Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Arsenal Get Their Mojo Back

Arsenal played Hull on Sunday afternoon in a dress rehearsal  for their FA Cup final meeting on May 17th and ended up winnining comfortably. Hull had a very good home record in the league but the return to the Arsenal team of both Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil was too much for them to handle. Ramsey hadn't started a league game since getting injured in late December and Ozil was playing for the first time in six weeks.

During the absence of Ransey the team continued winning in January but without the attacking flair and convincing performances of earlier in the season. If there was any doubt about his importance to the team it was put to bed with the attacking display he put in against Hull and when he came on towards the end of last Tuesday night's win over West Ham. In less than two hours of league football since his return he has scored one goal and made there more.

He has the ability to break into the opposing penalty area at just the tight time and score goals or set them up for others. He does what is required of him defensively too and there are few players who work harder than him in all of the Premier League. It's that ability to get from the centre of midfield into the opposing area which sets him aside from most other players though and it was what Arsenal mised so badly during his absence. 

Ozil's performance may not have been up to the standard of Ramsey's but he put in a very good display for his first game back after injury. He had a big hand in the first goal and was clearly taken down for a penalty which wasn't awarded when there was no score on the board. He's a world class player who will be a huge asset for years to come as long as he has other players who can perform at his level to play with.

Lukas Podolski was the main man on the scoresheet yet again with his second league brace in a row. He is the best finisher in the Arsenal squad and again showed what he can do once Arsenal can get the ball to his left foot in the opposing penalty area. Those four goals have helped to bring six very important points just at the time the team needed them to maintain their advantage in the race for fourth place.

The overall performance from the team was to be admired as they dug in at the back under a lot of pressure from Hull and played good football in the opposing half. Wojciech Szczesny was commanding in goal and kept everything Hull could throw at him at bay while Mikel Arteta gave his front tooth to the cause in midfield. The contribution of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when he came on was excellent too and he should have been awarded a penalty late on.

With the FA Cup final coming up next month Hull set out to close Arsenal down and rough them up when they could. I have no doubt it was a practice run for the tactics they intend to display in the cup final, but Arsenal countered those tactics perfectly. If Hull try to play the same way in the cup final they will hopefully find themselves on the end of another beating. It's very hard to put in that much work in the wide open spaces of the Wembley pitch and that space should suit Arsenal with players like Ramsey, Ozil and Chamberlain back in the team.

There are three league games left and they are all winnable for an Arsenal team who have found their form just in time to save their season. They lead the race for fourth place with home games against Newcastle and West Brom coming up and go into the FA Cup final strong favourites to take their first trophy in nine years. It may not be ideal but it's infinitely better than playing in next season's Europa League and letting the trophy drought reach 10 years. Of course it's still possible for both of those alternatives to occur, but the chances are they won't.

It's impossible to know if the team would have continued their title challenge if both Ramsey and Ozil had stayed fit along with Theo Walcott. All of their inclusions in the team probably would have prevented the points dropped at Southampton and Stoke and at home to Swansea too, but their possible influence on the "accidents" against Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton is impossible to gauge. I'd like to think the team would not have capitulated in those games with their best players in the team, but that's a question which cannot be answered.

At the start of the season I would have been very happy to have seen the team finish on an average of two points or more per game and to win the FA Cup too. They're still on course to do just that and their fate on both counts is in their own hands with four games left to play. The manner of how they finished up fighting up for fourth place is what grates and those awful performances in big league games away from home are so hard to take too. 

I would also have been very happy at the start of the season to see Arsenal with an unassailable lead over United while United still have four games left to play. The demise of United has made Arsenal's chances of finishing in the top four so much easier and they look like seeing the job through. If they win their last three league games they will finish on 79 points and that's more points than the team have managed since the 2004/05 season. It will be odd that they only finish fourth on 79 points, but I can't see them finishing any higher.

There are always regrets at the end of any season and I think my biggest one will be for the season that might have been. The league title was a very real possibility until it all went horribly wrong for a variety of reasons which can be discussed in full when the season is over. Hopefully it will end with fourth place and a trophy though and both of those goals look a lot more likely at the moment.

That's it for the moment.

See you tomorrow.

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