West Ham visit the Emirates on Sunday, and Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal will be hoping for a repeat of the result witnessed the previous time these two teams met for an opening day fixture in the Premier League. Under the stewardship of then-caretaker manager, Pat Rice, Arsenal kicked off their 1996/97 season with a 2-0 victory over their East London counterparts, with goals from John Hartson and Dennis Bergkamp enough to secure the points.
Nineteen years on, and buoyed by last week’s Community Shield victory, Arsenal will look to start the new season strongly, something they haven’t managed in previous campaigns. Plagued by stuttering performances in the early months of the season, Arsenal have always had to play catch up with the table topping teams, and have consistently left themselves too much ground to make up come May.
Sunday’s match winner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, is expected to keep his place on the right of the attack after his goal against Chelsea. Much is expected of him for this upcoming season, with Alexis Sánchez given extended holiday following his Copa America exploits, the chance is there for the 21 year-old to cement his place in the starting line up.
One notable absence from Sunday’s squad will be Jack Wilshere, it was confirmed this week that he will miss a substantial amount of time as a result of a hairline fracture above his ankle. Wenger allayed fears of surgery, but estimates suggest it could be between 6-8 weeks before he is back in action..
Sunday will also mark the league debut of new goalkeeper Petr Čech, who will be playing his first competitive game at the Emirates after his move from Chelsea. With the deal for Benzema seeming more unlikely with each passing day, Arsenal’s squad is expected to largely stay as it is through to the end of the transfer window, with Wenger seemingly feeling satisfied by the depth of his options. There will also be a league debut for West Ham’s marquee summer signing, Dimitri Payet, who joined from Marseille in June. A wonderful technician, Payet will offer West Ham another dimension to their attack, and possesses the potential to hurt Arsenal with his array of passing abilities, as well as an eye for goal.
West Ham will also be looking to bounce back from their Europa League qualifying exit at the hands of Romanian minnows FC Astra, a humbling defeat for a club of Premier League calibre. After drawing the first match 2-2 at home last week, they fell to a 2-1 defeat on Thursday night, albeit having fielded a weakened side. This indicates that the league is the main priority for new manager Slaven Bilić, who will undoubtedly be eager to get the new season underway on Sunday.
The Hammers aren’t without injury problems of their own, striker Enner Valencia is facing three months out after injuring his ankle in the European tie. He joins Andy Carroll on the sidelines, another of West Ham’s strikers out with a long term injury. This creates an issue for Bilić, his lack of striking options is compounded by the dearth of suitable players in the transfer market, meaning Modibo Maïga will likely lead the line at the weekend.
Arsène Wenger also has some personnel decisions to make himself, namely who to start in the forward position, and which combination to use in midfield. With the former, it appears to be a straight choice between the stronger, physical Oliver Giroud, and the pace and agility of Theo Walcott. Both have proven in the past that they can offer something different to the team, but it is expected that Giroud will be given the nod this week, primarily to combat West Ham’s typical physicality at the back. It is also worth noting Giroud’s goalscoring record against The Hammers, he’s netted 5 times in as many games, a great return for a sometimes limited striker.
The depth of the squad will provide competition for the midfield places, with few areas having clear first choices. Francis Coquelin will continue in the defensive cover role, with Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla all expected to start as well. As the season progresses, Mikel Arteta, as well as the injured Tomáš Rosicky and Jack Wilshere, will push to feature more regularly.
Referee: Martin Atkinson Assistants: S Child, S Burt Fourth Official: M Oliver
Sky Sports 1, 13:30 KO
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