Two months to go until the end of the season and not a good news day yesterday. Thierry Henry out for the rest of the season so the forward line is shorn of its natural goalscorer. Emmanuel Adebayor did provide a bright spot in a dark way. His one match ban a vindication of sorts that the match officials were wrong to send him off. Of course in bluffers terms, it was couched in words such as “previous good behaviour” and “the ban already being served” or words to that effect. What it translates as is “Oh, sh*t, the Ref really cocked this one up” whilst Adebayor and Wenger are thinking, “Got away with that one then. Now for the Lino”
What this does present is for Arsene to plan ahead, knowing that Adebayor is missing for the Villa and Everton games whilst KT finishes his ban at Villa Park. In many respects, AW must be thanking his lucky stars that he will have, touch wood, three strikers to choose from at Anfield in two weeks time. That said, he has plenty of options to cope with the bans and injuries but the place to start is probably the fixture list.
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Looking at that list, there two genuinely tough fixtures – Liverpool and Chelsea – and four tricky ones – Newcastle, Everton, Bolton and Spurs. None of the rest of them are easy but they are eminently winnable. At a rough count, I would expect Arsenal to win seven or eight of the eleven and draw the rest in a best case scenario. However, there will be a defeat in there and to me, as long as it is not at home or at Anfield or Tottenham, it can be dealt with. Why those games? Well, psychologically, I think a season undefeated in the new Stadium is important for the players. They have endured some difficult games but come through them and to get to the end of the season undefeated should imbue more confidence. More importantly, the return that could be garnered in the above – about twenty seven points – secures third place and boosts them after a turbulent fortnight.
Given that Adebayor will be back at Anfield, I think for the next two games we will see Arsene go with the current set of forwards. It was interesting that he chose Walcott ahead of Aliadiere for the Reading game, does this mean JA has slipped further down the list in AW’s thoughts? For Villa and Everton, I do not think so. I believe he will revert to the partnership that did so well against Liverpool and Tottenham. But in doing so, Arsene needs to settle the rest of the team down, not rotate unless injury or form dictates. If you look at the fixtures, there is no reason for him to chop and change anymore for reasons of tiredness and perhaps that stability can bring forward the final push for third place. There are now only three occasions in the next two months when the team play twice a week; this week, Easter and whenever the Manchester City game is re-arranged for. No excuses should be brokered by the team about collective tiredness nor I hasten to add, will any be accepted on that front.
The current injury list, leaving aside Henry and RvP, is not growing shorter but the squad on Wednesday gave indications of who is likely to return soon and who will not. The list according to the official site is:
Hoyte, Eboue, Flamini, Rosicky, Senderos
I removed Djourou from the list as he was involved as an unused sub against PSV which I hope indicates he is fit and was not another of Arsene’s gambles! Of those, Physioroom believe that Hoyte, Flamini and Rosicky should return for Villa although Hoyte and Flamini noted as doubtful. However, the main thrust of it is that all bar Senderos, Henry and RvP will be back for the Everton game. Aside from the two forwards that means he should have a strong squad to choose from. So who will he pick? Arsene has been given a nice problem in that Denilson has performed admirably in Rosicky’s absence in midfield. Yet I think the young Brazilian is likely to drop to the bench for the remainder of the season, covering fatigue during matches in players such as Hleb, Rosicky and Fabregas. But that is ahead of myself in terms of the pitch, back to the defence for a starting point.
I do not believe there is any store in giving Almunia a run in the side; Lehmann is the Club’s Number One at the moment and whilst at fault partially for the PSV goal, he is still worth two or three points over the run-in. So onto the back four. With suspensions and injuries, there is not a lot of scope in the immediate matches for Arsene to use his squad. However, if Hoyte is not fit for Villa or Everton then I would opt for Djourou at Right Back, leaving Gallas and I suspect Gilberto for Villa, with Toure back for the Everton match. Fortunately both Left Backs are fit so we have Clichy there.
In midfield though Arsene has a complication. With Rosicky’s return who will make way. Immediately, I believe Freddie will drop out with Hleb and possibly Walcott squabbling over the Right of midfield. Perhaps in Adebayor’s absence, Hleb will be OK but once the Togolese forward returns, Hleb may be rotated regularly with the youngster. In the centre, Fabregas ispretty much untouchable such has been his domestic form. He has received criticism in some quarters for his temperament but on the whole he has no issues there, receiving plaudits for his maturity rather than brickbats for tantrums. It seems to me that next year he may find more concerted pressure on his place next season from Denilson and Diaby pressuring Gilberto.
Based on that and assuming no injuries, my teams for the Villa and Everton games would be:
Villa: Lehmann; Djourou, Gallas, Gilberto, Clichy; Hleb, Fabregas, Diaby, Rosicky; Baptista, Aliadiere
Everton: Lehmann; Hoyte, Toure, Gallas, Clichy; Hleb, Fabregas, Gilberto, Rosicky; Baptista, Aliadiere
It is a distinct possibility for the Everton game that Diaby may come in for Aliadiere and push Rosicky further forward in a more 4 – 5 – 1 formation but much depends on the outcome of the Villa game. If the team performs well, why change for the sake of it at Goodison? No doubt though, I will have changed my mind by Wednesday.
Once Eboue and Adebayor return for the Liverpool game, Arsene will I believe definitely settle with 4-4-2, Aliadiere making way for Adebayor and Eboue in for Hoyte. That would be the line-up I expect to take us through to the end of the season with van Persie being eased gently back into the fray as a Substitute, perhaps starting at home to Chelsea and at Portsmouth in place of either Baptista or Adebayor, depending on their form.