Wenger's Choice: Premier League push or Champions League chance for Arsenal?

Arsenal currently sit top of the Premier League table four points clear of Chelsea and top of their Champions League group three points clear of Borussia Dortmund and Napoli.

The Gunners face their toughest period of the campaign this month starting this Sunday against Everton before trips to Napoli next week, Manchester City three days later before they host Chelsea at the Emirates.

It’s not going to be easy – that’s the only thing Arsene Wenger can be sure of – but his team has the capability to get results out of these games if they maintain their focus, desire and commitment to the cause.

However, the boss may have a choice and that choice is not easy to make – he may have to choose between staying top of the Premier League, maintaining the momentum they’ve been building since they went top on September 22nd or finishing top of the Champions League group to avoid tougher competition in the next round.

I’m well aware of the fact Arsenal can do both without making compromises but it’s more likely they will have to compromise one of those things at least once this month. Wenger rested a number of key players on Wednesday night and the Gunners beat Hull 2-0 despite the five changes to the team but against the opposition coming up, the risk is much greater and the stakes much higher.

If he plays his best team this Sunday against Everton – the likes of Wojceich Szczesny, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs in defence along with Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud – he can’t play all of them against Napoli three days later and then City three days after that. He has to be cautious and realistic with his selections and, no matter how well planned; there can still be injuries and suspensions to consider.

If he doesn’t start all of his ‘best’ XI against the Toffees on Sunday, I would expect him to start Theo Walcott and perhaps Mathieu Flamini if they’re fit. I would expect him to perhaps rest Aaron Ramsey and bring in Tomas Rosicky too.

I think we can expect him to take Giroud and or Ozil off before 90 minutes dependent on the score line and I think we can all see by Everton’s position they deserve the utmost respect and he’ll expect them to be competitive as ever and boisterous following their 1-0 win at Old Trafford. If he makes those changes either from the start or during the game, that could compromise them but it might be a compromise that won’t cost them.

They cannot afford to compromise next Wednesday in Naples – if they lose the game by three goals they don’t qualify for the next stage of the Champions League and if they lose by less than three goals they could finish second which, as things stand would see them face one of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, and Athletico Madrid in the next round.

That would make their progression to the Quarter Finals much more difficult and whilst I understand that if you want to win the Champions League you have to beat the best teams in Europe it cannot be denied it would be more preferable to face, for example, Basel, Olympiacos, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Zenit or AC Milan. Not easy ties of course, but easier, probably.

Then, after that's taken into consideration, along with all the energy and focus and commitment in Naples that will take a lot out of those who play, Wenger has just three days to rest, train, prepare, assess and select his team for the trip to the Etihad where Manchester City are unbeaten this season – not just unbeaten, they’ve won every game.

It’s going to take some team and some performance to smash that record at the Etihad and whilst I believe Arsenal have as good a chance as anyone does of succeeding, they’re going to have to be as strong as possible from the kick-off. Those who play in Napoli could be tired physically and mentally and that is not going to bode well for their chances of getting any kind of result against the Citizens. Wenger’s going to need his best team at their best but he can’t jeopardize Champions League qualification against Napoli so what does he do?

Even if Arsenal do the near-impossible and win in Napoli and Manchester City, next up they’ve got Chelsea to think about – although they will have 9 days to rest and prepare in between but a defeat at the Etihad will mean Chelsea could be travelling to the Emirates knowing a win would put them top of the table (if they beat Stoke and Crystal Palace in the meantime). That’s the kind of motivation that wins games and ruins title dreams.

Wenger is going to have to chose in all likelihood – he’s the longest serving manager in the Premier League and he’ll know he has to respect all three of the Blues this month but, in my estimation, there isn’t a chance in hell he’ll risk Champions League progression.

He’ll play his best XI in Naples whatever the whether, whatever it takes, which means he’ll rest at least a couple of key players this weekend and next weekend. I think he’d take a defeat against City, if he’s honest. I think Arsenal might even play for a draw at the Etihad. That would be the lesser of two evils – if they lose or draw at the Etihad they’d still be top (if they beat Everton, of course) and Chelsea would be one or two points behind them when they arrive at the Emirates and that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

What would be the worst case scenario is if Wenger rests players this weekend and drops points against Everton, goes out to Napoli and lose by enough to ensure they qualify second place perhaps pick up an injury there, return to England and lose at the Etihad and then get beaten by a Chelsea side who are top of the league, and tumble down into third, fourth or even fifth. If they lose all three games that is possible.

I’m not trying to be negative – I’m just throwing out the worst-case scenario – but Wenger must prepare and select his teams with this in mind. It’s a real tight rope – one wrong move, one imbalance, one injury, one suspension could flush it all down the toilet.

All the hard work and the exceptional performances, the belief the confidence and the momentum can be undone this month if Arsene Wenger chooses wrongly or makes the wrong compromise. The stakes don’t get much higher than this.

images: © Matt and Kim Rudge, © Ronnie Macdonald

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