18 October 2013

Norwich and Dortmund, points and priorities...

Ah, it's good to be a Gooner at the moment, isn't it? Top of the table in the Prem and in the Champions League's Group of Death, making a bit of progress in the league cup, a roster chock-a-block with players rarin' to play...it's enough to make one take stock, isn't it? While the cup doesn't quite overrunneth, we at least go into Saturday's match against Norwich with options, which is a nice change of pace from how things have gone recently, even during this impressive little run we're on. As it stands, Arsène now has to make difficult choices. Instead of crossing his fingers and hoping against an inopportune injury or red card, he now has to figure out how to make room on the pitch for an ever-lengthening list of players.

Without underestimating the challenge that Norwich may offer (it's worth remembering that they did beat us last year around this same time and threatened to do the same as recently as April), some of these selections do depend on Tuesday's clash with Dortmund. Who should start in midfield, for example? Cazorla is back from an injury, and he could probably benefit from some time on the pitch. After all, it's been more than a month since he featured—47 days, in fact. He's therefore a bit rusty, then, and it's not selfish of us to look forward to seeing him start against Norwich. In a similar vein, we've craved the moment when we could see Cazorla and Özil together. Although we all panicked more than a bit at the idea that Özil had suffered a knock during the interlull, he looks ready and available to play against Norwich. Similar questions arise elsewhere. Could this be a time for Vermaelen to reappear? After all, while Mertesacker rested during Germany's rather-pointless match against Sweden, Koscielny played a full 90 minutes in France's 3-0 win over Finland, which was only marginally necessary as France might have qualified automatically if only Spain lost to Georgia by three goals or more. There was really no threat of France failing to qualify as they went in five points ahead of third-place Finland anyway. Sigh. Whereas we might benefit from seeing a "full-strength" midfield that includes both Cazorla and Özil, we might look for a "second-choice" defense that includes Vermaelen ahead of Koscielny. 

Elsewhere, there are a few other choices to make for Saturday. Arteta might supplant Ramsey, who featured in Wales's 1-1 draw with Belgium. If this leads to Flamini earning a fifth yellow in the 89th minute and drawing a one-game suspension (and missing the upcoming match against Crystal Palace), so be it. On defense, neither Gibbs nor Monreal played during the interlull, so both are fresh. On the other side, Jenkinson played for England's U21s last week. In a 4-0 win over San Marino, he's probably still fresh as a daisy. 

Therefore, as we consider who should face Norwich and should face Dortmund three days later, what it comes down to is this: which points are more vital? It's not an either-or proposition, of course, but priorities must be set on some basis or another. On one hand, Norwich is struggling, and we should be able to claim those points. On the other, seizing three points from Dortmund all but guarantees that we advance in the Champions League and sends a strong signal to everyone else on our fixture-list: we mean business. If these matches were further apart, and if we didn't face a gauntlet of matches in the near-future, Arsène could throw on anyone he fancies and let the chips fall where they may. However, for as brightly as we've started, we're still level with Liverpool and barely ahead of Chelsea with 31 matches still to play. With 16 points from seven matches, we may still need 70 points or more to win the Prem. At the other end, we've taken six points from two matches in the Champions League, and ten points from our four remaining matches should be enough to see us through to the next round.

On its face, triage might suggest that we marshal our resources to better-target Tuesday's match with Dortmund. It's higher-profile on many levels, and success there might signify something deeper than success against Norwich. However, given how much flux there is in the Prem, and the idea that we really should take all three from Norwich, perhaps Saturday's clash is a bit more significant? Dropping two points, even all three, to Dortmund wouldn't be fatal, as we'd still have four matches from which to claim four points—win at home over Marseille and draw on the road against Napoli or Dortmund, and we should be through to the next round anyway. By contrast, should we drop points to Norwich, we may come to regret it further down the road. After all, without slighting the squad, winning the Champions League is a bit more of a stretch than winning the Prem.

Having said all of this, I wouldn't mind (or be surprised, frankly) if we win tomorrow and again on Tuesday, regardless of who plays when. I'd love to see a full-strength side announced for Saturday, if only to start the match, with a bit of rotation, if necessary, for Tuesday. At any rate, it's a good place to be in, this picking and choosing instead of fretting and fulminating. 

Right.  If I had any influence on squad-selection, who knows where we'd stand? Certainly no higher, that's for sure. I hope to have given you food for thought, if not reason to vote for me the Football Blogging Awards, in which I'm nominated as a "Best New Blog." Click here to vote via twitter or here to receive an email ballot. Thanks!