The first question that popped into my head when I woke up this morning was “Will I get to celebrate St. Totteringham’s Day today?”. For the second season in a row, it has come down to the final round of fixtures to decide who finishes above whom in the North London battle for supremacy.
But apart from the bragging rights available in town, the bigger prize is that of qualification to the Champions League, something that not only promises financial rewards, but also helps attract players and keep the best existing players in the squad, er, yeah it really does!
This season has been hard. Starting off with the sale of the Dutch traitor to Manchester United to the incredible 7-5 win at Reading, getting knocked out of the League Cup against Bradford, before being humbled at home by Championship strugglers Blackburn Rovers, topsy turvy league form, a heroic performance in Munich and some rallying victories towards the fag end of the season. Another typical Arsenal season of trials, hits, misses, frustrations and tribulations.
Arsenal’s league form, in mid March, however, has slightly improved and the side now finds itself unbeaten in 9 league games, in which they garnered 2 home draws against Everton and Manchester United, apart from 7 wins.
To be honest, the 7 wins were close ones, including the 2-1 win at West Brom, the 3-1 revival against Norwich, 1-0 scrapes against Fulham and QPR, while the 4-1 beatings of Reading and Wigan added some gloss. Most games have been close, and nerve wracking right till the end.
This is something that definitely needs fixing over the summer. Arsenal managed to outpass their opponents for good part of the first half in most of the games I just mentioned, and even found themselves a goal ahead, but either failed to capitalize on the good starts or didn’t build on the one goal leads they took and found themselves in sticky situations, with last minute clearances, nerve wracking tackles and the sort.
Anyways, it was this series of results that have put Arsenal in pole position to finish in the top 4, at 70 points, with Tottenham on 69, and a chance to pip Chelsea, who face Everton at home, who are on 72 points.
There is still a possibility that this could not end up being the final competitive game of the season, with the Premier League proposing a play-off between Chelsea and Arsenal at Villa Park on 26th May 2013. Of course this game would be required only if the scenario of both sides ending up with the same points, goal difference, goals scored and goals conceded arises.
Chelsea have scored 73 goals and conceded 38, while the Gunners have scored 71 and conceded 37. Goal difference stands at +35 and +34 respectively, and I really wouldn’t mind having the play-off, as an extension to the season. Atleast the summer would feel a bit shorter. Being an Arsenal fan, I would however take a 4th place finish today gleefully, but Arsene Wenger really does fancy a play-off match.
If last season’s final day is anything to go by, it promises to be nail biting for sure. Arsenal traveled to West Brom with 67 points on the board, while Sp*rs hosted Fulham. Arsenal knew a win would ensure 3rd place, and took the lead in as early as the 2nd minute through Israel captain Yossi Benayoun thanks to comical goalkeeping from Martin Fulop.
But, within minutes, Arsenal were down 2-1 down thanks to some calamitous defending, which had become the norm last season. However, a certain Andre Santos made it 2-2, more thanks to Sir Martin Fulop. He came to Arsenal’s rescue again, and for a moment looked like he was possessed by the ghosts of Almunia and Fabianksi, when he came forward, flapped at the ball, allowing Laurent Koscielny to score the winner in the 54th minute.
While Sp*rs ensured a comfortable 2-0 win, Arsenal had to deal with bit nails and shivering hands, as Kieran Gibbs made a season changing 89th minute tackle, which prompted an impromptu hug between Arsene Wenger and Pat Rice. Aaaw! And, so we celebrated St. Totteringham’s day by throwing Pat Rice into the warm Birmingham sunlight, as the Dutch cunt applauded the travelling Arsenal support.
It was almost done and dusted, the race for Champions League spots last season, with Sp*rs enjoying a 10 point lead when they visited the Emirates in late February. However, a 5-2 mauling revived a faltering Arsenal and demoralized the chokers to such an extent that they barely recovered.
Right, enough of the history lesson, and let’s have a look at today’s opponents. Newcastle have had a mixed season. After the high of finishing 5th, when they took the league by storm, they find themselves in 13th position, and recently escaped relegation fears.
Manager Alan Pardew, who was the Manager of the Year, has found it hard to keep the same flow of results as last season. In the process he has lost his star striker Demba Ba to Chelsea, while also having to deal with unhappy Argentine captain Fabricio Collocini.
On the positive side, he has managed to attract half the France international side to the North East in the January transfer window. No, really. Right back Mathieu Debuchy joined from Lille for £5.5 million, centre back Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, last seasons title winning captain from Montpellier for £6.7million, left back Massadio Haidara from Nancy for £2 million, winger Yoan Goufrran from Bordeaux for £1.4 million and bustling midfielder Moussa Sissoko from Toulouse for £2.1 million, to add to an already existing French contingent of Gabriel Obertan, Hatem Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye, Romain Amalfitano and Sylvain Marveaux.
It has been a transitional season for the Magpies, and they face a massive summer as they prepare for next season. When the sides met back in December, it was a 7-3 thriller, with the second half proving to be one of the best attacking halves of Premier League football this season.
Walcott provided Arsenal the lead in the 20th minute, after being put through, before Demba Ba levelled matters in the 43rd minute. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain made it 2-1 after the break, before Marveaux’s tap in made it 2-2. Lukas Podolski gave Arsenal the lead in the 64th minute, but Demba Ba pegged the Gunners back within minutes.
Arsenal ran riot after that, with the introduction of Olivier Giroud, who scored a brace, and Walcott completing his hat-trick to make it 7-3 within the space of 20 minutes, and it could have been more had Giroud not struck the post.
Right, team news then. Mikel Arteta is a major doubt for the game with a calf strain, and Jack Wilshere is the favorite to start in his place. With the manager clearly having lost faith in Francis Coquelin, it will be interesting to watch if he plays Wilshere or captain Thomas Vermaelen, in a position where has almost never played before in. Wilshere faces a surgery very soon, and the captain has found himself out of favor in recent times.
Apart from that, Olivier Giroud is back in the squad after serving his suspension, and there will also be the left-back decision to make. Nacho Monreal has proved to be a very competitive and combative player, while Gibbs has maintained consistency recently.
For Newcastle, Tim Krul is injured while Rob Elliot is suspended after last week’s red card, which he received for handling the ball outside the area, against QPR. This means Steve Harper will be handed a start. The stage is set for him to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Martin Fulop. Harper, who has been at the club since 1993, will be playing for the last time in Newcastle colors.
Midfielder Cheikh Tiote (hamstring) was forced off early in the win over QPR last time out, but is expected to be fit to start. However, fellow enforcer Moussa Sissoko, striker Shola Ameobi and defender Ryan Taylor (all knee) are out. Davide Santon (hamstring) is back in training and could come back into contention, whilst Steven Taylor (illness) and Massadio Haidara (hamstring) could also return to the first-team squad.
Here is how I expect the teams to line up.
Newcastle look like a balanced side, but they are more imbalanced than it seems. Ridden with poor positioning and an error strewn defence, Arsenal will have to capitalize on these deficiencies that Newcastle possess.
Newcastle’s strength is their unpredictable style of play, with spontaneous players like Hatem Ben Arfa, Papis Cisse, Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye. Again, a quick start and a second goal before half time should help calm down nerves and ensure a relaxed second half, against a side that have little impetus to garner a result.
I prefer Lukas Podolski instead of Olivier Giroud up front. In the Champions League game against Montpellier, Giroud was well marshaled by Yanga-Mbiwa, and Mathieu Debuchy, his international teammate, er, knows the inside out of Giroud’s play. I am of course referring to the French kiss between Giroud and Debuchy, in an international game between France and Germany.
The other reason being, Podolski looks like he can lead the line, with his midweek brace against Wigan. Giroud would be a good option to get off the bench, if Arsenal can utilize his mobility and physicality to good effect.
One must remember that couple of seasons back Arsenal gave up a 4-0 lead, to draw 4-4 and drew again last season, on the first day of the campaign. It could be a fight to the finish for 4th spot!
Enjoy the game wherever you are!
Jai Arsenal 🙂
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