It has been four years since Arsenal made a cup final appearance, but this Sunday that statistic will change. At 4pm on Sunday afternoon Arsenal will take to the Wembley pitch to play Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final. It's their first chance to win a trophy this season, but as it stands they are still heavily involved in three other competitions. The Premier League and the FA Cup are certainly also winnable, but their task in the Champions League is not an easy one.
Those other competitions might be more important than the Carling Cup, but for one day only Arsenal can concentrate on winning their first trophy in almost six years. In Arsenal's previous appearance in the Carling Cup final under Arsene Wenger they played a mixture of youth and experience, and ended up losing 2-1 to Chelsea. I don't think the boss will play a weakened team in the final this time though, as the need for a trophy is of the utmost importance.Despite their problems with injuries I have no doubt that a fully committed Arsenal team are too good for Birmingham. The only things that can stop Arsenal winning are a poor display on the day or poor refereeing.
Those injury problems mean Arsenal will be without their captain Cesc Fabregas, as the game has come too soon after he picked up his hamstring injury on Wednesday night against Stoke RFC. Cesc isn't a happy man at the thought of not being able to lead Arsenal out in a cup final for the first time as captain. The good news on his injury is that he will probably be back for the trip to Barcelona on March 8th. He has picked up quite a few hamstring injuries in the last couple of seasons, and it's a worrying thing for both him and Arsenal. Players who suffer frequent hamstring injuries can quite often be plagued by them for their whole career, and I hope that isn't the case for Cesc.
Besides the absence of Cesc Arsenal will also be without Theo Walcott after he picked up an ankle injury in that same game on Wednesday night. He has had his troubles with ankle injuries in the past, and the boss has said he will be out for a few weeks at least. It means he won't be available for the trip to Barcelona, but hopefully he will be back soon after that, as Arsenal's league campaign reaches a climax. Both Walcott and Cesc are real goal threats in the Arsenal team, and their presence will be sorely missed.
There is some good injury news though with the return of Robin Van Persie, Laurent Koscielny and Abu Diaby to the squad after various injuries and suspension kept them out of Wednesday's game. RVP has been in such good form recently that his return is a huge boost to the team, and he will also captain the team in Cesc's absence. With nine goals in his last five Premier League games RVP is the most in form striker in the league at the moment. I'm sure Birmingham will remember the goal he scored when Arsenal won 3-0 at their ground only a short while ago.
Koscielny has formed a very good central defensive partnership with Johan Djourou this season, and it has helped them to look a lot more solid at the back. His reading of the game is very good, and he is also very good when the ball is on the ground. Unfortunately against Birmingham the ball won't spend too much time on the ground when Birmingham are in possession. Koscielny will have a very tough job trying to challenge the tallest player in the Premier League in the air, but hopefully he will get plenty of help from Djourou. Birmingham's Nikola Zigic is 6'8", and he can be a handful for any centre back on his day.
Diaby has had a stop start career for Arsenal ever since he had his leg shattered by an awful challenge against Sunderland five years ago. He rarely plays more than three or four games before succumbing to some leg injury or other, and it looks like his career is set to continue in that fashion. It's a shame that Arsenal have never managed to see exactly how good he might have been, but when he does play at his best he can make a real difference. I know he can be incredibly frustrating at times when be twirls continually on the ball, but he has the ability to be a special player at times too.
Arsenal didn't have the easiest passage to get this far in the Carling Cup, but it was certainly an interesting journey. Their first game was a third round trip to the Spuds in late September, and they totally dominated the game before winning 4-1 after extra time. In the next round they were drawn away to Newcastle, and again they totally dominated the game and scored four goals without reply. That was followed by a fairly routine 2-0 win at home to Wigan which set up a semi-final against Ipswich Town. The first leg was an awful game which Arsenal lost 1-0, but they won the return leg at home 3-0 with a fantastic goal from Bendtner.
When it comes to the starting 11 against Birmingham I don't think it's exactly rocket science working out who will play in most of the positions. I would be surprised if Wojciech Szczesny didn't play in goal, but there is the possibility of the boss playing Manuel Almunia instead. I would imagine that the back four will consist of Djourou, Koscielny, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy. In midfield I would imagine Alex Song and Jack Wilshere will be joined by Samir Nasri who will play the role vacated by the injured Cesc. The front three aren't quite so easy to predict, but RVP and Andrey Arshavin are dead certs to start, and I have a feeling Nicklas Bendtner will get the nod on the right hand side.
There are other options of course, and Tomas Rosicky, Denilson, Marouane Chamakh, Sebastien Squillaci, and Diaby will all be hoping the boss chooses them in the starting team. Those five players should all be on the bench along with Almunia and probably Emmanuel Eboue too. It's certainly a strong enough team to be more than a match for the challenge of Birmingham, and I expect them to give the game everything they have. There may be a FA Cup replay to play against Leyton Orient on Wednesday night, but the Carling Cup final is far more important for the moment. I'm sure Arsenal will play all the players who don't start in the Carling Cup when they play Orient, and they should be good enough to win that game too.
Arsenal have played Birmingham twice already this season in the Premier League, and they won both of those games. They beat them 2-1 at home back in October in a far from convincing performance, but in early January Arsenal went to Birmingham and played them off the pitch. The 3-0 scoreline on that day was not an accurate depiction of how dominant Arsenal were, and if Birmingham allow Arsenal to dominate again they will pay the price for it.
In that game in January Birmingham tried to intimidate Arsenal as much as they could, but they couldn't get near the ball most of the time. A team that includes Roger Johnson, Liam Ridgewell, Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer is never going to be pretty to watch, and their first thought is more likely to be what damage can I do to my opponent rather than to try to play football. Arsenal have shown time and again this season that they will not be intimidated by bullying tactics from their opponents, and I expect more of the same on Sunday.
In that 3-0 victory Bowyer stamped on Sagna off the ball, as well as raking him with his studs, and he ended up getting a three game ban for his actions. Throughout his career he has shown himself to be a thoroughly reprehensible character both on and off the pitch, and how he has not ended up in jail for his antics off the pitch I cannot understand. I won't go into them here, but suffice it to say I'm glad Arsenal don't have any Asian players in their team. He has received the most yellow cards since the inception of the Premier League, as well as a fair deal of red cards too. If Arsenal beat Birmingham on Sunday it will give me immense pleasure to see him take the defeat badly.
The boss said Wilshere will be a key player with Cesc not playing, and a lot more will go through him in the game. Wilshere has being getting better by the game this season, and it's hard to believe that this is his first full season in the Premier League. I just love the sight of him bringing the ball out from defence, and spraying passes around the pitch. He may not be scoring too many goals just yet, but he got plenty as a younger player. When he has fully settled into the team I am sure the goals will come for him, and he will be one of the biggest stars in the Premier League.
In my predicted team selection I said Nasri would play the Cesc role, but judging by what the boss said Wilshere could well fill in for Cesc. I do think Nasri will play centrally though, and he tends to play even better when Cesc isn't in the team. That's not to say he is hindered by Cesc, but he takes more responsibility for the ball when Cesc isn't there. It isn't easy to fill the boots of the most creative player in any of the top five leagues in Europe, but Nasri is the man to do it in my opinion.
The defence will have to be strong when Birmingham try to launch an aerial bombardment on them, and I think they will hold up very well. When Birmingham have free kicks and corners they will have all of their big players piling in on Arsenal's keeper. I just hope Szczesny is the keeper, as he is far better at coping with those tactics than Almunia is. Arsenal are bound to have far more of the ball than Birmingham, and the Wembley pitch can be very draining. The more chasing Birmingham have to do the harder it will be for them, and they are bound to tire as the game goes on. A few of their players are getting on a bit, and Arsenal need to put those players under as much as pressure as possible.
I think Arshavin may have an important role to play in this game at some stage. He is fond of performing well on the big stage, and Wembley is one of the bigger stages in world football. I'm hoping to see him taking on Stephen Carr, and showing him up to be the average full back he always was when he played for Ireland. It would probably make more sense if Rosicky played on the right, but my feeling is the boss feels Bendtner deserves to play whether the role suits him or not. He has played four Carling Cup games this season, and scored in three of them. If he's really as good as he thinks he is then hopefully he can show the Arsenal fans in this game.
I'm predicting a 3-1 win for Arsenal with the goals coming from RVP, Nasri and Arshavin, and a nice shiny trophy making it's way to the Emirates. It won't be easy, but Arsenal are better than Birmingham, and they need to show that on the day. A performance showing passion, desire and commitment added to the skill and flair Arsenal posses in abundance should be enough to see off Birmingham. Anything other than that and it could go either way. I'm confident it will be a win for Arsenal though, as I am always confident when the team I love play against any other team.
Hopefully a win will give Arsenal the confidence to push on and win the Premier League too. I have said for a long time now that I think the current "Manure" team area poor one by their lofty standards, and I can feel a few slips on the way for them. Hopefully Arsenal can come through the game unscathed, and ready to claim their place at the top of the table in the very near future. The future is bright, the future is Arsenal!
That's it for today.
Here's a look at how the third round of the Carling Cup was won 4-1 against The Spuds.
See You Tomorrow.