Match day and a team whose name is a dream for anagram lovers. Ludogrets Razgrad are the first Bulgarian team Arsenal have faced in a competitive match. They are currently sitting second in the First League with one defeat to their name – away to leaders Levski Sofia. A fact which is included to let you know some research goes into these posts although you may struggle to believe that at times.
We’ll dive straight in with the team news. Arsène revealed yesterday that the squad is unchanged from Saturday’s 3 – 2 win over Swansea City whilst both Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey are “not far away” from returning to first team football. That could well be coded speak for “they’ll be fit for Tottenham”.
For once, Arsenal go into the back-to-back Champions League fixtures knowing that passage to the next round will most likely be secured with four points. Yet four points would be a disappointing return from these two games; they are eminently winnable and should be won.
Arsène faced the media yesterday and divination by press conference suggests Francis Coquelin will start tonight. I can’t recall the last time he was accompanied by a substitute on such an occasion. The astute among no doubt wonder how much notice I take of such things and the answer is I typically don’t.
A brief recollection of Gareth Southgate’s comment at his first England ‘presser’ – as we in the know call them – was that the player accompanying him – Theo Walcott on the day – had to be a ‘starter’.
If so, Granit Xhaka’s red card against Swansea at the weekend is more costly than just a suspension which ends after the trip to Sunderland. Missing two home games in his ban – I’d forgotten that the weekend’s match against Middlesbrough was at the Emirates yesterday – eases the ‘pain’ somewhat whilst Coquelin’s return from injury has proven timely.
It’s tempting to make a couple of changes with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lucas Perez the most likely to join Coquelin in the starting line-up. Arsène hinted as much yesterday when he said, “For now I am just looking at how players recover and how we can win the next game. The squad is not 11 – we have 25 players and everyone will contribute over the course of the season.”
That tonight’s game is at home offers the best opportunity of the immediate fixtures to rest a few players such as Alexis who could probably do with it. I know the Reading match offers the same opportunity and some will argue that this is more important.
As Wenger says, the squad isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for the whole season. These players are signed on the basis that they are good enough for the first team so including them will weaken us to an extent but not detrimentally. The contentious choice is probably Oxlade-Chamberlain for Walcott, given swapping Perez for Alexis.
It might be a step too far for Arsène as well. Taking the leading scorers out of the side is a potential pitfall but Ox is in his best form for some time and nurturing that into consistency is worth inclusion tonight, I think. He might come in on the left but I have an inkling Alex Iwobi isn’t featuring in Wenger’s rotation plans just yet.
It leaves the line-up as:
Which with my track record means an unchanged starting XI from Saturday. There is some thought Kieran Gibbs might replace Nacho with the latter yet to reach his peak form this season. I’m not inclined to agree to the change – although I’d agree that by his high standards, Nacho is not at his best – with a sub-par Monreal still better than Gibbs in my view.
All of which makes it seem that Arsenal just have to turn up to win. They don’t, Ludogrets will make them work for the win but ten games unbeaten, including six straight wins, breeds confidence. Plus the experience of Olympiacos and Zagreb last season is seared into the psyche, never to be forgotten by players or supporters.
With PSG at home to Basel, the destiny of the group will pretty much be decided with two home wins tonight, to the extent that both sides avoiding defeat in the return will seal progress. It’s a refreshing change in that sense but not grounds for the complacency which permeates through today’s post.
Finally, if you can’t contain your excitement for tonight’s game, take a trip back to 1977 on Dad’s Jukebox here.
Enjoy the game wherever you are watching it.