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Merci Indeed

I can picture the moment vividly. Stevie Bould bringing the ball into midfield and chipping the perfect pass into the breaking runner through the heart of the Everton rearguard. Tony Adams majestic swing with his left boot sends the ball crashing into the back of the net, he makes a quarter turn and stands, arms aloft. That moment sealed the Arsenal’s first Premier League title in the first full season of Arsene Wenger’s reign. That Bould and Adams new found attacking instincts delivered it was significant.

He had taken over in October of the preceding season and although we finished level on points with second place Newcastle the title had been surrendered in the double-headers with Manchester United and Liverpool.  That first full season we did the double over Manchester United to depose them as champions and went on to defeat Newcastle at Wembley to complete the second Arsenal double. Arsene Wenger had already written his name large in Gunners history.

He had proved the doubters wrong and had proven himself to be an innovator and creator of better players. The old guard, Dixon, Adams, Bould, Keown, Winterburn would all come to acknowledge that his training methods, his dietary advice, and his use of substances like creatine had lengthened their careers and their enjoyment of the game.

Eight years later the most emotional final day against Wigan was followed by going within thirteen minutes of winning the European Champions League against Barcelona with ten men. That cruel defeat, though little did we know it at the time, would lead to a trophy drought that spanned nine years. Nine years in which we moved into an enormous new stadium a stones throw from Highbury, continued to qualify for the Champions League and even raised occasional hopes of a fourth title triumph for the increasingly under pressure French manager.

Arsene had ensured his legacy in those first eight years. In the season following that historic double we were a Bergkamp penalty from knocking Manchester United out of the FA cup semi-final, and a late collapse enabled them to take our Premier League title from us. A year on our run to the final of the UEFA Cup saw us fail to land a third European trophy on a sad night in Copenhagen. A year later defeat was snatched from the arms of victory in the FA Cup Final in Cardiff but the team was already evolving.

The beasts of 98 were retiring and moving on. An astute manager replaced them wisely. Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole. A new back four was complete. Robert Pires, Thierry Henry,  the future was being rewritten. In 2001-2002 that new team delivered the title, clinching it at the home of the greatest rival of the era, Manchester United, “Don’t worry, it’s only Ray Parlour” delivered the second Wenger double. A year on  the Cup was retained against Southampton. The greatest season ever was around the corner.

There was a point at which a mischievous interviewer asked Arsene if he thought his team was capable of going a season undefeated. “Yes, of course” is Arsene’s stock answer to such challenges. He was widely ridiculed for it. In 2003/4 he delivered just that. Played 38, won 26, drew 12. We were, with the benefit of hindsight, the best team in Europe that season. In consecutive matches we astonishingly surrendered the Champions League quarter-final to Chelsea and our FA Cup hopes to the old foes United.

In a season when the big guns tumbled from the Champions League Chelsea were knocked out by Monaco, who went on to lose the Final to Porto. It is highly likely that we would have beaten either of the Finalists with the team we had. The Premier League title was ours again and a level of expectation had been set. It was us or United every season, wasn’t it?

The 2005 FA Cup Final summed up the spirit in the club. With most of our best players absent we took on United at Cardiff with Bergkamp as lone striker. A target man he wasn’t. The other ten clung on for grim death and somehow forced a penalty shoot-out won with the last kick of his Arsenal career by Patrick Vieira. It was a turning point and one we could not have anticipated at the time. Abramovic had rolled into West London and the domestic game was facing a shake-up courtesy of his roubles.

Arsene Wenger’s stock was so high at the time that he was regularly offered the prized managerial roles around the planet. However tough times lay ahead. The move to the new stadium, although badly needed, came at a time of slump in the property market and the wider economy. The Highbury flats didn’t realise the prices envisaged at the planning phase and other potentially valuable building works around the new stadium were gradually sold off.

Arsene was told to tighten the purse strings and deliver a profit on player trading. Yet within a year of that Champions League defeat the first rumblings of discontent were heard. They grew slowly, but visibly as season after season passed by with no trophy and a star player sold. The wizard was no longer sprinkling gold dust on his beloved team. The fan base started to crack.

It’s hard to say at what point the disaffected came to outnumber the faithful. It wasn’t in 2013 when finally the new kit deal was signed with Puma, and a new sponsorship deal agreed with Emirates. Now Arsene had the money and many, including me, had argued he deserved the first crack at putting things right when the money worries were eased. He delivered the FA Cup on an emotional afternoon at Wembley. An ideal time to go thought some at the time.

A year later Aston Villa were demolished at Wembley and the trophy was retained. An ideal time to go thought some again. My unwavering support wobbled as we limped to the end of 2015/16 and as runners-up to Leicester. Leicester, for goodness sake. I still loved the man and I will never think his legacy has been in any way tarnished, but what followed was entirely a question of two steps back. Our last season in the Champions League ended in a 10-2 humiliation by Bayern. At least we were able to bounce back and the manager secured a record seventh FA Cup against Chelsea, having defeated Manchester City in the semi-final.

Unless we win the Europa League we will miss out on the Champions League money for a second consecutive season, and so to today. Less than a week to the first leg of the Europa League semi-final and the announcement delivered by Arsene on Arsenal.com came as a bombshell.

“After careful consideration and following discussions with the club, I feel it is the right time for me to step down at the end of the season. I am grateful for having had the privilege to serve the club for so many memorable years. I managed the club with full commitment and integrity. I want to thank the staff, the players, the Directors and the fans who make this club so special. I urge our fans to stand behind the team to finish on a high. To all the Arsenal lovers take care of the values of the club. My love and support forever.”

I don’t mind admitting it has been a very emotional day. A 61 year old man weeping at the end for someone he met once, at the edge of the pitch after that Highbury farewell, for a fleeting handshake. He has been the Arsenal manager for over a third of my life. He managed the teams that I took my Dad to see in his last match at Highbury, and his only visit to the Grove, which surely now should have the West Stand renamed in his honour.

Don’t get me wrong, the time had come. We are not a team that challenges for titles and Champions Leagues any longer. We don’t often play the beautiful game any more. Those thing aren’t a right, but it is a part of what the manager of a club of the Arsenal’s size and wealth should be expected to deliver. There are changes that have been put in place to provide the structure that the next coach will be able to work with to hopefully achieve these aims.

In the meantime we as a fanbase have the opportunity to deliver some appropriate backing to the team and raise our voices in tribute to the man who delivered a couple of the best football teams I have seen in my life, and I have seen a lot of very good football teams. The matches against Atleti should now be a celebration of what he did for our football club. The team have a duty to deliver the Europa League to him on his last night in charge of the mighty Arsenal.

He deserves at very least that.

It was good to see a wide range of issues discussed during Arsene Wenger’s pre-West Ham press conference today. It started in familiar fashion with Arsene fielding questions about who is or isn’t fit and who will he rest for next Thursday. We’ll consider those issues on Saturday.

Quite the best question brought up up the fitness and future of Santi Cazorla. Never has Arsene answered so completely, and yet so vaguely, before finally confessing with his latest catchphrase, “honestly, I don’t know”.

It all started with the manager admitting he had not seen Santi since the League Cup Final as he had returned home for more rehab, but he had heard that the outlook was encouraging. The most recent news of his injury is positive and that he is hopeful of having the player back with the squad before the end of the season. I don’t think he meant that he expected the midfield maestro to feature but rather to come back to be assessed.

The result of a positive assessment would result in the offer of a new contract to a player so vital to our midfield until his injury in 2016. The likelihood of him returning was then put into context by the manager’s catchphrase. It deflected attention for a few valuable minutes.

Safe Standing

The boss also happily fielded a question about safe standing which is a topic that not all feel comfortable with addressing. Whilst conceding that he understood the objections of a decreasing minority he opined,

“The atmosphere is much better when people stand. The closer you are to the position of the player, the more supportive you are. It is a tradition of English football to have that. If the safety is right then it has my 100 per cent backing.”

Safe standing sections are now clearly inevitable and being held up only by a stale government on the flimsiest of grounds. That was understandable in the light of Hillsborough, and the decades that have followed. The wishes of the Liverpool supporters were given great weight, and rightly so, during that time. Even they now have given their backing to the campaign to allow rail seating.

For me it is a no brainer. Currently there is chaos in a number of grounds where the majority in certain areas refuse to sit, and not in safe conditions, barring the view of the younger and much older behind them. Let’s have safe standing areas in stadiums and relocate the old and young into still the majority of blocks that will be strictly seated only areas and understand that those areas will be stewarded accordingly.

That will leave the issue of pricing of tickets in the standing areas, but quite clearly people at both ends of the Grove are quite happy to pay full price to stand en masse and defy the stewards. The issue of ticket pricing is a different subject altogether, talking of which…

The Arsenal To Subsidise Atleti Away Tickets

The club were seen as acting a little tardily to the complaints of our supporters being charged double to watch the Gunners in Madrid compared to what we are charging our Spanish visitors next Thursday for the first leg of the Europa League semi-final. The Arsenal are doing a lot wrong at the moment, but I don’t see that they were responsible for this little fire.

Huge praise to them for acting before tomorrow’s (Friday) sale of tickets for the second leg in Madrid. The club will now charge Gooners the same £36.50 that Atleti supporters are paying at our place and will pay the balance to the greedy Spanish club. Around £140,000 I’m told that amounts to. Let’s remember it was Atletico Madrid who are to blame for their pricing, not The Arsenal.

TheArsenalShirts.com

A reminder, as if it were needed, that our new partners stock of classic Arsenal shirts is constantly changing. Recently I’ve wondered if I could perhaps still fit into an XL bruised banana before realising at my age I really couldn’t carry that off. Today a number of player issue shirts were reduced in price, and if you are quick you could also get a favourite Bergkamp shirt of yours, or one from their stock, signed by Dennis himself. Please click on the banner over our header to access the site and enjoy the memories on display.

Have great Friday, ‘holics.

I am truly indebted to our very own TTG for his eye witness report on the FA Youth Cup Semi-Final tonight (Monday) against Blackpool. Having drawn the first leg 2-2 away we certainly sealed the deal tonight and booked a two-legged Final with the highly rated Chelsea youngsters. Thank you so much for an excellent record of the evening, TTG.

I had a somewhat busy day sitting in on four prison adjudications , accommodating a carpet fitter and a tree surgeon and rushing to the Arsenal for this the second leg of their FA Youth Cup semi- final against Blackpool. The trip was made more pleasant by the late arrangement to meet an old friend who has seen Blackpool play on 129 different league grounds ( he has a spreadsheet to prove it) but who regularly watches Arsenal as well. In fact there were a number of Blackpool fans there tonight. 44 hardy souls left Bloomfield Road by coach this morning and won’t get back until the early hours but when your club has been through what Blackpool have been through, a semi-final is an occasion worth attending.

In fact like watching a thoroughbred in the paddock alongside selling platers you could tell at kick-off that Arsenal were immeasurably superior. Frankly the first half was a sumptuous exhibition of football from young Gunners , some of whom are supremely gifted.

As I had traversed the ground before the match I had run into Liam Brady, who the first time I saw him immediately looked a certainty to make it big. Tonight I saw someone who looked as good as Brady did back then. Emile Smith-Rowe, a Kevin de Bruyne lookalike and playalike (is that a word?) was spellbinding. Just back from a serious ligament injury he was unplayable tonight as far as Blackpool are concerned.

I was also much taken with the two centre- backs (nice to know we have some at the club) Daniel Ballard and Zach Medley, a holding midfielder of guile and steel in Robbie Burton and a silky left-sided attacker in Xavier Amaechi. The whole team played well but those lads stood out and the substitutes when they came, Bukayo Saka, Trae Coyle, and Matt Smith, slotted in seamlessly.

The game was a walkover in truth. The first goal came when Arsenal broke away from a Blackpool corner. Smith-Rowe cruised through the gears down the left-hand side, played in Amaechi and his cross was headed in by Balogun. Ballard notched the second with a header from a right-wing corner and Burton finished the third with great subterfuge with a clip into the left-hand corner.

Brave saves from the Blackpool keeper and a shot against the bar from Balogun kept the score down but then Smith-Rowe slalomed through the Blackpool team, and into the area where he was brought down by a despairing Blackpool defender. Smith-Rowe took the kick himself and fired it into the top left corner.

Rather like the first team Arsenal having scored four in the first half at the Clock End decided to ease off. (You can tell I sit in the North Upper usually!) Blackpool were game but outclassed and their cause was not aided by having one of their midfielders sent off for a second yellow card after a tug on Balogun. Arsenal made it 5-0 right at the end after another intricate move including an Ozil-like ‘no look ‘ pass from Coyle ending in a short-range finish from Smith.

Arsenal go on to meet Chelsea in the Final and our friends from the bus stop have won the trophy for the last four years. But they will have to be a very good side indeed to beat Arsenal on this evidence.

One final thought occurred to me as Arsenal effortlessly pinged the ball around. This was Wengerball at its purest and whatever we may feel about Arsene’s present inadequacies, it is he who has set a template for pass and move football which was never part of the Arsenal brand prior to his arrival. He has defined a style for this club which has probably inspired these boys from the first moment they could kick a ball. It truly was a thing of beauty tonight. How ironic that it is a style that our first team are finding it hard to replicate consistently.

If you get a chance go along and watch these boys in the Final. Some of them are really very special. In addition to reaching the FA Youth Cup Final they are also in the Final of the Premier League International Cup and if they beat the West Ham U23s on Friday will be crowned champions of Premier League 2. TTG.

Arsene Wenger made six changes in the wake of the Europa League match in Moscow for the trip to Newcastle. Petr Cech started behind a back four of Calum Chambers, Shkodran Mustafi, Rob Holding, and Nacho Monreal. Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka provided the shield behind Alex Iwobi, Premier League debutant Joe Willock, and Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang, with Alexandre Lacazette retained up front.

The hosts, winners of their last three home games without conceding a goal, started brightly, but Lacazettte it was who got the first opportunity in the fifth minute and he screwed his effort wide of the target. At the other end Brazilian Kenedy, on loan from Chelsea, got the first attempt on target and drew a save from Cech.

The same player then avoided punishment for an over the top studs up challenge on Lacazette’s shin. That simply made the striker angry and moments later when Aubamayang was picked out by Mustafi and crossed from the left-hand side Lacazette applied the finish at full stretch. It was wonderful to see two of Europe’s prized strikers combining in their first start together.

Newcastle United 0-1 The Arsenal

We were denied a penalty in our next attack when Aubamayang’s fierce drive appeared to deflect off Lascelle’s arm. Only a corner was awarded by our old ‘friend’, Anthony Taylor. The Gunners were taking over this phase of play, and Iwobi forced Dubravka into a save having created the space for a toe poke.

Newcastle were lifted when Shelvey found Gayle with a long ball from his own half but Mustfi denied the striker with with a superbly timed challenge. Shelvey repeated the long ball, Gayle laid it off to the right flank,  Yedlin fizzed in a cross, and Perez flicked it inside Cech’s near post. Against the run of play the Geordies were level.

Newcastle United 1-1 The Arsenal

Aubamayang was the next victim of a raking challenge on his right angle but we were unable to make anything of the resulting free-kick. When Lascelles clattered Iwobi on the edge of the box Xhaka put Monreal in at the far post. The full-back headed across the face of the goal and Chambers, arriving at speed, couldn’t quite convert the opportunity. Lacazette broke with Willock and Aubamayang, but the pass to Willock found the young debutant unable to sort his feet out to finish a great opportunity.

There were no half-time changes by either side and the Arsenal engineered the first opening but Iwobi handled Monreal’s cross beyond the far post and the status quo was preserved. A rapid break by Perez highlighted the threat that the hosts still posed but Xhaka intervened and Cech was able to pick up the loose ball. When Shelvey played him in again it was Mustafi who stopped Perez in his tracks in the right-back position.

Ritchie’s agricultural challenge on Monreal on the hour mark brought the home crowd to life. On-loan Slimani replaced Gayle for the final third of the match. The striker’s welcome was a body check by Mustafi which could have been the first yellow card of a physical encounter. The impressive Iwobi found himself in a shooting position again but he tugged his attempt wide of Dubravka’s near post.

The Arsenal made their first substitution with Danny Welbeck coming on for Willock. Then moments later the Gunners back four was drawn to the right side, Slimani’s header teed up the unmarked Ritchie at the far post and he chipped the already diving Cech. The goalkeeper should perhaps have stood tall for longer and it would have been a comfortable save. Somehow we were in danger of losing yet another away Premier League match.

Newcastle United 2-1 The Arsenal

Two nearly became three when Kenedy’s effort was deflected by Mustafi onto the frame of the goal. Then Slimani set up Perez who fired into the side-netting. That prompted a second substitution by both teams, Joselu for Perez and Ainsley Maitland-Niles replacing Chambers. Maitland-Niles first action saw him impressively win a foot race with the fleet-footed and powerful Slimani.

As we moved into the final ten minutes Xhaka’s poor corner was cleared only a star as Elneny, but his long range effort sailed way over the bar. From the tightest of angles Lacazette  fired into the side-netting. Cue the last substitutions, Murphy for Ritchie and Eddie N’Ketiah for the excellent Iwobi. Slimani finally drew Mister Taylor’s first yellow card for kicking the ball away to delay the taking of a throw-in.

It’s not hard to be overly critical of a team that can’t buy a league point away from home right now. The goalkeeper and defence are putting the strike force under some pressure to deliver and we know that is an area we have to address in the summer. How 71 percent possession doesn’t convert into points is astonishing. I’ve watched this film before.

We can forget about the Europa League for a couple of weeks as we look to finish the Premier League season in style. It’s the long haul to Newcastle for the travelling Gooners, many of whom will have travelled up today (Saturday) and will enjoy a night out on the toon before the lunchtime kick-off on Sunday.

The match might come a bit soon for some who were involved in Moscow so the team could look very similar to the one that saw off Southampton last Sunday. Only Granit Xhaka is a doubt so hopefully Aaron Ramsey will have the fitness to slot in alongside Mohamed Elneny. It would not be a big surprise to see Rob Holding in for Shkodran Mustafi alongside Calum Chambers.

Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez has a fully-fit squad to choose from and the pressure appears to be off them now as they are ten points clear of the relegation zone. Mathematically they may need another win or two so they are likely to be competitive. We will need to turn around our away Premier League away form to avoid a first defeat at the Geordies since 2005.

The ‘holic pound

Although we have no points away from home in 2018 We have put together a run of six wins and a draw in our last seven matches in Premier League and Europa League. That momentum needs to be continued to keep confidence levels high. I’m betting with my heart rather than my head for this one. Working on the basis that Pierre-Emerick Aubamaying continues his hot streak of six goals and an assist in seven matches I like the unusual odds of 17/1 against a 1-3 win for the visitors.

The Europa League semi-final

Having opened with “we can forget about the Europa League for a couple of weeks”, well, that only applies to the players of course. Our first European semi-final in ten years is an exciting prospect for the supporters, or should be.

I see on social media the immediate reaction of many to our drawing Atletico Madrid was one of horror. Although I would prefer to be at home in the second-leg we now know we have to knock the favourites out to reach the final, and we are certainly capable of that. I remember few being convinced we would knock Chelsea out over two legs in the Carabao Cup semi-final but we achieved that.

It’s unlikely to be a high scoring affair as defensively the Spaniards are well organised and they boast a goalkeeper we are apparently following keenly. If we can defend the way we did against Chelsea we have a real punchers chance with Alexandre Lacazette up front and Danny Welbeck finding his shooting boots again in Moscow.

It’s going to be one hell of a roller coaster and one I can’t wait to jump on and ride.

The Arsenal made two enforced changes for the second leg of the Europa League in Moscow. As expected Mohamed Elneny replaced Granit Xhaka and Danny Welbeck, rather than Alex Iwobi, got the nod to fill in for the unfortunate Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Not surprisingly CSKA applied the high press from the off and Petr Cech had to be on his toes to beat Musa to an early through ball. The hosts were clearly after the boost of an early strike and tested the Gunners defence in the opening phases of play. As the clock ticked to 17 minutes we finally forced a corner with some typically intricate tippy happy around the box.

There are sports psychologists who would advise managing football matches in fifteen minute chunks and tick off achieving what you want accordingly. The Arsenal first and foremost wanted not to concede so achieving that in the first two mini-matches was a welcome achievement in what was frankly a dour affair.

Alexandre Lacazette lifted the tempo when put through but his shot was deflected behind. Mohamed Elneny lifted a short corner to the far post where Shkodran Mustafi was involved in a hefty clash of heads with Berezutski. Fortunately after treatment both players were fit to continue. CSKA produced a rapid break out in the 33rd minute that ended with a crucial interception by the Arsenal’s last man, so-called ‘lazy’ Mesut Ozil.

A sudden break out of end to end breaks saw Golovin slip over with CSKA threatening that vital opening goal. The Gunners swept down the other end but Aaron Ramsey failed to find Danny Welbeck and Lacazette in the box. The substitution of Vitinho for Dzagoev may have distracted the Arsenal as they tried to adjust. Nababkin’s header drew an instinctive save from Cech down to his right but Chalov reacted fastest to slam the ball over the line.

CSKA 1-0 The Arsenal

Ramsey was temporarily withdrawn to have a cut calf treated and only returned once we were into four added minutes. Next to hit the deck was Jack Wilshere who had his infamous ankle raked by a challenge unseen by the referee, and he eventually hobbled to a position in front of the back four as CSKA produced wave after wave of pressure. Thankfully the whistle gave us the chance to regroup and draw breath for the final three quarters of an hour.

The Arsenal took on a new shape in the opening stages of the second-half with Elneny dropping into the centre of the defence to give us more of a 5-4-1 formation. Wilshere and Welbeck combined on the break and the latter just over-hit the final ball which gave Akinfeev to claim the ball before Ramsey.

It was a brief reprieve. CSKA then unhinged the new formation. Cech parried Golovin’s long-range effort straight to the unmarked Nababkin who slammed his shot into the gaping goal. Now the nerves were really jangling. One more goal would see us out.

CSKA 2-0 The Arsenal

Cech was soon in action again after the restart turning another Golovin effort around the post. In an effort to recover the midfield we returned to the starting formation and Elneny thought he had scored the clincher. Sadly the midfielder had strayed offside before planting a fine header just inside the post. 25 minutes from time after Lacazette blazed a volley high over the bar Calum Chambers was brought on for the struggling Wilshere. The glass ankle had been smote again. From the ensuing corner Koscielny hit a rising volley over the target.

Veteran central defender Ignashevich then had hearts in mouths as he thumped a rasping drive inches wide of the target with Cech well beaten. The smiling Russian supporters told us they were enjoying this and starting to believe. They were cruelly and splendidly finished when Welbeck started and finished a move playing a one-two with Elneny and applying a wonderful lofted finish. 3-5 on aggregate. CSKA now needed two goals to force extra-time. Immediately Lacazette made way for Alex Iwobi.

CSKA 2-1 The Arsenal

The sting had been drawn and although CSKA continued to look to attack they were now making little impression on a defence now featuring three proper centre-halves. The visitors were now getting numbers back and relying on the counter attack to remind the hosts they were still vulnerable at the back.

Iwobi, fed by Ozil, missed a golden opportunity for the equaliser on the night.Ramsey presented Welbeck with another opportunity but Akinfeev made a fine save to preserve his team’s lead on the night. Elneny had other ideas, put the ball on a plate for Ramsey, and a superb chipped finish got us level.

CSKA 2-2 The Arsenal

In creating the goals that effectively sealed the deal Elneny had probably clinched the Gunners man of the match award, although he would probably have been out-pointed by Golovin, a class act in midfield for CSKA in both legs. In reaching the semi-final of a European trophy for the first time in nine years the Gunners had actually done what they needed to do, but oh, that nervy first 75 minutes. What a show of character at the end.

 

Another Thursday night, another Europa League trip for a few diehards. Moscow is a tough destination at the moment with relations between Russia and much of the western world severely strained. To paraphrase George Graham in 1989 let’s get there, get the win, then get out of there.

Roma’s remarkable comeback to knock Barcelona out of the Champions League on Tuesday night should serve as a warning against complacency tomorrow. When quizzed in his pre-match press conference in Moscow Arsene Wenger offered assurances.

“Last night may be a warning for us but let us not go overboard as well. Yes, we have a big job to do but we are in a strong position and it is how we approach the game that will be vital tomorrow.”

The Arsenal will have to make two enforced changes  from the team that beat CSKA 4-1 in the first leg. Mohamed Elneny is the likeliest replacement for Granit Xhaka who was left at home with a flu bug. Alex Iwobi is probably the starter in place of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. A starting eleven then of Petr Cech; Hector Bellerin, Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi, Nacho Monreal; Elneny, Aaron Ramsey; Iwobi, Jack Wilshere, Mesut Ozil; Alexandre Lacazette.

CSKA will have to come out and go for broke and we now know they have players like Golovkin, Musa, and Dzagoev who showed moments of real menace and to be fair CSKA might well have added to their one goal tally on the night. We will have to be wary of the genuine pace they have in abundance. A fervent home crowd will roar their team on and make a hostile atmosphere for the visitors. We would do well to quieten them with the first goal.

The ‘holic pound

I dare say we all of us have considered the many twists and turns this match could take tomorrow. I was tempted to back a draw for the second time this season as it would be good enough to see us through, but we have momentum from a six match winning run and I’ll back us getting a seventh under difficult circumstances. The bookmakers seem to have similar feelings. 1-1 is the market favourite at 7/1. The 12/1 available against 2-2 is more attractive, but I am on my old favourite, 1-2 to the Arsenal, the second favourite at 15/2. Update, I just got 8/1 at Bet Victor.

So few have made the journey (I think we only requested 500 tickets) there should be bumper viewing figures for the show on television and streams. I hope you all get a decent picture and we deliver a European semi-final for the first time since 2009.

Have a great one, ‘holics.

More than 24 hours after the event I cannot think of a new angle to the 3-2 win over Southampton. The manager made seven changes from the team that beat CSKA, thereby confirming where our priorities lie for the remainder of the season. What followed a shaky start was a spirited comeback, the nigh-on calamitous giving up of the lead, an unlikely match winner, and some late shenanigans.

One of those retained, Shkodran Mustafi, had the sort of day that he has on occasion. The visitors had started the contest on the front foot and were gifted the lead when the German world cup winner was caught asleep at the near post. Long nipped him to convert a hopeful cross from their right flank. Had the gamble on the squad eleven backfired?

Just before the half hour was up we were treated to another Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang moment. Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck combined to put the striker clear and he fashioned a delicate finish as the challenges arrived too late. That was his seventh contribution to a goal (6 scored plus an assist) in as many matches. From memory it was our first effort on target.

Seven minutes before the break two players who have taken their fair share of criticism this season linked up to good effect once more. Iwobi found Welbeck on the left and he weaved across the edge of the box before hitting a rasping drive that deflected into the net. 2-1 and the odd couple were the stars of the fightback.

We threatened to add to Southampton’s misery at the start of the second-half but McCarthy made very good saves from Granit Xhaka and Iwobi. We were flattering to deceive, however. Long was denied a second goal, quite correctly, by the raised flag of man assistant referee.

Jack Wilshere came on to replace Reiss Nelson who had a steady if unspectacular first Premier League start. That started more activity on the benches. Alexandre Lacazette was introduced to keep Aubamayang fresh. Mark Hughes sent on Austin for Yoshida, clearly in pursuit of an equaliser, and he duly delivered it with a simple tap-in from two yards after Cedric’s cross was allowed to pass through a forest of legs unhindered.

Hector Bellerin, one of the four survivors from CSKA trod gingerly off to be replaced by Rob Holding. It looked as though our best chance to retake the lead vanished when Welbeck managed to lift an effort at full stretch over a gaping target. Iwobi and Wilshere had combined to tee him up, but he would not be denied his moment of glory.

Iwobi’s twinkle toes created the opportunity to float a cross from the right wing to the far post and there was Welbeck to plant his header beyond the reach of McCarthy. Surely Southampton would be deflated. In the second of four minutes of added time the game exploded into life when Wilshere hauled Stephens back by the shirt as he attempted to drive through the midfield. Stephens hot-headed reaction (he had already been warned after a pushing match with Welbeck) earned him a red card, and Wilshire saw yellow for the original foul.

From Block 32 that looked like the end of the incident, and probably the match, then someone said “he’s just sent Elneny off too”. True enough, Mo was walking towards us and left the field to warm applause. I wonder if the reaction would have been the same had we seen what happened when he attempted to stop the Saints from attempting to take the free-kick over 10 yards from where the foul had been committed. You cannot shove an opponent in the throat area and particularly not when your team are defending a free-kick in added time with the slenderest of advantages. Elneny would surely have started the remaining Premier League fixtures but will now miss three games for no good reason.

The free-kick came to nought and we had secured consecutive win number six. That’s a good run to be in but my goodness me we owed a great deal to Iwobi and man of the match Welbeck. The post-mortem stretched to two pubs and a welcome chat with the visiting @GoonerMaui. Enjoy your time with Mum, Roger, and safe journey home at the end of the month.

Roll on Thursday!

It may not be the best time to post a preview of the visit of Southampton in 17 hours. You may think differently but I am full with beer-battered cod fillet followed by affogato, and sipping generously on my Laphroaig. The journey will, thankfully, start an hour later than last week. I will appreciate that extra hour of kip, I’m sure. Enough of me!

Arsene Wenger faces a really difficult selection for this match. The top four has flown and we have to conserve our best players for the Europa League, in which we are four good performances away from lifting a European trophy and reclaiming our Champions League place.

David Ospina remains ‘injured’ so I am sure Petr Cech should start in goal, but in front of him I can imagine Calum Chambers and Sead Kolasinac as full-backs alongside Shkodran Mustafi and Rob Holding.

Mohamed Elneny will probably come into the midfield pairing with Granit Xhaka in front of that defence. Alex Iwobi, Jack Wilshere and maybe Reiss Nelson or Jo Willock to start behind Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang. Those changes would allow Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil a rest as well as covering for the injured Henrykh Mkhitaryan.

The Gunners are unbeaten in their last 22 home league games against Southampton, winning 16 and drawing 6. We have hit a rich vein of form too late for the Premier League as has become habitual. Southampton under Mark Hughes will battle and scrap for the points they so desperately need for Premier League survival, but they have sold the crown jewels. Even against a second-string Arsenal eleven they may lack the belief to pull off the result that is so important to them.

The ‘holic pound

There is some pressure on us with Burnley once again moving within two points of us on Saturday. We could shut the gap on Chelsea to two points for a couple of hours. West Ham visit the bus stop in Fulham after our match. On this week’s ABW podcast I predicted 3-0 to us, so I feel compelled to back that at 12/1.

That is probably be a good place to stop the preview as Rory McIlroy tries to reel in Patrick Reed at Augusta. Don’t forget if you are a collector of classic Arsenal shirts to keep one eye on www.TheArsenalShirts.com and see if you can plug the gaps in your collection.

I hope to see some of you tomorrow in the usual haunts. Whether you are at the match, or watching from afar, have a good one ‘holics.

Red Army 4-1 Red Army

The Arsenal went into their first European quarter-final since 2010 with what is undoubtedly Arsene Wenger’s idea of his strongest available eleven. Petr Cech was named in goal and that was explained as being due to David Ospina having an ‘ankle injury’. The back four as expected saw Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal picked outside a central pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi.

In midfield Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey got the nod to accompany Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Jack Wilshere, and Mesut Ozil. Mercifully Alexandre Lacazette was deemed to be fit to start. That persuaded me to place my bet on 3-1 to the Arsenal rather than the 2-1 I had tipped up on Tuesday’s ABW podcast. What an under-estimate that would prove to be.

The first opportunity of the match was engineered by Monreal and Ozil for Mkhitaryan who fired into the side-netting. Within a minute though we were grateful for the assistant referee’s flag when Musa burst clear and appeared to have been played onside by Bellerin.

The other assistant denied us what looked like a wonderful opening goal when Ramsey lashed home Ozil’s cross and turned to see another dubious raised flag. Ninety seconds later, however, he repeated the finish from Bellerin’s driven cross and the Gunners had the early lead to lift a far from full-house crowd.

The Arsenal 1-0 CSKA

After a defensive flap by Xhaka and Mustafi six minutes later Koscielny carelessly conceded a free-kick on the edge of the box and the star man of CSKA , Golovin, chipped the perfect free-kick just inside the top far corner of Cech’s left hand post.

The Arsenal 1-1 CSKA

The visitors were dangerously close to leading a minute later when Musa was put clear in the inside-left channel but dragged his effort into the side-netting. Warning bells should have been going off all over the Grove. At the end another awful offside flag denied Lacazette an opportunity. Again it only delayed maters briefly. Ozil’s mazy dribble into the box was ended by Schennikov’s trip and Lacazette slammed home the penalty past Akinfeev.

The Arsenal 2-1 CSKA

With both defences at sixes and sevens that surely wouldn’t be the last goal of the night? It wasn’t even the last of the half! In the 28th minute a magnificent midfield build-up ended with Ozil chipping to the unmarked Ramsey who finished with a magnificent side footed lob over the onrushing Akinfeev. That was like the Wengerball of old.

The Arsenal 3-1 CSKA

A nigh-on identical move ended with Monreal picking up – you’ve guessed it- Ramsey, unmarked in the box again but this time not quite able to get his header on target. The Gunners put the foot full on the pedal. Another flowing move ended with Xhaka and Ozil combining to pick out Lacazette who finished with a fine left-footed drive through a crowded box.

The Arsenal 4-1 CSKA

Another threat arrived when Musa passed Bellerin as if he wasn’t there and crossed for Dzagoev to fire over from close range. The same player tried his luck from long range but sliced it high, wide, and not so handsome. Next Musa was again played through the middle but his effort under pressure from Xhaka bobbled into Cech’s grateful grasp. Ninety seconds from the break Xhaka picked out the run of Ozil who side footed over the target with his left foot. The half-time whistle brought to a close a magnificent half of crazy football.

The second-half started with Ramsey and Lacazette hunting the next goal to claim the matchball. It nearly fell to another when the mercurial Ozil picked out Mkhitaryan at the far post but the Armenian couldn’t apply the finish the cross deserved. The long overdue ‘Red Army’ chant finally pierced the North London air.

Monreal cut the ball back to Ramsey who was denied his hat-trick by the heel of Ignashevich. Mkhitaryan saw another shot parried by Akinfeev into the path of Ramsey who couldn’t quite get over the ball and lobbed it over the bar. The Welshman was clearly in the mood to add to his brace.

It was sad to see Mkhitaryan limp off on the hour after being the victim of a yellow card ‘tackle’ by Schennikov. Hopefully this will be nothing serious for our February and March player of the month. Alex Iwobi came on to replace him.

In the 64th minute Dzagoev headed home from such close range that there wasn’t a single Gunner between him and the goal. Praise to the assistant referee for getting that one right. Musa made another run through the centre that could have brought a greater reward than a simple save for Cech. We seemed to learn the lesson and Iwobi attempted to tee up Lacazette but the angle was too tight for the Frenchman to secure the first hat-trick.

Not for the first time the ‘We’ve got Ozil, Mesut Ozil’ song rang out. The orchestrator of all that was good about this performance, he picked out Monreal with a beautiful cross that the left-back headed too close to Akinfeev. The German nearly made it five himself but his curling effort drew a right-handed save at full stretch by Akinfeev.

Disappointingly Lacazette was hooked before he could get his hat-trick, replaced by Danny Welbeck with 16 minutes remaining. He looked less than enamoured at that. Mohamed Elneny came on for Wilshere too and was involved in the move that ended with Ramsey crashing another effort against the post. Vitinho‘s header just over the bar caused some consternation as the end game approached. The changes had seemingly disrupted the Gunner’s style.

Welbeck almost claimed a typical Welbeck goal with a deflection rather than a shot from point-blank range but the veteran Akinfeev was equal to it. Iwobi put Ramsey in on the left but he pulled his shot wide of the far post with Welbeck well placed. Mustafi’s lung-bursting run half the length of the pitch with just 3 minutes left came to nought and earned him a reprimand from his manager.

Wernbloom’s turn and shot narrowly wide as the clock ticked over caused a gasp or two. There would be a big difference between taking a 4-1 or 4-2 lead to Russia next week. A trio of added minutes was played out to a rapidly emptying stadium and one final doubtful offside flag. This was indeed a very good night.

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