01 August 2014

Arsenal v. Benfica: Match Preview

Good God does it feel good to type those words. Look, I know that the Emirates Cup may rank a little lower than the Community Shield, the League Cup, and other such honors, and that this match is a bit of a gussied-up friendly scrimmage, but its arrival means that we're getting closer and closer to actual matches. Soon, we can set aside the speculating and the wondering and get down to some analyzing and assessing. Saturday's match ain't no walk in the park. Benfica won the Primeira Liga title, their 33rd, and finished second in the Europa League, beating Tottenham, AZ Alkmaar, and Juventus before succumbing to Sevilla in the final. They're no slouches, and winning the Cup depends on besting them.

So who do we have in front of us? Yes, they won the Primeira Liga, and yes, they almost won the Europa title. However, this is a club struggling to rebuild after the departures of several key players. Gone are winger Lazar Markovic, keeper Jan Oblak, CM Andre Gomes, and centre-back Ezequiel Garay, each of whom was a key-player in Benfica's campaign. Their departures have opened up considerable gaps in the starting XI, but they're still a force to be reckoned with.

At the scoring end, the departures of Markovic to Liverpool and Garay to Zenit deprive Benfica of their 4th and 5th most-prolific scorers, but there's still the threat posed by the Brazilian forward Lima, scorer of 14 goals in 26 starts, and the Spanish forward Rodrigo, scorer of 11 goals in 22 starts. They're adangerous duo, to be sure, and our revamped defense may have its hands full with them. Of course, we have a new right-back in Mathieu Debuchy, who should start (with Jenkinson loaned to West Ham), but we also have to cope with the absence of a certain, tall-ish German centre-back. We may see Calum Chambers there, making his Arsenal debut, especially as rumors around Vermaelen's departure make him unavailable. In front of Szczesny, then, we'll likely see Gibbs-Koscielny-Chambers-Debuchy. Not bad.

In the midfield, we could see the Ramsey-Wilshere double-pivot deployed, with Wilshere in the deeper, holding-midfielder role. Ramsey has, after all, laid claim to the more-forward, box-to-box role, and Wilshere, if he expects to carve out a role, may have to focus on sitting deeper and shielding the back four. If this is not his strength, it may become so. Virtue and necessity and all.

Ahead of them, we won't have Özil, who, like Per and Poldi, is still recuperating from winning the World Cup. This might thrust Cazorla into a central role, which is where he usually ends up anyway, while the wings are filled by Joel Campbell and, perhaps, Alexis Sanchez. Try not to drool on your keyboard or mobile. Alternately, we could see Rosický through the middle, pushing Cazorla to the left, or the little Maestro could play wide on either side while Oxlade-Chamberlain steps in. Waiting in the wings, figuratively if not literally, are Gedion Zelalem (listed in the first team), Kris Olsson, and Jon Toral. There's a plethora of options. That's what I'm trying to say. Up top, we should see a lot from Sanogo, but I hope we also see Chuba Akpom. Giroud will surely get some minutes, but I'm excited to see what Akpom can deliver. I have more faith in him than I do in Sanogo.

As for a broader view of the match itself, I suspect that Benfica's transfer-troubles will unsettle them to the point that we can find a positive result as we look ahead to facing Monaco on Sunday with an eye on winning the Cup. At the risk of looking past Saturday's clash, here's the points-system for the Emirates Cup:
  • Three points for a win.
  • One point for a draw.
  • Zero points for a loss.
  • One point for each goal scored.
Some attacking football should be in order, then, as scoring and winning are the keys to success. Will wonders never cease? If there's a tie for first, goal-differential will settle the matter. If that doesn't settle things, the greater number of goals scored will. I say we lay the matter to rest by (a) battering Benfica and (b) man-handling Monaco.

If nothing else, we have proper matches to get amped up over. Gooners, let's get ready to rumble!