Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Internationals over, now the serious stuff starts

With the stretched squad Arsenal had, the international break that has just finished was probably well timed for the club. However that didn’t make it more bearable.
I watched both of England’s qualifiers, and generally they were quite enjoyable. The games with Montenegro and Poland were vital for qualification, so there wasn’t a mundane, pointless feel to them, as can often happen with internationals. Yet I couldn’t get excited watching the games. I’m a proud Englishman, but footballistically, nothing compares to the club game, and specifically the Arsenal.
I spent as much time watching the games as I did watching Twitter to see how other Gunners were doing for their countries. Over the two games, there were goals for Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud, Aaron Ramsey and even Nicklas Bendtner. Wojciech Szczesny put in a good performance for Poland at Wembley and Thomas Vermaelen got a useful 90 minutes under his belt for the Belgians. Apart from Ozil going off as a precaution for Germany against Sweden, the injury situation seems ok. Early reports also suggest that our £42 million man will be ready to face Norwich on Saturday.
As well as the return of club football feeling like the return of proper football after an international break, this particular run of games that Arsenal are about to enter is when the season really starts to get serious. Since the opening day defeat, the Gunners have been in superb form. At times they’ve dug deep to win, at others they have played sumptuous flowing football. 10 wins and a draw have given the team a brilliant platform to build a season on, so now the hope is that the international break doesn’t disrupt the momentum that was building in the squad.
Whilst the next two league games (Norwich at home and Crystal Palace away) look like matches that Arsenal should be able to take six points from if they continue the good form, the rest of the games in the period before the next international break in November will give a good indication of whether there are solid foundations to the fans’ early season optimism. Napoli were meant to be the first acid test for the Gunners this season, and that hurdle was cleared comfortably, and with a lot of style. Even if it isn’t always aesthetically pleasing, if Arsenal make it past the tough challenges in the coming weeks, people will really have to start taking this team seriously about potentially winning things this season.
After Norwich on Saturday, Borussia Dortmund visit the Emirates in the Champions League. Then after the league game with Crystal Palace, Arsenal face a run of Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund and Manchester United. So far this season, cynics can understandably point to Arsenal having not faced opponents who will be challenging in or around the top four, with the exception of Tottenham. This run of games shouldn’t be viewed as daunting by the squad, it should be relished. The players have built up some confidence and momentum, and can take it into the bigger games. Often that is something Arsenal have lacked in recent seasons ahead of clashes with those around or above them in the table.
With players to return from injury, fans can be optimistic that Arsenal will be able to field strong line-ups in the run of big games, especially in midfield. Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott are almost ready to comeback, adding to the options of Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky and Ozil. Bacary Sagna will bolster the defence again, and the hints are that Lukas Podolski is progressing well from his hamstring injury.
If feels like a lot time since Arsenal made it to mid-October with a lot of optimism around the club. Obviously things do change quickly in football, and should Arsenal enter the next international break having barely picked up any points, the landscape of the season will look dramatically different. However these games aren’t to be feared. The signs are that the Arsenal team this season are made of stronger stuff. The next few weeks gives them the perfect opportunity to prove it.