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Back in August if you would have suggested that the top four would be playing each other on Valentine’s Day you would have been forgiven for assuming we would be no higher than fifth in the Premier League. Instead we find ourselves hosting the surprise leaders and needing the three points to close the gap to just two points. We are the only team who are able to complete a league double over the Foxes and Arsene Wenger recalled our 5-2 win at the King Power stadium in September during his press conference.

“Both defences have tightened up so it might be completely different on Sunday. They have more belief than they had in the first game but at Emirates Stadium we play at home and we know we are a strong team. I’m confident we can deliver what is needed on Sunday.”

That result has been made all the more remarkable by Leicester’s subsequent surge to the top of the table. Arsene has basically everyone except Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, and Tomas Rosicky available to him. He probably has three selection decisions to make. Will Per Mertesacker be recalled or will Gabriel hold on to the spot alongside Laurent Koscielny? Is Francis Coquelin ready to reclaim his place from Mathieu Flamini? Then there is the right flank, and the options of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joel Campbell, and Theo Walcott. The former may get the nod having claimed an assist against Burnley and a goal at Bournemouth.

Speaking of Bournemouth, the return to winning form last week was was needed after Leicester’s demolition of Manchester City. We have not been at the level we were before Christmas and are due a performance against the form club. The visitors have a settled side and are likely to be unchanged on Sunday lunchtime.

Ah yes, Sunday lunchtime. The late switch of this fixture by Sky has provoked some supporters of both clubs to talk of boycotting the first five minutes of the match. Arsene has appealed to supporters of both sides to change their plans.

“You can protest before and after but during the game you want everybody to be there. Life is not every day fantastic. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes it’s difficult for many people. Football is a moment of happiness in your life, so don’t miss it.”

His call is likely to fall on deaf ears after a week in which action by Liverpool supporters provoked a change of policy by their owners. The issue of pricing has been to the fore this week, but it should be remembered that the reason for the proposed action on Sunday is to protest the late switching of fixtures. Indeed it is a category C fixture meaning a fixture that could prove pivotal in the title race will have our cheapest priced tickets, from £26 for adults and a tenner for kids.

The ‘holic pound

Leicester’s only other defeat in the Premier League this season came at Liverpool on Boxing Day. The scoreline that day, 1-0, is co-favourite with 1-1 according to the majority of bookies. I am tempted to something more attractive, probably more by blind optimism than good judgement. I’m on 3-1 to the Arsenal at 14/1. Alexis grabbed a hat-trick at Leicester and is getting back to full match fitness following his subsequent injury. I may have a back-up pound on him to score first at 5/1.

I will doubtless see a number of you pre and post-match. Let’s hope we will be celebrating a win and not the alternatives.

Have a good one ‘holics.

Young Guns Pipped By Anderlecht

It isn’t just the first team who are facing an important few months. Those who subscribe to BT Sport would have been able to witness the under-19s’ slip out of the UEFA Youth League away to a strong Anderlecht side this evening (Tuesday), but they did not go down without a fight.

Jeff Reine-Adelaide was denied by Svilar, and Dan Crowley curled an effort wide as we opened brightly, but the first-half turned on two defensive lapses and the main beneficiary was Vancamp. The Belgian found himself free at the back post to head home Mangala’s chip from the inside-left channel in only the eighth minute.

Former Barca defender Julio Pleguezuelo came close to levelling the score but his flick from Dan Crowley’s free-kick went inches wide of the near post. Twenty minutes after going behind the Gunners defenders were caught ball watching as Vancamp lashed home a ball squared from the right hand side of the area. The Belgians were defending in numbers but quick to get bodies forward on the counter.

Arsenal did continue to probe but found the massed ranks of purple and white difficult to open up. While we had the lions share of the possession in the second half Vancamp was denied his hat-trick by two good saves from Hugo Keto. The best half-chances for us fell to Stephy Mavididi and Ismael Bennacer but it wasn’t to be our night.

Arsenal Ladies Thrash Bayern

The Arsenal Ladies notched up an impressive 3-1 victory over Bayern Munich in Seville on their pre-season tour of Spain. Jordan Nobbs opened the scoring with an absolute belter from distance. A video of the strike did the rounds on Twitter on Saturday evening and it is well worth checking out.

Five minutes after half-time Dabritz put the Germans on level terms, but that merely provoked a response from the Arsenal. In particular from Natalia, who on the hour mark converted Danielle Carter’s through-ball. Twenty minutes later she completed the job with a glorious twenty yard chip in off the bar.

Manager Pedro Martinez Losa spoke to Arsenal.com about that win, and his hopes for the season ahead.

“Beating a team like Bayern Munich, who are a top team in Europe, I think we will take a lot of positives from the individuals, from the fans and from the preparations. There is a lot of faith and belief for the future. The objective is to play good football, get the team feeling comfortable and have a clear idea of the dynamic in the team. It is really important to go game by game. You win the league by doing that.”

The FA Women’s Super League, now in its sixth season, will kick off on Wednesday 23 March with FA WSL 2 title winners Reading travelling to two-time winners Arsenal for their opener. It promises to be a great competition with the Arsenal attempting to reclaim the title from Chelsea.

Arsenal arrived at Dean Court for the first time in our history and when the team sheet was handed in there was surprisingly only one change from Tuesday. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came in for Joel Campbell. Arsene raised eyebrows by saying he was going with the players in form.

The contest started in open fashion and Oxlade-Chamberlain almost fed in Mesut Ozil in just the fourth minute but Bournemouth were alert to the danger and cleared. Before eight minutes were on the clock Mathieu Flamini was in the book for a double-footed tackle, and will hopefully reflect on how close he was to receiving a red card. Down to ten men with eighty-two minutes to play would not have been what we needed in our current run.

Alexis volleyed narrowly over the bar when freed by a simple chip forward by Aaron Ramsey and the next attack came to nought when Ozil appeared to be upended, but the German scored our first goal in four league matches midway through the half, converting a tremendous right foot volley when Olivier Giroud (thank you to my sub-editor who has better eyes than I) headed down another Ramsey chip.

AFC Bournemouth 0-1 Arsenal

Incredibly just over a minute later we had a second. Again Ramsey was instrumental yet again putting the Ox clear in the inside right channel to drive across the ‘keeper and in off the far post. Hopefully that goal, remarkably his first away from home in the Premier League, will give him a much-needed confidence boost.

AFC Bournemouth 0-2 Arsenal

Petr Cech was finally called into action in the twenty-sixth minute, flying to his left to make a fabulous one handed tip over from Arter’s drive. Then on the half hour Hector Bellerin made a remarkable recovery tackle after Pugh had escaped Gabriel’s attention and made a bee-line for Cech’s goal. Bournemouth weren’t about to roll over and make it any easier for the Gunners.

Seven minutes before the break Daniels was allowed to run a long way unchallenged before teeing up Ritchie who hit his effort high into row T, there not being a row Z at the tiny venue. As the half wound to a close Cech had to be quick off his line to deny the adventurous Smith.

Five minutes after the break a wonderful break saw Ramsey and Ozil combine on the left flank but the latter’s cross narrowly missed Giroud’s near post run. Bournemouth countered and once again the right-back Smith found himself with an opportunity that thankfully he fired wide.

Ozil again turned provider but Alexis saw his effort tipped around the far post by Boruc. From the resulting corner Giroud headed straight at Boric. Then the Frenchman was fortunate to escape with no more than a lecture after appearing to rake Smith’s ankle. If it was a Bournemouth player on one of ours I would have wanted to see a yellow card.

As the hour approached Alexis rounded Smith with ease and cut the ball back across the face of the goal. Unfortunately we had nobody in the six yard box to convert. That was the signal for Theo Walcott to warm up, but it was Francis Coquelin who came on, replacing the Ox, with Rambo moving out to the right. If the idea was to kill the game as a spectacle it worked.

The pre-match talk had been of the chances of Benik Afobe scoring against his old club, but he was withdrawn with a quarter of an hour remaining after an anonymous display. Five minutes later Kieran Gibbs was sent on for Alexis, presumably to double up on Smith if required.

In the closing minutes the home team’s best chance fell to Daniels but he wasn’t quick enough to react and Gabriel atoned for a shaky afternoon with a hurried clearance. As the whistle neared Cech was forced into a double save. Bournemouth had huffed and puffed but Arsenal’s house, although built on unsteady foundations this afternoon, remained intact.

Aaron Ramsey, denied by Boruc in a last minute one on one, was named Sky’s man of the match for his return to form. I thought Ozil unlucky not to receive it. Again today he was class in everything that he did. Theo Walcott was sent on for Giroud as an exercise in running down the clock. The final whistle put a humane end to a dead rubber.

So we are back to within five points of next week’s opponents Leicester and hopefully out of the rut in which we had become entrenched. That’ll do for now.

This weekend hasn’t got off to the best of starts, one way or another. I spent lunchtime with one eye on Leicester City’s demolition of Manchester City in the Emptihad (thank you whoever named it that on Twitter last week). Mercifully I chose not to watch the nearest and dearest stumble to a single goal triumph against Watford. I guess with the visitors playing Huerelho Gomes at White Hart Lane it was always going to end badly for them. It never was a good venue for him.

Some boneless beef ribs later I now look ahead to tomorrow which hopefully will provide the reaction that Arsene has promised from his players. After today’s matches we trail Leicester by eight points and for the first time this season I will accept that the phrase ‘must win match’ very much applies to our trip to Bournemouth, never mind next Sunday’s visit of the aforementioned Leicester City. Two points behind we can manage, but eleven behind would be unthinkable.

Arsene was talking ahead of the match of the partnership of Mesut Ozil and Alexis that has been renewed following the latter’s return from injury. He also suggested that those around them need to step up to the plate too.

“They have a very strong link play and a very good understanding and penetration in the final third. What you want is to give them more options around them. That’s the target now in our team, to create more offensive options around them.”

The team news is that we didn’t lose anyone from Tuesday’s disappointing draw. Danny Welbeck had an hour for the U-21’s but will not be ready to return for another two to three weeks. He looks set to be the next player to return from injury. What changes the boss will make after Tuesday is anyones guess. Listener’s to this weeks A Bergkamp Wonderland podcast will know I think there must be a chance of a recall for Per Mertesacker and Theo Walcott (the latter on the right flank, not up top).

The hosts have enjoyed their first season in the top flight, although Newcastle’s win today means they are only five points above the relegation zone. I’m sure their supporters would have taken that at the start of the season. From what I have seen there are most certainly three or more sides unlikely to overtake them.

They have, it would appear, acted smartly in the transfer window by snapping up former young Gunner Benik Afobe from Wolves. He has scored in three of his first four matches. What couldn’t we have done with those goals. They are unbeaten in four since West Ham won 1-3 down on the South Coast and of course we ended 2015 by beating them 2-0 at the Grove.

The ‘holic pound

Bournemouth have impressed with their willingness to play an open passing game and have pulled off some impressive wins, for example Chelsea away and Manchester United at Dean Court in successive weeks in December. I am banking on them being as adventurous on Sunday and that we do indeed provide a reaction to four league matches without a win.

It is yet another ‘hail Mary’ I am chucking, hoping to touchdown on a 2-4 Gunners win at an understandably generous 66/1. The bookies are not convinced it will be Arsenal’s day and certainly a month ago they would not been offering us at only evens to win. The majority have 1-1 as the likeliest outcome.

So that is it. The travelling Gooners will be thin in numbers at Bournemouth as our allocation is around 1300 tickets I believe. I’m sure that won’t stop them making themselves heard throughout as always. Have a great day those of you lucky enough to have secured those precious tickets. From behind the sofa I will be with you in spirit.

Have a good one ‘holics.

As my preview suggested, I knew I would be writing 24 hours after the event and would try giving something of a flavour of the evening rather than a conventional review of the match. You by now will have seen what transpired and if the drinks and social media platforms are anything to go by I am glad to have made that call, although touching on some of the issues when briefly covering the ninety and not quite six minutes of football will be unavoidable, I fear.

I’m not a lover of midweek matches as there is a frantic rush to get back to the West Country by underground and rail. I should have been warned off by the discovery yesterday morning that the final leg of my homeward journey would be by coach rather than having a through train service. Nonetheless I was en route at just before two in the afternoon.

A couple of hours later I emerged into the misleading glorious sunshine on Holloway Road. This is the first decision point. Invariably, being weak of will and fond of Liffy water, I head straight for the pub of choice. For once though a rare strike of common sense caught me amidships. A full tank in freezing weather isn’t a great idea, particularly when wearing several layers of clothing.

Not only that but I had skipped breakfast, and the magnetic pull of Piebury Corner is strong. A ‘Geordie Armstrong’ with mash and gravy made a perfect foundation for what would normally follow. Nourished I thought I would go walkabout around spots that are ingrained in the memory from over half a century of following the magnificent institution that is the Arsenal.

The walk across Highbury Fields, a fortnightly stroll in my formative years, still evokes powerful memories, as does the ensuing amble past the Highbury Barn before turning left, then right, and grabbing that first view from the top of Avenell Road of Highbury. There are ghosts in and around the old girl, not all football related.

Of course there is time for a couple of pints before the match. As ever the pub is packed with friendly faces, and friends old and new (thank you Jane and Richard) share tales and more sombre news. The sun has been replaced by the cloak of dusk, but outside in the beer garden the chill is not unpleasant given those layers of clothing are doing their job.

I get to walk to the stadium with two lovely people I don’t see enough of, so by the time I have been searched for weapons of mass destruction (a little joke, thank you security for providing essential checks) and taken my seat early I am completely mellow and anticipating the 3-1 win my pound had been invested in.

There followed a couple of hours which we have seen before. That wonderful ball from Alexis to Mesut Ozil and the latter’s instant control will live in the memory a long time. The finish hopefully won’t. How on earth the same player was denied by Forster I will never know. From sixty yards away it was a save that bears comparison with Gordon Banks against Brazil and David Seaman against Sheffield United.

A little lift was provided by the former ‘mine host’ of the Spanish Pats by Chapel Market, one Eddie Kelly, a star of the Arsenal side that broke a seventeen year trophy drought with the European Fairs Cup in 1970 and our first double a year later. It was great to see him looking so well in his pitch side interview with Nigel Mitchell.

We had no problem creating chances all night, but the combination of poor finishing and good goalkeeping had been established. I will just emphasise here that we are solely to blame for squandering a number of chances, twenty to be precise, half of which were created by Ozil, because I also have to mention the other talking point of the night.

I have had cause to say before that teams that are set up to pressurise us, as Southampton were, should escape criticism for rotationally fouling and eating up the clock. We cannot expect teams to come and roll over at the Grove just because we are the Arsenal. If they are prepared to push the boundaries of fair play there is an arbiter in place to call them to task and punish them when required for such transgressions.

Southampton did the job they were given last night, with bags of enthusiasm and spite in equal measure. They were given free reign to do so. Lee Mason has drawn the ire of the Arsenal crowd before and sparked fury last night on many occasions. I’ll leave it there other than to reiterate, before I get the usual lazy ‘blame the referee’ accusation, that his performance was only a contributory factor and we should have rendered it pointless by finishing the chances that we created.

The crowd spewed out into the freezing dark of a North London Tuesday night and it’s fair to say the reactions I overheard on the march back to Highbury and Islington were as divided as those I have seen online since. I have no intention of adding to the virtual disagreements now. On a day when others had every reason to worry about far more important things than a home draw against Southampton I couldn’t contribute to the repetitious cacophony. Doubtless my views will be dragged out of me by Kate and the boys on the A Bergkamp Wonderland podcast on Thursday night, so do give that a listen.

The train portion of the journey put me in the presence of Saints fans, happy and surprised by their point in equal measure. It helps to remember sometimes there was another team out there who were drilled to frustrate us, and brother, didn’t they do just that.

“They gave us a tough game last time and we have to put that right. It is a very important time in the season as we go into big, big games and have fifteen matches to go. The message is that we play at home, and we want to put things right, and put a strong performance in because the strength we show at home now in the remaining games can be decisive.”

Arsene Wenger reflects on the Boxing Day experience at Southampton. Less than six weeks ago we shipped four goals and, more importantly, three points at St Mary’s without Francis Coquelin and Alexis, among others. The return fixture is upon us and hopefully those two players will be back in the starting line-up as we look to seal a first win in four Premier League outings.

We are reaching the pointed end of the season when trophies are won by those with the greatest desire. We are about to be severely tested. After Southampton three of our next four Premier League fixtures are at home to current leaders Leicester City, and away to rivals Manchester United and Tottenham. Chuck into the middle of that the home leg of the Champions League tie against Barcelona and the need to keep the squad fit and confident is clear.

It is safe to assume that we will see wholesale changes again after the weekend, with only Laurent Koscielny, Francis Coquelin, Alexis, and Olivier Giroud retaining their starting berths. Back will surely come Petr Cech, Hector Bellerin, Per Mertesacker, Nacho Montreal, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, and either Joel Campbell or Theo Walcott on the right flank.

One man who definitely won’t feature is Mathieu Debuchy who has joined Bordeaux for the rest of the season on loan. I think Arsene has been remarkably good to a player who wants first team football in order to regain his place in the French team for this summer’s European Championship. To a player who had opportunities to play for Arsenal this month and prove he was worthy of a place in a title-chasing side. His departure leaves us a bit thin on cover for Hector Bellerin, with all due respects to Calum Chambers, still searching for his best position. Let’s hope that decision doesn’t come back to haunt us in the coming weeks.

Southampton manager Ronald Koeman sounded in bullish mood ahead of their trip to the Grove.

“We are looking forward to the big game. They know it is difficult to beat Southampton and we have a good record against the big teams and we want to keep that.”

Since beating us the Saints have suffered consecutive defeats at Norwich and West Ham in the League, and at home to Crystal Palace in the FA Cup, before bouncing back with League wins against Watford, West Brom, and away to Manchester United. They have also acted in the transfer window, securing the services of Charlie Austin from QPR. They are up to eighth place in the table, just a point behind Liverpool who themselves are at Leicester tomorrow.

The ‘holic pound

There’s little point in being anything other than positive with the pound. If we are the real deal then Southampton must be put to the sword by the strongest side we have put out in weeks, months even. I’m on 3-1 to the Arsenal at a decent looking 16/1 and if we oblige we will all feel a little bit better going into a big few weeks.

Although it’s an evening game I will be there and I am unfortunately at work on Wednesday so the report will probably arrive twenty-four hours after the event. You will all know what has happened by then so I will try and make it a review with a difference. For certain I will be wrapping up in layers having seen the weather forecast. Brr. Hence the headline.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

As expected Arsene Wenger made wholesale changes for the visit of Burnley, nine in total, with only Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud surviving from the starting eleven against Chelsea last weekend. There was a debut for Mohamed Elneny and a welcome return alongside him for Francis Coquelin. Alexis made his first start since November.

Just ninety seconds in Burnley served notice of their ambition with Vokes heading down for Gray to volley narrowly high and wide. That prompted a similarly inaccurate response from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. It was evident in the opening exchanges that Mohamed Elneny is likely to be used as a box to box midfielder, and he was keen to get forward at every opportunity.

Burnley survived a double scare when Olivier Giroud’s flick was cleared off the line and the follow-up shot from Alexis was narrowly wide of Heaton’s right-hand post. Next to try his luck was Elneny, making quite an impression on his debut, but Heaton was equal to the drive.

In the tenth minute Gray muscled his way past Koscielny and forced David Ospina into a fine save. The end to end nature of the contest will not have come as a surprise with both teams keen to progress at the first attempt today. Forward galloped Gibbs and from his smart cut-back Alexis was denied by desperate last-ditch defending. The ball broke to Calum Chambers who saw his effort blocked as well.

It was Chambers who made the breakthrough in the nineteenth minute with a superb stroke of the outside of his right boot, and what a team goal it was, created by some magical interplay between Alexis and Alex Iwobi. Ironically it was only Calum’s second goal as a professional, and the first came in last season’s home Premier League victory over today’s opponents. Calum likes Burnley!

Arsenal 1-0 Burnley (19 mins.)

The goal threatened to open the floodgates as the Gunners, prompted by the impressive Iwobi, launched wave after wave of attacks. Burnley defended stubbornly and found parity on a rare foray forward in numbers when Vokes got above Chambers and Gabriel and powered his header from Darikwa’s cross beyond the reach of Ospina.

Arsenal 1-1 Burnley (30 mins.)

Iwobi drove down the right side and picked out the Ox at the far post but the England international is not at the top of his game right now and he miscued wide of the target. Arsenal’s spell of dominance was at an end for the time being as once again spirited visitors traded attacks as the end to end nature of the game returned. It was an absorbing watch, for certain.

Freed by Elneny, the Ox had another long range effort saved by Heaton. Then Alexis, released by Koscielny, caused havoc in the box after a wonderful winding run. Burnley hung on grimly as the same player saw his drive deflected for a corner. There is no doubt the Championship club were the more grateful to hear the half-time whistle.

The loss of streams cost us the opening six minutes of the second-half, but they were recovered in time to show Iwobi and the Ox set up Alexis for a magnificent comeback strike.

Arsenal 2-1 Burnley (53 mins.)

With a minute two almost became three and only a desperate goal-line clearance kept Burnley in the contest. Giroud’s flick afforded an opportunity to Iwobi. The Gunners were in the ascendancy again. Elneny tried his luck again from outside the box just past the hour. Again Heaton was in the right place to deny him.

A generally sporting contest was highlighted by a 65th minute booking for Arfield after he dragged Alexis to the floor. It was the first card of a wonderfully entertaining match, credit to both sets of players. Elneny, seemingly desperate for a debut goal was set up again by Alexis and Gibbs, but he curled his effort into the Clock End.

As the clock ticked through 70 minutes Alex Iwobi was withdrawn to a standing ovation and a thunderous roar greeted the return of Tomas Rosicky. Mikel Arteta came on too for Coquelin. Both substituted players should have good memories of their contribution on the day. Heaton produced the save of the match to deny Alexis, whose free-kick looked destined for the top corner. The trio of available changes was completed when Theo Walcott came on for Alexis with thirteen minutes remaining.

The Ox, badly in need of a confidence-boosting goal, blasted over with seven minutes to go. One can sense most Gooners praying for him to rediscover his mojo. For whatever reason it isn’t happening for him at the moment.

Burnley’s best hope of snatching a replay came in the last minute. Barton sent Gray scampering through the inside-left channel but his shot was wide of the target. A minute later the same player managed to lay out both Koscielny and Gibbs within a second of each other in a sour end to an otherwise wonderful football match.

The four added minutes passed with one last Elneny drive heading just wide of the target, and a scintillating breakout ending with Heaton denying Walcott in a one on one. The holders will be satisfied with reaching the last sixteen yet again. I’m sure there will be good words for Iwobi, Sanchez, and Elneny in the coming hours.

All in all, a good day at the office.

“We have to be humble enough to think it’s not because we turn up at the Emirates and play against Burnley that we will win the game. We have to earn the right to go through this round and qualify. If you don’t do that, we’ll have a bad surprise.”

The COCup defeat to Sheffield Wednesday is in the back of Arsene Wenger’s mind as he prepares his squad to face Championship high-flyers Burnley this weekend. The clarets are in a rich vein of form, winning on their last four starts and scoring fourteen goals in the process.

I watched them beat Championship promotion rivals Derby County 4-1 on Monday night. They were particularly impressive in the second-half having gone into the break level at 1-1. However it is a sign of the times that both sides will look to rotate players for this FA Cup fourth round tie. Sean Dyche, Burnley manager, admitted his focus is elsewhere.

“We will look to pick a team wisely because it’s quite obvious our biggest challenge is to be back in the Premier League. Every game is a big game in the Championship and we have two big games next week and we have to be ready for them. I’m not suggesting, for one second, that the FA Cup is not big. It’s massive and I have had my own experience of it in my lifetime as a player, let along as a manager. It still means a lot, but we have to look at the bigger picture and find that balance, as we did in the last round at Middlesbrough.”

There is a delicious possibility that our old friend Paul Robinson may make an appearance between the posts. The former Leeds, Tottenham, and Blackburn ‘keeper was signed last week to provide cover for the visitors. He holds an unenviable Premier League record of conceding sixty goals against the Gunners in just 21 matches. It is a surprise that his back has recovered from retrieving the ball from his net seven times on his last visit to the Grove in 2012.

Swapping players around has been made a little bit easier for Arsene with Francis Coquelin and Tomas Rosicky fit to return and Mohamed Elneny set for his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt.

Listener’s to this week’s Arsecast will know that Arseblogger himself expects Calum Chambers to deputise for Hector Bellerin, although I am a little concerned he may be lined up to accompany Gabriel in the centre of the defence. Gabriel’s inclusion is enforced by Per Mertesacker’s red card last weekend and the temptation to rest Laurent Koscielny may be strong for the boss.

It’s possible that new boy Elneny and the returning Coquelin could strike up a new partnership anchoring the midfield and it would not be a surprise to see Alex Iwobi given another cup start in behind the front man, possibly Theo Walcott. For the two wide roles perm any two from Alexis, Joel Campbell, Tomas Rosicky, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain?

The ‘holic pound

Two sides packed with players who have a point to prove, and two managers who will not want a draw due to league commitments, suggest both teams will go for it. I’m tempted by the promise of a reasonably high-scoring exchange, and the generous offer of 30/1 against a 3-2 home win has attracted my pound (or two).

As I type the BBC weather page is forecasting a sunny spell to coincide with the match, so all who are going should have a full waterproof layer on. I shall be behind the sofa with a case of Bass watching what could well be a roller coaster of a cup tie.

Have a good one ‘holics.

It’s always a pleasure to find a little surprise in the evening’s email, and today’s guest post from our very own TTG was very much one of those pleasant surprises. thank you so much for this piece about the excellent left-backs we have been able to boast in the last 45 years or so. I hope it prompts some pleasant memories for the older ‘holics as well as a history lesson for some of the fitter young souls who pop by.

The news that Nacho Monreal had signed a new contract was greeted with delight by Gooners everywhere. His sustained excellence in the left-back role has been widely recognised but for supporters of the club who study our history and traditions a top-quality Arsenal left-back is not an unusual thing.

If we go back to the first double team we were served in that position by Bob McNab who joined us from Huddersfield in preference to Liverpool, despite the prolonged overtures of Bill Shankly. That choice alone established Bob as a favourite amongst fans but his consistency and quality, which saw him become an England international when caps were not tossed around like confetti, was incredibly valuable in forging a formidable rearguard. Better defensively than going forward he still made a massive contribution to Arsenal folklore by providing the cross that John Radford headed in on that momentous night in 1970 when we beat Anderlecht to win the European Fairs Cup. Amazingly, he revealed recently that he played through the double season with a muscle injury that he sustained early in the season. He was terrified of being dropped and the emergence of his understudy a young Irishman called Sammy Nelson.

Sammy, who is still often seen around the club, was an extrovert but highly effective left back with a fierce left-foot shot. He is remembered for mooning the North Bank after scoring one evening against Coventry after previously scoring an own goal in the same game.  I was very close to his performance and it provoked great hilarity and relief, but he was part of a strong defence and a team where we had a strong Irish influence from both sides of the border. I remember meeting the referee, Clive Thomas on the tube one evening and he suggested that Sammy in today’s parlance, ‘liked a tackle’! He was left out of the starting eleven in the 1980 Cup Final and the next season saw his place taken by England’s left-back of the day, Kenny Sansom.

Kenny’s signing was a rather bizarre one as he came in a swap deal for Clive Allen and Paul Barron. Allen had never played a proper game for the club and many still believe there was some sort of Venables-inspired chicanery involved in the deal. Kenny was an exceptionally good player, equally good defensively and offensively. He was capped over 80 times for England and maintained a high record of consistency in performance at a time when the team went through some difficult periods. When George Graham joined the club and we achieved belated success, starting with a League Cup victory in 1987, Kenny lifted the trophy.

The following year he was back at Wembley in the same competition against Luton and saw the game swing on a missed penalty when we were 2-1 up in one of the most bizarre finals Arsenal have ever played. The culprit was an emerging left-back playing on the other flank, Nigel Winterburn, a signing from Wimbledon who the following season pushed Sansom out of the team and off to Newcastle. Kenny has fought a difficult battle with various addictions in the last few years and it is to be hoped he can stabilise his life. He still retains a huge affection for Arsenal and was for many years an enthusiastic and informative tour guide.

Nigel is still heavily involved with the club after a first-team career which lasted around a dozen years. With a tackle like a ten-ton truck his one-footedness was rarely a source of difficulty because of his speed, dexterity and improvisation. A scorer of some occasional but spectacular goals, and none was more remarkable than a right-footed screamer (yes that was right- footed!) that he notched against Wimbledon in the last home game of the momentous 1988/89 campaign that ended so triumphantly at Anfield. Capped sparsely by England he gave yeoman service to the club and ‘Nutty’ remains one of the favourite players of his era.

He was replaced relatively briefly by Brazilian left-back Silvinho. In his period with the club he showed incredible attacking ability and was a decent defender but doubts over his passport saw him transferred expeditiously from the club and he became one of the few Arsenal players to have some success at Barcelona. A great equalising goal at Chelsea in 2000 was a fitting memory of his time with us.

Had he not left we might not have persisted with Ashley Cole who was recalled from an immensely successful loan to Crystal Palace. Ashley’s emergence was very similar to that of Hector Bellerin. He took everything in his stride and within a few years during which the side achieved massive success he was arguably the best left-back in the world . Sadly Ashley does not inspire the affection that many of his predecessors did because of his defection to Chelsea, apparently because of a niggardly salary offer from Arsenal which almost forced him to swerve that week’s sports car off the road .

He was replaced by Gael Clichy, a talented Frenchman and typical Wenger discovery who was a fledgling Invincible, but suffered occasional costly lapses in concentration which blotted an otherwise creditable copybook. His error at Birmingham in the infamous game where Eduardo was maimed by Martin Taylor of Birmingham may arguably have cost us the title that season. Clichy left for Manchester City along what became a well-trodden path and Kieran Gibbs who is still with us replaced him. Kieran is a decent left-back with speed, intelligence, and passing quality, but his defensive and positional deficiencies, coupled with a fragility that sees him regularly unavailable have been thrown into relief by Nacho Monreal. Nacho, a January emergency signing from Malaga three years ago, has matured into a magnificent left-back, good in both halves, a fine reader of the game and a brilliant crosser of the ball.

That’s a litany of some outstanding players and the big question is who the best of them was. In my view it’s a close call between Sansom and Cole but the latter’s behaviour and comments towards the club mean for me at least that my choice would be Kenny Sansom. But it’s not easy and good to know that the club who produced Eddie Hapgood, Walley Barnes, and Lionel Smith, still has a great production line in place.

The Morning After

The morning after. I thought social media a place best avoided last night. The reaction to defeats such as this tends to be over the top, although to be fair that was another ‘Southampton’ performance from us.

There is some justification, perhaps. Playing Chelsea with eleven players (something we haven’t been able to achieve this season) has proved our most difficult task in recent seasons. Playing them with ten was always asking a lot, and particularly without the hold-up option that Olivier Giroud provides.

I see this morning that the sending off was a dubious one, and that there was no contact between Per Mertesacker and Costa. Why is that not a surprise? In fairness to Mark Clattenburg everyone around me seemed convinced the red card was justified in real time. Once more there is an argument to be made for greater use of technology in the game.

The removal of Giroud for Gabriel was a surprise, but the neighbour offered the explanation that he was carrying a knock. I wonder if he would have been the player to be substituted if we were already a goal down? Instead we survived intact for around five minutes before the loathsome Costa rubbed salt into the wounds with what would prove to be the only goal of the contest. Of the substitution Arsene offered this explanation.

“We knew we had to go deeper and then use pace. The fact is we needed to get strength on the counter attack and needed pace. That’s why I made that decision.”

Without a target man option we had to try and play our way through the massed ranks of blue when we had the ball. The visitors weren’t sitting back though and the threat of a second on the break was never far away. The Chelsea that turned up yesterday were a far cry from the outfit that has stumbled their way through the first half of the season.

We had chances. In the first-half the best of them fell to Mathieu Flamini. After the break we posed more of a threat with the introduction of Alexis and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but for all our huffing and puffing Chelsea coped comfortably with all we could offer.

Our second loss in thirteen matches need not be a trigger for a collapse in the title challenge. We have shown considerable powers of recovery after other defeats this season, but we have some testing away fixtures to come, and this result may just have sewn the seeds of doubt. After the FA Cup tie with Burnley we entertain Southampton in our next Premier League outing and we owe them a beating after they comprehensively outplayed us at St Mary’s.

On the plus side we have Alexis back, and how we need him at his best. It will be interesting to see who makes way for him, for the most likely candidate on current form is yesterday’s captain for the day, Theo Walcott. The competition may encourage the England man back to his best. Let’s hope so, for we need him as well if we are to maintain a serious challenge for English football’s greatest prize.

The pre-match and post-mortem was enjoyable as ever. The pub isn’t full of the negative influences to be found online. A few pints in fabulous company soon erodes the immediate feeling of disappointment. There are more important things in life than a defeat in a tight contest.

Have a good week, ‘holics.

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