Thursday, 22 February 2018

Arsenal V Ostersund Preview

Things are a little odd at the moment for us Arsenal fans with a game last Thursday night and another game tonight, but no weekend game in between. The FA Cup exit to Forest was the reason we didn’t play last weekend and our sojourn in the Europa League is the reason for a season interspersed with Thursday night football. There’s still a way to go in the Europa League, but if we can finish the job we started last week we will at least be through to the last 16.

After a 3-0 win in Sweden last week we have a great advantage going into tonight’s second leg. Last week’s game wasn’t exactly a classic, but the 3-0 win leaves us nicely set up to progress to the last 16 where we can probably expect a tougher opponent. That doesn’t mean tonight is a forgone conclusion, but anything other than Arsenal progressing to the next round would be a disaster at this stage.

With the Carabao Cup Final against City on Sunday you would expect Arsene Wenger to rest whatever players he can tonight. I would be surprised to see Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Ozil and Nacho Monreal in the team, but otherwise I think he will pick a strong enough team. Ostersund gave it a go when they went 2-0 down last week, but even a team without those three players should be too strong for them.

The manager has been talking Danny Welbeck up ahead of the game and it’s another chance for him to show what he can do. His career at Arsenal has been severely hampered by injuries and he’s just back from the latest of those. He has shown promise at times, but I’m not sure he’s at the level we require going forward.

With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ineligible and Alexandre Lacazette injured he’s our best option in the Europa League unless Eddie Nketiah was to be given a shot. He certainly looks like he could be the future of the club and the game tonight might just be a big chance for him. Maybe Welbeck will start in a wider role with Nketiah through the middle, but I doubt it as much as I might want to see it happen. 

I can’t see Aaron Ramsey playing either as he’s only just returning from injury and I suspect everything will be done to make sure he is available for Sunday. It will be interesting to see whether it’s him or Jack Wilshere selected to play alongside Granit Xhaka agsinst City. I think we will get another look at Ainsley Maitland-Niles in midfield tonight and maybe we might even see the elusive Sead Kolasinac at left back.

David Ospina will be in goal again and he will more than likely play there on Sunday too. Whatever about rotating our keepers or giving Ospina a chance in cup games I think we have to play our strongest team in a cup final. It’s a decision which could cost us dearly on Sunday (unless it goes to penalties), but I would be very surprised if Ospina didn’t play.

To be honest tonight is a game we really want to get out of the way with the minimum fuss so we can concentrate on Sunday. The Carabao Cup might not be the biggest trophy in terms of credibility, but it’s our best chance of a trophy this season at this stage. The Europa League still offers another chance, but we will have a long way to go after tonight just to reach the final and an awful lot of good teams stand in our way.

That’s it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Arsenal Half Way There After 3-0 Win At Ostersund

Arsenal played the first leg of their Europa League round of 32 tie away to Ostersund in Sweden yesterday evening. It looked like it could be a tricky game on the face of it on an artificial surface and in the freezing cold, but it turned out to be a fairly routine affair. Before Ostersund realised we aren’t actually very good away from home we were already 2-0 up and the task was too much for them.

Arsene Wenger went pretty much with the expected team as he chose David Ospina in goal, Ainsley Maitland-Niles in midfield and Danny Welbeck in attack. It was a bit of a surprise to see Calum Chambers in the centre of the defence, but maybe he took the opportunity to give Laurent Koscielny a much needed two week break. I would have liked to have seen Sead Kolasinac play at left back too, but it’s going to take an awful lot to shift Nacho Monreal on current form.

It was good to see Maitland-Niles get a shot in his preferred central midfield role and I thought he did reasonably well all things considered. He still has plenty to learn, but I definitely think he shows real promise. He was accompanied by Mohamed Elneny in midfield and maybe it might have been better for him if Jack Wilshere or Aaron Ramsey played with him, but neither of them were in the squad.

With Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan pulling the strings for Arsenal it was always going to be an uphill battle for the home team. They didn’t help themselves by more or less handing us the first two goals through a goalkeeping error and an own goal and we utterly dominated them for the first 25 minutes or so. They came back into the game after that second goal and made a couple of semi decent chances before the break as they tried to make Ospina earn his pay.

The second half was a more even affair, but that man Ozil increased our lead and Ostersund tired as the game petered out which is hardly surprising for a team who’s season has not yet begun. Maybe we could have added to our lead, but at least we managed to keep a clean sheet thanks mainly to Ospina. Hector Bellerin gave a penalty away right at the death, but to the shock and amazement of all Arsenal fans an Arsenal goalkeeper saved a penalty. 

It had been almost four years since the last penalty save by an Arsenal keeper and even longer since Petr Cech saved a penalty. Maybe Ospina could take him aside in training and show what it takes to save a penalty because he has never even looked like saving one. That save gives us a little bit of extra breathing space in the second leg which could come in very handy.

We don’t play again until that second leg, but we do have a Carabao Cup Final against City only three days later. With a three goal lead we can probably leave one or two players out of the team in the second leg so they can be fully ready for that cup final. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Monreal and Ozil on the bench, but Mkhitaryan will certainly play as he is cup tied in the Carabao cup.

Elsewhere I don’t think there will be too many changes with Welbeck more than likely to play up front with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang set to play in the cup final. I think the likes of Bellerin, Shkodran Mustafi, Chambers, Mohamed Elneny, Alex Iwobi and Maitland-Niles are all capable of playing on the Thursday night and on the following Sunday too if required. It might not be our strongest team for the second leg, but with a three goal lead to protect it should be more than good enough to see us progress.

All in all last night had plenty of positives even if the performance was far from spectacular. We won and kept a clean sheet away from home and we even had the audacity to save a penalty to boot. Ostersund have done very well at home to some good teams in the Europa League this season, but we were never in any real danger of succumbing to them and adding to their list of famous victories and draws.

It’s still going to be a huge task to win the Europa League this season with a much better line up in the last 32 of the competition this season compared to last season. It’s not totally beyond us though because we have become very much a cup side in the last four or five seasons with Sunday week’s game our fourth final in five seasons. At the moment we have won all of them, but City are a much more difficult prospect and winning the Europa League probably is too.

That’s it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Arsenal’s Trip To Ostersund Previewed

With our hopes of a top four finish this season almost finished it’s time for Arsenal to get back to Europa League action with a trip to Sweden in the first leg of their last 32 tie. The Europa League has become an awful lot more important now with the top four almost gone as the winner gains qualification for next season’s Champions League. As it stands it’s definitely our best route to Europe’s premier club competition for next season despite some very good teams standing in our way.

On the face of it we are huge favourites to progress over two legs and even to win this evening. The trouble comes when you look at our away form this season and our inability to overcome any sort of meaningful challenge on the road. When a game starts to go agsinst us away from home we seem unable to find any answers and change the game.

Arsene Wenger seems to realise the importance of the Europa League at this stage in our season and we won’t see a team of reserves and fringe players as we did in the group games. We should see our strongest team today with no game this weekend and it would be ideal if we could put the tie to bed today considering what next week holds. We have the return leg this day week and a Carabao Cup Final date with City only three days later. It would be great to be able to rest some players ahead of that game, but the Europa League is a more important competition.

New boy Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang isn’t eligible today and Alexandre Lacazette has undergone knee surgery which will keep him out for up to six weeks. It looks like the only real option up front is Danny Welbeck with Eddie Nketiah a possibility from the bench too. I’ve never been overly impressed by Welbeck, but he has the chance in these two games to show what he can do after his most recent return from injury. 

If the manager is going to play a strong team he will still be tempted to play David Ospina in goal. As over the hill as Petr Cech might be I still think he is far superior to Ospina, but I would be tempted to sub Ospina in if any tie goes to penalties considering it is going on seven years since Cech saved one I believe. I think we will see Ospina in goal tonight though and I just hope he remembers to stand in front of his line rather than behind it as he so often does. 

I think we might have the ideal opportunity today to reintroduce Sead Kolasinac to the team and maybe even play Ainsley Maitland-Niles in his preferred midfield role too. Ostersund have had a meteoric rise through the leagues in Sweden, but they will have to do something very special to live with us as long as we keep our heads and play the right way. We have only two European trophies to our name and it would be far from bad to give ourselves a chance of adding to that tally.

That’s it for today.

See you tomorrow.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Wembley Beckons For Arsenal

While fourth place for Arsenal in the Premier League this season might look like a long shot at the moment their chances could take a real turn for the better at their second home later today. Spurs have had to play their home games at Wembley this season as their stadium is redeveloped and it means that’s where we’ll play them in our “away” league game. Wembley hasn’t been quite the fortress for them that White Hart Lane was last season and it has been a home from home for Arsenal.

We have won the FA Cup there three times in the last four seasons and we had to win the semi finals to get to those finals too. Added to that there were Community Shield victories and I’m struggling to remember the last time Arsenal lost a game at Wembley. Quite a lot of our players have very fond memories of Wembley and hopefully those fond memories will continue today.

We haven’t been good away from home this season though with only three wins from our 13 games so far and we’ll have to reverse that form to get anything from the game. On the other hand our home record is second only to table topping City and it’s difficult to believe the sharp contrast between our home and away records. I have to believe that away form is down to belief and confidence or lack thereof and it’s within our playing ability to reverse the trend.

If we’re going to get the result we need so much will depend on our approach to the game and the tactics we deploy on the day. If we can defend in depth and hit them on the break we have every chance of getting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in behind them and that’s probably our best route to victory. The other option is to press them high and force mistakes, but I think that would leave us very open at the back.

We need to be clever and incisive when we have the ball and that’s something we just haven’t done away from home often enough this season. The performance at home to Everton last week was so promising that it’s given us enough hope to believe the players just might be able to do it away from home too. The additions of Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan seem to have had an effect on the team and just maybe the departure of Alexis Sanchez has lifted a weight from the collective shoulders of the players.

The performance of Aaron Ramsey last week was a huge boost too and it’s difficult to believe we didn’t miss him when he was out injured. He’s very fond of a goal at Wembley and he could be the man to win us the game if he can get into some of the positions he got into last week. I think he has to play and the big question could be who accompanies him in midfield with Granit Xhaka probably more likely to get the nod than Jack Wilshere.

The other big question is the formation Arsene Wenger chooses as he has opted for a back four at home recently, but three central defenders might offer us more stability. I think we need Petr Cech to recover from the knock he took last week because David Ospina does not fill me with confidence when he plays. These are questions the manager has to ponder ahead of what’s probably our biggest game of the season so far.

If he can get it right and we can win the game the top four becomes a possibility, but a defeat would surely end those hopes with 11 league games still to go. The defensive performance at Chelsea might offer the template we need today, but that performance was at a price as we sacrificed a lot of our attacking options and the players picked today might not all have the defensive discipline of those who played against Chelsea. I would be very surprised if we kept a clean sheet today and that means we will have to score at least twice if we’re going to win. 

We have a two week gap to our next domestic game after today as we’re out of the FA Cup and our next game is the Carabao Cup Final which is also at Wembley. There’s the small matter of the home and away legs of the last 32 of the Europa League to play before that cup final though and that could end up being our best chance of making next season’s Champions League. Hopefully that won’t be the case though and we can take the three points and bragging rights against Spurs today.

That’s it for today.

See you tomorrow.