As a warm-up for the big game against United this week, yesterday’s 2-0 win over Middlesbrough could hardly have gone better.
Two goals for a previously goal-shy Cesc Fabregas, successful returns of Manuel Almunia, Johan Djourou and Emmanuel Adebayor and a confidence-boosting clean sheet for the defence capped an excellent afternoon at The Emirates. For a team as close to relegation as Boro are, I was surprised with their lack of intensity and effort throughout the match as our boys cruised to the sort of relaxed victory that Manchester United and Alex Ferguson would have craved against Tottenham on Saturday.
Almunia had very little to do and we never looked like conceding once Fabregas scored in the first half. He added a second for himself and the team midway through the second period and from that point on the game resembled something of a training match as Djourou, Adebayor as well as Abou Diaby were given vital match time to prepare for the far more important trip to Manchester.
I was a little surprised to see Fabregas start with the United game only days away, but he was joined by Denilson and – surprisingly – Samir Nasri in an intriguing midfield trio. The manager’s decision to play Nasri a little deeper than Fabregas worked well as the Frenchman scuttled around in characteristic style and Fabregas pushed forward to make his mark on the game. If these post-match comments from the manager are anything to go by then he may stick with that option against United, with Alex Song coming in for Denilson to play the holding role.
The trio were joined by Andrey Arshavin and Theo Walcott on the flanks while Nicklas Bendtner started as the target man up front. Bacary Sagna was given a rest, replaced by a much-improved Emmanuel Eboue at right-back while Kolo Toure, Mikael Silvestre and Kieran Gibbs made up the rest of the defensive four. An injury in the first half to Silvestre means he is a big doubt for the United clash and saw him substituted for Djourou at half-time.
In terms of a performance there’s not much to say. We were comfortable in every sense of the world and always looked likely to win. Both goals were well taken by Fabregas as he finished off beautiful interplay between himself, Arshavin and Bendtner for the first and rounded the keeper after being put through by Eboue for the second.
If someone had told me before that one of our players would score two goals and I was able to choose who I wanted it to be, Fabregas would certainly have been my first pick. He had only scored one goal in the league before this game and the brace will certainly have given him a confidence boost ahead of the United game. While we will be missing the four-goal Arshavin for that match I think it was good reminder from the captain to his team and the supporters that there other, more eligible players who have the ability to have an impact at Old Trafford.
I think the manager’s starting team and substitutions have given us a massive indication of what side he will send out on Wednesday night. With Silvestre 50:50 and Djourou coming through OK I think the Swiss defender will start, while Toure and Gibbs should continue and a rested Sagna will surely return. There is still a possibility that Wenger may want a more experienced player to take care of Cristiano Ronaldo which could see Eboue continue and Sagna play on the left, but that looks to be the only matter for conjecture.
Song will return to join Fabregas in the middle and the pair will surely be joined by one of Nasri or Diaby. I think it was telling that Diaby was rested and Nasri was played in the middle and I can see the manager putting Diaby on the left with Walcott on the right. Adebayor will surely start up front to complete what looks a well-balanced line-up.