Well then. We’ve lost our five point lead. That takes some doing. I mean, that’s fairly impressive. Everyone was expecting us to slip up at some point, but probably not with such ruthless efficiency. While we were five points clear, we were probably capable of taking the title just by beating the shit teams. Considering our current inability to do that, we now have to look to our trip to Old Trafford in four weeks time, a ground where we recently got utterly schooled, as our chance to challenge United for top spot again. Well I guess this team never was one for doing things the easy way. Our first two league titles under Arsene required important victories at Old Trafford during the run in, and we’re going to need the same this time round. But we need to win the next three games, including trips to Chelsea and Bolton, in order to be in a position to take top spot off United in their back yard, rather than be trying to make United’s winning points margin at the end of the season more respectable.
We’re looking for our first win in four games. If we continue to play like we have been in the league, then we don’t particularly deserve to win it. This is a good chance to avenge our only league defeat this season which came at the hands of Middlesbrough, and keep the pressure on United in case they do slip up. They are in pole position now, but we need to keep in touch in order to capitalise on any mistakes they may make. They’ve got some tough matches coming up, so we can’t give them breathing space. Even if we don’t win the league season, and I doubt many people even expected us to be in the top three at this stage of the season, the least I expect is for us to not give United an easy ride. They better know that they were in a battle by the end of the season.
Over the last few months Middlesbrough have clawed their way to the top of the pile of nine teams that look like they will be involved in the relegation battle till the end of the season, but still find themselves a mere five points clear of eighteenth. With three of their next four games being against us, Chelsea and Manchester United, they look almost certain to get pulled right back into it too. Their last league victory was on February 9th. We can sympathise with that a tad. Since then they’ve lost two games in the league, scraped past Sheffield United in the FA Cup thanks to an own goal from the goalkeeper, and then well and truly outplayed by Cardiff as they crashed out at the quarter final stage. They managed a decent point against Villa midweek.
In all games against Middlesbrough under Arsene Wenger, we’ve won fourteen times, drawn three times and lost four times. They’ve beaten us once on our turf, in April of 2001, with a 3-0 victory. I remember that game vividly. I’d landed in Heathrow airport an hour or two before the game, sent my family home with the bags, and got the tube straight to the game, getting into the ground just as the players kicked off. Satisfied with my desperate rush to get to the game on time coming off successfully, I proceeded to watch the team get damning stuffed. We’ve scored seventeen goals in our last four home matches against Middlesbrough, let’s hope some of that form continues. We need a big win to get our league campaign back on track after it’s taken a major derailment.
We welcome back Eboue from suspension. van Persie and Toure will be pushing for starts. Toure is quite likely to be back in first eleven, I’m not sure about Robin. Wenger’s probably tempted to start him to offer us something different up front, maybe a bit of a spark, but if it could have any damaging effects on his recovery then we may as well play it safe and give him half an hour again. Arsene will probably talk about him later this week. Talking about Rosicky last Thursday, he said that he was "ten to twelve days" away from making a return. He’s since said there’s no real time line on the injury as it is "strange" rather than "bad". We’ll see. Diaby remains injured, but Walcott and Denilson could return to the squad. Apart from Rosicky we have pretty much a full strength side available now. I expect Eboue will start on the right rather than Walcott, with Theo and Bendtner being introduced as impact subs if we need a goal.
Subs: Lehmann, Senderos, Gilberto, Song, Bendtner.Middlesbrough
Ex gunner Jeremie Aliadiere misses his final game as part of his four match ban for his girly slap and subsequent "frivolous" appeal, against Villa tonight. He could be in the squad on Saturday. Martin Taylor will be back in the Birmingham squad after three matches. Score one for the FA. Robert Huth and Andrew Taylor are both carrying knocks, the former is expected to be in the squad on Saturday.