One year ago this weekend
A year ago we were going in to this weekend at the very end of the line. We'd been dumped out of the FA Cup and then hammered in the European Cup in Milan. We were facing the in-form Tottenham Hotspur who were about to go 13 points clear of us in the race for no trophy. For me I was at the lowest point I'd experienced as a Gooner since the mid-90s. At 2-0 down we were down and out, season over, humiliated at home by that mob from up the road. Then it happened. Theo Walcott produced a flick on the edge of the area from which Van Persie hit a post. From the ensuing cross Bacary Sagna came from nowhere to power in a header. From that point Walcott's Arsenal career, and our season, turned for the better. That day was unseasonably warm as I recall and we all basked in the glow of a Tottenham hammering. The run of form from then, almost until the end of the season, ensured we had the chance to get beaten by Bayern Munich last Tuesday. If we are to get back in to that sort of company next season then this weekend Arsenal must find that same spark when we take on Aston Villa, though this time it will be unseasonably cold instead.
Regardless of our poor displays this last week we are expected to dispatch Villa comfortably. But then that was supposed to be the case at Villa Park before Christmas. The fact is that you just can't tell how Arsenal are going to perform. They have become adept at living down to expectations when playing against quality opponents, but equally proficient at not beating obviously weaker teams. If Paul Lambert has been doing his homework he will have his team well organised tomorrow, with Benteke and Agbonlahor/Bent up front. It is a tried and tested formula that has seen plenty of success against Arsenal this season, not least in the last seven days.
For Arsenal we will be missing Sagna this weekend. My seven-year-old spotted he was injured in the first-half the other night so it came as no surprise to me that he will not be there. Carl Jenkinson was impressive at the start of the season but a lack of game time has seen him struggle badly in recent appearances. His sending off at Sunderland was maybe an indication that he is not quite ready for the top level, but a run in the side will only do him good. Nacho Monreal will certainly return at left-back and, frankly, anything that keeps Thomas Vermaelen away from the team at the moment is fine by me. The Verminator got a lot of grace from supporters thanks to his goalscoring exploits, but his defending has pretty much always been sub-standard. The other night I felt we would have been no worse off had Santos been playing at left-back. I know Vermaelen was being asked to play out of position, but he has played enough of his career as a full-back to be expected to know how to do it effectively. That he couldn't do that says a lot about his ability as a defender. Give me Koscielny and Mertesacker together tomorrow, please Arsene.
Further forward there are obvious choices to be made. I will be amazed if Olivier Giroud doesn't return up front, with Theo moving to the right again. Obviously Arteta and Wilshere will retain their places, but what of Podolski, Cazorla and Ramsey? Personally I would keep Ramsey and Podolski in the team, but I would bring in either Rosicky or Diaby, or even Oxlade-Chamberlain, in place of Cazorla. I firmly believe the Spaniard needs a serious kick in the backside and being dropped is the way to do it. That's not Arsene Wenger's style, but that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be.
We all know we need to win. I hope the players know. As much as I would choose to criticise Arsene Wenger for what is happening with the Club there can be no doubt that these players are letting both him and us down. They are better than they are showing. That can only be about commitment. Yes, it is the Manager who is responsible for motivating them appropriately. But how about a bit of personal pride and a professional attitude? The fans have actually supported the team well in my view. There are boos when the whistle goes at half-time or full-time if we are playing badly, but when the game is in progress there is good support. It's time for the players to repay us.
Just as a final aside, I will be watching the League Cup Final on Sunday with serious envy. I'm sure Villa fans will feel like us. We should be at Wembley to play Swansea. We should be ending that eight year run without a trophy. That we aren't is down to the failings of the players when faced with seriously inferior opposition. Like I said, they owe us. Big time.