Pre-Match Report

Premier League: Arsenal v Blackburn - Preview

Emirates Stadium

By Richard Clarke 

"We have a good opportunity to come back into the top four now," said Arsène Wenger at the end of his interview with Arsenal Player on Friday.

"We have been in the Champions League for the last 14 years and I hope it will always stay like that.

"We accept the fans' feelings and we can understand that they are disappointed when you do not win every single game. But this is a chance to show that they are altogether and behind the team until the end of the season.

"We are in this fight. We can still turn it into a great season and, at the end, we will accept our judgment.

"But this club has been built on togetherness, on fighting together - that is what you want."

It was the Arsenal manager rolling up his sleeves for the final few months of the season - and asking supporters to do likewise.

Given that approach, perhaps it is fitting that Blackburn are the visitors to Emirates Stadium on Saturday. The 4-3 defeat at Ewood Park was a lowlight of the campaign and victory in the return game would be as redemptive as it would timely.

Chelsea (fourth) and Liverpool (fifth) play top-three teams later over the weekend. An early kick-off in North London allows Arsenal to place pressure on those directly above them. A difficult 2012 has created a gap, it must be closed quickly.

Of course the draw at Bolton on Wednesday actually sustained Arsenal's five-point deficit from that fourth and final Champions League place - even though they dropped a couple of places. The manager knows that the former is the most important issue right now.

"I don't look at the table," he said. "Never. Even when we are in front I never look at the table because I know where we are. It's very tight."

Aside from a minor knock to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wenger has no injury concerns from the game at the Reebok Stadium but the tight turnaround in fixtures means he may shuffle his side. At his pre-match press conference, the manager did not even rule out resting Robin van Persie - and the Dutchman is surely the first name on the teamsheet right now.

Blackburn have spent only two weeks out of the relegation zone all season and Steve Kean has shouldered his fair share of criticism. However they are showing relatively positive signs. In their last three away games in the Premier League they have beaten Manchester United and drawn at the Merseyside clubs. However the statistics suggest Arsenal will score; Blackburn are the only side who have failed to keep a clean sheet this season.

That will not be helped by the absence of towering defender Christopher Samba while Yakubu, whose goals have sparked a mini-revival, sees out the final game of his suspension after being sent off against Fulham on January 14.

"They have had a decent run," said Wenger. "But they have just lost against Newcastle so let's hope we can take advantage of that. Certainly it was a physical game for them as well and we will be highly focused to do well.

"It was a bad defeat for us up there [in September] because we were in a position where we were in front and, at the end, we lost the game. It cost us contact with the top four in that period."

A win in the return game could represent reattachment at one of the most crucial parts of the campaign. After this weekend, Arsenal's next six weeks will be filled with fixtures against rivals for a Champions League spot (Liverpool, Spurs, Newcastle), two fixtures in two competitions against the Premier League's in-form side (Sunderland, assuming they get past Middlesbrough in an FA Cup reply) and a massive two-legged tie against Milan.

"Of course [February is crucial]," concluded Wenger. "But the next game is always the most important and it is a good opportunity for us to have a good weekend if we win the game.

"So let's focus on that."

Team news: 

Arsenal: Jenkinson (back), Santos (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Diaby (hamstring) Gervinho (Africa Cup of Nations duty).

Blackburn: Goodwillie (doubt - sick), Salgado (rib), Grella (hip), Yakubu (suspended).

Random facts: 

In the 4-3 defeat at Ewood Park on September 17, Arsenal had 23 shots, nine on target. Blackburn had eight shots, four on target.

In the 14 games this season in which their opponents have scored first, Blackburn have gained just five points.

Blackburn have failed to score four times in 23 matches. The same record as Arsenal.

Robin van Persie has scored 10 goals in 12 games against Blackburn.

Blackburn have lost only five of their last 15 away games in the Premier League.


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