and for a little while at least we can take our minds off the analysis and concentrate a bit on the football. There’s a Champions League tie against Olympiacos tonight. In ideal circumstances we’d be sending a strong squad to really have a go at winning the group. Three points tonight and Schalke not winning against Montpellier would achieve that, but circumstances are quite far from normal.
With a Premier League game we have to win on Saturday, Arsene Wenger has left behind a lot of the first team squad. There’ll be no Podolski, Walcott, Wilshere, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Arteta, Cazorla or Giroud, and the squad is packed with fringe players and youngsters like Jernade Meade (who is likely to get his first start at left back), Zak Ansah, Sead Hajrovic, Elton Monteiro, Chuba Akpom and Martin Angha.
Injuries to Johan Djourou, Laurent Koscielny and Ignasi Miquel mean that Sebastian Squillaci is likely to start his first game since Jan 9th and it’s almost a year to day since his last start in the Champions League (funnily enough against Olympiacos on Dec 6th 2011 – we lost 3-1). The team is likely to be:
Szczesny – Jenkinson – Squillaci – Vermaelen – Meade – Coquelin – Ramsey – Arshavin – Gervinho – Oxlade-Chamberlain – Chamakh
Although I suppose you could squeeze Tomas Rosicky in there somewhere I suspect it’ll be another appearance from the bench for him as he looks to build some fitness. Despite the fact we can finish top it’s hard to think that’s our primary concern and with Olympiacos already secured in third place, it is as dead a rubber as you can get. I don’t think that will stop the home team having a good go – regardless of our current woes beating Arsenal is a feather in the cap and something they’ll be quite determined to do.
From our point of view it’s one of those games where we’ve got little to win. It’s hard to see Schalke dropping points to Montpellier so even if we win we’ll finish second, and if we lose, well no doubt it will spark more ire and dismay. Understandably to a degree, simply because a loss is a loss and nobody like losing, but I’d take it if it means we have fresher legs for the much more important task to come this weekend against West Brom.
It’s difficult to say much more about this game. We’ve already qualified for the knock-out stages and we’re looking at some players who the manager has little faith in to bust a gut when they probably know their time at the club is running out (if it hasn’t already). Perhaps those who do have a bit of spark about them and something to prove – I’m think of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey, Coquelin, Jenkinson, Meade and even Gervinho to a certain extent – will be enough for us make a real go of it, but I can’t say I’d put a great deal on money on us for this one.
At his press conference before the game Arsene was asked about the pressure on him after Saturday’s defeat to Swansea. He rightly enough pointed out that it was our first defeat in seven, although the response was hardly based on that result alone. Quizzed about the players response and the alleged dressing room contretemps, he said:
That the players are not happy after the game, do you want them to do a dance after we lost? This group of players is very strong, very highly motivated, has a very good spirit and they want to win. If they don’t win, of course they are upset. I am more worried if I see players who laugh in the shower after a game we lost.
Again, a fair point, but he then hit out at critics, suggesting it was all the rage to have a go at Arsenal without looking at the full picture:
It’s fashionable to be against Arsenal so every single word you say, people turn it against you. This club is in fantastic shape. We have a good team, we have a strong structure that we have built over the years; we are in a strong financial situation and we are mentally strong.
I can understand that not everybody is pleased about that, but it is a fact. That’s why we have to continue to behave like we do. We live in a world that needs a drama every day. You have to enjoy to play football and not to live in a dramatic world in a consistent way.
I simply don’t buy the idea that it’s just en vogue to criticise Arsenal, that this is some kind of craze that will rise and fall like the Hula-Hoop or David Bentley’s career. There’s very little criticism of the way Arsenal are run from a business point of view, the new commercial deal shows that things are improving on that side, and criticism of the team comes from the fact we’re sitting in 10th spot in the league after Arsene Wenger’s worst ever start to the season.
Maybe there should be more focus on the financial side of things and whether or not it’s impacted on the football – it’s hard to escape the conclusion that is hasn’t – but the simple fact is that if Arsenal were winning more games, scoring more goals, and had more points, then there wouldn’t be anywhere near as much criticism. I get the general point, that every small thing is blown up into a massive drama. The media loves nothing more than a crisis, often inventing them to their own ends, but this is not a situation of their creation. It’s down to us.
It’s impossible to convince fans that a team with one striker and that has just won 5 league games all season is in fantastic shape, so while the structures the manager speaks about as being so strong may appear that way on paper, the reality is they’re not in implementation. I know Arsene likes to accentuate the positive, perhaps this is a message to his players as much as anything else, but now and again some vague acceptance that things are not going well might be the right approach to take. Maybe publicly demanding more from them will help.
While I don’t think it’s impossible to turn things around, and being just 5 points behind 4th with 23 games still to go this season means there’s a still a lot to play for, we’re in something of a mess right now and I’m not sure the manager’s bullish attitude is becoming of that. It might be a masterstroke, a call to his players to react in an ‘us against them’ kind of way, or he could end up with a lot of egg on his face. I do hope it’s the former, because the sooner we start winning games consistently the better, but it’s hard not to fear the yolk will be on Arsene.
If you can’t see the game later, we’ll have full live blog coverage starting around 7pm. That means up to the second text updates which you can follow on your browser, tablet, phone etc. It’s newly optimised for mobile too, so check back shortly for another post with all the information and team news, or simply bookmark the default live blog pageand updates will begin automatically.
We’ll also be sending important updates, goals, red cards, half-time etc, directly to Twitter from inside the live blog.
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So, until later. Have a good one.