Before the small matter of a Champions League last 16 tie against the German Juggernaut; Bayern Munich, it’s easy to forget that this weekend Arsenal face a considerably less glamorous but no less crucial fixture in the FA Cup verses Championship Blackburn Rovers.
Optimistic dreams of European glory aside, the FA Cup is Arsenal’s best chance of a trophy this season and as such you would hope come three o’clock Saturday; Arsene Wenger’s men will come out, full of ambition and conviction and sweep aside their lower league opposition with aplomb.
This however is the FA Cup, and Michael Appleton’s Blackburn side will be chomping at the bit, hoping to cause an upset at the Emirates.
Blackburn currently sit 8th in the Championship and despite yo-yoing form and off field pantomime this season, still have designs on a playoff spot and an immediate return to the Premier League following last season’s relegation.
Their biggest weapon and crown jewel is no doubt free scoring Scotland international; Jordan Rhodes. The talismanic striker has netted 20 goals in all competitions so far this season and he will be looking to try and add to that tally at the Emirates on Saturday. Arsene Wenger will be forced to field a somewhat cobbled together back line, as injuries bite and the Champions League looms. Given this and Arsenal’s all too frequent frailty in this area this season, the prolific Rhodes will probably be feeling he has a strong chance to make a mark on this game. It’s the job of whoever starts in the AFC defence to be switched on to his threat from start to finish. Rhodes is a lethal finisher and won’t need asking twice should he be given the opportunity to punish sloppy defending.
Rhodes is not the only threat in the Blackburn ranks. Having held onto several of their star names following relegation, the Blackburn team sheet will feature some familiar faces come Saturday. Morten Gamst Pederson will be well remembered by the Emirates faithful having scored a sweet free kick in Arsenal’s 7-1 thrashing of Rovers last season. The fleet-footed Norwegian is capable of the spectacular and has a good delivery from set pieces- a notable weakness of Arsenal’s.
Another player of note in Blackburn’s ranks is former Liverpool & Fulham general; Danny Murphy, who will be patrolling the midfield trying to break up Arsenal’s usually free flowing game. He is also equipped with a good range of passes and when Blackburn have possession, he’ll be the man keeping them ticking. Arteta and company will have to be at their best to get around the experienced Englishman and provide ammunition for the attack, whilst remembering he can play a bit too.
A solid Rovers spine is completed by a rugged and willing back line, anchored by former Birmingham stopper (and if you believe the papers; one time Arsenal target) Scott Dann. Dann is a traditional, brave centre half who will form part of a stern barrier for Arsenal to breach. Blackburn have only conceded one goal in their last four games in all competitions, so chances may be at a premium for the Gunners. A lot of responsibility will rest on Arsenal’s front three and it is essential they take anything that comes their way and bury it at the first time of asking.
If Arsenal turn up with a strong mind to get the job done and play efficiently and with purpose, then Gooners should expect to see the team progress to the next stage and probably quite comfortably. However complacency must be guarded against as Blackburn aren’t short of ways to dent Arsenal and won’t be coming into this game to roll over. The Arsenal players will know they’ve been in a game at the Emirates on Saturday for sure, and if they are too focused on the heavy weight fight on Tuesday, a sucker punch is always possible in England’s most unpredictable competition.