This is it. As far as UEFA is concerned, the diners have left the building and the staff are now feeding off the scraps. The last eight of the Europa League and CSKA Moscow are back in town.
It’s a game we must win. Despite the win in Milan, our away form is horrendous so we need to get the job done. It won’t be easy; CSKA’s only defeat in Europe on their travels was at Old Trafford and they have played something like seven or eight away matches this season. They won 3 – 2 in Lyon to spoil the party of the host city for this year’s final.
Taking them lightly isn’t an option. Not that any quarter-final or semi-final should be taken lightly. Look how we were pushed by Wigan and Reading in the FA Cup. It’s never good for us to go into a game overwhelming favourites; it’s the Arsenal way to contrive a difficult match out of that situation.
Those who were rested at the weekend will get their chances again. Laurent Koscielny will bring his yoga skills to the fore this evening in the hope that he and Shkodran Mustafi are able to form a solid central defensive pairing, probably for the first time this season.
In midfield, Granit Xhaka will probably partner Aaron Ramsey with Henrikh Mkhitaryan returning to the left.
Then the questions start. Is Jack Wilshere the right solution in the Number 10 role? How bad is Danny Welbeck’s back-knack? Can Alexandre Lacazette last more than an hour without twanging a hamstring having missed six weeks? The latter is the very real risk we run.
We were impotent for the first hour against Stoke City, lacking penetration, lacking everything. Even by the low bar we’ve set for this season, we were terrible.
First Game Back Rubbishness
Xhaka’s range of passing is one of the causes, compounded by Stoke’s pressing game and our usual ‘first game back’ rubbishness. Even the good Arsenal sides were crap in the first game back after the international break so Sunday wasn’t unexpected.
Now, we go through the gears and find a proper performance.
The genuine concern is with the forward line. I don’t expect to see Welbeck and Lacazette in the starting line-up. We don’t have forward options from the bench if that is the case. With that in mind, Jack will start in the Number 10 role, but is it the right thing to do?
Mesut Özil is the better option and if Wenger is looking for a wide-right option, is Ainsley Maitland-Niles or Mo Elneny alongside Xhaka the solution, with Ramsey as the Frenchman’s favoured false winger?
I doubt it will happen unless there is an issue with Wilshere’s knee, which Bould ‘happily’ suggested there is. The conveninence of that injury is the only reason to be happy: it solves a problem.
The other big question is the goalkeeper. Wenger mentioned Cech’s injury at the weekend, observing that it might keep him out of the team today. By right’s, he wouldn’t be in it; that’s Dave’s shirt although there is nothing to say it is his by right.
Is it a hint of changing preferences from the manager with Ospina taking over in the Premier League? Is that really why Dave turned up Sunday? Or was the ‘Big A’ just chatting sh.. with the media? You can’t rule out either scenario.
I’d expect tonight’s line-up to be:
Ospina; Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Ramsey, Xhaka; Özil, Wilshere, Mkhitaryan; Welbeck
Subs on the hour-mark, Elneny and Lacazette; Eddie in the 81st minute as we desperately seek the 1 – 0 win.
Farewell to Ray Wilkins
Finally, a fond farewell to Ray Wilkins, forever associated with Admiral England kits and being Chelsea captain when they were crap. Oh, and a rare success when played in Italy at AC Milan.
An early nickname oddly stuck. Brian Moore frequently referred to the then-Chelsea midfielder as ‘Butch Wilkins’ on the Big Match. I can’t think of another footballer treated the same way beyond Brian ‘Pop’ Robson of West Ham and Newcastle – among many others.
Ron Atkinson called him ‘ the Crab’ for always passing sideways while Peter Brackley joked in Football Italia that Wilkins was like the Naples stopping service; it didn’t run on at a weekend either.
Wilkins was immensely popular, and much-admired by football as a whole. For supporters, a player you wanted in your side. And urbane, a rare success story of English footballers moving to Serie A. The contrast between his success and the apocryphal tale of Ian Rush’s failure couldn’t be starker.
Peak Ray was 1977, as a relative newcomer to the England scene he would grace memorably for many years.
England’s tour of South America ended with three drawn games in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The Three Lions laboured in the Montevideo sunshine and a recalcitrant ballboy bore the brunt of Wilkins frustration. The pitchside microphones caught clearly the “Give me the ball, you little w*nker”, or some similar profanity, for less than the hasty conduct of his duties Ray expected.
A rare occasion, a match broadcast live on British television – a Sunday, I seem to recall – and the following day in the school playground, when any stray ball needed retrieving…well you know how the younger denizens of that jungle were greeted.
Ray Wilkins: keeping it real with a gentlemanly touch.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.