The Gunners’ 2-0 victory over Fulham on Saturday was unremarkable in may ways but the inclusion of two second-half substitutes set a marker for the rest of the season.
Germany forward Lukas Podolski came on to replace his young compatriot Serge Gnabry after 71 minutes and England youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain followed him for a run out for the last five minutes at the Emirates.
Santi Cazorla had already ensured the North Londoners took all three points with his brace in the second half and just as the Spaniard’s pair of goals were invaluable to manager Arsene Wenger, the French boss’ pair of attackers returning to action will be as we head into the business end of the Premier League season.
Podolski has looked frustrated in recent weeks after returning from a hamstring injury suffered at the start of the season – the German international has been something of a serial substitute since his arrival at the Emirates in the summer of 2012. So far this term he has yet to start a game and has played just 190 minutes of league football for Arsenal.
But, despite his lack of availability and opportunity, he has managed to score three goals remarkably, averaging a goal every 63 minutes this term.
His strike on Maarten Stekelenburg’s goal on Saturday, forcing a stunning stop from the Fulham keeper, is an apt demonstration of the ferocious finishing talent the 28-year-old possesses as much as it displays his hunger to get on the score sheet as often as possible, after a long spell out, with the backdrop of the imminently approaching World Cup this summer.
Much the same can be said of 20-year-old Oxlade-Chamberlain’s efforts late in the game on Saturday. The England youngster was on the pitch for less than ten minutes but, judging from his expression following his headed attempt on Fulham’s goal, he too is aware of the competition for he faces to ensure he is on the plane to Brazil at Roy Hodgson’s behest this summer.
As cynical as it may be to suggest, Theo Walcott’s injury that will see him miss the rest of the season and the World Cup gives his junior teammate a window of opportunity to work his way back into favour for club and country. Walcott’s injury leaves the door that may well have been closed to Oxlade-Chamberlain open ajar.
It’s clear from their brief outings this weekend that both returning players are aware of the challenge they now face to get back into the team for Arsenal and their nations and this could be the key to the Gunners title ambitions more than a signing in January.
These two players are ambitious, hungry, supremely gifted and, more important that any other factor, in a race against time to prove their worth between now and May.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald