Champions League Round of 16, First Leg
No Changes from Saturday?
There’s something about being a supporter of Arsenal which is strange. Maybe it’s the same with all football clubs and all teams in all sports, but I would doubt it. For Gooners, there’s the game, but there’s also what it means.
Nothing means more than the elimination rounds of the Champions League, the biggest trophy (literally and figuratively) in all of club football. Arsene Wenger, the longest serving manager of an English club by approximately a factor of 10, has gotten his teams to this stage of the competition every year since the second group stage was eliminated. It’s a feat which represents an amazing consistency and, as they say, if you’re not in it, you can’t win it. Still, as so many of Wenger’s detractors might argue, we haven’t won it, so what’s so great about always being in a competition we DON’T actually win?
The answer, of course, is money, but that’s a topic that (ideally) will not be on our minds as our supporters take up their (most-expensive-in-all-of-Europe) seats to watch their team play AS Monaco tomorrow night. Those same fans will know that just about anything can happen. Four years ago, in this same round and in memorable fashion, Arsenal came from a goal down to beat FC Barcelona on the strength of goals from Robin Van Persie and Andrey Arshavin. More recently, in the group stage last Autumn, Arsenal blew a three goal lead vs Anderlecht FC, and, with it, the chance to win our group. “Anything at Arsenal,” (or it’s converse, “No Such Thing as a Sure Thing…”) maybe ought to be our mantra…
Drawing that latter match meant coming 2nd in the group and a possibility of drawing the three tough Spanish clubs (Atletico and Real Madrid and Barca) or Bayern Munich (for the third straight season) or AS Monaco–clearly the most promising option for progressing further. For once, a bit of luck came our way.
Ah, Monaco…the tiny principality on the French Riviera which conjures up so many images. For people from the States like me (of a certain age) it will always be the home of actress Grace Kelly who became Princess and later died tragically in a car crash. Marry that to the image of James Bond playing Baccarat at the Monte Carlo casino and the romance of the tiny tax haven is extreme. It is this tax-exempt element which has allowed the football club to punch above its weight. It was a launching point for our manager some 25+ years ago and for one of our greatest players, Thierry Henry, not long after Wenger had departed. More recently, it has been a gathering place for some very talented (and expensive) footballers. This past Summer saw the exodus of Colombians Rademal Falcao and James Rodriguez, but Monaco still boasts pedigreed players like Joao Motinho, Ricardo Carvalho, Jeremy Toulalan, Martin Steklenburg and Dimitar Berbatov. These players are attracted by the relatively higher salaries (or amounts they–and their agents–can keep due to lower taxes) as are younger prospects like French U-21 sensation (and the defensive midfielder many wanted at Arsenal) Geoffrey Kongdogbia, Portuguese mid-fielder Bernado Silva and the exciting Belgian speedster Yannick Ferriera Carrasco.
With players like these, Monaco didn’t win their group with luck alone. And, even though manager Leonardo Jardim insists his team is not all about defending, surely they will set out to limit our offensive threat and play on the break. Why shouldn’t they, given that they came only a single goal shy of keeping a perfect record of 6 clean sheets during the group stage of this tournament and are unbeaten in their last 17 matches in all competitions having conceded only 3 goals? In their most recent match, despite playing with only 10 men for over half the match, they kept a clean sheet and prevailed over Cote d’Azur rival Nice, poaching the winning goal with pressing from the front.
Breaking down such a formidable opponent will not be easy even if Monaco may have to shift personnel due to injury and the suspension of Toulalan.
Arsenal, by contrast, in recent matches at least, have been scoring early and then defending those leads with somewhat mixed results. In our own league the clean sheets have dried up and a one goal lead at Spurs was not enough. Against teams closer to the bottom, Leicester City and Crystal Palace, scoring twice in the first half has been a recipe for success even if we haven’t appeared fully convincing defending those leads and seeing them halved as the matches wore on.
Perhaps the best blueprint for this match was the last time we played against a team from another league. Against Middlesbrough, leaders of the English second division, Arsenal played its most beguiling football of the season and two goals (scored in the space of just a couple of minutes) were enough to add punctuation to a pattern of dominance. Our reward is a big quarterfinal match-up at Manchester United in the FA Cup. Monaco tomorrow night represents a big step up in competition, but with the away goals rule in place (a clean sheet being the first priority for the home side) it may also suggest how Arsenal wants to approach our play in these cup ties. A platform of strong defence, aggressive play from our full backs and dominance in midfield (to carry into return legs) will be the priorities. As they say, you cannot win the tie in the first leg, but you sure can lose it…
Fitness news suggests all who played at Crystal Palace are available for this one and there are no new injuries in the squad, except that Jack Wilshere (an unused sub at the weekend) will be “short” for this match, even though “he did not have a setback.” Hmmm. Amongst the several languages Wenger speaks, “injury news” is the only one which does not have a translation dictionary. My guess is that Wenger will not change much, if at all, from the weekend. Here then is my best guess at the line-up.
(Subs: Szczesny, Gabriel, Gibbs, Flamini, Rosicky, Walcott, Akpom)
Keen observers (those still reading…) will note that this is an unchanged line-up from Saturday with the only change being Flamini in Wilshere’s bench seat. Boring. boring Arsene…
Of course, what (the f**k) do I know? I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Theo out there instead of Welbeck or Gibbs (who was very effective, especially in attack vs Boro) in at left back. Has Hector Bellerin been dropped or is he truly carrying a knock? His experience with continental referee styles might be helpful. There was some suggestion that Szczesny might come back in for Ospina, who seemed hurt in the Palace match before carrying on, but I cannot see that happening as long as the Colombian does enough to keep winning matches. We have matches coming thick and fast (after this we play Everton on Sunday then QPR next Wednesday), but exerting full dominance in this home leg, including, ideally a clean sheet plus a goal or two, might allow for more rotation in the future.
What do you guys think? Will Wenger go for the same line-up or is this a chance to ring in the changes?
Regardless, this is as fine a chance to get off on the correct foot in the elimination rounds as we’ve had in several seasons. The squad seems healthier, deeper and stronger even if the names of the clubs in the final 16 appear as daunting as ever.
Can we get past this round (for the first time in 5 seasons)? How far can we go in the tournament? So many questions and the answers start tomorrow night. Go on, then…