Here we are; first home game of the new season and the second of the five massive fixtures this month.
The start wasn’t as good as one would have liked but it wasn’t as bad as many had feared either. Things could be a lot worse than a hard fought draw in the opening game away from home which included a strong defensive performance.
I will be thrilled if the Gunners can repeat that defensive performance against the Italians. A clean sheet would be the best thing to take to Udinese for the return leg but something tells me it’s not going to happen.
Tactically, I expect this to be a lot more open and exciting game. The Italian side have a notable quality in the final third and will trouble Szczesny a whole lot more than the Barcodes did on the weekend.
Di Natale is a world class striker and I expect Vermaelen to struggle against him. The top scorer in Serie A for consecutive seasons has the technique to run rings around the Belgian. Even Koscielny might pay the price for his inexperience. I hope the central defenders have been prepared for his movement, turns, and finishing abilities. Their decision making, anticipation, and technique will be tested to the hilt. It will be fascinating to see when and how tight they get on Di Natale. Better support will make their job relatively manageable.
Udinese, as a team, will also pose a threat through their superior technique, better crossing abilities, intelligent set-plays, counter-attacking threat, and a nothing to lose mentality in a tie that could be the high point of their season.
Arsenal can easily lose this tie in the first leg itself if the back four don’t get better protection. Unfortunately, Wenger does not have that many options and I don’t expect sudden tactical changes anymore.
On a positive note, I expect Arsenal to be better prepared for this as the Italians are yet to play a competitive fixture. Of course, that can easily translate into tiredness if the result doesn’t meet expectations.
Moreover, Udinese have also lost three key players and will probably lose some edge in the attacking and defensive areas.
Strangely enough, I don’t expect the Italians to be as efficient in their marking as Newcastle were on Saturday. But in order to take advantage of that, the Gunners will have to move the ball much faster than they did at St. James’ Park.
In a way, both sides are in a rebuilding phase and have a lot riding on this fixture. It’s hard to say whether that will result in diffident performances or not but I have a feeling the side that makes a mistake or two will pay a heavy price.
With Van Persie missing due to suspension, Chamakh is likely to lead the line. His movement can provide Gervinho some excellent opportunities but those wondering where the creativity will come from have some valid concerns.
Quality service for Chamakh can help him get on the score-sheet and get his confidence back. If Arsenal do play high up the pitch and push the opponents back into their defensive third, the final ball into the box will have to be much more purposeful and accurate. Hopeful lobs into the box won’t cut it. Gibbs is the best hope in this regard but Sagna, Arshavin, Rosicky, and Ramsey can all deliver.
Arsenal also have to learn to use Chamakh’s aerial talents to create lay-offs for the other attackers but I don’t expect that to materialize out of thin air in this game. The Moroccan, for his part, has to contribute better than his pre-season performances.
I expect to see the same back five. Rosicky has a fitness test and if he misses the game we might see Frimpong making a start as there are precious few options. Up front Chamakh should come in for Van Persie in the only change.
Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Frimpong/Rosicky, Ramsey – Gervinho, Chamakh, Arshavin.
I have a feeling there will be mistakes at both ends and this will be a scoring draw.
It can get worse if the fans help the opposition but it’s a burden the players will have to deal with. The spirit in the opening game was spot-on and more of that will be needed, especially if disaster strikes early. I will be a lot more confident about the season if the Gunners show they can turn a game around.