Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Arsenal Beat West Ham To Regain Fourth Place

After qualifying for the FA Cup with a win over Wigan on penalties at the weekend Arsenal got back to Premier League action at home to West Ham last night. With Everton two points ahead of them in fourth place and only five games to go it was a must win game for Arsenal. They hadn't won in their last four league games though and if they were going to finish in the top four they had to start winning again. With an FA Cup final to come in mid May Arsenal's remaining six games were being described by some as six cup finals. 

The extra time and penalties at the weekend took their toll on the Arsenal players and Arsene Wenger decided not to risk either Aaron Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from the start. They're two players who could really have made a difference, but risking them after Sunday could have seriously hampered the team's chances for the remaining games. There will be no more midweek games from here on in and players will get a break of a week between each game.

There were five changes from the team which came through on Saturday with Wojciech Szczesny, Laurent Koscielny, Tomas Rosicky, Kim Kallstrom and Olivier Giroud all coming into the team. The players to miss out were the injured Nacho Monreal, Ramsey, Chamberlain, Lukasz Fabianski and Yaya Sanogo. It meant there was very little pace in the team and I was worried that lack of pace would make it too easy for West Ham to defend.

The game didn't start too brightly for Arsenal as fatigue looked to be playing a part in a lethargic opening. The first couple of chances they got came to Giroud, but he failed to get on the end of a Lukas Podolski ball across the six yard line and then fluffed his lines badly when Santi Cazorla played him in with only the keeper to beat. That miss from Giroud seemed to lift the team though and they eventually found some fluency to put West Ham under pressure.

The pressure didn't pay off though and the moment I dreaded came just five minutes before the break when West Ham scored. Antonio Nocerino broke from midfield and got past Kallstrom but Szczesny managed to save twice from him before the ball popped up for Matt Jarvis to head into an empty net. Koscielny tried to get a foot to the ball as Jarvis headed it, but it was just as well he didn't because he probably would have got a red card and given West Ham a penalty too.

It didn't look good for Arsenal with half time approaching and it was vital for them to get back into the game before the break. Thankfully Stewart Downing fluffed a clearance with a minute to go to the break and Cazorla seized on the chance. He played a beautifully disguised ball to Podolski in the box and he turned and shot across the keeper into the far corner. It was just what Arsenal needed and it got the crowd right behind them just before the break. If they had gone in one behind the reaction from some of the crowd might have been very different.

There wasn't an awful lot of energy to Arsenal's start to the second half but they eventually started to pick the pace up gradually. West Ham's two wide players had looked good in the first half, but they gradually played more and more directly towards the head of Andy Carroll at any and every opportunity. He was pretty well marshalled by Per Mertesacker and Koscielny and their long ball tactics rarely threatened.

Only 10 minutes into the second half Arsenal took the lead when Thomas Vermaelen played a long ball back into the West Ham box after a corner had been cleared. Giroud brought the ball down beautifully on his left foot under pressure from two defenders and crashed it home between the keeper's legs with his weaker right foot. It was his 20th goal of the season in all competitions and it couldn't have come at a better time for Arsenal.

With just less than 20 minutes to go Ramsey came on for Rosicky and he had a big part in the third Arsenal goal six minutes later. He cushioned a header down to Podolski in the box and Podolski turned and crashed the ball past the keeper to extend Arsenal's lead. With 12 minutes left the game looked done and dusted and Arsenal managed to see it out without much incident. 

The three points moved them above Everton by one point with Everton playing at home to Palace tonight. Palace have proved very difficult to beat since Tony Pulis took the reins, but they are far better at home than away. I don't hold out much hope of Palace taking anything from Everton, but their next three games after Palace will be far from easy for them. At least Arsenal have put themselves in a position to take advantage of any slips by Everton in their last five games.

I thought Cazorla was Arsenal's best player last night and he showed glimpses of the form which impressed us all so much last season. He was ably assisted by Podolski with his two expertly taken goals and he showed exactly what he has to bring to the team when he gets a chance. I thought Vermaelen had a good game too after bring moved from the centre of defence to fill in at left back.

West Ham may not have had too much to play for but that didn't stop them taking a point at Chelsea a few weeks ago. They can be a tough team to beat and had a good defensive record away from home, but Arsenal managed to find enough to put a potentially tricky game behind them. If they're going to finish fourth they are going to have to show a lot more of that resilience in their remaining games.

Like a lot of others I have being giving Giroud a hard time recently as I just don't think he's good enough to be the first choice striker at the level Arsenal play. I was far from surprised when he made a complete mess of his great chance in the first half, but he took his goal really well. Hopefully that goal will give him the confidence to go on add a few more before the season ends.

It was good to end a run of four league games without a win and to come from behind to do it too. There are plenty of players to come back into the team in the coming weeks and hopefully all of that competition will be to the team's advantage. I would be very surprised if Everton didn't drop at least four points in their remaining five games and Arsenal have set themselves up to take advantage of any slips.

The win also put Arsenal seven points ahead of Spurs with four games to go and St. Totteringham's Day is suddenly drawing an awful lot closer. Arsenal will finish ahead of Spurs if they win two of their last four games and there's even a possibility of it happening this weekend if Spurs lose at home to Fulham and Arsenal win away to Hull. 

The chances of Spurs losing are slim, but Arsenal know they have to win the dress rehearsal for the cup final. Hull won't be easy to beat and will want to show Arsenal the cup final will be no pushover either. The big games just keep coming thick and fast and it's the best way to have it at this stage of the season.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Arsenal's Premier League Game With West Ham Previewed

With a place in next month's FA Cup final booked it's back to Premier League action for Arsenal tonight with a home game against West Ham. While Arsenal were winning their place in that final they were overtaken by Everton and they're now two points behind them with five games left for both clubs. If Arsenal are going to finish in the Champions League places they are probably going to have to take maximum points from their remaining games.

Saturday was a grueling afternoon for the Arsenal players with the game going to extra time and a few of them must be feeling the effects. It was Aaron Ramsey's first full game of the year and he played over 100 minutes before being replaced by Kim Kallstrom. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has had his injury problems recently too and he gave everything he had for 120 minutes against Wigan. 

Nacho Monreal went off injured and he has to be a doubt too, but at least Kieran Gibbs was able to come on for him and should be available again. There's also a possibility of Laurent Koscielny returning from injury to strengthen the defence and Wojciech Szczesny will of course return in goal for Lukasz Fabianski. I can only imagine Olivier Giroud will take over from Yaya Sanogo in the centre forward role and there is a slight doubt about Lukas Podolski too.

I would be surprised if Ramsey and Chamberlain started and they will be missed if they don't play. There would be no point in pushing them to the point where they end up missing the remaining games through injury. If they're not playng it will leave the team short of pace and they have struggled without pace in recent months.

With Mathieu Flamini still suspended it means Mikel Arteta will have to play again and he's another player who gave an awful lot in the 120 minutes on Saturday. There's a chance of Tomas Rosicky returning after missing out through injury on Saturday and surely Kallstrom has to be considered from the start. He was brought in for his experience among other things and he must have something to offer to the team. 

West Ham have done well in recent weeks and they're safe from relegation worries. They will look to put pressure on Arsenal as often as possible and we can expect to see plenty of balls into the Arsenal box at every opportunity. With Andy Carroll up front they will expect to win their fair share of balls in the air and cause trouble from knock downs too. It's hardly an attractive style of play but it's all Sam Allardyce knows and it has worked well for him in the past. 

Arsenal haven't won in their last four league games and it's reached a stage where there can be no more slip ups. Their remaining five games are all winnable and they will end up on 79 points if they do win them all. I can't imagine Everton will finish ahead of Arsenal if Arsenal win those five games considering the opponents Everton still have to play. 

It's simple to say Arsenal have an easier run in but the way they have played recently it won't be easy to beat anybody. I'm hoping the semi final win and upcoming final will give the players the boost they need to overcome their current form. There's nothing like playing for your place in a cup final team to get the best out of players. There's still a few more players to return from injury too and places in the final will be at a premium. 

Despite Arsenal's recent run of poor results they still have a very good home record and haven't lost a home game since the opening day of the season. Only Chelsea have a better defensive record at home than Arsenal and they still have to be favourites to win. West Ham have only won four of their 16 away games and have only scored 14 goals in those games, but only Chelsea and Everton have conceded less goals away from home.

They are sure to try to keep the game as tight as possible and frustrate an Arsenal team which could be suffering from a little fatigue. If Arsenal are without the pace of Chamberlain in particular it will be a big blow as he's the only player available who's prepared to run at defenders and make things happen. They tend to play far too slowly without him in the team and can be far too predictable. 

I don't think it's going to be easy for Arsenal but I do think they have enough to beat West Ham. At this stage in the season it's all about results and Arsenal need to win whether it's pretty or ugly. If they can take the three points the pressure will be back on Everton ahead of their game at home to Palace on Wednesday night. 

It's important for Arsenal to end their trophy drought and hopefully they can do so against Hull next month in the FA Cup final, but it's equally important for them to qualify for next season's Champions League. It won't be easy to attract the quality players Arsenal need to strengthen their squad this summer if they haven't booked a place among Europe's elite for next season. I still believe they will do it and take the FA Cup too, but the time for slipping up is over and it's do or die now.

A win over West Ham is absolutely essential and it has to be followed by victories over Hull, Newcastle, West Brom, Norwich and Hull again. Six wins in the final six games of the season and the season will be judged to have been a success despite the collapse in the league. Anything less and the season could possibly be judged as an unmitigated disaster. It's a very fine line between the two of them and hopefully Arsenal can stay on the right side of that line starting with victory over West Ham tonight.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Plucky Arsenal Knock Out The Holders To Reach The FA Cup Final

Arsenal went to Wembley on Saturday to take on the FA Cup holders in an attempt to reach this season's final. With their league chances gone it was their last chance of silverware this season and they emerged with a win on penalties after extra time. They will face Hull City in the final on May 17 and hopefully end their nine year wait for a trophy.

Arsene Wenger made a few changes from the team which lost 3-0 to Everton the previous week. Aaron Ramsey started for the first time this year after recovering from injury with Lukasz Fabianski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Yaya Sanogo also coming in. Mathieu Flamini didn't play as he was suspended, Tomas Rosicky missed out through injury and Olivier Giroud dropped to the bench as he had done in the previous rounds.

Wigan may have been the cup holders but they currently ply their trade in the Championship and Arsenal were rightly strong favourites to reach the final. Arsenal hadn't won in their last four games though and their injury ravaged team had struggled for form and confidence in those four games. If they were going to reach the final they were going to have to beat a Wigan team who had put up an excellent defence of the trophy they won last season.

It was far from a classic game and chances were few and far between in the first half with Sanogo and Bacary Sagna going closest for Arsenal and Wigan never really threatening the Arsenal goal. The second half seemed to be taking the same path until Per Mertesacker upended a Wigan player in the Arsenal area on the hour mark to give away a penalty. Jordi Gomez stepped up to put the ball past Fabianski from the spot, but the Arsenal keeper was to get plenty of other chances to deny Wigan from 12 yards.

Arsenal had half an hour left to save their season and Giroud came on for Lukas Podolski as they switched to playing two strikers. As the minutes ticked by they pushed further forward all the time, but it looked like their luck would desert them when Sagna hit the post with just over 10 minutes left. The goal they craved eventually came when Mertesacker got his head to a wayward Chamberlain shot to score from close range. His celebration was very emotional as he was very relieved after giving away the penalty Wigan had scored from. 

Arsenal had their equaliser and the game went to extra time without too much incident in the remaining minutes. In the 30 minutes of extra time it was Arsenal who did most of the attacking as they had done for the majority of the game and they came closest to scoring when Chamberlain hit the post with a fine shot. Kim Kallstrom made a rare appearance with eight minutes remaining as he came on for the fatigued Ramsey.

I thought Wigan were happy to go to penalties and take their chances from 12 yards and that's exactly what happened. Arsenal don't have the worst record in penalty shoot outs in recent years, but statistics like that fade from the mind when your team is faced with a shoot out. Fabianski is a good penalty saver though and I thought he might just be the man to make the difference for Arsenal. 

He proved to be the difference between the teams as he saved the first two Wigan penalties while Mikel Arteta, Kallstrom, Giroud and Santi Cazorla all scored to send Arsenal through 4-2 on penalties. It was tense and nervous but the players just about got the result they needed without ever being really convincing. It doesn't really matter how they won though as the all important fact is that they're through to the FA Cup final for the first time since 2005.

The players celebrated like they had won the cup after the game and it's understandable considering how close they were to going out and how their league campaign has floundered so badly recently. A lot of questions had been asked of these players and a defeat to Wigan would have ended their chances of a trophy. They now have a very real chance for glory at the same venue in just under five weeks and those celebrations had a fair degree of relief in them I would imagine.

With that cup final place booked they can concentrate on trying to win their last five league games to give them a chance of catching Everton and finishing in the top four. While it's important for the team to end it's trophy drought against Hull  it's equally important for them to qualify for next season's Champions League. Everton won again on Saturday and they're now two points ahead of Arsenal and both teams have five games to play. 

On paper Everton have the tougher run in but they have form on their side having won their last seven games in a row. They play at home to both Manchester clubs as well as Crystal Palace and face trips to Southampton and Hull. Arsenal have home games against West Ham, Newcastle and West Brom as well as trips to Hull and Norwich. 

It's certainly an easier run in for Arsenal, but they will need to win all of those games to put pressure on Everton. The first of those games is this Tuesday night at home to West Ham and the players have to put that approaching cup final out of their minds and concentrate on the job in hand. West Ham will be no pushovers, but a win would put Arsenal back into the top four before Everton play at home to Palace on Wednesday night.

It looks like being a very exciting end to the season even if it's only the usual annual fight for a top four place and the added bonus of a trophy to compete for. There should be a few players coming back from injury very soon too with Laurent Koscielny possibly available on Tuesday night and Mesut Ozil possibly returning next Sunday. They are two very important players and their returns will add some genuine quality to the team at a vital time. Let's hope they can help to make the difference that the team need right now.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Arsenal's FA Cup Semi Final With Wigan Previewed

It's been a very bad couple of months for Arsenal as their title challenge has disintegrated and they exited the Champions Lesgue in the last 16 yet again. All the while though they have steadily progressed through the rounds in the FA Cup as the other big teams have fallen by the wayside. Arsenal have actually put paid to the chances of three of the top six in the league with home victories over Spurs, Liverpool and Everton as well as a home win against League One side Coventry.

You could say the draw has been kind to Arsenal with home games and it's hard to argue with that considering their current away form. With the semi final bring played at Wembley there is a chance for Arsenal to win the trophy without ever leaving London. To do that they need to beat the current holders Wigan and them advance to a final against either Hull or Sheffield United.

Arsenal are overwhelming favourites to win the trophy and rightly so, but Wigan will be no pushover. They were deserving winners of the trophy against big spending City last season and knocked the same team out away from home in the last round too. They were of course relegated last season as well as winning the cup and they're currently occupying one of the play off spots in the Championship.

Their season didn't get off to a great start, but they have looked like a different team since Uwe Rosler took over as their manager. They charged up the league and look likely to make the promotion play offs and they have put up a fantastic defence of the trophy they won last season. I have no doubt they will do everything they can to make things tough for Arsenal and they will think Arsenal are there for the taking.

In team news there will be late fitness tests for Kieran Gibbs, Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and there are no players returning from injury either. Mathieu Flamini won't be available after picking up his tenth yellow card of the season and I think he misses the league game at home to West Ham on Tuesday night too. The squad strength is being tested to it's limit at the moment and it's a test Arsenal are failing.

There are still some very good players available though and I expect to see a team not too far from the one which put on such a poor performance at Everton last Sunday. A lot of those players probably deserve to be dropped after that performance but there are few options to replace them and Arsene Wenger isn't known for dropping players either. I hope those players will have used the last week to reflect on that performance and will be determined to do an awful lot better.

I doubt if there will be any changes in defence unless Gibbs is fit to return, but Lukasz Fabianski will play in goal as usual in the FA Cup. He has done very well in his few chances this season and he should have no trouble finding a new club when his contract expires this summer. It will be a real poser for the boss if Arsenal make it to the final to decide who plays in goal.

In midfield Aaron Ramsey will come back into the team for his first start of the year after recovering from injury. He looked sharp when he came on against Everton towards the end last week and his absence has been one of the reasons for Arsenal's demise over the last few months. Up until his injury Ramsey had been the best player in the league this season and his return is very welcome. 

With Flamini out I imagine Mikel Arteta will play despite looking tired and off his game for quite a while now. Hopefully he can get his game together again and put in the type of performance the team needs. After those two players the fitness tests will have a bearing on which players get to play and which ones don't.

Kim Kallstrom hasn't really had a chance since he recovered from the injury he had when he joined on loan in the January transfer window. He's a player with plenty of experience and he's a pretty good player too, but I just don't know if he will get a chance. I suspect both Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky will play as long as Rosicky is fit to take his place in the team. 

I really hope Chamberlain can play because he is the only player who offers real pace in the team and his inclusion will make things an awful lot harder for Wigan. If he plays they will not be able to hold a high line without allowing room for him to exploit with his pace and Arsenal will have more space to play in if he does play. This Arsenal team needs players with pace in it and has suffered with Theo Walcott injured, but Chamberlain could be the answer to their problems. If he does play it has to be in a wide role where he can get in behind Wigan and hopefully he will have his shooting boots on if he gets chances. 

Without Chamberlain the team is going to be very similar to last week and it's hard to imagine they won't have the same pedestrian approach to the game. Ramsey will hopefully make a difference but he can't do it all and he needs the players who have under performed recently to step up to the plate too. They are all very good players but they need to show just how good they are and can be.

I expect Olivier Giroud to start in attack despite looking tired and off his game for far too long now. The lack of striking options has been a real problem this season and there is no real alternative to Giroud in the squad. There's always a chance Yaya Sanogo will get a game ahead of Giroud, but I doubt it with so much at stake.

There's no doubt that this Arsenal team are better than Wigan player for player, but they have failed to live up to expectations in the last two months in particular. The prize on offer is a place in the FA Cup final next month and a chance to end Arsenal's nine year wait for a trophy.

The team will have a huge Arsenal crowd behind them with up to 60,000 of their fans in the stadium. Those fans will be right behind the team and I expect to see and hear them raising the Wembley roof. If there's something which might just set the team up for their last five league games it could be the prospect of another trip to Webley in mid May.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.