Arsenal travel to Swansea for what is arguably their toughest remaining away fixture this season. Three points are vital today with both Tottenham and Chelsea enjoying routine home London derbies tomorrow; keeping the pressure on the two teams immediately above them in the table as well as those immediately below with Everton and Liverpool facing Manchester City and Southampton respectively. An Arsenal victory would surely put distance between themselves and the Merseysiders below them in the table.
The win in Munich has put a spring in everyone’s step but there is a marked contrast in the two fixtures. The Champions League match was one with relatively low expectations, few expected a win, certainly not one big enough to progress. Having come that close to an unlikely aggregate win, pressure now returns to the Arsenal camp. Expectations are now raised, quite rightly as well. With ten games remaining, slips can be ill-afforded in pursuit of what is deemed by the manager to be the minimum expectation for a season: Champions League football. That emphasis was carried in the words of Mikel Arteta,
It has to give us confidence but we have to keep our feet on the ground. We haven’t had the consistency required at this football club. It is a massive game coming up. We are going to face a very difficult team. So we need to get back on it, get the legs, we don’t have 72 hours to recover. This club cannot afford to be out of the Champions league. That’s in our mind. That’s the target.
The home fixture was arguably the nadir of the season, not just in the result but a performance which was devoid of imagination or positives. To a certain extent that was put right in the second half 0f the FA Cup tie in January when Arsenal came within a whisker of winning at The Liberty Stadium and produced as one-sided a single victory in the replay as you will have seen since 1997-98s relentless pursuit of the silverware. Indeed, it is that remorselessness that the misfiring squad need to produce for the final quarter of the season, achieving the consistency that has eluded them thus far. And if ever a single match underlined that the squad is capable of producing those performances, Munich was it. But the biggest failing has not been on the pitch, it has been in the heads of the players, confidence never instilled despite assertions that this small unbeaten run or that performance would do so. If beating one of the favourites for the Champions League on their own turf does not breed the necessary belief, I am not sure what will.
The biggest question for Arsène is what tinkering to do with the side. Nacho Monreal will drop back into the side and no matter Kieran Gibbs fitness or performance, I think it is a change that was always going to be made. The rest? It is a tough choice. Lukasz Fabianski played well but more importantly, his demeanour was much improved, more confident than before. But – and it is a big BUT – can he produce this on a regular basis; he’s played well before, only to be a short hop away from a costly mistake. However, if he isn’t given the chance, that question can never be answered. Wenger it seems has already made up his mind on retaining Fabianski,
Every position is up for grabs. You have to face it like that. The last game decides the next one.
The tough love approach of resting his first choice goalkeeper and captain being seen as a sterner approach to the squad, shaking any sense of complacency out of players.
Yet there is a balance, there must be resistance – probably futile – on the part of the manager to restore players to the line-up just because they are his favourites. For example, the temptation will be for Abou Diaby to be included at the expense of Tomas Rosicky. Unless the Czech is injured, that makes little sense given the balance of the side looked good on Wednesday night. Diaby will add a physical presence to the midfield but guile will be lost. Against a side who prefer to pass the ball, Rosicky offers more opportunity to exploit space than the Frenchman.
I would expect the line-up to show just the one change from Wednesday,
Fabianski; Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Ramsey, Rosicky, Arteta; Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla
Arsenal need to beware of this match. They came unstuck last year in the corresponding fixture, sucker-punched having equalised. Swansea have once more produced a formidable home record, losing just twice in the Premier League this season, holding Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea to draws. Anyone who thinks this will be straightforward needs to think again. That’s the danger of wins such as Wednesday nights; arrogance and complacency take hold rather quickly. You sense the players do not think that and that is half the battle.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.