They tell me of a pie up in the sky…
Hosting Manchester City, given Arsenal’s run of dismal form–and placed on top of the poisoned atmosphere surrounding our club–seems a very tough assignment. Hope, while not much of a plan, might be all we have to rely upon.
It’s only been nine years since the crown prince of Abu Dhaby, Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan bin Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, began pouring his oil riches into Manchester City Football Club. As such, Blue Mooners sing a far different tune these days and happily travel to away games against other top English clubs. For Sunday’s match, they will surely be in good voice as we hope Gooners will be as well. Unfortunately, especially if the bounces don’t go our way, some of our own supporters might have some songs of their own (to go with the banners) demanding the exit of manager Arsene Wenger. Some might go as far as hoping for defeat. Tension reigns, and most will pray that Wenger and his players can turn things around. Our record against the big teams–and recently against some smaller ones too–doesn’t bode well. The stakes, in many ways, could not be higher.
Wenger, now in his 21st season at Arsenal, is under crushing levels of pressure, but Pep Guardiola, in his inaugural campaign, has seen his club fail to perform to the high levels his hiring might have inspired. A dozen points behind league leaders Chelsea and out of the Champions League after giving up a 2 goal first leg advantage to Monaco could not have been what Pep envisioned as his first English winter gives way to spring. Those facts, plus drawing at home in their most recent pair of league outings (vs Stoke and Liverpool) suggest that there’s work to do at the club. Personnel changes and further reaching into the prince’s deep pockets will be sure to come in the summer. In the meantime, there should be no lack of motivation for the team as a result at Arsenal would be a great way to signal their intention to keep us on the outside in the battle for top 4 positions and help City ensure another go at the Champions League. It would also set them up well for our rematch in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley in three weeks time.
With the exception of long term injuries to Ilkay Gundogan and Gabriel de Jesus, Guardiola should have all his players ready to go. In attack, that means choosing among the likes of Kun Aguero, David Silva, Kevin DeBruyne, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Mane. Midfield is anchored by Fernando, Fernandinho and Yaya Toure, while the fullback positions feature former Gunners Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna. Central defense might be Pep’s only real worry. John Stones–a player many Gooners wanted at our club–is still just 22 and prone to the odd mistake. Nicolas Otamendi hasn’t made a CB position his own, and, at times, has lost his spot to Aleksandar Kolorav, not the biggest defender, but one who possesses a deadly left foot at free kicks. In goal, Claudio Bravo has had a difficult first season in England but Willy Caballero has proven a fine shot stopper in his stead. Even if Pep is sure to bolster his squad over the summer, it’s already an intimidating group.
To counter it, Wenger will likely try to play his most talented available players. His hand is forced at goalkeeper where Petr Cech is not recovered from a calf injury suffered in our last match at West Bromwich Albion, meaning David Ospina will start. Beyond that, there could be some questions for the manager, but here is the starting 11 I’m predicting:
Substitutes: Martinez, Gabriel, Gibbs, Coquelin, Elneny, Walcott, Giroud
For those obsessed by formations, it might also be written as a 4-3-1-2 with the Ox shifting back into a midfield three and Welbeck moving forward to pair with the free roving Alexis up front. Mesut Ozil, hopefully recovered from a minor knock–and feelings expressed by his agent that too much of the wrath of Arsenal fans is focused upon him–must, in my opinion, engineer our attack from the #10 position.
Of course, what do I know? Wenger may have other plans, as might many a Gooner.
Certainly the pressure will be on the beleaguered manager to get it right. Results have been miserable and speculation about whether or not he’s already put pen to paper on a two-year contract extension have made his critics apoplectic. There’s no one to check his power at the club and results have been of the sort that would have most managers receiving the sack. Arsenal and Arsene are, well, different, for better and/or worse, all depending on your perspective. (For a longer read on that subject, please see the previous post.)
Perhaps the size and strength of the rival will inspire the team and the support to play (or sing) their hearts out for the manager. The importance of the match cannot be stressed enough. Arsenal need to win both their games in hand to find parity on points with 4th place Liverpool and trail ManCity and Tottenham by even larger margins, 7 and 9 points respectively, with only a single game in hand. And then there’s the rematch in the FA Cup at Wembley with the result here sure to set the stage. Ahead of a very busy league schedule–we host West Ham on Wednesday and then face consecutive Monday night matches at Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough–Arsenal must turn their form around in this match if they wish to retain any real hope to stop the rot and have a successful run-in. Even the rosiest scenario–a top 4 finish and winning the FA cup–might not be enough for the most virulent Wenger haters, but it would likely go a long way towards placating many Gooners and raise hopes for keeping our best players (and attracting new ones) over the summer.
Go on then…