Among the sides that Arsenal fans particularly love their team to beat, any managed by Sam Allardyce figure fairly high on the list.
The ‘Big Sam’ caricature beloved by some media types cuts little ice with Gooners, many of whom regard the Blackburn Rovers boss as the disciple of destruction compared with their own Arsene Wenger, the presumed apostle of the aesthetic.
It’s an unashamedly biased view, and one which adds to Allardyce’s delight when he succeeds in ruffling Arsenal’s feathers – something he has managed to do more than most. Indeed, as recently as May, Blackburn’s 2-1 come-from-behind victory at Ewood Park finally killed any lingering hope the Gunners entertained of finishing in the top two.
The absence of bonhomie between Allardyce and Wenger was again in evidence after that match when the Frenchman accused Rovers of unfair tactics and was critical of referee Martin Atkinson for not providing his players – especially goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski - with greater protection. It is a recurring theme: Wenger was frequently disparaging of Bolton Wanderers’ perceived overly-aggressive approach when Allardyce managed the Trotters.
And ahead of this Saturday lunchtime’s latest clash between the two protagonists, Wenger took the opportunity to warn referees that they need to take action against the growth of ‘rugby’ tactics in football, especially where the blocking of goalkeepers is concerned. He added that he accepts and respects that all opponents play to their own strengths, which means that some will emphasise the long ball and a physical game. He can be reasonably confident that on Saturday, that’s what will be awaiting his team. But he is hoping that the officials will ensure that all is kept within the laws of the game.
Allardyce will no doubt regard that as special pleading and instruct his players to hustle Arsenal out of their elegant stride; he knows that if they allow the Gunners the time and space to dictate, they could be sliced wide open.
The Rovers boss is looking to his team to maintain their good home form. They lost just three times at Ewood Park last season, and began this term by beating Everton 1-0 at home.
But a Birmingham City side inspired by ‘keeper Ben Foster beat Rovers 2-1 last weekend, much to the annoyance of Allardyce - who insists that, having beaten Norwich City 3-1 at home in the League Cup in midweek, Rovers should be entertaining Arsenal as an undefeated side.
He feels the fact that they aren’t puts more pressure on Rovers, though he told his club’s website: "But it is Ewood, we can scare them and hopefully we can scare them enough on Saturday to get a result again."
As for the visitors, they are more likely to be focused than frightened, as they know they cannot afford to drop points given Chelsea's soaring start to the season. The Gunners are unbeaten, having followed up a 1-1 draw at Liverpool by giving new boys Blackpool a sobering introduction to the realities of Premier League life in the form of a 6-0 thrashing. Few at the Emirates are likely to have been fooled by that performance, though. A much sterner test of their mettle lies in store at Ewood.
For while Blackburn are seeking their 1,000th win in top-flight football, Arsenal are without an away win since a last-minute Nicklas Bendtner goal gave them a 2-1 victory at Hull City on March 13.
This will be the 116th meeting between Blackburn and Arsenal in all competitions; the Gunners have won 56 of those matches, compared to Rovers’ 29 – but Rovers ended a seven-game winless streak against the Londoners when they won 2-1 in May. On that day a 13th minute Robin van Persie opener was cancelled out by goals from David Dunn two minutes before the break and Christopher Samba 22 minutes after it.
Rollover week | But Blackburn should be a tougher proposition than Blackpool...
Vince Grella and Pascal Chimbonda came through Tuesday's League Cup win over Norwich unscathed, while French defender Gael Givet suffered a mouth injury late on in that game but isn’t expected to be sidelined as a result.
However, David Dunn may miss out again with a groin problem, and fellow midfielder Keith Andrews is also nursing a groin injury. Both are considered to be doubtful starters. Striker Mame Biram Diouf could be given the chance to feature by Allardyce following his League Cup hat-trick in midweek.
Possible Starting XI: Robinson; Chimbonda, Samba, Nelsen, Givet; El-Hadji Diouf, Jones, Olsson, Pedersen; Nzonzi, Kalinic.
Denilson is back in the Arsenal squad after recovering from an abdominal injury; if he features it will be his first appearance this season.
Samir Nasri (knee), Nicklas Bendtner (groin) and Aaron Ramsey (broken leg) are all ruled out, while central defenders Johan Djourou (probably) and new signing Sebastien Squillaci (definitely) will not be involved. Apart from that, though, Wenger has a full squad to choose from.
Another centre-half, Laurent Koscielny, has completed his one-match suspension, while Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie are available after starting their pre-season training late following the World Cup final. Both came on as substitutes against Blackpool and could start against Blackburn. If they do there will be intense competition for starting berths among the likes of Tomas Rosicky, Theo Walcott, Abou Diaby, Jack Wilshere, Denilson and Marouane Chamakh. That should make for a strong bench…
Possible starting XI: Almunia; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Clichy; Rosicky, Song, Fabregas, Arshavin; Van Persie, Chamakh.
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