Arsenal travel to Istanbul for the contractual obligation fixture. Dortmund are going to finish first, Arsenal second. In beating Hoffenheim, Dortmund climbed five places and, I am sure, restored some confidence as well as pride; the needle on the Kloppometer® flick back to ‘Genius‘. If its movement were tracked, it would be flicking the v’s to the world.
Yet despite their woes, Dortmund are the dominant force in this Champions League group. Consider that for a moment whilst you deride their manager. A team that sank to the bottom of the Bundesliga is in control of Arsenal’s European destiny. They might implode, there’s no denying that possibility but Anderlecht will finish third no matter how well or badly they perform.
The Football Association could have spared us all of this. Their baby needs some fresh clothes but the wardrobe is a bit bare. It’s long been suggested that replays be done away, cutting the competitions intrusion into the season. It’s a sensible idea and avoids shifting the rounds to midweek games; we don’t need a glorified League Cup, we already have the real thing.
But for that to happen, there is a trade-off and one which keeps the romance of the cup alive, is to force the top flight clubs and those in the top half of the Championship away from home in the Third Round. The lowest ranked sides at the conclusion of those ties are then guaranteed a home game in the next round. Only at the last sixteen does it become a free draw. Contrived? Of course but better than the numbing familiarity the competition is fast becoming.
Maybe the defence of silverware will be more exciting in January on that matchday?
A beleaguered™ Arsène Wenger spoke to the media yesterday, a haven of tranquillity for him and an audience complicit in passing on the familiar refrain; judge me in May. The inevitable questions were barely audible thanks to the maniacal laughing of the trainspotters. The Arsenal support is their collective patsy but Wenger Knows. He knows. As the spittle flew through the air, I saw the flasks and notepads; Arsène won’t claim to have seen the Class J-1e Hudson 464 without photographic evidence again.
A depleted squad has travelled to Istanbul. Some we knew weren’t travelling – Alexis, Giroud – whilst others are being rested in the hope of preventing further injury – Welbeck – which is a polite way of saying most of the squad are knackered. There isn’t much respite for the likes of Mertesacker or Chambers, for example, as the absence of both Koscielny and Gibbs means the former pair will play. Hector Bellerin is on the left and Mathieu Debuchy’s target of returning for the home game against QPR in a fortnight has been beaten; he returns tonight and barring misfortune, on Saturday as well.
Arsène in fact, named his side with Szczesny returning with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey, Flamini, Podolski, Sanogo and Campbell making up the XI. Whilst there may be six goals in a season from them, there isn’t six in one game; little wonder that Wenger has accepted second place in the group. That means, barring the previously missed good fortune, a trip to one of Europe’s major clubs in the next round and an inevitable exit.
Or may be this is the season we buck the historical trend, take a risk or two and win the first leg at home before shutting up shop in the return. No, I’m not expecting it either, especially with the injury record this season. With players returning, the opportunity will emerge to rotate those who, like Alexis, have played the equivalent of half a season already.
Arsène has little option but to invest in the January window and against his better judgement, will most likely have to pay higher fees than he wants. It is insanity not to. Jack Wilshere is out until close to Easter although still on target with his recovery as opposed to any new injury or “setback” as the manager called it. Mikel Arteta is struggling this season to shake off his calf injuries and that question mark over the midfield requires an answer. Age is against the Spaniard and whilst he might be willing, there are limits to what he can achieve.
But form is the one aspect to be addressed. Arsenal are lurching from one extreme to the other. Going into the match at Stoke, they had the opportunity to extend their winning run to four straight games. The reality is that they will go into Saturday’s fixture against Newcastle with consecutive defeats; the world has turned sideways in a very short space of time.
Will victory tonight change that? In some respects, yes. Winning against expectations is always a boost but how many of tonight’s side will start on Saturday? Three, four? It’s hard to see half not changing and some of the impact will be lost, especially if a specific matchwinner emerges in Istanbul.
I don’t know. I have such low expectations for this evening that defeat would not hurt anywhere near as much as in other matches. Indifference is too strong a word but with qualification already assured, there’s a touch of the pre-season friendly about the match even though it’s nothing of the sort.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.
From The Vaults
Financially and for the fans, it was a success. On the pitch, the Wembley Experiment was a disaster with Arsenal only winning two of the Champions League ties played in the national stadium. The aura of the old arena was such that several visiting players noted they raised their game because they of the venue.
Defeat in the previous home game to Lens meant that Arsenal travelled to Greece for a meaningless match. They were out of the competition without the safety net of falling into the UEFA Cup. Injury and suspension ravaged the squad. The missing list showed the strength available to the manager normally: Dixon, Parlour, Adams, Bergkamp, Vieira, Petit, Winterburn, Keown, Overmars, Ljungberg
The line-up in the Olympic Stadium was:
Seaman; Grimandi, Upson, Bould, Grondin; Vivas, Mendez, Vernazza, Boa Morte; Wreh, Anelka
They duly won – and in the back of my mind I have it being the first home defeat suffered by Panathinaikos to an English team but don’t hold me to that – with Anelka restoring Arsenal’s lead with his first European goal for the club before Boa Morte rounded it off the 3 – 1 win.
Why choose this match? A night of low expectations in what was a traditionally hostile atmosphere, with a reserve side. Wenger can choose from a higher quality of player tonight but even a team of strangers can achieve something.