The way this season has being going for Arsenal they have usually got the chance to make up for any slips very quickly. After Sunday's somewhat disappointing draw against Leyton Orient in the FA Cup Arsenal are right back into action tonight against Stoke RFC in the Premier League. It may have been a second string 11 that represented Arsenal against Orient, but they were still playing in the name of Arsenal. The chance to make amends for that result will come in the replay at the Emirates next Wednesday, but for tonight the infinitely more important business of Premier League football has to be taken care of.
The plan on Sunday was to rest the majority of first team players, with tonight's game, and next Sunday's Carling Cup final in mind. Alex Song and Bacary Sagna were the only first team players to see action in that game, and thankfully they both came through unscathed, but unfortunately two other players have been lost from the line up tonight. Arsene Wenger told us yesterday that both Robin Van Persie, and Laurent Koscielny won't be playing, but they might be available for Sunday. It would appear that RVP has a slight problem with his hamstring, and Koscielny has a problem with his back.
It means Arsenal will go into tonight's game without the player who has scored nine goals in his last five Premier League games, and is by far the most in-form player in the league. Arsenal are a force to be reckoned with by any team in the world when they have their strongest team on the pitch. However, despite the best efforts of Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh they do not have another striker capable of playing anywhere near the level of RVP at his best. His career has been plagued by injury, and it can only be hoped that his current one will be very much for the short term. If Arsenal are going to continue to challenge for the Premier League title it is vitally important that RVP plays as many of their remaining 12 games as possible.
Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou have built up a very good partnership at the centre of Arsenal's defence over the last few months, and it's a shame they won't get to continue it tonight. Since the absence of Thomas Vermaelen due to injury those two players have been the backbone of Arsenal's defence, and they have managed to keep Arsenal in contention in the Premier League and the Champions League. Unfortunately the defensive problems for Arsenal have arisen when either of those players have been injured. For me it has always been obvious that Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci really struggle to play together in the Premier League in particular, as they are both in their first season in England. I do think that Squillaci has a better chance of performing well alongside Djourou, and I hope I'm right in thinking so.
Despite the fact that Arsenal are at home tonight I'm sure that Stoke RFC will do all they can to put their defence under pressure. They play a brand of football that is so unattractive to watch that I sometimes wonder how their own fans turn up for matches. At every opportunity they get tonight they will attempt to pump the ball into the Arsenal box through a combination of high balls or long throw ins. Their recent 3-2 win over Sunderland was a prime example of their tactics, when they got two very controversial late goals to win the game. When players are piling in on top of the goalkeeper and defence it can be very difficult for the officials to see exactly what's going on. I can only hope that the officials in tonight's game can be strong enough to stand up to Stoke RFC, and their tactics.
Besides playing a very unattractive style of football it also has to be remembered that it was against Stoke RFC last season that Aaron Ramsey had his leg cruelly shattered by Ryan Shawcross. In two days time it will be a year since Ramsey suffered that injury, and he hasn't kicked a ball for Arsenal since that day. His recovery is continuing at Cardiff City, and he scored their second goal in a 2-0 victory last night. I am sure the Arsenal fans will let Shawcross know exactly how they feel about him, as this is the first time the clubs have met since that fateful day.
Besides Shawcross Stoke RFC will have plenty of other players willing to put the boot in, and stop Arsenal at any cost. Arsenal need to be patient, and let the referee deal with any foul play. They cannot afford any of the players to react like Diaby did against Newcastle, and get themselves sent off stupidly. The perception that Arsenal don't "like it up 'em" has been put to bed this season in my opinion, but Stoke RFC might have to learn that lesson for themselves tonight.
To make matters worse for Arsenal their next game is on Sunday against another team who have made a habit of kicking Arsenal players, and were responsible for another horrific injury to an Arsenal player. Birmingham have a host of players who have made a living out of kicking their opponents, and they will see it as their best chance of upsetting Arsenal's rhythm in the Carling Cup final on Sunday. Again Arsenal will have to be strong, and play their football which will be too good for Birmingham to deal with.
It's funny that Arsenal should play both of these teams within four days of each other, and it will be interesting to see the reaction of the media to any bad challenges on Arsenal players. Will Arsenal be perceived as players that aren't up for a battle, or will it be seen for the thuggery that it is. I hope it's the later, but I fear it will be the former. The love affair that the media currently are having with the Spuds, most certainly does not spread as far as their North London neighbours. It was good to see the Spuds lose 3-1 to Blackpool last night, but I'm sure there will be an adequate excuse on their part i the media. Meanwhile they wait with baited breath for Arsenal to slip up despite the fact Arsenal are still challenging on all four fronts.
In tonight's game I have no doubt that the players will be up for the task, and will look to close the gap on "Manure" to only one point. As I have said before I think "Manure" are entering a crucial part of their league campaign, as they have three away games in a row. After tonight they will travel to Wigan and Chelsea before Arsenal play again, and then they will travel to Liverpool. I am hoping they will pick up no more than four points in those games, and quite possibly even less. They have only won three of their 12 away games so far, and they are only on top of the league because of their fantastic home record. I will be cheering their opponents as loudly as possible on Saturday afternoon, and next Tuesday night as well.
The team for tonight more or less picks itself, and I'm fairly sure it will be the same one that beat Barcelona last week with a few exceptions. Bacary Sagna should regain his place after serving a suspension in that game, Squillaci will fill in for the injured Koscielny, and Bendtner is the most likely candidate to replace the injured RVP. That will mean there is no place yet again for Andrey Arshavin, and the chances are he won't be too happy with that. His performances have been very good in recent games, and he would expect to have regained his place at this stage, but Samir Nasri is the player ahead of him, and he has been Arsenal's best player so far this season.
The inclusion of Bendtner for the injured RVP will hamper Arsenal's style just a little, but I think Cesc Fabregas will be the man to step up to the plate in his absence. He has been a little quiet in recent games, but he is one of the very best players in the world, and when the chips are down I expect to see him show his passion and desire. With Nasri, Theo Walcott, and Jack Wilshere to add their attacking abilities to the Arsenal cause, Stoke RFC will have to work very hard to contain them. It's all about how Arsenal approach the game, and whether Stoke RFC will cope with that approach or not.
A couple of early goals to settle the nerves would be great, but I think Arsenal will have to work the Stoke RFC defence very hard before they break them down. Stoke are 10th in the table with 10 wins, three draws, and 13 defeats in their 26 games so far. Away from home they have three wins, one draw, and nine defeats, and it's a record they cannot be allowed to improve upon tonight. If Arsenal can pressurise their players in possession I'm sure they will make mistakes, and Arsenal need to punish them when they do.
I'm predicting a 2-0 win for Arsenal with the goals coming from Cesc, and maybe Bendtner too. A win would be the perfect result going into Sunday's Carling Cup final, and a slip by "Manure" on Saturday would add to the growing feeling that this really is Arsenal's season. If the six year trophy drought can end on Sunday I have a feeling the Carling Cup will be followed by another trophy as well this season. At this moment I think the Premier League is the most likely trophy, but if Orient can be disposed of next week, then it's a really big FA Cup showdown with "Manure" in the next round. It all sounds very exciting, and I'll be here right through all of it to give my very own perspective on all of the events.
That's it for today.
Here's a look at Cesc's thoughts after the Ramsey injury against Stoke RFC last season.
See You Tomorrow.