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Squeaky Bum Time

Now we have been eliminated from those horrible domestic cups that we never wanted to win anyway, Arsenal have removed the wood from the trees and the light just starts to crack through at the end of the tunnel. The run in is in sight and it is at this point that the decisions really begin to count. A wrong turn from the manager and the whole season can go up in smoke, a slip from a goalkeeper, a glaring miss from an attacker; a mistimed tackle from a terrier midfielder, a tweaked hamstring can all have cataclysmic effects on our season. There are a number of conundrums which face us now in our dual quest for glory. I think we`ll give the Champions League everything we`ve got, but in truth, the league title is the prize at the forefront of our minds right now. If we can go the distance in the Champions League, brilliant, and I mean that. I will be gutted if we lose to Milan; this competition means so much to me and all of our supporters. But it is still second to league glory. The manner of both of our domestic cup exits elucidate the extent to which we have sacrificed the competitions in favour of the two we currently contest. This will be the point where the wisdom of our meek surrenders at Three Point Lane and the Old Trafford megabowl will become clear. There was a great deal of discussion back in the winter when Arsene elected to field weakened teams for the games in Prague and Seville, with qualification to the knockout stage secured. It was a decision which cost Arsenal top spot in their group, but maybe contributed to the Gunners longevity over Christmas, where they were able to grind out results despite not playing brilliantly. But there again, this is the point of the season where we really begin to see the wisdom of those decisions. Fine lines and gambles all tell their own tale in mid May.

Amongst the current decisions facing the manager is the one of goalkeeper (again). Almunia came into the side back in August following a couple of Lehmann clangers. Le boss decided to protect Lehmann`s dignity by declaring the madcap German as injured. Upon his apparent return to fitness, Wenger explained that he would retain Almunia between the sticks for reasons of continuity as the Spanglish glovesman had not put a foot wrong in Jens` absence. Now we have a situation where Almunia has been injured for a couple of games and Jens has performed admirably as our custodian. So will Wenger apply the same etiquette to the steadfast Lehmann? Or will Almunia be restored? Almunia has been in fine form, the penalty save against the Spuds seemed to be the making of him. But Jens has looked to be back in his pomp and if Wenger is to apply the same logic he did back in August, the snarling German will be guarding our net as opposed to a smiling Spaniard. Whoever he chooses, a slip by either of his preferred goalies could be the dividing line between being trophyless or trophy laden. That said, a flying finger tip save in April and Wenger can be proclaimed a genius for dropping/ reinstating (delete as applicable) the man of the moment.

Another such decision the manager faces is when to reinstate Robin van Persie. By all accounts, Robin is currently physically fit, but the manager does not want to rush his talisman back into action lest he break down again. Unleashing a fully fit van Persie could be the catalyst that shoots us to glory in the final furlong of our season, giving the team a much needed boost. With a considerable amount of experience now under his belt, Eduardo could be a devastating substitute. Indeed, van Persie himself can play the role of supersub. However, rushing back a mentally unprepared and physically inferior van Persie could see him out for the season and crush the morale of the team at the wrong time. I am certain Arsene will remember his decision to unleash a patently unfit Henry against Eindhoven, which cost Henry the rest of his season and ultimately, brought the curtain down on an illustrious Gunners career in the most maudlin of manners.

In the past, Wenger has stuck with players out of form and injected them with self belief to rediscover their quality. But at this stage of the season, it is hard to see how we can carry passengers. It is a little early perhaps to bring this conundrum up, but by all accounts, Kolo Toure had a poor African Nations Cup. On Saturday, he looked emotionally and physically drained, perhaps still hampered by a groin injury picked up on international duty. The question is, how long does the manager allow before taking him out of the firing line? Senderos performed commendably in Toure`s absence (the only match he missed in January was the 5-1 reverse at White Hart Lane). Big Phil has shown the appetite for a run in before, his two previous golden spells in an Arsenal shirt came in the run in of the 2004/05 season and the run in to the 2005/06 season. Wenger will no doubt be aware of Toure`s condition in training and may have a tough call to make if he feels Toure is running on empty. (One must consider just how few games this guy has missed in the last five years). Important administrative items, such as Flamini`s contract, may have to fall by the wayside until the summer as the run in must consume our total focus. The nurturing of Theo Walcott may have to be on hiatus until the summer. We have entered the stage of the season where the manager really earns his money. If we fail in our quest for the title and finish the season trophyless, Wenger will be renounced as a fool and a legion of "I told you so" doom mongers will leer from the woodwork to bemoan our meek cup exits. But finish the season with Premiership and European Cups stacked neatly in the trophy cabinet and Arsene will be proclaimed a genius and we will at once belittle and ridicule the domestic cups. The manager must be brave, decisive and unswerving. The hunt is on.LD.




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The Journalist

Writer: Tim Stillman Mail feedback, articles or suggestions

Date:Tuesday February 19 2008

Time: 4:01PM

Your Comments

Lehmann's kicking on saturday was atrocious. no distance and nearly every one went to a united attacker. thats his key weakness but Almunia will reclaim the spot when he is fit. van perise cannot be anywhere near match sharp. even if he's been training - he needs prem subs appearances and then a full match before thinking about CL games.
gazzap
Good article, as usuual LD. So, what do you predict? Are we going to win the league? Will we beat Milan? The danger seems to be now that everyone thinks its our league to lose when in fact there is a long way to go. We've coped commendably with the pressure so far, and Wenger knows what it takes to go first past the finishing line. I think his job now is about the pyschology of taking the pressure off the players. I think we've been playing with a lot more control than previous Arsenal sides. Its really time for our big players to step up - Ade, Hleb, Gallas, Cesc and Flamster. I can't wait!
Gooner_Vin
Love the title. It would be great if we could get the off-the-pitch morale boosts in the form of Flam putting pen to paper, RvP and Arsene declaring the former fit and ready. Spirits would also be lifted if Usmanov sold his shares to the board and AST, Lehmann declares he is friends with Almunia followed by the signature of Kaka. COME ON ARSENAL!
G4L
I'd love the league and its great to be competitive again this year. Standing waiting for the team bus during our last Champions victory parade I wondered whether the 'chelsea effect' would mean that I would never see us win the league again. But with Wenger's rebuilding and other teams starting to reduce impact of Chelsea money we're in with a bloody good shout. I'm hoping Saturday was down to having an eye 'on the main event' this week against Milan, if so then a great performance over the next two CL legs should also catipult our league season to new heights!!!!!
Red3
I think that some tough decisions have had to be made already and now is the time to see whether they can bear fruit. During the 11 seasons that Wenger has been manager he has never won the League Cup and neither has Ferguson. Wenger has however generally had more success in the FA Cup, generally going further than ManU and also winning it 4 times compared to the 3 trophies earned by Ferguson. Where ManU have bettered us is in winning the PL 6 times in the Wenger period compared to our 3. We all start out with the expectation that we can compete equally in all 4 competitions but the reality is that we, and our competitors, can't. Winning the PL is about getting your priorities right. The CL is a beguiling trophy but it's no coincidence that the teams that often do best in this competiton are usually found wanting at the same time in their own league (assuming it is one of the stronger ones). ManU have won it once in more than 20 years of regular competition yet it is fair to say that they have dominated the PL for most of that time with 8 wins. Our best run in the CL came at a time when we experienced our poorest League form in years. Winning more than one big trophy is a demanding task. To pick up a cup trophy while firmly focussed on the PL requires Lady Luck firmly on your side no matter how careful your planning - and Lady Luck is a fickle mistress.
Amos.
Good musings guys, and it's indeed time to put up or shut up. We've exited 2 cups, paving the way for a concentration on two remaining fronts. Since "this Season IS different" I fully expect us to bring one trophy in or at least die trying. On the selection front I was pondering the Toure question after Saturday too, and I would not hesitate to play Senderos ahead of Kolo at present, or even just for the CL, as he excelled there before. I daresay I would put Jens in to the CL squad too and keep him there. Here's hoping we come back with a roar!
Andy-bayor
Great questions well asked, LD. But on goalkeeper, to me there isn't really a dilemma to be honest. Almunia has performed way better than Mad Jens has (albeit in less matches) in this season. On Kolo, I tend to agree with Andy-bayor that Senderos would be a better choice at the moment - if he manages to regain his pre-injury form alongside Gallas. And you're right, the nurturing of Theo, the contract negotiation with Mattuso, etc. should have to wait a bit. I'm not too worried about either of these issues for now as Mattuso's seemingly very happy at the club. And if we win something come May, he's bound to stay.
Lou the Gunneress
I might be inclined to agree with people here on the Toure/Senderos issue were it not Milan we were playing in our next game. If Phil was to make one of his errors of judgement while Inzaghi is on the field then that is a goal, you could bet you house on it.. If Toure makes an error he has the pace to make up for it.
Ozi Gooner
Er.. you have a good point Ozi.. I'm still nervous nonetheless.
Lou the Gunneress
Agree with Ozi, Toure's experience makes it less likely for a mistake and I'd be more comfortable with him in defence. On the competing on 2 fronts, Amos beat me to it. Very few teams have actually done well on both the domestic and CL front. There have been exceptions - Barca 2006, but in general the finalists / winner is a club that is not competing for their League title. However, the chain of events is taking too predictable a turn for me - before the CC and FA Cup games, we said the same thing - that there are other trophies with a higher priority and now also between the CL & Premiership. I'm not sure thats a good idea.
prits
As for RVP, I have no faith in his prolonged fitness. If he is fit to come on as a sub in a few games towards the end of the season, thats a positive bonus but looking at his fitness record over the seasons, I'm not holding my breath.
prits
The only thing predictable in the chain of events so far is that treating the CC & FAC competitions as equally important as the CL and PL generally lessens your chances of winning either of them. All cup competitions are decided by events as much as anything else. Drawing the right team at the right time or having your opponents centre half sent off after 30 minutes are as much determinants in knockout competitions as ability. Lady Luck will decide whether we progress in the CL whereas the PL depends to a large extent on us staying focussed on it. As the article says it's all about making decisions. We can and will go for both now but the most important game coming up is still away to Birmingham on Saturday.
Amos.
The CC & FA Cups were not priorities, and I'm not gutted that we lost out, coz we can now focus on the 2 big trophies this season which are clearly the priorities. But now, the article talks about how its the Premiership thats the big prize. Now, I agree with LD about the priorities coz I'd like arsenal to win the Premiership most of all but there is a hint of a pessimistic ring to that line of thought as far as the CL is concerned.
prits
Is it pessimism or just realism? It's so hard to be sure of the outcome of a knock out competition. You can match the other team and still go out on penalties. In the PL, as long as we are ahead of them, if we match ManU at Old Trafford that's two points they drop. The PL is in our hands to a greater extent than the CL, that's the reality, but I have no doubt that we will also give each and every CL game our best shot for as long as we remain in it. If that's good enough to take us to the trophy all well and good but it would help if Milan have someone sent off around the 30 min mark.
Amos.
I actually feel more comfy with Manuel in goals these days, but there's something inside which tells me that our mad German has got a little demon that needs to be exorcised in the Champions League. A certain sending off that he needs to atone. It's probably Jens last chance of CL glory this season too, so what the hell. Jens for the CL. I agree with you Amos. Milan tonight in one of our biggest ever games and I'm sat here worried sick about Brum on the weekend. Anyone else get the feeling that the barcodes are about to spring a surprise? Excellent article LD, great read.
flv
*****in' oath it would, preferably Kaka, although I doubt if he has ever been red carde in his entire career.
Ozi Gooner
PL title and at least UCL final pleaseeee...
fcdematthew
 

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