Around a month ago, I was asked for my predictions for where Arsenal would be come May, and came up with the following:
- League – 4th. Two Manchester clubs to fight it out for the title, Spurs third. We squeeze out Chelsea for the final Champions League spot.
- Knocked out of the Champions League by AC Milan. Have a bad feeling about this tie.
- Win the FA Cup.
The final element of that was partially driven by the draws – I made the prediction shortly after Liverpool and United had been paired together in the fourth round. With City already out, it is certainly a competition that has opened up, although Sunderland away on Saturday will be a big test, particularly coming off the back of a trip to the San Siro. We struggled to beat them last weekend with us being the more rested side – the role reversal will make things tricky, to say the least.
As for the league, I’ve always felt that we could claim fourth spot, despite our failings. Fans tend to have a bit of a mistaken view of what is required to come fourth, insisting that our flaws will prevent us. But what of Chelsea’s many flaws? Or Liverpool’s? The fact is – none of us seem capable of consistency, and all will lose more games between now and the end of the season. Yet one troubled team will finish fourth – I see no reason why it cannot be us.
The weekend certainly helped – Henry’s dramatic, emotional and perfectly scripted winner at Sunderland lifted us quietly back into fourth while Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle all suffered painful defeats. I said it last week, but we are at our best when out of the spotlight, and the lunchtime game between Liverpool and United ensured that would be the case. We duly delivered.
That was, of course, Henry’s final Premiership game for us, assuming this is the one and only time he is brought in on loan. I will freely admit that I had my doubts whether his arrival would actually help us, or whether he would end us being largely peripheral, but he has been a superb influence throughout. Not only did his winners against Leeds and Sunderland give us two of the biggest feelgood moments of the season, but he has reminded us of his class on and off the pitch – he speaks as a fan, plays as a fan, and celebrates as if every goal is his first, and best. Of course, his departure exposes Chamakh and Park even more – that they were so obviously behind him in the pecking order says everything about their status within the club, but there is little we can do about that now, bar wishing Van Persie the very very best of health.
All of that leaves us with the less optimistic of my trio of predictions – that we will lose to Milan. I’ll be honest – I’ve had a bad feeling about this tie from the moment it was drawn. We have a great recent record against Italian sides, but they are on a roll at present, and went top of Serie A at the weekend. They seem to have put their early season defensive issues behind them, and are scoring at will – typically Italian they certainly are not. Frankly, how any dressing room containing the combined egos of Cassano, Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho has yet to implode is a mystery, but they are managing it, all while playing a brand of football that will seriously test us tomorrow night. With the likelihood of goals, it is imperative we get on the scoresheet ourselves to protect ourselves from away goals in the second leg.
The team is likely to be very similar to Saturday, except for Per Mertesacker, whose ankle injury could well end his season. There is no official word on the extent of the damage as yet, but I don’t think any of us would be surprised if it turned out to be a very bad one. It certainly looked that way. Gibbs, at the last count, was fit again, so we still have three available centre halves, with Vermaelen perhaps able to step away from the left back berth at last.
Much relies on the front three. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arshavin start ahead of the Ox, preserving the youngster’s legs for later in the game, and we need a good game from the Russian if he is sent out there. Likewise Theo, who does have an excellent record in the Champions League, and scared the living daylights out of Milan in the San Siro last time we were there. They will not have forgotten.
And then, of course, there is one Thierry Henry, who is likely to feature for twenty minutes or so. Would you bet against him?