Picking the Strongest Arsenal Starting XI to Beat Reading

James McNicholas@@jamesmcnicholasFeatured ColumnistDecember 16, 2012

Olivier Giroud in action against Reading earlier this season
Olivier Giroud in action against Reading earlier this seasonScott Heavey/Getty Images

After the calamitous Capital One Cup defeat to Bradford, Arsenal's Premier League game with Reading has taken on an unexpected significance.  There is a desperate need for the Gunners to get back on track, and with Norwich leapfrogging them in the Premier League table this weekend, they also urgently need to make up some ground in the race for Champions League qualification.

Arsenal's injury problems are clearing up.  The major absentee remains Abou Diaby, whose purgatorial absence is set to continue into the New Year.  Theo Walcott remains a doubt, and will have a fitness test today before deciding whether he will travel.

Injuries or not, some elements of the side pick themselves.  Wojciech Szczesny will play in goal, with Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna at full-back.  That trio will have to improve enormously on the displays that Carl Jenkinson, Ignasi Miquel and Damian Martinez put in during the topsy-turvy 7-5 cup tie between these two teams earlier this season.

In that game, Reading were a huge threat from wide areas, and the goalkeeper was unable to deal with the aerial assault.  To that end, I fully expect Arsenal to start with Per Mertesacker, who has been their most consistent central defender this season.

Alongside him will be the captain Thomas Vermaelen.  Laurent Koscielny is fit again, but he endured a nightmare against Jason Roberts and Noel Hunt at the Madejski back in October, and so is unlikely to make the cut for this game.

In the absence of Diaby, Arsenal's midfield trio picks itself: Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere will play slightly deeper than Santi Cazorla.  It's a triumvirate that possesses plenty of skill, creativity and even a bit of bite.

It's not, however, the most physically imposing, so they'll have to rely on their technical craft to win the battle against the likes of Mikele Leigertwood.

The front three is where Arsene Wenger is most prone to rotation.  If he wants to be more conservative, he has the option of selecting Tomas Rosicky or Aaron Ramsey in the wide roles to offer a bit more protection to the defence and an extra body in midfield.

However, against a side with a defensive record as poor as Reading's, I think he'll be more ambitious with his selection.  Lukas Podolski should return to the side after beginning the last game against West Brom on the bench.

The right-hand side will be determined by whether Theo Walcott is deemed fit.  Even if he is, I consider him unlikely to start, so expect to see another opportunity handed to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.  He'll be expected to supply the ammunition for Olivier Giroud, who already has a goal at the Madejski under his belt this season.

Results this weekend have seen Reading fall to the bottom of the table.  Both sides will be desperate for the points, and both sides are more comfortable going forward than defending.  It should make for a very entertaining spectacle.

Predicted Team (4/2/3/1): Szczesny—Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen (c), Gibbs—Arteta, Wilshere— Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Podolski—Giroud