Arsenal vs. West Brom: Premier League Preview, Team News and Projected Lineups
Very recently, West Brom was overjoyed to not be relegated at the end of the season. The Baggies were last promoted in 2010 and have exceeded expectations ever since.
But for them, this season has been a dream.
West Brom currently sit in fifth place, though they are essentially a top-four side. Tied with Tottenham and Chelsea on points, they have stunningly hoisted themselves to the adults table and are becoming a team to be reckoned with.
On the surface, the Baggies' ascension parallels that of Newcastle United last season, but much less was expected of this year's Cinderella than Newcastle in 2011. A common thread unites both sides, though: outstanding forwards.
Last year, first Demba Ba and, when he faded, Papiss Cisse were absolute forces for the Magpies. The former netted 16 goals, and the latter 13—almost none at the same time—to put Newcastle into Champions League contention until the last day of the season.
The strikers who Arsenal will need to mark closely on Saturday are Romelu Lukaku and Shane Long.
Lukaku has been an absolute revelation since arriving on loan from Chelsea. First Andre Villas-Boas and then Roberto Di Matteo allowed the prodigious Belgian to rot in the reserves last season, but he has converted his tremendous potential into goals when given the chance.
Though only 19 years old, Lukaku's intimidating physique could cause Arsenal problems in the penalty box if West Brom decides to start whipping in crosses. However, with Per Mertesacker likely to start for the Gunners, this might be less of an issue.
The Baggies' other danger man is Shane Long, who has followed up a promising first season with an extremely impressive encore.
Long has scored seven goals in all competitions, almost all of which have come at important moments in their respective matches. But the Irishman also has a penchant for assists and has supplied four to his teammates, giving him a total of nine goals and assists in 15 Premier League games.
Then, of course, there is Peter Odemwingie, who has played such a large part in West Brom's success over the past two years and has been almost equally as prolific as Long, with three goals and four assists.
While there are talented and over-achieving players around these three forwards, they are the biggest reasons why West Brom is still near the top of the table.
They are exactly where Arsenal was supposed to be at this point. In fact, the two teams' expected positions in the standings have been switched.
That said, both teams are facing each other after multiple successive losses. Though Arsenal's recent barren run has been much more dramatic and has received more attention, the Baggies have capitulated to Swansea and Stoke in consecutive weeks.
Things are a lot worse for Arsenal, though. The Gunners simply cannot find the winning formula at the moment, despite the fact that all the ingredients are there. Another failure to win in front of their home fans will be absolutely catastrophic.
Not only will it sap the team's and supporters' morale, but Arsenal actually needs to start adding some points to have any shot of qualifying for the Champions League next season.
Ironically, the last time these two teams faced each other was on the last day of last season, when Arsenal secured a dramatic win to qualify for this year's Champions League.
The Gunners' run can begin with a statement of intent on Saturday.
This time, Arsene Wenger has no excuses for losing. The manager rested almost all of his regular starters for the team's almost meaningless Champions League tie against Olympiacos in midweek, so the classic fatigue-based explanation will not cut it.
Regardless of what tactical issues Wenger might be working out, a squad like his should not lose to West Brom.
Barring some unforeseen surprise, it should contain rested versions of Per Mertesacker, Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, Olivier Giroud, Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla.
Arteta and Cazorla, in particular, have played sluggishly in recent games, contributing to the general malaise and ineffectiveness of Arsenal's attack. The Baggies do not like to "park the bus," so to speak, so both will have the opportunity to flourish.
And when they do, Arsenal generally win.
However, Wenger will not be able to include such key players as Theo Walcott, Laurent Koscielny, Bacary Sagna, Andre Santos and Lukas Podolski (who is a new addition to the injury list) in his 18-man squad.
All are close to returning to first-team action, but most will need at least another week to get fully fit.
Arsenal's full injury list with each player's most recent updates is available here.
West Brom's injury situation is significantly kinder. The only significant absence that manager Steve Clarke has to deal with is that of first-choice goalkeeper Ben Foster. However, with backup Boaz Myhill fit, the loss of Foster will be a bit easier to take.
Other than that, Clarke has given his team a clean bill of health.
The Baggies could therefore line up like this:
Boaz Myhill; Steven Reid, Jonas Olsson, Liam Ridgewell, Goran Popov; Graham Dorrans, Youssouf Mulumbu, James Morrison, Chris Brunt; Shane Long, Romelu Lukaku.
And a possible starting XI for Arsene Wenger:
Wojciech Szczesny; Carl Jenkinson, Per Mertesacker, Thomas Vermaelen, Kieran Gibbs; Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla; Gervinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Olivier Giroud.
If Arsenal cannot get motivated for this game, fans might as well throw their proverbial towels in. A win in front of their home crowd would swing supporters' bipolar emotions in the right direction and build some positive momentum.
Arsenal will probably contest this one a bit more fiercely than they did against Swansea, but it is just difficult to see a win on the cards.
Look for a 2-2 draw in a thoroughly entertaining match.
Don't forget that I'll have live blog coverage of Arsenal vs. West Brom starting 30 minutes before kickoff at 9:30 am ET.
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