Stoke City entertain Arsenal this afternoon looking to continue their proud FA Cup record of never having won a tie against the visitors. Rarely will they have been presented with a better opportunity. It is safe to say that this will not be the strongest Arsenal line-up that they could face. It does not mean that those playing will be any less determined, just not the first choice that Arsene would have played were it a Premier League match.
The side though will be more akin to that which took the field at Upton Park than an outright Carling Cup side. Injuries have ravaged the Arsenal squad throughout the season and players need rest with the upcoming run of Premier League fixtures. Abou Diaby is definitely absent, quite possibly from Villa Park as well. Wenger has said he will miss that but may return for the visit of Manchester United next Sunday; Arsene’s injury reports are notoriously inaccurate.
Bacary Sagna will not play due to a shoulder problem which he has been carrying for a while. Indeed, the only regular first teamer you would even expect to play today is Gael Clichy and even then there must be some doubt about that, the needed match time for the Frenchman must be weighed against the possibility of a niggly injury being picked up this afternoon. If he does not play, it is not as if Armand Traore has not made any appearances at the top level.
For once, Wenger is not scrabbling around wondering which back four to play, quite the opposite. It is further up the pitch that his selection problems lie. Eastmond is one youngster whom you would definitely expect to play this afternoon, alongside Denilson who ought to be fresh. However, it is hard to see how Rosicky will be risked, especially with his most natural replacement, Samir Nasri, still busying the medical staff. This means that Fran Merida’s fitness becomes key, the usual creativity driven by Cesc Fabregas missing.
Up front, it appears to be straightforward. Nicklas Bendtner cannot be fit enough to start so a triumverate led by Eduardo with support on either flank from Vela and Jack Wilshere. For the latter and Merida, it is a chance to erase their performances at Upton Park where the game rather passed them by. The Spaniard put in a good substitute appearance at The Reebok and may have started at The Emirates had a hefty Boltonian boot not made a swift and early contact with his ankle.
Much of the focus around the game has been on the return of Sol Campbell. His signing, much like that of Patrick Vieira at Manchester City, is based on reputation with supporters whilst Wenger needed cover, especially with Philippe Senderos expected to sign for Everton tomorrow for the rest of this season. Campbell’s departure from the club three years ago was mired in ignominy. His much vaunted move to foreign fields never materialised although perhaps he lived on the Isle of Wight to give him a feel of not living in the UK, crossing the Solent every morning might have made it seem more of an adventure.
Campbell could not be considered if Wenger was looking for a Premier League replacement but a cup side and the odd league fixture? On paper, he is a decent reserve to have. Not much should be read into the spell he had at Notts County. Many good footballers struggle when dropping down levels, as much an issue with their fitness as it is their inability to accept that the standards of those around them are not those to which they are accustomed. Add into that mix the off-the-field shenanigans at Meadow Lane, the mix would have driven a saint insane.
Whether Campbell can still cut it at the highest level is another matter. Mention of an England recall shows his desire to play on but is surely delusional? Not even the paucity of English centre backs who can even be called international class should permit Campbell’s recall. It would be like recalling Gary Neville, lunacy that the calculated thought processes of Capello should dispel.
This afternoon’s match with a much-changed side will be a tough test. The chance to progress in the FA Cup should not be dismissed and it is not an either or situation when compared with the Premier League. However, instead of berating Wenger for prioritising the league fixtures, we should be celebrating the fact that the younger players are considered good enough to win, going into the match as at least equal to Stoke’s first XI. A win this afternoon might surely quieten doubters for 24 hours at least.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.