Arsenal Faces Make or Break Month

2/11/2012 - Thierry Henry celebrates his later winner against Sunderland (Michael Regan / Getty Images)

It’s a horrible cliché to say that that any one stretch of matches is the most important of the season, especially when there are so many games remaining, but the way the schedule is laid out, I honestly believe that the next month will decide Arsenal’s fate this season.

Let’s take a look at what lies ahead. In the next 30 days, Arsenal have the following fixtures:

February 15 – Away to AC Milan (Champions League Round of 16)

February 18 – Away to Sunderland (FA Cup 5th round)

February 26 – Spurs at Home

March 3 – Away to Liverpool

March 6 – AC Milan at Home (Champions League Round of 16)

March 12 – Newcastle at Home

When the next 30 days have concluded, Arsenal could be still alive in two trophy competitions, and putting a little distance between themselves and the other contenders for 4th place in the Premier League, OR they could be out of everything except the Premier League, and could be looking up at as many as 6 clubs in the table, or, of course, they could be (as is more likely) somewhere in between. Every one of Arsenal’s next 6 matches is of great importance, as even their Premier League schedule includes two of Arsenal’s three main rivals for the 4th spot, oh and some other team from North London too.

Henry will soon be gone, back to New York, but Gervinho will be back (and hopefully without any mental or physical hangover from the ACN), as will Chamakh (of course, whether or not the return of the latter matters at all is a completely separate issue). Even though Mertesacker just picked up an injury at the weekend, it’s good to see Sagna back in the squad, and once Gibbs returns Arsenal will be able to field a squad that includes two center backs and two actual full backs for the first time in over a month. Though the return of Wilshere before season’s end may still be a pipe dream, the squad is nonetheless getting healthier overall, with Jenkinson and Diaby scheduled to return soon. Injuries seem to always be a story for Arsenal, but if Arsenal are to keep their run of Champions League appearances in tact, they have to be able to put injuries aside and get results with the players on the pitch.

It’s no excuses time for this Arsenal club. I don’t expect them to win all of their next 6 matches, but I do not think it unrealistic to expect them to move on in one of either the FA Cup or the Champions League, and to also keep hold of their current 4th position in the table. Let’s be honest, Sp*rs have a hell of a team this season, and are in great form, but Arsenal have them at The Emirates, and it’s not too much to ask for them to scrape a draw. In my view, the most important games will be away to Liverpool and Newcastle at home. Both are very winnable games, and honestly if Arsenal expect to finish the season in the top 4, they have to get 6 or 7 points out of their next three Premier League fixtures. All that’s left now is for Arsenal to go out and get the results they need. They face stiff competition, but if Arsenal want to continue to compete on a level with other top European clubs, and want to hang on to their best players, they have to go out there and win games over crucial stretches like the next month. No excuses.


Arsenal get Diaby back ahead of Champions League clash with Borussia Dortmund

Photo by Ian Walton / Getty Images Europe

The return of Abou Diaby marks the first of Arsenal’s long-term injury victims to return to the squad in 2011. Kieran Gibbs, Bacary Sagna, and of course Jack Wilshere remain on the shelf as Arsenal heads into its mid-week Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund, and Tomas Rosicky is unavailable due to a thigh injury, but it is always nice to see a player return to full fitness and get back in the first team. Granted, Diaby’s reappearance will have nowhere near the impact that Wilshere’s or Sagna’s would, but at this point we’ll take what we can get.

I expect Arsene Wenger to put his best squad out there today, in an attempt to seal up progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League. The right back situation is still less than ideal, but I would expect to see Koscielny out there again as a fill-in for Jenkinson, who is himself a fill-in for Sagna. That being said Koscielny has been in good form recently, and deserves to be in the squad. I predict we will see a back line of Santos, Vermaelen, Mertesacker, and Koscielny in front of Szczesny tonight at The Emirates. I also won’t predict any changes in the midfield from this weekend’s squad against Norwich, meaning I think we’ll see Song, Arteta, and Ramsey run out there again. Theo Walcott played brilliantly against Norwich over the weekend, so I can’t see him being left out on the wing, but Gervinho had a bit of a rough go against Norwich, missing what looked to be two or three sure goals, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Arshavin replace him on the wing. Nothing else to say about the squad tonight, if van Persie is fit he’ll play, and he’s fit so we’ll see him tonight. I’m just hoping we can put a couple early ones past Weidenfeller so the captain can get a rest in the second half. I realize that’s a lot to ask against a team that just took out Bayern Munich on the road over the weekend, but what does it hurt to ask for an easy go of things?

What to watch: Dortmund’s electrifying youngster Mario Goetze has been linked with Arsenal in recent weeks, but whether or Arsene Wenger can bring him into the fold at The Emirates, he is worth keeping an eye on. It was his goal in the 65th minute that was the winner against Bayern Munich over the weekend, and if Arsenal’s defense is not well-organized he could well notch another one tonight. For Arsenal, I’ll be looking to see if Walcott can maintain his excellent form of this weekend. Theo looked more dangerous against Norwich than he’s ever looked in the past couple of years, at least to my eyes. If he can continue that kind of play, Arsenal could make some noise going forward in this tournament.

A win today would put Arsenal on 11 points in Group F and would guarantee them a spot in the knockout round. Let’s not leave anything in doubt heading to Piraeus on December 6th.

Arsenal v. Borussia Dortmund – UEFA Champions League, Group F

November 23, 2011 – 19:45 GMT / 2:45 PM EST

Emirates Stadium, England

Fox Soccer Channel (US)