After a near perfect performance against Milan, the Manchester United game should be banished from the minds of the squad. Now we return to the business of the Premier League and it is time to get back into the swing of things. The only thing we failed to do against AC this week was put the ball in the back of the net, Saturday is a perfect chance to put that right.
Had we killed Birmingham off at home rather than let complacency creep in we would be 7 points clear. Things happen in football and to be honest you cannot look back and say “what of at this stage”. That game was in the past and every club has had certain things go wrong unexpectedly. I am only reminding everyone of this because the same cannot happen. We need to keep the 5 point gap alive and extend it if possible before we travel to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge.
Against Birmingham at the Emirates we really should have finished with 3 points, especially having taken the lead. In the past we had often gone behind only to gain a point late on but we got past that this season. This time however we allowed a team to steal a point with a cheap goal from their first set piece; tomorrow, if we take the lead, we must kill the game off as quickly as possible.
We are less likely to concede a similar goal with someone like Senderos in the side. His form has been excellent and if he can continue this then we should have a solid enough base to build on. One thing Phil adds to the side when he is in the team is height and power from set pieces, at both ends. All we lacked in the corresponding fixture was for someone to take charge and head the ball clear.
On the injury front we have Almunia back in the squad but after two good performances from Lehmann that is no great boost; it is nice to have him back but with one ‘keeper in good form it can never improve the squad hugely. It would be harsh on Lehmann should Almunia come straight back in, but I guess having established himself as the Premiership keeper this season, Wenger may opt for Manuel and keep Jens for the second leg against AC.
Van Persie, it seems, will return for the run-in but Wenger wants to have him fully fit and raring to go before he returns, he could be a massive player for us in the coming months. Tomas Rosicky is also close to a return but it is too soon for him also.
We only have one player back but we have two players out. Kolo’s injury is not as bad as first feared and in my eyes, it was wrong to start him ahead of Senderos on Wednesday night. Senderos was in the middle of a good run of form and Toure returned to the side after an injury-hit African Cup of Nations; only to be part of the 4-0 drubbing. Phil gets another chance to cement his place and his form eases the loss of Toure.
Emmanuel Eboue is also out with a fresh injury. His looks as serious as first feared with his lay-off likely to be around one month. For me, we have not lost anything special here as Eboue has been very poor all season. No goals from the right wing, from a player who has started a lot of games, is not good enough. He has not looked to beat his full back enough and now Theo Walcott gets a shot. Eboue played through the injury which may have caused further damage. To me that is bad for the team on his part, as soon as he felt any niggle he should have come off and allowed a raring to go Theo more time on the pitch.
It is hard to make this statement with Theo only having five minutes on the field of play, but, when he came on he seemed to have more urgency and positivity in him than Eboue had for most of his 89 minutes. Wenger made the substitution too late against Milan but Walcott now should get at least 70 minutes to show his worth to the side. He has looked a far better player as an impact sub, can he have an influence from the start?
Clichy and Sagna showed how important they are to the team with brilliant displays in midweek. I mentioned it after that game and want to mention again how much respect I have for Sagna right now. He has just lost a brother but has come back to put this team high in his priorities. Even though football is basically his life and for many players it is the best way to put things behind you, coming back so soon takes bottle and for this I salute him. Clichy has played in every league game this season which is a remarkable feat and along with Sagna has established himself as a key member of the side.
Despite playing behind the striker in the Champions League, Hleb will revert to the left as Eduardo partners Adebayor once again. In the League there is less emphasis on keeping the ball in the centre and if we can get it wide to Hleb he can cause problems out there. He will be key should we adopt a counter attacking strategy and his eye for a pass could split Birmingham apart.
All I need to say regarding both Flamini and Fabregas is “same again please”. These two were awesome in the game against Milan and together meant we won the midfield battle. We gave their players no time to settle and with Birmingham likely to mix it up, they will have a hard task. Hopefully Cesc can get on the ball and maybe even get back on the scoresheet. One thing I wish to say to Flamini only, “sign up now, please!”
Eduardo plied his trade on the left of midfield and worked away admirably in a position he is not suited to. Wenger clearly is attempting to re-create a similar set up to the one that took us to the final two seasons ago, with a left footed player in Reyes out on the left. In the league however, I am sure Eddy will revert to his preferred role as a striker. That is where he is dangerous and a 4-4-2 is generally more suited to the Premier League as the game is faster and more direct with more goals scored on average than in the Champions League.
Should we take the lead Wenger may move Eduardo to the left to help us in possession and give us a stronger base for a counter attack. I would prefer for him to leave it as it is so we constantly have a threat going forward. Having two strikers will always increase the possibility to score and kill the game off.
When Adebayor headed the ball against the crossbar when it seemed easier to score it summed up his evening; nothing seemed to go right for him. Overall he did not have the best of games as his touch let him down frequently and he seemed lost up front on his own. Ade has 19 goals in 23(+1) appearances this season and will look to continue this form. Since his move from Monaco he has fired blanks in Europe but in the league has found goals easier to come by, hopefully he exemplifies that at St Andrews tomorrow.
Likely Arsenal team vs Birmingham
Subs: Almunia, Hoyte, Gilberto, Denilson, Bendtner
We will see two ex-Arsenal players in Larsson and Muamba, the latter posing the main threat to our midfield. If we can bypass the tough -tackling midfielder then we can dominate midfield. Larsson will provide a good supply of crosses which the defence will have to deal with. It is likely that we will have to deal with a direct style similar to the one Birmingham produced at the Emirates.
We need to get back to winning ways after a defeat and a draw and this away game is another character testing game for the lads. I am confident we can win if we keep the ball and take our chances.