Arsenal’s newfound fighting spirit continues to lead rebound

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LONDON — With Arsenal languishing outside of the top four, dumped out of the UEFA Champions League in humiliating fashion, the future’s of star players uncertain and protests gathering considerable steam against Arsene Wenger, the Gunners hit rock bottom last Spring.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

For the first time in his 21-year reign Wenger’s time appeared to be over. Arsenal had to hit rock bottom to start the climb back to the top.

Many will scoff at the assumption that beating Leicester City 4-3 in a pulsating, yet error-riddled game, on the opening day of the 2017-18 Premier League season means Arsenal will now win the title and sweep all that lay before them. That likely won’t happen but the Gunners have shown that they’re now at least up for the fight.

[ MORE: Giroud lauded by Wenger

So many times in the past Arsenal rolled over in the face of adversity with the club synonymous with the finest play in the land but no substance to back it up. There are signs the fighting spirit is returning. It has taken time to rebuild the confidence but a win in this fashion will do wonders for belief.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk when he believes things started to turn around, Wenger pointed towards the fine finish to last season which gave his team the confidence to continue their fight back from the depths of despair.

“I am convinced that when we won 10 of the last 11 games in the Premier League [last season], we won against Man City in the semifinal and the FA Cup final against Chelsea and overall I am convinced that the team is focused and I see that every day in training,” Wenger told Pro Soccer Talk.

On Friday the odds were stacked against Arsenal even though they were the clear favorites to beat Leicester.

Their star man, Alexis Sanchez, was out injured and has yet to play in preseason. They were missing Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Per Mertesacker in defense. Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil had been struggling with knocks and with 23 minutes to go he was forced into a huge defensive reshuffle which saw a winger at right back, two left backs at center back and a right back at left back.

Despite all of that Wenger, who must be praised for chucking on Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey who proved pivotal, was delighted with the spirit of his team and pointed to the chances they created rather than the slack defending which Leicester punished ruthlessly.

“We kept going and the spirit of the team was absolutely outstanding,” Wenger said. “Overall you could saw we were punished on every single mistake tonight by a Leicester team who was very efficient going forward. You could see that this team has quality and is used to playing together. 70 percent possession. We had 27 shots on goal and Leicester had three shots on target and scored three goals. That shows your how efficient they are.

“If you look at it from a neutrals point of view, for a first game it was a top quality game. You want the Premier League to be the best league in the world, I think it has to produce this type of game to produce interest and quality. People will say we conceded three goals, yes, but we scored four as well, the game was of quality.”

Arsenal have always had quality but now they appear to have the required spirit to dig deep and grind out results from improbable positions. That quality will serve them well in a season which will push them to their limits with a PL title push augmented by a Europa League campaign. The Thursday-Sunday grind is no joke.

Nobody is laughing at Arsenal anymore, at least not right now.

Momentum continues to build with Arsenal now winning 12 of their last 13 Premier League games, plus picking up the FA Cup and Community Shield at Wembley.

The “Wenger Out” brigade are eerily quiet. For now.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis/Mkhitaryan transfer saga and more

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle recap all the key stories from the latest Premier League Saturday fixtures including Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Newcastle (0:20), Chelsea’s 4-0 victory at Brighton (10:15) and the latest on the Alexis Sanchez/Henrikh Mkhitaryan saga after wins for Arsenal and Manchester United (19:00). Plus, a closer look at the bottom of the table and thoughts go out to James McCarthy after his serious injury against West Brom (29:00).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Video: Stoke’s Imbula scores stunner on loan at Toulouse

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Stoke City supporters know the name Giannelli Imbula, and perhaps they’ll be clamoring for the Frenchman to return to the bet365 Stadium if he can score more goals like this.

[ MORE: PL Roundup — Top three all victorious; Gunners thrash Palace ]

The holding midfielder is currently on loan with Ligue 1 outfit Toulouse, and for the first time this season, Imbula opened his goalscoring account in some fashion.

Right on half-hour mark, Imbula unleashed a left-footed strike from nearly 40 yards out to give Toulouse the lead over Montpellier (below).

Imbula joined Stoke during the 2015/16 PL season, and has made 26 appearances for the Potters in his time with the club, prior to his loan to France.

Willian proves he’s Chelsea’s x-factor against Brighton

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There’s a considerable difference when watching a Chelsea team that plays with and without one of its Brazilian influences in the attacking part of the field.

Willian — who first debuted for the Blues back in 2013 — hasn’t always managed to be a regular starter for Chelsea, whether it was Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink or current manager Antonio Conte at the helm, though.

[ SOURCES: Jack Harrison expected to join Stoke City this winter ]

The 29-year-old plays with considerable flair, something that certainly isn’t uncommon amongst many players that have grown up in Brazil.

At times Willian’s overconfidence is a significant blessing, and at others it can be considered a curse, however, the former Corinthians player’s presence is something that Chelsea needs now more than ever.

That was on display on Saturday during the side’s 4-0 win at Brighton, a match in which Chelsea dominated from start to finish with Willian on the pitch. While the performance cannot solely be attributed to the attacking midfielder’s showing, it’s easy to argue that the Blues midfielder is becoming the club’s biggest x factor — one that can determine the outcome of a match.

Just look six minutes into the match, when the Blues put together one of the best team goals you’ll see in a match this year (or any year for that matter), which of course, was started and finished by none other than Willian.

What stands out about the play isn’t the brilliant slicing shot into the near post corner by the veteran playmaker, but instead the confidence that Willian exudes and brings to a Chelsea lineup that has plenty of talent to be considered one of the best teams in England and all of Europe.

After all, Conte’s group is just a season removed from winning the Premier League and still sits inside the top three in the world’s top league.

Then, there’s the Blues’ third goal against Brighton, which was set up by a smart, and instinctive, through ball played into the path of Eden Hazard by Willian (below).

Even though Hazard ends up with a ton of time on the ball to make his next decision, which was ultimately to cut inside on his preferred right foot, the run by Willian towards the end line dragged a defender away from the Belgian international — allowing the sequence to progress.

Arguing Willian’s importance isn’t a knock on Hazard — a world-class player in his own right — or Alvaro Morata, who has had the intolerable task of replacing a key player like Diego Costa.

Instead, it simply shows that Chelsea has a plethora of talent, and that some of the club’s attacking struggles throughout the 2017/18 season can be chalked up to Willian being left out of the starting XI on a regular basis.

[ MORE: Sergio Aguero continues to display brilliance for Man City ]

The Brazilian international has scored eight goals and added seven assists this season in all competitions for the Blues, despite only starting 19 matches.

The mind of manager Conte is an ever-changing one, so maybe Willian still doesn’t get the starting nod on an every week basis, but just by watching the team’s performance at the Amex Stadium it’s quite hard to argue against the player being on the field as much as possible.

Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. Tottenham

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Southampton will host Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with both sides hoping to pick up three points for very different reasons.

The Saints are currently in the midst of a fierce relegation battle through 23 matches, and sit in 18th place in the Premier League, while Spurs are hoping challenge for a top-four position.

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Mauricio Pellegrino‘s Southampton could get defender Maya Yoshida back in time for Sunday’s match, however, the side will be without Charlie Austin once more, who is currently nursing a hamstring injury.

Meanwhile, a number of key figures will miss the match for Tottenham, including goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and Harry Winks. Also, Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld remain sidelined with injuries, although the latter is expected to be back soon.

What they’re saying

Mauricio Pellegrino on state of the Saints: “We are not happy with our position but in three or four weeks’ time everything can change. It’s part of our competition. I feel in our team the spirit is really good and everybody is conscious about what we need. I receive these messages from players every day, and we have to convert these feelings into stats.”

Mauricio Pochettino on potential January moves: “To be honest it will be difficult. At some point you always dream but not too much exciting [is happening]. If it happens, it happens. If not, then it doesn’t happen. We are happy with the squad.”

Prediction

Harry Kane is firing at an absurd rate recently, and Southampton’s current form is worrisome to say the least. With just four wins all season, it’s hard to imagine the Saints coming out in front in their clash. Southampton 0-3 Tottenham