Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Ups And Downs Of The Arsenal Season So Far

The season is quickly drawing to a close with only eight Premier League games and an FA Cup semi and possible final to play for Arsenal. In the 46 games they have played so far their season has swung to and fro and they're currently in the best position they have been all season. They have a genuine chance of finishing as runners up in the league and their defence of the trophy they won last May has gone perfectly so far.

The best piece of business Arsene Wenger managed last summer was the capture of Alexis Sanchez from what seemed like the grasp of Liverpool. Arsenal paid a premium for a proven top class player who scored 28 goals for Barcelona last season despite not being a permanent fixture in their team. He had an immediate impact and his form almost single handedly carried the team in the first half of the season as they struggled with injuries and lack of form. He has 19 goals already this season in all competitions which is very good for a player who is not an out and out striker even if Arsenal have played him in that position a couple of times.

It didn't look like Arsenal would be getting involved in the deadline day dealings back in August, but that changed with Olivier Giroud's leg back against Everton. They needed another striker in the squad and quickly too, but there weren't too many options until Danny Welbeck made his arrival from United. He has been a very good team player since his arrival even if his goal return hasn't been great and he was worth the fee alone just for his winning goal away to United in the FA Cup quarter final. He might not have been the manager's first choice, but he has proved to be a very smart move at a reasonable price so far.

Lukasz Fabianski left when his contract expired and that departure left Arsenal short of a goalkeeper in the squad. The boss again managed a very smart piece of business to bring Colombian international David Ospina in after an impressive World Cup. Ospina suffered an injury early on and had to bide his time with Wojciech Szczesny as first choice, but he took his chance when it came along and he has made himself first choice since he replaced Szczesny after the New Year's Day defeat at Southampton. I'm still not sure if he is a better keeper than Szczesny, but at least Szczesny has a chance of getting a winners medal in the FA Cup this season after Fabianski played in the final last season. I know what the manager's policy is on who plays in the cup games, but I thought Szczesny should have played as Fabianski had made it clear he would be off at the end of the season.

Perhaps the biggest factor in Arsenal's improvement has been the recall of Francis Coquelin from his loan spell at Charlton as Arsenal suffered an injury crisis in midfield. Coquelin looked to have no future at Arsenal after a few seasons of loans to various clubs, but he saw his chance and took it with both hands. He has fitted perfectly into the defensive midfield role us fans have been hoping to see filled for far too long and has made a real difference to the defensive strength of the team. For me he seems to be prepared to do the work too many others weren't prepared to do in that role and crucially he doesn't switch off from first minute to last. 

Perhaps the biggest error of last summer was the failure to add a central defender to a squad which was already one central defender short before Thomas Vermaelen was sold and Bacary Sagna went on his merry way. The boss addressed the problem in January though when he brought in Gabriel Paulista from Villarreal and he already looks like he is going to fit into the team very easily. I have been very impressed with what I have seen from him so far and he looks perfectly suited to playing in the Premier League.

The injury situation early in the season didn't make things easy for Arsenal and they never really strung a good run of results together. With players like Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud, Mikel Arteta, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey, Mathieu Debuchy and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all missing plenty of games there was no stability to the team and results suffered. It's no coincidence that the return of most of those players has seen a marked improvement in the results and performances and Arsenal look so much better right now.

On the down side the Champions League ended in disappointment in the round of 16 yet again for the fifth season in a row and the defeat to Monaco was hard to swallow. The first leg performance was so horrific that it left too much to be done in the second leg and the team couldn't quite manage it despite a very good performance on the night. For me the biggest disappointment in the Champions League outside of that first leg against Monaco was the home game against Anderlect when Arsenal surrendered a three goal lead and only got a point from the game. A win in that game would have seen Arsenal win the group although I'm not sure how they might have fared against Juventus in the last 16. I think that result had the worst effect of any game on the team this season and they lost their next two games which was the only time this season they have lost twice in a row.

There also seems to have been a realisation from the boss that he needed to adopt different tactics for different opponents in the last few months. In that time Arsenal have won away to City in the league and United in the cup, but they haven't always got it right as the home leg against Monaco showed. They have won 14 of their last 16 games in all competitions though and one of the main reasons is the change in approach to so many games. 

The addition of Gabriel has made the squad that little bit stronger and it's getting very close to a squad to be reckoned with by any team. A couple of additions this summer as well as keeping the players who we cannot afford to sell should set Arsenal up for a genuine title challenge next season. I don't think there can be any excuses next season though and failure to challenge for the title could be the final straw for the boss. I'm not saying I want to see him leave, but the squad he has now assembled and should add to needs to take that next step.

I was one of the people who was very critical of Giroud after his nightmare performance in the first leg against Monaco and it would have been oh so easy for the boss to leave him out after that game. He was given the chance to make amends though and had repaid the faith shown in him by scoring the first goal in each of the five games he has started since that night. If he had been dropped who knows what it might have done to his confidence and the boss managed the situation perfectly which saw him get the perfect return. 

There's so much still to play for with up to 10 games still to play and the team look like they are up to the task. I would be thrilled to see them retain the FA Cup and third in the league would make me pretty happy too, but I think second place is there for the taking. If they can manage to finish second and win the cup it might just give them the confidence they need to push on and go on to even greater things next season.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Arsenal Inspired By Olivier Giroud Yet Again

I wasn't the only person to hold the opinion that Olivier Giroud wasn't up to scratch after his nightmare game against Monaco in the home leg of the Champions League. He missed one absolute sitter that night and at least three other good chances too and it was too easy to say Arsenal need a better striker if they're going to compete with the best. Giroud has gone from strength to strength since that game though and scored the first goal in each of the five games he has started.

I wrote a short while ago about how Arsenal are bouncing back from their disappointments much quicker this season and Giroud is a prime example of just that. It would have been all too easy for him to suffer a crisis of confidence after that Monaco game, but he has done the exact opposite. For those who like the odd flutter the mixture of Giroud to score first and Arsenal to win has been very profitable bet since that night.

Giroud is well on course to score 20 goals in all competitions this season despite suffering a leg break early on and missing nine league games as well as some cup games. He also had to sit in the stands for three games after his needless sending off against QPR, but he has come back to prove his critics (including me) wrong. 

I can't think of any other team in the Premier League who will have two players on 20 goals this season, but it looks like Giroud and Alexis Sanchez will both reach that mark for Arsenal. The team are well on course to reach 100 goals in all competitions too and it's been a while since Arsenal possessed the scoring power and attacking options they have right now. Those attacking options give them a chance against any team and will hopefully bring home a trophy for the second season in a row and qualify them for the Champions League yet again.

The weekend went well for Arsenal as they squeezed out a narrow victory away to Newcastle despite some tired legs after the players gave their all in Monaco on Tuesday night. Those three points kept them a point behind second placed City, but unfortunately Chelsea scraped a win away to Hull on Sunday. I just can't see Arsenal making up the ground on Chelsea with only eight games to go and Chelsea having a game in hand too. 

The other game at the top of the table on Sunday would ideally have ended in a draw from an Arsenal perspective, but United went to Liverpool and took all three points. It means United stay one point behind Arsenal and are right in there in the battle for second place, but Arsenal are six points ahead of Liverpool. Those six points could be crucial between now and the end of the season as Arsenal have to play at home to both Liverpool and Chelsea as well as travelling to United in their last eight games.

Both Spurs and Southampton won their games on Saturday to keep their slimmer hopes of a top four finish alive, but they have a fair deal of ground to make up. Southampton are finding goals hard to come by despite their good defensive record while Spurs are conceding far too many goals for a team with top four aspirations. I think the three Champions League places behind Chelsea will be between Arsenal, City, United and Liverpool with the other two having to much to do now.

Of all of those teams Arsenal are the form team with nine wins in their last 10 league games and 14 wins in their last 16 games in all competitions. The goals are coming easier than they have been all season and the defence looks so much stronger with Francis Coquelin sitting in front of it. I'm not saying second place is a certainty for Arsenal, but they look very good for it and the FA Cup is their's for the taking too,

Of course their league fate will be decided by the three games against the teams around them and I expect all of those games to be very close. I think the crucial game in there could be the one at home to Liverpool and that's the first game after the international break. If they can beat Liverpool and open up a nine point gap with seven games to play I think a top four finish will be almost guaranteed. Hopefully that international break will be kind on the Arsenal players and they will all come back raring to go for the rest of the season. 

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Arsenal's Premier League Trip To Newcastle Previewed And Predicted Line Up

Arsenal came so close away to Monaco on Tuesday night, but they went out at the same stage of the Champions League for the fifth season in a row. It seems to be their fate in the Champions League in recent seasons to reach the knockout stages and then blow it in the first leg before almost achieving the impossible only to gloriously fail. The mistakes were made in the first leg against Monaco and most of us knew how it would end up despite the optimism we had on Tuesday night.

No team had ever overcome a two goal deficit after the home leg in the Champions league knockout stages and Arsenal weren't going to be the ones to change that statistic. They gave it a real go though and they showed how well they can play and how average Monaco really are. I would be shocked to see them make any further progress in the competition.

I wrote a few days ago about Arsenal's ability to put disappointments behind them and do what is necessary in the next game. I have no doubts there will be some tired limbs after the game on Tuesday night, but most of those players will have to pick themselves up and take on Newcastle on Saturday afternoon. I can't remember the last time Arsenal played at 3pm on a Saturday two weeks in a row, but that's the case this week.

For the second week in a row they also have the opportunity to put pressure on some of those teams in and around them in the league by winning their game before most of their rivals play. City play in the early kick off and will be expected to win at home to West Brom no matter how badly they are playing while Spurs and Southampton both play their games at the same time as Arsenal. Meanwhile Liverpool, United and Chelsea will all have to watch on as they all play on Sunday afternoon. 

The meeting of Liverpool and United will see one or both of them drop points and afford Arsenal the opportunity to give themselves some breathing space over at least one of them as long as they beat Newcastle. It would be great to see Chelsea go to Hull with Arsenal only four points behind them even if Chelsea do have two games in hand. I don't think Arsenal will catch Chelsea, but I want to see them and their obnoxious manager start to sweat just a little.

In early team news it looks like the only player who could return to the squad is Tomas Rosicky while Mathieu Debuchy, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere are all still a few weeks away from returning. With a dreaded international break to come after this weekend there's a possibility one or all of them will be available soon after proper football returns. That has to be a good thing considering how many injuries Arsenal players tend to pick up on international duty.

I don't expect to see too many changes from the team that played on Tuesdsy as there is no upcoming game to rest the players for. As long as those players who performed so well against Monaco are feeling fresh enough to go again I would expect to see a very similar team. There are plenty of options on the bench though so Arsene Wenger could shake things up just a little.

I don't think it would be s bad thing if he gave Alexis Sanchez a little break as his form has deserted him in recent weeks. He carried the team almost single handedly for most of the first half of the season, but maybe he's feeling the effects of giving everything he has from first to last minute of every game he plays. If he was to miss out I think Aaron Ramsey would be the player to come in alongside Francis Coquelin in midfield with Santi Cazorla pushing s little further forward and Mesut Ozil a little wider.

I'm not a huge fan of Ozil playing in a wide role, but Cazorla has been so good in the middle that he has had to play there. It's not as if Ozil stays there when he plays wide any way as he drifts around the pitch trying to influence the game and make things happen. He has a big part to play in the fluidity of Arsenal's attack no matter what position he plays in.

If the boss decides to make changes he has plenty of options with Calum Chambers, Kieran Gibbs, Gabriel Paulista, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott all available to him besides Ramsey. As I said though I expect the changes to be kept to a minimum and the team to continue to build on the momentum of the last few months. 

Arsenal have won eight of their last nine league games and have won 13 of the 16 games they have played since the turn of the year. Those wins have seen them through to the FA Cup semi finals and they are breathing down the necks of second placed City too. If they can continue winning games at the current rate then second place is a real possibility and that would be Arsenal's best league finish in a decade.

Newcastle haven't had the best of it since the turn of the year with only two wins in their 10 league games and only one out of five at home. Alan Pardew left to be temporarily replaced by John Carver and the chances are he won't keep the job with that record. They do have their moments at home though as Chelsea found out to their expense just when they were harbouring thoughts of matching Arsenal's invincibles.

The deciding factor in the game could be the striking options for both teams with Olivier Giroud in such good form for Arsenal while Newcastle's top scorer Papiss Cisse is suspended after his spitting incident against United. Giroud has scored the opening goal in each of the last four games he has started since his awful showing in the first leg against Monaco. Like the rest of the Arsenal team he seems to have discovered the ability to bounce back and he has to be a good bet to get the first goal once he starts the game.

This game brings back the awful memories of the 4-4 draw a few seasons ago when Arsenal were 4-0 up at half time. There have been some good memories at Newcastle too of course such as Denis Bergkamp's magnificent goal up there and Arsenal sealing fourth place on the last day of the 2012/13 season by winning 1-0. A win on Saturday will set the team up very nicely before those other teams play on Sunday and I think Arsenal will get that win. If they can play with the intensity and drive they showed on Tuesday night they should be more than good enough to take the three points. 

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Predictions For Premier League Gameweek 30

It's that time of the week again when I attempt to predictt the outcomes of the upcoming Premier League games. I didn't do too well last week with only three correct outcomes and seven incorrect. As a result I'm down to second in my predictions league, but I'm still in with a great chance of winning it as you can see from the table below.

NC 1 (1)Rutland Gooner1445-205
Down 2 (1)Michael Sheehy1425-400
NC 3 (3)Wayne Hubbard1315-150
NC 4 (4)goonerdhanesh1250+250
NC 5 (5)sodobo1245+505

Saturday March 21

Manchester City v West Bromwich Albion 

12.45pm GMT, Etihad Stadium, Manchester

City were beaten away to struggling Burnley last week and the teams are lining up behind them in the race for second place. They have only won four of their last 11 league games and went out of the Champions League in midweek too. They have won nine of their 14 home games with only Arsenal and United scoring more goals at home, but that's the worst home record in the top four.

Sergio Aguero and David Silva both still have to be seen as good fantasy choices despite City's current form.

West Brom got a very important win at home to Stoke last week and their relegation fears are all but over now. They have taken 16 points from their last 10 games and kept clean sheets in six of those games. They have only won two of their 14 away games with only Villa scoring less goals on the road, but only four teams have a better defensive record away from home.

With West Brom's improvement at the back their defenders have to be seen as good fantasy options at the moment, but maybe not in this game.

City have to get their season back on track and I think will do so with a win by a couple of goals.

Prediction: 2-0

Aston Villa v Swansea City

3pm GMT, Villa Park, Birmingham 

Villa had a great win away to Sunderland last week to give themselves some real breathing space at the wrong end of the table. They have won their last two games after losing the previous seven and they're three points above the drop zone. Villa have only won three of their 14 home games and they're the lowest scorers at home and away from too.

It looks like Villa might just have remembered how to score goals and Christian Benteke might be a genuine fantasy option if that is the case.

Swansea were probably a little unlucky to lose at home to Liverpool on Monday night. They have only won three of their last 11 games and have lost their last two. They have only won four of their 14 away games and they're the lowest scorers away from home in the top half of the table.

Gylfi Sigurdsson hasn't hit the heights of earlier in the season and it's not easy to see which Swansea players might do a job for fantasy managers at the moment. 

Despite their recent improvement I'm still not sold on Villa and I think Swansea will edge this game.

Prediction: 0-1

Newcastle United v Arsenal

3pm GMT, St. James's Park, Newcastle 

Newcastle were well beaten by Everton last week and have little left to play for this season. They have only won two of their last 10 games and have failed to score in three of their last four. They have only won six of their 14 home games, but no other team in the bottom half of the table has won more games at home.

I can't see any Newcastle players who might make a difference for fantasy managers right now.

Arsenal won again last week when they beat West Ham 3-0 at home, but they exited the Champions League in midweek. They have won eight of their last nine league games and have kept clean sheets in five of those games. They have won seven of their 15 away games and only the two teams above them have scored more goals away from home.

Olivier Giroud has done very well in recent weeks and has to be considered for fantasy managers along with Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil.

I think Arsenal should be strong enough to continue their great league run and win this game.

Prediction: 1-2

Southampton v Burnley

3pm GMT, St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton 

Southampton got a very good point away to Chelsea last week, but they are falling further from the top four by the week. They have only won two of their last seven games and they have only scored three goals in those seven games. They have won eight of their 15 home games and only Chelsea have a better defensive record at home. 

Southampton's defenders still look like the best bets for fantasy managers with Sadio Mane possibly to be considered too.

Burnley got a great win at home to City last week to give themselves some real hope in the battle to stay up. It was their first win in eight league games and their first clean sheet since the middle of November. They have only won once in their 14 away games and only QPR have conceded more goals away from home.

George Boyd has proved to be a good cheap alternative for fantasy managers while Danny Ings is also worth considering.

I think Southampton should be good enough at home to take the three points.

Prediction: 2-0

Tottenham Hotspur v Leicester City

3pm GMT, White Hart Lane, London 

Spurs were very poor in their 3-0 defeat away to United last week and they have dropped back to seventh place as a result. They have only taken seven points from their last five games and have only kept one clean sheet in their last 10. They have won eight of their 15 home games and only the top four have scored more goals at home.

Harry Kane remains the best fantasy choice in the Spurs team and Christian Eriksen has done well too, but maybe not so much in recent weeks.

Leicester had a great chance to get three points last week when Hull had a player sent off, but they could only manage a scoreless draw. They have only taken two points in their last seven games and have failed to score in four of them. They have lost 11 of their 15 away games and are in a perilous position seven points from safety with 10 games to play.

I just can't see any Leicester players performing consistently enough to recommend them to fantasy managers.

Both teams need to get something out of this game, but I think Spurs will be the ones to take the three points.

Prediction: 3-1

Stoke City v Crystal Palace

3pm GMT, Brittiana Stadium, Stoke

Stoke were beaten away to West Brom last week in a game from which they could easily have taken a point. They have taken 16 points from their last eight games and kept clean sheets in three of those games. They have won seven of their 14 home games and have won four of their last six at home.

Victor Moses is the Stoke player most likely to score some points for fantasy managers.

Palace won 3-1 at home to QPR last week and that result should end any relegation fears they had. They have taken 18 points from their last 11 games and they're eight points clear of the bottom three. They have only lost five of their 15 away games and have won three of the last four on the road as well as being the highest scorers away from home in the bottom half of the table.

Jason Puncheon has looked like the Palace player most likely to succeed for fantasy managers in recent weeks.

This isn't an easy game to call, but I think a draw is probably the most likely outcome.

Prediction: 1-1

West Ham United v Sunderland 

5.30pm GMT, Upton Park, London

West Ham were well beaten by Arsenal last week and their Europa League ambitions are all but gone. They have only won once in their last 12 games and they have failed to score in five of those games too. They have won seven of their 15 home games and only six teams have a better defensive record at home.

Stewart Downing has had a good season for West Ham, but the fantasy points have dried up for him and all of the West Ham players in recent weeks.

Sunderland were beaten too easily at home by Villa last week and it cost Gus Poyet his job. They have only won once in their last 12 games and have failed to score in six of those games. They have only lost five of their 14 away games, but have drawn 14 of their 29 games and the inability to turn those draws into wins is one of the reasons they are struggling at the wrong end of the table.

Costel Pantilimon has been the best fantasy performer for Sunderland, but even his points have dried up.

Both of these clubs are struggling badly for form, but I think West Ham should still have enough to increase Sunderland's woes.

Prediction: 2-0

Sunday March 22

Liverpool v Manchester United

1.30pm GMT, Anfield, Liverpool

Liverpool just about won away to Swansea on Monday night to stay two points behind United. They have taken 33 points from their last 13 games and have kept clean sheets in seven of their last nine. They have won eight of their 15 home games and are the lowest scorers at home in the top seven. 

Jordan Henderson has been the best fantasy performer for Liverpool recently while all of their defenders have done very well too and Raheem Sterling can't be discounted either.

United easily disposed of Spurs last week to hold on to fourth spot. They have won six of their last eight league games and have kept clean sheets in the last three of them. They have only won four of their 15 away games though and have only scored 17 goals in those 15 games.

Wayne Rooney seems to be the United player to have at the moment now that he's been switched back to a striking role.

This is a huge game for both club's and their top four ambitions and I think Liverpool look good enough to take the three points.

Prediction: 2-1

Hull City v Chelsea

4pm GMT, KC Stadium, Hull

Hull got a good point away to Leicester last week after being reduced to 10 men. They have taken nine points from their last six games and have only conceded four goals in those six games to move three points clear of the bottom three. They have only won four of their 14 home games though and only four other teams have scored less goals at home.

Dame N'Doye has done well in home games in particular since joining Hull in January and could be an outside bet for fantasy managers.

Chelsea could only draw at home to Southampton last week, but they increased their lead to six points with a game in hand after City lost their game. They have only won three of their last six league games and have only scored seven goals in those six games. No other team has taken more points away from home than Chelsea though and only City have scored more away goals.

Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and all of Chelsea's defenders still look like very good fantasy choices.

Chelsea need to get a win to get themselves back on track and I think they will do so by a couple of goals.

Prediction: 0-2

Queens Park Rangers v Everton

4pm GMT, Loftus Road, London

QPR lost yet again last week and their Premier League survival chances now look very bleak. They have lost eight of their last nine games and they're four points from safety with nine games to play. They have won five of their 15 home games and Everton are the only team in the bottom half of the table to have scored more home goals, but Sunderland are the only team to have conceded more at home.

Charlie Austin has been the best of the QPR players for fantasy managers at home in particular and Matt Phillips has done well recently too.

Everton got a much needed win at home to Newcastle last week, but they crashed out of the Europa League away from home on Thursday night. They have only won two of their last 13 league games and they failed to score in eight of those games. They have lost nine of their 15 away games and only the bottom two have lost more games away from home.

Romelu Lukaku seems to have found his scoring touch at last and could be worth considering for fantasy managers.

This game isn't easy to call, but I have a feeling it might just end in a draw.

Prediction: 2-2

That's it for this week.

See you next week.