Three down, one to go.
We began this summer with a number of holes in the squad. Up front, we needed to guarantee never to ask Arshavin to play as a target man again, while at the back, the departures of Gallas, Silvestre, Campbell and Senderos resulted in a variety of reactions, although the common theme was that replacements were required.
One by one, Wenger has eradicated the issues. Chamakh gives us power and technique up front, while also being the much vaunted aerial threat, particularly from the delicious Van Persie corners that usually fly across the face of the goal while our team stands waiting on the edge of the box. Koscielny has impressed at the back, and with the signing of Sebastien Squillaci, we have genuine competition for places in central defence, a position previously occupied exclusively by Vermaelen and Gallas out of sheer necessity.
In particular, it is encouraging to think that although Vermaelen is a shoo-in, it isn’t clear which of the three other options will join him on a regular basis, a healthy situation for any squad playing at the highest level.
The one outstanding issue is, of course, behind our defence, where confidence is shot and uncertainty is high. Neither Almunia or Fabianski can be stupid enough to be unaware that the majority want them replaced, an unpleasant feeling for any player looking to move positively through the early season.
As if their plight wasn’t bad enough, Almunia (assuming he is selected) will be facing the might of Blackburn at Ewood Park tomorrow lunchtime. And just in case you were wondering, I use the word ‘might’ not as a compliment to their play but more of a reference to their ‘pinball wrestling’ approach.
Predictably, Sam Allardyce has come out the day before the game, reminding everyone of the victories he has enjoyed over Wenger in the past, as if the continual message will stop the press actually looking into said record. While it is easy to get the impression his teams have defeated us on a regular basis (largely because he keeps claiming so), it simply isn’t the case. Five wins in 21 games, and most of them were years ago with Bolton.
Of course, you can point to the 2-1 defeat at Ewood Park in May, but that was a match with nothing riding on it, we had just had our title challenge ended, and were missing Almunia, Clichy, Vermaelen, Gallas, Cesc, Song, Rosicky and Arshavin. Essentially, the bulk of tomorrow’s team. And the previous games against Blackburn? A 6-2 win at home earlier in the season, two 4-0 wins in 2008/9, and a win and a draw in 2007/8.
In other words, May’s game was a blip on the series of thumpings we routinely dish out whenever Blackburn appear on the fixture list. With Paul Robinson still in goal and approaching a half century of goals conceded to us in his career, I see no reason for that not to continue tomorrow.
Of course we have to be wary. Allardyce knows our weaknesses and will look to exploit them, having put in the pre-match groundwork to dress up their approach as a tactic to be proud of:
“When we aerially bombard any team with our quality, skill and ability, we cause them problems.”
You’ll note the section I’ve crossed out, being as it is entirely superfluous. And inaccurate. All Blackburn do, all Allardyce’s teams have ever done, is bombard you with elbows, digs in the ribs, sneaky fouls and early enforcers. We know what to expect, we have to deal with it.
It is a good early test of the summer’s mantra – player after player insisted we must be up for the fight this season. This would be a good time to start.
And it is with that early season confidence that I’m punting on a victory by three or more goals, at a healthy 15/4 with Sportingbet. Let’s hope by mid-afternoon, the line on the ticker to the right has gone green.
Enjoy the game.