Monday, September 1, 2014

Arsenal Only Get A Point At Leicester

Arsenal went to Leicester yesterday afternoon knowing a win would would put them into third place with seven points out of a possible nine going into the international break. On the face of it the task was fairly simple for a star laden Arsenal team, but since when do Arsenal do things the easy way. There were injuries for Arsenal of course and it was the team's fifth game in two weeks since the season started which was putting a strain on the players too. 

Those injuries deprived Arsenal of Kieran Gibbs, Mikel Arteta, Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud and Abou Diaby, but there was enough quality in the team to get the result they needed. Arsene Wenger made a couple of changes from the team which just about edged Besiktas out on Tuesday night with Yaya Sanogo and Aaron Ramsey coming in for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere. With Giroud out until at least January it gave Sanogo another chance to show he can stake a claim for the striker's role. 

Arsenal started brightly enough and took the lead after only 20 minutes when Alexis Sanchez finished neatly after a Sanogo touch from a great lofted Santi Cazorla pass. It set Arsenal up nicely or so it seemed, but Leicester were level within three minutes when Leonardo Ulloa heading home from a fine cross. Maybe Laurent Koscielny should have done better to cut out the cross, but he was clearly struggling after a nasty clash of heads earlier in the game. I was a little surprised to see him return to the field of play after that knock and he departed to be replaced by Calum Chambers soon after the goal was conceded.

Leicester had shown they were no mugs when they twice came from behind to get a point at home to Everton on the opening day as well as making a real game of it away to Chelsea for a long period last week before losing 2-0. Arsenal were laboured in their approach for the rest of the first half and the closest they came was when Cazorla went down in the box after getting a kick in the ankle, but the referee had no interest in awarding a penalty. I hoped for better in the second half, but the players looked like the exertions of the previous two weeks had taken their toll.

The game could have gone either way in that second half with chances at either end, but the 1-1 draw was probably a fair result in the end. Arsenal's best chance fell to Sanogo, but his effort was blocked by the legs of the goalkeeper. There was also a moment when Ramsey was played through and headed for goal when a header back to Sanogo would have set him up with an open goal. 

It's fair to say Arsenal have been laboured in their five games so far and have just about scraped through to the group stages of the Champions League. The five points they have in the league are probably a fair return for their performances so far and it means they're already four points behind the pace setters. With all the talk of the need for a striker it also has to be noted Arsenal have not kept a clean sheet in their three league games so far.

I thought the season arrived a little too early for Arsenal with their German trio still on leave after their World Cup win and pre season very limited. The team may have come through August unbeaten, but their performances have been far from impressive too often for my liking. I don't usually welcome an international break as they tend to break up the team's momentum, but Arsenal probably need that break right now. Of course most of the squad will head off to various corners of the globe with their countries, but a few of the injured players will be available when the players return in just short of two weeks time.

Hopefully there will be some new additions to the team as well over the next 24 hours before the transfer window closes. It's clear the squad needs a central defender and a defensive midfielder too and the need for a top class striker is there for all to see. With Giroud available I thought a striker was needed and the case is even more pressing with him out until the new year. The rumours abound at the moment and we can only hope for a top class striker to join at the last minute.

The transfer window started so well that it's hard to believe Arsenal find themselves scrambling on the final day yet again to find the players the team/squad needs. I find it difficult to believe that the club couldn't identify their targets earlier in the window and get their business done before it's time to press the panic button. 

There's every possibility the squad won't change before the window closes and it's hard to see the current squad making a concerted challenge on all fronts. When departures are taken into account the only real difference from last season is the arrival of Sanchez and good as he is the team needs more. I'll be writing my season preview when the window closes and I'm hoping to have a few more players to write about.

Finally for today it's still not too late to join my predictions league and you can do so here with the code FD20D-AVD after you have made your predictions. You can also join over 1,250 others in my fantasy league here with the code 13125-4843 after you have set up your team and there's €50 to the winner. 

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Predictions For Premier League Gameweek Three

It's that time of the week again when I attempt to predict the outcomes of the upcoming Premier League games. I got two perfect outcomes last week with three correct outcomes and five incorrect. It means I stay in third place in my predictions league and I'm not too far behind the leader. 

It's still not too late to join the league and you can do so here with the code FD20D-AVD after you have made your predictions. You can also join over 1,250 others in my fantasy league here with the code 13125-4843 after you have set up your team and there's €50 to the winner. Here's a look at the top five in my predictions league

Up 1 (2)goonerdhanesh160+950
Down 2 (1)sensisoccerworld145+400
NC 3 (3)Michael Sheehy115+700
Up 5 (7)sodobo

Saturday August 30

Burnley v Manchester United

12.45pm BST, Turf Moor, Burnley

Burnley have played quite well in their first two games back in the Premier League, but they lost both of them. If they are going to have any chance of staying up they need to take points at home and they will think they can take some in this game. They don't look like scoring many goals though and that lack of firepower could be their undoing.

It's difficult to see any Burnley players who might make a difference for fantasy managers.

United have only taken one point from their first two games and were embarrassed by the MK Dons in midweek in the Capital One Cup. If they're going to get among the title contenders they need to improve their defence. Despite their problems United have to be firm favourites to win this game.

Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and new boy Angel Di Maria can all score plenty of fantasy points this season.

I think United will get their season going with a narrow win in a hard fought game.

Prediction: 1-2

Aston Villa v Hull City

3pm BST, Villa Park, Birmingham 

Villa haven't conceded a goal in their first two games although they have only managed to score once. They're missing the injured Christian Benteke and will struggle unless they can find someone to score the goals they need. As long as their defence remains solid they will feel they have a chance against most teams though.

Ron Vlaar and Brad Guzan are looking like the Villa players to have at the moment.

Hull did well to get a point at home to Stoke last week after playing most of the game with only 10 men. They have looked solid in defence so far and have only conceded the late goal Stoke managed last Sunday. Like Villa they have struggled to score goals and need to find someone who can get them the goals they need.

Allan McGregor and James Chester (when he returns from suspension) look like the best fantasy choices in the Villa team at the moment.

I can see this being a very close game and probably ending in a low scoring or scoreless draw.

Prediction: 1-1

Manchester City v Stoke City

3pm BST, Etihad Stadium, Manchester 

City have had the perfect start to the season with two wins out of two and one of those was against Liverpool last Monday. They are a superb team at home in particular and look like putting up a much stronger defence of their title this time. They scored over 100 league goals last season, but that could be a little tougher this time around.

There are so many City players to choose from with David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Stevan Jovetic and Yaya Toure probably the best of them.

Stoke managed to get a late point against 10 man Hull last week and that was their first point and goal of the season. They finished last season very well to attain their highest Premier League place ever, but they haven't started this season well. It's a huge task for Stoke to go to the team with the best home record last season and who scored 63 goals in those 19 games.

In the long term Ryan Shawcross might not be a bad fantasy purchase, but maybe not for this game.

I can't see anything other than a comfortable City victory in this game.

Prediction: 3-0

Newcastle United v Crystal Palace

3pm BST, St. Jame's Park, Newcastle 

Newcastle have only taken one point in their first two games and they haven't managed to score in either of them. They haven't played too badly in those games though and they should improve when all of their new players fit in. Despite the new signings I can't see any players in their team who can match the performances of Yohan Cabaye and Loric Remy last season and that could lead to more problems.

Fabricio Coloccini and Tim Krul could do well for Newcastle over the next few weeks in what looks like a good run of fixtures for them.

Palace have lost their first two games after stumbling from one crisis to another, but at least they have appointed a new manager. Neil Warnock will look to install the defensive stability which Tony Pulis worked so hard on last season, but Palace need to strengthen their team too. They need to put a few points on the board very soon and will feel they can get something from this game.

For me Dwight Gayle looks capable of doing well if he gets a chance while the Palace defenders will be good buys if Warnock can sort them out.

I think this will be a low scoring affair and could easily end in a draw.

Prediction: 1-1

Queens Park Rangers v Sunderland 

3pm BST, Loftus Road, London

QPR have lost their first two games and looked very poor in the process. They have failed to score in both games too and it looks like being a long hard season for them. If they're going to stay up they need to start playing an awful lot better very soon.

Remy may be a good striker, but like the rest of the QPR team he doesn't look like a good fantasy buy at the moment.

Sunderland have drawn their first two games and probably should have beaten United last Sunday. They haven't been as strong defensively as they would have liked, but they look like they will score a few goals this season. They have every chance of getting something from this game.

Seb Larsson has started the season very well and Jack Rodwell could be a good fantasy purchase too if he can stay fit.

I think Sunderland will have enough to take the three points in this game.

Prediction: 1-2

Swansea City v West Bromwich Albion

3pm BST, Liberty Stadium, Swansea

Swansea have won their first two games and only conceded one goal in the process. They played very well in their opening day win at United, but they weren't quite so good at home to Burnley last week. They have finished in mid table in their three seasons in the Premier League and look like they will do so again this season.

Gylfi Sigurdsson has started really well for Swansea and looks like a very good fantasy choice. 

West Brom are unbeaten in their first two games after draws at home to Sunderland and away to Southampton. They were the draw kings last season and they are already looking like retaining that title. If they are going to finish this season in a safer position they will need to turn a few of those draws into wins.

Despite Saido Berahino scoring twice on the opening day I don't think there are any West Brom players to write home about for fantasy managers.

I think Swansea will continue their winning ways with a narrow victory in this game.

Prediction: 1-0

West Ham United v Southampton 

3pm BST, Uptin Park, London

West Ham did well to win away to Palace last week after losing their opening game at home to Spurs. With Andy Carroll injured they are still a little hit and miss, but they are looking better than they did last season. If they can make things a little tighter at the back they might just finish in mid table.

Mauro Zarate looks like he could be the West Ham player to possibly shine this season.

Southampton looked good in their opening week defeat at Liverpool, but they weren't quite so good at home to West Brom last week. If Ronald Koeman is going to make a success of the Southampton job he needs to gel his new players together and that could take some time.

For me Jay Rodriguez is the best fantasy choice in the Southampton team and they might struggle a little until he returns from injury.

I think this will be another close call and might just end in a draw too.

Prediction: 1-1

Everton v Chelsea

5.30pm BST, Goodison Park, Liverpool

Everton looked home and dry against Arsenal last week, but only took a point after conceding two late goals. They let a lead slip twice away to West Brom the previous week and they need to learn how to see out a game. They will have a much tougher task against Chelsea, but they are capable of beating any team at home.

Romelu Lukaku is a good fantasy option as are Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines.

Chelsea have won their opening two games in impressive fashion although they were both against newly promoted teams. This will be a much tougher proposition for them, but they have the squad to take on any team. They're favourites to win the league with a lot of experts and their performance in the game might be a pointer to how they will fare this season.

Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa and Branislav Ivanovic are all in flying form at the moment while Eden Hazard, John Terry and Cesar Azpilicueta are all worth considering too.

I can see this being a very close game and I think it might end with the honours shared.

Prediction: 2-2

Sunday August 31

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool

1.30pm BST, White Hart Lane, London

Spurs have had a good start to the season and sit on top of the table with six points and no goals conceded in two games. They were a little lucky to beat West Ham on the opening day, but they thrashed QPR last week. If they're going to trouble the top four this season this is the type of game they need to take something from.

Eric Dier and Eric Lamela have looked very good so far and Christian Eriksen looks like a good long term bet.

Liverpool haven't been overly impressive in their first two games and their defence doesn't seem to have improved on last season. They brought Mario Balotelli in this week and much could depend on their ability to get the best out of such a troublesome player. It's not hoping to be easy to replace the goals of Luis Suarez, but Balotelli could potentially help to do so.

Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling are probably the best fantasy choices in the Liveroool team with Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson worth having a look at too.

I think this will be another very close game and I think Liveroool might just get back on track with a narrow victory.

Prediction: 2-3

Leicester City v Arsenal

4pm BST, King Power Stadium, Leicester

Leicester did very well in the first half away to Chelsea last week, but they were outclassed after the break. They've had a tough start to the season and will be happy to get to play some of the lesser teams after this game. They were very good at home last season and showed in their opening game against Everton that they won't give up at home. 

It's tough to see which Leicester players might do the business for fantasy managers.

Arsenal haven't played too well so far this season, but they're unbeaten and have progressed to the group stages of the Champions League. The did very well to come back and earn a point away to Everton last week and they had a very good away record last season. Their injuries are piling up though and they could find it hard to replace the goals of Olivier Giroud.

Aaron Ramsey is in great form for Arsenal while Alexis Sanchez could be a good buy too now that Giroud is out for the next four months.

With Champions League qualification now wrapped up again I think Arsenal will go into the international break with a win.

Prediction: 1-3

That's it for today.

See you next week.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Arsenal Beat Besiktas But Only Just

Arsenal played Besiktas last night knowing a victory would take them through to the group stages of the Champions League for the seventeenth season in a row. After drawing the first leg 0-0 in Turkey last week it was a game Arsenal were expected to win, but it certainly wasn't going to be easy.

Arsene Wenger chose Alexis Sanchez in the central striker's role with Olivier Giroud injured and he was flanked by Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The rest of the team was more or less as expected and there was more than enough quality to get the win they needed.

The first chance came Arsenal's way but Jack Wilshere pulled the ball wide of the far post with only the keeper to beat although he did have three defenders on him. He should have done better really and so should Santi Cazorla only a few minutes later when the Besiktas keeper hit a clearance straight to him and his first time effort never troubled an empty goal. At that stage Arsenal seemed to be missing Giroud's presence up front with Sanchez struggling to make an impression at times. He never stopped working though and both of those chances were thanks to his efforts.

Besiktas had a couple of penalty claims denied after that and they were both close calls which just about went Arsenal's way. Mathieu Debuchy had already been booked for a stupid challenge on a Besiktas player when he slid in to make a last ditch tackle in the Arsenal area. He got the ball but the referee might easily have given a free kick if it happened outside the box. A short while later Wilshere slid in to attempt a challenge on a Besiktas player as he was about to shoot, but he didn't appear to make contact and the referee did very well to wave play on as his opponent went down.

Arsenal were struggling but I hoped they would put on a better show in the second half as they have done so often in recent seasons. As half time was almost upon us they got the breakthrough they wanted and it was that man Sanchez who put it away after some fine work from Wilshere and Ozil. It was just what Arsenal needed to ease their nerves and Sanchez's first goal for the club too.

Arsenal started well after the break and had the better of things, but they were nervous without the safety of a second goal. They had chances though with the keeper pushing a Sanchez effort onto the post and both Santi Cazorla and Chamberlain missing when they should have scored. The Chamberlain miss in particular could have proved crucial with the game swinging in Besiktas' favour within seconds.

He somehow managed to shoot straight at the keeper from only a couple of yards out and then Debuchy got a second yellow card as he tried to stop a Besiktas break immediately afterwards. I thought the card was very harsh but it's a risk you take when you put in such a tackle in European games in particular. It left Arsenal with 15 minutes to try to stop Besiktas getting the goal which would more than likely have been enough to send them through. 

To add insult to injury Calum Chambers was booked as he came on to replace Ozil because he entered the field of play too soon. He had come in to play at right back with Debuchy gone and Ozil was the obvious choice to go off. It was an awful lot to ask of him to start for the second time in five days as he is clearly still well short of full match fitness. He should hopefully be up to speed once the international break ends in a couple of weeks. 

With time ticking by Besiktas saw more and more of the ball and they eventually created the chance they were looking for. Luckily for Arsenal Demba Ba failed to connect with a header at the far post and Arsenal saw the game out easily enough after that. It was far from vintage stuff from Arsenal, but they got they result they needed and that was all that mattered. Wojciech Szczesny never actually had to make a save during the game with Besiktas failing to get a single shot on target despite the feeling of impending doom I felt at times.

I've rarely seen the boss look so worried on the sideline when Arsenal were winning, but it was a very important game for him. He might have almost made light of not qualifying before the game, but there can be no doubt of how important the game was to him and the team. With qualification now obtained hopefully he can go out and get the players the club so badly needs before the transfer window closes.

That list included a striker for me and that need has been impressed even more upon Arsenal with the news after the game that Giroud will be out until the new year after having an operation on a broken tibia. It's a huge risk to play at least half of the season without Arsenal's first choice striker, but that appears to be the plan at the moment. Hopefully that plan will change in the next few days and a top clas striker will arrive, but it's not easy to find the right player so late in the window. 

From here it's a trip to Leicester on Sunday and a win would see the team through a very tough start to the season in a good place. With a spot in today's draw for the Champions League group stages secured it would be great to see the team end the month with seven out of their first nine points in the league too. Leicester will be no pushover, but Arsenal are more than capable of going there and winning. 

Finally for today Arsenal drew Southampton at home in the third round of the Capital One Cup in a game to be played on Tuesday September 23 or Wednesday September 24. The boss will surely play the fringe players in that game and it could well see the returns of Theo Walcott and Abu Diaby too. It's the least important of the trophies on offer this season and it won't be an easy task to beat Southampton if they put out their strongest team.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Arsenal v Besiktas Preview

With the new season just over a week old Arsenal face their first do or die game at home to Besiktas tonight. It's hard to over estimate the importance of the Champions League for Arsenal when it comes to revenue earned and it's ability to attract new players. Added to that it's very important from a footballing perspective for the players to play against the best and the Champions League is where they will get to do just that. 

In the past Arsenal have more or less breezed through the final qualifying round of the Champions League and have won every tie at home and away. That changed when they drew 0-0 away to Besiktas last week, but they are still clear favourites to progresss to the group stages. It's almost unthinkable for Arsenal not to make it through to the group stages for what would be the seventeeth season in a row.

Arsenal have done pretty well on the face of it in the transfer market so far this summer with four new players arriving a lot earlier than has been the case in recent seasons. Three of those players were bought to replace departing players though which means Alexis Sanchez has been the only real addition to the squad. With a few injuries at the moment that Arsenal squad is looking very thin yet again and the transfer window is only a few days away from closing. Last season promised so much and ended with a trophy at last and the transfer activity in the next few days will show how much Arsenal can build on that promise.

I've never been the greatest fan of Olivier Giroud but he is Arsenal's best striking option at the moment and the injury he picked up on Saturday could be a huge blow to the team. If the reports are to be believed he could be out for as much as four months and his goals will be sorely missed if that is the case. I thought Arsenal needed another striker before his injury and now the case is even more pressing with only a few days to find that elusive striker.

The team tonight will give us an idea of how things might be with almost all of the potential replacements for him available to play. Neither Yaya Sanogo or Joel Campbell have scored a competitive goal for Arsenal although Campbell hasn't really had a chance yet and Sanogo spent most of last season injured. Sanchez can play in a central striking role but he hasn't got the presence of Giroud and is probably more suited to a wide role or playing off a player like Giroud. Arsene Wenger has often said he sees Lukas Podolski as a wide player and Theo Walcott is seen in more or less in the same mode when he returns.

The team is still struggling to come to terms with a season which seems to have come too soon for some of the players and the international break can't come quickly enough. Mesut Ozil and Per Mertesacker were drafted in against Everton on Saturday despite being clearly short of match fitness while Mikel Arteta and Kieran Gibbs have already succumbed to injury this season. With Walcott still a few weeks away from fitness the options for tonight aren't exactly limitless.

I think Mertesacker will play in defence alongside Laurent Koscielny which would see Calum Chambers drop to the bench for the first time this season. Chambers looks like a very good purchase but he still has a lot to learn and the combination of Koscielny and Mertesacker is still the best one for Arsenal once they are both fully fit. The rest of the defence picks itself as there are no other options besides Wojciech Szczesny and Nacho Monreal while I severely doubt Chambers will take Mathieu Debeuchey's place.

With Arteta injured Mathieu Flamini will obviously start in the defensive role in midfield with Jack Wilshere probably just in front of him. The red card Aaron Ramsey got in the away leg is a real blow to the team and it will mean Wilshere has a lot of work to do tonight. Despite being brought back too soon after his World Cup win Ozil is the most likely player to start in the creative role in midfield. It is possible that Santi Cazorla will play there with Ozil dropping to the bench but I doubt it.

I suspect Sanogo to get the nod in the central attacking role with his height being an important factor at set pieces at both ends. If Sanogo does get the nod I would expect to see Cazorla and Sanchez play on either side of him, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will come in if it's Sanchez who plays centrally. Sanchez got his first chance in that role at Everton on Saturday and only lasted 45 minutes before Giroud came on for him to change the game in Arsenal's favour. Sanchez is a fantastic player but he still has some adapting to do to the English game and how Arsenal play too.

Besiktas took a real hammering away to Liverpool a few years ago, but they have also won away to both Manchester United and Chelsea in recent years. For me it's really important for Arsenal to get the first goal tonight as it will bring out a Besiktas team who will be happy to defend in depth. If Aesenal can score that first goal I think others will follow as their opponents push forward in search of a goal to get back in the tie.

Besiktas have some good players but Arsenal have better players than them and those players need to step up to the plate tonight. I know it's a little early for some of them after their exploits of the summer but their club needs them more than ever tonight. With the draw for the group stages of the Champions League tomorrow Arsenal need to put themselves in there along with the best teams in Europe.

After that there's a trip to Leicester on Sunday and then the international break will be accompanied by the end of the transfer window. Hopefully everything that needs to be done will be done in that time and the season can start for real. It hasn't been easy getting through the games so far, but I think the team can do enough to get the result they need tonight and set themselves up for the challenges ahead. 

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.