Having been built up as overwhelming favourites to lift the Carling Cup, Sunday’s defeat to Birmingham City was a devastating blow to morale at Arsenal. The news that Robin van Persie will miss the Gunners’ next showpiece occasion comes as a bitter blow to a striker who appeared to be finally overcoming the injuries that hampered his obvious talent.
In 2011 the Flying Dutchman has shown how lethal he can be when possessing the rare commodity of full fitness. Nursed back into the fold after a jaded showing in South Africa, van Persie’s fortunes turned with the calendar. Even Sunday’s withdrawal through injury could not dent his impressive goal scoring ratio, as he notched for the 13th time in 11 games since the turn of the year. Unfortunately that precise ratio will be preserved for a few weeks more.
In light of his recent prolific spell in front of goal it is easy to overlook his contribution to the team as a whole. In the same period he has two assists in seven Premier League games and his ability to drop off the front line in search of possession draws defenders out, allowing Cesc Fabregas to dissect opposition backlines and unleash the pace of Theo Walcott, Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin cutting in from the flanks. In the Champions League clash with Barcelona, the striker was found in a quarterback role, as he dropped deep to initiate attacks when his side were under pressure, yet still managed to find his way into the box to net the equaliser. Prior to that match, Johan Cruyff singled out his compatriot as the largest threat facing his adopted club: “He
Van Persie is not the only player with injury woes as Laurent Koscielny picked up a hamstring injury to join Fabregas on the sidelines. Arsenal’s squad is becoming increasingly depleted ahead of the trip to the Catalan capital and ominously is beginning to resemble the patched up side that fell to a Lionel Messi master class in last year’s comeptition. Offering some crumbs of comfort, Arsene Wenger refused to rule his captain out of what would be a first ever appearance at the Camp Nou: “Cesc is looking possible. He is making quick and good progress. It is possible.” Further solace comes in the fact that they have a lead to defend this time around and know an away goal would leave the home side requiring three to progress.
Having fallen at the hands of the underdogs at the weekend, Arsenal will relish entering the second leg as dark horses to progress. Before then, Wenger’s men must reprise their role as favourites as they face Leyton Orient in an FA Cup fifth round replay. With Manuel Almunia set to start under Wenger’s cup policy and Koscielny absent through injury, neither of Sunday’s pantomime villains will take the field against Orient. A much-changed side may bring changed fortunes, but van Persie’s injury will be the least of Wenger’s worries should his side exit their second domestic cup in the space of a week.