Arsenal go into Saturday’s match with West Ham needing to balance the gripping fight for a place in next season’s Champions League with the struggle to remain in this season’s competition. Arsenal currently lie third in the Premier League, but with only five points separating them from seventh place Southampton, they know that every point could be crucial until the end of the season.
Yet the match visit of West Ham to the Emirates Stadium comes just three days before Arsenal visit Monaco needing to overturn a 3-1 first-leg deficit in order to reach the Champions League quarterfinals. Manager Arsene Wenger, though, insists Tuesday’s encounter won’t impact on his team selection against West Ham.
“I agree that the Monaco game is a very important game in the Champions League,” he said in his pre-match press conference on Friday. “Tomorrow is of the same importance. That’s why I just have to focus on tomorrow. It wont’ affect my team selection, What can affect my team selection is the players who have played a number of game recently. I always rotate game by game but never more than two or three.”
There will be one enforced change from the team that beat Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford on Monday to advance into the FA Cup semifinals, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ruled out with a hamstring strain. Only recently returned from injury, the midfielder will now miss three to four weeks and also be unavailable for England’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Lithuania and friendly with Italy at the end of March.
“It's very frustrating for him, but he played more games than ever this season,” Wenger said. “In the last two months I feel he was a bit in and out. He has shown again on Monday night what an important player he can be for Arsenal and for England. It's a shame that in the final sprint he's not there.”
As well as Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal will continue to be without fellow midfielders Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta, although Mathieu Flamini is back in contention. Gabriel is set to return to training on Sunday.
In the opposition midfield, there is expected to be a place for former Arsenal man Alex Song. The Cameroonian, who spent seven years at Arsenal, has made a big impact in his season on loan from West Ham. And he looks to have overcome a knee injury to feature against his former club.
West Ham have enjoyed a 10-day break since their last outing, during which manager Sam Allardyce took them for warm-weather training in Dubai. After a fine start to the season in which they were right in the thick of the battle for a top-four spot, West Ham have slipped down to 10th spot on the back of six Premier League matches without a win. And Allardyce is hoping that the break will allow his team to push on in the remainder of the season.
"I’ve done it every season for 13, 14 seasons," Allardyce said. "The research by the LMA [League Managers Association] shows the benefits of having a break and the evidence shows the risk of injuries decreases. Every team gets very fatigued in and around Christmas and it takes a while to recover. I think it’s a big reason why our teams don’t do that well in Europe. But for us, it’s about being fresh for final ten games and picking up as many points as possible."
Still, while Song is set to return, West Ham are likely to be without striker Enner Valencia, who suffered a nasty cut to his toe in an incident in his home, as well as defenders Winston Reid and James Tomkins. On-loan right-back Carl Jenkinson is ineligible to take on his parent club.
Prediction: West Ham have lost some of their intensity of late, particularly in a dismal home loss to Crystal Palace two weeks ago. Without several important players due to injury they could struggle to rediscover their luster on Saturday. With Arsenal having a dominant recent record against West Ham and generally being good at dismissing weaker opposition at home, Wenger’s men should pick up a routine win.
Arsenal 2-0 West Ham
Kickoff time: 11 a.m. ET
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra