Friday, March 21, 2008

Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Match Preview

The Premier League's second and third placed sides will face off on Sunday as a day of giant battles concludes. North London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea are separated by only two points after a recent slump in the Gunners form, and the Blues could leapfrog the Gunners if they win on Sunday. Manchester United, who sit one place and three points ahead of Arsenal, play Liverpool at Old Trafford earlier the same day.

Arsenal have drawn their last four league games, falling from five points ahead of United to three points behind in four weeks, and would be seen as very long shots to win the title if they fall a further three points behind on Sunday. Although they are short on confidence, the Gunners have proven their worth in big games, beating holders AC Milan in the Champions League in between draws with Aston Villa and Wigan.

Chelsea have won three of their last four games, defeating West Ham, Derby, and Sunderland. The Blues will be gutted after failing to draw level with Arsenal on points against Tottenham midweek, though. Despite leading the game three times (once by a two goal margin) Avram Grant's side was denied three points by a late goal from Robbie Keane. Chelsea will also remember that Arsenal came out 1-0 winners in the reverse fixture at the Emirates this season, and that Arsenal were the last side to defeat the Blues at the fortress that is Stamford Bridge.

Neither team has too many injuries to worry about. Arsenal will be missing Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky, and Eduardo da Silva. Chelsea are likely to be without number one goalkeeper Petr Cech, but have a strong replacement in Carlo Cudicini. Former Gunners striker Nicolas Anelka is also a slight doubt with a minor hamstring injury.

The Arsenal squad is likely to remain unchanged from the side that drew 1-1 with Middlesbrough last week.

Manuel Almunia will remain in goal, behind a defensive line of Bacary Sagna, Kolo Toure, William Gallas, and Gael Clichy. The back line will have a busy day against the likes of Joe Cole, Didier Drogba, and maybe even Nicolas Anelka. The defenders will also have to be strong in defense against set pieces with Frank Lampard a threat in dead-ball situations.

In the midfield Mathieu Flamini will be the invisible wall in front of the back four while Cesc Fabregas and Alex Hleb try to break through the Chelsea defense with their deft passing. Emmanuel Eboue is likely to feature on the right, although he could be replaced by Theo Walcott after an ineffective performance against Boro. The midfield holds the key to victory in this game, and if our midfielders can hold their own against Lampard, Ballack, and Cole, we should be able to win the game.

Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie will start up front again, with the Dutchman finally approaching match-fitness. Hopefully both strikers will regain their form in this game, as a stalwart Chelsea defense which includes former Gunner (C)ashley Cole, Ricardo Carvalho, and John Terry is unlikely to gift many goals.

Sunday's games could be hugely influential in deciding this season's title-winners. If Arsenal can overcome their lack of confidence against the Blues, I believe that they can end Chelsea's unbeaten home record this season. I predict that the Gunners will come out 1-0 victors in a tight game.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Champions League Draw: Arsenal Draw Liverpool

Arsenal failed to avoid Premier League opposition by drawing last year's finalists Liverpool in the Champions League Quarterfinal Draw. The mouthwatering all-English tie is the most competitive of the quarterfinals.

The draw means that Arsenal face a tough three weeks, their next six fixtures looking particularly daunting. In addition to facing Liverpool three times in one week, Arsenal will face off against Chelsea and Manchester United in the next three weeks. The Gunners next six games look like this: at Chelsea, at Bolton, Liverpool, Liverpool, at Liverpool, at Manchester United.

Even with the returns of Kolo Toure and Robin van Persie, Arsenal will have a tough time keeping their squad fit during such an important series of games, and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger may even resort to rotating some of his key players.

Nonetheless, Wenger believes that his team have what it takes to knock Liverpool out of the Champions League, citing the fact that they have already knocked out holders AC Milan.

"Let's give our best," said the manager, "We showed against Milan that when we are at our best we can beat anyone. We just knocked Milan out, who were the holders. That was a big hurdle.

"Now we have the finalists on our route - so why can't we do it again?"

Arsenal fans will be happy to have avoided Premier League title rivals Manchester United and Chelsea, but disappointed not to have drawn foreign opposition. The Gunners are likely to face Chelsea in the next round, as the Blues drew Fenerbahce in the same half of the draw as Arsenal. If Manchester United can beat Roma and the winners of Barcelona and Schalke 04, Arsenal may play English teams for the remaining rounds of the competition.

The full quarterfinal draw:
AS Roma vs. Manchester United
Schalke 04 vs. Barcelona
Arsenal vs. Liverpool
Fenerbahce vs. Chelsea

Roma/Manchester United vs. Schalke/Barcelona
Arsenal/Liverpool vs. Fenerbahce/Chelsea

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Arsenal vs. Middlesbrough: Match Preview

Arsene Wenger will be hoping that Arsenal regain the fine form that saw them defeat AC Milan at the San Siro when Gareth Southgate's Middlesbrough side travels to the Emirates Stadium this Saturday. Middlesbrough will have to pull out a major upset to do the double over Arsenal, but the Gunners current league form leaves something to be desired.

Arsenal have drawn their last three Premier League games in a row, dropping points against Wigan, Aston Villa, and Birmingham. Although the run of draws was interrupted by a fabulous performance in Italy, Arsenal have seen their lead at the top of the table narrowed to two points against opposition with a game in hand.

Middlesbrough have taken a solitary point from their last three games, but still sit five points above the relegation zone. Aston Villa took a point off Boro after a contentious penalty was given to Gareth Barry midweek, and Southgate's side lost to Reading and Liverpool in the two previous weeks.

These results see Arsenal still at the top of the table, while Middlesbrough are not altogether out of relegation danger in 12th. Although the Gunners sit 11 places and 36 points ahead of Boro, the visitors will take some belief out of the fact that Arsenal's only loss this season came at the Riverside against Middlesbrough.

In that game, Middlesbrough took the lead in the 4th minute through a Stewart Downing penalty before doubling their lead in the 74th after a goal from Tuncay Sanli. Tomas Rosicky scored a consolation goal for the Gunners in stoppage time, as Arsenal lost 2-1 at the Riverside.

Neither team has any serious injury worries. Abou Diaby and Theo Walcott are likely to return for Arsenal, although Eduardo da Silva and Tomas Rosicky will both watch the game from the stands. Andrew Taylor, Middlesbrough's only injured player, is a doubt for the fixture, but could feature in some small part.

Kolo Toure and Robin van Persie both returned for the Gunners in substitute appearances against Wigan and may be fit enough to start against Boro this week.

Manuel Almunia will start in goal for Arsenal, behind Bacary Sagna, William Gallas, and Gael Clichy. If Kolo Toure is match-fit he should start alongside Gallas in central defense, although Philippe Senderos may feature instead.

In the midfield Emmanuel Eboue should rejoin Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, and Alex Hleb after serving out his suspension. Fabregas, Flamini, and Hleb will be looking to boss around the Boro midfield with their deft passing.

Robin van Persie could be reunited with Emmanuel Adebayor up front, although depending on the Dutchman's fitness level Nicklas Bendtner could start in his place. Either way the strike pairing will be looking to put a few goals past a Middlesbrough defense that has allowed 43 goals in 29 games this season.

Arsenal should get out of their drop in form during this game, putting them in prime position to challenge Chelsea at Stamford Bridge next weekend. I predict a 2-0 home win.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Wigan vs. Arsenal: Match Review

Arsenal's title push suffered a big blow as the league leaders dropped two points away at Wigan. The Gunners are now two points ahead of Manchester United, but the Red Devils have a game in hand.

Arsenal were a far cry off of the heights they reached in a 2-0 victory over AC Milan in the Champions League midweek. The Gunners didn't have a large edge over Wigan in possession and failed to manage any clear cut chances, although it must be said that Wigan keeper Chris Kirkland performed admirably to keep the fixture goalless.

Wigan: Chris Kirkland; Emerson Boyce, Mario Melchiot, Erik Edman, Paul Scharner; Michael Brown, Jason Koumas, Antonio Valencia, Wilson Palacios; Marlon King, Emile Heskey

Arsenal: Manuel Almunia; Bacary Sagna, William Gallas, Philippe Senderos, Gael Clichy; Alex Hleb, Mathieu Flamini, Cesc Fabregas, Gilberto Silva; Nicklas Bendtner, Emmanuel Adebayor

Arsenal started the match brightly and could have been 1-0 ahead within a minute had Wigan goalkeeper Chris Kirkland not stuck out his foot to block a shot from Emmanuel Adebayor.

Mathieu Flamini won a free-kick on the edge of Wigan's penalty box two minutes later, but a kick from Cesc Fabregas was easily cleared away.

The Gunners continued to press forwards and Kirkland was forced into another smart save when he tipped a shot from Nicklas Bendtner over the post.

Bendtner should have scored for the Gunners in the 16th minute after being put through on goal by Cesc Fabregas, but the talented young Dane completely missed the ball which rolled harmlessly out for a goal kick.

Wigan's only real chance of the first-half came after Emile Heskey was chopped down 25 yards from goal. Jason Koumas took the resulting free-kick but saw his effort cleared away by Gilberto. The clearance fell to Michael Brown who audaciously attempted to score with an acrobatic effort from outside the penalty box.

Fabregas almost scored with a header but Kirkland got down well to once again keep the match drawn going into halftime.

Arsenal came out strongly in the second half, dominating the opening as they had in the first. Kirkland again saved from Adebayor after a mix up between Kirkland and his defenders gifted the ball to the lanky Togolese striker.

Wigan were lucky not to be a goal down moments later when Cesc Fabregas incorrectly chose to square the ball to Bendtner when he was in a great scoring position himself. His pass to the young Dane was cut out by a defender in a huge let-off for the home side.

The visitors began to lose their grip on the game when Antoine Sibierski came on for Emile Heskey in the 55th minute. The big Frenchman was in the action straight away, winning a corner for Wigan after seeing his shot deflect off of William Gallas.

Antonio Valencia was becoming a nuisance for the Gunners and the winger forced Manuel Almunia into a great save with a serving 25-yard drive.

Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger made a double-switch in the 65th minute, bringing on Robin van Persie and Kolo Toure, two players who have not featured much for Arsenal this year.

Van Persie blazed a shot over the bar with seven minutes to go as it became clear that the game would end in a goalless draw.

Arsenal's final chance came after a nice move from Emmanuel Adebayor set Cesc Fabregas up in the box. Chris Kirkland came out quickly though, and the move was smothered as Arsenal were forced to settle for a solitary point from the game.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Arsenal's Title Rivals Beaten In Two Shockers

Arsenal's two title rivals were both beaten in the FA Cup today in what turned out to be a shocking day of results.

Manchester United, who sit one point behind Arsenal in the Premier League, fell to Portsmouth after losing both of their goalkeepers. Edwin van der Sar was substituted out with an injury after halftime and his replacement, Tomasz Kuszczak was sent off after bringing down Milan Baros in the box. Rio Ferdinand took up the gloves between the United sticks, but was unable to stop Sulley Muntari's free-kick.

It was a huge loss for United who dominated in terms of possession and shots, but were wasteful in front of goal. To be fair, United should have been awarded a penalty of their own when Cristiano Ronaldo was taken down by Sylvain Distin in the first half.

Even more incredibly, Chelsea fell 1-0 to Championship side Barnsley. Barnsley, who are only four points above the relegation zone in England's second league, have proven to be the shock of the FA Cup after making Chelsea their second 'big four' conquest of the tournament (the Tykes also beat Liverpool in the same competition).

The normally lethal Nicolas Anelka missed chance after chance for Chelsea, and the Premiership boys seemed to have a difficult time playing on Barnsley's rough pitch. Goalscorer Kayode Odejayi jumped over Carlo Cudicini in the 66th minute to head home the only goal of the match.

Portsmouth and Middlesbrough are the only Premiership teams left in the FA Cup, with West Brom, Bristol Rovers, Cardiff, and of course Barnsley, the other competitors.

The losses will not be conductive to strong morale amongst the Premier League's second- and third-placed teams, and with Arsenal playing Wigan tomorrow the Gunners trophy aspirations look like they could be coming to fruition. United and Chelsea cannot slip up if Arsenal, as is to be expected, take three points from Wigan.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

More Injury Woe For Arsenal

Premier League leaders Arsenal have lost another two players to injury at a crucial time of the season.

Abou Diaby injured his calf in Tuesday's 2-0 Champions League victory in Milan and will miss this weekend's trip to Wigan. The Frenchman, who only recently returned from a long injury picked up on international duty, is not expected to be out for too long.

Theo Walcott has also picked up a thigh injury while playing in a behind-closed-doors friendly against Colorado Rapids. The England youngster, who has been growing in stature in recent games, will also miss the Wigan match, although his recovery should also not take too long.

"From Tuesday night we lost Abou Diaby," Arsene Wenger told Arsenal TV Online. "He has got a problem on his calf. Today we also lost Theo Walcott. He played against Colorado Rapids and he got a little thigh problem."

Robin van Persie also featured in the game against the Rapids, playing 60 minutes and coming through unscathed. The injury-prone striker is not expected to start against Wigan, although he is likely to make an appearance from the bench.

African duo Kolo Toure and Alex Song could also feature against Wigan, although it appears unlikely following Wenger's comments on ATVO.

The Arsenal boss said: "Robin played an hour and he looks OK. But it looks early for him – he finished the game very tired today so I will have to analyse that. We have a little chance to get Kolo back in the squad and a little, little chance to get Song back."

In other news, Tomas Rosicky is still more than a week away from a recovery. The Czech Republic star is expected to return in 10 or 12 days. Wenger will be hoping that the 27-year-old will be available in time for the Gunners game against Chelsea on March 23.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Wigan vs. Arsenal: Match Preview

Arsenal travel to the JJB Stadium this Sunday to face off against relegation-threatened Wigan. Steve Bruce's Latics, who are currently 14th in the Premier League, would consider any point(s) taken from their clash against the league leaders a good haul, but will face an uphill battle against the impressive Gunners. Arsenal currently sit at the top of the Premier League table, one point ahead of last season's champions, Manchester United.

Wigan are on a run of decent home form, having won their last two home games against West Ham and whipping boys Derby, after losing 2-1 to Everton and Chelsea. The Latics also held Manchester City to a goalless draw last week, although they lost to Sunderland last month.

Arsenal's recent league form is nothing spectacular, with draws against Aston Villa and Birmingham narrowing the Gunners' buffer at the top of the table to a solitary point. The Gunners have won only one of their last five games, defeating AC Milan midweek after drawing with Birmingham, Villa, and Milan, and losing to Manchester United in the FA Cup.

The Gunners will be high on morale after defeating European champions Milan in the Champions League, becoming the first English side to defeat the Italian giants at the San Siro in European competition. An impressive showing from all of Arsenal's young stars in Italy was capped by a superb solo goal from Cesc Fabregas and a stoppage-time second from Emmanuel Adebayor.

The Arsenal squad will also be boosted by the returns of Robin van Persie, Tomas Rosicky, and Kolo Toure; all of whom could feature against Wigan. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will still be without Johan Djourou, Alex Song, and Eduardo.

Only two Wigan players, Ryan Taylor and Erik Hagen, are injury doubts, although both could feature against the mighty Gunners.

Manuel Almunia will start in goal for the Gunners behind a fairly solid back four of Bacary Sagna, William Gallas, Philippe Senderos, and Gael Clichy. Although Kolo Toure may be fit in time for the clash, Wenger is unlikely to risk starting the Ivorian against team with as little goalscoring threat as Wigan.

Mathieu Flamini, Cesc Fabregas, and Alex Hleb are all likely to start in midfield although the final spot (or two spots, depending on Wenger's formation) is less easy to decide. Emmanuel Eboue or Theo Walcott could be played on the right or left wings respectively, with Alex Hleb playing as a second striker behind Emmanuel Adebayor. Alternatively, Tomas Rosicky, if fully fit, could feature in place of either Walcott or Eboue.

If Robin van Persie is fit, Arsene Wenger will likely play his team in a 4-4-2 leaving out either Eboue or Walcott and moving Hleb out to one of the wings. Van Persie is unlikely to start, though, as he is most likely not yet match fit. Emmanuel Adebayor is a sure starter up front, and Wenger may even play him alongside Nicklas Bendtner against a Wigan squad which lacks in firepower.

Arsenal defeated Wigan 2-0 earlier in the season, and should do even better this time around. Full of confidence, the Gunners will be expected to rout the Latics. I predict a 3-0 win for the visitors.