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Right, Zagreb is done and dusted. Everybody has an opinion about what happened, fair enough. What matters now is we are facing a match that has some significance on Saturday lunchtime. Chelsea, let’s face it, have had a hold over us for some time now. In seven Premier League meetings we haven’t beaten them since that wonderful 3-5 triumph at the bus stop in Fulham four years ago.

But at Wembley in the Community Shield in August Arsene finally got his first win over Mourinho. That, added to the wins in Manchester last season, has hopefully given this Gunners squad incredible belief that we have found a way to play the big matches. In fact, we have done to them what they had got used to doing to us. Sensible, organised defence, and counter-attacking with pace and purpose.

How do we transform into that team from the ragtag and bobtail outfit in Zagreb? All Arsene can do is go back to the team he had been fielding ahead of that nightmare. Recalls for Petr Cech, Hector Bellerin, Nacho Monreal, Francis Coquelin, plus probably Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott.

The timing seems unfortunate. The Gunners defeat on Wednesday and subsequent return in the early hours of Thursday has effectively given them one day to prepare for the biggest match of the season thus far. Chelsea, themselves in disarray domestically, finally showed something of the form expected of them in dismantling Maccabi Tel Aviv at home on the same night.

The press spent today (Friday) attempting to whip up a war of words between Wenger and Mourinho. They are chalk and cheese, that much is clear, but the match will not be won by them, It will be the team that takes their chances, or perhaps get that huge slice of good fortune that often decides the big games. Who gives a flying fig if they shake hands or not? Both sets of fans want the bragging rights that will accompany victory. To the hacks who don’t get that, it’s all about the football, stupid!

The Gunners could see their six point advantage over the reigning champions halved, or put the Blues three points further adrift of defending that title. We haven’t yet clicked into gear, but Chelsea have been, frankly, shocking. The Chinese whispers hint at an uneasy mix of relationships between Mourinho, the medical team he has hung out to dry, and the players with whom they both worked.

A bad result for us would not surprise the pessimists, but over in West London a good result for them is far from assured. I know I have said it of a number of matches down the years, but this one really could go in any one of a number of ways. Let’s hope Petr Cech will be celebrating again after the final whistle, as he has so often in this fixture.

The ‘holic pound

You know I have to punt on a win for the club I have followed through thick and thin for over half a century. In recent seasons it has been with a degree of hope, rather than belief, that I have made my suggestion. Wembley says we have a chance. Chelsea’s appalling domestic form says we have a chance. If we score first we have a massive chance. The punt on a 0-1 to the Arsenal on Wednesday may have been a match early. Paddy Power offers 10/1 against that outcome this weekend and I’m on it.

I will be in the Shed again tomorrow, but my post-match movements will be determined by the result. Don’t expect a review of the match until some time on Sunday, particularly if we win and I am comatose by teatime! If you are there too, say hello by all means.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

Arsene opted for a little rotation in Zagreb as expected beforehand. David Ospina, Mathieu Debuchy, Kieran Gibbs, Mikel Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Olivier Giroud were recalled. Chelsea too, with one eye on Saturday one suspects, also made six changes.

Half chances were traded in the opening minutes as both sides looked to test the full-backs. From a ninth minute corner Giroud brought the best out of Dinamo goalkeeper Eduardo. At the other end Pjaca twice drove the ball high, wide, and handsome.

In the eighteenth minute Oxlade-Chamberlain crossed to Giroud who headed against the post and then pulled the rebound wide. A stupid booking for dissent followed five minutes later. It would prove to be significant.

Within a minute Dinamo left-back Pivaric took advantage of a napping Ox and Debuchy. Ospina blocked the initial effort at his near post but the ball rebounded off the Ox and into the net. Arsenal were again making hard work of a match in which they were firm favourites.

Alexis popped up in the box a couple of times but by hook or by crook the home side kept him at bay. Giroud then compounded the foolishness of his first yellow card when he blatantly tripped Pinto as Arsenal cleared a free-kick. He could have no complaint about the inevitable second yellow and subsequent red card. The half-time whistle provided much relief and the chance to reorganise for the second half.

Just over 1400 travelling Gooners urged their team to “Come on Arsenal” as the match restarted, but with the half barely a minute old Soudani, as had Giroud earlier, hit the post and put the rebound wide.

In the 54th minute the assistant’s flag denied Mesut Ozil an equaliser following a wonderful run by Alexis. The decision looked debatable to say the least.

Shortly after that it was 2-0. Fernandes got a step ahead of Laurent Koscielny to head home from a corner. Kieran Gibbs half-hearted attempt at the near post didn’t help.

Arsene’s response was a triple substitution. Francis Coquelain finally replacing Arteta, while Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell came on for the Ox and Gibbs.

Alexis, hungry as ever for the ball, blazed a free-kick over the bar but the Gunners were vulnerable to the counter attack and Ospina had to be alert to deny Zagreb a third.

With twelve minutes remaining we were back in the match when Coquelin won a defensive header and Alexis sent Theo scurrying through the inside-left channel to score. Some will suggest, a little lazily perhaps, that it was too little, too late. It was something on which we could have built, but our best chance was lost when Eduardo claimed a hopeful cross from the head of Koscielny.

There remained time for Ospina to produce another remarkable save in a one on one situation, the last action of the night.

Arsene will get criticism for his selection tonight and as long as that doesn’t escalate into abuse it will be justified. With Bayern Munich in the group we have made qualification for the last sixteen much more difficult than it should have been. Giroud too will rightfully cop some flak, although he is a man in desperate need of an injection of confidence.

Having rested so many tonight we now need to put in a performance at the bus stop in Fulham on Saturday. Only that will deflect some of the negativity that is around right now.

Book Launch For ‘Arsene Wenger – The Inside Story’

For those who, unlike me, do not have tickets for the Oval on Thursday night there is a book launch at the Tollington, rapidly becoming the venue of choice for Arsenal-related book launches.

John Cross of the Mirror has written the latest biography of Arsene Wenger, and has been closer to the Arsenal manager than most during his tenure. John shared some of what you can expect to read in a recent A Bergkamp Wonderland podcast, which also featured a blogger who will be familiar to you!

If you are within reach of the venue I can recommend going along. It’s buzzing on book launch nights, and you can get your book signed by the author on the night. The kick-off is at 6.30pm so perfect for a post work relaxer!

“Our last visit was a very tough game. We needed to be patient against a very strong side.”

Arsene Wenger in his pre-match press conference. It certainly doesn’t seem like nine years since last we met the Dinamo Zagreb of Corluka, Modric, and Eduardo, with a back four of Emmanuel Eboue, Johan Djourou, Kolo Toure, and Justin Hoyte. With the benefit of hindsight our 0-3 win at the Maksimir Stadium in the first leg of the third qualifying round was quite remarkable.

One wonders if a squad team will turn out just sixty-four hours before we visit the bus stop in Fulham on Saturday lunchtime. The boss revealed that Hector Bellerin and Aaron Ramsey have not travelled, and that everyone else who is fit has. It isn’t immediately clear if that includes Per Mertesacker, back in training but involved in a car crash on Monday.

“I know I have a squad of experienced players. Every decision I make is difficult, so it’s easier to rotate than it was before.”

It is most certainly clear that Jack Wilshere has not gone anywhere after the decision to pin his broken leg was revealed. Not surprisingly that has generated traffic aplenty on social media sites. Jack’s ankle travails have been well documented but this leg break so close to his porcelain ankle was destined to be complicated, it seems. Recover fully please Jack. No rushing back and aggravating the problem.

Back to tomorrow, and Arsene’s options. Mathieu Debuchy will presumably slot in at right-back, and ahead of him we have the options of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The latter is likelier perhaps. Either way a recall for Olivier Giroud would appear likely in a tricky away game for the hold-up option he offers. Arsene was quick to point out the size of the task facing us.

“We have to play at our best to beat them. They have not lost a game for eleven months.”

If you are reading this hoping to see an in-depth analysis of the opponents you have come to the wrong place! I have little knowledge of them these days. I could have pinched some stuff from the Scouting Report on Arsenal.com and passed it off as my own. I’m sure some do! Why don’t you click on the link and get it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. With available strikers so thin on the ground it will be interesting to see if Angelo Henriquez could be the next Eduardo da Silva.

The ‘holic pound

As you may have worked out the ‘holic pound is punted on more or less a complete guess. The bookies have made 0-1 and 0-2 to the Arsenal joint favourites at around 6/1. I don’t believe in lightning striking twice in the same place, and certainly not in just over four days, so I am on the good old ‘one-nil to the Arsenal’ that became an ear worm in Europe in 1994.

The hardy souls who are going know the full well they will face a bit of a struggle to make themselves heard. Those who were at the home leg of that 2006 match will remember the passionate and very vociferous ‘Blue Boys’ and the magnificent support they gave their team that night. We will be playing very well if we can quieten them down.

Good luck, Gooners. Have a safe and happy trip.

Arsene Wenger named an unchanged side for the visit of Stoke City to the Grove. That meant of course that Theo Walcott retained the striker’s role with Olivier Giroud remaining on the bench.

The Gunners started strongly and in the fourth minute Alexis Sanchez was denied by a wonderful Butland tip on to the post. The rebound fell to Theo Walcott who hurriedly volleyed it wide.  Next to warm Butland’s fingers was Alexis again, as his free-kick drew a smart stop from Stoke’s seemingly in-form custodian.

In the eighth minute Alexis finally got the ball past Butland but was denied this time by the far post. Seconds later Theo missed with a close-range header before firing straight at Butland.

Stoke seemed unable to get any meaningful possession or serious forward motion until on eighteen minutes, Shaqiri’s free-kick was punched clear by the imposing figure of Petr Cech. So easy were the Arsenal back-line having it that next up to test the visitors was Laurent Koscielny, who tried a thirty harder again superbly saved by the Stoke ‘keeper, and seconds later Cazorla too was denied by Butland.

Butland was threatening one of those days when visiting goalkeepers have the performance of their lives, but finally Stoke were unhinged, ironically as they themselves attacked. Francis Coquelin won possession and the ball arrived at Mesut Ozil. The German magician’s magnificent through ball sent Theo scampering in behind the defence to nudge it beyond Butland.

I probably should have scored many, many more“, admitted Theo post-match.

Within a couple of minutes Cech showed good concentration to save an effort from the edge of the box by Joselu, but it was a rare foray into Arsenal territory. Unusually a match with Stoke was not being broken up by rotational fouling, which made the thirty-eighth minute booking of Ozil for an innocuous tug on Pieters all the more baffling.

In the minute added on a wonderful counter-attack ended with Ozil’s attempted cross blocked after he was put clear by Alexis. In truth we should have been home and dry, rather than leading by our only home goal of the season to date.

The second-half was just six minutes old when Theo narrowly missed out on a second with a near post flick having been fed by a cross from Nacho Monreal. Then Alexis and Ozil combined to put in Aaron Ramsey on the right side of the box, but Rambo slipped as he attempted to drive home.

Stoke finally responded and Cech again had to be alert to deal with Shaqiri’s effort, followed by a double block by Bellerin to deny the same player on the hour as the match opened up, with Stoke applying themselves to the search for an equaliser.

Pieters tugged back Ramsey to prevent the counter-attack but did not receive the yellow dished out too Ozil for the same offence on him. Can we not expect consistency, if only from the same referee in the same match?

Just over twenty minutes from the end Ozil was denied by Butland at his near post following a delicious exchange with Cazorla, and within a minute the ‘keeper again denied Theo when a second goal looked likely.

After a coming together between Arnautovic (who lest we forget shoved Mathieu Debuchy out of last season in the corresponding fixture) and Gabriel tempers flared momentarily. The Stoke man had started the shenanigans but found Gabriel a far from docile recipient of the dark arts.

Olivier Giroud came on for the final fifteen minutes for Theo, and immediately missed a sitter from point-blank range. A couple of minutes later Cazorla fired narrowly wide after making space for himself.

As the clock ticked down on came Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mikel Arteta for Ozil and Alexis. Not exactly a tactical masterstroke, but shortly afterwards Giroud finally headed his first home goal of the season from Cazorla’s free-kick to secure a second ‘holic pound, bless him. Santi was surely the Arsenal man of the match, although second to Butland on the day?

With little over a minute remaining Butland produced possibly the best of a string of quality saves to keep out Koscielny’s  glancing header from a free-kick. In added time we were denied a blatant penalty when Pieters hauled down Giroud as a chance for a third presented itself.

So at last a home win recorded, and perhaps a little confidence restored by the strikers ahead of next week’s visit to the bus stop in Fulham. That is usually a pivotal fixture in our season, but tonight it looks far more crucial to Chelsea’s season.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend, ‘holics.

Stoke City at home. Not a fixture to get the juices flowing in recent years, but perhaps there is a little more to look forward to now. Stoke have made attempts to improve the quality of their squad and the summer signings of Ibrahim Afellay and Xherdin Shaqiri caught the eye.

Afellay settles into the Stoke style swiftly

Afellay has settled quickly into the Stoke way of playing, and along with Charlie Adam will sit this one out after both were red carded in the Potters home defeat by West Brom in their most recent outing. They have lost both home matches so far (Liverpool also won 0-1 at the Britannia), but are unbeaten on their travels, drawing 1-1 at Norwich and coming from two down to hold the neighbours at the brown and sticky end of Seven Sisters.

Mark Hughes also faces late tests on Mame Diouf, Marko Arnautovic and Glenn Johnson before naming his squad. The odious Shawcross remains sidelined after surgery on a back injury. Peter Odemwingie is also out with a long term injury. Expect a recall for Bojan Krkic or Jonathan Walters in place of Afellay. Which one gets the nod will tell you much about Hughes’ gameplan.

As for Arsenal the selection issues remain the same as for the trip to Newcastle before the break. Jack Wilshere has failed to progress as expected and misses consideration after he suffered what is hopefully only a minor setback. If Theo Walcott gets the nod to start ahead of Olivier Giroud we will have to adapt our approach accordingly. In this event anticipate more attempts to thread the eye of the needle around the edge of the visitors box.

Our shortage of Premier League goals of late, five blank sheets in our last six home matches, suggests another afternoon to test the nerves. Arsene, in his pre-match presser was doing his best to remain upbeat on the subject.

“We have created the chances and that’s what we want to continue to do. It is about the efficiency and the quality of our game, we can score goals and I am not worried about that. We have Alexis, we have Giroud and we have Walcott.”

The ‘holic pound

I will take him at face value then, and be positive with the ‘holic pound. 2-0 to the Arsenal is around 11/2 favourite with the bookies, and although that feels a little on the slim side It will still be a welcome return if it comes in.

The brevity and earliness of the preview is prompted by me having a day on the golf course tomorrow. Doubtless while I am carving up large chunks of prime Cotswold countryside there will be some momentous news to come out of Shenley. So be it.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

Ancestral Vices

A long weekend off. Alright then, a very long weekend off. I hope you are surviving the accursed international break. I have managed to avoid much of it, including England’s romp in San Marino. In fact I have only really seen Mesut Ozil lead Poland a merry dance. Do you still not get him?

For those who don’t know of my mongrel past, I am about to watch him again as the motherland hosts the greatgrandfatherland at Hampden Park. On paper this is a mismatch, but Scotland are fighting for their lives. With second place Poland at home to Gibraltar then they will be out if they lose to the table-topping Germans, themselves a win from clinching their place in the Finals next summer.

I might be firing up two screens as the Republic of Ireland, trailing the Poles by two points, are at home to Georgia seeking to extend their challenge to the penultimate qualifier at least. A Scotland win would give them reason to celebrate too, as long as they make the most of home advantage.

Arsenal news is a bit thin on the ground, although the award of the August player of the month to Francis Coquelin warrants mention. The young Frenchman has been a revelation since returning to the club from his loan spell at Charlton in January. He just pipped Petr Cech to the gong on Arsenal.com and the fact that they were first and second bears testimony to our mixed start to the season.

The last of the international players will return to training on Thursday, which won’t give Arsene much time to work with them ahead of this weekend’s visit of our old chums from Stoke. Theo’s brace against a pub side will have enhanced his chances of playing up front again. Olivier Giroud has the opportunity shortly against a rather better organised Serbian defence to score the goal or two that would boost his confidence and chance of a recall at club level.

And with that I have to fire up the magic box for Mesut watch. Have a good one, ‘holics.

“I am always confident that a last-minute situation or solution is available, because the transfer market is especially moving in the last four or five days, but at the moment I cannot promise you that. We have specific targets but sometimes you get an idea from somebody because you didn’t know that the player you like was available and if you get an opportunity you do it.”

Not so prophetic words from the boss ahead of the trip to Newcastle at the weekend. Those who listened to the final hour of the ‘A Bergkamp Wonderland‘ live podcast yesterday (Tuesday) will know that my mood was best described as disappointed, but no worse than that.

For those who bought into the ‘we have to move to a bigger stadium to compete with Europe’s best’ line yesterday was the culmination of a summer of frustration. The last two summers had set a level of expectation. The arrivals of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez sent out a clear message that we could compete for top talent.

Now I am no more privy to the inner workings of the clubs negotiators than you, so I have to take Arsene at face value when he speaks of specific targets. We were in the market to strengthen, of that I have no doubt. In the end the players with whom we were most strongly linked didn’t move. Karim Benzema remains at Real Madrid, apparently because of his wish to stay there rather than any huge desire of Rafa Benitez to keep him. Edinson Cavani, to whom we allegedly switched our attention, is still with Paris St Germain.

There aren’t many strikers in the world-class bracket around, most accept, so that we were supposedly window-shopping at that level is as heartening as our failure to conclude a deal is exasperating. Having not completed on our preferred targets it would appear that Arsene wasn’t prepared to take a punt on another less than stellar striker, preferring instead to stick with the current incumbents, and I understand that too.

Olivier Giroud for much of last season was an improving international striker and it is unfortunate, to say the least, that currently he is searching desperately for form and confidence. Theo Walcott finished last season in exciting fashion, but has yet to convince many his place is in the centre rather than on the flank. Danny Welbeck too, a match winner at Old Trafford in last season’s FA Cup, has been denied the opportunity to establish himself by injury. Unfortunate timing? Let’s hope that is all it is.

The squad we have is decent. The one addition, Petr Cech, hinted against Liverpool that he will indeed earn points for us this season. We can argue that we are stronger, but with the cash we have now it is no surprise that people think we could have strengthened in midfield too, where we are an injury to Francis Coquelin away from losing the balance that he brings to a key area in a side geared up to attack.

I don’t go along with those who believe that by not acting more positively this summer we have ruled ourselves out of the title chase. The players we have are developing a winning mentality, born out of two consecutive FA Cups. If the injury gods are kind to us we most certainly have a squad that could go on a run and compete with the other major contenders, but that is a big if. Already we have lost Hector Bellerin, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, Jack Wilshere, Mesut Ozil, Tomas Rosicky, and of course Welbeck, for one or more matches.

Yet for all that our title ambitions remain very real it still irks that we have not given ourselves greater strength in depth, and put ourselves in an even better position over the coming months. The consolation is that the money will still be in place in January. Should that elusive top notch striker become available we have the ammunition in place.

In the words of one of ours, are we the best we can be? Right now it is fair to say the jury is out on that. With those words I turn my back on the window. It’s done and dusted. I’ll get behind the side, as will all of the various factions that comprise the Arsenal support. Like them I will also be praying we surprise those who have written us off. For as it was confirmed again last night we all want what’s best for the club, even if we don’t agree on how to get there.

This football season, like every one that has passed before, will see Arsenal produce performances that amaze and delight, and others that will frustrate. What will determine how the season pans out is how we are able to dig in and get results when we are doing the latter. Today was one of those, and while many have been critical of a ‘one nil to the Arsenal’ against ten men we may care to consider how important the three points gained today will be.

The team news produced a real surprise. Mesut Ozil’s knee-knack came out of the blue, and let’s hope that Arsene was right when he said it would only keep him out for one week. The selection of Theo Walcott ahead of Olivier Giroud was perhaps less of a surprise, but once again his performance in the central striker role raised more questions than answers. It was good to see that Laurent Koscielny was fit enough to return alongside Gabriel, and they formed an impressive partnership in the match that followed.

Steve McClaren told BT Sport beforehand that he had told his team to ‘get in their faces’ and his charges took him literally. Less than three minutes in Sissoko was shown a yellow card by Andre Marriner for his second foul of the contest, a stamp on Coquelin’s foot.

The first clear opportunity fell to Theo who came out second best in a one on one with Krul. Minutes later we were denied a clear penalty when only Marriner and his assistant failed to spot Thauvin’s trip and push on Hector Bellerin as the right-back ventured into the box. Had we not made the breakthrough later on we would have been bemoaning yet another decision that cost us two points, as on Monday night.

To be fair to the referee it was probably his only mistake all afternoon, although the fiercely loyal Toon Army, not privy to the replays that television viewers enjoyed, howled in dissent when Mitrovic was shown a straight red for an awful studs up challenge on Coquelin. The sending-off changed the nature of the match and the hosts were happy to concede possession while denying us space in the advanced positions. They remained combative, with both Mbemba and Thauvin getting yellow cards before the break.

So often we are frustrated by the two banks of four deployed around the edge of the box that many sides have employed against us. Some days we are able to unlock such defences with speed and precision of our passing. On others, like today, we are a little too patient and one-paced to break down the resistance. This is perhaps where Ozil was missed most.

We looked most likely to score when someone actually attempted to shoot rather than walk the ball in. An Alexis snapshot was parried to Theo but his attempt went high, wide, and not so handsome. If it sounds as though I am being overly critical about Theo then that is not the intention. He continues to see his future in the middle but his finishing is nowhere near consistent enough for that. Today we were crying out for his trickery on the right flank, where Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was having a rare off-day.

Six minutes after the break came the moment of good fortune that decided the match. Theo and Rambo were denied in quick succession by Krul but it was third time lucky for us as Oxlade-Chamberlain’s shot, heading wide of the far post, took a deflection of Coloccini and bounced in off the inside of the post. From this point our laborious, if patient, sideways football proved advantageous as it simply gobbled up the clock.

Newcastle’s determined resistance had drained them of the ability to produce any sort of effective counter-attack. In the final twenty minutes Arsene changed the personnel with Giroud replacing Theo, and ten minutes later Mikel Arteta coming on in place of the Ox. In the last minute the big Frenchman was put through by Rambo but Krul once again proved to be the master of the one on one situation.

So, not a day that will stick in the memory, but one that has been made better by Chelsea’s continuing troubles in the early stages of this season. If we can keep ourselves three points ahead of them then we won’t be far away at the season’s end. We will have to be far more incisive, however, to achieve that.

The timing of such a performance will add to the pressure on the club to bring in fresh blood before the transfer window is shut on Tuesday. Own goals as leading scorer after four matches is not a great sign. None of us knows for sure what is going on behind the scenes, but Ian Wright expressed his fear that we had put all our eggs in the Benzema basket and may have left it too late to switch our attention to alternative options. We have shown in the past we can close deals at short notice when the situation demands so I guess I will do what I always do in these situations.

Have a drink and chill out. Cheers, ‘holics.

“Maybe we are not firing on all cylinders at the moment. By definition, finishing is a little bit cyclical and it goes in cycles.”

Arsene Wenger in reflective mood ahead of a Saturday lunchtime trip to the north-east, one not entirely appreciated by the traveling faithful, but our allocation is again sold out, and at least it isn’t another Monday night game.

It’s a handy analogy that the boss is using. The quicker you go on a cycle, the sooner you tend to get where you want to go. Counter-attacking at pace is something we did on occasion at Selhurst Park on our previous away day and that may require a rethink of the attacking options we field at whatever St James’ Park is called these days. We certainly need to quickly put together a chain (I’m sorry) of wins to keep pace with those currently occupying the top League places.

It is however defensive considerations that will most occupy Arsene’s mind ahead of the match. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker remain doubtful after both surprisingly missed the goal-less draw against Liverpool on Monday night. The former is thought to be the likelier of the two to be fit and it would be a comfort to many if he can line up alongside Gabriel, a defender who looks close to regular first team football.

There is a school of thought emerging that Arsene should consider sacrificing either Santi Cazorla or Aaron Ramsey to free a space for either Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Theo Walcott to get paint on their boots on the right flank. The counter argument is that Rambo cutting inside so often presents opportunities for Hector Bellerin to advance and whip in crosses on which Olivier Giroud can feast.

In truth the same could happen with any of the three options as both Theo and the Ox look to nip inside a fair bit themselves, particularly the former. It is possible if both his preferred central defenders again miss out that Arsene will not want to experiment further forward as well.

Newcastle come into the match seeking a first Premier League win under Steve McClaren. On the opening day of the season they played out an entertaining 2-2 draw with Southampton, and followed up with trips to Swansea, where they were beaten 2-0, and Old Trafford, where they comfortably held Manchester United to secure a second League point.

Moussa Sissoko could feature in midfield for the Geordies after missing their last two matches with a groin injury. New signing from Marseille, Florian Thauvin, is tipped for a start on the wing after helping his team to a 4-1 COCup win against Northampton in midweek.

The ‘holic Pound

The ‘holic pound is encouraged by our recent record at Newcastle, a far cry from my formative years when it was most definitely a bogey ground. It is now almost ten years since Nolberto Solano (remember him?) became the last man to score a home winner against the Gunners. Olivier Giroud has feasted on them somewhat, with eight goals in six matches against them, including a brace in both League meetings last season. I’m backing a repeat of last season’s 1-2 triumph, and why not. That scoreline pocketed me a tidy little bonus at Selhurst Park and 8/1 is again the best price on that.

All that remains is to wish those of you rising at sparrowfart to board the first trains north a safe and enjoyable day. The rest of us will be with you in spirit (single malt in my case, obviously!).

Have a great one, ‘holics.

The draw for the group phase of this season’s Champions League has paired us with three sides we have met before. Indeed we are becoming very familiar with both Bayern Munich and Olympiakos. Dynamo Zagreb and their raucous ‘Blue Boys’ made quite an impression in their last fixture at the Grove nine years ago.

In our last meeting with the Germans Lukas Podolski netted in a 1-1 draw following a 0-2 home defeat two seasons ago, just a year after we won 2-0 in Munich with goals from Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud, but went out on away goals after a 1-3 reverse at the Grove. So to 2004/2005, in the round of sixteen Bayern whacked us 3-1, but a Thierry Henry goal gave us a face-saving ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ night in the return. In 2000/01 we drew at Highbury,  2-2, but Bayern proved too strong in front of their own supporters and beat us 0-1.

In 2012/13 we met Olympiacos in the group phase, winning 3-1 at home but a weakened side slipped to a 1-2 defeat in the return fixture. It had been a similar story in the preceding season when we won 2-1 at the Grove but were on the wrong end of a 1-3 scoreline in Greece. You won’t be surprised to read that was also the case in 2009/10 where we established the pattern of winning at home but then losing at Olympiacos.

In 2006/07 we faced a 4th qualifying round test against a Dinamo Zagreb team that included Luka Modric and one Eduardo da Silva. Of course the latter gave the visitors a hope of recovering the 0-3 thrashing we had dished out to them in Croatia with the opening goal at the Grove, but Freddie Ljungberg and Mathieu Flamini struck to clinch a 5-1 aggregate win for the Gunners.

Bayern will go into the competition as favourites to win the group. The change in the seeding system has seen us, quite rightly, demoted to pot two and so we were likely to be in with a big name. Should we go through it is likely we will be alongside Bayern and therefore will at least avoid them in the round of sixteen again.

The fixtures have fallen in such a way that we would hope to have a strong start and hopefully not need a result on match day six at what has become a bogey venue for us. They are ;

September 16th v Dinamo Zagreb (a)

September 29th v Olympiacos (h)

October 20th v Bayern Munich (h)

November 4th v Bayern Munich (a)

November 24th v Dinamo Zagreb (h)

December 9th v Olympiacos (a)

The draw wasn’t so kind to Manchester City who will face Juventus, Sevilla, and Borussia Monchengladbach. Hopefully a tough group will distract them from their fine start to the Premier League? One would expect their neighbours, United, to progress against PSV Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow, and VfL Wolfsburg (come on Lord Bendtner!), and Chelsea shouldn’t struggle, one would imagine, to see off Porto, Dynamo Kiev, and Maccabi Tel-Aviv.

Come back tomorrow for a Newcastle preview. Cheers ‘holics.

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