Tonight is all about the Champions League for Arsenal. But first, we must celebrate the beginning of another journey.
Samir Nasri’s quest for the Ballon D’Or can finally begin. He has completed his move to Manchester City and should be photographed holding his gold-spun shirt this morning. City will pay Arsenal a bazillion pounds, Nasri will earn half-a-bazillion pounds per week, and Nasri’s agent will have his name etched into the moon with a giant laser.
I don’t have the statistics on previous Ballon D’Or winners, but I’d imagine that plenty of them spent half the season on the bench for their respective teams. It’s a real win-win-win-win situation for everyone involved. Next season, when Nasri realizes he prefers to be a regular starter, perhaps City will be kind enough to loan him back to Arsenal and subsidize his wages, like they’re doing for a number of other disgruntled millionaires.
Nasri’s departure means the Arsenal “crisis” stories once are once again making headlines. Those broken-cannon printing presses are working overtime this month. This time, however, it’s Wenger’s own words that are being used as the rod for his back. Predictably, the media have trotted out his line from earlier this summer when the manager said “Imagine the worst situation – we lose Fabregas and Nasri – you cannot convince people you are ambitious after that.” Now that the self-proclaimed “worst situation” has come to fruition, the press are all-too-happy to rub our noses in it.
But it’s pointless dwelling on a sound bite now that the season is underway. Ultimately our results will be the measure of our success. Can we be considered ambitious having lost Nasri and Cesc? Of course we can. One way we can do that is by spending our mountain of cash on some really top quality players and proving to the world that we’re more than a glorified feeder-club. We have seen exceptional players leave the club before and we will see them leave again. All that matters is that we replace them with equal or superior talent.
For me, however, the best reaction to Nasri’s transfer came courtesy of twitter. New Arsenal legend Emmanuel Frimpong took the opportunity to slate City’s latest acquisition by tweeting that “money is the root of all evil.” He then admonished Jack Wilshere for wishing Samir well. Very deeench Mr. Frimpong. (See @EmmanuelF4 on twitter for more details.)
As for Arsene Wenger, he had a more pragmatic view of things when he was interviewed for Arsenal.com in what looked like a doctor’s office waiting room. Speaking in advance of our match today, he discussed Nasri’s departure.
“I am a realist so I have no illusions. It’s part of the modern life of a professional football player. It’s not that by coincidence that everybody suddenly lands at Man City.”
Most supporters seemed ready for Nasri to go, but now that it has actually happened, there’s a predictable degree of ambivalence. On the one hand, it’s nice to see an avaricious mercenary leave the club for an inflated fee. On the other hand, there’s very realistic concern about whether the squad has been weakened beyond the breaking point. That possibility hasn’t completely eluded the manager who acknowledged the need to strengthen the midfield. I’m sure we will all hold our collective breath until the new signings arrive.
Now all the attention turns to our Champions League playoff second leg tonight. Italy has been a happy hunting ground for recent Arsenal teams. AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus have all suffered defeat at our hands under Arsene Wenger. However, it would be fair to point out that we had more settled squads on those occasions.
Fortunately, Arsene Wenger will be allowed on the touchline, in advance of UEFA hearing his appeal on Thursday. The squad looks threadbare but there’s no cause for concern. When asked whether tonight’s match was critical or not, he responded that it was “not critical.” Arsene will have to forgive me if I don’t to agree. Perhaps this was a case of his english betraying him. I believe what he meant to say is that this match “is terrifyingly important to an extent that makes me incontinent.” At least that’s how I feel about it.
The team news for the match is mixed. Nicklas Bendtner has been left out of the side. That means we can probably expect yet another player to leave the club before the window shuts. While we might miss his Champions League experience tonight, I’m sure we all remember his failure to eliminate Barcelona last season when he had the chance. He’s another player that wants out of Arsenal, and at this point, I’m happy to open the door and let any like-minded player leave.
There’s good news in defense, where it appears Johan Djourou will be fit enough to start. That means Alex Song can keep his preferred midfield role and the manager won’t be tempted to hand Ignasi Miquel another baptism by fire. (Until the 3rd minute when Djourou goes off with a spleen explosion and Miquel is called on for the remaining 87 minutes.) Armonde Traore has recovered from his knock, but he looked terrible when he played in preseason, and his only recent appearance was for the reserves. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wenger stick with Jenkinson who played well in each of the last two matches.
The really bad news is that Jack Wilshere did not recover in time for this match, and has instead suffered a set-back. He will now miss an additional two to three weeks according to the manager. Frankly, I’d find that pleasantly surprising. He’s still wearing a protective boot and there’s a vague similarity between this injury and the one that cost Thomas Vermaelen an entire season. We can only hope that this doesn’t become another typical Arsenal quagmire. It’s one thing to lose players to long-term injuries, but we have a habit of losing the ones we need the most.
So now there’s not much guesswork about who will start in midfield. Tomas Rosicky is fit enough to play, but it sounds like he will start the match on the bench. Since Arsenal only have four midfielders in the 18-man squad, we can determine which three will start by simple process of elimination. Emmanuel Frimpong will join Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey in a midfield that may lack a little creativity, but should certainly offer plenty of power and determination. However, both Song and Frimpong have shown a propensity to commit silly fouls and with UEFA looking for any opportunity to ruin our Champions League dreams tonight, those two will have to be very careful.
Udinese have to attack us tonight. That should give us the chance to play them on the counter, much like they did at the Emirates. Gervinho, van Persie and Theo give us the potential for a lethal counter attack if the midfield doesn’t disappoint. But counter attacking alone may not be enough. We have to keep possession if possible because I certainly don’t trust this Arsenal side to sit back and defend for 90 minutes. More importantly, I don’t trust my heart to survive that.
What we really need tonight is to score the first goal. If we can manage that, it forces the home side to score 3 to eliminate us. That would calm the nerves and potentially take some of the belief out of the crowd. But if Udinese manage to score first, then it could be a case of experience carrying the day. And that doesn’t favor Arsenal.
At the moment, we are a callow side. Jenkinson and Frimpong, and to some extent Ramsey and Gervinho, will not have experienced this kind of pressure before. But that’s not entirely problematic. You learn a lot about players by how they perform when the stakes are highest. In the recent past, we learned some unflattering things about our players when the pressure was on them. Maybe the new faces will prove to be the difference-makers tonight.
Elimination is nearly unthinkable. While the club could survive the financial ramifications of a season without Champions League football, I’m not sure how the team would respond to such a devastating blow. Couple that with a trip to Old Trafford on Sunday and the season could begin to look like a disaster before it’s really even started. The fans are already a tinder box of frustration waiting to explode. Losing tonight could be the flashpoint for an epic conflagration. So we simply must not lose.
This is the match that none of us wanted. But if the result goes our way, it could be just what the team needs. Let’s face it, there’s not a lot going right for Arsenal at the moment. Morale is low and the Club’s image has taken a beating over the past few months. But a win tonight would send us into the Champions League group stages and remind the footballing world that Arsenal are still a club to be reckoned with. It’s a chance for the players to hear some words of encouragement for the first time this season and start to build belief.
Winning on the road against a strong Italian side would be a feather in their cap, and answer critics that have often accused this team of being bottlers. That could come back to help us the next time the pressure is on. Not to mention that Champions League participation could also help us secure any potential transfer targets that Wenger might be considering. (No, really). But maybe most importantly, it’s an opportunity for this group of players to show that they can win without Cesc and Nasri despite the naysayers. It’s a chance for them to begin to forge a winning identity of their own.
It may only be our fourth match of this campaign, but Arsenal’s season stands very much at a cross-roads. The outcome of tonight’s tie may determine which direction we take for the next ten months. I’m choosing to believe in the players that still wear the Arsenal shirt. They’re the ones that really want to be here. In the past, we have sometimes questioned our team’s commitment. But now we have a team of players with a real love for Arsenal. Some of them were raised as Arsenal supporters themselves. They will give us everything they have. They will bleed for Arsenal tonight. And in the end, I believe they’ll emerge victorious.
Come On You Gunners!