Saturday, 18 February 2012

Arsenal's FA Cup Fifth Round Trip To Sunderland Previewed

It seems like Arsenal are lurching from one crisis to another this season. If it isn't their worst defeat in top flight football in almost 100 years then it's their worst defeat in Champions League football. Never mind the injury crisis which has enveloped the club for at least the third season in a row.

I usually have a very positive outlook on Arsenal, but I didn't believe everything would be great once the injured players returned. There was always the possibility that others would get injured and take their places, and so it has proved to be. The latest player to join the catalogue of injured players at the club is Per Mertesacker, and it looks like his ankle surgery has ended his season.

Kieran Gibbs returned from injury on Wednesday night, and he was duly thrown to the lions in a really tough game for any player to make a comeback in. His defensive abilities have always been suspect, but it was more than a little unfair to bring him back in that game. It looks like the left-back berth is his now, as the defensive injuries pile up again.

With Gibbs' injury record I'm not sure how long he will last in the role, but hopefully he can develop his defensive abilities in the team. Laurent Koscielny picked up an injury on Wednesday night too, but hopefully he will be back for next week's Premier League game against Spurs. It's a game which means an awful lot to Arsenal fans, and they cannot be allowed to beat Arsenal at home for the second season in a row.

For today's game against Sunderland the defence almost picks itself because of those injuries to Mertesacker and Koscielny. Johan Djourou should come in for Koscielny in the only defensive change from Wednesday night, and hopefully he can find some of the form he had last season prior to his injury. He has had a bad time when he has played this season, but he was mostly asked to play as a right back.

In midfield I can't see too many changes, but Arsene Wenger has to decide whether to play Aaron Ramsey or Tomas Rosicky. I can't see him leaving Alex Song or Mikael Arteta out of the team, but I wouldn't be averse to seeing Francis Coquelin get a chance in midfield. Surely he can't do any worse than some of those who underperformed so much on Wednesday night, and he might add some urgency to the team.

The attacking trio will again be led by Robin van Persie, and the big decision for Wenger is who to play with him. Theo Walcott seems to start regardless of how he plays, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the one who missed out against Milan. With Gervinho available again after losing the African Cup of Nations final on penalties there are certainly plenty of options.

If I was choosing the team I think I would go for Chamberlain and Gervinho, but that job is currently under the care of Wenger. I hope he stays in the job, but the discontent among Arsenal fans is growing, and the profits made from transfers is weakening the squad annually. If it is allowed to continue Arsenal will not be able to even consider competing seriously for any of the major trophies.

Robin van Persie has just over one yer remaining on his contract, and if he wants to win silverware he must know there are must better options elsewhere. If the club cannot convince him to stay it will show that they really do lack ambition, and those calling for a change could become the majority. It's a worst case scenario of course, and hopefully Arsenal can still win the FA Cup and finish in the top four too.

The injury suffered by Mertesacker looked like it was caused by Sunderland's pitch last Saturday, and Arsenal have to play on the same pitch again today. Even the Sunderland players have admitted that their pitch is in a bad state, and it won't make it easy for either team to play football on today. Arsenal were the better team last week, but the circumstances are very different this week.

Last week Sunderland came into the game on the back of a FA Cup replay the previous Wednesday night which went to extra time. It's Arsenal who had the tough midweek game this week, as they spent 90 minutes chasing shadows in Italy. Sunderland are the team who had the luxury of a week off this time, and it might see a change of tactics for them.

They kept their whole team behind the ball last week almost all of the time, and tried to hit Arsenal on the break. Sunderland had been in very good form prior to that game, and they might have fared better if they tried to take Arsenal on. Arsenal are more vulnerable in defence this season than they have been for many years, and Sunderland may feel they missed their chance.

After watching Milan dismantle Arsenal on Wednesday night Sunderland could possibly decide to have a go themselves. Of course Sunderland are not Milan, and if Arsenal can raise themselves enough they could profit from playing an attack minded Sunderland. I think Sunderland will go with the same tactics as last week, and I hope Arsenal can break them down a bit sooner this time.

Thierry Henry won Arsenal the three points last week with his injury winner, but he won't be around to do it for them this time. It's a pity he had to return to his club after his loan spell, but at least he made a genuine impression when he was at the club. I doubt if he will ever wear an Arsenal shirt competitively again, and it's a pity his last appearance ended in such a heavy defeat.

If the newspapers are to be believed Wenger was very disappointed with Wednesday night's performance, and he let the players know. They quite simply have to respond against Sunderland, and they have to avoid defeat. A win would be the ideal result, but once they remain in the competition there will still be hope for this season.

The FA Cup is Arsenal's only hope of a trophy now this season, and it would be an awful blow if their only aim from the third week in February was to try to finish in the top four. Only Manchester United have won more FA Cups than Arsenal, but a win for Arsenal this season would equal United's total of 11 wins. If Arsenal can win the FA Cup it would ease the pain of probably finishing behind Spurs for the first time since Wenger became Arsenal's manager.

I'm hoping for the reaction from the players that Wenger is demanding, and if they can react properly I think Arsenal will win. I don't think Martin O'Neill has the bottle to take Arsenal on, and it could be their undoing in my opinion. I'm predicting a 3-1 win for Arsenal, and a safe passage through to the last eight of the FA Cup.

After the return leg against Milan Arsenal can have a week off between almost every game they play unless they have any FA Cup replays. It will be a welcome break for the players, but also a sign that the club is not living up to it's previous successes under Wenger. Never before has Arsenal's season been as good as over so early in the season, and it will hurt the fans if things do end so early.

The game is live on TV which means I won't have to search frantically for a stream, but it also means there will be no escape if things go wrong. I sincerely hope they don't go wrong, but this season I am by no means certain of it. The sale of star players added to the injury problems has seen Arsenal have too few options when things need to be changed, and it has cost the team dearly.

Hopefully it won't cost them today, and they can keep their season alive with a  win or even a draw.

That's it for today.

Here's the goals from Arsenal's FA Cup final victory over United in 1979.

See you tomorrow.


  1. I would also like to see Gervinho and Chamberlain out wide, I think it would give us a more varied threat and be more difficult to control for Sunderland.

    I wonder if van Persie may be rested for this one though.

    The Champions League spot will still remain the priority for Arsene even if the FA Cup is our only available chance of a trophy.

  2. I would be shocked if RVP is rested as Arsenal don't play again for another week.