I think is fair to call tomorrow’s game against Chelsea the biggest challenge our boys have faced so far this season. In fact, it might just be the biggest challenge they face in the entire season.
It is a huge disappointment that we go into such an important game with such an understrength team. We already knew yesterday that first-team players Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott, Thomas Vermaelen, Manuel Almunia and Nicklas Bendtner would be missing, but now Kieran Gibbs and crucially, Cesc Fabregas can be added to that list.
The absence of our captain from Stamford Bridge cannot be understated. He is the heartbeat of this side, the player most capable of piercing Chelsea’s armour with a slide-rule pass or a stroke of genius and how the manager deals with his loss will be crucial.
Does he play it safe and pop Denilson in alongside Alex Song? Does he throw Jack Wilshere, arguably our most in-form midfielder, in to get our tempo up? Will Tomas Rosicky or Samir Nasri play in the creative role? These are the questions that will determine whether we get control of the game or allow Chelsea to dictate the pace.
Whoever it is that does get the nod in the midfield will need to ensure they work their socks off to keep things tight. With Chelsea missing Frank Lampard they may be short on some creative inspiration but with Michael Essien and Co in the side they will not be short on midfield steel. Hard work, defensive organisation and good technique in posession will be the only way to win the battle.
With Almunia all but certain to be left out Lukasz Fabianski has a unique opportunity to stake his claim as the first-choice goalkeeper at the club against Chelsea. Just how he has got into this position is baffling but if Fabianski plays well tomorrow, it will be a huge boon for both the player and the club. The Pole had a very solid game against Partizan Belgrade and his penalty save brought joy and relief in equal measure. In a game where supporters have increasingly short-term memories an impressive performance at Stamford Bridge could erase legitimate fears that he is an accident waiting to happen.
I will be interested to see the performances of the three new signings – Laurent Koscielny, Sebastien Squillaci and Marouane Chamakh – in tomorrow’s game. My early impression of these players is that they have the right temperament to perform in this sort of level and will be undaunted by the task at hand. I expect Koscielny in particular to do well and his and Squillaci’s battle with Didier Drogba will be the most fascinating duel in the match.
The French pair will receive support from relative veterans Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy on the flanks while further forward of the midfield Chamakh will be helped by Andrey Arshavin and one of Nasri or Rosicky. As I mentioned earlier the manager’s ability to get the midfield right will be crucial to our chances of getting a win at Stamford Bridge and the setup will have consequences on the team selection further forward.
In years gone by we would go to Stamford Bridge expecting to come away with three points but that will not be the case tomorrow. A win would be wonderful, a superb result giving the league champions brilliant home record, but a draw would be more than sufficient to keep pace with the top and indicate that we are a serious threat this season.
Like everyone else I am extremely excited about tomorrow’s clash. Even despite our injury problems, with so many new players on display we can genuinely expect to see more from our boys than the two dismal showings they put in against Chelsea last season.
Get behind the boys – it should be a beauty!
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