Tonight is the night when Arsenal's Champions League fate will be decided. They play their final game in group H at home to Partizan Belgrade, and they will qualify for the knockout stages of the competition if they win. There are other scenarios whereby Arsenal will qualify, but in my opinion a win is an absolute must.
Partizan have played five games already, and they have lost them all. In those games they have conceded 10 goals, and managed to score only one. That goal they did score was of course against Arsenal when they lost 3-1 at home. Arsenal didn't play particularly well that night, but they still had far too much for a Partizan team that are clearly out of their depth in this competition. The goal that Arsenal conceded that night was handed to Partizan on a plate and that's something that has to be avoided tonight.
The latest injury news for Arsenal is that Laurent Koscielny is fit enough to play, despite being stretchered off with what looked like concussion against Fulham on Saturday. In a strange twist of fate Johan Djourou is unable to play as he is carrying a knock that he picked up on Saturday, and manager Arsene Wenger doesn't want to risk him. That's a policy that he would have done well to implement with Cesc Fabregas only a couple of weeks ago against Braga.
With a win an absolute must, and Arsenal's next Premier League game five days away, the boss will surely pick his strongest team available. That should mean that the team that started on Saturday against Fulham should take the field again, with the possible exception of Robin Van Persie getting his first start since he picked up his most recent injury in August. The boss said that he is ready to start a game, and that the player feels he has been ready to start for the last two weeks, so I think that he will get his chance tonight. That should see Marouane Chamakh drop to the bench, and it will do him no harm to have a little time off ahead of the trip to "Manure".
There's a case to be made for the inclusion of Theo Walcott, but I think he will have to continue on the bench for the moment. He was very unlucky to pick up his injury just when he seemed to be making a real impression in the team. He scored quite a few goals early on in the season before that injury, and he also scored one very good goal since his return, in the Champions League game away to Shakhtar Donetsk.
His goal that night was similar to a Thierry Henry special, as he outsprinted the defenders from the halfway line, on the left hand side, and finished with an early shot that surprised the keeper. I have thought for a while now that Walcott could find a role on the left hand side of Arsenal's attacking trio, where he could cut in onto his right foot and score plenty of goals. Whether the boss would give him a chance in that position or not, is another matter altogether.
The only addition to the squad from Saturday's game is Emmanuel Eboue, as he takes over from the injured Djourou. It means that there is still no place in the squad for Carlos Vela, and the rumours of him being unsettled as a result of lack of opportunities are starting to gain momentum. The boss has said that no players will be coming in during the January transfer window, and I assume that means that no players will be leaving either.
In other injury news the boss said yesterday that both Cesc Fabregas and Abu Diaby are back in training. He also said that Cesc has about a 50% chance of playing against "Manure" in five days time, and that Diaby is less likely to be able to play in that game. It will be good to have both players back in the squad, and if they aren't available for that game they might well be available for the trip to Stoke RFC or the home game against Chelsea.
In tonight's game Arsenal can of course even qualify for the next stage if they lose, as they only have to match or better Braga's result. Braga make the trip to Shakhtar knowing that a win is an absolute must for them, and even then they must win by four goals if Arsenal win. That result would put Shakhtar out, but it's a very unlikely scenario.
The most likely outcome is for Arsenal to finish as runners-up in the group, and that would leave them with very limited options for their opponents in the next round. With The Spuds and "Manure" winning their groups last night Arsenal cannot play either of them, which leaves Barcelona and Schalke 04 as their only possible opponents from the groups that have finished. With the group winners in tonight's groups decided it means that the only other two possible opponents are Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. The chances of drawing one of the big European teams are very high, but that comes down to poor performances away to Braga and Shakhtar and it can't be changed now.
In tonight's game Arsenal need to be focused, committed and go at Partizan from the very start. The Partizan defence is not particularly good, and players like Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin could well be the key to unlocking that defence. If they can go at the Partizan defenders with the ball they can make things happen, and that's where I see goals coming from tonight.
Earlier in the group there were suggestions that Arsenal would break the record for the most goals scored in a Champions League group, as they had 14 goals after only three games which was a record. At the time I said that records like that counted for nothing, and it was all about qualifying and nothing else. As it happens they now need six goals to beat that record, and it's not beyond them tonight, as they have scored 11 goals in their previous two home group games against much better opposition. I would settle for a boring old fashioned 1-0 win to Arsenal, but it would of course be nerve wracking towards the end as per usual I would imagine.
I think Arsenal will win tonight, and win well too. Their Champions League home form has been simply magnificent this season, and Partizan are in for a very tough night in my opinion. When Arsenal beat Braga and Shakhtar their coaches both said that they played at their worst, and that all the decisions went Arsenal's way. In fact in Arsenal's away games the referee's decisions seem to have gone against them, and it will be interesting to see how the referee performs tonight.
My prediction is a 3-0 win for Arsenal, with RVP scoring, and Nasri too. I would love to see at least two goals go in during the first 30 minutes to settle my nerves, and put the result beyond doubt. I know a two goal lead for Arsenal recently hasn't always put the result beyond doubt, but I don't think that will be the case tonight. The ideal scenario is a win for Braga too, and for Arsenal to win the group as a result, but of course if Arsenal are winning that acts as a disincentive to Braga.
There should be a great atmosphere at The Emirates tonight as Arsenal need to win, and I hope to be able to hear it loud and clear on my TV. Unfortunately I won't see the start of the game, as I will be playing football myself, but it can't be helped. The weather has meant that I haven't played the last two games that I should have played, and a cancellation tonight will drive me mad. I love Arsenal dearly, but even at my ripe old age I still love to play the beautiful game.
Finally for today the Arsenal reserves beat West Brom's reserves 1-0 last night away with the goal coming from captain Ignasi Miquel. It leaves them with seven wins and one draw from nine league games, and they're sitting on top of Reserve League South table with a game in hand. Jay Emmanuel Thomas played for them, but he didn't score for a change. Their next game isn't until January 10th, and it's a very long gap between games for the players. With the possibility of a few more of the players going out on loan in January, it won't be easy for them to keep their lofty place at the top of the table.
That's it for today.
See You Tomorrow.