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It’s turned into a week of difficult pieces to put together. Before Tuesday night we were a team gathering a head of steam ahead of a monster of a match at the bus stop in Fulham. Now we go into a match against unquestionably the form team of the moment with a midfield decimated by injury, suspension, and the African Cup of Nations.

A gap we hoped would be down to six points is up instead to nine, and should that grow to twelve tomorrow, well, it would leave us with no room for manoeuvre in the remaining fourteen fixtures. Can you see Chelsea losing four in that space of time?

Away with you, defeatism. Now is the time to consider just how we might repeat our 3-0 drubbing of the current leaders at the Grove in September. The same back five are available and it would be a surprise if Petr Cech didn’t start behind Hector Bellerin, Skhodran Mustafi, Laurent Koscielny, and Nacho Monreal. The central pairing in particular were outstanding that day causing lone Chelsea raider, the loathsome Costa, to lose his head.

Francis Coquelin started that day with the imperious Santi Cazorla. Tomorrow, should we retain the 4-2-3-1 formation, he will need someone of less experience alongside him. Despite their contribution to a wonderful win at Southampton last weekend I suspect Chelsea away may be a Bridge too far (sorry!) for Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain makes no secret of his wish to play in the middle of the pitch and this is surely his opportunity to show what he can become for us?

Mesut Ozil is a given in the number ten role, but what of the attacking trio for him to provide the ammunition? In the home match we went for pace and fluidity with Theo Walcott, Alex Iwobi, and Alexis up top. I suspect that Arsene may opt for that tomorrow too, but Danny Welbeck looked very sharp last weekend and wasn’t involved in the Watford debacle. I would prefer him to start on the left in a strong, quick, and interchangeable front three. Lucas and Olivier Giroud give us good options from the bench if circumstances require.

There is another option open to Arsene, and that is to try and match Chelsea man for man by playing three at the back. Rob Holding is also not tarred with the Watford brush and could slot into a three. In this instance Keiran Gibbs might be preferred to Monreal on the left and Danny Welbeck might drop to the bench. This could negate what otherwise looks likely to be the home side outnumbering us in midfield.

Of course it is highly unlikely that Arsene would do the latter and so we really do need another performance of pace and power if we are to replicate September’s wonderful triumph. The measure of the task is in the fact that the invincibles were the last Gunners side to complete a double over Chelsea. Thirteen years could be unlucky for someone in a fixture that has become a test of discipline in recent years.

The ‘holic pound

The bookmakers are nervous about the outcome, and were we not the opposition I would seriously consider a healthy punt on them at just about odds on, 10/11. There, I’ve said it. Instead the voice in my other ear is looking at the value being offered on an entirely different outcome.

We are finishing matches strongly these days, even if we don’t always turn up for the start. I have to believe we will be up for it from the off tomorrow, and I am drawn to scores being level at half-time with us producing a match winning moment or two in the second-half at a best of 9/1.

There is one other factor in our favour tomorrow. I usually make the effort to get to this one, and I have been something of a jinx of late, it would appear. I am giving it a miss this season in the hope that this swings things decisively in our favour.

To those who are going I wish you a much better day than most are predicting. Wherever you are watching the match I wish all of you a great one, ‘holics.

The Longest Night?

Twenty-four hours on. You expected my mood might have improved, that I would find the words to at least try and make sense of last night, But I’m afraid not. With apologies for starting off me, me, me, I should put what follows into some context.

The match started a string of just miserable fortune. The relative pleasure at making the penultimate train rather than the last being taken away by the train manager. “Passengers for Didcot Parkway and Swindon, please change at Reading where a bus replacement service awaits you.” It was after one when finally I made the duvet, but the events of the evening had prompted whatever keeps one in a state of insomnia to take control of whatever passes for my grey matter. In pure darkness the mind whirled through what had just happened.

Not everything was negative. In fact the evening had started well with an hour and a half in excellent company in the Gunners, followed by a swift couple with a not-seen-enough drinker of this parish. Talk turned to our chances of getting a result at the bus stop in Fulham on Saturday after extending Watford’s miserable run. A gentle stroll to the stadium, a chat with el Presidente and the neighbour, and all seemed well with the world.

It was at this point that things took a turn for the worse. As we took our seats the rain that had been promised arrived, and would spend the next ninety minutes getting progressively worse. In row seven we were getting a proper soaking. There is no doubt that it had dampened the enthusiasm of the home support as well. The lack of strong support off the pitch was no excuse for a similarly quiet start on it.

The omission of Hector Bellerin and Theo Walcott had raised eyebrows in the build-up, but Gabriel has covered well for the Spaniard of late, and Alex Iwobi has something about him so that would be ok, surely? But it wasn’t. The Arsenal that started so slowly in many recent fixtures returned with a vengeance. No pressure on the visitors from the off, no urgency, and a collective inability to consistently find team-mates and dominate possession.

If Watford had expected to be hitting on the break they made the most of the carelessness that had enveloped us. They poured forward at every opportunity. You will have seen the two goals in three minutes that rocked the crowd by now. Aaron Ramsey again hobbled off with a calf injury. “Unlucky Aaron” yelled the neighbour. That was not the only view being expressed. Some of it was sad to hear.

The opening forty-five minutes were as depressing as we have seen this season. No character, no pride. Something needed to change in the second-half and to be fair, once again, it did. Yet how frustrating is it now that so often a squad that is clearly the best we have had in a decade should regularly sleepwalk their way through the first-half of matches? The darkness somehow intensified, and yet yielded no sleep.

Theo Walcott was introduced at half-time. I know not whether or not Giroud was injured but the change gave us a more threatening shape with Iwobi switching to the left where he began to torture the Watford defence. His goal was a reward for a spell of vibrant attacking play but there was a twist left on a frustrating night. Our last standing deep-lying midfielder, Francis Coquelin, left the pitch. Again I know not if he was injured but we are potentially decimated for what has become a huge match on Saturday lunch-time.

Iwobi was withdrawn to partner Oxlade-Chamberlain who almost immediately found himself reduced to a hobble too. With all three substitutes used he had to limp through to the finish and let’s hope he did not cause further damage in so doing. Our chance of rescuing a point with another last-gasp strike evaporated when Lucas smashed an effort against the bar and it came back into play.

I had not a clue what the time was as I got to this point, but still something kept me from even a refreshing nap. So the thoughts turned to how, why, who. They do, don’t they? I have to temper what follows by saying that if we can find a way of nicking a win on Saturday, by hook or by crook, we will be back in the hunt and this will appear an intolerant, needy rant. Indeed it probably is, anyway.

That doesn’t seem likely right now. Defeat at the weekend will leave us twelve points adrift of the leaders. I know mathematically that won’t be decisive, but it will signal yet again the early surrender of a realistic title challenge. You may have expected me to lead the defence of the manager tonight. Instead, in the early hours of darkness I mulled over my thoughts about him. His failure to commit to the club beyond this season, along with his two truly world-class talents, is a concern.

Yet there is also an air of relief that he is obviously considering his next step. I cannot hide my support for the job the man has done, and the success he achieved in the years leading up to the stadium move. I remain convinced he navigated us through some very choppy waters in the years of necessary belt-tightning that followed. I argued all along that he deserved to be the beneficiary of the increased funds when they became available.

That happened with the renegotiations with Emirates and the switch to Puma in 2013, plus the subsequent step change in television payments. The man delivered successive FA Cups, memorable Wembley days both, and they were thought to be the platform from which we could launch a serious title challenge. Despite improving to a last day second place finish our failure to stay the course with Leicester last season was the first time I accepted the possibility, no more than that, that Arsene’s tenure was approaching a natural conclusion.

In the oh so dark early hours of this morning I have to confess my stupid racing mind had accepted that if we lose on Saturday then I would be at a crossroads. Arsene has had the money, and indeed spent the thick end of a hundred million pounds in 2016, and yet a serious title challenge appears as far away as ever. Arsene has been the beneficiary of the funds his frugality in the lean years helped to provide. Four years on we are still ‘inconsistently consistent’.

Of course we could win at the bus stop in Fulham, sweep Bayern Munich aside on our march to the Champions League Final in Cardiff. We might survive potentially the toughest last eight in recent FA Cup memory. There is always hope, but expectation? In the early hours of this morning, in the depths of what passes for feelings, it really was very, very dark.

Turn the light on again, Arsene.

What a draw for the fifth round of the FA Cup. Sutton United must be totally jubilant, and Craig Eastmond will be absolutely delighted to get a crack at one or two of his old team mates. Roarie Deacon and Jeffrey Monakana are also former young guns in the squad.

If everybody but Santi Cazorla is still fit then a not too dissimilar line up to the one that got us past Southampton should get a chance to take us into the quarter-finals. Whoever plays on the 3G pitch will I’m sure be thoroughly prepared for what to expect.

More on that in the coming weeks. Tuesday night sees the visit of Watford who ended our FA Cup run last season. We have avenged that defeat though by winning the corresponding league fixture 4-0 towards the tail end of last season, before beating the Hornets 3-1 at Vicarage Road in August.

Those who missed out at Southampton are set to return, and the boss hinted strongly that Danny Welbeck might be held back while he completes his return to full fitness. Expect Petr Cech to start behind the back four of Hector Bellerin, Skhodran Mustafi, Laurent Koscielny, and Nacho Monreal.

It is the pairing in front of them who will give Arsene the first of his selection headaches. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was outstanding in the 4-3-3 deployed at St Mary’s, and may have something to offer with his passing from deep if preferred to Aaron Ramsey. Can he do the defensive side of the job? It’s the doubt that could see the Welshman return with Francis Coquelin.

Our front men are in good form and someone other than Welbeck is set for disappointment. Theo Walcott and Alexis could flank Mesut Ozil, with Olivier Giroud returning up top. This set up gives us options but playing Alex Iwobi on the left and Alexis in the centre gives us pace, mobility, and trickery. Lucas will almost certainly find himself on the bench again as the other unlucky guy.

New signings M’Baye Niang and Mauro Zarate have the unenviable task of raising the spirits at Watford. Seven games without a league win, and they were dumped out of the FA Cup at Millwall on Sunday. They have an eight points cushion to the relegation zone but that is the direction in which they are heading right now.

The ‘holic pound

After the weekend we have had an extra day to recover and the spirits must be sky high in the squad right now. Watford’s defeat could have them less buoyant with one or two maybe playing while feeling rather leggy. Everything points to a comfortable win. The bookies favour 2-0 and 3-0. I want better odds than that and have taken the 25/1 against a 5-0 win. Now watch us go and draw!

I am off to the match and haven’t got a holiday on Wednesday so my take on the match isn’t likely to appear before Wednesday evening, by which time you will probably have covered it comprehensively in the drinks. Wherever you are watching or listening to it, have a great one ‘holics.

Arsene Wenger gave Steve Bould a much-changed team to oversee at St Mary’s. Skhodran Mustafi was the only player to keep his place from last week. There were not even places on the bench for Petr Cech, Laurent Koscielny, Francis Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, or Olivier Giroud. Martin Keown mentioned that he had heard that Coquelin, Ozil, and Ramsey were injured. If that is true all our senior midfielders are out at the same time. Southampton too made ten changes from the team that beat Liverpool to reach the EFL Cup Final.

We had the first meaningful attempt in the third minute when Jeff Reine-Adelaide’s attempt was deflected for a corner. Just a minute later the same player played in Lucas who side footed just wide of the far post. There was a look of 4-3-3 to us in this opening phase with Reine-Adelaide working alongside Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the engine room.

The front three was a very flexible trio of Theo Walcott, Lucas, and Danny Welbeck. They pulled the Saints defence out of shape and Oxlade-Chamberlain found space for a shot just wide of the target in the eighth minute. The Gunners were starting the match very much on the front foot. Lucas just failed to connect with Hector Bellerin’s ball across the face of goal, but Saints reprieve was temporary.

In the fifteenth minute Maitland-Niles and Lucas combined to send Welbeck clear and the returning striker impudently chipped the ball over the falling goalkeeper, Lewis. The air at St Mary’s filled with the chants of the travelling Gooners, ‘by far the greatest’.

Southampton 0-1 Arsenal

Six minutes later Oxlade-Chamberlain hit a sixty yards cross field ball into the path of Welbeck and another classy finish under Lewis put us firmly in control. London voices filled the night sky again.

Southampton 0-2 Arsenal

Finally the Saints got their first chance when David Ospina went walkabout but Hojbjerg hit is effort wildly over. Arsenal were grateful to their goalkeeper a minute later however when he threw himself spectacularly to deny Long’s volley. The early pattern of the match returned with the Saints apparently happy to defend their final third and not put any real pressure on an inexperienced Gunners midfield.

Mustafi, scorer of his first goal last weekend, attempted to repeat from a corner but his glancing effort went the wrong side of the far post. At the other end Long tumbled theatrically under a challenge from Gibbs and Hojbjerg went much closer than his first effort. Back came the Gunners to put a stranglehold on the tie. Welbeck and Lucas opened up the Saints defence again and Theo Walcott nipped in to apply the finishing touch.

Southampton 0-3 Arsenal

It’s been a while since an Arsenal side have played as well as this in the opening half. The joyless would doubtless observe the lack of quality in the Southampton team, and they would not be wrong, but let’s enjoy the sort of football we produced before the break. The only scare came in the shape of an injury to Ospina after he claimed a cross under challenge from Long. Thankfully he recovered to see out the half.

In the last meaningful action of the half Walcott saved Gibbs’ blushes when he cleared a cross the left-back had allowed by being dispossessed on the edge of his own box. Indeed he and Welbeck had been unstinting in getting back to support the defence when necessary.

We came out of the blocks quicker after the break too but in our opening attack Lewis was able to catch Oxlade-Chamberlain’s over-hit free-kick with ease. Welbeck, wriggling free on the left edge of the box, saw his drive deflected for a corner which ended with Maitland-Niles smashing a rising drive over the crossbar. Southampton too won a corner that was comfortably dealt with by Ospina.

Welbeck’s break ended with Lucas pulling the ball back for Bellerin to force a smart save from Lewis. The Ox sent Walcott scampering into space but he dallied rather than shoot from a tight angle and the chance was gone. We survived a scare of our own making when Ospina and Mustafi dawdled over a ball on the edge of the box but the German finally took control and cleared the danger.

Welbeck combined once again with Lucas and was denied a hat-trick when he ran straight into a pair of Southampton defenders. The hour passed, it was time for changes. Claude Puel, once a player under Arsene at Monaco, decided to withdraw Isgrow and the experienced Long and sent on Tadic and Redmond. Arsene had also sent the message to Neil Banfield on the bench to unleash Alexis for Welbeck. What a performance from Danny on his return.

The returning ex-Saints combined to destroy their former employers in the sixty-ninth minute when Oxlade Chamberlain invited Walcott to bring up a brace with a cool side footed finish. The ‘holic pound was gone with over twenty minutes to play.

Southampton 0-4 Arsenal

Reine-Adelaide, steady if unspectacular, made way for Alex Iwobi to a fine ovation from the travelling Gooners. He and Reine -Adelaide may have been risky selections, but the manager’s judgement was once again validated. I had already tweeted about my chomping on some humble pie at half-time.

Gibbs and Ospina had to be on their toes to deny a rare break from the Saints most dangerous player on the evening, Hojbjerg. The home team, all too late, abandoned defending the final third in favour of a rather tired looking attempt to press the ball in the Arsenal half. Arsenal played keep-ball very well to frustrate a battered team even further.

On the break Alexis held the ball up for what seemed like an age as Walcott came thundering forward to complete his hat-trick with another coolly placed finish.

Southampton 0-5 Arsenal

Oxlade-Chamberlain again found the perfect long pass to give Lucas a chance of a deserved goal but Lewis spread himself well to effect the save. It was the last chance of a very, very good performance by the team facing two big league matches in the coming week.

Some had feared the outcome with a much-changed side, but we answered any question marks about the depth of the squad. On a day when Liverpool’s second-string had fallen at home to Championship opposition, and the neighbours needed an own goal in the seventh of six added minutes to beat a League Two side, we showed we have a great deal in the locker. Southampton were poor, it’s true, but we absolutely put them to the sword. We could do no more.

Another FA Cup weekend looms, along with all the anticipation and hope that it brings. For some there is still a bit of an aura surrounding this competition. The prospect of another Wembley Final is always an appealing one.

Perhaps a little bit of the gold dust is missing for we will probably see two squad teams at St Mary’s on Saturday evening. Southampton of course have already booked a day out at Wembley when defeating Liverpool in the semi-final of the EFL Cup this week.

Arsenal’s progress may or may not be hampered by the events of this afternoon. Arsene Wenger has been given a four-match touchline ban and £25,000 fine after accepting a Football Association charge of misconduct last weekend, and this starts with Saturday’s match. We can think it is or isn’t harsh, but it is the reality of the situation. Steve Bould can and will step up to the plate.

We will rotate on purpose although our midfield options are sparse in the extreme. With Granit Xhaka suspended, Mohammed Elneny at the African Cup of Nations, and Santi Cazorla injured, we are left with a senior pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin. Neither have been overused this season so I would like to think they will be up for three important matches in the next eight days.

David Ospina should confirm his status as the cup goalkeeper but we have options for the four ahead of him. Hector Bellerin was on the bench last week but could well get the nod to return and gain match sharpness ahead of next weekend’s trip to the bus stop in Fulham.

Similarly Kieran Gibbs is in line for a recall on the left. Should Arsene rest his first choice central defenders he has the option of pairing two from Gabriel, Per Mertesacker, and Rob Holding.

The boss may take this opportunity to give Alex Iwobi another audition for the playmaker role again. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lucas would then be likely options to play wide with Danny Welbeck up front?

A bench incorporating Mesut Ozil, Alexis, Olivier Giroud, and a returning Theo Walcott, should they be needed, may reassure those of a nervous disposition. There has been much talk of the strength of Arsenal’s squad, and at Southampton we will find out how strong we really are.

The Saints have been forced into utilising their squad as they have an Arsenal-esque injury list, and have also lost skipper Jose Fonte to West Ham. That didn’t stop them deservedly beating Liverpool and those players will be keen to impress manager Claude Puel with the chance of a Wembley appearance on the horizon.

The ‘holic pound

If you have listened to this week’s A Bergkamp Wonderland podcast you will know I was in very bullish mood when we recorded it. It’s a matter of public record now so my investment will be in a 2-3 win for the Gunners. At 25/1 it is a long shot, but both sides are capable of fashioning chances and may be prepared to throw everything at the other to resolve the match on the day, rather than add an unwanted replay into their schedule.

To the travelling faithful as ever I wish a cracking day out. I hope the boys put on a show for you. The rest of you who may be peering out from behind the sofa will have me for company!

Have a great one, ‘holics.

With a little help from their friends the Arsenal Supporters Trust today launched     a survey into current views of Arsenal supporters about the prospect of having a safe-standing trial at the Arsenal.

This is obviously just the first step in a campaign that will take time to come to fruition. As you will have seen on the link above “scoping out the safety, supporter, technical and legislative issues” is not likely to be anything other than a complex task, particularly in relation to the latter.

It doesn’t matter if you are massively in favour or violently opposed to safe-standing. What matters is that your viewpoint is important so please do spare the minute or so it will take to complete.

I have to say it is a subject I have thought long and hard about over many years. Obviously I am of an age to have experienced some of the great terraces in the days before Hillsborough. What is likely to form any trial will bear no relation to those days when large numbers could find themselves being carried some distance by swaying crowds. Today’s all-ticket controls should also prevent tickets falling into the hands of visiting supporters.

The biggest single factor though will be the likely introduction of rail seating and the expectation that the standing areas will replace the current seating on a one for one basis. That will maintain the capacity of the stadium so any decision on pricing will be interesting. Large numbers of fans stand at home, and particularly away, matches today and have to pay full price so that suggests supporters are prepared for such an eventuality. That’s a battle for another day.

I am very much in favour of the trial, although I would also expect that the club should ensure people in all seating areas remain seated should the trial take place. I know from personal experience that ageing parents and young kids don’t appreciate missing half a match because the thoughtless in front of them keep standing up to watch moments of heightened tension. There are great sight-lines from every seat at the Grove so there really is no need.

Anyway, please to click on the link above and then take the survey, please. Thank you.

Heart4More Cookery Challenge

Hector Bellerin, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chuba Akpom and Arsenal Ladies and England forward Danielle Carter have taken part in a cookery challenge, in aid of Heart4More Foundation’s healthy eating campaign and the club have published the video on YouTube.

Heart4More were the benefactors of a grant from the Arsenal Foundation last season. They are a charity which uses the power of football to raise awareness of cardiac health. Do check out the video. I’m not thinking you will get any cookery tips but I’m pretty sure Chuba has just come up with his new catchphrase. Great stuff all.

Classic Football Shirts

FB Arsenal New Folded Shirts

A reminder of our new partnership with the excellent classicfootballshirts.co.uk who can be reached in just one click here. I’ve been checking their site out again tonight and there are still some bargains to be had. Check out their clearance section as well as just the Arsenal pages. If you are a collector of ‘different’ shirts then their new line of Sheffield FC gear may be of interest.

Thanks for reading. Roll on Saturday!

A strange yet also wonderful weekend took a variety of turns on it’s final afternoon. After a delayed journey caused a complete reorganisation of the timetable I found myself in the stomach, if not the bowels, of our no longer new home. Friends of distinction came and we shared the news that we were going into the match unchanged, so no starting place for Hector Bellerin. Raised eyebrows all round.

Why we worried I don’t know. Gabriel, robust on occasion it is true, had a wonderful match in a position he is growing into. The irony was that alongside him Shkodran Mustafi, mercifully back in the fold of late, was having a bit of an off day. It was his first I remember, and he would make it so much less of an issue later on.

We have been slow starters of late, a point acknowledged by Arsene Wenger in the build up this week. Today we were most definitely at the races from the off, and needed to be. The discussion beforehand was would Burnley try and play an open game as they did a couple of years ago, or would they come with a more pragmatic approach? The answer was a bit of both. They weren’t afraid to show adventure, but equally they retreated in numbers and killed time when under the cosh.

Under the cosh they were a number of times in the opening half of what promised to be a riveting fixture for the neutral, and so it evolved. Heaton denied Mesut Ozil, impressively from nearly half a pitch away. Both the German magician and Alexis were denied more than once. At the other end Petr Cech produced a smart save from Barnes and just before the break he took what looked a nasty knock in a fifty fifty challenge I would like to see again. Thankfully he was able to continue after treatment.

To turn around level given our first half improvement over recent weeks was frustrating, but the deadlock was broken by the man having a rare struggle. Given the opposition there was a certain irony that we took the lead from a set piece when Mustafi met Ozil’s corner with the deftist of headers into the far corner. Marvellous.

At such moments you sit amongst your fellow supporters and hope that the team doesn’t switch off, and that nobody does something stupid. We didn’t, he did! Granit Xhaka was sent off for a trivial trip the last time Jon Moss officiated at the Grove, so to make the reckless ‘challenge’ he did in front of the same ‘official’ was thoughtless at best. I’m interested to see some defending him on social media in the aftermath and I can’t wait to see it on MotD2, but in real time at the ground it looked like a red card was justified.

So were some flying Burnley elbows by the way, and how we didn’t get a penalty when Mustafi was taken out I may never understand. Sean Dyche and his coaching staff seemed to be taking it in turn to plead various imagined wrongdoings to the hapless fourth official, Anthony Taylor. The match was taking a dark turn.

The blue touch paper was lit not by the introduction of the strangely subdued Barton, but the awful challenge of Marney on Ozil as we broke at pace. It seemed worthy of a red card in real time, but as it happened the Burnley man injured himself in making the ‘challenge’ and was shown the yellow before he was stretchered off to warm applause from a generous home crowd.

At this point Anthony Taylor informed his inquisitors from the Burnley bench that two minutes had been added for his treatment break, so the signal of seven added minutes as the clock ticked round to ninety was baffling, although eventually rewarding.

The added time was just amazing. As a good friend remarked afterwards “If you go to an opera you know what the ending will be, but at football you don’t. I love it”. Burnley were rightly awarded a penalty for Francis Coquelin’s trip, and Gray converted. Cue lots of “we’ve blown our chance again” and a furious reaction from Arsene Wenger that led to him being sent down the tunnel, where he has been known to blow a fuse and did so again.

Let’s be clear, Moss and Taylor had made their errors long before this point. Arsene was in the wrong and apologised afterwards. I don’t think Moss or Taylor are man enough to follow suit. There was however another twist in the tail.

Mee’s attempt to decapitate Laurent Koscielny brought a penalty signal from the assistant referee and one cannot help but wonder if Moss would have awarded the penalty but for that. Imagine the tension in the stadium as the clock ticked past the mysterious seven added minutes. Karma moves in mysterious ways.

Alexis isn’t the most  prolific of penalty scorers if my failing memory is a reliable guide. In slow motion from the halfway line my neighbour for the season strangled my arm as he took a huge chance on a Panenka, or in my view he sat Heaton on his posterior before cheekily chipping the clincher. Is your glass half full or empty?

Whatever happened we celebrated a remarkable three points in the pub afterwards and shared contrasting views on the talking points of the day. I cannot wait to see them again in the show which will be starting shortly.

And so can I just say thank you to those who shared in a belated birthday celebration today with both Dubs and I. It was another fabulous day in great company, frozen extremities apart! Thank you Ian for the chips! Thank you Tone for the elixir of life! Oh, and by the way, we are second in the League again, despite not being the popular media darlings.

What a Saturday that turned out to be. Liverpool beaten and there were draws for Manchester United, Manchester City, and the neighbours from Middlesex. I only watched two matches, at Stoke and the Emptihad, and in both matches massive penalty shouts were denied by officials who must surely have seen them. Enough of that, other than to say my well-known view on the standard of refereeing in the Premier League has not improved today.

All of which means we have an outstanding opportunity to reclaim second place in the Premier League with a home win against Burnley in the second of three Sunday fixtures. To do so may require a better first-half than we have produced for a while now. Our slow starting threatens to take root, and this is not the Burnley team that went straight back down to the Championship two seasons ago.

The Clarets were in the top half of the table until today, mainly thanks to their excellent home form. Only Swansea on the opening day of the season and ourselves a couple of months later have claimed all three points at Turf Moor. On the road they have been consistent too, but in the opposite way. One draw and just three goals scored suggests a degree of travel sickness. Those three goals came at Southampton, Tottenham, and Manchester City, interestingly. The draw was at Old Trafford. Let’s not be complacent.

For the visitors Marney, Barnes and Gudmundsson could be available after missing their midweek FA Cup win through injury, but Arfield looks likely to miss a third successive game with a hamstring problem. It’s also likely that recent re-signing, the odious Barton, will feature at some point. Referee Jon Moss was quick to send Granit Xhaka off for a stupid but trivial trip against Swansea, and makes his first return to the Grove since that day. His application of the laws will be under great scrutiny, particularly where the malicious Barton is involved.

The Arsenal welcome Hector Bellerin, Kieran Gibbs, and Francis Coquelin back into the squad. The former is likely to reclaim his place from Gabriel and his attacking threat will be welcome against what is likely to be massed and organised defence from Burnley. Olivier Giroud has recovered from his ankle knock last week and given his current record, eleven goals in his last nine starts, it is hard to see any change from the midfield pairing and attacking quartet that ended up winning convincingly at Swansea.

The bench is starting to provide lots of quality options too if we need to break down a stubborn opponent. Lucas and Danny Welbeck provide striking alternatives, and the availability of the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gibbs to inject some late pace, if needed, is an attractive prospect.

The ‘holic pound

Burnley’s away form and an attack that includes Giroud and Alexis would suggest a big home win. However our inability to get going from the off of late has me erring on the side of caution. The bookies have a 2-0 home win as favourite and I am not inclined to go against them. Grab the 13/2 at Paddy Power while it lasts as most others are going 11/2.

A win would put us in second place just five points behind Chelsea, if only briefly. The bus stop in Fulham plays host to relegation-threatened Hull City in the final match of the day. I’m not expecting that we will be the only winners in the top six this weekend, but we do have to take full advantage of others misfortune today.

So that’s it. There are a couple of birthday celebrations going on tomorrow as well, so it could be a thoroughly enjoyable day.

Have a great one, ‘holics.

So it will be a trip south rather than east in the fourth round of the FA Cup. It took Southampton until the second of four added minutes to see off Championship team Norwich City in front of 13517 lonely souls. It is an opportunity to gain revenge for our defeat in the EFL Cup in November.

It’s true that you have to go back to February 2004, the invincible season, for our last win at Southampton with two unanswered Thierry Henry goals. Our five visits since then have seen us get three draws and lose twice. It’s an unusual bogey venue for sure. Our last FA Cup meeting with them saw us lift the trophy in 2003 courtesy of a Robert Pires strike at Cardiff.

That day lives in the memory. I drove down the M4 with a mate who had a ticket although I was ticketless. We arrived in time for a real breakfast before the pubs at either end of the stadium opened. My hand made sign requesting a solitary spare drew no offers. As John joined the rest of the West Country Gooners in the pub I stood outside with my sign, feeling like I was a living advertising hoarding. Respect to those who are forced to do that to earn a few quid.

Around an hour before kick-off I finally had a bite. A reasonably dressed man with a Geordie accent said he had one for £350 and if I gave him the stub back afterwards he would refund £50 of that. I had bargained on something for around half that but in that situation I decided to accept. When I returned the stub after the match he told me he was on a County FA and didn’t want the stub to be sent back to the Football Association. The fans game, eh?

Of course the ensuing match was a pretty dull affair as Finals go, but Robert’s goal from a deflected Freddie Ljungberg effort ensured our triumph and the smattering of Gooners in an otherwise neutral area of the stadium went as crazy as ever. Our route to that Final included wins at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Twelve months later we were invincible. Oh for such a run this season.

If you have at least 15 away credits you can apply for tickets in the morning, Thursday 19th January 2017 at 11am. Cost will be just £15 plus concessions. Our allocation will be 4,612 tickets. Good luck if you have fewer credits than that. Well done Southampton at that price. It would suggest they will not be going with a full strength first team.

But will we?

We took to the pitch at the Liberty with Gabriel switched to right-back, in the absence of Hector Bellerin, and the rest of our first choice back five in situ again. Olivier Giroud was retained up front with Alexis and Alex Iwobi notionally occupying the flanks.

To say the match started slowly is a huge understatement. It didn’t really get going until the 28th minute when Iwobi found Sanchez at inside-left and the Chilean’s drive drew a smart save from our old friend Lukasz Fabianski at his near post.

Eight minutes later a swift break saw us take the lead. Aaron Ramsey’s cross from the right missed all but Alexis on the left hand side of the box, and from his chip Ozil’s header was deflected into the path of Giroud who finished from point-blank range.

Swansea 0-1 Arsenal

The scorer signalled to the bench that he was injured following a coming together with Fabianski in the build-up and confusion reigned temporarily as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain prepared to come on, only for the Frenchman to change his mind. A scorer in his last five appearances and his last nine starts, his fitness is very important to us right now.

Ki-sung Yeung’s dramatic tumble when Laurent Koscielny withdrew from a challenge in the box earned a yellow card for simulation from referee Mike Jones. Replays confirmed the official made the correct call. The home fans, not having the benefit of those replays, booed loudly as the half-time whistle mercifully ended an awful half of football.

We were so close to a second goal when Ramsey accepted a defence-splitting pass from Alexis but Fabianski was equal to his effort. Our former goalkeeper was left helpless a minute later. Iwobi was the beneficiary of some smart work by Nacho Montreal and his deflected drive looped over Fabianski and dropped just inside the far post.

Swansea 0-2 Arsenal

On the hour the change hinted at earlier finally happened as Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for a still-struggling Giroud. Let’s hope the injury to his left ankle is not a serious one. Colin Lewin got to work on the offending joint on the substitutes bench.

Swansea were trying to make a fist of it but their finishing was poor, as happens to a team devoid of confidence and inspiration. Another deflected Iwobi effort in the 67th minute will have to go down as an own-goal by Naughton as the Arsenal turned the screw on deflated opponents.

Swansea 0-3 Arsenal

It got worse for the Swans when Iwobi’s cross was deflected into the path of the unmarked Alexis near the penalty spot and he volleyed home.

Swansea 0-4 Arsenal

Four could, perhaps should, have been five when Iwobi teed up Alexis again but the Chilean’s first touch let him down. It was his last act as he and Mesut Ozil made way for Danny Welbeck and Lucas. Alexis looked far from happy at the perfectly sensible decision. We’ll need him to be fresh for much sterner opposition than Swansea. The tabloids will doubtless make more of his show of petulance than may have been intended.

On the pitch Granit Xhaka fired one effort wide before drawing a good diving save from Fabianski. Sigurdsson’s tame effort in response was typical of Swansea’s afternoon. Xhaka, taking complete control of the second-half, fired another long-range effort at Fabianski.

In time added on Borja came as close as anyone to scoring for the Swans but his flying header cleared the bar. More worryingly Skhodran Mustafi limped off the pitch as a result of his challenge. Fingers are firmly crossed that he, as well as Giroud, recovers fully before next week’s meeting with Burnley.

In summary you can only beat what is in front of you. When Arsenal did find some semblance of form in the second-half we were worthy winners but that first-half performance, and it’s not for the first time in recent weeks, is a cause for concern.

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