who needed just two touches to round their keeper and find the back of the net. The run and finish from the striker was Thierry Henry-esque and the least we deserved for a quick, slick start to the match.

We then nearly doubled our lead moments later when Sanchez won the ball high up the pitch and found the on-rushing Iwobi who saw his first-time, side-footed effort saved by their keeper. Something clicked in that opening period for Arsenal as an attacking force and the fact we had had 11 starters who are all very comfortable in possession and quick-witted enough to play a pass-and-move game was undoubtedly the main reason.

There were no Girouds, Ramseys or Walcotts on show to disrupt the rhythm of our passing and even though those three players have their own considerable individual strengths and can be valuable assets in certain circumstances, I think I much prefer today’s cohesion to the more chaotic characteristics that trio bring to the side. That said, Everton were very poor today so perhaps we shouldn’t get too excited just yet.

The second half was a more disjointed affair with David Ospina taking a heavy impact to his side after bravely diving at the feet of Romelu Lukaku, before Kieran Gibbs, Giroud and Calum Chambers came on for Iwobi, Welbeck and Ozil, with the latter worryingly nursing a knock to his left ankle after being caught late by one of Everton’s players.

So all in all a great performance first-half, intelligent game-management in the second, and would you believe it, three whole Premier League points won for what feels like the first time in about three years. Sadly, Leicester show no signs of cracking just yet and ground out another one-nil win today, this time at Crystal Palace, to restore their 11 point lead over us. They have seven to play to our eight, so it’s still possible to catch them but we need the Foxes to start stumbling, and fast.

Spurs host Bournemouth and the Manchester clubs face each other tomorrow, so hopefully results will go in our favour and we can look back at this weekend as one in which we made up some ground ahead of us, whilst also putting some distance between the teams hot on our trail. Otherwise, it”ll be another round of fixtures down without progress points-wise, even if our own performance was very praiseworthy indeed.

See you on Sunday.

18th March 2016: Wenger on title race and team news

Happy Friday. It’s Everton away in the early kick-off tomorrow and nothing bar victory will suffice for Arsenal as we try to keep alive our faint hopes of ending the season as Premier League champions.

Many have already written us off and called a two-horse race between Tottenham and leaders Leicester but that, as things stand at least, is premature. If we win tomorrow we could end the day three points behind second placed Sp*rs and eight behind the Foxes with a game in hand – if Claudio Ranieri’s men slip up at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace.

So when Arsene Wenger spoke at his pre-match press conference earlier today and suggested there’s still likely to be twists and turns and the title race was far from a foregone conclusion, you could see where he’s coming from.

On the other hand, with Manchester City just a point behind us, West Ham a further two adrift and even Manchester United not yet out of the top-four picture entirely in sixth place, we need to be just as wary of those behind us in the standings, as we hopeful of catching the two teams ahead. Here’s what Arsene said:

I would say we have to go step by step. Let’s get back to winning habits first, that starts tomorrow… if we win tomorrow, we’ll see. That’s our target. But at the moment, the only way to achieve something special is first to be realistic and humble enough to deal first with Everton. Things will change until the end of the season, that’s for sure. We have to take care of our own destiny, and that’s by producing the performances we expect from ourselves. It’s very tight, but I believe the Premier League is far from over. We are in a position where we hope for the best. I agree that a negative result would be very bad for us, but we focus on a positive result. We know now is the time for us to produce the result we want. We also have to look behind us because things can change very quickly. We want to move forward, but I’m conscious that our position is not secure, even where we are.

In terms of team news, the boss revealed only Mathieu Flamini, who went off injured against Barcelona on Wednesday, is unavailable from our last match-day squad and will be replaced by Calum Chambers. As for our long-term casualties, he revealed:

Wilshere is showing good signs now of recovery, Santi is a bit slower. The players who will definitely be back from injury [after the international break] will be Ramsey, Cech and maybe Flamini. But I don’t think Cazorla or Wilshere will be straight after the international break.

So good news on most but a little sketchy on Santi, which is of course concerning and also a little confusing, because when Arsene spoke a week or two about the Spaniard suffering a fresh setback due to an Achilles problem, the player himself took to social media to express his surprise at the stories of a delayed comeback and insisted he was on schedule to return at the start of April. All a bit weird.

Now usually, I’d play Arsenal Manager right about now and have a guess at tomorrow’s starting line-up but today, I’m not really feeling it. I just hope whoever’s selected performs well, we keep 11 players on the pitch for the whole game and emerge victorious to breathe fresh life into a campaign that’s nearing a flat-line.

Back post-match.


17th March 2016: Ozil and Koscielny talk the talk

Evening all. With our season now confined to just the Premier League, we have no fixture congestion issues from here on in, no prioritizing to ponder competition-wise, just nine games to make up the 11 points we currently lie behind Leicester and then pray and hope our rivals in the title race drop enough to see us crowned champions.

At this point it’s already highly unlikely and every game feels like a title eliminator because if we were to fall any further behind, then realistically our challenge would be over even if it was still mathematically possible.

And as we prepare for the season’s final straight, two of our spinal players have been having their say on what they feel is required if we are to beat the odds and lift our first league title since 2004. First up it’s Mesut Ozil, who had some fighting talk when he spoke with Arsenal Player, saying:

Last year we won those last eight [remaining] games but we don’t care about that now. It’s important what happens now. We have to concentrate now and give everything on the pitch. We have to fight. I know the teams playing us will fight to take the points against us, so the games will be tough. We have to fight on the pitch and we have to think from game to game, not that we can win eight games in a row and take the points. Now it’s not possible to win just our games [and that to be enough] so other teams need to lose points as well. The first step is to believe in us. We have to work harder than before. We have tough games coming but we have to take the points. If we win the title, we will be very happy because we believe in us. If you see the whole season, we’ve played very well. We’ve lost some points because we weren’t concentrated or we didn’t score. Now we have to fight for each game to take the points.

Nothing to argue with there and our German assist-meister certainly sounds determined. I’ve seen him get some stick for his alleged ‘lack of effort’ in last night’s loss to Barcelona but I think part of the reason he may have been at less than 100 percent intensity is because deep down, both team and manager knew we were facing an impossible task – especially after Barcelona took the lead to make it 3-0 on aggregate.

So rather than not trying, I think Ozil was sensibly conserving energy, perhaps even on manager instructions. Whether that’s true or not only the player and Arsene Wenger can know for sure of course, but that’s how I’m reading it and you can’t stop me.

Meanwhile Laurent Koscielny says the side have lost a little confidence having dropped so many precious points recently and must now concentrate on the basics to get back to winning ways and rebuild belief. He told Arsenal Player:

We are frustrated because the most important thing in a game is to finish with three points, which we have not done [much]. We haven’t been fighting like we did in the last six months because we lost a little confidence in ourselves and it is harder to win some games. We need to come back and help our team-mates with defending, attacking and a controlled passing movement. We didn’t lose our capacity physically or our technique, we just need to do more. We also need to come back to our basics, be simple and then the confidence will come back. When we get a win, it will be better and after we can play with more confidence, movement and try things we didn’t do before. We need to get back to this and when the results come back, we will be stronger.

If there’s one thing you can always rely on from Arsenal, it’s talking a good game, whether it’s the manager or any of the players. Now if they could just translate all that sensible spiel into on-pitch performances and points, we might yet pull off a minor miracle between now and the season’s end.

But as we all know, our margin for error has all but evaporated, so starting at Goodison Park on Saturday lunchtime, we simply have to walk the walk.

Until tomorrow.

16th March 2016: Arsenal brave, but Barcelona were half-bothered

Welcome back. So in a huge shock this evening, Arsenal lost 3-1 at Barcelona to exit the Champions League at the last 16 stage.

In seriousness though, despite Arsene Wenger deciding to pull an actual surprise and play Alex Iwobi and Mathieu Flamini from the start at Camp Nou, his side produced a commendable performance in defeat, creating a number of goal-scoring opportunities against the best club side in football.

But whilst we had near-misses and were ruing what ifs at half-time, the hosts had extended the lead they brought into the game from the first leg three weeks ago, with Neymar calmly stroking the ball past David Ospina after 18 minutes. The goal came about when Laurent Koscielny tried to carry the ball out from defence but was crowded out of possession and Luis Suarez sent Neymar through one-on-one with Ospina.

Just before half-time, Flamini pulled up seemingly clutching his hamstring and the rested Francis Coquelin came on his place for the last minute or two of the first-half, before spending the interval warming up properly. That was a relief because when he came on, such is our luck with injuries, my first thought wasn’t ‘how will he play?’, but ‘has he warmed up well enough and what if he gets injured and misses Everton?’.

Anyway, Coquelin fears allayed, we began the second well, with Barcelona playing like they could barely be bothered and knew they were all but through. Yet we gave them a genuine cause to reassess their creeping complacency just six minutes into the second period. Alexis Sanchez cut the ball back to the edge of the box from the right and Mohamed Elneny was there to strike it first-time using his right in-step, bending the ball around a Barcelona defender and into the top of the net at the near post giving their keeper no chance.

And it might have got better for us just moments later when Danny Welbeck nicked the ball high up the pack, cut inside Javier Mascherano onto his left foot and got a shot away, only to see it deflected wide by a a recovery challenge from the Argentine. In hindsight, Welbeck should have taken another touch as Mascherano had committed early to the slide and would have been helpless if Welbeck had decided to dummy his shot, but it wasn’t to be.

Unsurprisingly, with us back in the tie as well as the game at this point, Barcelona upped their game and found the goal that put them back in front on the night, 4-1 up on aggregate, and effectively killed the tie. Dani Alves crossed from the right and Suarez shinned a volley into the far top corner. It was fortuitous to say the least and not Barcelona’s only piece of luck on the night.

Iwobi was tripped, probably inadvertently, by Mascherano in the Barca box in the first half but despite seeing the incident described as ‘the worst dive of all time’ by some, it was a penalty as far as I’m concerned. There were numerous other decisions that were very harsh on Arsenal and generous to the hosts but then that’s always the case for any side playing Barcelona – home or away.

Our only complaints with the final meaningful action of the game however, were directed at our own defending as we failed to clear the ball in the 88th minute and Lionel Messi decided to get in on the goal-scoring act and scoop the ball past Ospina to make it 3-1.

Overall then, despite another defeat, I thought it was a good performance by us under the circumstances but we should factor in that Barcelona played well within themselves. Yet given our recent form, I’ll take that performance and hopefully the confidence some of the players, like Elneny, will have gained, as we now prepare to play in the only competition we can still win this season.

Given how few Premier League games remain and the fact leaders Leicester lie 11 points ahead of us at the moment, only a win at Everton on Saturday will suffice. Our preparation should already have started.

See you tomorrow.

15th March 2016: Wenger and Vermaelen on Arsenal’s hopes

Evening all. So Newcastle couldn’t do us a favour after all last night, and we’re now 11 points behind Premier League leaders Leicester City, albeit with a game in hand. Boll*cks.

But there’s plenty of time to talk about the domestic title race, and whether we’re still part of it, later in the week. For now it’s all thoughts on Barcelona and wondering whether we can at the very least produce a decent performance, even if getting a result that carries us through will need the most exceptional of circumstances on the night. Like the entire Barcelona starting selection injuring themselves in the warm-up, for instance.

One man who thinks the tie isn’t over just yet though, is our former captain and current Barcelona bit-player Thomas Vermaelen, who says the Catalans will find it tough against ‘dangerous’ Arsenal:

Of course we will be the favourites but I know Arsenal, and I know it’s not going to be easy. I think they gave us a tough time in London. When I was there, we played a couple of times against Bayern Munich and we lost at home, but then we went to Bayern Munich, we had very good results and we were close to going through. You can never say they are out because they will always come back. The second leg is not going to be easy. They want to play football on the floor, they want to keep the ball on the ground and that’s what both teams want. They’d rather not play with long balls because that’s not the type of their play. They have pace and are physical. They have very quick players on the wing and are very energetic. That’s what makes them dangerous.

Awwww. That’s nice of Tommy V to say. But that’s all he’s doing, the same as most players would about a former club having moved onto a bigger, better one. In private, I’m sure he’s expecting Barcelona to beat us again just like everybody else. They’re just a far, far superior team.

Anyway, unsurprisingly, Arsene Wenger was also sounding pretty bullish at his pre-match press conference earlier this evening, suggesting the objective for his team is clear-cut and that he’ll instruct his side to attack. He said:

We are in a position where we need to score two or three goals. That demands a very [clear charge]. We know that we need to attack and take the game to them. I felt that our approach [in the first leg] was not so bad. We lost our balance a bit just after half-time. We got caught on the counter-attack at a moment where we looked to be on top of the game, so we are in a position where I don’t think we have to think too much.

Now you might read that and think it’s a little confused from Arsene because on the one hand he says our approach was on the right track in the first leg when we certainly did anything but take the game to Barcelona, yet on the other he suggest we’ll be adventurous tomorrow because we have to. But I think I know what he means.

We played the first 70 minutes of the first leg well and having arrived at a stage of the game when we’d be most likely to score (based on the previous two meetings between the sides at Emirates stadium in recent years), we conceded two goals that could easily have been avoided, even against such brilliant opponents.

Right, brief and abrupt, but that’s it from me for tonight.

Back either pre or post-game tomorrow. I haven’t decided yet.

Brace yourselves.


14th March 2016: Backing Benitez + Looking to Barcelona

Welcome to a brand new week on TremendArse. I suppose the first thing to say with an hour or so until kickoff between Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle United and league leaders Leicester City is: COME ON YOU GEORDIES!

Before Rafa’s appointment, most football followers would quite understandably have given the Magpies next to no chance of getting anything from tonight’s game at the King Power stadium – and they might still feel the same way now.

But Newcastle’s new boss is undoubtedly a brilliant tactician, whatever your overall views on him as a manager are, so personally I’m clinging to the hope he can hit the ground running, benefit from the fabled ‘new manager bounce’, and do Arsenal a huge favour by at least taking a point off the Foxes.

Throw in the fact that Newcastle, and their Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum in particular, have played well in front of live cameras so far this season, the case for the Magpies getting something from the game is strengthened. Orrrrrrrrrrrr, maybe I’m clutching at straws because THAT’S WHAT ARSENAL’S FORM HAS DONE TO ME …

Speaking of the mis-firing Gunners, thoughts now begin to turn away from yesterday FA Cup defeat and towards Wednesday’s Champions League defeat game. We play Barcelona, in Barcelona, trying to overturn a two-nil first-leg defeat, missing key players in Petr Cech and Santi Cazorla, and looking to pull off what would be the biggest surprise result in recent footballing history. By recent, mean entire. Because the Catalans are pretty much footballing perfection personified, whilst on current form, we’re a bit, well, sh*t.

Thank God then, that Per Mertesacker has the answer for how we beat Barcelona! Also discussing our loss to Watford, he said:

You have to give us credit because we kept going against Watford and created chance after chance. But at the moment we lack that killer instinct. We need to work on that if we want to be successful in the Premier League and the Champions League. We were not relaxed against Watford. Even in the box we played and always found good positions, with the man in the right position but we lacked that relaxation even to hit the target. We did not do that sometimes. We missed it too often. We cannot afford to concede against Barcelona. We have to go there and try to attack, no matter what, that is the only possibility we have. We can be fortunate to have such big game in front of us. They are the ultimate team at the minute, so we are straight away under pressure and we have to go away from home. I think the confidence is there, we are just missing something. The season is not over. We play in a confident way, we maybe lack that bit at the end. The desire to play together and to be good as a team is there, you can feel that.

Although Per’s completely right about us needing to up our game in terms of scoring goals, some would point out that if he’d defended the throw-in that led to Watford’s opener a little better (or at all), we might still be in the Cup.

Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger also spoke about our upcoming Champions League clash and highlighted the tough schedule we’re in the middle of, with Everton away to come on Saturday, so soon after our midweek game in Spain. The boss told Arsenal Player:

We want to now focus on the Champions League and then we go to Everton and that schedule is very tight. It is very difficult playing on Sunday afternoon, Wednesday night and then Saturday morning. It is important that we respond very quickly. We play a big game and players want to play in the big games. When you have a big game in front of you, you want to prepare well and show how good you are. I think that is natural.

He’s quite right of course, we have a daunting few days coming up, away in two grounds we’ve struggled at in recent times, but it’s Arsene’s job to manage his squad and get us winning again and he’ll be judged on how well he does it.

Even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans out there will no doubt be fearing the worst on Wednesday but we quite simply have to win at Goodison Park, if not for the sake of an increasingly unlikely title challenge, then at least to arrest our dismal form and avoid a three defeats in a row.

Back tomorrow.

13th March 2016: Arsenal crash out of FA Cup to impressive Watford

Welcome back. So Arsenal’s hopes of winning a third successive FA Cup went up in flames earlier today when they lost 2-1 at home to a Watford side I thought were deserved winners and simply out-played us on the day.

The Hornets were organised, compact, pressed us ferociously in packs and in the right areas, and carried a constant threat on the counter-attack, mainly through the impressive partnership of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo up front. But bar the last few minutes of the game, we were poor, looking impotent in attack and an accident waiting to happen at the back.

Arsene Wenger went with a very strong starting line-up (which suggests he’s as resigned to Champions League elimination as the rest of us, despite what he says in public) with both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil selected, but even with our two big guns on the pitch, we still lacked firepower.

The former’s struggles for form continued, whilst the latter was probably our best player on the day. Yet both were involved in creating our goal. Sanchez found substitute Danny Welbeck and he played a brilliant one-two with Ozil before firmly side-footing the ball into the far side-netting to give us a glimmer of hope in the 88th minute.

By that point were were two-nil down having conceded twice in 13 second-half minutes. First, Deeney glanced a throw-in to Ighalo who span Gabriel and fired past David Ospina from close range, before Deeney again played provider, brilliantly holding up the ball and laying it off for the on-rushing Adlene Guedioura to send a first-time thunderbolt past a helpless Ospina and into the roof of the net at the near post.

We can’t say we hadn’t been warned of Watford’s attacking abilities because there had been a few dangerous attacks by the visitors earlier in the game that narrowly failed due to mis-timed final passes.

Arsene left it five minutes before sending on three subs at the same time, introducing Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi for Olivier Giroud, Joel Campbell and Mohamed Elneny. Despite Walcott again contributing as much to proceedings as Jimmy Carr does to HMRC, Iwobi and Welbeck’s introduction almost instantly made us seem more likely to get a goal I felt.

In the end we managed one, Welbeck missed a sitter moments after scoring, Iwobi hit a post in the build-up to that miss, and we exited the Cup for the first time in three seasons. I would sum up our display today as reactive, when it needed to be proactive, and although I thought it was far from our worst performance in recent times (we did manage to produce a few slick moves over the course of the 90 minutes), some of our play was infuriatingly average.

Chambers’ crossing was sh*t, and both full-backs’ understanding with their team-mates ahead of them was non-existent. Sanchez tried hard as usual but was brilliantly shackled by Watford’s right-back I thought, eventually having to concede defeat in that duel and switch over to the right. Up top Giroud was easily contained and just looked so off the wavelength of team-mates it makes you feel he should be no more than a plan b or c, last resort, get-it-in-the-mixer option for a club with supposed aspirations of success like Arsenal.

At the back, Gabriel seems to have taken a lot of stick for his defending and although he was lucky to escape a red card for a two-footed tackle on Deeney in the first half, and then failed to stop Ighalo from scoring despite being tight to the striker, I actually thought Mertesacker was worse. His lack of aggression is astounding for a centre-half playing in English football and even if I can appreciate his coolness can be an asset at times, more often it’s a liability. Too often he appears to be hoping opponents will miss in the midst of action, rather than making sure they do miss by, er, defending. It’s weird. He’s a reluctant defender – yet he’s a defender.

To make matters worse, Sp*rs beat Aston Villa today to move six points and a mammoth 13 goals ahead of us in the Premier League standings – it’s been another baaaaaaaaaaaaad day to be a Gooner. Unfortunately, with Barcelona to face on Wednesday, things will probably get worse before they can get better.

I can see why Arsene wants to give it a go against the Catalans and select a strong team, because we have to basically, whatever the odds of us progressing, yet with Everton away so soon afterwards, ruining our hopes in all three competitions in the space of a week seems very, very likely right now.

See you next week.

12th March 2016: Watford stand in our way to Wembley

Saturday salutations. Two goals from Romelu Lukaku helped Everton to knock his former club Chelsea out of the FA Cup earlier today and in my opinion, also provide a boost to Arsenal’s chances of winning the competition for the third year running.

The Toffees are obviously a good side on their day and boast players, in Lukaku, Ross Barkley and John Stones in particular, who are coveted by some of the biggest clubs around, but given our wretched record against Chelsea over the last decade or so, I’d rather face Roberto Martinez’s men given the choice.

So providing we beat Watford in our own last-eight tie tomorrow, the only teams that could deny us a rare Cup hat-trick are Everton, Crystal Palace and one of Manchester United or West Ham, who contest the last quarter-final at Old Trafford tomorrow. Frankly, we should be strong favourites now, even if United turned us over just a few weeks ago.

Of course, so late in the competition all the remaining teams will fancy their chances and that’s something Arsene Wenger touched on at his press conference yesterday, as well as rejecting the idea that clubs no longer hold the FA Cup in much esteem. He said:

We have always taken the FA Cup seriously and if you look at the record we have over the years, we try to do well. Everyone does. This story of the FA Cup not being taken seriously is not right – everyone wants to do well. In the [Premier League] we have not done as well because maybe some teams have done better than us in recent years. Is it fair or not [to say we are favourites for the FA Cup]? I don’t know. I look at the teams who are still in the competition and you could say the same to three or four as well. We have a chance like everyone else and we want to play as hard as we can to give ourselves a good chance to be successful. I haven’t given up on the Premier League at all and I’ve said that many times, nor the Champions League. We have to take care of the next minute and the next minute is an FA Cup game. Is it the best chance to win a trophy? It’s still far away. We must win the next game and prove that we can show consistency again. I don’t believe anyone in my side thinks about Barcelona at the moment, or Everton, they are completely focused on Watford.

So with mission ‘we need the mother of all miracles’ at Barcelona on Wednesday and a tricky trip to face the Toffees in the league next Saturday lunchtime definitely not on our minds or influencing selection for Watford at all, how are we likely to line-up tomorrow?

All three first-choice centre-halves appear to be available judging by today’s training pics but my guess would be that we’ll go again with Gabriel and Per Mertesacer from the start and keep Laurent Koscielny fresh for Lionel Messi and his show-boating amigos in midweek.

Similarly, I think Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs will play full-back with Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal rested for Camp Nou. That said, the Catalans have a huge pitch and Gibbs may be better equipped to cover what will no doubt be counter-attacking ground than Monreal, so we’ll see.

Further forward I think it gets a little more difficult. So far this season in the FA Cup, we’ve rested Mesut Ozil and gone with Alex Iwobi, but with all due respect to Hull, Burnley and even Sunderland, I think Watford will be our hardest test, and given our very slim hopes against Barca, perhaps we’ll see the German involved from the start this time.

Personally, I think I’d retain Iwobi, rest Ozil and go with the same team that started against Hull on Tuesday:

Ospina; Chambers, Mertesacker, Gabriel, Gibbs; Flamini, Elneny; Campbell, Iwobi, Walcott; Giroud. 

That would mean Bellerin, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Ozil, Sanchez and Welbeck – seven first-choice starters – would all be fresh for two very demanding away days to come, whilst still leaving us with what I think would be a good enough team to beat Watford at home.

More likely though in my opinion, is that we’ll see a side stronger than we played so far in the FA Cup this season, but still some way from full, available strength, which might mean a start for Ozil or Sanchez for instance. It’s certainly a tricky balancing act for the boss and we’ll only know how well he’s performed it this time next week.

Back post-match tomorrow.


11th March 2016: Wenger on Elneny, Giroud and Watford forwards

Welcome back. Arsene Wenger’s pre-Watford press conference was streamed live on the official site this morning (a nice surprise and I hope this real-time relaying becomes the norm rather than remaining just for FA Cup games) and in it, the boss revealed Aaron Ramsey would be out for around four weeks with the thigh injury he picked up at Hull.

Given Arsene had labelled it a ‘small alert’ only yesterday, the Welshman’s prognosis is longer than anticipated, but with Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla penciled in for returns at the start of April, we should be far better stocked for options in the middle of the park pretty soon, so that’s some consolation I suppose.

For now though, Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny are the most likely partnership to be picked at the base of our midfield and when asked if the latter was ready to play regularly, and if he’d consider a change of formation to cope with our injury list, the boss said:

He looks like he is ready to play. I consider every formula that is possible to give us a balance. At the moment I think Elneny in central midfield can cope. We have Flamini, we have Coquelin who can cope as well. They have shown [that] already. The formula can change as well if needed but that depends on the games. Every game will be different now. In our job, you want to perform in the next game and the next game is an important one because we have fought hard to get there and that is our purpose. After that we deal with the next one. If you have a good run, you sometimes absorb them without any problems. If you have a bad result, of course there is no time to digest sometimes and to get the belief back in the squad. We want to do that and what is very important is to be in there and have a chance to show how good you are.

Arsene was also asked to assess the qualities of Sunday’s opponents Watford and highlighted the Hornets’ striker partnership as being particularly impressive, saying:

They have two strikers who are very efficient in Ighalo and Deeney and we worked very hard to control the game [last time we played them]. They have a very good understanding between their strikers and the quality between our two centre backs will be vital on Sunday. Watford have done extremely well. It looks like the Championship teams that come up now deal very well with the Premier League regime. The difficulty [for us] is that Watford have a team who are very solid defensively. They are also a team who are athletically very strong and the basis of their game is on efficiency and waiting for the right moment to be very dangerous.

Finally for today, the boss also had some words for his own strikers and revealed he expects Olivier Giroud to deliver more goals in the coming games having broken a 12-match drought by bagging a brace in our win at Hull earlier this week. He said:

Look, it is a weight on the shoulders when the players don’t score. So the fact that they score will of course take that weight off. Overall, I am pleased that [Giroud and Walcott] scored. But it is a bit cyclic always, especially for Giroud. Giroud has cycles so it was a weight off his shoulders. You know this season for example, he has had games where he has gone boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and after he had a little spell where he didn’t score. Now I hope he has a repetition of his former spell and starts to score again. Between what he says and what is real, even I don’t really know what is going in there. You know that if you don’t score and you are a striker, somewhere you are not happy.

Right. A bit brief this evening but that’s your lot. See you on Saturday for a Watford preview.


10th March 2016: Positive injury update + Sanchez reveals restlessness

Welcome back. Some good news to begin with today after Arsene Wenger revealed both Gabriel and Per Mertesacker will be fit to face Watford in the FA Cup on Sunday and referred to Aaron Ramsey’s injury as ‘a small alert’.

Given widespread reports were ruling the Welshman out from anywhere between 6 weeks and 6 years following the knock he picked up as a substitute against Hull on Tuesday, Wenger’s words sound promising. Here’s what he had to say about his sidelined stars when he spoke to the official site:

We had a few injuries at Hull – Gabriel, Mertesacker and Ramsey. Mertesacker and Gabriel are very positive, there is nothing wrong there, they are both good. There is a small alert (about Ramsey), we don’t know how bad it is. He (Laurent Koscielny) is not far, he will have tests until Sunday, but it could come too soon. He has a little chance. They (Petr Cech, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla) are all progressing nicely, but this week and next week they have no chance.

Let’s hope that ‘small alert’ remains just that and doesn’t morph into a ‘deafening drill’ because despite not really rating Ramsey as a central midfielder myself, if he is ruled out for a sustained period, we’re currently one injury or suspension to Francis Coquelin or Mohamed Elneny away from having to play Mathieu Flamini or Mikel Arteta  – and that scares me.

Elsewhere, Alexis Sanchez, who has struggled for goals and form since recovering from a hamstring injury sustained late last year, has been telling the official site that he feels ‘guilty’ when he fails to score and suffers sleepless nights as a result. He said:

I think that I’ve adapted really well in terms of fitting into the club and it’s been very good. But at the same time I’m not the kind of person to become complacent or think, ‘That’s it’. I always want to improve and give my absolute all to the team. The truth is that I do enjoy [the responsibility]. When I don’t score goals I feel like I’ve failed the team and I feel guilty. I go home, can’t sleep and I just think I have to play better.

Hopefully his goal against Sp*rs last Saturday will have boosted his confidence and will kick-start a prolific last portion of the campaign for him because if the Chilean can rediscover his best form, I’d feel confident of beating any team in the Premier League.

He’s one of those all-too-rare match-winners who can fashion a goal from nowhere and given how we’ve been struggling for fluency in our overall play these last few months, having that kind of individualistic ability in the team can become even more of an asset to a side.

Finally, from one Arsenal attacker who’s recently ended a goal drought to another, and Olivier Giroud has revealed he nearly missed Tuesday’s win over Hull, in which he bagged a brace, after becoming a father again earlier in the day. Here’s what our Gallic goal-getter told Arsenal Player:

I could have missed the game actually, so I was glad that he arrived during the night. I could have a little rest [after he was born]. I travelled to Hull and I wanted to dedicate these two goals to him. I’m very happy to score. We scored four goals, so that’s a good efficiency up front and at the back, so we can be happy with our performance tonight. It’s always hard for a striker not to score but you have to keep the confidence as high as you can and work hard at training. I’m very pleased to get back on the scoresheet and to smell the first goal. After, it was a good assist from Theo [for the second]. I succeeded to put two in the net and it’s nice for the team. It’s nice for me obviously and now it’s Watford. If we go through, we go to Wembley.

So the big arch awaits Arsenal for what would be the fifth time in three seasons if we can secure a win over Watford. Make it happen lads…

The boss holds his pre-match press conference in the morning so we may find out the full extent of Ramsey’s injury and get a better idea of who will start on Sunday.

See you on Friday.