Premier League | Emirates Stadium | Tue 15 Apr | 7:45pm
The first of six cup finals for Arsenal.
Club photographers will be a dying breed if footballers keep this up. If Wojciech Szczesny’s ‘selfie’ after Arsenal’s win at Spurs didn’t seem slightly ill-advised in the context of what followed, the wisdom of Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey’s grinning self-portrait after their shootout squeeze past Wigan will come out in the Wembley wash next month.
- Wigan 1-1p Arsenal (FAC)
- Everton 3-0 Arsenal (Prem)
- Arsenal 1-1 Man City (Prem)
- Arsenal 2-2 Swansea (Prem)
- Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal (Prem)
WEST HAM FORM
- West Ham 1-2 Liverpool (Prem)
- S'land 1-2 West Ham (Prem)
- West Ham 2-1 Hull (Prem)
- West Ham 0-2 Man Utd (Prem)
- Stoke 3-1 West Ham (Prem)
But perhaps they deserve the benefit of the doubt this time. As Saturday evening’s FA Cup semi-final ticked into what seemed to be its last 10 minutes, the sense wasn’t that of your common or garden grandstand finale. There was an end-of-days feel about Arsenal, a sense that their atrophy was about to be confirmed irrefutably, a whispered consensus that this, if something didn’t change quickly, was effectively the final throes of Arsène Wenger’s era.
It felt decisive; it felt, no matter what your persuasion, rather sad. Then, Per Mertesacker came up with a Big Effing Lifesaver of a goal and, while the job wouldn’t be completed in open play, you sensed the hardest part had been done. The fact Lukasz Fabianski, somehow Arsenal’s third longest-serving player after Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott, was his side’s hero provided a coating of sugar with which to end an evening that could have concluded very differently.
All well and good, but now Arsenal go again in the Premier League against a well-rested West Ham, nine days after the latter’s previous engagement. For all the talk of cup finals, you wonder what would be more important to Wenger and his board – the seemingly mandatory Champions League finish or, just this once, the FA Cup that could release nine years’ pent-up tension.
In truth, the former’s importance seems impossible to escape, so this match is as important as any the Gunners will play over the next month. Victory will put them a point ahead of Everton, who snuck into fourth over the weekend, and put the pressure back on Roberto Martinez’s side. Anything less, and prophecies that Arsenal would be ushered back onto Europe’s top table on the coat-tails of a softer fixture list can safely be consigned to waste.
West Ham were obliging opponents at the Emirates Stadium last January, conceding five, and haven’t beaten Arsenal in 12 attempts. They probably need another point or two to be absolutely certain of escaping relegation this time around, but few would seriously expect them to be sucked back into the mire after a run that – whether or not its aesthetics pleased the Upton Park crowd – has yielded six wins in their last 10.
Sam Allardyce isn’t one to let a team rest on its laurels, though, and their performance against Liverpool last time out arguably merited more than a narrow defeat. With Andy Carroll, scorer of a winner at the Emirates for Newcastle back in 2010, getting back up to speed there appears more cutting edge about the Hammers just now – and you sense that, while Arsenal need this more, he’ll get a chance at some stage.
Kevin Nolan is West Ham’s major doubt – he’s touch and go with a hamstring problem. George McCartney and Marco Borriello both look like sitting this out with injuries of their own, but Joey O’Brien is back in contention.
Two hours’ angst against Wigan didn’t do a lot for Arsenal’s injury situation, and Wenger admits that there are “plenty of uncertainties”. There will definitely be checks on Nacho Monreal, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the recently-returned Aaron Ramsey, while better news is that Laurent Koscielny and Tomas Rosicky could be back in. If there was any justice in the world, Wembley hero Fabianski would keep his place between the Gunners’ posts – but there isn’t, so the chances are that he won’t.
Player to watch: Mohamed Diame (West Ham)
West Ham aren’t quite on the beach, but Diame has already been indulging in a spot of fishing. “I can’t tell you if I will be a Liverpool player next season, but I think my name is still on their wanted list,” announced the Senegalese midfielder, whose mind appears to have timewarped to January 2013, this week.
His form back then had indeed piqued the interest of bigger clubs – Arsenal included – but this season has been an altogether more lukewarm affair. A powerhouse on his day, Diame needs to do something about that if he’s to “join a team with ambitions”, and Tuesday presents a decent opportunity to get started.
Arsenal enter this one nursing all manner of bumps and bruises, both mental and physical, and an on-song Diame could enjoy the run of the midfield if their legs are still heavy. If he can get a grip on proceedings and, in the process, get West Ham moving up the pitch, then perhaps his ambitions – we definitely didn’t say ‘delusions’ – will come that step nearer to realisation.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- W Ham 1-3 Arsenal (Prem, Dec 13)
- Arsenal 5-1 W Ham (Prem, Jan 13)
- W Ham 1-3 Arsenal (Prem, Oct 12)
- W Ham 0-3 Arsenal (Prem, Jan 11)
- Arsenal 1-0 W Ham (Prem, Oct 10)
This confrontation feels as old as time itself. Allardyce beat Wenger’s Arsenal four times as Bolton manager and once with Blackburn, the last of those having been four years ago.
He’ll feel a sixth out-tacticking is somewhat overdue, but West Ham’s results against the Gunners during his tenure – two 3-1 defeats at Upton Park and a 5-1 reverse at the Emirates last season – suggest that some significant sleights of hand might be needed this time around.
Big Sam has made the necessary deferential noises in the run-up to this game, but clearly senses an opportunity.
“Certainly with Arsenal's game-load and some of those injuries, yes, they will be weaker than they possibly could be,” he says, and you can’t imagine that his post-match press conference will be entirely bereft of self-congratulation if he exploits those deficiencies.
Facts and figures
- Arsenal are unbeaten in their last 11 Premier League games against West Ham (W9 D2 L0), including winning the last 6 in a row.
- West Ham won their last League away game – 2-1 at Sunderland. They haven't won 2 successive PL away matches since December 2007.
- Arsenal have won their last 6 matches against West Ham.
- West Ham are the only team that Arsenal have beaten after falling behind in the Premier League this season (W1 D4 L7).
- The Gunners have kept a clean sheet in 8 of their last 12 Premier League home games, but they have conceded in each of their last 3 games there.
- Arsenal have had Over 2.5 goals in their last 4 matches against West Ham.
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Selfies all round as Arsenal put in pretty much the same tenor of performance they have all season – which, against this West Ham side, is enough to get them back on track with a 1-0 win.