To the Mordor we go today, and it’s fair to say I’d prefer most other places to Stoke at a crucial time like this.
But beggars can’t be choosers. A win will put us within a point of Liverpool, who visit the Hammers on Sunday, heaping pressure in Klopp’s men to perform. I do not put much faith into Slaven Bilic’s side, but then I also didn’t when West Ham hosted Spurs.
However before we get all “Come on you Irons!” there’s a small matter of Arsenal doing the job first, and Stoke is a notoriously difficult hunting ground for the Gunners. We have failed to win any of the last six clashes, drawing three and losing three. Last time around we grinded out a tough draw, one I was reasonably happy with even.
On the upside, Hughes’ men are currently in the gutter form-wise, winning just once in nine league games. They have also lost to every top four side at home this season. For that matter, the Potters suffered away losses to every top four side too, a draw at the Etihad being the only exception.
I’m not expecting Stoke to just roll over, just providing some context. This season they haven’t been nearly as annoying as they usually are. So I hope we will have a better shot at beating Hughes’ men, especially with an almost fully-fit squad.
Team news update
By almost, I mean one definite absence (no prizes for guessing who) and two possible ones: Koscielny and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Kos is still recovering from a calf strain he suffered against United, while Ox is nursing a tight hamstring which saw him limp off on Wednesday.
Both players have a chance to feature today, Kos a slightly better one. It’s difficult to say what is better: risk them for one game, the hardest we have left in the league, or keep them wrapped in cotton wool a little longer. I guess the latter is a more prudent course of action: even if Sunderland and Everton look less formidable, we still have a cup final against Chelsea to contest. We are going to need both Koscielny and Ox there.
I’ll assume Koscielny will be fine for the game, as he trained on Tuesday:
“He’s got a small chance. He was not far. He practised on Tuesday but it was risky to play him at Southampton.” – Arsene Wenger
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It’s slightly trickier with Ox, whose hamstring concern is very recent. I won’t be surprised to see Bellerin in his place. Koscielny will most likely come in for Gibbs, it would be a shame to drop Rob Holding after he has proved himself more than capable.
Apart from that I can’t see Wenger changing anything else. Xhaka looks comfortable with Ramsey, and three centre-backs provide enough cover for their defensive deficiencies; Ozil, Alexis and Welbeck are also likely to stay where they are.
I still think we would be better off with Alexis up top, and either Welbeck or Iwobi as a second ten, but it doesn’t look likely Wenger will do it at this point. He seems to have settled on both the formation and the personnel and any changes are likely to be enforced.
I do wonder whether Arsene might toy with the idea of starting Giroud, as we seem to have upped the number of crosses after switching to a 3-4-2-1. Ollie is the best header of the ball in the league, so it seems reasonable enough to have him on the end of those crosses. In the end I still wouldn’t bet on the Frenchman starting.
Predicted line-up: Cech – Mustafi – Koscielny – Holding – Bellerin – Ramsey – Xhaka – Monreal – Ozil – Alexis – Welbeck
I do not expect a walk in the park, but we’ve absolutely cornered ourselves in a situation where we have to win all of our remaining games. And then just hope for a Pool/City slip-up. The former most likely.
However, Stoke do not seem unbeatable, something we should capitalize on. We have almost the entire squad available, the new system seems to be working and with three games to go we must give everything. Our top four hopes are out of our hands to some extent, but the important thing is to do our own bit.
So come on you Gunners.
Back with a review.