Eventful added time ends with three valuable points

Burnley came to the Emirates on Sunday with the worst away record in the league, consisting of just one point picked up on the road all season. Arsenal were back in form and had a centre-forward who had scored in his last five games. An easy home win was surely the only outcome.
But after Swansea shocked the league with a win away at Liverpool on Saturday, Arsenal should have been ready for the unexpected. Burnley, albeit a completely different proposition at Turf Moor, had pushed the Gunners all the way earlier in the season, with Laurent Koscielny bundling in the winner with the last touch of the game. But despite the major disparity between their results at home and away, Burnley have had a very good first season back in the Premier League, and had the potential to cause Arsenal problems.
For the most-part, Arsenal controlled the game, before they started making problems for themselves. The Gunners created a few chances in the first half and generally controlled the tempo and pace of the game, but as in the most games recently, there was a noticeable improvement in the second period. Knowing the results had gone for Arsenal on Saturday, the team really couldn’t afford to let an opportunity to move up to second pass them by.
Early in the second half, I was fearing another frustrating game and potentially needing another late winner (!), and those fears seemed to have been relieved when Shkodran Mustafi headed home his first goal for the club. At 1-0 and an hour gone in the game, it should have been relatively straightforward to see the game out. I suspected Arsenal might score a second goal with 10-15 minutes to go and we could all have a relatively stress-free afternoon.
Then the chilling combination of Jon Moss and Granit Xhaka changed the game. Jon Moss was the referee who ludicrously sent off the Swiss international against Swansea at the Emirates earlier in the season. For all of those who tried to justify the red card at the time, has anyone else been sent off for a similar offence this season? Of course not. Against Burnley, Xhaka made the mistake of lunging in unnecessarily on Steven Defour, giving the referee an option to send him off. After advice from the linesman, Jon Moss took that option. It was a harsh red card, especially considering some of the two-footed challenges that have gone unpunished in the Premier League, but I can understand why the officials thought it could have been worthy of a red as it was slightly reckless. The biggest frustration though is that for a combination of two fouls with Jon Moss as the referee, Xhaka will have been banned for seven games for offences that probably added up to two yellows.
Xhaka’s discipline has obviously been put under the microscope, but of the two reds and two penalties he’s conceded this season, two were bad decisions from the officials (Swansea red and Stoke penalty) and one was dubious (Burnley), leaving the penalty against Bournemouth as the only one he couldn’t argue with. He has been playing well recently, and was having a decent game until he was sent off on Sunday, so he’ll be a big miss in the coming games. Hopefully the period out of the team will give him the chance to reflect a bit on the cards he received, and while they have been harsh, he’ll know he needs to stop giving referees decisions to make by needlessly going to ground in certain situations.
Suddenly faced with seeing out the game with ten men for over 20 minutes, Arsenal were doing a decent job of it until stoppage time. The Gunners carried a threat on the break and had Mustafi and Koscielny snuffing out the danger when Burnley got in and around the penalty area. Then in the third minute of added time, Ashley Barnes bundled his way into the box, went over from Coquelin’s challenge and Jon Moss had no hesitation to give the spot kick. As much as there was plenty to complain about with the referee’s performance, it was a definite foul from Coquelin, and Andre Gray duly levelled the game up from spot.
As stoppage time continued, quite where seven minutes were found to add on is anyone’s guess, Arsene Wenger was agitated on the touch line and got sent to the stands by Jon Moss. He compounded things by trying to get fourth official Anthony Taylor to turn around and watch the game when standing in the tunnel, but eventually he did leave proceedings. Obviously it didn’t look good what Arsene did and he immediately apologised after the game, plus a touch-line ban is likely, but for all those fans who want a manager to show some passion, never question how much Wenger cares about the club and how every bad result hurts him.
Like most others in the stadium, Wenger was a man who was fuming that this seemed to be a peak-Arsenal choke, and the officials had played a part in it. Rivals drop points, 1-0 up and cruising, then finish with ten men and concede a penalty to draw. It had all the hallmarks of an Arsenal meltdown.
But while it would be nice for Arsenal to win matches comfortably and not be reliant on late goals, they have become pretty damn good at netting late on when they really need it. Winners don’t come much later than 90+8, but after Laurent Koscielny was kicked in the head by Ben Mee, Jon Moss gave a spot kick and ensured there wasn’t a riot among fans directed at him.
Alexis Sanchez stepped up having never scored a penalty for the Gunners, and that made me nervous. When Santi Cazorla was in a similar situation against Soutampton earlier in the season, I always felt he’d score. I didn’t have the same confidence in Alexis, but with his dogs on a banner in the stadium, he was the calmest man in North London to just panenka the ball down the middle and spark jubilant celebrations around the ground. While chipping the ball is always a good option as the goalkeeper is likely to dive, it still takes massive balls to do with the last kick of the game and the match on the line.
The biggest regret this season remains blowing the two leads in a week at Everton and Manchester City, as were it not for those two results, Arsenal could be right up there near Chelsea. But those two matches aside, the succession of late goals does imply that this team really does have more about it than recent incarnations. There is now a deep-rooted belief that they can battle back in tough situations and that they’ll find a goal late on if necessary. It’s not good for the health of supporters, but is good for winning points.
It may well be that the result isn’t a big turning point and Chelsea still cruise to the title, but Sunday was brilliant. It was stressful and exhausting, but brilliant. It should have been a routine win, but Arsenal, partly through their own making, had their backs to the wall and the title challenge was about to fade away, then a Chilean hero flanked by his dogs came to rescue. It was why we keep going to watch football, you just never know when a mundane game could produce a magical moment.


Giroud's magnificence moves Arsenal into the top three

Firstly, an apology for a lack of blog after the West Brom win. I picked up a rather un-classy illness over Christmas so was unable to write anything after the game. Normal order has been restored though, and it comes with something extraordinary to write about. 
Through a combination of the opposition and the injuries to Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, Olivier Giroud finally got his opportunity to start a Premier League this season on Boxing Day, and he took it with a superb header to seal the win late on against West Brom. It was a goal no other player in the squad is likely to have scored in the way Giroud fought off the centre-back and headed the ball beyond the goalkeeper. But better was to come at the end of the week. Giroud isn’t just about strength as a big centre-forward. He has some subtle and, at times, sublime touches as well.
In the 17th minute against Crystal Palace on New Year’s Day, Lucas Perez intercepted a cross-field pass, allowing Hector Bellerin to find Giroud with his back-to-goal and in his own half. The Frenchman flicked the ball into the path of Granit Xhaka, who then released the pace of Iwobi and Alexis on the counter-attack. Iwobi fed the Chilean, who had Giroud thundering into the penalty area to complete the counter-attack. Alexis’ cross was slightly behind the Frenchman, but it only led to a more spectacular goal.
How Giroud finished it is hard to explain and do justice to it. Call it a scorpion kick, call it whatever. It was just instinctive brilliance. Giroud used all of his athleticism to hook the ball with his heel from behind him, planting the ball over the goalkeeper and in off the underside of the bar, instantly improving it as a goal.
It was a truly breathtaking moment that made you wonder if it had actually happened. The big screen replays in the stadium confirmed that it was real, and as much as we celebrated going 1-0 up, the fans rose to just applaud the magnificence of the goal. It was one of those rare moments where you have an overriding sense of privilege that you’d been able to witness such a special moment. Forget the opposition, forget the position in the league table, forget what competition that match was in. As a pure footballing moment, that goal was truly wonderful.
The unsurprising debate surfaced over whether Giroud’s effort was better than the similar goal scored by Mkhitaryan for Manchester United on Boxing Day, and while the Armenian’s goal was superb, what made Giroud’a extra special was that it came at the end of a sweeping counter-attack that had earlier been blessed by Giroud’s initial back-heeled flick. It was a brilliant team goal that was finished by a moment of indiviual inspiration. 
There has been discussion about where the goal sits in the pantheon of great Arsenal goals. In the modern, social media era, it is easy to overhype goals that make great vines and go viral on Twitter, but this goal will stand the test of time as one of the best in the Premier League. Choosing a number one for Arsenal is nigh on impossible, but Giroud’s effort deserves to the be mentioned in the same breath as Bergkamp against Leicester and Newcastle, Henry against Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham, and Kanu against Chelsea.
Everything else in the game on Sunday was always going to be a slight disappointment after such a wonderous goal graced the game so early, but the 2-0 win was fully merited for Arsenal and contained plenty of positives. With Mesut Ozil unavailable through illness, Alex Iwobi shone playing in the number 10 role. He always plays with his head up and looks to play a forward pass, plus he can be a dangerous runner going forward to support the striker. It was a very mature performance from the youngster, and one he capped with a clever cushioned header over the goalkeeper to double the lead in the second half. 
Alexis was his usual energetic self, while the full-backs got forward well and, on the whole, dealt with the threat posed by Crystal Palace’s two wingers; Zaha and Townsend. Gabriel quietly had an excellent game alongside Koscielny, while Petr Cech produced a few excellent saves when called upon.
But the other real stand-out performance came from Granit Xhaka in central midfield. His range of passing is exceptional, and he displayed the full repertoire on Sunday. Almost like an NFL quarter-back, Xhaka was able to thread some beautiful passes through the channels, particularly for Alexis Sanchez. Arsene Wenger often says it takes half a season for newcomers to the Premier League to get up to speed, and the Swiss international looks like he has completed his bedding-in period and is controlling games superbly.
But for all the other good performances, the game will only be remembered for one thing, the majestic moment from Olivier Giroud. The stupid schedule means that Arsenal have a day off and go straight into a big away game with Bournemouth on Tuesday, and it does leave little time to revel in that goal. So before the serious stuff gets going again on Tuesday night, go back to watching it. 

Magic Mesut seals comeback and qualification

After winning 6-0 at the Emirates against Ludogorets just two weeks ago, it must have been tempting for Arsene Wenger to rest players ahead of the North London derby on Sunday. Ultimately, while there were changes, it was still a strong line-up selected by the boss, and it needed to be as the Bulgarian team made Arsenal really dig deep to get the win to take them through to the last 16 of the Champions League. The Gunners were pushed all the way and required an outrageous piece of individual brilliance from a player that might have been rested with big games on the horizon.
Ludogorets performed well in the first half at the Emirates despite the eventual scoreline, so Arsenal were right to take them seriously with the team selection. Of the players that Arsene Wenger took with him to Bulgaria, it was virtually the strongest side available, bar Cech and possibly Alex Iwobi. 
The start to the game seemed to have Arsenal in control until some slack defending suddenly put the Gunners in a sticky situation. First of all, they allowed a free-kick cross to go all the way to the back post allowing Cafu to open the scoring, and then Kieran Gibbs was surprisingly beaten on the wing and a low cross led to the second goal inside the first quarter of the game. There was an element of complacency from Arsenal and they were punished by a hungry home team desperate to avenge the thrashing at the Emirates. 
The two goals were also a reminder that the Mustafi / Koscielny partnership is still a developing one. In general, the two have been superb together, but there are still moments that have shown that they aren’t quite the finished article as a partnership.
As with the way Arsenal responded at Sunderland to a setback, they kept calm and got themselves back in the game quickly. Questions can still be asked as to how Arsenal got into a hole in the first place, but there was no doubting the quality of the recovery. It wasn’t 2-0 to Ludogorets for long as Alexis fed Ozil down the left and the German’s cut-back was swept in by Granit Xhaka.
Unsurprisingly, Arsenal dominated the possession for the rest of the half as Ludogorets tried to make the game less open than it was at the Emirates. With a lead to defend, they sat deeper and did away with the high line that saw them get destroyed in London. With Olivier Giroud making his first start of the season, Arsenal could mix up their mode of attack and the Frenchman got on the end of an Aaron Ramsey cross to head Arsenal level just before half-time.
To have Xhaka and Giroud score was another example of the players sharing the goal scoring burden around this season. There are plenty of players in the squad that are feeling good in front of the net. Long may it continue.
Despite scoring two, Arsenal’s attacking lacked the general fluidity of the season so far without the pacier options of Walcott and Iwobi. It was great to see Aaron Ramsey back on the pitch, and the 75 minutes he got under his belt will do him good in the long run, but he did drift quite a bit from the right hand side, making the team look occasionally lop-sided. 
The second half calmed down after the four goals in the opening period. Ludogorets had a front four looking to counter-attack, but the rest of the team was content to sit on the potential draw. Arsenal also dropped off a bit in intensity as the likes of Ramsey and Giroud looked like players still working their way up to full fitness. There were plenty of minor fouls as the referee became incredibly pedantic and the game looked to be winding down towards a draw. That was before Arsenal finally drew the hosts forward and there was a bit of space to run in behind the defence in the last few minutes. 
Giroud tracked back to win a tackle, allowing Mohamed Elneny to clip an excellent pass over the defence for Mesut Ozil to run onto. The goalkeeper rushed out but was left floundering by a deft flick from Ozil over him. Two covering defenders had charged back, but were evaded as Ozil dummied to shoot, left them on the ground and calmly slotted the ball home. A breathtaking moment of brilliance, made all the more impressive because of it being a winning goal. Ozil didn’t just pull out that piece of skill and calm finishing when the pressure was off, he did it in the dying minutes of a match Arsenal had been behind in, and scored a vital goal to keep them top of the group and secures a place in the knockout stages. What a player. What a goal. 
Depending on injuries, I expect Arsenal to return to the Walcott-Ozil-Iwobi-Alexis front four that has served them well this season on Sunday in the North London derby. A poor result in Bulgaria could have given Spurs a lift before the game, but Arsenal now go into it with another win, three more goals and a world class attacking midfielder who made professional defenders and a goalkeeper look like kids in a playground in a high-pressure situation. We’ve got Ozil, Mesut Ozil, and after that goal, everyone really should understand.