Club Focus – Arsenal – Gunners must match flair with fire for Blackburn encounter

Last season Arsenal came up short in the race for the title. Although they were out of contention by the time they travelled to Ewood Park in early May, the result reinforced the theory that Arsenal are still a work in progress. Familiar flaws began to re-appear, leaving Arsenal clinging on for third spot heading into the final game of the season.

Whilst a draw, or even another defeat, this time around would not instantly write off their chances, if the club genuinely harbours title aspirations, the weekend’s encounter is a perfect litmus test as to how realistic the dream is. For a side who are looking to prove their credentials, this is exactly the kind of game they need to claim maximum points from. The last time the sides met Arsenal were left looking nervously back over their shoulder; come Saturday afternoon, they will hope to sit aloft the table. The early kick-off gives them the opportunity to signal their intent for the campaign and prove that the Blackpool result was no fluke. However, Blackburn away will be a completely different proposition to facing a newly promoted team at the Emirates, with Rovers hustling and harrying in central midfield restricting the creative players’ time on the ball.

In light of this, it is not a time for the faint of heart. Although this accusation could not be levelled at the tenacious Jack Wilshere, Arsene Wenger may follow Fabio Capello’s lead in withdrawing the youngster from front-line duty for the meantime. After appearing slightly overwhelmed in the season opener at Liverpool, the youngster has already improved his all-round play; eradicating the flicks and tricks that underlined his candidacy as a hot prospect in favour of playing the simple pass. As his confidence and experience grows, his natural flair will shine through once more, but for now he has shown a remarkable maturity to curb his natural exuberance and integrate into the team ethos. Wilshere is likely to make way for Alex Song’s return to the midfield in preparation for the physical encounter ahead.

The trip to Ewood may see captain Cesc Fabregas return to the fold, with his experience and composure on the ball vital attributes to combat a difficult game in prospect. Fabregas’ involvement will inevitably hinge upon his fitness levels, having missed the majority of pre-season following his involvement in the World Cup final and whilst Arsenal need someone of Fabregas’ stature for a tough encounter such as this, they need him to be ready. If he still lacks match fitness, he will be a pale reflection of the midfield maestro who lit up last season and his immersion back into first-team action would be more akin to a baptism of fire. Given Wenger’s earlier statements, it would be understandable if the Spaniard was held back and deployed only if needs must. If this is the case, Tomas Rosicky is likely to deputise after making an immediate impact after his introduction against Liverpool and providing a scintillating display last week. Rosicky’s Arsenal career has been plagued by injuries of varying severity, but now he finally looks capable of justifying the reputation that preceded him in his Sparta Prague days.

Of course, responsibility cannot lie solely on one player’s shoulders and after a disappointing showing in the season opener, Andrey Arshavin was instrumental against Blackpool and is focused on getting a result before the international break: “We should win in order to leave without any worries… this will give confidence to the team… We haven’t forgotten about the defeat against Blackburn at the end of the last season.” The nature of that defeat, amongst others, prompted Le Professuer to overhaul his defence, and whilst reportedly on the lookout for a goalkeeper, the latest arrival is Sevilla defender Sebastien Squillaci. Although Squillaci is unlikely to feature this weekend with Laurent Koscielny returning from suspension for the trip to Ewood Park, he will be available for Champions League action. Squillaci is not cup-tied after he refused to face Braga in Sevilla’s qualifying match and he may yet face the Portuguese side after they were drawn alongside the Gunners in Group H. A difficult trip to Serbia and the partisan crowd of Partizan Belgrade lies in wait, as does the intriguing prospect of Eduardo returning to the Emirates with Shakhtar Donetsk. The manager made a difficult decision in allowing the Croatian international to leave, and having already scored two goals in three games for the Ukrainian side, Wenger will hope it is not a decision he will come to regret.

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