A spoonful of hope on a cereal of improbability

Good morning to you all on a cloudless, plane-free and gorgeous spring London morning. Having no aircraft humming overhead or vapour trails criss-crossing the skies has been as peculiar as it has been welcome. It would have been even nicer yesterday had someone on my road not chosen the enforced tranquillity to fire up a tree-mulching machine – all day. It sounded like a giant having an electric shave.

Yesterday, I was giving some thought to which young players Wenger could feasibly slot in between now and the end of the season, out of necessity or opportunity, given that we are no longer challenging for first.

Then along came yesterday’s string of results, and however unlikely it may still feel, a win at Wigan today would put us three points behind the leaders with three games to go. Hope, however much you try and banish it to the attic, keeps peering his head round the banisters and gurning at you.

Goodplaya – who has been something of a lone voice of optimistic lunacy on Twitter – said yesterday morning, “Am I the only one thinking that if Spurs beat Chels we can draw level before they play again? Unlikely, but wd we feel safe in their shoes?” How right he suddenly is.

How might the Spuds’ result have changed Wenger’s plans? We’ll see today. On Twitter yesterday, there was a groundswell of opinion in favour of giving Eastmond (one league start, two sub appearances) a game in the middle of the park. With Denilson a major doubt – and hardly in the form of his career anyway – I’d take that gamble. I’d also play van Persie from the start, as with a back line of Campbell and Silvestre for the remainder of the season (injuries allowing – ha), attack is going to be our best form of defence.

Some other interesting stuff slewed out of the official website late last night. Wenger in recent days – since the Spuds win in particular – has been on something of a warpath and yesterday not only was he bullish about our chances of matching Chelsea from a financial point of view:

“I think we can overcome [Chelsea]. For a while we were not investing maybe because we had built the stadium but I think our financial situation is now becoming much stronger and we will be capable to buy the players we need to buy.”

But also he talked about transfers:

“We will announce the deals after the league [finishes]. He [Chamakh] is one of the players who has a good chance to join us.”

So good news there – the Chamakh deal sounds close and tantalisingly, he talked about ‘deals’ in plural and of money being available. Now excuse me for clutching at straws, but that’s just what I wanted to hear so clutch at straws I will.

Onto today, and here we go again. I’ve asked Goodplaya for some of his mind-warping optimism-inducing pills and we can take it from there.

Wenger’s numbers don’t come up in Pottery lottery

Stoke City 3-1 Arsenal

I said yesterday that Wenger had little choice but to gamble in today’s FA Cup game. Gamble he did – and he lost.

As expected, he chose a mixture of youth and experience. In the young corner were Emmanuel-Thomas (first team debut), Coquelin (a lick of Milk Cup only) and Eastmond (one Premier League start).

At the other end of the spectrum were Silvestre and Campbell, with the rest – young but in some cases very experienced – making up the XI.

Was it a line-up that was ever going to trouble a physical and experienced team like Stoke? It’s easy to be dismissive in retrospect, but when I saw the line-up I thought we stood a chance if we played to our potential.

Therein lies the rub, though. We never did play to our potential. I accept that the game was fairly even until Stoke’s second, but apart from Denilson’s deflected equaliser, I cannot think of a single time when we made Sorensen earn his money.

Yes, Stoke played very well. Collectively, we could not cope. But too many of our players were off colour too. At the back, Fabianski was dreadful. On today’s performance, it’s easy to see how Almunia – hardly a Spanish Gordon Banks himself – remains unchallenged between the sticks. He punched rather than caught, stuttered on his line; he looked as if he’d won a competition to keep goal. The rest of the defence struggled, with the exception of Sol Campbell who performed admirably given how little football he has played recently. Traore was all over the place, Coquelin got better after a nervy start and Silvestre – well I suppose he tried hard.

In the midfield, I thought Eastmond did OK. In fact, all three rookies – Emmanuel-Thomas, Coquelin, Eastmond – did OK given the circumstances.

We were especially toothless up front though. I am – and remain – a big fan of Theo Walcott but on today’s performance he shouldn’t be worrying about his England place, he should be worrying about getting into the Arsenal side. He was embarrassingly ineffectual. I know it’s not his ideal kind of game and I know he’s been injured to the point of distraction, but he looked lost today. Carlos Vela had a rotten day too. Emmanuel-Thomas intrigues me though. His first touch wasn’t great and as debuts go, it was a tough one, but there’s definitely something there – power, desire, a different tack to the usual Arsenal striker (and he’s not even a striker). I’d like to see more of him.

The triple substitution made little difference.

So overall, it was never going to be a team that could walk the tie without each player playing to his maximum. The performance never arrived. We deserved to lose.

What to make of it? It’s a huge lost opportunity if you ask me. It’s all very well saying we can concentrate on the league and the European Cup, but they’re the hardest ones of all to win.

After the game, Wenger touched again on his reasons for playing the team he played. “Sagna, Vermaelen and Clichy will all be back for Aston Villa and they could have missed it if they had played today” he said.

Perhaps so. Maybe the circumstances – huge injury list and four high-octane games looming – demanded it.

Still out the cup though. Big gamble. Big loss.

Another scalp for the Milk Cup kids

Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool

Another great win in the Milk Cup for the Arsenal thanks to two crackers from Merida and Bendtner.

Though fatigue set in at the end, it was another feather in the cap for Wenger’s second string. It seems to happen every year, yet every year it still surprises me how much potential there is bubbling under the surface at the club.

My own man of the match would have gone to Ramsey for an eye-catching appearance in central midfield, though he wasn’t the only one to shine. Merida scored a great goal, Gibbs and Gilbert were tenacious, Senderos and Silvestre solid and it was good to see Nasri back too.

True to form, there was another chance for another player off the Arsenal production line – Craig Eastmond. He had a very encouraging debut before making way late in the game for Mark Randall.

It was a pretty even game, and certainly very entertaining, and I think Wenger got the balance between experience and inexperience spot on: Senderos, Silvestre, Nasri, Eduardo and Bendtner gave us a solid spine upon which Ramsey, Gibbs, Gilbert, Eastmond and Merida thrived.

Sanchez Watt came on too – to great applause from the same crowd who presumably also saw him slot one past WBA in the last round.

It was at times a hairy last ten minutes for a by-now wearying Arsenal, but it was interesting to note our players taking the ball into dead areas to kill time. It might not be the most elegant way to see a game out, but given the experience of the last two matches, I imagine they were under strict orders from above.

One lead thrown away is careless – two is criminal. What a third might have done ahead of a game that has ‘previous’ for calamitous losses of concentration doesn’t bear thinking about.

So have any of last night’s performances given Wenger food for thought for Saturday? Fabianski probably did enough to think he might get a chance – though with the goalkeeping situation being what it is, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see any one of Fabianski, Mannone and Almunia between the sticks. Take your pick.

Ramsey will certainly have a seat on the bench, but given his exertions tonight I can’t see him starting on Saturday, and the same goes for Nasri. What Wenger said the other day about the young Welshman being ready seems spot on – he offers real competition for Diaby and Denilson and is progressing fast. That can only be a good thing.

One of Bendtner or Eduardo might also get the nod, but otherwise it’s back to the day jobs for most of last night’s XI.

The derby countdown can now begin. The jangling nerves are on hold, but I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep them back.

More on that nearer the time.