It’s all interchangeable in the world of Arsenal at the moment; shift from the Premier League where Arsenal sit top to the Champions League where, erm, Arsenal sit top, albeit this the slenderest of advantages. On occasions such as this, dropping the prefixes ‘The’, ‘Royal’ and ‘Woolwich’ have proven to be quite useful indeed.
Like the Premier League, the players have performed as expected in this competition, winning in Marseille who are the weakest team in the group. That is not deriding that victory, just putting matters in perspective. Arsenal do not dictate the fixture list, simply respond to the opposition placed in front of them. And tomorrow night will provide arguably the toughest test of the group stage, breaking down an obdurate defence and a team who will be quite content to emerge from The Emirates.
Of course the presence of Gonzalo Higuain offers a neat twist for the occasion. Following a substitute appearance between the two sides at the summer’s shindig, the Argentine striker was dismissed as over-rated, one that Arsène should be grateful he missed out; Olivier Giroud was much better. It conveniently overlooked how Higuain’s summer had been slow to start and that fixture was his first friendly with his new teammates. In short, it was footballing spite, the usual banter from fans watching a transfer target in another team’s colours. Except this gave way to a sinister revisionism, denying any interest in the player, that it was all in the back pages and then how Mesut Özil was the major target of the summer.
The weaknesses in that theory were exposed last weekend when Rafa Benitez observed that he believed Higuain was Emirates bound but when it stalled, Napoli completed the deal within 48 hours. The theory dissolved when Arsène observed,
We were working on two or three targets and he was one of them. It didn’t come off in the end, that doesn’t take anything away from his quality. Napoli took advantage of that at the right moment, it’s more about timing as well.
I am sure the revisionists will adapt their theory to encapsulate the manager’s views but Arsène, you need to be careful about what you say; you might get labelled. Still, there is more revisionism to come as Wenger has now decided the striker is a good player so he must be that. I never had a problem with people arguing the merits of Higuain over Giroud or how Suarez was better than both but obviously not replacing Olivier. That’s what football is all about, opinions.
However, as the summer played out, Arsenal ended with no-one of proven quality as back-up for the Frenchman; Arsenal are rolling the dice with injuries on that front, especially with Walcott and Podolski injured. It has left experienced cover in the form of Nicklas Bendtner, Chuba Akpom and Yaya Sanogo. As fine as the latter may prove to be, that sentence being cast in the future tense is telling. As for Bendtner, I struggle with the received wisdom that he is actually going to live up to the billing this time around. I want him to do well at Arsenal and hope he does, when, if he is called upon but I am far from confident that will be the case. The situation is what it is and we have to get on with it until January. Thank God for Aaron Ramsey in that case. Having played everywhere else in the side, a run as central striker is on the cards in the event of injuries.
Everything is coming together nicely for Arsène at the moment but tomorrow night provides arguably the toughest opposition faced so far. Napoli sit second in Serie A and have conceded less than a goal a game, as well as winning their first Champions League at home to Dortmund. They too have beaten the opposition in front of them and it is hard to gauge which is the hardest game for them, Arsenal at The Emirates or Milan in the San Siro. An Italian supporter may have a different view of the answer I choose to give.
The current mood in the media is underpinned by insidious revisionism as well; Arsenal have played everyone at the right time; Tottenham were gelling, Sunderland were in the last throes of Di Canio’s madness, etc. Everyone else had a weakness which Arsenal were exploiting rather than acknowledging what everyone knows; Wenger has a decent squad but one that needs strengthening, one that could do very well with two more players in positions which were asked for at the start of the summer, not just offering depth but an alternative during matches when a spark is needed. To consider Arsenal – anyone – title contenders on the basis of six games is madness. At this stage of the season even Sunderland could challenge for the title. Highly unlikely but the gap to make up is not insurmountable in theory. Practice is something different.
That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the moment, just not get carried away because anyone who has watched football for more than a nanosecond knows that seasons bite your arsenal when you least expect it. Or when you do expect it as well. Unless you are unbeatable for that campaign which Arsenal are obviously not.
’til Tomorrow. Or ’til Later Today for me, given the time difference.