Two vulnerable defenses collide in London derby semi-final
There has been a lot of talk about the importance of this match during the build-up. Both sets of players are declaring this to be a crucial game. I have my doubts. Considering that both Chelsea and Arsenal have just qualified for the Champions League semi-finals, that both teams still have something to play for in the Premier League, and the fixture congestion that is inevitable at this time of the season, you could argue that this match is expendable.
I realize that the FA Cup is a real chance for silverware, but this trophy might be just a little tarnished. In the modern game, the FA Cup still carries weight, but it’s not what it once was. It doesn’t get you into the Champions League next season. It’s not as important as winning the Premier League, or indeed, qualifying for the Champions League. And it doesn’t hold a candle to the coveted Champions League title. It’s really a second tier trophy at this point. If you were close friends with Arsene Wenger, I’m certain he would concede this game for a chance to guarantee fourth place in the league or a spot in the Champions League final.
I realize that we can accomplish all our goals without having to sacrifice the FA Cup, but players and managers have priorities about matches, even when the don’t speak of it publicly. I’m not suggesting that we will be playing with any less enthusiasm or determination tomorrow, but players are human beings (except for Cashley Cole) and it’s difficult to give the same emotion to every game. We’ve just come off a wonderful Champion’s League success and we still have a massive test at Anfield waiting for us on Tuesday. That’s a lot of big match energy to expend and replenish. It’s going to be especially difficult for Chelsea’s players after the thrilling ride they went on during Tuesday night’s game with Liverpool.
If Chelsea’s 4-4 Champions League match on Tuesday seemed frenetic, tomorrow’s match could produce even more fireworks. Both Arsenal and Chelsea come into the match on great runs, but with serious question marks in defense. Add to the defensive woes, the fact that they hate us almost as much as we hate them and you have all the makings for an epic FA Cup semi-final.
The plot lines almost write themselves for this match. Chelsea’s defense has shipped seven goals in two matches with help from an inept Petr Cech. Arsenal’s defense has fared better, but it’s back to the school-girls training ground to find tomorrow’s defensive pairings. With one first choice defender available for Arsenal, and the rest to be determined some time before kickoff, it’s any one’s guess what we can expect at the back. Under the circumstances, both sets of attacking players should be relishing the opportunity to test the opposing defense.
I expect Arsene Wenger to let it ride on this match. I think he realizes that there are some very tense matches ahead of his young team and this is a chance to play with unbridled vigor rather than trying to muster a cagey, tactical display. The fact is that he doesn’t have a reliable defense available. There’s no guarantee that we can stop Chelsea from scoring even with a conservative approach. So why not just play an attack minded lineup, let them push forward and see what happens? It makes sense. We have a plethora of attacking options and we are in great goal-scoring form. If we can score three or four goals then we can win the game without a sterling defensive display. It’s a big thing to ask, but it may be the most reasonable approach.
Kieran Gibbs is due for a late fitness test and it will have a massive impact on our lineup. Wenger puts Gibbs chance of playing at 80%. Those are good odds, but let’s examine what would happen if the 20% possibility comes to pass. First, Song would drop back to center-half. That takes him out of midfield where he has been in great form and very influential. That means Diaby most-likely comes into central midfield, but there’s a small chance that Denilson replaces Song. That would be a downgrade in my opinion. Mikael Silvestre would have to move to left-back and Eboue would once again deputise at left-back. Kolo Toure would be our one first-choice player in defense, and the only defender not playing out of position. Three second (or third)-choice defenders, and all three playing out of position. Very very scary. Remember, our worst performance of the season came at home against Manchester City when we started, Hoyte, Djourou, Silvestre and Clichy at the back. I think we’d kill for that back four at the moment. At least Fabianski looked formidable on Wednesday.
Our biggest concern tomorrow is the monster known as Didier Drogba. He has tormented Arsenal since his arrival on the Premier League scene. It doesn’t make things any better knowing that he could have been an Arsenal player for the paltry fee of 100,000 quid. Not only does he have a history of scoring against us, but his goals have been damaging. I still lay awake thinking about his two goals in ten second-half minutes late last season to help put a nail in our title-challenge coffin. Another haul tomorrow would really be unbearable. Chelsea will try the long ball to Drogba over the top and he promises to be problem on set pieces, but we simply must find a way to keep him under control. Sadly, I don’t have any suggestions. Neither Silvestre or Toure are particlarly big or physical so whomever plays holding midfield will have to keep a watchful on Drogba as well.
The rosiest view of tomorrow’s game appears when discussing our attacking options. We have Ade, RVP, Eduardo, Arshavin, Cesc, Nasri and Theo all ready to play. It’s anyone’s guess which five of those talented six get to start the match. I have said before that I hope Wenger chooses to play Arshavin in a central role behind the striker. That’s where Hleb caused so many problems last season and seemed to bring the best out of Cesc. It’s worth noting that Andrei is also much more of a goal scoring threat than Hleb. That formation would leave Van Persie and Eduardo out of the lineup but I think it would yield results.
With John Terry back for Chelsea it’s unlikely that the ball over the top will be a big weapon for us tomorrow, so we’ll have to play our way through the defense. Arshavin has looked incredibly dangerous when he has drifted into a central role and he can certainly find the pass to unlock any back four. His vision and awareness are two of his best attributes. With Nasri and Theo on the wings we can always stretch Chelsea’s defense, and whenever we have Cesc there will always be an abundance of creativity. The most interesting matchup of the day will be Theo vs. Cashley. Cole is such an incredible bastard and I really hope he gets such a whipping from Theo that he gets sent off for arguing or a hand-ball or for being a complete waste humanity. Any red card will do, as long as it’s not for some shocking challenge that leaves one of our players in a heap. Cole has pace and skill, but he’s prone to stupidity and it would be poetic justice if our talented new, young Englishman taught him a lesson. It should be a fascinating subplot all game long.
While I would love to see Arshavin start in a central position behind Adebayor, the most likely lineup would see Andrei replace Nasri. Like for like. The rest of the team probably stays unchanged from the side that started Wednesday night’s victory over Villareal. There’s always the possibility that Wenger succumbs to the temptation to rotate the squad. I can’t imagine that he would leave out Walcott after his Champion’s League performance, but I can certainly see Adebayor and/or Van Persie giving way to Eduardo and Bendtner.
Wenger has been very public about the way he uses Van Persie. He doesn’t like to play him in more than two games during any one week period. If he plans to use him at Anfield, then he probably would give him a rest tomorrow. That would bring my recommended lineup back into play, but it’s still a long shot. Nasri is a crucial figure in Europe because we have no replacement at left wing. Considering that Arshavin can’t play in Europe, there is little reason to risk Nasri when Arshavin is available. For that reason, I doubt that we’ll see them play in the same game together until our European adventure concludes. If Nasri is out and Van Persie is out, then Arshavin is forced to play left midfield while Eduardo or Bendtner replaces Van Persie.
Whatever the lineup tomorrow, it’s clear that our path to the FA Cup final depends on our attack. It’s hard to imagine that this game can be won with a single goal. I would lay all the money in the world that it won’t go to penalty kicks. With all the weakness on defense, if this game is close late, there’s likely to be a mistake at the back that gifts one side the winning goal. The important thing is that we keep the ball in Chelsea’s half. If we put them on the back foot and test Cech often, we will reap rewards. It will take an outstanding effort from our midfield to swing this game in our favor. But if Cesc and company can outplay the Chelsea midfield, then we will have a good chance. Drogba can score in an instant, and I won’t be surprised if it happens tomorrow, but for the first time in a long time, we head into a match with Chelsea feeling that we can give them real problems going forward.
We beat Chelsea last time out. We started a very modest lineup that day, and Chelsea didn’t look great, but we are both very different teams now. Tomorrow it will be the battle of in-form offenses against suspect defending. In that competition, I like our chances.
I started this blog entry by questioning the importance of tomorrow’s match. Now I’m going to contradict myself. It’s a derby game. It’s a cup semi-final. It’s a chance to play for silverware. It’s another chance to embarrass Cashley Cole. For all these reasons and more, I desperately hope we can prevail. I have the sneaking suspicion that we will.
Come On You Gunners!