Well this is it. For me, the emotions of the day make this the hardest of the four fixtures against the top seven this month. City and Chelsea are far better teams than Tottenham but the North London Derby, that’s more emotional than either of those matches. Ask Podolski or Rosicky, they ‘get’ this fixture. I am sure others do as well; that’s why it is tougher. Expectations/
Wenger would love to be able to call on the likes of Wilshere and Ramsey, those who could drag that little bit extra out of themselves for a local derby but he can’t. He can call on Kim Kallstrom though – he’s the man. I feel a lot of sympathy for the Swede. Like Mathieu Flamini’s signing, the jury was underwhelmed by his signing. Unlike Flamini’s signing, the squiggle at the bottom of the contract did not signal the arrival of further reinforcements. Kallstrom will make the bench today with numbers running out. Is he making the bench for that reason or is it talent that puts him there? Would, if everyone was fit, he make it? I think so but whilst the tea leaves offer hope, is there a Roy of the Rovers debut waiting to happen? Surely too much to hope for.
And therein is Kallstrom’s problem; expectations were raised by our own hopes and the echoes of the past whistled their refrain. It was another window where, well if it wasn’t panic, the plan for strengthening did not go as well as planned. And to be honest, my experience as Championship Manager all those years ago leaves me knowing Kim Kallstrom will make his debut and run rings around the oppositions defence, ending the game with his value enhanced by a hat-trick of assists. Who needs tea leaves, eh?
OK, reality bites. I am not sure which reality, perhaps it is the primordial waves travelling through space and time but I am optimistic about today. Perhaps it is the memory of Clive Allen scoring only to be overhauled, not once but twice. Perhaps it is witnessing Nico Claesen lofting the ball into the Arsenal net with seconds on the clock, only to be pegged back and surpassed as 1-2 became part of Tottenham’s post code. These are the things about the North London Derby I remember. Roberts penalty hitting the bar, Nicholas giving Arsenal the lead with a wondrous shot across Ray Clemence. Brian Talbot finishing the night with a breakaway goal that broke Tottenham’s title challenge. Ian Wright equalising with barely a minute on the clock, celebrating like loons who had won the League. Celebrating like loons when we did just that. It’s a match Arsenal must win following Chelsea’s defeat and City’s victory. The crushing emptiness of defeats, even in testimonials.
It’s match that Tottenham’s wretched form does not want them to lose. It’s been too long, 2007 and the summer sunshine feels like a lifetime ago; it’s just a match which Arsenal must win to cement the place in the top four and secure their first trophy of the season. And trophies, according to David Seaman, is what Wenger needs to enable the club to push on. The first will be the toughest to win and that’s why the FA Cup run has been hugely welcomed. We have been here before, defeat at Wembley to Birmingham still brings an element of disbelief; that’s why winning at Wembley this time around is a key step to take, to prove that they can do it. I personally believe that the title has gone despite Chelsea’s intention of blowing up; anything less than a win this weekend will make that a certainty. Win today and the focus moves to next weekend and so on. As Arsène says, the only thing the players can do is take this month one game at a time because results in their own and other matches, change the landscape constantly. Win this weekend and next, Chelsea are a point away with Liverpool and City likely to be the top two. This season’s title race is a portent for the future with the likelihood of next season and beyond being a similar dogfight, perhaps five teams involved if United get their act together.
Pride is the obvious reason to avoid defeat but victory will breath life into Tottenham and put them within three points of fourth place. Even them catching Arsenal over the next fortnight would not be a cause for concern given Arsenal’s fixture list combined with Tottenham’s predictable unpredictability of form. An implosion never seems more than a heartbeat away, a heavy home defeat not beyond them in any match. One today would be good too. Despite the injury problems, Arsenal have enough attacking instinct and verve to inflict just that on their rivals. Monreal returns (perhaps Gibbs) to give the left side strength whilst the axis of Flamini and Arteta has enough combative experience to not flinch from the challenges of this fixture.
It’s that depth of feeling and understanding which makes Wenger’s team selection a little tricky. The obvious solution to Özil’s absence is to bring Rosicky into the line-up. It’s hard to argue with the Czech’s inclusion but I will. In fact it’s nothing to do with his form, just adding a bit of firepower to the front line. Olivier Giroud continues to work hard but is he distracted by more rumours surfacing about his private life and Arsenal future? Whether he is or not, he still needs support on the pitch; Podolski is most likely to provide that. Arsène will probably disagree and select Rosicky to play centrally with Cazorla on the left.
It leaves the line-up something like:
Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Monreal; Arteta, Flamini; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Podolski (Rosicky); Giroud
Per Mertesacker believes Arsenal cannot afford any slip-ups and with the coming matches, that will be hard to avoid if we are being honest with ourselves. Recent history does not offer much hope of nine out of nine for the top five encounters this month and pragmatism says five or six would be good enough to secure a top four finish. More than that would fire belief for the remainder of the season and as it reaches its climax, there will be times when the players are running on empty and that belief will give them an ounce more of energy in achieving their goals.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.