Or maybe not? Maybe both clubs can stay up and fulfill their “minimum requirements.”
Who cares? These guys do, and they’ll be hoping their players do as well…
As late season matches go, short, of course, of being one for the title as we might have hoped, this is a big one. A trip to the Northeast is never easy (ask Manchester City, for example, who only got a point at Newcastle a week ago) but this one will be tougher than most. The personal enmity between the managers is one thing, but both clubs have something to play for. Can (thin) Arsene get his boys up for the fight or can (fat) Sam beat his rival on the pitch as well as in the war of words?
Sunderland has struggled all season, but, if Allardyce can keep them up, he will have done his job. We’ve beaten them twice (in our stadium) this season, once in the league and once in the FA Cup, both with identical 3-1 scorelines, but we should probably remember the match from the end of last year–also at the Emirates–where Sunderland were able to stifle us and stay up with the grittiest of nil-nils. Who can forget the tears of their players, traveling support and then-manager, Dick Advocaat?
It all serves to say that both teams should be well aware that neither will back down without a fight. A single point for Sunderland would drag them above Norwich and out of the relegation places on goal difference; the full points would make them huge favorites for survival over both the Canaries and Sunderland’s northeast rivals, Newcastle United, who are now level with them again having come from two goals down already this weekend at Liverpool. Arsenal need all three so that we can jump back ahead of Manchester City in the battle for third, while putting a little more distance between ourselves and the other Manchester team in the battle for Champions League places. A tiny reminder about the gap would also be good for those directly to the North of us even if their players and supporters probably rarely travel much on the underground. Planes, limos and luxury coaches are the preferred modes for the former; the latter just need to pick a flower growing from a crack in the sidewalk before walking round the corner to woo their cousins up there in Middlesex… Unfortunately, If Leicester City win the late Sunday match (vs Swansea City), even our mathematical hopes for a league title will be gone.
Somehow we have to put those sorts of disappointment to one side and continue to build upon the 2-nil win over West Bromwich Albion in midweek. In that one, we dominated in attack but had trouble finishing our moves. Two goals from Alexis Sanchez, both from outside the box–the second coming from a free kick–were enough and we had full control of the middle of the pitch. We also had a bit of trouble at the defensive end and–despite the clean sheets–Wenger will not be pleased that the Baggies got so many corners and almost converted a couple of them.
Allardyce will surely be playing for such moments but will also try to use the home crowd to gee up his players and urge referee Mike Dean to make the close calls in favor of his always feisty squad, led by Lee Cattermole. As we know all too well, Dean will not hesitate to insert himself into the match and is quicker than most in brandishing his cards. As such, if I were Wenger, I might be very wary of sending my more combative types into battle. For me, that means leaving Gabriel Paulista–who Dean wrongly sent off at Chelsea earlier this season–and Francis Coquelin on the bench. Here’s the team, I think he might put out for this one.
Subs: Ospina, Gabriel, Chambers, Coquelin, Campbell, Giroud, Walcott
That would mean just one change (Welbeck for Giroud) from Thursday night’s match vs WBA so I could be well off from what the manager is planning. What do others think?
The clean sheet was much needed in the home match but Wenger may believe we need the superior pace of Gabriel and Coquelin to combat Sunderland’s main threats from open play, former Spur Jermaine Defoe, Duncan Watmore and Fabio Borini, all of whom scored at Norwich and will not hesitate to go down lightly hoping for Dean’s whistle (or more). Is pace and a word in the ear about cards for Gabby and Le Coq (and the team as a whole) the way to go or better to use those who rely on positioning more than recovery tackling the superior approach?
Likewise, further forward, are there other combinations we should employ which might help us put a few past their goalkeeper, the former Gunner Vito Mannone? Danny Welbeck, who did some loan time at Sunderland, I think, might help our attack keep moving and help us avoid overly narrow passages of play although the large figure of Olivier Giroud could also give us a real target man if we find ourselves under pressure at the back. The big Frenchman, planted at the near post, can also be a boon at set-pieces. Some have suggested that Alex Iwobi might be tiring and that a break from the starting line-up, especially given the short time between matches, could be in order. With that in mind, perhaps Wenger has plans to rotate more deeply with his squad and guys like Theo Walcott or Joel Campbell could find a place among the starters.
Personally, I don’t believe he has the latitude. With fans sure to unveil yet more “Thanks for the Memories” banners, a very conservative approach to the squad seems the order of the day. Wenger would prefer, I have to think, his best and most seasoned players to share his burden but also may not to risk the charge that he rested players (like Iwobi) who were “in form.” Between a rock and a hard place, the manager now resides, I fear.
The rock that I hope we’ve hit, however, is the one at rock-bottom. The West Brom match was a bounce off that low spot and, perhaps with a win at Sunderland, we can hope to climb further upward.
Go on then…