Gunners could go top by hammering Irons...
Saturday, 20 March 2010, Kick-off: 17:30 GMT
Emirates Stadium, Ashburton Grove, London N5
Emirates Stadium, Ashburton Grove, London N5
While Arsenal fans contemplate two compelling matches against Barcelona in the Champions League, manager Arsene Wenger has urged his players to keep their minds strictly on domestic matters - and specifically this weekend's London derby against West Ham United - stressing that they've been battling to stay in the title race since August, so it would be somewhat careless to lose focus now amid thoughts of taking on the current European champions.
There are plenty of pundits who regard it as a minor miracle - or more accurately, perhaps, a testimony to the inconsistency of all the leading clubs this season - that Arsenal are still in with a strong shout of landing the Premier League prize, after having been written off repeatedly along the way. In fact, victory over their neighbours to the east on Saturday would send the Gunners back to the top of the table, at least for a day.
As Wenger put it succinctly this week: "With eight games - four at home, four away - left, we are still in the race, so let's have a go."
West Ham can certainly expect their hosts to do that - and Gianfranco Zola's side will also probably be seeking to ensure they stifle the Gunners' knack of scoring last-minute goals (they've netted five in or after the 90th minute of their last four League games) but the Sardinian boss knows the Hammers face a daunting task.
Arsenal are the League's top scorers (with 71 goals), and go into this Saturday evening clash aiming to secure a sixth successive win, while West Ham head to north London seeking what would be only their second away win this term in the League.
Their last success on the road was on the opening day of the season at Wolves. Highlighting the current difference in the two clubs' fortunes, the Hammers are an uncomfortable three points above the relegation zone and have lost their last three games, in which they've conceded nine goals.
However, the Eastenders hold the unique distinction of being not only the last visiting side to win at Highbury, but also the first to win at the Emirates Stadium. That 1-0 victory in April 2007, which owed plenty to an inspired performance by goalkeeper Rob Green, as well as to the decisive goal from Bobby Zamora, was their most recent triumph over the Gunners; they've drawn two and lost four of the subsequent six meetings in League and cup. Another unpromising statistic for the Hammers is that they haven't won any of their last nine Premier League London derbies.
Overall, the two clubs have met 122 times, Arsenal winning 51 to West Ham's 33. And if Arsenal should open the scoring, it will be a bad omen for Zola: they last came from behind to win a league match way back in December 2008, when they beat Stoke City 2-1. On the other hand, when they entertained the Gunners at the Boleyn Ground in October, they overcame a two-goal half-time deficit to draw 2-2.
Robin van Persie and William Gallas opened up what appeared to be comfortable lead, but Carlton Cole and Alessandro Diamanti - the latter from the penalty spot - earned West Ham a precious point.
Neither of the Arsenal scorers will be involved this weekend because of injury, but Cole is back in the West Ham side following injury problems of his own, while Diamanti will be hoping to make it three out of three against Arsenal, if selected. The Italian also scored when the two sides met in an FA Cup third round clash in January. However, then it was Arsenal's turn to come from behind as Aaron Ramsey and Eduardo turned the tie on its head.
The Gunners may be further encouraged by the fact that exactly 34 years ago to the day - on 20 March 1976 - they recorded their biggest ever home win against West Ham, 6-1 but they can have no bigger motivation to continue their current winning streak than the prospect of topping the table by around 19:15 on Saturday night.
13 Mar (Premier League) v Hull City (A) WON 2-1
09 Mar (Champions League) v Porto (H) WON 5-0
06 Mar (Premier League) v Burnley (H) WON 3-1
27 Feb (Premier League) v Stoke City (A) WON 3-1
20 Feb (Premier League) v Sunderland (H) WON 2-0
17 Feb (Champions League) v Porto (A) LOST 1-2
13 Mar (Premier League) v Chelsea (A) LOST 1-4
06 Mar (Premier League) v Bolton Wanderers (H) LOST 1-2
23 Feb (Premier League) v Manchester United (A) LOST 0-3
20 Feb (Premier League) v Hull City (H) WON 3-0
10 Feb (Premier League) v Birmingham City (H) WON 2-0
06 Feb (Premier League) v Burnley (A) LOST 1-2
The good news for the Gunners is that captain Cesc Fabregas is fit to face West Ham, having returned to training this week following a hamstring problem.
Arsenal will also be boosted by the return of Alex Song after suspension, while Czech midfielder Tomas Rosicky is also available again after injury.
On the negative side, William Gallas is still sidelined, along with long-term casualties Robin van Persie, Aaron Ramsey, Johan Djourou and Kieran Gibbs.
Last starting XI (v Hull): Almunia, Sagna, Campbell, Vermaelen, Clichy, Denilson, Diaby, Eboue (Walcott 65), Nasri (Eduardo 76), Arshavin, Bendtner. Subs Not Used: Fabianski, Silvestre, Traore, Merida, Eastmond.
Herita Ilunga (tendon) and Mark Noble (arm) returned to training this week and could be in contention to feature at the Emirates.
Benni McCarthy and Guillermo Franco are also fit again and could be involved.
But Manuel Da Costa is suspended, while ex-Gunner Luis Boa Morte (knee), Zavon Hines (knee) and Julien Faubert (hamstring) are all sidelined.
Last starting XI (v Chelsea): Green, Spector, Upson, Gabbidon, Daprela, Ilan (Diamanti 83), Parker, Kovac, Behrami, Dyer (Stanislas 68), Mido (Cole 67). Subs Not Used: Stech, McCarthy, Tomkins, Collison.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The Champions League draw pairing Arsenal with his hometown club Barcelona has inevitably thrown the spotlight onto Cesc Fabregas, and will no doubt give the incessant if largely groundless speculation about his possible transfer back to Camp Nou fresh impetus. However, of more immediate concern to the young Catalan will be leading this Arsenal team to victory over the Hammers.
Having scored 17 goals and supplied 19 assists already this season, his value to the Gunners is obvious. Having missed the last two games through injury so will no doubt be eager to pick up where he left off - which was scoring Arsenal's first in the 3-1 home win over Burnley. His vision and astute passing could be the key to a vital Arsenal win.
The muscular Carlton Cole's return to the fray recently was a real boost for Gianfranco Zola, as despite a lengthy injury lay-off the 22-year-old ex-Chelsea striker (who had loan spells at Wolves, Charlton Athletic and Aston Villa while still a Blue) is the Hammers' leading scorer this season. Cole's nine goals have all come in Premier League matches, including one against Arsenal in October.
The England man has come into his own since leaving Chelsea (where he says he felt he was treated like a "little boy"), and could yet force his way into Fabio Capello's England squad for the World Cup. If West Ham upset Arsenal on Saturday, Cole is likely to be at the heart of it.
West Ham are fighting for their lives, but Arsenal, having clawed their way back into the title hunt, know they must win every remaining match to keep the pressure on Manchester United and Chelsea. They also know that goal difference could be decisive, so will be looking to score as many as possible.
With that as the spur, the incentive of topping the table, their current impressive form and ground advantage, it is difficult to see beyond a home win.
Arsenal 3-1 West Ham United