October 25, 2013

Injury. Fatigue. Killing momentum.

Three ways that an international break can disrupt a squad. And Arsenal supporters have seen it happen more than once.

Oddly enough, that did not happen this time around. Quite the opposite in fact.

Last weekend Arsenal players returned from some high-stakes World Cup qualifiers to take on Norwich at Emirates Stadium. The first bit of good news came with the team sheet: Santi Cazorla would get his first start for the Club since September 1.

If there were any concerns that the Spaniard would need some time to regain his form, those were eased in the 18th minute when he played a role in one of the most spectacular team goals anyone has ever seen. Cazorla, Jack WIlshere and Olivier Giroud put on a show with their one-touch passing before Wilshere broke through and tapped home the opener.

Cazorla was also involved in the second goal – Mesut Ozil's first headed goal – before taking a seat around the hour-mark. But the highlight reel didn't stop there. Aaron Ramsey scored his 11th of the season with a fantastic solo effort and then set up Ozil's second of the afternoon five minutes later. 

While each of the goals were really, really pretty, that first goal was goal of the year material. Arsène Wenger put it this way:

"This one was a mixture of technical quality, speedy thinking, quick reaction and as well being calm in front of goal. It had nearly everything you want to have, combined speed and calm and relaxed attitude. It was a great goal. I think we have scored some good goals this season already. All the goals were great, but the first was exceptional because it was improvised, combination play."   

It's somewhat surprising that Ozil was not involved in that one. Although he was certainly impressed. The German described the goal as "unbelievable" and said it looked "almost like they were playing PlayStation!"

Ramsey discussed the one-touch passing after the game. He used words like "perfect" and "breathtaking," but also said "we practice those sort of things in training." So, you know… just another day at the office.

The win pushed Arsenal to the top of the league with a two-point cushion over Chelsea and Liverpool. And Ramsey said the team knows what they must do to stay at the top. "We need to make sure we give everything in every game and not hold back and think any match is going to be easy," said the Welshman.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Arsenal if there was no black cloud hanging over the day. This time it took the form of Mathieu Flamini picking up a mild concussion toward the end of the first half. Granted, it was really small black cloud – his replacement in the game was Ramsey after all. Still, Flamini's clash of heads with a Norwich player would end up keeping him out of the midweek Champions League clash against Dortmund – although Wenger confirmed it was strictly as a precaution. But doesn't it just figure that we make it through an international break without any new injuries and this happens?!?

The Frenchman has played a big, big role since returning to the Club in August. And losing him ahead of our toughest competition of the season was a bit of a bad omen. Although, perhaps not how Wojciech Szczesny set things up in the press conference on Monday:

“Certainly Lewandowski is one of the best you can find in Europe so he will be dangerous, but we played against them before [in 2011] and we've handled him quite well so I hope we can do that again."

 D'oh.

The Polish keeper's good friend scored the winner for Borussia Dortmund in the 82nd minute despite Arsenal looking like the better team through much of the second half.

Granted, the first half was a different story. Borussia Dortmund settled quickly and were dangerous from the get-go. One of Dortmund's key summer signings Henrikh Mkhitaryan gave them the early lead before Olivier Giroud grabbed the equalizer a few minutes before the break. It wasn't until Cazorla came on for Wilshere around the hour-mark that Arsenal started to turn it around.

But Lewandowski's goal against the run of play did us in and left the manager and the squad disappointed. "If you cannot win the game, you don't lose it," said Wenger after the game. Mikel Arteta added,"It was when we had control of the game and created the best chances when we just got caught on the counter-attack. That was disappointing."

While it was just one game, those points could prove very costly. Had Arsenal held on for the draw, they would be sitting at the top of Group F, one point above Napoli and two above Dortmund rather that in a three-way tie.

Rambo thought they did enough to at least get that point, but said the team "switched it off for 30 seconds."

"We were in control of the game, we didn't look like we were going to concede, but then we did. That's what happens [when you switch off]."

Despite the loss, there is definitely still an air of confidence around the squad. Jack insists Arsenal will bounce back in the return leg, and said "There are three games left, and nine points to play for, so it's still in our hands. We know what we have to do."

Giroud echoed that sentiment and immediately turned his focus to Saturday.

Arsenal cross the Thames on Saturday to take on Crystal Palace. The newly-promoted Eagles are having a tough time in the Premier League so far. Their only win has come against the only team below them in the table – Sunderland. They also have the second-worst defensive record in the league. To make matters worse for them, Palace will be without a manager for this game after they parted ways with Ian Holloway on Wednesday.

But then again… Palace parted ways with Ian Holloway on Wednesday. Managerial moves always do seem to bring out the best in some teams don’t they? Besides, they are a tough team – they are among the league leaders in winning aerial duels and have made more tackles than any other team.  They also feature a former Arsenal player in Marouane Chamakh – and you know how much players like to score against their old clubs. Combine all of that and it sounds like you could have a recipe for a cheeky upset.

The good news for Arsenal is that Flamini will return to the squad to provide more steel. The only other question mark is on Wilshere, who picked up an ankle knock against Dortmund and will probably be a late decision.

It's a lunchtime kickoff in London, so that means an early start for supporters on this side of the pond. You can find the game on NBCSN in the USA and Sportsnet in Canada. For those of you hoping to meet up with fellow Gooners at your local, you had best check to make sure they are open!

 Come on you Gunners!

Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source Kevin Mooney 25 Oct 2013