Arsenal may have started 2014 with a bang, having left it late to finish off the visiting Cardiff City in a 2-0 triumph on New Years' Day—but preparations for the new year's second visitors, bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur, are set to leave Arsene Wenger with quite the headache heading into Saturday's FA Cup Third Round tie.
At the centre of Le Professeur's worries are filling the role of centre-forward, vacated by Olivier Giroud and more recently Nicklas Bendtner, both of whom are nigh on certain to miss the derby, which is considered by most to be the highlight clash of the FA Cup draw.
While filling the position itself shouldn't be too much of a headache—both Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott have experience leading the Gunners' line—it remains to be seen if either man can deputise with the same strength and guile shown by Giroud in his second year in north London.
Consider as well his constant presence in all eight of his team's UEFA Champions League fixtures, and it gives you some insight into the reliability, stability and consistency Giroud has brought to an Arsenal side that seem hell-bent on surprising their audience with their excellent form thus far this campaign.
Although Giroud has come up with some vital goals, such as his glancing header to separate Arsenal and Newcastle late in December, it is his hold-up play, keen vision and precise movement that has made him such a threatening forward for the Gunners this season.
And although Podolski's auditions to fill the void have been limited thus far, the Cardiff game seems to suggest the German's skill set is not as well suited to Giroud's role as Wenger would like.
Countless times throughout a game in which the hosts were frustrated by the Bluebirds' stout defending, Podolski could not latch onto a cross from Bacary Sagna, Nacho Monreal or another Gunner—clear cut chances of the ilk Giroud has finished and converted time and again this year.
It would perhaps be kinder, then, to suggest that Podolski ought to be played on the left side of Arsenal's attacking midfield triumvirate (a role in which he excelled at the Boleyn Ground on Boxing Day, helping to put West Ham United to bed in a 3-1 Arsenal win).
This, then, leaves Walcott to deputise for Giroud at centre-forward—allowing the likes of Jack Wilshere or Tomas Rosicky to potentially move out to the right side of the midfield trio.
Walcott is in a rich vein of goalscoring form, his eye for the net proving crucial in recent weeks with five goals in as many matches. Although, in an ideal world, Walcott's blistering pace and sharp footwork makes him an ideal catalyst for action from the right, so Wenger will be left with few options but to plump for the England international on Saturday.
It is not solely selection issues that cause concern for Arsenal in their pre-match preparations. Spurs are revitalised under the unfancied Tim Sherwood since his appointment replacing the sacked Andre Villas-Boas, headlined by a significant scalp of Manchester United on the Lilywhites' New Years' travels.
Unbeaten in Sherwood's four games at the helm, Arsenal cannot allow complacency to creep into their game; they will certainly have a job on their hands in order to replicate the statement they made with their 1-0 win when hosting Tottenham earlier in the campaign, way back in September—an omen of sorts, potentially being that it was the notable absentee Giroud who claimed victory for the men in red that afternoon.
The Gunners must prepare to keep Spurs' attacking threats in check, especially the likes of playmaker Christian Eriksen and former Emirates favourite-turned-pantomime villain, Emmanuel Adebayor.
Although thankfully for Wenger, his dream partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker are set to return as guardians at the heart of defence, Tottenham must not be underestimated.
Ahead of what could be an eventful month of activity both on the pitch and behind the scenes with transfer dealings, Arsenal will be fancied to pick up a close, tense victory at home in the Cup; whatever the result, the tie will be a gritty, ill-tempered affair.
That much can almost be guaranteed.
Arsenal will be hoping that at this vital point of the season, their dream first half continues into 2014.
What do you make of Arsenal's chances in Saturday's much-anticipated clash with Spurs? Let me know—leave me a comment below, or find me on Twitter: @callumlarr.
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