Wilshere boost offers Wenger reason to smile
On Saturday night, things were looking pretty bleak at the Emirates.
Jack Wilshere was hobbling on an injured ankle with Arsene Wenger suggesting he was not sure the midfielder would be able to play against Barcelona at the Nou Camp tomorrow night and Arsenal's dropped points at home to Sunderland had dented their title hopes.
By last night, the smiles were beginning to creep back on to Arsenal faces with Wilshere tweeting that he would be fit to play in Spain -- "Just to let you know I am not injured," Wilshere wrote, "and if selected will be fit to face Barca! Few kicks but nothing too bad!" -- and Manchester United losing at Anfield, leaving Wenger's team three points off the pace with a game in hand.
However, there remain concerns about a dip in form. Birmingham City, Leyton Orient and Sunderland were supposed to be the easy bits before Barcelona and Manchester United in the FA Cup on Saturday; swatting away pretenders before taking on real contenders. As it is, Arsenal will fly to Spain today with one victory from those three games and injuries piling up.
Before points were dropped against Sunderland in controversial fashion on Saturday, it was already known that Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott would miss the second leg of tomorrow's Champions League tie and that captain Cesc Fabregas was by no means certain to play at his spiritual home -- to which many believe he will return this summer.
Wilshere's ankle injury was inflicted by a challenge from Sulley Muntari. And although he claims to be fit, the decision will be Wenger's and his medical team's. Wilshere had been moved forward into Fabregas' role in the knowledge that he might have to fill it at the Nou Camp, and Wenger will be desperate for him to play.
Wenger admitted on Saturday night that he did not know whether Fabregas or Wilshere would be fit. He suggested Wilshere is at present better suited to the deeper role, from which Abou Diaby and Denilson could not provide the creativity, technical quality and sharpness that the Arsenal manager identified as missing ingredients against an admirably purposeful Sunderland side. Alex Song, the ideal partner for Wilshere in front of the back four, is also unlikely to be available for Spain.
"Every good player has to live with being kicked," Wenger said of Wilshere, "but there were a few fouls on him that were not given."
Wenger's main gripes with the officials were nonetheless the two incidents in the last 10 minutes, both involving Andrei Arshavin, who was denied first a penalty for Titus Bramble's push and then a goal when the assistant referee failed to spot that Anton Ferdinand was playing the Russian onside.
To be fair, the second decision was a particularly tight one, but it was to be hoped Sepp Blatter and his Fifa colleagues were still in Britain to watch the reruns on 'Match of the Day' after finally agreeing on Saturday that technology has its place.
Wenger, initially "too disgusted" to talk about the decisions, later calmed down sufficiently to suggest: "It was a game short on chances and when you look at the impact it has on the season, this kind of decision is really frustrating."
"The players are very down and I worry about that," he said on Saturday night, with Barcelona resting players while still beating Real Zaragoza in La Liga.
"But the size of the game will help and the team is mentally strong and will recover. The season is not over but it was a good opportunity today. We'll make some changes, that is for sure, we need fresh legs." At last a smile crossed his face: "Barcelona at the Nou Camp, we'll have to run."
Sunderland, who ran and ran on Saturday, harrying and closing down all the while, were naturally delighted to leave with a valuable point after four successive defeats. There were excellent performances from the Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet -- especially with saves from Nicklas Bendtner's volley and Samir Nasri's free-kick -- Titus Bramble and, when they managed to push forward, Stephane Sessegnon. (© Independent News Service)
Arsenal's injury list
Out of tomorrow's Barcelona match:
- Robin van Persie (knee)
Will be out for a further fortnight.
- Theo Walcott (ankle)
Picked up injury against Stoke.
- Jack Wilshere (ankle)
Picked up injury on Saturday.
- Alex Song (knee)
Unlikely to make the trip to Spain.
- Cesc Fabregas (hamstring)