Arsenal’s Champions League campaign commences tonight in France where a proud manager noted the club has never lost a match to a club from the host nation. We won’t mention Paris and Spanish teams though. An seventeen man squad left for Montpellier, hastily increased to eighteen when someone realised that only James Shea had been named as a travelling goalkeeper, Vito Mannone found his passport in double quick time to make the flight.
Wojciech Szczesny remains at home, receiving treatment on ankle injury not as the lucky recipient of a new tough love regime following his mistake that led to Southampton’s goal on Saturday. Who knows, perhaps it is and judging by the look on the faces of Messrs Wenger and Bould, you certainly would not rule it out. It is incredible how unlucky with injuries our Polish goalkeeping contingent is; Fabianski fit for his national team but not for club, Szczesny hurt on his return. You may see a conspiracy but I couldn’t possibly comment…
As it is, the squad is as you would expect strong for tonight’s match and changes will be made from the side which thrashed Southampton. Surprisingly, Abou Diaby has been included; personally I would have rested him until the weekend’s trip to Manchester but the manager has more information at his fingertips than we do. To include the midfielder if he is less than fully fit would be uncharacteristic folly on the manager’s part. Quite what message that sends to Andrey Arshavin who makes way for the Frenchman, you can only guess but I would suggest it merely confirms that the mercurial Russian is spinning through the exit doors already.
Normally on these trips, Arsène takes the opportunity – or more accurately, injuries force him – to include younger players. This is the strongest travelling Arsenal squad I can recall (without looking). The headaches are pleasant one and are something of a novelty for Wenger. One that seems not to be a problem is Theo Walcott with Arsène admitting what some of us have long suspected, namely the England international is not starting because he has not signed a new deal,
Theo is in the squad. Will he start? I don’t know yet. The contract can affect my thinking, but at the moment I still hope to extend. At the moment it doesn’t affect me, but, of course, at some stage that could change. If in April if it’s not done, you can think it will be difficult to do.
If Walcott wanted proof that he is going to spend a year in limbo, I am sure he has already had that. The problem is that the longer this impasse exists, the more likelihood there is that someone is going to gain form and cement themselves into the right attacking role. Oxlade-Chamberlain has played well without being exceptional, a sort of Bacary Sagna. Unassuming and getting on with the job at hand. It doesn’t even take an outstanding performances from the youngster for praise to pile up, that he is showing commitment to the Arsenal cause is earning him as much respect. To be honest, in these days when loyalty is at a premium it is a refreshing change.
But many of us expected that from Walcott. It is clear that he places a different value upon his services than the club. Such differences are hard to resolve with the contractual stalemate indicative that one or both parties is unwilling to make enough of a move to resolve the issue. For the player, why should he undervalue himself when he sees first hand the salaries former colleagues now earn. Alas his hand is weakened by losing his England starting spot; his marketability relies more on being a homegrown player than international recognition.
Despite this, I would start him tonight. With Giroud in the middle, Arsenal would benefit from Theo’s pace to provide. Disparaging comments from the Montpellier president will be as motivating to break his duck as the frustration of not being able to pick Saints pockets at the weekend. Much was made of first Arsenal goals being against Southampton. That did not happen so how about reminding us how good French forwards can be at Arsenal by scoring on the thirteenth anniversary of Thierry Henry’s first Arsenal goal? The romance of football which is so sparse in the modern game could yet re-emerge.
Elsewhere, the defence should see changes. Mannone has the chance to exorcise his last European appearance and calamitous moments in Greece whilst the stage is the ideal setting for Laurent Koscielny to make his first appearance of the season, Per Mertesacker though would feel hard done by if he does not find himself restored to the starting line-up at The Etihad.
I would expect the line-up to be:
Mannone; Jenkinson, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Arteta, Cazorla, Diaby; Walcott, Giroud, Podolski
Montpellier have not had the best of starts to the season but I am sure the manager has made it clear that this will not be a stroll in the park victory. To be honest, any win will do, it’s the points which make prizes. Or prize money, which is essentially what the Champions League is all about. A Wembley final? Well, the Champions League would certainly be an astonishing way to break our duck at the new stadium but that is getting ahead of myself. Let’s just get out of the group in first place.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it/