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Like Song, Vermaelen will get to play in the middle now

For a short period of time, we turn our attention elsewhere. There will be no worries of long ball tactics or roughhouse treatment or any of those “they don’t like it when we get in their faces” attitude. At least not in the next immediate game. The reasoning for that is simple, we are playing the mighty AC Milan next. That said, if they play, Matthieu Flamini or Gennaro Gattuso might try to debunk those notions.

I can remember the last time we were there. 13 Arsenal players played that night, including 2 substitutes. Only Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott remains from that night slightly less than 4 years ago. And what a glorious night it was. We were given no chance in that tie, what with the inexperienced of our side. But we outplayed them over 2 legs and justified every inch of our progression to the next stage.

We all remember the superb long range effort from Cesc Fabregas that went past the despairing dive of the well-oiled hair of Kalac. We also remember the Walcott dribble and Emmanuel Adebayor scoring his first away Champions League goal to secure the tie. But that game in particular showed just what a genius Arsene Wenger is. Abou Diaby and Aleksander Hleb were two players that were magnificent that night and with Phillippe Senderos being a wall in defence, the trio (for one night at the minimum) proved Wenger’s ability to spot a player like no other.

Anyway, enough about what happened in 2008. We can’t like in the past. Everything is about the present but the present bears a lot of similarities with the past as well. Wenger will bring a team that is desperate to prove themselves on a bigger stage. Against a home side that are the clear favourites (according to non Arsenal fans anyway) and who are the reigning champions of Italy.

A side that according to Aaron Ramsey, will not be looking to just sit back and soak in the atmosphere. A side that has every intention of going to Milan and bring home a lead to protect. The way the European game is structured in the knockout phase, goals away from home is absolutely vital. An away goal counts as double in the event of a draw and that changes the way teams approaches games as well.

In some ways, I think that the rules is a big disadvantage to a home side. A home side that will be looking to use the familiar surroundings to build a good lead or to win the tie outright. Teams must find the right mix between attacking and be wary of not conceding at home. I’m sure that will play into Max Allegri’s mind for tomorrow’s game.

That’s not to say we should abandon the idea of a clean sheet on our part tomorrow. Yes, the away is crucial but counts for nothing if we ended up conceding 3 or 4 goals. We will have to do that without one member of the defence who has been consistently in the starting line-up. Per Mertesacker injured himself in the weekend’s game against Sunderland and looks to be out for the foreseeable month or so.

Overall, the big German has acquitted himself well in the team since his arrival. It has not been a smooth ride all the way, there were bumps along it but Mertesacker can certainly look back at a decent run of performances for Arsenal. Don’t think he will argue if we say that he’s not the quickest but that flaw is overcome by his assured reading of the game and good positioning. Another part of his game which needs improvement is his authoritativeness. For someone his height and build, he’s not bullying the opposition enough either within our own box or the opposition’s penalty box. Plenty of time to sit on the sidelines and for him to judge his own shortcomings in the weeks to come.

One player who would benefit from the absence of Mertesacker will be Thomas Vermaelen. The Belgian has been forced to play as a left back recent months, more due to the absence of recognised left backs than due to the presence of Mertesacker in the side. He’s not happy about it but I’m not unhappy that he’s unhappy. He’s a centre back and any player that thinks he’s good enough and wants to fight for a position which he thinks should be his, is good in my books.

For this time, Wenger won’t have to make that hard decision on who to drop between them and Laurent Koscielny. While injury is not the best way for it to happen, we should see the reappearance of the Koscielny-Vermaelen partnership tomorrow. I think in some ways we’ve missed the driving presence of Vermaelen in the middle. A role which Koscielny has tried to fill in with a fair bit of success.

A Vermaelen in the middle is different from a Vermaelen on the wide side of the pitch. He doesn’t cross the ball so you would rarely see him overlap the player in front of him (Gervinho or Alex Oxalde-Chamberlain). What he does give in the middle is the reading of the game and interceptions. Sometimes he gets overzealous with trying to get to the ball first but those occasions are rare.

Oh…I’m getting really excited over this match now.