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Between 1897 and 1903 we made seven visits to the Middlesex marshlands in various minor leagues. The first Football League visit of Arsenal to the neighbours-to-be took place at White Hart Lane on 16th April 1910, some three years before we really wound them up by moving within four miles of them into a stadium with better public transport links. The result that day was a 1-1 draw, McGibbon the Arsenal goalscorer.

This weekend we pay a final visit to the Lane in its current incarnation before the long overdue arrival of the wrecking ball. I suppose many will mourn the loss of the pitch on which we twice won the League title, and indeed those two matches will always hold a special place in the memory. Will this last meeting of the old rivals serve up happy memories also?

It looks likely that St Totteringham’s Day will be postponed (for just a year, you understand) but the Gunners will be keen to avoid a defeat that would confirm it on Sunday. To that end the recent run of three wins could not have been more timely. The change in formation that has coincided with that run may well extend to this fixture, although much will depend on the availability of skipper Laurent Koscielny, rated a 60/40 chance after seemingly hyperextending his knee on Wednesday night.

Skhodran Mustafi remains on the treatment table so Rob Holding and Gabriel should get the nod to partner the hopefully fit French international. That was a winning combination against Manchester City in the FA Cup Final so they should have a degree of confidence and belief. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, rested as a precaution against Leicester in midweek could well return as the right wing-back with the in-form Nacho Monreal on the opposite flank.

The deep-lying pairing is far from obvious and will have to provide a vital barrier to a very aggressive and attack-minded Tottenham engine room. At our place the derby looked to pass Granit Xhaka by, but he has been in good form of late and is likely to retain his place. Will the boss, in his fiftieth North London derby, go for the attack-minded Aaron Ramsey, the defensive option in Francis Coquelin, or the athletic Mohamed Elneny? Your guess is as good as mine.

Surely Mesut Oil and Alexis will support and attempt to prove for whoever is chosen to lead the line. Theo Walcott started on Wednesday but produced little, although his goalscoring record against Tottenham is worth bearing in mind. After his excellent return at Southampton in the FA Cup Danny Welbeck has also struggled to make an impact of late, so it could be that Olivier Giroud is given the chance to add to his tally of goals against the old enemy.

The bitter feelings I had for Tottenham as a young man have mellowed a little of late. Whisper it, but they have played some decent football in the last couple of seasons since the arrival of Pochettino. Perhaps the reason they have had such a good season this time around is due to his insistence that they do not fixate on finishing above the Arsenal for the first time since 1994/5, the season in which George Graham was sacked.

“My challenge or my aim is not to be above Arsenal. My aim is to be above 19 teams and to be first, to be on the top.”

They really would have to ‘Spurs it up’ in order to finish lower than runners-up this season but something similar would have to befall Chelsea if the Premier League trophy doesn’t end up at the bus stop in Fulham in May. There is a sentence that is tough to write, and a sad reflection on what the move to the Grove was supposed to deliver to us. It would appear though that the redevelopment of the condemned dump in N17 will have an effect on the Middlesex club, already facing costs escalating almost out of control.

The ‘holic pound

If you listened to the Bergkamp Wonderland podcast you will know I was more than a little bullish about our prospects. This fixture normally generates goals, and often freak scorelines. I’ll stick by my 2-4 away win, although I accept that comes more from the heart than the head. The bookies have the Arsenal as 7/2 outsiders to beat the odds on hosts, so not surprisingly I have found 90/1 against my fanciful prediction. I’m on it!

If you are going to the swamp on Sunday the police advice is to get to the ground early as there will be increased security. Goodness knows that has long been overlooked at that place. Stay safe, and hopefully enjoy a fine game and a great Arsenal victory.

For the rest of you have a listen to that ABW podcast, embedded below. Oh, and thank you for the very kind comments I have received for my interview with the excellent Layth Yousif for the Islington Gazette. I was lucky to be given the opportunity and I thank Layth for that.

Have a great one, ‘holics.

Arsene Wenger rested tired legs for the visit of Leicester City. In came Hector Bellerin, Kieran Gibbs, Francis Coquelin, and Theo Walcott for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rob Holding,  Aaron Ramsey, and Olivier Giroud. Nacho Monreal switched to one of the back three.

It was the visitors who got the first chance when a careless back heel by Alexis in the right back berth was switched via Mahrez and Albrighton to Vardy who mercifully fired wide of Petr Cech’s near post. Otherwise the defences were very much on top and both sides were being caught offside.

That encouraged Francis Coquelin to try his luck from long range and forced Schmeichel to parry the ball for a corner. Granit Xhaka was next to strike from distance but the ball sailed over the bar and into the Clock End.

Midway through the half a Mahrez volley brought a fine save out of Petr Cech. The match was anything but predictable at this point. Bellerin and Gibbs ran into blind alleys on the edge of the Leicester box. Drinkwater’s fierce challenge on Coquelin warranted only a free-kick and raised eyebrows in the crowd.

As the clock clicked to the 27th minute Walcott brought a save out of Scmeichel with a snapshot from the inside right channel. It signalled the start of a period of Arsenal control as a stream of crosses tested Leicester’s central defenders. Alexis was denied a blatant penalty by an offside flag as we sought the opening goal.

Simpson took a yellow for a cynical foul on Bellerin, and moments later Ozil just failed to find Alexis as he darted across the box. Leicester broke the shackles six minutes from the break when Mahrez wriggled free in the box and drove the ball into the side-netting.

At the other end Ozil again set Alexis in motion and the Chilean hit a drive from the edge of the box that flew past Scmeichel but bounced back into play off the crossbar. The whistle concluded a goal-less opening half. Would Arsenal regret not having more to show for their 73% possession and six shots to three?

Fuchs went into the book for clattering into the back of Walcott as the Gunners struggled to create a clear opening at the start of the second-half. Ten minutes in Alexis was denied at point-blank range by Huth after Bellerin had played him in. When the two combined again Bellerin failed to find Walcott with the cut-back.

Xhaka’s deflected effort was well tipped around the post by a flying Schmeichel. The first chants of the Danny Welbeck song rose into the night air as a frustrated crowd looked to prompt the manager into action with an hour on the clock.

Mesut Ozil’s cross was cleared for a corner from which Laurent Koscielny headed Bellerin’s cross into the arms of a grateful Schmeichel. Then Alexis smashed another effort from the edge of the box straight into the goalkeeper’s arms. Cue the introduction of Danny Welbeck for Gibbs. Eyebrows were raised again. Arsene Wenger reverted to a back four. Leicester sent on Okazaki for Ulloa.

Welbeck’s first meaningful contribution was a cross that sailed across a Gooner-free zone in the Leicester box. Giroud and Ramsey were sent on for Walcott and Coquelin as the Arsenal manager went for broke with sixteen minutes remaining. With the substitutes all made it was oh so Arsenal that Koscielny went down with what looked like a painful twisted knee. Thankfully the skipper was able to hobble back on after treatment.

That Benalouane’s assault on Giroud was deemed worthy only a yellow card was quite incredible. The studs of his right boot and both knees were slammed into the back of the Frenchman. Xhaka picked up a yellow moments later for pulling down Mahrez.

Then, for the second season running a late winner and a release of joy in the stands. That Nacho Monreal’s effort was deflected goalwards by Huth was all the sweeter. Four minutes plus injury time to go. It was that close.

Arsenal 1-0 Leicester City

Ozil had the ball in the net with two minutes to go but his joy was cut short by the assistant referee’s flag. For the four added minutes the visitors brought on the rapid Grey for Benalouane. All of a sudden their time-wasting had evaporated.

The handbags when Fuchs threw the ball at Alexis, who went down a little too theatrically, took up precious minutes. Huth was carded for felling Koscielny in the ensuing goalmouth scramble. After six added minutes the final whistle signalled that we had climbed to sixth place and still mathematically in the hunt for better.

It might have been tense but it ended well. A big shout out to Nacho Monreal who filled two roles on the evening, played well throughout, and assisted that oh so vital goal. Well played Nacho!

Still basking in the afterglow of Sunday? I know I am, but the players have no time to reflect on just what they achieved on Sunday as they prepare for the visit of the champions, Leicester City, on Wednesday.

When the Foxes came calling last season the match had even more significance than this season. We were notionally still in the title chase and our last gasp Danny Welbeck winner provoked huge celebrations around the Grove.

Three days after beating Manchester City with a determined but gruelling performance there may be players who are in need of a rest. Aaron Ramsey might be one who might appreciate not being asked to play twice in a week having not long returned from his latest injury. Olivier Giroud is another who might make way, for either Danny Welbeck or a fresh Theo Walcott.

Arsene Wenger would not reveal his formation in the pre-match press conference although he conceded that going with the back three again was a possibility. It is interesting that the players responded to changes of system against Southampton in the FA Cup (4-3-3) and the last two matches (a very flexible 3-4-3). It is also noticeable that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has played extremely well in his two different roles in those set-ups.

Leicester players haven’t covered themselves in glory this season and are thought to have been behind the downfall of Claudio Ranieri, who led them to Premier League jubilation last season. Under his replacement, Craig Shakespeare, they have won five of their last seven league matches. Even so they are just six points clear of the relegation zone so we can expect them to put up a considerable fight. The Champions League quarter-finalists will be without Morgan, Slimani, and Mendy but a familiar foe, Huth, returns after suspension.

The ‘holic pound

So unfortunate was I not to collect a tidy profit on Sunday due to the 90 minutes rule that I am keeping faith in a 2-1 win for the Gunners. A repeat of last season’s scoreline is favourite with the bookies too, so shop around to get 8/1.

For those who are going the weather forecast makes for grim reading. Wrap up in some waterproof and warm clothing. Winter is briefly returning. Today we have had everything here in the west. Sunshine, rain, hail, sleet, snow and high winds. I’ll be hoping to find a half decent stream to follow the action. Good luck if you are in the same boat as me.

Have a great Wednesday, ‘holics.

Good morning. You can spot the Arsenal supporters this morning. We are the ones with a smile wide enough to insert a banana sideways. Of all the good days I have been following the club that was right up there with the best. It helped that my company from lunchtime in the fanzone through to the final trudge up the stairs at Wembley Park station was excellent. However the gritty performance that secured another FA Cup Final appearance will long live in the mind.

The first-half didn’t provide any indication of what was to follow.We went with the back three trialled at Boro and all three, along with the wing backs, looked to be in very good shape indeed. So much so we were happy to cede possession to the blue half of Manchester. That wasn’t a bad idea. Guardiola for some reason erred on the side of caution in his selection and rather than play two wingers he opted to include Yaya Toure.

On a rare foray forward Laurent Koscielny had the ball in the net but our celebrations were cut short by the assistant referee’s flag. Midway through the half Silva felt the full force of a Gabriel challenge and Guardiola was forced to send on Sterling, his second winger. It would prove to be a costly delay. The Gunners wing backs had settled into their role and were looking very comfortable indeed. City were also denied a goal when a cross to Aguero was deemed to have gone behind and swung back in.

If the first-half had been a largely pedestrian affair with both sides showing the other much respect, the second-half was anything but. The Arsenal came out bristling with counter-attacking intent. So what happened next was almost painful. Aaron Ramsey lost the ball as we pushed for the advantage. Aguero was sent chasing the ball in a one on one with Nacho Monreal, the City man’s heavy touch looked to have presented the ball to Petr Cech, but the ‘keeper dallied and Aguero flicked the ball over his outstretched left arm. We were behind.

Invariably the first goal in big matches is decisive. That was a call to the Gunners to show a degree of steel lacking for so long. We produced the response within minutes, and it was the wing-backs who provided it. From the right touchline Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain crossed to the far post where Monreal, arriving at speed, supplied the finish with his swinger. In the stadium it felt as though it would be our day although City would point to two efforts thumping off the woodwork as being unlucky.

The full-time whistle signalled defeat for the ‘holic pound, although the predicted scoreline was delivered in the first-half of extra-time. Alexis, ever the livelier, wriggled into position in a crowded area and stabbed the ball home. Cue pandemonium in the stands as strangers, and not-so-strangers, hugged. It was a moment of euphoria in a second-half of the season that has prompted so much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The lack of panic thereafter was the final tribute to be granted to an outstanding back five. Rarely has Gabriel looked as assured, Rob Holding looks real value at , was it £3m last summer? Monreal will be the first to admit this has not been a great season for him but he was truly immense. The Ox? Take a bow son, as they say.

What is really interesting is how the events of the weekend will affect the confidence of the two combatants in next weekends North London derby. Tottenham, statistically superior to Chelsea shipped four goals and Spursed it up. We mirrored Chelsea’s victory with less possession and the Final will be a fascinating affair, hopefully.

Until then I’m looking to see how many bananas I can swallow sideways. It’s a good day to be alive.

Well, as evening’s go that wasn’t so bad after all. The bus stop in Fulham somehow managed to beat a far superior Middlesex team which must have absolutely infuriated our friends in the north. One can only hope that shattering defeat has ramifications for next Sunday. Let’s worry about that after we have played the City’s of Manchester and Leicester and know where we stand in the final few weeks of the season.

I’m now starting to get a buzz about our semi-final tomorrow. Form and logic says I am making a wasted journey to a stadium I don’t much like, but my glass is definitely half-full tonight. Chelsea showed us how we might get a result tomorrow. Defend with organisation and belief, win those battles at the back then when opportunities come our way, which they will surely do, take them. Matic got a worldie today. We have players capable of doing just that even though we may not have been playing with confidence of late.

Sunday is the day for the Arsenal side that went nineteen unbeaten after the opening day defeat to surface. We produced some fabulous performances in that run including the 3-0 drubbing of Chelsea in a dress rehearsal, hopefully, of next month’s Final. Some of us thought this the best squad Arsene had at his disposal for many a year. Where did it all go wrong? If only someone knew the answer to that, but we do have that in us, should the players put in the effort and let their talent shine through.

We are without Skhodran Mustafi, and possibly Danny Welbeck. It is looking increasingly likely that the ‘injured’ David Ospina and Lucas Perez have played their last matches for Arsenal. The decision that faces the manager is simple. Does he build on the far from convincing win at Boro by persevering with a back three of Gabriel, Laurent Koscielny, and Rob Holding. The loss of Mustafi suggests he probably will for a little extra insurance.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hopefully learned from his early booking at the Riverside and may have had a week to work on his current assignment as the right wing-back. Nacho Monreal may be asked to be less adventurous on the other flank. City have played with great pace on the flanks of late. We know what Sterling is capable of, and Sane has been sensational of late. With Jesus expected to return from injury, probably on the bench, we will have to be very alert at the back.

When we have the ball we must keep it for long spells, which is easier said than done obviously. Mesut Ozil may need to be prepared to drop into a midfield trio but alongside who? History suggests Arsene will go for a mixture of attack and defence, so possibly will opt for Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka. There must be a temptation to start Mohamed Elneny over Rambo in order to keep things tight for an hour before releasing the Welshman when we are looking to grab the tie by the scruff of the neck.

There is probably also a thought that Theo Walcott should replace Olivier Giroud and provide a twin-pronged pacy attacking duo with Alexis. Giroud would be another perfect second-half substitute when we are likely to be needing a goal or two. City have Kompany back and overnight their defence looks much steadier than it has for most of the season when their Belgian talisman and leader was out injured.

The ‘holic pound

My financial advisor has spoken. Bergkamp the Man will feel better if I put my ‘poond’ on 2-1 to the Arsenal. I don’t think he’s far out, if we turn up. I don’t think we will keep them out, but we do have the ability, kept in reserve in recent weeks, to break with devastating pace and class. It’s time to do just that again. It’s how we have got our better results against City in the Emptihad years. Let’s do it again.

That’s it then. I have to put my semi-final gear together ready for the morning, complete with my lucky yellow ribbon, obviously. Then book the taxi, set the alarm, and have a few nightcaps!


“My memories are the old Wembley because it’s the first time I played in 98 I think against Newcastle in the Final. When I was a kid I watched the games at Wembley on television so that (98 Final) was the first time for me to reach Wembley. Now we have been a bit more used to it and the new Wembley is like a stadium you meet everywhere, but it’s still massive. You see your fans coming in and it’s a unique experience for them and their children in life and they never forget. I feel happy to be there. We have played a few games there now.”

Whilst Arsene may not agree with much I write these days he made a very good stab at what I feel about Wembley at his pre-match press conference today (Thursday). On that basis I should really go back to the days when the ends of the stadium were uncovered. Apparently my first game at the stadium was England versus Russia in 1958. Forgive me for not remembering it. I was only eighteen months old!

So I share Arsene’s attachment to the old stadium after it was completely re-roofed in 1963. I missed Arsenal’s first Wembley of my lifetime in 1968 as we were moving house. Terry Cooper won it for dirty Leeds after Jack Charlton left goalkeeper Jim Furnell on the deck at a corner. I made two trips there in 1969, first to see John Radford’s England debut, a 1-1 draw with Romania. The second I remember rather more but sadly defeat to Third Division Swindon is a match I am reminded of to this day.

My love affair with the old girl took flight in the seventies with two remarkable FA Cup triumphs. We came from behind to defeat Liverpool in extra-time to complete the double in 1971. Behind the goal where Charlie George smashed in the winner a huge swaying mass of Gooners made a tremendous atmosphere. Eight years later Alan Sunderland won the ‘five minute Final’ and we were behind the goal at the tunnel end where he struck the last-gasp winner.

There were to be other great days there. A first League Cup triumph in 1987 thanks to champagne Charlie, the Cup double in 93, and the second double winning Final against Newcastle that provided Arsene with his first experience of the national stadium. Those two in the seventies however burned the iconic twin towers into my heart. I know the facilities underneath the stadium were tired by the time the wrecking ball moved in, but I cannot help but believe that a massive mistake was made in not incorporating the twin towers into the new design.

It also doesn’t help that my first trip to the ‘new’ Wembley was for a semi-final defeat against the bus stop in Fulham. Perhaps the memory is playing tricks, but these days getting away from the new stadium by public transport is a drawn-out chore. Added to that with one exception I have always ended up in that oxygen-starved tier five. Fine if you only have a couple of steps to climb to get to your row, but a nightmare when further back.

Obviously we have now had some wonderful wins there, and I will never forget the triumphs of 2014 and 2015, but with a loud PA system drowning out any pre-match atmosphere, expensive food and drink, and the lack of soul that is shared with so many other new stadia I just cannot love the current incarnation. That will be an age-related thing you may think, and you might be right. The analogy with my feelings about Highbury and the Grove is not lost on me.

Give us a couple of reasons to feel more positive about the place this year please, Arsene and the Arsenal.

Arsene Wenger swung the axe for the trip to the Riverside. Petr Cech and Laurent Koscielny returned from injury, and there were recalls for Rob Holding, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, and Olivier Giroud. Out went Emiliano Martinez, Hector Bellerin, Skhodran Mustafi, Mohamed Elneny, Theo Walcott, and Danny Welbeck. There was pre-match speculation that the boss had opted to go with a back three. At kick-off that is certainly how we set up.

A couple of early crosses from Oxlade-Chamberlain came to nought and he was carded as early as the fourth minute for bringing down Fabio. Leadbitter followed him into Anthony Taylor’s book for a nastier challenge on Mesut Ozil. When Negredo threatened Holding was quick to clear the danger. Boro were perhaps surprisingly enjoying territorial superiority in the opening phase of play.

On the quarter of an hour mark Fabio bowed out of the contest with what appeared to be a knee injury and on came Friend, also a left-back. From Arsenal’s first corner Ayala hauled Giroud to the floor apparently unseen by Mr Taylor. Goodness knows how he missed it. Gabriel headed wide under pressure from Friend. Boro responded with de Roon heading home from a clearly offside position after the visitors new-look defence moved out impressively.

In the 28th minute the Gunners came closest to opening their account when Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross was headed down by Giroud into the path of Ramsey who saw his effort headed off the line for a corner. That set piece ended with Alexis hitting a tame effort into the ground for Guzan to save comfortably. Was a fairly pedestrian affair springing into life?

A rapid break from Oxlade-Chamberlain just after the half-hour saw Giroud and Alexis thwarted by desperate last-ditch blocks by Boro defenders. Ramsey’s foul on Gibson gave the hosts the chance to lump the ball into the box again, but not for the first time Koscielny out-jumped everyone to head clear.

Clayton’s unpunished lunge into Granit Xhaka gave us a free-kick opportunity on the edge of the box. Alexis clipped a beauty over the wall and celebrated as it dipped into the corner of the net. With three minutes to the break we had the lead.

Middlesbrough 0-1 Arsenal

Gabriel picked up our second yellow card for a foul that presented Ramirez an opportunity to follow Alexis’ example, but he hit a tame effort straight into the wall. The travelling faithful, in much better spirits than last week, taunted the locals with a chorus of “How shit must you be, we’re winning away!” Cue the whistle. The back three experiment was working, it seemed.

However, the new-look defence crumbled in only the fifth minute after the restart. Alexis’ misplaced attempted pass was switched to Downing who raced clear down the right, cut inside Nacho Monreal, and crossed to Negredo who had found space in between defenders to head home from point-blank range. All square, would the mood change again?

Middlesbrough 1-1 Arsenal

We almost folded again when multiple defensive failings weren’t punished by Downing who blasted a good opportunity into row Z. Worryingly the slow, painful, sideways passing returned. Where was the speed of thought and pass? Whither the creativity? A set piece was half-cleared to Xhaka and his effort appeared to strike a hand. Was it Giroud or a defender. Tougher spot for the officials this time.

Credit the travelling faithful. A chorus of “Alexis Sanchez baby”, among other favourite chants, clearly an attempt to lift fragile confidence. Boro came within a whisker of the lead on the hour when Ayala’s header was kept out by a mixture of determination, blind panic, and Cech’s reflexes. Ramirez found himself one on one with, fortunately, Oxlade-Chamberlain. There was only one winner of that race.

Alexis and Ozil were denied by equally desperate defending as the game went into an end to end phase with both teams requiring all three points for different reasons. With just over twenty minutes remaining Ramirez made way for the pacy Traore. He immediately left Holding and Monreal in his wake before running into a blind alley in front of Cech.

Then a moment of inspiration when Alexis picked out Ramsey in the box and the Welshman chested the ball into the path of the onrushing Ozil who blasted the ball in at the near post before Guzan could react. “We’ve got Ozil” rang around the Riverside.

Middlesbrough 1-2 Arsenal

Ayala, at full stretch, just about took it away from Giroud who would otherwise have been clear with quarter of an hour remaining. Negredo forced Cech into another save, diving to his right, but Arsenal appeared to be in control at this point. Boro made their final substitution, sending on the lanky Gestede for de Roon.

In the 81st minute Giroud made a yard of space for himself on the edge of the box but placed his effort wide of the far post. That third goal was being sought but we were not attacking recklessly. Clayton’s cross into a crowded area was met by the head of Ayala, but again Cech was presented with a comfortable save. The ‘keeper was given a much sterner examination when a lofted free-kick gave Gibson a huge opportunity to equalise with less than four minutes of the ninety remaining.

That prompted a double substitution by the Gunners in the last minute. Francis Coquelin and Bellerin came on for the goalscorers, Alexis and Ozil. Huge respect to the visiting support for an immediate double rendition of the Hector Bellerin song in the wake of the club throwing him under a bus in respect of the supporter unrest at Palace.

They deserved to witness a win after making that long journey on a Monday night. All in all a better, if still slightly less than convincing, performance should raise spirits all round ahead of Sunday’s big day out at Wembley.

Four in a row. It was a game I loved when I was a pup. Now it means the number of away league defeats we have suffered in our current run I am less enamoured with it. We need a gloom lifting performance in Middlesbrough on Monday evening, especially after yet more results went against us on Saturday. Everton’s win over Burnley dropped us a place to seventh.

Worse still was the marshdwellers win over Bournemouth in a match which Jack Wilshere was also substituted after injuring his dodgy ankle once more. That means they need mathematically they need just eight points from six matches to postpone St Totteringham’s Day for just twelve months. Brace yourselves for something none of you younger than 22 (plus a few years) will have experienced before.

Enough of that. Far more important is how we fare at the Riverside in a fixture cruelly moved to a Monday night, our second in a row. The travelling faithful will still be there, and will roar the team on as long as they are seeing effort, and a performance, and determination to win an oh so vital three points. Arsenal players would be well advised to go over to them before the game and applaud them for their efforts in getting to the north-east on a Monday night in the current circumstances. 

Quite who will start is up in the air as I type. Petr Cech and Laurent Koscielny are eighty percent likely to be fit to start, “but sometimes the twenty per cent can play a villain’s part in the final preparation” according to Arsene Wenger. Let’s hope that if only one makes it that man is the skipper, Koscielny.

David Ospina and Lucas are still ruled out with back and thigh injuries apparently. That neither has been seen since the 1-3 defeat by West Brom is starting to worry this amateur scribe. There must also be some doubt about a start for Theo Walcott after the boss was critical of him for saying Palace wanted the game last Monday more than us. Am I alone in thinking we could start Danny Welbeck on the right and bring Olivier Giroud back into the centre?

I’m guessing not many would support Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain starting in place of Mesut Ozil just to freshen things up in the midfield. Middlesbrough will certainly look to keep things tight and physical, safe in the knowledge that Anthony Taylor is in charge. In what could be a dogged and dour contest this might actually be a challenge to Walcott and Ozil to come on in the last half an hour if necessary and open up a tiring rearguard.

The Teessider’s are currently six points off safety, they haven’t won a league match in 2017, and they are the lowest scorers with only 22 goals from 31 matches. They have sacked their manager and coach Steve Agnew has the unenviable task of saving them. He won’t be helped by not having Gunners loanee Calum Chambers available to him for this fixture against his parent club.

The ‘holic pound

Boro could prove to be the worst trip for us at this worrying time. Desperate for survival they may produce the form that has deserted them this year and surprise another side devoid of form and confidence. As those who listened to this week’s A Bergkamp Wonderland Podcast will know I have tipped 1-0 to the visitors and the bookies are quite keen on that too. I took 7/1 and hope that I, as well as my team, enjoy a change of fortune. Please be aware if you click on the podcast link that the show itself is most definitely not safe for work, or young ears.

So, to those who are making the trek on Monday please accept my admiration, respect, and hope that the team gives you reason to cheer them off at the end this week. I did the every game home and away thing in the 70s and 80s. and it was a lot cheaper then. I’m not sure I could either afford it or cope with the physical demands of doing it these days. You lot are awesome!

Lessons For The Greatest

I remember with some sadness the decision of Muhammad Ali to come out of retirement and fight Larry Holmes to try and claim the world heavyweight title for a record fourth time. In order to get the ok to box again Ali underwent a physical examination in the Mayo Clinic. He was given the all clear despite later confessing to having tingling sensations in his hands and slurred speech.

For sixteen years Ali had fought and defeated the greats of two generations, but he was now 38, and his former sparring partner was the deserving holder of the world crown, and at the peak of his powers. Like moths to a flame the world was drawn to watch the mismatch of the century, stubbornly clinging to the hope that Ali would still be able to avoid the puncher’s fiercest shots and maybe make the dream come true.

However time had caught up with him. His doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, had left his entourage after Ali had taken severe punishment in a bout with Earnie Shavers three years previously. He had also pleaded with Ali, his family, and his corner team to retire at that point after receiving a damning medical report from the the New York State Athletic Commission.

His powers on the wane, Ali lacked the speedy reflexes that once kept him out of range of the big hitters. Holmes picked him off at will, winning every round, and he later claimed he had pulled his punches in order not to seriously hurt his one time employer. After ten rounds Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, finally threw in the towel to prevent his man taking further punishment. Too little, too late.

Incredibly Ali attempted one more fight. This time nobody wanted to watch, to go through the pain of seeing ‘the greatest’ battered again. Trevor Berbick inevitably won the bout in Nassau and at long last Ali took his broken body into retirement.

You’re ahead of me, aren’t you? For the second time in my life ‘the greatest’ has gone on too long. The greatest Arsenal manager has taken more than one fight too many. His responses to his inquisitors in the press suggest he remains sharp of wit, but he says the same things over and over, and the words ring hollow. For years he rolled with the punches at Highbury, hauling himself off the canvas when other managerial giants temporarily floored him before landing a few knockout blows of his own.

After moving to a vast new gym Arsene learned the art of defending himself at all times. The title bouts dried up but he could still inflict damage on those who underestimated him. So it was with a heavy heart I have witnessed his attempts to bring those glory nights back in recent weeks. It was no real surprise that Carlo Ancelotti twice comprehensively outfought him in front of those who had cheered him to the rafters for many years. The Italian most certainly did not pull his punches and delivered a brutal 10-2 verdict.

What must have hurt more have been the humiliations by the likes of Ronald Koeman, Walter Mazzarri, and the unranked Sam Allardyce. Each one becoming more damaging than the last.

Who is Arsene’s Ferdie Pacheco or Angelo Dundee? Who will tell him that those who loved what he did when he had his strength and reflexes intact that it is time to hang up the gloves? Could David Dein hand him that bloodied towel and say “Arsene, old friend, you know what to do, don’t you”. Or will Ivan Gazidis step out from behind the cloak of invisibility and end it all?

The man should go with his head held high, and with the roars of appreciation ringing in his ears. We should not have to want to avoid witnessing one final beating. As Ali showed the legend will never diminish, but the sadness at the end of a glittering career is almost too much to contemplate.

Thank you for reading.

Embarrassing And Shameful

Arsene Wenger went with an unchanged team for the trip to Selhurst Park following last week’s defeat of West Ham United. The Gunners started the match seven points and two places behind fourth-placed Manchester City with two games in hand. Another three points were sorely needed. The experienced Cabaye, once a target for Arsenal, was surprisingly fit enough to start for Palace.

The game started at a good pace and worryingly Palace created the first clear opportunity but fortunately Cabaye mis-kicked and we survived. Shortly afterwards Milivojevic blazed a drive wide but Emiliano Martinez looked to have had it covered were it on target. The young goalkeeper claimed a couple of crosses well in this opening phase.

The Arsenal were next to test the goalkeeper when Elneny drew a flying save out of Hennessey at his far post. The Egyptian was quick to join in our early breaks and was clearly looking to impress for the second match running. Danny Welbeck was crowded out as he tried to turn a couple of defenders in front of goal and the ensuing corner was easily dealt with by Palace.

In the 17th minute Palace struck from a route one effort. Benteke bullied Gabriel to win a headed flick on and Zaha’s cross fell invitingly for Townsend. He finished having nipped in front of Skhodran Mustafi. It was a poor goal to concede against the run of play, but the replays showed that Benteke used a leading elbow to knock Gabriel down. Sometimes you get those, sometimes you don’t.

Crystal Palace 1-0 Arsenal Eh?

When the goalscorer next found himself in possession he was subjected to a poor challenge for which Mustafi was rightly booked, but Mustafi was having to cover a clearly unfit Hector Bellerin too often. We need to give him a break and treatment for whatever has made him half of the player who started the season.

Gradually the Gunners got back into the contest and Alexis curled an effort just wide of the far post. However our slow build-up play at this point enabled Palace to defend in numbers. Mesut Oil and Alexis tried to engineer an opportunity but the hosts blocked the Chilean’s final effort.

At the other end Townsend blasted an effort over the bar before Mustafi had to be at his best to deny Benteke with a smart sliding tackle. Arsenal forced two corners in response but both proved fruitless. Benteke again was offered the freedom of the Arsenal box and Martinez had to make another excellent save at full stretch to deny him.

Granit Xhaka’s magnificent through ball presented Welbeck with an opportunity to shoot but he cleared the far post before Gabriel’s thumping header was saved by Hennessey, and 1-0 it remained as the half drew to a close. Arsene and Steve Bould faced a very important fifteen minutes.

Sensing the importance of the second-half the travelling Gooners ramped up the volume and stayed firmly behind their team. It was good to hear. On the pitch Ozil and Zaha traded overhit crosses as the end to end contest resumed. Benteke was denied by Bellerin’s smart block. The Palace striker netted but from an offside position. Arsenal needed to wake up, and fast.

They didn’t. From a corner Martinez had to hold on to a near post header from Puncheon. Ten minutes into the half Elneny and Xhaka indulged in some tippy tappy square balls in front of the massed ranks of red and blue. Where was the creativity, the spark? Sanchez crossed for Bellerin but his attempt at a controlled volley went horribly wrong.

The changes so clearly needed were made before the hour was up. Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey came on for Welbeck and Elneny respectively. Almost immediately Palace doubled their lead with a superbly flighted finish by Cabaye. It was no more than the Eagles deserved.

Crystal Palace 2-0 Arsenal You’re joking, right?

The match was effectively ended in the 67th minute. Giroud was hauled down by Sakho in the box and got nothing. At the other end Townsend ensured contact with Martinez and the spot-kick was awarded. Milivojevic just beat the dive of Martinez. Three down to Palace. Alan Smith was right. We were being humiliated.

Crystal Palace 3-0 Arsenal No, really

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for England captain material Theo Walcott. No, you hadn’t seen him mentioned above. Most had forgotten he was even playing I suspect. Bellerin laboured down the right flank once more and his chip to the far post just evaded the incoming Giroud.

“You’re not fit to wear the shirt” screamed the travelling Gooners. At last, some condemnation of those who for whatever reason couldn’t be arsed to turn up and show some pride in the cannon. But you can’t sell the players and leave the manager who cannot get the best out of them in charge. That was once again all too evident tonight. Let’s rebuild this broken club.

Sorry, and goodnight.

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