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Nottingham Forest 4–2 Arsenal: Teenager exceptional as team selection bites Arsene Wenger

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Nottingham Forest produced the shock of the FA Cup third-round weekend as the Championship outfit stunned 13-time winners and current holders Arsenal at the City Ground on Sunday evening.

Heading into the tie without a manager after the recent sacking of Mark Warburton, Forest went ahead early-on through defender Eric Lichaj only for Arsenal to immediately respond from a set-piece of their own when Per Mertesacker reacted quickest to prod the ball home with a deft finish.

The hosts managed to get their noses in front once again before the break, with Lichaj this time producing a sumptuous half-volley into the top corner to leave David Ospina rooted to the ground.

Things got even better for the Championship side in the second-half too when Ben Brereton tucked home from the spot following a clumsy foul from Rob Holding, although Danny Welbeck pounced fastest on a mistake from goalkeeper Jordan Smith to set up a tense final ten minutes.

But, in the games biggest moment of controversy, Mathieu Debuchy was deemed to have hauled down Armand Traore inside the area to give Forest the chance to seal it before Kieran Dowell’s resulting penalty was allowed to stand by referee Jon Moss despite claims the ball was hit twice.

Joe Worrall was then shown a straight red card for Forest after a rash challenge but it mattered not as the Championship side held out for a remarkable and thrilling win over the 2017 FA Cup winners.

Magnificent Forest stun holders Arsenal

What a match, what a result for manager-less Nottingham Forest.

The Championship side have been without a man in charge since Mark Warburton was sacked late last month but caretaker boss Gary Brazil worked wonders on Sunday afternoon as his youthful, energetic Forest side had too much for an Arsenal team that have won the FA Cup more than anyone else in the competition’s history.

From the first whistle you could tell that the hosts were going to give it a go against their more esteemed opponents, putting in fierce challenges and pushing numbers forward when on the attack.

And they were led by a core of players under the age of 23 – five of which came from the Club’s academy under Brazil himself – who put their heart and soul into 90 minutes of breath-taking action.

Their 18-year-old striker Ben Brereton was the stand-out figure, leading the line superbly and running rings around Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding all afternoon with his pace and his ability to hold the ball up on the half-way line, but it was an exceptional team effort from across the park.

It’s been a long time since Forest were amongst the Premier League’s – and Europe’s – elite, and whilst those glory days are still a long way off considering the Club’s 14th place position in the Championship there’s a group of young players coming through that offer a huge amount of hope.

Arsenal lose their safety blanket

But whilst the hosts were superb across the park, Arsenal were woeful.

For a side that have won three of the last four editions of the competition, most recently beating Chelsea in last year’s final, they were largely outplayed and outthought by a more determined side.

The big worry for the Gunners now though is that, other than the immediate embarrassment of their defeat, Wenger has lost his safety blanket of the FA Cup that has been his salvation for the past few years.

There’s no disputing that Arsenal’s Premier League credentials have dropped off in recent times and it’s fair to say that if they hadn’t won the FA Cup last year it would most likely have signalled the end of the Frenchman’s long tenure in charge at the Emirates.

This time around there’s no chance of using that ‘get out of jail’ card, and the prospects of earning any silverware in the Europa League appear a tough task heading into the knock-out stages considering that the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid and Napoli have all dropped down from the Champions League.

With the Gunners five points off Liverpool with 16 games left of the season the pressure is well and truly on for Wenger now, and failure to finish in the top-four could prove to be the final nail in his coffin.

Wenger’s team selection comes back to haunt him

A big part of the post-match post-mortem of Arsenal’s display will revolve around Wenger’s team selection on the day, deciding to leave his big guns out of the squad completely for the match.

Neither Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil nor Alexis Sanchez were anywhere to be seen and his decision to not even put his star players on the bench is one that ultimately came back to haunt him.

Instead Wenger opted for a mix of youth and experience, mixing the likes of Per Mertesacker, Rob Holding, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck with up-and-coming youngsters like Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and Chris Willock, and whilst a weakened side has worked for him time and time again in the FA Cup on the day it was a combination that served up very little.

To put it simply the more experienced players didn’t show up at all, with both Mertesacker and Holding particularly coming in for criticism for the way they were bullied by Nottingham Forest’s 18-year-old striker Ben Brereton.

They were abject across the park, with Walcott, Welbeck and Alex Iwobi creating next-to-nothing against a Championship defence, and they had nobody to turn to with their bench full of youngsters.

It was a harrowing afternoon for Wenger – who tasted third-round defeat for the first time since taking over from Arsenal in October 1996 – and it can’t even be said that it was a reserve team beaten by Forest considering the starting eleven shared 633 Premier League caps between them.

It’s now critical that they put Sunday behind them as fast as possible and look for a rousing response against Chelsea in their Carabao Cup semi-final first-leg, otherwise their whole season could start to unravel all-too familiarly in the new year.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @willypearson.

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Arsenal 4-1 Crystal Palace: Three talking points from the Emirates

Rob Meech

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Arsenal
Photo: Reuters

A barnstorming first-half performance against Crystal Palace saw Arsenal record their first victory of 2018. Nacho Monreal, Alex Iwobi, Laurent Koscielny and Alexandre Lacazette all scored in the opening 22 minutes to stun Crystal Palace. Arsenal could not add to their tally as the visitors stemmed the bleeding and replied with a late consolation through Luka Milivojevic.

This was a much-needed victory for Arsenal, whose ambitions of qualifying for the Champions League have taken a blow in recent weeks. Palace meanwhile, have been in impressive form since Roy Hodgson took charge, but this defeat has checked their progress. Here are three talking points from the Emirates…

Mesut Ozil steps up in Alexis Sanchez’s absence

With Alexis Sanchez’s move to Manchester United rumoured to be nearing completion, this was a chance for Arsenal supporters to see how the team might shape up without him. Sanchez was excluded from the side that lost to Bournemouth last weekend, but his absence was hardly felt here.

That might have had something to do with the return of Mesut Ozil from injury. The Germany international was influential throughout, particularly in partnership with the rejuvenated Jack Wilshere. Ozil is sometimes accused of drifting in and out of games against top-quality opposition, but when he is given licence to express himself without defensive responsibility, there are few better players to watch in the Premier League.

Although he failed to get on the scoresheet, Ozil showed Gunners fans that there can be life after Sanchez. It should not be forgotten that Ozil is another Arsenal player in the final six months of his contract. Tying him down to a new deal must be a priority for the club.

A reality check for lacklustre Palace

After losing their first seven Premier League matches – without scoring a goal in the process – relegation seemed nailed on for Palace. The appointment of Hodgson was largely derided, but the former England boss has had a remarkable impact in a relatively short space of time at Selhurst Park.

Survival is by no means guaranteed, but such has been their upturn in form that it is hard to imagine the Eagles being sucked back into trouble. It says a lot about their progress that many thought an upset might have been on the cards. Palace, however, were left shell-shocked after Arsenal’s four-goal burst.

When the Gunners click, they can be irresistible. Palace fans need not be too alarmed, even if their defending was lax. In fact, they should be heartened that their players did not capitulate in the second period, with the game effectively over. Although Milivojevic’s goal was too, little too late, it was just reward for a much-improved second-half performance.

Lacazette issues a timely reminder 

With a 3-0 advantage after just 13 minutes, Arsenal were in cruise control. But it was Lacazette’s goal, rounding off a superb team move to make it 4-0, that would have provided the biggest cheer. After hitting the ground running following his big-money transfer from Lyon last summer, the 26-year-old had endured a goal drought that stretched all the way back to December 2.

With questions being asked about his form, amid speculation that Arsenal are set to launch a raid for Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, this was a timely reminder that Lacazette has plenty to offer. His overall record of nine Premier League goals from 24 appearances is more than respectable for a newcomer to the English game.

Lacazette will hope that his goal against Palace can be the catalyst for another scoring run. Without Sanchez, the burden rests more heavily on the France international and if a move for Aubameyang does not materialise, he will have a big part to play in Arsenal’s push for the top four.

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Why Everton are the perfect club for Theo Walcott to rebuild his career

Rob Meech

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Theo Walcott

It is hard to believe Theo Walcott is only 28 years old. He burst on to the scene aged 16 for Southampton in League One and was snapped up by Arsenal shortly afterwards. His inexplicable selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad, without playing in a single Premier League game, transformed him into an overnight star.

Big things have been expected of Walcott ever since. It’s fair to say that, despite winning 47 caps for England and making 397 appearances for Arsenal, he has failed to live up to the hype. Now, after 12 years, Walcott is bidding farewell to the Emirates and hoping to revive his flagging career under Sam Allardyce at Everton, whom he has joined for £20 million after agreeing terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Speculation that Walcott’s days at Arsenal were numbered had persisted for several years, but his desire to prove himself at the club kept him in north London even when admirers came calling. His 21 goals in all competitions in the 2012/13 campaign suggested he had cracked it, but that proved to be a false dawn.

In truth, Walcott’s decision to sign for Everton was probably a no-brainer. Now in the prime of his career, he simply has to be playing regularly. The reality of how far down the pecking order he had fallen at Arsenal struck this season, when he often failed to make Arsene Wenger’s match-day squad. His last appearance for the Gunners came as a second-half substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth.

Everton’s interest in Walcott emerged only recently, but he was clearly one of Allardyce’s top targets. One look at the Toffees’ recent form underlines why. After an immediate upturn in fortunes after the former England boss’s appointment, Everton have embarked on a winless streak that stretches back to December 18.

Lack of pace is a pressing concern and this is an attribute that Walcott possesses in abundance. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intelligent footballers, but not the type that will blitz opposition defenders. Instead, they have relied on chipping balls over the top for the striker to chase. As such, Everton are one-dimensional and easy to play against, with no player capable of launching a counter-attack.

Also highlighting their urgent need for more firepower is the grim statistic that only rock-bottom Swansea have had fewer shots than Everton this season. New big-money signing Cenk Tosun has increased competition in the striking department but may take time to settle, whereas Walcott’s Premier League pedigree means no transitional period will be needed.

The former Southampton man’s versatility makes him an attractive proposition. For Arsenal, he predominantly featured on the right wing – either in a four-man midfield or a three-man attack – but he is equally adept at playing up top on his own, a position where he tried but ultimately failed to establish himself at the Emirates.

Potential is a word that has long been associated with Walcott. It is no longer applicable. At 28, this is possibly his final chance to realise his ambitions, both domestically and internationally. Everton, a sleeping giant, are a perfect fit. Under the auspices of major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, plans are in the pipeline for a brand-spanking new stadium to enable them to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite.

After being a peripheral figure at Arsenal for so long, Walcott has become the forgotten man of English football. For the sake of his career, he simply had to leave north London. By joining Everton, Walcott, who will wear the number 11 shirt, has the security of working under a manager who rates him highly. Now, he has the opportunity to become the player he always promised to be.

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Bournemouth 2-1 Arsenal: Three talking points from the Vitality Stadium

Rob Meech

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Bournemouth
Photo: Reuters

Bournemouth came from behind to claim a much-needed victory over Arsenal, whose hopes of qualifying for the Champions League have suffered another blow.

After an insipid opening period at the Vitality Stadium, the action sparked into life when Hector Bellerin broke the deadlock on 52 minutes.

But Arsenal’s lead was short-lived, as goals from Callum Wilson and Jordon Ibe – his first for the club – secured the Cherries’ fourth home win of the season, which lifted them to 13th in the table.

Arsenal, meanwhile, slipped further adrift in the battle to finish in the top four after their third consecutive league game without a win. Here are three talking points…

Alexis Sanchez moves closer to the Emirates exit door

All the pre-match talk centred on a player who wasn’t involved in the contest. Not only was Alexis Sanchez not named in the starting XI, he wasn’t even on the bench having not travelled to the south coast.

Manager Arsene Wenger was ambiguous when pressed on this in the aftermath of the defeat, but the insinuation was clear; the want-away Chilean will not be an Arsenal player come the end of the transfer window.

Both Manchester City and Manchester United have been heavily linked with a move for Sanchez, whose contract at the Emirates expires in the summer. Despite his uncertain future, this match was crying out for his never-say-die attitude.

Arsenal controlled the first half and deserved to be in front when Bellerin fired home. However, the Gunners were unable to add a second and Bournemouth capitalised with two late efforts. Arsene Wenger’s side are now without a win in four games in 2018 as their troubles mount.

Bournemouth buck the trend against the ‘Big Six’

Before this fixture, Bournemouth had lost all of their matches against the ‘Big Six’ this season, scoring only one goal in seven outings.

While those are not necessarily the games that will define their campaign, it was a worrying statistic that Eddie Howe needed to address. Facing an Arsenal team without Sanchez or Mesut Ozil looked like being the Cherries’ best opportunity to buck that trend, and so it proved.

With only nine points separating all the teams in the bottom half, an unexpected win can do so much to alter the picture. The Cherries didn’t fold after going a goal behind and they merited the three points for an enterprising second-half display.

Having beaten Arsenal for the first time in their history, Bournemouth are now four points clear of the drop-zone. They are by no means safe because of this result, but the psychological impact could be immense.

Jack Wilshere getting back to his best

Returning to the club at which he spent last season on loan, this was not the afternoon Jack Wilshere would have hoped for. Though it didn’t go well from a team perspective, the 26-year-old was close to his best at the Vitality Stadium.

He touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch and also completed more passes. After a frustrating start to the campaign where he struggled for minutes in the Premier League, Wilshere is now establishing himself in the starting XI.

He was Arsenal’s best player against Bournemouth and in a team that lacks leaders, he was one of the few who looked like he wanted the ball. Wilshere ran the show in midfield and was always keen to move forward with purpose.

England manager Gareth Southgate surely can’t ignore Wilshere’s form and, fitness permitting, he must be a shoo-in for the next squad. In a World Cup year, Wilshere is peaking at just the right time.

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