Arsenal travel to Greece to face Olympiacos on Tuesday in somewhat unusual circumstances. For the first time in recent seasons, the Gunners have absolutely nothing riding on the result of their last Champions League group game.
Quite the opposite, actually.
While the general mood seems to indicate that this will be little more than a run-around in the warmer climes of Piraeus on the Mediterranean coast, it is, on the contrary, a game of no mean significance to Arsenal.
Momentum is vital in sport. Winning is a habit. And as we are all too aware, so is losing. I don’t know about you, but I was a bit concerned after a draw and a loss in quick succession last week, and was most relieved after our clinical, comprehensive victory over Wigan.
Although Arsenal will be sending what amounts to a reserve team to Greece, it is essential that Arsenal, as a club, keep on winning. It is also worth bearing in mind that this is a crucial game for Olympiacos, which can still qualify for the knock-out phase of the Champions League. So Arsenal cannot just go there and be turned over.
There are tricky Premier League fixtures in the immediate future–Everton, Manchester City and Aston Villa will all be challenging—and if Arenal's second string can do the business against Olympiacos, the squad, on the whole, will be buzzing.
In addition to the general feel-good factor that a positive result in Piraeus will bring, there is actually a lot riding on this game for some individuals. Players on the fringes of first team selection, players with one foot out of the door and players on that precarious cusp between acceptance as “Arsenal quality” or not.
Here are five Gunners who will be under the microscope in the Mediterranean Tuesday night.
These are strange times at Arsenal.
Even by the most pessimistic standards, its central defensive options are nowhere near threadbare.
In Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker, Arsenal has three central defenders who are easily of Premier League quality. Johan Djourou may not be everybody's cup of tea, but he can do a job in the center or on the right.
And while Sebastien Squillaci is definitely not my cup of tea, he is a defender of some pedigree, and as we saw against Manchester City last week, he can play. Keeping Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko quiet is by no means an easy task (ask Manchester United), and, in fairness, Squillaci had them both in his pocket all night long.
Next comes the young brigade. First, a man we haven't seen much of. Kyle Bartley is only 20, but he already has 50 senior club appearances, mostly spread across loan spells at Glasgow Rangers and Sheffield United. He could definitely have a big future at Arsenal.
And then there's Ignasi Miquel, who's only 19, but as he has shown already this season, is ready to be considered for first-team opportunities.
Miquel played at left back against City last week. Faced by the excellent Adam Johnson, wasn't shown up too badly at all. Deceptively quick for a player who stands 6'4", Miquel kept Johnson at bay with a committed and intelligent performance.
He is presently battling with Squillaci for that fifth center half's spot. While the smart money is on the Frenchman being sold or loaned out in January, Miquel still has a battle on his hands if he is to establish himself at Arsenal.
Vermaelen and Koscielny are young, and should hopefully have long careers ahead of them in red and white. Mertesacker's experience is vital, and he has added a lot to our recent defensive discipline and stability. Djourou has always blown hot and cold, and it is this fact that presents Miquel with an opportunity tomorrow.
His left-footedness and height are added advantages, and if he can produce a strong performance in what will be a cauldron of an atmosphere in Piraeus, Arsene Wenger may give him additional opportunities during the winter fixture pile-up.
January also brings with it loan opportunities, and if Wenger sees a bright future for Miquel at Arsenal, he may loan him out to another Premier League club so that he can get some much-needed match experience. Look what four months at Bolton did for Jack Wilshere.
It could be a massive night for the young Spaniard in Greece—let's hope he lives up to the hope and the hype.
"Try and take the ball off me, and I'll show you"
Last season, while Emmanuel Frimpong was busy recovering from injury, establishing himself on Twitter and promoting "Dench" t-shirts, Francis Coquelin was quietly improving his game in an impressive season on loan at Lorient in the French first division.
As a result, come the start of the 2011-12 season, Frimpong found himself behind Coquelin in the pecking order of Alex Song's backups. Based on what we've seen so far this season, Coquelin's all-round game is certainly better developed than Frimpong's.
The Ghanaian is definitely a more robust tackler, though it must be said that Coquelin is no slouch. But Wenger always likes his players to be positionally sound and skilled on the ball, and it is here that Coquelin is clearly superior.
That being said, both played wonderfully against Manchester City the other night. Faced by a midfield axis of Nigel de Jong, Owen Hargreaves and Samir Nasri, they produced a dominant performance that had Gooners buzzing.
Both should start in Greece tomorrow night. While the Frenchman will definitely stay at Arsenal till season-end, Frimpong might be facing a make-or-break month. It is certain that a number of Premier League clubs are watching him with a view to a loan deal (Wolves are front-runners), and he needs to put himself right in front in the shop window with a dominant, controlled and effective performance against Olympiacos.
I have heard a number of experts say that the Jack Wilshere-Frimpong axis will rule Arsenal's midfield for years to come, but I don't share a similar view.
Wilshere, of course, should remain a fixture for years, but Frimpong's task is much more difficult. Alex Song is well-established as Arsenal's leading defensive midfielder, and Coquelin will not be easy to dislodge. Additionally, Wenger has Abou Diaby, Mikel Arteta and Wilshere who play alongside Song in midfield.
So Frimpong's best option is to earn himself a loan spell and improve his all-round game the rest of this season. His rivals within the team can always suffer an injury or a loss of form, and he must be well-prepared when opportunity knocks.
He is not the first talented Arsenal youngster to struggle to find a first-team place–the names of David Bentley, Fabrice Muamba and Henri Lansbury spring to mind immediately. If Emmanuel Frimpong does not have what it takes to cut it at the highest level, he definitely won't be the last.
It is not often that I have said that Arsene Wenger has disappointed me, but last Saturday at Wigan, he did.
With ten minutes left on the clock, and Arsenal holding a commanding 4-0 lead, Wenger made a triple substitution. I was certain that one of the players coming on would be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but had I been a betting man, I would have lost.
Wenger instead opted for the experience of Andrey Arshavin and Yossi Benayoun, and Chamberlain was denied some invaluable match-time.
By selecting him for the squad, though, Wenger sent out a clear message that he thought that the young Englishman was ready for the big time. Not just for the Carling Cup. Wigan away in December is not the easiest fixture on the calendar, and this was a massive leap of faith by the manager.
Against Olympiacos, The Ox will be given another opportunity to show his wares. Starting on the right, he will undoubtedly be the focal point of the Arsenal attack. And he needs to step up to the plate. He will never have played in as intimidating an atmosphere as the Karaiskaki Stadium, and if he can deliver the goods, it will almost force the manager to give him more opportunities.
I'm not one of those who believes that he is ready to supplant Theo Walcott—far from it—but with the clamor to recruit a world class wide man building up, The Ox can do his manager a huge favor by delivering a creative master class.
Chin up, mate!!
If ever a picture spoke a thousand words, this is that picture.
Andrey Arshavin, the little Russian with massive talent, has lost his mojo. Or so it seems.
Widely reported to be Arsene Wenger's most expensive signing, he began his Arsenal career with a flurry of goals and assists, was never shy of an opinion or two and endeared himself to Gooners the world over with both his spectacular goals and his sporting, humane personality.
Those days seem to be a millennium away now.
It is a travesty that Arsenal can possess a player of Arshavin's caliber, and yet consign him to a role on the bench, reducing him to a string of Carling Cup starts and 10-minute cameos otherwise.
Arsene Wenger has always spoken highly of the Russian, and has always stood up for his talent and ability. But with rumors flying around that new Russian super-club Anzhi Makhachkala are set to offer Arsenal their millions in exchange for Arshavin, his time at the club could be running out.
There is no doubt that he possesses the ability to make magic happen on the football pitch. It is evident that he has that X-factor that not many can boast of. But as one of the most relevant maxims in football, and in life, states, "Hard work beats talent, if talent doesn't work hard."
The fantastic thing about English football fans is that they genuinely appreciate hard work more than they appreciate technical ability. and that's the way it should be. So while Robert Pires was a terrace favorite for his wing wizardry, the more rugged Ray Parlour was no less popular.
In Arshavin's case, along with a dearth of magic in recent months (or years), his work-rate has also been distressingly low. How often this season has he failed to track back or close down space? He is one player who cannot use fatigue or burn-out as an excuse.
Andrey Arshavin must get his act together soon. Otherwise, as in the case of Samir Nasri, Arsene Wenger may take the money and run.
Can he leave them falling by the wayside again?
This is the most clear-cut of them all.
Every time Robin van Persie scores a goal, there are as many who say "what a legend" as there are who wonder "what if he gets injured."
The fact remains that Arsenal do possess a high-quality striker in reserve. But Marouane Chamakh has scored only two goals in 2011, so whether the sobriquet "high quality" remains relevant is a moot point. He seems devoid of form, confidence and, most of the time, ability.
As always, Wenger has stood by his man in public. But with PSG and their Qatari millions lurking in the shadows, Chamakh's future is very much up in the air.
The mighty have indeed fallen, and against Olympiacos on Tuesday night, it may be Chamakh's last chance to resurrect his Arsenal career. There are no more second-string games till the end of the year.
I personally like Chamakh, so I'm one of those hoping it is a new beginning. If not, this is the end, beautiful friend, the end.