Posts by Hugo Greenhalgh

Petr Cech takes centre stage as Arsenal return to Wembley

Petr Chech in Arsenal uniformThe sight of Petr Cech in an Arsenal goalkeeper’s top is one that will take some getting used to this season. The man is a Chelsea icon and was a core component of the Roman Abramovich era, having helped to drive the club to an unprecedented decade of high-level success. His move to North London genuinely feels like a watershed moment for Arsenal, who haven’t had a world class goalkeeper since Jens Lehmann. How fitting then, that Cech’s debut will take place against his former club at Wembley this Sunday.

As is the toxic combination of football’s tribalism and social media’s instantaneousness, Cech inevitably received some abuse for his transfer over Twitter. However, the majority of rational Chelsea supporters were sympathetic to his departure – the least he deserved after so many years of fine service to the club. In terms of squad selection, Jose Mourinho was left with a catch 22; Cech is simply too good a goalkeeper to sit on the bench but Thibaut Courtois had proved that he was more than ready to step up to Premier League football. Ultimately it was a stroke of good grace from Abramovich that enabled Cech to leave on his own terms and it was out of the manager’s hands.

Cech’s brief time at Arsenal so far has already been eventful. The club have won two pre-seasons trophies – the Barclays Asia Trophy and last weekend’s Emirates Cup. Wojciech Szczesny has gone on loan to AS Roma, leaving no doubt (if there ever was any) that Cech will be Arsenal’s number one this season. It looks like Colombian International David Ospina will now stay on as a second choice and could well take on the role of ‘cup keeper’. Arsenal’s summer so far though has mainly been a case of fine-tuning, with Cech the sole first team addition.

Of course there is only so much to be learnt from the Community Shield, the new season’s traditional curtain-raiser. Back in April, I wrote that beating Mourinho’s Chelsea would cap off a season of improvement for Arsenal. While that game finished 0-0, it is fair to say that the proposition remains the same. Losing the Community Shield would hardly be catastrophic for Arsene Wenger but he has a chance to lay down the gauntlet not just to Chelsea but the other top sides. There was a marked improvement in Arsenal’s performances in big games last season and that must carry forward this year if they are to be considered title contenders.

Elsewhere in the squad, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – two players who Mourinho was keen to squeeze into a deal involving Cech – have had excellent pre-seasons. While both suffered unfortunate injuries last campaign, there have been some justified calls that both players need to step up and contribute more goals. With compatriot Danny Welbeck still out injured and Alexis Sanchez recovering from a busy summer at the Copa America, there will be early opportunities for Walcott and Chamberlain to stake their claims this seasons. Scoring at Wembley would certainly lay down a marker.

As for Chelsea, their transfer activity has been uncharacteristically low-key, mainly because there is little room for improvement. Asmir Begovic is a solid replacement for Cech as a back-up keeper to Courtois, while Radamel Falcao arrives in place of Didier Drogba and as something of a vanity project for Mourinho – if he can’t fix him, who can? The pursuit of John Stones continues, with the England youngster tipped as a long-term successor to John Terry. However, starting the campaign with Terry alongside Gary Cahill wouldn’t be a disaster for Chelsea; the centre-back pairing were immense last season and played a crucial role in claiming the Title.

With Chelsea remaining so strong, it puts Cech’s ambition and Arsenal’s vision into perspective. With a little help from Cech’s compatriot Tomas Rosicky, Wenger has sold that dream to his new keeper. He sees him as his new Lehmann – the man who turned Arsenal from contenders into “Invincibles” in 2003/04. Cech will relish that mantle. Mourinho’s side are the biggest obstacle between Wenger and the Premier League trophy, so this Sunday’s clash is sure to be an entertaining game as well as a good indicator of where exactly the two clubs are at the moment.

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Hugo avatarHUGO GREENHALGH is co-founder and editor of The False Nine and a contributor to Eurosport and When Saturday Comes. He can be found following his favourite clubs: Arsenal and Dulwich Hamlet. Follow Hugo on Twitter.

Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere give Arsenal late selection headache

Theo Walcott, Arsenal

Theo Walcott, Arsenal

With the top four already sewn up, the final game of the season against West Brom offered Arsene Wenger a chance to experiment with his starting lineup ahead of the FA Cup final. Out came Olivier Giroud, who had not scored in seven games, to be replaced by Theo Walcott up front. Fellow Englishmen Jack Wilshere and Kieron Gibbs also started, in place of Aaron Ramsey and Nacho Monreal respectively.

Jack Wilshere Arsenal

Jack Wilshere, Arsenal

With West Brom already ‘on the beach’, Walcott excelled and took full advantage of his starting birth by scoring a 33-minute hat-trick. The first goal in particular – an emphatic top corner finish – was a reminder of what he is capable of. It’s often overlooked that Walcott has 75 career goals for Arsenal, many of them coming the wing rather than his preferred position as striker. Giroud’s role as more of a traditional target man has made him a focal point for the team’s style but Walcott did not look out of place on Sunday and laid down the best case possible for a start in the Final, with his rampant first half performance.

 

Yet herein lies the conundrum with Walcott; it is really only against mediocrity that he is unplayable. More than most, he is guilty of going missing in the big games but he can turn it on when playing the lesser sides. One game springs to mind, a 7-3 thrashing of Newcastle in December 2012. Amid contract speculation, Walcott ran riot, scoring a hat-trick and providing two assists. That evening was the perfect opportunity for him to record an individual display that would see him “sign da ting” the following month. Even with Giroud’s recent goal drought, he remains the safer option for the big occasion having scored against both Manchester clubs and Liverpool this season.

Jack Wilshere also enjoyed an impressive performance against West Brom, scoring a spectacular half-volley that became a late winner of Match of the Day’s “Goal of the Season” with a little help from the Arsenal Twitterati. Like Walcott though, Wilshere has returned from injury at a difficult time when the Arsenal line-up is fairly entrenched following their ten game unbeaten run in the League, since losing to Tottenham in February.

Wilshere is unlikely to usurp Francis Coquelin or Santi Cazorla in the deeper midfield positions, or the fluid attacking trio Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey. Although he started the season well, looking particularly effective alongside Ramsey in September’s 2-2 draw against Man City. Wilshere was also one of England’s stand-out players in their run of games last year, playing at the base of Roy Hodgson’s diamond and drew praise from his former critic Paul Scholes.

However, as so often has been the case so far in Wilshere’s career, a promising period in the team was cut short by injury. Since returning to fitness, his best games have come from the bench and played in the right of midfield. Here, Wilshere has shown the verve and creativity fans have come to expect from him but it is not the central position he prefers to operate in.

Arsenal made a big PR stunt of their ‘British core’ in 2012, as Wilshere, Ramsey, Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all signed new contracts together. However, two and a half years on, the picture looks rather different. While Ramsey is one name who continues to be a pivotal figure for the club, the others have struggled with injuries and with consistency and it seems he may be the only Brit in Arsenal’s starting line-up on Saturday, despite the promising returns of Walcott and Wilshere.

 

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Hugo avatarHUGO GREENHALGH is co-founder and editor of The False Nine and a contributor to Eurosport and When Saturday Comes. He can be found following his favourite clubs: Arsenal and Dulwich Hamlet. Follow Hugo on Twitter.

Beating Mourinho’s Chelsea would cap off a season of improvement for Arsenal

ozil fabregas

 

Last weekend, there was the small distraction of an FA Cup Semi-Final to take Arsenal minds off Chelsea’s clash against Manchester United. United offered a decent enough challenge but ultimately the 1-0 result was all too routine for this well-drilled, resilient Chelsea team who are proving to be the most Mourinho of Mourinho sides since his Inter of 2009/10. Even if Arsenal do beat Chelsea this Sunday, the gap will still be seven points. It does seem that their “title challenge” is over before it even began.

 

Arsenal v Chelsea Betting Odds:

Arsenal win 27/20

Chelsea win 2/1

Draw 43/20

(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

However, this does not take anything away from the game’s wider significance. Sunday’s London Derby presents a real opportunity for Arsene Wenger to show that his side have made a meaningful stride forward since last season. In the first few months of this season, many critics rightfully questioned whether Arsenal were actually any better off despite the acquisition of starman Alexis Sanchez who at that point was firing on all cylinders amidst a team of underachievers. Yet Arsenal have rallied since the start of 2015 and a 2nd place finish, along with an FA Cup Final, are just rewards for their respectable turnaround.

Chelsea’s inevitable title on the other hand has come across as rather unremarkable due to the lack of serious contenders. This is somewhat unfair given how impressive and one-sided Chelsea’s early season performances were. From Thibaut Cortois between the sticks to Diego Costa up top, complemented by Eden Hazard’s consistent excellence, this Chelsea team may yet be considered one of the Premier League’s best, if only there had been some decent competition to show it as such.

 

The reason why both media and neutrals alike have been slow to praise Chelsea’s feats this season is because they are so set up in the eye of their maker.  Despite an attractive start, they have reverted to a more functional, strength-based approach that Mourinho favours. This can be seen quite clearly in the introduction of the titanic Kurt Zouma as a defensive midfielder for Chelsea’s big games. Mourinho has also engrained a siege mentality, in which the world and his wife are anti-Chelsea and also attempts to question the regime are met with little attention.

Wenger would love to end his unfortunate run and finally record a victory against Mourinho. The “specialist in failure” jibes still sting deep for the Frenchman, who is yet to beat Mourinho’s Chelsea in 12 attempts. There should be some cause for optimism this year as Wenger has broken the hoodoo of playing the big clubs. The victories away at Man City, at home to Liverpool as well as against United in the Cup, showed different strings to Arsenal’s bow. They also demonstrated that other personnel such as Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil were capable of stepping to the level that Sanchez had set from the off.

 

Sunday’s game will also mark Cesc Fabregas’ return to the Emirates for the first time since his departure to Barcelona in 2011. Had Fabregas ever played against Arsenal for Barca, he might have expected a fond reception from the home crowd but there will be no civilities this time around. While it was difficult to begrudge him a move back to his boyhood club, the subsequent transfer to Chelsea has left a sour taste in the mouths of the Arsenal fan base. This has been aggravated by the fact that Wenger turned down the chance to re-sign him and the visual evidence that he is quite clearly still up to scratch as the Premier League’s top provider, with 16 assists.

Intriguingly, Wenger is likely to employ his surprise of the season Francis Coquelin to marshal Fabregas in the middle of the park.  While Coquelin joined Arsenal in 2008, he did not make his Premier League debut until the fateful 8-2 defeat against Manchester United in August 2011 by which time Fabregas had just signed for Barcelona. After such a baptism by fire, it is pleasing to see that he has not given up the fight to be a top flight footballer following a series of loan spells.

 

On paper Sunday’s result will count for very little. However, if Arsenal can record a convincing victory with the performance to boot, they can lay down the gauntlet for next season and show that it needn’t be a one-horse race again.

 

 

Betting Instinct tip – with Chelsea preferring to keep things tight, the Gunners could all but seal second place with victory this weekend. Arsenal to win 1-0 is 13/2 with AllYouBet.ag

 

Hugo avatarHUGO GREENHALGH is co-founder and editor of The False Nineand a contributor to Eurosport and When Saturday Comes. He can be found following his favourite clubs: Arsenal and Dulwich Hamlet. Follow Hugo on Twitter.

Manchester United trip presents golden opportunity for Danny Welbeck and Arsenal

While fixtures between Manchester United and Arsenal aren’t what they used to be, there is still a sense that an awful lot rests on Monday night’s FA Cup Quarter Final. For the winners, it’s a chance to condemn their old rivals to an almost certain trophyless season, whilst also maintaining momentum in the all-important race for the top four.

 

FA Cup Outright Betting Odds:

Liverpool 19/10

Manchester United 5/2

Arsenal 3/1

(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

The game will be Danny Welbeck’s first at Old Trafford since he left United for Arsenal last summer. Welbeck made a promising start to his Arsenal career, performing well as a lone striker in place of the injured Olivier Giroud. His hard work and enthusiasm resonated well with his new supporters too, as it had done in Manchester previously. An impressive showing for England in the Euro 2016 qualifier against Switzerland in September, where he scored a brace, also supported the view that at £16 million Welbeck had been a great signing. A hat-trick in the Champions League against Galatasaray followed and Arsenal fans were starting to believe Ravel Morrison’s infamous words that Welbz was indeed “dat guy”.

However, a combination of injuries, big game misses and the return of Giroud have made the second half of this season more difficult for Welbeck. A little of the early positivity surrounding him has perhaps dried up and since Giroud’s reinstatement as Arsenal’s principal striker, Welbeck has had to make do with playing on the wing or starting on the bench. Neither player gave a good account of themselves against Monaco but it was Giroud who received Arsene Wenger’s backing in the next game against Everton and repaid that faith with a goal. This continued into the week, with the French striker scoring the opener against QPR on Wednesday night.

 

What counts in Giroud’s favour, as well as his goals, is his ability to win the ball in the air and to hold up play, enabling Arsenal’s cohort of talented midfielders to be brought into play more. Welbeck has proven to be a little lightweight in this role but on the other hand he is better at getting behind the defence with his pace.  As such, recent appearances have tended to come out wide.

It is always difficult to predict how players will perform against their former clubs, but it is worth remembering that Welbeck built a reputation at United as a big game player. He rarely shirked responsibility and performances like the one at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid two seasons ago stand out as evidence of rising to the grand occasion. He is a young player, still developing his game and the prospect of maturing alongside other English players like Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is an exciting one.

United themselves still look like a side in transition. Until recently, they had been above Arsenal in the table but Louis van Gaal is yet to pull off many truly convincing displays. David de Gea has saved them many points this season and should Welbeck start, he is likely to enjoy running at his former teammates. They are without ex-Arsenal striker Robin van Persie, who has had no qualms seeing off the Gunners in the past.

 

Finally, Monday night represents a massive opportunity for Wenger to prove that Arsenal’s performance at Manchester City earlier this year was not a one-off. So long berated for his record in big games, victory for Arsenal would break a real hoodoo. Wenger has not won at Old Trafford since September 2006 – out of Arsenal’s starting line-up that day, only Tomas Rosicky remains at the club. Since then, there’s not been much to enjoy for Wenger in the red half of Manchester. Memories of being sent to the stands and abused by the United fans in August 2009 and the humiliating 8-2 defeat two years later are still fresh in the memory.

And yet, Wenger has remained one of the few constants in English football. The FA Cup has always been a trophy dear to the Frenchman and if Arsenal can see off United on Monday, Wenger could well be on course for a historic sixth. This would draw him level with the great Aston Villa manager George Ramsay and overtake Sir Alex Ferguson. With Fergie out of the picture, it is really time for Wenger to show what his Arsenal side are capable of.

 

Betting Instinct tip Arsenal to win on Monday night is 39/20 with AllYouBet.ag

 

Hugo avatarHUGO GREENHALGH is co-founder and editor of The False Nineand a contributor to Eurosport and When Saturday Comes. He can be found following his favourite clubs: Arsenal and Dulwich Hamlet. Follow Hugo on Twitter.

Kane and Eriksen can give Spurs a first-leg advantage against Fiorentina

 

Impressive as Tottenham were against Arsenal two weeks ago, the post-match analysis of a “North London power shift” once again looks premature. Three days later and a 3-2 defeat to Liverpool – coupled with an Arsenal victory against Leicester – saw the Gunners overtake their rivals again in the table. The continuing form of Harry Kane and the establishment of Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason in midfield are both important factors in Spurs’ recent form but as the table proves, they are up against some decent sides with a track record of finishing in the top four.

With this is mind, it is imperative that they maintain their Europa League run as this year’s winner will receive a place next season’s Champions League. Bar Liverpool, they are perhaps the best side still in the competition and their tie against Fiorentina presents a viable opportunity of reaching the last 16.

 

Tottenham Hotspur v Fiorentina Betting Odds:

Tottenham win 11/10

Fiorentina win 47/20

Draw 9/4

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Indeed, the Europa League has already proved to be a blessing in disguise for Spurs. Leaving to one side the FA Cup exit to Leicester, the large number of fixtures this season has allowed Mauricio Pochettino to experiment with line-ups and eventually find a strong system. European football has also allowed Kane to cut his teeth, giving him the playing time he needed to find his feet as a first team player at Tottenham. 7 of his first 10 goals this season came in the Europa League, the sort of form he has translated to the Premier League in emphatic fashion.

The most interesting question concerning Kane now is no longer whether he is good enough, but what will happen once the goals inevitably dry up. So much of being a top class striker goes on in the head and he can’t keep running on adrenaline forever. There is a real talent there, as shown by the variety of goals he has scored this season. However, a large part of what makes Kane so effective is his work rate and enthusiasm. He’s never had to deal with a goal drought before and when it comes, that will be Kane’s real mental test. In this instance, the other strikers at the club may not serve as the best mentors. Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor have just six goals between them this season.

 

As such, Spurs’ other star performer has come from midfield – Christian Eriksen. His transfer fee of 12 million euros looks by far and away the best use of the Gareth Bale money, his appetite for a late goal proving key in his side’s success so far. He continues to be a threat from freekicks from the most unlikely of angles and after Kane is the club’s second top goalscorer this season with 11 goals, although he is yet to score in the Europa League.

Kane and Eriksen can now launch their attacks from a more solid foundation, with Bentaleb and Mason helping to shore up the midfield. While the pair were a little off the pace against Liverpool, no doubt overexerted after their Derby Day performances, they will have over a week’s preparation for the Fiorentina game. With all four of these players in their early twenties, it’s important for Pochettino to manage their youthful effervescence as he did so effectively with his young charges at Southampton.

 

Thursday night’s Italian opponents Fiorentina are currently 4th in Serie A and earlier this month claimed a 2-0 win at Roma in the Coppa Italia. Their manager Vincenzo Montella had a brief foray into English football when he joined Fulham on loan in 2007; incidentally, his first goal was a penalty against Spurs. Having lost Juan Cuadrado to Chelsea in January, Montella will be looking to strikers Mario Gomez and Khouma Babacar to replicate his feat.

With the opening leg taking place at White Hart Lane, it is vital for Spurs to establish a grip on the tie. Tottenham don’t travel particularly well in Europe – they haven’t won a knockout game away since February 2011, when Peter Crouch’s goal earned a 1-0 win against Milan at the San Siro. Four years on and it appears the pressure falls on another Englishman, Harry Kane, to deliver the goods for Spurs.

 

Betting Instinct tip Spurs to qualify over the two legs is 3/4 with Intertops.eu

Hugo avatarHUGO GREENHALGH is co-founder and editor of The False Nine and a contributor to Eurosport and When Saturday Comes. He can be found following his favourite clubs: Arsenal and Dulwich Hamlet. Follow Hugo on Twitter.