Napoli 2-0 Arsenal: A bit of perspective

Just a quick one from me tonight.

Tonight was a mixed night for most Arsenal fans. We lost 2-0 to Napoli, but managed to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League. However, looking at some of the mewling and moaning going on among Arsenal fans, you’d think we’d been doomed to imprisonment in the EUROPA League. I’m shocked to see so many fans treating this evening’s result as a disaster.

Perhaps it’s just a vocal minority. But it does perturb me.

In my eyes, qualification from such a treacherous group is a pretty significant achievement. Four wins from six games against teams of this quality is not a record to be sniffed at.

I think most sane Arsenal fans appreciate that. I hope so. Getting out of the group was the priority, and winning it merely a bonus. The most important thing is that we have evaded a draining and depressing assault on that Thursday night monstrosity. Instead, Rafael Benitez has been left to continue his bizarre love affair with that particular competition.

The performance wasn’t great, but Arsenal entered the game in something of an awkward position. We knew a draw would be enough to see us through. That’s never particularly conducive to a stirring showing — witness Bayern Munich’s listless display against us back in March.

It’s a blow to miss out on top spot, but it’s not the end of the world. Surely one of the very reasons we bother to qualify for the Champions League is to enjoy hosting the continent’s finest? I can’t wait to welcome one of Barca, Real, Atletico, Bayern or PSG to the Emirates. If you want to watch Maribor, turn on Channel 5ive.

If you want to win the trophy, you have to beat the top teams somewhere along the line. Better to face up to it early. If we go through, fantastic. If we go out, we have all the more time to focus on our domestic affairs.

Speaking of which, there’s a very big game with Manchester City coming up on Saturday. Should we lose that, it looks as if some people will go in to some kind of meltdown.

That’d be unwise too. There’s a long, long way to go in the title-race. Saturday  will be an indicator, but not a decider.

And you know what? I’m looking forward to it.

If you want more, I’ve written a more conventional match report for ESPN.

Olivier Giroud and Arsenal profit from Boruc balls-up

After losing at Old Trafford in their last Premier League outing, Arsenal needed a response to reassert their credentials as title challengers. Thanks to a dogged and determined display, they did just that.

Prior to the match, Arsene Wenger would have been cursing the fixture list that his team found themselves up against Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton, flying high in the table and collecting plenty of plaudits and points along the way.

A year ago, this was a routine home win for the Gunners. Then, a Southampton team managed by Nigel Adkins shipped six goals and looked doomed for relegation. Even Gervinho belittled them with a brace.

However, since then, the South-Coast side have been radically transformed. Now, drilled by the impressive Pochettino, they have their eyes on Europe. Pochettino’s team have already won at Liverpool and drawn an Manchester United in a promising campaign.

The Argentine spent much of the build-up to the game lavishing praise on the legacy Arsene Wenger has built at Arsenal. However, there is much for Wenger to admire about Pochettino’s Southampton. He has quickly created a distinct football culture, harnessing the attacking talents of the likes of Lallana and Lambert, and introducing a relentless pressing game.

Wenger might have feared the worst. Last season, Arsenal were beaten at home by a Swansea team who employed a similar combination of polished passing and persistent pressure. With Tomas Rosicky not fit enough to start and Mathieu Flamini suspended, Arsenal were arguably missing the two midfield players best suited to cope with the Saint’s high-tempo style.

However, the Gunners were determined to show that they were up to the test.

Giving Southampton’s proficiency at pressing, there was a certain irony about the way Arsenal grabbed the opening goal. When Artur Boruc collected a simple back-pass, no danger was apparent. However, the industry of Olivier Giroud allowed Arsenal to create a chance out of nothing.

Giroud hassled Boruc, enforcing an effort in the Polish goalkeeper’s footwork before pick-pocketing the ball and poking home in to the unguarded goal. Boruc was embarrassed; Giroud elated.

Southampton have only conceded seven league goals this season. One of those was a freak effort from Asmir Begovic where the ball was caught by the wing and Boruc was caught out of position. Were it not for the Pole’s errors, Southampton’s defensive record would be even meaner.

Nevertheless, Giroud was a grateful beneficiary.

The brace put a positive end on to a mixed week for the forward. He was dropped for France’s decisive play-off against the Ukraine, but was comforted by the consolation of World Cup qualification. Away from the pitch, he lost his grandfather. After nicking the opener, he pointed to the sky in a moment of poignant reflection.

He also stepped up to stroke home the penalty that sealed the game, grabbing the ball as soon as the referee blew the whistle. That self-assurance is a far cry from the Giroud of last season. Almost exactly a year ago, Giroud opted not to take a last-minute penalty when on a hattrick against Fulham. Arteta subsequently missed, and Giroud was roundly criticised.

Now, however, his confidence is on a high. In 19 games this season he has already scored 10 goals and made five assists. He has become integral to Arsenal’s play.

His defensive work is superb. Giroud is vital when it comes to defending set-pieces, and as the opening goal shows is excellent at closing down defenders – he almost bought himself a goal from a similar situation against Liverpool.

However, you can’t keep up those effort levels for 90 minutes. The work that Giroud did in the 22nd minute to win the opening goal is impossible in the latter stages of a draining game. Subsequently, Southampton’s centre-backs were allowed more and more time on the ball, and the Saints grew in to the game.

That’s why Arsenal need to sign a striker in January: they need someone who can come on for the last twenty minutes and replicate Giroud’s presence in both boxes. He can’t be expected to continue like this without incurring physical repercussions.

This was a really good win for Arsenal against a very solid team. The Gunners avoided the banana skin, but Boruc didn’t. Roll on the next game.

Arsenal 3 – 1 Norwich: Arsenal set for a sprint finish

Arsenal 3 – 1 Norwich
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Anyone expecting an easy ride had clearly forgotten last year…
When these two sides met at the Emirates in May of 2012, Arsenal’s Champions League destiny had finally fallen in to their own hands – their butter-clad, slippery hands. Arsenal slumped to a 3-3 draw, and only the remarkable incompetence of Tottenham Hotspur allowed us to wrest back control of the race for fourth place.

Yesterday was very nearly the same story. Norwich took the lead through a brilliantly-executed set piece, and Arsenal toiled for much of the game.

However, eventually we managed to drag ourselves back in to the lead – and unlike last year, we held on to it too.

Arsene Wenger deserves credit…
For long periods of the game I found myself wondering how  Chris Hughton had managed to draw such impressive performances from a decidedly average XI. By contrast, Arsene’s Arsenal were performing well below the expected standard of a fleet of internationals. In terms of motivation and organisation, Hughton appeared the clear winner.

However, Arsene has enough experience to know when it’s not working. He is occasionally criticised for being too inflexible with his substitutions, but on this occasion he called for Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski as soon as Norwich took the lead. He was brave enough to withdraw the out-of-sorts Jack Wilshere, and later gambled by switching Aaron Ramsey to right-back and deploying Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the centre.

The conviction Arsene showed to make those changes ultimately won us the game.

Lukas Podolski is among the very best players in this Arsenal squad…
Each of the subs made a crucial impact. Walcott grabbed an assist and should have been awarded a penalty and The Ox’s direct running created the crucial second goal. The real game-changer, however, was Lukas Podolski.

No player in the Arsenal squad represents such a consistent menace to the opposition goal. On the ball, Podolski is our best finisher and ruthlessly efficient in the penalty area. Off the ball, his movement is intelligent and he shows a real willingness to play off Olivier Giroud.

Although Podolski is comfortably one of Arsenal’s best eleven players, he has not always been in Arsene Wenger’s best XI. Some whispers suggest his spell on the sidelines is explained by an ankle problem that requires surgery.

If that is truly the case, cameos like this explain why the club have decided to wait until the summer before proceeding with an operation. Podolski can make a vital contribution between now and the end of May.

Let’s credit the officials who get it right…
The penalty given to Arsenal has been described by the Norwich management and a host of pundits as “controversial”. Not because it wasn’t a foul: no-one can deny that Olivier Giroud was wrestled to the ground as he went for the ball.

Instead, the supposed controversy stems from the fact it was the linesman, rather than the referee, who awarded the spot-kick.

This shouldn’t matter a jot. The referee had a stinker of a game, and the linesman should be commended for making an immaculate call from such a distance. It’s absurd that the question of whether or not a linesman should be allowed to make such a call has become secondary to the more important question of whether or not he got it right.

He did, so hats off to him. They’re called assistant referees for a reason.

Time for a sprint finish…
If Arsenal beat Everton and Fulham this week, we could be seven points clear of Spurs before they play their next game. They’ll have games in hand, of course, but it’s always better to have the points on the board rather in deal in hypotheticals.

The match against the Toffees will be a difficult one, but Arsenal have some serious momentum now.

The cannon is rolling in to position. Time to blow away the opposition.

North London Derby: Fan-to-Fan Preview

Hello folks.  It’s derby weekend, and so I’ve invited my Spurs-supporting pal (contradiction in terms, I grant you) Adam Nathan along to have a quick chat.

If you’re still not satiated after reading through this, them head over to arseblog and listen to today’s arsecast, on which I join a couple of other more eloquent bloggers to discuss derbies, defending, and other delights.

SELECTION HEADACHES

GS: Arsene has been spared a major headache with the admittedly worrying news that Kieran Gibbs is not available.  That means he’ll be able to field all three of his first-choice centre-backs, with Thomas Vermaelen again being shunted out on to the left.  There have been some suggestions in the media that Arsene could switch to 3-5-2 imminently, but I’m dubious about that story.  Even if he was contemplating a switch, I doubt he’d make it ahead of such an important game.  Aside from that, the team picks itself.  If Wojciech Szczesny is fit he simply has to displace Vito Mannone, whilst Bacary Sagna ought to continue at right-back, despite a touch of fatigue.  Jack Wilshere will return from suspension to join Arteta and Cazorla in midfield, whilst the front three of Podolski, Giroud and Walcott should continue after a relatively impressive showing against Reading.

Adam: Sadly, the selection headaches all Spurs fans will have wished upon Boas have been eradicated by a lengthy injury list for Saturday’s game. In addition to long term absentees like Ekotto, Parker and Kaboul,  Dembele’s chronic hip injury could not have come at a worse time for us, with our form seriously suffering since the Belgian’s injury flared up again in the last international break.

In terms of the decisions AVB will have to make, I would expect him to again, wrongly, go with Brad Friedel in goal in place of Hugo Lloris, whilst Huddlestone, Carroll, Livermore, Dempsey and Sigurdsson will fight it out for the two centre midfield spots along side the Brazilian Sandro, who has probably been our most consistent player this season. Up front, whilst some will call for a strike partnership of Adebayor and Defoe, I would expect us to again go into the game with one striker. After an impressive full league debut in Manchester last weekend, most Spurs fans will hope that Adebayor is given a chance to line-up against his old team once again.

RECENT FORM

GS: I don’t want to talk about it.  Ok, fine… after a positive start familiar frailties have been exposed.  The clean sheets with which we started the season now appear anomalous rather than indicative of any kind of improvement.  Arsenal seem stuck in their painful annual cycle.  Traditionally, November is when the wheels come off.  So far, it’s brought us the comprehensive defeat by United, and the surrendering of two two-goal leads against Schalke and Fulham.

Adam: Quite frankly, we have been pretty poor all season. Aside from a good 90 minutes at Reading and decent halves at Old Trafford and St. Mary’s, we have looked like a very average side thus far under our new management regime. Naturally it will take time for Boas to impress his ideas on a squad that not only suffered a terrible end to last season but has since been dismantled and put poorly back together by Daniel Levy, but in order for our season to end with any degree of success, we will really need to buck our ideas up, hopefully starting on Saturday.

HEAD TO HEAD

GS: My impression of Spurs is that Sandro and Huddlestone aren’t the most mobile of defensive midfielders, so I’m hoping the fleet-of-foot provided by Cazorla and Wilshere could be the difference.  Moussa Dembele will be a big miss for Spurs.

In recent weeks, we’ve looked very vulnerable on our left flank, and Spurs have the players to exploit that.  They tend to line up with Kyle Walker and Aaron Lennon, but they also have the option of switching Gareth Bale to give  Thomas Vermaelen a different kind of problem to tackle.  Or attempt to, at any rate.

The major worry is the horrible habit players have of scoring against their former club.  It’s not hard to imagine either William Gallas or Emmanuel Adebayor returning to haunt us.

Adam: In terms of where we can actually hurt Arsenal, I can’t see past our one true match winner, Gareth Bale; if we are to leave the Emirates with three points, it’s fairly safe to say that he will play a crucial role for us, with his well publicised pace, power and finesse. On the other side of the pitch, Aaron Lennon has had a decent season so far, although continues to deliver the goals and assists that would see him classed as a top player. That said, Arsenal have seemed to struggle at left back this season, so perhaps the England winger will be able to put in a big performance on Saturday afternoon.

With regard to where we can be hurt, the centre midfield area looks like a worrying proposition for Spurs fans. In all likelihood, we will continue with a three of Sandro, Huddlestone and Dempsey, the latter two who have in truth had terrible seasons thus far. If Arsenal are able to press us high up the pitch and maintain possession in the centre of the park, I worry that we will get overrun and ultimately punished by Arsenal’s attacking flair, which doesn’t seem to have been the reason for your dropping of points thus far.

PREDICTED TEAM

GS: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla, Walcott, Giroud, Podolski

Adam: Friedel, Walker, Caulker, Gallas, Vertonghen, Sandro, Huddlestone, Dempsey, Lennon, Bale, Adebayor.

PREDICTED SCORE

GS: Arsenal 2 – 1 Spurs – I can’t see Spurs not scoring.  In fact, I think they may even take the lead.  However, this game is so big for Arsenal that I believe we’ll pull a result out of the bag.  The likes of Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla have the chance to make themselves a hero.  My money’s on the Frenchman to do just that.

Adam: Arsenal 3 – 1 Spurs - Ultimately, we have not played well for a month now, and seem to have too many injuries to stand a serious chance of taking anything away from the game this weekend. Whilst many have pointed out the frailties in Arsenal’s team, your players always seem to raise it more than ours do on games like this, with last season being a great example, and as a result I expect you to come through fairly unchallenged. That said, we live in eternal hope!

A little over 24 hours till game-time now.  Come On Arsenal.

Arsenal 2 – 1 Newcastle: Arsenal complete quartet of comebacks

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Thomas Vermaelen celebrates the late late winner against Newcastle

Arsenal 2 – 1 Newcastle

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This is becoming a run that beggars belief; it’s putting the ‘mental’ in to ‘mental strength’.  Thomas Vermaelen’s late late goal made Arsenal the first side in Premier League history to come from behind to win four consecutive games.  And three of them have been snatched with stoppage-time strikes.

For sheer drama, none of them match last night.  Perhaps it was that took place at an almost-full Emirates.  Perhaps it was the fact it robbed Alan Pardew and the time-wasting Tim Krul of a precious point.  Or perhaps it was the sheer guts of Vermaelen’s fifty yard, lung-bursting run to meet Theo Walcott’s cross.  It’s difficult to say, and to be honest, it doesn’t matter.  But it was brilliant.

Something has changed in this team.  It would be nice to pin-point a precise moment when things started to go in our favour, but the reality is that the upturn in fortunes is down to a combination of factors.   The return of our full-backs has added width and defensive stability.  The emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has given us a direct, penetrative option from the left, and brought the best out of Theo Walcott on the right.  Tomas Rosicky is playing the best football of his Arsenal career, and in this form is richly deserving of a new contract.  And then, of course, there’s the consistent excellence of Robin van Persie.

It might be a little whimsical of me, but I also think it has something to do with the brief but potent return of Thierry Henry.  His sheer presence seemed to instill a belief and confidence in the squad, and maybe went some way to remind the players of what it means to represent Arsenal Football Club – and the legendary status that will be bestowed upon those who bring glory to its name.

For the first time in a long time, Arsenal play without fear.  In they go behind, they believe they can retrieve it.  If they go in to the tackle, they believe they can win it.  The ghosts of Eduardo, Ramsey and others have evaporated, and Arsenal players are throwing themselves in to challenges like they’re impervious to pain.  The commitment is fantastic, and it’s bringing results.

There will inevitably be a lot of talk of reeling in Spurs.  With the ups and downs of the past few months, my principal target remains fourth spot and a chance of Champions League qualification.  Anything beyond that will be a bonus – albeit a very welcome one indeed.  For the first time in a while, Arsenal are beginning to look up as well as down.