By Giuseppe Muro
Thomas Vermaelen will return to action after more than seven months on the sidelines when he starts for the Reserves against Manchester United on Thursday.
The Belgian centre back hasn’t played since picking up an Achilles injury while on international duty in September and subsequently having surgery to correct a tendon problem.
A number of frustrating setbacks have seen Vermaelen miss virtually the whole season but the 25-year-old has progressed well since returning to full training in April and will make his comeback at Old Trafford in the second string’s final game of the regular season.
“He’s in the squad to play against Manchester United,” revealed Reserve team manager Neil Banfield when he spoke to Arsenal.com.
“He’s had such a hard year so it’s great to see him back and playing again. Thomas spoke to the manager who felt it would be good for him to play.
“It’s also a great opportunity for the young players to play with a first-team player and a senior international. It will be good for them to learn from Thomas because he is a winner.”
That winning knowhow could prove timely with the Reserves travelling to the North-West knowing that victory could be enough to secure the Reserve League South title.
Arsenal sit one point above nearest challengers Chelsea, who beat Aston Villa on Tuesday, having played a game more than the west Londoners.
Three points in Manchester would leave Chelsea needing two wins from their final two games, Manchester City (a) and Wolves (h), if they were to leapfrog the Gunners who have a superior goal difference.
Should Arsenal finish top of the southern division they would host the winners of the Reserve League North in a play-off at Emirates Stadium in May.
At the culmination of a season of highs and lows, Banfield believes finishing the campaign at the summit of the table would be no more than his players merit.
“You end up where you deserve to be at the end of your season,” he said. “The majority of the time we have played well and it just shows the work that is being done within the Club.
“It shows what a strong, well-run Club we are that we can sustain a title push while our main aim is producing players for the first-team, which is what it is all about.
“It would be really good for the young players involved this year because they have worked hard. They took a bad beating against Aston Villa and they have responded and shown character. It would be good for them if we can win the league.
“We have completely changed our team [with players going out on loan] and we have sustained our push by playing really good football. For a lot of them it will be their first taste of success which is a credit to all the lads that have been involved right the way through the season.”
Opponents Man United are themselves challenging for the Reserve League crown and only need a point to achieve top spot in their northern section after a run of five successive wins.
With the likes of Bebe, a £7.4 million summer signing, and the highly-regarded Gabriel Obertan both regular fixtures in Warren Joyce's side, the Reds do boast a strong second string.
And Banfield expects difficult opposition as Arsenal look to secure their first success at this level since the formation of the Premier Reserve League in 1999.
“There is something to play for on both sides and I think that adds a little bit to the game,” admits Banfield. “We will do as much as we can to make sure we make the play-off.
“It’s also a fantastic opportunity to play at Old Trafford, a stadium steeped in football history, and it will be a wonderful place to play. All the lads are looking forward to it.”
Following his red card against Wigan in March, captain Ignasi Miquel, who scored on his debut for Spain Under-19s last week, is suspended but Chuks Aneke returns after missing the Dallas Cup. Jeremie Aliadiere will continue to lead the attack following his goal against Sunderland last time out while James Shea is set to start between the posts.
Arsenal.com will bring you live text commentary from the game and Arsenal TV Online subscribers can view match highlights 'on demand' from Friday afternoon.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source