Bolton Wanderers visit The Emirates this afternoon, a fixture that before the season started was predicted to be the teams finishing in fifth and sixth which shows the unpredictability of football that we know and love. The season so far could not be more different; Arsenal’s expectations exceeded, Bolton’s underachievement in stark contrast to the relative success of those previous.
There could be a danger that this is viewed as a straightforward home ‘banker’ but the dismissal of Sammy Lee put a spanner into that particular works. Not because they have replaced him with a magician but it seems that for some bizarre reason, a team tries harder in their games post-dismissal or perhaps it is just luck for them that events turn out that way?
However, that is an overly cautious way to look at it. This week has seen a mixed bag for Arsenal, injury wise. The loss of Senderos is offset by the return of William Gallas; no disrespect to Philippe but Gallas is a better player so that is a bonus. The loss of van Persie is not yet quantifiable but it is a blow. The ‘in form’ striker at the Club at the moment without doubt, in terms of goals at least, with four in the last five games. Yet in Eduardo, we have replaced him with a proven international goalscorer and one who, despite not playing for Arsenal, has shown he still has the knack to break stubborn defences at the ‘top level’. His appearance is something to look forward to bearing that in mind although you have to say, the choice of teams as opponents in the Premiership for his starts is certainly a baptism of fire; lumps kicked off him at Ewood and no doubt similarly firm and ‘robust’ defending today.
The biggest decision that Arsene had to make this afternoon though was who to keep in goal. In some respects, I am surprised Almunia kept his place but perhaps the biggest surprise was that Lehmann has not even made the squad. There is no doubt that Arsene is loyal to players who perform for him and Almunia has done that, irrespective of whether you feel that it has been confidently or more by luck than judgement. The long and short of the situation is that he has been miserly in conceding goals, the two against Sunderland being out of character for the team this season as a whole and let us not forget, in Europe, we have yet to concede at all, something that the team should be congratulated on. I do not think Lehmann has helped himself with his recent derogatory comments; if he is going to decry the abilities of his rival, then to have prefaced those words with acknowledgement of how well he had done may have sat better in Arsene’s eyes. Lehmann has been left in no doubt as to what the situation is,
The player is disappointed but there is a lot of competition for places. He is an intelligent guy and knows what he has to do. Jens is a world class keeper but I had to make the choice for the continuity of the side.
Which I think is the right thing to do; had Almunia been dropped, I believe his confidence would have suffered greatly, knowing that irrespective of how well he played, he would never be able to claim the jersey for himself. Now he is in a situation whereby it is by his own ability that he survives. How Lehmann reacts will be taking up many column inches. No doubt about it, there will be a number of clubs alerted to his availability so we will be told; there may well be some more sniping and certainly, I would not be surprised if a there is a not to private smugness if Almunia plays badly. Therein is the crux for Almunia. One bad game and he will be out, even if we win. The pressure is now on the player to produce; who knows he may surprise everyone by building on that?
The rest of the team, I think, still pretty much picks itself. Having been out for a while, I would be surprised if Rosicky makes it into the starting eleven. Diaby has filled in for him. Likewise, I doubt if Gilberto will start for Flamini has performed well in his absence. Despite jet lag, I expect the Brazilian to be on the bench for no other reason than to provide cover at centre half, although I guess Alex Song may be used to cover there.
I suspect the team will be:
Almunia; Sagna, Toure, Gallas, Clichy; Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini, Diaby; Adebayor, Eduardo
with a bench of
Fabianski, Gilberto, Bendtner, Rosicky, Eboue
Bolton have a reputation for being our bogey side but their results in London do not necessarily back that up. Not since 1962 have they won at Arsenal; yet their last six visits to Arsenal have brought them three draws and three 1 – 2 defeats. I would not be averse to another 2 – 1 Arsenal win but it has been a decade since we last ‘spanked’ them – a 4-1 win in September 1997 – and another one of those is overdue.
Let’s hope that the curse of Manager of the Month doesn’t strike, eh?