Friday, February 8, 2008

Arsenal vs. Blackburn: Match Preview

Mark Hughes' Blackburn Rovers travel to the Emirates this Monday to face off against league leaders Arsenal. Blackburn, who are currently in 8th place in the Premier League, have already faced Arsenal twice this season, taking two points off of the Gunners in a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park, and losing 2-3 at home after taking a Carling Cup tie into extra time.

Arsenal's recent form is impeccable, with the Gunners having scored three goals in each of their last four Premier League matches. Arsene Wenger's squad has responded very well to a 5-1 Carling Cup loss to arch-rivals Tottenham, winning their next three matches in a row.

Blackburn, on the other hand, have not won in their last three games, instead drawing against Everton, Aston Villa, and Middlesbrough. With injuries to defender Andre Ooijer and midfielder Steven Reid, a Blackburn victory seems improbable. Manager Mark Hughes will be fielding a relatively inexperienced squad as key midfielders Morten Gamst Pederson and David Dunn and center-back Christopher Samba are also set to miss the match due to suspensions.

Arsenal are facing there own injury crisis as well, though. Phillipe Senderos, Mathieu Flamini, and Manuel Almunia are all doubts, while none of Johan Djourou, Robin van Persie, Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby, and Neves Denilson are going to feature due to injury. Alex Song will be playing in the finals of the African Cup of Nations on Sunday, and Ivorian defensive pair Emmanuel Eboue and Kolo Toure are both likely to feature for their country on Saturday in the 3rd/4th place playoff game.

Jens Lehman is ready to replace Almunia in goal if necessary, and injury-free defenders Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy will be full of energy up and down the flanks. However, Wenger is facing a crisis in the center of defense.

William Gallas is Arsenal's only fit center-back, and Arsene Wenger has claimed that he may even attempt to get Toure back in London for the game against Blackburn. The other options are to play the inexperienced Justin Hoyte or holding midfielder Gilberto, who may be needed to replace Mathieu Flamini. No matter who Wenger decides to field, we will have our hands full for a full 90 minutes against Roque Santa Cruz.

Cesc Fabregas and Alex Hleb are certainties in the midfield, and if Mathieu Flamini is unable to feature he will likely be covered by the aging Gilberto. Tomas Rosicky will be more difficult to replace with Abou Diaby and Neves Denilson out. This leaves just Theo Walcott or Eduardo to play on the left wing, although Eduardo has finally been getting used to playing up front alongside Emmanuel Adebayor.

Adebayor is sure to feature in the Arsenal strikeforce, although his partner will be more difficult to predict. Eduardo has been starting in the absence of Robin van Persie, but his guile might be needed on the left flank with Rosicky injured. This would leave Adebayor with another tall frontman, Nicklas Bendtner.

Arsenal's injuries are disturbing, but I feel that the Gunners will prevail against a Blackburn squad with a similar amount of absentees. I predict a 3-1 home victory, moving Arsenal five points ahead of title rivals Manchester United.