Today’s all or nothing match for Arsenal’s Champions League hopes have been dominated by one subject – Francis Coquelin.
One season ago, the Gunner’s French midfielder was whiling away his career playing in the Championship on loan at Charlton Athletic. Cue Arsene Wenger’s yearly injury crisis and he was recalled in January and his form has been so sensational that he has been immovable in his position since.
Such is the remarkable turnaround for Coquelin, that the news of a two month lay-off due to an injury sustained in Saturday’s loss to West Brom has seen the optimism levels of Gooner’s everywhere plummet for the season.
The defensive midfield lynchpin has been perhaps Arsenal’s most important player since his phoenix-like rise from ignominy. His performances have allowed others to concentrate solely on the attacking side of their game, safe in the knowledge that Coquelin is a one-man barrier that most teams struggle to overcome. So with Coquelin now joining a growing number of players currently receiving treatment for ailments in Arsenal’s ranks – what are Arsene Wenger’s choices for a match that leaves no room for error?
Mathieu Flamini appears the obvious choice, his display in the second half of the North London Derby draw was testament to his ability and his tactical nous that was instilled in his years playing in Serie A for AC Milan. Not only that – but no one else is fit.
Our Club Captain had a recall to forget in the weekend. Brought on in the 14th minute for the injured Coquelin, Arteta scored the winning goal – for the opposition. He also went off early through injury before the game ended and thus – Flamini is the natural choice to partner Santi Cazorla in the centre of the park.
Aaron Ramsey is another step closer to a recall that can instill hope for Gooner’s aspirations, and took part in full training to boost his hopes of a first match since October, but it is unclear whether Wenger will risk starting him. Arsene Wenger will have one eye on Norwich in the weekend and the Welsh midfielder will surely have a part to play in that game. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott have both shrugged off their respective niggles but aren’t match fit, though their impending return will boost a side that appears to be flagging due to a thinness of numbers after a horrendous amount of players have dropped out of action.
Hector Bellerin returned in the weekend and immediately replaced the improving Mathieu Debuchy, but his performance was ring-rusty to say the least. Whether Debuchy will be recalled or Bellerin will play to aid his match sharpness remains to be seen until the team sheet is released later today.
Joel Campbell is another who had a game to forget against West Brom – missing a chance to score in which it seemed easier to score. The Costa Rican has shown an improved work rate and the odd flash of something special but the jury is out so far, this game is another chance for him to hold down a spot with players looking to return that will vie with Campbell for his place.
Arsene Wenger will be more than aware that his side require two wins from the two remaining games in the Group. The reverse fixture saw Zagreb beat English opposition for the first time in the European Cup with a 2-1 win and give Gooner’s a taste of what was to come on this seasons European stage. The only highlight was a famous win Vs Bayern Munich but this was sandwiched between a loss to Olympiacos at home and a thumping reeking of revenge at the hands of the Munich giants.
Ultimately, a win may not even be enough, if Olympiacos grab an unlikely point in Munich. If that is the case, then it could be argued that Arsenal should do all they can to avoid the energy-sapping and frivolous Europa League. Arsene Wenger will undoubtedly look to take his team far and perhaps exorcise the ghosts of Copenhagen 2000 in which Galatasaray defeated them in the UEFA Cup Final – but fans hunger for the Premier League.
With Arsenal’s injury curse showing no sign of abating, Wenger may use his experience to prioritise his sides focus. With the top of the league within touching distance despite recent performances being underwhelming, the Gunners can genuinely challenge for the title. With a squad that leaves no room for rotation, Arsenal cannot push in Europe and also maintain a title tilt simultaneously.
If Arsene could oversee training with a fully fit squad at his disposal, then it could be argued that the Gunner’s could easily push on more than one frontier. Lamentably, this isn’t the case, but this could be viewed as another chance for one of Arsenal’s glittering youngsters to stake a claim.
Krystian Bielik is on the fringes of the squad and has been touted as a future defensive midfield sentry,. Calum Chambers showed last season he could adapt to a position further forward, with his Manager stating the same thing. Either may be given a whiff of a chance if Flamini needs resting for the upcoming match Vs the Canaries.
One thing is for sure, Wenger has some calls to make, on and off the pitch. Does he go all out and play his strongest side in a competition they are unlikely to win? Or does he risk ridicule by opting to rest certain players and save them for the Premier League?
This match may yet be a dead rubber but it gives Arsenal’s players an opportunity to reclaim the slick play which saw such great league form in October. A win, regardless of whether progression in Europe has been dashed or not, breeds confidence, and that seems to be a little thin on the ground presently.
Win or bust for the Gunners.