Everton / Olympiacos / Manchester watching Channel 5
With the visit of Everton we head into the last of a run of five very winnable ties as highlighted in the last editorial. West Brom were dispatched with the return of a routine win, Norwich City were beaten from behind before the Gunners ran out of steam at the Emirates to draw 1-1 with Fulham. The affects of a fine win over Dortmund taking their toll. But Arsenal bounced back to record a third straight away win, thrashing Wigan 4-0 in a fixture that has yielded just one point from our past two visits. And it is this fixture in comparison to the past couple seasons that says a lot about the differences in this season's team, no two goal leads squandered, no last minute own goals. There's an ability to turn losing positions into winning ones, away from home too. That cannot often be said enough in recent seasons where points lost from winning positions far outweighed those gained from losing ones.
It just comes down to application, togetherness and an intelligence to close out matches. In the Carling Cup a spirited performance from a youthful Arsenal XI outplayed and outfought a Manchester City side whose team contained the likes of Nasri, Dzeko, Johnson and Augero. It was an occasion that highlighted a stark difference in depth but also showed the value of a team ethic, you could see just how much those players wanted to impress and make up for the difference in class perhaps with a 10 man mentality. It is not difficult to get behind the team and revel in their hunger and application, there are no passengers in this group. You just wonder what would have been possible with this group plus Cesc Fabregas.
A 2-1 win over Borussia Dortmund in the penultimate ChampIons League group stage match meant that Arsenal were the first English side to qualify for the last 16, with 11 points gained from 5 matches. Although Arsenal's youth had fought so hard for a second Carling Cup outing only to be ousted at the death, they would get another go in Greece away to Champions League regulars Olympiacos. The team really never got going, the Greeks pressed the back five who were more than a touch sloppy in possession, that added to two quite shocking goalkeeping errors contributed towards a defeat. Arsenal blog East Lower noted on the Arsecast that the dead rubber element for Arsenal as opposed to the must win at all cost need of the hosts played a part, you would have to say that the performance against Manchester City and Olympiacos were worlds apart and perhaps mainly for those reasons alone.
There are though no easy away games in Europe and this experience can be tidally filed under 'learning experience' having really not cost the club anything, rather it has allowed Arsenal a nice break for the visit of Everton. One decision that did count against Arsenal was the selection of Andre Santos, his injury leaves Arsenal extremely exposed in the lack of full backs. Sagna, Jenkinson, Gibbs and Santos are all now on the sidelines. I just wonder whether a more prudent choice would have been to select Ignasi Miquel who I thought did rather well in the Carling Cup. He did get turned rather easily on a couple of occasions but it was his cross that set up Benayoun via a tidy Chamakh lay off, I thought Chamakh had his best game for the club in quite a while with some nice set up play including one pass that set Arshavin through.
A night later saw both Manchester clubs head out of the Champions League. How much of a blow mentally will that prove? At the start of the season most pundits would have put the Manchester clubs at one and two given that United were the current Champions, had been there before and were boosted with an addition of talented youth, City meanwhile had the momentum from an FA Cup victory and a host of top draw signings. An 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford and City's unbeaten start have only gone to support that prediction but are we now beginning to see some chinks? United have struggled to score more than once in recent league ties, drew at home to Newcastle. Man City were fortunate to take a draw at Liverpool and lucky to win at Arsenal. I suspect it's simply a case of it being a touch too easy for Manchester City of late, a touch of complacency sneaking in but Mancini clearly has the squad. Whilst City's exit was understandable in perhaps the competition's toughest group United's exit in the easiest group in Champions League history was perhaps a sign of impending problems, the loss Hernandez and Vidic could prove their undoing. It will be a case of 'hanging in there' for United at the moment, you'd bet them to to be in good shape in the turn of the year as always seems to be the case but they are a team to be shot by a London trio of Arsenal, Spurs and even now a recovering Chelsea.
Andre Santos is the only first choice player unavailable from the Wigan match which leaves Arsene Wenger without four full backs, forcing him to play with four centre halves. The manager confirmed in his press conference that Vermaelen will move across to left back with Koscielny returning to a centre back position having recently shared the right back makeshift role with Johan Djourou in recent weeks. The latter will require a much improved performance to stop Everton's Leighton Baines making an impact. Everton are reasonably placed despite a poor points haul but they always seem to raise their game in matches against Arsenal, indeed they have taken the lead in each of their last 3 visits despite ending up with just one point. Four goals from four goalscorer's at Wigan, including one from former Evertonian Mikel Arteta, has lessened the reliance on Robin Van Persie and more of the same could be required to see off Everton today. Vermaelen has two in two, this could the kind of game where his leadership makes a difference in both boxes.