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Why the Arsenal first team shouldn't play against Milan

Play the kids, Arsene. Or at the very least, not the adults.
Play the kids, Arsene. Or at the very least, not the adults.

Earlier this year, if you'll remember, we clinched Group F of the Champions League after playing five of the six allotted matches. Because of that, our final match, against Olympiakos in Greece, was entirely meaningless to Arsenal (of course the other teams in the group cared about the outcome, but to us, there could be no change). At the time I advocated basically running out the youth team, either here or on Twitter or in my brain (or possibly all three), and when the starting XI was announced and included Andre Santos and Thomas Vermaelen, I was not pleased. I was less pleased when Santos (at the time, our only healthy fullback) subsequently suffered an ankle injury that has now kept him out for about four months.

Fast forward to NOW. Again, we face a mostly meaningless Champions League match. Again I believe that important players should, for the most part, not feature. Again it appears that Arsene Wenger is not going to listen to me (what, doesn't he follow me on Twitter?) and our first team, for the most part, will be playing. Again, I fear the worst.

I am well aware that the situation is different now than it was in Piraeus. Rather than having the battle well in hand, it's quite the opposite - 4-0 down against one of the best teams in the world. The match is at home, but in looking at AC Milan's performances, in Serie A they don't suffer on their travels (they actually have more points on the road than at home, though it's in two games more) and they haven't lost a Champions League road game this year, drawing all three of their away games in the group (including one at Camp Nou, which is particularly impressive). I'll say it again, so that it's clear: this is a very good team we're playing, and their home and road performances are nearly indiscernible from one another.

Additionally, I am well aware that just last weekend, Arsenal put five past Tottenham Hotspur, and that performance (the five part, not the two goals that we allowed - a shutout would be necessary) would put us through. This is just not a thing that Milan does, though. I looked to see when the last time was that they shipped five goals in a game, and ESPN's fixture archive doesn't go back far enough for me to have seen it happen even once. They've only conceded 4 goals in a match a few times in the last ten years. If the Arsenal team was at full strength, it would be a frighteningly unlikely proposition.

And the team is not at full strength. Even if, as he says, Wenger plays the first choice team, I don't know who it would be at this point. Andrew Allen tweeted a graphic that represents visually the extent to which our midfield is crocked. Look upon it and despair. The one fit midfielder also happens to be the only holding midfielder in the team who doesn't already have a long-term injury, so there's that too. Beyond that, remember that we're basically down to two center backs (one of whom is notoriously injury-prone), one real left back, and we have one competent striker. Who, by the way, is definitely playing, so that's great.

(That second link also illustrates my point about just how ridiculous a task this would be - only three times in the history of UEFA competition have teams overturned a 4-goal deficit in a return leg. THREE.)

I know that pride is at stake, and we don't want to be re-embarrassed by Milan. That's a natural thing to want, and honestly this isn't an opinion I've come to lightly. After all, I'm one of the guys who put the Champions League second on my List of Ambition for this season just a few weeks ago. But all year we've been talking about how the most important thing is to finish in the top four in the league and qualify for next year's Champions League, to hopefully convince Robin van Persie to sign a new contract, get some cash from UEFA, and continue to make Arsenal an attractive destination for new recruits. There is a lot riding on our league finish this year, and way less riding on our Champions League performance this year. Europe was my second ambition, but the league was first, and that continues to be (by far) the most important.

This is particularly important now, coming off the two week stretch that we have. Arsenal have beaten Tottenham and Liverpool in succession, and with Chelsea (and of course Spurs and Liverpool) dropping points like they're going out of style, it's come to the point where we have a three point lead over Chelsea (hardly comprehensive, but a gap nonetheless) and are only four behind Spurs. Next weekend sees us facing Newcastle at the Emirates, which is an important game as well (they're five points back of 4th). Arsenal are in a position right now to continue picking up points and pressuring Spurs, and also to distance themselves from the nearest competition for the precious Champions League places. It would be silly to derail that bit of momentum via injury in a game that, sadly, is probably not in the cards for us.

I'm not trying to be a doom-and-gloomer, but we have to accept that winning this tie, now, in the position we're in, is not a realistic proposition. Perhaps a 2-0 deficit could be overcome, but 4-0 is likely to be too much. There's not a lot of value to be taken from a 1-0 win at home either, and the damage that could be done by an injury to almost any typical first-team player would be massive. It's just not a good idea to throw everything we have at what is almost certainly a lost battle. Because if we do, there is a very real danger of losing the war.