Are Arsenal desperate or daring to gamble on Robin van Persie against Barcelona?
Dutch striker is in squad to face Spanish giants in the Nou Camp
Arsene Wenger has pulled a major surprise by including Robin van Persie in his squad for tomorrow’s Champions League clash against Barcelona.
The Dutchman injured his knee in the Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham eight days ago, and was said to be out ‘for a minimum of three weeks’.
Wenger did not drop any hints over the weekend that the Gunners striker was making such a rapid recovery, but has included him in a 19-man squad that flew out today for the Nou Camp.
That squad will be trimmed to 18 by tomorrow night, and it is believed that Van Persie will be the player to make way unless he proves his fitness tomorrow morning.
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However, his presence is a massive boost for the Gunners, especially after his potential replacements, Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh, failed to find the net in Saturday’s goalless stalemate with Sunderland.
Playing Van Persie, who has scored 14 goals in 14 starts so far this season, from the start would surely be an even bigger gamble, but it is one Wenger might be prepared to take.
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The Dutch striker has given Arsenal a different dimension since returning from injury in November, and has provided a focal point for all the intricate midfield work that goes on behind him.
In his last seven Premier League games, Van Persie has scored 10 goals, and he also kickstarted the comeback against Barca in the first leg at the Emirates, beating Victor Valdes at his near post to set the platform for Arsenal’s 2-1 win. He is a player Barca fear.
Wenger knows the odds are stacked against the Gunners in Catalonia tomorrow, and has already allowed captain Cesc Fabregas special treatment to be allowed to play in this game.
It could be seen as desperation from the Frenchman to allow Van Persie to travel, but at the same time the Gunners boss knows how important a goal could be in the Nou Camp for his side.
Arsenal have improved defensively since last season’s 4-1 drubbing at the same venue, but the Frenchman admitted at the weekend that a clean sheet against the best team in the world is highly unlikely.
“We have not got enough security to sit back and defend,” said Wenger. “You can’t go to Barcelona, play for a 0-0 and not try to score. It’s not the personality of this team. We’ll try to score when we get the ball back.”
Fabregas looks to have won his fitness race to play in the game, recovering in under two weeks from the type of hamstring injury that Wenger always says necessitate “21 days out”.
But this game is just too big for Fabregas to miss, and the same goes for Van Persie.
Having won the first leg so famously at the Emirates, Wenger senses this could be his team’s year in the Champions League if they can find a way past the Spanish champions.
But to do that, they have to have the kind of goal threat that this team’s two undoubted stars, players who faced each other (and most of the Barcelona team) in the World Cup final last June.
If either player suffers a setback that affects their availability during Arsenal’s remaining Premier League games, it will be judged a foolish gamble indeed from Wenger.
But if qualification to the last eight is achieved at Barcelona’s expense, it will be judged a price worth paying.
Looking at how toothless the side were on Saturday, most Arsenal fans will feel Wenger has little choice if Arsenal are to have a chance against the best team in the world in front of 98,000 in their own coliseum of pain.