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During this season of stumbling to a likely sixth place finish in the Premier League, losing our grip on the FA Cup attempting the first hurdle at a second tier club, and our no-show at the Carabao Cup Final we have all experienced many lows, so many disappointments. The Europa League semi-final draw at home to Atletico Madrid doesn’t rank too high in my personal list.

The afternoon had started with a false alarm. Reports of blocked train lines between Slough and Paddington got the pulse racing and hastened my departure by an hour. The brand new train made good time and delivered us into the capital some five hours before kick-off. Half a gallon of Guinness and a cheese dog with jerk and barbecue sauce later we took our seats in the stadium for the ritual fluttering of the red plastic and tin foil flags.

That display was remarkably effective and an energised stadium let the chants roar from their throats. It was so far removed from the most recent trips to the Grove to sit in a nowhere near full stadium dripping with apathy. This was a hark back to the memorable (and even some less than memorable) European nights at our two stadiums in the last 55 years.

We started impressively, zipping the ball about and frustrating Atleti’s high press. Vrsaljko opted to take man, not ball, and having cut down Jack Wilshere in the second minute was shown the first yellow of the contest. Who would have guessed he would also get the second eight minutes later when he scythed down Alexandre Lacazette, only to be followed down the tunnel by his manager, Diego Simeone, for his part in the first of many Atleti bench clearances demanding cautions for the slightest of Gunners infringements.

An explosive opening thirteen minutes had seen the Gunners set to inflict serious damage on a wounded opponent. Lacazette hit the post with his first attempt, headed his second from a Nacho Monreal cross straight at the impressive Oblak, and Danny Welbeck also drew a fine save from Atleti’s much sought-after goalkeeper. Still the determined hosts poured forward.

Lacazette couldn’t get the right contact to another Monreal cross, Aaron Ramsey saw his effort blocked, Jack Wilshere put a rare header too close to Oblak and the goalkeeper was equal to another Welbeck effort. Lacazette and Koscielny missed the target as the pattern of the first-half was set. This was a much more forceful performance by us and yet hinted at the same old failings of converting possession into chances, and into goals.

Mesut Ozil fired high and wide of the target, Lacazette misdirected another header, and Ramsey saw another shot blocked by the massed ranks of the visitors experienced rearguard. Monreal too put one wide of the target with his swinger but just after the half hour, a warning, Griezmann drawing the first important save from David Ospina. He drew an even better save from the Gunners custodian minutes later. Atleti’s ten men were close to turning the tide.

Granit Xhaka, urged by the home support to shoot and not for the last time, cut across his effort. Back came the visitors and Gameiro forced Ospina to react quickly to save a well-directed header. As the half drew to a close Ramsey completed a hat-trick of blocked shots. An eventful and enjoyable half hinted at goals as the ten men tired in the second-half.

So with half an hour remaining we finally ended the resistance when Wilshere crossed from the goal-line and Lacazette placed the perfect header beyond Oblak and just inside his left-hand post. Surely there was more to come with the visitors choosing to sit in and limit the damage. The rare raid from Griezmann aside they were posing little threat to this point. They sent on Gabi for Gameiro in another move intended to sure up the defence.

The time-wasting, evident from the early minutes increased blatantly and the referee could not be encouraged to act on it despite Lacazette’s frequent signalling to him from an imaginary watch. The Spaniards were pulling every trick in the book to delay the contest, to steal yards, and to buy free-kicks of their own. Rather uncomfortably you had to respect their determination and cynicism.

Still the Gunners created opportunities but most were off-target or blocked by a defence prepared to put their bodies on the line. Time for fresh legs for them as Savic replaced the slow-departing Correa. Torres was prepared to be the third with eight minutes remaining when we contrived to undo all the good work of the first eighty-two. Torres was due to go on for the luckless Griezmann but then a hopeful ball was punted into the Arsenal half, the French striker hounded his international team-mate, Laurent Koscielny, into a hideous mistake, and after Ospina had blocked his first effort he lofted his second into the roof of the net over the grounded Ospina and Shkodran Mustafi, offering almost comical support to his partner.

For the main part this was a gripping evening of hunter versus prey, but Atleti have a stubborn resistance to being picked off, and we make rather limited marksmen. Until eight minutes from time I had thoroughly enjoyed the contest. Clearly what happened was too much for many on social media and after a quick look I decided it was a place best avoided in the immediate aftermath.

We need to emulate our west London neighbours 1-2 win in Madrid which was the result when Chelsea played there in the group phase of the Champions League. I’m even thinking 2-2 is a very possible outcome. We are down but, as yet, not out. A huge night awaits us next Thursday.

I have just seen some shots of Atletico Madrid training at The Grove. It’s a powerful reminder that on Thursday evening we will be watching our first European semi-final since the Champions League meeting with Manchester United in 2009. To reach the Final we will have to knock out the 5/4 favourites for the competition. These are the big games in Europe we want to see more of.

It’s unfortunate that we have lost Mohamed Elneny for both legs and Hernrykh Mkhitaryan for at least the first leg. If you have listened to this week’s ABW podcast (embedded below) you will know I would favour us reverting to a back three to compensate. Arsene Wenger certainly has decisions to make. As he himself said today not winning the Europa League would be an anti-climax in his farewell season.

Petr Cech, Jack Wilshere, and Mesut Ozil are fit to return. Cech may get the nod to start this critical tie ahead of David Ospina. Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi could be joined by either Calum Chambers or Rob Holding. The latter will remember his last appearance against Diego Costa in last season’s FA Cup Final with fondness. Costa, originally ruled out with a hamstring problem is, surprise surprise, training with the Atleti squad as I type.

Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal should start as wing-backs. A midfield trio of Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, and Mesut Ozil could operate behind Danny Welbeck in a floating role and Alexandre Lacazette leading the line. Should Arsene decide to persist with a back four then the likeliest option would see Ainsley Maitland-Niles accompany Xhaka in the holding roles.

Atleti dropped out of the Champions League after the group stage and knocked out FC Copenhagen, Lokomotiv Moscow and Sporting Lisbon to reach the semi-final. If Costa is fully recovered he will presumably dispute a starting berth with Kevin Gameiro and Fernando Torres alongside Antoine Griezmann. Not a bad quartet of options up front for the 2012 winners of this competition. Behind them will be a miserly defence and a busy, fast breaking midfield.

More than anything I’m hoping the home crowd can recreate the atmosphere that lasted all too briefly in that Manchester United semi-final. A repeat of that could have rather more of an impact on the travelling Spaniards than it did on Christiano Ronaldo et al nine years ago. Red Action have asked everyone to take their seats ahead of the teams walking out to make a full display of free-issue flags.

The ‘holic pound

I don’t mind admitting the options have been going through my mind. They are the toughest opponents we could have met in Europe this season and how often have we lost knock-out encounters against Europe’s leading clubs. We will have to show the utmost patience against a team that will sit deep, deny spaces in  between their back three, and attempt to brake fast. Those are the tactics used so successfully against us by Manchester United and Chelsea teams in years past.

I’ve also had visions of Ozil and Ramsey finally producing the balls between defenders for Lacazette to feast on. Not for the first time I will say this really could be anything. I’m sticking with the bullish 3-1 I tipped in the ABW podcast. Shop around to get 22/1 if you are mad enough to follow my tip.

I will hopefully see some of you there pre-match and hope everyone can enjoy a committed Gunners performance whether live or on television. Please find below the ABW podcast hosted this week by someone you may recognise.

The ‘farewell to Arsene’ tour started with a flattering 4-1 win over a West Ham team who battled hard for eighty minutes before falling apart in the final eight minutes of the match.

There were still some empty seats, but fewer than has become the norm of late and the crowd gave the departing manager a warm round of applause as he came out and a chorus of “One Arsene Wenger”. However the raucous celebration had to wait until the tail end of a strange afternoon.

It’s fair to say that the visitors seemed the likelier to open the scoring in the opening phase of the first-half. A number of long balls into the channels once again caused us concern. The surprisingly recalled David Ospina denied Mario, then Arnautovic who as ever provided a physical threat throughout. Kouyate looped a header onto the crossbar and it was clear they were in the mood to spoil Arsene’s day.

Gradually the Gunners knuckled down and settled into the contest. Danny Welbeck was unfortunately wasteful with both head and foot, and Granit Xhaka’s long-range effort was saved by Hart. Worse was to come when Mohamed Elneny turned his left ankle in a challenge with Noble and after a lengthy stoppage was stretchered off. The manager said afterwards that it didn’t look good but we will have to wait for the result of the x-ray. He certainly looks a doubt for Thursday at very least.

The match and atmosphere picked up at the start of the second-half. Nacho Monreal had already had one shot saved when, six minutes after the break, he connected with Granit Xhaka’s corner to volley the ball just inside the post. At last the home support could vent their lungs.

The Arsenal 1-0 West Ham United

The Gunners were in a purple patch and the shots rained in on Hart’s goal. Alexandre Lacazette, Alex Iwobi, and Aaron Ramsey (twice) got shots away as we picked holes in the Hammers defence. West Ham were forced to make two attacking substitutions to try and get back into the contest. Lanzini and Chicharito came on for Mario and Fernandes. They worked. Four minutes after coming on Lanzini teed up Arnautovic to crash a drive inside Ospina’s far post, and it was all-square again.

The Arsenal 1-1 West Ham United

With West Ham now looking the more dangerous it was time for the Arsenal too to respond with a game changing substitution. Iwobi, having one of those days were his youth and inexperience is exposed, was replaced by Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang. Xhaka and Welbeck saw goal bound curlers superbly saved by Hart. At last we were responding.

Eight minutes from time Aaron Ramsey opened the pressure-release valve of the home support when his cross curled untouched inside Hart’s far post. After the match Hammers manager David Moyes hammered his young defender, Rice, for ducking under the cross. Certainly Hart was stranded as a result.

The Arsenal 2-1 West Ham United

Three minutes later it was  three, and a typical Wengerball goal as a series of quick passes carved open a shattered Hammers defence. Aubamayang fed Lacazette who moved the ball to a tight angle and smashed it past Hart who had appeared to have covered his near post. He was absolutely beaten by the power of the finish.

The Arsenal 3-1 West Ham United

Astonishingly it was party time for those who had not departed the stadium early when Lacazette struck for the second time in four minutes. The Frenchman was set-up superbly by Ramsey, so influential in the second-half.

The Arsenal 4-1 West Ham United

Rather selfishly I now wanted one more to pull off a miraculous ‘holic pound. Xhaka had it laid on a plate but put his effort over the bar. C’est la vie.

Arsene’s post-match press conference was full of humour and poignancy, and despite his efforts to the contrary some controversial headlines have resulted. Asked if the disunity among fans had hurt the club, Wenger said:

“I am not resentful and I do not want to make stupid headlines. I am not resentful with the fans. It is nothing to do with the fans. The fans were not happy and I can understand that and I have to live with that and I can accept that.”

Again he refused to be drawn into expanding on the reasons for his sudden announcement on Friday, smiling as he suggested he did not want to lie to the assembled journalists as he had done before, which drew giggles from his audience. He did acknowledge the good wishes that have rained down on him, and joked about not needing to die anymore because he knows what people will say!

The man faces a tough task escaping the same line of questioning over the final weeks of his tenure. He will have to maintain a stiff resolve and word his responses carefully as those who know he is click-bait attempt to seize on the sensational. Their chances are running out.

The Final Countdown

For the second consecutive night I sit at the keyboard rather later than I normally would with a very large glass of malt. Notionally this is a preview of a match at home to West Ham United. For once I won’t speculate on what the team will be four days before the first-leg of the Europa League semi-final. Arsene has said he will use the match as a warm-up for that match. I wonder.

Whatever the line-up it will hopefully be a group of players motivated to send Arsene Wenger out on a high over the closing weeks of the season. Yesterday’s announcement should completely change the atmosphere in the ground, and seats left empty in recent matches will almost certainly be occupied again. I am trying to locate a ticket to the final home match versus Burnley for a friend in the USA but they are as rare as rocking horse droppings after yesterday’s announcement.

It’s going to be an emotional early afternoon at the Grove as those in the stadium Arsene persuaded the board to build begin the proper Arsenal farewell for our manager. That farewell will be over seven, or hopefully eight, matches and could end up with his first European trophy in Lyon come May.

The visitors are six points clear of the drop zone so probably safe, but they will be battling for every point until that is mathematically certain. Their manager, David Moyes, was pretty clear that he was expecting a less-motivated opponent when paying tribute to his opposite number.

“Real football people appreciate what he’s done. He is a proper football man, he lives and breathes it, he’s dedicated to his job and his sport. I’d probably wish it hadn’t been announced before this weekend but most people appreciate Arsene and what he has done in football.”

The ‘holic pound

If ever there was a match to be determined by the heart rather than the head it is this one. Although we are short of creative midfielders I could see the improving Alex Iwobi and Reiss Nelson partnering Mesut Ozil in midfield and a determined team, backed by a raucous home support, put on a show. I’m splitting the pound between 5-0 and 5-1 to the Gunners, both at 45/1. I’m an old romantic, ain’t I!

The Second Friday Arsecast

Thank you to all who have sent kind comments on social media in the last 24 hours after the unique second Friday Arsecast was put out last night. Click on that link if you haven’t heard it. I would also like to thank Blogs for the invitation to chew the fat with Andrew Allen and Jim, the man from East Lower. It was like old times and very cathartic. Arsene’s arrival at Highbury predates the era of blogs so he is all we have ever written about. Next season will be very different, for sure.

Merci Indeed

I can picture the moment vividly. Stevie Bould bringing the ball into midfield and chipping the perfect pass into the breaking runner through the heart of the Everton rearguard. Tony Adams majestic swing with his left boot sends the ball crashing into the back of the net, he makes a quarter turn and stands, arms aloft. That moment sealed the Arsenal’s first Premier League title in the first full season of Arsene Wenger’s reign. That Bould and Adams new found attacking instincts delivered it was significant.

He had taken over in October of the preceding season and although we finished level on points with second place Newcastle the title had been surrendered in the double-headers with Manchester United and Liverpool.  That first full season we did the double over Manchester United to depose them as champions and went on to defeat Newcastle at Wembley to complete the second Arsenal double. Arsene Wenger had already written his name large in Gunners history.

He had proved the doubters wrong and had proven himself to be an innovator and creator of better players. The old guard, Dixon, Adams, Bould, Keown, Winterburn would all come to acknowledge that his training methods, his dietary advice, and his use of substances like creatine had lengthened their careers and their enjoyment of the game.

Eight years later the most emotional final day against Wigan was followed by going within thirteen minutes of winning the European Champions League against Barcelona with ten men. That cruel defeat, though little did we know it at the time, would lead to a trophy drought that spanned nine years. Nine years in which we moved into an enormous new stadium a stones throw from Highbury, continued to qualify for the Champions League and even raised occasional hopes of a fourth title triumph for the increasingly under pressure French manager.

Arsene had ensured his legacy in those first eight years. In the season following that historic double we were a Bergkamp penalty from knocking Manchester United out of the FA cup semi-final, and a late collapse enabled them to take our Premier League title from us. A year on our run to the final of the UEFA Cup saw us fail to land a third European trophy on a sad night in Copenhagen. A year later defeat was snatched from the arms of victory in the FA Cup Final in Cardiff but the team was already evolving.

The beasts of 98 were retiring and moving on. An astute manager replaced them wisely. Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole. A new back four was complete. Robert Pires, Thierry Henry,  the future was being rewritten. In 2001-2002 that new team delivered the title, clinching it at the home of the greatest rival of the era, Manchester United, “Don’t worry, it’s only Ray Parlour” delivered the second Wenger double. A year on  the Cup was retained against Southampton. The greatest season ever was around the corner.

There was a point at which a mischievous interviewer asked Arsene if he thought his team was capable of going a season undefeated. “Yes, of course” is Arsene’s stock answer to such challenges. He was widely ridiculed for it. In 2003/4 he delivered just that. Played 38, won 26, drew 12. We were, with the benefit of hindsight, the best team in Europe that season. In consecutive matches we astonishingly surrendered the Champions League quarter-final to Chelsea and our FA Cup hopes to the old foes United.

In a season when the big guns tumbled from the Champions League Chelsea were knocked out by Monaco, who went on to lose the Final to Porto. It is highly likely that we would have beaten either of the Finalists with the team we had. The Premier League title was ours again and a level of expectation had been set. It was us or United every season, wasn’t it?

The 2005 FA Cup Final summed up the spirit in the club. With most of our best players absent we took on United at Cardiff with Bergkamp as lone striker. A target man he wasn’t. The other ten clung on for grim death and somehow forced a penalty shoot-out won with the last kick of his Arsenal career by Patrick Vieira. It was a turning point and one we could not have anticipated at the time. Abramovic had rolled into West London and the domestic game was facing a shake-up courtesy of his roubles.

Arsene Wenger’s stock was so high at the time that he was regularly offered the prized managerial roles around the planet. However tough times lay ahead. The move to the new stadium, although badly needed, came at a time of slump in the property market and the wider economy. The Highbury flats didn’t realise the prices envisaged at the planning phase and other potentially valuable building works around the new stadium were gradually sold off.

Arsene was told to tighten the purse strings and deliver a profit on player trading. Yet within a year of that Champions League defeat the first rumblings of discontent were heard. They grew slowly, but visibly as season after season passed by with no trophy and a star player sold. The wizard was no longer sprinkling gold dust on his beloved team. The fan base started to crack.

It’s hard to say at what point the disaffected came to outnumber the faithful. It wasn’t in 2013 when finally the new kit deal was signed with Puma, and a new sponsorship deal agreed with Emirates. Now Arsene had the money and many, including me, had argued he deserved the first crack at putting things right when the money worries were eased. He delivered the FA Cup on an emotional afternoon at Wembley. An ideal time to go thought some at the time.

A year later Aston Villa were demolished at Wembley and the trophy was retained. An ideal time to go thought some again. My unwavering support wobbled as we limped to the end of 2015/16 and as runners-up to Leicester. Leicester, for goodness sake. I still loved the man and I will never think his legacy has been in any way tarnished, but what followed was entirely a question of two steps back. Our last season in the Champions League ended in a 10-2 humiliation by Bayern. At least we were able to bounce back and the manager secured a record seventh FA Cup against Chelsea, having defeated Manchester City in the semi-final.

Unless we win the Europa League we will miss out on the Champions League money for a second consecutive season, and so to today. Less than a week to the first leg of the Europa League semi-final and the announcement delivered by Arsene on Arsenal.com came as a bombshell.

“After careful consideration and following discussions with the club, I feel it is the right time for me to step down at the end of the season. I am grateful for having had the privilege to serve the club for so many memorable years. I managed the club with full commitment and integrity. I want to thank the staff, the players, the Directors and the fans who make this club so special. I urge our fans to stand behind the team to finish on a high. To all the Arsenal lovers take care of the values of the club. My love and support forever.”

I don’t mind admitting it has been a very emotional day. A 61 year old man weeping at the end for someone he met once, at the edge of the pitch after that Highbury farewell, for a fleeting handshake. He has been the Arsenal manager for over a third of my life. He managed the teams that I took my Dad to see in his last match at Highbury, and his only visit to the Grove, which surely now should have the West Stand renamed in his honour.

Don’t get me wrong, the time had come. We are not a team that challenges for titles and Champions Leagues any longer. We don’t often play the beautiful game any more. Those thing aren’t a right, but it is a part of what the manager of a club of the Arsenal’s size and wealth should be expected to deliver. There are changes that have been put in place to provide the structure that the next coach will be able to work with to hopefully achieve these aims.

In the meantime we as a fanbase have the opportunity to deliver some appropriate backing to the team and raise our voices in tribute to the man who delivered a couple of the best football teams I have seen in my life, and I have seen a lot of very good football teams. The matches against Atleti should now be a celebration of what he did for our football club. The team have a duty to deliver the Europa League to him on his last night in charge of the mighty Arsenal.

He deserves at very least that.

It was good to see a wide range of issues discussed during Arsene Wenger’s pre-West Ham press conference today. It started in familiar fashion with Arsene fielding questions about who is or isn’t fit and who will he rest for next Thursday. We’ll consider those issues on Saturday.

Quite the best question brought up up the fitness and future of Santi Cazorla. Never has Arsene answered so completely, and yet so vaguely, before finally confessing with his latest catchphrase, “honestly, I don’t know”.

It all started with the manager admitting he had not seen Santi since the League Cup Final as he had returned home for more rehab, but he had heard that the outlook was encouraging. The most recent news of his injury is positive and that he is hopeful of having the player back with the squad before the end of the season. I don’t think he meant that he expected the midfield maestro to feature but rather to come back to be assessed.

The result of a positive assessment would result in the offer of a new contract to a player so vital to our midfield until his injury in 2016. The likelihood of him returning was then put into context by the manager’s catchphrase. It deflected attention for a few valuable minutes.

Safe Standing

The boss also happily fielded a question about safe standing which is a topic that not all feel comfortable with addressing. Whilst conceding that he understood the objections of a decreasing minority he opined,

“The atmosphere is much better when people stand. The closer you are to the position of the player, the more supportive you are. It is a tradition of English football to have that. If the safety is right then it has my 100 per cent backing.”

Safe standing sections are now clearly inevitable and being held up only by a stale government on the flimsiest of grounds. That was understandable in the light of Hillsborough, and the decades that have followed. The wishes of the Liverpool supporters were given great weight, and rightly so, during that time. Even they now have given their backing to the campaign to allow rail seating.

For me it is a no brainer. Currently there is chaos in a number of grounds where the majority in certain areas refuse to sit, and not in safe conditions, barring the view of the younger and much older behind them. Let’s have safe standing areas in stadiums and relocate the old and young into still the majority of blocks that will be strictly seated only areas and understand that those areas will be stewarded accordingly.

That will leave the issue of pricing of tickets in the standing areas, but quite clearly people at both ends of the Grove are quite happy to pay full price to stand en masse and defy the stewards. The issue of ticket pricing is a different subject altogether, talking of which…

The Arsenal To Subsidise Atleti Away Tickets

The club were seen as acting a little tardily to the complaints of our supporters being charged double to watch the Gunners in Madrid compared to what we are charging our Spanish visitors next Thursday for the first leg of the Europa League semi-final. The Arsenal are doing a lot wrong at the moment, but I don’t see that they were responsible for this little fire.

Huge praise to them for acting before tomorrow’s (Friday) sale of tickets for the second leg in Madrid. The club will now charge Gooners the same £36.50 that Atleti supporters are paying at our place and will pay the balance to the greedy Spanish club. Around £140,000 I’m told that amounts to. Let’s remember it was Atletico Madrid who are to blame for their pricing, not The Arsenal.

TheArsenalShirts.com

A reminder, as if it were needed, that our new partners stock of classic Arsenal shirts is constantly changing. Recently I’ve wondered if I could perhaps still fit into an XL bruised banana before realising at my age I really couldn’t carry that off. Today a number of player issue shirts were reduced in price, and if you are quick you could also get a favourite Bergkamp shirt of yours, or one from their stock, signed by Dennis himself. Please click on the banner over our header to access the site and enjoy the memories on display.

Have great Friday, ‘holics.

I am truly indebted to our very own TTG for his eye witness report on the FA Youth Cup Semi-Final tonight (Monday) against Blackpool. Having drawn the first leg 2-2 away we certainly sealed the deal tonight and booked a two-legged Final with the highly rated Chelsea youngsters. Thank you so much for an excellent record of the evening, TTG.

I had a somewhat busy day sitting in on four prison adjudications , accommodating a carpet fitter and a tree surgeon and rushing to the Arsenal for this the second leg of their FA Youth Cup semi- final against Blackpool. The trip was made more pleasant by the late arrangement to meet an old friend who has seen Blackpool play on 129 different league grounds ( he has a spreadsheet to prove it) but who regularly watches Arsenal as well. In fact there were a number of Blackpool fans there tonight. 44 hardy souls left Bloomfield Road by coach this morning and won’t get back until the early hours but when your club has been through what Blackpool have been through, a semi-final is an occasion worth attending.

In fact like watching a thoroughbred in the paddock alongside selling platers you could tell at kick-off that Arsenal were immeasurably superior. Frankly the first half was a sumptuous exhibition of football from young Gunners , some of whom are supremely gifted.

As I had traversed the ground before the match I had run into Liam Brady, who the first time I saw him immediately looked a certainty to make it big. Tonight I saw someone who looked as good as Brady did back then. Emile Smith-Rowe, a Kevin de Bruyne lookalike and playalike (is that a word?) was spellbinding. Just back from a serious ligament injury he was unplayable tonight as far as Blackpool are concerned.

I was also much taken with the two centre- backs (nice to know we have some at the club) Daniel Ballard and Zach Medley, a holding midfielder of guile and steel in Robbie Burton and a silky left-sided attacker in Xavier Amaechi. The whole team played well but those lads stood out and the substitutes when they came, Bukayo Saka, Trae Coyle, and Matt Smith, slotted in seamlessly.

The game was a walkover in truth. The first goal came when Arsenal broke away from a Blackpool corner. Smith-Rowe cruised through the gears down the left-hand side, played in Amaechi and his cross was headed in by Balogun. Ballard notched the second with a header from a right-wing corner and Burton finished the third with great subterfuge with a clip into the left-hand corner.

Brave saves from the Blackpool keeper and a shot against the bar from Balogun kept the score down but then Smith-Rowe slalomed through the Blackpool team, and into the area where he was brought down by a despairing Blackpool defender. Smith-Rowe took the kick himself and fired it into the top left corner.

Rather like the first team Arsenal having scored four in the first half at the Clock End decided to ease off. (You can tell I sit in the North Upper usually!) Blackpool were game but outclassed and their cause was not aided by having one of their midfielders sent off for a second yellow card after a tug on Balogun. Arsenal made it 5-0 right at the end after another intricate move including an Ozil-like ‘no look ‘ pass from Coyle ending in a short-range finish from Smith.

Arsenal go on to meet Chelsea in the Final and our friends from the bus stop have won the trophy for the last four years. But they will have to be a very good side indeed to beat Arsenal on this evidence.

One final thought occurred to me as Arsenal effortlessly pinged the ball around. This was Wengerball at its purest and whatever we may feel about Arsene’s present inadequacies, it is he who has set a template for pass and move football which was never part of the Arsenal brand prior to his arrival. He has defined a style for this club which has probably inspired these boys from the first moment they could kick a ball. It truly was a thing of beauty tonight. How ironic that it is a style that our first team are finding it hard to replicate consistently.

If you get a chance go along and watch these boys in the Final. Some of them are really very special. In addition to reaching the FA Youth Cup Final they are also in the Final of the Premier League International Cup and if they beat the West Ham U23s on Friday will be crowned champions of Premier League 2. TTG.

Arsene Wenger made six changes in the wake of the Europa League match in Moscow for the trip to Newcastle. Petr Cech started behind a back four of Calum Chambers, Shkodran Mustafi, Rob Holding, and Nacho Monreal. Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka provided the shield behind Alex Iwobi, Premier League debutant Joe Willock, and Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang, with Alexandre Lacazette retained up front.

The hosts, winners of their last three home games without conceding a goal, started brightly, but Lacazettte it was who got the first opportunity in the fifth minute and he screwed his effort wide of the target. At the other end Brazilian Kenedy, on loan from Chelsea, got the first attempt on target and drew a save from Cech.

The same player then avoided punishment for an over the top studs up challenge on Lacazette’s shin. That simply made the striker angry and moments later when Aubamayang was picked out by Mustafi and crossed from the left-hand side Lacazette applied the finish at full stretch. It was wonderful to see two of Europe’s prized strikers combining in their first start together.

Newcastle United 0-1 The Arsenal

We were denied a penalty in our next attack when Aubamayang’s fierce drive appeared to deflect off Lascelle’s arm. Only a corner was awarded by our old ‘friend’, Anthony Taylor. The Gunners were taking over this phase of play, and Iwobi forced Dubravka into a save having created the space for a toe poke.

Newcastle were lifted when Shelvey found Gayle with a long ball from his own half but Mustfi denied the striker with with a superbly timed challenge. Shelvey repeated the long ball, Gayle laid it off to the right flank,  Yedlin fizzed in a cross, and Perez flicked it inside Cech’s near post. Against the run of play the Geordies were level.

Newcastle United 1-1 The Arsenal

Aubamayang was the next victim of a raking challenge on his right angle but we were unable to make anything of the resulting free-kick. When Lascelles clattered Iwobi on the edge of the box Xhaka put Monreal in at the far post. The full-back headed across the face of the goal and Chambers, arriving at speed, couldn’t quite convert the opportunity. Lacazette broke with Willock and Aubamayang, but the pass to Willock found the young debutant unable to sort his feet out to finish a great opportunity.

There were no half-time changes by either side and the Arsenal engineered the first opening but Iwobi handled Monreal’s cross beyond the far post and the status quo was preserved. A rapid break by Perez highlighted the threat that the hosts still posed but Xhaka intervened and Cech was able to pick up the loose ball. When Shelvey played him in again it was Mustafi who stopped Perez in his tracks in the right-back position.

Ritchie’s agricultural challenge on Monreal on the hour mark brought the home crowd to life. On-loan Slimani replaced Gayle for the final third of the match. The striker’s welcome was a body check by Mustafi which could have been the first yellow card of a physical encounter. The impressive Iwobi found himself in a shooting position again but he tugged his attempt wide of Dubravka’s near post.

The Arsenal made their first substitution with Danny Welbeck coming on for Willock. Then moments later the Gunners back four was drawn to the right side, Slimani’s header teed up the unmarked Ritchie at the far post and he chipped the already diving Cech. The goalkeeper should perhaps have stood tall for longer and it would have been a comfortable save. Somehow we were in danger of losing yet another away Premier League match.

Newcastle United 2-1 The Arsenal

Two nearly became three when Kenedy’s effort was deflected by Mustafi onto the frame of the goal. Then Slimani set up Perez who fired into the side-netting. That prompted a second substitution by both teams, Joselu for Perez and Ainsley Maitland-Niles replacing Chambers. Maitland-Niles first action saw him impressively win a foot race with the fleet-footed and powerful Slimani.

As we moved into the final ten minutes Xhaka’s poor corner was cleared only a star as Elneny, but his long range effort sailed way over the bar. From the tightest of angles Lacazette  fired into the side-netting. Cue the last substitutions, Murphy for Ritchie and Eddie N’Ketiah for the excellent Iwobi. Slimani finally drew Mister Taylor’s first yellow card for kicking the ball away to delay the taking of a throw-in.

It’s not hard to be overly critical of a team that can’t buy a league point away from home right now. The goalkeeper and defence are putting the strike force under some pressure to deliver and we know that is an area we have to address in the summer. How 71 percent possession doesn’t convert into points is astonishing. I’ve watched this film before.

We can forget about the Europa League for a couple of weeks as we look to finish the Premier League season in style. It’s the long haul to Newcastle for the travelling Gooners, many of whom will have travelled up today (Saturday) and will enjoy a night out on the toon before the lunchtime kick-off on Sunday.

The match might come a bit soon for some who were involved in Moscow so the team could look very similar to the one that saw off Southampton last Sunday. Only Granit Xhaka is a doubt so hopefully Aaron Ramsey will have the fitness to slot in alongside Mohamed Elneny. It would not be a big surprise to see Rob Holding in for Shkodran Mustafi alongside Calum Chambers.

Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez has a fully-fit squad to choose from and the pressure appears to be off them now as they are ten points clear of the relegation zone. Mathematically they may need another win or two so they are likely to be competitive. We will need to turn around our away Premier League away form to avoid a first defeat at the Geordies since 2005.

The ‘holic pound

Although we have no points away from home in 2018 We have put together a run of six wins and a draw in our last seven matches in Premier League and Europa League. That momentum needs to be continued to keep confidence levels high. I’m betting with my heart rather than my head for this one. Working on the basis that Pierre-Emerick Aubamaying continues his hot streak of six goals and an assist in seven matches I like the unusual odds of 17/1 against a 1-3 win for the visitors.

The Europa League semi-final

Having opened with “we can forget about the Europa League for a couple of weeks”, well, that only applies to the players of course. Our first European semi-final in ten years is an exciting prospect for the supporters, or should be.

I see on social media the immediate reaction of many to our drawing Atletico Madrid was one of horror. Although I would prefer to be at home in the second-leg we now know we have to knock the favourites out to reach the final, and we are certainly capable of that. I remember few being convinced we would knock Chelsea out over two legs in the Carabao Cup semi-final but we achieved that.

It’s unlikely to be a high scoring affair as defensively the Spaniards are well organised and they boast a goalkeeper we are apparently following keenly. If we can defend the way we did against Chelsea we have a real punchers chance with Alexandre Lacazette up front and Danny Welbeck finding his shooting boots again in Moscow.

It’s going to be one hell of a roller coaster and one I can’t wait to jump on and ride.

The Arsenal made two enforced changes for the second leg of the Europa League in Moscow. As expected Mohamed Elneny replaced Granit Xhaka and Danny Welbeck, rather than Alex Iwobi, got the nod to fill in for the unfortunate Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Not surprisingly CSKA applied the high press from the off and Petr Cech had to be on his toes to beat Musa to an early through ball. The hosts were clearly after the boost of an early strike and tested the Gunners defence in the opening phases of play. As the clock ticked to 17 minutes we finally forced a corner with some typically intricate tippy happy around the box.

There are sports psychologists who would advise managing football matches in fifteen minute chunks and tick off achieving what you want accordingly. The Arsenal first and foremost wanted not to concede so achieving that in the first two mini-matches was a welcome achievement in what was frankly a dour affair.

Alexandre Lacazette lifted the tempo when put through but his shot was deflected behind. Mohamed Elneny lifted a short corner to the far post where Shkodran Mustafi was involved in a hefty clash of heads with Berezutski. Fortunately after treatment both players were fit to continue. CSKA produced a rapid break out in the 33rd minute that ended with a crucial interception by the Arsenal’s last man, so-called ‘lazy’ Mesut Ozil.

A sudden break out of end to end breaks saw Golovin slip over with CSKA threatening that vital opening goal. The Gunners swept down the other end but Aaron Ramsey failed to find Danny Welbeck and Lacazette in the box. The substitution of Vitinho for Dzagoev may have distracted the Arsenal as they tried to adjust. Nababkin’s header drew an instinctive save from Cech down to his right but Chalov reacted fastest to slam the ball over the line.

CSKA 1-0 The Arsenal

Ramsey was temporarily withdrawn to have a cut calf treated and only returned once we were into four added minutes. Next to hit the deck was Jack Wilshere who had his infamous ankle raked by a challenge unseen by the referee, and he eventually hobbled to a position in front of the back four as CSKA produced wave after wave of pressure. Thankfully the whistle gave us the chance to regroup and draw breath for the final three quarters of an hour.

The Arsenal took on a new shape in the opening stages of the second-half with Elneny dropping into the centre of the defence to give us more of a 5-4-1 formation. Wilshere and Welbeck combined on the break and the latter just over-hit the final ball which gave Akinfeev to claim the ball before Ramsey.

It was a brief reprieve. CSKA then unhinged the new formation. Cech parried Golovin’s long-range effort straight to the unmarked Nababkin who slammed his shot into the gaping goal. Now the nerves were really jangling. One more goal would see us out.

CSKA 2-0 The Arsenal

Cech was soon in action again after the restart turning another Golovin effort around the post. In an effort to recover the midfield we returned to the starting formation and Elneny thought he had scored the clincher. Sadly the midfielder had strayed offside before planting a fine header just inside the post. 25 minutes from time after Lacazette blazed a volley high over the bar Calum Chambers was brought on for the struggling Wilshere. The glass ankle had been smote again. From the ensuing corner Koscielny hit a rising volley over the target.

Veteran central defender Ignashevich then had hearts in mouths as he thumped a rasping drive inches wide of the target with Cech well beaten. The smiling Russian supporters told us they were enjoying this and starting to believe. They were cruelly and splendidly finished when Welbeck started and finished a move playing a one-two with Elneny and applying a wonderful lofted finish. 3-5 on aggregate. CSKA now needed two goals to force extra-time. Immediately Lacazette made way for Alex Iwobi.

CSKA 2-1 The Arsenal

The sting had been drawn and although CSKA continued to look to attack they were now making little impression on a defence now featuring three proper centre-halves. The visitors were now getting numbers back and relying on the counter attack to remind the hosts they were still vulnerable at the back.

Iwobi, fed by Ozil, missed a golden opportunity for the equaliser on the night.Ramsey presented Welbeck with another opportunity but Akinfeev made a fine save to preserve his team’s lead on the night. Elneny had other ideas, put the ball on a plate for Ramsey, and a superb chipped finish got us level.

CSKA 2-2 The Arsenal

In creating the goals that effectively sealed the deal Elneny had probably clinched the Gunners man of the match award, although he would probably have been out-pointed by Golovin, a class act in midfield for CSKA in both legs. In reaching the semi-final of a European trophy for the first time in nine years the Gunners had actually done what they needed to do, but oh, that nervy first 75 minutes. What a show of character at the end.

 

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