Arsenal will have home advantage against Swansea - live on ESPN UK on Wednesday at 19.30 GMT - as they seek to continue in the FA Cup and end their seven-year trophy drought, but it may not be enough in what is now their most important game of the season to date.
The first match between the two showcased the contrasting sides of the Gunners well: first, the fragility at the back as they allowed Michu, their chief tormentor, to break through the back-line and slot home for the opener; then the ‘belief’ that Arsene Wenger talks about so much to get themselves into a winning position; then back to fragility once more as Danny Graham hit a late leveller from a set-piece to make it 2-2.
In essence, it is the story of a season for an Arsenal outfit still stinging from the departure of Robin van Persie and an inability to replace him. Wenger talks of there being ‘no value’ in January, but something is sorely needed to boost their flagging campaign after slipping further behind the top two at the weekend - an FA Cup run (or one in the more unlikely Champions League) remains the only realistic goal now.
If Theo Walcott signs on the dotted line before the end of the month then a ‘victory’ of sorts will be claimed, but Arsenal are in dire need of a victory on the pitch and are up against a Swansea side who have had the better of them in the Premier League - winning both of their two games, 2-0 and 3-2.
Spanish striker Michu, showcasing the form that has made him the bargain of the season, has struck three times in his last two games against Arsenal and will once again be thrust into action up front despite a rigorous schedule that has included the Swans’ run to the Capital One Cup final. At the moment, he is simply too important to leave out.
While many suggested that Swansea would struggle after the departure of Brendan Rodgers to Liverpool, new man Michael Laudrup has proven excellent in both his vision and execution of his overall plan for the club. Only fatigue can halt the Swans’ flight as they are full of confidence and have embarked on a seven-game unbeaten run in all competitions, featuring tough tests against Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton.
Conversely, an Arsenal side bereft of confidence haven’t won yet in 2013. They haven’t failed to make the fourth round of the FA Cup since 1996, but if they do so again then the season could be over for them before the year has really begun.
Swansea City player to watch - Danny Graham
While Michu has rightly taken centre stage for his heroics up front this season, Graham has quietly gone about his business and helped out where he can. While he has been linked with a January move, the striker has scored four goals in his last five FA Cup appearances, including the equaliser against the Gunners, and his role - even if he has to come off the bench - will be important as the game wears on.
Arsenal player to watch - Santi Cazorla
The Gunners have lacked something in the creative department of late, with Wenger openly questioning the attacking quartet’s ability to fashion chances. Against Southampton they could only manage one shot on target and that wasn’t even the goal! Cazorla must bear the brunt of the criticism in this regard as his role is to cause problems for the opposition defence, but he has been unable to unlock the door of late. More is expected.
Key battle: Jack Wilshere v Leon Britton
Wilshere is now the heartbeat of Arsenal and his commitment and passion for the club is unmatched at a time when it is seriously lacking elsewhere. His vision and passing ability ensure that the Gunners will always have something in the locker, but he will need to step up the defensive side of his game to deal with the metronomic Britton, who launches the attacks and dictates the tempo for Swansea.
Trivia: The furthest Swansea have progressed in the FA Cup is the semi-finals stage, which the Welsh side achieved in 1926 and 1964.
Stats: Five of the six goals scored between Arsenal and Swansea this season have come in the final ten minutes of matches.
Odds: Arsenal (1.53), Swansea (6.50) and the draw (4.50) are on offer at bet365, while Michu is 9.00 to score first.
Prediction: The game means so much to the Arsenal players that they have no option but to pull off a win. Confidence is everything for them, though, so it won’t come easily.
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