Wait, what, there's a match? With all of the transfer gossip and speculation, not to mention the actual signings, it was easy to forget. But yes indeed, like the 1950's husband who forgot to tell his TV wife that the boss is coming for dinner, we must entertain the once-mighty Arsenal Wednesday night.
None of the new boys will feature, obviously, but we must cover all bases. Despite that, I am very excited to see the team sheet today. Two players have come back from injury this week (Jussi Jaaskelainen and Tyrone Mears) and several more are on their way (Ivan Klasnic, Marcos Alonso, Ricardo Gardner, Sean Davis, maybe even Chung-Yong Lee and Stuart Holden), which will give Owen Coyle some decisions to make. Jump for Ginger!
One of those old nuggets that British journalists (loose usage of the term) love is, "You don't change a winning team." Trouble is, like most of the old nuggets, it's not true. Football is a game of adjustments. For an example of what happens when one is too stubborn to make adjustments, we just need look to the other club's bench tonight.
Arsene Wenger is stubborn, and that stubbornness has probably been a principal contributor to a lot of his success. However, I can't help but feel that the game has passed him by. This worries me, not only because I like Wenger, nor because I have always had a soft spot for Arsenal and their beautiful football, but because I see a lot of Wenger in our own Owen Coyle.
I think Wenger does as well, there is a kinship between the two managers, they both seem to share a sense of integrity. But that integrity has been Wenger's downfall the past few seasons. His refusal to change the club's transfer policy, wage structure, tactical setup, substitution patterns, training methods, etc., has led to a stagnation at Arsenal, and they are in danger of missing out on a Champions League spot this season
If Coyle is to avoid the same fate, he will have to be very pragmatic about team selection when these players start returning from injury. The first, and perhaps biggest decision, comes tonight when the Great Pumpkin arrives, er, when the goalkeeper's jersey is handed out. Jussi is healthy again, and the big Fin has been first choice between the posts for 15 seasons now. Surely Coyle wouldn't leave him on the bench because a ginger Hungarian has had a few good matches, would he? I think he would, and he should. It is time for Jussi to keep Kevin Davies company on the sub's bench.
Most of the team outside of the keeper is predictable. David Ngog will be alone up top, supported by Chris Eagles and Martin Petrov on the wings. All three have been in good form, and it will be critical that they continue to perform, although they are likely to see far less of the ball than they have in recent matches. David Wheater and Zatyiah Knight will anchor the defense, although the arrival of Tim Ream and another good cup performance from Dedryck Boyata could put that into doubt. Mark Davies, Nigel Reo-Coker, and Fabrice Muamba can write their names on the next five team sheets, they are the Da Vinci behind our recent renaissance. And Samuel Ricketts owns the left back shirt, at least until Alonso returns.
That leaves right back. For the first time all season, we are spoiled for choice at this position. Tyrone Mears is finally fit. I suspect Owen Coyle envisioned him as first choice when he signed in the summer. Gretar Steinsson, as frustratingly inconsistent as he has been, is in a good run of form as well. But the crowd favorite, the revelation, the breath of fresh air, is young Joe Riley. I understand why the gaffer has been reluctant to hand Riley the starting position. We are in a tough spot. Fighting relegation, facing the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal, desperate for points wherever they may be found. Not the ideal atmosphere for blooding a youngster in his first season with the senior team. I say go for it. Play it safe against Norwich and Wigan, but against Arsenal, at the Reebok, come out firing. If we go down, go down in a blaze of glory. When the smoke clears, the scoreboard just might read Bolton 3, Arsenal 2.