Arsenal star over his injury nightmare to return for Stoke showdown

After eight months out, Thomas Vermaelen could figure for Gunners again on Sunday

AFTER just about the most tortuous period in Arsene Wenger’s time as Arsenal boss, the return of Thomas Vermaelen has given him a long-overdue reason to smile.

The heart of Arsenal’s defence has been perceived as their weakness all season; collectively and individually, there has been a clear vulnerability at the centre of the back line.

The image of Laurent Koscielny swinging wildy at – and entirely missing – the ball in the dying minutes of the Carling Cup final to hand Birmingham the trophy in many ways epitomised Arsenal’s defensive fragility in a single moment: uncertainty, hesitancy, panic. At the crucial moments and in the biggest matches.

That may be doing something of a dis-service to Koscielny, who has in fairness performed confidently for much of a difficult debut season with the Gunners, since he signed from Lorient for �8 million at the start of the season, as has Arsenal’s other newest centre-back, Sebastien Squillaci, recruited from Sevilla.

The problems have arrived when the two have had to play together, side by side. They make for an edgy, unconvincing partnership, but then Arsene Wenger never intended them to be Arsenal’s first-choice centre-back pairing in the first place.

It was an achilles injury to Thomas Vermaelen, on international duty with Belgium in the autumn, which forced Wenger’s hand, and was to keep Arsenal’s first-choice centre-back out for a total of eight months.

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Suddenly, Wenger was forced to deploy his two newest signings together for much of the campaign, 17 games in all. Johan Djourou returned from his own long-term injury to good effect, and Arsenal are a more stable outfit with the Swiss international in their back line, but Vermaelen’s presence was undoubtedly missed.

So the sight of Vermaelen completing all 90 minutes of Arsenal reserves’ recent match with Manchester United was a relief for just about all concerned, not least the player himself.

“It felt really good and I’m happy to be back. It’s always good to be back on the pitch and your first game after a long injury is always special,” said Vermaelen. “It’s been a hard time, a difficult time and I’m happy to be back now. It’s been really frustrating because at the beginning I thought it was only going to be one week or a few days and I kept getting setbacks.

“It was a hard time but from these kind of situations you learn a lot. Your mental strength will be better and you always have to focus. It’s just a hard time but in these times you learn a lot of things.”

Vermaelen’s thoughts, like Arsenal’s are now turning to the future. The Belgium international is in contention to start against Stoke City on Saturday after Djourou appeared to pick up a knock in the 1-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday.

For the first time in a long time, Wenger has options. It may come too late to rescue the current season, but it certainly provides a counter-argument to those calling for the Arsenal manager to invest in a new centre-back over the coming months.

It is a well worn cliche that a player returning from injury can have an impact akin to that of a new recruit, but it should be remembered that before his injury, Vermaelen was one of Arsenal’s most consistent performers, and if he can stay free of injury, he will surely be once again.

“I’m fit at the moment, I feel great and, in training, I don’t feel any problems. So physically I feel good.

“It’s up to the boss, he makes the decisions. I’m available at the moment so I hope I will be back in the squad soon and that is my target.

“It’s always important for players to have a good pre-season but for me it will be good to be fit before [the] holiday. I can go into the holiday with a clear head and come back fresh.

“This season was really unlucky for me but I am looking forward to the next months and the next years.”

With the return to the first team of their most accomplished defender, Arsenal’s most valuable addition to next season’s side may have arrived before a penny has even been spent.