Arsenal: Gunners Must Not Underestimate in-Form Brighton & Hove Albion
Unbeaten in 2013, Gus Poyet's Brighton & Hove Albion are just the sort of in-form team who will feel confident about welcoming a confident yet not unflappable Arsenal in tomorrow's FA Cup Fourth Round tie.
Per BBC Sport, the Seagulls' recent FA Cup history is something to be admired even if the men from the south coast had a poor league record of late—the last defeat at home in 2008 to a visiting Mansfield side and a chance to make a third consecutive fifth round appearance will be appetizing enough incentives for Brighton.
So to put the icing on that already considerably palatable cake, Poyet's crop are yet to lose in this new year, with a comfortable win over Premier League strugglers Newcastle United the crowning glory. Unfortunately, for an inconsistent Arsenal side, Brighton are coming into this fixture in fine style, something which will only pose a greater threat to the Gunners.
Any detractors to such a theory would—quite rightly—point towards an astonishing quarter of an hour in North London this past Wednesday night. When Arsene Wenger's team proceeded to defeat cross-city rivals West Ham United by a fully deserved margin of five goals to one, it could hardly fail to raise the spirits of even the most stony-faced Gunner faithful.
However, Arsenal have only recently endured quite the trying week. Bookended by defeats to both Manchester City and detested rivals Chelsea, seven days that could have held significant promise were only brightened by their own FA Cup Third Round replay victory, when they hosted Swansea City between the two.
So just because the Seagulls are a lower-league side, this is no reason to field a half-strength side. Especially in times when Wenger's job security is questioned on seemingly a weekly basis; strong showings in all the remaining competitions are essential if the confidence of Arsenal's fanbase is to remain behind Le Professeur.
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Forward Ashley Barnes, as well as wingers Andrea Orlandi (formerly of Capital One Cup finalists Swansea) and David Lopez all pose a threat to Wojciech Szczesny's goal and are all in handsome form at the moment. With two goals in three games for Barnes and Lopez and two in four for Orlandi, Wenger would do well to certainly field a full-strength back four.
This would indicate starting roles for the likes of Per Mertesacker and Kieran Gibbs—though an appearance for Carl Jenkinson is long overdue, especially given his excellent work at the start of the season.
Above all, Arsenal must simultaneously ride the wave of that imperious midweek conquest of the Hammers, but guard against any sort of complacency or cockiness that might cloud their judgment at the AMEX Stadium on Saturday. Even if a trio of Brighton's young players are currently extraneous from first-team matters on much more serious business, expert leadership on the pitch from centre-halves Adam el-Abd and skipper Gordon Greer should inspire the Seagulls to stay vigilant and completely focused on the football.
It will no doubt be quite the compelling fixture on Saturday afternoon in East Sussex—but Arsenal would do well to err on the side of caution in their preparation. While cup shocks have by no means been alien to their tumultuous season, a strong side, calm and focus should win the day in Brighton.
If it doesn't, and Wenger's men fall prey to another cup shock, then unrest will only grow and grow, until it becomes more and more likely that it will be the Frenchman's last FA Cup game in charge of Arsenal.
No knee-jerk reactions are condoned around here—but after every game, Wenger's progress is being recorded; and if the Gunners continue to underachieve, some very awkward questions are going to start being asked.
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