Pre-Match Report

Wolverhampton W. v Arsenal - Match Preview


By Richard Clarke

And now it is time to respond.

After being shaken by Shakhtar and unnerved by Newcastle, an Arsenal side in urgent need of a win will be thrown to the Wolves on Wednesday night.

While those two defeats were humbling, in truth, they have left Arsène Wenger’s side no further from their targets. Three early wins mean they are still in control of Champions League Group H while Chelsea’s defeat at Liverpool late on Sunday afternoon has kept them five points off the summit of the Premier League.

But it is hard to believe there will be no damage – mathematical and mental – if Arsenal slip to a third straight defeat at Molineux.

“It is vital [we avoid that]” admitted Wenger. “We do not want to lose this game. Especially after the games against Shakhtar and Newcastle where, because of our quality, we feel we should not have lost. So it is important we become efficient again and the confidence remains there.”

Perhaps what happened in Ukraine was understandable given Shakhtar’s home record and the injury-hit squad the manager took over. Sunday, however, was different. Chris Hughton’s side were organised, physical and committed. They created a chance, took it and defended it gamely. It was simple stuff.

But, even with the dust settled, Wenger still felt his side’s, admittedly off-key, performance deserved more.

“I don’t want to take anything away from Newcastle who played well and are a very solid team,” said Wenger. “But you always feel when a team has only one shot on target and you lose that you are hard done by.

“Even if we did not create many chances we had four or five good opportunities and that’s why I said we were unlucky to lose. We were not completely at our best, we were a bit flat on the sharp side of our game but still I think a draw would have been right.
“And, of course, it is always doubly frustrating [when your rivals lose too] because you think ‘we had a good opportunity’. On the other hand, you can think if they had won they would be eight points ahead.

“I had expected Chelsea to drop points at Liverpool but I didn’t expect us to drop points against Newcastle.”

The Club appealed against the dismissal of Laurent Koscielny in the final seconds of Sunday’s game. Around 2pm on Tuesday, the FA revealed the referee’s decision would stand and the Frenchman will be suspended for the next two games.

At precisely the same time, Wenger was telling TV Online that Thomas Vermaelen had suffered a set-back in his recovery from an Achilles injury and would be sent to a specialist once again. The Belgian had been days away from returning after six weeks out.

It all means Sebastien Squillaci and Johan Djourou are pretty much certain to be the centre back pairing at Wolves on Wednesday and Everton on Sunday. Alex Song can fill in, but these two are the only specialists left in the squad in that position.

Thankfully, Samir Nasri is fine after coming off early on Sunday with a calf problem and Robin van Persie suffered no reaction after returning from injury. Cesc Fabregas is fit despite suffering niggles from his hamstring.

The table says that Wolves are the second worst side in the Premier League right now. It is proof that, on occasion, the table can be a filthy fibber.

On Saturday, Mick McCarthy’s side put in a sterling performance at Old Trafford only to lose to a last-gasp goal. Seven days before that they beat Manchester City at Molineux.

Over the weekend, TV pictures captured the Irishman celebrating a crunching (but perfectly-timed) Karl Henry tackle as if the midfielder had thumped one in from 25 yards.

It is easy to paint Wolves as a hard-man team steered by a hard-man manager. Wenger, however, believes they are more than that.

“Wolves are a good side because they are strong defensively and going forward,” he said. “They are as well strong in midfield with Milijas and Henry. They have Doyle, who I rate, up front so they are a good side with good tactical disposal on the pitch.

“Yes they are a robust side but, as well, they are technically good. If you look at their passing ability against Manchester City and Manchester United, it was level with the better sides.

“I watched them well against Manchester United. Manchester United got out of jail against them because Wolves had chances. We might say we lost against Newcastle, who had one shot on goal, but Wolves created chances at Old Trafford.

“That is why it is important that we keep a very strong defensive game on Wednesday and take advantage of the chances we create because they will not give many away.”

On November 7 last year, Arsenal withstood 25 minutes of ‘kitchen sink’ football from the home side before running in three goals ahead of half-time and then cruising on to a 4-1 victory.

That is surely the blueprint this time. The Wolves will be sensing Arsenal to be a wounded animal. Emboldened by recent performances, a vociferous home crowd and McCarthy himself, the home side should start with speed. The opening quarter may well decide the match.

If Wenger’s men withstand it, they can kick-on. If they don’t, they are in danger of being muscled out.

There is a bitter irony to the fact that, having been hampered by injuries all season, Arsenal have dipped when the squad is coming back to full strength.

The bench on Sunday had an incredible 287 international caps between them. Andrey Arshavin’s introduction was the most promising but, overall, the replacements performed no better than the starters.

“This is sometimes the case,” admitted Wenger. “The players are not completely at their best yet but they are there. However ‘there’ doesn’t mean 100 per cent match-fit. But it is good news on the longer term that we have many players back.”

Of course, that is right yet, at the moment, there is “no longer term” just Wolves on Wednesday and Everton on Sunday.

Already this season, Arsenal have gone to traditionally tough places – Blackburn, Liverpool, Man City and Sunderland – bringing back something each time. Even their one away defeat – at Chelsea – saw them return with credit if not points.

In fact, you could argue that Arsenal’s home form is more worrying at the moment. The last four Premier League games at Emirates have been uneasy affairs. So perhaps a recovery on the road over the next few days will be easier than you might first think.

After Sunday, it seems like a mini-mountain at the moment.

But fortunately Arsenal, and Wenger, have scaled much bigger peaks before.

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