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If Arsene Wenger’s last match in charge of the Arsenal was not to be at Ashburton Grove then Huddersfield, from where we poached Herbert Chapman in 1925, was the second best option. The atmosphere surrounding the fixture dripped in nostalgia at what both of the great managers have contributed to The Arsenal.

The boss selected David Ospina for his final fixture behind a back four of Hector Bellerin, Shkodran Mustafi, Rob Holding, and Sead Kolasinac. Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey lined up behind Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Alex Iwobi, and Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang. Alexandre Lacazette was leading the line. Arsene was afforded a guard of honour as he came out for his 828th Premier League match.

Ominously Huddersfield started the brighter, cheered to the rafters by their fanatical support who, having lauded their own manager, paid tribute to “One Arsene Wenger”. In the twenty-second minute, in recognition of Arsene’s 22 years in the Premier League, they gave him a standing ovation and a minute of solid applause. Classy indeed.

To that point though their team had dominated. The Gunners only efforts were a tame Mkhitaryan free-kick and a wild swing by Ramsey. In the twenty-seventh minute Kolasinac missed a great chance at the far post after a Xhaka corner was headed on to him. The biggest talking point was the earlier flight of an airborne banner telling Arsene “We’ll miss you too”.

Pritchard and Ince had threatened to unhinge the visitors in the opening quarter of the match, but slowly the Gunners crept into the game and very much against the run of play in the thirty-eighth minute Mkhitaryan, Lacazette, and Ramsey combined in a flowing move to tee up Aubamayang, who else, for the opening goal.

Huddersfield Town 0-1 The Arsenal

A combination of the sunshine and that goal seemed to temporarily knock the stuffing out of the hosts, noticeably less quick to press which allowed us to take a real grip on the game for the closing minutes of the half.

The Terriers regained their mojo at the start of the second-half and once again took control of proceedings, barring a mistake that ended with Aubamayang unable to pick out Ramsey in the box. At the other end cross after cross was dealt with nervously by a defence that was being exposed more than it would have liked.

On the hour mark Ince was sprung on the Huddersfield left and his final contribution to the match was an angled drive that Ospina had to dive full length to tip wide of his far post for a corner. Depoitre came on in Ince’s place, a big presence to add a dangerous second prong to the Huddersfield attack.

It was time for Arsene to make his last substitutions as The Arsenal manager. Nacho Monreal came on for Kolasinac, and Danny Welbeck somewhat surprisingly for Aubamayang. Shortly afterwards Ainsley Maitland-Niles came on for Iwobi, frustrating and inspirational in equal measure.

A rare break-out saw Xhaka find Ramsey in the box and the close attention he received from a blocking defender was deemed fair by Michael Oliver, who to be fair was having an excellent game as referee. There, I’ve said it! Bellerin’s dangerous clearing header from an excellent Pritchard cross was cleared by Maitland-Niles at the expense of a corner that we survived.

With just over ten minutes Lacazette had a wonderful chance to seal the points when played in by Mkhitaryan, but his attempt to chip Lossl failed as the goalkeeper stood firm. The goalkeeper was called into action again a couple of minutes later to thwart Wellbeck in a one on one. Then a Xhaka special from distance thundered narrowly wide of the target. The Arsenal were finishing strongly.

Dean Whitehead was given the final four minutes plus added time to play his last time in the Premier League. Mooy was a whisker away from a dramatic equaliser as his volley brushed the top off the crossbar. The match was in no way limping to a close. We were however clinging on for our first away points of 2018. “49 49 undefeated” rang around the stadium as a salute to Arsene’s finest achievement. A fantastic last gasp save by Ospina kept his clean sheet intact.

The final whistle brought about a pitch invasion from the hosts, thus delaying things for the travelling faithful, not always a hundred percent behind the manager, but wanting to pay him the respect he so deserved. Eventually they did get their wish.

Things will be very different next season.

Merci Arsene. We’ll miss you too.

Huddersfield Town away, not just the last match of the season. It’s also the last match of an era. The man who has managed our club for over a third of my life, who really brought me back to the club in a big way. In the last of the George Graham years and the Rioch season I made the trip to Highbury a handful of times. The football had become predictable and yes, boring.

Arsene Wenger didn’t transform things overnight. in his first seven months he certainly, with the help of Patrick Vieira, went about changing the minds of the English core of The Arsenal. The football improved and we were there or thereabouts all season but lost home and away to Manchester United and Liverpool. United claimed the title at the death from Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle who would have loved it, loved it, if they could have beat them. We were third on goal difference from the Geordies.

We had seen a preview of what might be, and having seen where we needed reinforcing the ‘Professeur’ had a summer spending spree. Among our eight signings were Alex Manninger, Gilles Grimandi, Manu Petit, Marc Overmars and Chris Wreh. The most notable departure was Paul Merson, a strong message to the other Englishmen that they still needed to further curtail their drinking culture.

The calendar year of 1997 ended quite disastrously. Blackburn won at Highbury, Ian Wright clashed with the crowd outside from the changing room window, and Tony Adams was sent by Arsene to the South of France to gain fitness and strengthen a damaged ankle. We were twelve points behind Manchester United, and still were at the start of March, but an incredible run of ten consecutive victories, including a memorable one nil to The Arsenal at Old Trafford, earned us the title with two matches to spare. To cap it all Newcastle were beaten in the FA Cup Final at Wembley and with a double in his first full season Le Boss had answered the question, “Arsene Who?”

Wengerball mark one had to give way in time as the magnificent defenders he had inherited came to the end of their extended careers. Wengerball mark two was to introduce even more heady times to the club. Wenger didn’t do defences, it was said. Midfielders Lauren and Kolo Toure were switched into the back four with Ashley Cole and the Tottenham captain, Sol Campbell, gloriously poached from the neighbours at the end of his contract for absolutely free. Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Gilberto Silva, and Edu, among others helped create the perfect invincible season having already secured a second double under the Frenchman.

Further variations of the Wengerball era faced different challenges following the stadium move. For a decade we achieved Champions League qualification despite the annual loss, it seemed, of our best players. Only now is the magnitude of that achievement truly sinking in. Now, when for the second season running, we haven’t achieved it. The three FA Cups in four years were great, thank you Arsene, but this seems to be a good time for us, and indeed you, to find a new direction.

On Sunday, with a total of three Premier League titles and a record seven FA Cups to his name, Arsene manages The Arsenal for the 1,253rd and last time. Huddersfield Town have used their social media channels to call for one minute of applause for the visiting manager in the twenty-second minute. I suspect One Arsene Wenger will ring out around the ground many times during the match.

Oh, there’s a match. I nearly forgot. I haven’t a clue who will be playing, and in what formation, for either team. Although we haven’t won an away Premier League fixture this year the result isn’t what tomorrow is about. It will be a day for fond (and sadly some not so fond) farewells. Dean Whitehead, a midfielder we have faced many times, is also retiring to take up a coaching position after a career lasting nineteen years. Hopefully the travelling faithful will accord him a warm hand too.

The ‘holic pound

I’ve been changing my mind every five minutes so decided to just place the bet and pray. I took 20/1 against us winning 2-3 on an entertaining as well as emotional afternoon.

With that it’s time to try and find some music that will calm the soul ahead of what will be a day the like of which we may not experience again. I’m aware that a number of our supporters have only known Arsene Wenger in the hot seat. From the youngest to the oldest Gooners I know from most there will be a final acknowledgement of what the man achieved not just for The Arsenal, but for English football generally in the nineties and noughties.

MERCI ARSENE.

For his penultimate game in charge Arsene Wenger went with a strongish looking squad team. Petr Cech got the nod in goal behind a back four of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Rob Holding, Konstantinos Mavropanos and Sead Kolasinac. Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey were selected to support Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck. Pierre-Emerick Aubamayangwas charged with leading the Gunners attack.

That attack was evident in the opening phases. From a first minute corner Mkhitaryan drew a save from the Foxes goalkeeper, Jakupovic. Five minutes later another fabulous move ended with Jakupovic tipping Iwobi’s effort round his left hand post for a barren corner.

It took the hosts until the thirteenth minute to have an attempt but Vardy’s shot from an acute angle was tipped around for a corner by Cech. When that set piece wasn’t cleared by a hesitant defence the ball eventually fell to Iheanacho who lashed it home through Xhaka’s legs and past the unsighted Cech’s left hand.

Leicester City 1-0 The Arsenal

Shortly afterwards we were down to ten men when Mavropanos lost the ball to the goalscorer and dragged him down, the covering Rob Holding was quick to the ball but the referee, one Graham Scott, showed the young Greek prospect a straight red card. It was a harsh judgement that he was the last defender in my admittedly biased view.

All of a sudden we were under the cosh. Mahrez picked out Maguire and his instinctive volley drew a reaction save from Cech. With the Gunners rocking the boss was forced to send on Shkodran Mustafi for Welbeck. The momentum had well and truly changed. Once more the away hoodoo in 2018 looked as if it had returned with a vengeance.

Cech was forced into another save from Iheanacho as Leicester enforced their man advantage. Vardy and Silva were thwarted by the thin red line. Silva missed the target as the Gunners were forced into errors by the high press of the hosts. A rare retaliation was threatened but both Mkhitaryan and Aubamayang saw their efforts deflected for corners which we couldn’t capitalise on.

Maitland-Niles adventure gave us some hope of better to come, but back broke Leicester with Vardy putting Iheanacho in to draw another fine diving parry from Cech. Holding magnificently denied the same attacker deep inside the six yard box in front of an otherwise open goal.

As we fashioned another half decent opportunity Silva went down in his own box with a knee injury and Iwobi was ‘persuaded’ by the home crowd and team to put the ball out for a throw in. It looked as though at least one of his colleagues berated the lad for being too nice. I may have used an expletive or two as well. Half-time arrived with us grateful to be only one behind.

When battle recommenced the valiant and flexible 4-4-1 conjured up an opportunity for Kolasinac to employ his shooting boots only to see them made redundant by the near post. Leicester reacted but after Vardy had been called for a pair of offside runs were to be frustrated. Mahrez stung Cech’s palms with a free-kick but the ten men were about to be rewarded for their persistence.

Another wonderful run by Maitland-Niles saw him picket Aubamayang in front of goal. Jakupovic parried his first attempt but was powerless to prevent the striker from lashing the rebound high into the net. It wash no more than the visitors deserved.

Leicester City 1-1 The Arsenal

Encouraged by a boisterous travelling support the Gunners went looking for the first away win of the year. Iwobi tried his luck but missed the target by some distance. Midway through the half the hard-working Mkhitaryan also failed to trouble either the goalkeeper or the goalnet with his wayward effort. Credit the aforementioned travelling Gooners for a noisy rendition of “how shit must you be, we’re drawing away!” Self deprecation was the name of the game on a night in which the result meant little to anybody but the two sets of supporters.

Then they weren’t as the hosts made their numerical supremacy pay again. Mkhitaryan was adjudged to have fouled Gray in the box and Vardy, ever confident from twelve yards with just the goalkeeper to beat, smashed his spot-kick home.

Leicester City 2-1 The Arsenal

Back came the valiant Gunners again and Kolasinac’s powerful header from Ramsey’s corner was well saved by Jakupovic. We weren’t lying down which in itself was good to see. The introduction of Nketiah for the tiring Iwobi gave us an additional attacking threat but it wasn’t to be a last inspirational substitution by the boss. Mahrez was sent scampering free, he sent Holding into the stand behind the goal when he cut inside and fired the clincher under Cech.

Leicester City 3-1 The Arsenal

The final seconds were played out as they should have been to yet more choruses from both sets of supporters go “There’s only one Arsene Wenger”. his farewell tour ends at Huddersfield on Sunday and if the Gunners battle as hard as the ten men did tonight we will surely rid the no away win in 2018 at that one. For the first time in 23 games in all competitions, Leicester finally got one over on him tonight.

Arsene Wenger spoke of his desire to win the last two matches at his press conference ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Leicester. For that to happen we need to gain our first two away wins in 2018, and with no possibility of improving on or losing sixth place you could be forgiven for thinking that the dreaded handbrake might be applied. If the boys can produce another performance like Sunday’s against Burnley then we should nail down those six points.

We will definitely have to do it without Laurent Koscielny, Mohamed Elneny, Santi Cazorla, and Mesut Ozil. The latter has a ‘back injury’ and is unlikely to play before joining up with the German World Cup squad. The manager also suggested he will closely check the players who started last Thursday and on Sunday. That could rule out Hector Bellerin, Granit Xhaka, Jack Wilshere, and Alexandre Lacazette.

Let’s imagine what that leaves us with. Petr Cech starting behind a back four of Calum Chambers, Rob Holding, Konstantinos Mavropanos, and Nacho Monreal. Ainsley Maitland-Niles forming a new partnership with Aaron Ramsey and in the engine room Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck behind Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang.

If we were to choose our opponents to try and break our 2018 duck on the road it would surely be Leicester, again whom Arsene Wenger is undefeated in twenty-two matches. They will be missing as many players as us so we know their squad strength is due to be severely tested again. They have lost four of their last five Premier League matches, securing just a solitary point from a home match against Southampton.

The ‘holic pound

Will the spirit of Sunday and the desire to send Arsene Wenger to his next port of call with a smile on his face resurface? Let’s hope so. On the basis that it should I am backing 1-3 to the Gunners at a boosted price of 15.3/1.

Very brief tonight I’m afraid as I have to record this week’s A Bergkamp Wonderland Podcast which may appear as added content to this post late on Tuesday night. Have a good one tomorrow, ‘holics.

Is yours gold?

Despite Network Rail’s various attempts to frustrate us a full-house turned up for what was always going to be an emotional day. Friends old and new came together in the various drinking establishments around the stadium and created a warm atmosphere in the glare of a glorious sun over N5 and N7, many of whom had taken the opportunity to sign the books which will be presented to the departing manager as a personal memento of his time in charge of our club.

Into the stadium for a last expensive glass of white wine (for which thanks, neighbour) and taking up our seats complete with Arsene Wenger teeshirts. This was going to be the celebration to beat all celebrations. The two teams formed a guard of honour and, for the last time as The Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger strode out onto centre stage. Not for the last time “one Arsene Wenger” grew to a crescendo in the North London sky.

His team, much changed from Thursday night in Madrid, set about recreating the first decade of Wengerball against the one team who could deny them sixth place in the Premiership and automatic qualification for next season’s Europa League. That sixth place may be the final reason for Arsene’s departure, but that first decade and some way beyond is why everyone, it seemed, had come to praise him.

It took the Gunners less than a quarter of an hour to grab the lead when a flowing move ended with Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang applying the finishing touch to Alexandre Lacazette’s drive across the goal. The team rolled back the years as the half progressed and one became two when Lacazette calmly side-footed Hector Bellerin’s pinpoint cross beyond Pope in the Burnley goal.

The home crowd, clearly enjoying the return of a convivial atmosphere around the place, sang the praises of the legends of the Wenger years as well as the departing manager himself. In the second-half there was no let-up from the hosts. If anything we ramped up the pressure on a Burnley side who were already on the beach, it seemed. Nine minutes in Jack Wilshere made a wonderful burst through the centre of midfield and teed up Sead Kolasinac for the strike of the day into the far corner.

The fourth arrived when Aubamayang cut the ball back for Alex Iwobi to strike a fine finish high into the net. This was vintage Arsenal and I scrambled to see what the cash-out on the ‘holic pound might now be. The lack of a signal in the stadium prevented that. The punt was sunk when Bellerin crossed for Aubamayang to sweep home for the sweetest of finishes. Five nil to the Arsenal.

It seemed as though the post match celebrations had started early, and no more so than when three thousand Burnley supporters roared “one Arsene Wenger” to a standing ovation from the home crowd. Aaron Ramsey had already come on for Wilshere, but in the aftermath of the fifth goal Per Mertesacker made an emotional final home appearance replacing Calum Chambers, who along with Konstantinos Mavropanos had formed a wonderful defensive barrier throughout. “We’ve got a big f***ing German” boomed out around the Grove.

So to the final whistle and the start of the proceedings saw the only show of discontent from sections of the crowd who jeered Sir Chips Keswick when the chairman was introduced to make awards to the retiring Vic Akers, Alex Scott, and Per Mertesacker. Then the star of the show. Once more le boss was given a guard of honour by his team and the assembled legends before being presented with the gold Premier League trophy, awarded in recognition of the Invincibles season in 2003/4, by the club.

His speech brought a lump to many throats and started with a tribute to his greatest rival and friend, Sir Alex Ferguson. By the time he admitted “I will miss you” there were few dry eyes in the house. Wonderfully, but for me surprisingly, few had left the stadium until the lap of appreciation. Even a smattering of Burnley fans stayed behind to experience the emotional farewell before departing for home chanting “We’re all going on a European tour”. That they are is a measure of their achievement this season, but this day belonged to one man.

Merci Arsene.

The timing is right, but lest we forget.

The ‘holic pound

The Arsenal 4-1 Burnley, available at 22/1 if  you shop around.

The Dream Ends In Madrid

Arsene Wenger sent out a team unchanged from the first leg of the Europa League in his bid to earn a place in the Lyon Final. His last words to the pre-match interview spoke of his team playing with the handbrake off. It’s been a while since he has plucked that one out of his memory bank.

Atleti started the brighter and forced an early corner which we just about dealt with eventually. A decent cross by Alexandre Lacazette was chested out for our first corner five minutes in. The loathsome Costa barged his way Nacho Monreal and chipped not only David Ospina but also, thankfully, the crossbar.

Moments later Laurent Koscielny appeared to severely tear his glass Achilles heel and was stretchered off to warm applause from a generous crowd. Calum Chambers came on to replace the skipper. I wonder if we will ever see him in an Arsenal shirt again?

The boys tried to respond positively and Aaron Ramsey just failed to set-up Monreal and Hector Bellerin. When the latter found yet more space he over-hit the cross but the Arsenal were finally settling into the tie. We survived when Danny Welbeck gave away the ball near the edge of the Atletico box and within seconds Costa was trying to wriggle into a shooting position, but mercifully Shkodran Mustafi was able to dispossess him.

We were so close to the first goal when Ramsey freed Lacazette but a heavy first touch meant he had to turn away from Oblak and the chance was gone. At the other end a game of head tennis in the Gunners box ended when Koke fired an excellent left foot volley just wide of the far post. Within moments Griezmann lost Jack Wilshere and his snap shot just missed the same post.

As tempers began to fray Wilshere was very unlucky to be the recipient of the first yellow card for little more than a shove when the referee had overlooked a number of fouls, particularly by Godin and Costa. Just when we thought we had seen out the half another dreadful defensive lapse cost us dearly. Griezmann picked out Costa who snuck in from behind the dozing Bellerin and lifted the ball over an already prone Ospina and into the net.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 The Arsenal

A friend tweeted that he would bring on Henrikh Mkhitaryan for Wilshere at half time. I agreed, but that isn’t what Arsene does at this stage of matches. Dangerously the first chance of the second-half fell to that man Costa, unmarked beyond the far post, but his free header was straight into the grateful arms of Ospina. Costa then attempted to play in Griezmann and the alert Granit Xhaka was alert to the danger and cleared the danger at the expense of a throw in.

Gabi was the recipient of the second yellow card of the night for a professional foul on Welbeck and the resulting free-kick found Ramsey in the six yard box, but the ball wouldn’t drop quickly enough having bounced off his thigh and his snatched volley was wide. When Mustafi slid past him Costa found himself in the clear again only to be denied by a superb last ditch challenge by Chambers.

Monreal’s professional foul on Griezmann on the edge of the box earned him a yellow card, but mercifully no more as Griezmann’s free-kick was wide of the far post. We got at them again but Ozil’s cut-back found only a wall of red and white stripes. A second avoided everybody as the Gunners attempted to ramp up the pressure. Oblak had to stretch to tip a Xhaka shot around his near post.

Back came Atletico and Costa was denied by a determined Monreal block. Another big chance fell to Griezmann but it was deflected into the arms of Ospina. Finally the obvious change was made. Wilshere, having little impact on the match, made way for Mkhitaryan with just over twenty minutes remaining.  Saul hauled Ramsey to the floor and was rightly booked. The ensuing free-kick was cleared to Mkhitaryan just outside the box who volleyed inches over the bar and into the roof of the net. Such small margins.

Griezmann looked set to end the dream in 76 minutes but Xhaka made another wonderful last-ditch tackle to keep our fading hopes alive. Costa threw the ball away when we won a free-kick and drew a response from Mustafi, and both were booked. Mustafi cleared another Costa cut-back as nerves built approaching the final ten minutes. Costa decided to lie down for a couple of minutes. Torres was sent on for him to eat up even more precious seconds. Our rhythm was being professionally destroyed.

The clock ticked down on Arsene’s last European dream. I was tired of hearing how we were the better side. Atleti have done this before. They surrender possession but not territory. They employ all of the dark arts that we just wish the Arsenal would now and again. We threw the ball forward at the death in ever more desperate attempts at a miracle. It wasn’t to be.

So many players gave their all tonight, but frankly two or three need to look long and hard at themselves. That you let your manager and your team-mates down should bother you. That you let down nearly 4000 travelling Gooners upsets the hell out of me.

So to Sunday, and the emotional last home game of the season.

I have had it in my mind for nearly a week now. A European semi-final. At home we have been held to a 1-1 draw by a club with a decent European pedigree. Everybody expects us to go out. I didn’t make the trip as I couldn’t afford to go to both the semi-final and the Final. In the public bar big Alan and I sit listening to a crackly BBC Radio commentary grimacing when we appear to be in trouble, and getting palpitations when we get anywhere near the other goal.

My pint of Directors and Alan’s lager has been replaced three or four times. There’s a minute to go, Rixy gets down the left hand side and chips it to the far post, where a relatively unknown 18 year old substitute is about to make himself a household name. Paul Vaessen, unmarked, heads home at the far post. Two delirious Gooners are leaping around the public bar. The Juve players are down and out, devastated.

With the benefit of hindsight I should have gone to Turin and not Brussels in the glorious, yet tortuous, spring of 1980. Defeat to Mario Kempes and his Valencia team-mates in a penalty shoot-out is not what 25,000 Gooners wanted to witness. Will I wish I had joined a good friend’s birthday trip to Madrid this week? Who will be our Paul Vaessen, tragically taken from us in 2001, on Thursday night?

There’s no doubt this is the biggest night of Arsene Wenger’s farewell season, and hopefully it will be relegated to the second biggest around 10pm Thursday. It’s a tall order overcoming Atletico Madrid in their backyard, but Chelsea have already done it in the Champions League and at our best we certainly have one more Juventus away moment in us.

The manager has somewhat surprisingly announced at his press conference today that David Ospina will keep goal for the Gunners. He must be still mulling over the partnership in the middle of his back four tomorrow. Laurent Koscielny is probably guaranteed a start as skipper, but will Arsene keep faith in Shkodran Mustafi given that Diego Costa is almost certain to start for Atleti? Calum Chambers and Konstantinos Mavropanos did their prospects of first team action no harm at Old Trafford. Thursday might be a match too soon. Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal are pre-printed on the team sheet.

In midfield we once again are denied the services of Mohamed Elneny. That presumably means Granit Xhaka will start with Aaron Ramsey. If Henrikh Mkhitaryan is deemed match fit then he and Mesut Ozil will be certainties to start. That leaves the boss with the choice of Jack Wilshere, Alex Iwobi (if fit), or Danny Welbeck in the final wide berth supplying the ammunition for Alexandre Lacazette to feast on.

The ‘holic pound

There are too many ifs, buts, and maybes in that line-up for me to continue to anticipate what could happen. It will be better for my sanity to punt from the heart. We have to score at least one goal to have any chance of making the Final. I have a feeling we are unlikely to be able to keep a clean sheet, so I have to back the 1-2 away win which would take us to Lyon with a back-up on 2-2 with those away goals proving decisive. I have the win at 16/1 and the draw at a boosted 19.75/1.

To the birthday party, have an absolute blast with Tone. Let’s hope the boys can give him the best of presents. We did win on our last competitive match in Madrid!

Have a great one, ‘holics.

Arsene Wenger went into the match with a slightly stronger than expected team. Hector Bellerin and Granit Xhaka were retained, and Henrikh Mhkhitaryan was afforded a start to get some match-fitness. Selected for his debut was the mid-season signing Konstantinos Mavropanos, promoted ahead of Rob Holding to partner Calum Chambers in the heart of the defence. Reiss Nelson, yet to sign a new deal, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were given another opportunity to impress in the first team.

Full marks to the home support who by and large afforded their longest surviving foe a standing ovation after the teams had made their way out to the middle, and to the club for the gift presented to the departing boss by Sir Alex Ferguson.

On the pitch the opening exchanges were sloppy and Xhaka’s first challenge on former team-mate Sanchez was deemed accidental. An open contest saw the first chances fall to Pogba and Lingard, but the Gunners rearguard held firm. On a breakout Nelson put in the first meaningful effort on goal but de Gea was equal to it. A minute later the early goal we had feared arrived. Bellerin superbly denied Sanchez with a deflection at full stretch but sadly the ball broke to the unmarked Pogba who planted it inside the other post.

Manchester United 1-0 The Arsenal

Former United man Mkhitaryan was a whisker away from an equaliser four minutes later but his drive was inches wide of the far post. Xhaka pulled back Lingard and the United man needs little encouragement to hit the deck. The first yellow card of the match could not be argued about, however. United survived a couple of half decent penalty appeals as the Gunners poured forward in search of the equaliser. It was a spirited response, but could we sustain it?

Bellerin, free as a bird on the right flank, crossed into the arms of de Gea with Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang having found space at the far post. He found that same freedom again shortly afterwards and this time found the head of Aubamayang, unfortunately the weak header was straight at de Gea. At the other end a similarly weak effort from Lukaku bobbled into the hands of a grateful David Ospina, an interesting selection in goal for the visitors.

Ospina was close to being embarrassed when Young’s mis-hit cross smashed into his near post as the Columbian was falling backwards. We went again and Aubamayang crossed to the penalty spot from where Nelson’s diving header was just wide of the target. The half-time whistle brought a temporary ceasefire, with the Gunners far from taking the beating that many had feared or predicted. Would they remain competitive and nick something in the second-half?

A positive start to the half saw Maitland-Niles weave his way into a shooting position in the box but United held firm and blocked the attempt. Lukaku limped out of the contest after a challenge from Mavropanos and Rashford was sent on as his replacement. A minute later Mkhitaryan, enjoying himself sharing the number ten role with Alex Iwobi, placed a bobbling ball inside de Gea’s far post. A superb effort and the Gunners were deservedly on level terms. “Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal” rang out around Old Trafford.

Manchester United 1-1 The Arsenal

Cutting in from the inside-left channel Mkhitaryan went for a brace but curled the ball high and wide. Young’s hack at Mkhitaryan’s knee went unpunished by referee Mr Friend, and then by Xhaka who bludgeoned the free-kick beyond the far post for a goal-kick.

Just past the hour mark there was a quadruple substitution. Danny Welbeck was sent on in place of Nelson to face his old club, Nacho Monreal replaced the injured Sead Kolasinac. United sent on Martial and Fellaini for Lingard and Herrera. Seeking to improve his record to three goals in as many appearances back at Old Trafford Welbeck hammered a long-range drive into the palms of de Gea.

Alan Smith, on commentary, could not stop referencing the lack of intensity in the match compared to years gone by. It may have escaped him that neither side has a Vieira or a Keane in situ but the game was no less attractive for that. With a quarter of an hour remaining Joe Willock entered the fray for the returning Mkhitaryan, surely a shoe-in for a start on Thursday.

United hoisted ball after ball into the box but found Ospina, Mavropanos, and Chambers in defiant mood. Interestingly when Fellaini felled Xhaka he did not receive the same punishment as the Gunners skipper on the day. Funniest chant of the day came from the visitors enclosure. “Jose Mourinho, we want you to stay!” Welbeck fed in Aubamayang who was only denied by a desperate Smalling lunge.

Drama was to follow when Fellaini headed against the post and rebounded over the line off the clearly offside Rashford. The late flag caused a few hearts to flutter. The Arsenal went in to the four added minutes only to have their hearts broken by another ball crossed into the box for Fellaini to glance a header into the corner. It was the cruellest blow for a Gunners team that had given their all.

Manchester United 2-1 The Arsenal

It ensured our worst run of away defeats since 1966 was extended to six, and yet this performance was far and away the best of those. If the first team shows this spirit and determination on Thursday we could yet get one last day out at Lyon.

Arsene Wenger takes his Arsenal team to Old Trafford for the last time on what promises to be one last difficult day at a ground where he has accrued mixed memories. The 2002 title triumph, secured in front of the Scoreboard End by Sylvain Wiltord, was the highlight. The low point a toss-up between the infamous attempt to secure 50 matches undefeated, thwarted in controversial circumstances, and the 8-2 embarrassment in 2011.

For the best part of a decade the thunderous encounters between the charges of Wenger and Ferguson would be the most eagerly anticipated clashes on the Premier League calendar, and invariably decided the destination of the Premier League trophy and FA Cup. They hated us and we returned those feelings with a vengeance. Yet in the years that followed our stadium move a reluctant respect grew between the supporters of the two clubs with regard to those competing managers in the combative years.

That respect didn’t, however, stop the vile chant that has greeted Arsene from sections of the Old Trafford crowd throughout his tenure. I hope tomorrow United will make public their appreciation of a man who could be said to have motivated them to greater heights in the nineties and noughties. When Ferguson announced his retirement in 2013 it was after our home meeting in the April. I would like to think that had we known the club and home support would have shown some recognition of his long tenure at United.

That last meeting of the two old rivals ended all-square, a 1-1 draw that would have allowed both to have savoured a bottle of Arsene’s finest red in the manager’s office afterwards. The two men have become noticeably warmer to each other and appear to have established a genuine mutual respect following Fergie’s retirement.

Arsene is reluctantly, but correctly, bowing out at the season’s end and I suspect even he would be praying tonight for a similar score tomorrow as surely his Europa League team will be wrapped in mothballs ahead of the second leg of Thursday’s semi-final in Madrid. Expect a recall for Petr Cech in goal behind possibly a back three of Calum Chambers, Per Mertesacker, and Rob Holding.

Wing-backs Ainsley Maitland Niles and Sead Kolasinac may need to ‘look after’ a young midfield of Alex Iwobi, Reiss Nelson, and Joe Willock, supplemented possibly by fit-again Henryk Mkhitaryan to get him back in the swing of big matches before Thursday. He will look forward to proving Mourinho wrong for sure. Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang should give us a punchers chance up front.

The ‘holic pound

So hot is the expectation of a home win that an old-fashioned 1-0 to the Arsenal is offered at 25/1. Petr Cech could have one last hurrah, stopping everything that comes his way. Alexis Sanchez might frustrate his team-mates by running into blind alleys all evening, as he so often did in the first half of the season. Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang has a goal in him if the kids behind him can produce a quality final ball or two. I know, I’m clutching at straws, but that’s how it has to be. To confirm your diagnosis of me as insane I have also backed 2-0 and 2-1 to the Arsenal at very favourable odds.

As ever, don’t bet what you can’t afford to lose.

Have a great and unexpected one, ‘holics.

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