On a sunny Sunday afternoon at Ashburton Grove, Arsenal cantered to a facile two-nil victory over Middlesbrough and virtually secured a top-four finish for themselves. The match had a real end of season feel about it and two goals from Cesc Fabregas - one in either half - clinched the result. With several injured players making their returns to action, this game was a perfect warm-up for the upcoming Champions League semi-final first leg against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Even though Boro are in desperate trouble at the foot of the table, they seemed short of fighting spirit and barely mustered a single attack to worry the Gunners. Instead Arsenal were able to move the ball around at will and only had to raise their game slightly to provide Cesc Fabregas the two opportunities to take all three points. In the second half, Brad Jones in the Boro goal was called into action several times and kept the score down to a respectable level but, overall, this match was more like a stroll in the park than a full-blooded Premier League clash.
It was a huge relief to see Manuel Almunia and Johan Djourou make their returns – the latter featuring for the whole of the second half. Arsenal have bigger fish to fry at Old Trafford on Wednesday night and having something approaching their first choice back four in action will be critical. Bacery Sagna sat on the bench today but one would imagine he will return for the midweek match. It seems likely that Toure and Djourou will partner each other in the centre and Kieron Gibbs will continue to deputise for Gael Clichy at left-back. The young Arsenal Academy graduate has done a fabulous job in covering a position where, prior to being selected in the first team, he had never played before. Gibbs is naturally a midfielder, which is why he looks very comfortable when linking up with the attack. The art of playing full-back is one he has had to learn on the job and, thus far, he has not let himself or the team down.
Collectively though, against Chelsea at Wembley last week and up at Anfield on Tuesday, the defence looked very shaky indeed. Certainly, from a defensive point of view, Arsene Wenger will not want a repeat of Tuesday’s display at Liverpool on Wednesday night. Though Andrey Arshavin’s goals lit up the evening and made it a match to remember, all other aspects of the Gunners’ play were shambolic. So comprehensively were they out-played by their hosts, had they lost four-nil, there could have been few complaints from Arsenal fans. Lucasz Fabianski somewhat atoned for his mistakes at Wembley by producing a string of saves that kept the Gunners in the game in the first half. But, despite scoring against the run of play on four occasions, to have taken the lead three times in the match and not to held onto it decisively was very poor indeed – particularly when going 4-3- in injury time. Arshavin’s goals deserved to be rewarded with a win.
The Russian is cup-tied in the Champions League and will not be there to perform miracles on Wednesday night. Consequently, the defence will have to be markedly more solid and organised to negate the threat posed by Manchester United who will be buoyed by turning a two-goal deficit at half time into a 5-2 victory against Spurs yesterday. Though an away goal would be useful, the Gunners need to focus on giving as little away as possible in the first leg. As Porto showed in the first leg of the last round, United can be vulnerable to being hit on the break but Arsenal must not be sucked into the sort of kamikaze football that was on show at Anfield on Tuesday. As exciting as that game may have been for the neutrals, playing like that will not win the Gunners their first Champions League.
It will be interesting to see how the game on Wednesday night turns out. Both Arsenal and United have learned to play differently and have adapted their game in Europe - and there are many observers who are of the opinion that the Champions League suits the Gunners’ style of play far better than the Premier League. But, coming up against another English side, could turn these two matches into two Premier League-style affairs, just as happened against Liverpool in the quarter-finals last season.
Arsenal face a massively difficult task in trying to overcome Manchester United over two legs – but it is a task that is not insurmountable. The team are on a long unbeaten run in the Premier League, they have players returning from injury and they did not have a hard game to sap their energy this weekend. They also know that they can beat United home or away on their day. It is now down to concentration, courage and belief – and with those three things, anything can be achieved.