Tuesday, 3 March, Kick-off: 1945 GMT
The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
Only Wins Will Do
West Bromwich Albion are rock-bottom of the Barclays Premier League and staring a prompt return to the Championship in the face, while visitors Arsenal are rock-bottom of the top five, with apparently receding prospects of qualifying for next season's Champions League (unless they win the tournament this season), and with Everton in sixth place now breathing hard down their necks.
The problem for both teams is simply stated: they are not winning matches; the solution, as Tony Mowbray and Arsene Wenger know all too well, is less easily found.
Albion haven't won a match since January 17, when they beat Middlesbrough 3-0 at home; of their seven games in League and FA Cup since then, the Baggies have drawn two and lost five, including each of the last four.
Arsenal's last League win was also on January 17; but although they havent lost a League game since November 22, or any competitive fixture since December 10, their 15-match unbeaten run features nine draws - including each of their last five League games, four of which have ended goalless.
The fact that Aston Villa (fourth) were held at home on Sunday, after Liverpool (third) lost on Saturday, means the weekend could have been a lot worse for the Gunners; but those slip-ups by their rivals merely underlined the opportunity Arsenal missed to gain ground.
Pleasing Football, But...
Both Mowbray and Wenger are sticking to their principles, repeating their conviction, albeit now with a hint of panic, that elusive goals and victories will soon arrive. The fans, meanwhile, are growing restless and impatient. The football played by both teams should have seen them higher in the table than they both currently are; but that will be of scant consolation should Albion endure relegation for the third time in seven seasons, and Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in more than a decade.
Both teams' frustrations are palpable, even though they are separated by 15 places and 24 points. West Brom were beaten 2-0 at Everton on Saturday in what was their 11th defeat out of 14 away trips this term. Yet the Baggies’ form, especially at The Hawthorns, has been better than their results reflect.
Indeed, while Everton maintained their push for a European place next season, possibly at Arsenal's expense, by beating Albion on Saturday, the Baggies were the better team and on top for long periods at Goodison. But once again they were left counting the cost of wastefulness in front of goal and poor marking in defence. It was a familiar story of early domination melting away to defeat.
Some of their one-touch passing was in the same class as Arsenal's, but both teams have found this season that pretty football is not enough, and insufficient end-product is undermining both clubs' ambitions.
Mowbray admitted, "When you make silly decisions in your own box you do not deserve to get the three points. There aren't many teams who ask as many questions as us going forward, but we're not as good as others at the muck and nettles stuff, you might call it. There is naivety in our defending, but I enjoyed watching my team play."
Despite the precariousness of their position - the only thing below them is the Championship - the West Brom boss insists he is neither contemplating changing his management style nor fretting about being sacked.
"The bottom line is I'm the same guy who was doing the job last season," Mowbray told Sky Sports News. "Winning the league, scoring 100-odd goals, the year before getting to the play-off final and scoring 100-odd goals. We've won as many games [this season] in the Premier League as this club has ever won in the Premier League [six so far].
"Do I worry about my job? No. I understand the club that I'm working at and the resources this club has within the Premier League. I enjoy my job. I enjoying coming in and trying to improve the players and I enjoy sitting on the bench watching my team compete in the Premier League week-in, week-out and giving a pretty good account of themselves."
Nevertheless, results have to improve. Mowbray also told BBC Sport: "We have to get some sort of form now, maybe winning four or five. It will be difficult against teams like Arsenal on Tuesday, but we have Stoke and Bolton at home back to back and they are the games we have to win. We must get belief and confidence. But we were expected to be in the relegation zone and we are."
Gunners Out Of Ammunition
Down in north London, meanwhile, Arsenal, having been held at home by Fulham on Saturday, are six points adrift of fourth-placed Aston Villa, only two points above sixth-placed Everton, and have now drawn four consecutive league matches 0-0 for the first time since October 1993, when George Graham was manager.
Current incumbent Wenger must be praying that one or more of Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky, Eduardo and Emmanuel Adebayor will return from injury quickly and lift the side. There is proven goal-making and goal-taking craft in that quintet, and it has been sorely missed. The Gunners, who last scored a League goal at the Emirates on January 10, are having to confront the prospect that they could miss out on a top-four finish for the first time since 1995-96, and on participation in Europe's top club competition for the first time since 1997-98.
Wenger confessed that he is concerned after the Fulham draw, admitting that the result was a 'big blow' to the team.
He was quoted by the BBC on Monday as saying, "I don't know whether the fans are losing faith. That is not my worry. What is important is that I do what I believe is right and we keep going, that we show great attitude and do our job as well as we can - then let everybody judge and have an opinion. We have been through difficult times, but it's an opportunity to show that you are strong enough to come through it."
On the paucity if conversions in front of the net - a novel but highly uncomfortable experience for Wenger's Gunners - the Frenchman suggested, "Our goalscoring record has dried out over more than five games. There are plenty of reasons. One of them is certainly psychological, but overall it's hard to assess what is tactical, what is technical and what is psychological. The more I speak about it, the more there is a problem. I don't think it's about us only trying to score the perfect goal - the perfect goal is only when the ball touches the net."
Gunners fans are anxiously wondering when that might happen again.
West Bromwich Albion
28 Feb (Premier League) v Everton (A) LOST 0-2
22 Feb (Premier League) v Fulham (A) LOST 0-2
07 Feb (Premier League) v Newcastle (H) LOST 2-3
03 Feb (FA Cup) v Burnley (A) LOST 1-3
31 Jan (Premier League) v Hull (A) DREW 2-2
28 Feb (Premier League) v Fulham (H) DREW 0-0
24 Feb (Champions League) v Roma (H) WON 1-0
21 Feb (Premier League) v Sunderland (H) DREW 0-0
16 Feb (FA Cup) v Cardiff (H) WON 4-0
08 Feb (Premier League) v Tottenham (A) DREW 0-0
West Bromwich Albion
Captain Jonathan Greening could make his first start for almost six weeks after returning from a ligament injury as a substitute against Everton on Saturday.
The Baggies' on-loan Arsenal striker Jay Simpson is ineligible under the terms of the loan deal, and could be replaced by Luke Moore, who looked sharp when he came on at Goodison. Roman Bednar is again doubtful because of a back injury - he suffered bruised vertebrae after falling awkwardly during a training camp in Spain.
Filipe Teixeira recovered from a broken toe well enough to make a substitute's appearance against Everton, but Youssuf Mulumbu is still nursing a thigh strain, while Danish centre-back Jonas Olsson is not yet ready to return.
Squad: Carson, Kiely, Zuiverloon, Hoefkens, Donk, Meite, Barnett, Robinson, Cech, Morrison, Greening, Valero, Do-Heon, Brunt, Teixeira, Koren, Moore, Fortune, Bednar, Menseguez.
Last Starting XI (v Everton): Carson, Zuiverloon, Meite, Donk, Robinson, Morrison, Koren, Borja Valero (Greening 53), Brunt, Simpson (Moore 57), Fortune (Filipe Teixeira 89).
Subs Not Used: Kiely, Hoefkens, Cech, Menseguez.
Arsenal will be without centre-back William Gallas (ankle), who has been impressive in a defence that has become much tighter over the last couple of months. Johan Djourou is set to deputise.
Theo Walcott (shoulder) and striker Eduardo (hamstring) are not yet fully fit, while Fabregas, Rosicky and Adebayor are thought to be even further away from a comeback, though all five could be back in contention over the next three to four weeks..
Squad: Arsenal (from): Almunia, Sagna, Toure, Djourou, Clichy, Arshavin, Denilson, Diaby, Nasri, Van Persie, Vela, Fabianski, Ramsey, Song, Gibbs, Eboue, Bendtner, Merida.
Last Starting XI (v Fulham): Almunia, Sagna (Eboue 70), Toure, Gallas, Clichy, Arshavin, Denilson, Diaby, Nasri, Van Persie, Vela (Bendtner 63).
Subs Not Used: Fabianski, Ramsey, Song Billong, Djourou, Gibbs.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
West Bromwich Albion
Luke Moore played an impressive cameo role in Saturday's 2-0 defeat at Everton, the former Villa striker coming on as a 57th-minute substitute for on-loan Arsenal youngster Jay Simpson. Moore pressed his claims to be the striker who takes ineligible Simpson's place; he gave the Everton defenders a tough time, and was unlucky not to score after having a header cleared off the goal-line and seeing a 25-yard shot cannon off the bar.
Russian playmaker Andrey Arshavin has shown tantalising glimpses of his class and inventive touch in his first two appearances for the club, but he is yet to taste victory. His astute passing could open the door at The Hawthorns, perhaps setting up Robin van Persie - who did everything but score against Fulham last Saturday and remains Arsenal's top scorer with 15 goals this season.
On the opening day of the season, Arsenal beat Albion 1-0 thanks to a debut goal after four minutes by Samir Nasri (pictured in that match). There were encouraging signs for both sides, but they haven't really come to fruition over the intervening six months.
Albion have managed five victories on their own ground in the League this season, the same number as Arsenal have won away.
West Brom beat Arsenal 2-1 at The Hawthorns in October 2005 with goals from ex-Gunner Kanu and Darren Carter, while the visitors' last win on Albion's patch was in May of the same year, a 2-0 success thanks to goals from Robin van Persie and Edu.
Both teams are desperate to record a win on Tuesday - and this could be the game in which Arsenal rediscover their shooting boots.
West Bromwich Albion 1-2 Arsenal
Graham Lister, Goal.com