The Carling Cup may be the least fancied of the England’s domestic cup competitions, but it certainly bears watching as it resumes this week. The competition is down to the last eight, and among the four quarterfinal match-ups, there are a couple of tasty Tuesday ties. One is a rematch of a recent showdown, as Chelsea will take on Liverpool at Stamford Bridge a little more than a week after losing to the same side at the same venue in a Premier League thriller. In the other, Arsenal will host Premier League leaders Manchester City in the first of two meetings between the two sides in the next few weeks with Betfair football favoring City to take down the young Gunners.
Their upcoming league encounter at the Etihad Stadium on 18th December might well be a more crucial and anticipated match, but this match will have its share of anticipation as well. Not only are two of the Premier League’s top teams facing off, there’s also a storyline whose outcome will be very, very interesting to watch play out, if it is indeed given the opportunity to play out.
French midfielder Samir Nasri had his best season as a Gunner last season, notching 15 goals and five assists in all competitions. However, he went into the off-season with his future up in the air and his contract set to expire next summer, and it soon became apparent that he had eyes for greener pastures, with his future becoming one of the top topics of the summer.
For a while, it looked like Arsenal would risk losing him for nothing, just as they lost Mathieu Flamini on a free transfer to AC Milan following the 2007/08 season, and after not appearing in Arsenal’s season-opening draw at Newcastle, Nasri started Arsenal’s 2-0 home defeat to Liverpool. But shortly after granting captain Cesc Fabregas his wish and giving him his long-desired return to former club Barcelona, Arsenal relented on Nasri as well, selling him to City for £25m just a week before the end of the summer transfer window.
At the time of his sale, Arsenal looked in disarray, and the worst was to come. The Sunday following his departure, the Gunners were humiliated 8-2 at Manchester United, and all told, they would win only two of their first seven Premier League matches. To date, they’re the only team that hapless (and perhaps hopeless) Blackburn have beaten in the league this season.
But after that disastrous start, Arsenal’s remaining star, Robin van Persie, decided to take matters into his hands, and it looks like the rest of the squad has followed his lead. A five-match league win streak came to an end last weekend, as they surprisingly drew at home against Fulham, but the Gunners are unbeaten in their last six league games, and they’re also the only Premier League side to have already secured a place in the Champions League round of 16, as they sealed top spot in Group E with last Wednesday’s Van Persie-led 2-1 win over Borussia Dortmund.
Sure, they’re still only seventh in the table, 12 points behind City, but they’re proving that there is life after Fab and Nas.
Speaking of Nasri, on the same day that Arsenal were embarrassed at Old Trafford, he had a City debut to remember, assisting on three goals in a 5-1 win at Tottenham.
Since then, he has been a regular for City domestically and in Europe, but he hasn’t quite built on that hot start, with his only truly notable performance being a one-goal, two-assist effort in a 4-0 win at Blackburn in October. Sure, he appears to have a better chance to win the Premier League title than he did in any of his three seasons at Arsenal, but he may be set to go one place he never went with Arsenal, as City face the real threat of being dumped from the Champions League to the Europa League if things don’t go in their favor next week.
And while Arsenal’s drama looks to have ridden off into the sunset for the time being, there’s still a legitimate question mark about whether drama will derail City’s ambitions.
So, while his wallet and bank account are definitively larger, his position isn’t markedly better, and he’s not nearly as revered at City as he would be at Arsenal, had he not only remained there but had penned a new deal. This is not to say that he made the wrong decision, but more so that, after the initial stumbles and bumbles, Arsenal are faring far better than many might have expected they would.
Nasri is expected to be in the starting lineup at the Emirates, and though he might not be the only former Arsenal star in the lineup, the most eyes and cameras will be on him. Defenders Gael Clichy, who also left Arsenal for City this past summer, and Kolo Toure could also start.
However, not only is he the biggest talent of the three, his departure might also be the most contentious, due to the manner in which the whole saga played out, his destination decision, and unfavorable comments he made about Arsenal and Arsenal’s supporters after his departure. So, if he is indeed in the starting lineup, many eyes will be on him to see how he performs in his first match back at the Emirates, and many eyes and ears will be on what kind of reception he gets from the Arsenal faithful.
Arsene Wenger has urged that the fans show Nasri respect, but will they listen? It’s only natural that there will be at least a few boos and jeers, but the best way for Arsenal supporters to show that they’ve moved on as much as he has is by doing as Wenger has requested, getting behind those who are still wearing the shirt and inspiring them to a big victory, to show the passion that he said that Arsenal lack in comparison to City.
And whether or not they acknowledge it, those who are still wearing the shirt might feel that there is something for them to prove tonight as well. The grass may well be greener on the other side for Nasri in the long run, but tonight is the perfect opportunity for the Gunners, both on the pitch and in the stands, to show that the grass is just as green on their side as well.