It seems strange to say it but tomorrow night’s final group stage game against Partizan Belgrade is the biggest game of our season so far.
Lose it and we are most likely on our way out at this stage for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s reign. Even a draw might not be enough if Braga beat Shakhtar, a distinct possibility given the prize on offer for the Portuguese side and the fact that the Ukrainians have already qualified.
On the flip-side a win will see us comfortably through and given our home advantage and Belgrade’s frankly woeful Champions League performance — no points and one goal in five games is one of the poorest performances ever — there should really only be one outcome. But football is a funny game and with the potential for failure so high, the impact on our team could potentially be catastrophic.
My personal opinion is that we will come through this challenge well. The fact that our next game against Manchester United is not until Monday works in our favour and essentially allows Arsene Wenger to play a full-strength team against Belgrade. Anything less than that, given the potential impact of failure on the motivation of the team, would be extremely foolish.
Assuming that Wenger goes for the jugular and accounting for Laurent Koscielny’s recently-incurred concussion, our back five will undoubtedly be comprised of Lukasz Fabianski, Bacary Sagna, Sebastien Squillaci, Johan Djourou and Gael Clichy. Alex Song, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky are likely to play in the middle while the front three of Andrey Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh and the orgasmic Samir Nasri is all but set in stone.
Personally I am delighted with the fact that Djourou will be given an extended run in the side alongside Squillaci if not the circumstances that have forced it. The word from Wenger is that both Koscielny and Vermaelen will be out of the team until the New Year which leaves us extremely light at the back, perhaps relying on Song to do some filling in against some smaller sides. Hopefully his new-found attacking instincts, endorsed by the manager, do not come back to haunt him.
There will be some nervous times tomorrow night, particularly if Partizan manage to keep their clean sheet in tact for the opening twenty or thirty minutes, but I expect our team to pass this test with flying colours. Should we nab and early goal or two I think we will relax hugely and the floodgates could open, paving the way for a fairly comfortable night of football and the ultimate preparation for a super-fresh United on Monday.
Before I go today you might be interested to know that I was featured on the tremendous A Football Report podcast for the week, talking about such things as Nasri’s awesomeness (obviously), Squillaci and Djourou, the need to hang on to Cesc Fabregas and some World Cup stuff as well. Check it out here if you’re interested in hearing my voice.
Finally I just want to remind everyone that today is the last day that you can get shirts from The AFCB Shop for the bargain Christmas price of £12.50. I’ll be putting things back to normal at midnight UK time so get your orders in quick smart or risk feeling very disappointed in the morning! Just click the link below.
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