There is a certain irony that after a period of pain, in which we’ve struggled to cope with the physical side of games, we face a Stoke side who rely almost entirely on football played above head height. We have to be prepared for an aerial bombardment, a whole load of jostling, and numerous suspect challenges. And with Mark Clattenburg as a referee, don’t expect a clampdown.
But in truth, this is an opportunity. November is over, the first team have had a rest, with the exception of Alex Song, whose midweek booking ensures he gets his before the trip to Anfield next weekend, and Stoke actually aren’t all that good. This isn’t Chelsea, who combined strength with skill, or City, who overran our kids with pace and experience. This is Stoke, who rely on throw ins. Yes, throw ins.
The back five is fairly set in stone – Traore will continue his run of games at left back while Sagna should be fit to start on the opposite side. Denilson will play the holding role, alongside Cesc and perhaps Ramsey, while Eduardo, rested in midweek, has another chance to find form up front, probably alongside Nasri and Arshavin.
On paper, despite the injuries, it is a very strong lineup, the sort that Stoke should not be able to cope with. Does it matter how brutish their defenders are when we pass around them?
I’m going for a 3-1 win, with Eduardo finding his feet with a much-needed goal. I have a suspicion that Cesc might take it on himself to be the catalyst though – it is when you are down that you need your captain the most, and he is more than capable of taking on that responsibility.
Elsewhere, the fallout from the Hughes handshake continues, with Wenger biding his time, waiting for the City manager to bitch and whine, before coming back with a neatly worded slap in the face:
“Tomorrow, by coincidence, I am managing my 500th game at Arsenal, and I believe I have shaken hands maybe 497 times. It is a ceremonial courtesy. But the most important is not the ceremonial but the courtesy of behaviour.”
“I don’t deny that I am a bad loser but on this occasion I would have done exactly the same if we had won the game or lost the game. I am in accordance with the principles I think are important on the football pitch and I maintain exactly what I said and did.”
“I am used to treating this kind of thing with the needed distance and I do not want to make a fuss. There are incidents on the touchline but you have never heard me ever say anything about another manager after the game, in a press conference or during the week after. I maintain exactly the way I behave and do not regret one second of what I did.”
In other words, Hughes acted like an oaf, and did not deserve the public display of friendship that would have been faker than Charlize Theron’s American accent.
Speaking of which, the World Cup draw was made earlier today, and while I can’t stand international breaks, I unashamedly love the World Cup, and am now officially excited. USA, Algeria and Slovenia representa near-perfect draw for Capello, but the occasion wasn’t as happy for some other nations. Here are my thoughts:
- Our first two games are on a Saturday night followed by a Friday night. Pub owners everywhere must be rejoicing. If we get through, our second round match will also be at the weekend, along with the quarters. Happy days.
- I hope the bride at the wedding I’m going to on June 12 appreciates that not many will be paying full attention while we play USA in the evening.
- The Ivory Coast have it rough. Their debut in the World Cup was in 2006, and they crashed out of a brutal group containing Argentina, Holland and Serbia. This time, they’ve got Brazil and Portugal. Ouch.
- Speaking of Brazil and Portugal, they meet on the final day of group matches, at 3pm on a Friday afternoon. I fully expect offices everywhere to empty early that day.
- I have a sneaky suspicion Chile will top Spain’s group. Seriously, Chile are very decent.
Six months to go until we all get to be glued to the TV, all day every day. Well, those of us who don’t have tickets anyway.
But until then, there are some hugely important club matches, starting tomorrow. And I’m sticking my neck out and predicting the start of a revival. Mark my words.
Enjoy the game.