As Arsenal's impressive Premier League form continues, they have thoughts of a trip to Wembley on their minds tonight. To book their place in the Carling Cup final against either West Ham or Birmingham they have to overturn a 1-0 deficit against Championship strugglers Ipswich Town. In the first leg at Portman Road Arsenal put in a very poor performance, and they paid the price when Tamas Priskin scored the only goal of the game to give Ipswich a famous win. A performance like that tonight will leave Arsenal in the very embarrassing situation of failing to win a tie that they are overwhelming favourites to win.
The first big question is what team will Arsene Wenger pick, as he looks the rotate his team just enough to rest some players, while still having a strong enough team to win the game by a scoreline that will see them make the trip to Wembley. It's a balance that he has to get just right, as anything other than an Arsenal win would be a very poor result. With Arsenal's next game not until noon on Sunday I think we will see a maximum of five or six changes from the team that beat Wigan so well on Saturday.
With Lukasz Fabianski and Manuel Almunia still injured Arsenal have only fit goalkeeper with first team experience. That means that Wojciech Szczesny will play in goals tonight with James Shea on the bench. The longer Fabianski is out injured, the less the likelihood of him regaining his place from Szczesny when he returns in my opinion. Since he has come into the team he has performed very well, and another two or three good games in a row from him will probably see him make the shirt his own. If he was to suffer an injury it would leave Arsenal in a very awkward position though, as they are very quickly running out of fit goalkeepers.
I think it will be all change in the full back positions, with Emmanuel Eboue and Kieran Gibbs coming in for Bakary Sagna and Gael Clichy. Both of those players were particularly unimpressive in the away defeat to Ipswich, and they have the chance to make amends tonight. In the wide open spaces of the Emirates pitch I hope to see both of them going forward as often as possible, and causing the Ipswich defence a lot of problems. I have never been overly impressed with Eboue when he plays for Arsenal, and I wish he would stop his theatrics, and just concentrate on playing football.
In the centre of defence Arsenal have no real choices, as Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny are the only two centre backs with first team experience that are fit. For me Alex Song should not be played as a central defender, so the two of them will play together yet again. The necessity of having to play the two of them together in every game for the last few weeks has actually meant they have developed a very good understanding, which has benefited the team. With Sebastien Squillaci possibly due to return against Huddersfield on Sunday it looks like Arsenal may have just about survived the last few weeks with their central defensive options so limited. I would still like to see a central defender signed during the transfer window, but it looks like Arsene Wenger will gamble on Thomas Vermaelen recovering from his "procedure" by the end of February.
In midfield I think that the boss will opt for Denilson, Jack Wilshere, and Cesc Fabregas. Denilson seems to play in all of the cup games, and the other two were not included in the starting team against Leeds United in the FA Cup replay last week. I would imagine that Samir Nasri and Alex Song will be on the bench in case they're needed tonight, but I hope they will get to sit the game out. I'm not too fond of Denilson in the defensive role in midfield, but I don't think there will be too much defending to do tonight. Both Cesc and Wilshere should bring the drive to the team that will be needed to progress to the final.
I think that the attacking trio will be the same as it was against Leeds, despite the fact that none of them played particularly well in that game. Andrey Arshavin is going through a very poor spell of form at the moment, and it has meant that he's no longer one of the first names on the team sheet, but he is still a very good player. His touch and finishing were well below his high standards against Leeds, but at least he kept trying all night, and hopefully that effort will be visible again tonight. If he xa regain his form, and add that effort to it, he will be a huge asset to the team.
Nicklas Bendtner will more than likely be deployed in a wide right role tonight, and it's not a role that I think he's suited to. If Arsenal are going to play both him and Marouane Chamakh in the same team I think the formation should switch to 4-4-2. It's not particularly fair on Bendtner to ask him to play as a wide right player, but hopefully he can make the most of his chance tonight. He's a player with a lot of confidence in his own ability, but he doesn't seem to show that ability when he gets the opportunities.
Of the three front players Chamakh is the one that has done the best so far this season. When Robin Van Persie was injured earlier in the season he scored some very important goals to keep Arsenal's season on track, but now that RVP is back he seems to be almost surplus to requirements in the Premier League. That has coincided with a drop on form for him too, but he looked like his form might be on the way back against Leeds last week. I think a goal would do his confidence the world of good, and I hope to see him get one tonight.
There's always the possibility that Theo Walcott will get on from the start, as his pace was a re threat to Ipswich towards the end of the first leg when he came on as a sub. In the wide open spaces of the Emirates pitch there could be a lot of room for him to cause havoc, with Cesc picking out the passes to play him in. I expect to see him come on if things aren't going Arsenal's way in the second half, and RVP could possibly join him from the bench at that stage too.
In the first leg Arsenal never really got going until Ipswich scored, but they made enough chances towards the end of that game to have got a least a draw. They will need to find the attitude and commitment that they showed in the later stages of that game from the start tonight, and keep it going until the tie has been won. The threat that Ipswich posed from long balls over the Arsenal defence has to be guarded against again, but Araenal have better players than them, and they need to show it tonight.
With Cesc hopefully in the team tonight Arsenal should be able to play at a pace that Ipswich will find it hard to cope with. The fast passing and moving game that Arsenal play is difficult for any team to cope with, and the size of the Emirates pitch will make that job even harder. There has been a lot made about Arsenal potentially winning the Carling Cup, and the fact that it could be the launching pad that this team needs to go on and win more trophies. Failure to make it through to that final could be a massive blow to the players' confidence, and it would give Arsenal's critics a chance to have a field day.
There are a lot of permutations and combinations tonight, but Arsenal know that a win by more than one goal puts them into the final no matter what. The away goal rule only comes into effect if scores are level after extra time, and if it's 1-0 to Arsenal at that stage then penalties would be required. I hope it doesn't come to that, and I am fairly confident that Arsenal will get the result they require in normal time.
I predict a 3-0 win for Arsenal with Chamakh getting his name on the score sheet again, which will of course mean that their trip to play the Spuds in the Premier League at the end of February will be postponed to make way for a Carling Cup final appearance. When that game would be rescheduled is anybody's guess, and it's quite possible that it wouldn't be until sometime in May. I know it's far fetched to think that far ahead at this time in the season, but Arsenal have always liked claiming the league title at White Hart Lane.
If the Spuds are to get their way and move to the Olympic stadium, it could spell the end of a local rivalry between the two clubs, as they will no longer be such near neighbors. With the Spuds not having won a league title in 50 years the footballing rivalry isn't really applicable any more, despite their attempts to rise above their mediocrity, and actually challenge Arsenal. It would be a shame if that rivalry was lost, but it would also be nice to round it off by Arsenal winning their third league title at White Hart Lane.
That's it for today.
Here's a look at a player I'm not too fond of, but others are.
See You Tomorrow.