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Is his ankle alright?

From the 6 pre season games that Arsenal have played, the result stands at 2 wins, 3 draws and 1 defeat. Is there anything that can be drawn out of these matches? Pre season are meant for fitness/stamina building, creating understanding between players and improving the camaraderie within the squad. Some signs are more telling while others can be ignored as players themselves realised that these are nothing more than friendlies.

Sometimes, we don’t quite get the actual picture from Arsene Wenger. But on this occasion, his post match interview sums it up quite nicely.

We got the intensity we wanted, it was a competitive game and we were challenged by a good team who had a lot of experienced players.

The team that we faced are no slouch. Averagely, the Liga Sagres may not be much but the recent European cups results showed that the top teams in that league are not to be taken lightly. Make no mistake, Benfica are more than a decent team and they showed that last night.

Compared to the previous 5 games, there was a marked improvement in terms of the intensity/competitiveness produced by Arsenal. The side that played the first half collectively showed higher level of sharpness that we’ve not seen from the other games. Alex Song was more disciplined in the work that is entrusted to him. Rarely venturing forward and sat protecting his defence. Gervinho hugged the touchline and was the pacy outlet that we’ve hoped to see from him. There were moments of over dribbling/playing but overall had another promising outing in the Arsenal shirt.

Robin Van Persie scored again on his 28th birthday and his movement off the ball was a delight to see. He’s looking incredibly sharp and getting his scoring touch this early augurs well for our hopes. If we are to achieve anything this season, we can’t look beyond the Dutchman’s goals leading the way.

Kieran Gibbs was another one who can be proud of his night’s work. Decisive in tackles and pushed forward with real intent and belief. In fact, it was one of his foraging runs forward that created the goal for RvP. His previous role in the midfield/winger positions will have helped in there no less.

For all the positives, one can’t help but be worried with Johan Djourou’s performance. At times, he looks sluggish. Centrebacks is one position where indecisiveness can cost the team. Perhaps someone will need to have a word with him and remind Djourou that he should just clear the ball when unable to find options. Leaving decisions late and choosing the wrong option will only allow the opposition a chance at goal.

Benfica played well for the full 90 minutes and the second half was a bit one-way traffic. We played well for 45 minutes and, after that, we dropped. We missed many players and you could see that in the second half.

As is seen frequently in friendlies, hordes of substitutions are normally made. The side that played the second half for us was a stark contrast the one that Benfica put out. While the home side were able to bring on their more experienced players, Wenger had to rely on the younger/inexperienced member of his squad. Of course that worked towards our disadvantage.

Apart from the Carling Cup, I very much doubt we’ll ever see the team that played the second half much this coming season. They are what they are, backups to the first eleven. Players will always be more comfortable when there are bigger players around them (I don’t mean the size of a player, mind you). You put Kolo Toure beside Sol Campbell and he’ll learn and perform because there’s someone beside him giving him advice and guiding him.

You put Emmanuel Frimpong, Henri Lansbury and Aaron Ramsey together and why are we surprised that they struggled to impose themselves. That is not a dig at their individual talent. I’m a believer in the potential that these players have but it’s also pointless to expect them to shine as a unit at this point of their career against a Benfica midfield that had more experience. Had we been able to field a Cesc Fabregas or Jack Wilshere along any of those 2, the outcome could’ve been different (one can hope).

The way we conceded the two goals was very disappointing. Especially when you realised that it came from mistakes of 2 very experienced centrebacks. Sebastien Squillaci was at fault for the first goal when he allowed the opposition to wrong foot him. While Thomas Vermaelen committed the error of letting his opponent get goalside of him. (Well, at least it wasn’t a set piece)

However, it must be noted that one’s thing changed this season. For the last 5 or 6 seasons, we’ve had the best 2nd squad there is in the Premier League. Beginning this coming season, I doubt we can say that any longer. There’s a core group of players at Arsenal who will be able to give every top side in the world a run for their money. Exchange a couple of them with the reserves and we’ll struggle. At this point, I can’t stress enough how important it is for the team to have an injury free season. Although that may be akin to asking for a real dragon as a birthday gift.

Van Persie has an ankle problem, I don’t know how bad it is. Gibbs has a muscular [thigh] problem and Vermaelen has a slight back problem.

And the real season has not even started yet. Add to those who were missing from yesterday and you’ll find that these are our core group of first team. Samir Nasri, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Laurent Koscielny would need to all prove their fitness by next week if we intend to start on the right foot.

If we have all those mentioned above ready and fit, there’s real optimism (well, at least for me anyway) in the air about our season. If not, and as shown by the game yesterday, we’re in for a real fight to stay amongst the top echelon of the English game.

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