By now you must have seen the fixture list for the upcoming season. If not, the official website has them here.
At first glance it seems Arsenal do have a tough start. After beginning against Sunderland at home, the first such home start in four years, the Gunners will travel to Stoke and Liverpool. Then there are challenging games against City (A) and Chelsea (H) after a supposedly easier outing against Southampton (H).
So by the end of September, Wenger’s team would have played at the Britannia, Anfield, and Etihad while hosting Champions League winners Chelsea at home. They’ll drop points, no doubt about it. But there are different ways of looking at this.
For instance, all teams struggle in games away to Stoke. Playing them early in the season rather than in the winter might not be so bad. While the attempt is always to win, anything gained on that ground is a positive in relative terms.
Similarly, Liverpool will again be in a rebuilding phase. Given the difference in styles between Brendan Rodgers and Kenny Dalglish, it’s not hard to imagine them taking some time to gel. They also have a tough start. Before facing the Gunners, Rodgers will take his side to the blue half of Manchester. Soon after hosting Wenger’s side they travel to the Stadium of Light before welcoming United to Anfield. Pressure will be immense. They could really establish themselves as title challengers with big results in these games, might really struggle to get going, or have a mixed bag of results. It won’t be easy but there is a chance of getting something out of the game.
It’s tough to predict how Chelsea will line-up. Will Abramovich accept the deep and narrow defence as the strategy for the whole season, especially with further additions to the squad? Will they be able to create a more attacking style of play? Again there’s a distinct possibility their game might not click in the early part of the season.
Essentially, it’ll boil down to how well prepared each squad is on the day of the battle. Before last season the Gunners used to be among the best in that regard due to the training camp in Austria but with all the globe-trotting these days one cannot be sure anymore. A lot will also depend on the fitness of key players. If Wilshere, for instance, is back and ready it would be like a new world class signing! Then there is the Van Persie issue. We will get a better idea over the course of the pre-season. Direct qualification for the Champions League should benefit the Gunners as two taxing midweek fixtures get taken off the calendar.
Speaking of midweek games, Arsenal will only have two such matches to contend with before the end of September. One of those is a League Cup – now known as Capital One Cup or COCup – and could work as an opportunity to play fringe players or youngsters. The Gunners will have one big Champions League tie and that will fall just before the visit to City. Anything out of that game will be a bonus.
October should be a relatively straight-forward month but November takes Arsenal to Old Trafford and brings the first North London Derby of the season to the Emirates. December also has routine fixtures. Of course, the Gunners have struggled against smaller teams in recent past so nothing can or should be taken for granted.
The Champions League group stages will conclude in the first week of December. The Gunners have West Ham (A), QPR (H), Fulham (H), Villa (A), and WBA (H) immediately following these midweek challenges. Three home and three away is a decent mix and for once Arsene will not have much to complain about as far as these fixtures are concerned.
Ferguson on the other hand might have a wrinkled brow while looking at his side’s fixtures.
As a matter of fact, United will face Liverpool (A), Newcastle (A), Chelsea (A), Villa (A), QPR (H), and City (A) after their Champions League exertions.
Let’s not forget Arsenal had a 4W 1D 5L record in the games following CL fixtures last season. The importance of direct qualification and of relatively easier fixtures immediately following European ties cannot be overemphasized.
Moving forward, Arsene and his players will have a tough start to 2013 and the Gunners do have a history of struggling in some part of the winter of the other. One of the causes behind their woes is fixture pile-up. There could potentially be four domestic cup ties, if the team makes it to the COCup semis, to go with an equal number of League games that include City (H), Chelsea (A), and Liverpool (H). That’s potentially one big, slimy banana skin.
February has more Cup action as the UCL knockout phase starts, and Premiership games with moderate levels of difficulty. Arsenal visit Spurs early in March. By then the season could be tantalizingly poised of already down in the dumps. At the very least this game will have a major say in the battle for top 4 spots.
The end of the season run-in is not the hardest but again the caveat of slipping against relatively lesser opposition applies. Only the visit to Old Trafford at the end of April stands out as a massive fixture but the trip to Newcastle in the final week could also be a decisive one if last season was anything to go by.
As ever, the progress in various Cup competitions will have an impact on the severity of certain fixtures as the squad depth is tested and player fatigue comes into play. This usually has greater impact on games in the second half of the season and the so-called easy games can turn into nightmares. Hopefully we will see fewer injury problems and greater squad rotation this season but don’t hold your breath.
And for those who believe in omens and/or have a sense of humour, the following might induce a smile
Don’t forget at least some of the fixtures will be revised to fit TV demands and other considerations.Follow @goonerdesi