Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is confident his side will not be bullied in tough away trips again this season – starting at Everton today.
The Gunners head to Goodison Park looking to produce a much-improved display than the 3-0 defeat suffered in April, which looked to have put a huge dent in ambitions of finishing in the top four of the Premier League once again.
Wenger admitted it was a “low point” of a roller-coaster campaign which would eventually finish in triumph, lifting the FA Cup at Wembley and having overtaken Everton after they faltered in the closing matches.
It was Arsenal’s failures away to their title rivals – suffering heavy defeats at Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea – which ultimately scuppered any championship ambitions for a team who had been top of the table until February.
Wenger accepts there can be no repeat if Arsenal are to last the distance through to May 2015.
“Last year, yes in the quality of our performance and even more than that in mental resistance, the mental steel on the day, that (Everton away) was one of our low points,” Wenger said.
“At the start I played with Arteta and Flamini in the middle of the park; we had not Ozil, we had Ramsey on the bench, just coming back from injury. We played with Podolski and Giroud, and we were a bit bullied.
“At the back we had Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal and Sagna. It was an off day, as well physically. Yes (I was worried we would not make the top four) because it was not in our hands any more. It was in the hands of Everton. It was only their defeat against Crystal Palace at home that allowed us to get there.”
Wenger feels this time around, things can be very different.
“Many teams think that (Arsenal can be bullied). We get that question many times,” he said.
“But if you look at the results from the last three or four years away from home, we are the team with the best away results.”
Meanwhile, Everton boss Roberto Martinez believes the game will be provide a good measure of his side’s level.
The Blues drew 2-2 at Leicester last week in a game they really should have won and the Spaniard knows they face a much tougher task today.
“You need to face this sort of opposition,” he said.
“It is true that until you play against sides like Arsenal and Chelsea you don’t have the answers on the pitch.
“As a team we are ready. I feel pre-season was perfect, a real success. Now we have to make sure we are as strong a team as we can be. You can only see that when you face opposition like we are going to face at the weekend.”
Ross Barkley will be out for a prolonged period due to a knee injury sustained in training last week. Both Kevin Mirallas and Seamus Coleman will hope to step up their fitness and start having come off the bench in the draw last weekend.
Mikel Arteta will miss the trip because of an ankle problem. Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski and Mesut Ozil could return, as could forward Yaya Sanogo (hamstring). Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott and Serge Gnabry are all out.
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard; Stones, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; McCarthy, Barry; McGeady, Naismith, Pienaar; Lukaku
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Debuchy, Chambers, Mertesacker, Monreal; Wilshere, Flamini; Sanchez, Ramsey, Cazorla; Giroud
Everton – Steven Pienaar
The playmaker had the most disjointed season of his Everton career last term, but he looked fit and sharp at Leicester last week where he was the Blues’ best player. Look out for his majestic understanding with Leighton Baines.
Arsenal – Mathieu Debuchy
The France international has settled down extremely quickly following his summer move from Newcastle with some polished displays at right full-back. A tenacious defnder, Debuchy has also offered a threat going forward and has seamlessly filled the hole left by Bacary Sagna’s departure.
Despite Arsenal getting hammered in the same fixture last season, expect a more resilient performance from Arsene Wenger's men. Neither side was impressive in their opening fixture so we're going for a draw. Everton 1-1 Arsenal
Athletic Bilbao will be attempting to put European distractions to one side as they kick off the new La Liga campaign with tonight’s testing trip to Malaga.
The Basque club finished fourth last season to enter the Champions League for the first time in 15 years, and on Tuesday they put themselves in a strong position to progress to the group stage by earning a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their qualifying tie against Napoli.
With the return leg at the San Mames looming on Wednesday, manager Ernesto Valverde is urging his players to focus on making a strong start to their league campaign, saying: “We want to get underway with three points.
“Our team always plays with intensity, even in friendlies, and if we can win against Malaga it would give us a lot of morale.”
Following the summer departure of German legend Bernd Schuster, hosts Malaga are now under the leadership of Javi Gracia, who was most recently in charge of Osasuna’s ultimately failed attempt to avoid relegation last season.
Another intriguing fixture on the season’s opening day will be contested between Sevilla and Valencia
at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, with the hosts set to give league debuts to Barcelona loanees Gerard Deulofeu and Denis Suarez as they face up to life without former captain and new Barca star Ivan Rakitic.
The game also represents the dawning of a new era for visiting Valencia, who enter the campaign under new ownership following a protracted takeover by Singaporean businessman Peter Lim.
After two successive mid-table finishes, Lim has pledged to restore Valencia to their former position as title candidates, but his control of the club was confirmed too late for many major moves in the summer transfer market. One new arrival at Valencia is yet another manager, Nuno, who becomes the team’s fifth boss in the space of two years.
Elsewhere, newcomers Deportivo La Coruna make the long journey south to face Granada and the late game sees Almeria host perennial mid-table side Espanyol
LA LIGA FIXTURES
21:00 Malaga v Athletic Bilbao
23:00 Granada v Deportivo
23:00 Sevilla v Valencia
1:00 (+1) Almeria v Espanyol
21:00 Eibar v Real Sociedad
23:00 Barcelona v Elche
23:00 Celta Vigo v Getafe
1:00 (+1) Levante v Villareal
Atletico Madrid showed they are still a major force by lifting the Spanish Super Cup with a stirring victory over neighbours Real.
Mario Mandzukic was the match-winner with an early goal to suggest Atletico have found another heroic number nine to follow in the footsteps of Diego Costa, Radamel Falcao and co. Disappointing Real were second best all over the pitch, being dealt a reminder they and watching Barcelona have plenty of work to do to overcome the marauding Rojiblancos.
The first blow was struck in Atletico’s favour before kick-off when Real boss Carlo Ancelotti was forced to leave Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench because of a thigh injury sustained in the first leg.
Another absentee from the line-up was Angel Di Maria, who was discarded entirely from the squad to spark speculation that a move to Manchester United is imminent.
When the action got underway, Atletico came flying out of the blocks and immediately seized the initiative by winning a corner.
It was cleared, but Atletico would not be denied for long.
Two minutes later a long kick downfield by home keeper Miguel Angel Moya was met with a poor defensive header by Raphael Varane. The second ball was won by Antoine Griezmann, whose flicked header sent Mandzukic clear, allowing the Croatian to thrash home a first-time effort.
Another opportunity came for the hosts from a set-piece when skipper Gabi’s clever delivery found Miranda unmarked, but the defender’s cushioned volley drifted disappointingly wide.
Belatedly, Real started to find some rhythm and came close to an equaliser after 25 minutes when James Rodriguez combined neatly with Dani Carvajal and cut inside to slide a low shot towards the far post, but Moya did well to claw it away.
The temperature was further raised when Atletico boss Diego Simeone was dismissed from the dugout after complaining too vociferously when the referee delayed Juanfran’s return to the pitch after an injury.
Real were looking increasingly dangerous, coming close when Luka Modric had a shot deflected wide, before James headed wastefully wide from Modric’s cross and Bale was narrowly off target after a classy interchange with James.
Nevertheless, Atletico should have doubled their lead before the break. After Raul Garcia’s speculative effort was tipped wide by Iker Casillas, Garcia was left unmarked from a corner but headed over the top from inside the six yard box. Ronaldo was introduced at half-time as Real chased a leveller, but Atletico came agonisingly close to a second when Gabi’s free-kick was hooked goalwards by Garcia and crashed against the underside of the bar, with Casillas reacting to swat the ball away before Mandzukic could stab it over the line.
The hosts continued to look the more dangerous team and the outstanding Carvajal did brilliantly to deny an almost certain goal by scampering across to cut out Griezmann’s cross towards Koke.
Dancing feet from Juanfran created space for the luckless Garcia, whose shot curled narrowly wide of the left-hand upright with Casillas struggling, before Ronaldo finally burst into life with a long-range shot straight into the arms of Moya.
Bale and James had disappeared from the game following their bright opening periods, but the Welshman briefly threatened again with a trademark 25-yarder which was deflected safely wide.
Atletico were soon back on the front foot, always looking dangerous down the left-hand side and sending a pair of efforts narrowly wide of Casillas’ goal through Koke and the tiring Griezmann. If anything, the introduction of Ronaldo had weakened Real’s attacking efforts and Ancelotti introduced Isco for James in search of impetus.
A dangerous cross from the livewire Carvajal, inches beyond the outstretched boot of the lunging Bale, was the closest Real came to a leveller.
The Welshman then shot tamely into the side-netting from Isco’s lofted reverse pass, but Atletico’s ever-reliable defence was comfortable as Real’s attacks grew increasingly desperate and Modric saw a late red after receiving his second caution.
MAN OF THE MATCH
When will Atleti’s captain ever get the credit he deserves? The midfielder, whose blend of ferocious commitment and cool composure perfectly encapsulates his team’s greatest strengths, was brilliant again, also delivering a series of dangerous set-pieces.
Anyone who thinks Atletico Madrid will have their work cut out in matching Real Madrid and Barcelona this season needs a rethink: It is actually the ‘Big Two’ who will have to match the reigning champions.
This performance made it feel like the summer break never happened, as Diego Simeone’s admirable side played with controlled ferocity throughout the 90 minutes against a Real outfit who simply couldn’t cope with their intensity.
The champions look as though they have no intention of moving aside.