The defining moment in this season’s chase for the Champions League has been deferred a little longer, Chelsea claiming all three points at Old Trafford puts a different emphasis on their clash with Tottenham on Wednesday. Having moved three points clear of their upcoming opponents and with a superior goal difference, the match has shifted from must-win to must-not-lose for Chelsea. That underlines Tottenham’s dilemma; they have to win because of the paucity of their goalscoring record. Take out Gareth Bale’s twenty goals and they have scored a paltry forty-one goals in the Premier League this season. As Andre Villas-Boas points out, they are not a one-man team. No…
Beyond that match, it is hard to see any of the three teams dropping points. Next weekend’s fixtures see Chelsea visit Aston Villa and Tottenham travel to Stoke. Those two are not yet entirely safe, although it would take an incredible set of results in the next fortnight to see either relegated. Victory for Middle Earth’s favourite team at the Stadium of Light tonight would put a different complexion on their game at the weekend; Stoke have struggled this season against the top sides. Previously they have managed to beat one of them but so far, have not looked like doing so. There is little reason to believe that they will improve on their record of three draws in these fixtures.
Arsenal can only be concerned with their own performances. In fact, it isn’t even that, results are all that matter now. Becoming difficult to breach defensively has given the team a good platform upon which to build. Perversely, it has led to a neutering of the goalscoring instinct which hints that as much as Arsène is going to be busy in the transfer market this Summer, he has some issues to work out on the training ground.
Much of the defensive focus has been on the central pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, with the sub-plot of Thomas Vermaelen’s form providing the twisting backdrop. Undoubtedly, the former duo establishing a settled understanding and finding form at the right time, has been a huge factor. Previously, it was unthinkable that Wenger would drop his captain but the decision this season has proven to be courageous and in that sense, worked. Whatever the reasons for the Belgian’s continued downward spiral in the pecking order, he has the motivation to recover that form this Summer, knowing that another centre back arriving would add pressure to the battle for the starting places. I think that inevitable with Squillaci’s departure. Miquel has a good future at the club and whilst he will undoubtedly feature in the domestic Cups next season, it is debatable whether he is ready for anything more than a cameo in the senior competitions.
A harder choice comes next week, if Arsène’s last injury update was correct. The tussle for the goalkeeper’s jersey has been interesting in recent weeks. Lukasz Fabianski started in Munich and his performance far exceeded the low expectations of supporters. As the latter grew, so did his confidence culminating in an outstanding late block against Norwich with the game not yet won. Injury allowed Wojciech Szczesny to return and since then, his performances have improved. Like his compatriot, he produced a late, points-winning save, this time at QPR which gives the manager a tough choice to make for Wigan.
Thomas Vermaelen made a brief cameo against Norwich but Wenger’s ruthlessness saw Mertesacker restored for the visit of Everton. It is different this time, Szczesny has come into the side and only been beaten by His penalty last Sunday. Fabianski though, might rightly feel aggrieved if he is not restored to the side having done nothing wrong previously. Were he not to return, that would give the biggest sign of his intentions towards the older of the two Poles for next season. Fabianski’s contract is running down, ending in 2014. Based on previous transfer activity, the club will probably sell now and take a small fee rather than waiting for him to walk away.
You sense that his injury has the potential to be Almunia-esque. Seemingly out for a short while, the Spaniard quietly left the club. The timing of Fabianski’s blow to the ribs could not have been better. It sounded innocuous enough for him to return if Szczesny dropped a rickett in his absence, serious enough for complete rest if, as the manager expected, the younger Pole came back fully motivated and returning to form. That worked out for Wenger, Szczesny has returned motivated and seemingly in good form.
Confidence is fickle attribute in footballers, easily lost and hard to regain. The impact of being dropped again might be more damaging in the longer term for Szczesny as it looks more and more like the original rotation was designed to be a wake-up call rather than an actual reflection of his culpability in goals conceded. It would no surprise to see him continue in goal for the remainder of the season. If that is the case and Fabianski does move on in the Summer, at least he can do so with his head held high. A happier ending than it might otherwise have been.