ST ALBANS, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 22: (L-R) David Ospina and Petr Cech of Arsenal before a training session at London Colney on February 22, 2016 in St Albans, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
Arsenal host Basel on Wednesday night for the first home match of their 2016/17 Champions League campaign. Here are three crucial things to watch out for.
The Champions League is back for the second round of group matches this week with Arsenal, after surviving a 1-1 draw with fellow group favourites Paris Saint-Germain, now host Basel with the opportunity to lay down a marker for qualification from a potentially awkward position. After the 3-0 demolition of Chelsea at the weekend, rotation among the squad is expected, especially with the injury to Francis Coquelin in central midfield, and there are many talking points heading into the nicely balanced match.
So, here are three crucial things to watch throughout the 90 minutes.
NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 20: Lucas Perez of Arsenal celebrates after scoring his sides second goal during the EFL Cup Third Round match between Nottingham Forest and Arsenal at City Ground on September 20, 2016 in Nottingham, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
3. Lucas Perez Could Be Given The Perfect Opportunity
The central striker is a position plagued with uncertainty. The injury and now suspension for Olivier Giroud, combined with the long-term absence of Danny Welbeck and the recent success of Alexis Sanchez has brought around more questions rather than answers. Consequently, the role of £17 million signing Lucas Perez is yet to be defined.
While he started up front against Southampton in Sanchez’s absence thanks to his late return from international duty, his only other meaningful appearance has been against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup where he scored twice. Wednesday could well offer him the perfect opportunity to prove his quality once more, this time, on a far grander scale.
Perez could well be in line to start – it will be between he and Sanchez, though the Chilean may be moved to the left wing for the first time this season – and if he is given the role, then against a Basel side that are no pushovers, in his home European debut for the club, Perez, if he plays well, could forge himself a regular starting gig. There is fierce competition for places throughout the squad, especially in attacking areas, and opportunities are few and far between. For Perez, this is the ideal scenario in which he stakes his claim as the number one centre-forward.
PARIS, FRANCE – SEPTEMBER 13: David Ospina of Arsenal FC reacts during the Champion’s League match against Arsenal FC at Parc des Princes on September 13, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)
2. David Ospina And Petr Cech Continue To Rotate
Arsenal have the best pair of goalkeepers in the Premier League. Petr Cech has been and still is one of the most sure-handed number ones in the country while David Ospina is more than capable of starting for over half the clubs in England’s top flight.
Consequently, due to the single file nature of the position, Ospina has cut a rather dejected figure these past two seasons, sitting behind Cech, simply playing in the lesser games to keep his fingers fresh. For a keeper of such quality, such game time is unfair and unwarranted. Thus, Wenger has sought to rotate his keepers between domestic and European duties.
While the rotation is wholly fair and Ospina is a keeper that I trust to perform well for the Gunners, it undermines a crucial aspect of defending – the understanding that comes with repetition. Chelsea have had one of the greatest defences for many years built on the relationship between John Terry, Gary Cahill and Cech himself.
Disrupting that relationship each and every European game is detrimental to the side’s continuity in defensive areas. While Ospina is a quality keeper, Wenger needs to stick to his number one – so far this has unambiguously been Cech. That is unlikely happen in the near future with Ospina again set to play on Wednesday, and his performance will be under great scrutiny thanks to Wenger’s odd selection decisions.
LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 24: Granit Xhaka of Arsenal in action during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
1. Basel Will Be A Xhaka Family Affair
The recent injury to Francis Coquelin gave Granit Xhaka his first true test in an Arsenal shirt. Coming up against a physical, energetic Chelsea midfield headlined by Nemanja Matic and new signing N’Golo Kante, Xhaka, for the hour that he was on the pitch, more than matched their aggressive style of play while displaying tremendous technical ability on the ball with a range of passing set to excite even the biggest doubters of his talent.
The £35 million man is in line to start his first European game for the club on Wednesday night and it will be an event that feels a lot closer to home than for many. That is thanks to the presence of his brother for the opposition.
Taulant Xhaka is Basel FC’s captain, a domineering defender and Granit Xhaka’s older brother. Moreover, Xhaka (the Arsenal one) formerly played at Basel himself before moving to Borussia Monchengladbach and still holds the club in special regard.
Not only will this be an emotional match for Granit entering a match against his former team and brother – he has actually played against his brother before, when Switzerland faced Albania in the European Championships – but it is a prime opportunity for him to stake a claim as the long-term centrepiece of this Arsenal midfield, something that he hasn’t been able to do as of yet with Coquelin and Cazorla dominating the minutes.
Both Xhaka’s will under the spotlight on Wednesday night, and how they handle the potentially fervent atmosphere will be crucial with both players having such an integral role in their respective side’s setup in the match. It is just another tasty storyline adding to what is already looking like a tantalising tie.