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Rather than one major story being out there it looks as though there are a lot of little ones, and so please find a summary of what has caught the eye since Sunday.

Nacho Montreal Extends His Contract

Back in June I was lucky enough to meet Nacho at the Puma 2015/16 home kit launch. There is no doubt that last season he blossomed after opening the season as an emergency central defender. So much so that he ensured that the left-back berth became his by right. The mutterings this season that Atletico Bilbao were poised to pounce for his services were a little concerning, so the announcement on Tuesday that Nacho had extended his contract at Arsenal came as a welcome relief. If we are to have title aspirations beyond this season we need to keep our best players, and there is no doubt that the consistent Spaniard is a first team fixture by right. Thank you Nacho.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles On Target

The on-loan youngster started for Ipswich Town at Portsmouth in an FA Cup 3rd round replay and scored an absolute beauty from the edge of the box. Sadly for Ainsley Pompey were two up at the time and held on to record an impressive victory. Go to 38 seconds to see the superb left foot strike.

Theo Celebrates A Decade At Arsenal

Theo Walcott’s arrival at Arsenal as a sixteen year old on January 20th 2006 was a high profile affair, made all the more remarkable during that summer when he was called into the England squad for the World Cup in Germany. In the ensuing decade Theo has enjoyed mixed fortunes, making no less than 30 appearances in each of his first eight full seasons at the club. A serious knee injury sustained against the neighbours in an FA Cup tie would cost Theo the next year, including the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The form of Olivier Giroud, and a calf injury sustained at Sheffield Wednesday have restricted his appearances again this season. Nonetheless Theo’s record at Arsenal bears scrutiny. He has notched 81 goals in 326 appearances and will surely become a Gunners centurion in the next couple of years. Thanks Theo.

Petr Cech On Fractured Skull

Ahead of Sunday’s big match against the bus stop in Fulham the goalkeeper they so generously gifted us in the summer, Petr Cech, has been talking to arsenal.com about the skull fracture he suffered against Reading, also a decade ago now. If anybody doubted the extent of his recovery then they only have to look at his form this season with the cannon on his chest. There is no doubt he has played a major role in our rise to the top of the Premier League. Let’s hope we are still there on Sunday night, for to achieve that we will almost certainly have to beat his former employers, and watching him one cannot help but get the impression that he would enjoy that every bit as much as the rest of us.

Come back on Saturday for a much fuller preview of the match of the weekend. Thank you.

The morning started badly. Arseblog carried the potentially bad tidings, ‘Whispers this morning say we’re going there without Mesut Ozil’. At half-time in the mid-table clash at Anfield Sky confirmed our worst fears. Ten of the starting eleven in midweek were supplemented by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Mohamed Elneny was named on the bench, but there was no place either for Alexis.

There are two sides to everything, I suppose, and the fear that we were facing Stoke without Coquelin, Cazorla, Ozil, and Alexis was tempered by the fact that they wouldn’t face further injury in the Potteries. Silver linings and all that.

The animosity that has existed since 1971, but has heightened since Shawcross butchered Aaron Ramsey in 2010, was evident from the off. It transmitted from the stands to the pitch in the opening scrappy phases of play. Wollscheid denied Theo Walcott a run on goal with a blatant body check, but the referee, Craig Pawson, chose not to demonstrate that he understood the laws of the game, or the nature of this fixture, by keeping his cards in his pocket.

It was the twentieth minute before an effort on goal of any substance was conjured up, Afellay blazing wide of Petr Cech’s left hand post. It prompted Arsenal into action at the other end. Butland had to be very alert to deny Olivier Giroud, put through beautifully by Joel Campbell who is proving to have a quality final ball in him these days.

Eight minutes later Aaron Ramsey saw an effort deflected away for a corner. This apparently classified him as a practitioner of solo sexual practices by those behind the goal who really should restrict themselves similarly, and preferably for life. Next to try his luck, but sadly off target, was Alex Oxlade Chamberlain. He avoided the ire of the locals, possibly because his father plied his trade here until mercifully being offered an escape route by Sheffield Wednesday.

Ten minutes from the break Joselu’s tame effort brought a comfortable save out of Cech, but the Gunners defence managed to give the ball away to Bojan, thankfully off target with his effort too. Lacking any sort of co-ordinated play, the match was a fractured, bitty affair, doubtless to the satisfaction of Mark Hughes who would not have wanted us to get into any sort of rhythm.

Goal-less at the break, the first forty-five minutes will never feature in a season highlights package. However, less than a couple of minutes after the restart we came close to opening the scoring. Giroud got a solid header on Ramsey’s corner but once again Butland produced a fine save to deny the Frenchman.

As the contest warmed up an Arsenal break foundered when Wallscheid and Giroud had a coming together in the box which ended with the Frenchman on the deck. Nothing doing according to an out-of-his-depth referee, nor seconds later when Walcott was tugged down just outside the box.

If Butland had produced the two saves of the match to date, then Cech was to level that particular contest with an outstanding double save in the 57th minute. The match had entered a new phase with both teams now searching for an opening goal that could prove decisive.

The substitutions were kick-started by Stoke. Bojan, perhaps a little frail for such a poorly arbitrated contest, made way for Diouf. A couple of corners were dealt with by an Arsenal defence showing admirable durability, if wasteful in distribution. To be fair the hosts too were holding up under occasional pressure, although the subtleties of the game remained a mystery to the intellectually-challenged baying and booing in the stands.

Theo was withdrawn to give Alex Iwobi a chance to make a name for himself. Whelan had to be on his toes to block an effort from the Ox. “COME ON ARSENAL” encouraged those in literates corner. Bellerin galloped up in support of the attack and won a corner. The visitors ambition was clear, but on both sides limbs were wearying.

With just over five minutes remaining the Ox set Campbell free on the right hand edge of the box, but our modern day Wiltord screwed his effort wide after cutting inside. That was a shame because nobody on the pitch deserved a goal more. It prompted Hughes to send on Adam and Van Ginkel for Arnautovic and Afellay, a safety first measure surely? No, Stoke created mayhem in the box when Laurent Koscielny headed a Whelan effort over the bar for a corner, and Rambo had to clear off his line from the resulting scrum.

Calum Chambers was sent on for the Ox, presumably to secure the point that would take Arsenal back to the top of the league, the third team to sit atop the rest this weekend. So it proved. The second-half had been more a spectacle than the first, and this didn’t deserve to be a 0-0 match, but credit for that goes to both goalkeepers.

To depart the Britannia, and it’s ‘special’ inhabitants, with a point has the potential to prolong our inability to defeat them away in our title winning seasons as highlighted in the preview.

I’ll take that tonight. To go there with that starting eleven and still secure a point is a marked upgrade on recent performances there. Bring on Chelsea.

31/3/34   Stoke City 1-1 Arsenal;     06/10/34 Stoke City 2-2 Arsenal

23/10/37 Stoke City 1-1 Arsenal;     07/2/48  Stoke City 0-0 Arsenal

29/11/52 Stoke City 1-1 Arsenal;     26/9/70  Stoke City 5-0 Arsenal

So you have heard various matches described down the years, and indeed this season, as ‘must win’ fixtures. After we could only draw at Anfield on Wednesday I saw this weekend’s trip to Stoke described as ‘must win’.

Leaving aside the fact that we are level on points at the top of the Premier League with Leicester going into the third weekend in January with 17 fixtures remaining, take a look at the scorelines above. I’m sure the older ones among you will have quickly worked out the link. I’ll give you another minute…

…That’s it. These are the results we have had at Stoke in the seasons when they were in the top flight of English football and we went on to win the League title. Played 6, won 0, drew 5, got well and truly rogered 1. Still think Sunday’s match is ‘must win’?

Now obviously I hope, and genuinely believe, that this season will prove to be the exception to the rule. However if that doesn’t prove to be then the worst case (even another rogering!) will be that we trail Leicester City by one, two, or three points with sixteen matches to play. Just take another moment or two to contemplate that and store it for a bit of perspective, should it be required, on Sunday evening.

Of course a win on Sunday would be preferable, and today’s (Friday) Arsene Wenger press conference provided a couple of boosts ahead of the trip to the Britannia. Most significant was the news that Alexis is a 60:40 chance to be back in the squad. I wouldn’t rush him back in freezing conditions against Ryan Shawcross, and I’m sure the management team wouldn’t unless they were absolutely as certain as they can be of his readiness.

Then of course there is the possibility of the midfield being boosted by the presence (on the bench?) of new boy Mohamed Elneny. I have never seen him play but a man whose judgement I trust (yes, I mean you @AFCfreddie8) has done and he rates him. That’s good enough for me. It will take him a while to settle so I hope we don’t over-burden him with expectation. Francis Coquelin is closing in on a full recovery so hopefully we are nearing a situation where we have genuine options in the middle of the park again.

We have no new injuries from Wednesday, so that is good news. Provided that all have recovered by Sunday morning there is no real reason to tinker with the starting eleven. One of the factors that has helped us maintain our challenge is the stability of recent weeks when we have been down to the bare bones and the players have worked their plums off for one another (Southampton aside – again an exception that proves the rule).

As for Stoke, well it would be a fool who didn’t acknowledge their advance under Hughes, loathesome thought though that may be. Not one of the mid-table clubs has used the promise of greater television riches better. They have an attacking force the envy of some of those who would expect to finish above them as if by right, but fortunately this weekend Xherdan Shaqiri is ruled out and Marko Arnautovic is a doubt.

The options, however include Afellay, Bojan Krkic, Mame Diouf and Joselu, not forgetting the evergreen Crouch, Walters, and Odemwingie. That battalion of attackers has them just four points off Tottenham, currently occupying  the fourth Champions League berth. You can be sure they are daring to dream as much as we are and will give it everything on Sunday.

But the Arsenal they ain’t…

The ‘holic pound

They can play all the strikers they want, but Hughes will know it is how his defence and midfield cope with their Gunners counterparts that will determine this one. It is fair to say we never really know which Arsenal will turn up, but the spirit in the squad, and the tantalising proximity of English football’s greatest prize, will surely ensure we are well and truly at it on Sunday, whatever ‘it’ needs to be?

They are looking at Hector Bellerin, Aaron Ramsey, Joel Campbell, Mesut Ozil, and Olivier Giroud, and wondering how on earth they can stop us at the weekend, make no mistake about that. If form counts for anything there will be goals in this one so I am encouraged to chuck a real hail Mary this week.

How about 2-4 in favour of Arsenal? Is it really as outrageous prospect as the 90/1 being offered by one major bookie would suggest? I don’t think so, and I am most definitely on it.

So there, four days of my mini dry January complete (how well have those of you doing the full month done, well played) it is time to unwind with a mug of Rosie and whatever Scooby snacks I can find hidden around the place. As usual I wish those of you heading to Mordor on Sunday a wonderful afternoon and a victory to silence the locals. As for the rest of you…

Have a great one, ‘holics.

The heavens opened pre-match and Arsene Wenger opted for the starting eleven that most expected, with Joel Campbell and Theo Walcott getting the nod ahead of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flanks. David Ospina was again ruled out and so Matt Macey was on the bench once again.

Perhaps not surprisingly the two teams started wary of the other, but Liverpool made the first tentative efforts to attack when first Lallana, then Ibe, made fruitless incursions into the Gunners box. It was a signal of what was to come. As the tenth minute kicked in Theo Walcott, alone in the right-back slot, lost possession, Emre Can’s fierce drive was parried by Petr Cech, but only as far as Firmino who drilled it home with his left foot.

Liverpool 1-0 Arsenal

Before the quarter of an hour was up Arsenal showed much-needed backbone and fashioned a quick reponse. Olivier Giroud flicked on Cech’s long clearance, and Aaron Ramsey played a one-two with Joel Campbell before driving the ball in right-footed at Mignolet’s near post. Full marks to Campbell for the inch-perfect pass.

Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal

Within four minutes though we were behind again. Per Mertesacker and Campbell failed to execute clearances on the edge of the box and Firmino unleashed a magnificent curling drive into the far top corner for his and Liverpool’s second.

Liverpool 2-1 Arsenal

At the other end an incredible see-saw half took another twist in the 25th minute after Ramsey’s goalbound lob was headed out for a corner by Sakho. Ramsey’s low corner was flicked in by Giroud with the deftest of touches at the near post. Another memorable televised Premier League thriller was taking shape.

Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal

The scorer unbelievably missed an easier chance to give us the lead less than two minutes later when presented with an open goal by Theo Walcott, put in by thee impressive Campbell. Giroud somehow contrived to strike early and the ball dropped to a grateful Mignolet off his lower calf.

The visitors had finally settled and took greater control of the contest, reducing the hosts to the occasional rapid counter attack. From one such break in the 41st minute Cech had to be alert to palm out a Firmino cross. The Gunners responded in kind and Walcott’s strike from Nacho Monreal’s pass was deflected for a corner by Henderson.

Firmino was a whisker away from a first-half hat-trick when Laurent Koscielny failed to deal with a cross as Liverpool again sought the advantage. It could have been 3-3 already. I’m not sure anybody wanted to hear the whistle (although the players may have desired a breather) but sadly it sounded to end a remarkable half of football.

Thirty seconds after the restart Ozil picked out Campbell at the far post but a very difficult half volley sailed into the Anfield Road End. Moreno blazed it over in similar circumstances in front of the Kop.

Next to bring the crowd to their feet was Theo, dribbling mazily from the left-back berth to the edge of the Liverpool box before driving just wide of Mignolet’s right hand post. It was but a temporary reprieve for the scousers. Bellerin and Campbell combined to set up Giroud with his back to goal. The big Frenchman swivelled and passed the ball into the far corner. Simply magnificent. Do people really still doubt him?

Liverpool 2-3 Arsenal

With Mesut Ozil taking control of the midfield for the first time Arsenal took the steam out of Liverpool’s pressing game for long periods as the Gunners looked to close out the match a long way from the finishing post. Midway through the half Liverpool brought on Benteke, a direct threat at last.

Moreno sought an equaliser with a drive that was deflected wide, then a cross that was headed harmlessly wide. As Arsenal sought to impose themselves again Clyne, already yellow-carded for a handball, scythed down Campbell but escaped a second card somewhat fortunately.

Liverpool were growing in confidence again and Ibe’s cross brought a fine last-ditch clearance by Mertesacker from under his own crossbar. Heavy rain turned to sleet. This was a cold wet night in the north-west, so often a barren hunting ground for the Gunners in years gone by.

The Ox was introduced for the outstanding Campbell, and Kieran Gibbs for Theo with a quarter of an hour remaining. The ultimately to be thwarted rearguard action was being established. Mertesacker was required to clear hurriedly again.

On the break Ozil somehow killed a crossfield ball from the Ox stone dead and measure a cross to Ramsey that Mignolet thumped clear deperately. At the other end Mertesacker, a different player from the first half, cleared again.

Ibe, so often frustrated in a gripping personal battle with Monreal, cut inside for once but there was Flamini to block. Cue the introduction of Mikel Arteta for Mesut Ozil for the last few minutes. Liverpool sent on new loan signing Caulker as an emergency second striker.

Clyne ran into Koscielny and bought a cheap free-kick on the edge of the box, but the wall stood  firm and blocked Moreno’s free-kick. The hammer-blow was just around the corner however. Once again the ball was lumped into the box, but this time there was no heroic clearance. Allen fed off Benteke and swept a dramatic equaliser in the corner.

Liverpool 3-3 Arsenal

How many more heartbeaking late goals will we concede at Anfield? In the Wenger years they have made a habit of them, it seems.

“Every time we go to Anfield, we face a team who is up for it. It’s always a ferocious battle, no matter who the manager is. They had a very strong manager before, they have a very strong one now, and Klopp has the personality to do well there.”

Arsene Wenger’s response to being asked if he had noticed anything different at Liverpool under the much-hyped Jurgen Klopp. With Mourinho gone there is less snap, crackle, and pop about Arsene’s press conferences. So little have the assembled throng got to get under his skin these days he gets a relatively calm ride. They even asked him about the passing of David Bowie and his wonderful response showed he was prepared for that eventuality.

“I must say, the message he gave to my generation was very important because it was after the Second World War and it was basically – be strong enough to be yourself. That is a very strong message and very important for my generation.” 

All thoughts at the club will now have turned to preparing the side that will face Liverpool in front of the Kop, with both sides missing key players through injury. Liverpool have lost even more than us numerically, and we must use the belief that the squad team will have generated beating Sunderland at the weekend to our advantage at Anfield.

Per Mertesacker, Nacho Monreal, Mathieu Flamini, Aaron Ramsey, and Mesut Ozil can probably expect to be recalled. Arsene’s most difficult decision will be which two to perm from Joel Campbell, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Theo Walcott in the wide roles, which probably boils down to Theo or the Ox, frankly.

Recent history suggests we can approach the match with confidence. Liverpool have beaten us just twice in our last seventeen meetings in the Premier League, and we have lost just once in our last seven trips to Merseyside.

The hosts have signed Queens Park Rangers defender Steven Caulker on loan, and also have Mamadou Sakho and invincible Kolo Toure returning to the defence. There is also talk of returns for Jordan Henderson, Jordon Ibe and James Milner, but perhaps they do not make up for the absence of key players like Sturridge, Coutinho, Lovren, and Skrtel. Jurgen Klopp has won only five of his 12 league matches in charge and they have scored only 14 goals in those fixtures. Not surprisingly the new man on Merseyside was cautious about opponents he became very familiar with in his time at Dortmund.

“Arsenal and Arsene have their own style. It’s possession football, so it’s clear that if we want to play the same way we will be without a chance because they’ve been doing it for longer. Arsenal are not only a good possession team, that’s the problem, they have good counter-attacks too and that’s what you have to be aware of.”

The ‘holic pound

The likeable head-the-ball that is Klopp talks of an Arsenal that hasn’t turned up for every match this season, but he does capture us at our best and it is in this second half of the season that if we can build on a remarkable run of one defeat in ten then we can be considered very serious title challengers.

I choose to have confidence in a side that contains Cech, Koscielny, Ramsey, Ozil, and Giroud. I also choose to take the 13/1 offered by one bookie against a 0-2 away win that would send a massive signal to the rest of the Premier League. Clearly the market doesn’t agree and favourite outcome is a 1-1 draw. We will have to agree to disagree. I fancy Arsene may be able to quote the deeply missed Bowie again post-match, saluting his ‘Heroes’.

As ever I hope the travelling Gooners are rewarded for their fantastic support, and I am confident that you/they will be. The only benefit I can claim is that it really will be much warmer where I will be, behind the sofa. And with that I am off to make a cup of tea. Yes, tea. It’s that time of year again.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

A lucky Grandad’s pre-birthday treat is pizza with two of the loveliest boys you could ever wish to meet (I may be a little biased!). There is only one little worry in the back of the mind. The youngest is making his second visit to the new home of football and the first was somewhat spoiled by a Manchester United side who won 1-2 with only one shot on target.

From the off there was something of a surprise in the way the Gunners set-up. With Mesut Ozil rested as we had thought beforehand Calum Chambers and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain set up base camp in midfield with young Alex Iwobi playing in the Ozil role. Quite a responsibility for him, and a wonderful vote of confidence for a young player from his boss.

Perhaps not surprisingly we made a slow start, but looked in little difficulty. Kieran Gibbs stung the palms of rookie goalkeeper Pickford, but shortly afterwards played a hospital pass to Laurent Koscielny on the edge of the box. Lens dispossessed the skipper of the day and fired past Petr Cech. My thoughts immediately turned to the youngest. Please not again. Let him see us win.

Luckily we weren’t behind for too long, and the equaliser arrived when Iwobi freed Theo Walcott on the left and his cut-back was met with a superb left-foot finish from Joel Campbell, again reminding many of Sylvain Wiltord.

The second half opened with both teams showing no lack of ambition. The Ox was denied only by the post and at the other end Fletcher thumped a header against Cech’s crossbar. It must have made for some excitement as well as tension where the boys were sitting in close proximity to the Sunderland fans.

Around the midway point of the half Aaron Ramsey was sent on for Iwobi and Mikel Arteta replaced Calum Chambers. Neither of those benched had performed badly, but the replacements gave us a new found edge. It was Ramsey who gave the Gunners the advantage for the first time after six minutes on the pitch. Bellerin, rampaging down the right as ever, played a one two with Campbell and cut the ball back for Rambo to sweep home.

The third, just four minutes later, came when the Ox found Bellerin again with a superb pass and the right-back again played the perfect ball in to Olivier Giroud who made no mistake from point-blank range. The French striker was suddenly in the spotlight. As the game drew to a close he had a fine header tipped over by Pickford and was denied a penalty when scythed down and Martin Atkinson and his assistants were the only people in the ground who failed to spot it.

The final whistle brought a smile to a happy Grandad’s face. The boys had witnessed a win, and a thoroughly entertaining second-half too. The post-match festivities in the pub were made sweeter by the win, and great company. In hindsight to have successfully opened our pursuit of a third consecutive FA Cup without Mertesacker, Monreal, Coquelin, Cazorla, Ozil, and Alexis was quite an achievement.

It was indeed one of the good days.

“We play against a Premier League team and we have learnt in the last 20 games that any Premier League team is a massive problem to face. The only way to deal with it is to give absolutely everything.”

Just what we want to hear from Arsene Wenger prior to our defence of the FA Cup that has been our personal property for two memorable years. The reality may, however, be two squad teams hopefully giving ‘absolutely everything’, which should still favour us, but…

Sam Allardyce has, not without reason to be fair, bemoaned the proximity of the FA Cup weekend to a round of Premier League fixtures in the following midweek. His priorities clearly lie with preserving his current employers Premier League status. He will rotate.

Arsene too, we can be reasonably sure, will have one eye on a trip to Anfield that could have a significant bearing on our title challenge. Whilst I have no doubt that our current best starting eleven will be in the squad tomorrow it would be no surprise to see three or four left on the bench, ready to be called upon ‘just in case’. Arsene hinted at a lower number.

“At the moment I make two or three changes maximum.”

David Ospina could find himself starting behind a back four of Hector Bellerin, Per Mertesacker, Gabriel, and Kieran Gibbs. Mathieu Debuchy will presumably be keen not to be cup-tied with a move away from the club seemingly imminent. A pairing of Calum Chambers and Mathieu Flamini in front of that back four could free up Aaron Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to deputise for Mesut ‘how may I assist you?’ Ozil, surely due a seat on the bench in the predicted thunderstorms.

The front three will be interesting. Does le boss persist with Olivier Giroud, or give Theo a morale boosting run up top with Joel Campbell coming in on the right, and either the Ox or even young Jeff Reine-Adelaide on the left? That there are options available to us despite the injury list is perhaps a surprise.

Allardyce has an opportunity to see just what he can extract out of his squad players, those who he has not had much of a chance to work with in his short time at the Stadium of Light. He has said though that he will only play one young player in the tie, with the BBC tipping goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

“Unfortunately we have restrictions which mean fitting in a Premier League the midweek after, which doesn’t give us the opportunity to play the strongest team at Arsenal. What it does do is give a fantastic opportunity to some of the squad players. Some of those players are the most expensive players we’ve bought so there is room for them to go out and perform at a very high level, and that’s what we will have to do at Arsenal to try and get a result.”

Likely to be promoted from the bench are the likes of Toivonen, Coates, Yedlin, and the experienced poacher of goals, Fletcher.

The ‘holic pound

A difficult prediction at the best of times, the nature of the selections for tomorrow makes this more so. I was persuaded on last night’s (Thursday) A Bergkamp Wonderland podcast to plump for 3-0 to the Gunners, and I am possibly foolishly sticking with that at a market best 17/2.

I will see some of you after the final whistle when hopefully we will not be as soaked to the skin as last Saturday, but the forecast is currently for even worse weather. I will be enjoying the company of the grand’holics before the match on their annual visit to the new home of football, so should have a clearer memory of the proceedings than normal.

As ever, I wish you a great one ‘holics, wherever you may be and whatever you are doing this weekend.

Well, January has arrived and while the rumour mongers have us linked with a couple of handfuls of ‘targets’ none have yet appeared. Unless of course you include Arsenal Ladies who unveiled a very exciting new arrival in Fara Williams from Liverpool Ladies. The signing of the England international sends out a very strong message that the team will compete with big-spending Manchester City and Chelsea in the coming season.

The only deal looking remotely close for the men however is that of Mohamed Elneny from FC Basle. Although Arsenal have yet to confirm it does seem a deal is likely as long as the Gunners are able to secure a work permit for the Egyptian international. His team-mate Albian Ajeti Facebooked his wishes for “success in Arsenal”, and his club explained Elneny was not back in training because “there could be a transfer in the coming days”.

I’ll hold my hands up. I’m one of the few, if social media sites are to be believed (extracts tongue from cheek) who has never heard of the man, and so I cannot give you a view of just what he brings to the club. I do however trust those responsible for their judgement of those players who are signed. The data that is reviewed these days prior to making a new signing will have given a favourable impression for certain.

Doubtless he will be one of the topics for discussion on this weekend’s A Bergkamp Wonderland podcast which should hit the airwaves on Thursday night. You will hear me completely avoiding as much of the speculation as I can, although I suspect that Gimli, Danny, Jason Davies, and @GeoffArsenal will come up with a comprehensive list of who might be heading our way.

In other news, scant though it is, Mikel Arteta returned to action with the U-21’s in their 3-2 defeat of Blackburn Rovers yesterday (Tuesday). Coach Steve Gatting was fulsome in his praise for the Spaniard.

“Mikel was talking the lads through the game. He is very experienced on the ball and knows when to pass it, and where to pass it. He is always available for the ball and hardly ever gives it away.”

I know that Mikel has divided opinions this season, and I confess I would be surprised to see him here as a player next season, but with Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla being ruled out by injury the former skipper is a welcome return to the squad, if only as cover for Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey. Until Elneny signs, of course!

And with that we have gone full cycle. I’ll be back with a Cup preview on Friday evening. Cheers ‘holics.

“We were not at our best but we had to dig deep and we can do that when needed. If you are down there then those are the matches you lose but they will not stay down there. They are a good team.”

In those three sentences Arsene summed up a frustrating afternoon better than most. It was the sort of afternoon when one departed the ground pondering whether Newcastle were that good, or we were not really at the races. Surprisingly, with Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flanks, most of our threat out wide came from the full-backs, and particularly Hector Bellerin.

Newcastle started as expected, defended in depth and tried to hit the hosts on the break. As the first-half wore on and they realised they were very much in the contest they grew in confidence. Petr Cech had to be at his best to deny Wijnaldum and Colback.

Arsenal chances were few and far between, although Mesut Ozil was again looking lively, if the only functioning piston in the engine room. Perhaps the best chance of the half fell to Olivier Giroud, but the impressive Coloccini was on hand to block. The Geordies were on the front foot either side of the half-time whistle too, and Cech again had to show his class to deny Wijnaldum twice.

Whatever Arsene had said to his team at half-time had some effect as a greater sense of urgency was displayed. Giroud headed just wide and then Ozil fed in Aaron Ramsey who was denied by the visiting goalkeeper Elliot. The latter had continued the long tradition of Newcastle ‘keepers eating up the seconds. How often though does that tactic come back to bite you? They wanted that time back in the 73rd minute when Laurent Koscielny got the breakthrough, diverting a Giroud header into the net.

The relief around the ground was evident, and for the first time Arsena found some freedom of movement. We very nearly had a ‘goal of the season’ to cheer when Ozil once again sent Ramsey on a weaving run on goal. Had his finish curled into the top corner it would have been a wonderful strike, but sadly it passed the angle of post and bar.

Newcastle will be buoyed by the stats that showed they had 49% of the possession, far more than most would have predicted beforehand. Steve McLaren was somewhat puzzled in the aftermath.

“I’m scratching my head as to how we got nothing from that game.”

He wasn’t alone. A popular saying, the mark of a good side is one that grinds out a result when not at their best, surely applies. Lest we forget we are still missing key players, particularly Coquelin, Cazorla, and Alexis, yet still look down on the rest of the Premier League past the mid-point of the season.

A happy and healthy new year to you all.

Arsenal enter 2016 sitting atop the Premier League, and start the second half of the campaign with a home fixture against Newcastle United. The two injury ravaged squads have enjoyed contrasting fortunes so far. The Geordies, despite recent victories over Liverpool and Tottenham, are languishing in the relegation zone. On the road they have won at Bournemouth as well as Spurs, and they took a point at Old Trafford.

Only neighbours Sunderland have conceded more goals than Newcastle this season. Among the players ruled out are goalkeeper Tim Krul, Defender Mike Williamson, midfielder Vurnon Anita, and striker Papiss Cisse. Our 0-1 win there earlier in the season was our eighth consecutive win against the Geordies.

If we are to extend that run it may be down to Olivier Giroud again. The French international has scored eight goals in seven appearances against the Magpies. They must be sick of the sight of him. Mesut Ozil goes into the match looking to add to his sixteen assists this season. His performance against Bournemouth on Monday will remain in the memory. I am so looking forward to seeing him in the flesh again.

Of the four players rested against Bournemouth I would expect a recall for at least three, but it would not be a surprise to see skipper Per Mertesacker take his turn on the bench. It will be interesting to see if Calum Chambers is trusted in midfield again, or if Mathieu Flamini is recalled. Nacho Montreal should reclaim the left-back berth and Joel Campbell could come back into the side for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Arsene was acknowledging the task his side faces as the new year begins.

“If we are the best team from January to May, we will be very happy. That’s our target, and knowing that the Premier League is an extremely competitive league, and looking at the results around you, of course you know that you need to put in the effort to be competitive in every game.”

Meanwhile his opposite number, Steve McLaren, has spoken of how his team may have to resort to a physical approach.

“It is about collective organisation and discipline – and a certain amount of aggression will be required.”

That’s not what one wants to hear when Anthony Taylor is refereeing.

The ‘holic pound

The bookies favour a second consecutive 2-0 but I am going to be a little more bullish, preferring 3-0 at a tasty 17/2. If you liked that Giroud statistic then big Ollie is just 3/1 to score first.

For those who are going I look forward to seeing some of you in the battle of choice. Here is to maintaining that title challenge.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

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