Abracadabra! Three points and that’ll be magic; I sense those words should be read whilst wearing a toupee and in the voice of Paul Daniels. How you listen to this morning’s playlist (here or in the right sidebar) is entirely up to you.
Fulham arrive at The Emirates this afternoon, nothing more than sacrificial lambs to the slaughter at the Arsenal altar if the received wisdom is to be believed. The last time a team came to this part of north London in such circumstances, Cardiff City made a much-changed Arsenal side work hard for their money. With almost a week’s rest until the next match, this is one of those rare opportunities where the manager can play a full strength side without fear of weariness manifesting. Many voiced disappointment in the way the Cardiff match and at Villa Park ended. The margins of victory did not reflect Arsenal’s dominance, the logic being that Manchester City would have put both to the sword. In footballing terms, their goalscoring form has been unusual – I think they will reach 100 for the season in all competitions this weekend – yet they did not win their Champions League group nor are they runaway leaders of the Premier League; they aren’t even top. Beyond them, it seems the days of handing down a good thrashing are the preserve of the boardrooms of British banks and Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
Arsène is aware of Arsenal’s need to impose themselves on teams in the bottom half of the table but to build consistency and the ensuing results. That is more important than flattering to deceive with thrashings, no matter how impressive it is to put six past both north London teams at home. If there is no title sitting on the sideboard at the end of the season, those results mean nothing. Manchester United’s title wins over the years have been built on equally solid home form, dominating lesser clubs at Old Trafford but in clashes with the top six, they could be as hit and miss as Arsenal. City’s resolve will be put to the test at the end of this month when they travel to Tottenham and try to remove the wheel clamps from Jose’s bus as it gets parked across the pitch at Eastlands. By the time the final whistle is blown at that match, nine points ought to be added to Arsenal’s total having beaten Southampton and Crystal Palace, following Fulham today. It isn’t arrogance – although the line between that and belief is blurred on a grey background – it is about achieving the results needed to win the title. If this squad is to win silverware then they are the results required.
Certainly the manager believes that it is easier for the players to perform in their current position than clawing back points on rivals to meet the basic requirement for every season. Sitting atop the Premier League at the moment, you sense that beyond the club, most expect Arsenal to begin to drop away. That attitude is changing slowly but there is still an expectancy on Arsenal’s shoulders but not for title-winning reasons; they are expected to fail. How the players react when that turns to pressure to win the title, when Easter comes if Arsenal are still top or within a point of it, will tell Arsène an awful lot about whether his squad is as good as he believes, as he wants to believe. The only immediately apparent proviso is that they have not won the title before; last season the players proved eminently capable of achieving results when the pressure was on to overhaul Tottenham and once that was complete, maintaining fourth place. Winning ugly, as they have done this season, is not the sole preserve of champions or relegation battles and any team which has experience of that has experience to fall back on when the season reaches its climax.
Being in contention at that point is the first target.
Three points today will be a good step toward achieving that and despite the injury list seeming horrendous, Arsenal will still be fielding a very strong side. Kieran Gibbs timely return to fitness has alleviated the loss of Nacho Monreal but that is probably the only change we will see from Monday night. There is a good case for including Lukas Podolski to offer a more direct threat from the kick-off but with Bendtner and Sanogo out, it leaves Akpom as the only cover up front. With due respect to the youngster, that is still light and underlines why, at the moment, Podolski is not playing regularly. That may just be circumstances suiting an ulterior motive but both are speculation, particularly since Wenger has commenting frequently that the German is not as fit as he could be. The mysterious-injury-meter has yet to reach Almunia but there is something strange about the player’s pattern of appearances. Not that you can discern anything untoward from his demeanour beyond being unhappy about not being used as a substitute on Monday night, which is a display of desire and frustration that you want to see from players; they want to play for Arsenal and are unhappy when they don’t.
The line-up I would expect Arsène to go with a kick-off is:
Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs; Flamini, Wilshere; Gnabry, Özil, Cazorla; Giroud
It is a fixture which has been generous to Arsenal in the past, Fulham never having beaten them on their own turf in a competitive match. That lends itself to the assumption that turning up will be good enough to win. The arrogance is punctured with the realisation that three of Fulham’s five draws in this fixture have come in their last five visits. This is the potential banana skin if Arsenal’s performance slips. That said, their opponents achieved the dubious honour of making Sunderland look good last weekend and have shipped an average of three goals in their previous meetings with the top seven this season. It is not hard to understand their slide down the table, inexorably into the relegation dogfight with ten defeats in their last thirteen Premier League fixtures, grateful for West Ham’s equally wretched form to deflect some of the attention away from themselves.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.