Arsenal – Everton (Premier League)
Arsenal will be the last “big” team to spring into action this weekend as they entertain Everton at the Emirates. Arsène Wenger will certainly be looking to maintain (or increase, if at all possible) his four-point advantage over Chelsea at the top of the table, while Everton sit in fifth, trailing the home team by seven points, with hopes of meriting European football next season.
There are fewer and fewer naysayers as the weeks go by and Arsenal refuse to founder. After a surprising home defeat in the first round, the Gunners immediately bounced back, responding admirably to the two league defeats they suffered all season (the other one being the 1-0 loss at the hands of Manchester United, a match where coincidentally they weren’t able to count on the increasingly important Per Mertesacker). Record-signing Mesut Özil may be getting most plaudits – and deservingly so, after scoring 3 goals and providing 6 assists in his 11 Premier League appearances so far –, but the team’s steelier defensive resiliency has just as much to do with the newfound success. The team is now older on average, which might help explain the recent stability under pressure, something that eluded Wenger’s men for quite some time now (their impressive results and displays including a delightful 1-0 win at Dortmund). In fact, the Londoners have scored in 13 of their 14 Premier League matches, leading in 12 of those 14 (a competition high). As if that weren’t enough, they’ve been able to keep 6 clean sheets in their last 7 matches, the exception being the aforementioned slip-up at Old Trafford. Despite the squad rotation promoted by Wenger, the Gunners didn’t skip a beat and easily defeated Hull City last Wednesday, the French manager already taking prophylactic measures ahead of the all-important Champions League match against Napoli next week (with Manchester City lurking just a few days later). There were five changes to the starting line-up, including Niklas Bendtner, who got this name on the score sheet but will certainly be giving up his place to the rested Olivier Giroud. Jack Wilshere will probably get the same opportunity, while Theo Walcott is still being eased into the team, after a long-term absence.
Probable line-up: Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Flamini, Ramsey – Rosicky, Özil, Cazorla – Giroud
Everton, of course, have been on everyone’s lips over the past couple of days, after their thrilling win over Manchester United, thanks to Oviedo’s goal. Roberto Martínez has hit the ground running at Goodison Park and has imprinted a more proactive brand of football in comparison to his predecessor’s approach. While the results have not been too shabby, it’s the displays that have caught the eye and captured the hearts of Everton supporters (and a good deal of neutral fans as well). Their positive, neat passing game has allowed them to take matches to opponents, rather than resorting to the expectant plan usually favoured by David Moyes – and Martínez now seems to be harvesting the rewards. In fact, the Toffees have only lost once this season (fewer than every other side), including three back-to-back clean sheets in their last three matches. The last time they enjoyed a fourth successive one was back in August 1995. However, history does not seem to be on their side, since not only have Everton just once scored more than one goal in these two teams’ last 21 meetings, but they have also not won at Arsenal’s ground since Arsène Wenger was a tyro. Roberto Martínez will be naming an unchanged squad from Old Trafford, no doubt expecting a similar result and display next Sunday.
Probable line-up: Howard – Coleman, Jagielka, Distin, Oviedo – McCarthy, Barry – Mirallas, Barkley, Pienaar – Lukaku
History tells us that Arsenal have won 14 and lost none of their past 17 Premier League home matches against Liverpool. However, the last four times these teams met for this competition have yielded just four goals (a tendency that is not likely to keep going this time around, given Martínez’s favoured fluid style of play), including two draws in the last campaign. With both teams boasting only one defeat in their last ten matches, we should be in for a cracker of a match.