Saturday salutations. Two goals from Romelu Lukaku helped Everton to knock his former club Chelsea out of the FA Cup earlier today and in my opinion, also provide a boost to Arsenal’s chances of winning the competition for the third year running.
The Toffees are obviously a good side on their day and boast players, in Lukaku, Ross Barkley and John Stones in particular, who are coveted by some of the biggest clubs around, but given our wretched record against Chelsea over the last decade or so, I’d rather face Roberto Martinez’s men given the choice.
So providing we beat Watford in our own last-eight tie tomorrow, the only teams that could deny us a rare Cup hat-trick are Everton, Crystal Palace and one of Manchester United or West Ham, who contest the last quarter-final at Old Trafford tomorrow. Frankly, we should be strong favourites now, even if United turned us over just a few weeks ago.
Of course, so late in the competition all the remaining teams will fancy their chances and that’s something Arsene Wenger touched on at his press conference yesterday, as well as rejecting the idea that clubs no longer hold the FA Cup in much esteem. He said:
We have always taken the FA Cup seriously and if you look at the record we have over the years, we try to do well. Everyone does. This story of the FA Cup not being taken seriously is not right – everyone wants to do well. In the [Premier League] we have not done as well because maybe some teams have done better than us in recent years. Is it fair or not [to say we are favourites for the FA Cup]? I don’t know. I look at the teams who are still in the competition and you could say the same to three or four as well. We have a chance like everyone else and we want to play as hard as we can to give ourselves a good chance to be successful. I haven’t given up on the Premier League at all and I’ve said that many times, nor the Champions League. We have to take care of the next minute and the next minute is an FA Cup game. Is it the best chance to win a trophy? It’s still far away. We must win the next game and prove that we can show consistency again. I don’t believe anyone in my side thinks about Barcelona at the moment, or Everton, they are completely focused on Watford.
So with mission ‘we need the mother of all miracles’ at Barcelona on Wednesday and a tricky trip to face the Toffees in the league next Saturday lunchtime definitely not on our minds or influencing selection for Watford at all, how are we likely to line-up tomorrow?
All three first-choice centre-halves appear to be available judging by today’s training pics but my guess would be that we’ll go again with Gabriel and Per Mertesacer from the start and keep Laurent Koscielny fresh for Lionel Messi and his show-boating amigos in midweek.
Similarly, I think Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs will play full-back with Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal rested for Camp Nou. That said, the Catalans have a huge pitch and Gibbs may be better equipped to cover what will no doubt be counter-attacking ground than Monreal, so we’ll see.
Further forward I think it gets a little more difficult. So far this season in the FA Cup, we’ve rested Mesut Ozil and gone with Alex Iwobi, but with all due respect to Hull, Burnley and even Sunderland, I think Watford will be our hardest test, and given our very slim hopes against Barca, perhaps we’ll see the German involved from the start this time.
Personally, I think I’d retain Iwobi, rest Ozil and go with the same team that started against Hull on Tuesday:
Ospina; Chambers, Mertesacker, Gabriel, Gibbs; Flamini, Elneny; Campbell, Iwobi, Walcott; Giroud.
That would mean Bellerin, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Ozil, Sanchez and Welbeck – seven first-choice starters – would all be fresh for two very demanding away days to come, whilst still leaving us with what I think would be a good enough team to beat Watford at home.
More likely though in my opinion, is that we’ll see a side stronger than we played so far in the FA Cup this season, but still some way from full, available strength, which might mean a start for Ozil or Sanchez for instance. It’s certainly a tricky balancing act for the boss and we’ll only know how well he’s performed it this time next week.
Back post-match tomorrow.