Happy Times. What’s not to like about the Cup?
Coming off a 4-nil midweek replay victory over Hull City (to secure a spot in this one) but also faced with new injuries and three matches in six days, manager Arsene Wenger confronts a major juggling act. How can he put together teams to try and defend the domestic cup, somehow get back into the 2nd leg of the Champions League tie in Barcelona (on Wednesday night) and make progress in the league title hunt next weekend (in a Saturday lunch-time kickoff) at Everton?
Probably by taking them one at time and keeping his eyes only on that ball which is in the air.
It’s a juggling act, for sure, but there could be cause for optimism.
On the one hand (or should I say, “foot”), Watford at home in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup seems a promising draw. By getting through in midweek at Hull, Arsenal accomplished several things. Misfiring forwards Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott each scored a pair of goals and Wenger was able to get full rests for other potential scorers like Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck.
On the other hand (foot), those fellows perhaps only kept their bench seats because of injuries suffered during the match. Per Mertesacker couldn’t carry on after a clash of heads and then Gabriel Paulista came off to protect against further damage to the hamstring he’s been nursing. With Laurent Koscielny already out, that meant that Nacho Monreal had to do time as a central defender and then Callum Chambers had to shift to center back from his starting position on the right. Mathieu Flamini filled in over there as Aaron Ramsey came in and took up Flamini’s spot in central midfield.
Musical chairs at center back is less of a worry a couple of goals to the good (with a couple more to come very late on), but then Ramsey went down with a thigh injury and now faces (the dreaded) four to six weeks out.
According to Wenger, Mertesacker’s head wound shouldn’t be a problem for this round and Gabriel might also be available, as could Koscielny. Ramsey’s thigh is the far bigger worry, but the emergence of Mohammed Elneny, who played the entire Hull match–after getting his first start in the league a week ago vs Spurs in the North London derby–plus the return of Francis Coquelin (who has now served his one match ban after his two yellows in the derby) should–maybe–be enough in the center of the park.
Coquelin’s return will be essential for this run of matches as will those of Danny Welbeck and Hector Bellerin, also rested in midweek. We have to cross our fingers that Gabriel and Koscielny will be able to participate, at least as the week moves on. To put it plainly, these latest injuries are stretching the squad nearly to the breaking point. We’re also short at goalkeeper where Petr Cech is only ten days into a recovery from a strained calf that is expected to require four weeks out, while the hoped-for return of central midfielders Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere have also been pushed back. Fun times.
Fortunately, we only play them one at a time and Wenger seems very focused upon that notion. Down 2-nil after the home leg vs Barca and eight points behind Leicester City in the league, the FA Cup probably represents our best shot at silverware this season. The team has the advantage of experience in the tournament having hoisted the cup in the past two seasons and the added incentive that winning it for a third time would be unprecedented in the modern era and the first time in 130 years that such a feat has been accomplished.
Moreover, getting back to Wembley might actually come as a real dose of comfort. Long-term issues at the club have seen supporter protests (mostly over ticket prices and packages) and Wenger-Out banners unfurled as seems the norm in recent years whenever results don’t meet expectations. We need this one–rather desperately–I fear.
The win at Hull was our first since Valentine’s day when we beat ten-man Leicester City at the final whistle. At the time it looked like that late victory might catapult us forward. League losses at Manchester United and at home vs Swansea–in addition to drawing with Hull and losing to Barca in the cups–mean that a home win seems essential ahead of the very difficult travels later in the week. Getting to Wembley would be a victory in itself, of course, but another step in the tournament would also mean another rescheduled Premier League match; this match puts off one against West Bromwich Albion while beating Watford would mean rescheduling a trip to Sunderland. It’s always better, in my opinion, to put off these fights against the teams nearer the bottom of the table to a point when there might be greater clarity in the relegation battle. Having those games-in-hand could also help build momentum for a late run at the league title, if those above us drop points.
But that’s all predicated upon getting past Watford, who have not been pushovers at all. Quique Sanchez-Flores newly promoted team has gotten to this stage of the tournament with 1-nil wins against Newcastle, Nottingham Forest and Leeds United. They’ve struggled for goals lately in the league (losing 1-nils vs Leicester and at Manchester United and drawing nil-nil at Bournemouth) but they were victorious on their most recent travels to London, winning a league match 2-1 at Crystal Palace, a team they could draw in the semi-finals if they were to beat us. Sitting a comfortable dozen points above the relegation places, they would relish toppling a big club and traveling to Wembley.
Indeed, taking this one as a given would be foolish. Watford play a strong, physical and pacey game anchored by former Spur Etienne Capoue at the base of midfield and forwards Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo up front. They’ll likely let us have plenty of the ball but they could also pounce on the counter and play for set pieces, usually delivered well by Ben Watson, if our rearguard is out of sorts.
How then does Wenger set out the team for this one?
I think he’ll go with the same team he used at Hull with changes only enforced due to injuries. Here’s my prediction.
Subs: Macey, Gabriel, Monreal, Flamini, Ozil, Alexis, Welbeck
Of course, as always, I’m not privy to Wenger’s thinking nor the more intimate details about the players’ fitness. Certainly I didn’t see the manager using both Walcott and Giroud from the get-go at Hull but it seemed to work, especially as the match wore on. If they go again it would show a very strong attacking intent. Ozil, Alexis and Welbeck on the bench would signal a desire to win the tie on Sunday and avoid a replay. Although it’s a bit harsh on youngsters like Chris Willock and Jeff Reine-Adelaide who took up bench spots in midweek (the Jeff got on when Ramsey went down), using the more senior players (or having them at the ready) makes sense given the travels (and lack of training opportunities) immediately ahead.
What do my fellow Kampers think? Who would you play in this one and why? Is this a must win (aren’t they all?…) because it’s our best chance at silverware or because we need it to build some spirit and momentum ahead of the tough trips to Barcelona and Everton? Maybe there are some who aren’t so enamored by the domestic cup and believe our focus should be on the bigger competitions.
In my view, the FA Cup has been a great thing for the club over the past two seasons so I believe we should give it our full attention and do what we can to make history. My hope is that we can give a performance and get a result to advance us–both into further travels to the national stadium and the semi-finals of the tournament we seek to win for a third straight season and towards other more far flung venues where we need our boys firing on all cylinders.
Go on then…