Some of you may or may not know this, but I like to write my blog first thing in the morning, so I really hope that today isn’t filled with bad karma as my first train of the morning has been cancelled.
Or, if the day wants to be filled with bad karma, as long as the night is chocked full of the good stuff then I’ll more than happily ‘take that for the team’. For tonight is the night where either passage from the ‘group of death’ is secured, or we fall tumbling into the pit of Spursday night despair, also known as the Europa League.
The permutations for this particular group that we find ourselves locked in battle in are too much for the average man to compute: last night I took 15 minutes over dinner trying to explain the circumstances in the Champions League for The Arsenal to The Management. Even then I wasn’t 100% convinced of my rationale and my captive audience had a brow so furrowed it looked like it was going to sink into her eyes and disappear at one stage. It’s too early in the morning for me to try and re-live my reasoning, so I’d suggest you have a look at Arsenal.com and let them confuse you.
If we’re going to keep it nice and simple, there’s two results we need in Naples: a win or a draw. No Arsenal fan needs to be regaled with the consequences of underestimating the opponent or thinking that the hard work has already been done; Bayern Munich were almost dealt the all-mightiest of bloody noses in the Allianz Arena at the hands of the very team we support. So it is with that bittersweet victory earlier this year that we must take heed.
The first 15 minutes and probably the first half in total will probably tell us whether or not this will be a classic harem-scarem roller-coaster ride for those fans in the ground and those watching on TV. If the team continues it’s superb defensive discipline and doesn’t allow Napoli a sniff of many chances then the odds are stacked in our favour. But if we are lackadaisical in possession, sloppy at the back and have forwards that don’t alleviate pressure on the defence when we have the ball, we could be in trouble.
The general hopelessness of Marseille in this competition has meant that this game tonight isn’t the dead-rubber that I’ll admit I thought it might be. So we won’t see games like the ones against Porto in the past with both teams through and happy to complete an exhibition match for the assembled fanbase. Napoli need to win and they need to win well. Rafa Benitez will be wary of an Arsenal counter-attack, but he can’t sit back and play the patient game. He needs his side to be at it from the off and I expect they will try and throw the kitchen sink at Arsenal for the opening stages of the game. They have enough quality in Higuain, Callejon and Hamsik to cause us problems and, despite the rumours Hamsik might be out for this game, I’ll keep him as a threat until we get confirmation one way or another.
Napoli are third in their respective league at the moment and dropped further behind Juventus at the weekend, but I don’t expect them to be moping tonight, because with the opportunity to get a morale boosting victory against the league leaders in England, they will fancy their chances in front of their own partisan crowd.
As for us, it’s difficult to assess what Wenger fancies doing tonight, in terms of if he rotates and how much. There will be those of you that will contest my opinion that we should have a little bit of rotation – I am a child of the Championship/Football Manager era after all – but I feel like we have some positions where players can get a rest in prep for a vital game on Saturday lunchtime. Personally, I’d try and see if Cazorla can regain some of last seasons form by playing where Özil has been deployed, with the German sitting this one out (at least on the bench). I don’t think anyone could argue that Santi was at his best last season when he was free roaming the field, but with Mesut now taking a more liberal positioning in the team, Cazorla’s chances have been on the left of the side which I’m not sure it’s his best position. So I’d give him a to centrally and see if he can get his sparkle back a bit.
I’d also favour a swap of Monreal for Gibbs. Not really much of a gamble, I know, but I think Nacho deserves more game time after his recent performances. I don’t think we can change the heart of the defence and Jenko will continue instead of the injured Sagna, so I suspect the back four will have a familiar look to it.
I think we’ll see that fashionable ‘double pivot’ in the team tonight, as Wenger will want to give enough protection to the defence in anticipation of an early onslaught, so I expect to see Arteta and Flamini occupying two of the three midfield spots. I think Theo will come in on the right – a natural choice with the probability that Napoli will push higher up the field – and then it just becomes a decision on who plays on the left. Personally I’d be looking at someone like Gnabry. I know that choice is a little (pardon the pun) ‘left field’, but he’s a direct runner and much like Theo, when Napoli press high, he could find himself in a bit of space to hit the Italians quickly on the counter-attack. I’m not sure it will happen, but you never know, so let’s wait and see.
The first half is everything today. Successfully overcome that hurdle without conceding and the doubt will start to set in from our opponents. If that happens, we can capitalise.
Come on you reds!