Weave your magic, Tony Colbert

Good morning, and as the French say, ‘April Fish’.

Internationals have been and gone, and there seem to have been wall-to-wall matches since Thursday. Uefa changed this a few years ago, it transpires. Was it changed because:

a. We need to think about the fans more
b. To benefit the players
c. To maximise TV coverage and broadcast income

Clue: this is Uefa we are talking about.

Anyway, what do I care. I did watch England dismantle Lithuania. At the start of the game my ‘Eyes on TV to iPhone’ ratio was about 90:10, but after about ten minutes it was about 10:90. Gave me a chance at least to organise the folders on my phone (‘Stuff 1 and Stuff 2 are all over the place) and reinstate my Bergerac ringtone. So all’s well that ends well.

I watched England against Italy too, and quite enjoyed it. It made me feel a bit dirty, but it was nice to see Woy tweak and twang and turn a bit of a dog’s ear of a first half into a second half more akin to a sow’s purse. [How did your idiom training go? – Ed]

I thought Gibbsy did OK, though he did miss a Monreal in the second half, but Walcott was involved far too little. It seems very peculiar to me that he’s been playing centrally so much when it’s patently not where he is at his best. Against Monaco away, when we needed one more goal, he dolloped about in the middle when we could have done with him delivering the shizzle from out wide. He did the same against Italy, as well as playing at No 10, which is a bit like asking Berkgamp to fill in at right back.

I’ve been a big advocate for patience when it comes to Walcott, as he had a stinker of an injury, but he’s very peripheral at the moment. On this kind of form, the question is less “Can we turn down £25m for him” and more “Who would pay £25m for him”, but form changes fast and I’m sure his will improve. I’d still keep him, of course I would, but I am worried about how he’s played since his return, a few well-taken goals aside.

Incidentally, the answer to “Who would pay £25m for him” is still “many teams”. He was our top scorer two seasons ago.

Partly because he can be so much better than this, partly because it’s not a big outlay for an established international and partly because he’s English and so many teams have completely forgotten to buy or bring through English players.

Great to see four of our crocks back too – immaculate timing. As Arseblog says this morning, it will be interesting to see how we can fit them all in, Jack in particular. If Wenger has the nerve to genuinely rotate our midfield, then we might see a fair bit of him. He tends though to go with the same players when they are playing well – which is perfectly logical and reasonable – so Jack might have his work cut out unless we get an injury or two. What are the chances of that happening at Arsenal, I wonder?

Diaby, well let’s not hold our breath. Best case scenario is that he’s fit for a bit and can find himself a new club in the summer rather than having to retire. I suspect the options are that stark.

Saturday still seems some way off, but it’s pivotal. Before then though, it’s the Tony Colbert Magic Sponge Show.

Enjoy OK Wednesday. The starter gun has fired for Not Bad Thursday, then Good Friday. I’m hoping for Excellent Saturday, but if things go a bit sour we might need resurrecting ahead of the FA Cup semi-final.

Don’t worry, I’ve already got my coat and fled.

My season opener / Wenger Mark IV?

Season opener

This feels absurd – my first game of the season and we’re a month in. Damn you fixture list and blast you international week. Still, here we are and I’m ludicrously excited. So excited I’ve dusted off the blog! That’s a sign that something giddy is afoot, if ever I’ve seen one.

I’ve even got a new home shirt, given to me by my boys for my birthday a while back, my first new Arsenal shirt since the yellow one we wore in Paris. I only every used to buy one on the eve of something big or a proper cup final, which *weeps* explains the *sobs* seven years without a *wails* new shirt. But I have one now and maybe that’s a good sign? I think I might be clutching at straws.

I want to see New Abou (but don’t want him crocked, so don’t want to see him in equal measures), I’m obviously keen to see the new signings, I want to see the shape of the team and I’m keen to whiff the aroma of Steve Bould, if you will. Having him back in the thick of the first team is a tenuous link right back to my first-ever Arsenal game, in December 1985, when Martin Keown was in the first XI. That’s 27 years in the shadow of the best back four we will ever see.

Wenger’s Arsenal Mark IV or V?

“if he is not completely happy with it then he has to go somewhere else”.

And so speaks Arsene with his new-found shoulder-shrugging and steel, talking in this instance about Sagna.

If players don’t believe in what we’re doing here, or don’t want to be here, then they can leave – that’s a risky strategy, isn’t it? However problematic, maybe it is the only way. A team grows together, ultimately falls short, grows disillusioned together then gets dismantled. This could well be what Wenger spotted a while back, and what we have seen over the last year is what he’s been doing about it since. We’re way past the dismantling stage in this now – in fact, we’re towards the end of mantling. It could be the main reason why Song left too: not money, not attitude, but just a feeling that the old squad needed renewing (I’m just throwing this out there – money was probably a factor too). Walcott maybe too, who knows. It feels like he’s in the doghouse a bit, anyway.

All those remaining (and properly in the manager’s thinking) are either new – this or last season new – or young and in need of proving themselves, or experienced but with something to prove (or-reprove). Whether you or I believe that Wenger has the wherewithal to turn this side into winners is very much open to debate, but the players he has need to think that, absolutely they do. It’s hard enough fighting against the roubles and dinars of this world without a side fully on-board.

What you end up with, hopefully, is a squad that is flushed out and raring to succeed – and one that is 100% behind their manager. Essentially, what we’re looking at is Wenger’s Arsenal Mark IV or V. I probably need to think about this more but Mark I was the team with the new and old bolted together, which lasted maybe until the back four retired in about 2002. The next side, the Invincibles, was dismantled depressingly fast. The one after was the Fabregas one, which came close in 2008, and now we have another new squad altogether. (I mean, the timings here and the definitions of how many ‘teams’ Wenger put together and took apart is not straightforward but there can be no denying that the squad we have today is a new version, that’s very clear).

Incidentally, I don’t have the feeling Sagna will be sold off, nor that he wants to leave, but he does need to be on-board 100%. His contract situation is also delicate, a bit, in that he is injury-prone and 29, and he now has a player – Carl Jenkinson – who is only going to get better, coming up in the rear-view mirror.

Right, the kids have gone feral, I need tea, the day’s begun. Come on you rip-roarers.

Stale, mate

Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea

One point from six now, and yet we remain in charge of our own destiny – just about – thanks to our twelfth man, ‘results elsewhere’. God bless Results Elsewhere and all who sail in her!

That our closest rivals now – or at least, for now – are not from London but from Newcastle will perhaps be as much as surprise to them as it is to everyone else. The Geordies are on cracking form.

The whiff of tottering-over-the-line is in the air though after another strangely listless performance from us. The dreaded handbrake (the on one, not the off one) made a reappearance in Wenger’s post-match interview, which probably tells you all you need to know. In fact, it’s is one-word match report, isn’t it?

Arsenal Match Report
By East Lower at the Emirates


On the face of it, these were two teams that were so far from home and dry in the race for Champions League qualification that they were still gulping seawater, and yet the game was tight, slow and cautious. Chelsea made wholesale changes, came for a point and sat on the game accordingly.

Ultimately, I think it was a game that both teams were too scared to lose, and it showed.

Not that we couldn’t have won it. Early on, van Persie hit the upright from a Walcott free kick, and in our best period of the match, just before half time, Koscielny hit the bar himself and van Persie fired straight at Cech. In the end though, the final whistle came as a blessing. It was pretty turgid stuff.

At times, the ball was like a hot potato for Arsenal. Our passing was poor and lacked invention. Ramsey was willing but wayward, Rosicky out of fizz and only really Song shone in the middle. Without the metronomic and underrated Mikel Arteta, and with both Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain completely shackled, getting through was our main problem.

I lost count of the number of times Arsenal players on the ball shrugged their shoulders in frustration at the lack of options in front of them – symptomatic of the difficulties we were having creating space and opportunities.

All our substitutions came in the middle of the field in an attempt to remedy things, and our last throw of the dice was introducing a left-back for a winger. Despite van Persie looking off the pace – it was his 50th game of the season – there was still no room for Chamakh. As an indictment on our forward options, that’s about all you need to know.

The fact is, van Persie needs a rest but we have nobody else that offers a goal threat in his position. It should never have come to this. That we remain third with only one operational striker is a miracle.

Now, it’s all about dragging ourselves over the line, but we’ll have to do that without Walcott, hamstrung yesterday and out for the season. A good opportunity for Gervinho, and indeed for the returning Diaby, so where one door closes, etc.

Our last three games are winnable ones, but only if we rediscover some spark and more energy.

I’ve a bit run out of battle cries though. Final word goes to my cousin Capability Mike, who texted me this last night:

“I think if the league finished today we’d all be happy”.


Arsenal report: On the fringe, muscle-wise

Arsenal 1-1 Fulham

So Arsenal’s five-match league winning run comes to a close. Churlish to moan too much, given how – until recently – we’d not strung two league wins together for donkey’s years. And overall, our recent form in all competitions remains nigh-on impeccable.

If you’re one of those glass-totally-overfilling types who still maintain we can catch Man City then yes, we’ve dented that ambition. But if you, like me, expect a challenge for a Champions League place to be a more realistic goal then a draw at home to Fulham is not a terrible result. It is, after all, only November.

I think we could and perhaps should have won it (Ramsey had a great, chance, Djourou and van Persie in a hectic finale too), but at the same time, Fulham played very well and really took the game to us. They no doubt would have felt hard done to have come away with no points at all.

Enough positives too, notably the will to come back into the game having gone 1-0 down after 65 minutes. Naturally, Wenger seized upon this as a reason to be cheerful. “The positive again is that we have shown exceptional spirit, desire and refusal to lose the game”, said le Boss. “We needed to dig deep.”

And the double substitution made all the difference, Diaby & Gervinho coming on for Mertesacker and Ramsey. Both added a dynamism we had lacked a bit, and for Gervinho it was a very decent way to prove his doubters wrong. He might be dithering a bit in front of goal but he caused havoc attacking down the left.

Diaby, in that 20-minute cameo, showed why Wenger still loves him so. I suspect he won’t be kept back for the bench, either, with both Ramsey and Arteta seemingly in need of a breather. Ramsey has played 12 of 13 league games this term: remarkable given his injury, I think.

Redemption in the end for Vermaelen, whose two-goal salvo was not the kind of brace he’d have liked. But it was a delicious cross from Walcott, whose form (particularly his crossing, I think) improves with every passing game. He used to be subbed all the time. Not so much these days.

Overall, a slightly tired performance, no doubt, but a spirited one, especially at the end.

Onwards to Man City on Tuesday. Will Wenger change things around?

“I will have to”.

Pulses race on Matchday 5

I must say I always enjoy it when a German club comes to town. They invariably bring loads of fans, make lots of noise and have a cracking time. Marseille and Arsenal might still be in the driving seats in this group, but Dortmund’s win on Matchday 4* means they are very much back in it, and if that fact hasn’t been drummed into the team throughout this week in training then I’m a goalscoring Dutchman.

So while these things can occasionally be grindingly dull (the 0-0 against Marseille…) I can’t imagine for a second that tonight will tootle along serenely. To coin a tired old cliche, it’s a massive game and it’s no surprise that Wenger is retaining all the big guns. Not that Fulham on Saturday isn’t important – just that this one could be pivotal.

Great news too that Diaby returns from his latest injury hell. There’s no doubt he’s playing for his Arsenal career – maybe his whole career if things carry on like this – and fingers crossed that this latest comeback is the icing on the comeback cake [need better idiom – Ed].

It has all the ingredients of a cracker. Let’s hope it is a cracker.

*If there is an unlovelier and more sterile way to define a match, I need to know it. But then again, this is the Champions League containing mostly non-Champions, which only gets truly buzzing when it’s not a league anymore, so who am I kidding?

Fixtures from the golden olden days

Olden days

Intermittently, as some of you will know, I stumble across an Arsenal memory and stick it up on here. Last up was the Gunners shop price list from 1986, and today it’s the Fixture list from 1988-9 (note: the pdf is about 600k). I’m guessing I kept it for a reason. Can’t for the love of god think what that reason was…

It’s not enormously fascinating, though it did remind me of two words I’d not heard for over 20 years – ‘Mercantile Credit’ – and ticket prices on the back made me weep into my £10 Emirates meal deal. £5.50p to sit in the lower tier. I’m guessing north bank terracing was even cheaper – probably £4-£5.

Don’t get me started, it’ll set me off…

Handbrake off, defensive sureness on: Job’s a goodun

It’s been another fortnight of stewing over Arsenal’s weaknesses. The previous international break came right after the pounding at Old Trafford; this one came after the derby defeat. On each occasion the fortnight off has been seen as something of a blessed relief – a time to lick our wounds and work on the basics. I can’t say I’ve missed football an awful lot over the last two weeks, which is a fairly depressing admission.

And on both occasions, the next match has been an eminently winnable home game. We scraped past Swansea last time. A scraping past of Sunderland would be acceptable, of course, though ideally you’d want to see the handbrake, lubed to the max, well and truly off.

There really are reasons to be a bit more positive though. To mitigate against Sagna’s injury, we have a cavalry charge of returning defenders in the shape of Koscielny, Djourou and Squillaci. This lets us slot Song back into midfield, where he is much more effective, and it gives us more aerial dominance at the back. Scoff ye not: Koscielny is our most effective defender at aerial challenges, and Mertesacker, while still finding his feet, is as tall as a house and that alone counts for a bit.

On an ordinary day, I’d like to see Mertesacker paired with Koscielny and take it from there, but there are no such things as ordinary days at Arsenal, and our lack of experience at right-back complicates things. Jenkinson has looked raw – if willing – and while it might be worth blooding him against teams at our level (like Sunderland, haha, ouch, that’s quite enough of that), can you see Wenger playing him at Stamford Bridge at the end of the month? I can’t. And working backwards from that logical conclusion, it might make sense to play Koscielny there now (he’s a trained right-back, it transpires) to get him back up to speed. This would make even more sense given Vermaelen’s imminent return (has that jinxed him?). All of which means it’ll probably be Jenkinson on Sunday.

I confess that I have no idea what Wenger means when he says we were beaten “because the details you need in big games were not on our side”. The fact is, we have struggled on many levels this season. I can’t be bothered to go back over them, it’s not like we don’t all know our failings. Repeating them now would be like teaching you all how to count to ten.

Interesting then to note that in a sea of gloom after the derby defeat, it was none other than David Pleat who spotted signs of progress, both in midfield and with some “flashes of newfound defensive sureness.”

Whether I believe it or not, that’s precisely the kind of positivity I’m in the market for.

PS – Glad to see that Wenger read my ‘5 things to do in the international break‘ piece. He’s found Abou!

Match preview: Third home game lucky?

Warning: This blog contains the cliche ‘one game at a time’

It’s a glorious, bright spring morning in London: perfect for a trip to the Grove. It makes sense to me that if the man in the street gets an uplift from the joys of a beautiful spring day, then the man on the pitch must do too. We’re all susceptible to the same moods, after all.

Could it be possible that some players perform better with pleasant spring breezes ruffling their hair and the aroma of blossom wafting through their nostrils? I think I might ask @orbinho that, though I do suspect that even his legendary powers of stat-trawling might struggle to find a correlation between nice weather and good performances.

There’s no doubt that the general mood in the corner of the interwebs cordoned off for Arsenal fans is much less fraught than it has been. The win at Blackpool was the catalyst, the potential return of some key players – The Woj, Djourou, Song – another reason. The takeover and the death of Danny Fiszman put a few things into perspective, too, perhaps.

Or maybe we’ve just been forced to accept the reality of the situation we find ourselves in. We want commitment and drive between now and the end of the season, but to expect a seven-game, twenty-one point charge to the title is to expect something we have not seen all season. On top of that, look at our next four games: Liverpool, Spuds, Bolton, Utd. It really is one-game-at-a-time territory.

Should be good fun. I’m excited by the return of the players mentioned, but I’ll be keeping an eye on Song and/or Diaby too. Song has looked tepid in recent games, through injury as much as anything, but when bubbling along he ticks all the right boxes. Let’s hope he’s genuinely fit today. Diaby had a lovely game at Blackpool, but can he do it again against better opposition? Maybe if we all keep an eye on him, the sight of 57,000 eyes trained on him will spook him sufficiently into a commanding performance.

And can we defend better against Carroll than we did when he came with Newcastle? There’s never been a better time to have our defence bolstered.

A goal or two would be nice and stuff. We’ve sat through two consecutive goalless draws – one league goal at home in two months. It’s not too much to ask…

Guardian squad sheet
BBC preview

And finally, congratulations to Petter Randmæl and Johanna Jepekano Nekwaya, winners of the Paul Merson competition. Bad luck the rest of you…

Seaside succour / Silent Stan swoops

Blackpool 1-3 Arsenal

What a day: A hard-fought and much-needed away win at Blackpool gave way to the momentous news that Stan Kroenke is on the verge of an Arsenal takeover. Oh, and somewhere in the mix was a first team return for mad Jens, aged 41 and a bit. Yep, it was quite a day alright.

On the pitch

No complaints from me. If you want to pick holes in our 3-1 win then you could with reason point at our shaky start to both halves, a defence that rode its luck a bit and our profligacy in front of goal, but overall it was a very good win and one with bags of energy and dynamism – just what many of us were looking for as a response. At times in the first half we were quite superb, slicing Blackpool apart time and again. How it was only 2-0 when the whistle below at half time is one of life’s mysteries – at least it would be if it wasn’t Arsenal we were talking about. Time and again we profited from the home side’s kamikaze defending, scoring twice and missing what seems with the blur of time to have been about five one-on-ones.

The goals were scored by two of the founding cast of The Great Maligned, namely Abou Diaby and Emmanuel Eboue. The former had the kind of game he could put on his CV. He drove forward with pace, passed neatly, won the ball well and scored, and he kept it up all game. Why doesn’t he do this more often? Why do you never see baby pigeons? Fair play to him though. I don’t know whether words had been said to some of the players this week, but he certainly was approaching the kind Diaby we read about in the manufacterer’s blurb.

Eboue got a little sloppy in the second half but his goal was a thing of beauty, a neat one-two with Jack Wilshere that led to a hydraulic left foot drive rasper.

Of course, I’m doing things out of order here. The big pre-game news was that Jens Lehmann was in thanks to an Almunia knee injury. For Manuel, it never rains these days – it comes down in buckets. Jens had one hairy moment, which led with some relief to Blackpool’s goal. Had it not done, he might have been facing the ignominy of a red card. Luckily, it never came to that, and otherwise he did remarkably well for a retired goalkeeper. The reception he got at the end from the travelling fans was raucous. “They haven’t forgotten me”, he said afterwards.

At 2-1 prospects did look a bit in the balance – we’re very used to self-narrowing our leads these days – but Walcott crossed one in for the otherwise misfiring van Persie to repair the two-goal cushion and that was that.

It was just the medicine this side needed, and in the time honoured fashion, taking one game at a time, we move on to the next must-win game. As much as it was a big relief, it was also a reminder to me of how my own mood has been affected in recent weeks by our slump in form. Three points can be wonderfully restorative for a fan as much as a team.

Off the pitch

Of course, overshadowing all this, post-match, was the momentous news that Stan Kroenke is on the verge of taking the club over. He’s agreed to buy Fiszman’s and Bracewell-Smith’s shares, taking him to 62% of the club. He is now obliged to make an offer for all the shares.

It really is the end of an era for Arsenal. The dynasties and individuals that have owned or controlled the club for so, so long are finally handing the reins over, and it’s hard to overestimate the significance of that. Not just in historical terms either. Personally, I think the board of old ran the club well, in a hands-off way – a very understated, Arsenal way.

At this stage we have no reason to believe that Kroenke will not do the same. He doesn’t open his trap every weekend and leak to the press, he has no history of whispering in his manager’s ear that he wants this player or that player to play. The board have got to know him, clearly they trust him, and if you had to have your club taken over by anyone, he seems a good fit. More on him and his intentions from the Swiss Rambler here.

I reserve my judgement though, as we all should. It’s a huge step-change for Arsenal. Personally, I would rather Arsenal was not 100% owned by one person. Plurality of ownership guarantees a certain accountability, even if one of those owners is an overseas investor we know even less about. So it will be interesting what Usmanov does, and what Kroenke’s position is with the army of small shareholders – though the Guardian says he was a prime mover in the establishment of Fanshare. Worth keeping a check on the AST for that.

And how is he paying for it? A leveraged buy-out is the last thing this club needs when already saddled with repaying the debt on the stadium. He has no history of doing things this way, but Arsenal is an expensive purchase.

It’s also another club to be controlled by overseas investors. It’s a shame we’re so eager to sell our football clubs lock, stock and barrel, but it’s no use getting misty eyed about local, Arsenal-supporting businessmen getting together to buy the club. Those days are gone. We can lament all we like the lack of full-scale fan ownership – like in Germany or Spain – but we have no history of doing that in England. As I said, I’ll be interested to know how much of the shares he intends to hoover up, what his future approach is to Fanshare, and what his overall plans are.

Questions, questions, questions. Hopefully some of them will be answered over the next few days.

Match report: One slump or two?

Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal

And so, as feared, the sleep-slump to disaster continues. I can’t see this one ending well.

You don’t have to scour the Arsenal online diaspora for too long to sense as much despondency, verging on militancy, as you will have ever seen. Yesterday’s defeat was entirely predictable, and followed a well-trodden formula. Loads of possession, not enough chances taken, undone by moments of weakness at the back, the team populated by a handful of passengers. We didn’t play disastrously at all – their keeper was named man of the match – but we did play like a team feeling sorry for itself.

I do worry though. Wenger drums on and on about the mental strength of this team, but I’ve long sensed these are rallying calls for the benefit of the players as much as for anyone. What I see is a team that loses a game or a player – or usually in the case of Arsenal, both at the same time – and loses its way. The losing of the way can even happen mid-game – viz Newcastle, Spuds etc.

Man Utd lose two in a row, then grind out a result. We lose one game and our form flies out the window. What are they listening to in the dressing room – Leonard Cohen?

The unpalatable truth is that this side, for all its aesthetic beauty and occasional flashes of glorious form, is making the same mistakes as it ever did.

Moan moan moan. But we’re second, I hear you cry, and chasing the title. It’s true, we are in a strong position, it’s just that our team is not currently strong. And as for the title – well again, based on what I see at the moment, I’d say it’s a pipe dream. With half our first team out and a black dog day that’s gone on for weeks, from where are we going to summon up a turnaround in form sufficient to pull it off?

We are not helped by our one-in, two-out injury list. Szczesny, Vermaelen, Song, Fabregas, Walcott and Djourou represent 6/11 of our best side. In the cases of Vermaelen and Fabregas, they possess a drive and will to win that we have no replacement for.

In their place we rely on, amongst others, Denilson and Diaby, two midfielders who have completely lost their way. When both went off against Sunderland, we improved. When both went off yesterday against Utd, we improved again. We can barely afford to carry one of these, but carrying both is a recipe for disaster. Nursing them both through developmental crises is very altruistic but where is it getting us? Yesterday, Gibbs and Arshavin also had bad days at the office. Even with so many off colour, we did create chances – we just couldn’t take them.

So yes, I’m gloomy, and for once, I’m looking forward to a week off. There are only so many miserable blogs I can write and, I suspect, only so many you can read.

I’m sure I’ll cheer up. There is still plenty to play for. It’s at times like this I need to lean more on the online shoulder of Goodplaya. A more relentless optimist you will not see. I wish I shared it – but I don’t.

Holed in the O’s own lair

Confession: I used the above headline as it’s simply too cheesy to let pass, and if I don’t use it now, it will be even later than the too late it already is. [I haven’t seen it elsewhere but if I’m late to the party I’ll be happy to admit it].

In brief though: Having sung the praises of the FA Cup and insisted upon the retention of cup replays, I can have no complaints about the draw at the Orient that forces us to squeeze another match into the jammed schedule. If anything, I tend to agree with the much-aired view that the second string, far from requiring fewer games, could do with more. It certainly reinforced my view that two, three or even four changes from our first XI can be accommodated, but that most of a team revolving in cannot.

Is this a case of a collective lack of drive from the second string? No. It’s not that simplistic. It was a feisty cup tie and an almost completely changed line-up from Wednesday. But more than that, the absent midfield combination of Wilshere, Nasri and Fabregas adds so, so much to the side on so many levels. They are simply far better than the alternatives. Not just from a creative perspective, but collectively their will to win is huge. Can we keep those three fit until the end of the season? It seems unlikely given the fixure list but much could hinge on their availability.

And at the back, we played a defence unused to playing with one another, which included several relative rookies in Gibbs and Miquel and two down-the-pecking-order players in Almunia and Squillaci. We should have created more chances, but overall it wasn’t the world’s biggest surprise. At least it wasn’t to me.

As for it generating another midweek home game… I can’t say I’m too unhappy.

Match preview

Tomorrow night we’re straight back in the saddle, with Stoke City coming to town. It’s a fixture with baggage these days. As much as anything though, it’s a massive clash of styles. We all know how Stoke play; it can be effective – at home in particular, as we have found.

Arsenal have at times this season not defended set pieces well so it’s not hard to work out where City might plough their furrow.

Wenger though has hit on the solution: keeping the ball. “As long as we have the ball, they cannot be dangerous” he said. That does of course form part of a utopian wish list in any game, and is certainly one I’d like to have employed in the first half against Barcelona, but possession is not necessarily nine tenths of the win. Barcelona discovered this on Wednesday and we did too, on Sunday. As much as anything we need to be ruthless and make our possession count.

We’ll have to do it without van Persie and Koscielny too, both out with small injuries (with any luck not Vermaelen ‘small’) and therefore not risked ahead of Wembley on Sunday. Diaby is out twice – suspended and, of course, injured.

It was looking like a no-go for me, but the gods of football have been generous and I’ll be there.

Here’s to three of your finest points.