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The Miracle Of Turf Moor!

It is hard to believe another Premier League season comes to an end tomorrow. It feels like I’ve only seen half a dozen games. There have been tears and cheers. That’s what football does to us. Back in August if someone had offered us a mathematical chance of finishing fourth I think the general mood would have been good. I personally fancied a little more but my each-way punt on the Gunners in the league was lost long ago as Manchester City and Liverpool embarked on an impressive voyage of discovery.

So, this mathematical chance of dislodging the neighbours seems a hopeless task. It can’t be done, can it? Cast your mind back three years when we clinched the runner-up spot on the final day. Arsenal 4-0 Aston Villa. Newcastle United 5-1 Tottenham Hotspur. However unlikely it is there is a recent precedent.

What will complicate matters for both teams will be a likely desire to rotate with European Finals approaching. I’m not sure what to feel about that. We’ve yet to discover the real Unai Emery and this selection may give us a tiny bit more information about the make up of the man.

I’m an eternal optimist, extremely rose-tinted spectacles usually in place. I would start strong, see how the matches develop, and be prepared to hook key players when the unlikeliest pair of results fail to develop. Bernd Leno should be making his final appearance of the season barring an injury to Petr Cech. I don’t see either of them as being better than the other, rather that they are better than the other at certain aspects of their craft.

The back four is so much weaker without Laurent Koscielny, but he needs wrapping in cotton wool for Baku. Possibly Nacho Monreal too, his experience makes up for legs that are not getting any younger. A back three of Shkodran Mustafi, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and Konstantinos Mavropanos are physically equipped to deal with a potential aerial barrage.

I would start Ainsley Maitland-Niles but he would be the first to hook if the miracle isn’t happening. Give Lucas Torreira a chance to recharge his batteries and have Matteo Guendouzi partner Granit Xhaka in the centre with Sead Kolasinac on the left.

The front three can include two more who could be withdrawn if needed. Perhaps Mesut Ozil and the golden boot seeking Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. I’ll perhaps surprise you by saying I wouldn’t start Alexandre Lacazette, so critical to us at our best. Bring him on if we are four up with twenty minutes to go and Everton have taken the lead at the swamp. Give Eddie Nketiah a chance to run at that Burnley defence. It isn’t something they will have prepared for.

There. Simple this game, isn’t it? From a desk in a spare room. I wonder if I still have my Gideon somewhere. I feel we may need to invoke a higher power under the circumstances.

The ‘holic pound

No option. One bookie is offering 0-7 at 400/1. Now I grab that bible and pray Everton don’t let me down.

Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happening again. ūüėČ

The ABW preview

Danny came good in the early hours ¬†of the morning. Give the vampire a thumbs up in You Tube please. ūüôā

Have a great one ‘holics.

Unai Emery once again must have read the preview and went with my proposed starting eleven. It took five minutes for Valencia to fashion the first chance when Gameiro’s cross was headed clear by Laurent Koscielny under pressure from Gaya. Then Ainsley Maitland-Niles did well to dispossess Gaya at the second attempt but the ball fell to Guedes who fired over.

The Gunners right wing-back then appeared in the other box only to shoot straight at goalkeeper Neto. Valencia attacked the gap he had left behind him and the experienced Gameiro slid in unmarked at the back post to apply the finish to the left wing cross. Just the start we had dreaded.

Valencia 1-0 The Arsenal

Rodrigo had two chances to give the hosts the advantage. One struck Gameiro and was cleared, the second was mercifully off target. From nowhere we struck, and it was the big two who came up with the goods. Alexandre Lacazette out jumped two defenders, Gabriel included, to flick a header goalwards. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, despite being surrounded by four defenders, was the quickest to react and produced a wonderful right foot volley a coat of paint inside the near post from the edge of the box.

Valencia 1-1 The Arsenal

The travelling faithful were now to be heard over the previously boisterous home support. Mesut Ozil won a corner that was headed over by Aubameyang. Slowly we were taking a degree of control. The feel of the match had changed. As Francis Coquelin, back from suspension for Valencia, was treated for a back problem Chelsea took the lead against Eintracht Frankfurt. The all-London Final was on.

Mesut Ozil was making hay and almost put Lacazette in only for Gabriel to show an unexpected burst of pace to deny him. Persistent, Ozil then teed up Aubameyang who fired straight at Neto. A misplaced Lacazette pass allowed Valencia another break which was ended by Lucas Torreira conceding a free-kick for tripping Guedes just outside the box. Parejo’s venomous effort flew wide of the far post.

Garay’s horrendous sliding chop from behind on Lacazette earned him the first yellow card of the match. The Gunners striker was close to extracting full revenge when Aubameyang came racing in from the right and laid it back for his strike partner to smash against the outside of the near post. That should perhaps have been a decisive second.

Gaya drew the second yellow card of the night for simulation when he threw himself to the floor feigning contact by Maitland-Niles, and was extremely fortunate not to see a second moments later when tripping Maitland-Niles off  the ball. A tough start had turned into a wonderful half for The Arsenal.

We knew that Valencia would have to come out all guns blazing at the start of the second-half and the sight of Lacazette and Aubameyang defending deep, as they had on occasion in the first, was a tribute to their professionalism and team ethic as well as their genius. Unselfish brilliance. This tactic also allowed Ozil to stay in advanced areas in case we needed an outlet. Clever tactics.

Ozil again looked to provide for Aubameyang as we broke but the striker’s shot was blocked out for a corner. It was but a momentary delay, as news of an equaliser for Eintracht came through Lacazette twisted and turned in the box, found yard of space, and placed a glorious stroked finish inside the far post. Have that! One song filled the mighty Mestalla. “We’re on our way, we’re on our way, we’re off to Baku, we’re on our way!”

Valencia 1-2 The Arsenal

A seemingly offside Parejo cut a ball back which was played into Gameiro who was not adjudged to have interfered with Petr Cech when he bundled the ball over the line. They needed five. They had two. We had Lacazette and Aubameyang.

Valencia 2-2 The Arsenal

Mesut Ozil wound the crowd up with silent gestures as he was withdrawn for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. It was something of a surprise for this old fool, but Emery must have wanted the box to box qualities of the Armenian. Garay’s speculative long range drive whistled past the post as I checked my cash-out option.

Valencia were broken, as was the ‘holic pound, by a magnificent Arsenal break. Lacazette started the move by winning the ball deep in his own half and it ended with Aubameyang sweeping a superb Maitland-Niles cross in at the near post. The stadium started emptying and the magnificent travelling faithful bid their hosts “Adios, adios, adios!”

Valencia 2-3 The Arsenal

The hosts sought some fight back, but Soler fired over as the away section celebrated wildly. Who would we meet in Baku. It was still stalemate at the bus stop in Fulham. It swung from end to end. I was lost in a state of delirium. How can this Jekkyl and Hyde team play so superbly against the strongest opposition yet look so ordinary against the run of the mill? A question for another day. This was an evening to celebrate greatness.

Then, another. Aubameyang’s first hat-trick for The Arsenal when he lashed a Mkhitaryan pass into the roof of the net. He and Lacazette had absolutely ripped a very good team to pieces. This was just amazing to witness.

Valencia 2-4 The Arsenal

Handbags greeted the final whistle as the vanquished reacted badly to their utter humiliation.

As requested in the preview, you had a great one, ‘holics.

Heart pounding? Getting nervous yet. Valencia away is a little over 24 hours away as I type. 3-1 up from the first leg, what could possibly go wrong? Our away record, you say? Yes, our last two aways have seen us ship three goals to Wolves and Leicester, but you may prefer to think of the matches at Napoli and Watford prior to those. One nil to The Arsenal indeed.

I’m encouraged by the way Unai Emery seems to have prepared our team for the bigger matches. We have looked competitive with all but Manchester City. It is the lesser lights who have taken advantage of our inconsistency. Unai Emery repeated what most have said in the last week about the need for an away goal.

“Tomorrow is going to be very difficult.¬†Our idea is to play the match thinking to win. To win you need to score. They are an organised team, strong defensively but they need to score. They have attacking players with big quality.”

It is unfortunate we will miss Aaron Ramsey but Emery has a decent squad to choose from. Petr Cech is likely to start behind a back three of Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Laurent Koscielny, and Nacho Monreal (or Shkodran Mustafi?). Ainsley Maitland-Niles should return alongside Granit Xhaka (no booing please), Lucas Torreira, and Sead Kolasinac.

The front two surely pick themselves in a game of this magnitude, but who to provide the bullets away from home on such a night? It really should be Mesut Ozil, but does Emery want someone more defensively minded? Henrikh Mkhitaryan has blown hot and cold but there is no doubting his willingness to get back and assist the back line. The only other name likely to be in the frame is Alex Iwobi but he is unlikely to last 90 minutes of box to box action and may be better utilised as a substitute running at a tiring defence with fresh legs.

Valencia reporter Graham Hunter shared his thoughts on uefa.com and it doesn’t make comforting reading for us.

“Valencia’s experiment with a new formation didn’t go to plan in London. Expect Marcelino to return to his favoured¬†4-4-2 set-up, which he deployed in the 6-2 weekend win at Huesca. Arsenal will face a much more robust Valencia. Mestalla is a daunting place, and while the Gunners’ lead makes them slight favourites, a fightback and either extra time or a famous victory isn’t out of the question.”

Both clubs are going in search of their first European Final since the noughties. Valencia won the 2004 UEFA Cup, when they beat Marseille 2-0 under Rafael Benitez. We of course came within 13 minutes of lifting the 2006 Champions League with ten men before Manuel Almunia lost all awareness of where his near post was. Bitter? You bet I am!

The ‘holic pound

I have to believe that the team will once more have been galvanised ahead of this, the biggest match of the season to date. Winning the Europa League is our only realistic opportunity of returning to the Champions League next season. A third consecutive season of Thursday and Sunday football is depressing.

We do have a wonderful record of scoring away from home this season. We have done so in 21 of our 25 games on the road. I can see an epic match erupting and I am favouring once more the draw in an away European tie. 2-2 looks a possibility with the hosts committed to attack, and our ability to counter-attack rapidly, possible features. I am on 2-2 at 12/1 and pray that it doesn’t get to 2-0 first. My poor old ticker couldn’t take it.

The ABW Preview

Discussing Valencia with Danny tonight is the Evening Standard’s excellent Simon Collings. I hope you are enjoying the additional content.

That’s the preview done then. To those who are out in Spain let me wish you the best of nights. In fact that gos for all of you. Keep the dream alive you rip-roaring, free-scoring Gunners!

Have a great one, ‘holics.

The talk in the pub beforehand was of extending the season to the final day, to have something to play for at Burnley. The atmosphere was relaxed, although confident may be going a step too far.

Later in the afternoon the hope was extended by a fast start. Henrikh Mkhitaryan hit the post before we were awarded a ninth minute penalty when Nacho Monreal went down in the box. The speed of the award meant that 50 yards away it seemed nailed on. On my one viewing of match of the day after midnight it seemed inconclusive. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finished confidently.

The early promise soon faded though as we slipped into the overly cautious Arsenal. Lots of sideways and backward passes. Possession is king and any forward momentum is a bonus.

There was a flurry of activity as the half drew to a close, but Shkodran Mustafi, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan were all denied. 1-0 up at the break seemed ok. Perhaps as in many of the early season matches we would come out of the blocks in the second-half?

Just past the hour Granit Xhaka, enduring a torrid afternoon, gave March the chance to hit the turf in the box and Anthony Taylor the chance to point to the spot. Murray made no mistake with the penalty and we were back to square one.

Unai Emery surprisingly didn’t respond with an immediate change of personnel. We did show slightly more urgency and Aubameyang will rue that he didn’t convert at least one of a couple of chances that came his way. Having remained inactive for so long Emery made all three substitutions with thirteen minutes to go. Instead of invigorating the side it appeared that we were even more disjointed.

Indeed it was Brighton who looked likeliest to snatch the late win and it was a glum home crowd of whom around half stayed on to watch the bloated post-match ‘celebrations’. There were presentations to the departing Danny Welbeck, Petr Cech, and an emotional Aaron Ramsey. Briefly spirits were lifted by a rousing refrain of “One Aaron Ramsey”. Tears were shed.

What have we done?

Dear ‘holics, apologies.

This is a broken blogger. Over an hour I have worked on the preview. It was a rare good one, honest. Lot’s of good stuff about winning tomorrow to set up another final Sunday of “Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again!”. I clicked Save Draft, and bang. It went. WordPress kicked me out.

I don’t have it left in me to redo it. Thankfully I can still remember the ‘holic pound. I’m on 3-1 at 12/1.

My team? Leno; Mustafi, Sokratis, Monreal; Jenkinson or Lichtsteiner, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Kolasinac; Iwobi, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang.

Even more fortunate is the publishing of the ABW podcast match preview, attached below. Please excuse Josh’s pasty legs.

I hope I will see many of you tomorrow. Have a great one ‘holics.

My preview team was two faces out as Shkodran Mustafi and Matteo Guendouzi started ahead of Nacho Monreal and Lucas Torreira. We’re not privy to the fitness stats but they are surely the reason that particularly the little Uruguayan was left out.

There was a controversial start when Guendouzi freed Alexandre Lacazette who was blatantly manhandled by Roncaglia in the box. He went down right in front of the fifth official but the referee was unmoved. Interesting, to say the least. Similar leniency was shown to Sokratis Papastathopoulos when he appeared to catch little of the ball and a chunk of Diakhaby. We were caught napping at the ensuing free-kick and mercifully Garay cleared the bar from point-blank range.

A corner again caused panic in defence. Rodrigo headed it back across from the far post and Diakhaby jumped whilst Mustafi, Granit Xhaka, and Lacazette didn’t. The early away goal a potential disaster.¬†Parejo drew a smart save from Cech but Ainsley Maitland-Niles headed the parry into the path of Guedes who missed a great chance to double the lead. We were looking a bundle of nerves.

Out of nowhere we fashioned a break when Mesut Ozil and Lacazette fed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at pace. He cut inside and put it on a plate for Lacazette. 1-1, and hope returned. The big three had delivered in the big match. Aubameyang, with the bit between his teeth, set off on a mazy run before cutting in and firing over the bar. This was better, but more was needed.

It arrived when Xhaka crossed to the far post and Lacazette’s perfect header down was too powerful for¬†Neto. 2-1 to the good guys and the crowd, relatively subdued early doors, came to life. We had 65 minutes to add to it which felt necessary at this point.

Diakhaby saw the first yellow card when he caught Lacazette in the chest challenging for a bouncing ball. The Valencia midfielder was having mixed fortunes in the opening half. Aubameyang’s attempt at a bouncing ‘Ozil’ volley from another Xhaka cross hopped over the bar but people were out of their seats again. This was more like it.

Mustafi’s reckless challenge presented Parejo with a free-kick in ‘Messi’ territory. Luckily for us he put his set piece firmly into the North Bank crowd. The half finished far more calmly for the Gunners than it had started.

Valencia were seemingly attempting to kill the match at the restart but more worrying than our inability to break them down was the sight of Koscielny limping heavily, although he still managed to make a vital headed clearance when we were unhinged on the break again. Just before the hour Unai Emery sent on Torreira for his replacement, Guendouzi, who was afforded a good reception from the crowd.

Aubameyang twisted and turned on the left flank and produced what looked a perfect cross to his strike partner but it passed Lacazette’s chin as he attempted to head home what would have been a hat-trick finish. Gabriel’s challenge from behind on Lacazette was another yellow card ¬†that was kept in the pocket. Lacazette had a double chance to complete his trio but Neto somehow got something in front of both. That was a big opportunity missed.

Parejo’s swinging arm felled Lacazette and was adjudged to be just a yellow card. The referee was showing the patience of a saint but had been consistent all night to this point so no complaints. Gameiro, with the Atletico team last season, came on for Guedes, whilst¬†Wass replaced Soler. Gameiro immediately drew a vital save from Cech, bidding to end his playing career in style.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan was sent on for Mesut Ozil, somewhat surprisingly for this old fella, but it was to prove to be a masterstroke. The crowd gave the World Cup winner a warm round of applause. Presumably Emery was looking for something different that Valencia had not prepared for? Perhaps Ozil was just cream-crackered? With ten minutes to go Nacho Monreal stripped off. The skipper’s race was run. Let’s pray he can be patched up for Sunday, and next Thursday.

European semi-finals are, does it need to be said, incredibly difficult tests. Shrewd and experienced Valencia were releasing the ‘handbrake’ and looking for what would surely be a killer second away goal. We had that with Atletico last season. However desirable a third goal would be for us had to be balanced by the alternative possibility.

An explosive finish arrived bang on 90 minutes. Mkhitaryan’s driving run unhinged Valencia, his shot was blocked and fell to Lacazette. His deflected effort drew a last gasp save from Neto but the attack was not over. Kolasinac crossed to the far post where Aubameyang volleyed home from the tightest of angles and the Grove erupted. With respect to Freddie Ljungberg and Arseblog, and apologies to my younger readers, it was fucking excellent!

Now let’s get that away goal next Thursday, you free-scoring, rip-roaring Gunners!

“We need our supporters and we need to create a big atmosphere tomorrow and we are very excited and with big enthusiasm for the match tomorrow. We are looking forward to playing, to being with our supporters, to doing the first leg’s 90 minutes with a big performance and with a good result.”

Former Valencia coach Unai Emery calling on the supporters to create an atmosphere in which his current club can progress beyond the Europa League semi-final. He took the Spanish club into the Champions League three times. This competition may now provide our best chance of qualifying for the big one again.

The team news is mixed, and by far the worst of it is the announcement that Aaron Ramsey will not recover from his hamstring problem in time to play for The Arsenal again. That’s a crying shame, literally. Although he has known since January that he would be a Juve player next season he produced some of his most committed and accomplished performances in the second-half of this season. We will miss him, no question.

Mesut Ozil is back in the squad having missed the Leicester match with a bruised foot, and Nacho Monreal trained today. I would expect him to return to a back three alongside Laurent Koscielny and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and in front of Petr Cech.

The quartet of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira, and Sead Kolasinac virtually picks itself these days. Then the attack, so disjointed at Leicester. That probably means that Ozil will get a recall behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The good thing about playing at home first is that it gives us a chance to make a statement. Our best performances have come in front of the home crowd who have responded for the bigger matches. It is probably fair to say the atmosphere generated against Napoli was a significant factor in our triumph.

Valencia arrive as the sixth place team in La Liga three points behind Getafe in the final Champions League berth. They have two familiar faces. Gabriel Paulista ‚ÄúTo return to Arsenal will be special. It will be a beautiful day.‚ÄĚ, and Francis Coquelin. The latter is suspended for the first leg. We have previous with them. One of the worst nights of my life was in the Heysel when they beat us on penalties in the 1980 European Cup Winners Cup Final.

It’s no secret I really didn’t want them to qualify for this semi-final by beating Vilarreal. Welcoming Santi Cazorla back to the Grove would have added to the emotion of the occasion.

The ‘holic pound

Valencia should be no pushover. They have already qualified for the Final of the Copa del Rey. I am going with my heart rather than my head. They may have been a bogey side in the past but I am backing us to win 3-0 at 17/1 to all but clinch our place against the bus stop in Fulham, in Baku.

The ABW preview

Our new preview feature is below. Enjoy a Bergkamp Wonderland preview with Danny and Josh.

Have a great one ‘holics.

A flat back four. No Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, or Mesut Ozil. We juggled the squad for a critical match. The travelling faithful were at it from the off. “Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal”. What would unfold at the King Power? Or indeed at Brighton where the Arsenal women could clinch their title with a win? Two screens were fired up.

We put the first meaningful attack together in the fifth minute when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang wriggled free on the right and Alex Iwobi’s header was deflected away for a corner that yielded nought. Leicester attempted to strike back with an Evans header from a set piece straight at Bernd Leno.

Unai Emery was fuming when Aubameyang was denied a free-kick from an obvious foul by Tielemans and Ainsley Maitland-Niles saw yellow for his first foul, a tame tug back. His mood wasn’t helped when Choudhury appeared to stamp back into the chest of a grounded Lucas Torreira. Finally Ndidi was shown the yellow for an over the top challenge on Xhaka. At the Withdean the captains shook hands. Good luck girls.

Maddison’s shot just wide of Leno’s right hand post was an indicator that we really had started slowly. Nearly twenty minutes in, and Leicester were looking fresher and more determined. “Come on Arsenal” bellowed an increasingly frustrated away support. Then, from nowhere, a golden opportunity when Iwobi’s cross found an unmarked Alexandre Lacazette on the penalty spot but he half-volleyed it wide.

At that moment¬†Vivianne Miedema struck at Brighton. The title was inching closer to North London. At least one of our travelling teams was at the races. At Leicester the men survived when Leno pulled off a magnificent flying save from Ndidi’s goal bound header. The contrast between the two matches was marked. Vardy was sent galloping in behind a static defence to lob both Leno and the crossbar. It was becoming a painful watch.

Another break, and Aubameyang freed Iwobi. If only it had been the other way round. Schmeichel saved comfortably with his left foot. Disaster struck ten minutes from the break. Maitland-Niles, having picked up one absurdly soft yellow card, made another challenge on the play-acting Maddison that Michael Oliver deemed worthy of a second yellow. Any contact was minimal, to say the least. Ainsley could clearly be seen to tell the ‘victim’ “That’s poor”. Let me say I think Oliver is the best of an extremely poor PGMOL list. This wasn’t his finest moment. Unai Emery was apopleptic on the touchline, not without reason.

Leno denied Vardy at the near post as the hosts poured forward. At Brighton the action was mercifully at the other end. A second Gunners goal surely wasn’t far away? As the whistle blew at Leicester Katie McCabe’s delicious left foot chipped volley found the net and the women were all but home and dry. Thank goodness we had one team to watch that had turned up today.

At half-time Koscielny was introduced for Iwobi enabling Shkodran Mustafi to take over at right-back. Brendan Rodgers, sensing blood, sent on Barnes for Ndidi to provide even more of an attacking threat. At Brighton the half-time whistle blew with a much better mood in evidence.

Under the cosh, the men had to be grateful to Leno for dealing with early crosses from Barnes and Albrighton. Somehow the ‘holic pound was still alive. For how long though? The answer was not even an hour. Maddison, of all people, was given an age to cross unchallenged and¬†Tielemans headed beyond Leno. All so inevitable. All so pathetic. The really motivated Gunners eleven restarted at Brighton.

Another Maddison dive when Sokratis Papastathopoulos stood his ground brought another yellow card. Unai Emery, rightly outraged, was also spoken to by Oliver. “You don’t know what you’re doing” roared the travelling support. It was impossible to tell if it was being directed at the referee, the team, or the head coach, all having an absolute ‘mare. Chilwell saw a card too for tripping a rampaging Sokratis.

Evans took out Torreira with an arm in the area. That we didn’t deserve a penalty shouldn’t come into it. It was blatant. It was ignored. It wasn’t even a surprise these days. Even the BBC live feed agreed. “Replays seem to suggest the Gunners could have had a decent penalty shout”. Mkhitaryan was withdrawn to allow Guendouzi to add some energy to a lacklustre performance. At just one down we had to try something. Unai Emery’s ridicule of the fourth official was now becoming the feature of an otherwise tedious affair.

At Brighton the story was so different. The women, in complete control, were seeking a third goal without leaving gaps behind them. The Brighton women were showing more fight than those in arrears further north. With twelve minutes to go Emery finally made the obvious overdue change, bringing on attacking talent Eddie Nketiah, strangely for Lacazette. His decisions all day suggested he is putting all his eggs in the Europa League basket.

With four minutes to go a long clearance from Schmeichel unhinged a shit defence and Vardy netted at the second attempt when his lob came back off the bar. Mercifully at Brighton there was pure joy as the Gunners clinched glory with a magnificent 25 yard strike from Beth Mead.

Leno saved further blushes when denying Barnes in a one on one. Yet further joy at Brighton as Danielle van de Donk curled a seventeen yard effort into the far corner to give the new champions a 4-0 advantage. It was no more than the player of the match deserved. What a joy we have been to watch this season

In contrast, sadly their embarrassing male counterparts were put into deeper despair by an unmarked Vardy six yards out. Final score 3-0. Words fail most of us, I suspect. The Arsenal of April 2019 are the worst I have seen since the mid-eighties. Devoid of ambition, courage, or entertainment value. They have sucked the joy out of even me.

The celebrations at the Withdean were deserved. The Arsenal, a dominant force in the womens game until the Chelsea and Manchester City tanks came rolling into the FAWSL firing oil dollars at random, have succeeded against the odds. They deserve all the praise that is coming their way.

“Our focus is on the present and Sunday because if we think negative with the next matches we can’t think positive with the matches before against Napoli and Watford that we won.¬†Each match is a new history, a new test and confirm if we can or not but being positive, working and recovering the confidence in our players, our work and looking forward to playing the next match.’¬†

Unai Emery will be as aware as anyone of the general mood surrounding the club right now but is trying to ensure that we approach the trip to Leicester with the players at least in the right frame of mind. We have lost control of fourth place right now but with Chelsea playing at Old Trafford this weekend we could regain it by getting a result at Leicester. Indeed if United beat Chelsea and we draw all three clubs  will be locked on 67 points and we would have the advantage on goal difference.

The head coach revealed that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang trained today and if he completes another session on Saturday then he will be available for Sunday. That is one question for Emery to answer and the other main one will be whether to start with a back four, as at Wolves, or revert to a three. My gut feel is for a trio of Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Laurent Koscielny (or Shkodran Mustafi if Kos needs a rest), and Nacho Monreal.

A recall for Sead Kolasinac would mean that he and Ainsley Maitland-Niles could flank Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka. That would leave the three forward roles. Hopefully both Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette will start with support from Mesut Ozil perhaps, although it would not be a shock to see Alex Iwobi preferred to the latter.

Leicester come into the fixture free of any injury worries.¬†‚ÄúNone at all,‚ÄĚ said new manager Brendan Rodgers on Friday afternoon. ‚ÄúEveryone is training and working well, so there‚Äôs nothing new.” The Foxes are three points behind Wolves in the battle for seventh place and possible Europa League qualification. They are built around a solid spine of¬†Schmeichel,¬†Maguire, the industrious Maddison, and Vardy. Nobody said this will be easy.

The ‘holic pound

Our away day blues returned at Molineux and not too many will fancy our chances here as a result. We will have to match the hosts and win individual battles all over the pitch to stand any chance of securing the points.

The bookmakers do make us the marginal favourites to win but I won’t be taking any of that at 13/8. The correct score market is interesting. A 1-1 draw is the clear favourite, pipping 1-2 to the Arsenal into second place. The temptation to follow that score again on the law of averages is real but this could be a very tight affair.

Instead I am hoping against hope that we can keep a second Premier League clean sheet on the road again and pull off another famous “One nil to the Arsenal” at a generous looking 11/1.

The Middlesex Nomads result today has set the correct tone for the weekend, but can we deliver the performance that would put us within a point of third place?

The ABW Preview

Again added content for the preview post and I hope you have enjoyed them.

Have a great one, ‘holies.

 

There were a couple of surprises in the starting eleven at Molineux. Laurent Koscielny was named alongside Sokratis Papastathopoulos in the centre of a back four. Granit Xhaka was also fit to return alongside Lucas Torreira. The three fit attacking midfielders all lined up behind Alexandre Lacazette. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was ruled out having undergone a sinus procedure.

We made an encouraging start and in the third minute Henrick Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil opened up Wolves right flank but when the latter played in Torreira the Uruguayan’s shot was blocked. ¬†Mkhitaryan’s rushed another effort high and wide two minutes later. Unai Emery’s attacking line-up was showing good early ambition.

In the 17th minute Nacho Monreal wriggled past Doherty who hauled him down close to the the box and rightly saw the first yellow card of the game. Unfortunately Torreira’s free-kick didn’t clear the wall. Another wonderful flowing move came to nought when Iwobi cut the ball back to nobody in particular. ¬†We were flattering to deceive.

Wolves first effort arrived in the 21st minute from the right boot of Moutinho but it curled wide of the target. A long throw then caused a panic in the Gunners defence and from Boly’s flick-on Jimenez volleyed the ball just over the top from close-range. Wolves had a head of steam and we could have done without Monreal’s foul on the edge of the box. Neves is a set piece specialist and scored the opener in the bottom corner.

After Koscielny was wrongly adjudged to have fouled Jota an incensed Xhaka was booked for losing his cool. Things were rapidly deteriorating for the visitors and we found ourselves with a mountain to climb when¬†Doherty’s header from Jonny’s cross following a corner flew past Leno who came in vain and looked to have judged it dreadfully.¬†It would get worse for the German when he failed miserably to stop a shot from Jota down to his left and watched mortified as the ball rolled over the line just before the whistle.

The stats rolled up on the screen. The visitors had 72% possession in the half. The scoreline made a mockery of that.

Not surprisingly Wolves were happy to withdraw into the deep and invite us on at the start of the half, but the spark with which we had started the match seemed a distant memory. A general lethargy had taken over as we laboured to create precious little in the opening phase of the half. We should have had a penalty when Bennett stuck a knee into the back of Lacazette, but the Frenchman may have done himself no favours with an exaggerated fall.

Emery had to make changes although his options were limited. Matteo Gouendouzi and Sead Kolasinac came on for Torreira and Mkhitaryan. Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah were still sitting on the bench. This old fella wondered if one or other of them may have introduced an injection of determination to impress that may have served us well.

“Champions League, you’re having a laugh” roared the home support, and right now who could argue that? We have thrown away control of a top four place, and will need some very unexpected results to nick our way back in. Jota, on the break, teed up Jimenez who thankfully drilled it just wide of the far post as goal number four beckoned.

Perhaps Emery had read my mind. Nketiah was sent on for Iwobi with twenty minutes remaining. One assumes his instructions were straightforward. “Just get us four goals, Eddie.” He nearly obliged with his first sight of ¬†the ball as he skinned Boly and cut the ball back for Lacazette, but¬†Bennett was alert to the danger and stepped in to clear.

Jota, tormentor-in-chief of the Gunners, was withdrawn to a deserved standing ovation from the locals. Perhaps distracted, Dendonka gave a ball to Guendozi who looked to free Lacazette, but Boly put the ball out for a corner which yielded a consolation goal. Sokratis soared at the far post to head Xhaka’s excellent cross past a suddenly nervous defence. Ten minutes to go. Surely not?

Bennett was carded for a blatant body check on Nketiah. Another chance for Xhaka to whip in a tempting delivery and Wolves were fortunate to survive at the expense of another corner. Had something come of that maybe it would have been an interesting last few minutes. Instead Wolves managed the close out well for a first win over us in 40 years.

There can be no getting away from the fact that this was another spineless away performance. I know people expect me to offer some justification when we suffer such defeats, but I can find none. How much more motivation can you need than the promise of Champions League qualification? Could we have fielded a stronger fit starting eleven? No. It’s a mystery that needs solving, ideally before Sunday’s visit to Leicester, which now looks a very tall order.

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