FA Cup time once more as Blackburn Rovers provide the opposition for the ninth time in this competition. The Lancastrians have scored just once in their five previous visits to the one true part of north London, the most recent of which ended goalless at The Emirates almost six years ago to the day. Benni McCarthy grabbed the winner six minutes from time in the replay at Ewood Park as Arsenal’s trophy drought extended into its second season. Mart Poom on the bench? Players we forget as having passed through the doors, a bit like Jim Leighton’s shortlived spell at Arsenal.
On their descent into the Championship, Blackburn were trounced 7 – 1 in the Premier League here last season en route to relegation but that will not prey on Arsenal minds, barely even remembered. Arsène was keen to point out that the match will be taken seriously, preparations will be thorough as if this were the Final to prevent a recurrence of the League Cup exit at Bradford. Of course there is the chance to rectify matters should a replay be required, a subject which taxes minds at the Football Association as their premier competition moves towards a straight knockout tournament.
Eschewing return matches is contentious; smaller clubs who have defended stoutly for 90 minutes would rightly argue that they deserve a payday and the chance for glory. Money for the owners, heroism the players; the former can be solved by changing the revenue split on matchdays with Premier League clubs offering up 50% of any home tie, the latter a tougher problem to solve which is perhaps why the FA have made FA effort to deal with it. To do so removes some chance of upsets upon which the Cup has thrived for nearly a century and a half. Yet this tie proves the problem for managers in Wenger’s position; a replay would bisect the two legs against Bayern Munich. Taking a lead to Bavaria would to my mind put him in the position of resting key players for a domestic cup tie; as he observed, get past Bayern and the possibility of winning the trophy gets closer.
Which dovetails into today’s game. Injuries to key personnel last weekend will surely dominate his thoughts. I cannot bring forward any justification for risking either Wilshere or Koscielny for this match, even if they pass a fitness test. We have enough depth in the squad to fill their positions, even without relying on Sebastian Squillaci. A natural caution ought to apply, especially in Wilshere’s case with over 500 days out of the squad following his previous injury; it cannot be worth the risk,
Not just the injured either, there is strength to the argument that Cazorla dropping to the bench with Walcott would be a viable option today. The danger here is that too many changes are made. Ordinarily this fixture is one that Jenkinson would have been pencilled in for; his suspension put paid to that. Coquelin could slot in at right back if Bacary Sagna is needed centrally or given a rest but I doubt that will happen with Ignasi Miquel surely coming in to partner Per Mertesacker at the heart of the defence. Too many changes in the rest of the team
Midfield offers the toughest choice. Abou Diaby and Aaron Ramsey seem certain starters, so who to accompany them. In Cazorla’s absence, the return of Little Mozart to the pitch is most likely, offering the flair and spirit to make play waft across the Emirates turf effortlessly. After his pivotal role in last season’s charge to third place, this campaign must have been hugely frustrating for the Czech international. He might reasonably have supposed that Cazorla would take the pivotal playmaking role but injuries once more blighted any hope of domestic cup and substitute appearances. This afternoon will perhaps change that?
The line-up I expect Arsenal to start with is:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Miquel, Monreal; Diaby, Ramsey, Rosicky; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Giroud, Podolski
Perhaps Arsène will bit the bullet and include Coquelin at right back with Arshavin on the left. It seems a risk for what many consider to be the club’s one real chance of silverware this season but with the Champions League tie against Bayern on Tuesday night, you would not blame him for resting as many players as possible. Putting some on the bench offers the opportunity to rectify any shortcomings if they emerge. Even with changes, Arsenal have enough quality to progress to the next round.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.