Gunners enforcer Coquelin aims to silence Coutinho
The remarkable turnaround in the career of Arsenal renaissance man Francis Coquelin can be summed up by three trips to Manchester.
Coquelin's Premier League debut was in the 8-2 demolition at Old Trafford in 2011, after which former United manager Alex Ferguson wrote in his autobiography: "He was completely out of his depth. I had hardly heard of him and he barely played again."
In January this year, Coquelin proved himself to be anything but out of his depth in Arsenal's 2-0 victory at United's rivals City. "It was a big game," Coquelin said. "You want to win this kind of game and to win away at Manchester City - I don't think there are many teams that have done it. It was a massive boost for the whole team and for me as well."
If Ferguson missed Coquelin's performance against City, then he may well have recognised the 23-year-old who survived a whack in the nose from Marouane Fellaini to help Arsenal dump United out of the FA Cup at Old Trafford last month.
"Fellaini was the one in my zone," said Coquelin. "It was a big battle. He's a tall guy, really strong, uses his arm quite well - on my nose as well! But it was part of the game. I like this type of game, it's a different challenge. The 8-2 was one of those games you just want to forget. It was good to win there this season and I was happy because it could erase a bit what happened on my debut.
"I always had belief in myself and there is always going to be criticism. At the minute it is all positive because we are getting the right results and I am putting in a performance, but tomorrow it may be a different world.
"You always get criticism, but you just have to work hard and it pays off."
Having won his duel against Fellaini, Coquelin will face a different challenge trying to stop Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho at the Emirates this lunchtime.
"Sometimes you play against small players, like this weekend against a small player like Coutinho, and sometimes against Fellaini so you need to adapt," said Coquelin. "Hopefully, we will see me close to Coutinho again."
Coquelin admits he thought his Arsenal career was coming to an end when he was on loan at Charlton in December, with the final year of his contract running down. Injuries to Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere gave him a second chance and the changes in fortune for both Coquelin and Arsenal have been dramatic.
When he returned, Arsenal had lost to Stoke City and were sixth in the Premier League, two points off the Champions League places.
But four months later, Arsenal have the chance to move nine points ahead of fifth-placed Liverpool into second before Manchester City take on Crystal Palace on Monday, and Coquelin has the reward of a four-year contract.
"The form has been really good, spirit has been good and we've won 14 of the last 16 games," he said. "When the manager plays me like he does at the minute, playing every game, it means he's got confidence in me so, hopefully, in the next few years it will be the same. When he offers me a new contract with this amount of years, it means he's counting on me."
Coquelin is not ashamed to recognise that his primary responsibility is to win the ball for others to work their magic.
"I'm an aggressive midfielder," he said. "I'm trying to do the defensive work for the players who play up front. I try to give my best, get the ball as quick as possible to play it to the players who have got a little more ability than me on the ball." (© Daily Telegraph, London)