Friday’s weekly pre-match press conference from Arsene Wenger brought some positive news on the injury front as Arsenal prepare to face regulation-threatened Middlesbrough early Sunday afternoon in a Premier League match at Emirates Stadium.
Center-back Johan Djourou and keeper Manuel Almunia are among the possible returnees to bolster the Gunners defense this weekend after overcoming knee and ankle problems, respectively. Both will face Saturday or pre-game tests to determine their match fitness, while Emmanuel Adebayor is back in the squad but also will undergo a Saturday test session, according to Wenger. The manager did add that Robin van Persie “is not available and of course the other injuries – like Gallas and Clichy – are not back. Robin will definitely miss the first leg of the Champions League Semi-Final too.”
That midweek matchup with Manchester United will loom large at Emirates Stadium this weekend, playing a role in Wenger’s decision on who to include and leave out of the lineup Sunday. The manager claimed that Chelsea and third place in the Premiership are still in Arsenal’s sights, considering the Gunners are just six points back of the Blues and still have to play host to Chelsea in the EPL.
Wenger’s reasoning for continuing to push for third includes a change in Champions League format for this next season, as he mentioned that “next year it could be much tougher. This season’s third place team will go straight into the groups but the fourth team will be subject to an open draw of all qualifiers.”
While Middlesbrough are the lowest-scoring Prem side this season, they did defeat Liverpool not long ago. And believe it or not, Boro manager Gareth Southgate is unbeaten in his last five games against Arsenal. But I think the confidence in the current Arsenal squad should carry over into a home victory, with enough attacking options available even with some players left out.
I would be inclined to rest Bacary Sagna and Denilson, two players who look tired at the moment, which could give time to Eboue and Diaby in their slots. Cesc Fabregas, who has not looked his best against Chelsea and Liverpool this past week, may also see the bench come Sunday, in hopes of having the captain refreshed for the Champions League encounter.
Fabregas may soon see more time away from the pitch, as the FA has officially charged the midfielder with two cases of improper conduct dating back to the aftermath of the FA Cup win over Hull City in March.
According to the FA statement: “One charge concerns his behaviour in coming onto the pitch after the final whistle, the second charge relates to an alleged spitting incident.” In the Friday press conference, Arsene Wenger remarked that he feels there is little evidence against the 21-year-old and he was “very positive” about the outcome.
“I personally looked at the reports, I looked at the video evidence, and there is nothing in there really against Cesc,” said Wenger. “I don’t know (about an appeal). I have to see what we can do about that. I am not a great fan of appeals because I said at the start that we are very open to co-operate with the FA investigation and I don’t think we should stop that.”
One interesting thing I noticed when reading the official statement from the FA is that Hull City manager Phil Brown was also charged — “with improper conduct and/or bringing the game into disrepute in relation to media comments made after the game concerning referee Mike Riley — according to the release.
The statement noted that both Fabregas and Brown have until 12 May to respond. Any decision or action regarding the matter will have no effect on Cesc’s availability for Champions league matches, but I have a feeling we’ll see him miss some BPL action relating to this situation.
Speaking of resting some players for a “bigger” upcoming match, Arsenal’s Under-18 side saw some top performers omitted yet came back from two goals down Saturday to earn a 2-2 draw against Spurs. With the FA Youth Cup Final coming up (after the Young Gunners dispatched Manchester City side 4-1 mid-week to wrap up their semifinal round in a positive 6-2 fashion), manager Steve Bould had taken the opportunity to leave out some of his more regular players.
Congratulations to Jack Wilshere, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and the boys for knocking out the holders and advancing to the final (Arsenal’s first FA Youth Cup final appearance since 2001), where they’ll meet Liverpool over two legs (dates yet to be announced) to determine this year’s victor.