For every Arsenal fan tonight’s game is enormous. Beyond even the media’s hyping of the game, every supporter has waited with baited breath for February 16th to come around since the draw was made back in December. A chance, with virtually a full squad, to avenge last year’s humiliating result in the Camp Nou against arguably the world’s greatest team, whetted the appetite like no other fixture would.
It is the fact that Arsenal may be running out on to the pitch with a first choice team that provides a second undercurrent of worry about this game though.
Until Robin van Persie recently broke the record for the number of goals scored in a calendar month, Samir Nasri has been Arsenal’s stand-out player this year. He leads the total scoring charts after notching 14 goals with virtuoso performances, most notably the game against Fulham where the ball seemed glued to his feet. Unfortunately his hot run of form was cut short by a hamstring injury, which occurred during Arsenal’s narrow victory over Huddersfield in the FA Cup.
The indications have been this week that Samir Nasri make make a surprise return to fitness to be available for the encounter against Barcelona. Whilst this may seem like good news, Arsène Wenger does sometimes have a tendency to gamble on returning players early from injury for big games. This has not always been a good long-term strategy.
This is especially relevant given their next game. Last year in the first leg 2-2 draw at the Emirates, after playing William Gallas in the centre of the defence having been out injured for the previous 8 weeks, Wenger went on to say after the match
“William has a calf strain. He will be out for a while now. I took a gamble that didn’t pay off. I regret that”
He also took a chance by playing Cesc Fabregas in the same match after he had just returned from injury and was not fully match fit. Although Wenger suggested that this was not correlated, Fabregas broke his leg in that game and was out for the rest of the season. Arsenal’s squad was diminished for most of the rest of the season and although there were certainly other factors involved (a certain brilliant Argentinian for one), this certainly contributed to both the subsequent loss in Barcelona and distinct tailing off in form towards the end of the year.
These are by no means isolated occurrences. Both van Persie and Diaby, amongst others, have been hurried back into action and gone on to get injured again, although some of the blame must be placed with the players and their desire to return to playing again, possibly before they should. The reason, often cited, that might explain why Wenger feels the need to push them into playing is that, although Wenger would never admit it, the team has not had enough depth and he needs any of his top players who are just about fit to play.
This may or may not be true though I’m sure the thought of Messi running at a 35 year old Sol Campbell probably gave him a few sleepless nights and perhaps forced his hand in the case of Gallas. The point is that this time around Wenger has almost a full squad to choose from. Apart from Nasri, all of his top players are available and in good form. In addition, Andrey Arshavin is a ready made replacement being the same type of technically gifted dribbler with a good shot. Arshavin admittedly had to endure a patch of rough form but after two assists against Newcastle and a busy performance in the win against Wolves, while also adding some decent defensive work (going some way to rectify a common complaint against him) he seems to be ready to fire on all cylinders again.
There seems to be little reason to rush him back quickly for the first leg against Barcelona, if he has only trained once, when there is a second leg, a cup final and the climax of a hard season to all come in the next few weeks. Nasri has been brilliant this year and I think every Arsenal fan would like to see him out there against Barcelona if he was fit but it has to make long-term sense for him not to be rushed back.