Villa Preview + Arsenal to face Burnley in Carling Cup

If, as is regularly posited by the media, Aston Villa are the best side outside of the top four, then today should tell us a fair bit about this Arsenal side.  A resounding victory would confirm our superiority over the Villas and the Evertons, and allow us to count ourselves among those sides contesting the title.  Anything less than a victory, and the win over Man U will immediately start to feel like an anomalous result.

There is positive news on the injury front, with both Manuel Almunia and Emmanuel Adebayor available.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the side that triumphed over United starts today, with Adebayor’s pace available as a weapon from the bench.

For Aston Villa, John Carew is a doubt.  I’m crossing every digit in the hope that he’s out: he’s caused us countless problems in the past and holds a bit on Indian sign over our defence.

At yesterday’s press conference, a lot of the questions Arsene Wenger faced were unsurprisingly about our talented youngsters.  Aaron Ramsey followed his impressive performance against Wigan with a call-up to the full Wales side.  It seems John Toshack intends to play him just off Craig Bellamy as a ‘Number 10′, but I think his best position will eventually be as a Cesc-style midfielder (with more goals, please).

Arsene has also come out and said something I uttered myself on Wednesday: that Jack Wilshere could well make the England squad for 2010.  With England coach Fabio Capello toying with calling up Michael Mancienne, a defender whose never played a league game for Chelsea, it’s clear England have a progressive manager who has an interest in nurturing young talent.  There’s none better around than Wilshere, and if his development is handled as well as that of Theo Walcott, they sky really is the limit.

Eduardo could be playing again within a fortnight.  I don’t really need to comment on how exciting that is.

The Carling Cup Quarter-Final draw was made this morning, and we travel to Burnley (where we won in the FA Cup in January).  It’ll be a big test against a solid, physical outfit who’ve already seen off Chelsea.  Hopefully that’s their major cup upset for the season out of the way and we will prevail.

Victory over Villa and it’d be three consecutive wins.  The trauma of Stoke would slip ever further towards the back of my mind.

Come on Arsenal – make it happen.

Kolo the odd man out in French back four

Today brings the news that Mikael Silvestre has re-joined Sagna, Gallas and Clichy in the French squad, with Raymond Domenech pledging to play the quartet “so nobody will criticise us”.  Whilst I’m not sure that the four men represent the solid unit Domenech envisages, there is an obvious advantage to picking defenders who play alongside each other at club level.

I remember several England managers being implored by both press and public to pick the fabled ‘Arsenal back four’ to play in front of colleague David Seaman.  In spite of this, I couldn’t help but think Arsene was going a bit far when he compared the selection dilemma he faces with Gallas, Silvestre and Kolo Toure to the one he had a decade ago when choosing between Steve Bould, Tony Adams, and Martin Keown.  I’m not sure any one of those francophonic defenders compares in class and consistency to the latter trio of goal-guarding giants.

Toure has fallen from grace somwhat, but remains a favourite of the Arsenal fansAt the moment, Toure is the man missing out.  After being a vital cog in the side over the past five years, this is the first-time he could be described as anything less than first-choice.  Unsurprisingly, the Ivorian remains as upbeat as ever:

“I have not been in this situation before really, but the team are doing well.  It’s difficult for me to not play but I hope to come back, and I will work hard to get my place back in the team.  At Arsenal there has always been big competition … I was in the team for a long time … but things can change and that’s part of football.”

Silvestre has done well, but I don’t think his selection has much to do with him being a ‘better’ footballer than Kolo.  Arsene constantly emphasises the advantage of Silvestre being left-footed, but I think it’s far more to do with the fact that he is a more natural ball-winner than either Kolo or Gallas.  Gallas’ position as captain, meanwhile, makes him essentially undroppable.  It was inevitable that Kolo would take the fall.

In recent weeks we have seen Toure employed at right-back, but it’s not where he sees his long-term future:

“Right-back is a good position but to play there for a long time would be difficult for me, because I think maybe my body shape is not the right one.  Those ones that play at the side, they are really skinny and can run and run and run!  But I’m part of the team, and the manager can do what he wants.”

Furthermore, Toure himself finally moved to debunk the myth that he is a central midfielder in waiting – and his frustration at his classification as a centre-back being questioned is evident:

“Not at all – I have spent seven years at this club, playing at centre-back for five… We’ve been to the Champions League final, we’ve been unbeaten… How can I show more?  I know this position really, really well and I have proven it already.  I’m only 27 at the moment, and I think I can improve in this position.  I don’t need to change my position, I just need to work hard and improve my game … I can still improve, but I think centre-back is really the position for me.”

I agree with Kolo, and whilst he has been off-form, it’s worth remembering just how good he has been in the past.  At one stage he was as good as anything in the Premier League, and I think he has only been exposed in recent months because of the absence of a suitable partner.  Toure is a quick, reactive defender with excellent ball skills.  He is at his best alongside a colossal stopper in the Sol Campbell mould: just look what Toure achieved alongside the hardly world-beating Senderos.  The absence of a similar player is no fault of Toure’s, and yet he is carrying the can.  It is hard not to feel for one of our most loyal players.

Nevertheless, Toure’s time will come again.  With Gallas the wrong side of thirty and possibly sanity, I suspect that this period will go on to be recognised as a minor funk in the number five’s glorious Arsenal career.

Chin up, Kolo.  We love you.

Villa preview tomorrow.

Chelsea disrespect the Carling Cup

A near full-strength Chelsea side crashed out of the Carling Cup on penalties last night, making a fool out of the usually genial Ray Wilkins’ suggestion that Arsenal had ‘disrespected’ the competition by fielding our young stars.  I think arseblogger hits the nail square on Wilkins’ disturblingly round head.

The British media’s hype machine has clicked into gear over Jack Wilshere, with a spate of stories which include a rather ominous comparison to Paul Gascoigne.  Whilst he may prove to be comparable in terms of talent, no footballer who serves his education under Arsene Wenger is liable to go off the rails in the manner of Gazza.

Early team news for Saturday’s big game against Villa suggests that Manuel Almunia might be a doubt, but Emmanuel Adebayor could be in line for a surprising return.  Villa, like all Martin O’Neill sides, present a considerable aerial threat, so Adebayor’s presence would be a welcome one.

More team news tomorrow.

Carling Cup: Arsenal 3 – 0 Wigan (Player-by-player analysis)

Simpson pokes home his first

Arsenal 3 – 0 Wigan (Simpson 43, 68, Vela 71) Highlights here

The feel-good factor from Saturday’s victory over Man U carried over last night.  The personnel were different, but the game was just as open, just as thrilling, and had just as pleasing an outcome for Arsenal fans.

I must confess that at kick-off I was a little nervous for our lads – we were fielding a side with an average age of 19 against an athletic Wigan team containing players the calibre of Palacios, Valencia, and Zaki.

I needn’t have worried.  In an end-to-end encounter, our Young Guns showed off their remarkable composure and class.  We carved out three excellent goals, and but for the form of Chris Kirkland, it might have been many more.   Now follows my attempt to summarise the performances of eleven outstanding prospects:

Lukasz Fabianski
Made the decision to come and collect crosses, sometimes more successfully than others.  Although he had my heart in my mouth on more than one occasion, he ought to be congratulated for a quite remarkable double save to deny Daniel De Ridder and then Amir Zaki.  Jan Tomaszewski eat your heart out.

Gavin Hoyte
A tenacious performance from the younger Hoyte brother, who seems to have the pace we were constantly told his older possessed, despite the lack of any supporting evidence.

Kieran Gibbs
Hasn’t long been a left-back, and it showed as De Ridder and Valencia exploited his positional naievety.  Was stronger going forward, and had two good chances saved by Kirkland when squaring to a waiting team-mate might’ve been more profitable.

Alex Song
One of the major criticisms of Song is that his concentration is poor.  Last night, however, fuelled by the responsibility of being one of the side’s elder statesmen, he kept his head as well as a clean sheet.  I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable with him at centre-back against a top side, but last night he put in a couple of crunching tackles that might prove handy in our midfield.

Johan Djourou
Kept an occasionally ragged back-line together, as well as storming up the field to provide the assist for Vela’s chip.  What our first-team requires is a 6’3″ centre-back who likes a tackle and can pass.  Djourou is looking increasingly like he might be the answer.

Jack Wilshere
Fabio Capello was in the crowd last night, and I doubt it was to watch Titus Bramble.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say Wilshere has a decent chance of following Theo Walcott in playing for England before the age of eighteen, and subsequently going to the World Cup in 2010.  The guy is sixteen years old, and last night he was dancing past Wigan defenders as if they weren’t there.  Wilshere is the most exciting English talent since Wayne Rooney.  He reminds me of all kinds of players, but at the moment he looks like a cross-breed of Joe Cole and Lionel Messi (except much less ugly than such a child would be).  Somehow, however, I suspect that he’ll go on to be very much his own man.  A special, special talent.

Fran Merida
Technically, Merida is outstanding.  Whether or not he has the physical capacities to emulate his friend and mentor Cesc Fabregas is something we’ll discover in the next three years.  Some delicious passes last night.

Mark Randall
Fought well but occasionally tried too many fancy flicks in his own territory.  Also caused Alan Parry to repeatedly use the phrase “backheeler”, which makes me want to tear my ears off and stuff them down his commentating throat.  Moreso than many members of this team, I suspect this Carling Cup campaign is providing Randall with an opportunity to earn a move elsewhere, rather than break into our own team.

Aaron Ramsey
So far, the Welsh wizard looks like £5m well spent.  More vision than Denilson, quicker than Song, and more consistent than Diaby, it may not be long until Ramsey (who, lest we forget, is just 17) is banging down the door of the first-team rather than merely knocking on it.  However, the more I watch him the more I can’t shake the suspicion he’s being groomed as Cesc’s replacement rather than his partner…

Carlos Vela
Eduardo was at the ground last night (alongside, intriguingly, one Martin Keown), and whilst we all hope he’s the same player he was before his injury, we needn’t worry too much: in Carlos Vela, we have another left-footed finisher of the highest quality.  Last night’s chip over the 6’4″ Chris Kirkland was the latest entry in his personal Goal of the Season contest.  His assist for the second demonstrated his speed, and his touch was as good as ever.  Vela will score many, many goals for Arsenal.

Jay Simpson
Last year’s League One Player of the Year is an old-fashioned centre-forward.  He makes intelligent, pacey runs, has broad shoulders, and finishes well.  Whilst not a world-beater, he’s a very honest striker, and will make a good career for himself somewhere.  Last night he got his reward with two goals, and struck the bar with another impressive effort.  Maybe he’ll bloom into an Arsenal-class forward, but his even younger strike partner demonstrates the kind of competition he’ll face…

Lansbury, Bischoff (yes, BISCHOFF), and Rui Fonte made brief appearances from the bench, and all-in-all it was another entirely satisfactory night for Le Boss and his Carling Cup policy.  When you see these boys play like this it’s suddenly easier to understand why Arsene believes so strongly in the depth and quality of his squad.

However, it is worth remembering that in these games, the youngsters are playing in a pressure-less environment (like space).  Their youth means that they are consistently the underdogs, and this seems to liberate their undoubted talents.  But when the heat rises, and the pressure is on – that is when experience is required, and when the imbalance of our squad is exposed.

For today, let’s just celebrate another extraordinary performance.  The mood around the club is suddenly buoyant, and we need to take that in to Saturday’s tie with Aston Villa.

Carling Cup Preview: Will Bischoff be involved?

After the rousing victory over Man U, Arsenals kids will get another chance to impress in the Carling Cup.  After the 6-0 demolition of Sheffield United, this time we’re up against Premiership opposition in Steve Bruce’s Wigan.

Aaron Ramsey is set to start tonightIn spite of the tougher task, Arsene says that “90%” of the side who played in the last round will be involved, and you have to say they fully deserve another chance.  The team that faced Sheffield United was:

Fabianski
Hoyte
Djourou
Song
Gibbs
Wilshere
Ramsey
Randall
Merida
Vela
Bendtner

With Bendtner increasingly vital in the absence of Van Persie and Adebayor, I don’t imagine he’ll be risked tonight. Instead, I wonder if we might see Amaury Bischoff. Since returning from a long-term groin (or hip, I forget) problem, Bischoff has made three Reserve team appearances and scored one impressive goal.  The Reserve side has been changed to a 4-4-1-1 system to accommodate Bischoff in the ‘Number 10′ role, and I wonder if he might be fit enough to be deployed behind Carlos Vela tomorrow.

The ever-informative Young Guns claims to have unearthed the full squad for tomorrow’s game, and that suggests that if Bischoff is not able to start we may see Jay Simpson or Rui Fonte in his place.

Ahead of the game, Arsene Wenger has been speaking about the talent of Fran Merida, whose emergence has been somewhat overshadowed by the presence of Brits like Wilshere and Ramsey:

“Merida is different to Cesc [Fàbregas], but he is very dangerous in the final third.  If you analyse a game and look who gives the ball every time in the final third, you will see Fran. “That is the most difficult part of the game and that is where he is strong.”

There’ll be 60,000 in the stadium tonight, and plenty more watching on Sky.  It’s a night for someone like Merida to make a name for themselves.

I’m confident at least one of them will.  Come on you (young) Gunners!