Date: 18th April 2009 at 10:20am
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Brice had termed the home game against Villarreal ‘the first of three gargantuan fixtures.’ We passed that first test in a solid, professional way, despite fielding a makeshift back-five that featured only one first-choice player, Kolo Toure. The second instalment of the trilogy comes today on a neutral ground, a special venue that the team is going to visit for the first time since its rebirth: We’re the famous Arsenal and we’re going to Wembley!

Vital Quotes:

With big games coming thick and fast this week, Arsene Wenger has given quite a few quotes for the journalists to work with. He has talked about the (bad) news on injuries, the pitch at new Wembley, Theo’s progress, missing out on Drogba way back when, Fabianski’s birthday and performance, the team’s character and ability to perform under pressure, Hiddink’s impact on Chelsea and all sorts of things. As the team has been on a good run recently, the press have started rolling out the bandwagon about the Arsenal manager’s faith in his young team finally being vindicated. As always, the boss would rather let the team take the credit if all the hard work, strong faith and Churchillian (would Oxford consider adding the adjective ‘Wengerian’ to their dictionary?) defiance get rewarded with trophies and applause come May:

‘I have been questioned but that is normal when I do a public job,’ said the Gunners boss.

‘I never came out and said it’s a complete scandal that people question me. I know where I want to go and I do it as I have the freedom to go where I want. I believe that if we turn things around it is a credit to the players because they have shown the mental strength to cope with the pressures on the pitch.

‘Now we are in the position where we just want to finish the job in the three competitions that we are in – that means secure a Champions League position, try to win the FA Cup and win the Champions League.

‘No, no [it didn’t upset me when I was questioned]. Listen, like everybody I prefer it when people say I am good rather than I am rubbish. But I am long enough in the job to understand you cannot as well ask for people to say when you lose the games that you are absolutely fantastic.

‘I just think as long as the basics at the Club are good and promising I can make a difference between the present and the future and take a distance with that.

‘The present situation was not fantastic but I knew that the future for the Club will be very, very good. Why? Because we do not need to rely on anybody. We have a good young team. If you take this team and look how much investment it cost you will be surprised compared to the other teams who play at our level.’

Arsenal Team News:

Before Villarreal, Brice had said, “As always, when Arsenal is fortunate enough to have players return from injury, we get cursed with new injuries.” Prophetic words there, but I guess all Gooners have become semi-professional prophets in this respect. While van Persie and Diaby came back without setbacks against Villarreal, Gibbs, who put in another good shift as a backup LB, took a knock during the game that denies the lad an opportunity to make his Wembley debut in the red and white shirt.

While the likes of Cesc, Ade, Eduardo and Diaby were out injured, the injury list made depressing reading. Now, it is still depressing, just in a different way: we’ve been hit hard at the back, with regulars Almunia, Clichy, Sagna, Gallas and Djourou all out. (I suspect these five guys have played together more than any other combination so far this season.) Now Gibbs joins them in a crowded medical room.

The better news is that in attack, we’ve got an almost full range of players for Wenger to choose from and, if necessary, change the game with great options from the bench. He did mention, however, that Eduardo was fit again but not match-fit enough to play a full game, while Diaby was ‘completely ready’.

To address the lack of a recognisable LB, Wenger said he would consider two options: use Sagna as a backup LB if he could play, or move Silvestre there with Song in CB alongside Kolo.

I’d also hazard a guess that Eduardo and/or Bendtner could play a part, either as subs for Ade and/or RvP or as starters and come off later for the leading frontmen. Such is the abundance of attacking options.

Another interesting point is who between Nasri and Theo might have to make way for Arshavin. Or would Arsene opt for a 5-man midfield to control the game and protect the weakened defence, leaving one of his strikers out?

Possible starting XI: Fabianski; Eboue, Toure, Song, Silvestre; Walcott, Fabregas, Denilson, Arshavin; Adebayor, van

Player to watch: Andrey Arshavin

We were all pleased to see Theo’s delightful chip, Cesc’s great assists, Adebayor’s good goals and assists despite not being 100% in his overall performance, Song’s arrival as a great partner of Cesc in midfield, RvP’s attacking display against Hull which got him voted the ‘Player of the Round’ in the Cup quarter-final and the solid performances from the makeshift defence in the last few games. The team is full of players to watch to be honest.

But back in FA Cup action, I’d cast the spotlight on Arshavin for a number of reasons: he was cup-tied in the CL and rested in midweek, he must be itching to play after seeing his teammates knock out Villarreal, he’s making his first appearance as an Arsenal player at Wembley and he’s surely keen to impress both of his managers at the club and international levels. For a guy who is so determined to prove himself on the biggest stage, the stage doesn’t get much bigger than facing Chelsea in a Cup semi-final cum London derby at the new Wembley, watched by millions of global audiences on TV.

Chelsea Team News:

Both managers would likely keep an eye on the next league games in midweek after this Cup tie. Since we have to travel to Liverpool on Tuesday, Wenger may have to be cautious with his players, especially the depleted defence. Chelsea will play at home on Wednesday, but against tough-nut Everton and with the Blues’ ambition of keeping their title challenge alive, maybe Guus Hiddink will be wary of the fatigue factor just as well.

Captain John Terry returns for the Blues after serving a suspension in the CL thriller against Liverpool. Deco is out with a hamstring injury, while Bosingwa joined the training after overcoming the same problem.

Chelsea’s recent defensive concerns, especially Cech’s error that contributed to Liverpool’s first goal from Fabio Aurelio’s free-kick, have been a hot topic in the press. People even talked about Cech’s place in the team. But he is a great keeper who would bounce straight back and I don’t see Hiddink replacing him at all.

Possible starting XI: Cech; Belletti, Carvalho, Terry, A Cole; Lampard, Ballack, Essien; Kalou/Anelka, Malouda, Drogba

Player to watch: Didier Drogba

This one is hard to pick. Frank Lampard is having a great season, a strong contender at least in the top 3 for individual awards in my opinion (although, quite bizarrely, many professional footballers put some of Man Utd’s golden oldies before him when they cast their vote to the PFA around February). Michael Essien can do almost anything on the pitch and is back in form. Chelsea’s defence would want to prove to everyone that conceding 7 goals in their last two games was just a blip. Nicholas Anelka, if he plays, would want to score against his former team, as he quite often did before. Oh, and that poor little man who said Arsenal would ‘always have a place in his heart’ and ‘sometimes still wanted the fans to love you’ but he ‘couldn’t do anything about’ the Gooners’ booing. Nah, we have far more important things than him to focus our attention on, such as:

Didier Drogba has always caused us problems. The West Londoners would be quick to remind us how Philippe Senderos had a torrid time against him. (But who hasn’t struggled against quick, powerful strikers? Ask any defender how they’ve enjoyed dealing with Fernando Torres. JT himself and his England partner Ferdinand have also mentioned Ade as a tough one to handle.) That`s why the boss said that the right way to approach the game was to try and contain Drogba but not to fear him, while we try to cause the same problems to their defence on the other end:

‘He is a fighter and I believe that we want to make sure that we combat him. Certainly one of the keys tomorrow will be to keep him quiet.

‘But we have to consider that Adebayor can do the same to them, that Bendtner can do the same too. Also Drogba will play against Silvestre and Kolo Toure, who are strong defenders.

‘So I do not worry about Drogba tomorrow. Not at all. If he scores, he scores. But when we have the ball, they don’t have it, and he can’t be dangerous.’

Match Facts & Stats

One special fact that I’d like to mention is that we will commemorate the Hillsborough disaster at both FA Cup semi-finals this weekend. Today, the FA chairman Lord Triesman and the two captains, Cesc Fabregas and John Terry, will present flowers and lead the tribute to the 96 football fans who lost their lives at Hillsborough 20 years ago. The FA’s original plan of one minute’s applause has been dropped and I personally hope we’ll have the traditional one minute’s silence to pay respects to the victims and reflect on the tragedy, something that all of us should do regardless.

Back to the match stuff, we have stayed undefeated in seven games in all competitions, since the 1-0 loss against AS Roma, which honestly felt like a victory as we went through on penalties. We won six games and drew one in this good spell. Domestically, we have been on a 22-game unbeaten run, our last defeat coming from our kids’ Carling Cup quarter-final exit against Burnley on 2nd Dec.

Chelsea have been unbeaten in four games since their 1-0 defeat away to Sp*rs in March. In their domestic league and cup campaigns, they have only been beaten once in 14 matches.

This is the 170th meeting between the two teams. In the Cup specifically, this will be the 13th time we play each other. Arsenal have won 8 times, versus Chelsea’s 4, and will try to knock the Blues out for the seventh time in a row.

Ref Watch:

Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire) will be the referee for this high-profile Cup game. He has officiated 22 PL games this season, handing out 5 red cards and 73 yellows, averaging 3.55 cards per game. The assistant referees on the sidelines – Ade, take note! – will be Philip R A Sharp & Paul Tierney.

Match Prediction:

This is one of those promising, unpredictable games isn’t it? I can see us scoring – and conceding. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended a 1-1 or 2-2 draw after 90 minutes, but with tough midweek games coming up for both teams, they’d definitely want to avoid that. The other half of me (the heart) predicts a 2-1 win.

Next Fixtures:

21/4 (Tue) – Liverpool (A) – Premier League

6/4 (Sun) – Middlesbrough (H) – Premier League

9/4 (Wed) – Manchester United (A) – Champions League