Cool Hand Łukasz

Wolves 0-2 Arsenal

A fine rearguard performance, bookended by two well-taken goals from Chamakh and notable for an exceptional goalkeeping performance from the enigmatic Lukasz Fabianski.

Watching Fabianski is not good for one’s general health, it seems. Recent performances have tended to be steps forward, albeit with a mini step backwards against Newcastle. Last night the lovable Pole laid the ghost of Carroll (not meant to be quite as eerie and sick as it sounds) by putting in a fantastic shift to deny Wolves time and again.

Pick of the bunch came right at the end, while there was still only a goal in it, when he parried away a powerful shot from Berra. When the final whistle blew Fabianski afforded himself a little roar of approval. He was a lion last night.

We couldn’t have started the game better, Chamakh heading in a lovely Sagna cross [correction – it was Song] before a minute was up, but when Arshavin (otherwise very good, I thought) missed a one-on-one, Wolves came back into it and though we had other chances to seal it sooner than we did – Fabregas missed a good one – much of the rest of the game was for marvelling both at Wolves’ dogged refusal to give in and at Arsenal’s for once solid back line. It was only our third clean sheet in 12 league games. Their rarity makes me enjoy them even more.

The inability to put the game to bed sooner did lead to a collective outbreak of heart palpitations on Twitter, with Sunderland and countless other late concessions in mind, but the late counter sealed it.

I must admit, I was impressed by the Wanderers and McCarthy’s exasperation at yet another defeat is understandable. They played very well.

Fabregas’s yellow card gave everyone another talking point. It might have been red on another day and with a different referee, but I think yellow was probably the right call. It was not a good tackle at all. Afterwards, Cesc sought out Ward and apologised, saying it was an accident. That took all the sting out of the situation but it’s interesting that we have now had two such incidents committed by our players this season – Wilshere and now Fabregas. Rightly or wrongly, it’s cannon fodder for critics of Wenger’s stance on bad tackles.

Apologising is a good start, learning from it a wise outcome.

Ovewall

After two very poor performances this was a pivotal test. Lose it and the knives would truly have been out. But we ground out a very good win, and off we go again into happyland. We’re well placed. Let’s keep going.

Injury forecast: Chance of sun on Saturday, chance of rain too

What else is there to do during the international break but worry?

Worry, primarily, for the health of the Arsenal XI currently scattered across the globe being hacked to pieces in the name of glory for their motherland. I am so bored that I have even worked out which of those eleven has had the longest journey. It’s been a close-run and exciting thing, as I’m sure you can imagine, but the winner is Chamakh, who is representing Morocco in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Eboue runs him a close second and is a short hop away in Bujumbura, the magnificently named capital city of Burundi.

Back at the ranch, Wenger is reaping the benefit of his policy of buying brittle players, no doubt allowing himself a small chuckle at how he has cleverly denied a selection of countries their players thanks to them being injured.

One has to jest in these matters, I find, or one will cry.

The good news is that some of the long-termers are approaching fitness again. Fabregas should be back for Birmingham on Saturday, and blow me down if Nicklas Bendtner isn’t also threatening to return to fitness for that game too. Better still, Walcott could be ready and van Persie is not far behind him.

Good timing, that. It’s been immensely frustrating that so early in the season, we have been denied so many players.

It’s been especially true up front, where our over-reliance on the ever-willing Marouane Chamakh has been another of my worries. I think he’s started his Arsenal career really well, but until Bendtner and van Persie come back into the fray he cannot really be afforded a rest, and the longer that situation remains, the more I can panic a bit inside.

On top of that, having more strikers also has the added effect of giving us more options. Talk about stating the bleeding obvious, but you know what I mean. Bendtner, van Persie and Walcott have made a grand total of six appearances all season, with Chamakh being called upon ten times.

All we need is a minor miracle – all players returning, present and correct – and we could go into Saturday’s squad looking forwards rather than backwards in the direction of London Colney.

Now that would be a bit nice. But what are the chances?

Braga against the goal machine

Grove

Arsenal 6-0 SC Braga

I am operating in the finite timeslot somewhere between getting home at midnight and going to work this morning: I have no time to lose.

Easy though it would have been to delay a reaction to last night’s pounding, I just couldn’t let it pass that long. It was a marvellous performance.

And it was a proper 90-minute pounding too. With the game to all intents and purposes over at half time, it could have turned into an exercise in saving energy and avoiding injury, but Arsenal were having none of that; they kept harrying and hounding to the final whistle.

All the goals were memorable in some way or other, but the way Chamakh took Wilshere’s cheeky back-heel was probably the pick of the bunch.

It’s worth expanding on those two players a little (see also this good piece on them in today’s Telegraph).

One is new and the other – in team terms – as good as new, but they offer increasing weight to the argument that Arsenal’s squad is better balanced and stronger this season than it was last.

Chamakh is a revelation. A willing front man who can toil away happily, holding the ball and distributing it, but who has a real eye for goal, I would wager that Bendtner is now sweating a bit. Why on earth did Wenger scrimp on the £7m by waiting this long to sign him? He could have made a real difference in the back end of last season.

As for Wilshere – well before the season started, there was some talk of another loan spell. Thank god that never came to pass, eh? Seeing him dovetail with Fabregas was watching two men on the same wavelength. For an 18-year-old with limited exposure to first team football, I thought he was incredibly assured.

And Fabregas – what can you say about him? I’ll leave it to Wenger:

“He has taken on another dimension. People forget that he is 23 years old, [an age] where other people start. He is a fantastic influence and it is important that he leads this team to winning and I believe it is a fantastic opportunity for the young players who play alongside him to improve as well. If you are 18 years old like Wilshere and you see Fabregas who is 23, it is a big opportunity to learn a lot.”

He could have had a hat-trick and certainly had a hat-trick of assists (if you can count his pass to Chamakh for the penalty – an assist to his own goal).

Kudos too to Jollygood, who by mid-September has already scored one more goal than he did throughout the whole of the 2009-10 season. What an option off the bench he could be if he keeps this up.

Overall, there are no holes to pick. We defended well and we were lethal going forward. Sure, sterner tests await – but right now we are looking balanced, hungry and it’s an absolute joy to watch.

It’s Fab to be back

Arsenal 4-1 Bolton

Good weather, good mates, good football. A fine cocktail that makes for a very pleasant Saturday afternoon indeed.

Bolton going down to ten men might have made things ultimately a bit easier, but I don’t think 4-1 flattered us at all. Poor old Arshavin for one must be wondering how he ended up without a goal to his name, but he wasn’t the only one who was one-on-one and missed – Chamakh got in on the act too. Yes, there was only one goal in it until the sending off but offensively, Arsenal bristled with creativity all afternoon.

All this too without three important attacking players. As I briefly mentioned yesterday, it bodes well that all it takes to compensate for the lack of van Persie, Walcott and Bendtner is a little shuffling of the pack. Rosicky, Wilshere, Fabregas, Song and Arshavin supporting Chamakh is a tidy unit indeed – and still left us Denilson, Diaby, Nasri and Jollygood on the bench.

Picking a stand-out player from that front six is not easy but it would have to be between the inimitable Fabregas and, for his second half performance, Alex Song. For his sheer vision and range of passing, Fabregas would get it though – wherever his head or body was away to Blackburn, they were back here and he was in flying form yesterday. He split the Bolton defence two or three times with ease; it was sublime.

That said, the best pass of the day came from Rosicky, who carved an Arshavin-sized hole in the Bolton back line early in the game. Shame Arshavin couldn’t convert it.

The goal that was and inevitably will be talked about was Jollygood’s – he ran onto another Fabregas splitter and side-footed home a lovely fourth. It was preceded by 26 ole-assisted passes. Gorgeous.

But perhaps Song’s goal was better. Not only was it the 1,000th league goal under Wenger, but the dinked finish was a mixture of persistence and delicacy. He was fabulous in the second half.

There was a niggly edge to the game at times, often encapsulated by the brute force of Davies, but I wouldn’t say it was a dirty game overall. Nevertheless, ref Atwell dished out a red and four yellows (slightly down on his season’s average) and we await the news on Diaby – “It is ankle or shin – he cannot move his leg at the moment so we will see” said Wenger. Amazingly, the tackle on him was not even a yellow. We can but hope that Diaby is not out for a Diaby.

Defensively, I’ll buck the consensus of some by saying we did pretty well. OK, so Koscielny (otherwise commanding) made a bad mistake for the Bolton goal, but given that Wenger had made three changes at the back, and one of them was making his debut, I thought we were pretty solid. Squillaci made a promising debut.

It’s not a scientific observation, but from where I was sitting, I was generally, the error aside, impressed with Koscielny’s heading. He was popping up all over the place and nodding it away.

Overall, with 10 points from 12 it has been an excellent start to the season. Next stop, Champions League.

Right, I’m cutting this ramble short and heading off on a bacon hunt.

Enjoy your Sunday.

This is not football, it’s a soap opera

The good news this morning is that it seems certain that Cesc Fabregas is staying at Arsenal. He pitched up at Member’s Day yesterday, and he apparently had a chat with Wenger during which he confirmed that for the next season at least, he’s going nowhere.

Great news, in fact. He’s a once-in-a-generation footballer. He’s that good.

But honestly, when football becomes a soap opera I despair.

Yesterday everyone was hanging on his gestures, his smiles, who he was training with. Twitter was abuzz. I’m pretty sure there was a tweet from somewhere supposedly reputable saying he hadn’t shown up for the team photo, only for him to show up for the team photo.

We were hanging on his every word.

Except hold on, because he hasn’t said any words, has he? He’s said a big fat nada all summer in public. He clearly has his reasons for keeping mum but the problem with that is it’s turned everyone into frenzied lunatics. I doubt I am the only one who is desperate for him put this whole fandango to bed by simply opening his mouth. Personally, I think he needs to. “Yes, I admit I was keen to move to Barcelona. But it’s not happening, I’m staying and I’m committed”. That would do me.

There are those who think he doesn’t need to say anything but I think now is the time to do just that. Firstly it would be a fillip – as it was when Torres publicly stated he was staying at Liverpool. And secondly, it might just – heaven forbid – put an end to the drip-drip Cesc-to-Barca stories that quite frankly are driving me insane.

You see, as if by magic there’s another one this morning saying the Catalan club are reportedly coming back with an improved €42m offer.

Thirdly, and most importantly, it’s time for the focus to shift to the team, the preparation, the season ahead, and nothing else.

UPDATE, 2pm:

And that’s exactly what Cesc has done with this statement, and not a moment too soon. An honest admission that his head was turned, but a commitment to give it his all this season. Saga over (until next time, eh…)

Fab, Theo and Brazil nuts

Remember how Wenger stated he’d like to get his transfers sorted before the World Cup began?

He’ll be lucky.

Most high-calibre players are content to wait until the tournament ends before thinking about what happens next – even if their agents are busy doing stuff in the background.

So when the tournament kicks off a week tomorrow, transfer deals involving players taking part in it will surely be off bounds.

We’ve got a week to go yet though – so expect a few more twists and turns, especially regarding Fabregas. Yesterday’s rebuttal of Barcelona’s €40m offer was very well crafted by the club. They spoke of “immediately and resolutely” turning it down and I must say, I did enjoy the last line.

“To be clear, we will not make any kind of counterproposal or enter into any discussion. Barcelona have publicly stated that they will respect our position and we expect that they will keep their word.”

So Arsenal are reminding Barcelona that, even though the player’s desire to leave makes a deal likely (or at least possible), Arsenal have a big say in things. And they’re also asking Barcelona to do things by the book – which of course, they haven’t and won’t.

But really, the bottom line is that any deal must be on Arsenal’s terms, and €40m doesn’t touch the sides. In a world where Villa have priced Milner at £30m, how can Fabregas only be worth £3m more?

And besides, any negotiator worth his salt will turn down an opening offer, because an opening offer is never a final one.

There was some more rumours yesterday of a deal with Chelski’s out-of-contract Joe Cole. I have no idea if there’s anything in the story or not – but what’s interesting for me is the profile of the player. He’s in his late twenties and very experienced. If he is indeed the kind of player Wenger is looking for then it’s a good sign, because we’ve got promising young players coming out our ears and they cannot do it alone. What we lack are players who have been there, done that and know what it takes.

Which I suppose segues nicely onto Walcott. His omission from the World Cup squad was the cherry on top of the icing of a bad-season cake [must do better – ed] but it’s not that baffling. Thinking back over the season, I can only think of two occasions when he took a game by the scruff of the neck – in the second half against Burnley at home, and in the last third of the Barcelona game when we ended up drawing 2-2.

Nevertheless, it’s no time to panic. He’s only 21 and started a mere 15 games last season. On top of that, he has the overwhelming goodwill of the Arsenal fans in his favour.

And finally…

I spent some time in Sao Paulo last week (took a wrong turn out of Norwich) and on my first day there, walking past a newspaper stall, I was slightly perturbed to see a gaggle of shifty-looking men congregating next to it, exchanging things furtively. There must have been eight of them in all.

Being in a new city – and one with a bit of a reputation for containing ruffians at that – I immediately assumed they were dealing in illegal substances. But as I walked past I peered closer and saw that the illegal substances in question were in fact…. Panini stickers.

That night, I mentioned this to a local and was told this was normal behaviour in a World Cup year. Apparently, in the years when Brazil win the World Cup, Brazilians go absolutely bananas for memorabilia, and completed Panini World Cup albums have a particularly high value in such an eventuality. So the shifty gents by the newspaper stall were simply sniffing out a business opportunity.

Isn’t football great?

Burden on Bendtner as injuries bite

Injuries, injuries, injuries. Arseblog this morning reiterated some of the snaps, twangs, fractures, strains and pings that have blighted us this season. It is indeed a minor miracle that, with the injuries we’ve had and got, we’ve arrived at the beginning of April still in contention both in the league and in the European Cup.

But can we cope? With every goalscoring midfielder we lose, things get incrementally harder unless someone else steps up to the plate.

It’s one thing going without Djourou, Ramsey, Gallas and Gibbs (8 goals in total this term) but to lose both Arshavin and Fabregas (30 goals) on top of van Persie (8) could well prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

It means that almost half of all our goals scored this season have come from players who are now injured (46 from 101), and while we are very capable of scoring goals from all across the field, the losses of Fabregas and Arshavin are big, big blows.

Bendtner – a player who has himself missed a huge chunk of the season – is now our top fit scorer with nine goals, closely followed by the indomitable and hopefully titanium-coated Thomas Vermaelen on eight.

A huge goalscoring burden now falls on the big Dane, and we’re going to need more from Walcott, Eduardo, and our goalscoring midfielders (Diaby, Nasri and Denilson) as well.

To gauge just how big a loss Fabregas’s goals will be, consider this: Walcott, Diaby, Nasri and Denilson combined have scored one goal less than Cesc has this season. (Update: I got this a bit wrong. Combined they have 21 to Cesc’s 19 – but the point remains).

Then there’s Eduardo. He’s scored six goals this season, but only three (from 22 appearances) in the Premier League. Wenger has used him so sparingly that it’s hard not to conclude that something isn’t right. Whether he’s carrying knocks, or his head is not right, or he’s lost a yard of pace – who knows. But it seems a tall order to throw him in at the deep end and expect miracles.

All of which leaves us with the van Persie issue. He’s back training with Arsenal, and while Wenger wanted to give him a month to get back to top condition, could the current situation force a rethink?

The boss has got to be tempted.

Arsenal strike back in epic encounter

Arsenal 2-2 Barcelona

Arsenal v Barcelona flags
North Bank flags

What an unbelievable game of football. My mind is still boggling. I’ve seen some good teams at the Grove in my time and I’ve seem some defiant comebacks too, but both on the same night? As a spectacle, this one was epic.

Let it be said that Barcelona were staggeringly good for the first half an hour or so. This December, I will notch up a quarter of a century of watching Arsenal live and I am struggling to think of a better side than Barcelona in the opening phase of the match last night. Right from the whistle, they came at us. Their passing, movement and ball retention was so good that when I was later told the possession stats had been 71%-29% in their favour, I scratched my head and thought: From where did we get 29%?

@feverpitch told me they completed 274 passes in the first half. We managed 91. What a stat.

It could not have been more lop-sided. It’s hard to say how much Arsenal contributed to Barcelona’s magnificence, but the bottom line is we could not get the ball at all. The big boys would not give it to us.

Time and again, it was the shot-stopping skill of Almunia that saved us. I have no recollection how many times Barcelona hooped one over the bar or had a shot blocked or parried by the Spaniard, but it was a minor miracle that we made it to half time at 0-0.

Then came the second half, as it tends to. Half way to a douze points performance from the British jury, Almunia then immediately contrived to scuttle miles out of his area. Ibrahimovic merely chipped it over the by now retreating keeper. Nul points from the Spaniard and we were 0-1 down.

0-2 followed after, when the giant Swede ran through our static defence and thumped it in. No way back.

Except something changed. That something was the last throw of the dice in the shape of Theo Walcott. What an enigma he can be. Having played his best 45 minutes of the season against Burnley some weeks ago, he has since once again retreated into the shadows. Last night, out he popped again with a performance that immediately got Barca rattled. He was direct, lightning-quick, put in penetrating crosses or passes and changed the dynamic of the game completely with his goal.

We came to life in the last fifteen glorious minutes. All of a sudden, anything looked possible. Fabregas was bundled over – red card for the bloke from Scorpion. Up Fabregas stepped, blasted it in, 2-2.

In doing so, of course, he did something to his leg and although he hobbled on against all odds, it looks to be a bad injury – possibly a broken leg. How do you carry on playing with a broken leg? Let’s hope it’s not that serious.

Shall I talk about the referee? I can’t be bothered but I thought he was hopeless. Five yellow cards? How?

Overall, a gutsy, incredible comeback from an Arsenal side that had been utterly outclassed but never gave up. For all the flaws of this side, our indomitable attitude is fast becoming our hallmark.

We’re still in it, by the hair on our chinny chin chin. Haha!

Just testing something below… feel free to vote…


Missed chances, dropped points

Birmingham City 1-1 Arsenal

At the risk of repeating myself, a draw yesterday did indeed end up feeling like a ‘hammer blow’. Wenger merely called it a ‘big blow’, but if you squinted you could read the word ‘hammer’ in the furrows of his brow during the post-match interview.

The nature of the draw made it that bit worse too. Had we been the team that equalised in the last minute having been 1-0 down then it would have felt like something had been plucked from the embers. As it was, an avoidable last minute equaliser made it feel almost like a defeat. It was two points dropped with bells on. Twitter was a gloomy place to be at 5pm last night.

We’re now three points behind, but with the goal differences of our rivals disappearing over the horizon, it feels more like four.

Still, I’ve made the mistake of writing us off on more than one occasion this season and I won’t be so stupid as to do it again now. With Utd and the Russians playing next weekend, there is a guarantee of dropped points from at least one, and maybe both of them. The picture changes so fast, even if the room for wiggling is diminishing.

Almunia is the one getting the negative headlines this morning. Despite improved recent form, including that excellent penalty save against West Ham, he retains the ability to take backwards steps right after taking forwards ones. Goodplaya doesn’t blame him for the goal but I think he’s being a bit generous. The Spaniard should have done better.

Almunia’s a lucky boy though, unlike Lehmann before him, because there’s nobody else good enough to give him a run for his money. Someone with more experience and fewer nervous tics than Fabianski would might well have displaced him by now.

Not that his late intervention was the only crack in our armoury. To blame him entirely for the dropped points is too simplistic.

Walcott did very little. Far too little. City were tough opponents – their home record is there for all to see – and they disrupted our rhythm to good effect. But even taking that into account, we did not get going until the second half – not until Walcott and Rosicky were replaced with Nasri and Arshavin in fact – and had we taken one of our two very good late chances, then this morning we’d still be moaning about Almunia but in the context of a win.

It wasn’t to be of course.

Positives? Of course there were. The spirit is there for all to see. Nasri and Diaby are in the form of their Arsenal careers. We didn’t lose against a decent, committed side.

The great thing of course is there’s no time to dwell, as it’s Barcelona on Wednesday.

Is Iniesta really out? I’ll believe it when I see it.

Arsenal v Barcelona: the best draw of the lot

Guardian squad sheet
BBC preview

Another weekend, another match we can’t afford not to win, but for the time being at least we dream of Catalonia.

Yes of course, the draw for the European Cup could have pitted us against CSKA Moscow or Bordeaux, but where’s the fun in that? To me, the European Cup is about glamour and butterflies in the stomach and gladiatorial footballing contests. This is the kind of tie – a European Cup quarter-final against the best team in Europe – that most fans of most teams would dream of. It’s the best draw.

Incidentally, the Champions League at this stage of the competition is a ridiculous misnomer, seeing it’s no longer a league half the remaining teams are not champions. Time to stick to calling it the European Cup.

Arsena v Barcelona has sub-plots all over the place. There’s the final in 2006, which we led in for so long but ultimately lost, there’s Thierry Henry, who scored a few goals for Arsenal once, and there’s Cesc Fabregas, who’s been on holiday to Barcelona once or something and is ogled covetously by them.

One sub-plot that some people are overlooking is of course Sol Campbell. Our scorer in 2006, he was playing for Notts County at Morecambe in August and now looks likely to be called upon to take on the European champions in a match that will be watched across the world by millions and millions. It’s a Lazarus-esque comeback for him.

Reading some of the bumph round this, the interesting stat for me is how much Arsenal’s team has changed in the intervening four years. It’s had an enormous overhaul.

Only three of the starting XI are still at the club – Eboue, Fabregas and Campbell – along with three of the benchwarmers (Almunia, Clichy, van Persie). Funnily enough, only three of the Barcelona starting XI are still at the club too, so the two teams are almost unrecognisable to those of four years ago.

It’ll be absolutely electric and I can’t wait already.

First thing’s first though, it’s West Ham at the Grove this evening. With Song, Fabregas and Rosicky back we have far more options, but as was shown at Hull last weekend, relegation-threatened opponents are often the most dangerous. They have a good record against us at home in recent years.

Nevertheless, we must win. Try the Prem Predictor if you must, and you will see how tight things are, as if you need reminding. Let’s push on.

I love the business end of the season when there’s still business to be done.