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.

COYG!