When, just a few short weeks ago, Thierry Henry returned to the club where he became a legend, there was a certain degree of cynicism expressed regarding his likely contribution. Not least by yours truly. However, if his winning goal against Leeds could be dismissed… well, because it was against Leeds and the goal against Blackburn was the mere cherry on the top of a comprehensive rout, it’s not so easy to dismiss the importance of his injury time volley against Sunderland. It turned one point into three and, with Chelsea, Newcastle and Liverpool all losing, took us back into 4th spot.
And for that reason and that reason alone, I think Thierry’s brief return can only be called an unqualified success. On a purely sentimental level, the fact that he scored a goal in the last minute of the last Premier League fixtures he will (in all likelihood) play home and away for the Arsenal is a deserved epilogue to a story that first ended 5 years ago On a practical level, we are in the 5th round of the FA Cup largely because of him- but also thanks to an ice cool RvP- and, as noted above, it’s thanks to him that we are 4th in the table today. Yes, it was almost certainly a good PR move from Mr Wenger and co, but it was a bit more than that too. We may yet get just one more chapter when Arsenal hit the San Siro tomorrow night- is that asking too much 8 and a bit years after the original Italian Job?
So, Arsenal began what is certain to prove a very exacting week in the best possible circumstances. Although the very nasty looking injury to Mertesacker is a big blow, the return of Keiran Gibbs will allow Thomas Vermaelen to return to his “day job” at the heart of our defence alongside the ever impressive Koscielny. Bacary Sagna has slotted back in almost seamlessly and, if Gibbs were to play tomorrow night, the defence will be have a natural balance to it that has been lacking for months. Just in time, too. If there is a doubt over Gibbs readiness- and, months later, I’m sure there are some, then I would like to see Francis Coquelin deployed at left back. The kid seems to be quite the athlete, and a handy footballer too. I think he’s almost been the surprise of the season. Well, he has been- unless you count the Ox.
In midfield, Arsene’s only real choice- in my view- is whether to stick with the midfield that finished the game at Sunderland, or revert to the usual set up and then choose between Rosicky and Ramsey. I think he will, and should, go for the latter option and begin with the Wales captain. I don’t think you can risk Tomas Rosicky in a game that’s likely to be quite an intense one- we’ve also seen how he can change the tempo, positively, of a match when called from the bench.
And then, in the front three, who starts between the Ox, Walcott and Arshavin? Whilst it was great to see Arshavin make a positive contribution with that delicious cross for Thierry’s volley, I can’t help thinking that starting him would be a step back and not in a Thierry Henry sense. We know something of what we’re gonna get with the Ox and we know that he will run his bollocks off. We also know, in all probability, that Arshavin won’t. And that makes the decision easy, as far as I can tell. Because only an idiot would say that all Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has to offer is hard running. Start him, give him his head (cos you know he’ll be dying to get out there tomorrow night) and let him run riot. If he doesn’t, well, as Arsene said a few weeks ago, who can argue with bringing the captain of Russia onto the field?