From a team selection point of view, tonight’s Carabao Cup semi-final second leg is hard to predict. Mikel Arteta was giving less than zero away in his press conference when asked about player availability. When asked if he could confirm numbers, he said:
I can’t and I don’t want to because I don’t want to give anything away – I’m sorry. There are issues, those issues have to be resolved that is why we couldn’t play the last game, but as you can understand we want to keep that internal.
It’s easy enough to understand why. There’s not a lot to be gleaned from the training pictures beyond the fact Martin Odegaard is back and thus available. However, there are players we didn’t see. Gabriel was one, nor was there any sign of Emile Smith Rowe or Takehiro Tomiyasu. Whether it’s because they’re not there, or we’re keeping their presence private under the Mikel Arteta Official Secrets Act it’s hard to know.
Suffice to say, we obviously have some issues – not least in midfield where Albert Sambi Lokonga is the only recognised central midfielder due to the absence of Granit Xhaka following his red card last week. If Smith Rowe is back and ready to start, you could fashion a midfield trio with him, Sambi and Odegaard, but beyond that, I don’t quite know what the manager can do. I suppose Bukayo Saka is another option, but that might mean playing Eddie Nketiah in one of the wide positions.
I’ve seen people talk about Ben White in there, and while I think he could do it, I’d rather not move him from centre-half – especially after his fantastic performance at Anfield in the last game. So, I don’t really know what kind of team we’re going to see later, hopefully there might be a nice surprise or two in terms of players coming back from injury absences, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
One thing we can be sure of is that there is going to be an atmosphere inside the Emirates tonight. Arteta said of the fans:
If they can drive the team the way they have been doing recently, that would be incredibly helpful to give us the best possible chance to get in the final.
And after everything that’s happened of late – that backs to the wall performance at Anfield, the postponement and all the nonsense and bluster that surrounded it, even that display against Man City which should show what we can do – I think the crowd will be well and truly up for it. I talked about Arteta using the postponement stuff to help foster a bit of siege mentality and he played a blinder at his press conference yesterday.
He rightly dismissed the whining and complaints of Antonio Conte and Sp*rs:
When a team has come to us and said, ‘we cannot play and these are the reasons we cannot play’ and the game has been postponed, we have never, ever publicly questioned any of that.
He hit back at accusations and insinuations that Arsenal had cheated:
We will defend our club with teeth and nails. We are not going to get anybody damaging our name, or trying to lie about things that haven’t occurred. When we make mistakes, we will put our hands up, but we will defend our club in a really strong way.
And made it clear that the idea that we just decided we didn’t want to play was nonsense of the highest order by outlining the application process after which the decision is made by the Premier League:
Whoever is calling us something we are not or [saying we’re] trying to do something that is a lie. We have all the evidence you have to provide, all the evidence, individually, all the reports, all the MRIs, all the Covid cases that you have, you have to put in on the table and you have to explain it, they ask more questions, you go again and do it and we’ve done all the right things.
He’s had some strong press conference performances in the past, but this was right up there. You know my feelings on all this after the last few days, the way this has become an Arsenal issue rather than a wider discussion about the rules is, frankly, ridiculous, but I’m fully on board with the way Arteta dealt with it. Not to mention that he acknowledged the problems with those guidelines, and called for greater clarity over the postponement process – as he has done all along. He’s been really consistent on this, unlike some of the flip-flopping hot-take merchants who have spent all week getting rinsed by Arsenal Twitter because this is the one and only time they had anything of ‘substance’ to say about a game being called off.
So, let’s hope that staunch defence of the club is matched by an on-pitch performance this evening. This is a cup semi-final against a big, traditional cup rival, and the chance to reach a Wembley final too. We kept Liverpool at bay with 10 men last week, so let’s hope if we can keep 11 on the pitch this evening, they have that little bit extra to win the game. Obviously it’s going to be tough against high quality opposition, but that’s usually what you get at this point of a cup competition. Let’s do it!
There is a preview podcast on Patreon right now, while James and I will here tomorrow with a post-game Arsecast Extra.
Catch you later for the game.