Looking at the current Arsenal squad, I have to marvel at the courage of Wenger in sticking to his philosophy of remaining a spectator in the January transfer window. There are only 14 fit outfield players for the Old Trafford visit. Tomas Rosicky, Theo Walcott, Robin van Persie, Bacary Sagna and Denilson are out through injury or unavailability.
Jens Lehmann would still continue as goalkeeper in place of Alumnia. Another four players (Gael Clichy, Philippe Senderos, Emmanuel Adebayor and Mathieu Flamini) are rated doubtful and will undergo fitness tests this morning. They may not see action as Wenger does not want any complications at this stage of the season. He said: “It’s a period when you don’t want to lose players because these are decisive months. They could be out for the rest of the season.”
In view of this, the B-team will feature Hoyte and Traore while the return of players from the African Cup Nations including Toure, Eboue and Song add some beef to the makeshift squad. The timing is perfect but whether there are any residual effects from the tiring campaign is unclear.
I believe Wenger’s competitive streak will see him assemble a team capable of winning. His team had lost just once (Carling Cup defeat to Tottenham) in their last 16 outings, and they are unbeaten in three previous meetings against Manchester United. This is a record worth preserving but it is not beyond him to endure some gloating and let Alex Ferguson triumph this round.
If truth be told, the Champions League is the one major regret in his life, and he will not rest till he clinches that crown. The AC Milan match looms in the middle of next week, allocation of resources is crucial and risking half-fit players to secure the “less glamorous” FA Cup is not appealing to Wenger.
Arsenal have always been second best in Europe while Milan enjoy an impeccable pedigree. To clear this hurdle, Arsenal have to field their strongest team to stand a chance. The Milanese are fit and ready, notable absentees being Ronaldo and Seedorf, but Kaka and Pato are believed to be in the first XI.
Wenger claimed he does not “favor any competition over another,” but there is no doubt where his priorities lie. If three Premier League points are at stake or the Champions League Finals beckons, I suspect a lot of the “unavailable” players will have miraculously recovered.
As for Manchester United, while not really down to the bare bones, they are in the same boat as Arsenal with their own Champions League campaign to consider. United will travel to France to face Lyon next week.
Ferguson believes both teams will make changes, saying, “It’s impossible to play the same team all the time with so many fixtures. That’s why we have squads of 22 players. You can’t go back to the days when Liverpool fielded 14 players in a season.”
United are boosted by the return to fitness of forward Louis Saha, who has recovered from a cartilage problem. Ferguson insisted Saha could be useful as United challenge for honors on all fronts, provided he stays away from the treatment room. While Saha’s return is welcome, Fergie will prefer Adebayor to sit on the bench. The Togolese’s exploits for Arsenal, scoring 12 goals in his last nine appearances is a cause of concern for his defense.
I am sure Manchester United will give Arsenal a hard time as they are raring to recover their bearings after the recent disappointing results. It can be a blessing in disguise as the players tasted defeat and realize they cannot be complacent. To secure the titles, they have to commit every ounce of energy and be focussed.
Ferguson believes his players would pick themselves up. According to him, the abject display is due to the sombre atmosphere, along with a minute’s silence to mark the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster. He said: “That is the only thing I can offer. The training ground has been quiet this week. There has been a deep impact on the team. They are genuine players and they have a genuine desire to do better.”
The FA Cup is Fergie’s favorite hunting ground as he has won the competition five times. While both clubs have not met in the FA Cup since Arsenal won on penalties in the 2005 final, Ferguson will certainly attempt his 12th victory in 36 attempts over Wenger.
“My favourite tie was the semi-final in 1999 at Villa Park against Arsenal,” said Ferguson. “It had everything. I’m sure this tie will be a typical United versus Arsenal game. It’ll be very competitive. Fasten your seat belts!”
Indeed, United-Arsenal clashes have a history of being tempestuous affairs. I expect United to sacrifice their exciting football and play ugly to progress to the next round. Psychologically, a victory will deal a huge blow to Arsenal while giving them the confidence to charge all the way and repeat the 1999 treble dream. There is no better time to gather momentum and it is up to Wenger and his young Turks to stop their charge.