Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Time for Arsenal to show the world what kind of team they are

Great football teams are formed not because they win things but because they win things after overcoming adversity. Bayern Munich’s recent Champions League victory came after they had suffered the humiliation of watching Chelsea lift the European Clubs’ Cup in their own back yard. Manchester United’s title triumph came after witnessing their arch-rivals win the Barclays Premier League title by the slenderest of margins.

And Barcelona’s recent wave of successes came after watching some of the world’s best players in the form of the Galacticos attract all of the sporting world’s attention. Arsenal stand at a similar crossroads, and how they perform against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park could well dictate how the Gunners fare against the rest of their opponents they will take on in the next month or so.

Immediately after their short trip across London, the Gunners play host to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium, and the sense of foreboding that Arsenal fans will have ahead of that fixture is most definitely merited. That is followed by a home league fixture against Liverpool and two very tricky away trips: the return fixture at Dortmund and a much-anticipated clash against Manchester United at the Theatre of Dreams.

Major tests

Arsene Wenger has already said that it is these games that could decide who has a say in this season’s title race and after what transpired against Dortmund at the Emirates Stadium, everybody is waiting to see what this new-look outfit is capable of achieving. Dortmund was the first major test this Arsenal team faced and they will have to show the same resilience they’ve showed in all their games prior to last Tuesday’s if they are indeed to be considered title contenders this season.

There were several reasons Arsenal failed to claim three points against Dortmund but they are still on top of their UEFA Champions League group and there is absolutely no shame in succumbing to a defeat at the hands of last year’s finalists when you are placed in the so-called Group of Death. 

But what Arsenal should do now – as Arsene Wenger has already said – is learn from this defeat, because they cannot afford to make the same mistakes against the opposition they are scheduled to face. Crystal Palace may not be the most fancied of opponents but they recently lost their manager, Ian Holloway, who has been with them through thick and thin, so the now manager-less players could be determined to produce a good perfomance out of loyalty. This makes Palace a very unpredictable team, and Arsenal cannot afford to be complacent. The biggest test, of course, is Chelsea.

Rivalry and rotation

The rivalry between Mourinho and Wenger is one that the Premier League has eagerly looked forward to since the return of the Special One and the Gunners will have to be firing on all cylinders for that game. The midfield of Frank Lampard, Oscar and the restored Juan Mata and the very skilled wing duo of Andre Schurrle – who scored a hat trick for his country during the international break – and Eden Hazard will be will be sure to test Arsenal’s defence. Liverpool do not feature in Europe this season, and Brendan Rodgers’ players will be all the fresher to face Arsenal on 2 November. 

Given their raft of summer signings and the massive changes that have been rung in via the managerial merry go round this season, the Reds are looking good at this stage of the season and have already been touted for a return to the top four. For the return leg against Dortmund, it will be crucial for Arsenal to play the right players in the right positions.

The team had no width in the first leg, with Jack Wilshere being fielded out wide. It was only when Santi Cazorla came on that they were able to stretch the opposition. Marco Reus and Jakub Blaszczykowski have already displayed their fearsome qualities once to Arsenal and the Gunners will need to field players who are comfortable on the wings if they are to come away with anything at the Signal Iduna Park. It was Reus who was so instrumental in the first goal at the Emirates while the winner came via Kevin Grosskreutz, a winger who was deployed at right-back because of the absence of Lukas Piszczek. 

Neither can they afford to switch off, as they did against Dortmund. Once Henrikh Mkhitaryan had been replaced, it was quite clear that Dortmund were content with a draw but the Gunners displayed a naiveté that is unacceptable at level and they cannot display that at Old Trafford, where they suffered one of their worst defeats just two seasons ago. Wayne Rooney scored three goals during Arsenal’s 8-2 drubbing and he has been joined by the prolific Robin van Persie, who put Hungary to the sword last week.

Any weakness, any opening however brief, will be punished by the striking duo who are arguably one of the best in the world. Each of these game presents Arsenal’s with a different challenge, much like the nine tasks of Hercules. 

What lies ahead

And just like the Greek hero, overcoming these tasks would go some way in elevating the likes of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey – already adored at Ashburton Grove – to the status of legends in the making. Given the qualities that this Arsenal team has, should they persevere and not repeat their failings against Dortmund, they may come through these games unscathed, but they will not go through them unchanged. 

Bayern Munich became the first ever German team to lift a European treble. Manchester United’s 20th title meant that Sir Alex Ferguson’s last year at Old Trafford will always be fondly remembered. 

Barcelona’s arrival on the world’s stage following the disbanding of Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Luis Figo, Ronaldo and Co. brought with it a period of glory that lives on to this day. 

And at Arsenal, through the heat of battle will be forged an indomitable spirit that mean they end their trophyless years.

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