Sunday, 4 January 2015

Arsenal v Hull City: FA Cup Third Round Preview

The FA Cup usually throws up a few strange or quirky draws in the third round every season and so it is with Arsenal's game against Hull. The clubs last met in the cup when they contested the final last May in what was a very memorable encounter. That final went Arsenal's way after extra time despite Hull racing into an early two goal lead.

That victory over Hull was Arsenal's first trophy in nine years and we hoped it was the start of something good for the club with the financial shackles also removed. Things started well in the summer transfer market, but some crucial areas of the squad were neglected and it's same old, same old for Arsenal this season. They are currently fifth in the league with a top three or four finish as their only realistic target and all hopes of a league title gone. 

The title challenge lasted a lot longer last season but ultimately ended up with a fourth placed finish and the FA Cup as the only realistic chance of a trophy. This season seems to be heading down that oh so familiar track although there is a very good chance of the team reaching the last eight of the Champions League this time. It would be their best performance in that competition in a few years if they were to beat Monaco, but realistically that's about as far as they can hope to go in the Champions League.

With all of that in mind today's game against Hull becomes a very important one for the players and the fans. Not only is it the only realistic chance of a trophy, but it's also Arsenal's trophy to defend and they need to do so for as long as possible. No other team has won the FA Cup more often than Arsenal and a win this season would see them hold the record on their own as the team who have won the most FA Cup finals.

In team news it looks like Arsene Wenger will have the same squad available to him as the one which were beaten 2-0 by Southampton on Sunday with a slight possibility of Mathieu Flamini and Mesut Ozil returning from their respective injuries. The perceived first choice defence was played against Southampton and they most certainly didn't cover themselves in glory. It was all going very well until Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny combined to hand Southampton their first goal and after that they just went to pieces. 

Szczesny in particular had a game to forget when he inexplicably handed the second goal to Southampton with a clearance right out of a "Keystone Cops" sketch. The lack of composure he showed was unbelievable for a player with over 150 first team appearances behind him and he can't continue to be considered a goalkeeper with "loads of potential". He needs to live up to that potential on a consistent basis and it seems the only way he will do that is if he is put under pressure for his place.

David Ospina was bought to do just that, but his injury has made it too easy for Szczesny and his standards have dropped as a result. Emiliano Martinez got a chance when Szczesny was suspended and injured and did well, but was immediately dropped to the bench on Szczesny's return. I thought Ospina was fit again but he wasn't in the squad on Sunday so I can't see him playing today.

The boss has traditionally rotated his team and given fringe players a run in the cup, but the lack of available players doesn't give him too many options today. I would expect him to go with a very similar team to Sunday with Theo Walcott possibly coming in to make his full return to the team after getting injured at this stage of the FA Cup last season. When he's back to match fitness Walcott will be a real asset to the team, but it will take a while for him to get there.

In midfield I don't think it was fair on Calum Chambers to throw him in for his first start as a midfielder against a team as good as Southampton and with such a makeshift Arsenal team. Francis Coquelin was again very good in his defensive midfield role, but I wouldn't be surprised if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain dropped back to play alongside him. Chamberlain's natural instinct is to attack and he wasn't at his best against Southampton, but he can play that defensive role and has done reasonably well there in the past. The majority of the defensive work will be done by Coquelin and Hull are no Southampton, but Chamberlain is capable of putting a shift in too.

The players have to be feeling an awful lot of fatigue after such a busy festive schedule and even more so as the injury situation has limited the manager's options in every single game. There's a real case to be made for giving both Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla a much needed rest and pushing players too hard has led to too many injuries for the team in the past. I doubt if either player will be rested though as they are so important to the team and there are so few options at the moment. At least there's no midweek game this week and the players will have a chance to recover between today and next Sunday's game at home to Stoke.

Chuba Akpom could well make a start even if both Alexis and Cazorla play and he is a player who has the potential to become a very good player. With Lukas Podolski departed on loan to Inter Milan there aren't too many other options available to the boss. Podolski's chances were very limited this season and I can understand his desire to play, but it's hard to see why Arsenal let him go with all of their current injury worries. They could have at least waited another week or two until some of the injured players returned and put the team's needs ahead of the player's.

Hull will be just as tired from their recent games as Arsenal, but they have managed to win a couple of games to move away from the relegation zone. They have struggled to win games and score goals this season, but they are not an easy team to beat as they proved when they came to Arsenal and got a 2-2 draw earlier in the season. They will surely be very anxious to make amends for that cup final defeat and maybe go on another cup run of their own.

For me Arsenal are at their worst when they concede and Southampton showed that up on Sunday. I worry every time they concede a goal that they will go to pieces and sometimes it takes them an eternity to regain any sort of confidence once the opposition score. That seems to be the case when they concede first in a game or even when they are already 3-0 up like they were against Anderlecht. 

Despite the shortage of options and the obvious fatigue I still think whatever team Arsenal put out today will be more than good enough to beat Hull. I want to see them play with verve and confidence and dominate the game from first minute to last while winning well, but I will take any sort of victory. The feeling of elation after nine years of waiting last May was magnificent and I don't want all hopes of a trophy to have disappeared in the first week in January.

Hopefully the team can win and do so without the need for a replay and give themselves a month with no midweek football. It looks like the injury problems are sorting themselves out although that's probably tempting fate knowing how quickly Arsenal players pick up new injuries. A lack of midweek games would surely give the players who have been overplayed a chance to get a much needed rest and bring the injured players slowly back into the fold.

With the games stretched out from Friday to Monday and the fourth round draw not until Monday it's very hard to get a real feel for the FA Cup. I know it's to maximise the amount of games on TV, but I can't help feeling the competition is suffering as a result. A repeat of last season's final might be just the spectacle the competition needs and the holders going out always gets plenty of press. Hopefully that won't happen today and we will be treated to the holders showing their intent to keep a firm hold on their trophy.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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