November 29, 2013

If you hate international breaks and just don't feel whole unless Arsenal are playing, I have a Black Friday present for you. Over the next five weeks, Arsenal will play ten matches. The longest you will go without an Arsenal game will be the nine days between the away trip to Manchester City on December 14 and Chelsea at home on December 23.

Yep, it’s that time of year when we have bid adieu to the international breaks and said bonjour to fixture congestion.

It actually started last weekend with a home game against Southampton. The Saints have been one of the stories of the season so far. Ahead of the match, they were sitting fourth in the league just three points behind Arsenal. Not bad for a team who were in England's third division in 2010-11.

They haven't been too shabby on the road either - beating Liverpool at Anfield and drew Man United at Old Trafford. But Emirates – and Olivier Giroud - proved to be another matter entirely. The Frenchman scored twice – including a rather remarkable solo effort in which he pressured Artur Boruc into a big error and tapped the ball into an empty net. Giroud's second came off a penalty when Per Mertesacker was hauled back at an Arsenal corner late in the second half.

Arsène Wenger heaped praise on the striker after the game and described Giroud's style of play as that of the classic England center-forward – a role he is excelling at. "Is he the best in his type of play? I like what he does," said the boss.

Wenger also said that he feels his team are ready for to fight for the title – although he did stress that "We have a long way to go to."

Whenever you see a scoreline like 2-0 you may not realize how tight the game really was. Wenger made it clear that the visitors deserved their position in the table. "We were tested by being challenged for every single ball and we responded quite well."  He also pointed out a key to the win - that Arsenal were able to capitalize on two mistakes.

Doesn’t that always seem to be the difference between a pretender and a title contender? Food for thought.

This brings us to the midweek match against Marseille and another two-goal performance from another Arsenal player. This time it was Jack Wilshere who stepped up – and he did it in style. The Englishman scored a stunning first minute goal and made sure that fans will have plenty to think about when they select a goal of the year at the end of the season.

How good was that goal? Just have a look what the manager said about it a couple of days later.

It looked as though Arsenal were set to run roughshod over the French side, but couldn’t take advantage of a handful of good opportunities. The biggest of those was a penalty miss Mesut Ozil late in the first half. There is always a concern when a player misses a penalty that it will affect his confidence in a very bad way. That concern was perhaps a bit more apparent after some pundits suggested that Ozil had been struggling under the pressure over the last few weeks. Although Wenger was quick to dismiss that notion earlier in the week.

But as the great players usually do, Ozil stepped it up in a big way in the second half. His assist on Wishere's second goal put his unselfish, creative side on full display and almost makes you wonder if that miss could be a catalyst for him stepping up his game even more.

As for Wilshere, it was an eye-opening performance. We have known how good the player is – and how much potential remained for years – but his calmness in front of the goal suggests that he is finally adding the element that has been missing from his game at the senior level.

The timing of that performance couldn't have been much better as Jack sat down with a group of Arsrenal supporters for a Google Hangout at the Club's training facility. You can watch a replay of the chat here. Full disclosure: I am in fact the sleepy American in the panel.

The end result of the win against Marseille is that Arsenal sit in sole possession of first place in Group F with 12 points. The amazing thing is that Arsenal have not even clinched second in the group with that point total. While a draw against Napoli would secure first place for Arsenal in the group of death, there is a chance that a big loss in Italy combined with a Dortmund win over Marseille could see Arsenal miss out on the last 16.

There was some sad news on Thursday. The Club confirmed that Arsenal legend Pat Rice is undergoing treatment for cancer. Fan around the world tweeted their tributes and support to the longtime player and coach.

Looking ahead, Arsenal travel to Cardiff to take on Aaron Ramsey's old team. The Welsh side are full of confidence right now after beating archrivals Swansea and Man United at home over the last few weeks.

The interesting stat for Arsenal is that Cardiff have allowed more shots on target against them than any other team in the Premier League. And as Arsenal should be able to dominate possession, Malky Mackay has his team playing a very disciplined and structured style that has a tendency to cause the opposition all kinds of problems in the midfield – and then leave them open to counter-attacks. To makes matter more complex, they are also a team that excels at set-pieces so Arsenal must stay focused or we could find ourselves behind.

The team news looks good so far with no new injuries since the win against Marseille. Kieran Gibbs should also be back after being sick during the week. Still no return for Lukas Podolski however, as Wenger said the German won't be back for at least three more weeks.

Kick-off is set for 10am ET and the game will be televised in the USA on NBC Sports Network and in Canada on TSN. The fixtures then come thick and fast in December as Arsenal return to Emirates Stadium on Wednesday for a mid-week clash against Hull – and plenty more after that.

Come on you Gunners!

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Kevin Mooney 29 Nov 2013