By Richard Clarke
“Having a ‘priority’ does not mean something else is not important and you neglect it,” said Arsène Wenger on Monday. “But you have to go step by step.
“We fight as hard as we can to stay in all the competitions and if you have to make a choice you make it as late as possible.
“The Capital One Cup comes in a period where you have to make a decision sometimes, as it is a time when we also have the league and the Champions League. I gave a frank and honest opinion about where the priorities are. But you want to do well in all the competitions in which you play.”
The Arsenal manager was clarifying and contextualising what he said at the Club’s AGM last week. In his usual address at the end of the meeting, the manager outlined that Champions League qualification was his third priority - after the lifting the Premier League trophy and that European one with the ‘big ears’ but ahead of the two domestic cups.
The manager freely admits that Capital One Cup would be fifth in that list of five - he always has. But, as that opening quote spells out large and loud, this competition is still hugely important.
And, given victory at Reading on Tuesday night would bring up a straight decade of reaching the quarter-finals or further, the statistics match the sentiment.
His viewpoint is nothing new. Those of us with longer memories will remember the criticism he got when he first started using youngsters in the League Cup. A dozen years later, this policy, coupled with a sensible ticket pricing from the Club, make these fixtures probably the most fun you will get at Emirates Stadium during the season and, arguably, the best value in the football calendar.
On the playing side, it ‘bloods’ youngsters and acclimatises seniors to a new environment.
But this is wavering from the central point. The fact is Wenger wants to win this trophy and his squad selection at the Madejski Stadium on Tuesday will prove it.
In the next week, Arsenal have massive - and by that I mean season-shaping - games at Manchester United and Schalke but the Frenchman will field pretty much everyone who did not start against QPR at the weekend (plus Olivier Giroud who did). Messers Walcott, Arshavin, Koscielny, Djourou, Coquelin, Frimpong and Jenkinson are expected to begin the game. But for injury, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would have done too. As for the youngsters, Masters Gnabry, Eisfield, Miquel, Yennaris and Bellerin will be involved.
“We will go to Reading with a good team who will have a good chance to win the game,” said Wenger.
“Some players need a breather because they had two international games, the Champions League and Premier League games. They will have played five games in two weeks so some will be rested. But everything is open, for every game we can change the selection of the players.
“You will see Djourou and Koscielny, who have played less games, plus other first-team players from the squad.
“But, we have always played with a younger side and our record shows we have always been focused every time we play in this competition.”
For their part, Reading have played a mixed team in the Capital One Cup so far. Their 3-2 wins at home to Peterborough and away to QPR are their only successes of the season. In the Premier League, their record is unbalanced - W0, D4, L4.
However Wenger holds Brian McDermott, the former Arsenal winger who will be in the opposite dug-out on Tuesday night, in the highest regard.
The Frenchman’s early transformation at Highbury led him to be called a ‘miracle-worker’ in certain circles. It clearly takes one to know one.
“Reading have done well over the years,” he said. “And they have done especially well in their scouting. They are one of the examples of living within their resources. I always respect that. There is some quality work behind their success.
“And you have to congratulate Brian McDermott for promotion last year, I believe he made a miracle basically.
“When you get to the Premier League, the level of expectation is to stay there and I feel they have a chance. McDermott has the qualities to achieve that.
“Reading played a good 3-3 with Fulham at the weekend and they are a tough team. They will be difficult to beat so it will be a big test for us.
"We expect a challenge.”
The manager’s policy in this competition suggest Reading should expect one too.
Arsenal: Gibbs (thigh), Rosicky (tendon), Walcott (lung), Oxlade-Chamberlain (hip), Gervinho (ankle), Fabianski (ankle), Diaby (thigh).
Reading: Karacan (knee)
Highlights from the match will be available on Arsenal Player in the late evening on Wednesday.
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