Chelsea arrive at the Emirates in the first must-win match since the last one.
We’ve reached January and we must win this one having dropped a couple more points at the weekend to another team in the relegation fight. The bottom five have taken nine points from us this season and the gap to second is…nine points. Same old Arsenal, indeed.
Arsène acknowledged Sunday’s result demanded a big performance, but it’s all pantomime; the FA cast him as the villain of the piece, protecting Mike Dean from the proper opprobrium beyond the borders of N5.
But it’s over and done with, aside from the touchline ban and fine to be handed out. We move onto Chelsea, whose arrival couldn’t come at a worse time.
Neither Nacho Monreal or Aaron Ramsey returns from injury with both pencilled in for the Carabao Cup semi-final. Mesut Özil hasn’t trained in a week and Laurent Koscielny has so many track marks on his knee that his kids thought he was a ‘join the dots’ puzzle.
Wenger estimated that his compatriot was “30%” to play tonight which begs the question of why he played on Sunday? With all the investment in stats and medical equipment, surely this hasn’t come as a surprise? So the question is back-three or four. Whichever decision, we are loaded with inexperience as Ainsley Maitland-Niles returns as left wing-back.
A back-three of Mustafi, Chambers and Holding might give the manager nightmares but I’d rather have seen them at West Brom than tonight. Squad rotation is all or nothing with Wenger these days; the schedule this year has been kind, but we’ve been less than clever with how we’ve used players.
Tonight has the makings of a harsh lesson unless some individuals step up to the plate and put in world-class performances.
Tell Me Sweet Little Lies
Arsène is once again fighting fires. Not all of these are his own making but he bears his share of responsibility for them. The contracts situation is another; no movement on anything with the fluff stories about Özil being shown to be exactly that, planted by Team Mesut in the press. Jack Wilshere’s situation meanwhile, bubbles along in the background.
So tell us Arsène, how will you deal with that pair leaving with Alexis Sanchez next summer? “We will respond to that by bringing in players of top quality,” he said yesterday.
Now I’m not going to say “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” but it’s definitely a case of I’ll believe it when I see it. We might sign “top quality” players but when it comes to replacing stars who leave, I can’t immediately think of one case where we’ve done that. Someone will enlighten me, I’m sure.
The answer to that question will tell us a lot about KSE’s thinking over Wenger. Rapt they may be, but continued poor performances on the field – and absence from the Champions League – will begin to hurt Stan’s investment. When that happens, Junior hasn’t been afraid to hand out the brown envelope. Thoughts for another day, I think.
For this evening’s game, the team largely picks itself. Sanchez, Lacazette and Welbeck up front, maybe Coquelin and Elneny in midfield; can Jack really stand up to this level of playing time? It’s a lot for someone with his injury history, that’s for sure.
Let’s Give It A Try
It’s a match which will test his theory that we’re close to Chelsea. Maybe geographically but if we lose, that’s third place out of reach. Already down to a race for fourth and we’re already in January. It’s not hard to see that there is more riding on the match for us than for them. If we had a strong line-up, I’d be inclined to think there was a big performance lurking, waiting to explode. But we don’t and I’m not sure there is.
And while the gap currently sits at seven points to Chelsea, defeat makes it ten but more importantly, leaves us six points adrift of fourth, having played Liverpool twice. We would need them and Tottenham to actively drop points rather than be masters of our own destiny. The Champions League will only resurface on our horizon if we win the Europa League, that much is clear.
So we’re in decline and a shock FA Cup winner could see us out of Europe. A win tonight, in a big match, reshapes that narrative, keeping the faint hope of the top four alive and reinvigorating the squad for the coming cup battles, as well as the Premier League matches ahead.
It’s a tall order for a makeshift team. The XI, if Arsène’s updates don’t include massive amounts of porkies, will be something like:
Cech; Mustafi, Koscielny (Holding), Chambers; Bellerin, Wilshere, Elneny, Coquelin; Welbeck, Lacazette, Sanchez
As ever, I hope for an Arsenal win but I’m not confident of it all. Maybe we’ll get a nice surprise and sign off the festive period with a bit of Christmas magic.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.