Another week has passed, as have two Arsenal matches! Hoping to put our West Brom woes behind us, we welcomed Dinamo Zagreb to The Emirates on Tuesday, followed by an awkward trip to Carrow Road on Sunday. Both of these games were important in their own right, one, with our Champions League future in the balance, and two, hopefully being able to keep our noses in and around the Premier League title race. It doesn't help that we have about seven players fit at the moment.
In his pre-Dinamo press conference, Wenger shared his views from our loss in Zagreb two months previous. “We were unlucky on the day as we played with ten men but we should have got a better result.” However, he insisted that despite the obvious difficulties, the team were itching to keep their Champions League hopes alive. “The players like to compete at the top, and we have the ability in the squad to do that.”
And on Tuesday night, the ability he was talking about was there for all to see. The starting eleven was unchanged from the loss at West Brom, bar Joel Campbell coming in for Kieran Gibbs. I think some praise is due here for everyone's favourite Costa Rican (he may not be everyone's favourite Costa Rican), who passed the ball confidently, tracked back well throughout, and provided a gorgeous reversed pass assist for our third goal. The 23 year-old hasn't had it easy at Arsenal, but he's worked hard, remained professional and we could do a lot worse for a fourth or fifth choice right winger.
Campbell aside, undoubtedly the stars of the show were our two most expensive players - Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. After a fairly tepid opening half hour, a lovely move fashioned from deep inside our own half was finished off with a diving header from Ozil, via a perfect Alexis cross. Who'd have thought it, eh? We play some wonderful, intricate one touch football at times, but there's something so satisfying about watching a lightning quick counter attack resulting with the ball in the back of the net. Ya. Mesut. Ya.
From that moment on, our tails were up, and our lead was doubled a few minutes later. Some 'questionable' Dinamo defending allowed the hero that is Nacho Monreal to pounce on a loose ball, who subsequently squared it for Alexis to calmly side-foot home. It was all happening. Tricks, flicks, one-two's, Chilean Jesus neck controlling... It was brilliant. Granted, the opposition weren't of the highest standard, which makes it even more frustrating that we didn't beat them first time around, but when we're in full flow like that it's delicious to watch. Thankfully I did just that, live!
The third and final goal was scored again by Alexis, who lost his markers with some clever movement inside the box, rounded the keeper after latching onto Campbell's Ozil-esque through ball to tap into the empty net. Overall, it was a good win, matched with Bayern doing us a favour and demolishing Olympiakos at The Allianz (shock), and now our task is simple. We must beat the Greek side 2-0. Or 3-1. Or 4-2. Or 4-3! Or... Basically we have to win by two clear goals, or by one clear goal with a scoreline of 3-2 or higher.
You'll all be pleased to know that we've lost all of our last three matches away in Piraeus, but speaking after the game, Wenger was there to give us all a hug and make everything better. "Sometimes when we played at Olympiakos we had already qualified, but this time we go to Olympiakos heading to qualify." It's not going to be easy, but I'm sure we can do it. Just please, no more glorious failures a la Milan, Monaco, Bayern... the list goes on.
The Arsenal were back in action on Sunday travelling away to Norwich, and speaking to the press on Friday, Wenger reflected on a weird afternoon last weekend. "On the day, I must say, everything went against us. They had one shot on target and scored two goals - that will not always happen. And on top of that we missed a penalty and scored an own goal so we had a nightmare on the day". While our nightmare day was acknowledged, the Frenchman was also keen to talk up our performance against Zagreb, saying "but it is how you respond to that and we did that well on Tuesday".
There was again only one change to the starting eleven, this time with the fit again Aaron Ramsey coming in for Joel Campbell on the right hand side. No surprises here, as the boss shared his thoughts on Rambo playing out wide, stating that “Ramsey is more an offensive player, he is not a tactical, defensive player. I will use him there when the game demands". Elsewhere, Flamini continued to partner Cazorla in the middle in Coquelin's absence, with everyone else as they were.
After taking a few minutes to settle down, we controlled the first half as both sides' game plans became evidently clear. Just what we didn't want to see, we saw in the 10th minute as Koscielny was forced off through, you guessed it, INJURY! Looked like a hip/abductor problem at first glance, and we'll all be hoping that it's not a bad one.
After Sanchez and Giroud missed a couple of half chances, we went ahead through our graceful German. John Ruddy kicked poorly under little pressure, as Alexis pickpocketed one of Norwich's midfielders, before playing a perfectly weighted pass for Ozil to dink the ball delicately over the onrushing keeper - a goal 18 months ago he may not have scored. He has now had a hand in 13 goals in his last 12 league games (11 assists and two efforts of his own), not to mention misplacing only one of his 68 passes despite making 57 of them in the Norwich half. He's playing his best ever football in an Arsenal shirt, and is central to pretty much everything good that we do nowadays. Sorry Beyonce, but he is irreplaceable at the moment.
We continued to dominate after the goal, until some sloppy play all around gave Norwich a way back into the game. The tireless Robbie Brady travelled far too long with the ball unopposed, before playing a low pass into the feet of Lewis Grabban who turned and finished to score his first goal since March. Of course. No pressure on the ball at all in midfield, with Gabriel caught too deep and muscled off the ball too easily. Completely avoidable, and it feels like I say that about every goal we concede now.
The second half was not great at all. We had most of the possession, with Norwich looking to counter - just as it was in the first half. Chances were few and far between for both sides, but a save from Cech to prevent a Gabriel own goal was absolutely brilliant. Moments like that are what you pay £10m for. Cazorla played on 'one leg' for most of the second half according to Wenger, but we suffered a huge blow when Alexis came off with half an hour to go after pulling his hamstring. When you look at the amount of football he has played over the last two years it's no surprise, but again, it's like clockwork. Two in, two out. Injuries cause lack of rotation, fit players are overworked due to lack of options, they get injured - it's a cycle.
I blame the black kit, personally. NOT TO MENTION THE FACT THAT WE FLEW TO NORWICH. Outrageous. We probably melted the whole of Antarctica just for a 14 minute flight. Wenger obviously doesn't care about the environment. Too busy pocketing his £8m a year and aiming for 4th place.
Did you know?: November is statistically Arsenal's worst month under Wenger - they average just 1.6 points a game.
Anyway. Thanks to other results going in our favour over the weekend, we somehow remain two points off top spot despite only gaining 2/9 points in November. The Premier League is ridiculously tight at the moment, with only nine points separating 1st and 10th place. As frustrating as our results have been of late, it is exciting having a division as unpredictable as this, where literally everybody can beat everybody. Also, congratulations to Jamie Vardy for scoring in his 11th consecutive game - quite an incredible story when you consider he was playing non-league football three years ago.
The injuries to Koscielny and Cazorla don't look to be too serious, but Alexis' will definitely hurt us as he looks set for a month on the sidelines (which will probably kill him inside). I honestly believe this team is capable of winning the title, but continuously losing key players for lengthy absences reduces our chances of doing so drastically, and it's so, so frustrating. But, when one door closes another one opens, and we need the likes of Giroud and Campbell to step it up now, not to mention that this is a massive opportunity for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to make his presence felt. *cue hamstring injury*
Till next week.
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Olivier Giroud beard update: Things haven't quite gone for him of late, but at least he's still bearded. And gorgeous.