20 years after historic win, Arsenal go to Anfield playing for pride
Twenty years ago, Arsenal went to Anfield needing to win by two clear goals to win the league title. With the score 1-0 after 90 minutes, Michael Thomas scored the goal that gave the title to the Gunners. It was a special moment in Arsenal’s history and one that I did not witness due to my age and the fact that I am American. I am in good company because Arsene Wenger did not see the historic match either. So we can all celebrate the special occasion regardless of whether the memory of it is etched in our mind, or merely a pleasant thought about the past. Tomorrow, we head to Anfield with considerably less as stake.
During Arsene’s pre-match press conference, one of the reporters suggested that we can coast to fourth place. The boss replied that we would like to achieve more than fourth place. While I don’t have the exact quote, the essence of his response was that we could still challenge for third, second or even first place. He made it clear that the team wants to win every remaining game and not feel that they let an opportunity to improve their finishing position slip away. Without revisiting the fact that we did let an opportunity slip away on Saturday, Wenger and the reporter both missed an important point. While it’s wonderful to think that we could finish higher than fourth, it is still conceivable that we might slip out of fourth place. It’s not something that any Arsenal supporter wants to contemplate, but it must be addressed.
Young players easily lose their focus. They are not as disciplined when it comes to approaching every match with the same intensity. We have seen that all too often this season. So it’s not unthinkable that this team might just lose interest in the Premier League with Champions League glory still “up for grabs.” (Historic reference there for those who caught it.) That would be a very dangerous proposition.
We are currently seven points clear of Aston Villa with an insurmountable goal difference. Aston Villa would need to accumulate eight more points from their remaining fixtures than we do in order to finish fourth. It’s not likely to happen, but it is certainly possible. We could very easily drop nine points from our remaining games. That would mean losses at Anfield and Old Trafford, and a loss at home to Chelsea. In that scenario, I am assuming that we take full points from all of our other matches. Aston Villa have not been in good form to say the least, but their remaining schedule is very accomodating. If Villa go on a winning run to finish the season, the pressure will certainly be back on. If they were to win their remaining games and we dropped the points as I described above, then we would finish the season fifth. For that reason, the points we take off of Liverpool, Chelsea and United are crucial to our consolidation of fourth place.
Arsene Wenger made it clear what he expects from the team tomorrow at Anfield.
“You will see with our attitude tomorrow night that we go into the game to win it … I expect us to win the game. We will have a positive attitude and try to go forward and win the game.”
That is the right attitude and the right response but will the team selection reflect his bravado? We won’t know until the teams are announced but we do know which attacking players will not be available. Robin Van Persie is suffering from a minor groin problem and will miss the match. At this point I am so tired of my own sophomoric jokes about groin problems that I am banning them from the blog until next season. (When hopefully they will be less necessary.) Emmanuel Adebayor will also miss the game with a new problem known as a “hamstring alert.” But you can rest assured that the “alert” must be akin to a “fire drill” because Wenger stated that he is “not worried at all about the Champions League.” In actuality, I wouldn’t be surprised if both players are really just being rested.
With Ade and RVP out of action, it seems the perfect time to reintroduce Eduardo to the starting lineup. However, I have my doubts about him starting. I half expect Wenger to play a 4-4-1-1 with a lone striker. Nicklas Bendtner is the most obvious choice for tomorrow. We can be almost certain that he will start. Carlos Vela has slipped out of the squad lately but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the subs bench ready to make an appearance during the final half-hour. If Bentner does start the match as the lone striker, then either Nasri or Arshavin would likely start right behind him in attack.
I have been waiting patiently for the opportunity to see Arshavin start a game in a central role supporting the striker and I’m really hoping that the wait comes to an end at Anfield. It’s getting redundant pointing out that we were at our flowing best last season when Hleb supported Adebayor in the center of the park. That formation also seems to suit Cesc’s creativity. Regardless of the formation, Wenger said in his pre-match press conference that Arhsavin will play against Liverpool so we can expect to see him either on the left or (pretty please) in the middle behind Nik.
I wouldn’t blame Wenger if he rests Nasri again. Let’s face it, we have NO cover for the left side of midfield. When Nasri has been out this season, we’ve used Bendtner and Van Persie on the left with modest results. If Nasri were to suffer an injury, we’d be left with Van Persie playing left midfield in the Champions League and that’s not what anyone wants to see. But if Nasri doesn’t play then Arshavin is certain to start on the wing. That leaves Cesc in the middle and Theo on the right. I have no idea which one of our three holding midfielders will play tomorrow. Diaby and Denilson were rubbish on Saturday, but that makes Song look even more important for next Wednesday. The fact is, you can’t protect every player from injury at this point. At the rate our season has gone, our players could injure themselves while sleeping. (God knows they’ve done it every other way possible.)
I don’t know if Walcott will play tomorrow but I have the suspicion that he will. In truth, I don’t know if anyone will play tomorrow because I’m not the manager. But if Sagna starts tomorrow, that makes Eboue available to play right midfield and allows Wenger to rest Walcott. It would be a shame because Theo is in torrid form and our most dangerous player at the moment. I just can’t see anyone on Liverpool living with his pace.
Here’s what I will tell you; I watched Arsene’s press conference. When he said “you will see with our attitude tomorrow night that we go into the game to win it,” he was clearly smirking. It was as if he was delighted by something that he knew about the game. I have a feeling that he intends to play a very aggressive lineup tomorrow. I think that Nasri AND Arshavin will start. I think that Theo will start as well. It might be Diaby instead of Song in the middle but I still like our chances with Nasri, Arshavin, Cesc and Theo in midfield.
If Arsene does get aggressive with the midfield selection, then we will need a good performance from our very questionable defense. Fernando Torres hasn’t really impressed me in our recent meetings with Liverpool, although that can certainly change in an instant. But the man who we must control tomorrow is Steven Gerrard. He’s tormented us a bit in the past and we have to be mindful of his every move. In particular we MUST NOT give up silly free kicks in dangerous areas. It’s a feature of Denilson’s game so I really hope he’s out tomorrow. Whether it’s Diaby or Song playing the holding role in midfield, the way they contain Gerrard will have a lot to say about our chances tomorrow.
Liverpool shipped seven goals to Chelsea over the two legs of their Champions League quarter-final. For a team that has allowed the second fewest goals in the Premier League and the fewest at home, that gives us reason for optimism. While it’s quite daunting to consider that Liverpool are the only team in the league that have yet to lose at home, I suppose that’s just one more reason to really give it a go.
I will be watching the game with excitement and optimism, but admittedly not too much concern. Win, lose, or draw, the big rewards aren’t on offer until next Wednesday. What I will be most interested to see is the way we line up and the quality of our performance. A win tomorrow will be a huge boost to our belief, while a demoralizing loss might leave the players questioning their credentials. Either way, it shouldn’t take much for the players to get fired up for a game at Anfield. It was on that ground last season that our Champions League campaign prematurely (and rather unfairly) came to an end. I have no problem if the players wish to view this as a chance for a modicum of revenge.
It’s another big test in a month filled with big tests. Enjoy the match.
Come On You Gunners!