Yesterday’s defeat of Chelski at the hands of Everton adds some more gloss to the possbility of winning the FA Cup and with United and West Ham due to play after we have lined up against Watford, the world’s oldest footballing knockout competition now carries added significance, going in to today’s game at The Emirates.
There’s no doubt that we have a very tough game this lunchtime and Watford will be massively up for this competition having secured their Premier League status some time ago. But in whilst progression is still a hurdle and even then the possibility of beating Everton still difficult, not many would argue that Chelski going through would have made our chances of winning the competition any easier, especially with our record against them.
This competition is probably the only one we realistically stand a chance of winning. The Champions League is beyond us and the Premier League will be soon enough given our very difficult run in. Within the next week we could find ourselves effectively out of the running in both of those competitions, so winning in today’s game takes on new meaning, so let’s hope the players are up for it.
Given the frequency and types of games we have to play in the next seven days, the real questions we have are how much Arsène will rotate his team. To me the order of importance is clear and based on chances of success: Watford, Everton, Barcelona. In that order. Field the best team against Watford and Everton and rotate players for Barcelona. There’s practically no time between arriving back from that game and the lunchtime kick off on Saturday, so certain players need to have their energy conserved, which is why the Barca game should be thrown.
It won’t be though. I suspect we’ll get rotation today, with a full strength team on both Wednesday and Saturday, as Arsène tries to recreate the latest version of ‘Arsenal in Europe: Glorious Failure pt IV’. So I suspect today will see a back four of Chambers, Mertesacker, Gabriel and Gibbs. Nothing particularly wrong with that and with Watford likely to sit deep and hit us on the counter, perhaps having a centre half playing at full back isn’t a bad thing, especially when we’re attacking on set pieces.
In midfield I think we’ll see another game for Elneny, but there’s a question around who will partner him, because it could be either Flamini or Coquelin. Personally I hope it’s Coquelin, because until we see some of our more creative midfielders like Jack back, that looks like a pairing with more balance than the variations we’ve had so far this year. That being the case, the pairing needs as many minutes together as possible to develop some kind of partnership, which is why I hope they both start this lunchtime.
In front of them I think Iwobi will play, but personally I’d like to see Özil, for the aforementioned rotation policy for Barca in mind. Mesut is the guy who pulls the strings in our midfield. He’s the master craftsman. If there’s a team sitting deep and defending well, who better to unlock it with precision passing than him? So I’d start him with a front three that contains both Campbell, Alexis and Welbeck. That’d be my choice, but I think Arsène will give Theo and Giroud another go at building some more confidence, so I suspect they’ll get the nod.
Watford will look to hit us direct on the counter. They will want us sideways passing in front of their defence all afternoon. Therefore what we will need to have – fans as much as players – is patience. I think this is going to be a game designed to frustrate us. Watford wouldn’t mind a draw. They’d be over the moon with it. But we want to avoid it like the plague. So I think we’ll look to go for broke if the scores are still level with 20 to go. Or at least that’s what I hope we’ll do.
If I was a betting man, I’d probably opt for a one-goal victory, or at least a win for either side with just one goal in it. This is going to be cagey, but it’s an opportunity to get to Wembley, so we can’t pass it up.
Come on Arsenal!