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.

Things We’ll Learn In Football This Month – May

 

This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end, my only friend, the end.

 

Yes that’s right one of the most underwhelming Premier League seasons we’ve ever had to endure is spluttering its way toward some sort of unsatisfactory conclusion. The Champions League places are all but concluded with Chelsea impressively but unmemorably coming top of the pile, there is a bit of a scuffle to avoid the Europa League and in fairness to the dregs at the bottom of the league there is still a bit of a question mark as to who will drop down into the Championship. But in the overall scheme of things this has been a poor season in terms of quality, drama and laugh out loud incompetence.

 

The first weekend of the month has no interesting games, none, not one. It’s utter dross. Do some work in the garden or something, or maybe go swimming? It’s been ages since you’ve been at the pool and you always enjoy it when you go. Whatever you do don’t watch the football, especially Spurs (49/20 with Intertops.eu) vs Man City (19/20) which looks deceptively like a game that might be good but in reality both sides gave up weeks ago.

 

The second weekend starts terribly with the inexplicable decision to televise Everton vs Sunderland and doesn’t get much better after that. Hull vs Burnley is a big one down at the bottom of the table but the soul crushing inevitability of Burnley’s relegation and the fact that no one in the world cares about Hull mean that I’m going to stop writing about it now. There is a ‘Super Sunday’ of sorts, with Chelsea vs Liverpool, which if nothing else will be a nice ‘have a look at what you could have won’ moment for Steven Gerrard.

 

Stop press we’ve got a game that might be alright! Weekend number three is mostly awful meaningless nonsense but finishes with Manchester United hosting Arsenal. Louis van Gaal will be looking to overcome the handicap of his weird hair to exact revenge over Arsene Wenger for their FA Cup defeat. For the last 4 months Arsenal have looked like a side who can challenge for the title, there is a new found pragmatism to sit alongside the flair. Of course this could be (and probably is) just Arsenal being Arsenal and they’ll regress to the mean with a spectacular explosion of incompetence before we know it, however a fixture against a rejuvenated but still not all that good Manchester United might give us a better idea.

 

I care so little that I can’t even be bothered looking at the last day, so in an effort to end on a mildly entertaining note I’m going to abandon the formula and go rogue by paying tribute to those who for one reason or another won’t be with us next season.

 

Steven Gerrard – Heading for MLS. Either one of the greatest players of his generation or the worst human of all time, depending on who you ask, Stevie is a man that splits opinion. One thing you can’t deny though is he has very consistent hair.

 

Frank Lampard – Heading for MLS. Got called fat a lot even though he wasn’t fat (but is still a bit fat for a footballer). Scored loads of goals, rumours that he’s a Tory.

 

Manuel Pellegrini – Will probably get sacked. City want Pep so big Manuel is probably done for sooner or later. Got called a “f**kin old c**t” by Alan Pardew and once wore a hoodie like he was nipping to the shop for milk rather than managing one of the richest clubs in the world.

 

Sam Allardyce – West Ham will probably let his contract run out. There are few finer sights in football than the big man after he’s ‘out tacticed’ one of the league’s elite. If there was an instrument to measure smugness then he’d break it.

 

Radamel Falcao – Heading to the glue factory. Knee injuries and advancing years (some say they’ve advanced more than his passport is letting on) mean that the Colombian’s stay in England has been a massive anti-climax. Another name to add to the lost of South Americans who haven’t quite cut it at Old Trafford.

 

John Carver – Heading for the record books. In years to come when they talk of the worst managers in history, big John and his staggeringly bad stint at Newcastle will be right up there. Great stuff.

 

I’m sure there are others but we all have things to do so let’s wrap it up. Some of you might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the FA Cup but I’ve just found out I’m at a wedding that day so I’m pretending it isn’t happening.

 

Betting Instinct tip – defy Ally by betting on the very real FA Cup Final. Arsenal to win and both teams to score is 2.98 with Intertops.eu

 

Ally avatar ALLY MONCRIEFF is a freelance football writer and editor of All or Nothing magazine. Sometimes even he can’t  tell if he’s being serious or not. Follow Ally on Twitter and maybe he’ll be your friend.

 

 

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.

Burnley Could Be The Team to End Arsenal’s Sequence Of Victories

 

It’s April, Arsenal are second in the Premier League table and have won seven games in a row. Before we begin, it’s probably worth taking a second to let that sink in. After a pretty dreadful start to the campaign, they have somehow managed to string together an impressive amount of victories and, for the most part, performances to match. However, all things must pass.

There’s a reason why a big team away at plucky newly-promoted minnows from Up North is on TV – there’s the hope of an upset. Of course, your dual narrative kills two birds with one stone pretty effectively, but this game is a 5.30 kick-off rather than a lunchtime one for a reason; the floodlights, the chill in the air, the slightly more intoxicated and subsequently louder home crowd – the whole thing is set up rather nicely for a Burnley result.

 

Burnley v Arsenal Betting Odds:

Burnley win 19/4

Arsenal win 53/100

Draw 31/10

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

 

This isn’t to say there is some conspiracy against Arsenal of course – this isn’t that type of website. Both Chelsea and Manchester City already found themselves in similar situations at Turf Moor, with the results rather conveniently reflecting both sides’ respective seasons. Chelsea were exciting to begin with, Diego Costa scored without playing particularly well, then Mourinho went and Mourinho-ed – making his side see out the victory in a more professional, yet unspectacular fashion. Manchester City, meanwhile, were underwhelming and failed to match the standards they set last season.

So what kind of game would be representative of Arsenal’s season? Definitely not a handsome win – certainly not as good as Chelsea’s. Probably a 3-2 win or a 2-2 draw, with the Gunners falling a couple of goals behind early on before roaring back in the second half rather surprisingly.

 

And Arsenal have unquestionably been playing well. With 10 wins in their last 11 league outings, Arsene Wenger’s team have finally played themselves into form and last Saturday was probably the first time that their three best players – Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Alexis Sanchez – all played well in the same game at the same time. However, they’ve also been playing opponents at the right time over the last couple of months.

 

Liverpool were in good form before Manchester United visited Anfield and put a hole in their boat, which enabled Martin Skrtel and captain Steven Gerrard to nobly go down with the ship – both earning themselves three-game suspensions for violent conduct. All this, added to Daniel Sturridge’s injury, allowed Arsenal to steamroller a much weaker Liverpool team than one that would have shown up at The Emirates, say, four weeks earlier.

Everton and QPR were also playing pretty badly prior to their respective fixtures with the Gunners last month. And since Newcastle and West Ham both achieved all their goals (getting enough points to avoid relegation) in the first half of the season, they saw no need for a second, and both allowed Arsenal to stroll away with three points.

 

After spending what felt like the entire Easter weekend trying to bore Tottenham into submission, it’s pretty safe to acknowledge that, comparatively, Burnley aren’t so out-of-form. This isn’t to say they are actually good, mind – they are still second bottom – but as a relatively well-drilled, two-banks-of-four team who have something to play for and aren’t as desperately low on confidence, they may well prove to be Arsenal’s toughest opponents since the North London Derby.

Sean Dyche’s side have unexpectedly tried to fill the spot vacated by Middlesbrough and, more recently, Wigan Athletic, of that side who only seem to take points off big teams. Their record of 10 points against teams in the top seven this season is at least twice the total of anyone else the wrong side of 15th. Despite Sean Dyche having the constant expression of a bouncer of nightclub that’s reached full-capacity before midnight, it’s almost as if Burnley are, in fact, just happy to be here.

 

There aren’t many things more dangerous to a title challenge than a team who seemingly cares more about treasuring their time in the top flight, rather than extending it. Playing Crystal Palace or Hull is meaningless to Burnley – it’ll probably end up being a Championship play-off semi-final in a few seasons anyway – so hosting Arsenal is far more mouth-watering.

Being Arsenal, however, especially in April, is probably one of those few things more dangerous to a title challenge. It was all going so well too. While the rather unrealistic nature of this particular pursuit of the league leaders may be a useful dry-run for next spring, Wenger’s side seem to have developed a bad habit of wetting themselves every time they get within a moderate distance of silverware. This late-season charge from the Gunners really does seem to mirror much of Liverpool’s form at the end of last term, and while the “This Does Not Slip” episode really did set a new bar for hilarious title-bottling, if anyone can better it, Arsenal can.

 

Betting Instinct tip – The score draw is 7.38 with Intertops.eu

 

caolan_avatar CAOLAN COSGROVE writes about football, especially all things Arsenal-related, for BendtOverBackwards, Sabotage   Times and others. Follow him 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.

West Ham want to win the FA Cup; does anyone else?

The fifth round of the FA Cup is just about the time of the competition when neutrals begin to hope that the plucky underdogs are all sent packing. With the semi-finals and final a mere 180 minutes away for some teams, the prospect of a third tier side rolling into Wembley with the intent of killing a game so they can snatch a 1-0 win leaves few salivating at the prospect. Instead the desire is for teams that genuinely want to win a trophy finding a way into the hat for the last eight of the world’s oldest cup competition.

 

FA Cup Outright Betting Odds:

Arsenal 5/2

Manchester United 13/5

Liverpool 19/4

West Ham United 10/1

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

 

Hull and Wigan have shown in recent seasons that second-string teams can make it all the way to Wembley, even when their managers show absolutely no desire to mastermind a cup run. And it’s for that very reason that West Ham United have to beat West Bromwich Albion in Saturday’s early kick-off.

Sam Allardyce’s side were in fourth position in the Barclays Premier League on Christmas Day and some fans were allowing themselves to think of the Champions League as an actual possibility. Seven points from eight league games since December 25th have killed those hopes dead; but replaced them with dreams of a trip all the way to Wembley.

 

The Hammers have got 38 points to their name. They aren’t going down. And though Allardyce isn’t going to let his side slack off – Big Sam is well aware of the difference in prize money (both actual tournament winnings and television revenue) that comes from finishing just one place higher – he has made it clear that he fancies a go at winning some silverware; especially without the baggage of having Andy Carroll in his side.

Allardyce can instead focus his side on playing the vibrant, attacking brand of football that delighted so many of us in the opening weeks of the season; rather than relying on finding the target man with long balls. Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia have been two excellent signings and without Carroll inclusion forcing them to play wider than they would like, both should be able to take on the mantle as West Ham’s main attacking options for the rest of the season.

In their way stand a West Brom side just four points clear of safety. Regardless of how switched on they will pretend to be when Tony Pulis sends them onto the pitch, the whole group have their minds on the trip to fellow strugglers Sunderland in the Premier League next week.

 

Sadly, there isn’t such a simple case to be made in the instance of Arsenal taking on Middlesbrough on Sunday. Neither side would have too many complaints if they ended up going out of the competition this weekend.

With the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League against Monaco looming and Southampton refusing to budge from the top four of the Premier League, Arsenal really don’t need a cup run. Arsene Wenger won a trophy last season so he’s got another five or six years before he really has to win another and his focus will wander elsewhere. He’ll still be able to pick a strong squad but don’t expect to see Ozil, Cazorla and Sanchez all starting together.

The Frenchman will, one would expect, prioritise European qualification for next season and the chance of European glory over the FA Cup. Unfortunately the competition will also fall down the pecking order for the visitors.

 

Middlesbrough are top of the Football League Championship. That’s normally enough to suggest a side as capable of taking a Premier League scalp in the fifth round. However Boro are set to play three league matches in the 10 days after Sunday’s match and with the promised land of the Premier League moving onto the horizon, Aitor Karanka may want to re-evaluate his hopes for the season.

Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Blackpool did see the Spaniard shuffle his pack a little and give a few of his important players a rest, so he may be planning to have a go at Arsenal. But if his side find themselves 1-2 behind with six minutes to go; a late goal to take things back to the Riverside Stadium for a replay won’t be chased as passionately as it could be.

It won’t finish in a draw; that’s the only thing both managers will be keen for. Neither team needs another fixture added to their schedule.

Betting Instinct tip Draw at half-time/Arsenal at full-time is 11/4 with AllYouBet.ag

 

Ryan avatar RYAN KEANEY (ryankeaney) is a huge sports fan who spends most of his week toying around with sports data.  He is the editor of www.thefootballproject.net and a co-editor for In Bed with Maradona. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

In-form Cazorla should relish Liverpool trip

Santi Cazorla will look to pull the strings once more after tearing apart Newcastle United last week

Santi Cazorla will look to pull the strings once more after tearing apart Newcastle United last week

What extraordinary times these are for Liverpool. After coming within one slip of winning a first league title since 1990 last term, they have endured an unimaginably nightmarish first half to this season. Gone is Luis Suárez and, perhaps not coincidentally, gone are the goals. The Reds, so easy on the eye as they powered through the Spring of 2014, are now a team with a distinct lack of direction and one in desperate need of inspiration. They have picked up just 14 points from the last 30 available and have already suffered defeats to the likes of Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Aston Villa. That they have only managed seven league goals all season at Anfield tells its own story.

They have been hit hard by the continued absence of Daniel Sturridge (he has not featured in a Liverpool shirt since August) while summer arrival Mario Balotelli has found life in front of goal difficult. Steven Gerrard’s performances have begun to deteriorate rapidly and Dejan Lovren and Simon Mignolet have suffered horrendous starts to the season. The Reds did manage to negotiate a potential banana skin in Bournemouth in the league cup in midweek, but serious questions still hang over their defensive solidity.

 

A miserable run of form culminating in last Sunday’s dismantling at the hands of Manchester United means they languish in eleventh place in the Premier League but they still have a chance of making the top four – down largely to the inconsistency of those above them more than anything else. The gap currently stands at seven points but it will surely widen quickly unless Liverpool experience a marked improvement in the next few weeks.

But things won’t get any easier for Brendan Rodgers’ men, with Sunday seeing the visit of Arsenal. The Gunners have recovered well since their calamitous defeat at Stoke City, with progression to the knockout stages of the Champions League as well as a convincing defeat over in-form Newcastle achieved since then. Olivier Giroud is back fit and firing and he has injected some much-needed impetus into Arsenal’s season. Problems still abound for Arsène Wenger’s side but for all the talk of crisis at the Emirates, they know a win on Sunday could lift them as high as fourth.

 

Liverpool v Arsenal Betting Odds:

Liverpool win 7/4

Arsenal win 29/20

Draw 23/10

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

 

Arsenal’s fanbase has never been more divided over whether Wenger should remain in charge, but the Frenchman’s skin is thicker than most and he will be focusing solely on the job in hand this weekend. Santi Cazorla turned in a mesmerising performance in the 4-1 win over Newcastle last Saturday and he is likely to start again at Anfield. If he can rediscover his best form after an indifferent start to the campaign then the Gunners will have one of the division’s most exciting number tens. He may have just turned thirty but he still has lots to give and could very well make the difference on Sunday.

Arsenal will remain without Laurent Koscielny and Aaron Ramsey, though, who along with Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Mesut Özil form an extensive injury list. Nacho Monreal will hope to return to the matchday squad while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is a slight doubt.

Liverpool’s injury woes are far less pronounced; apart from long-term absentees Daniel Sturridge and Jon Flanagan, Glen Johnson is their only concern. He will face a late fitness test.

 

Despite Arsenal’s drastically reduced options they still go into this game as overwhelming favourites. A repeat of their last visit to Anfield, when they were blown away with four early goals and went on to lose 5-1, somehow looks unlikely. That was only in February but already it seems an eternity ago. Liverpool’s confidence has been shot to pieces and while Arsenal remain shaky away from home they would be disappointed to come away on the end of a defeat.

We know Liverpool have the players to lift themselves from their current predicament, but it’s increasingly difficult to see where the next win is coming from. If Raheem Sterling can display the same scoring touch he showed at Dean Court on Wednesday then they will have a chance, but the young Englishman has been inconsistent at best this season. A victory on Sunday could definitely provide them with the momentum to start climbing the table but if there’s one word that sums the Reds up at the moment it’s ‘fragile’. Any early setback is likely to derail them, and Arsenal will look to take full advantage of this.

 

Betting Instinct tip Draw at half-time/Arsenal at full-time is 9/2 with Intertops.eu

 

Jack C avatarJACK CHATTERTON is a student and long-suffering Spurs fan, who has written for In Bed With Maradona and  Sabotage Times, among others. You can read his miscellaneous and quite modest blog, or follow him on Twitter

Arsenal’s England stars can overcome Manchester United

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will look to add to his goal for England in midweek

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will look to add to his goal for England in midweek

There was a time when an Arsenal-Manchester United game would provide a strong indication as to which of these two teams would go on to win the title. But those days are long gone; Arsenal’s decline from the very elite of English football has been slow and painful while United’s has been far more pronounced, swift and, dare I say, far more entertaining (from the outside looking in, at least). This lowering of the stakes in recent times has contributed to the feeling that the fixture isn’t what it once was.

However, one gets the impression that more has changed than just the league positions of the sides. Arsenal and United used to provide fiery contests; there existed a real rivalry and a deep-seated hatred between the two. Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira would engage in ninety minute-long sledging matches, both managers would constantly seek to get the upper hand over the other and even a young Cesc Fàbregas once threw a slice of pizza across the tunnel! It was the Premier League at its most intense and, arguably, its most fun and we’ve certainly lost something as, one by one, the protagonists of those fantastic games have departed.

 

Arsenal v Manchester United Betting Odds:

Arsenal win 23/20

Manchester United win 11/5

Draw 23/10

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

 

While far from the big ticket it once was, the fixture remains among the most eagerly-anticipated of the season. And while these two massive clubs are no longer fighting one another for the title, the games are perhaps more intriguing than ever, with this Saturday’s match at the Emirates a case in point. The visitors Manchester United go into the game just a point behind Arsenal in seventh and only two adrift of a Champions League berth. It seems perverse to think that, after such a turbulent start to the season, United should be so close. Manchester City appear the only side capable of mounting a credible title challenge to José Mourinho’s rampant Chelsea so a top-four finish and a return to Europe’s top table for Louis van Gaal’s men this season would surely constitute a success.

The hosts, though, head into the game at something of a crossroads. They have made a disappointing, although not completely disastrous, start to the season and while yet another top-four finish is well within their grasp it looks like any league-winning aspirations they harboured have all but disappeared by mid-November. A red-hot run of form will be required to turn the Gunners into even an outside bet for the title and it’s hard to see where they can acquire that sort of consistency.

 

Still, there would be nothing like a win over United to finally kickstart their season and beside long-term absentees Laurent Koscielny, Mathieu Debuchy, Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck is the only fresh injury doubt for Arsène Wenger to contend with after the international break while Theo Walcott could make his long-awaited return to the starting line-up. What’s more, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will play off the back of excellent performances for England at Celtic Park on Tuesday and Alexis Sánchez will seek to continue his breathtaking form. He has been without doubt the brightest light for Arsenal this season and if Wenger can get Welsh lynchpin Aaron Ramsey back to anywhere near his best by Saturday teatime, their fans will be confident of getting a result. The team certainly owes them a performance after the catastrophic collapse at Swansea a fortnight ago.

They are likely to face a significantly weakened Manchester United side too. The Red Devils will definitely be without Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard while van Gaal will have to check on the fitness of no fewer than eight of his players. Luke Shaw, Michael Carrick, David de Gea and Ángel dí Maria all picked up problems whilst on international duty and face a race against time while Phil Jones, Rafael, Radamel Falcao and Jonny Evans are all returning from longer-term injuries and will have to be assessed closer to the game. At least Chris Smalling is back from suspension though, eh?

 

As for the outcome of the game itself, it is of course extremely difficult to call as with any contest of this magnitude. United have the offensive players to outscore any opposition when they’re in the mood, it’s just hard to gauge when they are going to click. Juan Mata will hope to start in light of United’s injury problems and will have a point to prove having only played a peripheral role so far this term. But it is impossible to ignore the aforementioned injuries; United’s defence in particular has been decimated and it is hard to see how a potential back-five of Lindegaard, Valencia, Smalling, McNair and Blackett would be able to cope with a strong Arsenal side.

There is no doubt that on their day Arsenal possess one of the division’s most potent attacks and this, coupled with United’s crippling injury list, surely makes them favourites. But write United off at your peril; if history has taught us anything it is that games between these two sides can often decided by the tightest of margins.

Don’t expect the most blood-and-thunder of clashes on Saturday. The mood on the pitch at the Emirates is likely to be more cordial than in recent years and we are certainly more likely to see a heartfelt Robin van Persie-focussed reunion in the tunnel before the game than any Keown-esque taunts during it. But we can expect a fantastic match and one which could provide the victor with valuable momentum as we approach a hectic winter schedule.

 

Betting Instinct tip – The last three league meetings between the sides have produced a combined three goals. Back fewer than 2.5 goals at 21/20 with AllYouBet.ag

 

Jack C avatarJACK CHATTERTON is a student and long-suffering Spurs fan, who has written for In Bed With Maradona and  Sabotage Times, among others. You can read his miscellaneous and quite modest blog, or follow him on Twitter

Arsenal face significant Chelsea threat in Sunday’s clash

Can Cesc Fàbregas score his first league goal for Chelsea against his former employers?

Picture it now and it’s difficult to understand how it has happened: a player, playing for a team that he loves, leaves to join the side that he grew up playing for, the only other love in his footballing life. From there, problems occurred, and he had to move on. Who signed him? Only the manager who least symbolises the footballing philosophies of either side that he previously played for, in charge of one of his former club’s greatest rivals.

Cesc Fàbregas will stride out into a stadium on Sunday, wearing a shirt that no one could have pictured him in even a few months ago. He will also emerge from the tunnel as one of the most impressive players thus far in the still young Premier League season.

 

Chelsea v Arsenal Betting Odds:

Chelsea win 13/20

Arsenal win 17/4

Draw 51/20

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

 

The Spain international has been on fire since joining Chelsea, announced his return to the English game in spectacular fashion, laying on a stunning ball for World Cup winner Andre Schürrle to aid Chelsea in their 3-1 defeat of Burnley. Since then, he’s performed consistently brilliantly.

While he has not yet scored for the Blues in the Premier League, he has provided six assists in his first six games for the Stamford Bridge club. Combining in tandem with the similarly sensational Diego Costa, the former Barcelona man has been a key player as Chelsea have stormed to the top of the table.

It seems lazy to focus on Fàbregas when he’s set to face Arsenal, like the sort of thing that anyone previewing  the game could do, but the truth is that he represents one of the greatest threats to his former club in Sunday’s clash.

 

When Arsenal travelled to west London last season, they lost the midfield battle horribly, with their problems in the centre of the park contributing to a huge 6-0 defeat. Since then, Chelsea have only improved their options, with Nemanja Matić continuing his excellent form from the last campaign and the Brazilian Oscar improving his displays.

The addition of Fàbregas to the midfield mix seems to have freed the 23-year-old, who struggled somewhat under the huge creative onus placed upon him by Mourinho last season. Chelsea now possess two seriously dangerous threats in the centre of the park, with Matic also more than a simple bruiser sitting in a deep role.

On the other hand, Arsenal have struggled to put together a consistently impressive unit in the middle this season. Aaron Ramsey has been sublime at times, as he was in the first half of last season, but he will not be available for Sunday’s tie. Jack Wilshere has taken to chasing his own past-ghost around the future-pitch, never quite catching up with his own potential, although he has trained ahead of the tie. Mathieu Flamini, a revelation at the start of the last campaign, simply because he was an actual holding midfielder, is being caught up by his age. Mikel Arteta offers a hypothetical shield, but not a particularly effective actual one.

 

Arsene Wenger’s options are so limited in midfield, in terms of being able to stop an opponent, that he might turn to the apparently fit again Abou Diaby, although the Frenchman could spontaneously combust at any time between now and Sunday and no one would be particularly surprised.

It was never meant to be like this – in 2007, Arsenal climbed back to the top of the Premier League by beating Chelsea 1-0 at home, with a duo of Flamini and Fabregas performing outstandingly in the middle of the park.

The two ex-partners now face off, one a symbol of weakness and the other a symbol of strength.

Wenger also seems undecided on how to line his side up in the middle of the park, and probably needs to stick to the 4-2-3-1 that suits his players best ahead of this game. With Ramsey out injured, he needs to get Mesut Ozil into a central role where, as he proved against Aston Villa two weekends ago, he can conduct an attacking masterclass. If he is, as he was in the early part of the season, shunted out onto the left hand side, it is a waste of his talent and makes Arsenal all the easier to break down.

 

Aside from the potential for a midfield issue for the Gunners, the other most interesting duel will probably be between Diego Costa and Arsenal’s preferred defensive duo of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. The pairing have been repeatedly called one of the best in the league, although neither is particularly built for an out-and-out physical battle, which Costa offers.

There were immediate jokes about the potential for Didier Drogba to strike against Arsenal when he returned to Chelsea, with the Ivorian having held something of a hoodoo over the north London club, but Costa is like Drogba turned up to 11. If Wenger hasn’t adjusted his mindset when it comes to choosing defenders, Costa could plunder like his veteran teammate did in the past. The only plus point for Arsenal is that there remain doubts about the Spain international’s fitness, given his excursions in midweek against Sporting Lisbon and the consistent problems with his hamstring.

At the other end of the pitch, Danny Welbeck offers an interesting proposition for John Terry and Gary Cahill. While the English duo have demonstrated a good understanding, neither is particularly blessed with pace, and if Welbeck can exploit that, Arsenal could receive some joy.

 

The simple reality is that Chelsea should go into this game feeling confident, armed with threats across the pitch (I’ve not even mentioned Eden Hazard, for example), their best players available to them and on good form. It would be no surprise to see Fabregas play the orchestrator in the middle of the park either, reminding his former fans why they still, in the main, hold him in the highest regard.

Arsenal have been decent, but have not looked fluid at any point this season. As they say though, the form book goes out of the window in a derby tie, and if Arsenal can click at Stamford Bridge, it could have huge effect on the course of their season.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Another 6-0 win seems unlikely, but Chelsea to win by 2 or more goals is 8/5 with Intertops.eu

 

amitai avatar AMITAI WINEHOUSE has written for lots of cool places including The Yorkshire Evening Post and The Square  Ball, and is currently studying how to write for places like this one, which seems a bit backwards really. Follow him  on Twitter.