Not for the first time this season, Arsenal displayed tremendous strength of character to secure another three points in their quest for the title. Reduced to 10 men they continued to press forward, albeit with an inevitable degree of conservatism, to secure victory and with it, temporary league leadership.
In the wake of the victory Arsene Wenger was brimming with confidence: “I believe we can go and win… We have that kind of attitude – we keep pushing for the win rather than the draw.” And whilst Arsenal face the pressure of the title run-in, as the manager has identified, in one respect it is simple: “We cannot even calculate… We absolutely have to win all of our games. If it’s 0-0 with 10 minutes to go, we have to throw all the strikers on and keep pushing for the win.” He witnessed his side strive in the face of adversity once more, keeping themselves firmly in the title hunt, even if that adversity was brought upon themselves this time.
Coasting at 1-0 up, the Gunners nearly let their lead slip against West Ham when Thomas Vermaelen was sent off in the process of conceding a soft penalty. Manuel Almunia subsequently saved the spot kick and this appeared to galvanise the Gunners – the 10 men eventually securing the win with a penalty of their own. Having won 2-0, Thomas Vermaelen’s sending off was of less significance than it might have been, yet in terms of the forthcoming fixtures it could prove costly. The Belgian will miss the weekend’s match against Birmingham, adding strain to an increasingly threadbare defence. His absence creates a dilemma for the manager, particularly in light of the forthcoming Champions League tie against Barcelona – a major factor in the club’s decision to appeal the dismissal.
William Gallas remains sidelined from a recurring calf injury, and having returned to France to see a specialist during the week, Wenger is unable to estimate when he will return. As such, in Vermaelen’s absence Sol Campbell’s role becomes crucial. The veteran may struggle to play two demanding games in four days, and so the manager may have to prioritise between the two competitions. If he decides to rest Sol for Europe, Alex Song, who filled in adroitly at centre-half, would be pressed into the role again to face Birmingham. Then, needing to shackle Barcelona’s midfield triumvirate, Song would move forward allowing Vermaelen to partner Campbell at the back – a pairing that has looked largely effective in Europe this season. This could spell a rare start for the forgotten man Mikael Silvestre, although Wenger has generally preferred to rely on Campbell rolling back the years and playing back-to-back matches. If Silvestre does not start against Birmingham, then serious doubts arise as to his long-term future with the club.
Having placed faith in the former Manchester United defender, despite their rivals being willing to let him go, the manager’s belief appears to be waning somewhat. That Campbell has returned from playing in League Two and secured a place ahead of him in the manager’s thinking speaks volumes. The Frenchman is currently undergoing contract negotiations, but it seems clear that the outcome will be determined by his happiness at being a squad player. Similarly, Gallas is looking to extend his contract with the Londoners, but his current injury problems appear to add weight to Le Professeur’s policy of limiting players over 30 to one-year deals. However, in light of the Gunners potential defensive void come the summer, Wenger is willing to compromise on a two year deal at vastly reduced wages.
Of course the scale of Arsenal’s defensive problems is magnified greatly by Friday’s Champions League draw. Having drawn the holders of the competition, Arsenal know they have a monumental task ahead of them and their cause is not aided by the fact that the first leg is at home. Perceived wisdom suggests that it is preferable to have the first leg away from home, with the intention of snatching a valuable away goal to bring back for the second leg. When they entertain Bar