Queens Park Rangers – Arsenal
Stumbling Block or Springboard to Showdown at Old Trafford?
Spring must be in the air because the fixtures are coming thick and fast. Tomorrow night, in a midweek league fixture, Arsenal travel to West London and the intimate confines of Loftus Road to take on Queens Park Rangers.
Have our opponents been watching our struggles or have they been taking the small pockets of nice weather to get a jump on their golf games? That’s right, as Arsenal have strained to find a silver lining to the Champions League thrashing meted out by AS Monaco last Wednesday and a tepid or at least somewhat nervous 2 nil victory over Everton, QPR have done nothing. Instead, they will have to look back to their late loss 10 days ago at relegation rival Hull City to remember what playing football is all about.
They might also, like Arsenal, have one eye on their next match, a make-up game with Capital One Cup losers, er, runners up, Tottenham. With so many former Spurs in the QPR line-up, trying to stick it to travelers from North London might be more tempting if they’re dressed in white.
If Spurs are a cock on a ball, QPR could, right now at least, be seen as a bit of a headless fowl. Despite the big money that owner and Formula One backer, Tony Fernandes, has poured into the club, along with the excitement of bouncing back up to the Premier League from the Championship (through the playoffs, no less), QPR are once again in a big fight to avoid relegation. Only out of the bottom three by virtue of goal differential, they lost the coolest head in the courtroom, their manager, Harry Redknapp, citing the need for knee surgery(?!?). As many injuries as Arsenal have endured, including ones I suspect Arsene Wenger tells his players they’ve suddenly gotten, at least our manager has never used his own injuries as an excuse to jump ship.
Redknapp has been gone a month, and in that time QPR haven’t been miserable, losing by one goal margins vs Southampton and at Hull, but taking all the points at Sunderland. Still, they’ve yet to attract a full-time manager who might believe they will stay up. Caretaker Manager, Chris Ramsey, then, will likely have his work cut out for him to get his group up for these matches. The disappointment of the late loss at Hull may be offset by the 10 days of rest, but he still faces these matches missing several key players.
Amongst those who will not suit up, Leroy Fer is a dynamic midfielder if not quite the spark plug (or lightening rod) Joey Barton represents. Barton is serving the first of a 3 match ban for trying to “manage” a conference with the referee and several Hull players in that most recent match. Does that mean Ramsey will opt for former Spurs Abel Taarabt and Niko Krancjar, or will he believe there could be motivation for Karl Henry and Armand Traore, both of whom played at Arsenal? Up front he’ll surely employ Charlie Austin, the former bricklayer who has been more like a hod-carrier for the Hoops. Not the fastest or most physically imposing center forward, Austin, nonetheless, has a poacher’s instincts and reacts without hesitation to loose balls in the box, scoring 14 goals in 23 league appearances. With a return like that, it’s no surprise that he’s also recently made noise about being another key figure who might not be willing to stay aboard if the club sank back down to the Championship.
With the game in hand, my bet is that Ramsey is more focused on trying to keep both sets of North Londoners out and playing for every precious point he can grab. They are reasonably strong at the back. Former England #1 Rob Green and Rio Ferdinand bring decades of experience to the task and former Spur, Steven Caulker, is not a rookie himself. Arsenal must beware of the center backs (and Austin) at set pieces. Giving away needless corners or fouls in our half should be avoided.
How then will Arsenal set up for this challenge? On such short rest surely there must be changes. Wenger may also want to give players one final look before what could be a season-defining trip to Old Trafford. A win or even a draw in the FA Cup Quarterfinal (setting up a replay back in North London) would set a positive tone for the remainder of the run in. As we need a clear 3 goal win in Monaco to advance in the Champions league and sit 9 points off Chelsea in the league (they also have a game in hand), defending the FA Cup is surely our best shot at silverware. Calling out the starting line-up for this one then becomes extremely tricky.
At the back, off a clean sheet, I think the South American axis of Ospina and Gabriel continues, but perhaps the armband is returned to our Big F**king German, Per Mertesacker; after all, those achilles tendons of Laurent Koscielny must be sore. At the full back positions, it’s hard to drop Bellerin and Gibbs after the clean sheet, but I think it’s also tough on Nacho Monreal who, despite a few early slips on the pitch at Crystal Palace, hasn’t done enough wrong to lose his spot in the first 11. The big question is who comes in for Francis Coquelin after our only truly defensive midfielder suffered a broken nose in the most recent match. Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have played in these positions (and often subbed for one another). Might they get a run out side by side?
Aaron Ramsey has been passed fit and it should be remembered that he went straight into the starting 11 after his last sizable layoff, helping to keep Manchester City scoreless on their home pitch. Coquelin, however, could be fitted for a mask to protect his broken nose. Up front, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez have started the past 5 matches, while Olivier Giroud started the previous 4. In that one, vs Leicester City, Theo Walcott started and scored. Now however, he seems out of favour with the manager; and Danny Welbeck, rested vs Everton might also get a spot back. Many were impressed by the Ox’s play in the wide right position and would like to see him right back out there. Some will want even deeper rotation and calls for Chuba Akpom will surely be registered.
Options abound, but here is the group I predict.
(Subs: Szczesny, Chambers, Gibbs, Koscielny, Rosicky, Cazorla, Walcott)
It’s really anybody’s guess who will play. In truth, getting the points is what really matters, and another group effort, likely built on a disciplined defensive platform as we showed vs Everton, is what’s needed most.
Can we get it?
Who would you play and why?
Should Wenger prioritize the league matches or do we keep our best players well rested for the match at Old Trafford?