Southampton arrive at The Emirates off the back of a heavy and comprehensive home defeat against Manchester City. Follow that with defeat tonight and their position in the top four is under threat; it would leave them just three points ahead of sixth place Arsenal. So to make it more of an even contest, Arsenal will line-up tonight with their third-choice goalkeeper and probably a left back who can barely walk.
I do so admire Arsène’s sense of fair play.
Just when you thought a corner was being turned, the back-end has flicked out a little to keep you concentrating. Speaking to the media yesterday, Arsène noted that Monreal and Gibbs both had fitness tests yesterday – and presumably today – to see which one of them would line-up on the left tonight. Thank goodness Laurent Koscielny is back otherwise we would genuinely be down to the bare bones defensively. Presumably one of Chambers or Bellerin will deputise on the left if neither specialist left back is able to play.
Welbeck, Alexis and Giroud need to have their shooting boots on this evening. We may need to score half-a-dozen to ensure victory.
It isn’t all bad news in the short-term. Not ready for this evening, it seems likely that either the weekend or the trip to Turkey will see Szczesny, Ospina and Debuchy in contention for the squad. The outlook is less bleak than the immediate future although Arsène didn’t inspire confidence with an almost plaintive aside on Koscielny, offering nothing more substantive than “Let’s hope he will be back for a long period“; as stirring and awe-inspiring speeches go, that one is right down at the very bottom.
He has tapped into what you sense is a genuine concern over the Frenchman’s fitness. His very welcome return to the side was quicker than expected, the reports of his condition with hindsight were well-managed by the club but there is an element of fear that his inclusion is necessity over-riding good sense. With a hectic set of fixtures ahead, if Koscielny breaks down, how long will he be missing for? I suppose the silver lining to that cloud is Debuchy’s return will at least allow Chambers to move centrally.
It’s a nagging thought given how this season has panned out thus far.
May’s Wembley victory was marked down as the beginning of an upturn in the club’s fortunes. It has worked out this way, any ambitions which may have been held for a title win have long been surrendered. Any sense that this season will show a marked improvement on last time, has been eroded and once more the club’s ambition of a top four finish will, if it is to achieved, be as a result of a dogfight for fourth. There are more teams in the mix so it is nothing more than to be expected, especially with Chelsea and City beginning to look like they will pull away from the pack.
Unsurprisingly, Arsène was bullish about the remainder of the season; the prospect of finishing champions has not been surrendered even if he knows it won’t be won by Arsenal. For a manager to publicly admit defeat is unthinkable at this stage of the season even if he privately holds that view. Such a sign of weakness would be immediately seized upon by supporters and players.
But thirteen points adrift of the top, we all know it isn’t going to happen this time around. Arsenal are seven shy of second with an inferior goal difference and profligacy in front of goal that makes it unlikely that any requirement to resolve positions on goal difference will fall in their favour. Those two positions at the moment are pie in the sky; we’re six away from Southampton in third and that’s why winning is utterly essential for a top four finish.
It isn’t very often that I would agree with anything Michael Owen says but he noted recently that none of the traditional big clubs is outstanding at the moment. United, Arsenal and Liverpool have all displayed inconsistent form. It’s all relative, as Ronald Koeman noted, but some consistency must be found if European ambitions are not to be drowned in a sea of mediocrity. Footballing logic dictates that Southampton will fall by the wayside by the new year; their fixture list will see to that.
But after this run, theirs is quite kind. They only have trips to Anfield, Chelsea and finishing at Eastlands in five months. Can you really dismiss them so easily? Is it so difficult to believe that having pushed themselves into the top four, they will not regroup and fight once more? Whilst I don’t think West Ham can continue their good form, the cluster of teams just outside the Champions League places – and including United, I suppose – have not grabbed their seasons by the throat to take control of their destiny.
Back-to-back wins is a good starting point but that needs to be pushed into a run of a dozen games without defeat if anything meaningful is to come from this spell, otherwise it is just a case of two steps forward, one sideways, one back. It’s why for confidence’s sake, Arsenal must get a hold of their campaign and not be utterly reliant on the weaknesses and failings of others.
I don’t expect many changes from Saturday, Wenger doesn’t have the options. I’ve picked Gibbs because he finished the match at The Hawthorns, no inside knowledge or anything but the pecking order if he isn’t fit, will probably be Monreal and then Chambers. The latter’s possesses an invaluable versatility but will need to be at the top of his game if he is forced on to the left. Successful opposite-footed full backs are as rare as hen’s teeth. The XI is most likely,
Martinez; Chambers, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Flamini, Ramsey; Sanchez, Cazorla, Welbeck; Giroud
Neither side can afford to lose but I expect Southampton to play similarly to their approach to the Capital One Cup tie. Arsenal have a bit more firepower on show and need to be more clinical, more productive in front of goal. The creation of chances at Albion was a real positive on which to draw with frontline making an impressive start to their partnership. A match this quickly afterward seems a good chance to build on that.
From The Vaults
1969 today, Southampton arrived at Highbury perched atop the bottom three of the First Division, Arsenal were inconsistent at best with six wins and defeats accompanying ten draws as they sat resolutely in mid-table. The resultant 2 – 2 draw was not unexpected for a side who had won just two of the previous thirteen league matches. The two sides had met in the League Cup in September, Arsenal winning the second round tie in a replay at Highbury with Europe proving a bright spot.
Southampton avoided relegation at the end of the season. Arsenal were twelfth but won their first European trophy. I’d settle for that outcome again.