It's been a very tough time recently for Arsenal fans as they have seen their team exit from one competition after another in quick succession. All that's left for them now is the hope of overcoming "Manure" in the race for the Premier League title. Only three weeks ago Arsenal were due to play Birmingham in the Carling Cup final and they were very clear favourites to win their first trophy in almost six years. Unfortunately a costly last minute defensive howler saw Birmingham snatch an undeserved win in my opinion, and then Arsenal went out of both the Champions League and the FA Cup in a matter of days.
The manner of both of those exits could have been worse, but it doesn't matter as the rest of the footballing world saw what they considered to be another Arsenal collapse. The only way to prove the doubters wrong is for Arsenal to pick themselves up and win enough of their last 10 league games to claim their first title in seven years. The game against West Brom is the first of those games, and it could possibly prove to be one of the toughest.
On the face of it West Brom are struggling to avoid relegation, but they seem to have turned things around recently. A win for them would prove to be a real boost in their relegation battle, and they know they are capable of it. In the reverse fixture in September Arsenal gave West Brom a three goal head start at the Emirates before getting two late goals, but they still lost. It was a dreadful performance from Arsenal, and the man in goals that day was Manuel Almunia. After a strange turn of events Almunia is now Arsenal's first choice goalkeeper again, but that has more to do with injuries than his abilities.
Defensively Arsenal are down to the bare bones in goal as well as the centre of their defence. With Lukasz Fabianski out for the rest of the season and Wojciech Szczesny out for another five weeks approximately, it means Almunia is now the first choice. It had looked like his Arsenal career was over, but he is now crucial to their chances. Things have become so desperate with Arsenal's goalkeeping crisis that Jens Lehmann has been tempted back from retirement to act as cover for Almunia for the rest of the season. In his day Lehmann was a fantastic goalkeeper, and hopefully he can find some of that form if he is called upon to play.
Arsene Wenger admitted on Thursday that Thomas Vermaelen is out for the rest of the season, and Johan Djourou will not play again for at least six weeks. It leaves Arsenal very short at the centre of their defence, and the most likely combination is Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci. They have played together a few times already this season, and it has never been a good combination in my opinion. Hopefully they have spent the last week in training working on their game together, but I still can't see Arsenal keeping too many clean sheets for the rest of the season.
With Djourou and Koscielny at the back Arsenal had looked very strong defensively in the Premier League, with seven clean sheets in their last nine league games. The only goal conceded with both of them on the pitch was against Everton, and the othere four goals against Newcastle came when Djourou had left the game injured and Abu Diaby had been sent off. The most likely reserve to back both Koscielny and Squillaci up will be Ignasi Miquel. He has very limited first team experience for Arsenal, with a couple of FA Cup games making it up.
There is obvious criticism of the boss for not signing a centre back in the transfer window, and with his admission he never thought Vermaelen would play again this season, that criticism is justified. If Arsenal fail to keep up their challenge in the league due to a leaky defence the fans who want him out will rightly point the finger at him. It's a big gamble he took in January, and at the moment it's right on the edge of slapping him in the face.
I can only imagine he will pick his strongest team possible today and with the other injuries in the team it doesn't take a rain surgeon to work most of it out. Besides the players already mentioned Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy should be the full backs, and Jack Wilshere will definitely play in midfield. Diaby has apparently picked up another injury which means the dreaded Diaby and Deilson axis will not be seen at least. The boss has to decide whether he will play Denilson or Aaron Ramsey alongside Wilshere. I hope he picks Ramsey, but I fear he will pick Denilson.
In front of those two players he just has to play Samir Nasri in the role usually filled by the injured Cesc Fabregas. In recent games Nasri has played in a wide role and drifted inside when he can, before having to try to rescue the game from the central position late on. There is of course the possibility of both Ramsey and Denilson playing with Nasri still in a wide role, but I really hope that isn't the case. Both Cesc and Alex Song should be available after the upcoming international break, and so should Theo Walcott.
I can understand why the boss plays Nasri on the right with Walcott injured, and his options in that position limited, but he will probably have to play either Tomas Rosicky or Nicklas Bendtner there today. On the other side Andrey Arshavin will no doubt start, but hopefully he can have one of his better days, as his form seems to have dipped yet again. That leaves Robin Van Persie as the central striker, and his goals could be crucial in the last ten games for Arsenal. He was in great form before his injury in the Carling Cup final, and he seems to have being playing with an injury since he cam back.
He did come back at least three weeks ahead of schedule, and possibly it has affected him, but I'm hoping the last week without a game will have given him a chance to regain full fitness. When he is on form there are few better players in the Premier League, and he is Arsenal's top scorer in the league this season despite the fact he has only started nine games and come off the bench six times. I'm backing him to be the player that makes the difference today, and scores the goals to get Arsenal the three points.
I'm predicting a 2-1 win for Arsenal with RVP bagging both goals, as Arsenal look to make it through to the international break with their league chances intact. When the break is over they will hopefully have those injured players back, and then they can concentrate on the task of winning their first league title in seven years. I still think they have a great chance of taking that title, as "Manure" are now starting to suffer from the same injury crisis Arsenal have had. It could open the door for Chelsea if both teams slip up, but I'm hoping the fact both of those teams have to play each other in the last eight of the Champions League will have an effect on their league chances.
I'll be hoping to get a stream somewhere to watch today's game, and I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that Arsenal will have found enough confidence to get the win. They still have some fantastic players available, and those players need to step up and be counted today. I expect both Nasri and RVP to show what it means to them to play for Arsenal, by doing what is required to win the game and keep the chances of a trophy alive this season.
That's it for today.
Here's a little bit of action from Samir Nasri.
See You Tomorrow.