After Arsène Wenger used his programme notes for Saturday’s clash with Birmingham City at the Emirates to – somewhat predictably – weigh into the heated debate about over-zealous tackling currently doing the rounds , the Frenchman perhaps shouldn’t have been too surprised to then watch Samir Nasri and Emmanuel Eboué kick lumps out of City’s Liam Ridgewell, before 5ft. 8ins Jack Wilshere toppled 6ft. 7½ ins Nikola Žigi? with what could only be politely described as a clumsy lunge. Perhaps he should have picked on someone his own size.
Wenger – to his credit – admitted that Wilshere’s red card was warranted, but after heading into a game where they would have been the ones expected to be on the end of the tasty challenges, the Arsenal players have been experiencing life on the other side of the coin this week as they prepare for the Champions League visit of Shakhtar Donetsk.
“When I tackled him I didn’t want to kill him,” said Eboué of the forceful challenge on Ridgewell that earned him a yellow card. “When I did that tackle I didn’t go through the back. I just wanted to touch the ball.
“The referee (Martin Atkinson) spoke to me after the game and said, ‘Emmanuel, I know you touched the ball but the tackle was very dangerous’. I just said, ‘OK, no problem’. Next time I will be more careful.
“We are not a dirty team. Everyone knows we like to play football and make everyone happy when we play and we like to score. What happened on Saturday is finished. Now when we play we just have to play football and be careful on the pitch.”
Their efforts to ‘play football’ could be helped tonight with the possible return of captain Cesc Fàbregas, who returns after injuring a hamstring at Sunderland a month ago. The skipper may have to be patient though.
“Cesc has prepared well,” said Wenger, whose side take on the only other side in Group H with two wins from two matches tonight. “He had a little setback, but got over the hurdle and is ready to play at full fitness, but whether I start him or not, I do not know yet.
“It will be whether I take a gamble or not, because he has been out for a long time. But physically he is ready and fit – and wanting to play.
“You know his influence on our team, he is our leader, our passer, he has a good level of assists and a good goalscoring record. Ideally you want him in the team.”
Understatements about his captain aside, Wenger will know all about the threat that the Ukrainians of Shakhtar possess – or more specifically their Brazilians.
Samba stars Jádson, Luiz Adriano, Willian and Fernandinho were all key members of the Shakhtar side that won the Uefa Cup in 2009, and while the latter misses out here through injury, the quartet take their place in an impressive squad that also includes Croatian captain Darijo Srna and Ukrainian defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy – back home after a €25million move to Barcelona didn’t exactly work out.
Shakhtar were one of Fulham’s victims during their improbable run to the Europa League final last season, but supporters of the west Londoners claimed that they were the toughest opposition they faced en route, and the north Londoners from the Emirates may be about find out why tonight.
Arsenal should win, and move clear at the top of a group that – on paper – looks to be so simple that it’s not too fanciful to believe that Wenger picked it himself.
You can only beat what’s put in front of you though, and Arsenal do that better than most.
Another win here then, but perhaps with a few less tackles this time.
Hercules v Villarreal Preview
Villarreal can go top of the Primera Liga if they can beat Hercules tonight. (kick-off 20.00 BST)
Villarreal can go a point clear of Real Madrid if they wrap up a sixth straight victory in Alicante, but midfielder Bruno Soriano has warned his side they must not take Hercules lightly.
The newly-promoted side have already claimed the scalps of Barcelona and Sevilla, and Soriano does not want him and his team-mates added to that list at the Estadio Jose Rico Perez.
He said: “It’s a very difficult game. Hercules, without running down the other sides who came up this year, are a very strong team.
“They’ve signed well and won at grounds and against teams that are very difficult. They’ve strengthened with important and experienced players like David Trezeguet and Royston Drenthe.
“We will be careful, although it’s clear that neither are we going to make it easy for them.”
3.60 home win at NaijaBet