Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports


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2015-2016 Premier League Predictions From 1 to 20

There’s always something magical about the start of a new season. Be it Opening Day at Fenway, a TNT double-header headlined by LeBron or Week 1 in the NFL, there is nothing quite like it in sports. For this one day, everyone is even. However the offseason went, I can never help but smile at the start of another odyssey with my teams. This weekend, I get the joy of experiencing opening weekend in the Premier League in person. Saturday afternoon, I’ll be at Goodison Park for Everton’s opener against Watford, before returning to welcome back Arsenal against West Ham. I simply cannot wait.

Despite a relatively soccer free summer globally with only the Copa America and Women’s World Cup, it feels like only yesterday that Chelsea was lifting the Premier League trophy. Yet here we are, mere days away from yet another campaign. Maybe it’s living in England for the summer, but I’ve never been quite so excited for kickoffs across the board.

With Chelsea standing pat in the transfer market compared to the other big clubs, this year’s title race is especially tough to predict. I have been going back and forth on my choices all summer. Even the middle of the table seems to be up an entire notch. When has a team like Crystal Palace been able to buy someone like Yohan Cabaye? For me, teams I have ranked 5-12 are quite similar in talent levels. Injuries and infighting could be the decider. And on the back end, I see seven teams in danger of relegation. By all standards, this year looks to be extremely compelling from top to bottom.

Without further ado, here are my predictions for how the teams will look in the standings after all 38 matches.

Predictions

1. Chelsea – Repeating in the Premier League has proved incredibly difficult in the recent era. However, Jose Mourinho might just get it done this year. This isn’t such a bold prediction, but I think Eden Hazard will win player of the season by a wide margin. When Diego Costa is fit, Chelsea will hit record numbers. I want to overreact to the dreadful performance in the FA Community Shield and slot Arsenal above the Blues, but I can’t bring myself to do the good deed. Arsenal will keep the title race close through April, but Chelsea’s defense will prove superior as John Terry is showing no signs of slowing down. What could derail the Blues is injuries in the midfield and in attack. Should Nemanja Matic or Cesc Fabregas have any prolonged absences, other teams could expose Chelsea’s unfathomable lack of depth. I’m expecting January reinforcements to make a difference.

2. Arsenal – This is the year Arsenal will finally return to being truly competitive. Incredible depth should not only help Arsenal stay fresh across multiple competitions, but it will allow Alexis Sanchez to be eased back into things. Keeping him healthy will be key to Arsenal’s second half. With Petr Cech in goal, the Gunners will leak far fewer goals. My guess is that Arsenal is in front on Boxing Day, and the season will come down to who can take the most points on the road at the bigger clubs. An away date at Manchester City in early May looks to me like a game that will decide Arsenal’s fate. I think Laurent Koscielny’s health will also go a long way in determining how far the Gunners go.

3. Manchester United – In large part, I’ve liked what Manchester United has done this summer. They’ve brought in a combination of experience and potential that not only bodes well for this year but puts them in a good position to succeed down the line. However, I don’t like Louis van Gaal, and I think his players could sour on him in year two. I expect Wayne Rooney to have a huge year now that he will be playing a more traditional forward’s role. In the midfield, the amount of talent is scary. But the defense is entirely unconvincing and could give up a lot of back-breaking goals. Scorelines of 3-2 and 4-3 might become familiar this year. In the end, I think they’ll challenge for the title until late March’s trip to Manchester City.

4. Manchester City – I’m no longer scared of City. A weak defense underlines a squad that increasingly relies on players past their primes. Raheem Sterling should be given plenty of chances, but I’m not sure he’s the answer next to Sergio Agüero, who seems unlikely to stay fit for an entire year. Another failure in Europe will surely see Manuel Pellegrini relieved of his job, and that distraction could hinder City’s season in the Premier League. Rather than challenging for the title, I see them barely holding on for fourth.

5. Swansea – Having become a fixture near to top of the mid-table sides, I see Swansea further improving in their second year in Gary Monk’s system. Bringing everyone back from a year ago, they will have no issue settling in as a team and boast great experience. Eder and Andre Ayew should provide healthy competition for Bafetimbi Gomis, a player who came into his own a little bit last season. Getting enough goals will probably be the biggest issue, but one I think they’ll solve. Expect a fight for a Champions League spot from the Swans.

6. Tottenham – Maybe I’m a little biased, but count me as one underwhelmed by Tottenham right now. Harry Kane’s glow will eventually wear off, and beyond him and Christian Eriksen, there isn’t a whole lot to the side. One area I think they will really struggle is in the midfield against top teams like Chelsea and Arsenal. Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason are not the quality of players necessary. The one signing I did like was Toby Alderweireld, who I think did quite well at Southampton a year ago. On top of a Europa League campaign, I’m hopeful for a particularly disappointing season for Spurs.

7. Crystal Palace – I see Crystal Palace making the leap this year, going from a middle of the table side to one contending for European places. This season might be akin to manager Alan Pardew’s success with Newcastle back in 2011-2012, when he had his team challenging for the top 4. Beyond stealing Cabaye for well below market value, getting Patrick Bamford and Connor Wickham offers two solid options up front that will improve their goal tally significantly. Without losing any of the their important players, Palace strengthened in key areas. If their defense can hold up, they will be a squad others won’t want to face. Early home games against Arsenal and Man City could tell us a lot about how ready Palace is for the big time.

8. Everton – Everton is an intriguing side right now, partly because their results last year did not match the level of talent in the team. Players of quality simply did not perform, which then begs questions of Roberto Martinez. This year, I think they’ll be better, though not a contender for a top-four spot. Ross Barkley will make the next step and Gerard Deulofeu is a keen and exciting signing. I want to put them higher up the table, but the amount of draws last year scares me. Something’s got to change mentally if they’re going to be a serious player in any sort of meaningful race.

9. Southampton – After two years in the sun, Southampton is putting together an impressive squad. The weakness this year is certainly in defense, where I’m not sure Maya Yoshida is good enough a player to start on a team hoping to go anywhere. However, Jordy Clasie should more than replace Morgan Schneiderlin, and ahead of him in the midfield is plenty of talent in Sadio Mane and Dusan Tadic. If Jay Rodriguez can regain some of the talent he showed two years ago before his injury, this team will score a lot of goals. They are one good central defender away from challenging for a Champions League spot.

10. Liverpool – I think Liverpool is in for a dreadful year full of infighting, well behind the level of the top sides. With so many new faces, integrating everyone will prove impossible, and goals will prove hard to come by. And many of the new signings do seem to fit any obvious system, so they’ll be experimenting with new formations weekly, which is never good. Brendan Rodgers will be the first manager fired, and after his departure, things will only get worse. Maybe some of this is a reflection of how John Henry has run the Red Sox recently, but I don’t think there’s enough leadership in a young squad now that Steven Gerrard is gone. Christian Benteke will struggle to stay fit, with only James Milner pulling his weight of the new boys. Unfortunately for Liverpool, this will be a long year.

11. Stoke City – Stoke keeps getting further away from their former image with each successive signing. Ibrahim Afellay represents the latest foray into the ex-Barcelona players. Glen Johnson also might prove a shrewd signing on a free. There is a lot to like about this team. Bojan Krkic might be my favorite player in the EPL right now. And although they lost Asmir Begovic in goal, Jack Butland should be up for the task of replacing him. They might put a few scares into some teams if new signing Joselu can score goals, but I think they’ll largely just be a fun team to watch week in and week out, which is something I’d never thought I’d write about Stoke.

12. Newcastle – There’s no way this year can be anywhere near as bad as last year for Newcastle, so that by itself should offer consolation to the fans. A competent manager in Steve McClaren and the signing of Georginio Wijnaldum should help clean up the mess of a year ago. The center of defense still looks rather weak, which is concerning, but elsewhere on the pitch, there is real quality. Moussa Sissoko is in for a big year, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t finish the year at Newcastle. All in all, this is a team that can beat somebody on their day but isn’t deep enough or strong enough at the back to make any real sustained run in the league.

13. West Ham – This is a crucial year for West Ham with the team moving to the Olympic Stadium in a year’s time. Getting relegated is simply not an option. However in firing Sam Allardyce and replacing him with Stefan Bilic, they are taking a big risk. Especially if they advance in the Europa League, this could be a taxed squad. Dimitri Payet is a good signing, but they do not have the kind of individual talent the other mid-table sides have. For me, finding a way to get Alex Song back on loan is a must. And then they have to figure out how to score goals over the next few months without the injured Enner Valencia and Andy Carroll. They seem more in danger of relegation than anything else, though I think in they end, they will comfortably survive.

14. West Brom – I’m always convinced this is going to be the year West Brom is relegated, but time after time they escape. And with Tony Pulis at the helm, I see no reason for that to change. Saido Berahino seems to have one more season at the club before he moves to a bigger side, so his goals should go a long way towards keeping them up. Behind him, there isn’t much to like. The defense looks to be alright, though the midfield won’t offer much cover. Among all returning Premier League sides, they have the weakest midfield by a wide margin. And that won’t help them win many games. If anything happens to Berahino, things could go south quickly. But for now, they should have just enough to survive.

15. Norwich City – Of the promoted sides, Norwich should be the most Premier League ready having last been in the top tier only two years ago. Manager Alex Neil however, is the least Premier League ready manager at age 34. The players they have brought in are all capable of helping the cause, with Robbie Brady and Youssouf Mulumbu looking to be the best. Where they might be the strongest is up front, with Cameron Jerome, Gary Hooper, Bradley Johnson and Nathan Redmond all capable of reaching double digit goals. Few know what to expect, but I’m intrigued.

16. Watford – New manager Quique Flores might be Watford’s biggest asset, having previously won the Europa League with Atletico Madrid. His experience, although not in the Premier League, should keep them from being starstruck as many of the players face top opposition for the first time. Troy Deeney could prove to be the next striker to make the jump from the Championship successfully. And it will largely be up to him to keep Watford up. Etienne Capoue should help solidify the midfield area in front of what will be an untested defense. Heurelho Gomes offers little confidence in goal.

17. Aston Villa – A team in entire disarray, Aston Villa will be desperate to avoid relegation yet again after a great escape this past year. Recent signings like Jordan Ayew will not be able to replace Benteke, who was at times the only player on this roster capable of finding the net. They need Jack Grealish to make the leap if they hope to win many games, as the same old names haven’t proved to be good enough. Without Ron Vlaar, the defense could also suffer, as new signing Micah Richards hasn’t seen regular game time in many years. There will be many nervy afternoons at Villa Park.

18. Leicester City – Replacing Nigel Pearson with Claudio Ranieri at manager immediately puts Leicester City in threat of relegation. And with the loss of Esteban Cambiasso in midfield, they will have to find ways to replace not only his play on the pitch but also his tremendous veteran influence. I’ve never been convinced by new signing Shinji Okazaki in internationals, so I don’t think he’s equipped for the physical Premier League. Very little about this team suggests they won’t be in a fight for relegation until the season’s end, a fight I ultimately believe they’ll lose.

19. Sunderland – Sunderland has fought the good fight in recent years, somehow staying up every year. However, when you’re relying on 32-year-old Jermaine Defoe to get goals, that’s not a good sign. Jeremain Lens is intriguing on the wing, but there isn’t much else to the team. The defense in particular is uninspiring ahead of Costel Pantilimon. Home form will be crucial should they hope to stay up, as this isn’t a team built to win on the road. But I fear their year will prove unsuccesful.

20. Bournemouth – Last year’s Championship winners are considered the spunkiest of the new boys. With a young manager and a great underdog story, they’ll be this year’s Blackpool, somebody we all root for. However, I think they’ll struggle with a defense well below Premier League level. Christian Atsu could be key in the midfield, but even he is untested. If they want to stay up, they’ll need to get off to a great start while they still believe in themselves and their story. A slew of big defeats could crush their dreams before they even get going.

What do you think about my predictions? What’s your order of finish? Please comment below.


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The End to a Perfect Preseason

Yesterday’s FA Community Shield was technically a preseason game, albeit one with a large trophy. But don’t let the detractors take anything away from what Arsenal did to Chelsea in yesterday’s 1-0 win at Wembley. There are many things I could point to in order to show the meant something, but one only needs to look at Francis Coquelin’s celebration after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal. Watch that and tell me he didn’t want to win.

Nobody at this stadium treated this match like it was meaningless, with the possible exception of the ghost of Eden Hazard. The crowd of north of 85,000 was in full voice much of the game, especially around me at the Arsenal end. And where last week at the Emirates Cup the singing and chanting was a sideshow unrelated to the action, yesterday it was very much aimed at the team itself. We were one collective rooting on Arsenal, and from what I could tell, the Chelsea fans at the other end were equally loud at times. It was loud, it was festive, and it was feisty.

Arsenal’s approach to the game was quite interesting to me, as it showed tactical acumen and extreme discipline across the board. Two blocks of four were working together at all times, catching Loic Remy offside more times than I could count. And Mesut Özil and Theo Walcott lingered above, ready to pressure when the ball went back to the defenders. When possession changed, players bombed forward, but even Aaron Ramsey made sure he had sufficient cover before venturing out of position. This was as disciplined a performance as I’ve seen from Arsenal in recent years.

The goal was spectacular. In a moment of brilliance, the Ox showed the quality we’ve all known is there. But more importantly, the goal came from an efficient switch from defense to attack that caught Chelsea off-guard. It would be inaccurate to describe it as a counter-attack, but when Per Mertesacker got the ball, and sent it upfield, quickly getting to Mesut Özil, the speed of the move had Chelsea disorganized and on their heels. By the time the ball was switched to the Ox on the right, Arsenal had created a chance from very little. And he sure took that chance. The celebration in the stands was befitting the goal I might add.

Santi Cazorla was quieter on the wing, but either he or Ramsey had to be there, so it was a toss-up of sorts that worked out in the end. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that change as the year goes on, but it’s the first sign that Wenger likes the midfield combination of Ramsey and Coquelin. And while Olivier Giroud impressed straightaway when he was brought on for the largely invisible Walcott, I thought it was a great choice to play Walcott up front. Although Arsenal can’t send in crosses when he’s in the middle – thus largely negating Hector Bellerin’s impact – he does create more space for Özil and the Ox.

The defenders looked great. Laurent Koscielny especially caught the eye with endless amounts of clearances and tackles. He was my man of the match. And though he had one particularly bad giveaway, Bellerin dealt with Hazard well. Behind them, Petr Cech was superb. He instills the sort of confidence that Wojciech Szczesny never did. Already, his calming presence is on display as the defense stayed organized throughout. That people are calling his save of Oscar’s free kick ordinary shows just how good a goalkeeper he is, because with anyone else, that type of save is top-notch.

With Jack Wilshere missing through injury, the bench felt strangely thin, especially given how much we’ve talked up the squad depth. But that appears to be nothing too serious, which is good. As a show of how seriously he wanted to win, Wenger opted not to use half of his six allowed substitutions, sticking with the defensive introductions to tighten things up. Mikel Arteta was especially impressive in his short time on the field, which is encouraging.

Chelsea it must be said, were unimpressive. Without Diego Costa due to injury as they’ll likely be for many times this year, they had nobody of quality to turn to. And with Hazard off his game, they failed to create much of anything despite having the majority of the possession in Arsenal’s end. John Terry and Gary Cahill still look like the best pairing in the league, but apart from that, this team appears very beatable this year.

With the shield safely in stow, the preseason is behind us. With only successes to their name and three preseason trophies, Wenger must be smiling to himself this week. He’s built himself quite a team. And he’s gotten the monkey off his back by beating Jose Mourinho. Right now, Arsenal is riding a wave. The question is when the pressure piles on, can they keep it up. West Ham offers the first test, though that home game shouldn’t be too tough with the Hammers in transition right now. At this point, the sky is the limit.

We are now only five days from the start of a fun year. I’ll have my EPL preview up soon.

What did you think of yesterday’s performance? Please comment below. 

 

 


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9 Arsenal Players to Watch In the Upcoming Season

With such a deep Arsenal squad at his disposal, it will be hard for Arsene Wenger to pick a side on a given afternoon, much less keep everyone happy. In many respects, that could be one of the toughest parts of his job this year. Especially in the midfield, there are so many quality players to choose from. It’s no surprise that so many youngsters have been loaned out in recent days, as even places in the Capital One Cup games will be few and far between with veterans needing to get game-time to stay fresh. As we enter the new season, here are some players that I think will be notable for a variety of reasons.

3 to succeed

Mesut Özil – With his first full preseason under his belt – and one in which he looked silky smooth – Arsenal’s record-signing looks set for a huge season. Each of his first two seasons featured injury spells and periods of ineffectiveness as he floundered on the flank. But now that Wenger has finally molded his side around the German being in the center, hopefully all of that is behind us. As a collective fan base, the doubt surrounding his merits is entirely gone too. In his ideal role and without the pressure to prove his worth, he should flourish. He and Aaron Ramsey are developing a great understanding, and Theo Walcott’s return to the team will allow Özil to play balls he couldn’t have to Giroud. Once the runs are made in behind, Özil will have more time and space to pick out the right ball. I have no doubt that he’ll be player of the season this year.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – The talent has never been a question. Right from the moment he burst onto the scene against Manchester United, the Ox showed speed and skill beyond his years. But up until now, it hasn’t all come together. Injuries have prevented him from getting a long run in the side, and he has sometimes struggled in front of goal. But this year, with Walcott seemingly getting a shot up front, the Ox has his position to lose. Looking stronger than ever but without losing the speed, he’s shown tremendous skill this preseason. Especially when Alexis Sanchez gets back, the side seems built for the Ox to be released down the right time and again. If he can stay healthy, I think he could hit double-digit goals.

Petr Cech – As excited as we are to have a world-class goalkeeper, Cech might be even more excited to be back in goal. Having lost his place through no fault of his own at Chelsea, he’ll be eager to prove he is still top-notch. With an experienced center back pairing in front of him, and an increasingly reliable defense, a commanding presence from Cech could turn Arsenal’s fortunes around against the bigger teams. Awful set-piece failures might be a thing of the past. And where David Ospina and Wojciech Szczesny were talked about for what they couldn’t do, Cech will instead show us all what he can do. In nine months’ time, I think we’ll have forgotten about Szczesny.

3 to disappoint

Alexis Sanchez – After such a standout first season at the club, I fear Sanchez might suffer injury-wise this year given how many games he’s played in recent years. Especially knowing that he has yet another international tournament to play next summer, Wenger will have to be extremely cautious with his star Chilean. I’m not saying Sanchez will be bad. I’m just not optimistic that we’ll see a lot of him on the field, and as a result all of his numbers will be down. There is enough depth behind him that he should be afforded rest, but whether or not that happens before he’s driven into the ground is unclear.

Danny Welbeck – The former Manchester United man seems to have become the odd-man out after just a year at the club. Worryingly still unrecovered from what at the time was said to have been a minor knee injury, Welbeck will miss out on the chance to get in the team before Sanchez returns. And once he’s back, it’s hard to see where playing time will come from. I’m not even sure he’s enough of a goal threat to be a reliable difference-making substitute. For his sake and ours, I hope he can find his groove. But if I had to bet, I’d say he finishes with fewer than five goals to his name.

Per Mertesacker – With captain Mikel Arteta firmly on the bench, his deputy Mertesacker will lead the team out week after week. But can his body still handle the wear of a Premier League campaign plus games in Europe? It’s always been a bit of a joke that Mertesacker is slow, but even by his standards, he isn’t moving well this summer. The nimble Laurent Koscielny is the ideal partner for the German, but we’re nearing the point where Mertesacker becomes a liability. If his reading of the game stays where it is, I think he can handle most teams. But I think it’s worth testing out the Gabriel-Koscielny pairing. That might be one better suited for more dangerous forwards like Sergio Agüero.

3 to surprise

Mathieu Debuchy – Written off and forgotten by many after an injury-riddled first season, I think the Frenchman will bounce back this year. I suspect Wenger will be keen to give him a chance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he keeps the exciting Hector Bellerin tied to the bench. Still able to get downfield, he provides stability defensively while still offering decent service to the box. He also has a solid rate of winning headers, and could be someone to aim goal kicks and punts at in the way Bacary Sagna was. He may not be the flashiest player, but consistency is the name of the game this year, and if he can still healthy – remember both injuries last year were more freak than his fault – I think he’ll contribute.

Francis Coquelin – Coquelin comes as a different sort of surprise after arriving out of nowhere a year ago to become an integral part of the team. Expectations have been tempered this summer, with many returning to the narrative that he isn’t good enough for a title-winning side. But I still believe in Coquelin. I think he will grow ever further into his role of midfield enforcer. As last season wore on, he became increasingly comfortable with his passing too, which will turn him into a complete player. He may not have a very pretty nose by the end of the year, but I think he’ll be ever-present from beginning to end.

Alex Iwobi – We saw quite a lot of him in action this summer and he largely succeeded. With so many promising talents getting loaned out to Championship sides, if Iwobi stays, he could end up being a lucky participant at times throughout the year. Blessed with pace, he has the potential to offer something akin to what the Ox did a few years ago, or perhaps more like Serge Gnabry did two seasons ago. I don’t think he’ll be a regular, but he might be this year’s Bellerin – a player who could benefit from the loaning out of others in his position who would have been higher up on the totem pole. If he stays at Arsenal this year, don’t be surprised if he succeeds.

Who do you think falls into these categories ahead of the new season? Please comment below.


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FA Community Shield Preview

Arsenal’s summer of optimism got even better today. Theo Walcott ended another long-running contract saga by penning a new 4-year deal. But surprisingly, that news was only part of the announcement which also announced that Santi Cazorla has reupped his deal. With both players entering the final year of their contracts, getting these deals done now not only helps the team down the road, but it also puts aside the hassle of trying to get something done during the year.

Walcott’s deal, rumored to be for 140,000 pounds a week, is a huge vote of confidence from Arsene Wenger for a player who hasn’t stayed healthy for the past two seasons. Even as Arsenal’s longest-tenured player, Walcott still feels to me to be a growing player, one who hasn’t approached his top level. Hopefully he makes the best out of this deal and becomes the player we now expect him to be as one of the team’s top earners. And as far as Cazorla, with many including myself expecting him to return to Spain, it comes as a nice surprise. Moving deeper into the midfield as he’s now done should help Cazorla keep his legs fresh as he ages, but still, this is yet another sign that Wenger is changing his policy on players over-30.

But as great as this summer has been for Arsenal fans, meaningful games are on the immediate horizon. Regardless of what your opinion is of the FA Community Shield, it can’t be taken lightly, especially against Jose Mourinho. Given the way the respective preseasons were set up, Arsenal seems to be taking Sunday’s match more seriously than Chelsea. With Chelsea just arriving back from the US midweek and set to play another friendly on Wednesday, they clearly aren’t at peak fitness. Arsenal, on the other hand, haven’t played since last weekend and won’t have any more friendlies before next weekend’s Premier League opener.

Arsenal’s motivation in this match should be clear. Coming off of a FA Cup win and this wonderful summer, they will want to send an early message to the title-holders that this year’s team is tougher than last. They’ll need to back up the result better than they did last year, but it must be said that a win would be a boost for the squad’s confidence. Having never beat Mourinho, Wenger clearly has reason to care, if only to partially quiet the narrative – though of course if he wins, people will say it doesn’t count. And for Petr Cech, the game is a chance to get one over his former club right off the bat.

Chelsea’s motivation is less clear. There won’t be a crisis of confidence if they lose, nor will they be any more of a title-contender if they win. However, I think they should be looking to squash any momentum Arsenal has built up. A clean-sheet and a statement goal from Eden Hazard could do just that. Add in the fact that Mourinho loves a good smirk and I suspect that while he won’t necessarily commit to his strongest side – remember that six substitutions are allowed – Mourinho would love a win.

With Theo Walcott just signing a monster deal, my guess is he’s going to start up front, especially given the setting. Normally you wouldn’t want to gamble against Chelsea, but as there are fewer consequences for a loss, Wenger should give Walcott another go up front ahead of Olivier Giroud. We already know what Giroud gives us against Chelsea, so let’s see what Walcott can do. This is the perfect place for experimentation against a top side.

Behind Walcott, I think we’ll see Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, with Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin completing the midfield. I’d be surprised if Jack Wilshere started, as I don’t think Wenger could afford to leave any of those others out. But with the six substitutions, he’ll see the field. The only alternative I could see is if he went with Mikel Arteta next to Coquelin, but given how little the two of them have played together, I wouldn’t be a fan of that alignment.

Ahead of Cech in goal, I think Wenger will go with experience across the backline, giving the nod to Mathieu Debuchy and Nacho Monreal ahead of Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs. Especially knowing Hazard will be deployed on the left, I’m thinking he’d be more comfortable with Debuchy. And at left back, it’s a coin-flip.

My prediction for the match is a low-scoring affair filled with more heavy challenges than your average early August match. I know I’ve been optimistic lately, but I never feel good about playing Chelsea. So despite the good vibes, I think Hazard will do something special to get the game’s only goal. Given the substitutions Chelsea will likely make and their comparative lack of depth – that feels strange to write – Arsenal will have their chances in the second half. Going a goal down would offer the first test of Arsenal’s mental fortitude.

If Arsenal lose, we can write it off as preseason. But a win would be nice. Regardless, I can’t wait to head to Wembley Sunday to see this shiny Arsenal team. I’m genuinely excited for the season. Follow me on Twitter (@Klaus_Faust) for my thoughts from Wembley. Let’s make London red.


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Victorino’s Goodbye & Benzema Boards A Plane – Notes From the Sports World

There is one moment from the 2013 postseason that stands out to me above all others. And as the Red Sox slide further from relevancy with each day, my mind has wandered back to this memory a lot recently. It’s of a massively important grand slam against a Tigers reliever, one that sent Fenway into a frenzy. But it isn’t the one you’re thinking of. I think not of David Ortiz sending Torii Hunter into the bullpen, but instead of Shane Victorino bounding his chest and leaping into the air as he rounded first base, the ball landing in the monster. It was passion and triumph on full display.

Shane Victorino in many ways represented the essence of the 2013 Red Sox. He, like many others, had a chip on his shoulder, written off by nearly everyone after a severe decline in play. And he, like the city of Boston, wanted to believe that every little thing was going to be all right. Armed with a golden glove and a walk-up song that made Fenway Park a choir of songbirds, he embraced the city that came to love him as one of their own.

Since 2013, things haven’t gone as well for Victorino in Boston. Muscle injuries have kept him off the field for the majority of the last two seasons, and as a result he became an unreliable option in right field. It’s been sad watching him in the dugout night after night as the parade of right fielders have struggled to fill his void. For 3 years and $39 million, many will say the production the Red Sox got out of him wasn’t enough, given that he has only played a combined 63 times over the last two seasons.

But I’m confident in saying that without him, there would have been no World Series. And in my book, that makes him worth all the time spent hoping he might return to form these last two years. As evidenced by the tears in his press conference last night, Boston and its people clearly meant something to him. This was more than just about baseball. And to me, that is the mark of a player worth celebrating. So as we bid farewell to another stalwart of the 2013 Red Sox, let’s all give one last look at Shane’s grand slam (click here to watch). I will miss that passion.

Switching to soccer, transfer rumors have become increasingly ridiculous in recent days. From conflicting reports of Angel Di Maria’s whereabouts to Arsene Wenger’s supposed courting of Sergio Busquets, very little is credible when it comes to transfer season. But one item stood out this afternoon as it made the rounds. Karim Benzema tweeted a picture of himself on a private plane as his teammates were on their way elsewhere, with the cryptic message, “Leave the past in the past.” Is he on his way to London? Is he the world-class striker Wenger has been hinting at? We will soon know, though I’m inclined to believe this too is a transfer window farce.

Regardless, he would be a sensational signing, and one that would not only make Arsenal title contenders, but in my view, title favorites. It can be hard to judge a forward that gets to play with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, but the reality is that Benzema gets goals, and he does so in a variety of ways. Unlike Giroud, he is not a one-trick pony. He is physical enough to hold up play, but has the mobility and vision to make runs in behind. Plus, he’s clinical.

I still believe Olivier Giroud has tremendous value in a Premier League title contending side. People say he isn’t good enough, but he’s improved every year he’s been at Arsenal and proved last year he could score against the big clubs. Against certain teams, his physicality is needed. But in other games, he seems to clog the space that the midfielders need. Ideally, he’d be your second option, a player capable of starting at a moment’s notice, but also one who can come on off the bench late on. However, this is all speculation about Benzema, who could just be having some fun messing with Arsenal fans, so I’m expecting Giroud to be option number one for better or for worse.

Going back to baseball, the Troy Tulowitzki trade is an interesting one. The Blue Jays didn’t need a right-handed power bat, but when the opportunity came knocking for taking on arguably the best shortstop in the game, and one locked down for the foreseeable future, I admire them for doing so. Their lineup was scary before. Now, it’s just not fair. However, I’m worried about his knees. An injury-prone player doesn’t want to play on turf as he ages. That could prove disastrous in a few years. And then there’s the fact that Toronto needs pitching right now if they hope to make a late run up the standings.

And lastly, I just saw breaking news on Twitter that Tom Brady’s suspension was upheld. This is getting ridiculous. Although I must admit, if he did destroy his phone in early March, that doesn’t look so good. However, it’s worth fighting. Bring it on, NFL. We’ll see you in court.