By Rob Kelly
When Arsenal Reserves kick off against Liverpool on Tuesday afternoon, one man will remain firmly in the thoughts of Neil Banfield.
Former Gunners trainee Fabrice Muamba spent five years at the Club between 2002 and 2007, and he remains critically ill in hospital after collapsing during Bolton’s FA Cup tie at Tottenham on Saturday.
The news has had a profound effect on everyone at Arsenal, and Banfield admits it will be hard to concentrate on football when “one of his boys” is fighting for his life.
“It has put everything into perspective and just shows that life is so fragile,” Banfield told Arsenal.com. “I said to Pat Rice on Monday that he is one of our boys, one of our family and everyone just desperately hopes that he pulls through.
“I was sitting there on Saturday and got a text about it and I have been thinking about it all weekend - my mind keeps drifting off to think about him.
“You think about the big smile he always has on his face, and remember working on long passing with him on his left foot and having a real laugh with him. There are lots of reminders. I just hope his character pulls him through.”
Banfield says Muamba has always shown a tremendous fighting spirit throughout his life.
“Fabrice gives everything for the team and he is a ferocious tackler,” he said. “He is fair, and was the backbone of our side. He knows his job and wants to be involved all the time. When he was with us, he knew his limitations and worked at his game non-stop.
“He is such a dedicated young man. He came over from the Congo and worked ever so hard on everything that he did. He is so driven and so inquisitive - he was always asking how he could improve.
“All our thoughts are with him and his family but football goes on, and he would have wanted us to play. But it will be tough for us.”
Despite the difficult circumstances, Banfield says his players should have no trouble rousing themselves to face Liverpool.
“At any level, Arsenal versus Liverpool is always a good game and it will be tough against them,” he said. “There tends to be a bit of added spice to these fixtures as it is two giant clubs playing against each other.
“We have seen the culmination of the team's hard work lately with our recent results. It is a long process and we know they might dip again, but we know the quality is there.”
Abou Diaby is set to start for Banfield’s side after returning from the hamstring injury that he sustained when the first team beat Liverpool at the start of the month.
“He is a top player, it is so frustrating to him and the Club that he has been unable to get a run in the team due to injury,” said Banfield.
“You can see what he brings to the team and hopefully he can get over his injuries in the next few weeks like Tomas Rosicky has. He had his injury problems but is now playing fantastically well and hopefully Abou will go down the same road.”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