this week- Champions League, Semi-Finals, Second Legs...
Arsenal vs Manchester United (0-1) at the Emirates
Chelsea vs Barcelona (0-0) at Stamford Bridge
We can see the likely result of tonight's game through a simple run-down of the likely Arsenal team.
GK: Manuel Almunia
has improved this season. Unlikely to drop a clanger. Yet performances like the one he produced at Old Trafford have been relatively rare; he is a keeper who seldom makes the saves that leave you wide-eyed... and he may well have to do that tonight if Arsenal are to be successful.
LB: Kieron Gibbs
The consensus is that Gibbs was, along with Almunia and possibly Toure, one of Arsenal's standout performers in the first leg. Indeed some have suggested he may soon be ready to genuinely challenge Clichy's place in the side. This will be no bad thing, as Clichy has had the look of a man who needs a bit of competition to wake him up. That said, the fact that Gibbs, even in a fine overall display, almost gifted United a goal with an underhit backpass points to his current inadequacy in a game of this magnitude. He is green and United will again look to exploit that. Another option is to play the more experienced, but right-footed, Eboue. Most fans do not trust Eboue. They are correct.
RB: Bacary Sagna
Sagna was the League's best right-back by a country mile in 2007/08, but has seemingly been afflicted by the dreaded Second Season Syndrome. While he has remained more solid defensively than Clichy, with less of a tendency towards catastrophe, he looks jaded and the deterioration of his ability to cross the ball has been ghastly. While I trust he will regain his impressive best form next season, it is difficult to see him producing the necessary dynamism tonight.
CB: Kolo Toure
What have you become, my sweetest friend? I love Kolo Toure, but shorn of an aerially commanding partner like Sol Campbell, he's not half the man he used to be. This is less likely to be shown up by United, who tend not to pump the ball high into the box, and sure enough Old Trafford was Kolo's best performance for some time. Unfortunately, I feel he will struggle to sustain this unless Wenger buys a suitable partner this Summer (Hangeland anyone?). But tonight Kolo will need to be heroic again. This at least is possible but don't forget the other....
.....CB: Mikael Silvestre
I found myself hoping that this potato-headed plank would not recover in time to play tonight. These hopes have apparently been confounded, but in truth Johan Djourou has an almost equal tendency towards ineptitude, so Arsenal fans, whatever happens, expect to need a change of underwear by the final whistle. Then again, this may be somewhat harsh on Silvestre, who may have had his best game in an Arsenal shirt last week. Anyone wanna bet on him topping that tonight? Any takers?
CM: Alex Song
It is true that the previously maligned Song has inverted perceptions of his ability with an impressive run of form. It is also true that a list of the teams the man impressed against, mostly, reads like a who's who of footballing mediocrity. He attempted manfully to stem the tide last week, but was overrun. This is no less likely to happen tonight, especially if we get the expected switch to 4-4-2, and United have an extra man in the middle of the park.
CM: Cesc Fabregas
It is a positive that Cesc is probably going to find himself back in his favoured position tonight, that of the midfield metronome. He has been great in big games before. But most often (think Champions League run 05/06, Old Trafford 06/07 for instance) this HAS happened in a 4-5-1, just one where somebody else (Hleb, Rosicky, Ljungberg) played in behind the striker/ as a third man in the centre. I would worry that against a team of United's quality, Cesc and Song will be outmanouevred by United's midfield three. This is, PROBABLY, a risk we need to take. It is unfortunate that Arshavin cannot play. The only other option to play behind the striker and as a third central midfielder is Abou Diaby but such is the ill will towards that man at the moment, most fans would not like to contemplate his inclusion. Then again, he did carry out this role to good effect in the 2-1 win against United earlier in the season..... speaking of which....
....LM: Samir Nasri
Nasri was the difference between the sides on that day, and from left midfield. He is yet another man who COULD play and has played off the frontman. But such is the dearth of options on the flanks one feels he has to start on the left tonight. One hopes that we see the busy, productive Nasri, not the anonymous Nasri who has also surfaced on occasion. It's also vital that he tracks back to help Gibbs, something Diaby failed miserably to do in the first leg.
RM: Theo Walcott
I think that if Theo Walcott was, say, French, he would have been treated more harshly. Never has a player garnered so much praise from doing so little. I understand that he's had his moments. But it's the fact that when he stands out (rarely), he is eulogised, but on those occasions when he's anonymous, everyone just ignores the guy!!! I want to believe Theo can do it tonight, and if he does I will hold up my hands. But he definitely needs to stand up to be counted. We simply cannot do with any passengers in games like this. Something Wenger may want to look at (and I know, who am I to suggest what he look at?) is playing Walcott through the centre. Imagine the boy with a chance to go at Vidic. It is unlikely he will line up anywhere but on the right, but if things get a little desperate why not have him swap positions with Van Persie, say. Another possibility is for Walcott and Nasri to swap flanks, allowing the speed-merchant a run at John O'Shea. These are some considerations for Wenger. Last week he failed to change things when they plainly needed changing. Sometimes he could do with being more innovative from the touchline.
CF: Robin Van Persie
For a long time, I was somewhat conflicted in my views on Van Persie. Here is a man, I thought, who can pull something out of the recesses of his anal cavity at any given moment- this is good.
Conversely, there was the feeling that Arsenal are at their most fluid collectively when Van Persie doesn't play. Latterly, his team play has improved, and this has probably been his most consistent season thanks to the lack of any long-term injury (though the niggles remain). While he does still infuriate me at times, with his wayward finishing and continued tendency to (sometimes) take too much out of the ball, the feeling remains among Arsenal fans that he is, in a sense, our only real chance tonight.... If he is on his game, chances are he will make a chance or score a goal. Come on Van.
CF: Emmanuel Adebayor
If this man is motivated (and if he has any kind of appreciation of the way he is perceived at the moment, that shoulld serve as plenty of motivation), he will be a threat. Looking at the season as a whole, it is hard to see him making the difference tonight. Too often, he has seemed disinterested, For a player like Adebayor, who is far from refined, this could be fatal. But there is the feeling that we could see at least a temporary return to his old ways. Even then, he is braindead, he will run offside, his touch will let him down.... but there will be a chance, at least. A chance. If he tries. If he gives his all....
Same goes for the team really.
To be honest, even that probably won't be enough. United's players are, for the most part, superior. But at least if Arsenal set about the game at a high tempo, with the right attitude, there is hope.
If only Wenger could give a speech like this one:
If the players let us down again, maybe they deserve something more like this:
ENJOY THE GAME!