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Premier League Preview: Arsenal - Bolton Wanderers

Wednesday, 20 January Kick-off: 19:45 GMT
Emirates Stadium, Ashburton Grove, London N5

By beating Bolton Wanderers 2-0 on Sunday (and thus denying Owen Coyle a triumphant return to the Reebok Stadium), Arsenal put themselves in a position to claim top place in the Premier League - if they can match or better that scoreline when the Trotters visit the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday for the reverse fixture.

Time was when back-to-back fixtures were a familiar aspect of the English calendar - Christmas and Easter routinely saw teams lining up against one another on consecutive days, often with sharply contrasting outcomes - but in recent years the tradition has disappeared.

Indeed, it is only a quirk of fate that sees Bolton and the Gunners going head-to-head twice in the space of four days now. This game at Ashburton Grove was originally scheduled for 18 August but had to be rearranged because Arsenal were involved in the first leg of their Champions League play-off tie against Celtic that night.

It was then rearranged for Wednesday 6 January, but a heavy snowfall in London caused its late postponement. The pitch was playable but there were safety issues affecting the fans, and concerns about transport - to the astonishment, it seems, of snow-hardened campaigners like Andrey Arshavin.  

Those Bolton fans who were well on their way to London by the time they heard that the game had been called off did later learn that Arsenal will refund them their travel costs as a gesture of goodwill. Yet it will prove rather more costly to the Gunners in terms of their title aspirations if they fail to beat Wanderers on Wednesday.

A win will ensure they overtake second-placed Manchester United; victory by at least a two-goal margin will take them level on points with leaders Chelsea, but above the Blues by virtue of goal difference. Arsenal are the League's top scorers with 55 to their credit, two more than Chelsea, whose goal difference is currently plus 34 to Arsenal's plus 32.

Wednesday's match will, though, leave Carlo Ancelotti's side with a game in hand, a situation the Gunners have enjoyed for most of the season. That just
makes it all the more crucial for Arsene Wenger that his players do the business against Bolton, now that they have succeeded in turning the quest for the title into a three-horse race.
 
Wenger steadfastly believes that his side are good enough to win the Premier League and insists there is "more to come" from his young players. But he will also know, after Sunday's game, that they will have to work hard to claim three more points from Bolton. Coyle was encouraged by the potential he saw in his new team's performance against Arsenal, despite their 2-0 defeat. They created a number of chances and on another day might well have converted some of them.

They are likely to show the same level of commitment at the Emirates and will probably try and exert pressure on Arsenal's back-four with more long balls. For their part, the Gunners will be aiming to get the ball down and play their passing game - this time on a truer playing surface.

On Sunday, Cesc Fabregas put Arsenal ahead on 28 minutes, and his run and pass to Eduardo set up the clinching second goal by Fran Merida after 78 minutes. In between, Bolton made life difficult for the visitors - and they are likely to do so again on Wednesday.

That means the Gunners, who had to absorb significant Bolton pressure, will need to be 100 per cent focused; they should certainly lack for nothing in terms of motivation, with top place at stake.

As for Bolton, down to 19th in the table, the search for a clean sheet this season continues. Moreover, they have still won just one league game since the end of October - and have now lost each of their last seven league and cup encounters against Arsenal. Their last success against Wenger's side was a 3-1 home win in November 2006, when former Gunner Nicolas Anelka scored twice for what was then still Sam Allardyce's team.

Now Coyle is in the hot-seat, and while he might have wished for a less daunting baptism than two games against title-chasing Arsenal, he has hinted that he'd still like to bring in one of the Gunners' highly-rated youngsters, Jack
Wilshere, on loan this month - which could be something he'll discuss with Wenger after the final whistle.

Speaking of the 18-year-old midfielder at a pre-match press conference, Coyle told reporters: "He's a fantastic young player, a player I believe will eventually play in the Arsenal first team and for England.

"He's one that I've always admired, but I think that conversation is for after Wednesday night when we've played Arsenal, and we'll take it from there."

FORM GUIDE

Arsenal


17 Jan (Premier League) v Bolton (A) WON 2-0
09 Jan (Premier League) v Everton (H) DREW 2-2
03 Jan (FA Cup) v West Ham Utd (A) WON 2-1
30 Dec (Premier League) v Portsmouth (A) WON 4-1
27 Dec (Premier League) v Aston Villa (H) WON 3-0
19 Dec (Premier League) v Hull City (H) WON 3-0

Bolton

17 Jan (Premier League) v Arsenal (H) LOST 0-2
02 Jan (FA Cup) v Lincoln City (H) WON 4-0
29 Dec (Premier League) v Hull City (H) DREW 2-2
26 Dec (Premier League) v Burnley (A) DREW 1-1
15 Dec (Premier League) v West Ham Utd (H) WON 3-1
12 Dec (Premier League) v Man City (H) DREW 3-3

TEAM NEWS

Arsenal


Theo Walcott and Denilson are back in the squad after injury, but still rated as somewhat doubtful starters for this match. Wenger will probably be without Jack Wilshere, and definitely without Samir Nasri and Aaron Ramsey - injured last week in training - while Emmanuel Eboue and Alexandre Song are on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations, and Robin van Persie, Kieran Gibbs and Johan Djourou are recovering from long-term injuries.

Fran Merida is out, having suffered a kick on his ankle at Bolton just before he scored Arsenal's second goal 12 minutes from time. Nicklas Bendtner, sidelined since October 31 with a groin injury, has been pencilled in for a comeback at Aston Villa in 10 days’ time.

Last starting XI (v Bolton): Almunia, Sagna, Gallas, Vermaelen, Traore, Fabregas, Eastmond (Merida 63), Diaby, Rosicky (Clichy 74), Eduardo (Vela 84), Arshavin. Subs not used: Fabianski, Silvestre, Coquelin, Emmanuel-Thomas.

Bolton

Nigeria defender Dan Shittu is in Angola for the African tournament, and midfielders Sean Davis and Joey O'Brien remain sidelined with long-term knee injuries.

Last starting XI (v Arsenal): Jaaskelainen, Steinsson, Cahill, Knight, Robinson, Lee, Muamba (McCann 61), Cohen (Gardner 80), Taylor, Klasnic (Elmander 80), K Davies. Subs not used: Al Habsi, M Davies, Ricketts, A O'Brien.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Arsenal

Cesc Fabregas
was at the heart of everything good that Arsenal produced on Sunday. He opened the scoring with a neatly worked goal, and his surging run helped create the decisive second. Wenger spoke this week of the Catalan playmaker's importance to the team, stressing that Fabregas is becoming stronger both physically and as a personality on the pitch.

The Spaniard has 10 goals and 10 assists to his name in the League this season - he's netted 13 in all competitions so far - and the skipper's overall figures for the club are 224 competitive first team appearances, plus 30 as a substitute, and 42 goals. He is the player who makes Arsenal tick - and he doesn't turn 23 until May.

Bolton

Owen Coyle has stressed that "everyone will need to work their socks off" at the Emirates if Bolton are to leave north London with any points, which means a repeat of Sunday's effort but with greater composure in front of goal.

Matthew Taylor
missed the best of Bolton's chances in the first game against Arsenal, and he in particular will look to put in a sharper performance on Wednesday. Having grown up supporting Tottenham Hotspur, he scored twice against Arsenal at the Reebok back in March 2008 (to give Wanderers a 2-0 lead which Arsenal overturned to win 3-2), so will relish playing against the Gunners. He didn't cover himself in glory when he pinned Fabregas to the turf on Sunday, however, and may be better advised to channel his aggression - and undoubted ability - more constructively at the Emirates.

PREDICTION


Coyle is convinced that if Bolton play to their maximum, both physically and mentally, they can get a result against Arsenal. It is unlikely they will squander as many chances again - but perhaps equally unlikely that Arsenal will allow them to create as many. The Gunners are a formidable proposition on their home turf, and with the incentive of going top to drive them on, they should make it a second win over the Trotters in four days.

Arsenal 3-1 Bolton Wanderers