With the new season now within touching distance, clubs are making their final preparations for the big kick-off on Saturday - or, rather, they would be if FIFA had not organised a round of international matches just three days before the opening weekend. Even for an organisation that is renowned for making ludicrous self-interested decisions, this one is right out of their top-drawer of stupid ideas. Admittedly, there are a few World Cup qualifiers being played but the vast majority of fixtures are pointless friendlies that take players away from their clubs just at the time when their managers need them to be focussing on the start of another campaign.
From Arsenal’s point of view, Arsene Wenger has been deprived of 13 of his players - only four of whom are participating in meaningful fixtures. The Frenchman will be sitting at London Colney wondering how many injured players will return on Thursday and will undoubtedly be frustrated at only having one day to work with his full squad in preparation for the team’s opening match at Everton on Saturday. Already Johan Djourou has been sent home from Switzerland with an inflamed knee and, consequently, will be a doubt for the trip to Goodison Park.
In recent years much has been made about the question of FIFA compensating clubs for players injured whilst on international duty. In 2008, an agreement was reached between the football’s governing body and the "G-14" group of clubs - which includes Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal - for financial reparations to be made to clubs when their players return home unable to play due to knocks picked up whilst playing for their countries. That’s all well and good, but supporters don’t want payments from FIFA. They want to see the players they have paid hard-earned money to watch turning out every week for their clubs.
Sadly, following this agreement, there is unlikely to be any change to the current format and players will continue to be called away several times a year, often travelling enormous distances in the process, to take part in meaningless games that only exist to line FIFA’s already overflowing pockets. All we can hope is that the remaining 12 Arsenal players who are off with their countries this week return fit, well and hungry for the new league season.
With a host of tricky games to negotiate in the early weeks, particularly away from home, Wenger’s young charges will certainly have to hit the ground running and there is no time for the players to merely ease themselves into the season. Following Saturday’s potentially awkward trip to Everton, the Gunners head to Scotland on Tuesday to face Celtic in the first-leg of the Champions League Qualifying Round. On bare form, and over two legs, one would imagine that Arsenal will be too strong for the Glasgow outfit but there can be no room for any complacency. The atmosphere at Celtic Park will be white-hot and anything less than a brave and whole-hearted performance could see the formbook get overturned. Even back at Ashburton Grove, the travelling Celtic support will be large, loud and vociferous and will certainly act as a "12th man" for the Glaswegians.
Under the changes in UEFA’s rules governing the Champions League Qualifying round, Arsenal were always going to be obliged to face a higher standard of team than those they have been drawn against at this stage of the tournament in recent years. Though tougher footballing assignments might have laid in wait amongst their potential opponents in the draw, Celtic were probably the one team that they could have done without facing due to the "fan factor" and the media intensity that this tie will attract being as it is an all-British affair. These things will only increase the pressure on the Gunners as the seeded team in the tie. Still, any club that has pretensions to winning the Champions League must be prepared to take on all-comers and be able to cope with hostile away grounds. This tie will not be the early-season stroll that it has been over the past few years and the players’ attitudes and levels of application will have to be absolutely spot-on for both games.
Following this, Arsenal finally get to play their first home game on Saturday 22nd August against Portsmouth. Though they face Celtic in the home leg of the Champions League qualifier the following Wednesday, it is nearly a month until their next home Premier League match when Wigan come to Ashburton Grove on 19th September. Before then, two treacherous trips to Manchester United and Manchester City await. It really is not an opening programme that the club would have chosen for itself.
If all goes well in the first four weeks of the season, the team will be able to draw plenty of confidence from having made a good start and got some difficult matches out of the way. If things go badly, the pressure on Arsene Wenger will ratchet up to a level he will have not experienced during his time at Arsenal. Though it would be ridiculous for fans to insist the team wins a trophy this season - after all, it’s not like they go out trying not to win something - it is absolutely imperative that this group of players now prove themselves to be genuine contenders for the title rather than just making up the numbers behind the main protagonists. Consequently, the first month of this season could turn out to be as crucial as the last for the Gunners.