tonight sees the first leg of the Champions League knock-out tie against AC Milan. Arsenal travel there boosted by two recent wins, the one against Sunderland coming after the 7- thrashing against Blackburn. Each will have provided a lift in its own way and it’s important we look to continue this short, but positive, run.
Arsene Wenger has voiced some concerns about the pitch but I do wonder if he’s coming at it from a safety rather than a football point of view. Seeing what Sunderland’s bog-heap did to Mertesacker (more on that later) won’t have encouraged him, but the bottom line tonight is that both teams will have to cope with whatever issues the San Siro surface has.
With regards to the team it strikes me the only decision he has to make is at left back. He’s clearly not quite convinced that Kieran Gibbs is the man to fill the gap left by the BFG injury, saying:
If I start him, which is not decided yet, I do not want to put too much pressure on him because we want a good team performance. Gibbs is a good player.
I will find the most natural [solution], which means I will put Vermaelen back in the middle. Gibbs looks to be ready so I might look to start him but I have not decided completely yet.
There were some quotes floating about on Twitter last night where he suggested he might play Djourou at centre-half and keep Thomas Vermaelen at left, but I haven’t been able to verify those. It would be an odd decision to make unless he feels that Vermaelen is better able to cope with the demands of such a high intensity game. We have to remember Gibbs has spent four months out with injury but I guess if there’s a reluctance to use him that’s down to player himself, the manager clearly had no compunction with throwing Sagna in as soon as he was ready.
Obviously Vermaelen wants to play in the centre again, he and Koscielny should be a very decent partnership although I do think they’re just a bit similar which is why Mertesacker’s absence will more keenly felt than some suggest, and if I had to make a decision now I’d play Gibbs at left back. He’s either ready enough and good enough to play, or he’s not. Having as many players in their natural position as possible is important.
The rest of the team picks itself. Despite Ramsey’s goal on Saturday, Rosicky ought to keep his place and his busy experience in midfield could be important tonight. The good thing is that if we need to make a change we’ve got a Ramsey who is rested and also one whose confidence will have increased by his contribution against Sunderland at the weekend. And having Arteta in games like this is a so important, his ability to keep the ball and keep it moving is invaluable.
Up front Walcott and van Persie are shoe-ins while Oxlade-Chamberlain should start on the left hand side. Yes, it’s a big night, and one he won’t have experienced before, but he doesn’t strike me as the kind of player who would be phased at all by a sense of occasion. He was kept pretty quiet by Sunderland but it is unrealistic to expect a player of his relative inexperience to produce week in, week out. But the idea of him running at the Milan defence is an exciting one and whatever happens it’s going to be an education for him.
The last time we played in the San Siro was in 2008 and we won 2-0 with goals from Cesc and that Sp*rs loan bloke, but Arsene says the differences between then and now shouldn’t impact the way we approach tonight’s game.
We were top of the league and we had a young team that went into that match full of confidence. Now we are a team building confidence. Football is interesting because you can win everywhere. We have already shown we can win everywhere. I have full confidence in my team to do it.
Only one starting player from that night remains, Bacary Sagna. Theo Walcott came off the bench while Robin van Persie was an unused substitute. It just shows how quickly things change in football but the boss is right, there’s no point going there without belief. Regardless of the churn in personnel we are, as a club, much more experienced in Europe now. You don’t need that long a memory to know that Arsenal teams with better players than we have now struggled against more modest European opposition.
That experience is crucial from the manager’s point of view as well. He seems better able to set his teams up for European games, and we showed last season that we’re capable of beating the best in the world on any given night. Tonight will be a big test, we can’t talk about our experience in the Champions League and not mention Milan’s pedigree in the competition. Despite an injury crisis they’ve still plenty of quality and players who can hurt us with the ball (Ibrahimovic) and without (van Bommel).
For further reading on Milan this piece by James Horncastle for the BBC is well worth a read, and Allegri’s quotes about caviar and ham sandwiches will sound quite familiar to Arsenal fans whose ham sandwich was a sausage all those years ago.
Anyway, if our aim tonight is to win the game, or at least grab an away goal, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this is played over two legs. The rewards for scoring away are obvious but we need to give ourselves a good platform for the return leg at home, we don’t want to be so gung-ho that we give ourselves any kind of hill/mountain to climb. Our defensive performance will be just as important as our attacking one, but with one Champions League win in Italy already this season, and against a team just 6 points of top spot in Serie A (Udinese lie in 4th to Milan’s 1st), there’s no reason to think we can’t come away from tonight’s game with a decent result.
In other news Dennis Bergkamp talks to Alan Smith in the Telegraph. The headlines are harsh but you can see he’s coming at it from a constructive, rather than critical, point of view. I miss Dennis.
And with regard to Per Mertesacker the news is not good. According to some sources he underwent surgery last night, Arsene Wenger saying:
Mertesacker had reconstruction of his ankle in Germany before he joined us and Monday’s scan did not look too positive.
If he has had surgery we must surely be in Andre Santos territory, looking at 3 months or so out which would pretty much end his domestic season. German TV said 6 weeks but I guess we’re just going to have to wait to see what the official line is. For me this is a big blow and one we could really do without. Those that scoff at the German’s lack of pace miss the point, in my opinion, and they’d do well to reflect on the fact we’re a combined injury/suspension away from Squillaci.
Finally, if you can’t see the game tonight, if, like our good old friends on other side of the Atlantic, it takes place right in the middle of the working day, fear not. You can follow the game with up to the second text commentary on the live blog. We’ll have a post up later with all the details or you can bookmark the default live blog page now.
Betting tonight via Paddy Power, as always, and with up to £50 in a free bet, and Arsenal at 18/1 to repeat the 2-0 win from four years ago, you could do worse. Click here to register with Paddy Power.
Right, that’s that. Fingers crossed for later and I’ll see you on the live blog. Those of you out there, eat well, drink well, travel safe and enjoy.