Arsenal vs Barcelona – The Day Has Arrived

The day has finally arrived – the day that is probably the biggest game the Emirates has held to date. Yes, we’ve entertained the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus, but we’re now playing a team on form, a team which is currently held as the best team in Europe. The current Champions League holders. It’s exciting.

Last year, when we played Manchester United in the Champions League, we created at atmosphere in the Emirates that I haven’t heard in the stadium ever (well, except Sp*rs games), albeit it didn’t last for that long, but it was amazing nonetheless and this is something that I hope we can recreate tomorrow.

Not only do we have one of the best teams in the land, we also have the return of our very own prodigy, Thierry Henry, back to the Emirates. One legend, David Seaman spoke of his former colleague:

“I think he’ll get a fantastic reception and he deserves that. He did a lot for Arsenal. He was the captain as well for a few years and he’s a great guy. I saw him grow up at Arsenal and he learnt the hard way. When you’ve got the back four kicking lumps out of you, you’ve got to learn hard and he did – he became a fantastic player.”

He was to us as Lionel Messi is to Barcelona. When Henry played at Highbury and for a short period at the Emirates – he was the player who could create something out of nothing, he was the player that everyone was scared of. And that’s what people say of Messi now. Yes, Barcelona have Messi, but they’ve got a whole host of other players that we’ve got to be aware of and Arsene has tried to get that across to the players and fans.

“The good thing at Barcelona is there are many players to stop, so we do not have to focus on one. I believe what you want from your team is not to worry too much about the strengths of Barcelona but more focus on our strengths, our qualities, be brave, go for it and then we have every chance. We want to turn up and have a great performance. My team is on a fantastic run, even if we had a disappointment in the last minute on Saturday. Overall if you consider what this team has done in the last two months it is absolutely exceptional and I want that game tomorrow to be at the level of what we have produced recently.”

And the gaffer does have a massive point – with the exception of the points dropped last week – the run we’ve been on has been good. We’ve come from behind to win games. We’ve scored in injury times several times to win games too, and it would be wrong to think we can’t show ourselves in our true dynamic and efficient manner.

We’ve had good news in the press today and that is that both Gallas and Cesc look ready to start against Barcelona later tonight. Gallas has been out for a while, but he was included in the squad on Monday and the news is that he has not suffered any reactions and is ready to start. Cesc also has bruising, but despite mixed messages from the club, our captain’s very own father spoke out yesterday and said he thought Cesc would play.

So based on everything we know, the team line up could well be:

Almunia

Sagna – Gallas – Vermaelen – Clichy

Song – Diaby

Nasri – Cesc – Arshavin

Bendtner

If that team lined up, it could be a massive bonus – apparently there will be further tests before the game on both Cesc and Gallas, but the news is that both should be in a position to start. In other news surrounding the game, Tommy V has suggested that he can “handle” Lionel Messi – he also goes on to speak about this being his best season. If we do go on to win, we have to have Vermaelen at his best.

So, sit back, relax, and get behind the team – this is by far the biggest game of the season.

Arsenal vs Barcelona – Preview Number One

Evening folks and welcome to preview number one of the game this midweek – it’s Arsenal vs Barcelona, and it will be a great tie. A true footballing tie of two pure footballing teams. For the neutral, you couldn’t ask for a more scintillating tie. Barcelona have looked on at Arsenal during the years when we’ve hit the dizzy heights, a la Henry, Bergkamp, Pires and Ljungberg. Many years later, we now look at the Barcelona team and wait to see a certain Lionel Messi come out of the tunnel – most people call him the best player in the world, and I can’t really disagree.

Playing in Spain is something that offers a slower game and yes, Messi has played well, very well this season, but he certainly would not have been afforded that much space in the Premiership. Never. And that’s what our game plan has to be – simply to deny Messi space – play as normal. Ensure we’re defensively solid and then attack, attack, attack. Yes, Barcelona have Messi, yes they have our old man Thierry and players like Xavi (who is officially fit after earlier injury worries), Ibrahimovic and of course little Iniesta (who is injured)… But we have little Andrei Arshavin, the man in form – Samir Nasri, captain fantastic, Cesc Fabregas and a supporting cast of Walcott, Rosicky and Diaby.

Really, trying to be objective and neutral, it’s made me think that these two teams are actually quite evenly matched – I think it’s time to look at the two probable teams…

Almunia
Valdes

Sagna – Campbell – Vermaelen – Clichy
Alves – Puyol –  Pique – Maxwell

Song – Diaby
Keita – Toure

Nasri – Cesc – Arshavin
Messi -  Xavi – Henry

Bendtner
Ibrahimovic

So, there we have it – two teams – the same formation and two sets of personnel. Let’s compare…

Almunia vs Valdes

Whether it’s down to the defence or the goalkeeping, 34 goals conceded versus 18 goal conceded is a big difference. Almunia’s reputation was at an all time low this season until his understudy Fabianski showed how bad you can get… Without having seen much of Valdes but having heard a fair amount, it’s safe to say he wins the battle of the goalkeepers.

Valdes wins

Campbell / Vermaelen vs Puyol / Pique

The ex-Manchester United defender has been quite impressive since his move to Barcelona and in the last couple of games, has looked decent. His weakness is that he can get turned quickly, something that Arshavin, Nasri and Bendtner can exploit, whereas Puyol doesn’t have the positional sense that his colleague does, you’ll see him – a la Kolo Toure – sometimes too forward or sometimes too much to the right. With our two, we’ve got two extremes – Campbell has extreme physical presence, but lacks in pace. He can deal with the extra-ordinary height and aerial ability of Ibrahimovic. Vermaelen, on the other hand has pace to deal with the likes of Messi.

It’s a draw

Clichy / Sagna vs Alves / Maxwell

With the absence of Abidal. Maxwell has seen an extended run in the first team and whilst he is good going forward, he is definitely suspect in the art of defending – the same goes for Alves, who has one of the best crosses for a right back, but is small and isn’t great in the tackle. Whereas Clichy and Sagna have proved that they are very effective going forward and defensive. Clichy had a massive dip in form at the turn of the year, but he has come back in a strong vein of form. Back to the old Clichy we all know and love.

Clichy and Sagna win

Song / Diaby vs Keita / Toure

Song and Diaby – for me are miles ahead of any two players in the “shield” position. Song has single handedly proved every single Arsenal fan wrong and gone from zero to hero. He is the first name on the team sheet and combined with Diaby, another player who has gone from being a mistake to an enigma. He, like Song, has proved to be an excellent acquisition – his attacking instinct is what makes him so effective. Whereas looking at Keita and Toure, both players normally vie for the same position with Iniesta and Xavi playing with them, but more recently they have had time together. However, both Toure and Keita have had a lot of time out of the team – to the point where they’ve both been first choice and both been left out of squad. Don’t get me wrong, they are both effective as defensive midfielders, Keita with a shot on him. In reality, though, I’d say that our two edge it over them…

Song and Diaby win

Nasri vs Messi

Nasri has been one of our most influential players in the last couple of weeks – his goal against Porto an exhibition of his footballing ability, but right now, he has one player in the world who is simply sensational right now in Lionel Messi. It pains me to say this because I think Nasri is a match winner for us, but surely Messi has to win?

Messi wins

Cesc vs Xavi

Cesc has based his game on Xavi – the master and the student – but where we are right now, there is hardly a difference between the two. Xavi has been recently injured, so let’s hope that he can’t perform at the highest level – but Cesc has been in the wars too, so it’s going to be even stevens in this department.

It’s a draw

Arshavin vs Henry

Ouch, difficult one? On one hand we have our little crazy Russian and on the other hand we have one of our greatest legends. I’m not going to probe any further into the comparisons between the two, but Arshavin is surely the player on form and the one who can make a difference.

Arshavin wins

Bendtner vs Ibrahimovic

If you asked me this question a year ago, I would have laughed at you – that is how lowly rated Niklas Bendtner was – but now his stock has raised, whilst Ibrahimovic’s stock has declined rapidly since his £76million part exchange move. Ibra, unlike our Nikki B, does have the ability to score a goal out of nothing, and aerial ability in abundance. He also has years of experience at clubs like Ajax and Inter Milan. Ask me again in a year…

Ibrahimovic wins

There we have it, an overview of the two teams. Writing this does instill me with confidence, the benches look good in our favour too, with the likes of Walcott and Eboue ready to inject some pace into the team… til tomorrow…

Birmingham 1-1 Arsenal. Sucker-punch! We’re still in the race, though…

It was always going to be a difficult game, with Birmingham unbeaten at home since September, including draws against the likes of Everton, Man United, Chelsea and Man City. They’d had two defeats in a row prior to our game, but both were away from home. But with us having won our last 5 games- including a couple of tough away games- I was feeling confident that we could win, but I was under no illusions that it would be a walk in the park.

Our line-up was as follows:

Almunia

Sagna – Campbell – Song – Clichy

Denilson – Diaby

Walcott – Cesc – Rosicky

Bendtner

Arsene chose to rest Arshavin and Nasri, probably with an eye on Barcelona in mid-week. Having said that, I wouldn’t really call it a weakened team (apart from the enforced changes at the back), especially as Cesc was playing. Silvestre was missing completely from the squad- no idea why- meaning Song and Cesc were our CBs.

We started on the front-foot, with Rosicky creating a chance early-doors for Diaby, but his shot was deflected away from goal, off a Birmingham player. But Birmingham weren’t lying down and kept winning free-kicks in dangerous areas, and slowly but surely, our intensity dropped. Walcott did have a chance, after a lovely ball over the top by Cesc. Theo managed to get clear of the defender, but he couldn’t get past Joe Hart, who’d come out early to cut the danger.

Not much was happening in the 1st half, but it was up to us to find something, as Birmingham were keeping us at bay and would have settled for a draw. But there was the hefty challenge on Cesc, who was having trouble walking as a result but it was pretty obvious he didn’t want to go off, even though he wasn’t having the best of games.

So it was 0-0 at half-time, with Birmingham the happier team. Obviously. Our problem seemed to be in the final third, as we rarely troubled Joe Hart in the Birmingham goal. We were struggling creatively. It was also a bit of a worry as to whether Fabregas would come out for the second half because of the earlier tackle, but he made it out. I thought Arsene would take him off as a precaution anyways, but apparently, Cesc wanted to continue- fair play to him, especially with Barcelona on Wednesday. He definitely seems committed to the cause.

So no changes by Arsene at the start of the second-half. We had to increase our intensity, as it was a bit too easy for Birmingham to nullify us.

We started the second half pretty much the same we started the first, this time around it was Rosicky with the early effort- a typical Rosicky shot from outside the box- but Hart saved well. There were a number of niggly fouls by Birmingham, to be expected- we just had to ride that storm and not let it get to us. Despite the first half being pretty much rubbish, I was feeling confident that we’d have too much for Birmingham, as we tend to play better in the second half. Diaby had a good effort on goal, but it was straight at Joe Hart.

We definitely looked a bit better, and it was a matter of whether or not we could make the pressure count. But the clock kept ticking down and it was still 0-0, meaning loads of frayed nerves. With Chelsea absolutely hammering Aston Villa at the same time, the scoreline was looking more and more dissatisfactory. And to make matters worse, Birmingham almost took the lead, a loopy ball from a free-kick going across goal unto the post. The rebound fell to a Birmingham player, Scott Dann practically on the line, but it hit him and went over the bar! Definite contender for miss of the season, but a miss I’m sure all of us were grateful for. That ought to have been a wake-up call for us, but it didn’t seem to have that much impact, except on our nerves ofcourse! But haven’t said that, we were the only team that looked likely to score if we could only get our acts together.

With about 25 minutes left, Arsene made his subsitutions- Arshavin and Nasri on for Theo and Rosicky. We looked livelier with those two on and we really needed to up the tempo quickly, as the game was drifting. Soon enough, both players combined after Clichy coming from the right, fed the ball to Arshavin, but Nasri’s shot a few yards in front of goal, was well-saved by Hart.

Diaby did put the ball into the net, but Howard Webb disallowed it as he’d blown the whistle just earlier for a foul. Whether or not it was a foul is debatable, but the whistle had already gone before Diaby ‘scored’. Still though, it was very frustrating really, as we were desperate for a goal and if not for Webb being whistle-happy, we might have got it! Okay, he didn’t know we would score, obviously, but I’d ofcourse moan about him disallowing it, it being him!

Anyways, we were getting into the last 10-15 minutes of the game which of late has been particularly fruitful for us in relation to scoring goals, and I was fully expecting one. And sure enough, it came! Nasri was the goal-scorer and it was a peach! To be honest, even if it had been goal which went in off someone’s backside, it would have felt like it was the best goal ever! He picked up the ball on the right and was unchallenged really. He got to the edge of the box, picked his spot and rifled the ball across Joe Hart low on the ground, into the bottom corner!

There was huge relief all around, but with 10 minutes to go, we had to make sure we remained firm at the back (we’d hardly been troubled all game, anyways) and go home with all 3 points. We even had a number of chances to increase our lead- Fabregas’ fierce free-kick was palmed away by Hart; Arshavin mis-kicked the ball; Nasri in the box opted for a pass instead of a shot, and the chance went begging.

And then the unexpected happened- Birmingham equalised! Actually, maybe it was the expected, given our luck and the chances we only just missed a couple of minutes ago. Conceding goals hurt but this one hurt more than any goal we’ve conceded this season; probably because Birmingham didn’t deserve to be level and the fact that it wasn’t even a proper goal, if that makes any sense! It’s been 24 hours, but I’m still gutted about it all. One of the Birmingham players (I don’t really care who) chipped the ball into the box, it somehow hit Kevin Phillips who hit a regulation volley which Almunia thought he’d palmed it over the bar. But he was off his line meaning he simply palmed it into the net. Heart-sinking-to-toes moment, really. That was the last kick of the game, meaning it ended 1-1.

It looked to all the world that we had the points in the bag and to lose it in such a manner was just horrible. Scoring goals in injury time is our forte and to have that done against us just wasn’t a nice feeling. I guess that’s the way other teams feel when we do it to them, but either way, I hope we never have to go through that for the rest of the season.

As mentioned earlier, it was always going to be a tricky trip to St Andrews especially without our first choice CB pairing, but Chelsea winning 7-1 and Man United winning 4-0 on the same day just made it seem like the worst possible result.The only way I could feel better about it was to imagine it was Birmingham who scored when we did and it was us who equalised when they did. It didn’t help much, but at least it made me realised that a point is still better than nothing. But the fact that it could and should have been all 3, can’t be easily forgotten. We switched off when we really ought not to have.

I should mention though, that Diaby had a really good game and it’s a shame that the result somewhat over-shadows his performance. Song did well as a CB, but it would be great to have him back in the middle when Vermaelen returns next game, as he’s the best person for that role in the team.

Here’s some of Wenger’s thoughts on the game. I heard he swore at the press conference,probably to the journos, but I don’t blame him one bit!

“It is a disappointment because we had the game won and we had the chance to score the second goal. I believe the pitch was very difficult to play on and it was a scrappy game. We got slowly on top and played the second half in their half but they defended well and made the game difficult. In the end we got caught.”

“It is a big blow for our title, of course. We were in a position where we had to win all our games and not to win today is a big blow to our chances.”

And on Cesc’s injury:

“I don’t know medically. We will have to assess that tomorrow[Sunday]. He got tackled at the knee. We tried to take him of at first but after he said he was alright.”

I share Arsene’s sentiments that it was a massive blow to our title challenge, but I’m definitely not of the view that our challenge is over. We need the other two to drop points, but they play each other next week and a draw would suit us down to a tee. We, ofcourse, HAVE to win the rest of our games. Do-able ofcourse, but as this game proves, there are no easy games left.

I really hope we can do it, but we’ve just got to take it one game at a time. We play Barcelona on Wednesday at the Emirates and the boys need to pick themselves up quickly as that’s another massive game. A great result there would set us up for the next few games, so hopefully we show what we’re made of.

Come on Arsenal!

Match Day Live: Birmingham vs Arsenal

Despite the murmurs from Arsene about focussing on today ahead of the Barcelona game, it’s interesting to see that he has opted to rest key players, Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin.

The confirmed line up is…

Almunia

Sagna – Campbell – Song – Clichy

Denilson – Diaby

Walcott – Cesc – Rosicky

Bendtner

With a bench of Fabianski, Nasri, Eduardo, Vela, Arshavin, Eboue and Traore.

Is it a risk? Or is it good use of a squad of players…

On a separate note, where is Silvestre, he is not even on the bench?

Focus has to be on Birmingham…

As Arsene rightly put it, the focus has to be on tomorrow’s game… if you haven’t already, check out the preview here. One thing that is certain is that Arsene is focussing all his attention on tomorrow’s game and it’s essential that he does that and that the team does that. I would be a fool if I thought Arsene hadn’t been thinking or planning for Barcelona, but in reality, we’ve worked so hard to get here – two points off the top with all top teams having played that same number of games – that it would be foolish to throw it all away on one game.

Arsene was in the press today saying this:

“I don’t choose at the moment. I think the League for me is the most important. Birmingham is the absolute priority for me.”

And you’ve got to agree with his view. There is no point resting players on Saturday – potentially inviting the loss of points – to put all your eggs in one very hard basket. If we win tomorrow, it will put us in good stead for the Barcelona games. And you never know, United and Chelsea may continue to drop points. One thing is for certain, is that next weekend, one of them definitely will, and both may as United and Chelsea go head to head.

And for that reason, it’s likely that Arsene will field a slightly stronger squad than I previously thought, and there is also good news regarding Niklas Bendtner, whom seems to have recovered from his injury and should start tomorrow. The line up looking like:

Almunia

Sagna- Campbell – Song – Clichy

Denilson – Diaby

Nasri– Cesc – Arshavin

Bendtner

With a bench of Fabianski, Eboue, Silvestre, Eastmond, Rosicky, Walcott, Eduardo

With the exception of Gallas, Vermaelen and Van Persie, it’s the strongest that we can field… and talking about defenders…

…three of our players, noteably all defenders – in Gallas (32), Campbell (36) and Silvestre (32) – are nearing the end of their contracts and Arsene has confirmed none of the three players

“They [the players in contract talks] are all focused. They are at an age where they know they have to deal with that, so that is not the same. When you have a player of 33, 34 he is in a normal situation. When he is a player of 23, 24 he is in an abnormal situation. I stopped talks with Gallas because it is important that we focus on the games we have. We play Birmingham, Barcelona, then Wolves, Barca then Tottenham. It is a crucial stage for us.”

And of course, it makes a lot of sense, all of this contract nonsense should be kept to talk about at the end of the season. I am very excited about tomorrow’s game and can’t wait for it – so good luck to the boys, and I’ll hopefully be back with match day live.

For those of you who have Javascript enabled, you may have noticed the Wibiya toolbar on the bottom… I’ll be on the “chat” system during the game tomorrow, so feel free to join me if you’re watching or want to read the match notes. The main use for the toolbar is the integration with the translation tools and of course more integration with twitter…

Finally, a quick note on the comments…. we’ve had some recent posts from other blogs posted as comments – sometimes unrelated to the post in question – I think it’s more appropriate to comment by writing comments yourself or if you wish to comment on something from another site, please reference the site.  One thing we learnt from last post’s comments, is that most people think Almunia is the worst goalkeeper out of the top four, but in reality – Reina, Cech and Van Der Sar have made some terrible mistakes this season, but do have a track record.

Onwards and upwards… come on you Gooners, let’s put those Brummies to the sword and return to the Emirates with three points and loads of goals… we’re due a big win in the league, surely?

Til tomorrow…

Birmingham vs Arsenal – The Preview

Yes, it’s here a day earlier than usual… the big weekend preview… as you all know this week has been one where thoughts have been shared between the midweek fixtures, the game this Saturday and the big game next Wednesday… we saw Chelsea slip back into second position, with the table now looking like this:

Man United – played 31, 69 points

Chelsea – played 31, 68 points

Arsenal – played 31, 67 points

And Sp*rs of course, beating Fulham was a blessing in disguise, as we had to play them just days after the Barcelona away game and now we have roughly a week before we play them… good for us and also a good sidetrack for them, if they do beat Portsmouth, or even if they don’t, playing them straight away is more likely to be a good thing, as they wouldn’t have rested players, leaving us the fresher of the two teams (for once…) and if Gallas doesn’t make it back before then, it gives us more time to get him ready.

Yesterday’s post was designed to look at the other side – how Barcelona will cope with our midfield and our attack, if they can at all… as yes, they have a good squad, with one stand out player in Messi, but they must look at us and having seen our game against Porto, be thinking, how do we stop Arshavin, Walcott, Nasri and Cesc? Let alone the mercurial skills of Emmanuel Eboue…

But before all of that, and as we have done for the last 6 games (6 games that we have all won – 6 in a row)… we need to concentrate on the next game, and that is against Birmingham at St. Andrews on Saturday. The Midlands team having played last night, and having lost to Blackburn means that they will be tired – naturally – more tired than us, considering we’ve had no midweek game. The interesting thing with Birmingham is that at one point, they were in some really good form, winning 6 in a row and when I saw this fixture, I thought it would be a really hard one – but on recent form, they shouldn’t pose as much a threat as they did earlier this season – but throw form out of the window – we saw with Blackburn vs Chelsea, there are no easy games in this league.

Arsene believes we need to have a perfect finish, which means extending out 6 games to 13…

“There are three teams in the race and it is down to the team who are the most consistent. We can only focus on our own performances. We know our route has to be perfect. To be perfect it is important we focus on our performances. We need some help from the other teams, but we know that will only work if we are consistent and keep our momentum. We have created a fantastic momentum and we have created a great belief within our squad. The consistency of our run is the most important.”

Looking at the team news ahead of the game and we’re without 3 of our first three defenders (Vermaelen suspended, Gallas short term injury, Djourou long term injury), so we’re down to the backup players in Campbell, Silvestre and makeshift centre half Alex Song. With next week’s game in mind, and the knowledge that Campbell can’t play more than one game a week, we may see Silvestre and Song playing this weekend, with Campbell and Vermaelen coming in for the midweek game against Barcelona. If we didn’t have Barcelona mid-week, we’d probably see Campbell and Song, so it’s interesting to see if Arsene prioritises the league or the Champions League.

Earlier this week, there was a doubt over Niklas Bendtner’s involvement in the game this weekend, but Arsene revealed that he should be back in contention this weekend.

“He should be OK. He is not back in training yet because he has an ankle problem, but he will have a late test tomorrow morning and should be available. I have not picked the team yet, but I expect him to be available. The team news for the weekend is that of course we lost Thomas Vermaelen because he is suspended and everybody else should be available who played last week.”

Good news regarding William Gallas – he may return to the club tomorrow, to start training again after an extended period out.

“He is back today from his rehabilitation and is back in full training I believe tomorrow, Saturday or Sunday. But he is too short to be available for the weekend of course and certainly as well for the midweek game. We have to assess him, it is too early to say [whether he is available for Wolves next Saturday].”

From Wolves onwards, he may be fit, so the return leg – the away leg – at Barcelona may have him and Vermaelen line up together for the first time in ages… I have a suspicion that Sol will play against Birmingham as Arsene clearly rates him higher than Silvestre –  he has played two games in a row before this season, so only the boss will make that decision…

Okay, let’s have a look at the team news ahead on Saturday’s game:

Almunia

Sagna- Campbell – Song – Clichy

Denilson – Diaby

Rosicky – Cesc – Arshavin

Eduardo

With a bench of Fabianski, Eboue, Silvestre, Eastmond, Nasri, Walcott, Bendtner

Having written that team out, it’s noticable that I’ve rested Nasri and Bendtner. With Rosicky back in the squad and raring to go, it may be wise to give Nasri a rest – even if we didn’t have Barcelona next week, I would have probably suggested the same thing and with Bendtner still recovering, it may be apt for Eduardo to start ahead of him…

Arsene is keen on focusing on the Birmingham game, naturally, he has talked about only considering the next game – against Birmingham in his team selection:

“I will pick him for the next game because for me the next game is an important one. I don’t consider Barcelona for the next game. At the back we need to be solid to win this game [at Birmingham]. We fight the whole season to be in there and this is a priority. I believe my players are very intelligent and if we were distracted it would mean we were not [intelligent]. The best way to prepare for Barcelona is to win the game before.  We have fought like mad until now to be in the position we are in. It’s ten months preparation, fight and work to be where we are in the championship so we want to take advantage of that and win the Birmingham game.”

Well, on that case, we may see Nasri and Bendtner start the game… it’s going to be an interesting weekend – for the first time in ages, we really don’t know who will line up!

Til tomorrow…

Ramblings at the Nou Camp…

When the Champions League tie was announced, it was clear that Arsenal have drawn the hard route to the final… Most people think – hey Arsenal don’t have a chance, Barcelona – wow that’s tough… but people forget, we were the team that everyone didn’t want…

A certain Pep Guardiola said after the draw had been made:

“Arsenal were the very last team we wished to draw.”

And the reasons are obvious – Barcelona have excellent players going forward, in Messi, Henry and Ibra with two excellent supporting players in Xavi and Iniesta… but looking further back, the likes of Dani Alves, Eric Abidal as well as the middle two of Pique (who may be injured) and Puyol are very suspect in defence. Keita and Toure haven’t quite hit the heights – and we’ve seen just as recently as last weekend how fragile their defence is. They didn’t want us because they know we can play them and expose their defensive frailties…

Their sporting director is also quite worried – he has mentioned how he is worried about the home leg and hopes the away leg will prove useful to them

“It’s a great tie. We are two teams who don’t shut up shop and play long ball football, and this tie will be nice for the fans. It will be a good spectacle and we’ll see if we are a little stronger than them. In any case, the best news is knowing that we will be playing the return leg at home. We are strong at home and we’ve shown that.”

But in all honesty, looking at the team from the outside in… there are many questions that Barcelona will have…

How do we stop Cesc?

The scorer of 18 goals and the same number of assists this season – they’ll be focused on stopping the former Barcelona player from playing – but how do you stop Cesc? Man mark him? Kick him out of the game?

How do we control Arshavin?

Don’t forget we’ve got the wiley little Russian on our left… down at the Nou Camp, they’ll be wondering what they have to do to stop the Russian. He’s hitting some form (well, in the big games anyway) and he’ll be relishing

Who marks Theo Walcott?

A question that Eric Abidal, Yaya Toure and Puyol will have? Do you go close? Do you give him space? Theo’s pace will trouble their defence, no question about it. They will need to come up with a plan to stop Theo going forward. How?

How do we predict Bendtner?

Okay, maybe they won’t be thinking that… but it’s a question that I would like to know the answer to. Our finest Danish International is unpredictable and very bundly (is that a word?) things tend to bounce off him, but he has those golden moments of magic – can he pull one out against Barce?

We saw the Nasri goal against Porto? How do we stop that happening against us?

With so many Arsenal players capable of something out of nothing, a la Rosicky, Nasri, Arshavin, Cesc and let’s not forget Diaby… after our recent thrashing of Porto and the devastating effect that Eboue, Arshavin and Nasri had on the end result, how do they mark everyone? If they let Nasri have space, they will get punished.

Whatever the outcome, whatever the result, the whole world is eagerly awaiting this one… Begiristain pointing out…

“Cesc returns to the Nou Camp but Thierry Henry will also face his former team and that makes it even more interesting…”

Indeed… I feel a classic coming on…

The Appeal. The Analysis. The Rejection. The Ban.

Yesterday the club announced that it had lodged an appeal against the sending off at West Ham, based on a case of wrongful dismissal…

“The FA has received a claim for wrongful dismissal from Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen. Vermaelen was shown a red card for denying  an obvious goalscoring opportunity during Arsenal’s match against West Ham United on Saturday 20 March. A Regulatory Commission will hear the claim on Tuesday 23 March.”

Personally, as soon as I heard about this news, I was pretty delighted. I mean, I thought it was very harsh and couldn’t believe it at the time. From the replays, my judgement of it’s harshness only increased. Tommy V hardly did anything to the player – who went down like a pack of spuds and the referee bought it. Now, to the letter of the law, such as infringement is a red card offence – whether or not it is the right rule or not – at the moment it’s the rule.

I thought “a red card and a penalty” for that touch is absurd… but the letters of the law suggest that the referee made the correct decision by the absolute laws. How many times do we see such an offence go unpunished? The memories of Kuyt’s drag down of Alex Hleb in the Champions League all those years ago spring back to mind. In my eyes, the club had to appeal it.

So they did and the FA said no…

“At a Regulatory Commission hearing today, a claim for wrongful dismissal from Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen was dismissed.

“Vermaelen was shown a red card for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity during Arsenal’s match against West Ham United on Saturday 20 March.”He will now serve a one match suspension with immediate effect.”

Now, looking at the next couple of games, without Gallas out, it would make sense for Arsene to look at the Barcelona game and think, “if Gallas is the only player out, I would really like Campbell and Vermaelen at the back”… and that’s what I think Arsene did – so based on that decision and the assumption that Campbell can’t play two games in a week, this weekend Campbell can’t play.

Now that is where it becomes tricky – if the ban was successful, then this weekend, we could rest Campbell knowing that a combination of Silvestre and Vermaelen or even Alex Song and Vermaelen could do a job. But with Vermaelen banned for this weekend’s trip to Birmingham, it leaves Arsene with an option to either field Campbell and Silvestre or Campbell or Song. But if he did that, then could Campbell play next Wednesday against Barcelona? I doubt it… which means both Vermaelen and Campbell out for this weekend’s game.

So it comes down to the priorities… if the premiership is more important, I’d expect to see Campbell play this weekend, if the Champions League is more important that we’ll see Silvestre.

Remember, we don’t have Gallas or Vermaelen this weekend, so we have to play two of three – Silvestre, Campbell or Song. If we play Campbell this weekend, then we can’t play him against Barcelona. Interesting. So, will we see Song and Silvestre this weekend? Campbell and Vermaelen mid-week, Silvestre and Vermaelen next weekend and Campbell and Vermaelen the following mid-week home leg against Barcelona? Damn, it’s confusing, but having both Vermaelen and Gallas out this Saturday certainly doesn’t help!

Now just imagine if we had Djourou available…

Thierry Henry… A Legend…

Thierry Henry wasn’t the first player ever to leave Arsenal and he certainly won’t be the last, but no one could have left in a more dignified manner. Thierry graced Highbury and then the Emirates for the best part of 8 years and gave us moments that we simply won’t forget. People talk about how great Messi is playing right now, but don’t forget what Thierry was doing about 6 years ago down at the Arsenal…

Thierry has a certain level of humility that has gone from the game in modern times. You’ll never hear him say a bad word about Arsenal or Arsene – why? Because we gave him everything we could and he gave us everything he could. Players like Adebayor, Flamini and Ashley Cole, three players whom Arsenal have trained, educated and made who they are. Before they played for Arsenal who were they? The words they’ve said since they’ve left the club have been a disgrace.

Back to King Henry, and there you have someone who realises what the club did for him and has a bond to a club that is like a son has to his family. When he left the team, he said a part of him was lost and that one day he would return. For those of you who don’t remember, he made it clear when he left Arsenal for Barcelona that we were his team for life.

“It doesn’t matter what happens with my new club, I will never find the same affection that I was shown at Arsenal, partly because I think I will never play for another squad for eight years – my legs won’t let me. To play for Arsenal for eight years, winning or losing at Highbury, the joy, the sadness, everything was simply incredible. You often return to the place that you belong and, therefore, I hope one day to be able to work with the club. I have the club in my blood – I always follow Arsenal when they play and I’m happy when they win. I’m proud to have played for Arsenal and to be a fan. Before I didn’t support any club, but now I’m an Arsenal fan and it’s difficult for me to not follow the matches.”

And of course, having won everything in the game – the league, the cup, the European championship and the World cup – one thing that he hadn’t in his time at the Arsenal was the Champions League and he went to Barcelona with that purpose. He achieved what he set out to do last season as Barcelona brushed aside United and his cabinet was complete.

The reason I’m writing this piece to remind everyone of what a legend Thierry Henry was because if you saw his interview of Sky Sports News yesterday, you’ll have seen a man who has such a high level of respect for Arsenal – not only for the team but for the Arsenal fans.

Here’s a snippet…

“Whenever there is a draw for the Champions League I’m in pain. I’m not saying I won’t try to fight or whatever because that’s the way the game is. But I don’t want to play against Arsenal. It will be weird for me to step on the pitch, even if it’s at the Emirates and not Highbury, with another shirt on. When asked if he would celebrate a goal, he added: “Forget about it. No. I do not want to play against Arsenal, simple as that. The bond that I have with the Arsenal fans I will never get anywhere else. Because I don’t think I will ever play for another team for that long. Eight years – I don’t think I will be with another team for eight years, I am getting old now.”

Take a look at the full video here….

http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid29318049001?bctid=73141285001

Now that’s what I call a genuine love for the club, a genuine Arsenal fan and a genuine legend.

Arsenal 2-0 West Ham. We were top of the league, say we were top of the league!

Arsenal v West Ham, always a big game as it’s a derby, but this was an even bigger game for us, seeing as we’re chasing the League title and we really cannot afford any slip-ups. Cesc and Song- back from injury and suspension- went straight into the starting line-up, with Diaby and Sagna dropping to the bench.

The line-up then was:

Almunia

Eboue– Campbell – Vermaelen – Clichy

Song – Denilson

Nasri– Cesc – Arshavin

Bendtner

Yet again, we started really brightly, scoring after 5 minutes- our first goal at the Emirates in the first 15 minutes- and it was a well-worked goal. It started with Clichy’s run down the left, and he was able to cross the ball to Bendtner in the box, who headed it out to Denilson. They exchanged a one-two, with Denilson striking the ball to the bottom right corner, from just outside the box. Great start! Bendtner then tried his luck from a similar distance, but his shot was just wide. It looked like we’d run away with it, but credit to West Ham for sticking to it and not letting us run riot. They didn’t create much, but Diamante did have a decent effort from a free-kick conceded by Sol, but it was just over the bar, but straight at Almunia anyways, so he would have had it covered.

We looked under no pressure whatsoever, but a 1-0 scoreline is always a tricky one. We seemed to be cruising towards half-time, when the inevitable happened. I say inevitable, because in the other 2 League games where we’ve taken the lead inside 15 minutes- away at both Burnley and Hull City- we’ve conceded a penalty! But this time around, there was the added complication of a red card! A long ball from West Ham towards our box was not dealt with by Vermaelen, and he made the slightest of contacts with Franco who predictably went down. The referee was behind the play so he couldn’t see it, but the linesman called it, and a penalty was given. It was never a penalty. Not only that, the referee also showed a Red card to Vermaelen for a professional foul. It was a very soft penalty, and a very harsh Red card. Our first of the season.

So out of nowhere, we were down to 10-men, and facing a penalty. Apparently West Ham have scored all their penalties this season, but this time around, Almunia pulled off a great save! Justice done, one would say. Almunia’s received a lot of criticism over the past few months, but he’s not been mentioned lots over the past few games, as he’s been playing quite well. This was an important save, as it meant even though we were down to 10-men, we still had our advantage.

That was practically the last kick of the half. We were deservedly ahead, but with only 10-men, it was going to be a difficult task for us to hold on to the 3 points.

West Ham, as you would expect, started the second half on top and had most of the possession. We were still trying to regroup at the back. Arsene didn’t make any changes at half-time to compensate for the loss of tommy V, meaning Song had to drop into the centre of defence. It took us a while to get used to the change and it was obvious for a little while that we were a man short, but slowly but surely, we took charge of the game and began to dominate. Diaby did come on for Bendtner after about 12 minutes, but it seemed Bendtner may have picked up a back injury, but I’m not totally sure.

Sol had a chance to make it 2-0 from a free-kick by the corner-flag, but his header wasn’t firm enough, and it was an easy save for the ‘keeper. Arshavin also had a chance, after being released by Diaby, but his shot was weak and easily gathered by Rob Green.

West Ham did have a great chance to equalise through Carlton Cole, after brilliantly getting away from Clichy and Song, but his shot came off the bottom of the post and luckily for us, went round it for a goal-kick! In truth, that was West Ham’s best chance of the game, and the only real one they created. Whatever threat they had was always snuffed out by our defence, even though it was essentially a make-shift defence! Sagna later came on for Nasri with 15 minutes to go for more defensive reinforcement, with Eboue moving into the left-midfield position.

With the game drawing to a close, we were still leading but it was becoming tense. We did look like the more likely team to score, even though West Ham had the man advantage, and we were always wary of a late leveller. We continued to press, and with less than 10 minutes to go, we were awarded a penalty after Matthew Upson handled in the box. Great chance to ease the nerves, seal all 3 points and move to the top of the league, the responsibility falling on Cesc. But as usual, he stepped up and calmly sent Rob Green the other way! Upson had already been booked, but the referee decided against showing him a second yellow, probably because it wasn’t deliberate. Either way, we were 2-0 up and unlike when we were at Upton Park, there was no way back for West Ham, the game ending 2-0.

Absolutely crucial win, and it was great to see us grind out a result, even though we were down to 10 for a very long time. So that result meant we went top of the league overnight, with Chelsea and United not being in action until Sunday. Massive credit ought to go to Almunia for the penalty save- you could say that he won us 2 points as a result.

Wenger had this to say about Almunia:

“He has taken a lot of stick, not always justified I believe. He had a few problems at the start of the season but in the last two or three months I have found him to be outstanding and credit to him, he has silenced the critics.”

Credit ought ot go to Song as well, for slotting brilliantly into defence as I’m sure he wouldn’t have thought at the start of the game, that he’d find himself in defence! But he did really well and he very assured in that position.

Wenger summed up the game thus:

“I believe we had an outstanding game. We played with class and spirit and we kept our nerve when the situation became difficult. So overall we have shown a good attitude, good maturity, and in the important moments in any department we were decisive. I think about the goalkeeper, I think about when we had to move Alex Song to centre back, everybody adapted very well to the situation and technically I believe we were outstanding today.”

As for Vermaelen’s Red card, there was a lot of confusion as to whether he would miss 1 or 3 games, probably due to the fact that we haven’t had a Red all season! It has been confirmed that he’s only missing one game, as the Red card was not for violent conduct, but for a professional foul. He’s only going to miss the game away at Birmingham. It’s going to be a tricky tie, especially with Gallas also missing. With us due to play Barcelona 4 days later, it’ll be interesting to see whether Arsene starts Sol, instead of Silvestre. Anyways, I guess we’ll find out closer to the time.

All we need to do is keep on winning our games and hope the others slip-up. It doesn’t look like they’ll be slipping up this weekend though, as United earlier on beat Liverpool 2-1 taking them back on top of the league. Chelsea are currently winning 1-0 at Blackburn, but you never know, they might slip-up in the second half!

Hopefully being top of the league, albeit for less than 24-hours, would have given the lads more belief that we can do it. 7 games to go, and maybe come 5pm on 9th of May, we’d be top of the league for definite!

Arsenal vs West Ham Preview, Match Day Live

Afternoon fellow Gooners,

There has been loads going on recently, with an epic draw against Barcelona. On top of that, there’s loads more to talk about – I hope to get into action in a good way this coming week and get my views across, but for now, let’s take a look at the game today.

It’s so important that we win today. Tomorrow, I really don’t think Man United and Chelsea will get three points a piece, so if we keep on plugging away, we can eventually topple the league leaders.

Looking at the team news… this is who I think will play today.

Almunia

Sagna – Campbell – Vermaelen – Clichy

Song – Diaby

Walcott – Cesc – Arshavin

Bendtner

With a bench of Fabianski, Eboue, Silvestre, Denilson, Rosicky, Nasri, Eduardo

But we’ll find out in about an hour, the real line up…

Good luck boys, time to get on my way to the Emirates…