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.