So, the big, season-defining game is here. As I mentioned in the last post I’m quite confident and that is making me nervous. If I use my head, everything tells me Arsenal should win this one and rather comfortably at that. But the last few years have thrown up plenty of unpleasant surprises and the heart is a wary, somewhat sceptical creature these days.
Tactically, I expect to see a Blue bus parked inside Wembley. Mcleish is likely to go with a 4-5-1 and it will be interesting to see whether he picks the pacy Martins or the big man Zigic up front. I won’t be surprised if the Scot starts with a quick forward looking to play on the counter. He can bring the big man later on.
Birmingham are a unique team in that they have this tendency of putting up a serious challenge in the final 10-15 minutes. They’ve overturned a goal deficit against the big teams with their late push and Arsenal will need to score early to counter that. As we saw at St. Andrews an early goal will force them out and the Gunners will get a lot more room for their creative play. That way Wenger’s team could establish a bigger lead before the final quarter-hour of the game. Obviously, that means Arsenal need to start the game positively and at a high tempo just as they’ve been doing recently.
After the first goal they can slow down a bit but must use the ball and space more intelligently to create clear chances on the break.
With Mike Dean in charge the players will have to be prepared to win against 12 men. It will be a tough mental test and we need to see the Arsenal that overcame abysmal refereeing against Everton and Stoke and not the one that succumbed at Newcastle.
While the team as a whole has to be mentally tough, it is also an individual characteristic. So it will be interesting to see if Wenger plays his strongest team or not. In the previous Carling Cup games Arsene has made some changes to the starting eleven but I’d like to see the strongest team for this one.
At the back that would mean Koscielny coming in for Squillaci and no other changes. Eboue and Gibbs will have to be satisfied with a place on the bench.
Up front I’d like to see Arshavin on the left where he can trouble Stephen Carr who is error prone. RvP, who will captain the side, will be the key figure at the centre of the attack and I’d prefer Nasri on the right. Some might suggest playing Nasri down the middle but to me Nasri and Arshavin on the opposite flanks seems more balanced. I also feel Nasri is at his best on the right.
Picking the midfield will be a challenge in the absence of Cesc. The simpler option would be to bring Rosicky in for El Capitan in front of Wilshere and Song. I’d prefer to see Wilshere in a more advanced role with Song and Diaby behind him. That will also give Arsenal a stronger physical presence on set-pieces.
I don’t think the trio, Song-Wilshere-Diaby, have ever started any game this season so it might be suggested that this is not the right time to experiment. I will trust Wenger’s judgement on that.
Preferred starting line-up,
Szczesny – Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy – Song, Wilshere, Diaby – Arshavin, RvP, Nasri.
If Arsenal can repeat the defensive performance that we saw against Stoke, I can see the Gunners keeping a clean sheet. That will be some achievement as Birmingham have showed good form in Cup games.
I really want to see a focussed and confident display for 90 minutes even if the ref favours the opponents and the players are roughed up. Arsenal must not show signs of confusion and weakness in their play as it can lead to a negative cycle – the opponents get fired up while the Gunners start making individual mistakes. After that the ball just keeps coming into the Arsenal box giving the ref enough chances to blow for a penalty or for an opponent to get lucky with a tap-in. This will be possible if the players keep their concentration on the football and not on the result or its implications.
I have a feeling Van Persie’s delivery on set-pieces and his sharpness in and around the box will make a big difference. Wilshere should also show he is ready to take some load off Fabregas.
Prediction by my mind is a 3-1 win for Arsenal but my heart is afraid it will be heart-break after extra-time. Ultimately, my backside is bearing the brunt of sitting on an uncomfortable fence but thankfully the wait is not a long one.