This is our reward. This is what we get for finishing fourth in a two horse race. Back in February, with dreams of a Quadruple dancing in our heads, few fans expected us to be here in August. But this is our reality now. Top players leaving the club. Arsene Wenger beset by his once most loyal supporters. And Arsenal facing Udinese in a two-legged playoff for the right to play in the most prestigious club football tournament in the world.
It’s not the dream scenario by any means, but it’s not the end of the world. It sounds like excuse-making when Arsene says it, but there are plenty of teams that would kill for the chance to be in our situation today. Now the only thing that matters is getting the job done. No matter what your opinion of our summer business, there’s no arguing that failure to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League would be a staggering blow for Arsenal. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that our ability to buy the players we need for this campaign might depend, to some extend, on qualification. If true, then elimination by Udinese could have reverberations for our season that extend far beyond European participation.
Arsene gave his pre-match press conference today, flanked by Carl Jenkinson. I have to admit, I found it easy to like our new signing. He’s a gooner and a bright young man. He answered his few questions intelligently and didn’t add fuel to any fires in the process. Considering that our captain had been sold earlier in the day, that’s no small feat.
The manager will not be on the touchline for today’s game, nor will we have the services of Robin van Persie or Samir Nasri. More things we can essentially thank Barcelona for contributing to our lives. There’s hardly any injury news to report. Jack Wilshere is still not back from his ersatz ankle injury (that’s actually an achilles), and Tomas Rosicky will face a fitness test due to a groin injury picked up at Newcastle. Otherwise we have everyone available minus long-term absentee Abou Diaby.
Robin van Persie’s ban leaves the manager with an interesting decision to make. Marouane Chamakh would be considered out of form for a sunday league team, let alone Arsenal. Considering what’s at stake today, it’s nearly impossible for Arsene to pick the Moroccan. I’ve read so many articles suggesting that Chamakh has to start or his confidence will be truly destroyed. With all due respect, we’re past the point where a player’s confidence should be our priority. If we get eliminated from the Champions League next wednesday, we’ll have bigger problems on our hands than whether a player we got for free is worried about his playing time. In this case, Wenger must be ruthless and start the eleven players best equipped to win the match.
Before the press conference, I assumed that his only option other than Chamakh, was to play Theo, Gervinho, and Arshavin up front. The former two players can certainly do the job at center-forward. And while that wouldn’t give us much height in attack, that’s not a quality we’re particularly good at exploiting anyway. It would also offer a quick and elusive trio to keep Udinese’s defenders busy. But Wenger offered another somewhat surprising option.
Despite his clear intention to leave the club all summer, Nicklas Bendtner might be named in the side today. About Bendtner’s inclusion, Wenger said,
“In his interview Bendtner said he was gone, but I checked and he’s not gone at all! I promised I would let him go if he found the right club and that has not changed because when I make a promise I keep it. But if he doesn’t find the right opportunity he will stay and fight for his place like everybody else. He looks sharp in training.”
In many ways, this is excellent news. First, it means that Wenger is not delusional. He is aware that Chamakh is a shadow of his former self at the moment and cannot be relied upon in such a crucial fixtures. It also shows that Wenger is willing to do whatever it takes to win this game. He is not taking an ethical stand or protecting a transfer fee. He’s being pragmatic and that’s exactly what’s needed at the moment.
But I find something inherently puzzling about this situation. If losing RVP for a single match puts us in such a compromised position at center-forward that we have to use a player he still intends to sell, then that should send alarm bells ringing throughout the club. Arsene repeatedly characterizes us as an attacking side, but if we were to sell Bendtner, then we wouldn’t have a single, reliable central striker left at the club other than Van Persie. That’s an untenable situation for any team, let alone one that prides itself on scoring goals.
At this point, I think it would be best if Nik stayed at the club. All he ever wanted was a chance to play his natural position, rather than getting stuck out on the wing. But competition in the side prevented him from getting the playing time at center-forward that he coveted. Surely he would be able to get plenty of chances this season. Even if we were to buy another striker, there’s still probably ample opportunity for Nik to start at center-forward. But if Wenger doesn’t intend to buy a striker, then I simply don’t see how he has any choice but to keep the Dane at Arsenal for at least another term.
In midfield, we could have another selection problem on our hands. The three first-choice midfielders pick themselves. Rosicky, Ramsey and Song may not be the best trio we’ve seen over the years, but they’re certainly the best available now. I have to admit, considering the lack of creativity generated in midfield on Saturday, this area of the pitch has me concerned. But it gets really scary if Rosicky fails his fitness test. Then it’s anyone’s guess who starts in his place. Wenger could move Arshavin into midfield, but that leaves us short one wide-forward. And we basically don’t have another creative midfielder in the team. I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way. I mean we literally don’t have another one. So let’s hope Rosicky is fit enough to start. (After last season, did anyone think I’d be writing that before a crucial Champions League fixture?)
In a sign that the apocalypse is well and truly upon us, Arsenal are most settled in defense. Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny and Gibbs should start again at the back with Szczesny in goal. That unit looked solid on Saturday but could face a few more dangerous moments than they did against Newcastle.
Thankfully our defenders won’t have Alexis Sanchez to worry about. Along with Zapata and Inler, Alexis left Udinese this summer. The Chilean is a precocious talent that would’ve struck fear into the heart of our defense, but his absence means the biggest threat to Arsenal’s goal will come from two-time Serie A Capocannoniere (leading goal scorer) Antonio Di Natale. The 34 year-old can dribble, finish and still has some pace in his aging legs. If Arsenal want to head to Italy without conceding an away goal, then he’s the man we have to stop. In another stroke of good fortune, I believe Udinese will also be without alliterative forward Floro Flores, and defender Maurizio Domizzi through injury.
Arsenal cannot win the tie today, but we can just about lose it. Only a win and a clean sheet will calm our nerves heading back to Italy for the second leg. But it’s hard to know if that’s a reasonable expectation at the moment. We learned little from our trip to St. James’ and it’s unclear just how Cesc’s departure will have effected the players. We can only hope that they are eager to prove their quality and ready for the challenge.
There’s no denying that it’s a time of great uncertainty at Arsenal. Samir Nasri will surely be leaving the Emirates now that he has driven a wedge between himself and the fans. Meanwhile, the manager is under growing pressure from supporters to spend money on new signings or face their wrath. It’s the first time I can remember Arsene Wenger coming under such intense scrutiny, from more than a fringe group of Arsenal fans, since he arrived at the club. When you combine that with the loss of a very popular and talented player in Cesc Fabregas, and speculation surrounding other key members of the squad, it’s not worth contemplating the ramifications of failing to qualify for the Champions League.
So today’s 90 minutes are really the first half of a do-or-die match. We have to win and we have to try to win convincingly. The players on the pitch will be under intense pressure and some of them will not have faced anything quite like it. For that reason, it’s absolutely essential that the home fans provide raucous support. They have to sing and cheer and get behind the team from the opening kickoff until the final whistle.
I don’t care if you’re fed up with the manager. I don’t care if you’re furious with the board and the owner. I don’t care if you want to make your frustrations heard. You need to put those feelings aside for one day. Don’t do it for Arsene. Don’t do it for the players. Certainly don’t do it for Gadzidis or Hill-Wood or Kroenke. Do it for yourself. Because if Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League, the people that suffer the most are the fans. It’s you and me.
If Arsenal get eliminated by Udinese, we don’t get to watch Arsenal in the Champions League. We have to listen to pundits eulogize the death of Arsenal as a “big club.” We may lose more of our favorite players to other clubs and be denied the chance to see top-quality players brought in. We are the ones that will feel the sting of elimination most keenly. If we can avoid that hardship by putting our opinions aside for 90 minutes and lustily cheering the players to victory, isn’t it worth it? Isn’t it worth banding together with 60,000 fellow gooners to prevent today from being our last Champions League match at the Emirates this season? I have to believe that it is.
If the fans at the Emirates can reproduce the atmosphere we saw for last season’s Barcelona match, then Udinese don’t stand a chance. If the supporters create that kind of intimidating environment for the away side, then Arsenal will carry the day. But if the stadium is a tinder-box of anger waiting to explode; if there’s a palpable sense of impatience and nervousness that’s audible with every poor touch or errant pass; then I fear for our European campaign.
Victoria Concordia Crescit. Let’s make it mean something today.
If you can’t make it to the match and want to follow the action online with other Gooners, join me and Ashburton Grove for a live blog starting at 7:30pm BST. Visit Ashburtongrove.co.uk or follow the link below.
COME ON YOU GUNNERS!