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The full Wembley experience, warts and all, ended well, but what a meal Arsenal made of their Championship opponents. The tone was set by a bus replacement service followed by a less than salubrious rattler into Paddington packed with exuberant Reading supporters. The tube whisked me to the next port of call. A fabulous Fullers pub where Guinness and HSB washed down a scrumptious fish finger sandwich. The sun was out, the company great. This would be a good day, yes?

Well, actually Wembley isn’t geared up to handle the number of people it was built to accommodate. Arriving half an hour before kick-off we faced the sort of queues we never experienced at Cardiff, or indeed at our own luxurious abode when turning up even later. Mercifully we ascended to the fifth tier without the aid of sherpas just in time for the start. On the way up it was evident that Wembley have not heeded the warnings about their deafening tannoy system, an atmosphere killer in those pre-match minutes.

The Arsenal team selection was something of a surprise. We knew that Wojciech Szczesny would start as the cup tie ‘keeper, but the absence of the in-form Bellerin and Monreal ahead of him baffled, as did Giroud making way for Danny Welbeck up front. Don’t get me wrong, Danny is a fine player with good qualities, but a leader of the line he is not. We had to change a winning formula to accommodate his desire to forage on the flanks, and our attack was denied options as a result.

Reading, free from the pressure of ensuring Championship survival, chased everything that moved and had a robustness that was encouraged by some very lenient officiating. One cannot blame them for that. This was their day in the sunshine and they were determined not to be rolled over. Chances were few and far between, mainly snap shots around the edge of the box, but from a corner Per Mertesacker brought out the best of Federici in the Royals goal.

Six minutes before half-time we finally broke the deadlock. Ozil, a beacon of class in a crowded midfield, picked out the run of Alexis, and the PFA Player of the Year nominee nutmegged Federici. Around 34,000 Gunners, already in good voice, erupted. Surely the floodgates would open now? Arsenal being Arsenal, they didn’t!

Reading didn’t allow themselves to be distracted from their vigorous pursuit of an unlikely shock, and made all things possible nine minutes after the break. McCleary’s shot took a deflection off Kieran Gibbs but Szczesny at his near post should have done better than help the ball over the line before a desperate attempt to claw it back. All square again.

One of many truly nasty challenges meant Per Mertesacker had to be withdrawn from the contest just after the hour. Gabriel slotted in seamlessly. What an excellent signing he is. Reading grew in confidence and finally Arsene sent on Olivier Giroud to give us an outlet, a pressure release valve if you will, up front. We were back on the front foot again, but unable to fashion a winner in normal time, Aaron Ramsey coming closest but hitting the post when it seemed a winner was inevitable.

The inevitable was only delayed, however. Once again Ozil freed Alexis with a sublime pass and the Chilean cut inside, took a snapshot, and watched on as Federici allowed the ball to squirm from his grasp and over the line. Lady Luck had bestowed her favours on Arsenal, for sure. Giroud struck the same post as Ramsey in the closing stages as Reading wilted.

Theo Walcott, on for Coquelin, seemed happy to spend much of the remainder covering the space ahead of Debuchy, but when he was freed to run at the Royals defence at the death there were those who saw the challenge that upended him as inside the box. From level five I couldn’t be sure. The free-kick that followed was the last action of the match and we were through to our second consecutive Final. The result was far more important than the performance, but the message to Arsene was clear. Go with our best team in that Final please.

There followed the interminable queues to escape the environs of the stadium. Thanks to the neighbour and Gill for persuading me to take the overground route to Marylebone. The train back out west was an interesting blend of supporters who had experienced mixed results in the capital. Sixteen hours after leaving home I was back, smiling at the prospect of another Cup Final triumph for the Gunners.

Wembley, again. We make the short journey to our second home again this weekend for an FA Cup semi-final appointment with Reading. We are obviously massive favourites to progress to the Final but history provides many reminders of just why we should not take the outcome for granted. That is why I was pleased to hear Arsene assuring the press ahead of the match.

“Last year we went to penalties against Wigan and we have learnt from that. The urgency level will be high in our team. We have prepared well since the start of the season for this game and we know exactly what will face us. I think the team will have the needed focus.”

Listeners to this week’s Arsecast will know I am of the opinion that the only change to the team that has featured in our last two Premier League victories will be in goal. Wojciech Szczesny has already been named ahead of the match and he will be looking to earn himself a place in the Final that was denied him last season. As the Arseblogger and Andrew Allen pointed out the boss has a history of rotating in cup ties, but normally he says as much beforehand. This time he has been less open.

“I’m concerned about finding a collective balance. That can include some of these (squad) players or not, but honestly, I haven’t decided who will start the game on Saturday.”

Certainly we have a number of options open and the competition for places on the bench will be as big a teaser as who to start for the manager beforehand. With the likes of Mathieu Debuchy, Gabriel, and Jack Wilshere added to the squad it will be very interesting to see who doesn’t even make the bench.

Of course whatever team we put out should have too much for a Royals side in the wrong half of the Championship table and without a win since beating Bradford City, themselves conquerors of Chelsea, in the quarter-final. Their experienced and highly-rated manager, Steve Clarke, was honest in his pre-match assessment.

“I think we have to play the perfect game. We have to defend well, we have to be solid, we have to be mentally strong. It’s a game where we can’t make too many mistakes because if you make mistakes against the top teams they punish you. So we’re looking to play the perfect game. If we can do that, we can have a chance.”

Reading will make the journey to Wembley with a fully fit squad on Saturday, barring experienced defender Anton Ferdinand. Loanees Nathan Aké and Kwesi Appiah are cup-tied and so will also be missing. They have experienced players, the likes of Pogrebnyak, Mackie, and Robson-Kanu, who will surely threaten the favourites if given any sniff of an opportunity.

I’m loathe to predict a comfortable victory for the ‘holic pound, mindful of the hard work we made of beating Wigan and Hull at the same venue last year. However there is something about this team right now. Eight consecutive Premier League wins plus rolling over Manchester United at Old Trafford is a powerful argument in favour of the hot favourites. I’m basing a 3-0 scorecast on the Gunners patiently stepping up the pressure as the match progresses and the Royals wilting late on. Paddy Power match the market best of 7/1 against that outcome.

To those who are going have a wonderful day. I’m hoping the forecast sun shines down on a beer garden in Harrow pre-match, and that the shared journey home with Chelsea and Manchester United supporters, as well as Reading fans, is a good-natured one. To those less fortunate I hope you still get to enjoy the game live and on Saturday evening we will all be celebrating another Wembley date in May.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

I think it is something of an omen that prior to our FA Cup match at Brighton our very own North Bank Ned contributed a piece, and he has felt compelled to repeat his generous contribution prior to our Wembley semi-final weekend. We made it past Championship opposition then. It will happen again now. Right? Thanks Ned, you are a top man.

Our first FA Cup semi-final was on March 31st, 1906. Newcastle United beat Woolwich Arsenal 2-0 at Stoke’s old Victoria Ground with goals from Jimmy Howie and Colin Veitch. Though Newcastle were the defending league champions, we had beaten them 4-3 at home in the league the previous Christmas and would draw the return fixture in mid-April. I hope it isn’t a bad omen for this year’s Cup run that we had beaten Manchester United, then a Division 2 side, 2-3 away in the quarters at United’s old Bank Street ground.

Goalkeeper Jimmy Ashcroft had kept three clean sheets in four Cup games before that. He was the club’s first great keeper, with a record 20 clean sheets in the 1903-04 league season, and six in a row in 1901-02, a record only matched by Alex Manninger in 1998. He was sold to Blackburn Rovers in 1908 because the club needed the money.

March 1907 brought a second successive semi-final defeat, 3-1 to eventual Cup winners The Wednesday at St. Andrew’s in Birmingham. Billy Garbutt scored our goal. The Stockport-born outside right played only 65 games for us between 1905 and 1908 before being sold to Blackburn, but went on to a distinguished coaching career with Roma, Napoli, AC Milan, Athletic Bilbao and, most notably, Genoa.

Our first winning semi was against Southampton in 1927, 2-1 in front of a 52,000 crowd at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal legends Charlie Buchan and Joe Hulme scored the goals. It was our first and only competitive game against Southampton until 1966.

Charlie Buchan scored five times in seven cup ties that season in what was his penultimate season. He had been Herbert Chapman’s first signing and captain, though he had turned out as an amateur for Woolwich Arsenal as long ago as 1910. With Chapman, Buchan created the WM formation in the mid-1920s, in which the centre-half dropped back to mark the opposing centre forward and the two inside forwards forwards dropped into advanced midfield roles, turning the traditional 2-3-5 formation into a 3-2-2-3. Joe Hulme would go on to be the first player to appear in five Wembley Cup Finals, four for us and one for Huddersfield at the tail end of his career.

Infamously we lost the 1927 final 1-0 to Cardiff City in a scrappy affair, letting the FA Cup out of England for the first time. Goalkeeper Dan Lewis spilled a shot from Hugh Ferguson into his own net, blamed on the greasiness of his new jersey. Arsenal keepers subsequently started wearing old, unwashed jerseys. Another sartorial note: the Cup Final referee wore a bow tie.

Saturday’s game will be our first FA Cup semi-final against Reading, and only our fourth FA Cup tie against them overall. On all three previous occasions we were drawn away, winning 0-1 (1935, 5th Round, a Cliff Bastin goal), 1-2 (1972, 4th Round, Pat Rice and an o.g.) and 1-3 (1987, 3rd Round, Martin Hayes and a Charlie Nicholas brace). We’ve been drawn as the ‘away’ team again this time.

A 1-4 win on Saturday would do nicely.

A number of ‘holics have been good enough to share their thoughts with us in recent years. When our very own zicoinexile said he was heading for the other side of the pond this weekend and could he do a report on the Burnley match I ripped his arm out of it’s socket straight away. Thank you maestro. I so hope our last meeting this season is at the same place we met at the end of last season! Enjoy, all. I already have.

At about 13,000 feet, the air outside was continually thinning.

I could see the beautiful ellipse of the Emirates as we continued our ascent away from Heathrow, when the aircraft banked and turned back westward from whence it came.

The sight of the stadium had me wistfully thinking of the times I had sat underneath that white roof, often up the back of the (new) Clock End, oxygen also scarce as it usually followed a climb up those bastard stairs with at least a half gallon of ale inside me.

I found myself dis-orientated because my journey would not reach its terminus as it usually did, at Holloway Road, but in a far-flung foreign field, that for all its strangeness, is forever Arsenal.

Yes, I had touched down again in New York, and more specifically the home of the NY Gunners, the Blind Pig in lower Manhattan.  It was Saturday and 4.30pm at home but 11.30am in this juicer of choice, where I ordered my first Guinness of the day. Breakfast in America.

Perched at the bar I had a well-appointed view of four different screens upon which I would be able to feast my eyes on the Arsenal, and that was without swivelling where there were another six behind me.  The bar started to fill slowly, initially with a smattering of red and white (and yellow) tops, but soon filled to bursting. And noisy.

The clientele was an interesting demographic mix. People my own age or thereabouts, clearly all ex-pats, you could spot them both by their accents and, in some of the blokes at least, a telling bulge around the waist, which suggested too many Saturdays spent in bars and watching football. Or you could simply check out the names on the shirts : Dreamcast and JVC! On the other hand there were college kids aplenty, mad-for-it and knowledgeable, and they were mad for it beer wise too, sinking them by the stein before mid-day.

Ever accommodating, Spurs had lost by a goal and the mood of the bar was set – St Totteringham’s day was emerging closer into view.  We just needed to take care of business ourselves. The team pretty much picked itself, the only surprise being Gabriel not even making the bench, but this was the 11 most would have wanted to start.

The teams emerged in the tunnel and a massive shout of “Red Army” went up in the bar. The Blind Pig never disappoints for atmosphere. Arsenal started well, and apart from a couple of moments where Per’s lack of pace found him out, the Gunners were well on top and it was no surprise when they took the lead. The impressive Coquelin (clearly our man of the match) bursting through from midfield found Ozil on the left and his blocked shot fell to Alexis who was also blocked before the ball fell kindly to Ramsey and he rifled a right footed shot into the net from about eight yards.

We awaited the deluge but it never arrived.

The first half turned into a war of attrition, with the dreaded Mike Dean continually stopping play for a series of niggling fouls. The only moment of concern a free kick from Trippier which Ospina did well to get strong hands on. Arsenal were a bit overelaborate and we never moved the ball quickly enough, playing everything in front of a packed defence.

The second half was more of the same. Burnley started with more intent but their inability to score, which has plagued them all season, meant that we never looked like losing the contest. For our part, we just never found a real cutting edge and many a move broke down just when things started to get interesting. To be fair to the opposition they did work very hard all afternoon, and putting things in context, both Man City and the neighbours have dropped points there recently, so we shouldn’t look too snootily on what was a hard-won victory.

As the game fizzled out to its logical conclusion, the atmosphere in the bar started to get rowdy again. It wasn’t lost on a large contingent of the audience that the winning sequence hinted at that of the Invincibles.  “49, 49 undefeated……” was ringing in the ears as I sent another black one south.

Afterwards I ambled outside, squinting into blazing sunshine, and headed off to another boozer uptown to meet my hosts where I’d be forced to reflect that next week Arsenal would be back at Wembley, and I would be back in my living room.

But I know that lower Manhattan will be bouncing.

If you get the chance, there are worse places to watch Arsenal than New York City, where a warm welcome awaits Gooners from far and wide.

Go thirsty!

Six weeks. That’s what is left of the Premier League season. Chuck in a potential, although not guaranteed, FA Cup Final a week later and you have the wonderfully named ‘squeaky bum time’. Did ever a fixture encapsulate this more than Burnley (bottom but one and desperate for the points) versus Arsenal (top but one and desperate for the points).

In the first half of the season I would have been writing confidently about the chances of an away win for the so called flat track bullies. But wait. In their last two home matches Burnley have beaten Manchester City, thus enabling us to get a grip on second spot, and drawn with Tottenham, thus hastening the arrival of yet another St Totteringham’s Day. They are fighting for their lives.

So what, I hear you say, after we have broken the hold of our closest rivals over us, beating both Manchester clubs in Mancunia, and thrashing the living daylights out of Liverpool since Christmas. The form team visit the battlers. It is, quite frankly, unmissable theatre, although unfortunately the traveling faithful have been done no favours by the switch to a 5.30pm kick-off in that corner of the north-west which is a far from attractive destination at this time of year.

Throw into the equation the fact that we have the strongest squad available for selection since the musketeers roamed free and there is much to anticipate, as well as be nervous about, this weekend. Those returning will want to feature, but where are the gaps for them to fill? On the bench, if they are lucky.

Matthieu Debuchy is back in full training and looking in good nick, if not fully match fit, but Hector Bellerin has earned the right-back berth for now, certainly. Laurent Koscielny was due for further testing today. He didn’t feature in the training session I was fortunate to witness on Wednesday, but Gabriel is ready to deputise if necessary.

There seems to be an interesting decision to be made between Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck. Two players who perform different roles, and both in good shape, but one of whom must be sacrificed to enable both Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil to start. Away from home I suspect Rambo will get the nod leaving the England international hoping to make an impact from the bench. All of which leaves Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta, Theo Walcott, and (whisper it!) Abou Diaby with their noses pressed against the window, begging to be noticed. Only the Ox is definitely ruled out as I type.

As for the hosts midfielder Matt Taylor could make his first appearance since August on Saturday after recovering from injury, while Ross Wallace and Steven Reid may also return. In Danny Ings they have a striker who has earned admiring glances this season. The experienced George Boyd’s strike accounted for City and Francis Coquelin et al will need to keep an eye on his movements into dangerous areas from deep.

Having said all of that my pound has to be based on the rich vein of form we are currently in. Seven consecutive wins is a great habit to have developed, and although we have not won a league fixture at Turf Moor since 1970 (there have only been four, to be fair), I am attracted to the 1-3 to Arsenal. Paddy Power offer 11/1 against that so I am having a little slice of that particular action.

Now the match report may or may not have a twist, so I shall not confirm at this point whether it will appear on Saturday night, or Sunday morning. For now may I just wish you all a great weekend, and to those making that most awkward of journeys for a Saturday teatime kick-off, have an enjoyable evening.

Have a great one, ‘holics.

Once again I owe a huge debt of thanks to one of ours, this time the excellent company that is Steve T, for a guest post covering the U21 fixture at the Grove last night. Steve, thank you for helping out one who has been clocking up the motorway miles this week. It is much appreciated, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

I have not long returned home from an enjoyable evening at the Grove having watched the under 21’s beat a Stoke side 4-1. A pre-match Italian meal with the kids was followed by the stroll to Gate H in time for the 7pm kick off time, and a meet up with BtM. The first thing I must say is how disappointed I was that Arsenal had not really advertised this event. I stumbled across it by chance one day on dot com. I guess I was one of not many as the crowd was under 3000. It was a real shame as smack bang in the middle of the Easter holidays I am sure that a bit of forward planning would have seen that number swell quite significantly. Especially at a cost of £4 an adult and only £2 a child.

The game itself was an interesting affair. Apart from the usual squad of youngsters available there was the return of some of the three weekers to the fold who were clearly looking for game time. The starting 11 included the likes of Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere,  Serge Gnabry and Abou Diaby. I must confess that it was great to see Diaby back in an Arsenal shirt and playing again, especially after all he has been through. This was also the first time that I have seen Krystan Bielik in an Arsenal shirt.

The game kicks off and the first thing that you notice is how much slower the pace of the game is from the normal cut and thunder of a Premier League game. I was surprised. I never thought it would have the same intensity, of course I didn’t, but at times it was almost pedestrian and had the feelings of a testimonial.

The initial exchanges were not much to get you too excited, but then you could see how the influence of the first team had managed to filter it’s way down to the under 21’s as a defensive error allowed Stoke to take the lead! A fumble from Macedonian ‘keeper, Deyan Iliev, allowed Shenton from Stoke to open the scoring. However, this bunch are made of strong stuff. Arsenal grew in confidence and thoroughly deserved their equalising goal, courtesy of the impressive Alex Iwobi. Iwobi was to double his tally and send Arsenal into the break with a 2-1 lead after another well taken effort from a Diaby assist before half time.

The second period seemed to see an increase in the intensity. Diaby was now strolling around the imperiously and for me was the best player on display by some distance. I am one of many who have questioned whether the big Frenchman was ever likely to kick a ball again at any level so it was great to see the big man in such commanding form. Wilshere I thought had struggled in the first half but also seemed to up his game in the second period.

By now it was all Arsenal. The back four was being impressively marshalled by 18 year old Stefan O’Connor. He looked calm and assured in the middle and was not frightened to play the ball from the back. This allowed those in front of him to pull more of the strings and It was no real surprise when substitute Stephy Mavididi made it 3-1. The 16 year old went on to play an impressive cameo.

There was just enough time for Iwobi to complete his hat trick with a well taken third.   All in all it was a very satisfying evening. Arteta was the first of the first team squad to make way for younger legs. Diaby managed to get just over 65 minutes of action. The removal of both saw Jack revert to a deeper role which I thought suited him much better than his earlier advanced position. Both he and Gnabry lasted the full 90 minutes.

All in all, a satisfactory evening’s entertainment for not too much money. Well done Arsenal. The U-21’s are at the Grove again next Monday against their Reading counterparts. It’s a 7pm kick-off and the prices remain unchanged, so have you got family and friends who want to see an Arsenal match?

Campo Retro Shirt Competition – The Winner

My weekend away meant I missed the draw for the shirt by our friends at Campo Retro. So a belated congratulations to Colin Howes who wins the shirt of his choice from the Campo Retro range, the Arsenal page can be found here. Thanks again, all at Campo Retro, for this great prize.

A huge thanks to our very own Lars for a report on today’s match which enables me to visit the grandholics tomorrow morning. Thank you sir, and I hope all of you are as fortunate as I to be seeing some special people for Easter. 

Before kickoff there were several things to worry about for those so inclined. An interlull had passed, it was an early start and we had Anthony Taylor in charge of the game. But as it turned out there was no need to worry. A 15-minute stretch of the first half apart, there only ever looked to be one winner.

The home team started very much on the front foot. Our old invincible Kolo Toure, filling in for the suspended Martin Skrtel, struggled badly to keep up with the pace, and only a couple of minutes into the game he was robbed by Olivier Giroud who set up Aaron Ramsey for a great chance which he probably should have done better from, but credit also to Simon Mignolet for a fine save.

Arsenal continued to dominate but slowly the scale started to tip in favour of the away team. Raheem Sterling was clearly under instructions to target Per Mertesacker and try to challenge him for speed, and Arsenal quickly noticed this and Laurent Koscielny started playing closer to Per. However, this gave Liverpool more space to operate to our left and Lazar Markovic really should have done better than overhitting his pass by a full yard when all he had to do was roll the ball sideways to give Raheem Sterling an empty net.

Having had that lucky escape seemed to wake Arsenal up. Loose balls were again snapped up by players in red and white and Liverpool were put on the back foot. In the 37th minute the dominance paid off when Hector Bellerin curled a really nice low finish with his left foot just inside the post after having made his way into the area from the right in collaboration with Aaron Ramsey. That is now two goals for the season for the young Spaniard who keeps improving game by game.

Not two minutes later it was once again time for Mignolet to pick the ball out of the back of the net. Mamadou Sakho very clumsily brought Mesut Özil down, and the German took the ensuing free kick himself and curled a left-footed shot into almost exactly the same spot as Bellerin had just hit. Question marks have to be raised here for Mignolet’s positioning, but it was still a very fine shot. 2-0 and a matter of seeing this through until half time?

Not at all. Arsenal continued to win every lose ball and cause havoc all over the pitch. Just before half time this paid off when Hector Bellerin got the ball after Sakho had been pressed into hitting the ball away in blind panic, and Bellerin found Ramsey who with his first touch set himself up to play the ball into Alexis who shifted the ball slightly to his right (and in the process made Kolo Toure fall flat on his arse) and then absolutely twatted the ball into the net from the edge of the penalty area. Mignolet had no chance on the shot which was simply too quick for him to react.

Liverpool tried the only thing they could for the second half. They brought on the presumably not entirely fit Daniel Sturridge and switched from a back three to a back four to try and change things. It didn’t really have much of an effect, and but for a great save by Mignolet, Olivier Giroud would have added to the scoreline before Liverpool rather needlessly were given a penalty when Hector Bellerin after about 75 minutes showed a rare glimpse of his inexperience when he brought down Sterling in the area. Jordan Henderson converted the penalty which Ospina got a hand to but couldn’t keep out.

Prior to this Arsene Wenger had been forced to replace Laurent Koscielny and Aaron Ramsey with Gabriel and Mathieu Flamini respectively. There is no real news yet on the extent of the injuries which forced them off, so we will have to wait and see. Any worries that the Liverpool goal would cause a wobble in the home team proved misplaced. If anything Arsenal picked their game up, and perhaps it was also a case of Liverpool not really believing in themselves despite having got a goal back.

Arsenal added insult to injury when Olivier Giroud smashed home a curled shot from the edge of the area in added time to seal a fine win against a team who were by then down to ten after Emre Can had been given his marching orders for a second yellow in the 85th minute by Anthony Taylor.

Ah, yes, Anthony Taylor – did you notice how I have not mentioned him that much up until this stage? That in itself is probably credit to his performance, because he had a really good game today. Credit where credit is due.

All in all a very fine display by the boys in red and white. A player I have yet to mention but who deserves plaudits is Francis Coquelin. Once more he patrolled the area in front of the back four and very rarely strayed out of position. I could go through the whole team and commend them all for a fine performance, but Coquelin together with Özil and Alexis were the star performers for me today. Alexis harried and chased the away players and got a great goal as well, and Özil was just immense.

Three very good points in the bag and a top four finish looks increasingly likely. For the time being we are in second place as we await Manchester City’s visit to Selhurst Park on Monday. Any points dropped by City will see us remain second, so come on Palace!

Gunning For Second?

At last, proper football returns after the latest international break with another of those season defining matches. Arsenal and Liverpool have played a number of significant fixtures down the years, and there may yet be one more to come, but for now it is all about the battle for Champions League places next season.

The lunchtime kick-off gives the Gunners an opportunity to take second place until at least Monday night when Manchester City visit Palace, a tricky place to go. It would also put us nine points clear of Liverpool with just seven matches remaining. Arsene was sounding upbeat ahead of the match.

“We have built a level of confidence and are conscious that if we do certain things well, then we can win games. It’s a big match because Liverpool are a good side and we have an opportunity to win another big game. Recently we have shown we can do that.”

The news from the infirmary at Shenley is quite remarkable. Although not everybody is available, the entire squad was in training again at the end of this week. The starting eleven therefore takes some guessing, and may be affected by how fit players have looked on return from international duty.

If I were a betting man (what? Oh!) I would expect to see David Ospina behind a back four of Hector Bellerin, Gabriel, Laurent Koscielny, and Nacho Monreal. Francis Coquelin at the base of the midfield with Aaron Ramsey in box to box mode and Santi Cazorla/Mesut Ozil as twin playmakers alternating between centre and left flank. Alexis on the right and coming inside to support Olivier Giroud up top.

Liverpool arrive without the far from teenage, mutant Skrtel and Stevie G, talisman in chief. Larking around aside they are, like us, in a rich vein of form right now, if you discount their defeat by Manchester United last time out. They look favourites to get through the other FA Cup semi-final to possibly meet us for a fourth time in the FA’s showpiece.

Suspensions aside it is likely that those thought doubtful through injury may well be available after all, including Sturridge and Lallana, both unable to make England duty during the break. The man in the news this week, Sterling, is also fit to start, it would appear.

I have looked long and hard at the odds before deciding on the ‘holic pound for this one. Liverpool can be expected to pull out all the stops and play a high pressing game. I have to believe we will eventually find the quick one touch pass and move game to counter that and I am drawn by the 9/1 on offer from Paddy Power for a 2-0 home win. That would be a real marker, as Amy Lawrence made clear in her excellent look at our recent home performances against clubs considered to be rivals.

So there we are. I should thank Network Rail and First Great Western for making my trip to the match, and back. as long-winded and awkward as possible. Should I arrive in time for a pint or two I look forward to seeing some of you, and most certainly afterwards too.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

26th May, 1989. Brian Moore relays the story as the League Championship reaches a barely believable climax.

“Arsenal come streaming forward now in surely what will be their last attack. A good ball by Dixon, finding Smith, for Thomas, charging through the midfield. Thomas, it’s up for grabs now… THOMAS! Right at the end. An unbelievable climax to the league season.”

In such a dramatic fashion did Michael Lauriston Thomas write his name large in Arsenal’s history. The title deciding goal in the final minute of a season at the home of the favourites and potential double winners. A heck of a way to crown his first season as a box to box midfielder in the First Division.

Signed as a schoolboy in 1982, Michael turned professional two years later. The versatile Thomas, captain of England at schoolboy, youth, and under-21 levels, would make his breakthrough in the 1986-87 season as George Graham set about blooding a string of exciting youngsters at the club. After a brief loan spell at Portsmouth Michael would make his first team bow in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final against the neighbours, replacing the injured Viv Anderson at right back.

His first medal was secured when he made a cameo appearance as a substitute in the 2-1 defeat of Liverpool at Wembley. The following season Anderson was one of the senior players jettisoned to make way for the young Guns. Michael found himself the preferred right-back. Positionally it was not his best role, but he used his attacking instincts to good effect, racking up eleven goals in forty-six league and cup appearances.

Graham signed Lee Dixon in 1988 and this enabled Michael to join his schoolboy pal, David Rocastle, in the Gunners midfield at the start of the 1988/89 season. Michael featured in 37 of the 38 matches that culminated in that incredible night on Merseyside, scoring seven goals. It is probably fair to comment that he owed such a contribution to the nine match ban that Paul Davis picked up for breaking Glen Cockerill’s jaw and his subsequent falling out with Graham. Having said that Bobby Robson gave Michael a full England debut in a 1-1 draw in Saudi Arabia.

The following season Arsenal slipped to fourth place, but Michael’s consistency improved and among the eight goals he scored was a hat-trick in a League Cup tie at Plymouth. A deserved second cap for England came in December in a 2-1 defeat of a good Yugoslavian side. Personally it remains a mystery that he did not get further international recognition.

Michael collected a second champions medal in 1990/91, but it was a bittersweet end of season for him. First choice in the number four shirt through to a 1-1 home draw with Nottingham Forest in March, Michael fell foul of his manager, as had Davis two years earlier. Michael, in the form of his life, played in just one of the final ten league matches as the title was secured with two matches to spare despite a two points deduction by the FA for a bit of handbags at Old Trafford.

At the start of the following season he found himself rotated with David Hillier and his old friend Davis. Graham was toying with the side and the arrival of Ian Wright meant a change of tactics for the team. Michael scored his thirtieth, and last, goal for the club as a substitute in a 4-1 win at Crystal Palace, and although we didn’t know it, the last of his 208 appearances for the club in a single goal defeat at West Ham. Michael would depart in December bemoaning Arsenal’s increasing reliance on the long ball game and by-passing the midfield.

Graeme Souness paid £1.5 million to take Michael to Liverpool, of all clubs. The opposition against whom he had won his first two medals. Despite that Michael soon endeared himself to the Anfield faithful and ended the season scoring at Wembley in a 2-0 FA Cup Final win against Sunderland. He picked up a League Cup winners medal too, although only an unused substitute against Bolton in 1995.

The curtain came down on Michael’s career after a brief loan spell at Middlesbrough, and a season each at Benfica and Wimbledon. He remains, unsurprisingly, hugely popular with Arsenal and Liverpool supporters alike. Michael enjoyed some success at Liverpool as Arsenal, despite the cup successes of 1993 and 1994, were plunged into a more spartan era style wise.

When I’m down though I know I can always break open the dvd of that incredible night at Anfield and step back in time.

“Thomas, it’s up for grabs now… THOMAS!”

A Campo Retro Shirt Still Up For Grabs

To celebrate the run up to the match against Liverpool the good people at Campo Retro have come up with a wonderful prize for one lucky ‘holic. You can choose one of a wide range of Arsenal shirts which can be found by clicking here. Both of my favourites are included in the Campo Retro collection.

To win the shirt of your choice just answer the following question. Who scored the winning goal in the 1971 FA Cup Final against Liverpool?

a) George Graham   b) Eddie Kelly   or c) Charlie George

Please send your answers to competitions@camporetro.com along with a contact email and phone number plus your Twitter handle if you have one. The winner selected after the competition closes at mid-day UK time on Thursday, 2nd April, will receive the shirt of their choice. There is no cash alternative.

Get 20% Off Your Campo Retro Favourite This Week

If you want to take advantage of Campo Retro’s special Easter offer to snap up your favourite shirt then place an order on their site and when checking out enter the promo code EGG to receive a 20% discount, even off the 1971 long sleeve shirt, the price of which has already been cut by 20%. Some deal that.

That’s it. Get your entries in (just one per person please), and good luck to you.

Arsenal Football Club and official Club partner PUMA have unveiled a world first; the Left-Footed evoPOWER Football. Designed exclusively for Arsenal, the Left-Footed evoPOWER Football was created to increase the accuracy, power and precision of a left-footed player.

In a game currently dominated by right-footed players and right-footed equipment, the Club felt it was crucial to develop kit specifically for their numerous left or two-footed players. Arsenal approached PUMA to see if they might be able to help and in their first season with the Club, PUMA have done just that.

Bellerin, Cazorla, Monreal, Ozil (c) Arsenal Football Club

Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin, were the first players to test the new football and the results were incredible. After trying the ball for the first time, two-footed player Santi Cazorla had just one thing to say: “It’s unbelievable!” Right-footed player, Hector Bellerin, said: “It’s a bit tricky to use on your right-foot but it instantly improved my left-foot.”

Further player reactions and exclusive training footage with the new ball can be watched here:

Speaking about the launch, Keith Woods, PUMA’s Senior Product Line Manager for Teamsport Accessories, said: “This football will not only improve the overall game of left and two footed players, it is also the perfect training aid for the right-footed player’s weaker left-foot. A left-footed player finally has the benefits that a right-footed player has always had with footballs to date.”

The new Left-Footed evoPOWER Football will be available exclusively at Arsenal’s official online store, Arsenaldirect.com soon…

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