Club Focus – Arsenal – Can the Gunners fire without Fabregas?

In a season becoming increasingly punctuated by injuries for the north London club, Cesc Fabregas’ hamstring problem is the latest instalment.

After limping off against Burnley, Fabregas will miss the crucial Champions League return leg against Porto, with Arsenal currently trailing 2-1 on aggregate. Depending upon your viewpoint the deficit they take into the game is attributable to either suspect refereeing or calamitous defending in the first leg. Either way, the Gunners will sorely miss their captain and they face a tough encounter against the Portuguese champions, as they attempt to successfully overturn a European first leg deficit for the first time in 30 years. The injury is a recurrence of the same tight hamstring that saw him miss games at the turn of the year, and is a worrying trend with Arsenal so reliant upon their maestro.

Since Saturday Arsene Wenger has toyed with the idea of playing Fabregas in the crunch match: “I’m ready to take the gamble but, if it is more than 50% chance that his hamstring goes, I will not take it,” but has decided that the risk is not justified. Just after Christmas, the manager risked his star player as he came on as a second half substitute against Aston Villa with the game poised at 0-0. He scored twice before immediately limping off again as he inspired Arsenal to secure a 3-0 victory and whilst a valuable win was secured, the Spaniard faced a three-week lay-off as a result of aggravating the injury – something that Arsenal can ill afford as they continue to challenge for the Premier League and Champions League. With Cesc’s deputy Aaron Ramsey similarly unavailable for the clash, Arsenal will look to Samir Nasri to provide the creative spark in midfield. The Frenchman produced a sublime assist with a lofted pass to set up Fabregas and break the deadlock against Burnley and is finally showing signs of recapturing the form he displayed in his debut season, after his broken leg in the summer.

Another player back from injury and approaching something resembling his top form is Theo Walcott. After glimpses of his ability against Sunderland, Walcott was the architect of the 3-1 win over Burnley at the weekend. No doubt being handed a starting berth for England by Fabio Capello has boosted the youngster’s morale as he had been struggling to re-establish himself in the Arsenal team after a campaign hampered by injury. His pace, as always, will be a valuable asset down the right flank on Tuesday, but what impressed most about the weekend’s performance was his end product. He picked out Nicklas Bendtner on several occasions with pinpoint deliveries and also cut inside to fire home with his weaker left foot. Had the Dane been more ruthless in front of goal, he could have scored a hat-trick with Walcott’s darting runs and accurate deliveries providing plenty of ammunition.

For Bendtner it was just one of those days, and with the youngster hardly short of confidence it is unlikely to faze him. His strong self-belief, verging on arrogance, is almost certainly the reason that he polarises opinion. Confidence always has a place in football, but occasionally the youngster’s remarks smack of arrogance more than ambition, and when coupled with a performance such as Saturday’s, his detractors are quick to come to the fore. What cannot be denied is Bendtner adds an extra dimension to Arsenal both in terms of attacking and defensive play. Walcott’s crosses picked out the giant Dane with ease and regularity, highlighting what poor misses they turned out to be. Looking back even just one month ago, it would be hard to envisage Arsenal threatening from crossed deliveries. Similarly, his work-rate in closing down defenders in possession and disrupting the link between the opposition’s defence and midfield allow Arsenal to ‘defend from the front’ and not allow teams to settle on the ball – an aspect evident against Manchester United and Chelsea this term.

Bendtner has been afforded his opportunity due to the long-term injury to Robin van Persie and unfair, but inevitable, comparisons between the two may have a hand in the less than laudatory view of the youngster held by some. Arsenal have kept pace with the leaders in the absence of van Persie and it is hard to imagine Chelsea or United having the same impact without their respective star strikers. This is backed up statistically as Sky Sports calculated that if Drogba and Rooney’s goals were deducted from their respective teams’ tallies this season, they would be fifteen and eight points worse off respectively. If Arsenal were similarly deprived the goals of their top scorer, Fabregas, they would currently top the table and only one point worse off. And so, Arsenal head into Tuesday’s clash without their top scorer and will hope that the statistics don’t lie and that their trend for collective goal scoring continues.

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