Busy Friday brings the good, the bad and the ugly (aka Kevin Nolan)
There’s so much happening today that it’ll be hard to cover it all at once, but if Nicklas Bendtner can keep trying to score a goal, then I can try to tackle this busy news day.
First, the Champions League quarter-final draw was announced. Arsenal play Villareal in the quarter-final with the second leg taking place at the Emirates. This means a reunion with old friends Robert Pires and Pascal Cygan. Arsenal will be tipped as favorites for the tie, but playing as favorites has been one of our lesser skills this season. Most Arsenal fans will be excited by the draw because it gives us geniune belief in reaching the semi-finals. However, the overall goal is to WIN the Champions League and to do that, we would likely have to defeat Manchester United. Few people will have the temerity to pick against United in their tie with Porto.
On the other side of the quarter-final bracket we will be treated to an all action affair between Bayern Munich and Barcelona, and rocked slowly to sleep by another installment of the Ambian-bowl between Liverpool and Chelsea. If Arsenal can find the quality to get into the final, we could be set-up for a mouthwatering rematch with Barcelona and Thierry Henry. (Probably a little too early to be dreaming about that.)
Since there’s plenty of time between now and the quarterfinals, and plenty of news to report, it doesn’t seem necessary to go into great detail about the match up with Villareal at the moment. I have watched a fair number of their games this season, including their most recent breathtaking match against Athletico Madrid. In that match their defending left much to be desired, especially against the counter-attack. (All the more reason why we will be hoping to see Theo Walcott on the pitch for the tie.) There’s no question that they have the attacking panache to create a threat, especially with Guiseppe Rossi, but their defensive record is poor. This season, they have failed to secure a single point against any of the top three sides in La Liga. That doesn’t mean that we will have our way with them like Phil Brown with the truth, but it gives us reason to be optimistic. Jens Lehmann was the hero the last time we faced Villareal, saving a Riquelme penalty late in the second leg to ensure our progression. Interestingly, we went on to face Barcelona in the final that year. Let’s hope that progression over Villareal leads to another Barcelona final this year.
Unfortunately, the Champions League draw wasn’t the only news Arsene Wenger had to discuss in his press conference today. Apparently, Theo Walcott “locked” his knee walking after practice today. Initially I thought this might mean that he locked it in some protective case to prevent Kevin Nolan from getting at it tomorrow. Unfortunately, that’s not what it means. It means another stint on the injury list for young Theo and his stop-start Arsenal career. At this point, Theo should probably give up practicing, because it seems increasingly hazardous to his health.
“Why, oh why, do I keep practicing?”
When I first heard the news I assumed the worst. But after watching Wenger’s press conference a second time, he didn’t seem as concerned as you might expect. I have seen him report worrying injuries before and his countenance is usually much darker. Additionally, he said that Theo’s injury “COULD” keep him out of the England setup this week. Unless that was a careless misstatement, it doesn’t sound too apocalyptic. For some reason, “locked his knee” sounds like a “hyper-extension” to me. If there is no ligament damage, that shouldn’t be a long-term injury. Unfortunately, the offical site sounded far more ominous in their Newcastle preview saying, “Wenger was unsure of the extent of the problem but if, as expected, it is a cartilage issue then the England international could be out until May.” Why are cartilage issues “expected.” Taxes are expected. Chelsea playing Liverpool in the Champions league is expected. Phil Brown lying and fixing his hair on camera is expected. Cartilage issues should never be expected. Fingers crossed for the scan results.
The press conference was otherwise unremarkable. Wenger did seem to become annoyed over the spit-gate questions but that’s to be expected. He also had a funny little repartee with a reporter over the issue of appropriate fashion. Otherwise, he was full of his usual generalities about attitude, spirit in the team, etc. etc.
He was emphatic that Arsenal should not be considered favorites in their Champions League tie. I thought his logic was a coy way of attacking the media. About suggestions that Arsenal should be favorites he said, “if I show you what has been said in the newspapers over the last six months you cannot put us as a favourite.” Fair play to Arsene. If the media are going to annihilate the team on a daily basis, then how can they turn around a label us as favorites in the Champions League quarter-finals? On the other hand, Wenger was quick to point out what the team have achieved over the last decade as one of only five teams to qualify for the tournament every year. Perhaps we have all been a little spoiled with the promise of Champions League play each season. Now the challenge is to take home the coveted trophy. Wenger was criticized in the past for failing to match his domestic success in Europe. There’s no denying that Arsenal are improving in that department, even as our domestic campaigns have increasingly disappointed.
Tomorrow is a very important match away to Newcastle. It is essential that we go into the international break on a high note by strengthening our hold on fourth place. With Aston Villa facing a torrid Liverpool on Sunday, three points on Saturday could see us open up a little gap. Newcastle will be bolstered in attack by the recent return of Martins and Owen. Since their speed can cause problems, I expect to see our first choice back line of Sagna, Toure, Gallas and Clichy. Clichy’s recovery pace could be very important to help the center backs if Martins gets in behind them. Encouragingly, Almunia is passed fit for tomorrow’s match.
Midfield suffers the loss of Theo Walcott just as his return had started to pay real dividends. No matter much better Eboue has been playing, he cannot create havoc for opposing defenses the way Theo does. Even when Walcott isn’t playing his best, you can see defenders are completely obsessed with his pace. As I’ve said before, Walcott is the kind of player that forces teams to change their game plan. Walcott’s absence puts all the pressure back on Arshavin and Nasri to create opportunities for the front men.
Just once, I’d love to see Wenger experiment with a really aggressive midfield. Wouldn’t it be fun to see a 4-4-2 formation with Nasri, Diaby, Arshavin and Eboue across the midfield? It would certainly lead to more chances for RVP and Bendtner than the likely midfield pairing of Song and Denilson. Speaking of RVP and Bendtner, I’m assuming they both start tomorrow despite Eduardo’s availability. Croatia has already recalled Eduardo for international duty which might encourage Wenger to get him just a little more rest from his latest injury. I’m actually hoping he’s not needed tomorrow.
Kevin Nolan returns from suspension tomorrow and immediately comes back into the Newcastle lineup. After his horrific tackle on Anichebe, perhaps he will be treading lightly around the field. He will undoubtedly have seen the replays of his abominable challenge and hopefully it will cause him to be just a little tentative in his tackling on Saturday. We certainly can’t afford any more injuries at this point in the season and if Nolan were to injure on of our players, it would only lend further ammunition to Wenger’s argument that the suspensions for bad tackles are far too brief. Based on his assault on Anichebe, Nolan shouldn’t be playing again this season.
Newcastle are struggling to avoid relegation and their defending this season has been nothing short of laughable. They have conceded nearly as many goals as Blackburn this season and more than Middlesbrough and Portsmouth. We beat them 3-0 at the Emirates earlier in the season and they still missing some important players from their squad. Tomorrow’s match is once again down to attitude. If we can pounce on Newcastle early the match will be much easier, and the home supporters are likely to turn on their team as they have done all season long. Wenger, does not expect to see Newcastle relegated, but as he pointed out, “the interesting thing about the game tomorrow is that both teams are interested in three points and not one.” Newcastle may not share his sentiment, but if it’s true that they come out to win the match, rather than “parking the bus” in front of goal, then it could be a very open, and ultimately very satisfying game.
One final note about the team. We have all been expecting to see Emmanuel Adebayor return from injury soon. A few weeks ago, we thought he might feature against Roma. Recently we were lead to believe that he was set to return for Manchester City. Now the news is starting to sound bleak. In their match preview article today, the official site said, “Cesc Fabregas (knee) may be missing his last game before a return but Emmanuel Adebayor (hamstring) and Tomas Rosicky (hamstring tendon) are not as close.” As good as that sounds regarding Fabregas, it’s equally worrying for Adebayor. Anytime your convalescence from injury is lumped in with Rosicky, you know it’s not going well. No matter what your opion of Adebayor, you must admit that he is a very talented player who adds another dimension to Arsenal’s attack. I think Van Persie looks better playing along side Ade, and he brings more pace and better finishing than Bendtner. We have all been somewhat prematurely celebrating the triumphant return of our top players from injury. Let’s hope we aren’t painfully disappointed.