December 6, 2013

“The next eight or so games could decide our season so it is important we keep it going."

That was Kieran Gibbs after Arsenal's 3-0 win over Cardiff in Wales. It takes no more than a quick look at the upcoming fixture list to know what Gibbo said is very true. In the run up to Christmas Arsenal play Everton, Napoli, Man City and Chelsea, and I think you would hard pressed to find a tougher series games anywhere in the League – and maybe even in all of Europe.

And last week may have been the perfect warm-up to those games. The trip to Wales was always going to be tricky. The red Bluebirds have a solid squad, fantastic supporters, and have played well against the big clubs – especially at home.

But Arsenal have Aaron Ramsey.

The former Cardiff player continued his blistering form by netting twice -- including a beautifully headed goal from near the penalty spot. The assist came from Mesut Ozil who also created the second goal – a rocket of a shot by Mathieu Flamini.

But Ramsey was certainly the man of the hour. The Cardiff fans gave him a great reception and celebrated his goals -- even though he did not. And Wenger couldn’t praise Ramsey enough. "I was a midfielder and I would have loved to have what he has," said the manager. "He can defend, he can attack, he can score goals - what more do you want? And he's young - another quality that I have lost as well."

Mikel Arteta backed up the manager's sentiments. "I think it was a total performance," he said. "He [Ramsey] helped the team a lot defensively, obviously he's got the energy to get in the box and both finishes are top drawer."

How good - and important to the team - has Rambo been? He just picked up his fifth straight Arsenal Player of the Month Award.

The player who came in second place for the November award also really stood out against Cardiff - Wojciech Szczesny. The Pole made a spectacular save on Fraizer Campbell and kept his sixth clean sheet in seven games. That means that he only conceded one goal in the entire month of November.

And yet, Szczesny put the credit on Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. “If one of [Laurent or Per] is not nominated for Player of the Month I will be amazed,” he said. “We have conceded one goal in November. We have been great and playing behind [all four of] them is a pleasure for me."

Next up was a midweek match against another newly promoted side -- Hull City. Much like Cardiff, the Tigers have had some decent form, but it's been a bit of a roller coaster. A week after losing to Crystal Palace at home, they shocked Liverpool 3-1. In addition to giving us some breathing room at the top of the table, the win gave Arsenal a strong warning that this team is capable of doing some damage.

But the Hull game also gave Arsène Wenger an opportunity to do something he's been trying to do for several weeks: rotate the squad. “We have so many games that in some positions I will have to change; the full-back position is one that is very demanding." Lo-and-behold, Carl Jenkinson got a start at right-back and Nacho Monreal started on the left side.

The boss also said that his starting central defenders are less in need of a break, a fact that doesn’t bode well for Thomas Vermaelen's hopes of getting in a game. But Wenger addressed how difficult it is for him as a manager to leave the Belgian out. "Because of his quality, his attitude and his influence at the club. It is a difficult decision because he is a top-class player. He certainly suffers but he handles it with great dignity and great professionalism.”

But another player who did get a much-needed break was Olivier Giroud. And he was replaced by one Nicklas Bendtner.

Nicky B has had a tough time winning over the fans, so the team sheet was greeted with a bit of surprise and some wisecracking by many fans. And then in almost storybook fashion, the Dane scored within two minutes - a headed effort off a perfect cross from Jenkinson.

Considering how much Arsenal dominated the game, it was a bit surprising that we didn’t get a second in the first half. But within two minutes of the re-start, Ozil doubled the lead courtesy of Ramsey. That makes four goals and six assists in 16 games (not counting that League Cup game.)

After the game Wenger discussed starting Bendtner, and as he so often does, made a really good point: "I made him sign a long contract twice so that means I always believed in his qualities." The manager also said, "It's good to see that we can rely on him and he can come up with a performance."

It goes back to a thought some of us had when the transfer window closed. If Bendtner can re-discover the form he had a few years ago and stay focused on his job, there is no reason why he can’t be that back-up striker that we really need. In fact, Jenkinson essentially said as much. "He's looked sharp in training and I think he really stepped up to the mark [against Hull] and the boys were saying how well he's done. Obviously that's fantastic for us because we know when he puts his mind to it he's top drawer."

What also stood out against Hull were the supporters at Emirates Stadium. In fact, prior to the game, Wenger praised the home fans. “It will be a massive advantage because when we have a difficult patch during a game, our fans feel it and support in response."

The home fans will get another chance to impress on Sunday when Arsenal host Everton. The Toffees are in excellent form this season and currently sit in fifth place, just behind Liverpool on goal differential. Roberto Martinez has done a fantastic job and the addition of Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku has done wonders. He has eight goals in just 11 games and has the ability to use both pace and power to break through opposing defenses.

Everton have become a possession-oriented team and will look to give Arsenal trouble from the flanks. However, they recently suffered a big blow when they lost Leighton Baines to injury. But while it is a significant loss, they can more than make up for his abilities in other areas.

For Arsenal, there is no real new team news. The names on the teamsheet should be very similar to the one that faced Hull, although the starting XI and bench will likely have a very different look. The big news is that Lukas Podolski is back in full training, but Wenger says he is "still a bit short of match fitness." Still, it's a big lift when you consider those upcoming fixtures.

Game time is 11am ET and the match will be televised on NBC Sports Network in the USA and on Sportsnet World in Canada. Arsenal then pack their bags and head to Italy to take on Napoli is a hugely important test in the Champions League. Any positive result on Wednesday would see us win our group, but a three goal loss combined with a Dortmund win against Marseille could see us miss out on the knockout stages. Make your plans now, because things are really about to kick into high gear.

Come on you Gunners!

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Kevin Mooney 6 Dec 2013