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I was struck by a hint of deja vu this afternoon. Forty-three years ago, almost to the day, I was at Highbury to see Arsenal beat a cracking Benfica side, including the great Eusebio, 6-2 in a pre-season friendly. Nobody expected that degree of victory that day, and Arsenal would go on to surprise and delight in the opening months of that season with their interpretation of total football, made fashionable by the great Ajax side of the era.

Today the new look, and decidedly under-strength Gunners almost repeated the achievement, mastering the Europa League finalists 5-1, and again it has to be said the manner of the victory was as unexpected as it was impressive. Arsenal took to the field minus their holidaying three German World Cup winners, and started with something of a who’s who on the bench comprising, among others, new boys Mathieu Debuchy and Alexis Sanchez, goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, plus Laurent Koscielny, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, and Olivier Giroud.

Some idea of the potential strength of the squad was evidenced by the performances of a number of squad players plus new signing Calum Chambers, a right back at Southampton last season, but paired with left-back Nacho Monreal in the centre of the Gunners defence. From the right flank of that defence Hector Bellerin gave an impressive display, getting forward at every opportunity. Behind them Damian Martinez, presumably still third choice goalkeeper following the arrival of David Ospina, produced a string of smart saves as the visitors broke dangerously.

The midfield saw Mathieu Flamini anchoring and thereby allowing attacking freedom to Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky, both of whom showed enormous energy and enthusiasm chasing back as well as probing further forward. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and (at last) Joel Campbell worked the flanks. Campbell looked unfortunate not to get a very early penalty, but his time would come.

Yaya Sanogo got the nod to start as the central striker. A bit of a Marmite figure for the supporter base with his failure to score last season, although his chances were few and far between and usually in high-pressure fixtures against good opposition. Today he gave a hint of what he could become. An early attempt from a Bellerin cross missed the target, but his next four efforts required retrieving from the back of the net. Bellerin and Ramsey combined to set him up for the first in the 25th minute, a simple backheel flick.

Sanogo then combined with Bellerin to set up Campbell for a superb volley and we had doubled our advantage. There followed an astonishing four minute burst either side of the break which saw Sanogo plunder another three goals as Benfica fell apart. Campbell provided the assist for number three after cleverly avoiding the offside trap, Kieran Gibbs set up the pick of Sanogo’s goals, an intricate near-post finish under pressure, before he was gifted an opportunity to start the second-half with another from a parried Moraes save.

The midfield was substituted just before the hour, and from a set piece Arsenal’s lack of height and organisation allowed Gaitan to head home a consolation. Were this not a makeshift back four one might have been inclined to worry more. The players will doubtless go over what happened in the week before a stronger defence lines up against Manchester City at Wembley. A word for new boy Chambers. He’ll have more strenuous tests of his ability than a demoralised Benfica provided after a lively intial burst, but what he did was assured and he must be in the frame to partner Laurent Koscielny at Wembley next week.

There was time for the moment most in attendance came to see. Alexis was intoduced on the left flank for the final seventeen minutes, and showed some wonderful touches. He has undoubted class and will bring pace and trickery to the attack this season. Should Campbell and Sanogo build on today, Podolski and Giroud gain fitness quickly, and Theo Walcott return before long, our attacking options suddenly look much rosier. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t expect us to add a proven goalscorer should one become available, but we look much better stocked than this time last year.

Beforehand I spoke of the need to sit back and take a wider view of the performances this weekend. As a draw or defeat with this starting eleven would not have been a cause for pitchforks and torches, so the impressive win should not provoke too much celebration and expectation. By half-time Benfica had visibly crumbled, and most Premier League opponents will test us more severely. However they were reduced to that level by some astonishing attacking football from Arsenal, and some quality finishing from Campbell and Sanogo. It’s where we would want to be tonight.

Football Is Coming Home

So with friendlies in the contrasting settings of Boreham Wood and New York behind us the bar is raised just a little for the return of the Emirates Cup. Arsenal face Benfica on Saturday and AS Monaco on Sunday in front of two sell-out crowds. The two visiting sides will also play Valencia. Hopefully a decent weekend of football lies in store.

Of course the supporters will be looking forward to grabbing a look at the available new signings. Alexis Sanchez, Mathieu Debuchy, and Calum Chambers are all expected to feature although new goalkeeper David Ospina is ruled out with a thigh injury picked up against Brazil in the World Cup. Arsene confirmed that Joel Campbell will also feature so here is hoping he impresses in an area that remains under question for us.

Our World Cup winners are still on holiday getting a well-earned rest so there will be an opportunity for some other squad members to stake a claim for starting berths when the Premier League season kicks off in a fortnight. Ignasi Miquel may get at least one start alongside Laurent Koscielny with Thomas Vermaelen also ruled out by injury. Maybe Chambers will also get a chance to show his versatility in that position.

Mesut Ozil’s playmaker role should fall to Tomas Rosicky or Santi Cazorla. I can see Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta being paired at the base at least once, with maybe an opportunity for Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini in the other fixture. In the absence of Lukas Podolski it would not be a surprise to see Alexis starting on the left flank opposite the Ox on the other wing.

The accepted practice is for Twitter and Facebook to provide a minute by minute assessment of where we stand. Try instead sitting back, taking a wider view of the matches. These will not be played with a full intensity given the stage of preparation we have reached. Consider them more as opportunities to get the new faces accustomed to what is expected of them, and the old heads to sharpen up physically. As Arsene himself said,

“It is a real test of fitness and of tactical preparation. I am more interested in the fitness.”

Arsenal last won their own tournament four years ago. Last year Galatasaray took the trophy with two late goals against us in the Sunday decider. As we went on to get the no silverware in x years monkey off our shoulder I think we can agree that success this weekend is merely an optional extra.

If you are going then have a great day or weekend. I am ruled out until the opening Premiership fixture against Crystal Palace so I will be envious of you tomorrow. I must admit I would love to be there for a first glimpse of Alexis, potentially a great addition to the squad.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

Friends made, Arsenal’s makeshift squad departed New York having lost to the Red Bulls in front of an enthusiastic crowd. Sadly not all ticket holders reached the stadium but those that did gave tremendous vocal backing to the touring Gunners.

In truth they got a very watered down Arsenal experience in return, but one that was necessitated by the absence of so many of Arsenal’s World Cup stars. We started with Tomas Rosicky up front, and with Nacho Monreal partnering Isaac Hayden in the centre of defence.

The pleasure of seeing Thierry Henry once more was counter-balanced by the sight of Tim Cahill launching into reckless challenges. This was not a friendly in his eyes, clearly. Henry it was who had the first clear opportunity and Wojciech Szczesny was grateful to turn the effort wide. Bradley, son of Ian Wright Wright Wright, failed from a similar angle and both Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey went close for the visitors.

The goal that would decide the match arrived just past the half hour when Wright-Phillips applied the finishing touch to an Oyongo knock down from point blank range. Had we been fielding two experienced central defenders that goal would have rung alarm bells, but under the circumstances it was a minor irritant. Our best chance to level came shortly afterwards when Jack Wilshire was denied by the excellent Robles in the Red Bulls goal.

Not surprisingly Arsene rung the changes at half-time and the introduction of, among others, Abou Diaby gave us a different shape. The injury-plagued Frenchman had the ball in the net only to have his celebrations cut short by an offside flag.

At least we did field a striker in the second-half. Chuba Akpom, like Wilshere before him, found Robles in the way when put clear. In truth though chances at either end were few and far between as the game petered out.

As a football exercise we probably gained little. I felt for Zelalem, built up pre-match, a wonderful creator of chances but with no striker to pick out. A little too for Monreal, like a fish out of water at centre-half. Such observations seem harsh. With so many good players yet to feature we have yet to take shape. Three big weeks lie ahead.

In diplomatic mood the boss praised Thierry and our hosts afterwards.

“For us it was a great experience, everybody enjoyed it and nobody wants to go home. It was a short trip but a very exciting one because New York is a special city. But what is even more special for us is how popular football is now.”

Therein lies the reality. This was an exercise in promoting football in general, and Arsenal in particular, in a valuable market. The sight of so many Arsenal shirts in the crowd last night was proof that the objectives had been achieved.

Welcome David Ospina

It is good to see confirmation of the signing of Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina from Nice. I think anybody who witnessed his performances in the World Cup will agree we have definitely strengthened a key position. At 25 his best years lie ahead and he will surely push Wojciech Szczesny hard for a starting berth.

Huge thanks to our own, inimitable, Bergkamp the Man for a unique account and pics of his Saturday out at Boreham Wood. I’m sure you will enjoy it as much as I. Thank you maestro.

With no other sporting event of any real significance on offer in this very fine, ‘Better Together’, United Kingdom, what other option could take precedence for a footie starved Gooner over the annual trip to Boreham Wood? “A10 to Potters Bar, take the first right and you can’t miss Meadow Park” (Well, you can, actually but that’s another story).

When, in 1948, Boreham Rovers and Royal Retournez pooled their resources to form the mighty “Wood”, little could they have realized that 66 years later they’d open a brand spanking new West Stand in the presence of Lord Wenger, in temperatures that nearly melted the very fibre of the new structure itself. Nor could they have dreamt that the young Welsh Wizard himself, Aaron Aragorn Ramsey, would captain The Arsenal for the first time, but by no means the last time, in a career that promises previously unreached pinnacles, exhaltation and euphoric reverberation throughout the valleys filled with leeks.

The local Hertfordshire Blackhead sheep flock had munched the Meadow perfectly and uniformly to a luxurious emerald carpet. Rows and flows of angel hair drifted across and sky of azure blue perfection and ‘Alexis’ shirts were too numerous to count on tiny Gooners, smaller than the number 17 on their backs. The atmosphere was carnival, lacking toffee apples and steam-engine-powered organ chords, but supplemented instead by the inevitable chorus of “if you hate, Tottenham….” all washed down with chilled, secretly smuggled, Guinness. ‘Hic’

And suddenly, there they were, resplendent in Puma and ready to pounce, The Arsenal, in their new blue and yellow away kit. Younger, and in several cases, difficult to recognize, “Who’s that playing Number 12 for us?”, but The Arsenal, nevertheless, unequivocally. “Wojcieck, Wojcieck, give us a wave”, an exchange of pennants, a shrill whistle and we were off to the races.

The Arsenal dominated the first half, but frankly, rarely looked like scoring. “Were we trying to?”, I wondered. Wonderboy Zelalem started well but faded quickly. Jenkinson had more acres than Donald Trump but didn’t do much with them. Sanogo worked hard and should have scored but failed to remove the albatross of “hasn’t yet converted” from around his neck. Ramsey’s quality lacked the spark of an equal or an Ozil to fire the exceptional. Jon Toral, doing a very fine impersonation of Aaron Ramsey, caught the eye, but not sufficiently to merit inclusion in the first team squad for the coming season. Try harder to impose yourself, young man. You have what it takes. Nacho impressed in a defense that was never really threatened.

These warm-ups provide the luxury of an entirely new eleven at the manager’s whim and so “All change” commanded Arsene after 45 minutes. And it was a different, much more purposeful Arsenal that the sunburned legions witnessed for the second segment, even without the Wunderkinder, Serge Gnabry and Eisfeld the Iceman.

Iggi Miguel has doubled his body mass since I saw him last (in the seven-goaler at Reading). He played well. Gibbsy stayed in second gear and was untroubled. Our number 8 (who was he? I never knew) was solid. Bellerin was outstanding and the Corporal will be really challenged for the right back berth if Debuchy goes lame. Flamini and Rosicky started where they left off last season and were excellent. Olsson, Afobe and Akpom (who really grew in confidence as the half progressed) looked sharper than tacks and before we knew it, we’d won 2-0 without ever needing to fire up more than five of our twelve cylinders.

But wait! This wouldn’t be a BtM report without a mention of the finest box-to-box midfielder that the world has never seen at his peak. I was very nervous for Abou Diaby from the first warm-up leap, through the first tackle, the first stretch and then the first kick. Abou is like your best china. You want to take him out and show him off but you’re scared shitless that he’ll break or chip and you’ll be left heart-broken.

I needn’t have worried. Diaby was imperious. He oozed quality, didn’t put a foot wrong and was the heartbeat of the second-half team. If he can stay fit, Sami Khedira will spend next season sitting on the bench beside Arsene watching in awe. “Will he?” is the big question.

The whistle blew. Abou swapped shirts. He looked over to where I was standing and gave me the “I’ll be absolutely fine this season, BtM” wink. You heard it FIRST right here on Goonerholic. Abou Diaby is going to play a MAJOR roll for The Arsenal this season AND I’m back on the double. (Champagne on me at the Tolly next May!)

Enjoy it, Holics! We have an amazingly strong squad and there’s more, much more, quality to come. It just keeps getting better over here on the sunny side. COYRRRs.

Arsenal Are Back, Again

3pm Saturday. A small but enthusiastic crowd gathers in Hertfordshire to witness the seasonal bow of the Arsenal squad, albeit with significant absentees in this World Cup summer. Arsenal are back, again, and hopefully to prepare for a season in which we build on the FA Cup triumph of a couple of months ago.

Most will have seen the match at Boreham Wood live, or on Arsenal Player, or will be catching up on the highlights. In a nutshell we fielded a side of young hopefuls surrounding a core of Wojciech Szczesny, Carl Jenkinson, Nacho Monreal, and Aaron Ramsey in a goal-less first half. Gedion Zelalem caught the eye with his ability to play defence-splitting passes as he did at this stage of last season.

There is a danger of reading too much into just one half of what is basically a step up from a training match. Zelalem remains an unpolished diamond and by the end of August our already impressive midfield options may have been strengthened further. The other side of the ‘too early to judge’ coin is the performance of Yaya Sanogo, slated on some tweets I saw. I don’t mind him missing chances against non-league opposition in the warm July sun. The fact he was in position so often is more encouraging.

After the break a fresh eleven built around Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Flamini, Abou Diaby, and Tomas Rosicky took the game to tiring opponents and eventually delivered the victory to send the largely Arsenal supporting crowd home happy. Diaby and the impressive Chuba Akpom both drew excellent saves from Russell in the Wood goal before Rosicky took on the mantle of master passer to set up Kris Olsson for a neat dinked finish over the goalkeeper midway through the half.

The winning margin was doubled in the closing minutes when Benik Afobe was bundled over in the six yard box and the same player netted comfortably from the spot.

In the aftermath Arsene Wenger signed autographs for the supporters and chatted with the assembled journalists. The inevitable topic of transfers came up.

“Sometimes players that you want are available very late. You refer maybe to the Ozil case but at the same period last year he was not available, and became available very late. We’ll do the deals when it’s possible.”

Of course we are in a much better position than this time last year with Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona, and this week Mathieu Debuchy from Newcastle, added to the squad. These are quality signings that send out a strong message, but with improved commercial deals and an extra three percent of revenue from the supporters pockets in the bank clearly there is no reason why further quality additions won’t be made. An exciting few weeks lie ahead.

Meanwhile an exciting few days lie ahead of me in South Devon. I mention it only because last year internet connectivity in that particular part of the south west was something of a hit and miss affair. It may be a quiet week in advance of next weekend’s fixture in New York, by which time we may have yet more new signings confirmed.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

As Ian Poulter goes through his final preparations for The Open this weekend, the Englishman experienced a rather unusual encounter from a passionate group of Arsenal supporters.  The Golfing Gooner was given a little help from his fellow fans who brought some terrace atmosphere to the normally quieter golfing fairways.  The day became even more interesting when Poulter found Arsenal legend Freddie Ljungberg had taken the place of his caddie.

Ian Poulter once said home support really drives him on when he plays tournament golf in Britain, especially at The Open or Ryder Cup.  With his passion for football, PUMA arranged for an Arsenal contingent to give him a special send off for Hoylake.

Ian Poulter said: “Home support means a lot to me in England, it’s always inspiring and motivating to hear the fans cheering you on through eighteen holes on home soil. Obviously I’ve seen Arsenal play a lot throughout my life, and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in some very passionate Ryder Cup matches in recent years, so being part of this film that brought Arsenal fans together with a very different spectator sport like golf was a fantastic and unique experience.”

Well played PUMA for the enthusiastic approach to their new partnership with Arsenal. I might not have quite the right shape for the new shirt, but loving the promotion you are bringing to the club we all love.

Arsenal in the Community 2014 Awards

Arsenal in the Community held their annual awards ceremony in the Woolwich Suite at Emirates Stadium on Monday afternoon.

The event took place to recognise the achievements and work of 350 Arsenal in the Community participants over the course of the 2013/14 season. Among the projects celebrated were the club’s education initiative the Arsenal Double Club, the social inclusion programmes Kicks and Positive Futures and the long running Arsenal Bowles programme.

Arsenal legends Alan Smith and Perry Groves were on hand to congratulate the winners, along with representatives from Islington Council. A video message from Gunners midfielder Abou Diaby was also played out.

Another former Arsenal player, Roy Pack, was recognised for his contribution to the club’s community work. Roy, who played for the club in the 1960s, now volunteers with Arsenal’s mental health programme Imagine Your Goals.

After the ceremony, attendees had the opportunity to have their picture taken with the FA Cup. As luck would have it I missed out, unable to accept my invite, but I do still have a snap of a younger and fitter me with the Premier League trophy, FA Cup, and Community Shield from 2002. Some consolation, I think you will agree.

Head of Arsenal in the Community Alan Sefton said: “These awards are a great way for us to celebrate the achievements of the young people we work with, and to take stock of what we’ve achieved together over the past year. There are hundreds of people who make Arsenal in the Community what it is, and it’s brilliant to be able to thank them here at Emirates Stadium.”

The Final Boast

“I will stand accused of donning my rose tinteds when I tell you I have grabbed the 13/2 available for Jogi Low’s boys.”

Nobody likes a smartarse, right? I wrote that before a ball had been kicked in anger. What is so wrong about saying “I told you so”? Guilty, your honour.

The squad comprising three FA Cup winners and some fairly decent ballast triumphed over Argentina to become the first European nation to win the World Cup on South American soil. The Final, like the tournament before it, got mixed reviews. I am firmly in the camp that enjoyed the game from first to last. Two teams committed to trading attacks whilst retaining a defensive shape made for an engrossing show. I use the word carefully, wary of typing entertaining, for not all were.

I’ll be the first to admit I had more than a passing interest in the outcome. A small punt pre-tournament at the odds above was supplemented by another at 13/5 on the eve of the semi-final against Brazil. My belief was tested in the early stages, and when Kroos freed Higuain with an awful misplaced header Argentina should have had the advantage. When the same player found the net from an offside position it was clear that Germany would not be dominating in the way they had the semi-final against the hosts.

They were disrupted by the loss of Khedira in the pre-match warm-up, then by the loss of his replacement, Kramer, to concussion. Cue the movement of Mesut Ozil to centre stage, playmaker supreme, and with the benefit of the outstanding Schweinsteiger to ride shotgun for him. Schurrle, on for Kramer, brought the best out of Argentine ‘keeper Romero before Howedes, preferred to Mertesacker, thundered a header against the post. So it was goal-less at half-time, but not a 0-0 in nature, if that makes sense.

The second-half started as the first had. Messi found himself in with a chance to cement his legacy but the question marks remain after he screwed his effort wide of the far post. It is hard to say if he loooked more embarrassed at that moment, or at the end of the match when he was presented with the player of the tournament award. At the other end the industrious Ozil teed up Kroos but the man bound for Real Madrid sidefooted wide. Extra-time it was, and I started to regret not backing both sides to win on penalties, as I had for Argentina’s semi-final triumph over the Dutch.

When the veteran Klose had departed the contest in the final minutes I was surprised not to see Lukas Podolski sent on. Instead Gotze got the call and eased my disappointment for the Arsenal man with the superb finish that secured the World Cup and a gazillion bets. There remained time enough for Messi to head over the bar and repeat the feat from the final free-kick.

Per Mertesacker came on for club colleague Ozil in the final minute. Reports coming out of the German camp tell of an inspirational speech made by the BFG to his team-mates before the kick-off. That says a great deal about him. He must have been disappointed at not being selected, but showed true leadership qualities. Arsene, the armband for this man please.

So that was it for the tournament. I missed the best of it in the group stages by all accounts, although Belgium v USA, and the German semi-final and final were unmissable. Germany were the stand-out team (I told you so, neer!) but not in the way of the Brazilian teams of 1958-70. But for wayward Argentine finishing it might have been very different. There was little between the two sides who brought the curtain down on Brazil ’14.

As I am still typing left-handed that is it for me too for tonight. It will be good to get back to commenting on all things Arsenal, although next week may be a bare one as I am heading to Devon for a week of rest and recovery on Sunday. If any ‘holics are going to Boreham Wood on Saturday and fancy sharing your day with us I would be happy to publish that as a guest post. Let me know.

Have a great week, all.

Big thanks to our very own Clive, the sweeper, for his initial thoughts on the excellent signing of Alexis Sanchez. Thanks for stepping into the breach, my friend.

When I retired early last night, worn out by five grandchildren who had not only appropriated my laptop all afternoon, but had also emptied my fridge and pantry of anything vaguely resembling food. The Arsenal still had not made an official signing of any new players.

So imagine the smile that spread across my dial when I fired up the laptop first thing this morning and was greeted with the cheeky smiling face of Alexis Sanchez in an Arsenal shirt. What a wonderful addition to team Arsenal.

Another high class technician to complement our other HCT in Mesut Ozil. Will Alexis Sanchez improve our team? Absolutely. Can we win the league title now he is ours? Again, absolutely, but not without some other top quality additions in positions that we have discussed ad nauseam in the Bar.

Has Arsene Wenger learnt his lesson? Buying early to integrate rather than leaving to the last minute, and hoping to pick up players at a reduced price, as he has in the past. None of us are privy to the inner workings behind the scenes at the club, and the past few seasons have certainly been a trial for everyone who loves AFC, with some top talent and not so top talent leaving, and the boss operating in the market with one hand tied behind his back.

Some cynics were of the mind last season that Ozil was a purchase forced on him by the board who demanded Arsene invest in a serious talent to appease the baying of the hounds among the press and impatient supporters.

I prefer to think that we had to be patient, until Ancelotti (who took over at a very late stage at Madrid after a protracted move from his previous club,which was haggling over the compensation package) could finalise the Bale purchase and decide which players he deemed were not guaranteed regular first team football. Fortunately for us Mesut was one of those and we had a massive boost to the club and it’s supporters.

Now here we are,not even mid July and a wonderfully talented player has arrived at the Arsenal seduced by the silver tongue of the silver fox who convinced him that the peak years of his career should be spent not at Liverpool or Juventus or any other European powerhouse, but with us.
It will be a privilege to watch him showcase his enormous talents at Arsenal Football Club.

The heavens have opened and so my advice to get out in the garden is rendered rather pointless. Twenty-four hours before the first semi-final I have a chance to look at the World Cup once more as the pointed end looms into view.

It is a strange tournament too. I missed much of the early phase but everybody was quick to tell me I was missing out. The knock-out stage I have seen in it’s entirety and I am left with the same sort of feeling as someone who has booked a table at a once lauded restaurant only to find the chef has moved on and the fare is more ordinary.

The lesser sides who lit up the early phase are now history. Farewell Colombia and Costa Rica (and Switzerland), and thanks for the memories. Not surprisingly the big guns of South America, hosts Brazil and their old rivals Argentina, will face up to Europe’s current strongest, Germany and Holland, respectively. So this is where continental advantage kicks in and the Europeans meet their match, right?

Well but for a sickening broken vertebra for Neymar I might have been more inclined to accept that. Without him there are huge question marks about this Brazil team. One could argue that about the other three semi-finalists as well, but you can see where they might click and score goals. Popular belief has it that Oscar will be pushed up behind, or alongside, Fred and Hulk. He has undoubted quality, but will need the others to shake off the inconsistency and lack of imagination they have suffered from thus far.

Germany come to the party having already recorded three clean sheets. Manuel Neuer has been the goalsweeper (you read it here first!) of the tournament, and ahead of a mean defence is a midfield that has everything. Schweinsteiger and Khedira anchoring behind a fluid trio of Ozil, Muller, and Kroos. Will the BFG return after missing the quarter-final victory over France with a bug? Will we get to see Lukas Podolski at any stage. I tipped them before the tournament and earnestly believe that the three Gunners will be lifted to new levels next season if they can earn the epithet, World Cup winners.

I am on Germany to spring not much of a surprise, perhaps by a 2-1 margin.

On Wednesday one could argue that Argentina face a similar burden to their neighbours. Maybe Di Maria is not the talisman, as Neymar is to Brazil, but he does provide variety and a significant threat. Without him to worry about the Dutch will be able to focus just a little more on the genius that is Messi. He came into this tournament with some pundits playing down his status as the best player in the world because ‘he hasn’t done it at international level’. He is possibly three hours playing time away from wiping out the few doubts that can remain about his talent. However the Dutch will do everything to crowd him out of the game and how successful they are at doing that will determine their fate.

The Netherlands have three key players who most definitely could hurt the Argentines in Sneijder, and the loathesome pairing of Robben and van Persie. Bitter, me? You bet I am, but that doesn’t alter the fact that this Dutch team has reached the last four on merit. They have shown devastating class against Spain, character against Australia and Mexico, and although sentiment demanded that they were slated after beating Costa Rica in a controversial penalty shoot out I would argue the end result was probably the correct, if not popular, one.

I really can see this going to penalties again, which makes the result a lottery, but something is telling me Argentina will nick it at the death. A South American tournament cannot produce an all European Final, surely?

Whatever happens I hope football is the winner and we are not discussing terrible injuries and unsporting behaviour. When the stakes are so high don’t be surprised if that is exactly what we are talking about on Thursday.

Have a good couple of days, ‘holics.

Two matches per evening, glorious sunshine, absent neighbours, and an iPad. I have digested all of the ’round of sixteen’ matches, and half of them without compromising my ‘get out in the garden’ advice. The result is a quarter-final line-up that tantalises.

Arsenal feature heavily in the first. Germany v France is unmissable as Per Mertesacker may be called upon to do battle with Olivier Giroud, while Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski have to find a way past Laurent Koscielny at the other end. Giroud must be a doubtful starter. After an excellent start to the tournament he looked a little jaded once again and was substituted as the French somewhat controversially edged past Nigeria. He has played a lot of football in both red and blue this season and if my pre-tournament tips for the Cup do win through on Friday then it is much-needed holiday time for the striker.

That will be followed by the all South American affair between hosts Brazil and the perhaps surprisingly excellent Colombia. The latter impressively saw off Uruguay with two goals from James Rodriguez, the first an absolute screamer, the second a superb team goal. Those of us who have hung around this mortal coil for a fair few years have a romantic view of Brazilian football built by a succession of teams and individuals. The current incarnation however has yet to light up their own tournament.

The bookmakers are convinced home advantage and partisan support will see Brazil through, so they are just about odds-on favourites. Plenty of observers are tipping Colombia to spring a surprise and the 19/5 being offered by one High Street bookie looks tempting. Don’t be surprised if Brazil are taken to penalties again.

First up on Saturday will be Argentina against Belgium, taken all the way by a spirited USA team in the most enjoyable and gripping of the last sixteen ties. The Americans face the same technical deficiencies that haunt England at the highest level, but Klinsmann has forged a strong work ethic and team spirit. They gave it all and only just came up short.

Argentina will be fancied to get through on South American soil, but will need those around Lionel Messi to contribute more than in the narrowest of victories against unfancied Switzerland with an Angel Di Maria strike. (Insert something here about Arsenal’s alleged interest in the goalscorer.) Belgium, I’m told, were ‘pragmatic’ in the group phase. The word may actually have been ‘boring’, but I was not witness to any of their first three performances. They had to be at their best to win last night (Tuesday) and may be peaking at the right time. I’ll side with Argentina, but it will be tight.

The winners of that tie will meet the victor of the final contest between The Netherlands and Costa Rica. If Colombia have been merely ‘surprisingly excellent‘ that is because Costa Rica have been the delightful ‘surprise package‘ of the tournament thus far. They qualified by beating Uruguay and Italy before allowing England their only point of the tournament in Group D. They reached their first World Cup quarter-final by winning a penalty shoot-out against Greece on Sunday.

There is, of course, an Arsenal interest in the shape of striker Joel Campbell, out on loan since we signed him three years ago. He scored in the 3-1 win over Uruguay sparking much debate online about his suitability for a place in the squad next season. Personally I doubt he is what we need, but I pray he proves me wrong both on Saturday, and next season. I suspect the Dutch will progress, but Robben’s antics to get them this far leave a nasty taste.

As far as other Arsenal news is concerned we are said, by less than reputable sources, to have sealed a deal for Mathieu Debuchy and agreed a fee with Barcelona for Alexis Sanchez. Attractive though at least the latter would be I sense a little prematurity (at best) in both reports.

Perhaps it is time to get back in the garden.

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