Groan’s 10: World Cup 2014 betting selections

 Groan's 10  Comments Off on Groan’s 10: World Cup 2014 betting selections
Jun 132014

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!

Jul 142011

The summer football break is a bleak place at the best of times – invented stories, transfer ‘sagas’, and the endless sight of Harry Redknapp on Sky Sports News. But some things rise above these mild irritants and become truly infuriating, and while it takes a lot to rile me, I’ve been finding myself getting increasingly annoyed or disillusioned with some of the goings-on. I feel the need to vent.

1. Elitist fans.

One thing I’m seeing more and more, perhaps since the dawn of Twitter and the instant, ill thought out response, is the dismissive way some fans treat other fans, as if their opinion doesn’t count because of some arbitrary matter like where they reside, or whether they are a season ticket holder or not. Some of the most interesting and insightful bloggers and commenters live out in the States, and to see their opinions swept aside because ‘Yanks don’t understand soccer‘ is patronising in the extreme, and downright rude to boot. I frankly couldn’t give a monkey’s whether you live in London, USA, Venezuela or squat on the steps of the Emirates – as long as you’re not a dick about it, your Arsenal opinion is as valid as anyone else’s.

A similar fate befalls those who do not possess season tickets, or even more ridiculously, haven’t held one for long enough. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen ‘I’ve been a season ticket holder for fifteen years‘ as a statement intended to win an argument, which is once again ludicrous. For the record, I am not a season ticket holder. I haven’t progressed far enough up to the list to be offered one, but even if I had, I wouldn’t be able to take it – a young family makes that financially impossible. Does that make my opinion irrelevant?

2. Divisive fan labels

It seems we live in a black and white world. You cannot praise the work of Arsene Wenger (even with caveats) or defend him against what you believe to be unfair criticism without someone shouting ‘AKB‘ at you (‘Arsene Knows Best‘, for those who don’t know the lingo of the keyboard warriors). Similarly, you cannot critique any of his decisions without being labelled a ‘doomer‘, or worse, a Spurs fan. Both sides are so protective of their side of the coin that any statement not fitting their notion is slammed, dismissed, and sees you wrapped up in their label of choice, before being unceremoniously pigeonholed and ridiculed.

What I find equally annoying is that once people pick a side, they interpret every news item in such a way as to back up their own preconceived perception. And let’s face it – it is possible to spin pretty much any story in either a positive or negative light, as we’ve seen countless times in the written press.

But what happened to the good old fashioned notion of reading a quote from a manager or player, and deciding rationally what you think of it before coming down on one side of the fence?

3. Sky Sports News

I haven’t subjected myself to much of SSN’s tripe this summer, because their endless headlines of ‘X not about to join Y‘ get pretty tiresome after a while. Not only that, but every time I flick over to it, Harry bloody Redknapp is talking about how his players aren’t for sale, how he needs to sign a few more players to progress and top players cost money, so would Levy please put his hand in his pocket for the millionth time so he can spunk another £18m on the likes of David Bentley.

Today, however, I watched a full hour. I’m not sure what was the reason for this self-imposed penance, but when the hour was up I knew precisely why I’d avoided it so long. They seem to have hired a new male presenter (I don’t know his name, I was too busy growling at his inaneness), who specialises in reporting on the dullest, most tenuous stories imaginable, and pumping them up to the extreme. Honestly, the guy is a complete self-parody.

It seems to get on Sky Sports News, or indeed any of their channels, you have to have an extreme opinion which stops being funny after about thirty seconds when the viewer realises that you aren’t taking the piss. That, or you have to be Harry bloody Redknapp.

4. People turning on Cesc Fabregas

This one really gets my goat. Despite my article semi-defending Samir Nasri, I know that his behaviour doesn’t sit well with many, and can completely understand that (and to an extent, I agree). However, the vitriol directed at Cesc is baffling.

Here is the situation as I see it: Cesc would like to move to Barcelona. He grew up there, his family live there and it is his boyhood club. So far, so logical. However, despite immense pressure from the club he idolises, he flatly refuses to antagonise for a move, because he loves and respects Arsenal too much. He also accepts (as he did last summer), that the end result will be dictated by the clubs, not by him, and is staying out of negotiations precisely because anything he says will weaken Arsenal’s hand. Ultimately, if Barcelona refuse to stump up the cash, he will give his all to Arsenal, as he always has done, for another year.

Now, I can’t see anything wrong in that, I really can’t. I sometimes think we get blinded by the fact that we love and support one club, and one club only. Cesc has two in his heart, a natural situation for a travelling footballer, but an alien one to fans across the world. So Cesc’s priorities are:

a) Do not do anything that destroys his relationship with Arsenal fans, which has been built up over seven years.
b) Do not do anything that destroys his relationship with Barcelona, a club he grew up in and will eventually return to.

So, given that, and given the media propensity for twisting anything he says, what exactly could he do that would make the current situation any better? If he says he wants to leave, he massively weakens our hand – this is precisely the action Barcelona are hoping for. If he says he categorically wants to stay, he is lying, and we will all see through it, and if he tries to explain the above situation as ‘I would love to go to Barcelona, but if they do not meet Arsenal’s valuation I will happily stay and proudly continue as captain’, this will be reported purely as ‘Cesc wants to go to Barcelona‘. We all know it.

So for me, silence is the best policy. He has refused to bow to pressure from Spain, and has left the situation in the hands of his manager. And for this, he gets abuse. Explain that one to me. No seriously, explain it.

5. FC Barcelona

More than a club, my arse. If they didn’t play beautiful football, they would perhaps be the most reviled club on the planet. On the field, their stunning football outweighs the shameless play-acting in the eyes of many, but off it, their mockery of the simple laws of the game shows arrogance to the extreme. Relentless tapping up is just the tip of the iceberg, although in fairness, it could hardly be said to be working – if Xavi thinks his latest comments making the Cesc transfer more likely, then he needs a psychology lesson, specifically around the term ‘strengthening resolve‘.

6. Ligament tears

Whenever I hear of one of our players tearing a ligament, my first reaction is ‘you idiot, how long are we going to be without you?’. No more. Well, I’ll still have that reaction, but it will be preceded by a modicum of sympathy, because, as it turns out, ligament tears are painful.

I know this because I am recovering from one – I had knee surgery a little over a month ago and walking is still nigh on impossible. Which means I am sitting down a lot, which in turn means I’m forced to flick on to Sky Sports News after a while, and catch sight of Harry bloody Redknapp.

So the next time RVP knackers his leg, I’ll imagine him in pain, throwing the remote at the television, and I’ll feel a twinge of sympathy. Only then will I curse him for being absent.

7. Transfer window lingo

Rules of the transfer window:

  • All young players are starlets or wonderkids, and all must be labelled ‘the new X‘, where X is a fading star. The players need not have anything in common.
  • All transfer bids are ‘swoops’.
  • All transfer requests are ‘shocks’ that ‘stun’ clubs.
  • All players subject to bids are ‘wantaway’.
  • An ‘understanding’ allows a story to be categorically true, despite the lack of quotes, or indeed sensibility in the subject matter.
  • Players can have daily medicals from the moment you first ‘break the story’ until they day they officially sign. There is no need to backtrack, ever.

8. Overt cynicism

I can understand a bit of skepticism from time to time. When Wenger says that Almunia has an elbow injury that last three months, smirking as he says so, a certain level of doubt is to be expected. When Samir Nasri says it is all about club ambition, we can frown and respectfully disagree. But the dearth of summer stories means that too often the tidbits are analysed to a ridiculous degree. Take the photos published of the players’ first day back at training. You had people claiming Nasri was staying because he was smiling in a photo, but in another shot he looked more serious, which obviously meant that contract negotiations had stalled. Now, I don’t know about you, but my expressions have a habit of changing based on slightly less career-changing facts than those, but perhaps footballers are different, eh?

And then, people start doubting every news story. Arsenal’s official line is that Cesc picked up a muscular injury in his thigh on his first day back, hence him missing the current tour. Immediately, this was dismissed, not by a vocal minority, but by a substantial chunk of the fanbase. Obviously we are selling him and this is a cover story.

Er, hang on a moment. First day back after holiday, and a return to physical training. Yep, sounds to me like one of the likeliest days to pick up a muscular injury.

9. People purporting to speak for others

Let’s get this straight. This blog is my opinion only. I do not profess to speak for anyone else. It really irritates me when I read people saying that ‘all real fans think so-and-so‘, or ‘we all want X‘, an increasingly prevalent practice used by those who wish to artificially enhance the gravitas of what they are saying.

I speak for me, you speak for you, and never should anything else be true.

10. Online player abuse

When did we, as a race, drop all sense of decorum and start flinging the most personal of abuse at people who do not come close to deserving it? How exactly does the salary of a Premiership footballer mean that the masses feel entitled to act like complete morons to the players within the club they claim to support?

I am well aware than footballers have to put up with a certain level of ‘banter’ on the terraces, but that is different because there is a purpose behind it – it is designed to put them off their game. Most of the chants have a great deal of humour in them, which cannot be said when you switch to the online world. But pick any footballer on Twitter, and have a look at their ‘mentions’ section. It is truly a portal to hell, and frankly I’m amazed they last long at all. Not only is the abuse ridiculously harsh and personal, it usually comes from the club’s own fans.

Footballers have to be thick skinned. But they are also human, and deserve better. I’m not sure I’d want to stay at a club at which I was routinely lambasted by my own fans. And yet we wonder why they sometimes seem cagey when playing in front of a home crowd. Food for thought, hmm?


As ever, feel free to comment below. I know I’ve touched on some fairly inflammatory subjects tonight and you may well disagree with some of my views, and that’s absolutely fine. As I said, I speak only for me. Now it’s your turn.

May 212011

I’m going to deviate from Arsenal for a little bit today, mainly because I’d only be covering old ground if I talked about spineless defeats and potential exits. Instead, I’m going to take a look at the doomed Respect campaign, which has been so woefully implemented both by the FA and officials since it was introduced. What annoys me the most is that it is so easily improved if anyone showed any kind of backbone. So, here is my ten step guide to clamping down.

1. Hands off. Talk to the players before the game, and indicate that if any player touches you to restrict your motion in any way, they will be sent off. Apologetic shoulder taps are fine, holding your hands down to prevent you booking someone is most definitely not. I was watching the Huddersfield-Bournemouth playoff in midweek, at at one point Kevin Kilbane charged after a Bournemouth player, only for the referee to stand in his way to calm him down. He promptly shoved the official back, who was rightly furious. I was sure a red card would follow, but only a yellow was produced for what is a clear sending off offence. Shockingly weak refereeing.

2. Hounding. A few years ago, referees were given the guidance that if players descended on them en masse, they are entitled and correct to start issuing cards. Ever seen it happen? One of the key points of the campaign was that the captain is the sole voice of the team. If players have something to say to the officials, it should be done through him. Scenes like last weekend when Phil Dowd was hounded by half the United team seeking a penalty should not occur – Dowd was correct to send them away (and correct to award the penalty, incidentally), but Vidic in particular should have seen a card. Start producing them and the problem will go away.

3. Teach them the rules. Have ten rulebooks in your pocket ready to hand to players who clearly are oblivious to the laws of the game. Classic example that you see in practically every match – a player commits a foul deemed worthy of a yellow card, only to protest ‘first one! first one!‘ at the official. At which point he should answer ‘Yes, it is your first foul. But in the rules, it clearly says you can be booked either for a yellow card offence, or persistent fouling. Which do you think I’m doing? Now here’s your rulebook. And your yellow card.

4. Dissent. Always book players for dissent. Players can gently question a decision or show disappointment or dismay if something doesn’t go their way. No problem with that – we don’t want to neuter the game, after all. But if anyone charges up to a linesman in anger or yells ‘fuck off‘ at the referee (Rooney wouldn’t last ten minutes), give them the yellow card. No warnings. It seems dissent is accepted in the game as long as you don’t commit the atrocious act of, wait for it, kicking the ball away. Clearly that is the most offensive form of dissent out there. Complete nonsense.

5. Stop players running the game. If a player asks for you to produce a yellow card, do so. But for him. Another key point of Respect is that it is designed to prevent players from trying to run the game. I don’t care that Barcelona would end their first two matches with seven players left on the pitch, they would soon learn. As long as the players have due warning before the game, they can have absolutely no complaints.

6. Stop accepting abuse. A player swearing at themselves is fine. A player swearing at you is not. Again, this isn’t a case of dialing down the passion in the game, but players need to learn to direct their anger appropriately. There was a classic example years ago in an Arsenal-Everton League Cup tie, officiated by Graham Poll, who sent Everton’s James McFadden off in the early stages after a decision didn’t go his way, McFadden appeared to yell ‘You fucking cheat‘ to Poll, and since questioning the integrity of an official should always been met with a red card, the sending off made sense. But McFadden later said that his accent made Poll mishear what he actually said, which was ‘You’re fucking shite‘, which misses the point entirely – that is still foul, abusive and insulting language directed at the referee, which is also a red card offence. It says a lot that he considered this to be a reasonable defence.

7. Explain yourself. Talk to the press after the game. Now, this isn’t in the hands of the referees themselves, it is the FA that deny them this option, but it would not hurt to lobby for it. Every time an official has explained their decisions (even mistakes) to managers and press officers, they’ve instantly gained respect from all parties and the sense that there was logic and reason to what they did. Every time former officials have appeared alongside pundits, they have given fascinating insights. It makes them more human, and it makes them harder to criticise. Is that not the whole point of the campaign?

8. Challenge the liars. Make players be more honest with you. If, for example, a player cries ‘I got the ball‘, after you’ve given a foul against them, say ‘I’ll be looking at a replay of this incident after the match. I’ll be able to see whether I was wrong, or whether you are a liar. Care to tell me in advance?’. I’d love the official to even have the power to award retrospective yellow cards to players who insist on something that plainly isn’t true.

9. Apply the rules. Stop thinking that you have a responsibility to a) keep the game flowing or b) keep 22 players on the field. Both notions are invented by managers and pundits, who are serving their own self-interests. You have a responsibility to apply to rules of the game. So if someone commits a foul in the 10th minute that you would show a yellow card for in the 80th, show them the damn yellow card. Forget that the pundits will say ‘he has set a precedent here‘ or some such nonsense – you are doing nothing of the sort. You are applying the rules, and it will help to achieve the much sought after consistency we all bang on about.

10. Use mics. Not for public consumption, clearly – trying to follow rugby’s example of allowing viewers to listen to everything being said is a step too far. But if all conversations between referees and players are recorded, then managers, pundits and disciplinary officials can hear exactly what has gone on in any circumstance. And perhaps select snippets could be used in the post-match analysis.

I don’t consider any of these to be particularly revolutionary, which is why I fail to understand why they don’t happen. And I certainly don’t buy the argument that six players per match would be sent off if these rules were implemented. I know some footballers are a bit dim, but if you see players being sent off for mouthing at the referee every week, chances are you’ll think twice before going down the same road. And if they know in advance what the consequences are, they have no recourse.

Most important of all – when you, as a referee, have a helpful rule at your disposal, use it. Time and time again they’ve been given the opportunity to clamp down, and they always seem afraid to act. I suspect the FA are largely to blame here – many officials have said in the past that if they acted decisively, they would not be wholeheartedly supported by the governing body. That has to change.

We all get mad at officials. But can anyone say the above pointers wouldn’t help?

Feb 172011

What a game. What a night. For an hour it was difficult to understand how any team in the world could live with Barcelona, but through sheer resilience and refusal to give in, we hung in and eventually wore them down, before scoring two brilliant goals to turn the tie around. In the first half Barcelona were at their mesmerising best, and despite not being able to fault a single Arsenal performance, we were playing the apprentice role predicted before the contest. But in the second, it was Barcelona who tired, contrary to popular belief that the side chasing the ball for longer periods would be the one to collapse in exhaustion.

Perhaps that isn’t surprising – almost all Barcelona’s games are over by the hour mark, so they’ve never had to maintain that intensity for ninety minutes. Their style requires extreme fitness, and they were unable to sustain it. It is a testament to our fitness that despite giving up more possession than in any other match in recent times, we finished the stronger.

As for the goals, they were something to behold. Valdes was certainly at fault for Van Persie’s equaliser, beaten at his near post from an impossible angle, but to focus solely on that does Van Persie a massive disservice – only extreme power and precision made that goal possible, and his recent form was required to give him the confidence to attempt such an audacious effort.

If that was good, the winner was astonishing. One minute Barcelona were outnumbering us on the edge of our own box, but three sublime passes later Nasri was racing down the wing, before cutting inside and laying the perfect ball inside to Arshavin, whose pass-finish from the edge of the area was Pire-esque. High praise indeed.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow match report – I imagine that every single one watched the match, soaking in every last detail. Instead, I want to focus on ten points that made the night so special.

1. The best team in the world came to town, and played at their scorching best. Despite all of that, they lost. Say what you like about their control of possession and their chances – they certainly could have scored more, particularly if Messi had not misplaced his shooting boots. But it takes more than luck to beat the best side in a generation when they are playing at that level. It takes something special just to avoid a hammering, let alone triumph. Whatever happens in the Nou Camp, this was the finest night the Emirates has seen.

2. It was also the loudest the Emirates has ever been – a remarkable atmosphere, contrary to the stereotypical Arsenal home game. Each of the players has acknowledged the extraordinary support they received – it was spine-tingling at times. When Arshavin completed that special move for the winner, the place erupted.

3. Every criticism laid at the door of this team was countered. Apparently we have no mental strength, no keeper, no centre halves and no leader. Nonsense. Fragile teams would have got hammered, Szczesny made crucial saves and never looked out of place despite it being the toughest of European debuts, Koscielny was simply remarkable at centre half and there were leaders all over the pitch. Everyone stood up to be counted. Alan Hansen, eat your heart out, you cliché-ridden monstrosity.

4. Jack Wilshere is the finest English talent in years, certainly from a technical standpoint – when was the last time you saw an English player so comfortable with the ball in tight spaces? Just as a quick reminder – he is 19 years old. A remarkable performance from a man rightly receiving plaudits in Spain today, he destroyed and created, never taking more touches than he needed to. A special talent, and as pointed out at Gunnerblog, he is Arsenal through and through.

5. Our fears about Eboue were misplaced. I’ve seen quite a bit of criticism of the Ivorian today, but I must have been watching a different game. He gave the ball away sloppily a couple of times, but that is to be expected of a player in and out of the side under this kind of pressure. Overall, I thought he handled himself very well, and Barcelona were unable to create much down his flank.

6. Robin Van Persie is one of the best strikers in the world, and would be recognised as such if he wasn’t forever injured. Last season he played twenty games, and was directly involved (scored or assisted) in eighteen goals. After last night’s equaliser, he has the same superb record this campaign. He is in stunning form, he has matured into a leader on and off the pitch, and crucially, he is fit. If that stays the case until May, we should lift something.

7. Szczesny could be Arsenal number one for the next twelve years. A year ago he was on loan at Brentford, six months ago he was clearly unhappy with his position at the club, watching Almunia and Fabianski given repeated chances and not even knowing whether he was ahead of Mannone in the pecking order. Now, he is surely first choice even when Fabianski returns, and despite a baptism of fire (Premiership debut against United, European debut against Barcelona), nothing fazes him. Popular amongst the players, it is easy to forget he is 20 years old. A baby in goalkeeping terms.

8. The age of these players is remarkable – 20, 25, 25, 24, 27, 23, 23, 19, 23, 21, 27. Read that again. Eboue and Van Persie, at 27, were the oldest members of a team that just stood toe to toe with the best side in the world and triumphed. Six of them are 23 or under. Not a single one of them has reached their peak yet. Let the thought of what could be make you smile.

9. Despite what Chris Waddle says, Theo Walcott has a football brain. Last night he caused Barcelona problems early on, but perhaps more importantly he gave fantastic support to Eboue on the flank, chasing and harrying time and time again in what was a very disciplined performance. Also, if he was mentally weak, you would expect him to go to pieces in the big games, but he is the complete opposite. His first goal for Arsenal was in the Carling Cup final, he went on that mazy run against Liverpool in the Champions League, turned the first leg of the Barcelona tie around last season, and was superb against Chelsea before Christmas. He is a big game player.

10. We’ve got Cesc Fabregas, complete with fist-pumping determination at the final whistle – he is ours, and he is proud to be ours.

I still haven’t come down from last night’s excitement. Anyone still wish we’d won our group?

Aug 012010

The Emirates Cup is quickly turning into an indicator that the serious football is about to begin, and having managed to snare a ticket to day one, I’ve had an earlier than usual look at our squad situation, in the flesh. And despite Milan coming back to snatch a 1-1 draw, I’ve come away feeling extremely positive about the season ahead. Here’s why:

1. Chamakh. Wenger’s first signing of the year looks to be a belter. Looked lively throughout, scored a composed goal, and the standing ovation he was afforded when substituted in the second half said it all. But his end product was only half the story – I spent a few minutes just watching his movement, the way he was dragging Milan defenders this way and that, and any opponent of his is going to be in for a tough time this season. We knew he was good in the air, but he is intelligent, calm, and decent on the deck too, capped by one outrageous piece of skill where he controlled a forty yard pass with a Cruyff turn. Not bad for a free transfer.

2. Koscielny. Prior to the game, all I could focus on was how scrawny our new centre half is. And while true, watching him in action makes you realise that although he needs hours in the gym, he could become a terrific defender once his physical stature improves. And to be fair, he was biting into tackles in a way that made him seem more imposing than his slight frame would suggest. Excellent reading of the game, pacey, and on this evidence, first choice. Wenger still has time to demote him with a new signing, but he appears to be ahead of Djourou in the pecking order, and capable of forming a solid partnership with Vermaelen.

3. Cesc is staying. I cannot for one second agree with anyone who thinks we would be better off with a boatload of cash.

4. Much of our forward line is still to return. Milan are known for their defensive tenacity, and while some of that discipline is missing in pre-season, it was still very encouraging to see how often we stretched them without Cesc, Van Persie and Bendtner available. Bear in mind that the trio, along with Arshavin, were expected to create everythinglast season, and you can see the shift. That said, we could do with Van Persie or Bendtner firing early in the season to take some of the pressure away from Chamakh – once he was taken off, we looked lightweight up front.

5. Nasri looks ready to step up. It is easy to forget that the Frenchman had no pre-season last year, missing the early stages of the campaign with a broken leg. But his performances over the last couple of weeks, coupled with some from early in 2010, suggest that this year could be his breakthrough year.

6. Wilshere is not going out on loan. Confirmed by Wenger, the 18 year old will now be given chances in the first team that many believe are overdue. There is no doubting we’ve been careful with young Jack, and rightly so, but having impressed with Bolton last season, he has proven himself ready for Premiership action. Had Joe Cole been signed, another loan may have been on the cards, but at ten years Cole’s junior, Wilshere is the long term option.

7. Competition for places. I should caveat this point by saying injuries may dictate the team, but it is an oft spoken truth that you need two players for every slot in the team. Gibbs and Clichy look set to battle for the left back berth, a fit Djourou will be itching to play, Eboue will challenge Sagna, Frimpong was excellent again and may have moved ahead of Eastmond to be Song’s understudy, and the wealth of attacking midfielders will all be looking to stake their claims. Up front, we have three able to lead the line, and even more to play just behind. Any position without injuries will be hard fought.

Plenty to be positive about there, but there are still some concerns. We are only just heading into August, so any issues have time to be resolved, but a few things still worry me:

1. Defending set pieces. You could see it coming, and Milan aren’t even as proficient from set plays as many we will face this season. But once again a simple ball defeated three defenders, and a free header was planted past Fabianski, who I feel was blameless. It is a weakness that persists, and to resolve it we need to stop allowing strikers to make the runs they want. Pato was free to do as he pleased.

2. The keeper situation. In fairness, Fabianski did nothing wrong, but then he actually had nothing to do – no chance for the goal or when his crossbar was struck, and no other notable saves to make. More and more it seems he may become our first choice, and while I’ve backed him vigorously in the past, that still makes me nervous.

3. Lack of centre halves. To be fair, I’m less concerned about this because Wenger himself acknowledges the need to strengthen, but we need to get any new player in quickly because otherwise we are left with Vermaelen, aninjury prone Djourou and Koscielny, who could still be raw (asking him to make Vermaelen’s instant impact is unfair). For me, we need someone powerful to prevent the likes of Stoke running amok, and quickly.

Overall, I’m feeling hugely positive. Two out of three issues can be solved with the pair of signings we all want – centre back and keeper – and an improvement in both departments may also help eradicate our weakness against set pieces. In addition, the presence of Chamakh means our keepers finally get practice against a striker who is a real threat in the air. They’ll need it.

Next up, Celtic.