The FA Cup is back for another season – but there’ll be no Rochdale or Oxford in the opening round for us this time around as we travel to The Emirates to take on an in-form Arsenal side.
It wasn’t long ago we’d won back to back games and were a win at Elland Road away from edging into the top 10 – all while Arsenal were sliding towards the bottom three after yet another defeat.
A few weeks on and our points gained and performance levels have gone in the opposite directions, with us without a win in six, dumped out of the League Cup by Championship opposition and scoring just once from open play in our last five.
As for Arsenal, Mike Arteta – a man who was linked with the NUFC job between Benitez leaving and Bruce arriving – has gone from being on the bring of the sack to securing three wins on the bounce for a resurgent Gunners side who’ve kept two clean sheets, beaten Chelsea 3-1 and scored eight goals since Christmas.
This was never going to be an easy game, but what went from looking like a FA Cup tie we’d fancy ourselves in given their awful early-season form is now looking a much tougher test.
- Martin Dubravka – Bruce has confirmed the Slovakian will start his first game of the season after overcoming a heel injury.
- Jamaal Lascelles – Trained all week and set to be involved, according to Bruce. Could well start.
- Ryan Fraser – Bruce says he’s trained over the past three days but this one will come too soon for him.
- Jamal Lewis – Missed the Leicester defeat with a swollen knee. Set to miss out once again but Bruce reckons he’ll be back next week.
- Allan Saint-Maximin – Back in the UK and set to be assessed after overcoming ‘long’ Covid. Still a few weeks away, however.
For the hosts, it looks big summer signings Thomas Partey and Gabriel could return, with the former fit again and the latter overcoming COVID.
Predicted line up
(5-3-2): Darlow – Murphy, Krafth, Lascelles, Dummett, Ritchie – Hendrick, Hayden, Shelvey – Carroll, Gayle.
OUT – Darlow, Clark, Fernandez, Schar, Yedlin, M Longstaff, S Longstaff, Almiron, Joelinton, Wilson?
IN – Dubravka, Dummett, Lascelles, Krafth, Murphy, Hendrick, Hayden, Shelvey, Gayle, Carroll?
Lots of changes here and a formation that may well be way off, but I think Bruce may shake things up and rest a few key players ahead of our crucial trip to Sheffield United on Tuesday.
One player who’s already been named as a definite starter is Martin Dubravka, with Bruce confirming the fit-again Slovakian will come in for his first game of 2020/21.
I reckon Bruce will go with a back five once again and hand rests to Clark, Fernandez and Schar – three players who’ve recently overcome COVID or injuries yet been forced to play just about every game over the festive period!
He may also want to protect the fully recovered Jamaal Lascelles, so I can see Emil Krafth and Paul Dummett playing either side of the skipper, with Jacob Murphy offering an outlet in attack from right wing-back and Matt Ritchie continuing down the left in Jamal Lewis’ absence.
That said, Javier Manquillo could well play after he was back on the bench last weekend, so wouldn’t be surprised if he was at RWB with Murphy ahead of him in more of a 5-4-1.
Then to midfield, I reckon Bruce may go for three as he’s done twice this season (in the 1-1 draw at Wolves and home win vs Everton). Jonjo Shelvey will almost certainly come back in if his ‘sore groin’ has settled down, Isaac Hayden should return against his former club fresh from a one-game ban and I can also see Jeff Hendrick getting himself a rare start.
That then leaves two up top, and I reckon we may see the ‘big man, little man’ approach in Andy Carroll and Dwight Gayle – two players who’ve recently scored goals at St James’ Park but are finding game-time hard to come by.
He may feel this is the perfect time to give both a shot and hinted at playing two up top in his latest presser. Callum Wilson to be rested for next week’s must win match against the Blades and Joelinton and Miguel Almiron to be dropped for their poor displays against Leicester last week?
Our ‘ones to watch’ in Mike Arteta’s Arsenal side:
Bukayo Saka – I watched their 0-4 win at West Brom last weekend and he was absolutely outstanding. Looked confident on the ball, beat his man with ease on countless occasions, created chances and grabbed a goal too. Hoping he’s given a rest as he’s been their shining light this season!
David Luiz – If Arteta rests Rob Holding – the centre-back very nearly signed for us on loan last summer – we could see the erratic Brazilian return to the Arsenal XI. He may be good on the ball and a threat from set pieces, but we all know he’s error prone and there to be got at!
Thomas Partey – Time will tell if their big summer signing from Atletico Madrid is fit enough to start, but he’s EXACTLY the sort of midfielder who might have too much power and energy for our limited midfield. Arsenal fans reckon this is the first time they’ve signed a CDM who can come close to replacing Patrick Viera!
Predicted Arsenal XI: (4-2-3-1): Leno – Cedric, Luiz, Mustafi, Tierney – Maitland-Niles, Elneny – Pepe, Willock, Saka – Nketiah.
A few weeks ago I’d have fancied us, but our form has plummeted just as Mike Arteta’s men have finally starting putting in consistent performances.
They will rest several key players, but I think Bruce will too given one of our biggest games of the season awaits in Sheffield United away next Tuesday.
With The Gunners getting their confidence back and able to field a much stronger second team than we can, I think they’ll run out relatively comfortable winners – although I do back us to score (desperate times!).
Prediction: Arsenal 2-1 Newcastle