Arsenal FC host 12th placed Wolverhampton Wanderers this Saturday, diving headfirst into a packed December fixture list. The Gunners celebrated the end of November by pummeling the absolute snot out of Lens to lock up the top spot in their Champions League group on Wednesday. With that in the bag, they now look to extend their lead atop the Premier League table as well.
One of the season’s worst running themes has been the utterly inept state of officiating and VAR, and few teams have as much to gripe about as Wolves. After being shafted by a missed penalty from a flailing Andre Onana challenge earlier this season, the midlands club come to the Emirates on the tail of yet another one of the season’s more controversial results, having lost 3-2 to Fulham following a litany of head-scratching decisions that happened to not go in Wolves’ favor.
Manager Gary O’Neil, understandably aggrieved, had choice words about the match, but hasn’t drawn the ire of PGMOL yet. But, judging by the lack of action taken against Roberto De Zerbi for his inflammatory comments about officiating last month, it appears that Mikel Arteta will remain the lone villain in the media’s Stop Abusing Referees campaign (which, hilariously, is legitimate thing).
Here are five talking points ahead of Saturday’s match:
Health & Injuries
A slew of major players have thankfully returned from injury preceding what could be a season-shaping December run in. However, the midfield continues to bear the brunt of the injuries. While the likes of Emile Smith Rowe and Thomas Partey are nearing something resembling health, Arteta revealed that Fabio Vieira underwent surgery for a groin issue this week which will see the midfielder shelved for the upcoming weeks. Jurrien Timber remains the lone long-term injury.
Arsenal’s Champions League match against Lens could not have gone any better. The offense put together a dazzling first half that would make even Arsene Wenger’s silkiest side proud. A great deal that can be chalked up to Lens playing obscenely aggressively, but the goals didn’t score themselves. Arsenal were clinical when it mattered, ruthlessly efficient in front of net to the tune of 6 goals. Premier League sides will not be quite so open, but players like Martin Ødegaard, Gabriel Martinelli, and Kati Havertz are all certain to have gotten a huge boost of confidence from their returns on Wednesday night.
Topping the Table
The Gunners managed to find themselves atop the PL table last weekend due to equal parts taking care of business and Manchester City and Liverpool playing to a draw. For the second straight weekend, City play another side in contention for the top 4, hosting a reeling Tottenham who have lost three in a row and are desperate for a result to stop the bleeding. While the Gunner fanbase would love nothing more than City pasting Spurs to compound their misery, the slightly more rational side wants that sweet, sweet draw. With any luck, Arsenal could find themselves with a little more of a cushion as the league nears the halfway mark.
For all of the glory of being atop the table, none of that matters if the Gunners get caught by a sneaky Wolves team. Despite being stuck midtable, Wolves’ position is a bit of a red herring. They have shown throughout the season an ability to catch top sides off guard and punch them in the mouth, beating Tottenham and Manchester City 2-1 and drawing Newcastle 2-2. They also, however, lack consistency, which has kept them from being one of the season’s surprise sides despite their clear improvement from last season. They will also be without stalwarts João Gomes and Mario Lemina, who are both suspended due to yellow card accumulation after each receiving their fifth against Fulham.
Arsenal’s lineup on Wednesday was the first time all season that we saw the Havertz/Rice/Ødegaard midfield paired up with the Martinelli/Jesus/Saka attacking line, and it was about as successful as could be imagined. Arteta has made numerous changes to the starting lineup all season long, but Wednesday could have been the indicator of a shift back to a more consistent starting XI. Ben White is also back from a minor injury layoff, but Takehiro Tomiyasu has been sensational as of late. Does he keep things intact for Wolves, or does he make minor changes for the sake of tactics and rotation?
There is zero reason to expect the Emirates to be anything less than a loud, amped environment for the Gunners following the dominance on Wednesday. Arsenal look to be hitting their stride at the right time. The players look to be gelling despite the numerous changes through the season. The iron is hot. It’s time to strike.
WHAT: Arsenal vs Wolves
WHEN: Saturday, December 2nd, 10:00am EST/3:00pm GMT/7:00am PST
WHERE: The Emirates Stadium, London
HOW TO WATCH: Live on the USA Network. Streaming on NBCSports.com
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