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Arsenal 2015/16 Premier League Season Preview

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For the third summer in succession, Arsenal have had substantial funds available to add quality to the squad and have not had to sell a player against their will. These two factors combined together have been the key behind Arsenal’s slow but steady improvement over the last three years. A core of players ‘developed’ at the club have been retained; namely Laurent Koscielny, Olivier Giroud, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain. High class and ‘ready-made’ purchases have been completed in the shape of Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez and most recently Petr Cech. The acquisitions of Callum Chambers, Gabriel and Danny Welbeck have added much needed depth to the squad. The list of honours collected by this group of players stands at back to back FA Cups. The question on every Gooner’s mind is whether they can take to next step and become Premier League champions.

Story of Last Season:

The first half of the 2014/15 season was both a frustrating and perplexing one for Arsenal supporters. Deep down, many felt that the North London outfit’s squad was as strong as it had been in a decade, with a vast array of talent in midfield. This was combined with the signings of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck who added pace and mobility to an attack that had relied too heavily on Theo Walcott to provide those attributes. However, it became difficult to keep up pretensions about the strength of the squad when it amassed a substandard 33 points over the first 19 games of the season.

Arsenal were punching well below their weight and the reasons for this were plentiful. Firstly, they could not find the right balance within the first eleven. Arsene Wenger began the season with a new 4-1-4-1 formation in an effort to squeeze Ramsey, Wilshere and Özil into the same side. Arsenal did not see the best of their German playmaker from the left side of midfield and Mikel Arteta was left exposed as the lone deep-lying midfielder, unable to fulfil the role by himself. Arteta’s best displays in a Gunners shirt have come when he has been part of a double pivot.

The World Cup seemed to sap Mesut Özil and Per Mertersacker of both physical and mental energy. The situation with the towering centre half was exacerbated by the fact his preferred defensive partner; Laurent Koscielny, was in and out of the team with a problematic achilles. Mertesacker relies a great deal on Koscielny’s pace and ability to confront situations directly while Mertesacker holds his position and defends with a more zonal approach. Without him, Mertesacker was tasked with trying to mentor Callum Chambers or even Nacho Monreal operating in an alien role. Both Chambers and Monreal performed admirably, but it clearly affected Mertesacker and as a defensive unit Arsenal suffered.

In the second half of the season however, solutions were found to these crucial imbalances within the team. Laurent Koscielny became a consistent presence in the heart of the defence again. Francis Coquelin was recalled from his loan spell at Charlton due to an injury crisis and soon became the first choice holding midfielder player, bringing bite in the challenge and mobility to the role. His duties were alleviated somewhat by the fact that Arsenal reverted to a 4-2-3-1 system, with Santi Cazorla his unlikely partner at the base of midfield. They combined superbly, to the extent that when Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere returned they had to be content with playing on the right of the attacking three.

Mesut Özil was allowed to play in his preferred number 10 position in this system, and looked like he had felt the benefit of his enforced lay off in the autumn due to a knee injury. He exerted a huge influence on Arsenal’s football in the second half of the season. Olivier Giroud returned to lead the line. Whatever you think of Giroud, and I have never been convinced that Wenger sees him as his ‘ideal’ centre forward, Arsenal have grown very used to having that type of forward to the team to play off and around. Results were far better, with 42 points from the final 19 league games including an away win at Man City and a 4-1 home win over Liverpool. In addition of course, there was a second successive FA Cup triumph, which included a quarter final win at Old Trafford and a comprehensive 4-0 win over Aston Villa in the final.

Transfers In:

Petr Cech – £11M from Chelsea
Contrary to popular opinion, I tend to think that Arsene Wenger would have happily started the season with the same three goalkeepers he used last season. However, circumstances threw up an opportunity that was too good to turn down. At 33 years of age, Petr Cech decided he was not content to be back up for Thibaut Courtois at Chelsea. Moreover, he wanted to stay in London where he and his family are settled. Wenger recognised that Cech was an improvement on what Arsenal already had and that his experience and medal collection could add something to the collective mentality of the group. At a club the size of Arsenal, it is extremely difficult to find players who are both available and a definite improvement on what’s already there, especially for a reasonable price. Cech ticked both boxes and therefore a deal had to be pursued.

A gentleman’s agreement between Cech and Abramovich allowed the ‘keeper to move across London against the wishes of Jose Mourinho. That alone will warm the hearts of Arsenal fans. Wojech Szczesny seems to be the victim of this upgrade; like Lukas Podolski, the Pole was a popular character but has fallen by the wayside as the calibre of player within the squad has increased.

As things stand, it seems likely that the Cech signing will be the extent of Arsenal’s summer spending. This does not mean that Arsene Wenger believes the squad to be perfect, but he is committed to only spending money on players who are from the very top tier. There are not too many of those who have moved in this window so far. He would surely be interested in a top class number nine, who combines Olivier Giroud’s hold up play but who has a bit extra pace and is a touch more clinical. This narrows the field down to  players of the ilk of Karim Benzema or Robert Lewandowski. Any potential deal for such a player depends entirely on Real Madrid or Bayern Munich looking to sell. Alternatively, he may look to enhance Arsenal’s attack by signing a forward operating wider such as Marco Reus or even Isco, whose guile would complement Arsenal’s more bombastic and direct wide men.

Key Players

Laurent Koscielny: A £9.5 million signing from Lorient in the summer of 2010, there is a strong case to be made that Koscielny is the finest defensive purchase of Arsene Wenger’s reign, perhaps alongside the signing of Sol Campbell on a free transfer. His debut against Liverpool at Anfield gave Arsenal fans a glimpse of what was to come. He was clearly an exceedingly aggressive and mobile defender keen to get tight to opposition forwards and nick possession in front of them whenever possible. This front foot style of defending could however appear rash at times ;he was in fact sent off at Anfield that day. Like many defenders who arrive from abroad, there was a blanket of scepticism about his ability to adapt to English game, especially given the fact Koscielny is just a fraction over six foot tall. Koscienly however has developed into one of the league’s finest centre backs.

Since August 2013, Arsenal have won 73% of the matches Koscielny has played in and just 39% of those he has not. His habit of conceding penalties and picking up cards has receded significantly, and aided by his physical development and increased upper body strength he has become a far more rounded defender, capable of reading the game as well as confronting his opposite number on a one on one basis. If Arsenal are to continue their improved levels of defensive stability, he has to stay fit.

Mesut Özil: Since his arrival from Real Madrid in September 2013, no player has provoked genuinely visceral responses from Arsenal fans in the way that Mesut Özil has. His supporters accuse his detractors of not being able to ‘see’ or ‘understand’ the good work he does in games, in the same way that a James Joyce reader might accuse a Geoffrey Archer fan of being unable to identify literary merit. This infuriates his detractors who accuse his defenders of being football ‘hipsters’, trying to elevate football to something altogether more cerebral than it really is. For a long time there was very little middle ground, though more and more a crossing over to the pro-Özil camp.

Let’s attempt to find some middle ground. Özil will never be the talismanic figure that Thierry Henry was for Arsenal, or Cristiano Ronaldo was for Manchester United, capable of 30 goals and 20 assists per season. Some think that for £42.5m, that is exactly what he should provide. That is one point of view, but that is not Özil’s role. He is an enabler, a facilitator who allows other players to take the leading roles while he keeps the team ticking. He is the oil in the Arsenal machine. For a while it was difficult to find the exact reason why The Gunners looked so much more fluent when he was in the side. It is a mixture of his choice, weight, and timing of passes and his elusive movements across the pitch that create space for himself and others. He has a deceptively long stride meaning his movement across the pitch is exceptionally graceful and economical, allowing the German to frequently top the charts for distance covered in a game. His presence and form will be absolutely crucial to Arsenal’s title bid this season. Given his technique and levels of composure though, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a few more goals from him.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: Alexis Sanchez or Aaron Ramsey would have been worthy choices, but in Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal have a player with massive scope for improvement. In an era when everyone is obsessed by transfers, we tend to forget the effect that a rapidly improving young player can have on a team. Cesc Fabregas in 2007/8 or Ramsey in 2013/14 are good examples which also occurred at The Emirates. Neither were new signings, but their development allowed the team to improve on the previous season’s performance. Chamberlain could well be on the cusp of exploding in the way in which those two players did.

Many assume that ‘The Ox’ is yet to establish himself as a first team regular, but he actually started every one of Arsenal’s first 17 league games last season. Unfortunately, injury hampered his development in the second half of the campaign. Though that string of 17 starts contained many an impressive performance, they yielded only one goal and one assist. If he can push both of those statistics up towards double figures, then it would become similar to Arsenal possessing a new player in terms of output. He has the ability to do it; in many he ways he is the most complete footballer at Arsenal, able to combine a range of attributes. He has the pace and strength, can beat players which is vital in breaking down deep lying defences, possesses the vision to play centrally, is almost two footed and strikes a ball cleanly from distance. The latent potential is there, it just needs to be realised.

Predicted Line-Up

Arsenal Predicted 15/16 - Football tactics and formations

The back five seem plus Francis Coquelin seem quite settled. It is unlikely that the club will find the ‘dream’ centre forward to displace Olivier Giroud, while Alexis and Özil are shoe-ins. This leaves the second central position and the right sided position up for grabs. Santi Cazorla was fantastic in that deeper role last season and I think he might start there this season to aid continuity. However I fully expect either Ramsey or Wilshere, two more natural central midfield players to take up that position by the end of the season. Ramsey’s engine is perhaps what gives him the edge. I also think Oxlade Chamberlain gives Arsenal more balance that Theo Walcott on the right hand side given the fact he is more involved in the game and more diligent defensively. In the absence of Alexis and Welbeck early in the season, Chamberlain could shift to the left leaving a space for either Walcott, Wilshere, or even Ramsey should he stick with the Coquelin-Cazorla axis in the middle. All good dilemmas to have if you are in Arsene Wenger’s shoes.

Manager

In one sense, the FA Cup triumphs eased the pressure on Wenger after 9 barren years without silverware. In another sense, it has only increased the pressure on him to deliver one or both of the two big prizes; the Premier League and the Champions League, in the two years that remain on his contract. From 2006 to 2013, it was often speculated that Wenger had one hand tied behind his back in the transfer market as the years of post-Highbury austerity took hold. This is no longer the case. There has been sufficient time and funds to build a squad that is at least competitive at the very top of the division. Arsene Wenger knows that cries of ‘jam tomorrow’ will fall upon deaf ears. Having spent so long planning for the future, he will be impatient to deliver in the present. Many label him stubborn and though I would not contest this, the appointments of Shad Forsythe in the fitness department, Andries Yonker at the head of the Academy and a purported increase in the study of opposition teams before matches are signs that he may have conceded that subtle alterations were needed.

First Six Fixtures

West Ham United (Home)
Crystal Palace (Away)
– Liverpool (Home)
– Newcastle (Away)
Stoke City (Home)
– Chelsea (Away)

Though it is difficult to know for sure how sharp any given team will be in the opening weeks of the season, Arsenal are within their rights to target a maximum 15 points from those first five games. Home matches against Stoke and West Ham are the type of fixtures Arsenal have negotiated quite easily in recent years. Crystal Palace away is always a potential slip up due to the Eagles’ talented and unpredictable forwards, but Arsenal have two wins from two at Selhurst Park since Palace were last promoted. They are in fact the only team of the ‘Big 5’ to have done this. Newcastle away is another fixture to be wary of, but another team and ground which Arsenal have good memories of, with seven wins from seven against Newcastle dating back to August 2011. Liverpool at home is a marquee fixture, but one that a team with pretensions of winning the title would expect to claim all three points.

Which leaves Chelsea away. If Arsenal can pick up maximum points from the first five, and hope that Everton and Man City can take something from Chelsea when they travel to both of those clubs early on, then this Chelsea game could become a bit of a free swing. If Arsenal were to take a three point lead to the Bridge, then the worst case scenario is that they are level after six games, something which every Arsenal fan would surely accept. Accounting for a defeat at Chelsea, I’d still expect Arsenal to take 15 points; or at worst 13, from their opening half a dozen matches.

Final Standing Prediction – 3rd

I expect Arsenal to make a genuine assault on the Premier League title, and it should make for an engrossing watch. However, I do think the 12 point deficit that existed last season between Arsenal and Chelsea might be a bit too much to make up. There is no good reason to expect Chelsea to be any weaker than they were last season. They did however rely heavily on a small core of players who were able to stay fit for almost the whole season. Injuries at any time to any of John Terry, Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic or Diego Costa might leave the door open for Arsenal. However, if Chelsea keep this core fit, I don’t see them falling far short of their tally of 87 points last season. Arsenal could well halve the deficit, but pulling off a 13 point swing seems too stiff a task.
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University of Nottingham History graduate. Freelance sportswriter specialising in Football, Cricket and Golf. Interested in the politics of sport.

Arsenal

Despite Celtic success, Arsenal should avoid Brendan Rodgers

Arsenal will be faced with looking for a new manager this summer.

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Getty Images

The end had been coming for a long time, but it was a surprise on Friday when Arsene Wenger announced he would be standing down as Arsenal manager.

The tributes quickly followed and a manager that had cut a sorry figure for the past few seasons was forgotten. Instead, his successes and impact on English football became the focus.

It is too soon to tell who the club’s priority target is to replace their legendary manager, but the early favourite with the bookies is Brendan Rodgers.

The Northern Irishman is arguably the best British coach in football at the moment and his experience at two big clubs, Liverpool and Celtic, puts him in contention for the Arsenal job.

The Celtic majority shareholder has already commented on the rumours and told Sky Sports that the club wouldn’t stand in Rodgers’ way if he wanted to move back to the Premier League with Arsenal:

“I’m glad he’s the favourite. He’s an outstanding person. We wouldn’t want him to leave but we won’t force him to stay. Hopefully, his love for the club and the setup here will enduce him to stay at the club.”

Although they provide a good starting point, the odds from various bookmakers aren’t reliable at this stage of the recruitment process. It would be expected that Arsenal have a number of managers in mind, but there is a long way to go before an appointment is made.

A number of the media have already talked up Rodgers as the best candidate for the role, due to his style of football and experience at two big British clubs. At Liverpool, he came close to winning the club’s first Premier League title during the 2013-14 season and got the team playing some excellent football.

(Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

The 45-year-old has continued to impress with Celtic as he guided the club to an unbeaten domestic season during his first year in charge. There are question marks over the quality of the Scottish League, but Rodgers has stood out as the best manager the club have had in a number of years.

In addition to the domestic success, he has overseen some good performances in Europe, albeit their overall achievements on the continent have been modest.

By being the best British candidate, there will be a lot of people pushing for Rodgers to get the job, but it would be a poor appointment by Arsenal.

Despite his Liverpool teams playing some exciting football, he failed to win a single trophy during his time at Anfield. He came close to lifting the Premier League title, but in hindsight, the reason for that was the genius of Luis Suarez and goal-scoring form of Daniel Sturridge rather than the influence of Rodgers.

The best managers deliver results on a regular basis and can establish their team as regular contenders. The 2013-14 season will be remembered fondly by Liverpool fans, but their failure to build on it didn’t reflect well on Rodgers. They were quickly knocked out of both the Champions League and the Europa League before limping along to a 6th place finish.

During his time at Anfield, Rodgers did okay without ever looking like he belonged at one of England’s biggest clubs. His success at Celtic has seen him repair his reputation, but it is a huge change to go from being the dominant team in Scotland to rebuilding Arsenal.

The Gunners need to bring in a proven winner to instantly win over the players and have the authority to rebuild the club from top to bottom. Rodgers isn’t that man. He needs to show he can win major honours outside of Scotland before being considered for a top Premier League job again.

This summer is too soon for him and Arsenal would be foolish to consider him as an option.

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Who is best-placed to challenge Manchester City next season?

Pep Guardiola’s side will be looking to defend their title during the 2018/19 campaign.

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Getty Images

Manchester City were crowned as Premier League champions on Sunday afternoon after Manchester United suffered a surprise defeat at the hands of struggling West Bromwich Albion.

Pep Guardiola’s team have ripped apart the top-flight of English football this season with a devastatingly effective style of play that has left their rivals struggling to hold on to their coattails.

City are currently 16 points clear of second place with five games still to play and now have the opportunity to break the 100-point barrier as the season comes to a conclusion.

Here, The Boot Room evaluate which top-six team is best placed to challenge Manchester City’s dominance next year.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Manchester United

There are currently mixed feelings around Old Trafford regarding how Manchester United have performed this season and the long-term direction of the club under the stewardship of Jose Mourinho.

A failure to maintain the astonishing pace set by Manchester City has left supporters having to be content with a top-four finish and FA Cup semi-final whilst there has been a deluge of criticism aimed at the pragmatic style of play utilised.

Mourinho remains one of the best managers in world football and he is still in the process of moulding a team in his own image.

The Portuguese maestro has already spent big in the transfer market, as demonstrated by the arrivals of Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku over the past two years, and the club are expected to make further significant investments in the summer.

He needs to find the missing piece to the Manchester United jigsaw and that will mean addressing the lop-sided defence, demonstrated by Ashley Young’s emergence as first-choice left-back.

Mourinho has overcome Guardiola in the past but there will be no room for excuses next season if, after two years of building a team, Manchester United are unable to challenge their cross-city rivals.

(Photo by Glyn Kirk/Getty Images)

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur have continuously improved year-on-year under the stewardship of Mauricio Pochettino but you still feel that the club is some way behind their rivals in terms of winning the Premier League.

Spurs have a young, dynamic squad of players that play fast, attacking football and, in Harry Kane, they possess one of the best strikers in the world right now. However, something is still missing and it is hard to put your finger on exactly what it is.

Perhaps it is simply a mental issue? Tottenham have not won a league title since 1960 and last secured silverware of any kind almost a decade ago – do the current group of players have the right mentality or experience to enable them to maintain performances over the course of a full campaign? Their upcoming FA Cup semi-final may provide an insight later this month.

Whilst you feel that Tottenham will always be in and around the top spots next season, it is difficult to see them overcoming Manchester City without significant investment or Pochettino uncovering the magic formula.

(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Chelsea

Chelsea have offered a feeble and limp defence of their title this year and still face a scramble to secure a place in the top-four.

Things have clearly not been right behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge and Antonio Conte is expected to depart the club in the summer after spending much of the season snipping at the Chelsea hierarchy.

Regardless of who the Italian’s successor is, it is widely expected that the club will bounce back.

Under the ownership of Roman Abramovich, the Blues have continuously maintained their standing as one of the leading side’s in the country and you would imagine that the Russian oligarch will be keen to reclaim their crown next season.

Chelsea will spend big in the summer to ensure that they build a squad capable of challenging Manchester City and a striker will be top of the new manager’s wish list. Alvaro Morata made a positive start to the campaign but has struggled for form and fitness in the second half of the season.

If the Blues can make the right appointment in the dugout and strengthen significantly on the pitch then history suggests they will be in and around the top spots.

(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Liverpool

Since arriving at Anfield in October 2015 Jurgen Klopp thrown himself into the task of restoring Liverpool’s status as one of the leading club’s in Europe.

Each transfer window has seen the squad steadily improve and you now feel that the German has built a team that is capable of challenging for both domestic and European silverware.

Liverpool have a reputation for producing attacking, dynamic and exciting football and the attacking trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino possess an abundance of pace, power and creativity.

Under the stewardship of Klopp, the team have always looked capable of scoring goals but have regularly been criticised for being undermined by defensive fragile and frail.

However, the signing of Virgil Van Dijk in January, the emergence of John Robertson and the new-found confidence of Loris Karius appears to have put some of those concerns to bed – Liverpool have kept eight clean sheets in their last 12 matches in all competitions.

Klopp will continue to develop the squad during the summer and, as proven by their historic victory over Manchester City, the Reds are certainly heading in the right direction.

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Arsenal

There has continued to be a degree of frustration and dissatisfaction around the Emirates Stadium this season as Arsenal have continued to fall behind their rivals on the pitch.

The Gunners are currently 33 points behind Manchester City in the Premier League are relying on winning the Europa League in order to qualify for the Champions League next year.

The club under-performed last season, failing to qualify for Europe’s premier competition, and the decline has continued over the following twelve months with supporters becoming increasingly frustrated with Arsene Wenger’s failure to consistently secure positive results.

The same old problems persist – there is a lack of leaders, a lack of quality in central defence and no commanding midfield player.

Wenger has brought together an exciting forward line that possesses pace, power and experience with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan arriving in January to complement the likes of Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and a fit-again Danny Welbeck.

However, Arsenal continue to be undermined by prevalent weaknesses throughout the remainder of the team and there are currently a world away from competing with Manchester City.

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Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere should consider success of former team-mate and leave North-London

The England international looks set to leave the Emirates outfit this summer.

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Jack Wilshere
Photo: Getty Images

If anyone this season can speak of a season defined by their rejuvenated form then Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would take the gold as the once rejected. The once-out-of-favour winger at Arsenal has now transformed himself into one of the key additions to Liverpool‘s settled central midfield three.

Jürgen Klopp has well and truly got the best out of the 24-year-old this term and this marked improvement could inspire the Ox’s former team-mate, Jack Wilshere, who may considering that a move away from North London is now necessary to reignite his career.

Wilshere was hauled off in embarrassing fashion on Thursday night during Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with CSKA Moscow, with the Russians leading 2-0, and the player’s reaction to being axed early highlights just how unsettled at his boyhood club he  has become.

Reports in the Telegraph claim that, despite enjoying a rare, relatively injury-free campaign for the Gunners this season, Wilshere chose to turn down a new deal at the Emirates after refusing to take a pay-cut. Arsenal are keen for the England international to stay but won’t increase their original offer.

With the World Cup coming up and the 26-year-old still yet to establish himself as a regular England starter it remains to be seen whether Arsene Wenger can get the best out of the man that was once hailed the ‘future of the Three Lions’, even by the likes of footballing legends such as Barcelona’s Xavi.

This season Wilshere has featured in 33 matches for the London outfit and has made a personal record number of appearances since the 2013/2014 campaign.

(Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images,)

However, since the offer of a new deal was made to Wilshere earlier this year, Mesut Ozil has signed a new contract that almost trebled his salary to £350,000-a-week.

In that time, Arsenal have also agreed to pay £200,000-a-week to Henrikh Mkhitaryan and £180,000-a-week to club-record signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Thus highlighting just how far Wilshere has fallen down the financial pecking order at the Emirates.

Currently, the Englishman is set to become a free-agent in June.

After watching former Emirates team-mate Chamberlain firing Liverpool to the Champions League quarter-finals, with his sensational strike against Premier League champions Manchester City, should Wilshere look to the Klopp effect to get his fading career back on track?

It would definitely prove a risky move for both parties, if the Merseysiders were to pursue the signing.

However, flying high in Europe with once-written-off forward and PFA Player of the year favourite Mohamed Salah, who is already on 40 goals for the season, Liverpool are beginning to represent the perfect club for players to reignite their careers.

Wilshere should take comfort in the knowledge that Reds boss Jurgen Klopp is the perfect manager to revive some of football’s fallen giants.

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