Fourth is now a risk we simply can’t take

Not having the hardiest constitution, or the deepest pockets, I’m not really one for football betting.  Even if I was, I’m not sure I would put money on Bayern Munich in the forthcoming Champions League final.  All of which means…

Fourth is now a risk we simply can’t take

We should have known something was up. A day that began with portents as ominous as Denilson returning to Arsenal could never end well. As it turned out, the return of the crab-like midfielder was the first sign of the apocalypse. The second was Chelsea eliminating Barcelona to reach the Champions League Final.

There are big implications for Arsenal. Roberto Di Matteo’s side are now just one game from snatching the Champions League Qualification spot normally awarded to the side who finishes fourth. Fourth would always have been a risk – our tie with Udinese this season showed just how treacherous the obligatory qualifying round can be. Now, with the possibility that even that opportunity to qualify might be whisked from under our feet in Munich, it’s a risk we simply cannot take.

Arsenal have three games remaining. Win them and we will be third. It is in our own hands, and letting it slip through them at this point would be criminal. We travel to Stoke on Saturday, before hosting Norwich, then going to West Brom on the final day. None of those three sides have anything in particular to play for. There is no reason we should not take nine points.

Even seven would probably be enough. The big concern is the forthcoming game at Stoke, where we traditionally struggle. Now is surely the time to try and put that hoodoo to bed; and what better place for Aaron Ramsey to recover his form than on the ground that nearly ended his career?

Transfer News

As I mentioned, it seems Denilson is on his way back to England this summer. If I were him, I wouldn’t bother unpacking – I don’t imagine it’ll be a long stay. Sao Paulo have been unable to agree an extension to his loan deal, primarily because Arsenal are looking for a permanent buyer. Denilson is one of a crop of players that also includes Manuel Almunia, Nicklas Bendtner, Carlos Vela and Andrey Arshavin who will be shunted off the wage bill in an attempt to fund new contracts for the likes of Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott.

Congratulations to Chelsea

Despite the fact it’s something of a disastrous result for Arsenal fans, I can only offer my congratulations to Chelsea on an extraordinary performance at the Nou Camp. There is a lesson to be learnt there: whilst Chelsea aren’t your traditional underdog, they showed that no side is unbeatable, no contest pre-determined. With the exception of the idiotic John Terry, they were a credit to themselves and the Premier League.

Right. Off to wash my mouth out.

Arsenal 0 – 0 Chelsea: Dreadful game, disappointing result, good weekend

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I was furious at how Arsenal allowed the game to pass them by…
Chelsea are already in one major cup final, and could make it two.  This was, in many respects, our equivalent.  After defeat against Wigan, a win was required to restore momentum and build a protective cushion between us and the chasing pack.  I was bang up for this game, and had been excited all week.  However, from the first five minutes I couldn’t help but think that the players didn’t feel the same.  The game opened with a prolonged period of possession from the Arsenal back four, knocking it back and forth across the width of the pitch – there was no pressure from Chelsea’s attack, and little intent of driving forward from Arsenal.

It made for an incredibly dull game…
It burst briefly in to life at the latter end of each half, with Arsenal making most of the running, but it was more the most part an uninspiring affair.  It had the feel of an end-of-season game in which nothing was at stake.  And yet, bizarrely, there was a huge opportunity for both sides to secure a vital three points.  Neither team was at the races, and the game was there to be won for anyone who could find an extra gear.  However both sides seem to play with, as the Arsene Wenger might say, the “handbrake on”.

Arsenal’s midfield lacked shape and authority…
Mikel Arteta was a huge miss.  He is disciplined in his positioning, and intelligent in his use of the ball.  At the best of times, Aaron Ramsey isn’t really either of those things, and out of form and out of position he fell well shot of the Spaniards standards.  Alex Song was also poor alongside him, and Chelsea looked relatively comfortable in the middle of the park.

Abou Diaby could have a big part to play…
I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw him taking the field with half an hour or so to play, but I was impressed in flashes.  With Arteta out for the rest of the season, Diaby (and indeed Francis Coquelin, who is also fit again) could be a key figure between now and the end of May.

That said, we did have chances…
With a fresher Robin van Persie, we’d probably have won the game.  Laurent Koscielny also struck the bar with a free header, and if any side was going to win it I was sure it’d be us – partly because of the inexplicable selfishness of Chelsea forward Daniel Sturridge, who ruined several counter-attacks by failing to make obvious passes to team-mates.

I was possibly a little harsh on the team…
I’m sure they were up for it.  I’m sure they wanted to win.  We’re probably just a little jaded.  Due to injuries and lack of quality options, we have not been able to rotate the side much all season long.  Inevitably, we’re suffering a little for that in the final straight.

Spurs’ defeat made it a better weekend…
Every time I expect Tottenham’s form to pick up, they confound me with yet another disastrous result.  Their form is so patchy that Newcastle are arguably now the greatest threat to our third-placed position.  Arsenal have three games to go – our next, a trip to Stoke, is arguably the toughest.  That said, none of the three sides we face (Stoke, Norwich, WBA) have much to play for.  We should aim for nothing less than nine points, though I suspect six will be enough to claim third spot.

RVP is a deserving Player of the Year…
Despite his recent ill-fortune in front of goal, he has been a cut above everyone else in the Premier League this season, and is richly deserving of following in the foot-steps of the likes of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp by being voted the PFA Player of the Year.  There can be few greater honours than being recognised by your fellow professionals, and I hope this individual gong will be followed by the trophies his class richly deserves – with Arsenal, of course.

Arsenal get their swagger back at the Bridge

celebrationschelseawide

Hello all.  I wrote this in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s game, but have only just found the WIFI signal required to get it up.

Chelsea 3 – 5 Arsenal

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The early part of this 2011/12 season has been characterised by some extraordinary results. Arsenal fans know this better than any, having been involved in remarkable clashes at both Old Trafford and Ewood Park. Yesterday, for the first time, one of these bizarre scorelines fell in our favour.

The scoreline might have been freakish, but the result wasn’t. An Arsenal win surprised many, myself included, but it comes off the back of an impressive run of form – it’s now eight wins from nine games. Chelsea, meanwhile, had lost their last league game at QPR.

Despite that, I didn’t dare anticipate victory. But before the game, looking at our team it did strike me that we are looking stronger than we have in some months. Over the past eight weeks or so, a new team has begun to gel, and there is suddenly a degree of solidity and momentum behind them.

It was a sign of Arsene’s confidence that he was able to leave Thomas Vermaelen on the bench, opting to continue with Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker at centre-back. Johan Djourou and Andre Santos continued at full-back, with the first choice midfield trio of Song, Arteta and Ramsey restored. Gervinho and Walcott were the pacy outlets on the flanks, whilst captain Robin van Persie lead the line from the front.

One of the discussion points of the season has been the poor standard of defending. One has reluctantly come to expect that from Arsenal; from Chelsea it is more of a surprise. However, this season Andre Villas Boas has liberated his full-backs with perilous consequences. John Obi Mikel, meanwhile, is simply not a Champions League quality holding midfielder. Had the unreliable David Luiz started the game would have been even more open.

As it happened, it was a miracle the game got as far as 14 minutes at 0-0 – it could easily have been 2-2. I was particularly staggered by one miss from Gervinho – Walcott did brilliantly to skin Ashley Cole and crossed for what seemed a simple tap-in. Somehow, the Ivorian sidefooted wide. I was infuriated, and didn’t feel any better when Van Persie volleyed over an opportunity which, for a player of his equality, was relatively presentable.

When Chelsea took the lead it was through a header from Frank Lampard. Andre Santos, who had looked vulnerable in the early stages, was beaten too easily by Juan Mata, and when he crossed in to the box Lampard eluded Per Mertesacker to nod past Szczesny.

Arsenal were rocking, but before half-time had an equaliser. Aaron Ramsey, whose ninety minutes was typified by moments of enterprise and invention, played an exquisite through ball for Gervinho. This time, the winger knew better than to shoot, and squared to his skipper to tap in to an empty net.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold the lead until half-time, as John Terry bundled home a Frank Lampard corner at the near post. Again Mertesacker was at fault, and he and fellow new boy Santos were having a torrid time. As the half-time whistle blow, most of the talk among Arsenal fans was about replacing the Brazilian with Thomas Vermaelen.

Meanwhile, in the Arsenal dressing room, it seems Arsene Wenger was giving a speech to rival his rousing words at the AGM. With no substitutions made, Arsenal came out and attacked the second half with gusto. Within 4 minutes, we had our second equaliser of the game. And, of course, it was Santos who got the goal, racing on to a Song through-ball to tuck in to the near post and continue the fine tradition of left-backs scoring at the Bridge. From that moment on, he visibly grew in to the game, putting in several crunching tackles as well as marauding forward on the break.

Arsenal had momentum, and soon went ahead for the first time with the fifth goal of the game. Theo Walcott scooted inside from the right, tripped, fell over, clambered back to his feet, whizzed beyond two more defenders and thundered an effort in to Petr Cech’s increasingly vulnerably near post.

At this point, there were still 35 minutes to go, and I had little confidence in our capability to hold the lead. That said, when Chelsea did get their predictable equaliser, we were somewhat unfortunate. Andre Santos was fouled off the ball by Romelu Lukaku, allowing Juan Mata the space to crash in a phenomenal effort from fully thirty yards. At that point, it was easy to feel frustrated that we hadn’t paid the extra few million Euros to secure the Spaniard’s signature.

But there was still time for more late drama. John Terry, who looked at half-time as if he might prove to be the match-winner, inexplicably slipped when trying to reach a loose backpass from Florent Malouda. Robin van Persie raced on to the loose ball, and from then on there was only ever going to be one outcome. The Dutchman skipped past Petr Cech and tucked home to put Arsenal 4-3 ahead.

Chelsea were then left with no choice but to go for broke, and inevitably Arsenal created chances on the break. When Tomas Rosicky headed away an inswinging free-kick, Arsenal were able in break in numbers. Even so, when Van Persie received the ball from Mikel Arteta on the corner of Chelsea’ penalty area the outcome was far from certain. However, the Dutchman unleashed an unstoppable shot which flew past Cech at his near post. It was his hatrick, his tenth league goal of the season, and the eighth of a quite unbelievable game of football. One which we had won.

The celebrations for the fifth goal and the final whistle have have looked a little over-the-top to the neutral. They were more befitting of a side winning the league than a mere three points. However, for Arsenal fans, they require no explanation. After the horrors of Old Trafford, this game provided a necessary and hugely cathartic fillip. For the first time since the victory over Barcelona in spring, Arsenal fans are able to feel unapologetically proud of their team.

Granted, we weren’t perfect – in the first half the defending left much to be desired.  But we played with a swagger that has been sadly absent since the summer.

Supporters and players alike seem to be slowly regaining faith in the potential of this club and team. Winning at Stamford Bridge was a slap in the face to those pundits who said Arsenal wouldn’t even challenge for the top four this season. We’ll certainly be there or thereabouts – the sheer brilliance of Robin van Persie alone ought to be enough to ensure that.

I can’t wait to see what the atmosphere is like at the stadium when Arsenal take on Marseille tomorrow. I hope the fans give the players the raucous welcome they deserve. And should the first goal go against us, I hope they remember the way in which we were able to twice come behind with such stunning effect over the weekend.

I think we’re all agreed that our season only started on September 1st. This weekend, it finally burst in to life. Let’s consign the pain of August to the past, and start enjoying it.