After weekend wins for both Chelsea and Man City, we need three points tonight at Villa Park to go back on top of the table.
It’s an interesting time to play them considering the reaction to the defeat against them on the opening day of the season. That was like everyone’s worst nightmare come true. I’d posit that’s true for the manager as much as the fans but the reaction since has been nothing short of splendid. On the pitch we responded with 10 straight wins – season building momentum – while off it the manager finally dusted off his Platinum AMEX and bought Mesut Ozil.
There have been a few bumps on the road since but we are where we are because we’ve shown character and quality and not because of how poor other teams have been. Listening to the Newcastle – Man City game on the radio yesterday and the commentator spoke about how City’s 9th win from 10 games was ‘title winning form’. Hard to argue, really, but we go above them if we win tonight and still few people consider us genuine challengers.
Despite the Ozil purchase we are still the poor relations when compared to oil fattened gluttons like the two teams we’re competing with and perhaps that’s no bad thing. The pressure and expectation is on them, we’re the plucky ‘underdog’ punching above our weight. Long may that continue.
In terms of the team tonight it will be interesting to see how the manager deals with the absence of Theo Walcott. It must be tempting to give Gnabry another go after his fine display against Sp*rs in the FA Cup, and with Giroud coming back into the centre, that right hand spot is up for grabs. Yet with Ozil back too, and Cazorla a likely starter on the left, it could be Tomas Rosicky deployed there.
The Czech’s energy and pressing are hugely important and he goes a long way to setting the tempo of the team. With Arteta, Wilshere and Flamini to choose from in the other midfield positions, the boss does have options and it’s hard to know exactly how he’ll look at this game.
Speaking of Giroud, the boss has backed the Frenchman to have a big impact now that’s he’s had a bit of rest. He says:
He was a bit tired recently but now he is refreshed, he is back, and I am sure he will have a major impact on the second part of the season.
And he lauded his toughness, saying:
He’s a tough, tough boy. Even when the medical people say he should rest, he says: ‘I’m alright’. He needed five stitches after the game at Newcastle. He played the whole game there with an open ankle and without complaining. And when I took him off, he didn’t want to come off!
I think it’s obvious how, for the most part, we’re a more cohesive team with a player like Giroud in it, and I like the HFB a lot. I don’t think he’s ever been found wanting in terms of effort or hard work, and when you read about him playing with injuries like the one at Newcastle it’s a show of his character. He looks like he hates to lose and to miss opportunities, and that’s something fans find easy to identify with.
Ultimately though, strikers are judged on goals and in this second half of the season he needs to start scoring a more regular basis. He has 11 in all competitions at this point and he should looking to double that between now and May. Given that we do have other players in this team capable of goals, and we’re looking to them to step up too, that’s not an unreasonable target.
I know there are those who would prefer a more clinical man up top, a 30 goals a season player, but I think it’s often difficult to find the balance between having a player like that and becoming reliant on a player like that. It’s not as if we don’t have fairly recent evidence of how one man becomes so important to the team that his absence causes problems.
I’ve always maintained it’d be better to have 3 players capable of 15-20 goals a season than one who scores 30 on his own while the contributions of those around him suffer. Giroud has a challenge on his hands in this second part of the season, not just to be a bit part of how we play, but to show he’s got enough goals in him to remain an effective focal point for the attack. That said, he’s not the only one.
Lukas Podolski is more than capable of getting goals but needs to convince the manager he’s up to the task following his injury; Cazorla is beginning to find his range; Ozil has the ability to get 15 between now and the end of the season; so it’s not just Giroud, but as the main man, he’s got to show he can combine the all-round play, which is so effective, with the goals that win matches. He got us the three points on his last appearance, another strike or two tonight could get him right back on track.
Villa Park isn’t the easiest place to go, even if they’re struggling it’s going to be a difficult game. It’s 4 wins and 4 draws from our last 8 visits there, but these are the kind of games you have to win if you’re going to take the title. With a punishing, daunting schedule on the way next month and in March, the points from this period are even more crucial.
We’ve had 9 days since our last game, that’s plenty of time to get recovered physically and prepared mentally, and that should, hopefully, be reflected in our performance tonight.
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