Bayern Munich are better than Everton

This isn’t going to be a blog about “what if?”, as in “what if Özil had scored?” or “what if Szczesny hadn’t been sent off?” or even “what if we had kept the score at 0-1?”.  The reason this isn’t going to be about that is that I’m actually pretty happy about that game.
No, really, I am.  Here why: we were never going to win the Champions League anyway.
OK, so maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe we’ll win 2-0 at the Allianz, it will go to extra time, one goal each way, go to penalties at 3-3, we forbid Özil to be anywhere near the spot, and we’re through to the quarter finals; a winning streak follows and Abou Diaby scores a 92nd minute belter from the halfway line in Lisbon on 24th May.  Maybe that’s what will happen.
The realist in me tends to doubt it, however.  Even if we got through this round, we would probably have had to face Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Dortmund, PSG, Chelsea or City in the next, then one of them again in the semis, and then again in the finals, and my gut tells me we would have slipped up somewhere.  For me, this season has never been about the Champions League.  Arsenal feel like they’re at the beginning of a renaissance, but winning the most prestigious club competition in the world comes mid-renaissance, not just as its starting.
No, for me now this season is about competing for the Premier League and making a real stab at the FA Cup.  And the reason I’m pretty happy is this: Arsenal were awesome tonight.
It was, I think, the best we’ve played since Napoli at home.  For the first forty minutes Bayern Munich, the best team in the world and the cup favourites, were made to look no more than mildly talented as Arsenal’s midfield zipped the ball around, kept possession, and created some real chances, with only Manuel Neuer (arguably the world’s best goalkeeper at the moment) keeping them in the game, saving that penalty and denying great efforts from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo.  After Szczesny was sent off Arsenal put in a really valiant effort as Bayern gave a textbook example of how to play against ten men, spreading the play and working Arsenal to their absolute limit, and to only concede two goals in the second half is a real credit to the whole team.
I’m going to talk about Sanogo.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to say he’s our saviour or he’s the new new new new Messi, or anything, but I must confess that I, like everyone else, assumed that this summer purchase was a “one for the future” sort of deal – that Sanogo would play some U21 games (when he wasn’t injured) and then make a nice back-up for a real signing in two years time.  But now Wenger has twice picked him over Bendtner, while Giroud’s personal life messes up his game (I’m sorry, I refuse to believe that this is not why he’s been benched), against first Liverpool and now Munich.  In neither game has he wowed, but he has also not looked at all out of his depth, getting shots on target, showing a real talent for close control, winning the ball in the air and making some smart passes.  If he can stay fit then I think he can make a real contribution to Arsenal’s 13/14 season and will be a key squad member for years to come, and maybe even a first choice striker at some point.  All in all what seemed to be an odd decision is now looking like a good signing, and Wenger deserves credit for that.
But if Sanogo’s performance was good, I thought Wilshere’s was outstanding.  Feel free to disagree with me, but in my opinion this was the best that Jack Wilshere has played for a good few months, probably since the game against Norwich.  Recently Wilshere has been criticised by some of the fan base, mostly, I think, for not being as good as he was in that Barcelona game.  To be honest, he may never have a game like that day again, but today showed why he remains a first-class option for Arsenal, and why Wenger has let him play through his poorer form.  Around him Flamini and Oxlade-Chamberlain also performed admirably, and even Mesut Özil, the only German who can’t score a penalty, didn’t have nearly as bad a game as Gary Neville claimed (although he definitely deteriorated after that missed effort).
So, we didn’t beat Bayern Munich, but you know what?  Who cares.  Our next big game is against Everton, and if we play like we did today, particularly like we did in the first half, then we’ll destroy them, and that puts us in the semi-final, where we’d have a 2/3 chance of drawing one of Hull, Brighton, Sunderland, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday or Charlton Athletic (and the remote possibility of drawing Wigan, should they beat City).  A trophy is, for the first time in many years, a very real possibility.
Meanwhile in the Premier League we sit one point behind Chelsea, with our next three games against Sunderland, Stoke and Swansea.  Again, if we play like we did today then that should be 9 points in the bag, and with Chelsea facing Everton and Tottenham in that time, not to mention a west London derby against a resurgent Fulham, there’s a real chance that we could take back top spot again.  Arteta and Vermaelen will be back in the team, Ramsey should be coming back soon, Källström apparently plays for us, and Gnabry and Zelalem provide us with extra options for the cup if we should need it.
The only thing that really that really concerns me is Gibbs’s injury.  While we’re well covered at left-back – Monreal, Flamini, Sanga and Vermaelen can all play there – Gibbs would always be my first choice, and he was playing well before he pulled up.  Fingers crossed it’s not another long-term injury for him.  There’s a rumour that Ox was taken off because he was carrying a knock, too; I hope that’s not the case, he’s really stepped up in the last couple of weeks and with Walcott unavailable he’s the closest thing we have to an actual winger.
Aside from that, though, I remain optimistic.  I don’t know if we’ll win anything this season.  What I do know is that this is the best Arsenal have looked in years – we have options on the bench, we have great players who are still young enough to become world-class players, we have money to spend in the summer, we have an outstanding set of defenders, and we still have Arsene Wenger.  I am, in short, the happiest I have ever been as an Arsenal fan, and I look forward to seeing the Champions League trophy in the Emirates in three years time.
N.B. I wasn’t at the game tonight – I know Sam was – but based on what I saw/heard on Sky Sports the Arsenal fans were in excellent form and really backed their team in a tough game.  I tip my hat to you, ladies and gentlemen – it’s great to see and long may it continue!

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Out of the darkness and back to the top

Whilst Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Aston Villa didn’t quite fit the ‘game of two halves’ cliché, there were definitely two distinct parts to it. For the majority of the game, Arsenal were in control, had plenty of possession and didn’t look in danger of conceding.
Then, as Aston Villa cranked up some pressure near the end of the match and scored, Arsenal were suddenly trying to see the game out and hang on to the three points.
The two phases of the game rather scarily coincided with an extremely inconvenient power-cut I experienced whilst watching the game. When everything went black, Arsenal were cruising back to the top of the league. When I was able to get the radio commentary up on my phone, Christian Benteke snuck in at the back post to head the ball in and suddenly I was nervous about the game, unable to see it and relying on candle light.
Even though Arsenal made heavy work of the the win, and I was suddenly in the dark and not opening my fridge to try and keep food cold, it was hard to complain. Having the frustration of waiting until Monday to play and after seeing all the nearby teams below Arsenal in the table win over the weekend, these three points shouldn’t be underestimated. Every other team is waiting for Arsenal to crumble. Some still discount them from the title race and only think about Manchester City and Chelsea, however Arsenal won’t go away. The longer the season goes, and the more games Arsenal refuse to buckle in, the more people have to believe that this team can last the distance.
Whilst it wasn’t always a fluent performance, the match showed how far Arsenal have come since the first day of the season. The comparisons between Aston Villa’s win at the Emirates were going to be inevitable and made for a great media story, but the difference really was marked. In August, Arsenal were naive and weren’t focused enough defensively. The same couldn’t be said on Monday night. Except for Santi Cazorla giving the ball away in the build-up to Benteke’s goal, Arsenal were disciplined and didn’t let Villa create other clear cut chances.
It wasn’t a surprise to Arsenal fans to see Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny perform well at the back, but their organisation and excellence when the team has it’s back to the wall is starting to get wider recognition. Thomas Vermaelen is still an excellent defender, but he won’t get in the side with Mertesacker and Koscielny in such good form. Instead of Arsenal’s midfield options and attacking fluidity being the main reason for people believing this could be a great season for the Gunners, it’s the BFG and Kos.
Fans can also be optimistic as there seems to be more to come from Mesut Ozil. The German was back in the starting line-up and whilst he isn’t dominating games in the way some expected him to having cost £42 million, he is still making some telling impacts on matches. His pass through to Nacho Monreal in the build-up to the first goal was superb, and one that few in the league could have played as well.
That move culminated in an excellent finish from Jack Wilshere, who is beginning to have a bigger influence on matches. Playing alongside Flamini or Arteta, he’s able to make late runs towards the penalty area and have a license to attack knowing there is a holding player behind him. With Ozil and Cazorla there as well, he has less pressure to be the creative hub of the team, so can just express himself. After scoring, his pass to set-up Giroud for the second goal was instinctive, but was almost bettered by a chipped pass he played to Kieran Gibbs in the second half that led to a chance.
With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain back and Lukas Podolski chomping at the bit to be involved, there are attacking options there for Arsenal, and all of them will be needed to help maintain a push for trophies in different competitions.
The result was much closer than it should have been, but after seeing other title challengers win, that fact Arsenal got three points at Villa Park is the only thing that matters. My power might have gone away when watching the game on Monday night, but Arsenal’s title challenge is definitely still on.

Good win but work still to do

I could get used to this. A second 2-0 home win in four days in any other season, and in any other group, would comfortably see Arsenal through to the last 16 of the Champions League. However this isn’t the group of death for nothing. The Gunners sit at the top on 12 points, but with a trip to face Napoli to come, and because of Marseille’s inability to gain any points, Arsenal still have to avoid a significant defeat in the final match to go through.
All the recent evidence suggests they can do that though. At times, it didn’t feel like Arsenal were brilliant against the Ligue 1 side, but they rarely looked in danger of losing control of the game. It’s a measure of how much Arsenal have improved though to say that the Marseille win wasn’t one of the better performances of the season.
The Gunners could, and should, have scored more going forward, but this was a win that was built on another clean sheet. Four shut-outs in five games tells it’s own story about the form of the Arsenal back-line. On the few occasions the visitors were able to get a shot on goal on Tuesday night, they couldn’t get past Wojciech Szczesny. Had Aaron Ramsey not had such an explosive season, the Polish keeper could rightly claim to be the most improved player at the club this season.
The back four in front of him were excellent again with Sagna, Mertesacker and Koscielny continuing their excellent seasons. A lot of credit must go to Nacho Monreal, who was drafted in for Kieran Gibbs at left back. Gibbs has been superb this season, and I assume was only rested or rotated on Tuesday, but considering his chances to play have been limited, the Spaniard came in and did an excellent job. It really is so reassuring to see that quality of player deeper in the squad.
As well as Monreal replacing Gibbs, Arsene Wenger showed the strength of his squad by making two changes in midfield without really weakening the team. Mathieu Flamini came in for Mikel Arteta and put in another solid and noisy performance. Just one minor thing Mathieu, stop the sleeve cutting. It shouldn’t bother me, but it does. Tomas Rosicky also started and was able to inject some pace into the Arsenal game when the match threatened to meander slightly.
This meant that Arsenal had a variety of very useable options on the bench, not just players there to make up the numbers. Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott were brought on, meaning important players will be ready for the run of three league games in the next two weeks.
Arsenal weren’t quite at their fluent best against Marseille, but the French side were quite defensive and looked to squeeze Arsenal’s attacking midfield trio of Wilshere, Ozil and Rosicky. That failed inside the first minute though as Wilshere found space on the right before curling a beautiful finish into the top corner. He then popped up in the centre in the second half to apply the finishing touch to Ozil’s pass across the box. The English media love hyping then knocking down Jack Wilshere. He knows he hasn’t been scintillating for Arsenal this season, but he’s hardly been bad. Following on from a good performance against Southampton, he produced moments of quality when they were needed to win this game for the Gunners.
The winning margin should have been greater. Mesut Ozil’s penalty was quite tame, Ramsey saw an effort saved when set-up by Wilshere and Theo Walcott shot wide late on. Despite huffing and puffing a bit to get the second goal, Arsenal always seemed in control and looked to have enough to step up through the gears if needed.
Whilst it is annoying to not be through from the group stage with one game to go, to have 12 points from five games is an excellent effort in this tough group. Arsene Wenger showed on Tuesday night that he can rotate his squad and still field a very strong XI, meaning he should be able to have a strong line-up in Naples to finish the job off. With league games to come against Cardiff and Hull, the defeat to Manchester United looks to be truly out of Arsenal’s system and the winning momentum is back. There is still work to do in the Champions League, but with a strong squad and a solid defence, Arsenal can be confident of sealing qualification in Naples.