It’s amazing to think that, despite the atrocious season we are having, some saving grace is still possible. Yet, going into today’s game, it’s exactly where we are.
While the Europa League as a possible scalp for Arsene Wenger’s side remains a remote possibility for now, the League Cup final can provide some balm for our inflamed wounds. It’s somewhat ironic, given Arsene’s general disregard for the competition: in his 21 years at the helm, the Frenchman has taken his team to the final only twice.
We lost on both occasions, incidentally, and I’m sure you don’t need me to remind you who we went down to and under what circumstances. As such, the League Cup remains the only domestic trophy to have eluded Arsene in his long Arsenal tenure.
Today provides him with an opportunity to rectify this, albeit the opposition couldn’t have been stiffer. Pep Guardiola’s men come to town sensing blood and it’s fair to say the Gunners are underdogs for that one despite playing at their beloved Wembley.
But where there is difficulty and adversity, there is also a chance to rise to the challenge and demonstrate your strengths. Let’s hope the Gunners view this opportunity just like that.
Team news update
Alexandre Lacazette is still recovering from his knee surgery, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan is ineligible for the competition, having featured for United in the earlier rounds. That robs us of significant firepower going forward, albeit a case can be made an attempt to shoehorn all four of our star players into one team greatly disbalances it.
Apart from that we should have Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil back:
“I have to make a decision on Aaron Ramsey on Saturday. He looks OK, but we will know more about it tomorrow.
“He had a good session yesterday, that he absorbed well. So we have to see how he responds to it today. But I think he will be alright.” – Arsene Wenger
It appears both Ramsey and Ozil took part in full training, so I’m assuming both will make the game. There was also a doubt over Alex Iwobi, however the Nigerian appears to have recovered from a minor niggle sustained against Ostersunds as he also trained. I pray to God he won’t start, however.
As for City, they will only be lacking Benjamin Mendy and Fabian Delph. Sane made his comeback from injury some time ago and Jesus looks set for a return after a couple of days in full training. There was a possibility Sterling wouldn’t make back from a strain sustained against Basel, but it looks like the winger will be involved. So City are almost at full-strength.
David Ospina will start in goal, that bit we can be sure of. As it always does, a decision to play your second keeper in a cup final caused a mini-storm in the media, but I hasten to add it was only aimed at Arsenal and Wenger’s “erratic decision-making”. It’s not a direct quote, I’m just giving you the general feeling from the articles along the lines of “Cech is number 1 so he should start in the final”.
I recall no such articles being written after Guardiola announced Bravo will start, but then I’m not surprised and I’m not here to discuss the media’s double standards and general bias when it comes to all things Arsenal. They can do one, frankly.
I have no problem with Ospina starting. I distinctly recall Wenger sticking to Fabianski, Szczesny and Ospina himself in three previous cup finals and I have no qualms with that. Those three played a major part in getting us into those finals, so by all means deserve(d) to start. On top of that, I’m not too happy with Cech, who seems to be declining, and wouldn’t mind giving Ospina a shot in the league in the remaining games. We don’t have much to lose.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Wenger plays a back three or a back four. The back three served us very well in last year’s semi-final win over City. Besides, our wobbly defence becomes that much wobblier with just two centre-backs, so I’m all for a back three.
However it raises the question of who to play at left wing-back, and neither Kolasinac nor AMN look convincing at the moment. That’s why I think Wenger will be more willing to stick with four at the back, playing the exceptional Monreal in his natural position.
A flat midfield then looks a logical step at providing some defensive security, in which case I expect to see Mo Elneny alongside Xhaka and Ramsey. Playing a 4-2-3-1 makes little sense anyway, because we no longer have any proper wingers after Walcott and Sanchez left in one window.
It’s a shame we really have no one to provide width, and another argument to support a 3-4-2-1 with Bellerin and Kolasinac. Walker can be suspect defensively, while Monreal has shown exceptional awareness in the final ⅓ lately; on top of that City are down to their third-choice left-back (Zinchenko), whose defensive frailties can and should be exploited by Bellerin.
The attacking trio picks itself. I’ll be really surprised to see anyone other than Wilshere, Ozil and Aubameyang. Neither Welbeck nor Iwobi deserve to start after their recent, and repeated, horror shows.
Predicted line-up: Ospina – Bellerin – Koscielny – Mustafi – Monreal – Xhaka – Ramsey – Elneny – Ozil – Wilshere – Aubameyang
Player in focus: Aubameyang
After a good start and a goal on his debut, Auba somewhat faded into oblivion. A no-show at
White Hart Lane Wembley against Spurs (though not entirely through much fault of his own), plus his ineligibility for Europa League almost made me forget we have him.
But we very much do. Auba’s pace today will be crucial, because I highly doubt City will allow us to dominate possession and territory. We will thus be forced to attack on the break (unless Arsene teaches his players gegenpressing overnight!) and, without Giroud, will rely on pace rather than hold-up play.
Even after a couple of bad misses against Spurs I firmly believe Lacazette remains our most clinical finisher, but he is out for now. It’s Auba’s chance to establish himself as an indisputable first choice up front, and for that he will need to have the few opportunities to score count.
When I was looking through the usual websites in search of an inspiration for a preview, a certain stat stuck out: Wenger has won 7 of the 10 finals he has been in since taking over at Arsenal. That is some very good habit indeed.
Of course you can look at it another way: he lost on both occasions in the League Cup, but I believe today’s game has to be taken differently. We will not see a team of youngsters like we did on previous occasions, and, with the dire season we are having, desperately need a boost in the shape of a trophy.
It will be anything but easy, but we have been down that road before just last season. Underdogs both in the semis and the final of the FA Cup we have gone on to win anyway, with a couple of disciplined, and even thrilling performances. We need to rediscover what made us so good on those days and I firmly believe we can produce another upset if we do.
So come on you Gunners. Make us all proud.