Birmingham City come to the Emirates bringing bad memories with them
Unfortunately, there have been a fair share of unpleasant moments for Arsenal fans in recent seasons. But two of the most painful memories both took place the last time we faced Birmingham City. On that day at St. Andrews we lost Eduardo to an horrific injury and essentially lost the title thanks to a dubious penalty conceded at the end of the match. After that our season, which showed so much promise both domestically and in Europe, came crashing down around us. Shortly after we were eliminated from the Champions League by Liverpool thanks to some of the worst refereeing you’ll ever live to see. It was a depressing time for Arsenal supporters and I’ll be happy not to think about it again.
So today’s match is a chance for a modicum of revenge and possibly an opportunity to exorcise some demons. Ironically, however, all the key figures from the last match will be missing today. Martin Taylor will avoid the wrath of the Emirates crowd due to injury and his victim, Eduardo, is also out of action. Gael Clichy, who was guilty of losing possession and giving away the “penalty,” will also miss the match with an ankle problem. Perhaps it’s just as well that none of them play. With any luck, today’s game will bear no resemblence to the travesty of 2008.
In reality, there should be very little drama playing out on the Emirates pitch today. Birmingham have made a relatively respectable start to the season, but they’re recent form has been poor. Meanwhile, Arsenal have been on a tear since the two games in Manchester and the first 5 minutes in Belgium. We’ve been scoring goals for fun and our last match saw us nearly put 10 past Blackburn. The players seem together and focused and you really couldn’t ask for a better match to welcome them back from the international break.
Although this is the kind of fixture that might induce a mental lapse, perhaps the memories of St. Andrews will be enough for players like Gallas and Cesc to light a fire under their teammates. And our manager knows how important these games can be. As he so uniquely put it yesterday: “We do not play for pieces of chocolate, we play for trophies and that’s what we want to win.” So true Arsene! (But imagine how motivated Vermaelen would be if we did play for chocolate. Those beligians love their chocolate. And what about RVP? If he had more chocolate he could add it to his “chocolate leg” and make a super-size chocolate leg capable of striking the ball right through John Terry!)
As usual, the international break has left us with some new injuries to contemplate. Clichy and Bendtner are both out today, although neither problem sounds serious. And from the redundancy department of redundancy, Abou Diaby is carrying a slight knock that might limit him today. Unfortunately, Carlos Vela, who probably would’ve had a chance to contribute today, arrived back from Mexico too late to be involved. Eduardo still isn’t ready to play and Nasri has only recently returned to training.
On the flip side, both Almunia and Fabianski are close to returning. Wenger confirmed that Lukas has suffered a minor setback that will keep him out today, but that Almunia might be able to return. It’s a situation that has me less concerned considering Vito’s recent form. Who would have guessed two months ago that we’d all be relatively comfortable relying on Mannone as our starting keeper for a while? (Assuming, of course, that we are relatively comfortable…which I’m not certain is true.)
The current injury scenario hardly registers as an issue considering what we’ve become accustomed to recently. However, it does open the door to some interesting lineup possibilities. Arshavin, Van Persie, Cesc and Song will almost certainly start. At the back, Wenger has already confirmed that Gibbs will start for Clichy, most likely alongside the first choice trio of Vermaelen, Gallas and Sagna. But that leaves two starting spots up for grabs. And the options are fun to consider.
Personally, I’d love to see Theo and Rosicky start. It would be a dynamic, creative and attack-minded choice. At some point this season I think Arshavin, RVP and Theo will be our first choice front three. Today would be a good chance to see how it works. And considering that Birmingham are probably planning to “park the bus” in front of their goal, Cesc and Rosicky would make a formidable midfield pairing capable of prising open a compact defense. Song can more than handle what little threat Birmingham are likely to pose. In games like these, early goals relieve pressure, and that would be the lineup to go get the goals.
Unfortunately, I just can’t see Arsene going that direction. It’s not that I think he’s too conservative. I’m just not sure he’s ready to hand a starting role to Walcott and he’s been inexplicably loyal to Diaby over the past few weeks. If Abou is able to start today, I’m sure that’s what we’ll see. Theo certainly fits the mould of a game-changing substitute and I’m guessing that’s the role he’ll play today. Whether Rosicky starts is probably a question of his fitness. But there really aren’t that many alternatives at the moment besides Eboue so I suspect that Tomas will go if he’s ready. As competitive as things are getting for starting places at the moment, Ramsey and Wilshere are probably still quite a few rungs down the ladder.
In fact, when you look at the team right now, it’s really a case of abundance and scarcity. We have a surfeit of attacking midfielders, but a paucity of holding players. We have an excess of wingers, but limited options in central defense. It really makes it hard to evaluate the team. (Other than simply looking at the performances of course.) What it does show, however, is where Arsene’s interests lie. Not that there was ever any doubt. He’s happy live by his attacking ethos, even if it’s occasionally at the expense of defensive cohesion. And there’s no denying that it leads to very entertaining football. Hopefully it will also lead to some silverware in the near future.
Whatever lineup Arsene selects today, it’s certain to have enough talent to overcome Birmingham City. This is one of those fixtures that might have been frustrating last season. But this season we’ve dominated lesser opposition and showed a real killer instinct. Considering the circumstances of the last meeting with Birmingham, the players should have that extra motivation necessary to get their minds back on club (aka. proper) football.
There’s also the possibility of gaining more ground in the league table this weekend. Liverpool will see what life’s like without Gerrard and Torres. And I’m guessing they won’t like it one bit. I don’t think N’Gog and Babel are going to strike fear into the crowd at the Stadium of Light today. As for Chelsea, they have a tough away fixture with Aston Villa and the distraction of a battle against their transfer ban. And although United will be heavy favorites to beat Bolton, they may have to do it without Rooney and Berba. Kind of hard to see where their goals will come from this weekend.
So all things considered, we should consider ourselves lucky. We’re back from the international break with a winnable home game and enough healthy players to make up a strong starting lineup. Meanwhile, our rivals find themselves in increasingly precarious positions.
And as if we didn’t have enough in our favor, Robin Van Persie became a father for the second time this week. (Congratulations to him on the birth of his daughter.) I’m sure he’d love to get a goal so he can do that classic “new born baby” celebration.
Most importantly, the interlull is over. It’s a sneaky, dirty character and it will be back before we know it. But it’s gone for now and left us with our beloved Arsenal once again. After each international break I convince myself that I’ve never been so excited for club football to return, but this time I’m certain it’s true. (Until next time.)
I can’t wait for kickoff and I hope you enjoy the match where ever you will be watching.
Come on you Gunners!