Friday, February 25, 2011

WEAKNESS: if the mental don't get 'em...

... the physical will

Should Arsenal win the Carling Cup this weekend, the club's harshest critics will rain on their parade, dismiss the competition as an irrelevance, and deny that Arsenal have taken a meaningful step back towards the power and poise they exhibited seven years ago. I disagree. I think that Sunday is a huge day for the club, even if the League Cup in itself is the least important trophy they are fighting for. The first taste of genuine success could be the making of this team; defeat, on the other hand, could mean desolation in this campaign and many more.

Of course, this being Arsenal, injuries have taken hold at the very time the campaign is reaching its highest level of intensity. Fabregas is now, sadly, one of the many Arsenal players who can be called injury-prone. His absence, and that of Walcott, will be felt on Sunday, adding to the pressure on the shoulders of players who have, sometimes, buckled. Vermaelen's continued stint on the treatment table is far from ideal, but Arsenal have been living with that for most of the season. More worrying is the prospect of Van Persie missing out, if he cannot recover in time.

Birmingham are pretty far from formidable, but they will not feel as much pressure as Arsenal will on Sunday. Not much is expected of them. They have a dogged, defensive work ethic throughout the team, and the kind of physicality that can ruffle the feathers of those of a more artistic temperament. Up front, they have Zigic, a towering, immobile lump, the kind of player recent Arsenal defences have struggled to deal with. He opened the scoring at the Emirates this season, and back then, he was acclimatising to the English game. Now we can expect him to play a more substantial role and Arsenal will hope he is not to be a central figure in the final.

Djourou is the man who will be expected to quell whatever sporadic aerial threat Birmingham pose. He and Sczcesny, along with the ever-dependable Sagna, have been instrumental in making Arsenal look a little less brittle in recent months. That the Polish keeper was under threat at times from Stoke's grenades will not have escaped the attentions of Alex McLeish, however. As much as Arsenal will try to win the match on the floor, Birmingham will try to do it in the air. Still, the Gunners defence ought to be confident of producing an effective enough performance and providing a platform for the attackers to go and win the game. Gael Clichy has rediscovered some consistency, and Koscielny, assuming he is able to start, has improved immensely since finding a semi-regular partner in Djourou.

Can Arsenal produce when it matters, and without their talismanic captain? Much may be expected of Nasri, but although many believe that the position of central playmaker is his most natural, he is not yet a player who can shape a game, or indeed provide habitually incisive passes, like Fabregas does. An interesting subplot will be whether Nasri actually plays centrally at all; with Walcott's injury, the Frenchman may prove a more natural right-sided attacker than Bendtner, the other obvious option.

Tomas Rosicky could perhaps step into Fabregas's boots, although, after a promising start, his season has lapsed into inconsistency. Perhaps his goal against Leyton Orient will provide a spark. One man who has found one is Arshavin- the jeers of a few weeks ago no longer ring in the Russian's ears and the goal against Barcelona cemented his rehabilitation- and he is no stranger to shaping the outcome of big games.

Wenger could even, if he chooses, bring Denilson in alongside Song, and allow Wilshere the liberty to roam that his talent probably deserves. But would Birmingham be obvious opposition for the sideways passing and general conservatism of Denilson? Probably not.

After the unfortunate picking off of some of the physically brittle members of the Arsenal squad, those who still stand need to cast away the clouds of mental fragility that have hung over them in recent years. Wenger has constantly praised what he sees as a growing maturity: if Arsenal play in a mature manner, focussed and professional, without compromising the freedom that marks their game at its best, they should end the trophy drought on Sunday. If they fail to play to their abilities and crumble against a mediocre side, some serious, soul-searching questions will need to be asked. NO PRESSURE THEN!

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