Matchday arrives and being the final kick-off of the day, Arsenal may well be in fifth place knowing that a five-goal margin of victory will take them to the top of the table. That underlines the missed opportunity last weekend; we might still have been top with those extra three points. I started to write that another slip-up this afternoon is unthinkable but it isn’t, is it? Arsenal are as capable of winning by the five goals to go top as they are of taking the lead and ending with defeat. You’re never quite sure which XI will turn up at the moment.
Per Mertesacker thinks the title will be decided over the next month, certainly for Arsenal. It’s hard not to disagree with the games either side of Christmas Day being decisive. Not losing to City is important but the trip to St Mary’s looks the toughest of the lot, with due respect to Bournemouth and Newcastle. The latter two are six in the bag with four needed for the others to make a genuine statement of intent. I’ve already assumed that Sunderland and Villa will donate their points by then.
Football isn’t that simple though, it never has been.
Winning this afternoon isn’t going to be simple or straightforward although a record of one defeat in the last dozen or so in this fixture suggests otherwise, even if seven of the last fourteen have been drawn. Alex Neill has already warned that his side aren’t going to try to pass Arsenal off the pitch: “On occasions, we have to be more resolute – and not so pleasing on the eye.”
Last weekend saw Arsenal switch off and Albion defend well enough to hold onto their lead. Expect more of the same if Arsenal are as sloppy in the defensive third. The headlines scream that the next month will decide if Arsène dips into the transfer market with focus on the defensive midfield role. Wenger is already planning on rotating Flamini and Chambers until Coquelin (or Arteta) returns. He has, he said, “enough quality and players, if I did not manage to add to the squad in January, to deal with it.”
Before Coquelin returns Arsenal host (of the current top five) City and United whilst visiting Tottenham and Leicester as well facing Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool. To win the Premier League with Flamini and Chambers the defensive midfielder in the XI during that period would as much of a staggering achievement as it would be a damning indictment of other clubs.
Even so, let’s talk of winning this afternoon because there is a long way to go through to the end of the season. Mertesacker thinks that the squad is mentally strong enough to recover quickly from last weekend’s setback:
There are always periods when you have to respond very quickly to disappointments if you want to keep up with the best teams.
We’ve had enough practice at it to be able to get back to winning ways in the Premier League. Tuesday will have helped immensely, not just in the form shown by Alexis and Mesut Özil but in the general performance. Yes, it was just like a practice match for the most part as Dinamo weren’t intense opposition but you can only beat those in front of you and the victory will have restored confidence, taken a little edge out of this afternoon.
The question is whether Alexis will start today. Even though he’s in need of a rest – a point Wenger acknowledges – I suspect he will take the view that Sanchez can be given a couple of days off this week with no midweek game. He has options from the bench if Arsenal can establish a dominant enough position during the game and it will be a surprise if Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain don’t feature for twenty to thirty minutes. Wenger’s complimentary words about Joel Campbell, as much for the player’s confidence as PR, lend themselves to him starting although the Costa Rican knows that Ramsey’s return means his time in the starting line-up is limited.
The coming fixtures offer the chance, on paper at least, for returning players to be eased back into action as opposed to previous years when they would have been rushed back. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality of the squad is particularly better, more that the timing of their coming back to fitness is fortuitous.
For this afternoon, it leaves the starting XI as:
Cech; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Flamini, Cazorla; Campbell, Özil, Sanchez; Giroud
Three points gentlemen, please. As I mentioned at the start, we might be fifth at kick-off if Tottenham beat Chelsea. I’m not sure which is the best result, a home or away win that fixture. A draw it is, complacent that Spurs will fade as they always do at the ‘business end’ of the season whilst enjoying anything which ratchets up the pressure on the Russian empire in what’s been a miserable season for them so far. That joy would be short-lived if Arsenal don’t win so…
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.