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There were a couple of surprises in the starting eleven at Molineux. Laurent Koscielny was named alongside Sokratis Papastathopoulos in the centre of a back four. Granit Xhaka was also fit to return alongside Lucas Torreira. The three fit attacking midfielders all lined up behind Alexandre Lacazette. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was ruled out having undergone a sinus procedure.

We made an encouraging start and in the third minute Henrick Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil opened up Wolves right flank but when the latter played in Torreira the Uruguayan’s shot was blocked.  Mkhitaryan’s rushed another effort high and wide two minutes later. Unai Emery’s attacking line-up was showing good early ambition.

In the 17th minute Nacho Monreal wriggled past Doherty who hauled him down close to the the box and rightly saw the first yellow card of the game. Unfortunately Torreira’s free-kick didn’t clear the wall. Another wonderful flowing move came to nought when Iwobi cut the ball back to nobody in particular.  We were flattering to deceive.

Wolves first effort arrived in the 21st minute from the right boot of Moutinho but it curled wide of the target. A long throw then caused a panic in the Gunners defence and from Boly’s flick-on Jimenez volleyed the ball just over the top from close-range. Wolves had a head of steam and we could have done without Monreal’s foul on the edge of the box. Neves is a set piece specialist and scored the opener in the bottom corner.

After Koscielny was wrongly adjudged to have fouled Jota an incensed Xhaka was booked for losing his cool. Things were rapidly deteriorating for the visitors and we found ourselves with a mountain to climb when Doherty’s header from Jonny’s cross following a corner flew past Leno who came in vain and looked to have judged it dreadfully. It would get worse for the German when he failed miserably to stop a shot from Jota down to his left and watched mortified as the ball rolled over the line just before the whistle.

The stats rolled up on the screen. The visitors had 72% possession in the half. The scoreline made a mockery of that.

Not surprisingly Wolves were happy to withdraw into the deep and invite us on at the start of the half, but the spark with which we had started the match seemed a distant memory. A general lethargy had taken over as we laboured to create precious little in the opening phase of the half. We should have had a penalty when Bennett stuck a knee into the back of Lacazette, but the Frenchman may have done himself no favours with an exaggerated fall.

Emery had to make changes although his options were limited. Matteo Gouendouzi and Sead Kolasinac came on for Torreira and Mkhitaryan. Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah were still sitting on the bench. This old fella wondered if one or other of them may have introduced an injection of determination to impress that may have served us well.

“Champions League, you’re having a laugh” roared the home support, and right now who could argue that? We have thrown away control of a top four place, and will need some very unexpected results to nick our way back in. Jota, on the break, teed up Jimenez who thankfully drilled it just wide of the far post as goal number four beckoned.

Perhaps Emery had read my mind. Nketiah was sent on for Iwobi with twenty minutes remaining. One assumes his instructions were straightforward. “Just get us four goals, Eddie.” He nearly obliged with his first sight of  the ball as he skinned Boly and cut the ball back for Lacazette, but Bennett was alert to the danger and stepped in to clear.

Jota, tormentor-in-chief of the Gunners, was withdrawn to a deserved standing ovation from the locals. Perhaps distracted, Dendonka gave a ball to Guendozi who looked to free Lacazette, but Boly put the ball out for a corner which yielded a consolation goal. Sokratis soared at the far post to head Xhaka’s excellent cross past a suddenly nervous defence. Ten minutes to go. Surely not?

Bennett was carded for a blatant body check on Nketiah. Another chance for Xhaka to whip in a tempting delivery and Wolves were fortunate to survive at the expense of another corner. Had something come of that maybe it would have been an interesting last few minutes. Instead Wolves managed the close out well for a first win over us in 40 years.

There can be no getting away from the fact that this was another spineless away performance. I know people expect me to offer some justification when we suffer such defeats, but I can find none. How much more motivation can you need than the promise of Champions League qualification? Could we have fielded a stronger fit starting eleven? No. It’s a mystery that needs solving, ideally before Sunday’s visit to Leicester, which now looks a very tall order.

“I want to keep all information we can have for tomorrow, sorry.”

If you were hoping for an insight into who might be available against Wolves tomorrow then you would have been disappointed by Unai Emery’s press conference. Is he playing his cards close to his chest, or is he showing signs of feeling the pressure as two potentially tricky away games follow the Easter fiasco at home to Palace?

I’ll have a crack at it, as ever. Hopefully I won’t be far off. Bernd Leno to start behind a three of available again Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Konstantinos Mavropanos, and Nacho Monreal. Laurent Koscielny needs a rest and Shkodran Mustafi needs to be taken out of the firing line, although I have no doubt he has the strength of character to put his horrendous Sunday behind him. Let Papa guide Dinos through a tough test.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac to start outside Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira. Granit Xhaka is still a doubt, it is rumoured, although he did take part in Tuesday’s training session. Pray we have him back for Leicester on Sunday if he doesn’t make Molineux. I would obviously prefer to start both strikers with Mesut Ozil again, but after Sunday I can see Unai opting for Alex Iwobi ahead of one of them. Don’t ask me who, for I fear it may be the golden boot seeker.y

Obviously Wolves have done very well against the top six sides this season and were unfortunate to leave the Grove with a share of the spoils courtesy of a late Henrikh Mkhitaryan strike. They may be without a win in two Premier League matches, following their FA Cup semi-final exit, but remain in the hunt for a top seven spot which could bring Europa league football for them next season.

The Wolves love nothing more than to play on the swift counter attack (not that I want to scare you, of course!) and in Jota and Jimenez have two willing strikers who will get on the end of anything we fail to deal with. Beware also the big defenders Coady and Boly at set pieces.

The ‘holic pound

After the four combatants for third and fourth places made a complete and utter Horlicks of Easter we fortunately still have our destiny in our own hands. We have to be focused on three points from this one.

My heart wants a good old-fashioned one-nil to the Arsenal, but a clean  sheet, at Wolves? I will doggedly persist with 1-2 to The Arsenal. I’ve grabbed 10/1 while it is available.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

Easter Sunday, with the emphasis being on the Sun. At last I was heading to town to watch my beloved Arsenal in the flesh again. Three pints of Guiness and a glass of white wine later I took up my seat looking forward to us snaffling third place in the Premier League.

Then I looked at the pitch for the first time. “Oh, Carl Jenkinson”. For once I hadn’t scanned the phone an hour before kick-off. I looked up at the big screen just in time to see the substitutes listed. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Nacho Monreal, Lucas Torreira, Alex Iwobi, Henrikh Mkhitaryan. I scanned the pitch again. Konstsantinos Mavropanos, ok. A pairing of Mohamed Elneny and Matteo Guendouzi. You don’t remember Everton, Unai?

The front three gave hope but in the first half they were denied service from what was behind them. Palace, with their impressive away record, bristled with pace and power. They got a deserved lead when Carl Jenkinson stayed at home as his fellow defenders looked to play offside, and Benteke was left unmarked to head home a free-kick for a rare goal. In truth we were fortunate that they did not add to it before the break.

Once again Unai Emery was forced into half-time changes. Mavropanos and Jenkinson were withdrawn for Iwobi and Maitland-Niles. There was an immediate reaction. Mesut Ozil, looking like the industrious playmaker Emery has cajoled him to be, produced another of his bounce the ball over the goalkeeper finishes. “We’ll kick on from here now, surely?”

We had reckoned without Shkodran Mustafi. I liked him as a player when we first signed him. We could forgive him the easily going to ground for the times he would dig out a performance when needed. That player has rarely been seen this season. For whatever reason he has regressed under Emery and yesterday produced double lapses of concentration that undid all the good we were threatening.

A ball he should have played as Zaha bore down on him was allowed to pass, along with the Palace forward who gleefully took his unexpected chance. Mustafi gestured at Leno but there was never a chance of the ball reaching him first. Then the German went walkabout allowing McArthur a free header to increase the visitors lead.

Torreira’s overdue introduction for Elneny gave us a platform from which to attempt an Easter resurrection, and hope returned when the persistent Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang reduced the arrears in impressive fashion. A late chance for Iwobi was side footed tamely rather than drilled goal wards and the points were lost.

Mustafi was quick to depart the pitch without acknowledging the supporters. Perhaps it is unfair to mention it, but it summed up completely his failure to accept responsibility for his performance. We will probably need him at Wolves on Wednesday. Surely Laurent Koscielny cannot be put out there again? He is playing too much at the moment, but he is critical, if fit.

As for the support, it was time to retire to the taverns in the area to enjoy some spirit-lifting refreshment and enjoyable chat. The mood remains much better than the last couple of years, but that will be tested by further performances like yesterday. Let’s hope we are not pushed into fielding some of the combinations that cost us yesterday again.

A word too for the supporters of both clubs who made the march from South London to North to raise awareness of mens mental health issues. Somme of ours commented on the friendly and enjoyable nature of the event. That’s not a surprise but still your efforts need commending. Congratulations all.

It’s minty dark chocolate thin time on Easter Saturday. A full day in order that at last I can back to my beloved team. Could we complete the most enjoyable few days now that third place in The Premier League is again ours to lose. The win in Napoli was excellent too, but how much will it have taken out of the team?

The loss of Aaron Ramsey, given his massive influence in recent weeks, is a blow. The 4-2-1-3 system most often used is built around him being the 1, indeed the one that delivers. There are others who on paper have the qualities to operate there but who lack the consistency Aaron has shown. Pure guesswork on my part, but it seems likely that Unai Emery will have been looking at what he has available and return to the 3-4-3 set-up that has delivered sometimes with Aaron missing.

Palace will not be short of a bit of confidence coming into this. After a shaky start to the season they have improved in leaps and bounds, uniquely winning more than losing on the road. Of course they have the impressive Zaha who appears to have added a degree of consistency to his already undoubted pace and control. The Gunners head coach is well aware of their potential.

“They have very big players, a very experienced coach, and they are taking good results away from home. They won against Manchester City, so on Sunday we have a lot of respect to them, to their players, and to their coach.”

We will be a little makeshift with Sokratis Papastathopoulos still suspended, Ramsey injured, and Granit Xhaka a doubt. Shkodran Mustafi probably gets the nod to replace the former, but what if Laurent Koscielny is given what is probably a needed rest? Konstantinos Mavropanos? Put it in the file marked concerned rather than officially worried. In midfield should Xhaka not make it the partnership will have to be Lucas Torreira (doubtful according to some unreliable sources) and Matteo Guendouzi between the hopefully unchanged wingbacks.

The front three probably has one place up for grabs to partner two of the League’s deadliest strikers. Mesut Ozil would be the likeliest to provide the obvious assist. He would get my vote, but that is unimportant. I have a feeling Emery sees a lot in Alex Iwobi, clearly a talent, but one still learning. Henrik Mkhitaryan seems to have lost the regained form and confidence he had demonstrated before his latest injury.

The ‘holic pound

On a sunny day at home we tend to produce some very impressive performances over the years, and these will be the conditions tomorrow. Palace may be on the beach but have shown no sign of that of late. We may be getting twitchy as we enter a final five League games with a chance of sealing third place and another hallowed saint’s day. We dare not yet mention it by name!

It might be a combination of all of these things and more. Once again I have to be guided by Bergkamp the Man. 2-1 to the Arsenal gets a modest punt at a miserly 8/1 favourite.

It’s time again for the new preview feature as A Bergkamp Wonderland too have previewed the match and it is shared below. Have a great one, ‘holics, and I look forward to seeing a few of you again (at last) tomorrow.

There are worse ways to spend an evening than sitting with the grand’holics watching The Arsenal. Especially when The Arsenal are dishing out a masterclass to the team that were second favourites to win the Europa League ahead of the quarter-finals.

After all of our no-shows on the road in recent seasons there was something special about the win in Naples. This was no fluke, no one-off. Too many have cried that Napoli’s finishing was poor, although it was there was only one reason for that. The Gunners back three/five put them under so much pressure they were unable to function as they might have hoped to beforehand.

Following on from the admittedly less assured victory at Watford by the same scoreline it appears (oh what a test we face next week) that we have solved our away day weakness at a crucial part of the season. Wolves and Leicester lie in wait after Palace, so we shall see.

The stain on the evening was the sight of Aaron Ramsey pulling up clutching his hamstring. He has been the metronome of the team in recent weeks and it remains to be seen if he will ever pull the cannon over his chest again. Unai Emery sowed the seeds of doubt post match.

“It’s a muscular injury and usually it is going to mean some weeks outside the team, I don’t know if we’ll see him again before the end of the season.”

To say losing him is a blow is an understatement. It means those on the fringes of the team will have to up their game. Mesut Ozil? Henrikh Mkhitaryan? Alex Iwobi? The time has come for one or more of you to step up to the plate and deliver as we close in on potentially a much better season than many had predicted when the new head coach was installed.

Enough of the negative, and back to the wonderful last night. We won the match with a moment of Alexandre Lacazette genius. Hacked down just outside the box he opted to take the free-kick himself and rather than attempt to clear the wall he went around it instead. The goalkeeper, looking for the ball to appear from behind his defensive shield, took a fatal step to his right as the ball nestled in the net having been steered just inside his left hand post. Cue grand’holics, black labrador, and silly old sod celebrating joyfully.

There were other chances to record an even more impressive triumph, and only a magnificent save by Meret prevented Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from converting the best of them. Napoli never looked comfortable when we broke.

Yet this win owed far more to a defence much-maligned. To be fair there have not been too many opportunities to play Laurent Koscielny, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and Nacho Monreal together for various reasons this season. With Rob Holding ruled out for so long these are our three most consistent defenders. Last night they were organised, authoritative, and delivered on the big stage. Credit where it is entirely due.

The scene is set, therefore, for an all-London Final in Baku. The Arsenal have the small matter of Valencia to deal with in the semi-final. Memories of Brussels 1980 will always mean this old fella will want them to be put to the sword. Lest we forget, they denied us a reunion with Santi Cazorla for which the Grove would have become a serious place of homage. Can Eintracht Frankfurt deny Chelsea? Surely not. Premier League sides are seemingly dominating in Europe this season. Be glad we are one of them.

Finally I can settle down. This could take a while. I am starting the preview of our vital trip to Naples as the games at Citeh and Porto kick-off.

Four paragraphs later there is a massive delete going on. How to put something together at half past ten after after half a litre of dubious rehydration? I’m so glad I have been able to watch Ajax at Bayern, Real, and last night at Juve. They really are a brilliant young side who have the ability to win anywhere. Pray they don’t freeze at the pointed end. They have been by far the best team in this season’s Champions League.

Arguably (and certainly at home!) we have been the best team in this season’s Europa League. However, there is quite a question mark hanging over us as we defend a 2-0 lead in Napoli. Our away form, it is not unreasonably argued, is what could do for us. The win at Watford on Monday, whatever you think of the merits of it, must have delivered some degree of belief on top of the desperately unlucky draw with the Nomads at Wembley and the win at Huddersfield (yeah, I know).

Important players got a breather ahead of this game. We are not in a position to write off any Premier League match while the top four is mathematically ours, but the potential for a third European trophy offers us a back-up option that cannot be ignored. And as Arseblog mentioned this morning it is the preferred of the two options if only one were to be achieved.

We know the last time we played Napoli we won 2-0 at our place, and they won 2-0 at theirs. We obviously are keen to avoid a repeat. One goal from us would require them to score four. Under such circumstances Unai Emery has a remit to look for a first-half goal with an attacking line-up. That’s not to say they can’t score, but neither do I believe we couldn’t strike twice these days if required. Emery understands this.

“We want to play thinking to win, thinking to score, thinking to push, thinking to stop them.”

The selection should be as close as we can get to the home leg. No? Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Alexandre Lacazette were trusted to start together in a formation we rarely employ away from home. Our 3-4-1-2 in a lot of home games switches to 3-4-2-1 away from home too often, and I know Auba can be a great impact substitute, but he could also be a great starter getting us an early goal that would all but kill the tie before Napoli could build a head of steam.

The ‘holic pound

It’s always difficult to predict a game in which a 1-3 scoreline would put us through. Nobody wants that. Will Napoli score? They have to, and they aren’t a bad side. They had their chances at our place and both of us could be said to have been wasteful.

I do still feel there is a spirit in the camp that gives us belief (even if Everton gave the lie to that). I have on occasion plumped for a draw in such circumstances, and I am attracted to the somewhat skinny best of 13/1 against a 2-2 outcome.

With that you have a somewhat abbreviated appreciation of a potentially crucial match for us. The report on the tie itself is likely to follow on Friday. The grand’holics are visiting, which is excellent, and so I will not report live as normally happens when I am not at the game.

Therefore it is already the appropriate moment to wish a very happy Easter to those of you who celebrate it. Thank you for your reading this often nonsense and for your friendship in so many cases.

Have a great one, ‘holics.

Unai Emery sprang some surprises with his starting eleven, most notably a recall for Konstantinos Mavropanos alongside skipper Laurent Koscielny in the centre of a back four and switching Shkodran Mustafi to right-back. Granit Xhaka was passed fit to accompany Lucas Torreira in midfield.  Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was named the lone striker. There were pre-Napoli rests for the two wing-backs, Mesut Ozil, and Alexandre Lacazette.

Not surprisingly Watford’s front two were putting themselves about in the opening minutes and we looked nervous defensively, but would we grow into the game? Hughes snatched at the first chance after we failed to clear a corner convincingly. In the opening phase Watford, like Everton before them, were more energetic and committed than us.

In the tenth minute, totally against the run of play, we grabbed the lead in bizarre circumstances. Aubameyang chased down a back-pass to Foster who dallied and saw his clearance rebound off the striker and into the net. Chucklebutty!

Watford 0-1 The Arsenal

It was even better in  the next phase of play when the big brave Deeney, motto “I’ll whack the first Arsenal player I come up against to see who’s up for it”, threw an elbow into Torreira’s head. The referee, having consulted with his assistant, rightly showed the cojone-free clown the red card. For some reason thousands of Burnley fans unexpectedly present were booing incessantly. Idiots all.

The ten men came back on the attack and Cathcart forced Bernd Leno into an excellent reaction save. There was life left in this match and we would need another goal, preferably before half-time. We could have got it when Iwobi broke but hit the ball too close to Foster.

Just past the half hour Watford were awarded a dubious free-kick when Hughes fell somewhat theatrically on the edge of the box and Leno had to produce his very best to deny a fine strike from Capoue. Not surprisingly the ten men stopped the high press in favour of dropping back when The Arsenal had the ball, perfectly sensible under the circumstances.

As the whistle approached a hopeful Xhaka strike bobbled into Foster’s arms after some good work by Alex Iwobi, and Aubameyang tried frantically but without success to get a shot away on the turn. The last action was a Gunners free-kick awarded when Hughes absolutely cut Aaron Ramsey in half and escaped a caution. That incident aside credit to Craig Pawson. You’ll not be surprised to read that I am not a fan, but I thought he had enjoyed a superb first-half performance.

The head coach sent on another attack-minded player with Ozil coming on for Torreira at the start of the second-half and Ramsey switched into a box to box role. Admirable ambition if it paid off.

Capoue’s awful studs up challenge into Henrikh Mkhitaryan earned him a yellow card. The Armenian has been in decent form for much of this season, but this was the second consecutive away game where we were not involving him a great deal. Moments later Iwobi presented him with a volleying opportunity six yards out but Foster was quick to make the block. Again he had a chance to clinch it, but drove wide of the target.

Nearly an hour again we went full on attack mode with Mavropanos making way for Matteo Guendouzi. Mustafi switched to the right of a back three. That effectively meant that Mkhitaryan and Iwobi would be the wing backs. Totally in control, Emery was looking for his charges to kill the game.

What happened next? A magnificent strike by Masina beat Leno all ends up but bounced off the top of the bar into the crowd. A close call indeed. The fallen Mustafi lost Gray momentarily but fortunately his first touch was atrocious. We were being handed very real warning signs. A sensible response came when Ainsley Maitland-Niles came on for Ramsey, important for Thursday.

Balance restored we looked to seal the deal. Aubameyang flicked a bouncing Mkhitaryan cross over the bar. Xhaka drew a save out of Foster. Still Watford fought for scraps. A free-kick with just over ten minutes to go provided catching practice for the excellent Leno. Gray went round the ‘keeper but Maitland-Niles launched himself to block the opportunity. Pulses were racing in the visitors section.

Mkhitaryan was in the right place at the right time to prevent Hughes from heading on target, but why was he exposed one to one at the far post? Six minutes plus added time remained. It was getting nervy again. The same Hughes finally saw the yellow he had seemingly desired for a nasty hack at the back of Nacho Monreal’s calf.

Three additional minutes were signalled as it all went end to end crazy, fair play to the ten men, but also fair play to the Gunners rearguard producing that first clean sheet away from home of the season. Fourth place with an away win. Scenes. What more can happen in this crazy first season for Unai Emery.

I’m buzzing again. Are you?

Away to Watford. Sokratis Papastathopoulos suspended, and Laurent Koscielny may not have two games in him this week, so how does Unai solve that little conundrum? Shall I get to the whacky idea first. Mohamed Elneny! When playing more often and in form he loved dropping into the back four to make a five. Oh come on, don’t call me that!

It would be so very risky to revert to a four and ask Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal to deal with Deeney and Gray man to man, and similarly they might prove a handful for any of our younger defenders yet to play in the Premier League. My fear is that Unai Emery may even consider Stephane Lichsteiner on the right of a three. Have I scared you as much as I have myself?

We will need to be more positive and look to outscore the hosts if we are to return to the top four at the expense of Chelsea. Granit Xhaka remains a doubt so expect Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi to start in between Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac. I know, Aaron Ramsey is in outstanding form and that is why, with his record of pulls and tears, we should hold him back for Thursday unless we are in desperate need here.

The front three is where the boss may also rotate, hoping we can get a result at Vicarage Road and keeping a couple of key players fresh for Thursday. Alexandre Lacazette probably has to start so we have an option to hold the ball up front and bring others into play. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hasn’t started many away games at all, hence leading to the somewhat self-reinforcing argument that he doesn’t score too many away from home. Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan could be preferred to him and Mesut Ozil?

The ‘holic pound

I am always so positive about our prospects, but the manner of the performance at Goodison was perhaps the final straw to which I am now nervously clutching. Before that match I was convinced we would finish third. After it I now just hope again that we can make fourth. A defeat at Watford wouldn’t be the final nail in the coffin but it would take qualification out of our hands again.

Be positive, I tell myself. A draw would keep it in our hands. The Hornets may have one eye on the upcoming FA Cup Final and not fancy the fifty-fifties? I don’t punt on draws (often), so I am thinking Watford probably have a couple of goals in them and therefore we need three. That scoreline is available for what appears a skimpy 20/1, but it is worth a pound, no?

I feel better already.

The ABW Preview

A new feature I hope to include in future preview posts is the recently introduced A Bergkamp Wonderland Preview podcast. If Danny and his chosen guest/s can post before I publish I will incorporate it here so you have a different viewpoint to consider.  Let me know what you think.

With just one change to the starting eleven predicted in the preview Unai Emery looked to be sending his team out with a strong attacking intent. The preference of Mesut Ozil ahead of Granit Xhaka owed everything to the latter being ruled unfit and gave us a number of options going forward. Would it be solid enough defensively? That was what many would have questioned before kick-off.

A bright start earned us a second minute corner sadly rendered pointless by some argie-bargy in the box. Astonishingly the second ended in similar fashion. The pressure continued when Ozil sent Sead Kolasinac flying in from the left to cut a fine ball back to Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman’s drive struck effectively a three man wall in front of the visitors goal and Ainsley Maitland-Niles left foot pile driver foundered on the same wall.

The high press paid off, as it would continue to throughout the half, when a brilliant team move involving Ramsey, Maitland-Niles, Ozil, Ramsey, and Alexandre Lacazette ended with Ramsey (again!) passing the ball inside the far post. It was the start the Gunners needed. That will be replayed on social media many times over the coming years.

The Arsenal 1-0 Napoli

As the clock ticked past twenty minutes the stadium I swear looked as though if lifted when Torreira won a tackle in the middle of Napoli’s half, carried it to the defence and dummied the first defender before letting fly and leaping for joy when it deflected off Koulibaly and into the net. This was more than we could have expected in our wildest dreams, wasn’t it?

The Arsenal 2-0 Napoli

Napoli had flattered to deceive on a couple of breaks and were clearly nervous of committing bodies forward with The Arsenal in this mood. A rarity denied us a third thirteen minutes from the break. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sprinted clear on the left and cut the ball back for his best friend, Lacazette, who misjudged the pace of the ball and made an air shot.

Aubameyang and Lacazette switched sides and the former’s fierce drive was all but spilled into the path of the French international by goalkeeper Meret.. From closer range in the same channel Aubameyang attempted to chip Meret but the goalkeeper claimed it and it remained 2-0. The mesmeric Ozil left two Napoli midfielders for dead with a delicious dip of the shoulder and turn through 180 degrees. Unfortunately he ran straight into Koulibaly.

We were given a warning in the last minute before the whistle when an unmarked Insigne let fly from close to the penalty spot but fortunately lifted a poor attempt over the bar. In the seconds that remained Ramsey had a chip at full stretch saved by Meret. What a half of football we had witnessed.

Probably berated by Ancelotti at the break, Napoli started the second-half with a poor challenge by Hysaj on Lacazette that earned him the first yellow of what had been a far from nasty contest. The visitors did get a break when Nacho Monreal was caught under a long ball on the left side but the excellent Laurent Koscielny was on hand to block the cross. Evidently they had been commanded to seek an away goal and were much more adventurous.

Insigne netted from a blatantly offside position but it was yet another warning. Koulibaly’s ‘shoulder’ from a corner was tipped over by Cech. Ten minutes of Napoli pressure introduced an air of nervousness and Ozil stepped up to the plate to drive us into the right direction again. When Ramsey’s thumping drive was superbly tipped away for a corner by Meret, Monreal was a whisker away from heading our third.

Kolasinac suddenly collapsed to the turf, perhaps a result of the effort he, among ten others had put in. He survived somewhat surprisingly the substitutions that followed when Lacazette and Ozil were replaced by Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. There was no audible dissent from the crowd, but the standing ovation they gave to both the departees spoke volumes.

Clearly recovered, Kolasinac again owned the left flank and when his cross was tipped to Maitland-Niles beyond the far post the Napoli goalkeeper produced an excellent save. So close. How close did we come to regretting it when Insigne’s cross ended with the unmarked Zielinski contrived to lift the ball over the target.

Perhaps that vigorous work we had put in was having an effect on us? Mohamed Elneny was introduced for Torreira with fourteen minutes remaining. Cue another standing ovation. Another fantastic fluid team move ended with Mkhitaryan putting one on a plate for Ramsey who unusually rushed his effort high into the North Bank. “Come on Arsenal” echoed around the bowl as supporters sensed they were needed for the closing ten minutes.

Ounas stung Cech’s palms as Napoli again exerted pressure. What a different half of football this was, much more even. Ounas again tok possession, galloped unchallenged down the right, but crossed thankfully too close to Cech. Seconds latter half of the stadium, and an old fella in Swindon erupted when Aubameyang made the net ripple from a wonderful Mkhitaryan pass. The realisation that he had hit the side-netting was a horrible come down.

Four added minutes could not have been more nervy, and it didn’t help that Koscielny suffered a serious attack of cramp when knocked down by Zielinski. A clean sheet against the team second in Serie A, the second favourites for the Europa League, was confirmed by a shrill blast of the whistle. What a night. Advantage The Arsenal, but can we produce the necessary performance in Naples?

Let’s do it!

Lady Luck deserted us in the draw for the Europa League quarter-finals when both the bus stop in Fulham and us were drawn away in the first leg. We were second in the pecking order so now face Napoli at home on Thursday night. If you want to put a positive spin on it then we have an opportunity to build a commanding lead to take to Naples.

Unai Emery’s press conference was once again a lesson in picking out nuances from his, possibly deliberate, quirky phrasing. He reminds me of when David Bowie told of taking a number of words on separate pieces of paper and randomly picking them up to suggest the lyrics for his next project. That would explain everything. Clarity came to him however when asked about the success he and Ancelotti, now the Napoli coach, had enjoyed in the past.

“This match is a big level, a big-level match, and the level we want to play. It’s a very big test for us in this competition. We want to play the best teams and Napoli now is one of the best teams, with the best players and also a very experienced coach.”

The team news is more encouraging. We do not have anyone suspended in the Europa League, also Laurent Koscielny and Granit Xhaka trained today (Wednesday). Emery was cautious when asked about them saying he would decide if they could play tomorrow. Frankly, after the performance at Everton this weekend, they will both be needed.

Petr Cech is likely to remain the cup-tie goalkeeper behind a three of Koscielny, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and Nacho Monreal. Ahead of them Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac could flank Xhaka and Lucas Torreira.

The front three is where Emery has to earn his money. Alexandre Lacazette is probably the only guaranteed starter. We will need his all round ability and work rate against solid opposition. In such a crucial tie Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may be preferred on the left which would leave one position on the right for four contenders. If Aaron Ramsey is fully fit it is likely he will get the nod. Playing those three would give us a trio of different types of player all capable of scoring goals.

It wouldn’t be a bad bench that contained Mesut Ozil, Alex Iwobi, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

The ‘holic pound

I’m more confident of picking up money at the Masters in all honesty. When we met Napoli in the Champions League in 2013 both clubs won their home leg 2-0. I would take that again tomorrow. Napoli remind me of someone. Decent in attack but not always that secure at the back. Who could that be?

In the end I let the heart, as ever, rule the head. I fancy the visitors to score so for us to take a two goal advantage into the second leg we’ll need three. I have had a modest dabble on that at 17/1.

A fine night out 

I cannot go without passing comment on my Tuesday attendance at the big match of the night. England Lionesses defeated Spain women in front of 13,400 supporters, a gate not seen at the County Ground in Swindon in many a moon.

The Lionesses were given the lead by Gunners star Beth Mead in the first-half having survived a confident opening spell from the visitors. We took a grip on the game forty seconds into the second-half with a sumptuous strike from former Arsenal striker Ellen White. Spain set up a teasing final twenty minutes with a goal from Bonmati, but the hosts held on for a deserved success.

The technical level and tactical approach of the womens game have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years as followers of the Arsenal team will agree. If the Lionesses are playing near you at any point do take the opportunity to go and watch them. Last night seats cost ten pounds for adults, incredible value for such a high standard of football. That of course applies to you wherever you are. Womens football the world over has made great strides as the World Cup will show this summer.

On to tomorrow. Have a great one, ‘holics.

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