Tonight’s game is a bit difficult to preview in any great detail simply because I don’t know very much about CSKA Moscow. What we can say is that after losing the first leg of their previous round at home, they went to Lyon and won 3-2 – killing the French side’s dream of a European final at home.
At this stage of a competition you would be foolish to underestimate any team, and even more foolish if you were doing that when you’ve been as flaky as we have this season. Still, while we can’t say too much about the way they’re going to approach the game, we can certainly take a look at how we might.
I thought Arsene Wenger’s comments yesterday about his goalkeeper was interesting. Rather than stick to the party line about how David Ospina is his cup keeper, his response to a question about who would play was ‘You will see tomorrow’. It could be just Arsene being Arsene, playing his cards close to his chest and having a little fun with the press, but maybe he’s considering using Petr Cech.
As I’ve written before, if it were me that’s what I’d do. His decision to play Cech in the Premier League was made because he considered that competition the most important of our season, and now that’s no longer the case, it would make some sense to shift things around. The Europa League is most important, therefore play your best goalkeeper – particularly when you consider what’s at stake.
Cech hasn’t been flawless this season, far from it, but to my mind he’s still a better option than Ospina and his experience at this level of European football could well be invaluable. When you need a bit of calm, and someone who has been there and done that in both the Champions League and Europa League, he ticks those boxes.
Laurent Koscielny should return having been rested for the Stoke game, and I expect to see both Granit Xhaka and Henrikh Mkhitaryan back in the side. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is cup-tied of course, and we should see Alexandre Lacazette take his place up front as he returns from surgery and an injury that the manager believes was a significant factor in the fact he scored just once in thirteen games before it.
His return adds a touch more quality to our striking options, with Wenger saying:
It is good to have him back, because it give us different opportunities. Danny is more a guy who goes behind, whereas Lacazette is more combination play, so to have both options is important.
We’ll have to wait and see how fit Welbeck is after he went off with a back problem at the weekend, but there was no mention of his absence in yesterday’s press conference. It could well be a case that just as at the weekend, he plays from the left with Lacazette up front and Mkhitaryan starting from the right.
That would mean Mesut Ozil ahead of Xhaka and Ramsey in a midfield three, thus no place for Jack Wilshere who I felt struggled badly against Stoke and looks like a player who is a bit fatigued at this point of the season. His availability has been a positive in general, but after 32 appearances you can’t but wonder how much he’s got left in tank as we head into the final weeks of the campaign.
Given our struggles on the road this season, tonight’s game is hugely important, even if Wenger believes playing at home first puts us at a slight disadvantage:
When you play at home in the first leg you don’t know exactly what you have to achieve. Usually, when you play the second leg at home you know exactly what kind of result you need. You’re a bit more in a situation where you know you have to do both well, defend well and attack well, without knowing exactly what is needed to qualify. The situation is not always ideal.
This is a man who this season, and not for the first time, has spoken about how he sees no difference between playing home and away, and a good result tonight would mean we go there knowing away goals could be hugely damaging to CSKA Moscow, so I don’t see this as a problem at all really.
The problem, if there is one, is still the nagging uncertainty about what we’re going to get from this team. Wenger says his team were ‘grieving’ after two defeats to Man City, but have won four in a row now for the first time since October. We beat Milan convincingly, and in our last two home games we’ve scored three and kept a clean sheet in each. It’s a much more positive build-up to tonight than it might have been, but it doesn’t mean we can forget about much of what came before it.
Nevertheless, this is a European quarter-final at home, the players know that this is all that’s left this season, and hopefully we’ll see a performance to reflect that. If we can win this game, and take a decent lead into the second-leg then that will be a good night’s work. I think we need it, because I don’t trust this side away from home to rescue a difficult situation. Fingers crossed that’s what we do.
As ever we’ll have a live blog for you if you can’t see the game because of work or other commitments. Just check back here for a post with all the info, or bookmark our live blog page and updates will begin about an hour before kick-off with team news etc.
Catch you later on, and let’s hope our European adventure continues in a positive fashion.