The business end of the World Cup is here. We may be three quarters of the way through the matches already, but with half the teams now gone, the real football starts – exhilarating knockout competition, drama, heartbreak, and of course, penalties.

It took only one match before we went the distance, with Brazil and Chile serving up a wonderful game that in truth, either could have won. Brazil will feel hard done by that Hulk’s goal was disallowed for handball, and they had the tired Chileans on the ropes at times, but Chile were also impressive, and nearly snatched it in the dying seconds of injury time, Pinilla smashing Cesar’s crossbar. Chile missed their first two penalties, only for Willian and Hulk to match them, so it all came down to the final pair. Neymar, with all the pressure of Brazil on his shoulders, did the stuttering run up that so often leads to failure, but calmly slotted it away, before Jara hit the inside of the post to send the hosts through.

In truth, Brazil just about edged it and deserved to progress, and their presence as host nation only enhances what has been the best World Cup I can remember since the first one I was really aware of – Italia 90. All of the top teams have flaws, most of the supposed weaker teams have turned out better than expected, and as a result there has barely been a dull moment (at least, outside Belgium’s group). As a competition, it is wide open, with no single team emerging as clear favourites. Chile coming so close to knocking Brazil out shows exactly what can happen, and I’d expect a number of surprising results over the coming days.

As far as Arsenal interest goes, the game also signals the end of Alexis Sanchez’s involvement, and with him set to leave Barcelona this summer, our interest seems inevitable and genuine. The trouble is that we are far from alone, and Liverpool may hold the prize card if Barcelona want to offer a sweetener in their chase for everyone’s favourite excuse-creating racist biter, Luis Suarez. There are, as always, a load of newspapers and reporters EXCLUSIVELY revealing that he has signed for about five different teams – as always, Arsenal are tight-lipped until the deal is practically done, so my advice would be to ignore the myriad of unreliables and wait for something more official.

As for Suarez, it turned out he went home only a day before his teammates, as Uruguay were comfortably dismissed by the increasingly impressive Colombians in the second of the all South American encounters. All the talk is of the continued brilliance of James Rodriguez, whose stunning volley and completion of a brilliant team move not only took his country to a mouthwatering quarter final against the host nation, but also propelled him to the top of the scoring charts, having already scored in each of Colombia’s previous three victories.

But in truth, Colombia are far more than the abilities of a few superstars – they are a team in the truest sense, knitted together in attitude and tactics, and as a result have scored a few of the most unselfish goals of the tournament, with players regularly passing up a chance of personal glory for a better placed teammate. No wonder Wenger, who values that trait above most, was purring as he provided analysis on French television.

Later today, Netherlands face Mexico and Costa Rica play Greece in the most unlikely of matchups. The only Arsenal interest is Joel Campbell, who will look to further impress against the Greeks.

As for other Arsenal news, it is deathly quiet. There are already dissenting voices, raised whenever a rival signs a player, but we cannot judge Arsenal’s summer by the actions of others – we have to make sure that the right additions are made in good time, but June is too early to be writing that off. It is a strange juxtaposition when people demand we sign players from the World Cup and then show frustration at the lack of action before those players have made it home. Makes no sense.

However, we already know that United, City and Chelsea will strengthen. Liverpool will buy (and have), although the way they handle Suarez will determine whether you can say they’ve actually gotten better or worse. We also need to improve, but I’m not about to panic when the transfer window isn’t even open yet.

Frankly, I’m too busy enjoying the World Cup.

 

One of my personal traditions for the World Cup is to spice it all up a bit with a few bets. I know many are the same – if you’re going to sit up until 2am to watch Ivory Coast face Japan you might as well have something riding on it, right?

In 2010 I placed ten pre-tournament bets and then one more on each match, and I’ll be doing the same this year. As always, you can follow along on Twitter and chuckle at my missteps, or see how I’m doing on the panel over to the right.

2010 betting tips (these went quite well)

So, what ten pre-tournament selections did I make this year? Here goes:

1) Argentina to win the World Cup (4/1)

With the World Cup in Brazil, they are naturally the favourites, but I have a hunch that the tournament may be going to another South American country. With a fairly straightforward group and a good chance of a friendly last 16 opponent, they should come into the quarter finals fresh and ready, while having the conditions on their side and matchwinning talents at their disposal. I think the pressure might crack Brazil at some stage, and I can’t see a European nation lifting the tournament this time around. Argentina it is.

2) Top scorer to score five goals (13/5)

So this one is a bit random. The Golden Boot winner always used to score more than this, but scorelines are not as high as they used to me, and the last two Golden Boot awards have gone to players with five to their name. Simply a case of decent odds for a fairly likely outcome.

3) Belgium to be knocked out in the last 16 (13/10)

Belgium are many pundits’ dark horses. They have some stellar young talent, and some are even predicting they could go as far as the semi finals. Not for me – they are a young side and the climate isn’t to their liking, so while I’d give them good odds of doing well at the Euros in two years, I don’t think this is their tournament. So why the last 16? For me, they have the easiest group – Russia, Algeria and South Korea are unlikely to stop them progressing, but then they face someone from Group G (Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA). I can’t see them getting past that point.

4) Mexico to be knocked out in the last 16 (19/10)

I have the same tip for Mexico – out of the group but no further. The longer odds are indicative of their tricky group – with Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon to contend with, they’ll do well to get to the knockout stages. But I think they have enough about them to pip Croatia, before running into a Spanish brick wall in the last 16.

5) Uruguay to win Group D (7/4)

The English press amuses me. For all the talk of England and Italy it is an often missed fact that Uruguay are in fact the seeded team of the group, and with conditions in their favour have to start as favourites to top it. Given that, I find the odds of 7/4 remarkably generous.

6) Ghana to qualify from Group G (11/4)

This is my favourite bet of the ten. One rule I’ve always followed in World Cups is to punt on an outsider in a really tough group. Germany and Portugal are the clear favourites to progress, with USA also dangerous, but this isn’t the Champions League, where one bad result can be countered over the course of six games. This is a three game process, and it is extremely common for such a group to see a major nation fall early. Whoever loses between the two Europeans is under massive pressure in their other games, and one great result for Ghana could see them through. In what I expect to be the tightest of groups, I see Ghana getting out.

7) No tournament hattricks (9/4)

This one is quite random too, and Neymar made me extremely nervous last night, as it looked for a while as if it would be scuppered in the very first match. But World Cup hattricks are not as common as they used to be, and are particularly rare once you get past the group stage. Ultimately, the reason I ended up going for this was the heat – I can see plenty of situations like last night, when a player with a brace is taken off to rest them for the next game. I don’t expect to see hammerings this year because I expect teams to take their foot off the pedal to conserve energy. Hence, no hattricks.

8) Four tournament shootouts (9/2)

Sometimes you just have a hunch, ok?

9) Netherlands to go out in the group stage (5/4)

In 2010 I tipped the Dutch to lift the trophy, and they got really close. This time I don’t seem them doing well - I don’t feel they have the strength or the star power (at least, I think a lot of their star power has waned), and I think they could be the victims of a really tough group, being ousted by Spain and the underrated Chile.

10) Switzerland to be knocked out in the quarter finals (9/2)

This is my other favourite bet of the group. While Belgium are the dark horses of many, Switzerland are mine. They are exceptionally difficult to beat, and I can see them topping their group, and therefore avoid Argentina in the last 16. Quarter finals is probably as far as they can can go, but I think 9/2 is extremely generous for them getting that far.

Do you have any tips? Any thoughts on these? Feel free to post yours in the comments below, and follow on Twitter to see which matchday bets I place – I’m 0/1 so far as last night’s bet was for Brazil to win by a single goal, and Oscar’s late toe poke ruined that one. Never mind!

 

First off, I haven’t posted anything since the FA Cup triumph over Hull, so can I just stop for a minute and say:

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Thanks. I feel better. A month on, it still feels awesome, particularly given the scores that doubted Wenger would ever lift a trophy again. Screw you, suckers.

Anyway, yesterday was not only the start of the World Cup, but it wasn’t the best of days to be an Arsenal fan. First the news was confirmed that Cesc Fabregas would be joining Chelsea. It is a difficult one to swallow for many reasons – despite leaving under a cloud there was little doubt among many that Cesc really did care for Arsenal, or at least his determined performances and attitude appeared to show it. There will be those that say the move to Chelsea proves he never did, but I see it somewhat differently – had we exercised our ‘first option’ on him, he’d be an Arsenal player now. We didn’t, and he wanted to move to London (for family reasons as much as anything). That left two choices – Chelsea and Spurs – which is bit like being asked to choose between a sandwich made of gnat’s piss or donkey semen. No wonder his smile looks forced.

Ultimately, Barcelona wanted rid, we passed, so he moved to a club we didn’t want him to move to. Not the best of situations, but that was our choice. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit in all of this is that neither of his two club affections wanted him any more.

The other thing that has interested me has been the reaction. I feel that if the same had happened last season, there would have been outright mutiny. With a trophy drought ever extending, and a perceived inability (or unwillingness) to bring in the top players, Wenger would have been lampooned beyond belief to pass on a player of Cesc’s undoubted skills. But the reaction has actually been far calmer – an acknowledgement that Cesc isn’t what we need, due to a combination of Ozil’s signing and Ramsey’s spectacular emergence, and that as long as business is conducted properly in the areas we do need to strengthen in, then this quiet acceptance will continue.

Personally, I feel this has a massive amount to do with the cup final win. With that monkey off our backs, everything feels less urgent, less dramatic, and less poisonous. When you’re not winning anything, the desperation rises, so any available player of any talent not signed is seen as a disaster – there are countless examples in the past five years of players who certainly were not good enough for Arsenal, yet caused ridiculous angst when they were not snapped up. That has now changed.

Twitter is a notoriously angry place. Yet the reaction yesterday, while filled with annoyance, was measured, muted and calm. Cesc is already part of history, and our needs lay elsewhere. Time to move on.

Elsewhere, part of our more recent history also moved on, with Bacary Sagna confirming his departure in classy manner. I have nothing but praise for a man who clearly decided not to sign a new contract long ago, yet gave everything in every minute of every match, where others would have held back a little, mentally wandering and protecting themselves for their last big contract. Sagna cared, and gave his all. I wish him nothing but the best.

I doubt there will be much Arsenal news in the next month, aside from Mikel Arteta coming back to an empty training ground and being filled with World Cup melancholy. The focus is now on the Brazilian showpiece, and with seven games in the next two days, it is about to get crazy. Enjoy.

 

It feels a little strange to set out on anything resembling a seasonal review when there remains the FA Cup Final looming next weekend, but yesterday’s 2-0 canter against Norwich wrapped up the league campaign for another year, and brought to a close one of the most difficult to assess in recent memory. Ultimately, we finished fourth again, but that is about where the similarities to previous domestic campaigns end. Over the last few years, we’ve been forced to accept dropping out of the title race as early as October or November, and playing catch up for fourth against Spurs (and one year, Villa). Strong finishes ensured that dreadful starts did not result in failure to qualify for the Champions League or a lack of St Totteringham’s Days, but early season form brought the lack of (or lateness of) summer action into question.

This season has been entirely different, more so than it appeared it would after the opening day, where a lack of summer activity contributed to a poisonous atmosphere in a home defeat to Villa. That would turn out to be our only league reverse at the Emirates, and a tremendous first half of the season saw us considered genuine title contenders by most, sitting pretty at the league summit for a long time. But huge reverses in big matches, coupled with some daft slip-ups, saw that dream fade a couple of months from the end, with Everton’s form even briefly threatening our top four berth. Five wins on the spin at the end of the season quelled that concern.

Which is better? Which is worse? Or, as one person put it to me, is reversing the ups and downs of the season just a different kind of stagnation? A difficult one to answer without directly comparing the last two seasons.

2012/13

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2013/14

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A six point gain and three more wins suggests clear improvement, as does the comparison of how close we came to those above and below us. In 2012/13, we finished a massive sixteen points behind champions United, and only one ahead of Spurs in fifth. This time, the margin to City was a deficit of only seven, with the same gap separating us from Everton. It isn’t all rosy though, as the goal columns attest – we scored fewer and conceded more than last season, evidence of both the improved ability to win close games and the tendency to lose big on occasion.

Turning to the cups, we had a repeat performance in the Champions League, where a tough group was successfully navigated before falling to Bayern in the first knockout phase, we fell earlier in the League Cup (sorry, I refuse to call it the Johnson’s Dry Cleaning Cup, or whatever it is named these days), but as we know, have reached the FA Cup Final, where we enter as strong favourites.

Put simply, this season will be judged almost entirely on that match. Win, and it has to be considered a successful season – for so many years people have pontificated which is more important – fourth place or a trophy – and we’d have both. But a defeat will consign this season to the ‘fourth but no trophy‘ description that blends it in with too many others. While Wenger’s future appears not to hang on the result as some expected, the summer mood does, and with a 3% ticket price rise being felt as the season ticket renewals are distributed, a painful defeat could bring that into sharp focus. It it big. Really big.

Fourth v Third

There is one other thing to note about coming fourth – the Champions League qualifier. While we have consistently navigated these when required, it has often had a lasting effect on our season. We know the club has had a decent bank balance for a while now, but just how healthy has often not been clear until that hurdle has been successfully cleared. This has had an effect on many of our transfer dealings (most notably the summer of Cesc/Nasri), and while there is a strong argument that it should not have made as much of a difference as it did, it has been an added complication.

It should not be a concern anymore, at least financially. With additional TV and commercial income guaranteed from elsewhere, the Champions League ‘proper’, while still lucrative, is not the be all and end all it has been. The line about us being financially strong even with a season out of Europe’s premier competition is now very much true, and there is absolutely no reason for the summer’s business to be affected by August’s unknown, something that is even more important in World Cup year, where the window for getting things done is so much shorter.

Speaking of the World Cup, it could actually be the biggest problem we face this summer. Our cup final appearance means that the players get one less week to recuperate before the tournament begins, and with the final on July 13th, that leaves precious little time to rest before pre-season and that crucial qualifier rolls around. There will be many clubs turning to non-internationals or early fallers as the domestic season restarts in August, while their triumphant summer stars get the rest they will desperately need.

Anyone playing the cup final, a few warm up games, and a long tournament in sweltering Brazilian conditions in going to need careful management on their return. That is by no means restricted to us – managers up and down the country will have to earn their stripes.

I’ll be back later in the week with a broken down assessment of the best and worst moments of the season, the players that stood out (a certain Welshman may feature…) and a look back at the league as a whole, and where our six point improvement sits against our rivals. Until then, I’m going to watch Ramsey’s stupendous volley once again. What a player.

 

Morning all.

After one of the most tense matches in our recent history, Arsenal are in the FA Cup Final. Sounds good, doesn’t it? However laborious the match was, however close we came to being added to Wigan’s long list of cup scalps, we became the first team in two years to knock them out, and as a result find ourselves up against Hull in our first return to the annual showpiece since Vieira’s spot kick won us the trophy in 2005 (or started our trophy drought, depending on who you listen to).

The match was agony, but the result is to be enjoyed, especially after a traumatic couple of weeks in which our title challenge has exploded, the race for fourth has gone from depressingly familiar to deeply concerning, and everyone at the club has been questioned, not least the man who has led the club to the pinnacle and back.

But, of course, there are those that want to rain on our parade, one of a number of things that grated this weekend, so I thought I’d dive into each point and break them down.

1. You can’t celebrate beating Wigan

Actually, Roy Keane, you can. Football, for all the focus on the long-term, the nine month campaigns, the qualifications for future competitions, is actually about the moments. Last minute winners, cup shocks, wonder goals, it is moments that people remember, for good or bad. Cup finals offer many of these moments, from the joy of Andy Linighan and Alan Sunderland’s late winners, to the horrors of Owen’s late turnaround, from the aforementioned shoot-out steal of 2005, to the West Ham disappointment.

All of the above are memorable, for the drama, for the occasion, for the fact we were there. By the time the cup final rolls around, it has everyone’s attention, and too many times in recent years we’ve been watching two sides we despise and trying to figure out which one we want to lose less. Not this year.

But beyond that, we needed this. It wasn’t about playing a Championship side, it was about capitalising on an opportunity to lift a competition we won habitually in the early part of the century, it was about making the most of beating Liverpool, Everton and Spurs to get here (isn’t it remarkable that people say the cup has opened up for us, when it is us who have knocked out most of the big boys?) by finishing the job. Once we went a goal down, it was about survival – in the match, in the cup, and perhaps in the careers of some. It was huge in so many ways.

We did it, we’re in the final – we can celebrate all we like Roy, just like you did when you beat Millwall in the 2004 final. Did you go into the dressing room and stop the champagne flowing because you’d only beaten a third tier side? Of course you didn’t, you pompous prat.

2. The art of the selfie

Ugh. Before I start, I should mention that I hate the word ‘selfie’. It’s a photo. People have been taking photos of themselves for donkey’s years, why is this suddenly a craze?

Anyway, while I hate the term, I cannot understand for a moment why there was such outrage that Ramsey and Cazorla were taking shots of themselves celebrating after the game. And if you think outrage is too strong a term, you should have seen some of the journalists on Twitter actually suggesting sanctions for such behaviour, and not even in jest.

Let’s put this into perspective. How many times have you heard the same journalists cry out at the devaluing of the FA Cup, at ‘foreign players’ (always their fault) not understanding the importance and history of the competition, all while calling it the ‘greatest cup in the world’? Plenty of times, I would guess.

So why, when two players value it highly enough to be taking mementos of the moment, are they vilified? For many, this was their first victory at Wembley, for some it was their first visit at all. Why shouldn’t they savour the moment? Isn’t that exactly what these misty-eyed writers have been looking for, a sign that they really care? Hypocrisy has no limits.

3. Wenger as a laughing stock

Ok, this is where I’m going to lose some of you. I realise that right now the Arsenal fanbase is divided, it has been so for a long time. And while there is much blurring, with some sick of Wenger but wanting him to bow out with a trophy and a legacy, and others who have supported his retention now angling for a change, that is our analytical right as fans – we can love the man yet get frustrated with him, we can support him and despair at some of his decisions, and we can debate his merits and flaws ad nauseam.

Professional broadcasters (journalists, pundits, analysts) are supposed to take the emotion of being a fan out of the debate, to provide a clearer analysis free of bias and predispositions, but increasingly this doesn’t appear to be the case – they prefer instead to go for the extremes, for the Talksport approach of riling up their readers and listeners and allowing their agendas to cloud how they deduce what is in front of them.

This was painfully the case on Saturday, with ITV managing to lower standards yet further (an impressive feat, considering) with their constant barbs, snide jabs and frankly disrespectful comments about Wenger (and, oddly, Arteta, who they seemed to think was the ghost of Denilson past). I’m all for critical analysis, but to reduce a man who has changed the landscape of English football to a clownish caricature was too much. It was truly lowest common denominator stuff.

4. Managing tired legs

Throughout the early phases of extra time, many on Twitter were wondering why we hadn’t made our third and final substitution, with players fading and cramping. I felt (and made the point) that the last change was being reserved for Ramsey, only recently back from long-term injury and highly unlikely to complete 120 minutes. With seven minutes of the added thirty remaining, that came true as Kallstrom replaced him.

Since the game, plenty have been hugely critical of Wenger for allowing Ramsey to play that long. While I can see the argument, this comes back to who knows more about the fitness levels and fatigue of our players – those inside or outside the club.

We have a terrible injury record dating back years – of this there is no doubt. As yet, however, there are no clear answers as to why – our facilities are top-notch, and it isn’t purely a question of numbers – we have a ridiculous amount of midfielders now, which has allowed more rotation than normal, yet they’ve still dropped like flies and by March we’re down to the bare bones once again. You can be sure that the club is trying to find the answer, but I find it remarkable that so many, with so little real knowledge, lambast their decisions based on nothing more than guesswork.

There is one Arsenal fan I trust when it comes to medical issues – an old friend of mine by the name of Tom, who actually has a wealth of medical training and understands sports injuries (and who runs the excellent Running Physio blog). But even he says that these things aren’t simple, and while it is clear that there is an issue, you can’t draw conclusions without a lot more data.

Most of us are far less informed (myself included), so while it is a subject worthy of plenty of debate, it really shouldn’t descend to abuse of those within the club, especially based on the observation that the players ‘looked tired’ in extra time. Newsflash – players are conditioned for 90 minutes, not 120. All the players looked tired, Wigan’s included.

5. Refereeing standards

For this last one I’m going to branch away from Arsenal for a moment. I get quite a lot of stick for being critical of referees in Arsenal games, and I’ll be the first to admit that my observations are built on bias, so of course there is a good chance that people may disagree with my viewpoints, particularly when their biases lay elsewhere. That is normal – witness any pair of managerial post match interviews after a contentious decision and you’ll see those biases taken to their natural conclusion.

However, one of the consequences of Arsenal’s league collapse of recent weeks is that I went into the Liverpool-City game on Sunday not giving a jot who won (I just hoped someone did, because I don’t want Chelsea sneaking ahead of both). Yet despite this, I ended up resenting the result because of the staggeringly awful officiating on display. We all know that referees are human, and they make mistakes like the rest of us, but Mark Clattenburg played an enormous part in the destiny of the points, denying City two clear-cut penalties and refusing to give Suarez a second yellow even after he’d spotted the Uruguayan’s obvious dive. Put simply – if he got all the calls right, Liverpool would not have won the game, and in such a pivotal encounter, that could play a big part in the destination of the title.

Credit where it is due – Michael Oliver had an excellent game in our cup semi – admittedly he had few decisions to make, but the fact that you probably had to think for a moment to remember who took the game indicates that his performance was of the required standard. But this is becoming the exception rather than the norm.

Contrary to what you might think, I don’t actually think this is the fault of the referees – much like players who are out of their depth, it is not necessarily a criticism of them that there are none better. They are the best they can be and they can’t help that they are elevated above their abilities by a lack of talented colleagues. I’ll make an exception for Mike Dean because he isn’t just incompetent, he is a showman who likes to have the cameras on him – and that is a choice.

We’ve been told for years that the number of officials is dwindling, so it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the standards are fading too. But the cruel accuracy of immediate replays show them up again and again, and surely the time has come to give them some help. We’ve had a couple of instances recently where it appears the fourth official is feeding information to the primary one, and while that has been done in an underhand way, I’m all for making it the norm. Get eyes on cameras, get some information to referees. If you don’t want to stop the game, allow referees to retrospectively punish players once the voice in their ear has told them what really happened.

It is frankly ridiculous that within ten seconds of an incident, the only person who doesn’t know what really happened is the one man who needs to, and that he even has a colleague in the stadium who knows better. As for technology, other sports have shown how much drama can be added with the right sprinkling, and I have wondered for a while whether a country like Qatar could place a more positive spin on their World Cup by paying for such an idea to take place when the world’s eye turns on them. That is, if all their money hasn’t already ended up in brown envelopes.

But until the referees get help, they’ll have their every weakness exposed in seconds, which sullies results and hinders any chance of the Respect campaign working. However much fun it is to poke fun at the man in black, I’m sure we’d rather get the right decisions that chant at them. Unless they’re Mike Dean.

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On to brighter things, and we face West Ham tonight in what could be one of our trickier remaining games – they’re on good form and have a spoiler of a manager who knows how to get under our skin. If every a match called for an early goal, this is it. Bring it on.