By Richard Clarke
Just before 3pm on Saturday, there will be a meeting of great minds at Emirates Stadium.
Blackpool manager Ian Holloway prefaced his trip to North London with more than a little nervousness. He dubbed Arsène Wenger as “a genius” and admitted his main concern was that his newly-promoted side were not “absolutely embarrassed” on the day.
It was hardly Henry V at Agincourt but then, when the quotes were put to him at Friday’s press conference, the Frenchman in question was, himself, caution personified.
“That makes me think we have a very difficult game tomorrow,” Arsène Wenger smiled.
“Really I think he is the genius because at the moment he is in front of Arsenal and he has done extremely well. They had a fantastic result at Wigan. I have watched the game last week and the goals. They were really convincing offensively.
“And anyway, believe me, I am completely conscious that I am not a genius.”
Leaving the IQs aside, Wenger was busy painting a picture of determination and focus when he spoke to the media. He will be aware that, having left Anfield with a draw last Sunday, Arsenal have a few of the Premier League’s more unfashionable clubs coming up in the immediate future. The neutral will certainly see that as a way to rattle up some rapid, early points.
Of course, the manager never holds such a simplistic view – but he was especially reticent about an outfit riding the highest wave of their recent history.
“Listen, Blackpool have just won 4-0 at Wigan, a place where not many teams win,” he said.
“That means we have to show we are mature enough to deal with these types of games where you are favourites.
“You are only ever favourites if you deserve it and prepare mentally.
“Among the three teams who come up, there is always one team who are on a wave of euphoria, of momentum - and it is not always the team who has won the League. In fact most of the time it is the team who finishes in the top six and gets up there.
“Blackpool have a euphoria because they have no doubt. And, as long as the doubt is not created by the results, they play with a real freedom. That is why Blackpool will be a dangerous team.”
And, of course, there is precedent. Arguably, the biggest shock Arsenal have ever received at Emirates Stadium came in similar circumstances. Two seasons ago, Hull barged their way into the Premier League in swashbuckling fashion. Their early results suggested they could compete but the real eye-opener was the 2-1 comeback victory against Wenger’s men in late September. In the end, Phil Brown’s men only stayed up via some brinkmanship on the final day of the season. But the damage to Arsenal had already been done.
“Yes those are painful memories of course,” said Wenger. “But we lost that game against Hull two seasons ago and maybe it can be a help for us this time.
“It is a warning that you have to prepare properly mentally to be up for it.”
Arsenal’s physical preparations have been hit by injuries. The stand-out player of pre-season, Samir Nasri, damaged his knee at Anfield and went under the surgeon’s knife this week. He will be missing for three or four weeks. More seriously, Emmanuel Frimpong injured his cruciate knee ligaments training with the Reserves over in Ireland on Wednesday morning. The 18-year-old was never likely to start on Saturday but, at the pre-match press conference, the manager was clearly upset to lose Frimpong for at least six months.
Denilson is fit after abdominal problems but it is too early for him to feature against Blackpool. Cesc Fabregas (fatigue), Alex Song (calf) and Johan Djourou (hamstring) are all available for the first time in the season.
Along with Robin van Persie, that trio may not start but as Laurent Koscielny is suspended after his late red card last Sunday, you would expect either Djourou or Song to play alongside Thomas Vermaelen at centre back.
Wenger’s final question from the written press was a simple one – have you ever been to Blackpool?
“Yes,” he replied. “We fly from there sometimes when we play away. And, don’t forget Stanley Matthews was with them.”
That was between 1947 and 1961 when Blackpool were a force in English football. They appeared in three FA Cup Finals in that period including the ‘Matthews Final’ of 1953 and were runners-up in the League to Manchester United in 1955-56.
It is unfortunate that the team with the most colourful kit in England had their heyday in black and white. Holloway’s heroics have at least put them back in the upper echelons once again.
Few predict they will stay there. But these Tangerines are still a banana skin for Arsenal on Saturday.
It doesn't take a genius to work out that Saturday is a real, live examination for Wenger's men.
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