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Quick Fire Arsenal Progress To FA Cup Fifth Round

Arsenal 3 – 2 Aston Villa

0 – 1 Dunne (33)
0 – 2 Bent (45)
1 – 2 van Persie (54 pen)
2 – 2 Walcott (57)
3 – 2 van Persie (61 pen)

Three goals in seven minutes gave Arsenal a deserved victory, recovering a deficit that was the result of defending as weak and insipid as the beer proferred by the competition’s sponsors. It is all being overshadowed by a wayward elbow from Robin van Persie on Carlos Cuellar bringing forth a typically overstated reaction from Alex McLeish after the match. Whether the FA decide to investigate will become clearer today.

They might like to look into why Richard Dunne was still allowed to be on the pitch as well. Refereeing standards continue to plummet when the Irish defender, having been booked already for a foul on Rosicky in the first half, was not booked for a blatant scything of Ramsey in the second. That is not to excuse van Persie but McLeish might like to keep his head down when it comes to inadequcies in the officiating.

That Villa were two goals to the good is leading to the usual distorted criticism of Lukasz Fabianski. He is not the best goalkeeper at the club, granted, and at times he does leave you screwing your eyes tightly shut with all digits crossed; he was not to blame for either of the goals though. The first was the expected lacksadaisical defending from a corner. Ramsey was overloaded on the flank, Keane delivered the cross for Dunne to outmuscle a cluster of players and bury the header.

The second came as Arsenal pushed for an equaliser before half-time, Villa broke swiftly with Bent set free on the right of the area. Fabianski made a fine save, parrying the ball wide only for the Villa striker to score from an acute angle. Neither goals were the result of goalkeeping errors and the criticism is unwarranted.

That Arsenal were two down was baffling to some extent. It suggests a poverty of performance in keeping with those in the Premier League recently. Whilst not entirely true, Arsenal did struggle at times to break through the nullifying tactics of their opponents. Villa ensured that space and time was at premium, pressing Arsenal when in possession.

The first opportunity came from a setplay when Vermaelen slammed his a freekick from range toward the top corner, Given turning the ball over.  The standard of Arsenal set-pieces is baffling poor. The delivery is more often than not, abysmal. Freekicks regularly fail to clear the wall and when they do, they clear the bar comfortably. As for corners, little wonder we struggle to defend them as I doubt a decent one has been put in at London Colney for a number of seasons. Certainly they are rare enough at The Emirates for Bill Oddie to be overly excited by ones arrival.

Theo Walcott threatened fleetingly in the first half with sporadic forays in the Villa half whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain probed on the left effectively. The youngster went close with a Vermaelen-esque effort close to the interval whilst Rosicky was hinting at yesteryears with his passing, causing Given momentary heart palpitations as he fumbled the Czech’s shot.

The second half was barely ten minutes old when Villa’s world turned on its head. Ramsey was fed by Song and the Welshman darted into the area, unceremoniously pummelled to Earth by Dunne. As Given dived to his left, van Persie’s spot kick flew to the right corner.

Wind was in the Arsenal sail and minutes later; Walcott pranced and danced his way to the bye-line, smuggled a shot past Given but Hutton’s goalline clearance thundered into the net off Walcott. No hint of shame or embarrassment as Walcott wheeled away as if scoring the Goal of the Season. It was not but does that matter?

Within three minutes, the deficit was overhauled. Koscielny adopted the Krol philosophy, elegantly moving through the Villa half and having taken a return pass, was removed from the attacking equation by a clumsy Bent challenge. Given guessed right; the ball flew left. Given guessed wrong.

Few clear chances came afterwards, the best to Walcott but once more he spurned the opening. Clark, for Villa, directed their best moment into the grateful arms of Fabianski.

The reward for victory is a trip to the North East, Sunderland or Middlesbrough await with neither holding any fear. Whilst this victory is no guarantee that the corner has been turned, it was certainly welcome. Overall, the performance hinted that nerves are being overcome and Walcott’s equaliser is certainly a suggestion that Lady Luck has had enough of the misery her absence has caused.

With Sagna, Arteta and to a lesser extent Henry, returning to the bench that is a more important aspect of yesterday. If injuries can be curtailed then overhauling the points deficit is not an overwhelming prospect. The trip to Bolton on Wednesday is not an easy game; they are fighting for their Premier League life. This win gives a bit more grounding to that optimism.

’til Tomorrow.

FA Cup: Villa Preview – Chicken Little Or Strong As An Ox?

The FA Cup sparked into life yesterday with Newcastle United, Hull City and Manchester United all falling in shock results. Arsenal will seek to avoid joining that trio by beating Aston Villa at The Emirates this afternoon. Some of the build-up has been quite comical; Alex McLeish has short-term memory loss, preferring to remember Wembley with a different club from almost a year ago than the altogether more relevant Villa Park in December as his battlecry.

For Arsenal, this is a chance to consign a horrible January to the dustbin with a win. No Premier League points in January, the bright spot was the victory over Leeds with the goalscoring return of Thierry Henry. The euphoria of that moment lasted just one week but key games approach in the next seven days; very winnable games. Must-win games to breakout of a rut.

New faces might help. Reports this morning suggest that a bid for Lukasz Podolski was rejected; the source is not the most reliable yet hints that the quietness is not a sign of Arsène or anyone else doing nothing, simply doing business the Arsenal way. Quietly and being rejected. Burak Yilmaz would ‘accept a transfer to Arsenal‘ so that won’t happen but there is a new signing which has the potential for causing problems, not least of which will be a run of letters for shirt printing. What’s his new nickname going to be? The Ox is taken, Laub Rat sounds too experimental so The Laub will have to do…

For years, Arsène sought to actively play down the strengths of youngsters, aware of the damage that the weight of expectation might do to a career. This time in a volte face, he is building a player up, knowing that the media pander to unreasonable expectations. I understand that this is all part of a PR war, the media ask the questions, he provides the answers but knowing how fickle Arsenal supporters can be, it is a risky business. The media lap it up such is the paucity of genuine talent for the national team. It is lapped up in the stands because of the paucity of anything in recent weeks.

His performances this season have underlined the potential but they have all been at home. Arsenal’s travails have been on their travels; can Oxlade-Chamberlain provide the spark away from The Emirates? Perhaps but it seems more likely than Andrey Arshavin will be used in those games. This morning’s observations on the Russian from Amy Lawrence pinpoint his problems exactly, ones that the manager is surely aware of but has no inclination to solve simply because they do not fit tactically. And also overlook his performances which have delighted, have come from the left wing.

That was when he was in the side on a regular basis and for someone who was pivotal in his national team, hailed as a world superstar before signing for the club, there is an ignominy in being deemed no more than a regular substitute. Prior to this season, he has been involved in a goal every other game on average – either scoring or assisting – but this time it is one every four games. For all of his manager’s failings in not getting the best out of Arshavin, the player too is culpable for producing his form on a consistent enough basis. There in the problem; lack of playing time will not help his cause and it is a cause worth fighting for. Even out of sorts, he is capable of the mercurial moment that changes a game something which has not been evident this season.

Team news is better with Bacary Sagna a possible returnee from the bench, surely too short of match fitness to start? That means Johan Djourou is likely to keep his starting place although Yennaris’ perfomance in the second half suggested he might do well as a specialist right back. Villa have pace on the flanks and in attack which may sway the manager’s choice given the damage done by United last weekend. Whilst Wenger makes no secret of his targets for the season, a strong line-up today is surely required. The FA Cup, like last season’s Carling Cup, offers the chance of mentally enhancing silverware, especially with the number of big clubs exiting the tournament thus far.

My line-up for this afternoon, fitness permitting, would be:

Szczesny; Yennaris, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen; Ramsey, Song, Arteta; Walcott, van Persie, Oxlade-Chamberlain

Will last weekend have influenced Arsène’s thinking on substitutes? I doubt it, I hope not. The crowd should not deflect the manager from his course. By all means learn from the mistake tactically but not for the sake of keeping the peace. Were that the case, the minor view pushed by Justin Hoyte in the press this morning will be consumed in the headline fog of Winterburn and Merson.

As part of your big match build-up, pop over to Arsenal On This Day for a fine win from 1972. Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.

Arsène Shoots And Misses The Target In TV Spat & More

Had the internet been around in my father’s day, this morning would have been a match preview. A simple enough affair, one that would have appeared every Saturday and in midweek, which in Arsenal’s case was always a Tuesday for home games. Times have changed and that straightforward pattern, sometimes for the good, others when the world is apparently against you all.

The rest of the time, well, he probably would have been little different from you or I now; a mix of tattle and gossip with interesting stories coming through every now and then. Certainly the manager’s media duties mean everything is seemingly more accessible, the club’s profile raised higher helps. One thing that has been interesting in researching Arsenal On This Day – this morning’s post is a 5-4 win over Manchester City in 1961 – is that transfer speculation has always been around, albeit to a lesser degree than the saturation of today. Which is where Wenger started, refuting rumours of trying to sign Salomon Kalou, whilst observing that Andrey Arshavin‘s inconsistency is not decaying his Arsenal career – he is indeed, efficient – and that the only place Marouane Chamakh is going this January is the African Cup of Nations. The manager indicated that Arshavin might be offered a new contract and that the Moroccan is indeed returning. Nobody has reportedly quipped that it is only to clear out his locker.

Having good-humouredly answered those points, he apparently became prickly on the subject of Tottenham pointing out that this was Arsenal Football Club. It was something quite easily spotted, for example Arsène was sitting behind a desk answering questions and talking to the media. Unlike others who lean out of their Ranger Rover windows, telling the waiting media that “Samba’s a t’rfic player who’d rather come to a war-torn borough in Norf Lahndan than QPR but he’s at Blackburn and I don’t disrespect other teams by talking about the players on their books“, before heading off to Dorest mansions.

The media were the real targets, specifically those who broadcast matches live. Arsène railed against the fixture list a claiming that the process was subject to undue influence from one or more outside sources or even from rival clubs.

It would be – and is – easy to look at Wenger’s words and find little sympathy with the game as a whole. Ever since the early 90s when the big clubs looked through the round and square aerials, their ability to control the fixture list has been eroded. At the centre of this is the archaic notion that televising a fixture at 3pm on Saturday will cause a drop in the actual attendances across the whole of the league. There is no evidence to support the theory but like racism and homophobia, it is deeply entrenched, ingrained into the sport.

And I find it impossible to have any sympathy with Wenger. Arsenal can refuse to have the FA Cup tie against Aston Villa; it is within their power to defy the broadcaster ESPN and choose to have the match played on Saturday or Sunday. Except they the Arsenal board lack the courage to stand up to television even though there are sound sporting reasons to do so. Instead, starting with Aston Villa, there are three games in six days. That is lunacy, even with the squad system and unnecessary considering the other free midweek dates in the rest of the season.

And all this for a measly £125k appearance fee. That is a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things. Whilst the club may argue that there are commerical and marketing reasons beyond the fee, ultimately they should not lose sight of the fact that this is a troubled season for the squad. The poor start has led to a significant margin being opened not just to the top but to even third place. Neither is yet insurmountable but in order to give themselves the best chance to recapture lost ground, surely someone in authority at the club looked at the unnecessary pressure that would be applied to the players? Arguments such as fielding a weakened team do not wash in this instance; Wenger will field a side to win the games knowing that Villa will view the FA Cup as a winnable trophy whilst Bolton and Blackburn will not take any risks with their Premier League survival at stake.

Wenger suggested that the list might be open to abuse. Well, that is the price of success. Or failure. The prime slots in the television schedule will go to the successful teams. Manchester United do not play on Monday nights because Sky know that the prime audience for them is Saturday or Sunday. Alex Ferguson’s silverware haul has arrived at the same time as Sky’s investment in the game. The broadcaster could not have chosen a better team to dominate the English game. Wenger threatened that dominance until the current trophyless run began in 2006. This era’s Leeds United to United’s Liverpool, if you like; the odd smattering of trophies which is successful by any other club’s standards except those of the club winning more.

Is that undue influence over the broadcaster or simply market forces at work? Wenger’s complaint is valid about the lunacy of the fixtures but looking a little closer to home provides him with the real culprits.

’til Tomorrow.

Hooray Henry – A Legend Returns

Arsenal 1 – 0 Leeds United

1 – 0 Henry (78)

Arsenal progressed to a fourth round tie against Aston Villa with a blast from the past, history relived and a million headlines written. Proclamations of inevitability about the goal were too much but let us not kid ourselves, it was wonderful for a forward to come onto the pitch with some sort of hope or expectation of a goal.

The joy of the moment, the release of nervous energy and unbridled elation of the moment erupted in any heart carved of red and white; the years rolled away as Song slid the ball through the line of defenders, the left edge of the penalty melted as Henry’s body shape dictated where the shot was going and inevitably ended. This was Arsenal’s Sex Pistols at Manchester Free Trade Hall moment.

Yet it need not have been the defining moment of the night, simply the crowning glory. Arsène was true to his word and fielded a strong side. The defence was makeshift and even the inclusion of two callow full backs and Sebastian Squillaci could not cause the shipping of goals. Arsenal were simply too strong for Leeds.

Aaron Ramsey dominated the proceedings from the kick-off but Andrey Arshavin threatened to take the headlines, shooting wide inside five minutes and high shortly after; his accuracy was improving. Such was Arsenal’s dominance that Sebastien Squillaci provided a goal threat of more potency than anything Samir Nasri could manage yet still the ball evaded the back of the net.

Twice midway through the half, Arsenal might have taken the lead. Crisp passing across the baize allowed Ramsey a sight of goal, his effort looping over following a deflection before Arteta clipped the post. Leeds offered precious little before Becchio shot over and not much after.

A procession of chances went begging as Coquelin retired injured, the curse of the left back position etching a route across the defence. The clamour to dispense with Squillaci’s services this Winter may be quelled knowing that he is one of the few fit defenders at the club.

The second half started with a renewed vigour from the home side. Deliberacy in his effort almost rewarded Oxlade-Chamberlain, his effort fizzing into the sidenetting. He was not the only one who relished the second period. Having gone close as the first half drew to a close, the interval revived Arshavin but still the end product was missing as he volleyed and shot wide on separate occasions.

For all of Arsenal’s efforts, few had forced Lonergan to do anything other than scramble across his goal to make sure that shots missedthe target. That changed as the hour mark approached, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s drive blocked by The Peacocks ‘keeper.

And then Henry arrived, Theo Walcott providing a cameo in the same spell, Rupert Grint accompanied Harry Potter into the fray. The goal arrived and briefly brought Leeds attack to life, McCormack spurning the best chance for another late and unlikely equaliser in a cup-tie between the two sides.

 Chamakh’s departure for the African Cup of Nations came on a relative high. He worked hard, perhaps relishing the opportunity to get some match fitness before the tournament. If the interruption provides a spark of confidence, Arsenal will benefit. His contribution was more evident than others. Park’s absence from action has been explained, his acute narcolepsy meant that he could not be roused for a substitute appearance.

Much of the post-match focussed on Henry. Wenger’s enthusiasm for the subject shows that his admiration for the player has not been dimmed through absence. A weight has been lifted with Henry’s “debut” and replaced by the millstone of expectation. Wenger suggests why the player is capable of reacting positively to that,

Thierry is a proud guy, he does not want to disappoint people. He knows he will be compared to what he has done before. That is what champions are about. They always say ‘I have no pressure’, but they want to be seen as people who do well. It is a kind of a comeback and you know you want that to be a success as a player.

Talk of starting places is surely premature and robs Wenger of options in future matches. And in any case, who wants to talk of the what might be, just enjoy the moment.

All that remains is to point you in the direction of the newest addition to the ACLF blog family, Arsenal On This Day. From one legend to another.

’til Tomorrow.

Arsène’s Trophy Hunt & Leeds Preview

Leeds United arrive at The Emirates for the FA Cup Third Round tie, the spoils for the victors being a home tie against Aston Villa at the end of this month. Seeing the draw for the fourth round before this match is nothing new but surely I am not the only one who remembers the rush from huddling round a transistor to listen to Sports Report on Radio 2, live from Soho Square on the Monday lunchtime after each of the rounds was completed?

This evening sees the return of one Thierry Henry, surely starting from the bench given the oft-stated lack of match fitness. That has not got in the way of the rumours that Arsenal will look to sign him permanently if this loan works well. These stories accompanied Beckham when he was in Milan and came to nought; as such, they should be treated the same for Henry and Arsenal – I just cannot see it happening. From the media reports, you could be forgiven for believing that he is taking on Leeds United single-handedly but there will be others donning the red and white shirt this evening.

For the short-term health of some careers and the long-term good of the club, it is vital that they relish this opportunity to appear in the first team. Who knows, for some it might be the stepping stone into the manager’s thinking for a starting place more often. That is taking a big leap; let’s make sure that they exist first and that we have not been subjected to some sort of halucinogenic drug experiment.

Up front it would be no surprise to see Chamakh accompanied by Park and Oxlade-Chamberlain. There is a case for Arshavin’s inclusion but that would most likely come at the expense of Park and to be honest, if the Korean cannot get into a makeshift FA Cup side, Arsenal would be better served by selling him now. I do not think that is going to be the case and with Gervinho now on international duty, Arshavin is most likely to get a run in the Premier League starting line-up.

Defensively Wenger has few options but a back four of Coquelin, Squillaci, Koscielny and Miquel in front of Almunia would be of no surprise. Yennaris on the right is another option and at some point the youngsters have to come into the full back positions. To do so though puts pressure on the midfield. Frimpong’s loan to Wolves means that Song and Coquelin are the only dedicated defensive midfielders with the youngster’s inexperience in that position probably ruling out the main holding role at this moment in time.

He will no doubt have experience alongside him with Rosicky and Benayoun completing the trio. It is a strong line-up but one that needs to operate at the highest of its abilities to prevail comfortably. Whilst a replay is historically most likely, we could do without it and getting the necessary win tonight is the priority.

Unless of course you are taking on the wider perspective. Arsène has once more offered the opinion that whilst a cup is a nice to have, the must have accessory is a top four finish. Constantly we are told that qualifying for Europe’s premier tournament is not a financial necessity, Arsenal’s business model dictates that a continued absence from the Champions League will be detrimental.

With more clubs becoming challengers for the top four spots, the past decade or so of continued participation is going to be harder to continue. It is for this reason that Wenger is focussing on the Premier League campaign,

The basis of our life at the top level is dictated by the championship. If we can add on top of that the FA Cup it is fantastic. 

Everybody is entitled to view it differently but you can’t compare winning the Carling Cup to every year qualifying for the Champions League

There will undoubtedly be those who hang the manager for the words but they are the truth of the Premier League era. And with the growing power of clubs through the ECA, the game is going to become more focussed on European competition. For many years, the threat of a European Super League has been raised when the clubs do not get their own way. With the weakness of Fifa, that spectre is taking on a more solid form.

Anyway, that is a thought for another day. The last thing today is to welcome a sister blog to A Cultured Left Foot. Arsenal On This Day is going to trawl through newspaper archives and bring to life the club’s (in)glorious past.

Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.

Leeds FA Cup Memories

A change of pace today, with the match reports of the only two victories by Arsenal over Leeds United at home in the FA Cup. The other four have all been at Elland Road. Perversely, Leeds have only ever beaten Arsenal in any cup competition in London; twice at Wembley in the 1968 League Cup and 1972 FA Cup finals with one at Highbury.

The first one is the most recent victory in February 1983, a 2-1 win in the 4th Round 2nd replay:

This one is the first meeting of the two sides in any cup competition, from 4th March 1950 at the quarter-final stage

’til Tomorrow.

FA Cup, Loan Arrangers, Super Agents. Only At Arsenal.

Good morning rabble rousers, the FA Cup 3rd Round is under way with a glut of goals and racist abuse at Anfield. What loveable little rogues those Scousers are. I bet they will all be wearing t-shirts in support of themselves soon. If proven, there is a case for the club to brought to book and substantial punishment handed down to them, something that forces Fifa and Uefa to take the matter more seriously than they current do where fines of €10k are commonplace for transgressions of a considerably worse nature taking place in European Championship and World Cup qualifiers.

Elsewhere today, it strikes me that the draw has been kinder to the underdog with the opportunity for more lower division teams to progress and in that respect, best of luck to the players and supporters of Dagenham & Redbridge, Swindon, Crawley, Barnsley, Macclesfield, Gillingham, Fleetwood, MK Dons, Bristol Rovers and Tamworth. Yes, I know the latter are away but the form of Everton in recent matches is not imperious. Of course there is the chance of an upset at St Andrews but let’s be honest, Birmingham and Wolves? That’s like asking someone to choose between Jack the Ripper and Dr Crippen.

The potential for the traditional third round upset is increased through the larger clubs using the full extent of their squad. Wenger will do so against Leeds on Monday with Robin van Persie already resting in sunnier climes. Ken Bates returned to his soapbox as you would expect from a prominent former member of the Challenge Cup Organising Committee, reigniting the debate over the squad systems,

You should field your first team in the FA Cup. The dilemma the FA Cup has fallen into is that you now have a 25-man squad to chose from but, if you go to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, they have a rule where a percentage of the players have to play in the next or previous first-team game.

It is a fair point, certainly more realistic than his ludicrous talk of points deductions and refusing to nominate teams for the Champions or Europa Leagues. The FA Cup is the most prestigious Cup competition in the the English game yet like the Football League’s junior equivalent, it is subservient to the Premier and Champions League for the bigger clubs. There is continual talk of reforming the competition and some may well be needed. If that is the desire of the Premier League clubs to accommodate their moneyspinning activities elsewhere, it must surely come at a price, namely that no team entering the competition at the third round stage can be drawn at home.

For all of Bates talk of sanctions, the biggest is the loss of revenue for clubs that have an insatiable desire for any legal tender, that an early exit from the competition would bring. Some reforms are necessary though and removing replays from the equation would help to relieve pressure on the footballing calendar but that is something I will touch on in more depth some time soon.

And so to Arsenal. As is apparently the norm, Thierry Henry’s loan deal went on longer than a Dickensian novel with seemingly no rational explanation. Of course, there is one yet the insistence that it was down to insurance seems improbable and entirely plausible at the same time. Who knows perhaps the fax machine at FA HQ was not working properly. Yes, they do still register transfers by fax which I suppose prevents the possibility of the paperwork for a £30m transfer getting lost in the mix of special offers from Hello! and various enlargements that clog up spam folders around the world.

Henry is excited by it all and making the right noises to manage expectations,

I hope people are not going to compare what I did here before. I’m going to be here most of the time on the bench, we all know it and I’m not stupid to think I’m going to start. It’s a helping process.

Well, young Terrence, far be it for me to dampen your hopes but expectations are raised to the extent that Theo Walcott has been advised in certain quarters to relinquish his hold over the Number 14 shirt and hand it over. Quite why there should be such subservience is beyond me since that would only serve to raise expectations even higher. Don’t get me wrong over this, the return of Henry is the stuff of nostalgia and any increase in his goals tally for Arsenal is most welcome but this is a short-term solution to an altogether more concerning problem. Ian Wright suggests this morning that the deal should be made permanent. We won’t even go there.

Henry is straight into Monday’s squad but to me it makes more sense in both short and long term for Chamakh to start with Henry short of match fitness. I wonder how much pressure Sky will put on Arsène in the build up to the Swansea game for Henry to be guaranteed some minutes on the Liberty Stadium pitch next weekend? Talking of the squad, Arsenal’s goalkeeping situation is worse than has been suspected with the provisional squad only including Almunia for Monday’s game. Either that or Wenger is supremely confident of winning. Or more likely, The Mirror don’t know their Arsenal from their elbow.

It is likely that the solution is not going to happen until the Summer though. Wenger has given enough hints about this already to the extent that we should only expect a temporary signing for left back to happen despite the appearance of Rob Segal at London Colney. Thankfully he is not Steven’s younger brother as that might have led to a martial arts carve up when Chuck Norris’ sibling Roger, found out. Segal is apparently a “Super Agent“. You learn something new every day.

That business will probably happen when Vermaelen and Gibbs are both fit. It won’t be Kieran Richardson, as according to Sunderland manager Jim MacDonald, Arsenal haven’t contacted him about the player’s availability. It could be Wayne Bridge but it won’t be Taiwo. According to the press, Arsenal are looking for a deal over the former, rightly baulking at the £90k per week he currently commands. It seems that Ivan is putting his foot down and seeking someone else to pay for all of the zeros whilst Arsenal pick up the £9 tab remaining.

’til Tomorrow.

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