Tonight’s match represents the end of the line for excuses; after the final whistle we will have played the same number of games as the pack of teams currently chasing for third and fourth place in the Premiership. Whilst Arsene may still believe, publicly at least, that first and second are still catchable, the reality is that the respective gaps are too much so a collective lowering of sights is in order. It puts into perspective how costly the defeats at Bolton and Fulham really were; six points from those to games would have left United twelve points ahead and Chelsea a mere four points before kick off tonight. Neither insurmountable at this stage of the season.
As it stands, we are locked into a battle for third with teams who we should be clear of. Indeed, there is every chance to open some daylight between Arsenal and most of them, the weekends fixtures giving that opportunity with Portsmouth visiting The Emirates and Bolton travelling to Villa Park. Indeed with six games in the next three weeks, this is a crucial time of the season, one where I feel that one or maybe two teams will pull away and create a four to six point gap going into the New Year. Looking at the fixtures, Arsenal and Liverpool ought to be those two teams. Whether they are or not remains to be seen.
The visit to the JJB is one the team ought to relish coming on the back of three good results in the past fortnight, particularly the win over Tottenham and Sunday’s draw at Stamford Bridge. An inordinately high amount of tosh has been written since Sunday with Jens Lehmann claiming Frank Lampard is a nasty piece of work and reports of a spat between Cole and Fabregas which van Persie got dragged into. The former does not surprise me neither does the latter. Nowhere in life is it written that you have to like opponents, particularly those who are former team-mates, in whose opinion you are a “featherweight”, the implication that you are not up to the task in hand not even thinly disguised. I would suggest that Cole seriously underestimated the strength of Fabregas’ character and his unwillingness to participate in the false bonhomie that the footballing authorities wish to create in the name of sportsmanship.
With only Kolo Toure returning to the squad since Sunday, I do not expect to see many changes to the starting XI. My own preference would be for Toure to come in for Senderos but I suspect that Djourou will lose out, simply because Emile Heskey returns and Senderos may be better suited to the physical challenge that Heskey provides although given the manner that Drogba brushed him away I am not sure that argument holds much water. In midfield, I suspect that Wenger will remember the Carling Cup Semi Final First Leg rather than the Premiership match this time last year and go with the same five as Sunday to try to match some of Wigan’s “fighting spirit”. There are two other changes that Wenger may possibly make. Firstly, he may rotate Hleb and Ljungberg although given that the Belorussian has been on the subs bench for two or three games in the last month, I would be surprised. One change I would like him to make would be to replace Flamini with Baptista. On Sunday, we had to dig in and fight to get a result against a more experienced team; tonight we need to be able overpower our opponents and outpassing them should be well within the remit of this team. That is not to denigrate Wigan’s abilities, more a reflection that this is a team we should beat. The trouble is that this campaign has shown we have no trouble with the bigger teams but completely the opposite with medium ability or small teams.
I would expect tonight’s team to be:
Lehmann; Eboue, Toure, Senderos, Clichy; Hleb, Gilberto, Baptista, Fabregas, van Persie; Adebayour
As far as the formation goes, I would expect Wenger to line them up as a 4-5-1 moving to a 4-4-2 as the game progresses. This allows the team to weather the early storm and then impose themselves. It is imperative that we do not concede the first goal; to do so will empower a Wigan side who have picked up form in recent weeks and also dent the confidence that was gained from Sundays’ draw. My prediction however is for an away win, by 2 – 1.