Premier League Preview: And Out Come The Wolves
Domestic reality returns today with the visit of Wolverhampton Wanderers to The Emirates. A win is a pre-requisite, the importance of which will be underlined following the lunchtime meeting of Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford. Three points could see the gap remain the same or be reduced, depending on the outcome of that encounter. I guess the ideal would be a draw as it means both teams drop points whilst the worst case scenario is a United win, games in which they are likely to drop points rapidly reducing.
The squad are well aware of the necessity to emerge victorious. Manuel Almunia re-iterated the point several times:
We have six games left now and we must record six victories. We’ll have to wait to see if Manchester United drop points as well but we still have a chance of winning it. We just have to win our six games and see what happens.
Having dropped points at St Andrews, it is vital Arsenal gets back on course immediately. With an inferior goal difference, Arsenal has to obtain a clear points advantage. Wolves need points as well but with West Ham in freefall, they can afford to drop several. Will Mick McCarthy do Arsene the same favour he did to Alex Ferguson and field a reserve side for this encounter? Highly unlikely.
The notion of fair competition went out of the window on that visit to Old Trafford, as well as being a baffling decision. United cruised to a victory that may not have necessarily been the case had Wolves been at full strength. The home side were not in the best of form at that time and a positive result for the strugglers would not have been out of the question. Yet McCarthy sacrificed the points, believing that his squad would be better served by resting ahead of a relegation encounter the following weekend.
McCarthy was within his rights to do so, the idea of the squad system is to obtain the maximum performance from the players over the course of the season. Yet it ill-served his purpose. It sent out the wrong message, irrespective of the Wolves manager’s intent. Undeniably defeatist and ultimately cynical, it surely went against the ethos of professional football, a self-fulfilling prophecy that no points would be gained. It cheated the Wolves fans who made the trip in the same way that Martin O’Neill did when he fielded a weakened side in last season’s UEFA Cup.
Complaining to the Premier League as West Ham are reported to have done over the side fielded by Fulham at Hull last week is futile. The EPL will not bow to such complaints for to do so would open virtually every game to question. Perhaps they should do so and require a medical certificate for those not in the matchday line-up although quite how a loss of form is judged is anyone’s guess.
Wolves though admitted their culpability, as did Fulham which muddies those waters further. Quite what punishment is offered is an altogether different matter. There are no points to deduct from those matches as the outcomes yielded none and had they done so, why punish someone for fielding a weakened side when the match has been won. As for finanicial penalties, well, football clubs waste so much money as it is, a couple of hundred thousand pounds trifles in comparison to the millions at stake by staying in the top flight. A price worth paying is likely to be the response.
Back to this afternoon. Wednesday night has taken its toll on the players. Fabregas and Gallas out for six weeks or so, effectively the remainder of the Premier League season. Arshavin is gone for three weeks. Minor knocks by comparison mean Clichy and Denilson are doubtful for tomorrow. It limits Arsene’s choices for rotation. Presumably Campbell and Traore will slot into the back four filling the gaps left by the two Frenchmen. Rosicky in to cover Nasri dropping into the centre to cover the captain whilst Walcott will no doubt drop in on the right.
Having performed admirably in his 30 minute runout against Barcelona, Walcott has had a media moment for Arsenal, repeating the adoration that followed his hat-trick in Croatia for England. Expectations are raised that his pace will offer Arsenal the greatest hope that the win which is going to be necessary on Tuesday can be delivered. A strong performance this afternoon will increase that pressure. It is up to Theo to deliver, something he is capable of doing. Like Samir Nasri, I am sure that all Walcott really wants to do is make that level of performance happen consistently.
Even with the injuries, it should not be considered a depleted side. A midfield of Song, Nasri and Diaby is not weak. Perhaps even Eboue in with Song dropping to the centre of defence if that is how Arsene wants to play in Barcelona, to allow Vermaelen and Song to develop an understanding ahead of the Champions League tie.
Up front, Vela and Eduardo are options as well, especially if Rosicky is protected ahead of Tuesday. Bendtner is in good form, working hard for the team and should have scored with his header with Barcelona only one goal ahead. Eduardo could come in to keep the Dane fresh – or as fresh as possible – but there is a danger in making too many changes, the team lacking the understanding that they have shown thus far.
At one point on Thursday, I half-expected Arsene to ask all males under the age of 25 who would be attending on Saturday to turn up with their boots at 1pm for a fitness test but it is not quite that bad yet.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.