It has been a shock to realise this week that Arsenal have not held the top spot in the Premier League in March since 2004 when the Invincibles blasted all before them. The 18 hours or so between the win against West Ham on Saturday and Manure winning on Sunday was therefore very precious indeed.
It also begs the questions of whether last Saturday's results can be repeated, or whether Arsenal can stay the course in the title race this year. And I say why not? Our record this season against everyone apart from Manure and Chelsea is very good, all our remaining fixtures look winable on paper, and our competitors look capable of dropping points.
The immediate task before us is the away game at Birmingham tomorrow. And whilst its not an easy one by any means, its the sort of prospect you would take at this stage of the season. Manure's trip to Bolton is a harder prospect, as is the visit of Aston Villa to Chelsea. The bookies will disagree with me, but I would be surprised if all the top 3 teams win tomorrow. So lets hope its not Arsenal that slip up.
I am also a big believer that as confidence grows in a team, the results tend to get better and better. And at the moment, despite the injuries to key first team players like RVP and Gallas, this team is purring like an Aston Martin at the moment. And whilst Fabregas gets the attention from the papers, this team is not the Cesc Fabregas show in the way that we used to rely quite a lot on Thierry Henry to produce the goods.
The goals are being scored from all over the pitch and terrific performances are being put in by the more fringe players such as Eboue. Even Denilson played quite well against West Ham last Saturday.
But the big one will come next Wednesday when Barca arrive in town. Its a tough draw in terms of whether Arsenal can progress to the semis, but what an occassion its going to be. Its also impossible to expect that the players will not also have it somewhere in their minds when taking to the field on Saturday, but that distraction must be put to one side.
I would also expect that many of them who play on Saturday are still vying for a place in the team on Wednesday. The easy names in the 'first xi' for the Barca game are Almunia, Vermaelen, Clichy, Song, Cesc, Bendnter and Arshavin, but there is a healthy fight between Theo, Eboue and Sagna for positions down the right, plus between Nasri / Diaby / Rosicky / Denilson for the remaining positions in midfield.
Wenger is also showing a tendency for making sentimental selections, so I am tipping Eduardo to start the game against Birmingham tomorrow, probably with a view to keeping Arshavin or Bendtner fresher for the Barca game.
However, quite how Sol Campbell can play on Saturday and still be able to play at his peak on Wednesday is a tough one. That said, I don't think Big Sol is going to struggle with the physical side of the game. His second half performance against West Ham last weekend was immense and with a run of games now under his belt, it would be great to see him have a tilt again against Barca. I think he will eat the vastly over rated Ibrahimovic for dinner. And if Clichy can keep Messi under some form of control, then I think we will beat them.
I do think we have a good chance of defeating Barca over 2 legs but it will require an incredible amount of concentration and discipline. We often raise our game for big games like this and I think we have a chance of knocking out the holders the way we did in 08. The biggest difference between us and Barca is not necessarily player quality (tho of course Messi is in a class all his own) but Barca's consistent and collective effort for 90+ mins to FIGHT for the ball. Their OFF THE BALL movement is what separates us--we do it sometimes, individually. But they do it consistently and collectively. The defensive work is shared collectively. The forwards commit more fouls than the back line. We get that part of our game sorted and we won't be equal to Barca--we'll be better.
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