It seems like such a short time ago that Arsenal topped their Champions League group to qualify for the last 16. It was a pretty good achievement for Arsenal considering that they had the champions of Germany and Greece in their group, as well as the runners-up from the French league. Other Premier League teams fell at that stage of the competition, and now face the prospect of Thursday night football in the Europa League.
Arsenal probably got the toughest draw possible for them in the last 16 with a trip to Italian league leaders AC Milan. Milan came through a group with current champions Barcelona, and they performed very well in their games against the best team in the world. It won't be an easy task for Arsenal to triumph over the current Italian champions over two legs, and they need to get a good result from the first leg to have a good chance.
The only injury Arsenal picked up on Saturday against Sunderland wax the one Per Mertesacker got, and he looks certain to miss this game. Arsene Wenger has a choice to make in his defence with Mertesacker injured, and it could be a very important one for the team. Thomas Vermaelen has been deployed at left-back recently, but it looks like he might move to a central defensive role.
If Vermaelen moves into a central role Wenger has to pick either Kieran Gibbs or Francis Coquelin as the other full-back to play with Bacary Sagna. Gibbs hasn't played since his injury a couple of months ago, and it would be a surprise if he made his comeback in such a big game. Coquelin is not a full-back though, and it would be a risk to play him too.
There is always the option of switching Sagna to left-back, and playing Coquelin at right-back I suppose. It's a decision that could have a profound effect on the game, and it's very hard to know which way the manager will go. Whoever he chooses will need a lot of help from the rest of the team, and I'm sure he will get it too.
In midfield I would expect to see Aaron Ramsey return in place of Tomas Rosicky who has played quite well in the last two games. I thought Ramsey needed a rest, and the time he spent on the bench recently will hopefully have done him some good. He came on for the last 20 minutes on Saturday, and scored the crucial equalising goal for Arsenal before they went on to win.
The other big decisions for Wenger will be who he chooses to play in the two wide roles on either side of Robin van Persie. Both Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struggled against a very tight Sunderland defence on Saturday, but surely Milan will show more ambition than Sunderland did. I suspect that he will play the two of them from the start again, but if he decides not to then Andrey Arshavin will step up.
Arshavin has not been at his best for a long time for Arsenal, but his assist for Thierry Henry's winning goal on Saturday was a glimpse of the class he still possesses. I wish that would produce that magic a lot more often for Arsenal, but it just doesn't seem to happen. The other option for Wenger is to start Henry, but I would imagine he will be limited to another cameo role from the bench.
The last time Arsenal went to Milan they had a fantastic 2-0 win, and a similar result would be absolutely fantastic for them. They played Milan off the pitch that night, but they won't have it all their own way this time. Arsenal are not as strong now as they were then, but they do have a togetherness that could stand to them.
I'm sure they will have to withstand a lot of Milan pressure from Milan at certain times in the game, but the further they push forward the more vulnerable they might be. Walcott is at his best when there is space for him to run into, and if Milan push too far forward he might just get a little joy. On the other side Oxlade-Chamberlain is a relative unknown player to them, and it's a chance for him to shine on a really big stage.
If Oxlade-Chamberlain is going to do enough to make it into the England squad for Euro 2012 then this is the type of game where he could get noticed. He has bags of talent and he would be a great addition to the England squad in my opinion.
Even if Arsenal's wide players don't get a lot of joy they still have RVP to lead their attack, and he is having his best season ever for them. He has 28 goals in all competitions this season for Arsenal, and four of them came in four Champions League starts. I'm sure Milan will be watching him very closely, but I'm equally sure that he's capable of scoring against any team.
Mikael Arteta has been an excellent signing for Arsenal this season, and he's the player that keeps the midfield ticking. He's finally getting a chance to play at the top level in football, and he is doing all he can to make sure he is a success. I would imagine that he will be the Arsenal player who completes most passes by the time the game is over as usual.
It's a tough task for the team, but the wins they got in their last two Premier League games will be a real boost for them. The 7-1 win over Blackburn was great for morale, but the win over Sunderland might have been even more important. The team were facing down the barrel of a gun with 20 minutes left against the most in-form team in the league, and they dug deep to pull out a well deserved victory.
They will need that fighting spirit against a Milan team that have only conceded five goals at home in the Italian league in 11 games so far this season. I think Arsenal have the ability and the courage to get a result from the game, as long as they believe in themselves. I'm predicting a 2-1 win for Arsenal, and I'm hoping for a performance to silence all the doubters.
Even if Arsenal don't get a win I hope they can do enough to keep themselves in the tie for the return game in three weeks time. They have some tough games in between the games against Milan, but they will also be fascinating games to watch for all Arsenal fans.
I would imagine Gervinho will return to the squad in the next few days after his trials and tribulations at the African Cup of Nations. He missed the crucial penalty in the shootout which handed the trophy to Zambia, and it was clear that he didn't want to take the penalty either. Hopefully it won't effect his game when he returns, and maybe the return to his club will be what he needs to take his mind off it.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights of that 2-0 win for Arsenal away to AC Milan in March 2008.
See you tomorrow.