Thursday, March 13, 2008

Arsenal vs. Middlesbrough: Match Preview

Arsene Wenger will be hoping that Arsenal regain the fine form that saw them defeat AC Milan at the San Siro when Gareth Southgate's Middlesbrough side travels to the Emirates Stadium this Saturday. Middlesbrough will have to pull out a major upset to do the double over Arsenal, but the Gunners current league form leaves something to be desired.

Arsenal have drawn their last three Premier League games in a row, dropping points against Wigan, Aston Villa, and Birmingham. Although the run of draws was interrupted by a fabulous performance in Italy, Arsenal have seen their lead at the top of the table narrowed to two points against opposition with a game in hand.

Middlesbrough have taken a solitary point from their last three games, but still sit five points above the relegation zone. Aston Villa took a point off Boro after a contentious penalty was given to Gareth Barry midweek, and Southgate's side lost to Reading and Liverpool in the two previous weeks.

These results see Arsenal still at the top of the table, while Middlesbrough are not altogether out of relegation danger in 12th. Although the Gunners sit 11 places and 36 points ahead of Boro, the visitors will take some belief out of the fact that Arsenal's only loss this season came at the Riverside against Middlesbrough.

In that game, Middlesbrough took the lead in the 4th minute through a Stewart Downing penalty before doubling their lead in the 74th after a goal from Tuncay Sanli. Tomas Rosicky scored a consolation goal for the Gunners in stoppage time, as Arsenal lost 2-1 at the Riverside.

Neither team has any serious injury worries. Abou Diaby and Theo Walcott are likely to return for Arsenal, although Eduardo da Silva and Tomas Rosicky will both watch the game from the stands. Andrew Taylor, Middlesbrough's only injured player, is a doubt for the fixture, but could feature in some small part.

Kolo Toure and Robin van Persie both returned for the Gunners in substitute appearances against Wigan and may be fit enough to start against Boro this week.

Manuel Almunia will start in goal for Arsenal, behind Bacary Sagna, William Gallas, and Gael Clichy. If Kolo Toure is match-fit he should start alongside Gallas in central defense, although Philippe Senderos may feature instead.

In the midfield Emmanuel Eboue should rejoin Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, and Alex Hleb after serving out his suspension. Fabregas, Flamini, and Hleb will be looking to boss around the Boro midfield with their deft passing.

Robin van Persie could be reunited with Emmanuel Adebayor up front, although depending on the Dutchman's fitness level Nicklas Bendtner could start in his place. Either way the strike pairing will be looking to put a few goals past a Middlesbrough defense that has allowed 43 goals in 29 games this season.

Arsenal should get out of their drop in form during this game, putting them in prime position to challenge Chelsea at Stamford Bridge next weekend. I predict a 2-0 home win.