|'To win at Astra, Patient we must be, young padawan'|
Back in May, qualification for the Europa League seemed like an ideal pre-season warm up. However, after a chaotic July, once again we face the first week of the Premiership with a serious absence of fit strikers. Moreover, in a congested fixture list, we must make a perilous trip to Southern Romania in the Europa League on Thursday night immediately followed by a Premiership opener at the Emirates two days later. Having picked up suspensions and injuries along the way, the squad is already looking threadbare and Bilic is going to have to be very astute in juggling the available resources if we are to avoid two embarrassing defeats next week.
News from yesterday's Romanian League fixtures indicates that FC Astra rested their first team ahead of the big clash with the Hammers. Last Thursday's tie demonstrated that Astra should not be underestimated. Although their goals were unusual, there can be no denying that they dominated once they had the numerical advantage.
Slaven Bilic has indicated that he will be prioritising the Arsenal match, which means that our kids will be put to the test out in Giurgli. Many observers bemoaned the lack of opportunity for younger talent during the Allardyce reign, and perhaps Thursday's game should be viewed in positive terms as a valuable opportunity to get real experience in games where there are high stakes. However, two ugly words come to mind......Notts and Forest.
Let's hope the kids can hold their own and maybe with some carefully chosen senior players in the team they can snatch an unlikely win. Time for Jenkinson, Jarvis and Kevin Nolan to step up? However, the curmudgeons amongst us might suggest that Bilic is misguided in prioritising the Arsenal match. Given that we have such an awful record against the Gooners over the past decade, having lost nine on the trot in the fixture, maybe we should go for it against Astra and take the inevitable defeat at the Emirates?
One interesting issue is whether Bilic himself should travel. Having been red carded last week, he will have to sit in the stands and maybe might be better sit the whole trip out. One thing that we have learned about the Croatian is that he is single minded and will do whatever he believes is likely to bring results. Maybe Terry Westley can take the helm again - the 3-0 victory over Lusitans was a decent win and maybe we can return to that form with his help.
However, how about the exciting alternative, why not let Julian Dicks lead the team into battle? As the reports of crowd disturbances during the first leg suggest, the atmosphere out in Romania will be far from welcoming. The many fans who engage with Jules' on twitter will know that in his middle age the Terminator has developed Yoda-like wisdom and would be a capable deputy for Bilic. It seems inevitable that Dicks will become first team manager at some point in the future.
Today's match against Werder Bremen presents an opportunity to give both the Europa League and Premiership sides a run. Maybe we should start with Thursdays starting XI and switch to the Arsenal side for the second half? Our predicted sides for the two fixtures are below. If the Arsenal side is our best starting XI (apart from Jenkinson who is not eligible), it demonstrates that we still need to bring in Alex Song, a striker of the pedigree of Charlie Austin, and some wide midfielders. Letting Downing leave is looking really foolish right now.
Either way, let’s hope we don’t pick up any injuries today! Next week’s games will certainly not be lacking in excitement – we’ve certainly travelled a long way since the soul-less wind down of last season’s campaign.