No dress rehearsal; getting touch tight to Giroud is essential

On this most holiest of days in the Christian calendar, it is that most precious of things that you and I wish for our beloved Arsenal: three points picked up away from home against Hull City.

Of course the press conferences of both managers were dominated by discussions of the impending FA Cup Final between the two sides, but understandably both wanted to emphasise the importance of today’s match up, ensuring the focus is on three points and not on using it as a dress rehearsal for the final. For Arsene, this game is an opportunity to show the world that his side are masters of the fourth place trophy, so putting another win under our belts as we head towards the end of the season is all important. For Steve Bruce, this is about further cementing his sides Premier League credentials and climbing the table as high as possible, but there will also be an element of “look at us, we can turnover this Arsenal team in the league, so why not in the cup final?”.

Hull currently sit six points clear of relegation and whilst not many are talking about them being dragged into the relegation mire, they are not completely safe from a nervy end to the season, especially with results like the one at Stamford Bridge yesterday evening. So there is certainly motivation for the Tigers, which I suspect we’ll see materialIse in the shape of a quick start and a loud crowd hoping to catch us cold early on. That’s how most teams have outdone this Arsenal side this season and that is why we have to ensure that the first fifteen minutes – if not all Arsenal – are certainly relatively quiet.

At The Emirates Hull lined up with a 3-5-2 formation but were pretty much nullified within a few minutes as Nik Bendtner (remember him? That crazy ol’ Danish Samurai) struck early which meant Hull had to come out and play and as a result made for a more open and expansive game. The fact we only won 2-0 belies the performance that day, as I remember coming away thinking it should have been four or five without reply. But perhaps that is an example of how Hull have managed to look ok defensively for a newly promoted team. They’ve never really been battered by anyone in terms of score lines and I don’t think we’ll be hitting them for six again today.

They also have a totally different strike force of Long and Jelavic who, if I’m completely honest, I’m very glad won’t be making the cup final. Long is a good player and has caused us a few problems over the last few years during his time at West Brom, whilst Jelavic always strikes me as one of those centre forwards that if he’s shown the love by a manager, he’ll replicate in form. He’s a bit like Giroud in that respect. Which provides me with a lovely little segway into talking about how our team will line up today…

Thankfully, Arsene has some decisions to make for today’s game. Gibbs may be out, which would force his hand if Monreal is not fit, but the rest of the back five is obvious. They will need to contend with the running of Long and the goal-hanginess of Jelavic and if they do that, you have to fancy our chances, because without wanted to sound like I got an Easter gift of ‘The Big Book of Football Clichés’ solid defences help you to build winning teams.

The midfield anchor could be either Flamini, Arteta of Kallström, but I suspect we’ll see the Frenchman come in for the Spaniard because Tricky Micky has looked a little tired of late. With Flamini having served his two games suspended, he’ll be bright as a button and an important screen for when the runners from midfield make their way towards our box. The next decisions will be who will play alongside that anchor, which for me should be only one real choice: Aaron Ramsey. He has the offensive and defensive engine needed to compliment both Özil and Giroud and with him in the team there is instantly more pace injected into the side from midfield. It provides that extra man in attack when the front three are looking a little pedestrian. that front three, which I think will consist of Podolski, Cazorla and The Ox, will need to get as close to Giroud for those knock downs as possible, because it’s only when he has teammates around him, that Olivier looks a threat. If he’s isolated alongside a back three that includes the in-form Curtis Davies, then we won’t see too much joy I’m afraid, but if Santi and Podolski get alongside the big Frenchman, then we’ll see an altogether different performance I’ll wager.

What we need to see from Poldi today (assuming he starts, which I think he will after his two goals on Tuesday), is more of that end product that he’s becoming famous for, so moving a bit more centrally and coming closer to Giroud to link up would provide that I think. The Ox has the trickery and pace to get in behind the Hull defenders, so he and Ramsey can be effective runners beyond Giroud, but Santi and Poldi need to have all of the play in front of them, hence why I think they should be tight to our buffon-loving centre forward.

“No Özil?” I hear you ask and, whilst I think he’ll certainly play a part, with a month out through injury and Le Boss able to call on a number of different players I think we’ll see him eased in from the bench.

This is a game in which we should have enough quality to win, but with the form of the last six weeks only picking up over the last game (and that was only really in the second half), I think we’ll still see an element of fragility about this Arsenal team. I can’t see us coming charging out of the blocks, so I think this will be a cagey affair in the first half, with the need not to be blitzed within the first 30 minutes. Thereafter, the hope is that we see more football like the second half on Tuesday night, which will certainly see us pick up some points if we play like that, so keep your fingers crossed.

Have a Happy Easter Sunday (hopefully).

absence makes the heart grow fonder

Happy Saturday to you fellow Goonerite. It’s an interesting one because as we hit the last few dregs of the season, Sky and BT Sport have their grubby mits all over the most important fixtures, which means the chances of seeing Arsenal play a Saturday 3pm kick off is about as likely as Miley Cyrus admitting that she is actually a clone of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But with clear deficiencies in the cloning process obviously.

There was some interesting news as the working week drew to a close, which included Aaron Ramsey being nominated for the PFA Young Player of the year. It’s great to see his early season exploits have been regarded so highly and, had he stayed fit throughout the season and continued his form, one expects the end of season ceremony would have been more a case of ‘what time do you want me to collect the trophy?’ rather than ‘will I win it’ for the Welshman. His nomination also brings into stark contrast the challenges the team has faced missing in-form and key players for varying periods of time this season.

For example, I have seen a few Gooners (thankfully in the minority) bemoaning the form of Ozil before he was injured, yet some of those very same people are now overjoyed that he is returning to the first team fray, which certainly shows that the old adage of absence making the heart grow fonder a true one. As Gooners we’ve become accustomed to saying to ourselves “yeah but, what if he was fit? Where would we be now?” and whilst it’s a path that is both pointless and maddening, it’s still something we should all be aware of.

Thankfully we have plenty of players returning for this final push on the league and on Thursday Arsene confirmed what he had already said post West Ham: Ozil is fit and raring to go for tomorrow and we appear to miss just Gibbs, Walcott and the eventual return to fitness (albeit most likely to be fleeting) of Abou Diaby. Had there been some magic cream to rub on the wounds of the returning players a month ago we might still be clinging on to a league title aspiration, but such is life and we must accept where we are and what is in front of us.

Kim Kallstrom has had his say on his experience and after some shaky misplaced passes in the first half on Tuesday, I thought he grew into the game well, showing some good upper body strength and above all with Arsene Wenger teams retaining possession is important. He certainly seemed capable in that regard. He thinks his experience will prove important in the next month and whilst I’m inclined to agree with him, I’m not sure how many chances on the field he’ll get to actually play. With Flamini back from suspension I think Arsene has his hierarchy of more defensive minded midfielders and I think Kallstrom is certainly in at number three there. It will be interesting to see what happens at the end of the season. I don’t know if Kallstrom is available on a free transfer or not, but I’d be surprised if Wenger had the interest in making a 31-year-old a permanent offer, so perhaps this is just an opportunity for Kallstrom to market himself in the Premier League as much as possible and try to get a club. Perhaps the fact that he’s playing at Arsenal might be enough to convince a Premier League manager that he’s worth a punt next season, but I’d be surprised if he’s gracing the Emirates in a red jersey come August.Stranger things have happened I suppose.

Arsene has also talked up (as you’d expect) the importance of Giroud recovering his….ahem….mental strength in overcoming his recent transgressions both on and off the field and appeared to be back to his form of earlier in the season against West Ham. He also made an interesting observation about the number of headers Giroud wins from out wide in crossing positions, compared to the number of headers he wins when the ball comes from deep. He’s right of course; it’s interesting to see a player that is so good in the air in one type position not be as good in another. I guess you could say that you have to be a lot more accurate when heading towards a specific part of the goal rather than just winning the ball for it to ping off in any direction. You can’t say it’s a difference between how aggressive he is when he attacks the ball, as to win any header in the first place you have to be aggressive. It’s something I’m sure Giroud is conscious of too.

Personally, I just think that Giroud’s form has been linked to who we are playing as much as his fatigue this season. Every Gooner I meet accepts that he’s a player with limited abilities, so sure it must only be rational to assume that he is therefore a player that we are only likely to see score goals against teams who are also limited in their technical capabilities? If you want to make the difference in big games, you need ‘special’ players. Giroud tries hard, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an Arsenal player that agrees he’s ‘special’. So whilst we can all bemoan a missed chance against Chelski or Liverpool, perhaps we should just accept that from a striking position we’ve got what we essentially paid for, so it’s difficult to be too frustrated with the Frenchman in that regard.

The positive of this, however, is that if this is true, then we can expect Giroud to have a better end to the season than the last month. The next few games include matches from teams that are all in the bottom 10 in the league, where Giroud – like Arsenal this season – is a bit of a flat track bully and has been scoring goals. Providing he stays fit I’d expect him to play all of the remaining five games, with Sanogo only being used if the chips are down. Putting aside the sobering thought that we have a raw 19-year-old as our ‘go-to-guy’, if Giroud can hit some form then at least we could see him get to perhaps 23 or 24 goals.

Anyway, you’ve probably had enough of me for one day, so I’ll take my leave and request that you have a lovely Saturday.

Back with a match preview tomorrow.

Which Arsenal Players Are Headed To Brazil?

The 2013-2014 season is beginning to wind down for Arsenal, which is now hoping to cling to the fourth-place spot in Premier League play. That alone gives supporters a goal to keep in mind over the last few weeks of matches, but many of us are already looking ahead to what promises to be a busy summer, not just in the transfer market, but on the pitch! I’m talking of course about the 2014 World Cup, where we’ll get the opportunity to see several of the Gunners’ top players competing for high-profile national teams all over Brazil. But which Arsenal players, specifically, figure to compete this summer?

Let’s take a look.

It begins with the English national team, which despite placement in what some argue is this year’s “Group Of Death”—alongside Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica in Group D—is expected by many to compete for a spot in the knock-out stages. The defence for England is all but set, with no Arsenal players to speak of. In the midfield, however, things get interesting. In addition to mainstay veterans Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain figures to play a prominent role even at just 20 years of age. Jack Wilshere is also a possible invitee from Arsenal, though his injury has certainly dampened his hopes, and there are other young midfielders ready and waiting. Gambling.com posted an articleon outsiders contending for World Cup spots and noted Liverpool’s young star Raheem Sterling as a possibility. It’s certainly possible that a player like Sterling could ultimately rob the recovering Wilshere of what once looked like a solid roster spot. Meanwhile, Theo Walcott will also miss the World Cup due to his devastating left knee injury, which could well mean that Oxlade-Chamberlain will wind up the only Arsenal star playing for England in Brazil.

Moving away from England, however, we should be seeing a number of prominent Arsenal stars playing key roles in the World Cup. France will certainly be a team for Gunners supporters to keep an eye on as it competes in the considerably softer Group E alongside Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras. In all likelihood, the French national team for the summer will feature Bacary Sagna (who, once thought to be on his way out, may be staying with Arsenal after all according to iSports Times) and Laurent Koscielny in the defense, and Olivier Giroud up front in the attack. And given the relatively easy outlook in Group E, we could well see this trio of Arsenal players advancing well into the World Cup.

Arsenal will also have a heavy impact on a German squad that many have tabbed as the strongest European contender for this summer’s World Cup. Like England, the Germans have a very difficult group to get through (featuring Portugal, USA, and Ghana), but they are still heavy favourites to advance, potentially as far as the final. And a few Arsenal stars will likely be there to help them do it. In the defence, Per Mertesacker is likely to receive a roster invite, though there will be competition in the backfield. Mesut Ozil will play one role or another in the German attack, likely seeing time at midfield but potentially playing up a bit as well to allow the veteran German midfield to stay intact. And then of course there’s Lukas Podolski, who is confident in his role despite some whispers that he may be left off the 2014 World Cup roster.

Ozil

Ozil the talisman for Germany?

That essentially makes up the bulk of Arsenal’s potential impact on the World Cup. There are a few other possibilities, such as Nacho Monreal or Mikel Arteta breaking through for the Spanish side, but for the most part Gunners supporters should be focused on England, France, and Germany this time around. It’s been a disappointing stretch for a couple of months for Arsenal, but seeing the club’s best players on the world’s biggest stage is always a great deal of fun.

More twists to come

Well how about that result up on. Merseyside yesterday evening, eh? Don’t think many people saw an Everton side with it all in their own hands, dropping points against a Crystal Palace side that although they are resurgent under the odious Orc-master that is Tony Pulis, are still a mid table side and were discounted as relegation fodder ten games in to the season.

How did you feel about wanting a Pulis side to win? Did it feel a bit like trying to save the life of a person that is covered entirely of bees? With bad breath too? Yeah, that’s how it felt to me too. Imagining that hairless chimp tracksuit bobbing with joy is not something I’d be happy to do too often. But I guess ‘needs must’ at this stage in the season.

What it means for us is that it’s back in our own hands. Which is much more preferable than being in somebody else’s hands because, y’know, they might get all dirty marks on our fourth place trophy. Or it might be in Vito’s hands, which secret a natural lubricant at important moments.

I still think there are more twists to be had and more nails to be eroded before we hit mid May, but with some tough games coming up for Everton, the hope is that they have a couple more slips that will enable us to create a buffer between us and then.

Right now it’s purely and simply about getting this Premier. League done and dusted as quickly as possible so that we can forget the end of it and look towards the future, the summer, some signings of real class and an opportunity to have a proper title challenge next year.

That’s pretty much what Szczesny had to say on the official site yesterday when speaking after the West Ham result. It’s totally not about the performance and all about the end result. If the players bore us to tears with ‘gritty’ (an interesting word usually used in footballing circles to describe a tedious result where a team has scored with pretty much it’s only goal of the game) 1-0 performances then that’s ‘a-ok’ with me.

We shouldn’t be counting our chickens, but as Ben said on the Podcast a few weeks back, we’re ‘kings of the fourth place trophy’ and so whilst the mentality of the players could be questioned at the highest level of the game in terms of a title assault, the players have been here, seen it and done it before in this position so you’d expect them to be able to cope with the pressure.

Let’s roll out all the ‘one game at a time’ cliches though, because the pendulum could easily swing back in the favour of Everton this weekend if we draw or lose to Hull and they can skittle over a pretty average United side.

With it being a bank holiday Easter weekend in Blighty, I wonder if Arsene will be doing his presser today? Perhaps he fancies a day off tomorrow and we’ll get some further info come lunchtime about who’s fit, but with Le Boss already admitting that Özil is back in the squad, we suddenly look a bit more re-enforced than we did just over a week ago. It’s time we started to kick on with those players coming back and secured our league status. Yes folks, the Arsenal garden is starting to look a little greener, isn’t it?

Right, that’s it from me today, so have a good one and I’ll catch thee in the morrow.

A tale of two halves: peanut butter and oranges

I am all about the result right now. Much like the blogs I write, I am a man concerned not with the intricate details, but the end game. That game is one in which three points are everything and anything less than that is like ash in my mouth. Or peanut butter. That stuff is rank.

So ultimately, yeah, I’m pretty happy that just over 72 hours after the players secured our route to the FA Cup final, we managed to overcome a West Ham team that fancied an upset under the North London floodlights.

Three points is everything to Arsenal right now and with the margins thinner than Kate Moss, we can’t afford to be slipping up against mid-table teams, which seemed a very real possibility after that first half display that we witnessed last night.

Sluggish in possession, devoid of pace in any areas of the pitch (apart from Sagna, who I thought was excellent tonight, sign him up please…), we started as if we’d played and finished the FA Cup semi final about half an hour before we actually kicked off. As if it was some cruel Sunday league under-12s ‘double header’ that was going down. My compatriot for the evening, Billy and I, were at a bit of a loss to explain the lethargy if I’m honest. Arsene had rotated a number of players and rested Gibbs for Vermaelen, Ramsey for Kallstrom and Rosicky for The Ox, yet we still never really looked remotely fresh. Perhaps the general malaise of our other Premier League performances had clouded the weekend’s exploits and exuberance of the team?

Whatever it was, it didn’t feel very ‘Arsenal’ and as West Ham pressed us slightly higher (clearly with the mandate to try and grind us down after our difficult cup tie against Wigan), whilst looking to hit Carroll as often as possible when in possession, we looked devoid of any spark to set us going. So when the West Ham goal came first, the apprehension in the stands was palpable, with many a contorted face wondering whether this season would sink further into the mire. As Billy and I turned our necks towards the big screen to relive the pain, it occurred to me for a fleeting second that Giroud’s flicked miss only a short while earlier when put through from Santi, had been our only real chance of the game and could possibly have been the last at that rate.

Sometimes though, when you’re not playing well, you need just a little flash of brilliance. So step forward that man Lukas Podolski. He is an absolute enigma. Put him inside the box with the ball at his feet and you could bet your house, wife, dog and kids on him. But anywhere else on the park he looks lost at times. If there was the ability to freeze play, bring him on as a specialist player – like a kicker in American Football – and put him in a dangerous position, he’d be worth a billion bucks. But as an all round footballer he leaves a lot to be desired.

Still, right now I wouldn’t change him for anyone, because it’s clinical finishers like that who make the difference in top flight football. Had the score remained at 1-0 going in to the interval, who knows how it might have affected the teams mentality, yet his timely finish just before halftime enabled the team to regroup, tuck in to some half time oranges and come out firing in the second half.

And boy did those oranges work. The team that trotted out to the field for that second half looked totally different to the one that we have become used to during the last few weeks. There was more zip about the play and almost instantly you could see that the passing had more purpose to it. If the first half had been an exhibition of our mental fragility, the second half was an example of the teams testicular fortitude, because they released the ball quicker when in possession, they fashioned a chance almost immediate with Giroud cutting in behind the left back and central defender and they seemed like a team determined to show they could replicate some of that early season swagger.

A Cazorla cut infield and snap shot fizzed the post, a Podolski free-kick stung the palms of Adrian, all precluded the second goal and, as much as Podolski remains a mystery to us, to too does Giroud. The goal he scored last night was more reminiscent to the type of control and finish we’ve seen Suarez tuck away this season, so to see our much maligned centre forward tucking it home with his weaker football was, well it was a surprise and a half I can tell you.

After that we looked more comfortable, the passing remained assured and we fashioned more chances. Giroud, in particular, suddenly looked like he could retain possession when it was knocked up to him. Perhaps being dropped against Wigan was his Szczesny moment from a couple of seasons back? We can certainly hope so and if the threat of rotating with a raw 19 year old and potentially losing your cup final place in a months time, is the jolt he needs to get back to his pre-Christmas ways, then I’m all for it.

The game was secured ten minutes from time with a fantastic finish from Podolski, but the header down from Ramsey on the edge of the box was what excited me, because it was perfectly weighted for Lukas to roll his man and smash the ball home.

It’s amazing what a difference a day makes. Arsenal pick up three points to arrest a worrying winless streak, Arsene confirms that players are returning including Özil for the weekend, plus we have a bank holiday weekend and a dress rehearsal for the cup final coming up on Sunday. Happy Days.

I hope the players are feeling on top of the world today. I hope the win last night was the catalyst to us returning to our form that saw us to the top of the league and I hope that three points on Sunday will put us in the strongest possible position to secure top four.

Up The Arsenal.

West Ham: Let’s blitz the first 25

Right, plenty to get through today, so let’s crack on.

Firstly, the clubs announcement that they’ve received 25,000 tickets for the FA Cup final, which let’s face it, is nothing short of a travesty with 45,000 season ticket holders. I am fortunate enough that I have enough away points not to be affected by a ballot, but this farce is a perpetual joke that the FA consistently deliver to all fans of teams that get to the final of the competition. I’m not a fan of the semi’s being at Wembley, but when you have so few tickets available for supporters, I see it as at least a plus point for most to be able to get to go to Wembley. Will the FA change? Don’t hold your breath. 40,000 tickets going to corporates and fans not affiliated with the club (officially). And people wonder why there appears to be less atmosphere at some of these games…

Anyway, much like the mentality the players must adopt in the wake of an important game under the floodlights of the Emirates, as a collective body of people we must now forget the glitz and glamour of an FA Cup showdown with Hull and force our steely gazes towards the arriving East Londoners. It’s Sam ‘Clobbermesiter’ Allardyce who rolls himself into town today with a gameplan that will be so transparent that, if you were a fly, you’d spent your life trying to get through it only to be stopped by its tedium and invisible force-fieldiness.

My brother is a West Ham fan. Half my family hail from that area and I can assure you, if you didn’t already know, the natives are restless and impatient in that part of the world. They don’t like the brand of football he plays, we don’t like the football he plays, heck, even some of the West Ham players probably don’t like the football he plays. But unfortunately it’s a results business and that is what he’s good at.

Tactically, he’ll set up his side to be difficult to break down, catch us with set pieces and rely on our fatigue and fitness levels after a gruelling 120 minutes at the weekend to see if he can deliver a sucker punch in the latter stages. He practically said so in his press conference yesterday. So if that is his plan, we need to make sure that we’ve delivered enough jabs to the face and torso shots to render any random late left hook as a mere footnote. If it goes to points, we want that technical knock out to be comfortably in our favour.

Apologies for the over indulgence of boxing metaphors, but when you’re up against a manager like ‘Big Sam’, what else can you expect other than a physical battle that will more than likely leave us bruised and bloodied come Wednesday morning. They will play Andy Carroll up front, knock the ball long to him and hope that they can get enough support from the two Noble’s to furnish them with either: a) a scabby goal they can cling on to as we desperately find a way to respond for the majority of the match, or b) a scabby goal later in the game when there’s no time to respond. It’s like being asked which pointy end do you want hammered into your crotch.

The first 25 minutes will be all important tonight. If we start quickly and do to West Ham what Liverpool did to us, we can render the result irrelevant. I know you’re probably thinking ‘yeah right, when was the last time we did that’ and certainly our form doesn’t suggest that we will, but good form has to begin somewhere, so why not tonight?

Under normal circumstances this is a game I’d fancy us to get plenty of joy from. The performance on Boxing Day may have started off slightly sluggishly, but the introduction of Podolski and freshening it up a bit in the second half, swung it in our favour. The problem we have tonight is that ‘freshening up’ isn’t really an option we can draw upon with the depleted squad we have. Chamberlain looked like he needed a leg transplant by the end of the game and Rambo, having just got back from injury, ran himself into the ground until the 113th minute, so quite where we inject some pace from is a bit of a mystery to me.

I suspect Kallstrom might be given his first start in midfield and I’m certainly crossing everything in the hope that Rosicky is back fit. Thankfully we have Gibbs and Giroud who only made extended cameo appearances along with Kallstrom on Saturday, so I’m expecting to see that trio looking a bit more spritely, along with a return of Koscienly to give Per the option of a more mobile partner in the heart of the defence. If all of those players make it for tonight’s game, then hopefully it will have a positive impact and Sam’s ‘wait til they get knackered lads’ tactics will be negated somewhat.

This is one of those ‘take a scabby 1-0′ games if you ask my opinion. We are devoid of pace, we have ailing players and we’re up against a team that’s just had 10 days off. We need to get in, get out, keep the Champions League fourth place race alive and look to another big game on Sunday against Hull. Because if I’m honest with you, I can’t see Everton slipping up against Palace at home tomorrow night, can you?

The problem we have, as so many have already pointed out just about everywhere that I read, is that we’re too predictable with the way we set up. Allardyce is one of those men that studies the opponents rigorously and where their weaknesses are, so coupled with the extra rest his team have been afforded, he’ll really fancy an upset tonight. Dealing with Carroll will be the biggest challenge, but up against big men this season I’ve been impressed at how we’ve managed to deal with the pressure. I think to Spuds and Villa away and how both teams set up to get balls into the box to the front man, which were routinely hammered away by the Per/Kos axis. That’s why Koscienly’s re-introduction into the team could prove to be pivotal. There’s reasons to be cheerful, given that he was snapped by the club in training yesterday, but thankfully Arsene has admitted he will remain cautious on playing him unless he’s 100%. We need Per and Kos to be fit for the rest of the season. If we want to replicate ‘gritty Arsenal 2013′, built on a solid foundation and an ability not to concede goals, it is those two where it starts so I hope he makes his way back in to the team lineup from the start.

This West Ham team will pose us some troubles tonight I fear. But the hope, however, is that our need is greater than a team that should now be more than comfortably clear of a relegation dogfight, so I’m hoping on a West Ham team that is already planning their Maldives getaway in June.

How about this for some positivity? What price could you put on the team being reborn after the confidence boost of knowing you’re in a cup final? What if the knowledge that reinforcements are being shipped in like it’s our turn next to roll the dice in a footballing real-life version of ‘Risk‘, as Özil and Gnabry appear on the horizon ready for their part to play? Arsene himself seemed a little bit chipper about returning players yesterday, so let us hope that our nightmare form which has seen us not win a game (in normal time!) since what feels like 2008, is starting to dissipate and be replaced by an end of season charge to the top four.

Catch you tomorrow.

No time for happy reflection, there’s still one more big job to do

We learned our FA Cup final fate yesterday with Hull’s dismissal of a plucky Sheffield United in the second of the semi-finals at Wembley in the Sunday sunshine yesterday. So now both sets of fans can happily proclaim that we’re definitely going to Wembley for real this time.

Post game emotions on Saturday evening seemed quite muted as I walked along Wembley Way. Indeed, from some of the sombre faces that I came across before I departed on the Met Line home had an air of glumness to the result, such was the hope that there would be demons banished against Championship Wigan. Personally, in 12 months time if this match is to be played again in similar circumstances, I suspect we’ll be talking about Premier League Wigan and so the gloss would not have been as sanded down as it appeared to have been because we only beat a Championship team. But there you go.

After more than 24 hours worth of reflection I’m just happy we’re there and the fact that the final has now been moved back until after the league has finished by the FA is a good thing too. It will ensure that all eyes can be fixed on what I think has become an extremely difficult task to remain in the top four this season.

It’s difficult because Everton are playing well and the Spuds aren’t quite out of it yet. Everton’s somewhat fortunate goal against Sunderland on Saturday may have felt like the rub of the green is there’s, but they had other chances to put Sunderland away and with Crystal Palace heading to Goodison this midweek, I don’t fancy that Tony Pulis will do us any favours. That means that the margins are now almost nil for us in my opinion. Our league form has been nothing short of woeful and the main element of hope we can take from the weekends result is that the players will rock up to London Colney today with a spring in their step because they have a final to look forward to in the merry month of May. Certainly the performance won’t have helped alleviate our nerves ahead of a very important game tomorrow.

Make no mistake about it, tomorrow will be desperately hard, and if you don’t believe that already yourself then I’d ask you to consider a few things. Firstly, West Ham are playing with no pressure, having pretty much secured their survival with a couple of good wins and were unlucky to fall victim to refereeing incompetence against Liverpool last weekend. That’s a Liverpool team that unfortunately is going to go on and win this year’s Premier League I’m afraid.

Secondly, we will probably be in a bit of a mess in terms of ‘tired legs’ tomorrow. We’ve looked leggy and lethargic after a week off recently, so how we’ll perform when the players have just gone through 120 minutes of intensity (regardless of the opponent and their technical ability, the players still had to go through a mentally draining game with penalties at the end) is anyone’s guess. Last season we absolutely blitzed a Wigan team that had won the FA Cup during the weekend previously and that game had them fighting for their lives. But you could see then after about an hour how absolutely shattered they were. That’s what I fear for us.

Arsene has not rotated enough this season and injuries have forced his hand at the moment, so we know that there will be a large chunk of the players that played against Wigan, also being asked to step in against West Ham.

It’s not just tomorrow that we need to look at though, is it? At the weekend upcoming we face a dress reversal of the cup final when the players travel up to the Yorkshire and Humberside region to face Hull in what will be another game that we cannot lose. I believe we have to win all of our remaining five games to get that fourth spot. The way things are falling for Everton I can only see them dropping points in perhaps one game of their remaining five, which means we have to win all of ours and that includes a trip to Hull in which I can see them wanting to put a marker down for the FA Cup, as well as an away game on the final day of the season in which I’m almost certain Norwich’s Premier League status will rely on.

There’s also talk of a few more knocks picked up from Saturday’s game, which wouldn’t surprise me, as would a special request from the club to bring in any former player still living as extra bodies to cover some of the spaces we have available in our squad with our injury list. Arsene will no doubt give us the low down on who’s available at some stage today, so kiss any lucky rabbits feet you have, avoid three drain manhole covers and search the fresh Spring fields for all the four leaf clovers there are available. More on the game tomorrow and possible starting line ups as well.

For now, enjoy the sunny day, the thoughts of the final and the hope of ending an intolerable trophy drought that we’ve been beaten with for the last nine years.

A final by hook or by crook

How emotionally draining can Arsenal make our lives, eh? They couldn’t possibly do any more than the torture we sat through yesterday as we secured our place in the final of this year’s FA Cup on penalties against Championship Wigan.

Say that out loud. An FA Cup final. For the first time in nine years. Our first at the new Wembley.

Ultimately all that was needed yesterday, by hook or by crook, was passage into the next round and you have to credit the team for achieving that. In two weeks time it won’t matter that we huffed and puffed against a Wigan side that, despite their giant-killer status, offered little by way of a real threat to our goal and when I had a look at the match stats after the game I was left scratching my head as to how they managed to get seven attempts in the whole match.

Conversely, Arsenal battered down the door in terms of attempts at goal with 27 – nine of which were on target – and a mixture of the woodwork and good goalkeeping from Carson proved to be to our frustration until Per nodded in eight minutes from time to atone for his penalty concession earlier in the game.

We looked like a team that had been given a bit of a bruising and felt a little fragile, like we had been out on the tiles and we’re feeling the after-effects, with loud noises and not much movement other than from the bed to the sofa. Certainly in attack we looked a little sluggish at times and Poldi never really impacted the game at all out on the left. Sanogo tried to open his scoring account with a good header that was straight at Carson in the first half and he is definitely more mobile than Giroud, but as lone target man he was not really too convincing in my eyes and struggled to pull apart a capable but limited Wigan central defensive pairing. Again, I know we’re all bored of reading and hearing this, but a lack of genuine firepower to alternate or compliment Giroud could have made the difference in normal time yesterday. It’s something we have to live with and given that we have managed to reach a cup final I guess ultimately you can’t say we aren’t coping with it.

I should probably credit Carson for his world-class save from Gibbs, who nodded the ball goal wards in the second half and looked certain to be a goal. It was up the end I was in and for all the world looked like we’d scored.

So after being unable to break Wigan down over 90 and then a further 30, I was left with a numbing effect as I watched with my seven other compatriots on the day as we helplessly looked on in hope that this Arsenal team could drag us over the line in a shoot-out. They did and, although I got the specific person wrong in yesterday’s blog as I called on an ‘unlikely hero’, we had one nonetheless as Lukas Fabianski did his bit by saving the first two penalties.

Santi converted the winning penalty and cue a rush to the Polish ‘Keeper from his teammates. I heard afterwards that Roy Keane slammed the players for celebrating beating a Championship side, but if more fool him if he can’t acknowledge the pressure and relief that a penalty shoot out victory gives, so I don’t begrudge the players a celebration or two on a day like yesterday.

Our eyes may flicker over to the next game at Wembley this afternoon, but for those Arsenal players the focus has to be solely on West Ham on Tuesday night. There remains a job unfinished and after an extended period of time out on the pitch for those Arsenal players, with so many injuries and so few playing options available, it will be a case of ‘once more unto the breach’ for a number of those players that played yesterday. Thankfully we’ll have Gibbs and Giroud a bit fresher having played less than the full 120, so let’s also hope that there is a bit of freshness in the team that the manager can call on when we face the hammers.

Enjoy your Sunday, we’re on our way to Wembley.

Blog rising to a crescendo. (And I meant the full stop there for dramatic effect)

Nervous?

I’m nervous. But I guess that comes with the territory when so much season salvation relies on the outcome of one particular football match. It’s crazy actually, because even if we navigate today’s tricky fixture against Wigan, we still have more nail biting to look forward to in the form of a cup final, which we’ve shown we can implode against even the most relegation-foddery of opponents. So to be this way for a semi final seems a little over the top. But it’s because we’re expected to win today that it makes it more nervous. Had Moneychester City steered past Wigan in the last round, we’d be hopeful, but the expectation wouldn’t have been as high and as a result I’m not sure I’d be as nervous as I am typing today’s thoughts out for you.

Still, life could be worse, I mean, I could be rocking a pair of well worn Spliffy jeans like some sort of early nineties throwback. Or I could be made entirely of lead, which really wouldn’t be too conducive to any kind of movement. I’d also probably be an inanimate object incapable of any kind of emotion too, so y’know, swings and roundabouts and all of that jazz.

Anyway, I guess all of this pre-amble is merely an unnecessarily long prologue to today’s blog, mainly because I don’t really have any kind of inkling as to how today will evolve. Well, actually, that’s not quite true: I know exactly how my day will develop up until about 5.05pm, but beyond that I am a mere passenger being carried along the East Australian Current (“The EAC dude”) that Nemo’s dad hitches a ride when he’s trying to find him in that cartoon by Disney that I forget the name it’s called. I am hopeful that I – and by proxy as an Arsenal fan, you – will arrive at our destination (safe passage to the FA Cup Final), but who knows what kind of ensnarement might befall us by the time we get to 8pm this evening (dodgy defending? Own goals? Penalties?).

It’s either rapture or dejection: there are no middle paths to take here people. We’re either cup finalists or we’re bottlers on what feels like a never ending road of purgatorial trophy nothingness that we seem destined to tread. The media will have their way with us regarding of the result, we know that, but all the same we hope it’s the ‘plucky Wigan outdone’ headline rather than the ‘giant killers’ script.

I was never a fan of David anyway. Fluked himself a sweet spot against poor old Goliath in a match up that really should have had only one winner.

Again, the fact I have managed to rinse through a number of paragraphs of prose without actually having to delve into tactical analysis, probably shows my apprehension about today’s game all the more. I’m worried because we’ve got injuries. I’m worried because the spark in the team seems to have gone. I’m worried because I fear the players mental fragility if the worst were to happen. What happens if we go behind? What happens if after the first 15 minutes it becomes clear that we look as leggy as we did last weekend against Everton?

Yet there is a common saying from which I am attempting to draw strength from (if you’ve got to this part of the blog without dismissing me as a ‘Ned the Neg’, and no, you probably haven’t heard that phrase anywhere before because I literally just made it up):

It is always darkest before dawn.

Well, it’s pretty effing pitch black if you listen to most Arsenal podcasts, or read any other Arsenal blogs. There isn’t exactly a majority of the fanbase confidently predicting an Arsenal whitewash, which tells me that most of us are in ‘glass half empty’ mode, that’s for sure. So perhaps, just maybe, today is a time for a redeemer in red and white to appear from amongst the confidence rubble and see us over the line in the season. A hero, a star, a saviour, perhaps even coming from the strangest of sources. A man to throw open the curtains and let glorious and warming sunshine wash over us with goals and a victory.

Step forward Olivier Giroud (didn’t expect me to say that, eh?). He’s looked all kinds of toilet for the last couple of months. Not even a fancy toilet. One of those public ones that’s had the plastic white seat ripped from it, smeared in all kinds of bacteria and pubes that I dare not elaborate on, with four walls that have more ‘Sharpie’ inspired profanities that you can shake a permanent marker at. I have much maligned his inability to deliver on many occasions, but wouldn’t it be so very Arsenal, so very Giroud, to bag a winning goal today? It wouldn’t surprise me at all.

But he’s just one potential match winner. Santi, fresh from the newspaper comments about team mentality, has it in him to Ray Parlour the ball from thirty yards and in similar fashion etch his name further into our hearts. Or Rambo, who’s lung busting efforts coupled with some sound goals this season, have seen him propelled to superstar status in our minds.

Who’s fit? Who’s not? Who are Wigan going to play in their team? How should we approach the game? What will the first fifteen minutes of the game look like? All of these questions are ones that I am disinclined to debate and dissect, because right now I am focusing on one thing and one thing alone; preparing my pipes for an early evening of extreme working out. I am going to go – as my wonderful friend and fellow Suburban Goonerite Ben Leeder says – ‘full tropic thunder’ on the game. But not in a negative way, in a ‘if my levels of craziness can help the team team in any way, they’ll get a whole heap of Crazy-Chris today’ way. I’m up for this. And I haven’t even started the first pint of the day.

Today is, to all intents and purposes, a home game for us. London is our town. It houses our club and we will come together to see our team win. There’s estimated to be around 55,000 Arsenal fans today. That’s 5,000 short of the Emirates so we have to make sure it sounds like an Arsenal game.

Sing loud, sing proud, and sing Arsenal.

What are the ‘basics’?

Perhaps in a similar way in which many of us fans have wanted to ‘get this week over and done with’ after last weekends debacle, Arsene’s press conference was brought forward to yesterday, meaning he has more time to prepare the players today. That’s fine by me, because I’ve had enough of reflecting on what’s going wrong at Arsenal, and thankfully the FA Cup tie against Wigan gives us the opportunity to wash our mouths of the slightly bitter taste that the Premier League competition has left us recently.

Of course, the fact that we are in a cup semi final doesn’t banish the lingering thoughts of a funk at the club, which is the very reason why so many Gooners are approaching this game with trepidation tomorrow. Fearing a Championship team is not something we should probably be doing, but our form coupled with the ghosts of 2011 still fresh in the memory seem to remain in our minds eye, as clear as a high definition 46′ plasma screen picture.

What doesn’t help was the news that yet more players could be added to the ‘Inujured XI’ team that the medical department are treating right now. The Ox, Rosicky and Gibbs are all doubts, with Arsene giving The Ox the best chance of return at 50:50. It’s a concerning enough situation that we have so many players out already at a crucial stage of the season, but also brings in to sharp focus every little issue such as the suspension Flamini has for picking up yellow cards. More on the team news and my thoughts of a possible line up tomorrow.

Arsene spoke of the fact we’ll be respecting Wigan tomorrow and, in perhaps an echo of what Szczesny said earlier in the week, I think those words ring very true after what Birmingham did to us. That we are approaching this game with caution can only be a good thing in my opinion. We sauntered up to Wembley in 2011 wondering when we would actually get to lift the trophy, such was the expectation and probably arrogance of both fans and players. But if our more humble approach to the game tomorrow results in greater concentration and eventual success, let’s hope we use that between now and the end of the season.

Arsene mentioned that we have to ‘go back to basics’ yesterday again, reiterating his stance from the Everton game and whilst I agree with the sentiment, I’m not really see what that means for a top Premier League side if I’m honest. I mean, if you’re talking about a Sunday league side, then that might mean telling the team to always find a man, go to the nearest player with the ball to give him an option for a short pass, etc. In defence it means lumping the ball into touch when you are in defensive difficulty instead of playing out from the back. For a professional football team, I’m not sure exactly what the ‘basics’ are, but perhaps Arsene is talking about mentally.

Perhaps he’s talking about looking at the teams morale and getting them to do things that don’t require something special. Pressing is something that is very basic and easy to teach anybody, yet that seems to have disappeared from our play of late.

Of course, if the team is running on empty, then I’m not sure how you can achieve your ‘basics’ mentality that you want to instil into the players. Just thinking out loud here, don’t have any answers I’m afraid, but I certainly hope Arsene does.

Maybe ‘the basics’ are a simple case of reminding the players, as Rocky once said, of ‘who they are, what they are and who they represent’, plus ensuring that they are fired up enough to give that extra bit of effort that a cup semi final should demand. You can be damn sure that the Wigan players will do that, so it is imperative that the Arsenal players show infinitely more drive than they did against the Toffees. Maybe when Arsene talks about ‘the basics’ he’s also talking about his own ability to et the team fired up. The perceived lack of energy from the touch line on Sunday has been picked up by a few, so perhaps he knows he has to ensure his role is played by getting some sort of Churchillian message to the starting eleven come 5pm tomorrow.

For me, if you’re talking about basics defensively for a professional football team, you have to look at the way in which the team is set up. Leaving vast gaps of space in between defence and midfield, like the space Naismith occupied last Sunday, would be a basic bit of instruction that the manager would need to consider. With no Flamini available, that means that Arteta has to revert to his last season position where he almost exclusively holds his position in front of the central defenders. He is always the outlet from the back and so will need to forgo any desires to push further forward in pursuit of goal-y happiness.

In terms of attack, the ‘basics’ we need are clear. We need to populate the area around Giroud with players, giving him options for knock downs and runners. Ramsey provides one such individual willing to do that, but with him just returning from injury last weekend, is it too much to ask for him to produce his early season lung-bustingly awesome form? Again, I don’t really have any answers here, just musings I’ve plucked from by cranium.

Not long now until we step into that famous old-new stadium, so let’s hope that the players spend today with clear heads and are building their convictions for what will be a tough game tomorrow.

Laters.