9th March 2016: Arsenal crush Hull to make FA Cup last eight

Evening all. A hat-trick of consecutive FA Cups is well and truly on for Arsenal after we breezed past Hull City last night, to confirm a quarter final at home with Watford on Sunday. Lovely.

A brace apiece from previously out-of-form forwards Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott secured a comfortable 4-0 win over Steve Bruce’s men but the celebrations were soured a little by injuries to Per Mertesacker, Gabriel and Aaron Ramsey.

The 7pm kick-off gave the game a sense of strangeness and the first half action only added to the surreal feel. Arsene Wenger picked a side very similar to the one I had guessed would play in yesterday’s post, with Kieran Gibbs’ inclusion at left-back instead of Nacho Monreal being the only difference.

In a very forgettable opening 45 minutes, Mertesacker and Nick Powell clashed heads when contesting the ball and with both players needing treatment, the game was stopped for a sustained period. After carrying on for a while, the German defender’s swelling eye caused him to be substituted for Monreal who slotted in as left-sided centre-back.

Then out of the blue, with the game as lively as a wake, on a pitch as smooth as sandpaper, one of Hull’s players decided he’s spare the stadium any more tedium and casually flicked the ball with outside of his left foot across his own six-yard box, where Giroud was waiting to gratefully strike home his first goal in about four years. It wasn’t so much a helping hand, as it was an aiding arm, but given the striker’s recent struggles in scoring, he dispatched the gift with the minimum of fuss.

I have to admit, and this is very, very rarely the case with me, even when we’re getting battered, but I was giving serious consideration to doing something else with my time at the break. Thankfully though, I resisted the urge and was rewarded by three further goals.

Before our second arrived, Ramsey replaced the injured Gabriel which meant Mathieu Flamini filled in at right-back for Calum Chambers, who shifted across to partner Monreal in the middle. Walcott got the assist this time, with a left-wing cross that deflected off a defender straight into Giroud’s path for a near-replica of his first goal.

I thought it was telling Gibbs immediately embraced Walcott, who for all his frustrating qualities as a footballer, is still human and therefore not immune from the considerable criticism he’s taken in recent weeks. And not just from fans either, becasue even if Arsene hasn’t taken Theo to task for his lack of form verbally, by dropping him to the bench for the last two games before last night’s he’s made clear Theo’s far from first-choice at the moment. Plus the fact that for 70 minutes or so again last night before claiming that assist, Walcott’s performance was pretty woeful.

Considering all that then, his last 20 minutes last night will hopefully provide the spark he needs to rediscover some sort of form and confidence beacuse he grabbed a brace of his own. First, Joel Campbell, who must be one of the most enthusiastic attackers I’ve ever seen in chasing back and helping out defensively, played what’s becoming a trade-mark reverse pass, having cut in from the right. His perfectly-threaded ball found Theo on the left and he took two touches in calmly passing it beyond the keeper.

With two minutes of normal time to play, Walcott completed the scoring, when his low strike from the right was deflected in at the near post. Scoring two heavily aided by deflections and one handed to us on a plate by Hull City, would indicate our luck was in last night, but in terms of injuries, karmic balance was redressed.

Thankfully Arsene revealed Mertesacker and Gabriel’s injuries are nothing serious but the news on Ramsey is not so good. I’m sure we’ll find out the extent soon enough but it looks like Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin will get more games to develop their partnership and hopefully, Campbell will continue on the right beacuse having dropped him once already this season when he’d barely put a foot wrong, I can’t see Arsene culling the Costa Rican when he’s so consistently impressive.

Back tomorrow.

3rd March 2016: Swans come (to our) home to roost

Welcome back. So last night Swansea City – a relegation-threatened Swansea City – arrived at Emirates stadium, home of supposed title contenders Arsenal, resting several first-choice regulars including three of their back four, yet still managed to come from a goal down to secure what was ultimately a comfortable 2-1 win.

On a night when Tottenham lost at West Ham and Manchester City were beaten emphatically by Liverpool, this was our chance to both close the gap to the two teams above us, and put some significant distance between us and fourth-placed City. But once again, we came up short, clutching defeat from the jaws of victory.

We’d all speculated about how we might line up after Sunday’s similarly shocking loss to a mish-mash Manchester United team comprised of squad peripherals, utility men and unknown embryos, and there was a surprise when the teams were announced – there was no sign of Laurent Koscielny.

Injury ruled the Frenchman out so Gabriel retained his place and Per Mertesacker partnered him having sat out the defeat at Old Trafford. Further forward, despite many hoping Mohamed Elneny might be given his first-ever Premier League start, Aaron Ramsey retained his place alongside Francis Coquelin in midfield, Joel Campbell came in for Danny Welbeck on the right and Theo Walcott, unsurprising, vacated the striker’s role for Olivier Giroud.

We actually started the game pretty brightly but considering this was a much-changed Swansea line-up, in hindsight our opening wasn’t as impressive as it seemed at the time. Nonetheless, Joel Campbell was by far our liveliest player and duly marked his return to the starting line-up by giving us the lead on the quarter-hour mark, skilfully and cleverly half-volleying home from a tight-ish angle following a brilliant pass by Alexis Sanchez.

It was just the start we needed after two defeats in a row. But instead of building on that promising start, we conceded an equaliser just after the half-hour mark when Mesut Ozil was fouled in Swansea’s half and our defence stood still. Unfortunately for us, the referee didn’t view the challenge on Ozil as a foul and by the time we realised that, one of their players sent a straight-forward ball through the middle of our defence for Wayne Routledge to saunter onto, take a touch, give Petr Cech the eyes, and roll it past him effortlessly.

That was that until half-time and you’d have thought they’d be a strong response from us after the interval, what with us wanting to the win the game and challenge for the title and all, but if you did think that, you obviously didn’t watch us at Old Trafford because we got another lackluster second-half showing, which after Sunday’s shambles, this time, I was wholly expecting.

Arsene Wenger then went full masochistic-mode in the second half, withdrawing our best performer on the night in Campbell and replacing him with Welbeck, who to put it kindly, looked off-the-pace when he came on. The boos that greeted the substitution made the fans’ feelings deafeningly clear and when Walcott later replaced a struggling (by his standards) Sanchez a minute after we’d conceded the winner, strangely, both the team and and the terraces appeared resigned to the result. Never mind there were still fifteen minutes to play plus added time, it seemed the whole stadium had decided 2-1 is how the game would end. And so it did.

There were no ‘come on Arsenal’ cries, no meaningful response from the players, just a limp last portion of the game that ended with Cech going up for a corner and injuring himself as he sprinted back –  the turd cherry, on the dog-food icing, on the rubbish-dump-salvaged sponge.

The full-time whistle blew, one (probably a number) of irate Arsenal fans near the dug-out seemingly aired their views and a clearly devastated, but defiant until the death Arsene, sarcastically gave them the thumbs up as he left. It was so sad to watch.

A man who ought to be feted for his work at the club is reduced to receiving vitriolic ridicule on a regular basis from an increasing section of his own club’s fan-base. I’m not saying Wenger’s faultless – far, far from it. The Campbell sub was weird, his faith in Ramsey as a central midfielder is, for me, as baffling as it is infuriating, but I still think he’s the right man for the job. Just my opinion mind – don’t have a baby about it.

We’re obviously in dire straights results and performances-wise, but in terms of the title, it’s not over until Frank Lampard sings. And I can’t hear the c*nt just yet.

Until tomorrow.

12th February 2016: Wenger on Leciester

Happy Friday folks. Arsene Wenger held his pre-Leicester press conference this morning and aside from reiterating the latest injury news he gave to the official site yesterday, the boss insisted Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash against the Foxes is one Arsenal are very much looking forward to.

Arsene also spoke about the importance of building momentum following last weekend’s win at Bournemouth, the significance of this fixture in terms of the title race, and the inevitable anxiety that accompanies being league leaders. Here’s what he said:

What is important is to find the momentum back and that means that you win a few games. After, let’s not count too much on the weakness of Leicester because they have not shown too many. We want to find a consistency in our results until the end of the season, because we have big game after big game now. What I believe is that you do not have to be a super mathematician to analyse that it is a very important game, maybe not a decisive one for the Premier League but it is not far away from that. The pressure is on us as well, of course. I don’t deny that but I take that in a very positive way and as an opportunity to show how strong we are. I think the biggest pressure in our job is to play games without pressure. This is the kind of game we want – the kind of game we relish. When you play at Arsenal Football Club, that’s what you want. [Leicester] are still in a position where they think they have nothing to lose. But once you are top of the league, you can also think about losing what you have. That is where the nerves come in a little bit. I do not know how they will respond to that.

The boss went on to lavish priase on Claudio Ranieri’s side, pointing out that even the most sceptical of football followers are now convinced of Leicester’s title credentials and also discussed the first meeting between the two sides this season, our 5-2 win at their place back at the end of September. He said:

It is very romantic and I understand the whole country [being behind them]. That is human. I think as well that [the story] is good for football, and it goes against the usual practice in our game, which is spend and buy big stars. It is important to know that with quality work, quality scouting and quality management you can have great results. Leicester today are in a strong position and they have certainly silenced all the doubters since the start of the season because at Christmas people were saying they would not be there and now we are at Easter and they are still there. In the last week they showed they have solid potential to win the league, with two positive results against Liverpool and Manchester City away. Everybody now thinks they are on the same level as everybody else to win it and they have a mathematical advantage of five points. They are certainly more convinced of their quality now,” he said. “When we played them last, they were top of the table so that has not changed but their belief has been strengthened. The first game we played against them at Leicester was a very open game and it is true that their strength is to be very quick in transition from defence to offence. But we have to nullify their pace and attacking potential – we want to dominate the game, have the ball and be dangerous.

Although we’ll typically look to take the initiative in terms of possession as Arsene suggests above, it’s also pretty obvious that Leicester won’t mind us having most of the ball one iota. In fact they’d prefer it.

Their game-plan this season, on a very basic level, revolves around containing and then countering using the pace, poise and pizzazz of players like Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. So it was interesting that Arsene hinted he’ll continue with the pacier Gabriel at the back alongside Laurent Koscielny, when discussing why Per Mertesacker didn’t start our last game:

It’s difficult for me to go into any individual assessment. I think he has played many games. Sometimes I use a different formula. Per Mertesacker is a great leader, a very respected one in our dressing room, but I have three entire backs and I adapt a little bit to their level of form, to the number of games they’ve played and to the opponents we play against. What are their strengths and where can they hurt us?

Given Arsene’s meritocratic selection policy which is heavily weighted in his players’ last performance, I’d say it’s very likely we’ll see just one change from the Bournemouth game and that will be Francis Coquelin returning in place of Mathieu Flamini to partner Aaron Ramsey in the middle of the park.

Some may expect Joel Campbell to regain his place on the right at the expense of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but after scoring a sumptuous goal last week and producing arguably his best performance of the season, my money’s on the Ox retaining his starting spot.

Back with a preview tomorrow.

9th February 2016: Campbell bigs up Bellerin, Rosicky raves about Ozil

Evening all. There’s very little going on Arsenal-wise, so this post will be as short as the time Andrei Arshavin leaves between meals.

Speaking of our portly former playmaker, after spending two years with Zenit St Petersburg following his release from Arsenal in June 2013, he signed for Kuban Krasnodar in Russia last summer.

But his contract was terminated by mutual consent earlier this month and he’s now being linked with a club in Macedonia. Good luck to a true Gunners’ cult hero I say – the awesome foursome at Anfield and that long-range thunderbolt at Old Trafford will live long in the memory.

Yep. That’s how quiet it is. I’m resorting to talking about former players’ career paths. Anyway, Andrei is also said to be contemplating retirement which, considering he’s still just 34, is a bit of shame.

He lit up Euro 2008 with Russia and despite being a bit of a lazy bast*rd, was undoubtedly a very gifted footballer when he could be bothered to turn it on. Perhaps seeing as Chinese football is on the mother of all spending sprees right now, he might be able to secure himself one last payday in the far east if the Macedonian move doesn’t happen.

Moving on, the only half-interesting Arsenal stories today are about two of our players each praising one of their team-mates. First we have Joel Campbell, who reckons Hector Bellerin has it in him to become of the best right-backs on the planet. He told Arsemal Player:

We speak the same language, so it is much easier to communicate with each other. We enjoy a very good relationship on and off the pitch. That helps us a lot when we are playing, by speaking with each other, helping each other and giving indications to give our best to the team. He is enjoying a very high level, but I think he can give even more. He has the potential to be one of the best in the world. He is showing that now, but he is still very young and he has a long way ahead. So I think the best of Hector is yet to come, we haven’t seen it yet.

Personally I think only Philip Lahm and Dani Alves come close to comparing with our Cockney Catalan but then I’m as biased towards Bellerin as Mike Dean is against Arsenal.

Next up, and finally for today, Tomas Rosicky has been speaking about what he thinks sets Mesut Ozil apart as a top perfomer – declining to play passes that aren’t on. He said:

Mesut was always a special talent and you could see that when he arrived here. He was out for some time last season so he couldn’t find his rhythm, but now, after playing since the start of the season, everyone here can see [how big a talent he is]. Him and Alexis are the game changers. Both of them have the strength to win games, so it’s vital for the team’s title chances that they perform well. The best thing that I like about Mesut is that he’s not forcing the final passes. We all know he has a great final ball but you can see that he only plays it when the game gives him that opportunity. If it’s not there then he’s not forcing it and he’s combining with other team-mates instead. That’s the thing I like most about him.

It’s a good point. For me there are few things more annoying when watching a team trying to play good (pass and move) football than a player trying to play a pass that simply isn’t on.

It’s lazy and unimaginative. The very best players – and Ozil’s clearly one of them – rarely if ever, take a punt with a pass so I’m glad Rosicky’s highlighted this small but significant nuance of the game.

See you on Wednesday.

10th December 2016: Campbell, Bellerin, Iwobi, Wellington Silva

Evening all. We travel to Liverpool on Wednesday of course, but with a few days still remaining until that game, time now to look back at some of the reaction to yesterday’s FA Cup win over Sunderland.

First up it’s the manager Arsene Wenger, who compared the rise to first-team prominence of Joel Campbell this season, with Francis Coquelin’s ascension from Championship loanee to undisputed first-choice defensive midfielder for the Gunners last term. The boss said:

He is kind of in Coquelin’s position last year. Nobody expected him [to do well] and now he is taking his place in the team and he is ready to fight for the position and he is efficient. I agree [that he is playing with confidence]. That comes out of his game. Compare one month ago to today, he believes he belongs there and has a right to play.

I shared my thoughts on how good a player I think the Costa Rican has become for us in yesterday’s post, but one word I didn’t use to describe his game was ‘efficient’, as Arsene does above. Yet that’s probably the best one to sum him up.

He’s efficient going both ways; in attack he picks the right pass 99 times out of a hundred, or shoots first-time if at all possible, and when chasing back he doesn’t merely track an opponent’s run, he tries to forcibly win the ball back at the earliest opportunity. When you consider he’s not 24 until June, Campbell’s still got plenty of time to improve a great deal and if he consistently produces performances like yesterday, he’ll surely stay first-choice even with everyone fit, just as Coquelin has.

Aside from Campbell though, the other standout players for Arsenal against the Black Cats were the two youngest members of our starting line-up, Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi, and both spoke to the official site after the game. Bellerin discussed the club’s aim of winning a third, consecutive FA Cup, as well as the team’s performance against Sunderland, saying:

That is the goal of the whole team. We love this competition and the fans love this competition so we need to try and do our best. We are trying to get the third in a row. We knew it would be a hard game. It is always hard in the third round of the FA Cup. We had a tough opponent and a lot of changes so we had to adapt to that. We didn’t start really well but the team responded like it should. It was a great effort by the team and it was very nice to get through to the next round. They started pressing really high and we knew we had to be a bit safe when playing the ball. Sometimes we make mistakes and that is normal but we knew how to respond to it. The team was up to the challenge. We didn’t rush the game and we knew we had to be patient. It is nice to get the three goals and that is confidence for the team as we have a difficult week ahead.

Whilst a jubilant Iwobi expressed his delight at realizing a child-hood dream of being an Arsenal player, saying:

It is amazing. It is the best feeling ever. It is a dream come true. Since I was a young boy I have always wanted to put on my shirt with Iwobi on my back with the Emirates [crowd] screaming my name. As a young kid I always wondered if I would get there and to have this opportunity today, I’m just thankful. It was a young boy’s dream come true. Playing at home with everyone screaming your name and giving you the confidence to express yourself – it felt like a proper debut. Training and playing with them [the first team] every day is such a learning curve. Hopefully I can train with them more and play more so I can develop every day.

The lucky, lucky (but obviously extremely talented) b*astard. I remember dreaming about pulling on an Arsenal top with my name on the back, the fans chanting my name as I left five defenders for dead, beat the keeper with a dizzying piece of skill before stopping the ball on the goal-line, kneeling down and heading home …

But back to reality and Iwobi really does seem another great prospect with a stride similar to Abou Diaby and a penchant for low-hanging socks like Alexander Helb and Paulo Dybala. He did the simple things well yesterday from a central midfield stationing and fully deserved the applause he received from the fans when he was substituted in the second half.

Finally, Wellington Siva was in Cup action for Bolton yesterday and very brief highlights of our Brazilian prospect in action can be seen on the BBC website here. For the record, if you haven’t followed this blog since I started it in June last year, you’ll be unaware how highly I rate Wellington, so I’ll tell you now: very, very highly.

Higher than any other un-established player under contract at Arsenal and although there were reports in the past questioning his mentality and fitness, I think those issues are now non-existent and I fully expect him to stake his first team claim at Arsenal next season, having had a year to acclimatize to the English game.

Til next week.

9th January 2016: Three first-time finishes put Arsenal into fourth round

Welcome back. Arsenal made it 13 FA Cup wins in a row by beating Sunderland 3-1 at Emirates stadium this afternoon, thanks to goals by Joel Campbell, Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud.

Our defence of the Cup began with us boasting a much-changed line-up featuring Alex Iwobi in central midfield alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, with Calum Chambers backing them up in the defensive midfield role.

At the back, Petr Cech retained his place in goal with David Ospina – expected to start by many – not in the squad at all, and Kieran Gibbs and Gabriel replaced Nacho Monreal and Per Mertesacker respectively, from last Saturday’s starting line-up against Newcastle. Campbell and Theo Walcott kept their places on the flanks and Giroud again led the line.

I actually missed the first 20 minutes of the game and once I’d found a stream and settled down, we were a goal down – but just about to equalize. Laurent Koscielny had been caught in possession with 17 minutes played, after Gibbs gave him the ball under pressure and left him little time to sort out his feet. Jeremain Lens nicked the ball and finished emphatically past Cech at the near post.

Sunderland’s lead lasted just 8 minutes however, because Iwobi released Walcott down the left, he took on his marker before cutting the ball back into a busy penalty area for Campbell to saunter onto and nonchalantly guide home into the corner first time. As it would turn out, it was the first of three, one-touch finishes by Arsenal players on the day but this one was easily the hardest to execute.

Campbell carefully adjusted his stride to connect with the ball at the peak of it’s bounce, ensuring he kept it down and on target. Intelligent work from a player who seems to be going from strength to strength as our right-sided attacker.

The Costa Rican doesn’t appear to have a weakness in terms of his effectiveness for the side, now that he’s producing goals on a regular basis. He rarely gives the ball away, his passing is accurate and well-weighted, he can play the intricate game in small spaces, he tracks back like Alexis Sanchez – I’m struggling to find an area he’s obviously weak in.

But back to the game and after going into the interval level, we survived a scare in the second period when Steven Fletcher saw his header rattle our crossbar with Cech, for once, beaten. It was quite an open game at this stage but after Arsene Wenger sent on Ramsey and Mikel Arteta for Iwobi and Chambers after 67 minutes, we took control of proceedings and were ahead within five minutes.

Hector Bellerin and Campbell played a one-two down our right-hand side and the Spaniard crossed for the on-rushing Ramsey to guide home left-footed at the near post. Three minutes later, Bellerin produced an even better assist for Giroud to tap home, as he threaded a precise pass with his instep across the Sunderland defence to the far post. With Mesut Ozil given the game off, Bellerin emerged as our chief goal-creator to further embellish is burgeoning reputation.

Then came the moment everyone had actually turned up, or tuned in, to see: a first competitive appearance in Arsenal colours for none other, than Jeff Reine-Adelaide. The French teenager didn’t have time to embarrass an opponent like he did Kevin de Bruyne in the Emirates Cup last summer, but he did get himself on the end of a cross and force a corner after having a shot at goal smothered by their keeper.

Coincidentally, we produced the same result, courtesy of the same three goal-scorers, as our win over Sunderland at Emirates stadium back at the start of December. But this time, our reward is a place in round four of the FA Cup rather than three points and we’ll find out who we face next when the draw is made on BBC’s The One Show on Monday night.

See you on Sunday.

10th December 2015: Giroud treble topples Olympiacos to send us through

Evening all. So Arsenal, a significantly under-strength Arsenal, traveled to Olympiacos last night, a team who’d won five and drawn the other one of their last six matches against English opposition on home soil, and won 3-0 thanks to Olivier Giroud’s first-ever hat-trick for the club.

Hands up who saw that result coming? I certainly didn’t, not such a comprehensive victory anyway, but Petr Cech says the Arsenal squad themselves most certainly did. He said:

Well, we could! (see the win coming) We were searching for it and we knew if we played our game, if we have a great team performance and great individual performances then we will have a chance, and we did say exactly that. The first goal was important because going 1-0 ahead, they knew that one goal would not take us through and were holding back as one goal can kill the game for them. So there was pressure from both sides and we managed to get the better side of that pressure ourselves. The second goal was obviously an important point in the game and we knew that we would be able to do it.

Arsene Wenger had spoken before the game about his side being prepared for any eventuality over the course of the 90 minutes but as it transpired, there were no complications to proceedings as far as we were concerned as in the end, we killed the game off with plenty of time to spare.

The boss made one change to the starting line-up from Saturday’s win over Sunderland; Theo Walcott came in for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to start on the right-hand side of our attack. Against the Black Cats, Joel Campbell started on the right before swapping flanks with the Ox and went on to get our opener from a left-wing position. But last night, the Costa Rican made the reverse journey, starting on the left before swapping with Theo and both players came to life after that switch.

The game began with the home side on the attack but we grew into the game and took the lead around the half-hour mark. Mesut Ozil, running away from goal, spun and placed a typically inch-perfect pass through to Aaron Ramsey on the left. The Welshman crossed and Giroud guided a header towards the near-post which their ‘keeper could only help into his own net.

We then had a couple of scares either side of the interval. Just before it, they almost equalised, and just after it, Giroud went down in agony clutching his right ankle deep in his own half after clearing the ball. For a few minutes it seemed as though our injury list would lengthen again, but thankfully, the Frenchman carried on after treatment and soon put us two ahead.

Ozil again provided the assist for the assist, this time lobbing a pass over towards Campbell on the right. He cushioned the dropping ball on his thigh and, under pressure, turned back on himself, produced a brilliant drag-back to evade his marker before playing a reverse pass neatly into Giroud’s path as the striker made a run into the box. The weight and direction of the pass by Campbell was so good, Olympiacos’ defenders were totally helpless and Giroud didn’t break stride in guiding a first-time finish low into the corner.

At that point, we were heading through to the knock-out stages but in the knowledge a goal for Olympiacos would see them through instead. So when our third arrived, not only did it effectively kill the contest in our favour, it also saved millions of Arsenal fans the world over from 20 minutes of gut-wrenching anxiety.

It came via a penalty which was given for handball after Nacho Monreal fired in a low shot from the left following a Hector Bellerin cross. Giroud stepped up, sent the keeper the wrong way and completed his hat-trick with a firm side-footed finish.

I think it’s a little unfair to highlight individuals for praise because it really was a collective team effort with everyone playing their part but given how far down the first-team pecking order Campbell was just a few weeks ago, I think he deserves a special mention. He was industrious going both ways, kept the ball well, plugged into our pass-and-move style with aplomb and produced an assist Ozil would have been proud of. If he carries on playing like last night, he’s first choice on the right as far as I’m concerned, even with everyone fit.

The draw for the next round takes place on Monday morning and regardless of who we get (please don’t let it be Barcelona), right now I’m just proud, if a little amazed, that we’ll be in it.

Til Friday, last-16ers.

9th December 2015: Champions League Preview – Walcott option + the Ox is overdue a big performance

Welcome back. There isn’t long to wait now before we find out if we’ll be playing Champions, or Europa, League football after the New Year, and I have to admit, I’m as nervous as Wayne Rooney waiting for his pizza delivery. Will one, large, stuffed-crust suffice as a mid-morning snack? Can we complete a minor miracle and make it out of our group?

With a fully fit squad, I’d be very optimistic about our chances, but of course, we don’t have a full selection to choose from, as we’re missing our central midfield pairing in Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla and our best goalscorer in Alexis Sanchez. Throw in the fact their replacements have had one game to gel and find collective form and it’s hard not to worry as an Arsenal fan ahead of tonight’s trip to Olympiacos.

In terms of how we’ll line-up, the only change I can envisage would be bringing Theo Walcott in for a start at the expense of either Olivier Giroud, Joel Campbell or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Based on their respective form in last weekend’s win over Sunderland, the favourite to be dropped to the bench in favour of Theo would undoubtedly be the Ox. Yet barring any late injury concerns, my guess would be that Arsene Wenger will either go with the same starting line-up as last Saturday, or bring Walcott in for Giroud.

The Ox is certainly due a good performance and tonight would obviously be a great time for him to rediscover the sort of scintillating form he showed in pre-season. And the player himself has been discussing tonight’s game with Arsenal Player, highlighting the importance of both scoring early, but also keeping it tight at the back. He said:

If we can get that first goal we will really put them under pressure and we can push on and hopefully get another one. If they manage to score we are not out of it by any stretch of the imagination, we will just have to score a few more. We will see how the game goes but we need to defend first and foremost – keeping a clean sheet is the first task. We have got players in our side that can go and score goals and we will be focused on doing that. Olympiacos came to the Emirates and played really well on the night and showed us what a threat they can be. We have played at Olympiacos a number of times so it is a tough place to go and their fans can create a real buzzy atmosphere. It can be a bit intimidating but we have to feed off of that and go there and get two goals, defend well and get the result. Going into that game with nothing to lose, the boss uses the term: ‘playing without the handbrake on’. I think that is when we play our best stuff and if we do that we give ourselves the best chance.

On the opposite flank to the Ox, is likely to be Campbell, who fresh from scoring our opener against the Black Cats, will line-up against the side he played for, on loan from Arsenal, during the 2013-2014 campaign, scoring eight goals from 32 appearances for the Greeks. And the Costa Rican is expecting a tough battle in what he’s dubbed as our “most important game of the season so far”. He said:

[The win over Sunderland] was a good result for the team. We got the result and that’s what we wanted. Now we have to prepare mentally and physically for Wednesday’s game because it will be very difficult. We already played against Olympiacos at Emirates Stadium. They are a great team, a great rival and especially because they play at home. In the Pireo (Karaiskakis Stadium) it is very difficult to get points but it is the last game of the group stage and we will give our best. It is the most important game of the season so far. It will be a cup final and we have to win to continue in the Champions League.

I suppose it can only be a good thing that we have a player in our ranks who will know some of the oppositions players; their strengths and weaknesses, and also feel at home playing at their ground. But then that works both ways – they’ll also have a good idea of how they think they can stop Campbell from hurting them, having watched and studied his game at close quarters.

My gut feeling is that I need a poo we’ll do it tonight, but then I thought that just before the second legs against AC Milan, Bayern Munich (twice) and Monaco in recent years,  when we nearly manged the requisite result, but in the end fell tantalizingly, agonizingly, just short. Let’s hope tonight’s different and we can get the necessary win to carry us through.

Back tomorrow.


5th December 2015: Win over Sunderland sends Arsenal second

Saturday night salutations. We secured our first Premier League win in four today, as goals by Joel Campbell, Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey helped us to a 3-1 win over Sunderland at Emirates stadium to lift us up to second in the table.

I didn’t catch the opening half-an-hour of the action, thanks to a failed ignition coil in my car which resulted in me having to drive at Per Mertesacker-pace as I returned home from the shops, but from what I’ve read and heard, that wasn’t such a bad thing as the visitors enjoyed the better of the opening third of the match.

Just as I’d found a stream and settled down, Mesut Ozil picked up possession and sliced Sunderland’s defence wide open with a perfectly-weighted through ball on the left, to allow Campbell to guide home our opener without breaking stride after 33 minutes. Apparently, the Costa Rican had begun the game on the right but had swapped flanks with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shortly before scoring, so it was a timely switch of position to say the least.

From the 15 minutes or so of the first-half I saw, Sunderland were far more adventurous than I had anticipated before the match and drew level on the stroke of half-time as Giroud found the net at the wrong end, clumsily slicing his attempted clearance into his own net following a Sunderland free-kick from our right. It was unfortunate for the Frenchman if I’m honest, with one of their players stepping over the delivery, leaving Giroud with little time to adjust his footing.

Thankfully for the striker and us, he made amends by heading home our second just past the hour mark from a left-wing cross by the typically-industrious Ramsey. After that, Sunderland looked dangerous and created a few openings as the game swung from end to end and both sides gave the ball away with regularity in midfield, but we settled the contest in stoppage time when substitute Calum Chambers fired in a cross-shot from the right and the ball eventually fell to Ramsey who scored via a deflection off their keeper from close-range.

Cue a little hop, skip and jump from Arsene Wenger on the touchline as the Gunners leapfrogged both Manchester City and Manchester United, who lost and drew respectively today, in going second in the table behind an annoyingly consistent Leicester City, who swept aside Swansea thanks to a hat-trick by Riyad Mahrez.

After the game, the boss discussed the game as well as the surprise league-leaders Leicester, telling the BBC:

We started a bit nervous and edgy in the first half. We were unlucky to come in at 1-1, so I was positive. I told the players they still had 45 minutes to win the game, and play with more pace and different angles. You see this Premier League is a battle. Sunderland played a dangerous game on the break. It could have been one of those days, but we kept our determination and the mental aspect was good. We have lost players in the heart of our game, so we had to find a balance again. It took us time to get going. [Premier League leaders] Leicester have been very impressive. The best you can do is to win games, and hope that they drop points, but that is not happening. We go to Olympiakos in midweek, which Leicester don’t do, so they have an advantage in that way too.

I have to say, as much as I’ve been impressed by the Foxes this season, I really can’t see them keeping up this form for the rest of the season. So in terms of the title race, I think it was far more important that City lost, United drew and Tottenham also dropped points today, because I think those teams will eventually prove the bigger threat to both our title and top-four hopes by the end of the season.

Time will tell obviously, but for now, we can stay upbeat, despite all our injury woes, as we look ahead to our crucial midweek date with Olympiacos in Greece.

Til tomorrow.

14th November 2015: Joel’s playing.

Bar Joel Campbell playing for Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier against Haiti, there is absolutely nothing going on today Arsenal-wise. So good luck to Joel.

Anyhow, thoughts and prayers at this time are of course with those affected by the tragic events in Paris last night and to those suffering throughout the world.

See you on Sunday.